Quackery - A Transmedia Toolkit

I'm taking an internet vacation, but while I'm gone a few top-flight transmedia writers have graciously agreed to fill in and talk about... whatever they feel like. Today's guest post is by Haley Moore, a multi-talented and awesome writer, fabricator, and expert on con games. Her drive to keep creating is nothing short of inspirational.




So I'm doing this thing. I'm trying to write the core content for a transmedia project in one month, by myself. I'm calling it Transmedia Writing Month - TransMedWriMo for short.


My story is about someone who likes to entertain big, ambitious ideas, just like I do - only she has the ideas I'm not equipped to follow through on. She has ideas for quackery - things that are compelling, but ultimately dishonest.


So I have thrown myself into absorbing as much material about scams, hoaxes, cults, and general revenue-fueled crazy as I possibly can. And it turns out this material is pretty relevant, not just to this story, but to every story.


Quacks are impassioned, thorough storytellers. They engage in worldbuilding in a way we don't condone outside fiction. They will invent anything it takes to sell a product, from secret cell phone towers  to Nobel-winning research.


They know when to support a story with facts, and when to let you idly fill in the details. The best ones hit you with a strong hook that's bound to go viral, and put you right in the middle of the narrative. Sound familiar? Of course, there is a large section of the quack's toolkit that we can't touch for fiction. We can't promise anyone absurd riches or offer to cure their cancer or let them talk to their dead loved ones. We can't promise to stand in for a doctor, or a lawyer, or a mental health professional. That's the draw of many scams; and for some, those promises are the only draw. But there are other tools we can use.


Talking it Up


There's a reason that cultists and scammers and quacks have introductory meetings, instead of just slapping a timer on a web site with the placard: "Ascension In x Days. Tinfoil Hats Available." In the end, they know that constant talk and hustle is the right way to get people buying.


For those of us who read their hustle for entertainment purposes, a purchase might be akin to dropping money in a tip jar. But it's the same principle. Quacks know that to get people involved - and therefore get their money - you need to put on a good show first. Show first, sale second is a principle I think we can take into transmedia work. Consider interaction like a point of sale, and give people plenty of reason to buy.


Making the Mark Feel Important


We don't have to betray our players to make them feel like they're on the verge of something great. Multilevel marketers push a sense of independence and imminent prosperity. Cult leaders promise to transform the members' lives into an epic adventure. We can do that, too, in the spirit of play.


The key, in quackery, is striking the balance between feeling important and feeling responsible. You don't want the marks to feel responsibility - responsibility is *hard.* The quack wants his mark to feel as if everything is easy - as if enlightenment is just a credit card swipe away.


There are a lot of ways to strike the balance, but putting people in a group seems to be the most popular. Put them in a group that is at once indubitably inclusive of them, and at the same time indubitably special.


MLMs, in particular, NEED their salespeople to feel as though they are a member of a large but mainly underground group, because that's how they maintain their core illusion. That just happens to dovetail with the fact that being a low-ranking member of the rebel alliance is fun. You don't have to do much, but you can say you were there.


Giving Them Something To Do


I don't really need to give a compelling argument for interaction in digital narrative. I do want to point out that quacks - who are known for making narrative so compelling it can be literally criminal - fall firmly on the side of story on rails. They don't want their marks to wander off the path, although they want them to feel like exploration and experimentation are the ultimate end. They want to set up a call and response - when I say buy, you say sold. They have no problem telling the mark where to go next, and what to do when they get there.


In real quackery, the next step always involves a sale - but the item for sale is often a kit for engaging the narrative in some other way - sometimes, by making or selling the same kit. It isn't just a trick. Kits are appealing to audiences, as any trip to your local craft store will show. They aren't just objects, they are the next part of the story. It's letting them drive the narrative - all the while telling them exactly where they should head.


So give your players a kit - hand them a tool. Set up that call and response, and when they do their part, do what quacks and scammers won't do: follow through. Reward them with advancement and new story. Be flexible to the input they give you with those tools, and reward their creativity. Keep the show going.


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