By Benjamin Thevenin and Jeff Parkin
Abstract: While storytelling has been a part of the media literacy discourse since the emergence of the field, in recent years, there has been a shift in focus on media as “messages” or “content” over “stories.” Restoring story as a foundational concept to our conversations around media literacy has a number of affordances, for example, allowing learners to critically engage with the storytelling taking place in emerging media like video games and theme parks. The article describes the development of a media literacy-themed mobile game called Dark Ride: Disneyland, which encourages players to consider the ideologies embedded in the stories told in the theme park. The article details the creative team’s identification, interrogation, and interpretation of Disney’s representations of technology, history and culture and demonstrates how the game functions as an alternative story which raises awareness about some of the limitations of the Disney narrative.
While recent conversations regarding “fake news” have increased the public’s awareness of the necessity of media literacy, this discourse typically stresses the communication of information through media messages more than it does the telling of stories. But storytelling has been present within the work of media literacy scholars and educators since the field’s beginnings. Especially in today’s media culture—where video games, web-based experiences, mobile apps, and theme parks are more and more prevalent and popular—our conversations about media literacy would benefit from a renewed emphasis on storytelling.
This article describes the development of a media literacy-themed mobile game created by students, faculty and professionals at Brigham Young University called Dark Ride: Disneyland as an effort in storytelling-based media literacy education. The game uses augmented reality and geolocation technology to take the player on an adventure through Disneyland, all while encouraging them to think critically about the stories the park tells about history, culture, and technology. In this article, we outline the process by which our team identified, interrogated, and interpreted the stories told within the popular theme park. And then we describe how we implemented this critical analysis of the stories told by Disneyland in the creation of our own alternative story in the game.
Storytelling as a Foundation for Media Literacy
Since the emergence of the field of media literacy, storytelling has been a conceptual framework employed by scholars and educators. After all, much of media literacy’s discourse was inherited from film, media, and cultural studies—which, among other things, emphasize media in relation to storytelling, art, and creative expression (see Alvermann 2004; Jenkins 1992/2013, 2006; Masterman 1980, 1985). And the development of digital storytelling and youth media movements have intertwined and overlapped with that of the media literacy movement (see Goodman 2003; Hobbs 1998, 2008; Ohler 2013; Robin & McNeil 2019).
Benjamin Thevenin received his PhD from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Benjamin’s studies focus on the relationships between youth, media and politics; particularly, how we can better prepare young people to become thoughtful citizens, consumers and creators of media. At BYU’s TMA department, he teaches classes on creativity, children’s media, new media, and media education. Benjamin also leads the Hands on a Camera project, a service-learning program through which BYU students teach media production and analysis skills to local youth. Benjamin lives with his wife Emily and three boys in the beautiful Wasatch mountains.
Jeff Parkin received a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Television Production from the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California in 1990. He also received a BA in English/Humanities from USC at that time. In 1991, he received a Master of Fine Arts from USC in screenwriting, with additional emphasis in directing. Before coming to Brigham Young University, he worked in Los Angeles for 15 years as a producer, director and/or writer with companies such as: Miramax Pictures, CBS Television, Orion Pictures, David E. Kelley Productions, EMI/Capitol Records, Fox Television, Dallas Museum of Art, Franklin/Covey, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Times, Lilly & Brandon Tartikoff, McGraw-Hill Companies and United Artists. He has written, directed and/or produced two full-length feature films, a number-one-rated movie of the week for CBS Television, a feature-length web series and transmedia story which includes an alternate reality game and additional New Media elements, as well as numerous short films, commercials, documentaries, music videos and industrial films. His work has been seen in film festivals around the world, and has won numerous awards. He has worked with such actors as Maureen O’Hara, David Ogden Stiers, Julia Duffy, Kirby Heyborne, Joey Laurence, Larisa Oleynik and Haley Joel Osment.
Recently, much of his creative work has been focused on New Media and the creation of transmedia stories. His Internet TV series, The Book of Jer3miah was praised as a “tight, suspenseful series,” by the New York Times, and the Webby Awards recognized it with a 2010 Honoree award.
