Participation and Crowd Control: Stephen King’s Under the Dome promotional puzzle
In build-up to the release of his much anticipated new novel, Under the Dome, Stephen King’s UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton have launched what they’re calling “the biggest ever game of literary hide-and-seek.” For the game, fans across the UK are enlisted to help both hide and find the 5,196 excerpts that makes up the 335,114 word novel both online and in the real world. The found pieces are then posted to Stephenking.co.uk, where people can take a crack at piecing all the parts together.
While the initial description of the project reminded me of Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg’s Implementation — a novel that was distributed across the globe on a series of stickers that was then reassembled online — the commercial promotional focus of the Stephen King effort seems to have elements intended to control and curb certain types of participation even as it hopes to incite fan engagement and interactivity.
The project has two main activity sets — the hiding/seeking of the story pieces and the actual piecing together of the story once pieces have been found. The “hide-and-seek” portion is well-scaffolded for participation with forums, twitter feeds, facebook groups, and all the other social media implements to bring participants together to create and solve clues, as well as discuss the novel snippets they find. It works because, in addition to a prize to the most ingenious hider and prolific finder, the process itself is an incentive for participation. The game activity is based in what fans already desire — getting glimpses of a highly anticipated work — and therefore rewards and encourages with more than just a prize.
The second part of the activity, however, is intruiging. While the site suggests that the ultimate goal is to “piece [the excerpts] all together and discover Stephen King’s new masterpiece,” participation at the level of content assembly isn’t supported structurally within the project. The web interface is not designed to actually facilitate piecing together the excerpts. When you click begin, random excerpts enter the screen on floating semi-translucent panels that move around, turn, spin, and overlap, making reading them difficult. It’s unclear whether what you see on screen is all the excerpts that have been found thus far, or merely a random selection. My assumption would be the latter, since this kind of interface would be completely impossible to navigate with more than a handful of text pieces at a time. When you go to save any work you’ve done in piecing parts together, the page generates a link where you can view your saved work. However, when you follow the link, you no longer have access to the excerpts you have not yet used, so that you can’t add to the work you’ve saved.
More than making it difficult for individual participants, this part of the game also doesn’t include any easy way to share and collaborate with others. This seems like an effort to curb collective intelligence behaviors that would likely lead to effectively piecing together the novel in the short time before its release. Moreover, most of the pieces start and stop mid-sentence, which strongly emphasizes that there is a correct order, and deters more inventive or unconventional assemblies of the content. Additionally, without the ability to share and collaborate, the social aspect of fan activity is minimized, which significantly lowers the incentive to try and actually put together the novel.
These control mechanisms built into the structure of the game make sense when you consider that the publishing house has a vested interest in discouraging fans from actually being able to piece together and share online a complete or close to complete version of the novel, since they want to move printed units. There’s little that’s interesting about breaking the novel into pieces on the narrative level, since the structure of the game itself doesn’t leave room for the participatory involvement in shaping the content itself, as we see in ARGs, hypertext novels, and other forms of non-linear or distributed storytelling. Which, in the end, doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, the goal here is to sell a novel, not innovate the novelistic form.