The content society 5: the stakes of deepfakes

EN



Deepfakes ('deep learning'-generated 'fake' pictures) are videos where the face of individuals are replaced with other faces, using plug-and-play artificial intelligence software. There are porn videos where the face of the performer has been replaced by the face of a celebrity.
This is yet another expression of the way the digital environment struggles with sincerity. Things are not what they appear to be over there.
All kinds of people might be pondering the use of deepfakes:
- TV comedians and propagandists
- spies, social engineers and blackmailers (kompromat)
- advertisers and scammers
- pranksters (large scale ones, think the Laughing Man from Ghost in the Shell Stand-Alone Complex)

Imagine a future where video alteration is so pain-free that no video can be taken at face value. The process of making people appear to say things or do things would be industrialised, videos being altered in all of your video viewing environment, videos being altered in real-time, videos featuring faces and other items that are customized to each viewer.
Imagine a future where computer malware would alter in real-time the video feed you receive through communication software.
As far as I can tell, this future is just around the corner.

FR



La société du contenu 5 : les enjeux de la manipulation logicielle des images

Les deepfakes sont des vidéos dans lesquelles certains visages sont remplacés par d'autres, grâce à l'utilisation de logiciels d'intelligence artificielle simples à utiliser, reposant sur des techniques dites d'"apprentissage profond". Dans certaines vidéos pornographiques, le visage de l'actrice a ainsi pu être remplacé par celui d'une célébrité.
C'est une expression supplémentaire de la relation pour le moins tortueuse de l'environnement numérique avec la sincérité. Les choses n'y sont pas ce qu'elles paraissent.

Toutes sortes de gens sont peut-être en train de réfléchir à l'utilisation de deepfakes:
- les humoristes de la télévision et les propagandistes
- les espions, ingénieurs sociaux et maîtres chanteurs (kompromat)
- les publicitaires et arnaqueurs
- les amateurs de canulars (à grande échelle, imaginez le Rieur dans la série d'animation Ghost in the Shell Stand-Alone Complex)

Imaginez un avenir où les modifications des vidéos deviennent si faciles qu'aucune vidéo ne puisse plus être prise pour argent comptant. Le procédé consistant à faire dire ou faire n'importe quoi à n'importe qui serait industrialisé, les vidéos seraient modifiés sur tous vos écrans, en temps réel, avec des visages et d'autres objets personnalisés en fonction de chaque spectateur.
Imaginez un avenir où les logiciels malveillants modifieraient en temps réel le flux vidéo que vous recevriez via vos logiciels de communication.
Autant que je puisse en juger, cet avenir est imminent.

Camarades !

Je vous appelle camarades
Car nous partageons tous
Le pain du temps
Et la camarde

Enlightenment in Blood: AAR and interview with Juhanna Pettersson

Enlightenment in Blood (EiB) was a Nordic style live action roleplaying (larp) game set in Berlin on the 12th of May, 2017, using the World of Darkness setting. It was a pervasive game, blending the real (RAW Gelände area) and the fictional (pretend vampires pretending to be hiding from mortals), with players moving in the streets of the city between ten different locations. Think of it like an augmented reality game where, instead of trying to catch monsters in the crowd, you would roleplay one (with other players).
The game designers delivered a range of character concepts (via Larpweaver, a Incognita Limited software). The one I picked was the Serial Entrepreneur: he would create a business, sell it, then create another one, etc. It was up to me to flesh it up a bit. I decided "Marc Laurentes" would be all about social entrepreneurship: trying to do business in a socially responsible fashion and using it as a key selling point with both mortals and vampires. Did this concern for the impact of his business ventures spring from a sincere, deep-rooted need to help and contribute? Only on the surface. Rather, it was a way for him to have something to sell, to grandstand, to be able to gain legitimacy from a new secular and fashionable religion. It was also a way for him to fight the emptiness in his heart and life, to cope with the Beast inside. He was a vampire, and every little shred of humanity was precious.
The design of the game included open groups and groups with secret membership. Marc Laurentes was part of the Hope Foundation, a coterie of like-minded "philanthropists" that, when you looked at the numbers, was about gentrification with a profit. This social dimension reminded me of the plight of dreary and forlorn Gary, Indiana, in 1st edition Vampire: The Masquerade. Full circle, back to the roots of vampire prosperity amid mortal misery! What we did with this basic setup was up to ourselves, and indeed the Hope Foundation did profit from the upheaval. Its members survived, associated themselves with the fall of the Prince and kept at range from the most violent elements. We arranged an alliance with the Ethics Committee. To get a broader sense of how the evening unfolded, check the Nordic larp article by Sarah Lynne Bowman.