Despite the presence of storytelling in the discourse, media literacy advocates arguably more often rely on terminology like messages, texts, and content to frame their conversations around media (see López 2012, 2014). Especially in recent years, there has been an increasing conflation of media with news media in public conversation, and media literacy education has especially emphasized approaches like identifying credible sources and interrogating political bias in an effort to confront “fake news.” While these perspectives and practices are valuable (and arguably necessary given our current political and media cultures), they typically privilege the communication of information by journalistic and governmental institutions over the telling of stories by individuals and communities.
Defining media as simply news or information doesn’t account for (or allow for a critical engagement with) media as forms of art, entertainment, and storytelling. Educational philosopher John Dewey (1927/1954), who is frequently cited in media literacy scholarship and practice, writes of creating expression’s potential to promote critical consciousness:
The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness. Common things, a flower, a gleam of moonlight, the song of a bird, not things rare and remote, are means with which the deeper levels of life are touched so that they spring up as desire and thought. This process is art. Poetry, the drama, the novel, are proofs that the problem of presentation is not insoluble. Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation. (p. 183-4)
Through a re-emphasis on art and storytelling within media literacy discourse, we have the opportunity to prepare our students to not just be more adept consumers of content or “purveyors of news,” but also more thoughtful and creative readers and tellers of stories.
For example, in addition to terminology commonly addressed within media literacy education—like authorship, intention, language, representation, ideology and interpretation—a media literacy education that emphasizes storytelling allows us to introduce learners to concepts like character, setting, plot, aesthetics, genre, theme, and so forth. Also, while media literacy scholars and educators have traditionally advocated for the integration of critical analysis and creative production, when we emphasize storytelling in particular, we are given an even greater opportunity to extend our practice beyond the interpretation of texts to the making of media. And lastly, this emphasis on storytelling also allows us to expand our purview as media literacy scholars and educators—addressing not just news, advertising, television, and movies, but also even less often-explored forms of media, like video games and theme parks.
Theme Parks and Storytelling
With the growing popularity of interactive entertainment and immersive experiences—in virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences, immersive theatre, escape rooms, live-action role playing, location-based games and media, and so on—our discussion of how theme parks tell stories may seem a bit obvious. In their development of arguably the first and best example of a theme park, Walt Disney and his “Imagineers” envisioned Disneyland as an extension of the worlds introduced in the studio’s films, designing the various elements of the park with the architecture of movies in mind (for example, using the terminology of “sets” and “scenes”). Even the most superficial observation of Disneyland reveals that all of the familiar elements of stories—character and setting, conflict and resolution, drama and humor, aesthetics and theme—are present within the park.
Not too long after the Disneyland’s opening, scholars began to pay attention to the park as a powerful place for storytelling. For example, Marin (1977) writes:
“Fantasyland is made up of images, characters, animals of the tales illustrated by Disney in his animated films, magazines, books and so on. This district is constituted by images; of particular significance is the fact that these images are realized, are made living by their transformation into real materials, wood, stone, plaster…and through their animation by men and women disguised as movie or storybook characters.” (p. 56)
Since Marin, an entire subfield of cultural studies has explored the strategies behind and consequences of Disneyland’s storytelling (see Bryman 2004; Byrne & McQuillan 1999; Eco 1986; Giroux & Pollock 1999; Sandlin & Garlen 2016; Wasko 2001). Most notable among these deconstructions of Disneyland is in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1994), in which he describes the story of Disneyland as a metaphor for American society as a whole: “The objective profile of America, then, may be traced throughout Disneyland…All its values are exalted here, in miniature and comic strip form. Embalmed and pacified” (p. 12). Using Baudrillard’s logic, by making meaning of the stories told within Disneyland, we might gain insight into the dominant narratives within American culture and society.
