Scoping the Audience Participation

September 13, 2011

This is the fourth in a series of posts regarding shared story world design

A SSW model does not require you to make it fully open to audience participation. You have the ability to sandbox or cordon off any or all parts of the world you like. In fact, you may want or even need to. Some common approaches include restricting audiences along one or more of the following aspects: characters, geographies, objects, and chronologies.

Characters

Perhaps you have certain characters who will appear in a series of stories, and you don’t want someone stepping on your future storylines. No problem – publish the first story but mark the characters as off-limits for audiences who want to contribute officially to the SSW. Or you may have certain characters in your SSW licensed out in exclusive deals, which would legally prevent you from allowing others to use those elements.

Geographies

Some SSWs can be nicely divided along geographical boundaries, allowing you to better manage the interactions between internal canon and external canon.

Objects

Much like characters, you can restrict other items in the SSW (monsters, magical items, technologies, the creation of world mythologies or social customs…the list is endless).

Chronologies

Opening up collaborative sandboxes for audiences that travel forward or backward in time can present some continuity issues, but it can also give fans a bit more creative freedom to explore the SSW without overly impinging on planned storylines or world events that have not been published yet. For example, your SSW may have a 1940’s post-war backdrop, but you invite audiences to contribute content prior to that time period or after.

And for all of the restrictions above, you can have three basic variations:

  • inclusive (“the Earth Warriors always ride solid black horses”)
  • exclusive (“the entire Ginald archipelago is off limits for audience contributions”)
  • conditional (“if your story includes John Abrams prior to him meeting Elizabeth Perin, you are not allowed to maim or kill him”)

[note: don't forget how your scoping of the collaborative sandbox may affect how you limit contributions to certain mediums!]

Conversely, you may throw wide the doors to the world and make everything available to the audience, though it’s obviously far more difficult to maintain a coherent world narrative if you truly give audiences this amount of creative leeway.

However, there is a way to offer a great degree liberty to audiences while still maintaining strong world continuity and canonicity.

Alternate Histories

This is often done with the equivalent of dimensional or time-shifting the audience’s collaborative sandbox. This can include parallel universes or alternate timelines (or “multiplicity” as Henry Jenkins noted about the comic industry). Essentially, this approach takes existing characters, perhaps even canonical protagonists, and re-contextualizes their backstory or places them in situations completely counter to established canon (e.g., the Superman “Red Son” series). This approach can provide maximum creative freedom to audiences while leaving established canon intact.

A lot of fan fiction – especially slash fiction – plays consciously and purposefully against established canon, and to great effect.

The only downside to inviting this kind of contribution is that it works best after there is a well-established canonical narrative against which audiences can play off (and well-written characters help!).

Summary

There are countless ways to slice and dice which parts of the SSW are available for audiences to remix or contribute to, but your decisions should be guided by a view towards providing a better experience for audiences while respecting the obligations and legal limitations of your SSW, as well as maintaining a high-quality entertainment experience.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • Will any part of your SSW be off-limits to audiences to remix as part of their contributions? If so, which aspects and elements?
  • How will audiences be able to identify which world elements are available for use?
  • Are the rules for contributions clearly and easily available for audiences to review (for example, as they relate to a particular character, location, technology, etc.)?

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