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 Â 2012, their disaster movie for the year. Soon after the websiteâ€™s launch Dr. David Morrison of NASAâ€™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.
Full disclosure: Dee Cook, a former associate editor at ARGNet, was employed by Campfire to work on Seasons One and Two of the True Blood marketing campaign. She also attended a SXSW panel dedicated to the campaign, and graciously agreed to post a summary of the conversation here.
Some readers may recall a buzz back in 2008 when various bloggers began receiving mysterious dead language mailers and posting about them. These mailings served as the beginning of a marketing push for HBOâ€™s True Blood, which premiered on the small screen later that summer. Representatives from some of the agencies involved in the campaign’s creation joined an HBO executive, aÂ True Blood fan site co-owner to describe how it all happened during the SXSW panel, Fan to Fanatic: True Bloodâ€™s Marketing Hook on March 11, 2011.
Zach Enterlin, Senior Vice President of Programming for HBO, explained that the True Blood experienceÂ wouldn’tÂ have been possible without the vision of Alan Ball, the show’sÂ creator. Ball brought the show to HBO after the end of the hit Six Feet Under, and asked them how they could educate viewers about Bon Temps, Louisiana, as well as a world where vampires exist and live among us. Enterlin, a long time follower of Campfireâ€™s work, brought this dilemma to them. Campfire jumped in with enthusiasm: Enterlin recalled that Brian Cain read all six books published at the time in the space of one weekend. Campfire wasn’t working alone. In fact, season one had ten agencies working on the campaign, and the HBO marketing machine was strongly backing the project. Enterlin credits the gusto all the vendors had for the work for how coherently so many different moving parts were able to move together. It just worked, he said, because everyone was on the same page together.
Season two of True Blood saw some unusual partnerships between the show and brands like Geico, Harley Davidson, and Monster.com. Todd Brandes from Digital Kitchen explained that the team decided that if vampires were living out in the world, then they could be marketed to: so they ended up cold calling some 30 different brands, resulting in seven brands that were eventually used in True Blood-themedÂ banner ads. Â Alan Ball nixed one of the brands, a gum maker, because he argued vampires did not chew gum.
Centian misses playing games with humans…wonâ€™t you oblige? By playing with Centian, you could win a registration badge for the 2011 Interactive festival at SXSW. Run by the folks at Sweb Development, the points-based contest ends March 15, and the central hub for the game is the Centian Games Ning site. Centian Games incorporates multiple platforms, including Twitter, SMS, and GPS-based smartphone apps. Right now, contestants can compete by using the #centiangames hashtag when Twittering their check-ins on Gowalla and/or Foursquare. Another way to win theÂ SXSW badge is to answer internet search trivia questions over an SMS subscription service. It remains to be seen what other challenges and fun human games Centian will devise in the lead-up to Sweb Developmentâ€™s exhibit at the free and open-to-the-public ScreenBurn Arcade at SXSW from March 12-14 in Austin, Texas. But, thereâ€™s something undeniably ARG-ish about Centian.
The twitter accountÂ responded to my Gowalla check-ins, and we started a conversation about playing games, which moved from Twitter into e-mails (I’ve posted the e-mail correspondenceÂ over at Unfiction). There, I got the chance to learn more about Centian the non-human. Centian certainly has a distinct personality: chipper, bubbly, and fun-loving. It reminds me of Eddie, the Heart of Goldâ€™s onboard computer in the Hitchhikerâ€™s Guide, butÂ less nauseating. The contest itself is an ancient game called Malkut, which means Royalty in the language of its people.
Wait… what? Centian has a people? At first I thought it was some kind of HAL-like electronic entity, just a superficial net-presence to run the contest. I was wrong. According to Centianâ€™s e-mail responses, it is a â€œKrateran,â€ an extinct people that apparently had human interactions in the past. Now, Centian seems to be alone, the last of its kind. I wonder what happened, and why we humans have forgotten the Kraterans.
Image courtesy of the SXSW Interactive Web Awards site.