In fact, it has been argued that, more than simply represent these dominant ideological perspectives, the stories told in Disneyland inculcate certain ideas—about America and about Disney itself—in the minds of parkgoers (see Giroux & Pollock 1999; Wasko 2001). “Walt Disney theme parks are, more than anything else, teaching tools,” writes Bey (2016); he continues “In fact, much of the pleasure derives from the Disney theme park experience…is due to the teaching that goes on in them and our desire to be taught by Disney” (p. 179). Disneyland guests leave the park with more than Mickey ears and turkey legs—they come away with certain perspectives on the world around them.
Having realized the presence and potential power of the stories told within Disneyland, it makes sense then for educators to help the park-going public practice some media literacy during their theme park experience. But interrogating the stories told within the park proves difficult given the passive position in which the park places its visitors (as well as the almost religious dedication with which many fans esteem all-things-Disney). Eco (1986) describes Disneyland as “a place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots” (p. 48). And even when park-goers are invited to be more active, taking part of the stories told within the park, their roles are rigidly defined. Marin (1977) emphasizes how visitors’ audience activity implicates them in the Disneyland’s narrative, making any practice of objective, critical analysis of the park quite difficult:
But, in fact, this critical process is not possible in Disneyland in so far as the visitor to Disneyland is not a spectator estranged from the show, distanced from the myth, and liberating from its fascinating grasp. The visitor is on the stage; he performs the play; he is alienated by his part without being aware of performing a part. (p. 54)
So, in order to prepare ourselves and others to critically engage with the stories we encounter (and “perform” ourselves) in Disneyland, we have to get creative—using some of Disney’s own storytelling strategies to tell alternative stories, to create our own educational/entertainment experiences, and to challenge the dominant (and sometimes damaging) perspectives perpetuated in the theme park.
Critically Engaging with Disneyland’s Stories in Dark Ride: Disneyland
In 2015, a group of faculty, creative professionals, and students from Brigham Young University began development on a mobile game called Dark Ride: Disneyland. The game’s objective was to help visitors to Disneyland recognize the stories told within the park and identify some of the ideological implications of these stories, thus enriching their park experience. Using augmented reality and geo-location technologies as well as “fetch-quests,” character interactions, and other mini-games, the app invites the player to a virtual version of Disneyland which has been taken over by the pirate Captain Jean Laffite.
Figure 1. Dark Ride: Disneyland game trailer.
On a series of quests, the player navigates the park, phone in hand, searching for clues and solving puzzles in an effort to prevent Lafitte from ruining “the happiest place on Earth.” And as they play, the park visitor is encouraged to critically reflect on the stories Disney tells about things like technology, history, and culture. The following sections describe the critical analytical and creative work we engaged in as a team during the development of Dark Ride: Disneyland. We describe the importance of learning to identify, interrogate, and interpret the stories told within the theme park. And then we share how we told our own alternative story of Disneyland within the game itself, in order to encourage players to practice media literacy during their visit to the park.
In order for our team to be able to make meaning of the stories told within Disneyland, we first had to recognize those stories. Our identification of the stories told within the theme park was achieved through both traditional and on-site research.
Figures 2 & 3. Students, faculty, and professionals sharing their research in Disneyland.
We poured over histories and scholarly analyses of the park and its various attractions, collecting interesting facts, archiving images of the park, and identifying potential areas of interest. And in addition to traditional research, the team also visited the park with the specific purpose of identifying the stories told by Disney. We took photographs, video, and extensive notes while walking around the various ‘lands,’ riding the rides, and observing the park’s design.
Ultimately, we divided our team according to ‘lands’ and began to share with one another our observations. Sitting in shaded corners of the park, we compared notes and identified the most interesting stories within each of the park’s themed areas. The team pointed out that Tomorrowland, for example, envisions a utopic future in which innovation allows for scientific discovery, space exploration, and societal progress. This is reflected in the land’s sleek and shiny technological marvels like rockets and robots and the inclusion of characters like explorers and innovators. Frontierland tells the myth of the American frontier during the era of Westward expansion. Populated by cowboys, frontiersmen, miners, ferryboat captains, forty-niners, and railroad workers, this area of the park emphasizes themes of rugged individualism, man’s conquest of the land, and the spirit of freedom promised by the wild Western landscape. And Adventureland’s story emphasizes the wonder and mystery of exotic lands and cultures. Its jungles are populated by explorers and indigenous peoples and filled with treasures and exotic animals.
