Digital stars converge on Vancouver for festival

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This week marks the return of the Vancouver International Digital Festival, running May 21 to 24. Of all the events taking place at Vidfest—from industry mixers and networking events to seminars and presentations—the one I’m most looking forward to is the talk on May 23 by Susan Bonds, president and executive producer of 42 Entertainment, and Alex Lieu, the company’s chief creative officer, about their work on alternate-reality games.

42 Entertainment is known for creating a number of wildly successful ARGs, including I Love Bees, tied to the Halo 2 video-game launch; Dead Man’s Tale, an immersive experience for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; and the currently running Why So Serious?, part of the viral campaign for the next Batman film, The Dark Knight.

In an interview, Bonds told the Straight that she and Lieu plan to talk about the power of ARGs, which she called “transmedia experiences”. As a case study, they’ll be referring to the Year Zero ARG, created for Nine Inch Nails.

“That was a great example of the power of what we’ve been doing, which is connecting with an audience and building a strong community that followed the experience and formed the hive mind, or collective intelligence, to see how the story would unfold,” Bonds said.

Lieu explained that Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor saw the ARG as an elaborate album cover, with multimedia content—including video clips on “lost” flash drives that were found by fans at concerts, audio messages delivered to cellphones, and surreptitious websites—performing the task once accomplished by the contents of an album.

Pink Floyd used the liner notes of The Wall to create a context for its vision; Reznor used an ARG. “We build backdrops and a world,” Lieu said, “and Reznor wanted to extend out the themes of the songs he had created in a way that felt tangible and real, that all painted a larger picture.”

Players of Year Zero entered a world in which America is ruled by a Christian dictatorship. “We were able to lead the players through a series of challenges that ultimately landed them in an L.A. resistance meeting that turned out to be a secret, personal concert by Nine Inch Nails for about 50 fans,” Bonds said.

“We believe that the Year Zero project was ahead of its time in terms of blurring the line between an experience that intersects and can live in and around its native format,” she added, “basically extending the primary format in which the entertainment is delivered, in this case, music.”

Vidfest has expanded its scope, and this year includes the Vancouver International Game Summit and Convergence 2008. If you’re feeling disoriented by the timing of the annual event, that’s because it last took place in September. While previous Vidfests were held in June, organizers at New Media BC moved the 2007 event to coincide with the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Kenton Low, president of the industry association, told the Straight that his vision for a Digital Week in Vancouver brought the conference back to its spring origins. “There were all these events that were occurring in these different sectors,” he said on the phone from his office. “I wondered if there was a way to start connecting, consolidating a lot of the events.”

Low contacted Victoria’s Reboot Communications, organizer of the Vancouver International Game Summit, which showed interest, but due to contractual obligations was committed to holding the summit in late May. After polling the industry, Low discovered there was sufficient interest to stage another Vidfest a scant eight months after the last event.

Things kick off on Wednesday and Thursday (May 21 and 22) with the Vancouver International Game Summit, which boasts keynote speeches by Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, and Jason Rubin, cofounder and former president of Naughty Dog, developer of the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter franchises. There will also be panel sessions looking at management, technology, and design issues faced by video-game developers.

Also taking place on May 22 is Convergence 2008, a digital marketing and communications forum organized by Cossette West. Sandy Fleischer, vice president and general manager of Fjord Interactive Marketing + Technology, a division of Cossette, told the Straight that Convergence is for marketing professionals who are looking to learn about the latest trends in digital marketing and want to get practical advice about what does and doesn’t work. Last year, only Cossette clients were invited to the event, but partnering with Vidfest has provided an opportunity to open the event up to the public. “We’ve got some cutting-edge work being done locally,” Fleischer said. “This Digital Week is in part a celebration of that.”

Topics to be discussed at Convergence include branding, blogger relations, search-engine optimization, and measuring the effectiveness of social media. The event’s featured speaker is Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist from MIT who has been tracking consumer trends in the context of brands and niche markets.

Chris Anderson, whose book The Long Tail explores that same line of thinking, will be on-stage the next day. The editor in chief of Wired magazine will deliver the keynote address at Vidfest’s Creative Exchange Conference. Anderson will talk about how companies survive financially when nearly everything on the Web is available for free. This topic was the cover story of the March issue of Wired, and will be the subject of Anderson’s new book, Free, due out later this year.

Other sessions include a presentation by Eric McLuhan, son of Marshall McLuhan; a panel discussion on how to save the Internet and preserve digital freedom; and another on how Web sites are being used to create social change. The latter will feature representatives from Design CanChange.org (an initiative to encourage and promote designers who “embrace sustainability”), NothingButNets.net (which provides mosquito nets to people in Africa to prevent the spread of malaria), and Kiva.org (which enables person-to-person micro-loans in support of entrepreneurs in developing countries).

The apex of Vidfest 2008 is the PopVox Awards, whose winners are chosen by the public. The awards will be handed out on Friday (May 23) during a gala affair at the Great Northern Way Campus’s Hangar. Digital Week wraps up Saturday (May 24) at Emily Carr Institute, where there will be a recruiting fair and a pitch session for new video games.

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