Karen: Your New Life Coach or New Best Friend?

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In 2014, Blast Theory released “Karen,” a mobile game where a woman named Karen acts as the user’s life coach. The game is designed to give the user life advice based on their answers to the questions that the software curates, and Karen asks.

Blast Theory partnered with ‘The Space” and National Theatre Wales in order to create this project. Blast Theory is a group that creates interactive experiences with social and political motives that focus directly on the audience.

IMG_1694.pngAccording to the creators, Karen was created to form a “personal and intimate” experience between the user and their smartphone through direct contact with a lead character. This is accomplished through a daily video call with Karen. The creators wanted to leave the user with a mental decision of how open to be with a stranger, and receive direct assessment about their personality.

The motive behind Karen was the company’s “fascination with big data,” and how computer systems and the government take our information and use it – sometimes without our consent.

When the game begins, Karen asks a few questions about the user’s overall outlook on the world in order to get a general understanding of what they are like. According to the creators of the game, her questions are drawn from psychological profiling questionnaires.

As the game continues and time goes on, Karen develops opinions about the user that she is not afraid to share, even though they may not be pleasant. She also develops an infatuation with the user as she grows more comfortable. She starts to call more often, from different places and talk about unconventional topics for a life coach.

My experience with the game is comparable to a roller coaster ride. I had feelings of nervousness and anxiety before beginning because I did not know the type of questions I would be asked, how many times I would be speaking with Karen or the general vibe of each session.

I started playing the game on a Monday and continued playing till the end, which lasted just under two weeks.

At the start I had one session per day. The first question that Karen asked me was the part of my life that was most important to me at the moment and I answered relationships. From there, the majority of our sessions related back to my answer to that question.

By the third day of my experience, Karen began to blur the line between client IMG_1723and friend. When I called her for my third session she was wearing only a robe. The session was also solely based on a story about herself, in which she told me about the days she did drugs with her friends.

After day three, along with being unprofessional within the sessions, Karen began to become obsessive. With the game, the user receives a singular iPhone notification as a reminder to call Karen. By this time, she was sending four or five reminders within minutes to get me to call her right away. She would claim that I was ignoring her and that talking to her is the most important thing.

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The next few days were relatively similar. Within the sessions Karen would ask one or two questions about me in the beginning, such as if I had a significant other, or what I think about before falling asleep. Other than that, the sessions revolved around her. She told me personal stories about her previous relationships and the dates she is going on. Along with the personal stories, Karen conducted these sessions from her bedroom and bathroom, which was uncomfortable.

At this point, I came to the conclusion that Karen may not be obsessed with me, but obsessed with having a companion to share her feelings with.

Aside from Karen, another character in the game was her friend Dave. Near the end of my experience Dave called me multiple times on his own asking if I wanted to know more about Karen. When I responded that her personal life was none of my business, he said that I was boring. He also confessed that Karen was obsessed with speaking to me and that my opinions on situations held significant value in her mind.

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At the conclusion of the game, I was given the option to purchase a “data report” for four pounds. I did not purchase the data report, and the game concluded.

Overall, my interactions with Karen were really uncomfortable. The stories she told were too personal and the way she presented herself was unprofessional. In the beginning I was looking forward to the sessions, but by the middle I was starting to get annoyed at the constant reminders from Karen.

The app itself was high functioning. It never froze and the sessions always ran smoothly. The only downside was that the sessions were extremely short, especially in the beginning. Karen would ask one or two questions and then hang up.

A personal downside was that as an iPhone X user with no home button, I had a hard time closing out the app after each conversation. I was forced to press ‘rate,’ which would then send me to the app store to leave a review before I could return to my home screen.

I think that this game is an effective form of journalism because of how uncomfortable it makes the user. As the user becomes more uncomfortable with how much Karen knows about their personality, the realization sets in of how much information our computer systems know about us from everyday use.

Compared to other journalistic techniques, I think that this mobile game is advanced. The sessions with Karen seem more genuine because it is a video-call and she responds to us specifically based on how we react to her. The level of interactivity is extremely high, which makes this type of journalism engaging.

After launching the mobile game, Blast Theory received a ton of mixed feedback. Users who did not have a positive experience described the game on Google Reviews as, “a strange interactive experience with a fictional overdramatic and unprofessional life coach” or “ends up being videos of a stranger rambling about her life.”

I think that a lot of the people who criticize the game misinterpreted the point of it. I think that people may have been expecting a literal life coach for their struggles, whereas the game is meant to have a deeper psychological meaning.

On the contrary, the game received 4.3 out of 5 stars in the Apple iTunes store. A positive reaction stated, “it is definitely an eye opener in how technology can intertwine with human emotions.”

The New York Times reviewed the game and called “Karen” an “intriguing tool for exploring the knotty relationship between digital personalization and human solipsism.”

My own personal criticism is that if you do not pay for the data report at the end of the game, you may not feel fulfilled at the end of the experience. However, I believe that the game itself is still extremely intriguing without the data report.

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 3.09.27 PMBlast Theory has released multiple engaging interactive experiences such as “Karen.” For example, in 2010 they released “Ivy4Evr.” This is a week long interactive where Ivy, a 17-year-old teen, would tell the user everything about her life via SMS and the user would have to decide what they would tell her in return.

