Earlier this week, No Proscenium’s Noah Nelson published an article discussing immersive productions through the lens of Those Who Make, Those Who Play, and Those Who Watch. In it, he argues that the broader immersive space can do a better job at providing rewarding experiences for people who want to experience immersive stories more passively. Campfire previously advanced a similar framework for immersive experiences, breaking out players into a continuous spectrum of skimmers, dippers, and divers. Skimmers are Those Who Watch: they experience immersive vicariously, either through a casual perusal of a website, or (more often) through vicarious accounts from Those Who Play – the divers. As for the dippers…? They take on a hybrid role, and that’s where things get interesting.
In Defense of Those Who Watch: Compelling Narrative from Vicarious Play
The independent film Coherence is a fascinating experiment in film-making. Shot over the course of five days, the science fiction thriller about a group of friends at a house party didn’t have a script: instead, James Ward Byrkit mapped out a 12-page treatment revealing all the twists, reveals, and character arcs of the film. But actors were only provided information on a need-to-know basis, with characters only aware of their own evolving backstory and motivations. In effect, Coherence was a live-action role playing game shot by trained improvisational actors thrust into an increasingly surreal experience. If that sounds familiar, The Blair Witch Project used similar tactics, years earlier. Rather than using a formal script, the indie horror film’s actors were instructed to visit a series of locations, receiving directing notes along the way.
Both films benefited greatly from the visceral reality of actors engaged in a form of play, leading to films that feels more real as a result of that conceit: viewers experience a different kind of movie as a result of how the films were produced. And that effect carries through to vicarious experiences of other immersive works, as well.
Ivan Van Norman has extensively explored this space with his Sagas of Sundry series for Geek and Sundry’s now-defunct Project Alpha, and the Stream of Many Eyes‘ Dungeons & Dragons-based Off-the-Table sessions that mixed immersive theater, escape rooms, and tabletop gaming into an immersive hodge-podge that transformed performative play into a spectator sport. In Sagas of Sundry, the shows’ leads would assume the roles of carefully constructed characters with hidden secrets: every time a character wanted to do something substantive, they would have to pull a block from a giant Jenga tower. If the tower were to topple as a result of a pull, something terrible and frequently fatal would befall their character. For Van Norman’s Off-the-Table sessions, four tabletop streamers met together in a live recreation of Waterdeep to solve a series of escape room-style challenges, drawing on their characters’ unique powers by drawing cards from a deck of d20 cards to obtain hints along the way.
Shows like Escape the Night, Busted, The Quest, and Whodunnit take this to the logical conclusion, filming alternate reality game shows where contestants are playing versions of themselves who believe everything that is happening to them is real. Escape This Podcast plays similar games in podcast form, with guests navigating their way through virtual escape room scenarios, giving listeners at home a chance to solve along. These shows don’t ask much of viewers, but benefit from the role of performative play in their creation nonetheless.
All the examples so far involve Those Who Make controlling the production of a “documentary” of what Those Who Play do. However, the vast majority of content created within the immersive space is created by players, for players and the broader public.
Performative Play and the Evolving Gaming Landscape
Based on sheer view counts, most people who experience alternate reality games likely do so vicariously, through videos and podcasts recounting events. Channels like Game Theorists, Loey Lane, ReignBot, Nexpo, Night Mind, and Inside a Mind are piecing together the threads of complex games and passing on their oral histories to audiences ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the millions of viewers. So while the 24 videos that comprise the YouTube horror series Petscop have been viewed an impressive 11.6 million times to date, the three most viewed Petscop theory videos alone handily surpasses that figure, with 19.1 million views.
This has been a known factor in immersive communities for a while, and both Campfire’s skimmers/dippers/divers model and Brian Clark’s phenomenological lens depend on actively designing for intentionally crafting the moments and stories that get shared outside the life of the work. Those Who Make may lose control of what they created once it’s brought out into the world, but an experience crafted with tentpole moments and narrative beats can inform what resonates beyond the initial creation. I Love Bees is many things, but even for people who have never heard the word “axon”, it’s the game that told an audio drama over payphone calls. I have yet to play a single Battle Royale match of Fortnite, but still know how the game has been hiding lore in weekly map updates since season 3, and dropped a life-sized Durr Burger in the California desert thanks to those key moments, passed on by others who are more actively engaged.
Player stories can also be more transformative and diagetic in nature. Mo Mo O’Brien is a YouTuber who specializes in producing Larp content. Recently, after attending the Bothwell School of Witchcraft Blockbuster Larp in the UK, she cut together an hour long film of her experiences, framed as Alice’s Adventures at Wizard School. O’Brien’s channel frequently features videos offering glimpses into Blockbuster Larps, but with Alice’s Adventures, that experience was framed as an epistolary tale documenting her character’s adventures, rather than as an oral history of the game as is often the case with post-Larp videos. No Proscenium’s Cara Mandel played around with similar in-world storytelling with her Instagram Stories thread at San Diego Comic-Con, capturing highlights from con activations for The Boys, Carnival Row, Brooklyn 99, Superstore, The Good Place, and American Horror Story.
Mandel’s Comic-Con excursions offer a particularly interesting model for integrating player stories into the overarching discourse: in No Proscenium’s initial Instagram Story, Mandel was given permission to film the introductory scene of American Horror Story‘s camp-themed immersive experience, but cameras had to be set aside for subsequent scenes. Creators don’t need to risk giving away their entire show to player stories, especially when specific narrative beats can serve as the experience’s calling card when shared.
