On Responsibility in Immersive Experience

Foma Labs
Foma Labs
May 17, 2016 · 8 min read

by Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco of Foma Labs

Photo courtesy Spencer McCall from The Institute, original footage by Everfalling.

When you invite a person to the experience, it must always take place in person — face to face. This is essential for instilling the sense of trust required both of the invitee and of their ascendant. The invitee will need a lot of faith to engage an experience that is not explained to them beforehand. They will show up to a mysterious door. They will go down a slide they cannot see the end of. They will walk through a door that will lock behind them, and find themselves crawling on their knees through a dark tunnel. Assuring that they’ve had a face to face experience with their ascendant will make them feel secure enough to engage in such an experience.

Oh, if only it were that simple. So many people refused to go down the slide. So many tried to immediately turn around in the pitch blackness of the tunnel only to find, in a panic, that the door had locked behind them. So many, crawling through the blackness and having no idea of what the path ahead of them looked like, or even how long it was, ended up feeling paralyzed or even crying out for help.

But…but…but…if they can’t handle it, then they’re just squares! It’s just not for everyone! If they don’t want to do it, they’ll just have to tell us!

Yes, we hear all that. We have even said many of those things in the past. And very occasionally, “it’s just not for everyone” is a perfectly valid way of looking at things, as it can be equally destructive to a design to attempt to please every single person in every single way. However, we are urging care because we’ve learned, time and time again, that even non ‘squares’ can have freak-outs they never saw coming. Sometimes even people you know closely will react in ways they themselves could not have predicted.

In a few cases, they were people who hadn’t been properly invited. Others knew they were claustrophobic, had bravely tried to override it for the experience, but were unable to do so. Still others had no idea they had any sliver of claustrophobia in them, and discovered it for the first time at our site. Some even had no idea where their “freak out” came from — but there it was. We, the creators, learned very quickly that ANYONE, from the most inexperienced immersive art explorer, to the seasoned practitioners of urban exploration in the Bay Area, could have a hard time in our experience. This was an eye opener.

Most of the time, it simply required a check in via the intercom. “Hello. Are you alright? I assure you you are perfectly safe, but if you need help let me know.” Occasionally a hatch would need to be opened so that the attendant could let some light in and make a face-to-face connection. “Hi. Are you okay? You’re totally safe and free to either come out this hatch with me, or I can close the hatch and you can continue on — no harm either way.” Most of the time, these were enough to give the participant the courage to move on through the experience. To quote Admiral Adama of the Battlestar Galactica, it, “made them feel safe enough to be brave.”

With a number of storytelling mediums, the fourth wall gives us that safety. If the book is too emotionally trying, you close it and put it down for awhile. If the movie is too scary, you look away or turn it off. A video game that’s getting on your last nerve, or even triggering you, can be turned off and cast aside. With all of these mediums, you’re free to return to them later under different circumstances or leave behind and never engage again.

The other safety built into these mediums is either implicit or explicit consent. If I’m going to watch a horror movie and it’s rated R for strong language, graphic violence, and gore — I know that up front. It’s something that’s been shown to me beforehand, so I can then choose to step into the theater or not. My consent to be shown those things is implicit. Some video games have a prompt upon these notifications, requiring the player to specifically state they understand in order to move on. And all of these have the fourth wall as an implicit consent level — at any time you can disengage, and you know exactly how to do so. Follow the illuminated exit signs and leave the theatre. Pull the plug and turn off the game. Close the book.

Immersive experiences often do not have these inherent safety barriers. Because of that, or rather the lack of that, emotions can be even MORE intense. If the immersive experience is designed well, the events of the story are REAL. While watching someone crawl through the dark in a movie can put us on the edge of our seat, crawling through the dark in real life can be downright unsettling in an unpredictable and sometimes unexpected way.

In the kink community (that’s right, we’re going here), the use of a “safe word” — a word or phrase that can be said at any time without question to immediately stop engagement/press pause — is very important. It’s what allows people to push the edge of each other’s comfort zones, both knowing that at any point they can make it stop if they must. The safe word provides a clear consent. As long as I am not saying the safe word, you can rest assured that, though I may seem uncomfortable, I am actively willing to continue. Consent is key to healthy exploration of boundaries.

