#558: Sex, Death, & Survival: Experiential Design Patterns for Transformation

Ida-BenedettoIda Benedetto is an experiential designer who has developed a framework she calls “Patterns of Transformation: Designing Sex, Death, and Survival in the 21st Century. She started curating Trespass Adventures, which were private & exclusive one-off immersive theater experiences at abandoned properties. The tension that came with transgressing boundaries carried a level of risk that proved to be a key ingredient for participants having some profoundly transformative experiences. If she started to remove these risks from the experiences, then they weren’t nearly as tantalizing or charged with transformative potential.

Benedetto was most interested in the aspects of human enrichment that came from these experiences, and decided to explore and conduct an anthropological study of other transformative experiences including sex parties, funerals, and outdoor adventures. She discovered that each of these experiences have some dimension of risk, whether it’s the physical risk of an outdoor adventure, the emotional risk of grieving the loss of a loved one, or the social risk of shame and humiliation of being rejected for expressing your desires at a sex party. She also found that transformation doesn’t happen unless you are able to let go of control in areas where you usually have control, which is a similar finding that Robin Arnott discovered with SoundSelf. Analyzing the risks associated with these different experiences is insightful for exploring the limits of how far how equivalent experiences in virtual environments will be able to go, especially when it comes to situations where our physical safety is threaten by the forces of nature.

I had a chance to talk with Benedetto about the components of her experiential design framework, how these design concepts apply to virtual reality, the relationship of awe to transformation, other models of transformation, how to handle trauma in intense experiences, and the primal insights that come from contemplating sex, death, and survival.


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So on today's episode, we're going to be exploring sex parties, funerals, and outdoor adventures. And you might be asking yourself, what do these things have to do with VR, first of all? But second of all, how are those things even related? Well, they're certainly all experiences, and they have a certain element of risk. And Ida Benedetto is someone who is an experiential designer. She held these trespass adventures where she would transgress boundaries and go onto these different properties and then have these immersive theater adventures. It's a very exclusive thing that she was doing for a while and she found that what she really enjoyed was the process of transformation. So she started to isolate the key component of transformation was risk, and that you actually couldn't have that transformation unless you had those risks. And I think it's interesting to think about the extent to which virtual reality could replicate some of these risks. I think some of them certainly can, but other ones you can't. So as we're moving from the information age to the experiential age, Ida actually sees that the next phase after that is moving from experience to transformative experiences. And so what does that mean? What are the components of a transformative experience? So we'll be exploring that as well as IDA's framework for designing transformative experiences on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. And this interview happened on Monday, April 24th, 2017 in New York City, where I was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:55.489] Ida Benedetto: My name is Ida Benedetto and I describe myself as an experience designer because I kind of don't know what other umbrella to put all the things I do under. The first thing I did was documentary photography. From there I did game design and then I created Trespass Adventures and now I do management consulting. So the framework I came up with is most informed immediately by all the trespass adventures that I was doing. I created this design practice that we ended up calling Sex Networks and were inspired literally by stumbling upon an abandoned honeymoon resort in the Poconos. We were like driving by, we were like looking for a treehouse land and on our drive back I was like, oh let's stop there for a drink and we pull in and realize the place is abandoned. and let ourselves in and start looking around and are totally captivated. Ended up running off the property because we thought somebody had been coming after us. And the whole way back, I'm on the internet, on my phone, looking up this place. And I find the TripAdvisor reviews about it. And people are just pouring their hearts out over this place that looked kitschy and run down. Because they had been there in the 70s for their honeymoons and came back in the 2000s and were devastated that the place was falling into ruin. So we created this like really captivating trespass adventure there just because we were totally inspired and it went way better than we could have anticipated. So we just kept it up.

[00:03:18.429] Kent Bye: So trespass adventure means that you're just trespassing and you don't have permission but you have sort of immersive experiences there?

[00:03:24.883] Ida Benedetto: Yeah, so we had no permission to be on the property. I don't even know who we would have asked permission for because that honeymoon resort had been repossessed by the county because the owners had kind of fled and had been committing tax evasion for decades. And so it's not like we're going to go to the county and ask permission to use the place. It just seemed excessive and unnecessary. We didn't even know what we were making anyway. We just wanted to revive the place for a minute, explore it, figure out what it was about. bring people to it. Yeah, and that, you know, people were totally transported. It went way better than we could have anticipated. The crew had an amazing time. And so our next experience, and this was with my collaborator, N.D. Austin, we made a trespass adventure. It was more of like a different structure entirely. It was a photo scavenger hunt in the Domino Sugar Refinery here in New York. And again, it just like, you know, people went way farther than we could have anticipated. They had a blast. We pulled it off. Everybody got in and out safely, you know, and they like discovered this place that they otherwise would have completely overlooked. So we did that for almost four years. And at some point, I got really tired of folks coming to us and just wanting to be let in. You know, they're like, how can I get on the invite list? How can I come? And it kind of wasn't necessarily the point of like advertising the fact that we were doing these things. I really wanted to inspire other people to be adventurous, be curious, you know, test boundaries, that kind of thing. And a lot of our experiences were so risky and also so high touch that like they didn't scale and we couldn't invite anybody. in part because we needed to make sure we could trust people and that we could rely on them to handle themselves in risky situations. And also because each experience was so different based on the place that we were in that it required a certain kind of person. You know, we tried not to repeat attendees between experiences. So, you know, it wasn't like I was going to do like 50 of them for a thousand people and I could invite everybody. It just didn't work that way. So I started to wonder how I could teach this or how I could present people with tools so that they would feel emboldened to do it themselves because clearly just showing people the fact that we were doing it wasn't wasn't good enough and So I started doing research I started to try and figure out like what are other experiences I can look at that I haven't designed myself that will help me get some perspective on how this works because I think we were also taking for granted whatever it was we were doing right and So I needed to kind of step out of my own biases and my own expertise. Yeah.