So, I had a few questions and Juhanna Pettersson, the designer of the game (one among many persons who conspired to make this event a success) was kind enough to answer them.

Designing the Berlin of Darkness
The events which took place in Enlightenment in Blood give us an insight into the evolution of the World of Darkness setting post-2004. It means you have been implementing and taking part into the design of a broader vision for where the World of Darkness is heading. Indeed, White Wolf told us that events unfolding in this larp may have consequences on the metaplot, that player characters could become part of books, etc. This is one of the first manifestations of a new ethos of grounding the story of the World of Darkness in the actions of the fan communities. Obviously White Wolf needs to find the right balance in how they use the feedback from the larp.

Q: What is your take on this "contributive design" method, was there a lot of back and forth with WW, how much of the design was your own take on things, and how is the feedback phase going along please?

Juhanna Pettersson: Enlightenment in Blood and World of Darkness Berlin were produced by the company Participation Design Agency, and the arrangement was similar as when White Wolf makes license deals with videogame companies for videogames or By Night Studios for Mind Eye Theater -style larp materials.
As the person responsible for the design of Enlightenment in Blood, I had a lot of back and forth with Martin Ericsson and especially Karim Muammar from White Wolf. I found the process very fruitful, especially because this way the new ideas and directions White Wolf is planning for the World of Darkness could be reflected in the larp. When Martin made his presentation about the future direction of Vampire at the Berlin event, you could see almost every single new idea also represented in the larp.
Martin and Karim provided the White Wolf perspective on the content of the larp, but it was also fun and useful to spitball with them about possible ideas, concepts and cool things we could do. In this sense, they also had a creative contribution to the larp's design going beyond just the big ideas affecting every World of Darkness product now coming out.

Social unrest as the main thematic

The larp, in a nutshell, was about the night of the Anarch Revolution. Specifically, I felt that it was about the revolt of a social underclass rather than about a Generation-based Jyhad. There were a character group with a Marxist background, the one-percenters of the Camarilla, a group focusing on gentrification... And you could sense, in game, how many power-hungry groups were just intent on exploiting the demise of the Camarilla for personal gain rather than for any common good. You can sense similar social fault lines in the real world. The gentrification is a real thing in Berlin or in Paris where I live; and the sense of being oppressed by enforcers of the powers that be has sparked conflict in countries such as Tunisia or, more recently, Morocco. There are other important issues of the day, of course (refugees...), but I guess many players of the game could relate to this main thematic of an ignored underclass rising up.


Q: How do you think the larp can help us apprehend or cope with the larger inequalities in the world? Did any player tell you it was a learning experience, or an occasion to vent, to cathartically strike down the Man? Is this issue something you care about, that inspires you?

Personally, I believe that larp can change the world, that it can have a positive effect on the people playing the game. I believe it can be used for political purposes. For example, I was the producer of the Palestinian-Finnish joint larp production Halat hisar (2013 and 2016) which attempted to create an experience of Palestinian political reality.
I don't necessarily see Enlightenment in Blood primarily as a political larp in that sense, but it was definitely informed by what's going on in the real world. White Wolf has used the slogan: "A game of personal and political horror" for Vampire recently, and I felt that idea should also be reflected in the larp. Because of this, supernatural factions where tied to real world political groups and ideologies. The central framework of the revolution in the larp was inspired by the revolution in Iran against the Shah, where the fight for the control of the revolution is at least as important as the revolution itself.


Every problem just needs a kill list

In real life, social change demands involvement on a massive scale, including lots of building common ground and long-term planning; in the context of micro-societies of murderous bloodsuckers, social change merely requires a few murders. With EiB being a one-shot larp and only the last hour being deadly, the survival of the characters was not the main point, in effect encouraging a high level of aggression. After the Anarchs killed the Prince and a few lackeys, the oppressive social structure that revolved around them falls apart. Simple and fun.

