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 Darkest Puzzle

Given certain events of today, it has become very important for me to make it clear I am neither behind nor do I endorse the ARG called The Darkest Puzzle. This game postits that a splinter group of the Cloudmakers went on to try to "solve" 9/11 after the real-world event in which Cloudmakers moderators discouraged such a thing from happening in the Yahoo group. Elsewhere today, the Cloudmakers as a group disavowed any affiliation with the game.

I haven't commented before now because I didn't want to call undeserved attention to a project I privately disapproved of. But I cannot risk my own professional reputation being mistakenly associated with this.

I have nothing to do with The Darkest Puzzle, nor would I.

I find the concept repugnant as a Cloudmaker, as a game designer, and as a New Yorker.

On the bright and beautiful morning of Sept. 11 of 2001, I was on my way to Rye, New York, to visit a client's office. The radio news reported that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Oh, I thought, how terrible, a small plane has had an accident. I was just on the Whitestone Bridge when the second plane hit, with a perfect view of that smoke plume blossoming toward the flawless autumn sky. It felt like the whole world was ending, planes falling from the sky, the nation under attack from an unknown enemy.

I feel a pang of sorrow every time I go over that bridge even now and see the wound in the skyline where my city is supposed to reach a pinnacle, and instead there is nothing.

I find the very concept of this game tasteless (at best) on multiple levels. Not least is that it casts myself and my fellow Cloudmakers moderators as either patsies or villains, working to conceal some hidden truth. It rankles to be considered the villain, even in fiction, for something that you did a decade ago solely to protect people. It might not rise to the level of libel, but it certainly isn't pleasant.

On Sept. 12 of 2001, I couldn't go in to my office in Manhattan because there were no trains running. There were no trains running because there were too many dozens -- hundreds -- of bomb threats against Penn Station, and I worked just a few stories upstairs. It was a full ten days before I could go back into my broken city. And then I discovered that everyone in New York who had ever smoked and quit had taken it up again to settle their nerves; you couldn't walk down a street without being immolated in clouds of cigarette smoke. Who could blame them?

My complaints against The Darkest Puzzle are not just about people thinking I'm a bad person in fiction. There's also the fact that real people believe there is a conspiracy to conceal the alleged "truth" about 9/11 from the American public, and this quiet undercurrent has a powerful divisive influence on our politics even now.

And there's the fact that had the Cloudmakers truly tried to solve 9/11, we would have put real lives in jeopardy on the assumption that the whole world has clear and straightforward solutions. This is the problem with gamification: It assumes that everything can be solved. This is sadly far from the truth.

And then there's the reported anti-Semitic undercurrent to the game. I simply do not have words enough to describe how angry it makes me to suggest that "the Jews" were behind this tragedy.

I've made it central to my career since then to talk about the ethics of game design, to advocate clear divisions between fiction and reality, and to ensure that by intent or oversight a designer never leads a player into danger. This is no coincidence.

I am extraordinarily fortunate. I didn't lose anyone I loved that day. But as with every New Yorker, I know and care about people who did. At the time, I shared a cubicle with a woman who had not so long before worked at Cantor-Fitzgerald. My husband's company holds an annual golf outing in memoriam of the owner's cousin. At my daughter's school, there are children who lost parents that day.

This is not a game I made. This isn't a game I would make. It's a game I wish nobody had made.

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Cloudmakers Plus Ten

Ten years ago today, a man named Cabel Sasser started a Yahoo! group called Cloudmakers to help keep better track of the funny things they'd been talking about over at AICN. The rest is, of course, history.

Now I'd like to reach out to my fellow Cloudmakers to ask where you are today. Was the game just a blip on your radar? Did it change the course of your life irrevocably, like it did for me? Something in between? C'mon into comments and share. Or just wallow in the nostalgia a little. There's plenty of room for everyone.

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Transmedia Is Not Marketing

Late last week, I was involved in a Twitter conversation in which a gentleman dismissed the "transmedia bandwagon" as having been invented by marketers.

I have a lot of problems with this. So many, many problems. Let me count the ways.

Our Antecedents

In his gorgeous memoir about the Cloudmakers, Jay Bushman likened the ARG as akin to the use of sound in the Jazz Singer. It wasn't the first film to use sound, it was merely the first film to easily show audiences the powerful way sound could affect a film.

