Cover of The Dramatist Winter 2023
Ross Berger: What I’m Teaching Now
Specimens of Fancy Turning by Edward J. Woolsey
Specimens of Fancy Turning by Edward J. Woolsey

As I write this, the Writers Guild of America (“WGA”) trudges through its second strike in fifteen years. One can attribute the cause of this year’s strike to unfair residual compensation from streaming services. Also, as a secondary focus, the WGA rejects the use of artificial intelligence to generate scripts for Hollywood studios. In both scenarios, technology is the culprit, and the strike serves as a wake-up call to those who don’t yet understand the impact technology has on pop culture. Streaming might be the new way one watches TV or film, but it is delivered through a platform that is, at its core, engineer-centric, as opposed to traditional TV or film, which is either run by executives in cahoots with advertisers or by someone who pays heed to a media mogul… who is also in cahoots with advertisers. There are challenges to each of these types of business leader, but writers have had 70+ years of understanding the latter two and little time understanding the former. 

The engineering mindset vastly differs from that of the content creator. Creativity fails to fit into any particular metric for engineer-centric companies like Netflix or Hulu. While those companies count plenty of traditional TV and film executives as part of their org chart, the platform is God and the tech that built it remains sacrosanct. Tech companies are new to organized labor, and they do not fully grasp what it stands for. Metrics are understood, excessive profit is understood, efficiency is understood, automation is understood. Art is not. Programming lines of code is not the same as writing a film script. The human element is too complex to capture and thus cannot be held to the same standards as a build of an app without glitches. The marriage between content and tech will remain rocky until the human element is understood by tech.

But content creators must fulfill their part as well.

One thing Hollywood writers do not understand (yet) is that, today, television and film no longer possess the hegemony over pop culture. TikTok, YouTube videos, Twitch streams, social media, and video games dominate the attention spans of millennials and Gen Z, so this WGA strike poses little impact on their media consumption and, frankly, little impact on their level of interest.

So as these generations obtain more positions of influence and more purchasing power, their demand for new storytelling platforms continues to grow.

I’ve been at the forefront of storytelling for new technologies since 2007, once YouTube started offering original fictional content. My first taste of that world was through LonelyGirl15, a digitally native show about a teenager struggling with typical teenage problems… and some not so typical (e.g., being involved in a rapacious cult, for starters). Each episode was three to five minutes, shown on YouTube and other online sources. In between each episode, the story continued in ARGs (alternate reality games) or in online forums, where fictional characters from the show engaged with audiences, asked for advice on how to help the protagonist of the series (including solving brain game puzzles), and presented disguised plot points that could not be addressed organically in the videos. The show was a major hit and proved to the world that people can be entertained on the internet without the help of cat videos.

I also wrote the launch title video game for the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift in 2016. The game, Farlands, served as a tutorial for VR users and introduced the world to a revolutionary step in computing. 

Flash forward to six years later and I am consulting for a robotics company fueled by an A.I.-driven language model, writing stories and age-appropriate conversation responses for children, so that the robot seems life-like and fun enough to play with every day.

These technologies are not science fiction. They are actual products available today and are growing in popularity. One day, they will need writers en masse to tell stories through them.

The question isn’t what makes a great story. (That remains a writer’s constant focus.) Rather, it is how one tells a great story through it. Be it a video game, a robot, a YouTube video, an iWatch, or a VR headset, each technology possesses its own grammar and to tell a story successfully through it requires an understanding of what its users’ behaviors are with it. 

In the Dramatists Guild Institute class “Storytelling for New Technologies,” it is my goal to guide creative writers into understanding the unique affordances and limitations for certain technologies as a storytelling platform and to bring out within these students the strategic thinker as well as the creative writer.

Ross Berger
Ross Berger

is a creative writer, narrative designer, and adjunct professor based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Dramatic Storytelling & Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Video Games & Transmedia (CRC Press, 2020) and is the editor/contributor of Storytelling for New Technologies & Platforms: A Writer’s Guide to Theme Parks, Virtual Reality, Board Games, Virtual Assistants, and More (CRC Press, 2022).