Collapsus: Boundary-Bashing Trans-Media

In Arianna Huffington’s provocatively-titled new book Third World America, the first lady of the blogosphere warns that the U.S. is in danger of becoming a so-called “third world nation,” riddled with debt, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and political corruption.

Another defining feature of a third world country is rolling blackouts. Even as we increasingly face weather-related power outtages, Americans still seem to take electricity for granted. Investigative journalists have written reams on energy issues (ProPublica, Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity), but the question remains: what will it take for Americans to get a grip – or even a grasp – on the energy crisis that hovers ominously like a dark cloud?

Perhaps Collapsus will provide the spark.

Collapsus Introduction from SubmarineChannel on Vimeo.

Collapsus is an experiment in storytelling that mixes fictional film and documentary-style production to transport viewers into an alternate reality – a potential dystopian future – where the energy-based economy collapses into darkness. The interactive narrative follows 10 young people affected by a global energy crisis, providing a dramatic window on the human dimensions of this looming threat. Visitors to the Collapsus site can cut away from soap-opera-like webisodes to learn about energy issues through an interactive map, view fictional newscasts on the Citizenergy Channel, or watch real interview clips with experts, analysts, activists and journalists.

The audience for documentary is dying,” reads a declaration in the promotional materials for Collapsus. “The average age of a television documentary viewer is 55 and up. Dutch broadcaster VPRO came to Submarine with the concept of making a simulation game in which the player experiences the impending world’s energy problems. The goal was to attract a different audience than traditional documentary viewers.”

VPRO released a more traditional documentary called Energy Risk as part of the multimedia project. The documentary is in Dutch, but many of those interviewed are English speakers, including New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman who doesn’t mince words as he calls Americans “victims of their own stupidy and greed…We are energy pigs…We are 4% of the world’s population, but we use 25% of the world’s energy.”

Collapsus, the immersive movie is directed by Tommy Pallotta, the producer of the celebrated feature-length animated film A Scanner Darkly. Pallotta says, “We crafted a multitasking and multi-linear experience and we blended genres like animation, documentary, fiction and interactivity all together in one story. This hybrid approach allows us to look at a serious documentary subject, but also to shift from the usual talking head approach to something that better reflects our time.” He calls the genre an annotated narrative.

Truthfully, this is the kind of media that is better experienced than explained. You can do that right here.

Collapsus is not the first immersion/journalism project to propel viewers head-first into the issue of energy consumption and scarcity. Independent Lens on PBS and ITVS Interactive released a ground-breaking pseudo-reality game World Without Oil that traveled through similar terrain three years ago. 

The motto of World Without Oil was “if you want to change the future, play with it first.”

Both World Without Oil and Collapsus force us to engage, to face reality, and, perhaps, accept some personal responsibility for the destiny of the planet and human civilization.

Yep…It’s some heady and heavy stuff, but Collapsus is a “game” well worth playing, if only to get a look at the cutting edge of invention and the hard-to-categorize storytelling hybrids emerging in the world of digital documentary.