[00:05:49.370] Kent Bye: So from this point, what led you to then explore sex parties, funerals, and outdoor adventures as these common thread between these different immersive experiences that seem fairly disconnected, but may have some sort of transformational component to them?

[00:06:06.762] Ida Benedetto: Basically I made a big list of experiences that I was interested in and it ranged from everything from like sleepovers at the Museum of Natural History that are like ticketed events to, yeah, a sex party. I just had a huge list. And then I wrote my own definition of experience design, which for me is a creation of experiences for the purpose of entertainment, persuasion, recreation, or human enrichment, where the emotional journey of the individual or group is the focus. So once I had that definition, I was like, okay, actually the piece I'm really interested in is this human enrichment piece. So I went back to my list, and I crossed off everything that didn't fall into the human enrichment category, and that's how I was left with funerals, sex parties, and wilderness trips. And I was talking to a friend about it, and he was like, oh, sex, death, and survival, how Shakespearean. And I was just like, oh shit, I probably have stumbled upon something, and I don't quite know what it is, but let me just keep going in that direction. So in that way, it was quite organic, yeah.

[00:07:02.773] Kent Bye: Yes, so the common thread here is sort of like this death-rebirth process or transformation, it seems like, where there's these experiences where you have some element of risk that you're facing and it's not completely safe. And that in order for this transformation to happen, it sounds like from part of what you're writing about, you actually can't eliminate all the risk. You actually have to have that risk in order to have this transformational element. So maybe you could Talk about that discovery in terms of your models of risk and then how that is connected to transformation.

[00:07:34.250] Ida Benedetto: So this notion of risk comes directly from the work I was doing with Sextant Works in terms of the trespass adventures and that we were dealing directly with transgression. And the reality of the transgression, be it trespassing, be it behaving with people differently, whatever it was, that was actually a key element to expanding people's horizons or changing their sense of the world around them. That we figured out really early. And so as our work was getting more and more popular, folks would come to us and be like, ah, can you create an experience where people think they're doing something and they're not supposed to, but actually we've like gotten permission? And the answer is always no, because then we're pulling something over on everybody. Then we're like completely taking the teeth out of the experience. Like the point of it is the transgression. Like that's what makes it something different, something transformative. So I already had a kind of kernel of that from that work. And so bringing it forward, yeah, it just seemed obvious that it was about confronting something that you can't confront. And that the whole point of the experience is that you can get close to something or engage with something that is too dangerous or too risky to do without the structure and support of the experience. And I think, you know, with most explorations, it's like by the end you come back to where you started. You know, it's like the big revelation is like, oh yeah, you can't have transformation if there's no risk. And there's so much talk of like transformation these days. It's like very kind of sticky in the air. And there's so many experiences that just don't actually take you anywhere. They might feel good, right? Or you might like feel kind of uplifted. But there's no change, there's no like fundamental shift if there's no risk. That's the big thing that I've stumbled upon, yeah.

[00:09:07.584] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I just had a chance to see Then She Fell last night. And so as I was reading through your piece today, I was comparing my experience of this immersive theater experience to what you're talking about. And one of the components that you talk about is setting the container or the context or the magic circle where you kind of get the rules of the game. In this specific case of Then She Fell, they're basically like, OK, you can't open any doors. Here's the rules, you know, don't speak and speak only if you're spoken to. These type of things where you cross a threshold into this magical world. And, you know, anybody that plays games has those same rules. Like once you have those rules that bound the game, then you can really play in a way that just allows you that freedom to play. And so there's this elements of risk within that context that you talk about, both the physical, emotional, as well as the social. So you have the three dimensions of risk of the emotional, physical, and social risk. And so I'm just curious if you could kind of step through each of these three different experiences and kind of break down the different rules that you have, as well as the different risks that are being brought up.

[00:10:16.454] Ida Benedetto: So at least in the particular examples that I looked at, in the case of most sex parties, the risk is overtly social because we're casting the magic circle and the magic circle of the sex parties is that the sexual taboos and mores that we inhabit to get through our day-to-day lives are off the table, right? you're allowed to and encouraged to engage with each other on completely other standards. That means you have to actually get in touch with what you want and present that to somebody else and negotiate that with somebody else. So the risk of shame and rejection is ferocious. And confronting that risk in these contexts can be, for most people, both incredibly tantalizing and really intimidating. And it's that tension of that desire, fear, desire, repulsion that makes them exciting. In the case of funerals, the risk is primarily emotional because the process of mourning creates so much internal kind of chaos and turmoil that getting close to the reality of the death really triggers that. So a lot of the morticians that I've talked to have discussed how especially the American funerary tradition has taken a lot of the emotional risk out of the funeral and that we've actually interrupted our own bereavement process. But, you know, actually confronting the death is what's going to get you past it. It's what's going to help you adjust to the new reality, as painful as it is, as much as that, like, emotional pain is pretty phenomenal. And then slightly adjacent but slightly different is just like the also emotional risk of like the existential anxiety of like, oh, I'm going to die too. Right. And that, you know, like with sex parties, you don't have to kind of negotiate your own sexual connection with everybody on a day to day basis. Same thing with like death. You don't have to negotiate your own mortality on a day to day basis. But having spaces where you get in touch with that can ground you really profoundly. In the case of wilderness trips, the overt risk and the risk that's worth confronting is the physical risk, because most of us spend our day-to-day lives in environments that are designed to support our survival. So we don't have to think about surviving and we don't have to rely on each other for such high stakes as survival and basic well-being as we do when we are out in the wild. And so confronting that and renegotiating your relationship with physical risk can also be hugely enriching. But yeah, at the same time, the risk is real. If you're actually out in the wild, the risk of dying or getting messed up is substantial. And taking that risk out of it destroys the value of the experience.