Blast Theory continues to release new interactive experiences every year. Although “Karen” was released nearly four years ago, people still continue to engage with this interactive. Blast Theory’s latest work allows the user to explore London from a futuristic perspective.

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BBC’s Syrian Refugee Interactive: Educational or Tasteless?

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On March 31st, 2015, the BBC published “Syrian Journey: Choose Your Own Escape Route,” an interactive game where users are forced to make difficult choices as if themselves and their families were fleeing Syria for Europe. The game is designed to provide users with an understanding of the real life dilemmas that Syrian refugees face on a daily basis.

Protests against the government in Syria began in 2011 and a massive war followed shortly after, which forced millions of people to flee the country. It was published three months prior to The Guardian’s article that said the current number of Syrian refugees in places such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq was over four million.

According to BBC News, the entire games; routes, options, and outcomes were based on real stories from the Syrian refugee crisis. BBC Arabic conducted countless hours of research on the topic. The research was conducted by Mamdouh Akbiek and Eloise Dicker, who were also involved in the BBC’s publishing of “Syria From Space,” showing how the war severely impacted electricity.

At the start of the game, users are instructed to select a “character” in order to begin their journey – male or female. Immediately, the tough decisions begin. Users must decide the details of their escape plan, such as traveling to Turkey or Greece, paying a smuggler money or not, and traveling by sea or land.

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Every answer either forces a new question or ends the journey if the wrong choice is made. If you make the wrong choice, your fate is revealed. Some are fatal, while others indicate being sent back to Syria. Users are encouraged to “try again” if they make the wrong choice.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.10.43 AMMuch like many other users, my journey was not smooth. I made several wrong choices under pressure and was forced to start over multiple times. On my eighth try, the game revealed that I would “make it to Europe.”

Clearly, even in a simulated version of such a horrible event it is difficult to make decisions that would impact myself and my family.

Other than the mentally taxing wrong decisions I made while playing, the interactive game itself was clear, easy to use, and did not lag. The next question in the sequence appeared instantly after making the previous choice and the overall experience was not very time-consuming.

In addition to the interactive journey, additional elements of this experience included real survivor stories as well as descriptions and pictures of items that the refugees took with them when fleeing the country. Users were encouraged to “hash tag” the phrase “#whatwouldyoutake” on their social media platforms with a list of things they would bring with them if they were put in a similar, awful situation.

Although the interactive experience was published nearly three years ago, people are still continuing to use it and discuss items that they would bring with them if they needed to escape. The experience is continuing to bring light to such a drastic situation that the Syrian people went through.

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I think that this form of journalism is effective, but extremely controversial. The simplicity of the game makes a complex issue more understandable for an everyday user. It provides enough background and context of the refugee crisis in addition to the game itself. This form of journalism puts users in a real life situation that is impacting millions of people and forces the participant to think about the seriousness of this crisis in relation to their own personal lives. The game is engaging, but the stories and videos of the survivors are what make this form of journalism memorable and provide the user with an emotional connection.

 

Although effective in my opinion, I believe that this type of journalism in a situation like this is very controversial. Real people are being ripped from their homes and the place they have lived their whole life because of a chaotic war. The situations being presented to us in a “game” format are decisions that these people really have to make. It is effective because it is engaging and forces us to think, but calling this horrible situation a game is unsettling to me as a user.

Many other users and bloggers were critical of the game. Notably, Chris Walker, a Middle East expert told The Sun, “In the midst of probably the bloodiest Syrian crisis this century, the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.”

Social media was also flooded with negative reactions to the BBC’s interactive experience. Users called the game “awful” and “tasteless.”

The BBC defended their choice to make the game by saying, “Syrian Journey is an interactive experience, based on real-life stories told to our journalists, which shows audiences the choices faced by thousands of Syrian families every day.  The project has achieved over a million online hits.”

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Particularly, the latter portion of the statement regarding the amount of hits the project received in unsettling. It makes me question as an active audience member if the BBC is only concerned with the amount of traffic their site gets compared to the feelings of the refugees that this game is based upon and their users that are uncomfortable with the project.

Not all feedback was negative, however, as The Guardian supported the BBC’s decision to create a game like this. They called the game, “a digestible introduction to the concept of trafficking, and the desperate uncertainty of migration.” This reaction from The Guardian is not surprising as they launched their own interactive game in 2014 where the user assumes the role of a Syrian refugee.

The BBC has done other projects similar to the interactive Syrian refugee game. The corporation has created innovative ways to engage users as both technology and journalism are advancing.

In the beginning of 2015, the BBC launched BBC Taster, where users can take part in interactive content such as virtual reality and games. This allows BBC to experiment with new digital content and get direct feedback from the audience through ratings and shares. BBC Taster has given the audience a chance to take a walk through space virtually, and interact with an inmate on death row through an engaging documentary.

Though the BBC has developed many similar projects, none have received as much backlash as the Syrian refugee game. I think that although the game is meant to inform, it is hard to walk the fine line between educational and inappropriate when the given situation has a negative impact on millions of people.

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There is currently an ongoing effort to help the displaced Syrian refugees reunite with their families. To read more about this effort and to get involved, click here.