Towards a Theory of Transmedial Immersion

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Immersion names a physical, mental, and emotional state in which narrative can take control over a reader. Traditional theories of immersion, rooted in the metaphors of enchantment and transportation, assume that the boundaries of the text constitute the boundaries of the reader’s engagement with the story. In other words, if you close the book, immersion ends. Transmedia narratives, such as the Matrix franchise, challenge these assumptions because the story moves across media boundaries. By putting theories from disciplines such as psychology, cognitive science, narratology, and media studies in conversation and testing them against case studies of transmedia narratives, I propose a new theory of transmedial immersion that accommodates all narratives, particularly those crossing media boundaries.

Transmedial immersion is the phenomenological experience of a narrative by which the features of the storyworld, characters, and plot become the primary focus of the reader/viewer/player’s consciousness. This immersion bleeds beyond the boundaries of the medium and narrative experience, allowing it to be individual or communal. As I show through a reading of the interaction of print text, augmented reality, and digital narrative in The Ice-Bound Concordance, transmedial immersion relies on distributed, rather than focused, attention, and embraces the materiality and hypermediacy of the reading/viewing/playing experience. Contrary to assumed effortlessness, transmedial immersion requires cognitive effort as readers collate and assemble all the aspects of the narrative. For example, players of the alternate reality games DUST and The Tessera use cognitive blending (as described by Mark Turner) to blur the ontological boundaries of fiction and reality, demonstrated in their use of metalepsis. Finally, transmedial immersion allows the narrative to be simultaneously enjoyed and critiqued, an approach Alexis Lothian calls “critical fandom.” The theory explains how Harry Potter fans reacted to the Fantastic Beasts movies by embracing Newt Scamander as an unlikely hero while raising concerns about cultural appropriation and queer representation.

This theory of transmedial immersion not only provides a framework for understanding narrative engagement in the new media landscape, it also prompts literary scholars to reexamine how their assumptions about the process of reading, viewing, and playing texts in a single medium inform their criticism.