Value your committed team members and relationships (but don’t be discouraged when people drop!) Seriously. You can’t do it alone. Collaborate. Communicate. And still, many people drop out. Be open to finding replacements when people can no longer commit because you can’t control their situations and their priorities. But please appreciate those who don’t, it is so motivating. Your resource pool, efficiency and talent increase exponentially the minute you have people truly committed to the project. Give them specific compliments. Tell them you appreciate their contributions. Buy them all chocolate at the end. (I did. It was a lot of chocolate. And those who committed to begin with, were back for a second year’s project.)
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anahita Dalmia.
Anahita Dalmia recently graduated with a B.A. in Narrative Studies at the University of Southern California. She is a two-time published author and co-founder of Alterea (Yes, it’s a play on Alternate Reality). Alterea (www.altereainc.com) creates large-scale immersive experiences allowing participants to enter a different world in which they have agency and impact within an unfolding story. They are currently working on Agents of Influence, a digital spy adventure that will teach middle schoolers to identify and combat misinformation. In Anahita’s free time, you’re equally likely to find her at a Forbes conference or exploring secret underground tunnels.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born and raised in New Delhi, India with both my parents and two younger siblings who I adore. I moved to the States at 18 for college and studied at the University of Southern California as a Narrative Studies Major (I literally studied stories!). I told my teacher when I was 12 years old that I wanted my life to be a “story worth telling” and I still find myself committing to that. I want anybody who opens the metaphorical “book” of my life to find value no matter what page they turn to.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Alterea Inc. was founded on the idea of ‘storytelling to storyliving’ with the philosophy
that in extraordinary circumstances, people discovered the extraordinary within themselves. Through game techniques, we demonstrated that each person contributes to creating the collective future in such circumstances and has the potential to be a hero.
Recently realizing that misinformation dis-empowers people by preventing them from taking informed decisions that will lead to the future they want to see, our most recent project, Agents of Influence, is a digital spy game which teaches middle schoolers to recognize and combat misinformation in their own lives.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I’ve always been a little preoccupied with fantasy. I was the kind of child who would read a book a day; I was glued to the television or some kind of gaming device; and later, I took theatre for 4 years in high school. My favourite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I was in those incredible situations myself — I remember sitting and spending hours in the bus to and from school staring out of the window and envisioning the first Pokemon I would pick and which friends I would take with me on my adventure.
I then became interested in ‘Theatre of The Oppressed’ which is one of the earlier examples of immersive theatre and allowed people to make decisions as characters to educate them and drive change. This evolved into an obsession with creating a living story which people can be a part of and where their decisions matter. I soon discovered the answer was always in game design. That’s the only form of narrative in which you, the participant or player, has full agency and decision making in ways that matter and allows us to truly create an adventure. Consequently, we enable our participants to go through everything that encompasses — the struggle, the new friendships, the skill development and growth. They learn, not through the experiences of another but as themselves.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
In highschool, I was going through a depressive phase when I imagined an immersive Halloween themed Maze in which each person’s choices would matter. My mother, an architect, explained to me how to make it and with her encouragement, I tried making the first draft. However, I reached the point of no return when I got my first teammate, Lillianne John. I had spoken to her only once before when she encountered me sitting on the field and trying to draw a maze by eyeballing dimensions of the venue. She then helped me draw the space and sent me 3 computer-generated plans that evening with the games marked.
Lillianne took full ownership of the project even when it seemed like it was on the brink of failure — and she played an enormous part in making it happen. She took control of operations, staying with me till 3am to make pitch decks for the Rotary, figuring out how to make a website, sending emails, and even writing affidavits. And her investment in the project held me accountable to delivering what I had initially attempted to — it was her involvement that made the matter bigger than me, I couldn’t fail now and let anyone else who had invested themselves in my project down.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
There are two ways to answer that question: philosophically and practically. Philosophically speaking, the first step is committing. Only once you are certain you want to do something, can you start doing it. It might require some initial research, experimentation or brainstorming to reach that point but unless you’re committed it’s impossible to do anything beyond that.
