Looking Back at the 2019 Immersive Design Summit

Now that we’ve cleared out the Tension issue, it’s worth taking a look at the Immersive Design Summit as a whole. I haven’t really attended an event of this nature in years; the closest I’ve come was a panel at Montreal’s C3 in 2017. (Though I have done a few of my own talks and workshops in that time — certainly not as many as in 2014 or so, at the height of the transmedia scene.)

The TL;DR is that I’m a bit sad that the immersive design community is falling into a lot of the same hyperbole as the old transmedia and ARG scenes did, but on balance I came away energized and ready to do some of the kinds of indie work I’ve put aside in favor of writing flat prose over the last few years.

There were some moments that really troubled me — starting with the opening session where a white woman encouraged the entire conference to engage in “spiritual trespassing,” otherwise known as religious appropriation, complete with an exercise in connecting with one’s “power animal.” Using this as a conference ice-breaker was extremely disrespectful both to people with a sincere shamanic practice and to attendees with another existing religious faith. This made me significantly more guarded about the following sessions and speakers.

What followed was a lot of the kinds of salesmanship that burned me out back in the day. Sales pitches, basically. I agree that immersive and interactive experiences are great and powerful! (The new buzzword appears to be “transformative,” make a note of it.) But the need to puff up the significance of an arts scene to attract partners, investors, press; that encourages a style of hyperbolic prediction that is both laughably overblown and transparently false.

No, not all people crave immersive experiences, and even the ones who do don’t want them all of the time. No, not all retail outlets are going to be transformed into immersive wonderlands, nor should they. And — this one is tricky — even among the subset of people who are interested in an immersive experience some of the time, not all of them are going to be attracted to the same aesthetics and emotional dynamics. You can’t be all things to all people, and in fact it’s not hard to make something that isn’t for anybody but you, it turns out. As always, the devil’s in the details.

There were also some tremendous highlights of IDS, though alas large swaths of it are sealed under FrieNDA. The second day in particular brought a hard focus on how we can use our creative works to create cultural change, which is long a subject near and dear to me. Long-time readers will be familiar with my stance that everything you do is a part of shaping culture, whether you mean for it to or not. There is no such thing as “just entertainment.” It’s really heartening to see the immersive community is already so focused on the possibilities for improving the world.

I won’t go over the whole thing session-by-session; I plan to link specific videos of the sessions I loved most with a few comments when they’re up (uh, if I remember.) But in particular, Sean Stewart’s talk single-handedly reminded me of what I fell in love with almost twenty years ago, in that fateful moment that changed the arc of my life and is why I’m writing this and you’re reading it. Cynicism fell away from me in that hour and left me new again.

The work we do can matter to someone, somewhere. And that’s enough.


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The Ethics (or not) of The Tension Experience

Sometimes I feel I missed my calling as a philosopher; long-time readers will know that I’m obsessed with the ethics of pervasive fiction, with the responsibilities of fiction to society, with pro-social game design. My first substantive post here at Deus Ex Machinatio clear back in August of 2005 was concerned with how to ethically blur the lines between fiction and reality. (It was the third-ever post, if you’re curious.)

Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a difference with all of this talk; sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into a void.

At the Immersive Design Summit last weekend, there was one panel that particularly troubled me. It was the 4:55 session on Saturday: Secret Societies, Blended Realities: A Conversation with the Creators of The Experiences (Tension, Lust, Theatre Macabre).

These creators — Tension for short for the purposes of this post — are in the business of horror, and as such their creative goals are to induce an emotional landscape of terror. One of the creators has written some of the Saw franchise films. It’s not a landscape I’m comfortable with, I admit. But it is an experience some people actually want! They want to feel like they’re in real danger.

That’s fine, I guess, if everybody is consenting to it. And as long as the guardrails are clear, and no actual danger is in place. It’s the sort of experience that requires deep trust, and the weight of responsibility on the creators should be extremely heavy.

I’m not persuaded that it’s weighing heavily enough on the Tension team, and frankly I believe somebody is going to get hurt. And it’s completely foreseeable and preventable.

The creators talked about an incident where at least one player was induced to literally play in traffic — though the specifics of what this entailed are unclear. Ah, but the street was closed, they say; they had police involvement. It was perfectly safe.

