BYU students across academic disciplines invite Disneyland guests to see the park with new eyes
The digital world of new media is constantly changing the way we produce, consume and think about our entertainment. In a manner fitting this fast-paced medium of study, BYU students from multiple disciplines recently applied unconventional methods to their research into Disneyland storytelling, creating a mobile game to bring their critical take on the park to the public.
Dark Ride Disneyland, which was released by BYU and media production company Western Lights on iTunes, is a mobile game played in the theme park that uses augmented reality and geolocation technologies to help guests dig deeper into the history, technology and culture of the park and think more critically about the stories being told.
The project was conceived when media arts professor Benjamin Thevenin visited Disneyland while in southern California for a media literacy conference. “I realized the contradiction between these two experiences, the conference and the park,” explained Thevenin. “I’m involved in this community that’s invested in encouraging the public to be more careful and thoughtful in the ways that they’re engaging with media and how that media is affecting us and representing our world. But in Disneyland, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just eating it up.”
Thevenin began brainstorming ways to educate park visitors and encourage them to see and understand the park differently. Ultimately landing on a student research project and accompanying app, Thevenin approached BYU faculty members Jeff Parkin and Brent Barson and industry professionals Jared Cardon and Ontario Britton, who joined the project as mentors. Together they opened up an application to students across campus. Around 20 students were selected, representing disciplines including media arts, illustration, graphic design, advertising, business, computer science and mathematics.
From there, each student was placed into two groups, one according to their skill set and the other serving as an interdisciplinary collaboration focused on creating game elements for one of four themed areas of the park—Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. This allowed all students to be involved on some level in every aspect of the project, including the research, story development and game mechanics.
“I think the best part was working with people who were passionate about what we were creating,” said graphic design student lead Connor King. “It was the first group project I’d worked on in my 16-plus years of school where everyone actually cared and wanted to work hard to create something amazing. We all really became a family just in the course of a semester.”
The level of collaboration required by the project created a rare but deeply valuable experience for the involved students. “The Laycock Center provides a means of collaboration within the College of Fine Arts and Communications,” said Thevenin. “They gave us the space to meet and quite a bit of the funding to create this project, but we had the added benefit of working with students in computer science and mathematics. We’re overcoming even bigger disciplinary boundaries, with the hard sciences working with the arts.”
With this meeting of vastly different fields, students worked to understand and respect the abilities, limitations and knowledge of their peers. “Students from different disciplines essentially speak different languages, so we had to learn to communicate,” said Thevenin. “At the same time, they created a kind of balancing force. The student writers, for example, would come up with a fantastic idea, and the programmers would help them come up with simpler, more feasible means of accomplishing the same goal.”
“In turn, the writers developed an understanding of the logics by which the programmers were operating,” Thevenin continued. “They learned to generate ideas according to those logics in a way that complemented the programmers’ abilities. This was not just interdisciplinary collaboration, but a kind of multi-modal learning.”
“I loved collaborating with a team from across multiple disciplines, especially when we were all working together in the same room, answering each other’s questions and quickly solving each other’s problems,” added research lead Christopher Bowles, now graduated from the media arts program. “It was fun to pick up new skills from each other and create a common vocabulary. Many times across departments, we’d be saying the same things without knowing it, so we would listen, try to understand and always end up on the same page.”
The bulk of the work for the game was done in the fall of 2016. The selected students enrolled in a course together and took several trips to Disneyland for a critical study of their surroundings. The project mentors provided the student groups with a list of key media literacy questions developed by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), intended to spark conversation about the history, purpose and effect of media.
The research and ideas collected over the semester were organized and articulated by the student team through the development of original characters and storylines for the game. They hoped to stir thought and conversation among guests, sharing their own experiences and conclusions in an accessible, entertaining format.
“I hope it opens their eyes,” said King of future park guests who download the game. “It’s so easy to go into Disneyland and sprint for Space Mountain, then just ride rides all day. Disney built so much story and detail into the park that often just gets walked past by millions of people, without anyone the wiser. I want people to not just go to Disneyland, but really know Disneyland.”
Though the team is excited to bring the game to the public, the heart of the project for Thevenin was the academic experience for the involved students. “I was really pleased with how positively students responded to that merging of critical analysis and creative production,” he said. “As faculty, we make efforts to create that unity, but it’s difficult to achieve. This project provided a means for the jump between knowledge and a practical application to happen easily.”
“We wanted students to engage with the research, engage with the park, create educational objectives and develop a story and gameplay that meets those objectives,” Thevenin continued. “The fact that the students not only succeeded in doing that, but really enjoyed the experience, was heartening for me.”
This level of involvement and engagement for the students was largely facilitated by BYU’s emphasis on experiential learning. “This is one of those projects that would not be possible at any other institution,” said Thevenin. “BYU is so invested, both in regard to its priorities and in regard to the funding that it provides to experiential learning. We started this project before the university president’s office announced the renewed focus on experiential learning, but the culture and the opportunities already in place paved the way for us to be able to do it.”
Many of the involved students were already Disney and Disneyland fans themselves, making the lesson of critically investigating the media they consume particularly relatable. Thevenin hopes that the students and park guests alike will find that their enjoyment of the park is not ruined by the research explored in the game, but enhanced.
“I think that for many people who play the game, this will provide another layer of enjoyment for their Disney experience,” said Thevenin. “A lot of people who play the game will be frequent visitors to Disneyland, and they’re going to enjoy the fact that we point them to undiscovered corners of the park and provide an additional layer of story and cast of characters to this place that they already know and love.”
“I would hope that in addition to that enjoyment, the questions that we ask provide the Disney experience with more richness and complicate it, in a way,” Thevenin continued. “We’ve found that most fans aren’t interested in simply being cheerleaders for their favorite things; they interrogate those things, they try to pick them apart and put them back together. They imagine how things might look from different perspectives. We’re simply providing Disney fans with motivation to put in the work.”
“I feel that a real respect for a piece of art or a thing you love includes a bit of scrutiny,” added Bowles. “By leaning in close, you’re showing how much that thing is worth your time, worth getting to know better and worth an unbiased understanding. Any sort of entertainment can be a passive or participatory experience. That’s up to you. Hopefully this game encourages players to not just look at art, but see the world and see beautiful things as they really are.”
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Thevenin.