They’re Like Batman and Robin, Except Elsa Is Batman and Iron Man Is Robin: Transmedia “Character Telling” and Hybrid Play

Aldred VRSPEAKER: Jessica Aldred

This presentation explores how gender construction exists both within and without Disney’s Infinity game platform, which provides players, ostensibly children, a shared virtual world in which Disney’s multiple properties coexist. While the platform itself allows for conservatively predetermined and prescribed modes of play, I contend that, outside the virtual world of the game and within the real, “offline” world of the living room, child’s play counteracts Disney gender normativity and refigures the dynamic relationship between Disney properties that exist simultaneously as digital characters and children’s toys.

The ever-broadening market category “toys to life” implies a kind of magical transformation from lifeless collectible to lively and limitless digital playable character, a transformation I consider and challenge, since toys and action figures themselves have such a long history as creative tools for player self-expression. I argue that if we ascribe this powerful animating spirit only to the digital character, situated as it is in the paradoxically finite possibilities of Infinity’s digital playspaces, we take something away from the potential of the material toy object, and foreclose the opportunity for meaningful dialogue between digital character and physical toy.

I’ll consider what a re-worked model of hybrid play as a mutually determining feedback loop between online and offline play can teach us about best practices when it comes to moving characters across media, and how these practices can challenge the growing dichotomy between so-called “boy” and “girl” toys and media. I will demonstrate how children’s creative play with toys in an “offline” context may provide vital clues for how to embrace the heterotopic possibilities of transmedia play as a happily messy, disparate and often contradictory process of “character telling” rather than one of tidily and tightly integrated transmedia storytelling that strictly respects the gendered norms of franchise IP.

Ultimately, I’d like to suggest that platforms like Infinity have the not-yet-realized potential to enable children to perform the kind of “ludic bricolage” Andrew Burn (2014) identifies in a recent ethnographic study of children’s media-influenced playground activities, whereby players borrow certain rules, formal conventions and characters from digital games and then selectively adapt, integrate and layer them over their real-world play. If, as Burn suggests, this kind of creative, multimodal, multimedial play transforms children into would-be game designers and world builders, platforms like Disney Infinity can should represent the next stage of this potentially-subversive mode of hybrid play wherein children can shape their chosen characters’ trajectories in the context of both online and offline play, creating modes of representation and ludic intervention that don’t necessarily subscribe to strict, binary notions of gender and sexuality.

Works cited:

Burn, A., & Richards, C. (Eds.). (2014). Children’s games in the new media age: Childlore, media and the playground. Farnham: Ashgate.

Jessica Aldred is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Université de Montréal, where her research focuses upon transmedia franchises, characters, and the convergence of cinema and digital games. Her postdoctoral project examines the challenges of translating film characters into successful game characters. Jessica teaches courses about digital cinema, transmedia, and gender and gaming, and has recently co-founded a production company (Rule of Three Productions) that explores the intersections between documentary, narrative cinema and digital games. Her work has been published in Animation, An Interdisciplinary Journal, Games and Culture, and The Oxford Handbook for Sound and Image in Digital Media.