Experience design is the 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.
When at their best, sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips all fall in the ‘human enrichment’ category. The most stunning commonality among these experiences is that the risk posed to the participant also poses a chaotic and uncontrollable element to the guide that, if fully tamed, destroys the transformative potential of the experience.
In the case of sex parties, the potentially chaotic element that the guide needs to manage is human sexuality and desire. For funerals and post-death customs generally, the risky element at play is human emotions around mourning. For wilderness trips, the uncontrollable element is the inherently vulnerable nature of human life when put in a context that challenges basic survival needs.
Additional similarities include:
The experiences are interpersonal and require active participation.
The experiences are in some way inexhaustible, in that what the participant does and takes away from the experience has such wide variety and depth that it cannot be fully prescribed by the designer.
Following sociologist Erving Goffman’s definition of a social encounter, the experiences are bound by space, time, goings-on, and co-presence.
Building Blocks of the Vocabulary
Without a vocabulary to identify what the possibilities are, improving on the design of high-stakes experiences like sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips is an impossible task. With a vocabulary, however, we are better equipped to design transformative experiences suitable for complex, modern situations where blueprints from past traditions don’t offer us all the answers we need.
Drawing from game studies, the anthropology of ritual, and positive psychology, I’ve identified the critical building blocks of the vocabulary to be: Risk, The Magic Circle, Experience Structure, and Transformation. These parts show up in wildly different kinds of intimate, transformative social gatherings.
1. Identify the Risk
Risk is a threat to one’s current state that can destabilize the way things are. Getting specific about the risk is your first step to designing an experience. The broad categories of risk are social, emotional, and physical, but don’t stop there. Drill deep and get as specific as possible about the risk facing the people you are designing for.
If what initially comes up are higher order risks, like financial, political, or legal risks, look for the deeper root of the threat. The root of the higher order risk may stretch back into one of the primal risks I discuss here. Addressing the primal risk through an experience can go a long way to freeing someone to fully engage the higher order risks they face.
2. Distill What is Worthwhile in the Risk
Not all risks are worth confronting. It’s your job as the designer to identify if a particular risk is actually the deceptive wrapping of a gift that your participants will benefit from receiving. Is there something the participants can reconnect with, discover, or open up to by confronting the risk at hand?
Be mindful of cultural norms, life stages, and personal agendas (yours and theirs) when taking this step.
3. Commit To an Experience Structure
What experience structure is best suited to support the participants in confronting the worthwhile risk? At the highest level, options for an experience structure include exploratory, progressive, or cyclical structures. The experience structure dictates how participants move through the space inside the magic circle.
You can look at the experience structure as defining the responsibilities of the designer, the facilitators (if different than the designer) and the participants. The experience structure is an unspoken contract between all parties. What can they rely on you to take care of, and how does that free them up to confront the worthwhile risk?
4. Construct the Magic Circle
Be mindful of the invisible perimeter that your participants need to cross to get into your experience and engage fully. Don’t leave the magic circle to chance. Do the work of helping them across that perimeter. Once they are inside, keep the perimeter strong so as to keep out disruptive elements. In this system, a magic circle can be either conditioned or embraced.
5. Hold the Space For Transformation
Once the worthwhilerisk, the experience structure, and the magic circle in place, transformation can unfold. Holding open the space for transformation is an active process. It involves keeping the experience structure functioning, ensuring the magic circle stays strong enough to ward off destructive intrusions, and balancing the level of risk with participants’ skill and willingness to navigate the challenge.
I have identified three kinds of transformation; repetitive, acute, and dramatic. Knowing which of the three is afoot will help you identify if a struggle the participant confronts in any one moment is beneficial or harmful. Generally speaking, struggle on the part of the participants is a good thing, and transformation can produce some unrefined moments of struggle. Protect those moments. Let them be as raw and vulnerable as they need to be.
6. Close the Magic Circle
Given the chaotic nature of transformation and the risks that your participants come into contact with, closing the magic circle is a necessary step to ensure their well-being after the experience. Otherwise, the difficult and unresolved aspects of what they went through can cling to them in a destructive way.
It’s impossible to resolve everything that happens inside the magic circle. It wouldn’t be magical otherwise! But it is your responsibility to make sure participants clearly and fully step out of it, leaving those unresolved parts inside the magic circle to be returned to if and when the time is right.
7. Check In
A light check-in after some time has passed reinforces the safety you are providing to your participants. It creates an opening for them to address any issues that have percolated over time. You may need to help someone who hasn’t fully stepped out of the magic circle, or you might need to reassure someone that the transformational change they feel is healthy, even if uncomfortably new.
Case Study Patterns
Combining options from each category of the vocabulary creates patterns of transformational experiences. Below are the patterns that I noticed in the sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips I participated in. (Read about them in detail on the Designing Dangerously page, if you haven’t already.)
Completed case studies: