Drawing Lines

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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Patreon Changed the Game

Hey, friends! I’m cross-posting this from Patreon for the sake of posterity, and my apologies if you wind up getting this message more than once.

I’ve never been good at Patreon. I’ve written about how uncomfortable it makes me before, but a lot of that comes down to cognitive dissonance on my end. There’s a mismatch between how patrons approach their funding and my perception that I need to provide value for the money that people give me.

But in reality, a lot of people who back a Patreon never actually read or listen to the content they’re allegedly buying; I know I don’t even do that myself. I just like the creators I support, and I want them to have money so they can keep doing good in the world. That’s probably the same for a lot of you. You’re not very interested in whether I write a story for the Patreon this month, or ever. You just like me, or at least my work, and want me to keep doing the things I’m doing. (OMG!) And all of us who pledge based on that philosophy are doing what Patreon started out to facilitate: provide a way for creators with teeny-tiny audiences to get enough support and encouragement to keep going. It’s a foundation to build on, so that maybe one day we might become another John Green or Amanda Palmer.

The conversation going on right now about Patreon’s changing fee structure has made it clear to me that their direction as a company is pivoting dramatically. They’re not interested in helping creators with teeny-tiny audiences anymore. They want to focus on the people who are John Green and Amanda Palmer right now... and that’s for sure not me.

I personally think this is an incredibly short-sighted business strategy, because the internet is made for the long tail. Amazon didn’t become Amazon by selling only the fifty most popular best-sellers; you go there because you can get anything, no matter how obscure. And more to the point, Amanda Palmer wasn’t born Amanda Palmer — she had to hustle hard to get to the point where a VC-backed business like Patreon is interested in skimming their percentage from her.

But Patreon can’t know which of their teeny-tiny creators are going to become the next big thing. I may yet become John Green one day — but now, if and when I get to that point, I’m not going to be interested in Patreon, because they weren’t there for me when I really needed it.

This Patreon was already dormant, but now you shouldn’t expect it to ever come back to life, because I don’t mean for it to. Please feel free to delete your pledge to me, and I’ll know it’s nothing personal. I’ll be looking into deleting the account entirely in the days to come. And may we all find each other again one day in a better, wiser place.  

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I’m Not Quitting Twitter. Yet.

Let’s talk personal social media strategy, and how I’m trying to protect democracy by setting up a way to get my blog posts by email. No, really.

Look, we all know the stark truth. In the year 2017, Twitter is a hot mess, a festering swamp of villainy, a miasmatic and oppressive empire of Nazis and the people who enable them. The company’s attempts to fix rampant abuse and harassment have been shallow and ineffective, often targeting victims more than perpetrators. Something has to be done. Nothing is being done.

I say this as someone who loves Twitter. I wouldn’t be enjoying the career I have now if it weren’t for Twitter.

But time and Trump have changed the world, and social media most of all. A lot of people are increasingly uncomfortable with the knowledge that being on Twitter makes us complicit in an ecosystem of unrelenting evil. And there’s a certain vulnerability that comes from making commercial advertising networks your primary internet home. Not just the constant knowledge that at any time the eye of Sauron might fall upon you and evil will come your way; no, something subtler and more pernicious, even, than that.

Social media are a vector for propaganda, paid and otherwise. They’re sources of bad information and unsupported opinions. They are the domain of emotion over fact, and what you let into your brain shapes your very identity. Ordinarily a certain skeptical vigilance would armor us from this. But now we live in a world where anyone with a botnet or a troll farm can exploit the human urge to engage with our peers in good faith. This is a danger to democracy, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

And yet. Twitter is where my friends and colleagues are. It’s where my readership and reviewers are. It’s a source for work and promotion that I don’t have a replacement for. Leaving Twitter and quitting writing are not the same, but it’s hard to see where the difference lies for me.

Which is a third kind of vulnerability: as goes my Twitter account, so goes my readership. And if Twitter falls, or if we do collectively decide to leave the platform en masse, then I could face a real struggle in keeping my head above the vast ocean of obscurity.

That’s doubly true on Facebook, where what you see and who sees you are heavily regulated by an invisible and ineffable algorithmic hand. When you speak up on Facebook, there’s no telling if anyone will ever hear it. And often the things it chooses to show are the least important things of all.

So it’s time to start looking for an escape plan. Time to execute a diversification strategy, as they say. This is risk mitigation, pure and simple. There are too many of my eggs in Twitter’s basket.

I have long maintained that the best platform is the one that you own. And this is the place that I own — if you can find it.

But blogs aren’t what they used to be, and for a lot of reasons. For one thing, search engine visibility relies a lot on social traffic, these days, for good and ill. When Google Reader went bust, a lot of people just gave up on their RSS feeds, preferring instead to just click links as they happen to see ‘em pop by in a social feed. You can post, but there’s still not any guarantee that anyone’s paying attention.

There is a third way, pioneered by outfits like Tinyletter. The good old-fashioned email newsletter.

I do have a newsletter already, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re subscribed already. But it’s a sporadic sort of thing where I mainly announce new ways for people to give me money. It’s got a lot of subscribers! But I don’t figure those people would be happy if I started mailing them every day, or even every week.

