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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Fighting Evil Is Subversive Now

I went to see Wicked this weekend. Though I love Oz with the purity of a preadolescent, somehow I managed to go into the theater with only the loosest idea of what the show is about: something-something friendship, something-something misunderstood, something-something other side of the story.

It was much, much more than I was expecting, and dear reader, you yourself risk spoilers by continuing to read this post.

At the intermission, I remarked to one of my theater companions that the first act ended where I assumed the whole show did, with Elphaba and Glinda separated by a gulf of ideology and ambition that seemed forever uncrossable. And yet there was the second act to come.

The piece I was missing was the part where you have to decide whether to collaborate with Nazis because it’s advantageous and easy, or if you should sacrifice reputation and opportunity in order to do the right thing. Where you can stand up for the vulnerable or avert your eyes and let it happen since it’s not happening to you. How you have to keep making that same choice again and again and again.

Topical, isn’t it?

That means Wicked has joined such previously uncontroversial pieces of media as The Sound of Music, Wolfenstein 3D, and The Force Awakens in becoming something altogether different from what it might have been in the other timeline, the one where the election turned out the other way. I’ve always heard that the audience for a story brings as much to the table as the writer does, and now, finally, finally, I understand that.

Three years ago, suggesting that you were fighting tooth and claw for equality, justice, and compassion was at best twee and a little over the top. Like saying you were in favor of friendship. Of course you were. Who in the world is against justice and compassion? But now, so quickly I would never have believe it possible, we’ve plunged into an era when saying that all people are equal is subversive. It’s an act of resistance. 

Then again, some people think the Declaration of Independence is subversive now, too. Maybe we’re onto something. Keep fighting, friends.

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Happy New Year

I love New Year the way that some people love Halloween or Christmas: deeply, fiercely, reverently. I look forward to it for months, and I put as much care into planning out the celebration as I do if I’m hosting Thanksgiving.

....But less actual cooking, per se. It’s all fancy cold-served snack foods up in here, and movies in our PJs, with our family all piled up together like puppies. This year’s going to be gangbusters — we’re planning seven kinds of cheese alone, including one we’re making ourselves!

My affection for this particular holiday shouldn’t surprise those of you who have been around here for a while. I love New Year so much that I’m even given to throwing a New New Year a few months on, whenever I feel like I need a clean slate. (Try it sometime! I highly recommend it. There is power in giving yourself a new chance to be and live the way you mean to whenever you need one.)

But I also love this stretch of days leading up to our collective fresh start. Right now we’re in the liminal space between 2017 and 2018, looking backwards and forwards in equal measure. It’s the time for weighing, judging, and planning. Time to discard ideas and practices that bring us harm and shape new ones.

This is particularly difficult as we leave 2017. It’s been a hard year, and 2018 shows no signs of being any easier on us. Unfortunately, the struggles many of us face are imposed on us by the circumstances of the world, and lie well outside of our own control. What’s the use in resolving to lose ten pounds or drink less when everything will still be on fire if you succeed?

But the point of it all is that we are still here. Our spark has not been extinguished, and as long as there is breath in us, there is always more and better we can do. So in this quiet week of reflection, I would urge you to take some time to look within and find the spark burning inside of you. Don’t undervalue what you can do with your time and your care. Even kind words can be great works if you apply them in the right time and place.

Remember that New Year is all about hope and renewal. The light is coming back. It always comes back. 


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Pros Hit Their Deadlines (Unless They Don't)

Last Friday at about 10:30pm, I hit a deadline to turn in a fairly lengthy piece of writing. And I felt mighty. The cards had been stacked against me. This was a week with a major religious holiday and so two days where my kids weren't in school. A week where I was sick with some viral nonsense that left me headachey, congested, exhausted, and sore. A week where I had a mammogram scheduled. A week where I lost my major client and started hustling my tailfeathers looking for new work. (Still hustling, BTW!) This was a week where one of my children sprained her second foot in two weeks.

