Finding the Future Again at the Franklin Institute

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Five years ago, Jane McGonigal locked me inside the New York Public Library overnight. I didn’t particularly mind…after all, it did give me the opportunity to thoroughly explore the library while waiting for the building to open for business the next day. Did you know Charles Dickens had his deceased cat’s paw taxidermied and affixed to an ivory letter opener? Or that a special run of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was bound with asbestos-lined covers? I even got to briefly explore the library’s underground stacks. The experience was part of the New York Public Library’s Find the Future event, a 500 person scavenger hunt through some of the library’s most fascinating artifacts on display to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I still have fond memories of that night under lockdown at the library,  and I was brought back to that moment last night at the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin Institute is a museum in Philadelphia that takes hands-on science seriously. Exhibits ask visitors to do everything from learning about Newton’s laws of motion by using pulleys to lift themselves off the ground, to showing the limits of short-term memory by seeing how many numbers visitors can remember in order to open an increasingly complex combination safe. The museum even holds monthly themed “Science After Hours” events to ensure learning about science remains exciting for people of all ages. Last night, the Franklin Institute’s after-hours event was themed around crime scene investigations, with special stations set up around the museum to teach visitors everything from cryptography to forensic science, through live demonstrations. Mixed into the schedule was a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for the first 20 museum members to sign up.

The guided tour started off normally, highlighting the museum’s close relationships with the Wright Brothers and its collection of artifacts. The Franklin Air Show exhibit even features diagrams the brothers drew on strips of wallpaper…or at least it would have, if the wallpaper hadn’t gone missing. In its place? A clue, leading our group of 10 to areas of the museum typically not accessible to the public ranging from executive corridors to library stacks. It culminated with the recovery of the missing artifact, as well as the opportunity to see items from the museum archives not normally shown on display.

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Blair Witch and the Kickstarter That Wasn’t

Callie Hernandez as Lisa Arlington. Photo: Chris Helcermanas-Benge

Callie Hernandez as Lisa Arlington. Photo Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge

Two years ago Lisa Arlington launched The Absence of Closure, a Kickstarter-funded documentary for her MFA thesis about people coping with ambiguous loss – the grieving process for people who go missing. The campaign ended up reaching its modest $10K goal, before Lisa herself turned up missing during production of the film. This might sound like yet another story of Kickstarter creators embezzling funds…except the campaign never existed. It’s all an homage to the original viral campaign for The Blair Witch Project, in preparation for the sequel’s imminent release.

The Blair Witch Project, In Brief
For those unfamiliar with their film history, The Blair Witch Project is a low budget horror film that helped propel the found footage genre into the mainstream back in the 90’s. While the film was in development, the team at Haxan Films aired a segment for IFC’s Split Screen that presented the core mythos of the film as an earnest historical documentary, presenting the fictional disappearance of the film’s main characters as well as the equally fictional myth of the Blair Witch as if they really happened. The film’s mythos expanded with the release of an in-universe website alongside Curse of the Blair Witch, an expanded feature-length “documentary” that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. The film’s efforts at blurring the lines between fiction and reality even extended to the filming itself – the actors were taken out into the woods with minimal information of what was to come, subjected to Haxan Films’ “scenario”. Ben Rock’s five-part series for Dread Central on helping create The Blair Witch Project should be required reading for those interested in all the sordid details that led to the film’s Sundance premiere.

The Blair Witch Project is getting a modern reboot, and is looking to honor the spirit of The Blair Witch Project by playing around with the often murky line between fact and fiction. It started with the film’s announcement. Initially billed as an Adam Wingard film named The Woods, Lionsgate waited until two months before the film’s release to reveal it was actually Blair Witch, a new installment to the franchise.

On The Absence of Closure
At face value, The Absence of Closure Kickstarter account is a perfectly legitimate campaign for a niche documentary film that never got made. Focusing on coping with loss, the documentary planned on highlighting how three people coped with the disappearance of their loved ones. Adamya’s wife went missing after a boating accident. Beverly’s son was pronounced MIA during Vietnam. And James’ older sister went missing in the woods on a camping trip with two friends.