So I’m starting a new, higher-frequency list. This new Deus Ex Machinatio newsletter is going to send out my blog posts, no more than once a day, and probably less because ha ha ha ha ha who are we kidding if we think I’m going to be blogging every day. Though who knows? Maybe I will.

You can subscribe here: http://eepurl.com/c75VPb (And if you subscribe before 4pm on Oct. 19, 2017, you’ll get this very email in your inbox! Neat!)

Going forward, I’m going to move a lot of my social media energy back over here again. No more threaded tweetstorms. Maybe I’ll post my daily sketches here, and talk about... you know... day-in-the-life social stuff. How my work is going, or how I like my haircut, or which conventions I’m going to this year and why. And as always, I’ll noodle over writing craft, game design, or post my hot takes. You know, what you expect from me.

That means I’ll be somewhat less visible online unless you’re opting in or following me here. Please consider opting in.

I’m really excited about this, I won’t lie. I miss the depth and substance of the blogging days. This might be a path back in. Dang, do I hope this works.

But to make it work, this is needs to be a two-way street. So I want to know where to find you in your space, too. Do you have a newsletter, too? Link it in comments. Got a blog? Hook us up so we can Feed.ly our hearts out. Tell us where you live on the internet and why you’ve picked those places.

It’s not a solution. Not a bold or brave stance. This is just damage control. But listen, if we’re going to save democracy, we all have to start somewhere.

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Van Halen, M&Ms, and Accessibility Policies

Van Halen famously had a rider on their touring contract that stipulated there must be a bowl of M&Ms backstage -- with all the brown ones picked out. But despite appearances, this wasn't ego run amuck. That contract rider also had complex technical specifications for electrical systems, clearance, even how much weight the girders must be able to support.

Once Van Halen arrived to set up a show, any brown M&M was a quick red flag that the venue hadn't read the contract carefully, and so probably wasn't complying with those detailed technical requirements, either. And while a brown M&M might not be poison, those technical requirements were literal showstoppers. Electrical fires are not rock 'n roll.

This brings me to accessibility policies, and more specifically to Mary Robinette Kowal's pledge not to go to a convention that lacks such a policy. Seriously, stay with me.

Some years ago, John Scalzi made a similar pledge regarding harassment policies. At the time, I worried that participating would be damaging to my career -- when you're a tiny fish in a wide blue ocean, you have to take all the publicity you can get your grubby mitts on.

I've been to a lot more conventions since then, and here's what I've learned: the sort of convention that can't be bothered with a harassment policy is likely going to have serious organizational problems, weird politics, dull programming, or some combination thereof. It's true I'm very early in my career as an author, and I can't afford to miss out on promotional opportunities. 

But the flip side of that is that as an early-career author, I pay my own way to conventions. I have only so much time and money to give, and there are so many, many conventions. So I need to budget carefully to make sure I get the most bang for my promotional buck. I really can't afford to go to a lousy convention.

Which means harassment and accessibility policies are increasingly important to me -- not just because they're morally right, not just because of my leftist SJW politics. Even if you're not worried about harassment yourself, even if you're not worried about accessibility yourself, if those policies are missing, that should be your brown M&M. The sign that what you're dealing with is very likely to be a shitty convention. 

Sign the pledge.

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Revision Cover Reveal

My debut novel, Revision, now has a cover and preorder links and a release date! The date is May 5 of 2015, you can get preorder links from Fireside Fiction, and the cover is... well.... let me just show you.


Meanwhile, I've gone through a very complicated reaction to the cover design process, and I thought I'd share it with you. The original cover designs were very much like this final cover; basically we combined the visual treatment of one with the text treatment of another, and BAM. Magic.

This is a very serious cover, I think. This is the cover for a book that lays a hard claim to being a science fiction novel. And that's what I wanted -- in fact, my most heartfelt addition to the cover brief was "no girl cooties." Revision is indeed a book upon which you could put an engagement ring on the cover and it wouldn't be... entirely misleading. Except that it would mean I couldn't get the kind of attention for this book that in my secret heart I want to get, because hahaha chicklit amirite?

And yet, and yet, I had a bit of panic at the idea of having such a serious cover for this book. When I drilled deep down into my psyche, I found fear, as one always does, and this time the fear took this shape: "What if they find out this is a GIRL BOOK about GIRL THINGS and they get angry? Because this is not a serious book."

Let's unpack this a little.

"This is not a serious book" is something I tell myself so it won't hurt if people dismiss it, but under the snarky, funny candy shell, this is to its core a book about privilege, about human nature, about trying and failing and trying again. It's not a serious book in that it's not The Handmaid's Tale, but it's not NOT a serious book, either. So why am I afraid of presenting myself as a serious author?

It's because we've created a false dichotomy where a book about a woman, where the core relationship is a friendship between women, where the most important plot drivers are to do with relationships and trust -- everything else falls away, and suddenly that book can't be serious. I can't be serious. So that cover is misleading.

In the interests of feminism, I've decided to stomp the hell out of that voice telling me it's too serious, too misleading -- because Revision is no more nor less serious a book than, say, Wool is, and I don't blink at that equally serious cover for a second.

But I doubt, and I worry. The fear is always there. Because that's what it is to be a woman author; to always be threading the needle between "woman" and "author." Let's hope this time we got it right.

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