Producing and Researching Transmedia with The Electric Company’s Prankster Planet

by Mindy Brooks
May 2, 2011

Today, The Electric Company will re-launch its third season with an all new transmedia story, “The Adventures of The Electric Company on Prankster Planet.”  Airing in a new segment at the end of the TV series and a new area of the website, this transmedia story engages and immerses participants in an experience through multiple forms of media, each element making a unique contribution to the story. Here, key members of the interdisciplinary team behind this new transmedia effort share their thoughts on the iterative testing process that helped shape “Prankster Planet.”

 

One of the most compelling aspects of my job as the Assistant Director of Research for Sesame Workshop is the opportunity to collaborate on projects through ongoing formative evaluation. The Domestic Research Team conducts formative research with targeted audiences to inform the development of educational media with the overarching goal to engage children in such a way that maximizes learning. This process, while it is an integral component to the development of educational products, comes with many challenges. For example, research tends to unearth issues that require testing numerous iterations of innovative ideas within a limited timeline and budget. These challenges can only be faced by working collaboratively with an interdisciplinary team that respect the expertise of each practitioner (producer, educator, researcher, and developer).

To illustrate the formative evaluation process, let me give you an example of our latest project with The Electric Company called “Prankster Planet.” Through Ready to Learn, a joint initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS, and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, we created this immersive and innovative virtual transmedia world. Ready To Learn is a national initiative focused on using public media content to improve math and literacy skills of children ages 2 to 8, especially those from low-income families. As we approach the launch of this new component to our show and website, I think it’s only fitting to call attention to the Sesame Workshop model that was instrumental to bringing this product to the finish line. To truly represent our collaborative process, I’ve invited Karen Fowler, Executive Producer/Vice President, to talk about the creative spark for this new brand extension and Erica Branch-Ridley, the Supervising Broadband Producer of The Electric Company, to contribute her vision and goals for this online world. Without their expertise and dedication, we would not have “Prankster Planet.”

So how did “Prankster Planet” come to be and why is it transmedia?

Karen Fowler: The idea for “The Adventures of the Electric Company on Prankster Planet” (Prankster Planet) began in the spring of 2010. The Department of Education (DOE) was looking for transmedia storytelling ideas to teach math and literacy. The Electric Company (TEC), a live action TV/web/outreach experience, was in the mix to pitch. I had built this brand from the outset as a cross-media property and the DOE had already noted its success. Now the challenge was to invent the next level of story/game integration.

At the time, I was in the midst of reshaping the core creative for season 3 and was hungering to bring the TEC characters into animation. This was the opening to think bigger about an animated TEC extension. But having worked with research (Jen Kotler and team) initially to ensure the live action characters connected with our audience, this new idea could not jeopardize the affinity our audience already had with those live action characters and stories.

With that in mind, I pitched one quest that unfolds over a series of 12 animated/online adventures — a console game experience in a non-console world. Starring the TEC characters and pitting them against the pranksters in a battle royale that takes place on a planet in space. Each short animation sets up the story and world and each ends with our heroes in peril asking the viewer to go online and help get them get of trouble! At the end of each online level, the story continues to peril and back to online, etc. Animations are attached to the episodes, extending the math vocabulary, and are also imbedded in the online world. Framing the idea inside of a comic book wed print into the vision. Each media had to have the strength to stand on their own and each had to make the whole, if experienced, richer educationally and more satisfying. If successful, this experiment would be a transmedia win!

The pitch was greenlight and that is when the real work began. Partnering with my team of writers (Adam Peltzman, Tim McKeon), producers (Carol Klein, Claire Curley) and educator (Emily Helfgot) is something that is natural to story development. But given that this was one creative vision spanning story and game, collaborating with Erica was essential, richly rewarding and really fun.

Erica Branch-Ridley: At the time the DOE proposal came out, I scratched my head as I am sure other digital media producers did. It’s not that I didn’t understand what transmedia was, actually, it was quite the opposite — or so I thought. As a multimedia producer who has worked a long time in the field of producing children’s websites for TV shows, I have always created “transmedia” but just called it by a different name. In the late 90s it was “convergence” and then, as other technologies were created, the term became “multiplatform integration.” Most recently it’s evolved into “creating a 360 degree experience.” As the Supervising Producer of The Electric Company website since its inception, I was already fully integrated with Karen and her entire TV production team and worked with them closely to build an extension of what the child was actually seeing and learning on the TV show. Therefore, the question became how were we going to make sure this time around was different.

As a mom of a 12 year old girl and 8 year old boy/girl twins, I am already very tuned into what and how they play online. As we all know, the average 6-9 year old is bombarded with choices of kids’ websites. However, what makes this age group different from preschoolers is that they are in control of where they go with one click of the mouse. As I watched my own kids play, it hit me — the child that I created convergent websites for in the late 90s — or even the 360 degree experience of three years ago — is not the child that exists today! The technological reality of what is available for the 6-9 year old today is very different, thus transforming their expectations of what awaits them at the end of their mouse, or finger on an iPhone or android game. I knew that if we were going to pull the child in, keep them coming back, and achieve the curricular goals of this project, the entire creative experience had to go beyond just another game or companion website. In fact, if we were truly going to achieve a successful transmedia experience, it needed to be all about the story and, as my transmedia idol, Jesse Schell, so accurately puts it, “an intuitive experience where all of the rules of the world you are creating are consistent and makes sense through all of its gateways.”