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The campaign’s backer updates contain everything you’d expect to see about Lisa Arlington buying new equipment, kicking off production, and interviewing the documentary’s subjects. She even set up a production blog to try and drum up support. But then, production takes an unexpected turn when Lisa stumbles across a video posted by “DarkNet666” to his website. The two get in contact, head out to film on location in Northwest Maryland, and then…radio silence.

The comments section reacted slowly to the silence, as people who chipped in to support a campaign about people struggling to deal with loved ones who vanished without a trace began to suspect that its creator also vanished without a trace. Heartfelt prayers for Lisa’s safety are juxtaposed against frustrated comments bemoaning the lack of backer updates and the likely death of the project. Finally, over a year later Lisa’s friend Kaylee Morgan managed to locate Lisa’s login credentials, confirming Lisa’s disappearance and highlighting the Finding Lisa Arlington Facebook Page as a resource for people looking to help. News articles posted to the page confirm that Lisa went missing with Peter Jones and Ashley Bennett and one as-yet-unidentified member of their expedition, likely “DarkNet666”.

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Zombies Run Expands to Virtual Races, Board Games

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Lace up your favorite pair of running shoes. Pull up a playlist of some of your favorite songs. Finally, plug in your headphones. Now, you are Runner 5.

Some of you have been Runner 5 for quite some time now. Zombies, Run is well into its fifth season, with 190 missions from Abel Township to date. After finishing those missions, you may have volunteered for dozens of side missions and challenges to protect your village from zombie hordes, rival towns, evil scientists, and shady corporate interests. Others may have fallen behind. That’s okay – if you only go out running once a week, it would take over four years to catch up with Abel Township’s efforts to rebuild a semblance of civilization in the wake of a zombie apocalypse.

ARGNet has written at length about Zombies, Run in the past. But for those new to the free-to-play mobile game, Zombies, Run is an episodic audio narrative designed to blend seamlessly with your running experience. At the start of your run, just load up the app, choose a playlist, and begin your mission. As the series’ silent protagonist Runner 5, you are thrust directly into the narrative through a series of short audio drama vignettes to provide a narrative context behind your run. Your own playlist serves as the musical interludes between the story. Sometimes, tortured groans from zombie hordes serve as impetus to pick up the pace, or risk getting caught and devoured.

The free-to-play version of the game allows you to unlock one story mission a week. If that pace is too grueling, a $19.99 yearly membership unlocks every story mission, along with a host of other features.

Keeping Things Simple Through Iterative Design

Zombies, Run‘s success is built off the back of the most non-intrusive user interface in mobile gaming and its incredibly rich storyworld. It’s generally easy to spot players of other location-based games like Ingress and Pokemon Go on the streets, because gameplay is so heavily centered around looking down at your smartphones, and briefly stopping along your route at dozens of different locations. Zombies, Run still lures players into the real world for its gameplay, but does so more stealthily. It’s practically impossible to distinguish a Zombies, Run player from someone simply listening to a podcast or musical playlist on a long walk or run. And the game’s frequent updates have held to that core principle. Recent updates have made it easier for runners to binge through a series of missions by enabling auto-play functionality to get caught up on the 200+ episodes the first five seasons of Zombies, Run will eventually encompass. Audio syncing capabilities have expanded to allow runners to pull in music from external services like Spotify or Pandora to serve as soundtrack for their runs, expanding past the phone’s built-in playlists. And new offerings like 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon training plans help provide structure to personal goals.

None of that would work without Zombies, Run‘s riveting narrative, which provides the backbone of the experience. Over the past five years Zombies, Run co-creator and lead writer Naomi Alderman has been leading the team of writers through the difficult task of guiding players through their role of silent protagonist through the trials and tribulations of post-apocalyptic survival. For the most recent narrative arc, Alderman notes,

Season 5 takes Runner further from home than we’ve ever been before, in search of the truth about the origins of the zombie plague. Season 5 also sees us have to tackle enemies who are more powerful – and know more about us – than any we’ve ever dealt with before. There’ll be wolves and bears, soldiers and spies and of course constant zombies chasing Runner 5.

The team clearly places a priority on ensuring the highest quality of writing and audio production goes into every mission, and the series pulls on writerly talent from sources ranging from the game’s own fan base to Alderman’s Arts Initiative mentor Margaret Atwood, for a brief cameo appearance.