Even if that moment in that game was perfectly safe, the practice is terrible. That’s because it’s an immersive experience that isn’t contained in a bubble. It’s embedded in the real world, like a classic alternate reality game, and intentionally blurs the line between fantasy and reality. And that means the game is training its players to expect to have to do dramatically unsafe actions. In the real world. Where there are real dangers.

One of the first things you learn as an ARG designer is that players are unpredictable. All too often, they’ll think something is part of the game when it’s not, or they’ll think they have a solution to a story problem that is incorrect and unexpected. When the guard rails for an experience are clearly laid out, when the players are the ones in control of what is and isn’t out of bounds, and when the design team has a clear out-of-story way to let the audience know before disaster strikes.

But the entire ethos of Tension isn’t one of trust, it’s one of the design team fucking with the players. That’s the point. And so the company itself has been known to, say, put out multiple versions of the same story as an out-of-game truth. On stage, they discussed an apparently fabricated story about an Uber driver being followed home and threatened for picking up a dead drop.

What does this all of this mean? It means that one day, a player is going to think a dangerous action is a part of the game, and they’re going to be wrong, and they’re going to get hurt.

There’s more to it, though. There’s also the problem of free and open consent. Players do have a way out if they ever feel pushed beyond their personal limits; a safeword. But the safeword they chose was “coward.” Tension has since apologized for this admittedly inappropriate decision — explicitly shaming a player who becomes uncomfortable — and they’ve said on Twitter that they’ve made changes.

But that’s not the only problematic part of their escape valve. If a player uses the safeword, it spells the end of the experience for them. They’re permanently removed from the situation, and from the entire game going forward, and no, they don’t get their money back either. So players are subtly and continuously pressured to stick it out, even when they feel like they might be in actual jeopardy, even when they absolutely aren’t receiving the experience they were looking for.

That’s an abusive design pattern. Even in kink communities, that kind of practice is never acceptable.

The thing is, these concerns of mine aren’t hypothetical. Even a cursory stroll down ARG and pervasive/immersive game history will turn up dozens of war stories. Lawsuits, serious injuries, criminal investigations. The ARG community has spent almost twenty years learning how to do this thing right — learning with our blood and tears. We can’t let all of that hard-won knowledge be lost or ignored.

Does this mean that I think nothing like Tension could or should ever exist? No, certainly not. It’s not my cup of tea, but it is something some people want, so... fine. Let them have it. But do it differently. Do it with clear boundaries, controlled by the player. Do it without shaming. Do it in an environment of trust and respect. This kind of emotional dynamic can be done well and safely.

And it has been! For prior art, I’d encourage you to look at Yomi Ayeni’s Breathe, which was by all accounts incredibly intense. But Yomi took his responsibility to his audience very seriously, and at every point he carefully considered how to execute his vision as ethically and safely as possible.

It’s possible. But you have to care about your audience first and foremost. And you have to be concerned with doing the right thing. Because there is an ethics to this business of ours, and you do have responsibilities — and if you don’t fulfill them, sooner or later it’s going to catch up to you.


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Is This Thing On?

It sure has been quiet around here, hasn’t it?

The last year has been strange and eventful in Casa Phillips; a lot of factors have combined to keep me from writing too much over here. (Or anywhere, if I’m honest.) But that’s about to change. For starters, I went to the Immersive Design Summit in San Francisco last weekend, and came away with no less than 15 distinct topics I urgently want to write about — so brace yourself for a new burst of energy from me over here.

And elsewhere, too! I’m thinking hard about resuming my habit of Half-Assed Weekend Projects; a,pmg other things, I’m thinking about doing a goofy heist-themed ARG over a weekend sometime soon. (If you’d like to be in on the heist ARG, shoot me an email at andrhia+heist@gmail.com and I’ll let you know when it’s ready to go.) I just need to clear a couple of things off of my decks first. Mainly that novel manuscript.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a new serial project coming in May; as mentioned, yes, I’m still desperately trying to finish that same novel; and I’m going to try to get my act together and make this a Summer of Lucy Smokeheart. You’ve heard it all before, but this time I really MEAN it, I promise. Pinky swear!