After identifying the stories told within the various lands, our team worked to interrogate these stories and better understand the ideological perspectives embedded in the narratives, aesthetics, and themes found throughout the park. Especially helpful to this task were the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s “Key Questions to Ask When Analyzing Media Messages.” We carried paper copies of the document as we navigated our assigned lands, considering questions related to:
The park’s production:
Who made this?
When was this made?
Why was this made?
The park as a text:
What does this want me to think (or think about)?
What techniques are used and why?
What ideas, values, information or points of view are overt? Implied?
Interpretations of the park experience:
How does this make me feel and how do my emotions influence my interpretation of this?
What is my interpretation and what do I learn about myself from my reaction or interpretation?
How might different people understand this message differently? (NAMLE, 2014)
During this process of interrogating the stories, our team modified the terminology from the Key Questions in order to better understand these different moments in the meaning-making processes taking place in the park.
Intentions. In order to understand the origins of the stories told within the park, we found it particularly helpful to review the dedication speeches given by Walt, some of which are included on plaques at the entrance to their respective lands. In each dedication, the park’s creator articulates the theme he intended for the land to explore. For example, the dedication for Adventureland reads:
Here is adventure. Here is romance. Here is mystery. Tropical rivers—silently flowing into the unknown. The unbelievable splendor of exotic flowers…the eerie sounds of the jungle…with eyes that are always watching. This is Adventureland. (“Adventureland,” 2020)
In addition to looking to the plaques, we also looked at the Imagineers’ concept art, reference images, attraction designs, and so on, in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the intentions of the various individuals involved in the land’s creation.
Realizations & Representations. Having some understanding of the conceptualization of the various parts of the park, we then put the creators’ intentions in conversations with what actually appears in the park itself. And our examination of these practical realizations in the park was not limited to the elements currently existing in Disneyland, but also included the various representations in the lands over the last several decades. Central to our examination of these realizations and representations was how the lands achieved (or not) the ideas set forth in the creator’s designs and dedication speeches.
Interpretations. Lastly, having acknowledged the intentions behind and the actual physical elements of the various lands, we deconstructed our experience within the park. In particular, our interpretive work focused on how the stories told by Disney in the various lands might be understood in radically different ways, depending on the individual experiences and perspectives of the park visitor.
Having identified the stories told within the different parts of Disneyland, and interrogated how the correlations between the creators’ intentions, the park as a text, and the audience’s experience, our team next focused our efforts on interpreting these stories. Employing various critical theoretical frameworks—including feminist, postcolonial, Marxist, and poststructuralist theories—we attempted to read the park against the grain. During our interpretive work, we frequently referenced Giroux and Pollock’s (1999) discussion of Disney as complex and contradictory. They write:
Like all cultural formations, Disney is riddled with contradictions; rather than being a static and monolithic entity, Disney culture offers potentially subversive moments and pleasures within a range of contradictory and complex experiences. (p. 7)
This approach—of identifying “the traces of contradiction” (using Marin’s terminology) between the intentions, realizations, representations, and interpretations of each land—proved especially productive in both helping the students expose the ideological perspectives embedded in Disneyland’s stories and then providing us with material to tell an alternative story in the game itself (1977, 51).
For instance, in Tomorrowland, we found it interesting that while Walt’s intention behind the land was to envision a better tomorrow—a world in which technology helped us achieve progress and unity—the current version of this future is one dominated by science fiction and fantasy franchises. Whereas in the past, Tomorrowland was a place where emerging technologies were displayed (“Innoventions”) and innovation was celebrated (“The Carousel of Progress”), the land was now devoid of any actual scientific discovery.
Our team also pointed out that in Frontierland, heroes like Davy Crockett and Mark Twain are celebrated, but there is little-to-no representation of Native or African Americans in the land. Disneyland’s representation of the myth of the American West marginalizes people of color, not unlike like how the pioneers who ‘settled’ the West enslaved, exploited, and exterminated these peoples. While park visitors would likely respond to the intentions behind Frontierland—revisiting an exciting era in history, celebrating the creation of the country—the representation (or better yet, the lack thereof) of non-white peoples is troubling.