And despite all of the avalanche of life happening to me, I hit the deadline. So I wanted to take to Twitter to crow that it was because I was a professional, and this is what distinguishes a pro: come what may, you turn your shit in on time. But that's... not exactly true. And in fact, that kind of thinking can be actively harmful.

Using "a pro turns everything in on time always" as a bright-line standard is reductive and fundamentally unhealthy because there are genuinely circumstances where it is one hundred percent not possible to make your deadlines, and it's not something you could've fixed by starting earlier or managing your time better. Honest! I've missed due dates my own self by varying degrees for reasons ranging from "hurricane" to "pneumonia" to a simple "this was a lot harder than we all thought it was going to be." 

There's a certain machismo to writing culture that I find deeply uncomfortable at times. It includes a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse and mental health issues—like drinking too much and suffering from anxiety or depression make you more valid, somehow. Like Hemingway and Balzac are something to aspire to, that their success came because of their excessive habits and not despite them. Like caring about your well-being is a dealbreaker.

This macho writing culture also includes a lot of subtext about working to the very limits of your capacity, all the time, no matter what personal cost it exacts. I've been in this game for, what, eleven years now? And it turns out driving yourself flat-out is an unsustainable practice for more than a few months, or perhaps a few years. So you have to ask yourself: Do you want to be a writer just for right now, or do you want to be a writer forever?

Ten years ago, I could put in a full day of work and then do an additional night shift of three or four hours of work after my kids were in bed. I can't do that anymore. My brain needs fallow time to produce more and better work. (It probably did then, too.) And I've finally recognized that the work that I do when I have, say, the actual swine flu isn't going to be worth turning in. 

So what distinguishes a professional? It's not that you see through space and time and block out the week your beloved great-aunt passes away so you can attend her funeral in peace, no. And it's not typing away perched at the graveside, either. It's not never getting sick, never having a power or internet outage, never missing the plane or getting into a fender-bender. It's not never taking a week off of writing to gaze at a crisp autumn sky and grow closer to the people you care about.

It's what happens after and around that. It's talking to your clients, editors, or colleagues when you need to, and saying, "Hey, is it OK if I take a little longer with this?" Sometimes there's a reason to burn your candle at both ends. Usually there's not. Being a professional means knowing the difference.

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Striving Toward Perfection

There's some substantial discussion going on right now about... you know, I can't even explain it. But there are important questions being raised about activism, about trying to do better, about whether trying is enough, whether being a good person is enough, even when you set a foot wrong.

I have expressed terrible opinions in my life, because I did not know better.

These opinions have been grossly homophobic (because the newspapers told me about the pervy gay people and AIDS.) They've been about trans people (because also pervy, I guess? That one sort of folded in with gay people back then.) They've been about how fat people are lazy and greedy, about gender roles and how I was a superior girl because I was much more like a boy, about Christians and rigid, repressive fundamentalism. Don't even get me started about the racist "knowledge" I learned and repeated about Filipinos when I lived on a military base in the Philippines.

But I know better now, I think. I have aged and grown more compassionate, more experienced at life. I've come to understand that my life is just a small fraction of all the possible lives to be lived, and many are more difficult than mine. Or just different than mine. But other experiences than mine have merit and value. Other choices than mine have value. I'm not the center of the freaking universe, nor are people like me. I know that now.

None of that erases the fact that I started off so horribly, cruelly wrong, a product of my time and environment. All of those horrible thoughts and opinions have been in my head. They were mine. Over time, I try to find the bad patterns, the awful judgey opinions that hurt people, and wear them away with something newer and kinder, something that lets me see and hear more people. It's an ongoing process. And yet I feel it might be unfair, unjust, unkind, to judge me for not having already arrived at the ultimate destination.

In twenty years' time I expect to find with horror that I've been even more wrong about other groups. Because I cannot be perfect, and I will never be perfect.

All I have is trying. And if trying isn't enough, then what hope is there for any of us?

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