Likewise, the Beast was by no means the first project to use fictional websites or blogging as a made-up character. And it definitely wasn't the project that invented the technique of creating evidence of a story and playing it out as though it were really happening. The roots of this narrative style are older than the internet, older even than electricity, sunk deep in the tradition of espitolary novels -- arguably invented in Spain in 1485.

And then there's the Blair Witch Project, which predates the Beast, but used many of the same tools and techniques. Filmmaker Mike Monello is a marketer today, and he's proud of what he does (as well he should be). He has no reason to shy away from calling the Blair Witch extended experience anything besides a clever marketing campaign; quite the reverse, in fact, since it turned out to be a brilliant factor in the film's success. And still, he is adamant that the extended world they created was more about art than anything else.

But the urge to call a transmedia narrative "marketing" if there is at any point an intended monetary transaction is overwhelming. I've heard people say that, for example, "Perplex City was marketing, it was just marketing itself."

This is ludicrous. It's like saying all cinema is created as a marketing tool for selling theater tickets. Yeah, there are films where that's sadly not too far off the mark; but it nonetheless misses the entire medium of film as an artform. Same-same with transmedia, folks.


So why do we have this idea that transmedia=marketing floating around, anyway? Why is it that, no matter how many Perplex Cities and Routeses and Must Love Robots and Cathy's Bookses and Lonelygirl15s and Head Traumas and Worlds Without Oil you bring up, they get dismissed as "rare exceptions?" Especially when it's so patently untrue.

That comes down to economics. It's not that there are more marketing campaigns using transmedia than anyone else; it's that the marketing campaigns are much, much more visible. Why? Because they have more money to throw around.

For one thing, they're a lot more likely to be able to pay the team a living wage, which means the creators can afford to spend more time and care instead of working on it in off hours and weekends. And more money means a higher production value; dollars spent translates pretty well into better-looking video, better-sounding audio, and sleeker, glossier websites. Audiences like that.

And even more important than improved production values, money lets you promote the story. This is crucial -- you need to pull people into your project. The most effective are any traditional media you can afford: TV spots, billboards, bus shelters, whatever. Even better if you can hire a PR agency to pitch your project to Wired, the Guardian, the New York Times.

This is why the most successful transmedia campaigns to date have, by and large, been part of an overarching marketing campaign. Those folks can afford to promote the project. And transmedia projects need promoting, just like every other form of entertainment does.

In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that building a transmedia narrative on its own is really bad marketing, because it still requires this overhead of promotion. If that doesn't put the nails in the coffin of this "transmedia=marketing" business, I don't know what else could.

Some Marketing Is Art

And yet, and yet -- even if transmedia were invented by marketing, even if it were solely used as marketing campaigns... is that such a very bad thing, really? I vote no.

We have a strange dichotomy in our culture that says art and money are mutually exclusive. If you're doing something for the love of it, you are legit. If you're doing work for sale or as work for hire, you are a sellout.

This is a steaming load of bull hockey.

I've worked on original IP projects for love, and I've worked on marketing projects. I apply the same degree of craft and thought to everything I do. Does this mean sometimes I'm an artist and sometimes I'm just a hack? Or does it mean that maybe -- just maybe -- some of those marketing projects shouldn't be dismissed out of hand as art and entertainment?

At the end of the day, marketing and advertising are one of the very few plausible ways for visual designers and writers (just for example) to earn a living with their art. Yeah, some of it is going to be phoned-in, soulless work. But you know what? These industries do as much to shape our consensus culture as the film and TV industries do. If you need evidence of that, look at Old Spice, or the Budweiser frogs. They have a commercial point, sure, but nothing captures the public's imagination if there's nothing there at the heart of it.

Transmedia is bigger than purely marketing. It's true that marketing dollars have done a lot to shape us; but as Bushman says, vaudeville marketing dollars did a lot to shape early cinema, too. Cinema is a lot bigger than that now. Give us that same hundred years and we will be, too.

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Transmedia Talk

I was absolutely delighted to be a guest on Transmedia Talk a couple of nights ago, and now the podcast is up! Go listen to the podcast, if you're... you know... into that kind of thing.

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