Then, it’s important to outline your goals: both philosophically and practically. What are you doing? Once you know what you’re doing, it’s time to start exploring how to do it and who it’ll take to do it, including yourself. This step again requires a lot of research and outreach, it’s essential to identify roles that you will need filled to accomplish your goals and understand how these people’s expertise will allow you to reach the finishing line. Then, it’s a process of trying to find the correct people to be a part of your journey, validating the market, building the product, testing and iterating while keeping people constantly motivated to reach the next identified milestone.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the most memorable moments for me was when I was walking around my last event, a mythological themed experience called Ascend. My actor playing Hepheastus ushered me whispering, “This group of demigods are hellbent on having me adopted by Mother Fate. They came up to me sympathizing with my rough childhood, because Hera threw me off the cliff, and said they want to fix it. I currently sent them on a quest but I don’t know what to do!” I looked at him, both confused and amused. I shrugged and said, “Does it prevent the larger story arc from taking place?” And he’s like, “No….” so I said, “Set your parameters, decide your tasks and if they fulfil it… let Mother Fate adopt you. Unless you feel like your character would never be okay with that.” Soon, he got adopted.
It was such an odd experience, but it was really exciting because we were now facing emergent play. That means the players were discovering things and creating things in our world we had not planned for them to. But it spoke volumes that our game worlds could support it and incite it — it’s a sign that the participants are compelled by the story and the world and they’re taking active ownership of it leading to true co-authorship.
It also drove home the idea of trusting your players and actors. When you’re building a large complex world, the people on the top can’t do justice to every minutia — we must trust the people engaging with those details to develop them and make decisions which will be true to the larger story. Players are also very imaginative, which is why they can sometimes do things we hadn’t anticipated and add complexity and richness to our games and worlds. Don’t try to micro-manage and prevent this phenomenon, instead actively encourage, support and provide opportunities for it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
The first time we were building my Halloween Maze we didn’t try building the structure before that day and we turned up day-of with plenty of cloth and paint — but no way of hanging the cloth. We were missing nuts, bolts, hammers and all the other connective materials. Luckily, we managed to run to the market and grab everything we needed. But that moment still carries a lot of metaphorical significance.
The bigger elements can’t stand without the smaller ones. It’s crucial to get into the details of building something. It is also necessary to prepare appropriately and test beforehand to catch problems before the final date.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve been fortunate to have not just one mentor but many guiding and helpful forces. I can always rely on my mother and Lillianne, but I have a number of friends who have acted as cheerleaders and very important people in the industry who have taken time to talk with me, guide me and support me, often in different areas.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of the people who stands out to me is a player at Ascend, Garret, who said that he “didn’t become a character through the course of the event. Instead, I became myself — and what happened during Ascend has now become raw material to see what potentialities lie dormant in my own personality when it’s allowed to run without (or at least with less of, or a different kind of) a filter.” Due to his importance in this experience he felt empowered to be more social — he said he “cracked wisecracks and made sarcastic jokes,” which he usually felt uncomfortable doing due to his introverted nature. This shows me the potential of the kind of work we’re doing for people to re-evaluate who they are in a new light to change their behavior.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
This is a much larger question when we explore how each person can be a hero, so I’m going to talk specifically about misinformation as it pertains to Agents of Influence, our most recent project.
Misinformation is what Donald Baracay, a librarian at UC Mercedes and author of “Fake New, Propaganda and Plain Old Lies” described as a “Wicked Problem.” Meaning that it is almost impossible to entirely wipe out. With reconstructive memory, reinterpretation of words and more it is a part of human nature to lie, manipulate and will plague humanity forever. However, there are things that can be done on every level to mitigate it.
- Politicians: Acknowledge the enormity of the problem and build policy and allocate funding to solve it. This can take the form of grants for research on the problem, mandating schools to incorporate information and media literacy, providing funding for them to do so and more.
- Check before you believe anything anyone says, especially if you intend to share the message.