As Karen mentioned, the transmedia grant opportunity allowed the two of us and our teams to create this innovative and immersive on-air/online “comic book-like” while simultaneously supporting the math literacy curriculum of the episodes. We hired a single company, Primal Screen, to do both the flash animation on air AND online, easily enabling the animation designs to be shared seamlessly in the online world.

Armed with my amazing producer, Carmen Koger, we were able to create an experience that allowed the child to go even deeper within the story.

A core component of the transmedia experience is the education that a child can get from engaging in our content. On the website, children are encouraged to complete missions that center on two vocabulary words from the show related to math concepts such as probability, coin value and measurement. Our Educational Content Team of Emily Helfgot (Director of Content) and Michelle Newman (Sr. Curriculum Specialist) infused this online experience with the curricular goals executed in the television series. Together we were able to insure that the words are seamlessly integrated into the online experience through character dialogue, vocabulary challenges, and mini games that provide kids with hands-on applications of the math concepts themselves. Examples include a miniature golf game where kids need to hit the ball straight to get it into the target; a memory game where kids match batches of tens and hundreds to cards with the same numerical value; rebus puzzles that ask kids to figure out if something is impossible, or likely; and balancing games where kids use varying amounts of weight to balance a scale.

To expand our transmedia story even further, the outreach department, under Rande Bynum’s leadership, is in the process of producing a magazine to further explore this world. Also, coming early this summer, there will be a progress tracker as part of the website, for parents and teachers to follow what their kids are learning during the online experience.

As a producer, it’s my goal that kids enjoy and learn from the games and websites that I make. As a mother of children in this age group, this goal has become very personal. The best part of working here at Sesame Workshop is partnering hand-in-hand with the Education and Research Department. The information that comes out of all of the formative testing that we do helps me to create in a way that achieves the best product I can for my audience. I can come up with creative ideas all day and night, and hire an amazing vendor to create and program magic, but if the kids cannot play the game, navigate around in the world, or grasp the curricular concepts that we are trying to make sure they learn, then I have failed at my job. Don’t get me wrong, I have my own little focus group of 3 at home, but the team I most lean on here at the workshop is led by Mindy Brooks, who ensures that my team and I spend time speaking to the real experts: the kids.

Transmedia Lessons From the Real Experts — the Kids:

Mindy Brooks: In some sense, we, as a research team, get the “bird’s eye view” of an experience and get to be a part of connecting the production phases through evaluation and feedback.

We watched “Prankster Planet” evolve since the initial testing began back in November of 2010. The beginning stages consisted of basic pre-alpha builds, wireframes, and paper testings. We looked for overall appeal, basic game play functionality, children’s ability to navigate from the keyboard to mouse throughout the game, basic game logic, and noted the best way to develop a narrator script for the game. Children, the experts, informed us of their preferences for the avatar creator and the different accessories they’d like to see as options for the future site. As the development process advanced we moved into alpha testing, where we would receive a full level build. This is where it got fun — we were actually seeing a child interact with our content in a way that illuminates future steps, many of which were based on kid testing. We found problem areas that needed further research so we teased apart the issues and took it to the kids yet again. After rounds of testing and refinement, we finally reached beta testing. It is at this point that we take a global look at the experience and focus in on any major “red flags” that might inhibit a positive experience. It’s also at this point that we all step back and thoroughly enjoy watching children engage with the fruits of everyone’s labor. It’s simultaneously satisfying and nerve-wracking for all of us.

Overall, we learned that there is a fine balance between an experience that is challenging, but not too challenging, particularly in creating an experience that connects multiple media platforms. This balance is something we continued to bump up against throughout the entire development process, thus bringing us back to the table to discuss how to best proceed. We came to many points in the formative process that involved us making educated guesses about the best way to address a problem without the luxury of conducting a controlled study. For example, at one point we noticed that children were struggling with the mini-games, but couldn’t identify the exact reason why. If the content was too difficult we knew we would have to scale down the education to best fit our target population. If the content was on target, we then knew that the game play mechanics were confounding the education of the game. Instead of conducting a controlled study, we improvised and paper tested the basic educational content to see if kids, without the game play situation, could correctly answer the questions. We found that some of the content was too difficult and some seemed to be right on track. We then made suggestions to modify the curriculum, as well as adding a wrong answer feedback logic into the game so that children would have the appropriate scaffolding available to them should they need it.

Obviously, we would prefer a controlled study, but the realities of limited budgets and time constraints caused us to think critically about the best possible options and to build off of our knowledge of child development, past research results, and the expertise of the other team members. In the end, the formative research process brought to light issues that, had “Prankster Planet” not been tested, we would never have known would be problematic. Most importantly, formative research ensured that we, as a collaborative team, were faithful to our guiding objectives and focused on creating the best possible experience for a child.

 

Mindy Brooks is the Assistant Director of Research at Sesame Workshop. She is responsible for leading field research for Sesame Workshop content including Sesame Street and Electric Company across all media platforms.