Health inSite: Breaking the Fifth Wall

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A refresher on Alternate Reality Games, Transmedia Storytelling, and Engagement

While I highlighted the opportunities with Alternate Reality Games and Transmedia Storytelling in my last post, I wanted to take a moment to share a recent production that I’ve been looking into that really highlights how this format works: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD) is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  The characters in the story have their own online presence within various social media outlets and interact with one another through Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, ThisIsMyJam, Websites, and more (various examples shown).  The characters share their stories with one another through these dynamic media and oftentimes interact with the audience as well.

While this has engaged a pretty significant audience (fandom), what is really incredible is the way in which the audience has begun to participate with one another.  A recent update to the story included new information that Lydia Bennet (Lizzie’s youngest sister in the updated version) has been caught up in a sex tape scandal (remember, this is not meant to be perfectly along the storyline that Jane Austen wrote, but one that resonates with the audience of this retelling).  There was a huge outcry from the audience expressing dismay at this turn of events.  So much so, that that there was discussion the fandom should look for a hacker who would be willing to hack the website on which the video’s seller was collecting interested buyers with a countdown clock.  This created an immediate problem for the producers/writers of the story.  If the site indeed had been taken down, the team would have to develop a way to get around the change in the storyline created by the audience, and at great expense.  In this way, the audience collaborated to solve the problem of the character, rather than maintain their understanding that this was simply part of the story for consumption.

Let’s start with the Fourth Wall

In theater, the Fourth Wall is the theoretical veil between the audience and the stage.  Breaking the Fourth Wall happens when the players on the stage actively communicate directly to the audience.  There are countless examples in which the magic of the story playing on any stage (screen applies here too) is broken in this way, but the practice is increasing with evermore prevalent new media projects.  In my last post, I described Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games as a way of telling a story through multiple media streams and its ability to engage an audience in new and immersive ways.  But breaking the Fourth Wall can be used to engage the audience in participating in the story through these methods to expand the value of the experience that the audience has.  For more on the Fourth Wall, check out Wikipedia for a quick overview, or TV Tropes for all kinds of cool information about the idea and the way that the  this device may be used.

Now, to the Fifth Wall

There is another proposed wall which has been less well explored, and often debated as to its name: The Fifth Wall.  The operational definition that I like is the veil that separates members of the audience from one another.  For a long time, the audience has been the passive observer of entertainment with notable exceptions of breaking the Fourth Wall.  But, rarely does a media experience really ask for members of the audience to work with one another.  This concept of the Fifth Wall could have significant implications in the sharing of narrative within an Alternate Reality Game with a true Transmedia Story backbone.  Consider the opportunities of having participants in the audience that can help guide the story cooperatively; sharing goals, pushing one another toward success, battling challenges together.  If your friends’ friends impact your health in positive and negative ways (see previous posts about link influence here), what about engaging a first node relationship more directly to change the perception of the second or third node to ripple back through the network to you.  In this way, the network then begins to course with change and as you make changes that influence others, their responsive changes come back to you.  In this way, helping others get healthier helps you get healthier.

The Walls and their implications within LBD

The surprising situation that happened within the LBD is that while the narrative has been so clearly billed as a story, with many instances of the Fourth Wall being broken (the producers actually have entire blog postings dedicated to talking about the production process as it is occurring), it turns out that the Fifth Wall nearly took down the production.  The audience reverted to a sense of belief as they interacted with one another.  The characters, then, are part of the audience – and the audience part of the characters.  This creates a shared experience where the audience felt that they were responsible for helping solve the problem for the character.

Summary

The investment of the audience in their shared experience (this includes characters, as mentioned above) has huge implications for health programming.  Imagine a story with so much motivation and movement as LBD written to achieve Salutogenesis by creating a shared landscape around health behaviors.  If we know that education, knowledge, and external incentives are not motivations for behavior change, is this the next landscape to try?  We think it is.

To our health,

Ryan Lucas
Marketing

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