Buckle in, folks. I’ve woken up from a long sleep, and we’re going for a ride. We’re gonna have some fun!


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Fighting Evil Is Subversive Now

I went to see Wicked this weekend. Though I love Oz with the purity of a preadolescent, somehow I managed to go into the theater with only the loosest idea of what the show is about: something-something friendship, something-something misunderstood, something-something other side of the story.

It was much, much more than I was expecting, and dear reader, you yourself risk spoilers by continuing to read this post.

At the intermission, I remarked to one of my theater companions that the first act ended where I assumed the whole show did, with Elphaba and Glinda separated by a gulf of ideology and ambition that seemed forever uncrossable. And yet there was the second act to come.

The piece I was missing was the part where you have to decide whether to collaborate with Nazis because it’s advantageous and easy, or if you should sacrifice reputation and opportunity in order to do the right thing. Where you can stand up for the vulnerable or avert your eyes and let it happen since it’s not happening to you. How you have to keep making that same choice again and again and again.

Topical, isn’t it?

That means Wicked has joined such previously uncontroversial pieces of media as The Sound of Music, Wolfenstein 3D, and The Force Awakens in becoming something altogether different from what it might have been in the other timeline, the one where the election turned out the other way. I’ve always heard that the audience for a story brings as much to the table as the writer does, and now, finally, finally, I understand that.

Three years ago, suggesting that you were fighting tooth and claw for equality, justice, and compassion was at best twee and a little over the top. Like saying you were in favor of friendship. Of course you were. Who in the world is against justice and compassion? But now, so quickly I would never have believe it possible, we’ve plunged into an era when saying that all people are equal is subversive. It’s an act of resistance. 

Then again, some people think the Declaration of Independence is subversive now, too. Maybe we’re onto something. Keep fighting, friends.


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Bookburners Season 4 Is Here!

Oh, oh, hello, I — I didn’t see you there. Things have been... well... 

72,051 of 90,000 words

72,051 of 90,000 words

Yes, that about sums it up. Ahem.  We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Meanwhile... forgive my hair and the musky smell around my general person, and open your ears. Gentlefolk all, I have brought you all together here today for a very exciting piece of news. Bookburners Season 4 has begun!

Episode 1 is available to read for free (!!!) right now, and you can preorder the omnibus for the season right now, too. Where? You can as always buy individual episodes or a season subscription for the audio and ebooks from Serial Box directly. Or head on over to my Buy My Books page for the complete roundup of retailers; available at a fine bookselling website near you, more or less.

For those of you who are new around here, Serial Box publishes ebook and audio versions of bite-sized serial fiction.  It’s like HBO for ebooks, so we use a lot of ebook language — a bunch of writers work together to make a great story, and then split each season into distinct episodes which are released once a week. And Bookburners is a fantasy series about a black ops team working out of the Vatican who hunt down and confines magic.

It is alternately creepy, sweet, moody, action-packed, and deeply weird — and I can say all that because I only write two episodes a season so I can’t take all the credit. My co-writers,  Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, and Brian Frances-Slattery are the absolute best most funnest people in the world to work with. (Except for maybe all of my other teams, XOXO, I love you all equally, it’s just that it’s a LOT.)

If you’re not new to Bookburners... you guys. YOU GUYS. This season goes into some uncharted territory and I am flailing with excitement at what’s in store for you. I really can’t wait.

Finally, while I have you, I thought I’d issue a quick PSA about the ~*~super neat trick~*~ Serial Box does. You can start reading an episode on the official Serial Box app, and switch to audio — and it magically knows where you were and continues from the same page! Pretty neat, huh? I could’ve used something like that when I was a commuter. Text on the noisy train ride, but audio on the walk to the station, with seamless switching in between. Dang. (It’s only for iOS right now, but I swear the Android version is coming.)

Right. Right. So about that word count thing up there. It’s been quiet around here for the last few months because, as you may have guessed from my last post, I’ve been struggling hard with burnout and illness and kind of a hot mess. But I’ve also been plugging away at a deeply political novel for the last few months. I’m not quite there yet, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel from here.  

For a while I think I’m going to use this space as a little bit of public accountability, talking about the wild and ridiculous state of my book, my process, and myself. It’ll be a good time. Thanks for sticking around. You are, as always, the best.


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