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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