By Haley Moore, April 9th, 2010

Maureen McHugh has a piece up on MimeFeed about The Illusion of Authenticity, in which she talks about the most compelling storytelling as an alchemical mix between the mundane and the surprising.

So achieving ‘authenticity’ requires novelty in an established convention. The audience needs some level of comfort and some elements of surprise. For now, Transmedia is pretty much always surprising for the audience. I suspect that in ten or twenty years, we may have to work harder at it.

This got me thinking about a whole range of shared experiences that you and I have every day that push our authenticity buttons.

For example, I’m sure I’m not the only tech-savvy twentysomething who gets in snits with her mother about email forwards.

The people in my life who aren’t very familiar with spam culture are, in their way, playing a very diffuse, but massive and persistent alternate reality game, sketching out a fictional world in which Coca-Cola dissolves ribeye steaks, and the government tests the internet through chain mail.  They don’t like to be told that the stories they’ve passed along are just stories, and nothing more, because it seems unsporting.  Telling game players they’re playing a game is annoying, and checking Snopes is definitely cheating.

The town where I live is home to a MLM company that sells magic sugar pills.  There’s also a lovely mom-and-pop business here that will sell you all the colon cleansers you desire.  The fictions these companies rest on are no doubt viral narratives, and no doubt have supportive communities.

These forms of fraud draw people in by putting an old story in a new context – whether its a urban legend in your email box, a sugar pill that actually works, or a new angle on the old Pyramid Scam, adding a twist to an old lie works to build authenticity – and many people buy it because of that authenticity.  In fact, for many people, the story is no longer just authentic – it’s real.

Storytellers and scammers have always been part of the same ecosphere.  Around the turn of the century, stage magicians and spirit mediums both sold seats to performances where they did many of the same acts – but the spirit mediums indulged the audience’s assumption that the tricks were supernatural, and many of them made fortunes from it.   The mediums’ stories were backed up by a large spiritualism enthusiast community and by publishers who put out spiritualist books and magazines.  The stories told in this subculture are still around today.

For example, the popular belief that images of ghosts can be captured by photographing an empty room probably comes from urban legends spawned by photographs like this one.

That’s Harry Houdini, surrounded by ghost “extras” added in by spirit photography scammers.  This is a plate from Houdini’s book  A Magician Among the Spirits, which could best be described as an angry skeptic rant, debunking a long list of Houdini’s contemporaries for exploiting the authenticity they forged by combining old ideas of the occult with the new technology of stage magic.

The spirit photography scam is a prime example of McHugh’s formula.  It took a recently discovered but familiar concept (x-rays) and combined it with something fantastical (ghosts).  At a time when few people were qualified to evaluate the claim, it seemed plausible enough to be real, and wonderful enough to capture the imagination.

I am sure that the modern game designer thinks about as much of  developers of online gambling sites as Houdini thought of spirit mediums.  Although really, Facebook games might be a better analog.  As TechCrunch reports, fraud in games like Farmville is rampant – both in the form of scams that target the players, and in number crunching that justifies high prices for nearly worthless advertising spots.  Facebook games meet McHugh’s standard for authenticity, too.  They combine something familiar (simple video games) with a twist (social interconnectivity.)

But unlike McHugh, Facebook game scammers, and spirit photographers, and MLM salespeople, and the authors of those email forwards are not using this alchemical combination to deliver a more compelling story experience.  They are using it to hack our suspension of disbelief.

I have a copy of the comic that came out for Chasing The Wish 2, and blazoned across the back is the question, “Can a story be too real?”  Yes, and no.  A story can transcend its medium; it can become more, provide you a more real – more authentic experience.  But, as McHugh points out,

An authentic story is almost by definition an oxymoron. Sure, there are true stories. But we were talking about fiction. About The Matrix, and the Batman movies. About Blair Witch.

So long as something is a story, it will never be real in any, well, real sense.  It can only be authentic, never genuine.  When authenticity bleeds over into reality, you get a lie.

And here, I predict: As game mechanics become more ingrained in everyday experiences, we are going to see more Facebook scams – these too-real stories that use our understanding of games to hack the authenticity-seeking parts of our brains.

In all probability, they will be better than we are at using technology to draw people into a fiction, and we should be ready to extract the compelling elements from what they will do with games, and adapt them to our purposes.

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Posted in storytelling transmedia

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.


  • Thanks very much for this, Haley. I think about this a lot, because this whole confusion of fiction and reality is the thing that makes Transmedia most interesting to me.

    This comment kind of got out of control, so I made it a post at my own blog:


    Would love to see your responses, but it just got too long for a comment...:)

  • Mark, thanks for your awesome response. I definitely think things are more fun when they seem real! Or at least, when they seem authentic, which is not real, but a detailed maquette of reality. I think that's why we have such a convoluted term as "willing suspension of disbelief" anyway - it's not that we believe fiction, we just don't not believe it.

    I was raised on the cousins of the John Titor hoax - natural medicine, astrology, ley lines, UFOs, etc. My yearly trek to the New Mexico desert when I was a teen ALWAYS included a stop in Roswell for some really hardcore alien invasion paranoia, and I still have an affection for the way these stories are told. I was forced to become a skeptic, and draw a line, when I heard my peers earnestly repeating the Elders of Zion story - that pretty much inverted my attitudes on approaching the culture in earnest.

    One of the reasons I love transmedia stories, is that they can give us the same magic. They can weave fictions that are just as world-deep as lies, but it doesn't feel as if we're expected to treat them as real, except in a roleplay type of way. I'm all for imitating the tropes of genuine deception, though, to give our stories depth. Which is probably why I'm a propmaker....I like mocking up the "evidence" of things that never happened, or can't happen. *cue maniacal laugher*

  • Thanks Haley. Regarding John Titor, there are servers and servers full of debate about his real-ness or non-realness.

    Do you think this kind of confusion of reality/fiction would be at all valuable to a Transmedia project attempting to be an actual commercial property? Or a liability?

  • Someone (I think Pixie?) brought up the idea at one of the ARGFest panels last year that you need to step through a "portal" or over a "threshold" into a fictional world, and if there is no threshold then it's a deception rather than a story. But what happens when someone misses the threshold you put up? Is it now a deception? Because it's probably going to operate like one, regardless of your intentions.

    However, I do think that to some extent, so long as the deception is more or less harmless, people don't want to stop interacting with it as if it were real. Which is good for transmedia, I guess. I really sense that people who believe urban legends are playing some sort of low-level storytelling game with themselves that they don't want mucked with.

  • Maureen McHugh

    Haley, I can only agree with you. It's one of the things that I think about when creating a story on-line. Are there enough things in this that are fiction markers--things that say unequivocally, 'some made this up'? Because what people describe as authenticity does lead to way too many people thinking it's reality. The internet is still so new, it's like television and advertising in the 50's. So many people want to believe.

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