Playing games, disrupting power structures

Book Review

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.
Henry Jenkins. New York University Press, 2006

MIT’s Henry Jenkins says he hears a great deal of frustration about the state of our media culture, yet surprisingly few people talk about how we might rewrite it.

This book offers several case studies of groups who he sees as achieving some of the promises of collective intelligence or of a more participatory culture. Jenkins suggests reading these case studies as demonstrations of what it is possible to do in the context of convergence culture.

“Convergence” is the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.

Convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.

Why is this important? Because Jenkins sees how collective meaning-making within popular culture is starting to change the ways religion, education, law, politics, advertising, and even the military operate.

He sees the political effects of these fan communities as coming not simply through the production and circulation of new ideas (the critical reading of favorite texts) but also through access to new social structures (collective intelligence) and new models of cultural production (participatory culture).

He selects case studies that represent “some of the most successful franchises in recent media history.” Some originate on television (American Idol and Survivor). Some originate on the big screen (the Matrix, Star Wars). The Matrix is an example of transmedia storytelling, or the art of world-making. Star Wars fan filmmakers and gamers are actively reshaping George Lucas’s mythology to satisfy their own fantasies and desires.

Some of these franchises originate as books. Harry Potter fans write their own stories about Hogwarts. Grassroots artists find themselves in conflict with commercial media producers who want to exert greater control over their intellectual property.  Some franchises originate as games (The Sims), but each extends outward from its originating medium to influence many other sites of cultural production.

Chapter 6 applies Jenkins’s ideas about convergence to the 2004 American presidential campaign, exploring what it might take to make democracy more participatory.

Jenkins discusses some of the implications of these trends for education, media reform, and democratic citizenship. He returns to his core claim: that convergence culture represents a shift in the ways we think about our relations to media.

We are making that shift first through our relations with popular culture, but the skills we acquire through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process, and connect with other people around the world.

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