Even Runners 5 who don’t expect to reach the newest content for a few years still have a few surprises in store for them. One of the more surprising projects in development is a Zombies, Run board game, coming soon to Kickstarter. The pending game is being pitched as “real-time, open world, story-driven, co-operative, and app enhanced.” The other main update? Virtual races.

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Set Aside the Month of July for “The Runner”

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Fourteen years ago, Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey worked on a show for ABC together. Secret phrases were hidden in each episode of the show, with a million dollar prize set aside for the first to solve. Push, Nevada was an ambitious project. But this article isn’t about Push, Nevada. It’s about the other project they were pitching all those years ago, that’s finally seeing the light of day. It’s about The Runner…and another million dollars in prize money.

The Runner – Rules for the Road
The central conceit of The Runner is simple: one unidentified “Runner” is sent on the run, and five pairs of two “Chasers” are sent after them, facing arbitrary challenges to catch him. Every day the Runner remains uncaught, the bounty for capturing them goes up by $15K. Once a Runner is caught, the Chasers collect the bounty and a new Runner goes on the lam. If a Runner makes it to the end, they keep the bounty, plus a $50K bonus. Vice News reporter Kaj Larsen and YouTube game theorist MatPat (Matthew Patrick) serve as the show’s hosts.

Over the next thirty days, Larsen and Patrick will provide updates on the hunt’s progress three times a day. Every day kicks off with an episode introducing the puzzle to the Runner’s destination for the day, followed by a second puzzle as Chasers near the daily destination. Afternoon and evening episodes at 3PM EST and 10PM EST provide updates on the teams’ progress.

How to Win Money and Influence Friends
The show’s contestants have a chance at winning half a million dollars over the next thirty days…which leaves another half a million dollars available for the viewers at home to claim. Rather than giving it out in one lump sum, fans have quite a few ways to take home a few bucks for playing along.

The main way to win is to solve the puzzles alongside the Chasers. Every day, two America’s Ca$h Task (“ACT”) challenges will be posted on go90.com/therunner. Viewers have one hour to solve the clues. For each ACT challenge, ten viewers to submit the correct answer will be selected at random to receive $500, for a total of $20,000 in prizes every day. Players can also win big by helping the Chase teams, as the five Chasers are also tasked with giving away one $1,000 “Chaser Cash” prize to one of their followers who helped them out every day. There are also “Social MVP” prizes for the most active viewers.

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Getting to Know The Tension Experience Before It Gets to Know You

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The Tension Experience is an immersive experience that is part game, part theater, part something extremely hard to put a finger on. Tension does not cater to the weak… It’s themes run towards horror and the occult. You must be willing to receive phone calls, emails, and forum contacts from characters as well as other participants. You will be expected to make choices, many of which test your adventurous spirit or moral fortitude. Although Tension live-events occur in Los Angeles, a thriving online community exists where all are welcomed warmly.

-Kimberly, The Tension Experience participant

In early February, a number of online horror sites received invitations to check out The Tension Experience, a website linked to the Los Angeles-based OOA Institute. As the year progressed, the enigmatic society used a series of puzzles to tease and hint at something larger, offering Enlightenment to those who were willing to follow and learn their secrets. Things changed on April 1st, when the full site for the Tension Experience went live, offering up forums for a growing community to converge and discuss theories about the coming experience, as well as the puzzles hidden throughout the site and the Experience’s social media presences on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

The thing about the OOA? They’re always watching. While that may sound cliché, this is an experience designed to insinuate its way into your personal life, as far as you’ll let it. In order to fully enter the ranks of the OOA, you’re asked to fill out a questionnaire. These questions are simple at first, asking “What’s your name” or “What’s your phone number?” But then the questions get weird. Straight up uncomfortable. As the registration process notes,

The Tension Experience is a paranoia, fear based experiment. We use personal information and data collected to tailor the experience for each participant involved. By using this website you understand that we will go out of our way to create a unique experience based on YOU. At any time you wish to end your experience with us please email [email protected] Upon your request all information will be deleted from our servers, and your GAME will end.