Immersive’s Big Dipper Problem: When There’s Nothing Between Watch and Play
I don’t believe immersive’s problem is one of awareness: even among the relatively closed off and spoiler-sensitive puzzle communities, there are ways to vicariously experience events. For the past few years, MIT Mystery Hunt teams have filmed wrap-up session summaries of their games, made all puzzles publicly available, and even edited together the occasional documentary. The Black Watchmen‘s ARG puzzle trail has numerous live-solving Let’s Play attempts available online, if the thought of tackling the missions solo is too intimidating. And even the occasional immersive theater show will create videos to offer a taste of what was missed, like Unknown 9‘s Leap Year Society Initiation video.
Experiences may run the risk of fooling Those Who Watch into believing an experience is something it’s not, but word of those experiences still travel. I’d even argue that alternate reality games in particular are experiencing a renaissance among Those Who Watch. The primary challenge facing the immersive space is the seemingly punishing leap from Those Who Watch to Those Who Play. Immersive theater may cling more tightly to mystique with its productions, but even long-running productions like Sleep No More face the experiential cliff separating viewership and participation. Playbill’s article offering tips for first-timers tackles many questions that get asked, but also offers a reassurance for those nervous about what’s expected: “Actors will approach individual attendees, whisper in your ear, kiss you on the hand. While performers gauge the comfort of those they get close to, if you donâ€™t want this type of interactionâ€”no problem.” The rules of engagement are shared, with reassurances that it’s possible to signal for a less intimate experience if that’s not what attendees are chasing.
As experiences grow more complex, lore more expansive, and the price of admission for full participation rises, asking players to jump from transfixed viewer to active participant without an on-ramp is a bold ask, especially when there are so many experiences that can transform into full-time jobs, if players let them. This is where designing for the Dippers comes in.
If FOMO Is Your Currency, There Needs to Be Payoffs Big and Small
Operant conditioning applies to experience design: if there’s behavior you want to encourage, find ways to reward it. With the most active participants – the divers, or Those Who Play – that’s a familiar immersive formula. Find ways to show those players the impact of the actions and decisions they’re already taking, whether it’s the illusion of agency or whether it’s real. Dungeons and Dragons’ Off-the-Table sessions started by celebrating four active players of the No Stone Unturned ARG that led up to the event, granting each character in the hybrid Larp session a boon because of player contributions. Active players of Baskin Robbins’ Stranger Things ARG were named and shamed as potential spies in recognition of the fact that they were very good at helping a Russian spy despite immediately recognizing that Shpion7’s username was Russian for “spy”.
Recognizing and rewarding the most active players is in many ways much easier than building in rewards for the smaller choices, but those tiny choices that push Those Who Watch from passive skimmers to more engaged dippers is possibly even more important, because it could be that viewer’s first tentative step outside their vicarious comfort zone into self-exploration.
Puzzled Pint co-creator Curtis Chen created a particularly elegant transition from skimmer to dipper with his science fiction novel, Waypoint Kangaroo. A message on the book hints that there might be more to the cover than meets the eye…and players who investigate that curiosity are rewarded with a secret single-player prequel experience to the main novel, with a built-in hint system in case frustration risks ruining the experience. Completing the experience is rewarding, but not necessary: the mere act of chasing a lead and finding something in return is the important part.
Those small wins are paradoxically some of the hardest to construct because they need to be alluring enough to overcome viewers’ default play style, and can’t be followed by something that seems like too much of an up-front commitment. Subtext excels at this, offering a free text-based adventure that offers the best of what the single-player online thriller has to offer without misrepresenting itself, all in the space of five minutes. Postcurious’ Tale of Ord offered a similar free puzzle by mail to give curious players a taste before investing in the full experience.
Great, There’s Gradations of Play – So What?
Whether you’re looking at immersive entertainment as a story experienced by Those Who Watch and Those Who Make or you’re looking at a spectrum of skimmers, dippers, and divers, the reality is most people will experience things vicariously. Sometimes, that will be through summary materials assembled by creators, but more often than not it will be by its active participants.
Knowing that, it’s essential to design with that secondary audience in mind. What story will be passed around a player-base as the quintessential moment, and what tools or resources can creators provide to make that a richer storytelling experience for them? For experiences with repeat engagements, are there moments before crossing the Rubicon that can be shared? Better yet, is that moment something participants can be enabled to share as their own story?
Just as important, what opportunities are presented to those viewers to lightly engage in the world – is that behavior rewarded in some way, either at an individual or aggregate level? Even active players passing on oral histories can craft these moments. Matthew Colville, an active member of the Legends of the 5 Rings community, made an hour long video explaining how the card game’s narrative and lore was driven by competitive tournaments in the late 90s, culminating in a final showdown at the Day of Thunder at GenCon in 1997. While he described in great detail how the event resolved in the video, he never named which Clan won, and which clan lost. That important discovery was left as an exercise for the viewer.
In the initial No Proscenium piece, Noah Nelson argues that “for this industry to grow, there need to be ways to stoke the appetite for immersive experiences to broaden the audience for the work.” And yes, creators could benefit from better enabling people who experienced immersive works to share their experiences with others, free from the fear of ruining the experience. Set up a suitably alluring photo opportunity in your escape room to hint at more than just completion times and brand names. Carve out moments of your immersive show that active players can share to whet other peoples’ appetites. Celebrate the experiences that can be crafted with curious onlookers in mind. But also think about what an onboarding ramp that leads players from curious onlooker to passionate fan might look like…and recognize that those passionate fans might look a lot like active viewers.