SXSW 2011: Andrea Phillips on Blurring the Lines

Andrea Phillips has excellent qualifications to talk about ethics in transmedia. In addition to designing a number of transmedia narratives, she, or rather, one of her transmedia campaigns, has been condemned by NASA. In 2009, Sony Pictures launched a website for The Institute for Human Continuity promoting  2012, their disaster movie for the year. Soon after the website’s launch Dr. David Morrison of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute began receiving emails about the site from people who failed to notice the references to Sony Pictures and the film in both text and logos, leading him to declare the site to be “ethically wrong.”

This was not the first time Phillips encountered ethical quandaries in transmedia. Her interest in this issue began in 2001, after finishing an alternate reality game called The Beast. Shortly after the game ended, a smart, empowered, close-knit group of players behind who call themselves “Cloudmakers” were faced with the events of September 11. In the aftermath, some of the Cloudmakers discussed the possibility of combining their skills again, this time to track down the perpetrators of the attack in the real world. This was a source of concern for Phillips. Following a breadcrumb trail of clues in a game does not equate to the skills for dealing with global terrorism. She and other feared that people trying to “solve” 9/11 would in fact be placing themselves and others in danger.

Phillips prefaced her talk with the disclaimer that, while she intended to share some cautionary tales from the history of alternate reality games and transmedia campaigns, her intent was to highlight concerns, not call anyone out on their mistakes or cast aspersions on the campaigns or the industry in general.

So, what are the ethical concerns that today’s transmedia creators should keep in mind? In her talk, Phillips took the audience through some history of attempts at blurring the line along with more than a few war stories, focusing on the risks and consequences of excessive realism in transmedia campaigns. She followed this up with some suggested solutions.

Real vs Not Real
The internet, which is an integral part of many transmedia campaigns, is a strange beast when it comes to reality, and the boundaries between real and not real in cyberspace can be nebulous. Phillips illustrated this by pointing to The Onion, a satire news site that has often been cited as real news, and the website for Landover Baptist Church, a satire of fundamentalist Christianity and religion in politics. She also pointed out the existence of a reference site dedicated to sorting out the real and not-real things on the internet: This is something transmedia designers need to consider when creating the portions of their story-worlds that are housed on the internet.

Unexpected consequences resulting from fiction pretending to be reality is not a twenty-first century emergence. Anyone familiar with the history of radio dramas remembers the 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was presented in part as news bulletins, with reports from the novel read on the air as if a real alien invasion was taking place. Although each hour of the broadcast included a statement that the broadcast was, in fact, fiction, many people missed this announcement. Later, newspapers reported mass panic among the people who had believed the broadcast to be true. The true extent of public reaction to the broadcast is a subject of debate, but at the time, its aspirations to realism definitely caused a sensation.

Phillips took the audience through a brief history of real vs not-real in transmedia by way of The Blair Witch Project, lonelygirl15, and the case of Martin Aggett. Of particular interest was the comparison of the lonelygirl15 saga to the Martin Aggett story. Bree of lonelygirl15, Phillips noted, behaved like a real person with an internet presence – she posted videos, she commented on other videos and answered comments to her videos. She interacted with her growing fan base. However, as Bree’s story went on, it became more and more clear that her story was not “real.” In fact, there were subtle clues from the beginning that lonelygirl15 was fiction, such as the high production values of her videos. When lonelygirl15 was revealed to be fiction, some people felt duped, but a large part of the audience continued to follow the story.

By contrast, Martin Aggett, a fictional character created by Steve Diddle, also behaved like a person on the internet. Martin joined unFiction, participated in activities with the ARG community, and was generally well-liked. Diddle’s goal in creating Aggett was to make a “deep story,” something so immersive that people wouldn’t be aware of the game until they had been “playing” it for weeks. Where Bree’s audience mostly shrugged and either went on following the story or moved on to other things, Diddle’s revelation regarding the fictionality of Martin Aggett was met with disapproval and consternation among the Unfictioners whom he had befriended as his fictional construct.