Q: Were you happy with the violence? Do you have stats or an educated guess about the numbers of dead characters?

The game had a lot of violence, more than we expected. The combat mechanics were designed so that the ability of a character to fight deteriorated quite fast, so a single character couldn't participate in very many fights. However, we sheer excitement and adrenaline of the revolution more than compensated and created a larp with a lot of fighting.
Unfortunately, we're still working with documenting the larp so I don't have death statistics at this time.

Lights in the darkness

My experience of the game was one of a thrilling evening (I skipped the "angst part" of roleplaying a vampire). Optimism was in the air (next to fear). Why? In part, the cosmopolitan choice of scope vs depth (the crossover touch with the dancing changelings, etc.). Mostly, I think it resulted from the pitch. The writing was on the wall from the very beginning: the Camarilla was going to fall and something new would emerge from the Anarch community. It sounded like a good outcome, a better deal than what I heard some larps can be like and of course than the last few real world revolutions. Perhaps it does just reflect the timing -revolutions are merry the first night, and the follow-up never lives up to the expectations.

Q: Did you purposefully intend for your game to deliver higher concentrations of "change" than the ones found in the real world, and that it would feel liberating? Do you try to design emotions?

We most definitely try to design emotions. I see this as one of the core things we do as larp designers, creating a certain kind of an emotional experience.
We pushed the idea of "the first night of the Anarch revolution" really hard, because we wanted exactly this sense of optimism, chaos and change. It's a powerful feeling, and suitable for a larp lasting for one night. For a more grounded view of revolution, I think we would have needed a different kind of design, with more time for players to experience the changes in the environment.


The Dark Father

Another facet of the Berlin shadow society was imaginary religion. The Church of Caine was one of the main groups and held one of the three largest play spaces. It is a toned-down Sabbat, or a cousin of the Lancea Sanctum covenant from Vampire: The Requiem. Its militancy felt out of sync with dechristianized real world Europe, but vampiric mythology is core to the Masquerade setting and no end times revolution would be complete without a preacher trying to convert everybody and their werewolf cousin. The vampire faith was really creepy (to be honest, the main European religion has faithfuls drinking the blood of their god), to the extent that the Church, from an outsider perspective, looked more like a prison than a haven, with "I am having second thoughts" being one of the patterns, a behaviour kickstarted by the sacrifice-oh-wait-nooo of the Shepherd character played by Martin Ericsson in the starting ceremony.

Q: What are your ideas about religion as a gaming device? What else can you tell us about the genesis of the Church of Caine as an organisation?

Religion is one of the most powerful human concepts present in our culture, so obviously it's also a wonderful subject for a larp. It also often involves rituals and protocols for behavior, something that works very well in larps.
The Church of Caine is one of the new ideas White Wolf is introducing to the World of Darkness, and to my knowledge this larp was the first time it was present in any kind of a World of Darkness product. Because of this, working with the Church was different than working with any other element of the world, because we needed to explain it more, but we also had more freedom to make it into our own thing. I worked closely with White Wolf's Karim Muammar to make the Church interesting, but they also gave us a lot of leeway to make it our own.

Memories

My best memory was barking at the Prince in his final moments. Remember your Dogs!
Second one was being afraid to enter the Church, after being first told that it was a haven, and then being told by the same character, after asking him to remember he really really liked me (a magical power), that he was not so sure about the safe part.
Third one was watching Jannes Hoffnung, a fellow Hope Foundation member, suck the blood from the hand of the Prince. It was really funny, the Prince was down and there were maybe ten Brujah-type Anarchs trying to suck him dry, only his hand was visible at this point and here comes this artsy opportunist who takes a bite at one finger.

Q: What is your best memory of the game?

I didn't play, and in fact I was at our backstage organizer room the whole larp. Because of this, my best memory is coming to the afterparty after the larp had ended, and just seeing all the energy people had, the feeling you can sense in a larp crowd of people sharing a common, intense experience.


Future memories
Q: What's next?

We're still evaluating and unpacking the event in Berlin, the con and all the larps. Because of this, I can't reveal future projects now. However, I can say that there are things cooking, with us and with other larp makers as well. Stay tuned!