What is it?
Risk is any threat to one’s current state that offers the potential to destabilize the way things are. Higher order risks can include financial, political, and legal risks. Primal risks threaten our emotional, social, or physical well-being. Risk can be closely associated with uncertainty, challenge, and reward. Exposing oneself to risks in order to achieve a goal is what makes an experience gratifying.
While risks are threatening, they can also be thrilling. Just because a risk is perceived doesn’t mean that the risk is real. Sometimes, the most dangerous risks are those that are not perceived. Relying on our unconscious to steer us away from risks makes life manageable, as long as we can trust our unconscious to properly identify the risks. Occasionally waking up from our unconscious steering can put us back in touch with something enriching and transformative.
How others describe it:
“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but exercising control in difficult situations… Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist
“Among the general characteristics of play we reckoned tension and uncertainty. There is always the question: ‘Will it come off?’”
– Johan Huizinga, Play Theorist
“I further understand and acknowledge that the activities of the courses have risks, including certain risks, which are inherent. Inherent risks are those which cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activities. The same elements that contribute to the unique character of these activities can cause loss or damage to equipment, accidental injury, illness, or, in extreme cases, permanent trauma, disability or death.”
– National Outdoor Leadership School student agreement
The most important decisions that an experience designer makes is what risks to let the participants navigate themselves versus what risks to mitigate for them. It helps early on in the design process to identify what kind of risk is at play and if there is something worthwhile in having the participants confront it. The designer can prioritize risk management strategies that will support the participants getting into the experience and engage with the risk to a reasonable degree of safety. Too much risk management in the wrong places destroys the value of the experience.
In the case of funerals, some of the less conventional funeral directors I talked to criticized the funeral industry for taking too much risk out the experience and thus interrupting the bereavement process. In the case of wilderness trips, how much risk to strip away depended on the skill and cohesion of the group, which must be constantly reassessed as participants adapt to the conditions and develop prowess for surviving in the wild. For sex parties, risk is managed through who is let in under what circumstances and by enforcing a code of conduct. Here, the balance of gender, sexual orientation, and social skills are elements that can tip the risk scale at an event from tantalizing to off-putting.
Which risks are mitigated is probably the single biggest factor for dictating whether transformation is possible. Often, experiences that claim to be transformational fall short because they strip out too much worthwhile risk or they fail to mitigate fringe risks enough to help the participant encounter worthy challenges head on.