[00:12:46.436] Kent Bye: Yeah. And so as you go through these different risks, I can't help but kind of match it to my elemental theory of presence, which the physical risk is the embodied presence. It's talking about your body. The emotional risk is the emotional presence. The social risk is both social and mental presence. And I would argue that there's a dimension of making choices as well in sort of the elemental theory approach would be like all of these elements are present in every experience. And so There may be a center of gravity of emotion for a funeral or a social risk when it comes to a sex party, but there's definitely an emotional component and a physical component. And I would say that the fire element of agency and control, there's a process of making a choice with your mind, but you're also actually taking action. So there's a risk of actually stepping up to the plate and asking and connecting to your desire and your will, which I think is arguably a strong component of what you're talking about there at the sex party is being present to your own desire, your own will, which I would say is very much the fire element. But the agency is what I would say the risk probably in this your framework of casting these qualities of presence as a risk There's a risk of control and that control can either be you're completely out of control So with nature you have things that are faded to you and you don't have a lot of agency But you do have limited agency for how you deal and react to these situations in the case of a sex party you have the ability to actually act and ask for what you want and And I think for the funeral, there's a part where you have to somehow take action to either withhold your emotions or to let go and to actually let that grieving process happen. So I don't know, I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on adding an extra dimension of control and agency into this risk component as you're talking about this framework.

[00:14:37.923] Ida Benedetto: The agency and the control piece is present throughout all of these experiences, because I think just my own bias in terms of looking at experience design is creating experiences where you have to be active, you have to participate. It doesn't happen unless you do something. So I think that that's consistent throughout. And if we want to even kind of like back out further and look at this piece about transformation or the value of transformation, I think that, you know, that's really where the agency comes in, where the potential for transformation only happens if you let go of control where you usually have control. And I also think this like elemental theory really works in terms of like, yes, all these experiences have all of the elements in them, but what's the focus? What's the grounding thing? And in terms of the design steps that I propose, identifying that first, you know, I'm calling it risk and you're calling it, sorry.

[00:15:34.478] Kent Bye: Like quality of presence.

[00:15:35.838] Ida Benedetto: quality of presence, determining that first will make the whole design process flow much more smoothly. So I was really fascinated looking at, for example, the Dartmouth Outing Club, which is the longest running outing club in the United States. I'm still in the process of developing that particular case study, but the risk that they're actually designing around is social, even though they're doing wilderness trips, because they're dealing entirely with freshmen coming into college, like their first week at college. they're trying to address and get them to confront the social risk of being away from home, having all these new people. They've just chosen the wilderness as the context in which to do that. So the design choices they make are all about that social risk and maneuvering people towards that social risk in a risky for the participant, but ultimately safe and worthwhile for the group fashion. And it was super exciting for me in the process of coming up with this entire framework to realize that I could identify that that was the core element of what they were doing. And so that helps explain so many of the design choices that they were making.

[00:16:37.464] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on a model of transformation or how sort of transformation follows by creating these contexts of these experiences and, you know, setting up these risks and making these experiential design choices. What some of the ingredients are for that transformation from what you've looked at in these specific case studies and the different types that really bring about that possibility for transformation?

[00:17:04.156] Ida Benedetto: I mean, I think it has a lot to do with like how much you can lose control and how safe it is to lose control in the presence of something that like without the structure of the experience, that would actually be incredibly dangerous. I mean, I think of this like one sex party I went to and there was somebody else there who it was like their first time going to that kind of thing. So they're trying to figure out what the rules are and how it works. and I chatted with him early on, and then he kind of came back around to me a couple hours later, and he's like, at this point, he's in his underwear and has gotten rejected by four or five different women, and he's just asking me these questions about why people are responding to him the way they are, and he had a pretty forward demeanor about him, and it's like, if you imagine that at a bar, and somebody's cruising and trying to pick up people, you're not in a context in which you're actually supposed to troubleshoot how that's going, And yet he could come back around to me and be like, what's going on? Why isn't this working? And I don't know why he picked me as his authority on this, because I was just there as a quote, unquote, attendee also. But in some ways, it makes that process of getting rejected over and over again while you're in your underwear safer, because you can workshop it a little bit. And it takes him having the bravado to do that. But in that exploratory space, he has the option to do that, right? Whereas you couldn't go to some random stranger at the bar and be like, hey, I just asked. four or five people out and they all said, no, what the fuck, right? Like you can't rely on some other rando in the room to help you with that. But because everybody's there for like a similar purpose and because, yeah, we have created this magic circle, right? Of like, here's the rules of engagement. We're all here for roughly the same thing. You can create those moments of vulnerability that are very different than the kind of vulnerability we experience in day-to-day life. And I seek those out compulsively and I think it can somewhat be a luxury of being in New York City that there are so many different kinds of social groups and you can like, there's so much to explore and there's so many different communities involved in so many different things. There's always a place to bring. All of the flavors of your vulnerability, you know And I don't know what it's like living in other places for an extended period of time where you don't necessarily have that but I'm incredibly grateful for it and it's been really wonderful bringing other people into it be it through my former creative practice of sextant works or through the current research I'm doing but the I don't know, the value of it seems huge. And I think about the kind of vulnerability that's created in VR and, you know, how you handle, I don't know, what do you call them? Viewers, participants, whatever they are, right? Like how you actually take responsibility for their experience without necessarily stripping out the risk or the challenge. You know, we can also recast risk as challenge. I think that there's a lot to look at there in terms of making the medium really like impactful.

