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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Nintendo Switch

Yesterday, Nintendo released a trailer for its next-gen device, a console/handheld hybrid. There are some weird moments in the trailer—really, you're highlighting a built-in kickstand?—but in all it looks like a cool piece of tech. The upshot is ultimate portability and versatility: you can play a game on your big TV at home, then literally pull the device from the dock and take it with you. You can use the two-piece portable controller separately, or slide them onto the mobile screen to turn it into something like the PS Vita. You can watch videos. There's Mario, there's Zelda, there's even... Skyrim? And sports games? Huh.

It looks pretty cool, I have to admit. Take a look.

But as cool as all of that is, I have some questions about how big the market will be—if nothing else because the single-use portable games device is definitely a dying breed, just like the single-use e-reader is. Nintendo's competition here isn't the PS4, the XBone, or any future-gen device. It's the iPad and the Kindle Fire. It bears nothing that when my own kids got Kindles, their much-beloved and heavily-used DSes were stuck in a drawer and never really came out again.

It looks like you can watch videos on a Switch, sure. But can you chat with your friends? Play around with Can you take selfies or play a little Hamilton or check to see if your ride home is getting close? If you can't, then the Switch is a runner-up device at best, and will always lose out. (That's not even getting into the huge psychological difference between $40-$70 console games vs. $5 mobile games, no matter how the playable hours-per-dollar works out.)

There's also a space issue that gives me pause. I live in a multi-user and multi-device house. The dock to your big TV is great, but what happens if you get three or four of those bad boys? Do you get a new dock every time, like it or not? Since it's mobile I'm assuming there is another way to charge, or do you need to dock for, say, crucial software updates? The thought that I might need four docks in a row sitting in my living room is already annoying me, and the device isn't even out until March.

And those tiny little snap-on controller the configuration as a single remote controller it looks unusably tiny to me. It's going to be even more difficult for a small child with developing motor skills, usually Nintendo's core market. And it's just begging to get lost, stepped on, cracked—it does not look like a robust piece of gear. Guess Nintendo lost the memo about how fewer moving pieces makes for a better and more durable device. 

And finally, I'm not actually sure that taking your games with you is even as big a draw as all that. It sounds great, yes, but different games excel in different environments. Skyrim on a mobile screen isn't going to seem quite particularly sweeping and epic; it's going to feel crowded. There's a pretty fundamental difference in how to design games for seven-inch and seventy-inch screens, so are designers going to need to essentially create two distinct games and interfaces in parallel?

It might be great. It might sell millions or billions! And I've been wrong about this stuff before. But I can't get over the feeling that this would have been really, really, really years ago, before the iPad changed everything.

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How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.

Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.

None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.

Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town

First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.

Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.

And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.

Faking a Workshop

What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.

Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.

Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon. 

Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.

Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work. 

Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?

Clarion's Secret Sauce

Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.

We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.

But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.

So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter. 

And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never. 

Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.

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A Feminist Defense of Princess Culture

I have a long and troubled relationship with the Disney princesses. I used to know exactly what to think: as a feminist and a mother of daughters, the princesses were terrible. Unfeminist. Passive and appearance-centric, romance the central motivator in their lives, they were full of nothing but terrible, regressive lessons, and I should keep my house clean of the Pink Demon as much as possible.

I've had a lot of changes of heart over the last decade. One of them was an embracing of pink. I spent so many years rejecting the feminine on the grounds that it was icky and inferior, without ever realizing that was itself a kind of misogyny.

And yet that sort of circular thinking is everywhere: if it's for girls, it has to be bad, because girl stuff is bad. It's bad to have Rebelle archery sets, because the plain black Nerf ones should be fine for everyone. It's bad to have Lego Friends, because girls should just be able to play with the same ones the boys do.

I've talked about that particular issue before.

So I've been thinking: I know I would have loved pink and sparkles and ruffles and True Love Overcoming All when I was that age. Sometimes I love it now. And I started wondering if the princesses were actually as anti-woman as I'd always been taught to believe.

And I've started to think: no, actually. Princesses aren't the evil plaguing our daughters, and you know what? They might even be doing some good.

Two Sides to Every Story

You can get a pretty terrible moral out of any given princess story.

It's sort of true that The Little Mermaid, for example, is about how finding a man is important enough for self-mutilation. But that's a very uncharitable reading, and overlooks the film's significant and overt themes: how young women need freedom and agency apart from their parents, so they can make their own mistakes and live their own lives. Similarly, Beauty and the Beast is as much an allegory about the difficulty of loving someone who has suffered a past trauma as it is about Stockholm Syndrome and abusive relationships.

You could play that uncharitable reading game with just about any movie. The Wizard of Oz is about a murderer who will do whatever she has to to get what she wants. Sherlock Holmes is about a fatally obsessive man with a terrible drug addiction. Star Wars is about a group of criminals and terrorists trying to take down the government. 

