Experience and Alternate Reality Design

A cross-post from Gary’s main media site Personalizemedia

Tran-social-media-play [tran-soc-shuh-mee-dee-uh-pley] noun, verb

1 noun – a new form, a means of collaborative communication through play in constructed shared ‘media-rich’ environments

2 verb – taking part in game-like activity across and within online and offline social networks and media portals.

Can we truly create meaningful immersive media ‘experiences’ for others? Ones that last, are memorable, have impact & emotion and keeps the ‘experience players’ coming back for more? I am currently building services, working on papers and delivering courses on Experience Design and this post is a quick summation of some of the background thinking and good case studies.

Life is filled with so many exciting twists and turns. Hop off the straight and narrow whenever you can and take the winding paths. Experience the exhilaration of the view from the edge. Because the moments spent there, that take your breath away, are what make you feel truly alive. © 2000 Stacey Charter

Filmmakers and marketeers are clearly moving into #TranSocialMedia Play in a big way with a triple whammy at the moment of Star Trek, Terminator & Lost (fan) ARG’s and a raft of social media campaigns across other film and TV properties (some much better than others!). I have written about worlds immersion and cross-media design many times in the past but this post looks at the addition of social play into the mix – a permanent fixture.

Transocialmedia play design has historically been the domain of theme park builders, after dinner murder mystery writers, letterboxers or installation artistes – always based in the physical realm with the best examples reliant on group social interaction. But immersive play like this has also been with us since the first MMOGs social games inside fantasy environments and are another side of a triangle which also includes the new kid on the block (adolescent teenager) 2D social media. The main premise of the below diagram is simple – all encompassing transocialmedia design should be centered in the triangle and incorporate these three dominant forces. (there is a lot more to the diagram especially around hybrid services, but it will have to be another post)

TranSocialMedia Play


A minor diversion but totally related to hybrid services, I was sent a tweet from Ms. NPRIL last night.

BettinaTizzy“Could Disney-Pixar’s 3D film up lift virtual worlds?” this blogger asks. – What do you guys think of this? @GaryPHayes?

@BettinaTizzy Good 3D opens the door, inside? the anim film delivered as an auto story route in a home 3D engine where you can also explore!

The actual article was about exposing large numbers of non-gamers to 3D and whether this would turn them into ‘virtual world’ participants. But more than this I am always keen on drawing attention to media forms in collision and future looking mash-ups – as cinema becomes 3D and games engines become filmic (quality wise) why not deliver the film inside the game engine – not as cut cinematic 2D but the whole thing in 3D. You press play and the story arcs unfold around your avatar (perhaps your invisible perhaps your an extra – who knows!), voices play out from the characters and in some scenarios you can interact where the story makes sense. You as the film player can move around inside the environment the drama is taking place, certain action scenes you can jump inside characters and so on. That way from a screen entertainment point of view at least, you can also play/backchat with your social peers inside and around the story – now that would be an experience?. But this is really another whole post so I will continue…


The ‘online distributed story’ courses to Directors and Foundation students at AFTRS often start with thinking about what is the nature of true meaningful collaborative play and what serves the story. What does one need to ‘create’ to turn passive story viewers into active story players? When we talk about play there are two key ‘spaces’ – within the screen and with-out the screen. Students already immersed in online 2D social space immediately don’t see the value of the social mediums – asking a fish to explain water. They soon see the potential though unlike many ‘non-social online’ creators who often try to merge crude old-school practise into fragile social media and like a bull in a china shop find it hard to engage. I use a variety of tools and exercises but the simple workshop template below helps story tellers plan and quickly understand two sides of the triangle – 2D social media and 3D online worlds.

Distributed Story Online

But as we know screen media only tells part of the story which is why promotion agencies and enlightened storytellers alike are (to borrow from Dale’s Cone of Experience again) moving into memorable forms of contrived and direct purposeful experiences in the real world and realise that real stickiness will come from the activities at the bottom part of Dale’s Cone.


This is all leading to a few recent examples in the transocialmedia space – mostly campaign casestudies hence the marketing bias and hat tip to casemovies for some. The first is from 42 entertainment, demonstrating how to create purpose, community and elements of role play on massive scale as part of the lead up to the Dark Knight film last year.

Another major launch last year was for Halo 3 and as they were really promoting 3D virtual space it made sense that the unique elements of this transocialmedia offering (albeit low on the social side) was the creation of a large physical model to bring virtual into physical space and then promote the ‘memorial’ throughout urban environments. Halo 3 incidentally became the biggest entertainment launch of all time.

I often use these four simple levels of cross-media design that I wrote on wikipedia some years ago as a framework to differentiate using platforms as just distribution (CM1) at one end to a seamless contiguous experience at the other (CM4). The fan created Star Trek Alternate Reality Game linear summary of a typical user journey, certainly adheres to the description CM4 ‘experience’ and goes where other ARGs have not gone before!

Cross-media 1.0 – Push. Minor variations of the same content placed on different platforms. E.g.: A slight re-edit of the audio for podcast or a transcript diced and sliced for a making of type website and more of now, watch the TV show on the TV, web or the DVB-H or 3G mobile phone or an iPod video download.

Cross-media 2.0 – Extras. Content that is already being produced but not destined to be delivered and repackaged onto other platforms so it appeared to be ‘original’ or at least specially created. More about the wonders of a good content management system than the true potential of cross-media.

Cross-media 3.0 – Bridges. Where most innovative 360 thinking is currently rooted – where the content placed on the other platform is critical to staying in touch with the narrative or service.The narratives tease you towards investigating or moving (via a bridge) to another media form/platform.