[00:19:44.750] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think that, you know, I've been looking at models for transformation for probably 15, 20 years now. And looking at VR specifically, one of the themes that I see emerging, and I also see this from immersive theater, is this feeling of awe and wonder. And that if you break down what that means, it's basically like you're experiencing something that is so vast, that's beyond your existing worldview, that you actually have to expand your worldview in order to accommodate this new experience and make meaning out of it. And you can get that through Google Earth VR if you start to go in and see the vastness of the Earth through a perspective that you've never been able to see it before. You can get that through going through an immersive theater experience that gives you a direct experience of something that you've never had from all the different dimensions of presence from your sense of embodiment of the space of the emotional story that's unfolding as well as this crazy social context that's being created with a bunch of strangers and these magical rules and just this ability to make choices and decisions and to see how that plays out and to see these emergent synchronicities that may happen at this ritualistic space that's happening. So it's really interesting that you've started to look at like the anthropology of ritual, but also these fundamentals of transformation that I think awe is a key component that if you have that feeling of awe, that means you're on that path of creating something that's transformational.

[00:21:10.537] Ida Benedetto: Yeah, I think that that is totally right. You know, I think about the first time I was in the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, you know, and it's like the kind of awe that that produced for me. And I think there's a lot of different things that can produce awe, right? Like beauty can produce awe, the sense of expansiveness can produce awe. then that leads me to ask myself the question, what kind of awe am I chasing? Especially if it's about risk. Because it's not necessarily awe about the other or like something that's out there, right? It's much more about awe about like yourself. or who you're in touch with, because all the experiences I'm looking at are fundamentally social, even if the risk varies. Like the risk in sex parties is social, and in others it might be something else, but these experiences only work if we have each other, at least the way I'm designing them. Like you can of course go to a funeral, like you could, you know, imagine a funerary experience where you're the only attendee, but the design for that kind of thing would be very different than if it's like your entire community. I wrote something a little bit about Huizinga's quote about the magic circle. Have you read that, Homo Ludens? I think he wrote it in the 30s, and it's where the term the magic circle comes from in terms of game studies. And he describes this act of actually turning away from the magic circle. And that the reason the magic circle is powerful is that it does produce this sense of awe and this sense of kind of reordering that by being in the magic circle in the first place, you can actually turn back to the real world and look at it in the same way. Because all of your assumptions and proclivities and the way you've kind of valued things, gets reordered when you're in the magic circle, at least when you're in like really powerful magic circles. So I think that awe piece is integral and it's a matter of like, yeah, how do you then sort that awe? What is that process of like expanding your worldview to accommodate something new? What does that make possible? And in that there's a lot of ethical choices. There's some pretty substantial ethical choices actually. Yeah.

[00:23:09.002] Kent Bye: Yeah, and as you were writing through your framework, you talk about these different acute transformations. So a death happens, and it's sort of faded, and you don't have any control over it, and it just kind of rocks your world in a way that is just sudden and unexpected. Similar things of losing your job, sort of just these life transitions that we go through where the context in which you're living your life, it just completely changes immediately, and you have to accommodate that. as you're talking about awe and the social dimension, I think it's always with your connection to yourself and your relationship to others. And so when you're in relationship to other people in this social constructed awe, you're also kind of learning more about yourself and the limits of yourself and knowing yourself. But also when somebody dies, it's not only about your connection to somebody who's no longer here on the planet, but it's also making you go inward and reflect on your own values of like, how am I spending my time on this earth? Is this what I really want to be doing? I could die tomorrow or a week or a year from now, and how am I spending my time day to day? Is that really what I want to be doing if this was my last day, my last year, or my last decade of my life? And so there's this suddenness, or you have transformation that happens from going away to either a spiritual retreat, a meditation retreat, a burning man, a men's retreat, Things where it's across many days there becomes a rhythm and a cycle and natural flowing of time in that way And you also mentioned a dramatic arc so you kind of get guided through a story and through the process of hearing that story There is a journey that you go in through that goes through this peak of Tension and then the climax and resolution and through that you get to see the world through someone else's eyes and that Journey can be transformational as well So I'm just curious to hear some of your thoughts on those three dimensions of acute repetitive as well as dramatic