Let's look a little closer at one of Disney's older films: Cinderella. In this one, the princess does literally nothing to affect the outcome of the movie, beyond being pretty and pleasant at a party. She's a victim of circumstance who gets out of an oppressive situation by capturing the love of the right man.

But look, even Cinderella is fundamentally about how the hopes and wishes of a woman could matter, be important, even transform her life. Against the grand backdrop of history, that strikes me as not a terrible message. Remember, when Cinderella was created, it was totally cool in contemporary entertainment for Desi to spank Lucy for being naughty... and he wasn't alone, either. When Cinderella was made, Disney didn't hire woman animators.

Sure, Cinderella didn't have much agency. Sure, everything is handed to her. But that's a very compelling fantasy, the fantasy of being taken care of. And for people who are in an oppressive situation, a story where you don't have to struggle more than you do already to get what you deserve -- that everything will just magically resolve -- that also has value. It's a story of hope. For a child who has basically zero agency in their own life, the message that someone in authority could help to make it all better if you talk about your problems is... you know, maybe not the worst thing.

Ah, but they're all still romances, right? Disney propagates the idea that being in a relationship is the most important thing. Look, there's nothing wrong with romance, and suggesting that a story fundamentally about love has cooties and is bad is its own kind of misogyny.

i'm pretty damn feminist, both in word and in action. I can write a book, change a tire or a diaper, repair a toilet, apply liquid eyeliner, grill a steak, deliver a talk and a bedtime story both, and on and on. And I loves me a good romance, because love is a powerful and important part of the human experience. Remember, the idea that being a feminist means hating men is abject slander from the 1970s. You can be a feminist and a loving wife and mother all at the same time. You can be a feminist and still want to fall in love.

Disney: Keeping Up With the Times

Cinderella might not be the most progressive story out there, but looking at the arc of the princesses -- from Snow White on to Belle, all the way to Frozen's Elsa and Anna, we see a track record where Disney is constantly iterating and doing better. The princesses are increasingly feisty, decisive, smart. They desire and they think and they act.

Disney is to some extent chained to its traditional princesses and stories that were palatable to their times -- remember, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were a product of the 1950s and 1930s, respectively. (...And based upon fairytales that are centuries older; the films aren't true to tradition, sure, but making them more traditional makes the feminist angle worse, not better, what with all the rape and all.)

But progress has been made, and lots of it. When we look at the modern princesses, we have Mulan and Merida, both warriors. We have Tiana the entrepreneur. Belle the bookworm. Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa are all complex and well-drawn characters that defy being pigeonholed by any single descriptor at all. Disney's not perfect, but they're trying as hard as they can, I think. The princesses get more interesting as characters and people, and not just as fashion dolls, with every passing princess film.

So is the problem that the legacy princesses keep hanging around with their not-feminist-enough messages? Disney's had the good sense to lock away Song of the South with its racist streak. Should we demand the same treatment for Snow White? 

I think not. The goal of feminism -- my feminism, anyway -- is that women should be free to make the choices they want for themselves, with no judgment for wanting "the wrong things." The win state is not that the damsel should never be in distress, just that she shouldn't have to always be in distress. By now, Disney's actually drawn a pretty broad variety of situations and characters.


It's true that princess culture is complicit in keeping in place many of the troubling stressors women and girls suffer. But when you talk to me about impossible beauty standards and eating disorders, I'd point to Photoshop and the "obesity epidemic" before I'd point to stylized animation. When you talk to me about early sexualization of children, consider the retailers selling padded inch-thick push-up bras in the kid's department before looking at Disney's chaste kisses between adults. (Unless you think a kid shouldn't see their parents kissing, in which case... I don't think we'll ever be on the same page.)

These are problems, sure, but they're not problems Disney created, and Disney isn't the primary villain here. At least not while my seven-year-old is walking by billboards for Victoria's Secret the size of a school bus.

It's also true that Disney has an imperfect track record when it comes to diversity, to put it kindly. I can't defend that, and I won't try. It's worth noting that to this day, when you go to the Magic Kingdom during the holiday season, there's not a Chanukkah decoration to be found for sale or on display for love or money.

And while they've tried to make a racially diverse array of princesses, those efforts have smacked of tokenism, the worst kind of stereotyping, and appropriation. I was incredibly disheartened to see that there wasn't a single person of color in Frozen. (Unless you count rock trolls or snowmen, which... I do not.) And as for heteronormativity... well. Let's just say I think we've got another twenty years to go on that one.

And indeed, it's true that Disney is contributing to a consumerist culture that is environmentally damaging at best and destined to cause the annihilation of our species at worst. To fix that one, we have to look to government and economics; Disney (and Apple, and Sony, and on and on) are only playing to win by the rules we've given them.

These are real problems. Upsetting problems. But these are not the arrows that (mostly white) feminists throw at Disney when they say we shouldn't let our little girls play at princesses. 