Why did these two similar cases garner such different reactions? Phillips turned the question to the audience. Succinctly, one audience member answered that Unfiction specifically had rules against “characters” in games posting as real people; Unfiction was always understood to be “out of game” at all times. The fact that Diddle had violated that rule was one reason that the revelation that Martin Aggett was not real was ill-received.

Audience member TC Conway also added that Bree began as a public figure and developed personal connections after establishing her public persona, whereas Martin Aggett created close personal connections first, and would eventually have broken away from them to establish a public persona. Another fact to consider is that Bree had gathered a very large, diverse audience with minimal personal interaction, while Martin Aggett had developed very close personal ties to people within the ARG community.

Phillips followed this short discussion with the suggestion that people do not like to be “fooled” – they themselves want to be the ones to blur the lines between reality and fiction. The corollary is that people want to be in control of how far those lines are blurred.

Rabbit Holes
Phillips touched briefly and humorously on the subject of rabbit holes and starting points. Many games begin with anonymous mailings to people who have posted their addresses in places like Unfiction, hoping to receive trailheads or swag. She pointed out that transmedia people are not the only people who like to send anonymous packages, punctuating this statement with a picture of Ted Kaczynski. She added that anonymity does not give people incentive to participate; in fact, it is easier to reach an audience and generate greater interest by being upfront about the origin of a campaign.

Consequences & Risk of Harm: How Real is Too Real?
But where is the harm in blurring the boundaries between “real” and “not real”? What is the worst that could happen? Phillips begins this section by introducing the case of Zona Incerta, a Brazilian ARG. Zona Incerta featured a video on YouTube in which the fictional CEO of Arkhos Biotech talks about buying the Amazon rainforests so that his company can raze a huge swath of it. Many people mistook the video as real, and word of it got around to a Brazilian senator, who then denounced Arkhos Biotechnology on the floor of the Brazilian senate. Fortunately for the makers and sponsors of Zona Incerta, the senator had a sense of humor and even suggested that Brazil honor a National ARG Day after discovering that Arkhos Biotech did not exist, and the video was part of a game.

The case of a Dell marketing stunt ended less happily. Earlier this year, two Dell employees were arrested when one of them donned a mask and appeared on the sales floor at a Dell campus in Round Rock, Texas, waving a metal object and directing everyone to the lobby. The ill-conceived stunt was meant to move everyone to the lobby for a new product announcement but became much more complicated when the police were called.

Toyota’s “practical joke” marketing campaign for their Matrix model also backfired spectacularly after a woman sued Toyota for causing her to believe she was being stalked. In the campaign, users were able to enter information about their friends (without their knowledge or consent) and input their personal information so that they would receive phone calls, texts, and emails from “virtual lunatics.” The explanation is still posted on the marketing campaign website, and reading the text should be enough to make anyone shake their head and say, “that’s a bad, bad idea.”

YourOtherYou is a unique interactive experience enabling consumers to play extravagant pranks. Simply input a little info about a friend (phone, address, etc.) and we’ll then use it, without their knowledge, to freak them out through a series of dynamically personalized phone calls, texts, emails and videos. First, one of five virtual lunatics will contact your friend. They will seem to know them intimately, and tell them that they are driving cross-country to visit. It all goes downhill from there. The Matrix integrates seamlessly into the experience and you can follow the progress of your prank in real-time online. Each piece of the campaign assures that the experience is as Google-proof as possible.

While working on the 2012 campaign that Phillips designed, she and her team put together a scientific abstract in pdf form that they planned to release through their website. One of the questions raised about this abstract was: “Is it too real? How can we make sure that this won’t be passed around the internet, that it won’t create a scare?” The answer: there was no way to ensure that it wouldn’t be passed on to the internet as a “real” scientific abstract. So the team made the decision not to include the abstract in the campaign.