[00:25:01.537] Ida Benedetto: the value in identifying what kind of transformation is at play helps you figure out like where to push the participants and where to kind of like ease off on them because you know the process will kind of unfold as it does. I think one of the category of transformation that I was kind of like excited to like pinpoint and name was this acute transformation which you identified initially which yeah it's kind of faded it's like when something happens to you that you like don't want to welcome in and then the whole point of the experience is like how do you actually welcome that in. It's like, you know, I have a good friend who was cheated on by her husband, you know? Like, how do I help her through that? Like, that's an instance where you need an experience of acute transformation, right? Because her world is not the same and she can't go back, even though she would want to, you know? And then the repetitive transformation is, yeah, it's something that actually is quite familiar to all of us. Like many educational experiences fall under that. Many like, you know, meditation or like yoga where you kind of go to a class once a week and consistent contact with something that's like different or shifts your rhythm or shifts your perspective often enough will leak into your everyday life. That's an instance of repetitive transformation. And then dramatic, it's interesting hearing you describe it from that kind of classic media standpoint of like, oh, you're watching another character go through like a journey. But in this case, the journey is something you're going through. So there's like, you know, you're in the wilderness for a week. And by the end of it, you've like been through a bunch of different trials and a bunch of different things. And then like your whole relationship to everything shifts. And so that's like a much more concentrated experience. But in that case, it's not like identification with a character, it's actually what you're going through through a condensed period of time. I think that that's one of the areas of the framework that could probably just like use a little more like, I don't know, attention and exploration, but even just being able to parse those out to start with felt like a huge shift. Because a lot of times people are like, funerals, how do funerals fit in? I'm like, actually, funerals are super important because they represent the acute transformation. That is actually the thing that I think as a society, we need the most and are least tapped into. There's a great piece in Time Magazine right now, it's the cover story where Sheryl Sandberg is talking about the work she's doing around grieving and getting past her husband dying quite suddenly. And how as a society, we're not really good at those moments of grief or trauma, especially on a social level. How do we help each other through it? Most of our techniques have to do with numbing out. So how do you actually cope with it by plugging in?

[00:27:32.613] Kent Bye: Yeah. And when I think about this process of transformation, the work of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Maryland Schlitz, they did a 10 year study of all the different spiritual traditions and trying to look at what were the commonalities of transformation. And they came up with four components of what they saw were the four key ingredients to any spiritual practice. The first was setting an intention to change. So you're actually deliberately making a choice to commit to something. And through that, you're cultivating your attention. So whether it's you're paying attention to your breath, but you're cultivating a little bit more of an inner awareness to some degree. And then there's the repetition. So it's a practice that you have to do over and over again. Because when you talk about these spiritual practices, it is a practice that is a daily routine. It's like building a muscle and exercising. And in order to really have the impacts of that spiritual transformation, you have to do it over and over and over again. And then the final component that they identified was guidance. So either you're being guided by somebody who has been through this process before, or you're reading a book, or there's some sort of lineage or insight. It could be guidance that's coming from within as well. Or you may be looking at nature and getting guidance from nature. So the term of guidance can be very loose. It doesn't have to be a didactic teaching from another person who has gone through the exact same thing. The point being is that they've kind of identified these four common components to all these different spiritual practices. So when you talk about the repetition, I think you're kind of pulling onto that.

[00:29:06.263] Ida Benedetto: Yeah, exactly. It's a practice. And I think that the repetitive transformation definitely falls under that practice rubric. I had this thought, this might be a little bit of a tangent. I read this great Medium piece this week about trigger warnings, which is something that I've been really fascinated about. And it's a teacher who has decided to stop offering trigger warnings. And her impetus around that actually came from going to, I think it was a theatrical experience where she was triggered. And there were all these like, you know, they had trigger warnings of like, you know, this deals with an issue of like sexual assault and like, you know, just want to make sure everybody knows this. And she's like, yes, yes, totally. Everything's cool. I think she was even there to facilitate discussion afterwards. But what happened was she was triggered around her own assault, which she had never talked publicly about from her teen years. but the act of being triggered actually helped her cope with it on a whole new level. And so she's actually decided to not offer trigger warnings, because the thing is, and so I think what I'm getting at is this notion of intention, and that yes, there's instances where we desire a change, but then at the same time, it's like, I feel like you get into these experiences, at least the experiences that I'm looking at, and they're so goddamn challenging, that there's no way you could intend to change the way they change you. so when you're actually like confronting something that scares the hell out of you or when you're like Dealing with like the deepest deepest realms of your shame. You didn't opt into that but the great thing about the experience if it well put together is it will support you through that and that you can go to those steps and you can Stretch yourself that far and it's still okay. So And this is part of the reason why I like this notion of magic circle. It's useful to borrow it from game design, but actually needs to be pushed further when you're dealing with real risk because the way people need to be supported and like how tight that container needs to be in order to get people through it and let them be that vulnerable. So they don't pull back. So they don't like opt for composure and instead like fall into this falling apart so that they can then be put back together and actually like experience a transformation. Like it's just not a very different level.

[00:31:15.998] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think the the big issue here to me is consent. So you know, the opposite of that of removing trigger warnings is to have people going around deliberately trying to talk about very traumatic content, without regard of whether or not it's consensual or not. So you can imagine the other extreme of someone deliberately trying to bring up somebody's trauma. And I think this is kind of like a literacy around trauma, which is just kind of understanding the nature of trauma and how to heal from it. And I think as a culture, we're still kind of figuring that out. I've got an interview with Skip Rizzo talking about working with PTSD with veterans and the importance of exposure therapy and the small gradiated increments of that trauma so depending on if it's an issue that you know that you're triggered by you know because I you know I've been through suicide and I've been through the reaction to that with myself and my partner where we would be in a movie theater and there would be Things that were triggering we had to get up and leave because it was too much so in Being able to have that control in that agency around that and for you to be able to say stop at any moment and to be able to check out of that. There's a really powerful experience that was at Tribeca called Testimony. And it was about women testifying about their sexual assaults. And you had the ability to look at somebody's story, it would pop up, and at any moment it was too much, you could look away and it would stop. And you can go to another story, you could pull out of the experience, or you could take a break and then come back to it.

