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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