The Evidence

But all of this is just theory. So here's the thing. Princess culture as we now know it has been in full swing for a solid twenty years. So if there were an epidemic of girls taught to be passive spectators to their own lives, to swing for a man and get him to the altar as fast as possible, then we'd be seeing it happen by now.

And if you see a little girl in the throes of a princess obsession, do you see a wilting wallflower waiting for someone to notice her? No, you do not. Think of the pejorative use of 'princess': it means 'a woman willing to fight to get it her way.'

No, coming out of princess culture, you see girls who know what they want and are determined to go after it. You see girls who stand their ground, girls who use their voices. You see girls who have been catered to, girls who have been told that what they like matters

This is no small thing, my friends. Women are now more likely to aspire to go to college than men... and to actually graduate. Marriage rates are at an historic low, and women are getting married at the oldest age in more than a hundred years. Perhaps this isn't in spite of princess culture. Maybe, just maybe, it's because of it.

Because we've spent a couple of decades telling little girls that what they hope and dream and wish for is important. And the value of that message simply can't be overstated.

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Asking the Wrong Question

Transmedia hasn't exactly had a blockbuster 2013. In some circles transmedia's been declared dead and/or an empty buzzword, which amounts to the same thing; we've even seen the autopsy

But more telling, in my eyes, has been the dearth of new projects released this year. Work has been slow; budgets have been tight. Some great work is still being done — work is always being done — but the last two years have seen a decidedly downward trend in the number and variety of transmedia projects being launched. The once-vibrant community active on Twitter and at conferences has fallen quiet. 

It's disheartening to me, both as a creator who wants to be a part of something, and as a person who would like to continue using these skills I've sharpened to keep myself in coffee and warm socks. And, you know, everything else that requires money, too. Which is most everything, it turns out.

It's easy to think this is a crossroads for us; do we carry on? Do we accept that all industries have up and down cycles, and wait for the pendulum to swing back again, as it surely will? Or do we put down our swords and shields in defeat, leave the battlefield, and start new lives in a new place doing something else?  It is in that spirit (or so I assume) that I've been invited to a think tank* to discuss...

...the definition of transmedia. Sigh. 

This invitation-only event** is intended to once and for all hammer out a unified and mutually acceptable definition for transmedia, with the intent of looking at what we have and seeing if it is worth creating some sort of "industry group." 

What is transmedia? This is the wrong question to ask; a definition is beside the point. It's fundamentally not even the problem this group of people are trying to address.  Here's the question we need to be asking:

Given that we are a like-minded group of creators and entrepreneurs; how can we band together for the benefit of each other and our craft?

We already know perfectly well we have a lot in common. You don't need to agree on what transmedia means first — and indeed, I think we've been poorly served by our historic checklist-driven approach to a definition anyway.

Adrian Hon recently introduced me to Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances to define what a game is. I think transmedia is the same thing. We'll never, never find one master checklist, because some members of the family don't have the same nose, others don't have the same curly hair. Some of us are interactive and others have tentpole films. 

But we already know we're all a part of the same family... it's the family of creators and projects and businesses who show up at the table to a discussion of transmedia in the first place.  So starting out the conversation by trying to nail down for once and for all what a member of the family is going to look like is an effort destined for failure. 

I've been down this road before, with the Transmedia Artists Guild. We, too, started with that wrong question. How do we decide who to let in and who not to? This is a question that matters very much if you're issuing a professional accreditation and have to decide who's earned the credit and who hasn't, or who qualifies for a grant and who doesn't. PGA, TriBeCa, Sundance, we're cool.

But if your goal is to make an industry group to support and promote the people and businesses who are making awesome stuff, to allow them to band together for mutual support and advancement, it is the wrong approach. Because the other way to frame that question is: what isn't transmedia? What do we choose to exclude? Who isn't invited to our club?

And that will always result in cutting out the edge cases, the fringe, the innovators. In short, exactly what any transmedia group should be rushing to embrace.  Which is why, in the end, the Transmedia Artists Guild was open to everybody. 

I'm ready to go all-in to an industry group, I really am. I wish the Transmedia Artists Guild had succeeded. I miss the feeling of being a part of something and sharing this journey with like minds. I'd love to share what I know and have with others to promote better work, and I'd love to have a network to support me in my crazy indie efforts, which are getting more ambitious every day. 

But to get there, you have to start by asking the right question. 

* Details and names intentionally omitted because reasons; I'm actually uneasy writing about this event at all, but I feel like the importance of this discussion to the community overrides my duty to respect the shroud of privacy around this event.

** I'm deeply uncomfortable with the framing of this event as an invitation-only think tank of thought leaders, because this means someone has already decided who deserves a voice in this discussion and who doesn't. That's very definitely not the indie-friendly, warm, open community I used to love to pieces.

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