[00:32:51.592] Ida Benedetto: I mean, I think that that, I didn't, I was at Storyscapes, I didn't see that piece and now I really wish I had. That technique that they're using in terms of being able to look away and go back, you know, that's a great instance of like dealing with tricky material. It reminds me of some sex parties that I've been to where there's like very much an exploratory structure where you can kind of like engage with things as much or as little as you want. And the important thing there is you can kind of back away from it, but not leave the experience entirely. And so it gives you that emotional space to negotiate and feel through some things. Yeah, so yes, consent, absolutely. If people need to back out, then let them back out. But how do you support them in that? I watched one piece that was about a difficult relationship between a woman and her husband. And I won't do a spoiler for how the piece ends, but it's one of these things where you can kind of like look one direction or another to choose which direction the story goes.

[00:33:44.543] Kent Bye: I think it was a broken knight.

[00:33:45.814] Ida Benedetto: Yes, Broken Knight. And the ending of that, it really shook me. And I had this weird experience of like, so it ends, and it ends fast. And I take the headset off, and I'm suddenly staring at this old friend who I had been trying to get in touch with for a year and a half, who was waiting for me to get out of the thing, and was really excited to see me. And I'm just like, oh my gosh I'm dealing with this like thing that like was like really intense and like suddenly I'm like in this moment of rejoicing because my friend is here like it was too much you know but like the piece was wonderful so it's like how like how do we when we think about like putting people through really intense even just dramatic arcs how do they come out of the headset you know and like I haven't seen enough attention to that

[00:34:30.985] Kent Bye: Yeah, the best approach that I've seen to that was probably condition one at Sundance this year. They had a really intense piece about animal rights. And when they were showing it there, you begin with a meditation experience. Okay, you're going to see something really intense. You watch it. And then at the end of it, they showed right after that, a tracking shot floating through an Aspen forest. and you have this time to decompress and check in. And I know from the sex party scene and the kink scene, there's this sort of check-in period that happens afterwards. Maybe you could talk a bit about that, you know, how it's approached in other contexts.

[00:35:07.857] Ida Benedetto: I mean, the parties I've been to, it's kind of like, you can leave whenever you like, but there's enough, like, you're never kind of, like, surrounded by people, right? There's enough room to move and negotiate. Yeah, so again, I think it's just that, like, being able to kind of, like, dial in, dial out without leaving the experience, because I think there's this, if you step out of the experience completely, or you're pulled out, or it ends, and you still need to readjust, or ground yourself, then you're actually taking all of the intensity of that experience out with you into your day-to-day life, and that's this piece of, you actually have to close the magic circle, and facilitate people stepping out of it. And if they're not ready to step out of it, because you've hit them with so much awe, right? The other side of the coin of awe is trauma, right? I actually think they're both a kind of blindness. if you hit someone too hard with that and then drop them out, you're not helping them re-acclimate, you're not helping them kind of like contextualize, and it doesn't have to be an overt helping. I think that instance you described of just like this lovely tracking shot, just to kind of like take a breath, that sounds like a wonderful technique, yeah.

[00:36:16.035] Kent Bye: Well, you've also mentioned in the process of your research, looking at the anthropology of ritual. And I think this is where ritual could have a lot to inform the process of experiential design is because you do have this process of opening up the circle, creating that container. And then once you're done, you get together and you deliberately close the container. And I think that's important. And even in some of these immersive theater experiences I've had, I felt like there wasn't necessarily a strong closing of the circle. It just sort of... ended without much attention to what would feel satisfying to kind of, you know, bring this experience to a close in some way. And so just curious as you're looking at this anthropology of ritual, what you've taken from looking at these different practices of ritual.

[00:37:01.509] Ida Benedetto: I mean, I think that this is an area where it's like, I can't wait to get to version two of the project where I've done like an even deeper dive into it. Yeah. And I think one thing that is probably super important with bringing the anthropological knowledge forward into our modern context is that many of these practices are done in the context of a community. And so the degree to which you are stepping out of the ritual is not actually as big of a stepping out as we often do when we are kind of leaving a group experience or leaving an aesthetic or media experience that we're not already in a social context of people that we're connected with that we can process it with. So yes, like all rituals that I've been involved with that are well-designed have this moment of like grounding connection where it's like we're not deep in the experience anymore, but we're still together. And that, yeah, that's only more important when, like, you're gonna walk out of an experience and not actually be connected to anybody else who went through it, you know, except for maybe, like, posting a tweet, you know, but that's not actually enough to, like, reckon with complete perspective restructuring, emotional restructuring. Like, if we're, yeah, if we're going into these, like, much more deeper and moving experiences that can provoke some sort of transformation, you know, like, the transformation, like, needs to be mediated by social connection.