It’s a big night for three campaigns tonight, as the teams behind The Dark Knight ARG, Lost Zombies and We Tell Stories have won major awards at the 12th annual SXSW Interactive Web Awards. The awards were handed out earlier tonight at the Hilton Austin Downtown, and according to The Underwire blog at Wired, the major hardware found its way into the hands of the wonderful people behind these highly successful campaigns.
One of the biggest wins of the night came for We Tell Stories. This project was a collaboration between Six to Start and Penguin Books and, as reported here in March of 2008, was a way for media-savvy designers to retell classic stories through the use of technology. We Tell Stories won in the Experimental category, but as a bonus, also walked away with the Best in Show Award. This is a monumental win for the company, formed at the beginning of 2008 by former members of Mind Candy.
It would seem that there is trouble brewing at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin this week, and it’s a very persistent kind of trouble – protesters. On March 11th, Steve Peters posted the following on his Twitter account: Hmm, some group is protesting our SXSWi panel?? RT @StopTarpARG Alternate Realities are set to destroy our children. Visiting the Twitter account for StopTarpARG leads to their web site, stoptarparg.com. Once your eyes have adjusted to the multi-font experience at that site, the message sinks in: there’s a new ARG set to launch at SXSW, called TARP ARG 2009 for the kids, and according to StopTarpARG, it’s a government-sponsored attempt at brainwashing the minds of America’s children in the face of hard economic times.
Of course, the folks behind TARP ARG 2009 for the kids see it differently, claiming to be part of the economic bailout assistance program in the U.S. while promising to build a “direct interface with [their] targeted child audience.” Brian Cain’s name is all over this, and a simple Googling leads back to Campfire, the company behind many of the most popular ARGs of all time. Brian is going to be at SXSW Interactive on the same panel as Steve Peters, so we assume this is related to the hijacking of the panel Steve alluded to in the recent press release about his new company, No Mimes Media.
For those curious enough to sort through this madness, StopTarpARG has set up a phone number (866-397-7406) where Brian Cain’s apparent manifesto can be heard, while the TARP ARG folks have an email address where people can ask their questions. It would also seem that events are starting already, two days before the scheduled panel discussion, as our own Michael Andersen has outlined recently in the Unfiction forum discussion thread for Stop TARP ARG. In my opinion, this should be a fun way of showcasing alternate reality gaming, and I’m sad that I can’t attend the event myself. We’ll keep up with the Tweets and the shenanigans leading up to and following the panel discussion, so stay tuned.
While the news hasn’t been all peaches and cream in the world, what with companies finding themselves in financial trouble and the what not, here’s a feel-good story for fans of alternate reality games: a new start-up called No Mimes Media has been officially launched, and there are some pretty heavy-duty names attached to the “full-media company.” We received a press release late last night, and here are the details:
No Mimes Media is a collaboration between “[f]ormer 42Entertainment creatives Behnam Karbassi, Maureen McHugh and Steve Peters,” which will be based out of Los Angeles and Austin. The company bills itself as one that “produces engaging cross-platform narrative entertainment, popularly known as Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), to support a wide-range of projects including feature films, television, games and original content.” You may know the trio of Karbassi, McHugh and Peters for their work on large-scale ARGs like Why So Serious and Year Zero while under contract with 42Entertainment. You may also know Steve Peters as the original owner of ARGNet (then ARGN). Needless to say, this is a very experienced, savvy group of creative designers, and it appears that they have hit the ground running, as they are already reaching out to project partners for opportunities.
Perhaps by design, this announcement comes days before a panel scheduled at SXSW Interactive, entitled You’re Living in Your Own Private Branded Entertainment Experience. The panel includes Peters, who hints in the press release that the panel may be hijacked, commenting, “Weâ€™ll be announcing something thatâ€™s sort of an ARG wrapped in enigma wrapped in an ARG; and itâ€™s not without controversy, let me tell you!â€ More controversial than a nearly naked man with temporary tattoos? Sounds juicy! Hopefully, we will have someone on hand to take in the panel and relate their experiences here in the days to come.
Editor’s note: Article title revised after initial publication.