Context is important. As demonstrated in the Dell incident noted above, when a game or campaign lacks the signals that communicate to an audience that events, situations, or artifacts are not real, the risk of harm increases. Plastering a college campus with fliers about a missing girl will not evoke curiosity; it is more likely to cause people to panic. Wearing a mask and waving a shiny metal object in an office building is not going to make the workday more fun – it’s going to make that hour a nightmare, and it’s certainly not going to attach warm fuzzy feelings to the product that the event is meant to promote.

Every designer should carefully consider the unintended consequences of each piece of a campaign, from websites to live events. Designers should ask themselves, “what is the worst that could happen?” What if people read information on a fake pharmaceutical company’s website and make medical decisions based on information that seems real? If a live kidnapping is staged, what will be the effect on the bystanders who witness this who are unaware that it is not a real kidnapping? If the game directs players to certain areas or gives them tasks to do in the real world, what are the consequences if instructions to players are miscommunicated or misunderstood?

One tragic example is the case of Bob Lord, a player in an invitation-only event called “The Game.” Designers of the game experience laid a path of clues that led their players into an abandoned mining complex with hundreds of mine openings. Although the instructions gave the exact number of the mine shaft where the next clue was hidden, the instructions were ambiguous, and the area was not well-marked. Bob Lord walked into the wrong mine shaft and fell thirty feet, a fall that shattered his vertebrae and left him with irreversible brain damage.

People, Phillips stated, can be hurt by designers who fail to consider the implications of the information they’re putting out to be discovered, or the instructions they give to players.

Unintended Consequences
Even when all implications are carefully considered, there is always the chance that unexpected events will scuttle the best-laid plans. In the Halo 2 promotional campaign, The Haunted Apiary (commonly known as I Love Bees), one Florida player was so dedicated to the game that they went out in the middle of a hurricane to answer a payphone, much to the dismay of the puppetmasters. Campaign designers should consider building a kill switch into their games so that, in case of unexpected events or unforeseen problems, they can halt the game.

Why Do We Want Realism, Anyway?
In the world of alternate reality games, there are many people who would argue that there is no such thing as “too real.” The phrase “This Is Not A Game” is well-known to all who follow the genre. But what does it really mean? Phillips asserted that perhaps the desire for authenticity and truth in stories has been mistaken for a desire for “reality.” We want to tell stories that are true, she stated. A story can be true, can be authentic, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be “real.”

She points to Meredith Woerner’s io9 article: Are Audiences Sick of Being Lied To?, in which Woerner analyzes media campaigns that pretend to be real and end up falling into the hoax category (or the hokey category). Writing about JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield campaign, Woerner states: “Instead of demanding that people believe their lie, they dreamt up a world people were desperate to be a part of. The ideal, Phillips stated, is to create worlds that are so amazing that people don’t care if they are real or not.

Potential Solutions
Phillips touched briefly on some proposed technical solutions to marking out a campaign as fiction. One is a “fiction tag”, a literal HTML tag (<fiction>Once Upon A Time</fiction>) that would display an icon on the browser marking the website as fiction (think of the little “lock” icon that appears while visiting a secure website.) An unfortunate drawback to this plan is that people don’t always pay attention to browser icons. Another suggestion is transmedia labeling which would lay out the parameters of the experience and tell players up-front what to expect. However, the drawback here is that it could cause players to lose a sense of discovery, or make the experience feel contrived. In lieu of technical solutions, Phillips suggests that designers can be clear about where the story is coming from, who is telling the story, and can do their best to consider the implications and consequences of the assets they build and the events they run in the course of the campaign.

The audio from Andrea Phillips’ SXSW presentation is currently available online for your listening pleasure.


  1. modelmotion

    The Onion is not real? Oh dear!!! This will not end well…

    Nice article…

    But Bree was real….. just saying.


  2. modelmotion

    That was sad to read about Bob Lord. Safety is something that should always be considered, especially with drops.