[00:38:19.425] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had the experience of seeing Then She Fell. This was the thing I was just talking about that it just ended and I wondered if that was part of their experiential design to not encourage people to just start talking about their experience. To let it be inside of them and not try to put language to it because there's a lot of Experiences that you have that as soon as you start to try to describe them to someone who either didn't see that portion Almost start to corrupt or pollute that memory in some way So I don't know if that could be a way of actually kind of constraining and protecting that but you mentioned the different structures I'm wondering if you could kind of flesh that part of your your theory out because I think that that's another dimension of the exploratory and then bracing and other different structures that you have for a consensus around the rules and those boundaries to be able to actually facilitate that.

[00:39:09.493] Ida Benedetto: So the structures I've come up with, which are super broad, super high level. I feel like game design people are gonna burn me at the stake for simplifying stuff this thoroughly. But there's linear structures where one happening precedes another, and maybe not all participants go through the same thing, but it is a linear progression. So in the case of And Then She Fell, it actually is linear, because you're taking from one thing to the next, even though people don't experience everything in sequence. Then there's an exploratory structure where you actually have like a space to play and you have options of where to go and it's kind of up to you to decide what you want to do, how you want to play with it. Then there's a cyclical structure where certain things are repeated and it is through that repetition and that cycle that you create an intimacy with something that shifts your perspective. So in the case of the wilderness trip that specifically the one that I went on, even though we were going from point A to point B over the course of the week, the structure of it was actually cyclical because the thing that you know it's up to the guide to make sure we like reach our goal but actually the participants just have to get through the day and that the structure of the day is consistent as your roles change and through that cyclical repetition you actually acclimate to the wild. Many rituals deal with this too, in terms of like, it's a cycle, it's repeating something and that repetition kind of like lulls you into something. Let's see. And that, yeah, and then she fell is definitely linear. And part of the reason I came up with those structures is just because a lot of the contexts that I work in right now, especially, you know, we're sitting in my office at SY Partners in New York, where we do like management consulting, and a lot of it's about creating convenings of Leaders to discuss and engage with each other and the the defaults linear and it drives me bonkers, you know And it's like this is this doesn't have to be a linear experience Like maybe we set up a sandbox and it's actually exploratory, you know Or maybe they just need to repeat a few things and like try it over and over again and that'll shift their perspective so on the like absolute like highest most abstract level like those are the structures that I'm I Suggesting in terms of, you know, when you're first thinking about how your experience works, like pick one of those and then work within that. And similarly, your elemental theory of experience, if I'm calling it right, all of the elements are present in all experiences, but there's one that's going to really ground it. And I think the same thing happens with these experience structures. If you pick one approach to ground it, you can have other elements of the other ones kind of come up in little places, but the logic of the experience and how deep you can kind of lull people into it is like so much different. Yeah.

[00:41:39.796] Kent Bye: So I usually ask people what kind of VR experiences they want to have, but I'll just ask you more open-ended, like what kind of experiences that you want to have?

[00:41:49.602] Ida Benedetto: Well, I will say, I mean I've experienced a bunch of VR and I've actually been like teaching some folks who create VR and some of the most exciting experiences that I've been in for VR that I want to see more of are ones that are open world explorations, especially ones where the way you move has to do with your physicality. There was one experience I did it was at the oculus and kaleidoscope workshop in the fall that like you actually had to use your hands to crawl through the space and it was like this big like pink Martian landscape with like different physics and stuff but there was something about that because of the kind of immersiveness and the physicality of it like just felt so fun and also hallelujah, which I just saw at Tribeca the kind of physicality and the roundedness of that, of having somebody sing at you from all different directions and actually feeling the spatiality of that song, like the way it kind of grounds you in your body, those kinds of experiences really do it for me. And so the more VR can deal with like our physicality and like how we inhabit our body, the more excited I am. And I think that that's a consistent thing with the experiences that I looked at in terms of funerals, sex parties, wilderness trips. They're all super physical. And they're all generally much more physical than we have to deal with ourselves on a day-to-day basis. And so I think there's just something about it's very easy for me to get lost in my head. Anything that gets me back into my body, I'm like, oh yes, thank you. And I think VR, more than any other medium that I've seen, any other technological medium, is really great at that.

[00:43:28.336] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:43:39.423] Ida Benedetto: Oh, gosh. I don't know if I have a good answer for that one yet. There's some experiences that are really great at making us feel very small. Again, I think about my planetarium experiences going back when I was a kid. And I think VR has that potential, too, and the joy and freedom that comes with that smallness. Yeah. I don't know.

[00:43:59.399] Kent Bye: It seems like there's that awe in transformation. I mean, that's sort of the theme of your whole framework is looking at that process of figuring out how to have these human enrichment experiences and transformations. Well, is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:44:14.966] Ida Benedetto: I think just that like to let the VR community know that I'm like really excited about everything that's happening and people keep asking me if I'm doing VR and I'm like Not yet. So, you know if you have a chance to look at the design guide that I've come up with like yes I love putting bodies in a room together and getting them to do things that they like Otherwise wouldn't or out in the wild whatever it is But you know if you see an application for my work in your project, please be in touch because I'm really excited to interface about that Awesome.

[00:44:40.336] Kent Bye: Well, thank you so much.