That is not just boilerplate language. The more honest you are with the questionnaire, the more…personalized your horror experience with the OOA will be. Russel Eaton, a member who runs a podcast called My Haunt Life, was called up in the middle of the day…and the voice on the other end of the line was his own. The OOA took snippets of his podcast that he released the day before and played it back to him in order to send him a particular message. “Live consultations” for Los Angeles-based participants have served as introductions to even deeper haunts. But while the experience seems rooted in Los Angeles, it manages to get extremely personal even when far removed from its California roots.

On Monday June 26th, I was sent an email message telling me to sit and watch my computer. Moments later, I learned of a Periscope stream made just for me. The video, which has since been taken down, showed a person standing near a statue named the Scout…all the way in Kansas City, less than an hour from my home. While I wasn’t able to check out the statue myself, the community collaborated to find someone who could check out the monument. At the statue, they found a letter for me. Whoever was responsible for the event is unknown.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the OOA so far, it’s this: they’re willing to go to surprising lengths to surprise and even shock you, in ways you probably wouldn’t imagine.    

Now, what’s all this leading towards? No one at this point really knows. Underneath the secrecy surrounding it, dates have been announced for mysterious events. July 15th is noted as the day “tickets go live.” Live for what exactly? There’s been no clarification on that so all we can do is wait and see.

Neil King, writer at We Are Indie Horror, wrote about the experience’s personalized nature:  

The Tension Experience continues to shock, surprise, and intrigue. The future of these events will only become more intense and this writer sits on the edge of his seat constantly waiting for the next phone call or post. I have never been a part of something like this and every day that passes I become prouder to be an Apostle of the Beginning (introductory member of the OOA).”

For individuals living in the Los Angeles area who are curious to learn more, there is a lottery being run to give out tickets for an exclusive panel hosted by the OOA institute itself during the ScareLA festival between August 6-8th. Only 100 people will be selected to attend. If you’d like to try your luck and unravel the mystery, click here to be taken to the official page for the event where you can also enter the lottery.

All in all, The Tension Experience looks like it’s going to be something to keep an eye on. Even if you don’t live anywhere near L.A, don’t feel discouraged. Jump in and discover what’s going on.

Lonelygirl16? Here’s What You Might Have Missed

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Ten years ago, Bree Avery started vlogging on a relatively new social platform called YouTube. To celebrate that milestone, a new video was uploaded to her channel yesterday. So, let’s try something a little different. Watch Bree’s first video blog. Got it? Great. Now watch the most recent upload to the channel.

Confused about how a girl making funny faces at the camera could evolve into some sort of cult indoctrination video? That’s perfectly understandable…this anniversary video wasn’t really designed for people with limited exposure to the lonelygirl15 universe. So here’s a brief initiation into one of YouTube’s earliest phenomenons.

Lonelygirl15: Bree’s not real…or is she?

Lonelygirl15 started so innocently. As a geeky, home-schooled teen with overbearing parents, Bree turned to YouTube with the help of her friend Daniel. Most of her early videos were opportunities to talk about her studies, complain about her parents, or just have some wholesome, pointless fun with her boy who was also a friend. Par for the course for the early days of the video sharing site, although the YouTube Community quickly pointed out that the quality of Bree’s videos were suspiciously high for a teen vlogger, and the two teens often seemed to offer more candor to the camera than each other.

More than anything else, lonelygirl15 is remembered for this blurring between the lines of fiction and reality. As the channel rose to be the most-subscribed channel on YouTube at the time. During this heady time of uncertainty, the author John Green wrote a blog entry about the situation, positing that

[Bree] gives viewers a sense that the story might be really real, and that we can uncover its really realness by paying close attention. It gives us a compelling reason to focus intently on the work…books, with few exceptions, cannot mimic this kind of realishness.

Green goes on to note that he hopes the realishness of these projects do not replace the written word since “I’m not good in front of the camera. Text is my only solid medium, and I need it to hang around.” Four months later, John and his brother Hank created the vlogbrothers YouTube account.

Four months after the channel launched, fans tracked down conclusive evidence that lonelygirl15 was a fictional project. The Guardian did an exceptional job of explaining how determined fans unmasked the show’s creators in a recent retrospective piece.

But while this is where the story ends for lonelygirl15 as a pop culture phenomenon, it also marks where the show’s actual story begins.

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