Cognitive Maps in Transmedia Storytelling

Cognitive maps are the result of a type of mental processing in which a user acquires, codes, stores, recalls, and decodes information about things of interest in their environment. When used in the navigation of transmedia narratives, cognitive maps allow the “mind’s eye” to visualize the relative location of and links between different elements of the narrative, substantially reducing the user’s cognitive load while enhancing the recall of information.

Facilitating the creation of the user’s cognitive map of the transmedia narrative (and ideally the entire storyworld) makes it significantly easier for the user to navigate between story elements and maintain the continuity of the overall narrative. As a result, the cognitive load on the user is substantially reduced when having to make decisions during the user interaction cycle.

Traditional web design approaches recommend reducing the navigational complexity of web pages.

The World Wide Web, for all its pretty screens and fancy buttons, is, in effect, an invisible navigation space. True, you can always see the specific page you are on, but you cannot see anything of the vast space between pages. Once users reach our applications, we must take care to reduce navigation to a minimum and make that navigation that is left clear and natural. Present the illusion that users are always in the same place, with the work brought to them. This not only eliminates the need for maps and other navigational aids, it offers users a greater sense of mastery and autonomy. (Tognazzini, n.d.)

This design approach, however, is exactly opposite of what a transmedia narrative designer is attempting to do. Instead of presenting the “illusion that users are always in the same place”, the purpose of most transmedia narratives is to create the illusion that the user is moving through vast world rich in characters, objects, events, and settings.

The more complex a transmedia narrative, the more important it is to help users develop cognitive maps of environment within which they are travelling. Most users, however, cannot or will not build elaborate mental maps and often become lost or tired if expected to do so. The transmedia narrative should enable the user to develop a cognitive map that functions at two levels. One level is a cognitive map that enables the user to understand the relationships between various media and story elements of the transmedia narrative, relative positions of each of those elements, and how to make the connections between them. For example, the user should be able to understand how a video segment, a game component, and a series of tweets in a transmedia narrative are related to each other, where they are located, and how to move between them.

The user also needs to be able to develop a second, higher level cognitive map that enables an understanding of the relationships between the various elements of the overall narrative – characters, settings, events, and so on – in order to develop meaning from the narrative.

Poor design that hinders the formation of the first level of the cognitive map will result in a user who wanders aimlessly, lost in an environment that makes little sense. Poor design that hinders the formation of the second level of the cognitive map will result in a user who will have difficulty making sense of the story being told. Poor design that fails at both levels will result in a transmedia narrative that is almost certain to be quickly abandoned by users.

When cognitive mapping of the environment is difficult, users will tend to fall back to a linear, sequential presentation of information (Passini, 2000, p. 90). Some users prefer the linear, sequential presentation of information, while others prefer a broad picture of the spatial area that they are trying to navigate (Passini, 2000, p. 90) The architectural and spatial characteristics of the user’s environment impacts which mode of information processing is preferred, with linear, sequential presentation of information being preferred when cognitive mapping of the environment is difficult (Passini, 2000, p. 90).

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