Is Six Seconds of New Content Better than Zero Seconds?

A follow up to Waiting for O Superman, my 1/7/19 blog inspired in part by Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

I *loved* the BBC’s six-part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series, airing in the early 1980s in the United States via PBS stations, airing in my household between 1985 and 1991 on an almost weekly basis over my family’s Betamax. I used to quote Arthur Dent while in line for kindergarten lunch. I read the books before I was seven, knowing few of the words but pushing my way through it all. I desperately wanted to be Ford Prefect every Halloween (I always thought his jacket was sick). Marvin the Paranoid Android was the first impression I butchered. I would invite friends over to play on the weekends, eventually I would offer up we watch HHGG, and within 20 minutes they would call their parents asking to go home. This was an obsession, and at some point in the mid 1980s, it led my dad to drive me to Egghead Software and we bought the computer game.

I still remember the care in which I unwrapped the packaging, got out the floppy disk, secured the DON’T PANIC button on my shirt and waited for the Apple II+ to load so I could be a part of the adventures.  While the game came out in 1984, we got this in either 1987 or 1988, so I had played a bit of Nintendo at this time and switching from the A&B buttons to manipulate Luigi (I was playing at friends’ homes so I was always Luigi) to finding the exact perfect text command to stop Arthur Dent from dying took some getting used to. This could go on for hours…especially when finally making it to the Vogon hold and trying to get the babelfish out of the container without sliding across the floor and under the door.  Trial and error led to finally figuring out the right sequence of events to get the babelfish.  And even in the places where there was *nothing* you could do (like when you ended up somewhere new and it was dark and none of your senses worked), the game would throw you a hint after four or five turns (such as one sense coming back that allows you to explore that direction). It was frustrating, but it fit with the game design of the times, and every action (even in the space where there are four unique adventures) led toward a narrative conclusion.

I wrote my Bandersnatch blog on January 7, and the next day Netflix announced an unexplored pathway in the Bandersnatch story

I had several reactions.  The first, as a fan: yes, there’s more! The second, as someone looking at interactive design and environment: why would you design a pathway so irrational that barely anyone has engaged with it? This is one affordance of digital that the text Choose Your Own Adventure books did not offer: the platform can change the outcome even if the same item is chosen. It’s a unique concept but self negating in that it is counter-intuitive to everything a viewer/participant/user/learner has come to expect.

A story that requires performing the same function multiple times could be brilliant, as long as the environment is set up in such a way that encourages that kind of thinking.

It’s possible to design a system that will encourage people to be creative and to do things that in normal life would not be possible or bear any unique results, and it is this opportunity that makes technology so exciting and hopeful. We get excited about technology because it allows us to do things impossible in real life; from a learning perspective this allows us to maneuver from the known/real into the possible/imagined. A story that requires performing the same function multiple times could be brilliant, as long as the environment is set up in such a way that encourages that kind of thinking.  And Black Mirror is excellent at placing the set pieces for further use: Bandersnatch itself is a great second view because all of the elements that are important later on in the story are shown in the beginning…you might spend all of your time focusing on the cereal choice or the lack of choice in the using cannabis but at the same time we are seeing props that will become important later or being led to a place that we maybe did not expect a choice.

I should stop here and note that I planned all of this part of the blog before going back into Bandersnatch last night and following the new thread.  In the same way a reporter has the bulk of a story prepared based on the expected event and makes the changes after the event to meet a deadline. I knew what I wanted to talk about with this new information:  Black Mirror was surprisngly creative but without helping viewers understand the nuances of their choice matrix it would  be lost on most participants.

Then I watched Bandersnatch again.  I made a few unique choices this time around (third time through from the beginning), and a character pops up in a place they hadn’t popped up before so that scene does the same thing in a different way.  And we got to the place where we could pick up the photograph for the second time.  I even sat up in anticipation of what was going to happen, of engaging this whole new world, of what could possibly happen.  Was this the way to the happy ending everyone wanted to see?

Turns out, it’s a tiny clip that consists of four shots, maybe two of which are unique. The shots (I will not call them a scene; a scene is a collection of shots and action moving a narrative to its obligatory conclusion) added nothing to the viewing experience. It took 60 minutes to get back to this area, but only six seconds to unravel my enjoyment of the Choose Your Own Adventure motif. Put into perspective, reading to this point probably took two minutes, or twenty times longer than the previously undiscovered Bandersnatch clip.

I was positive about Bandersnatch, disagreeing that it was only a gimmick, and pushing back on the argument that it overhyped its launch. I argued that the attempt to do Bandersnatch was valiant, that to be what its audience wanted went beyond what is currently possible. While I agree with concerns around how ownership parties would utilize the data coming out of Bandersnatch, future creation could build off the creativity while being more thoughtful about user/learner rights and ownership of data.  Then Netflix sent a teaser over social media, and I bit, I went back in excitedly to watch and engage only to discover a brief new clip that soured me on the entire Bandersnatch experience.

Every environment, every media collection, every content cluster will have a variety of audiences.  Many will be people who are interested in seeing where it goes but not looking to engage beyond what is at the surface.  Some will be passing by, willing to give it a try but will not invest fully and quickly disengage.  Some will be fully committed and engage well beyond the status quo, including building artifacts separate from the platform that expands on the work itself. In education, this is where some of the most powerful learning opportunities are, in the artifacts that show learning above and beyond the most basic of measures. Like Netflix, but for Education should be about finding ways to build this kind of interest in disciplinary topics, creating a desire within people to contribute to the growth of the field.

A view is a short-term curiosity that could be more if nurtured.

If education and media environments are to align it would best be served in providing furthering opportunities for those wanting to test drive as well as engaging beyond the surface, to build learning by showing the power of going deeper than face value. Thus far media, education and others in this area haven’t figured out how to do this beyond clicks, or haven’t invested in measuring more than clicks, or are not interested in the investment to measure beyond clicks.  A view is a short-term curiosity that could be more if nurtured. If just getting the view is the realization of the effort, the project will forego sustaining the environment and instead overextend its space. I was frustrated playing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for hours trying to get the Heart of Gold computer to let me into the room in the same way I was frustrated trying to jump Luigi over the Hammer Brothers so I could save Peach, and I kept trying until I got it right. The frustration with Netflix about new Black Mirror: Bandersnatch content is very different, because there is nothing to get right no matter how much I keep trying.  Going through it as a bold experiment in narrative storytelling made the product forgivable and even enjoyable.  Being brought back to only get caught in the maze again might make me feel like I’m living in a Black Mirror dystopia, which is not what a content company is looking for from its users.

 

 

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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