And in Adventureland, we quickly recognized how the park positioned visitors as European explorers in colonial times and encouraged us to marvel at the ‘strange’ and ‘mysterious’ (mostly indigenous) peoples and cultures represented in the land. While we admitted that this “other-ing” of non-Western cultures was fairly consistent with Walt’s intentions for the land, we worried how park visitors (especially those from the very communities supposedly depicted in Adventureland) might receive these exoticized representations.
Telling Alternative Stories through Games
From the beginning, our team’s intention for Dark Ride: Disneyland was to develop a mobile game that, while engaging the player in a compelling experience, also encouraged them to think critically about the stories being told within the park. In order to do this, we had to tell a story of our own—one that balanced education and entertainment. (After all, for the game to be successful it had to be worth some of your precious park time). So, we set out to take our research—and in particular the contradictions we identified in the stories told within Disneyland—and craft a narrative that would shine a light on these ideological issues.
Ultimately, our team settled on a storyline that involves a takeover of the park by a band of pirates led by Captain Jean Lafitte, an actual historical figure who is referenced throughout the park.
Figures 4 & 5. Baudrillard and Captain Jean Lafitte.
Lafitte and his crew are attempting to outdo Walt himself, creating a “Disneyerland” in which the contradictions our team identified in park are amplified and exaggerated to a ridiculous extent. The player is led through this dystopic version of the park (which is visible through the game’s use of augmented reality) by a mutinous parrot Baudrillard. Named after the famed philosopher, the bird helps the player to uncover Lafitte’s plan and prevent his conquest of each land within the park.
Figure 6. Lafitte's Arrival.
In the game, Tomorrowland is renamed Todayland. At the entrance to the area, the player is met by Lafitte’s henchwoman Dead Red, a pirate intent on ridding the land of any hint of innovation. “Lafitte saw Tomorrowland becoming less about sailing to an attainable future. I agree!” Dead Red calls to the player. “Hang today, never worry ‘bout tomorrow! Spend now! Where you’re moored now couldn’t possibly be better!”
Figure 7. Meet Dead Red.
As the player explores Todayland, they encounter a number of robots who have lost their “creativity drives.” In order to help spark the spirit of discovery in the land again, the player must go on a series of scavenger hunts, learning about the technological marvels that once existed there and collecting pieces to rebuild the engine of Tomorrowland’s towering rocketship, the TWA Moonliner.
Figures 8 & 9. Goodyear and Astrobot.
Finally, the player blasts off and, in a virtual reality minigame, explores the cosmos. “You’re amazing!” Astrobot shouts as the player returns from their adventure. “Look at all of these things we discovered! Isn’t exploration a kick? Can you think of other places that mankind has yet to explore?” Having helped the robots regain their spirit of innovation, Dead Red flees Tomorrowland.
Figure 10. Star Map Mini Game.
The alternative story of Todayland we developed for the game parallels an observation made by Wasko (2001):
Most of the theme park analysts suggest that the future seems mainly to reflect the past, or Disney’s version of the past, and thus celebrates a reification of existing social relations and the status quo, or, in other words, the present. (p. 175)
Emphasizing the land’s interest in the present (as opposed to the future), our team worked to draw the player’s attention to the inconsistency between the land’s focus on sci-fi and fantasy franchises and the original intention that Tomorrowland would be a place in which park visitors could be inspired by the innovations and discoveries that would make our world a better place.
Under Lafitte’s reign, Frontierland has been transformed into “Goldenland,” where the Western heroes within the land are being exploited by a pirate named Paymaster, forced to labor in the mine to accumulate more riches for the Captain.
Figure 11. Welcome to Goldenland.
