welcome to the InPark Magazine media hub & IPM editors' blog - please stay, browse, share & sign up for a free subscription

23 August 2012

The Participation Culture: What I learned from the Man (Burning Man)

"Burning Man has lit a fire in the themed entertainment industry. The subject keeps coming up in professional design meetings and brainstorming charrettes. What does it have to tell us?"

IPM guest blogger George Wiktor is a creative executive with over 25 years of experience producing and project management of custom designed theme parks, world’s fair pavilions, and cultural and educational complexes. He is president of The GW Group, and a past president of the Themed Entertainment Association. George’s first visit to Burning Man, motivated by curiosity and research, turned him into a dedicated “Burner” and annual citizen of Black Rock City.

The bright glowing circle of fire spins in the darkness drawing me through the desert. Nearing, I see a gathering of people watching, embers washing over them. They stare into the circle of fire and sway to the rhythms of the nearby Art Car. In the inferno, logs tumble through the Firewheel. People dressed in orange coveralls tend the fire and spin the wheel. It’s here that I finally make my connection with The Man. 
Photos: George Wiktor and Burning Man. (c) all rights reserved
It’s been three days. I am in total overload. But I have not yet connected. I have, however, been thinking about this moment – my first visit to Burning Man - for five years. I prepared for six weeks. Read the survival guide.  Surfed the bulletin boards. Bought the essentials. I even have vinegar water in a spray bottle to neutralize the caustic effect of the alkaline plain we are calling home for these few days. 


"As we create and develop places that look to attract today’s and tomorrow’s audiences, we need to focus on our audience’s fundamental need to participate."

Now I stand in awe of this natural spectacle. A homemade fireworks display created by the most awesome yet primitive fire. Ah! The spirit of The Man. 

Man? What man? Of course I’m talking about Burning Man. You may wonder what I – I, George Wiktor, a gentleman of a certain age - am doing here in the middle of a caustic Borax desert in 120-degree heat.

It’s simple. Burning Man has lit a fire in the themed entertainment industry. The subject keeps coming up in professional design meetings and brainstorming charrettes. What does it have to tell us?

Photos: George Wiktor and Burning Man. (c) all rights reserved.
For those of you who may have been living under a rock for the last quarter century, Burning Man is not any old arts festival, nor is it a Renaissance Faire for the counterculture. It is, in fact, THE art festival and a community that rises out of the Nevada desert for a week. Fifty-thousand people gather, camp in extreme conditions, and create a participatory, cross-cultural, gifting, open society. What’s going on here? Is this, perhaps a lens into the future of group entertainment? Is this the themed experience model of the future?

For designers and producers in the Experience industry, it’s part of the brief to explore the intersection of the culture of today and tomorrow, and the future of entertainment. How does today’s audience want to experience shows, events and theme parks? More importantly, how does being a citizen of the digital age impact audience expectations? Does living in the digital age demand a totally new style of entertainment? Is technology a key ingredient? Has there been a paradigm shift, and if so, can we define it?

In order to answer those questions, we have to take a short detour to explore a world empowered by the digital. It is understood that we have moved beyond technology for technology’s sake into a society facilitated by technology. Technology has become a utility and a tool to achieve our continuously evolving society. The digital- and Internet-fueled games, media and communications on our devices are aids to creating personal social connections more complex and varied than ever before. Concurrently, there seems to be a growing comfort with - and possibly a necessity for- creating individual personae that interact within these digital worlds. 

"For designers and producers in the Experience industry, it’s part of the brief to explore the intersection of the culture of today and tomorrow, and the future of entertainment." 
Photos: George Wiktor and Burning Man. (c) all rights reserved.
Within the game, it is just as important to create your character as it is to play the game. Some games are actually nothing more than creating a character with ever increasing powers and capabilities to inhabit specific worlds. Social networking sites are not just about extending and maintaining your circle of friends: They are also about creating your own persona in your own space to attract visits from friends and others. The result? Everyone is participating in creating entertainment for everybody else.  

"How does today’s audience want to experience shows, events and theme parks?"

This “Participation Culture” is one of the key differentiators. Beyond technology. Beyond interactivity. Beyond clever media delivery. Beyond 4D immersive shows and environments. We now have participants in entertainment creating that entertainment for themselves. More participants means more entertainment as well as more varied entertainment.   

Burning Man is the Participation Culture brought out into the physical world, a physicalization of the online world. This joy of participation is spilling into the real world. My daughter reminds me computers and mobile phones are “not the only thing we do, Dad. We like to get out there in the world. It’s just that we like to bring the things we do online with us.” 

Her comment is intriguing especially in light of what I’ve observed at Burning Man as a participant for the past four years. Although its formation has been increasingly fueled by a huge online buzz, Black Rock City - the temporary, 11th-largest city in Nevada, right after Carson City - has historically been an offline community. You go out into the desert and get off the grid. But in my role as a volunteer at the information/lost-and-found booth, I’ve fielded an increasing number of inquiries about getting online. It isn’t so much a demand as an organic need, a natural thing to do. 
Photos: George Wiktor and Burning Man. (c) all rights reserved.
"Burning Man today stands as one of the prime examples of the online Participation Culture that feeds into the real world. Those of us creating entertainment as well as reality-based information attractions need to understand this."

Participation culture is partly influenced by the culture of online interaction and I can easily imagine the offline city soon becoming online, perhaps with parameters in place that induce real-world interaction and help Black Rock citizens find their tribes. As foreshadowing we are now seeing Experience designers, young and not-so-young, consciously and actively work with media tools to promote, even force face-to-face shared experiences within attractions rather than have guests individually absorbed by their individual devices.

Burning Man has a reputation of being a free-for-all; with drugs, nudity, anarchy, and an anything-goes attitude. But seen first-hand, it turns out to be a highly structured, well-organized, law abiding, civil society: A society that encourages self expression and self reliance in an incredibly inhospitable physical environment. Commercial activity is prohibited and, refreshingly, there are no corporate sponsors. The place operates on gifting with no expectation of return.
And most importantly, participation is the key to the success of this event because participation is a form of gifting. Everyone is focused on adding to the success of everyone else’s experience. Whether it be creating an art installation, volunteering in the cafĂ©, building a lounge in your camp, or providing entertainment for everyone, all the participants add to the overall experience.
"Who knows where the participation will lead?"
The Firewheel is a perfect example. A group of individuals came together to conceptualize and execute a complex art and entertainment installation. Each night they gathered and for many hours operated this primitive and literal fireworks display. Why?  Well… for no other reason than to provide visual delight to their fellow Burners, to participate on a grand scale, and to add to the overall success of this extravagant event.

Over the last 25 years, Burning Man has evolved and today it stands as one of the prime examples of the online Participation Culture that feeds into the real world. Those of us creating entertainment as well as reality-based information attractions need to understand this. As we create and develop places that look to attract today’s and tomorrow’s audiences, we need to focus on our audience’s fundamental need to participate. 

Photos: George Wiktor and Burning Man. (c) all rights reserved.
We need to create infrastructure-based attractions that encourage creative participation. Such attractions change over time, as a result of the direct participation of our audience. Who knows where the participation will lead? In our world, perhaps we should be designing attractions that evolve through the course of a day. Each night they re-set to zero and the cycle of participation begins again. 
It is a big risk. But with the glowing example of Burning Man to empower us, designing for the Participation Culture will prove to be fun, unpredictable and very satisfying.

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the TEA Annual & Directory, published by the Themed Entertainment Association. Reprinted with permission.

For the official Burning Man survival guide, visit this link.


Posted by Picasa