Cross-media 4.0 – Experience. To some extent this is producer ‘hands-off’- in that they have created an environment, much like a game, that the participant/s ‘lives’ inside of, following their own path, personalizing the experience. A cross-media 4.0 property is at its height a creation, a collaboration with the audience across many devices, which evolves and grows a life of its own.

As an interlude, an example that only uses two sides of the triangle that I had to include which demonstrates the power of a contrived, controlled physical event that then massively propagates across 2D social media – yes it’s Antwerp Train Station does Sound of Music.

An example of traditional ARG design that fails to use two sides of the transocialmedia triangle and will get lost in the noise is the rather stalled Skynet series of videos that were being used to launch the new Terminator movie. It does have an interesting Twitter element at that is now spilling out into Facebook and beyond – worth keeping an eye on. “Skynet Research is dedicated to eliminating human error.”

I had to add this example for two reasons. It is very clever marketing first and foremost morphing the meaning of a basic food product into one of the scariest browser ‘environments’ on the web – also it combined the two sides of the triangle 2D social and 3D world by creating the browser world – Hotel 626 as real horror experience. Many users were actually too terrified to explore this space – not bad for Dorritos!

Transocialmedia play design is still in its infancy as all sides of the triangle above evolve. Social networking is constantly moving towards being more real time as twitter growth demonstrates. 3D worlds are becoming much more integrated with real and 2D social space as well as becoming a far more ‘representative renderl’ of the real world which itself is being invaded with highly sophisticated mobile and pervasive computing devices. The real challenge at the moment is avoiding gimmick and surface superficiality but developing deep well threaded stories that afford a deeper more investigative engagement. I have noted the design of recent ‘media plays’ to be rather linear, find clue A that leads to clue B and so on vs much more non-linear quest. Many also fall into being over authored, complete and don’t allow contribution or collaboration (although that will happen regardless somewhere else if you haven’t allowed for it). One of the biggest challenges is to mature the form.

There are many who see transocialmedia play as purely marketing, there to sit on the coat tails of existing well known brands (such as AI, Halo, MacDonalds/Olympics) vs being of themselves for themselves. Admittedly there are a few of these scattered around but the player base is usually much lower. To finish a small, mini ARG transocialmedia play I designed last year called the Old Forest – which had a good mix of 3D mashed with physical world and a team social component. The story was fictional, looking at witches, spells and fires – you can find more detail about this and other mARGS on the Laboratory for Advanced Media Production wiki.

There was a rather sad epitaph to this mARG as exactly a year later the whole town of Marysville was tragically burnt with great loss of life in the worst Bushfires in Australia’s history. Truth is far stranger than fiction.


For reference here is a abridge copy/paste from a post on an immersion post from 2006 – looking at the factors that enable immersive experiences.

SCALE – of the experience. The size of the screen and the amount of story world to explore has enormous impacts on immersion – as well as the detail of individual objects within the ‘world’. One of the reasons cinema will exist for a long time is that the large dark room filled with people is a captivating environment. Now, imagine a cinema where the image is a locked off-shot, of a shared world and all the audience are controlling and representing different characters engaged in a common goal or story. Ummm.

SENSES – goes without sayiing that the amount of senses that are engaged by an experience gives it most potential to immerse. Now as I have said before we dont need to consider full immersive reality rather make sure as well as intellectual and emotional engagement you consider sounds and the grammar of visual. Probably forget about touch, taste or smell for the moment – leave that to the porn industry to work out.

SERENDIPITY – how the world or show you are watching has elements of surprise. As mentioned earlier the more scripted and formulaic the less immersive. People only watch a film for the fifteenth time, I believe, because they strangely hope that there may be something different OR they are peeling back the layers, looking at minute detail and looking way beyond the basic narrative.

STORY – does the narrative engage. This is obvious, if there is nothing for you to be drawn along by (even your own story in some cases) then you will switch off.

PERSONALIZATION – Hence the title of this blog. How much can you minutely affect the world and yourself in it? How much will the world reflect you for being there? Most importantly, how much of your real world personality can you bring with you into the experience.

RESONANCE/CHOICE – How much control or agency do you have over the experience? Are your actions permanent and seen by all? Can you really do and say what you want – freedom of choice. True resonance is like a virtuous circle, you do something and there is a response that forever changes the environment. Like real life. The pushed media of TV, radio, cinema has zero resonance, it all happens in your head. Which is why stories ‘have’ to be based on life’s shared drama. In truly interactive models your actions have impact and will reaction will take place.

TEMPORALITY – How real time does the experience feel? Scheduled TV never feels real time – the only successful shows in the future will be live events, music, sports, live news etc: Everything else has a dubious future in the scheduled world. MMORPGs feel real time when you are in them because of all of the above. Ones that have scheduled events or require you to invade or fight at a certain time are more about story than true immersion.

ESCAPISM – or ‘play’. This goes back to my earlier point about the reason for play and associated spirituality. Is it as much about escaping reality or constructing ideality?

Does the representational nature of these ‘experience’ worlds mean so much more subconciously than endless souless advertisements on TV, or another episode of a soap, or fomulaic hollywood film? Does selecting an identity that is impossible to achieve in real life become a most powerful addictive escape? I suspect all of the above. In terms of building ‘play’ – it should be as fun making it as doing it. I have mentioned before that sometimes authors of experience get so lost in the creation process they forget someone has to watch, play or take part in it! Then it is much weaker an experience.


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