With the help of Baudrillard, the player journeys throughout the land, searching for a way to liberate the land’s occupants. On their adventure, they encounter not just frontiersmen like Davy Crocket, but also famous figures (mythical and historical) who represent the marginalized peoples excluded within the land’s recounting of the myth of America, namely John Henry and Sacagawea. In bondage, these heroes are beginning to forget their past, and it is up to the player to keep them from disappearing from history altogether.
Figures 12 & 13. Davy Crockett and Sacagawea in disguise.
Disguised as a pirate herself, Sacagawea emerges from the shadows to enlist the help of the player. “I am Sacagawea of the Shoshone tribe. I am hiding because Paymaster took out all of the Native American things here in Goldenland.” The player then goes on a scavenger hunt to help Sacagawea locate the last remnants of Native American cultures present within the land.
Figure 14. Sacagawea minigame.
At the conclusion of their quest, the player helps America’s heroes remember their past, and the diverse crew reunites to overcome the oppression of Paymaster and reclaim Frontierland.
Figure 15. Goldenland Finale.
In addition to poking at Disneyland’s relentless pursuit of profits, the story that unfolds in Goldenland emphasizes how this myth of America erases people of color from the nation’s history. Marin (1977) writes, “This imaginary history is contained in a stereotyped system of representations. In order to utter his own story, the visitor is forced to borrow these representations” (p. 59). By restoring Native and African American peoples to Frontierland, the game attempts to address this skewed perception of the American West as well as lend park representations of non-white peoples to the park visitors so they can utter their own, more accurate and equitable, stories.
Weird Stuff Land
Lafitte has changed Adventureland’s name to “Weird Stuff Land” because, according to his fearsome henchman Gustav, “It’s a place to gawk at weird stuff from who cares where.” Weird Stuff Land is cluttered with a mess of artifacts, architecture, language, and design from an assortment of geographically and historically distinct cultures, all claimed through the pirates’ pillaging of indigenous communities.
Figure 16 & 17. Hakim & Jade.
As they journey through the land, the player encounters characters from different places and time periods who are disoriented by the flattening of space and time in the land. The player goes on a scavenger hunt, discovering artifacts within the land and learning about their cultural origin and significance.
Figure 18. Jade Matching Game.
As the artifacts are recovered and placed back in their proper context, the citizens of Adventureland regain clarity about their cultural identities. The player’s recovery of the cultural artifacts inspires the characters to overcome Gustav and put a stop to the pirates plundering their treasures.
When our team discovered the dedication speech for Adventureland (excerpted above), we found it a bit troubling how Walt explicitly exoticized the places and peoples represented in the land. The objective of the land seemed to be nothing more than to wonder at the strangeness of unfamiliar cultures. So, our story focused on helping the player re-contextualize the representations of indigenous peoples and cultures in the land, replacing the mystery of Walt’s vision of Adventureland with a spirit of discovery.
Figure 19 & 20. Harold and Terra.
When all three lands have been liberated, the player ventures into Fantasyland for the final confrontation with Lafitte. Aided by characters like Harold the yeti and Terra the Fairy Godmother, the player faces off against the dreaded pirate captain, wielding Excalibur itself. At the conclusion of the game, the player overcomes Lafitte and sends him back to the anchor in New Orleans Square that bears his name.
Figure 21. Lafitte's Defeat.
“Baudrillard, my friend,” remarks a repentant Lafitte. “What have I done?” And the parrot replies, adding his own verse to the song sung in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction:
Some seriously problematic things, Lafitte. And you’ll have to answer for those mistakes. Remember this shanty?
When gold doubloons and treasure chests
Get you into this kind of mess,
Remember how your greed and anger
Sent you to New Orleans’ anchor
From fate no one is ever free:
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!
Baudrillard ends the game by reminding the player of the limitations of the Disneyland narrative and praising their efforts to spot and slip into the cracks in the stories told in the park.
As the media landscape continues to shift and immersive experiences, like those in theme parks and video games, become even more prevalent, it would be beneficial for teachers and learners to lean into storytelling as a framework for media literacy. As we emphasize the reading and telling of stories, we will be more equipped to critically engage with such experiences, and be more empowered to use these emerging forms and technologies to tell our own stories.
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