This is a core theme we’ve seen in many immersive design projects. Immersive experiences are often very different. Your phone is literally ringing. You are in a room with a cast member (at least,you think it’s a cast member…) who is making you feel uneasy. You are in a dark tunnel and you can’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone how to get out. More senses are being engaged than with a TV show or movie: scent, feel, sometimes even taste. Because there’s often no prior experience model for what the audience is doing, the method of escape is not always clear in these situations. That is where we as designers must take special care to make our audience feel “safe enough to be brave.”

The simplest level of consent can be provided through a clear branding and presentation of your experience. If you tell people that they’re getting on Peter Pan’s Flight Ride and they get on and find themselves in The Haunted Mansion, you can bet you’re going to end up with a few screaming children and angry parents who feel they’ve been misled. It might be a funny image to think about, and some may even call it ‘edgy, radical, or revolutionary’, but surely Disneyland would not be the generation-spanning success we know them to be had they pulled such deceptions on their guests. And after all, when you get on The Haunted Mansion, or any other Halloween haunted house, you know exactly what you’re getting into and it STILL WORKS. We all want to occasionally surprise our audience, but being deceptive about your content is not the best way to do it. After all, ‘Good design is honest.’

In addition to honest presentation, an opt-out opportunity must exist. If you’re experiencing the immersive theater show Sleep No More and you decide suddenly that you need to get out, perhaps because the scene is too intense or for some other personal reason, you know how. You were told before entering that the people in black masks are there in case you need to be shown the way out. You know exactly how to escape the scene at any time — the opt-out system is made clear to the participants. This is ideal. Less ideal, but still acceptable in some situations, is a hidden opt-out. To go back to the example of the dark tunnel — there was a live person surveying the tunnels the entire time. If at any time a participant was taking an abnormally long time to get through, or called out for help, the attendant would check in either via audio or by opening a hatch and directly talking to the participant face-to-face. Often, the monitor even began by doing their check-in in character, thus seamlessly meeting the need of personal attention while maintaining the narrative of the experience. The attendant was a representative of the organization that ran the site, which worked perfectly well within the narrative world and helped protect the participant from feeling as if they had failed or broken the experience.

These are all some very heavy concepts to consider. Emotional stakes. Consent. Opt ins and outs. Why does any of this matter?

We’re operating under the assumption that we, as creators, don’t want to cause any physical or emotional damage to our audience. If you feel differently — well, perhaps you’ve already read too much and should just be on your way. Take, for example, the radio broadcasts of H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds. In this case, the audience was not properly prepared for the experience, and damage was caused. In fact, in Quito, Ecuador, where the broadcast was deliberately formatted like a “news bulletin”, the lack of explanation and preparation led to riots and even loss of life. This is not the type of surprise we’re hoping to achieve as designers.

Basically, a prank is not strong design. Not to say that a prank cannot be sometimes funny or entertaining, they surely can be. But pranks often require a very intimate knowledge of and connection to the subject, and require a level of control that is difficult if not impossible to obtain as the audience widens beyond close connections. At worst, as in the case of the Quito broadcast, they can be dangerous to all involved. Uncontrollable danger is not at all strong design.

Given how much risk and work is involved working in immersive design, we might then be inclined to ask ourselves, “Why are we even bothering to do all this?”

The complexity and emotional depth that is possible through immersive experiences for both audiences and creators extends beyond what any other medium is capable of. These are the stakes we are gambling with, and although they pose risks they equally offer some great rewards. The number of stories we have of how someone has had a life changing experience are too many to retell. And although the majority of people may not have that level of intensity, nearly everyone is shifted into an altered state of play, regardless of any cultural, social, economic or personal factors. That non-ordinary state of play is simply infectious and often creates feedback loops for the performers and audience, ultimately leaving everyone in a seamless shared reality that often can be described as a flow state. That state of moment to moment experience is worth everything.

But unlike games of chance we are not passive recipients of luck’s fate, with immersive design we have the agency to leverage conscious and considered responsibility to mitigate and possibly even negate any potential risks, at the very least helping each other feel safe enough to be brave.

From our experience, we have found the rewards more than make up for the challenges inherent in such a high risk design medium . That is why we do what we do. This also why feel very strongly that designers in this space have a duty to consider the full breadth of effects that creations can have upon their audience; and as our Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Foma Labs is dedicated to the art and science of experience.

We are Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco.



Article editing by Eleanor Thibeaux and Kat Meler

Foma Labs

We design, produce, and create immersive experiences of…

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