[00:44:41.297] Ida Benedetto: Yeah, absolutely. This is great

[00:44:43.490] Kent Bye: So that was Ida Benedetto. She's an experiential designer who has a website called patternsoftransformation.com where she talks about sex, death, and survival and her design framework for creating transformative experiences. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I think it's a super interesting insight that a lot of these transformative experiences have some dimension of risk. The outdoor adventures are related to your physical risk. Funerals are related to an emotional risk of actually being present with your emotions. And it's really interesting to hear that the risk associated with the sex parties is a social risk around shame and humiliation and rejection. And in all of these different experiences, the fire element, which is the extent to which that you can take action and be in control of the situation, is also omnipresent within all of these different experiences. So Ida's website, patternsoftransformation.com, goes through her process of telling these different stories and breaking up her framework into these different component parts. And we covered it within the podcast, but we didn't necessarily give a high-level overview of all the different components and parts. So I just wanted to quickly go over that here. So let's start first with the structure of the overall experience, is the magic circle. And this is kind of like this consensus agreement that everybody's using in order to take ordinary actions and then to add additional meaning to them. That could be if you're playing a game and you're kicking a ball into a net. Kicking a ball in the net is very descriptive and mundane, but if you're in a magic circle, that could mean that you're scoring a goal. And so having the different rules that you are agreeing to helps cast that magic circle and help transport you into this other realm. So in Ida's framework, she's breaking that into two different types of magic circle, one that's conditioned versus one that's embraced. The conditioned one is kind of a consensual agreement where everybody within that magic circle has agreed upon these rules and they're playing along with them. The embraced one is kind of like a funeral where it's cast upon you and you have to embrace what would otherwise be a very overwhelming type of experience. Casting a magic circle within the context of a funeral allows you to step out of the boundaries and rules of your normal reality and have a little bit more of a ritualistic space to deal with something that would otherwise be extremely overwhelming. So in terms of the experience structure, this has to do with the narrative constructs that you're using. Is this an open exploratory sandbox, or does it have a linear progression, or does it have some sort of cyclical process and routine that's repeating day after day? So if you look at the immersive theater experience of Sleep No More, that's much more of an open sandbox that is combining this idea of cyclical processes where you can go anywhere that you want within this context, but there's a narrative that's unfolding that has a cycle and it repeats two to three times over the course of an evening. And so you're kind of catching the different dimensions of that narrative and story. The cyclical process also has to do with routines that you're doing day in and day out when it comes to You know, if you're going on an outdoor adventure that's a week long, you're going to have different mealtimes and you have different roles and responsibilities. So there's other dimensions of cyclical processes that can be included as well. Or it could just be a linear progression of events that are happening. So in terms of the content of the experience, this is where the risks and challenges come up, where there's the social, emotional, and physical risks, as well as the extent of how much control and agency you have within each of these situations. So this maps over pretty closely to my elemental theory of presence, where there's social and mental presence, emotional presence, embodied presence, as well as active presence. And so all of these different elements of presence are happening at the same time. And it's more about the center of gravity of what are the things that you're really focusing on and trying to unpack here. Now, in looking at the combination of game design and flow theory in this model called GameFlow, there's other dimensions of the content of the experience, which is essentially like the game, the challenges that you're trying to overcome, where you get immediate feedback of those challenges, and there's some clear goals that you're trying to achieve. So as you're designing the content of an experience, this is where you set forth all of that. And finally, there's the experience that you're trying to give to the guest or the player who's going through this experience. With the combination of the structure and the content of the experience, you are invoking some level of internal subjective experience of the guest and player. And if you're able to have enough risk associated with that, then you're able to potentially catalyze some sort of transformation. And Ida identifies three different areas that she sees. There's either transformation that comes from some sort of repetition and practice of repeating the same thing over and over again. There's acute transformation that happens within the context of a sudden death or losing your job. And then there's a dramatic transformation where it has to do with the story that you tell yourself about what your experience means as you're going through it. Eric Darnell makes a distinction between film and VR by saying that Film is essentially a medium where you listen to the story of somebody else's experience whereas in VR or these immersive experiences you're given the experience and it's up to you to tell the story of that and If you go through a dramatic arc of events, then you start to construct your own story as to what that means So the steps that Ida lays out in her process is to identify the risk you want to focus on, distill what is really worthwhile in that risk, commit to an overall experience structure that can contain that, construct the magic circle to have the shared context that everybody's going to go through, hold space for that transformation. And at the end, you close the magic circle and then check in with everybody afterwards. So after going through a number of these different trespass adventures, Ida really saw that the thing that she was really interested in is this process of transformation, as well as these experiences that have some element of human enrichment, and they have some meaning for people, and that they're really able to get something out of it that sticks with them in a way that is very meaningful. And so there's this balance between trying to invoke these states of awe, but at the same time, have some sort of actual real risk and tangible threat that you have, such that you have to overcome that threat and feel like that you're actually able to grow and change as a result of that. And I think it's interesting to think about this spectrum between trying to evoke these states of all versus doing things that could be very traumatizing for people. And when you're talking about the process of transformation, then you kind of have to figure out where that boundary is. And if you are trying to really push that boundary, then what are the types of things that you're doing in order to take care of someone as they come out of the experience or have some sort of way of closing that magic circle to allow a level of transition from whatever experience they're having to be able to go back into the real world and more seamlessly integrate their experiences. So, that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for going on this journey on sex, death, and survival on today's episode. And if you enjoy the podcast, there's a couple things that you can do. You can just spread the word, tell someone who you think might enjoy this episode, and consider becoming a member to the Patreon. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference to allow me to continue to bring you this coverage, and we're going to be having more live streams, Q&As, and other membership benefits coming here soon. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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