- Tell people when they might be sharing information that is untrue by having productive discussions that articulate the basis of your disagreement to change their opinion.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Scope, budget and schedule — figure out your priorities and compromise. My first project Alohomora took significantly more time, money and manpower than anticipated. We needed to be flexible about how we would get what we want or be willing to work with the resources we had if they were insufficient. When I first got the position of Director of Special Events at USC to implement the project, we had a 5,000 dollars budget, four team members and six months (including summer vacation.) Four months into the planning phase, we hadn’t even figured out how to achieve our goal. So we pushed the event back six more months. We cracked down on the fundraising and our budget rose to 27,000 dollars. My four-person team rose to 70. My priority was the experience. It is okay to change the project based on time, funding and manpower limitations but it is important to figure out which of these elements is the priority. For me, it was the grand vision. For my next event, Ascend, we started with 25,000 dollars, a much larger team and a room reservation for a year ahead.
- Value your committed team members and relationships (but don’t be discouraged when people drop!) Seriously. You can’t do it alone. Collaborate. Communicate. And still, many people drop out. Be open to finding replacements when people can no longer commit because you can’t control their situations and their priorities. But please appreciate those who don’t, it is so motivating. Your resource pool, efficiency and talent increase exponentially the minute you have people truly committed to the project. Give them specific compliments. Tell them you appreciate their contributions. Buy them all chocolate at the end. (I did. It was a lot of chocolate. And those who committed to begin with, were back for a second year’s project.) On that note, I would even argue that its more valuable to have emotionally invested teammates than extensively experienced ones. Knowledge doesn’t equal commitment and delivery. And everyone starts from somewhere, so if they care, they’ll learn. And so will you.
- Use what you already have but venture into unknown territory despite the fear. For our first two events at college, we wanted a finale game, our “showstopper” which turned out to be really complicated. It had to accommodate 500 people and reward people who took the effort to do quests and engage in the narrative. That was a really tall order. We were building really complex game mechanics but the answer lay in the simple rock, paper, scissor mechanics that we initially cast away as being too mainstream and simplistic. When we re-skinned them as duelling mechanics, they were hands down our most successful mini-game and extremely effective for a final “battle.”
Always, use what you have. The games you have played before, the stories you have read, what is already going on in the event. Don’t ask too much of your audience, by asking them to learn something more on top of what they’ve already done. We achieved our best results when we utilized the ‘skills’ we had already ‘trained’ our participants in, just with new twists and more layers.
The design of the entire experience was inspired by things like video games and escape rooms (which we also had as an addition!) So even while innovating, it is necessary to remember relevant kin — art is the method of putting old things in new contexts in new ways. Despite that, these were all components of a larger structure which had seemed absurd when we put together the initial idea and we marched forward despite fear to create something truly unique and amazing.
- Playtest, playtest, playtest! A game doesn’t exist without its players the way a book or movie does as a game is a tool, it is the paintbrush through which the player or artist paints the story. So, it’s really important tohave people play the game, early and often. Watch them as they play it. See how they responded to the cues you wanted to give them — did they get the signal? If not, why not? Should you change the game to adapt to their instincts? And while designing a game, you often overlook some very small details the player always notices because they’re often surface level. By play testing, you can catch them and improve immediately. In my first USC event Alohomora, when we game-tested one of our simplest games — a spell-based version of rock, paper, scissors, one of the player just suggested turning around, counting to 3 and then turning around to say your spell to avoid the awkwardness of different timings and adding a dramatic flair. Very simple adjustments that made it so much more fun for everyone else.
- Document and Debrief. We almost didn’t have a videographer or a photographer for our first event. We more or less picked up somebody off the street the day of the event and begged them to do it, because we were that desperate and we had de-prioritized documenting the event to prioritize running the event. I am so grateful that we did that because it has made everything so much easier the next time when I just need to show people one video to explain what we’re doing compared to giving people a three-hour long lecture. It also adds to your credibility when what you did looks cool.
And not just pictures and videos, but debriefs are also really important. While it was so tempting to throw my hands up in the air and cry “It’s over.” I sent out feedback forms for both the participants and the team members to learn what worked and what could have been done better. I sat in front of the laptop and proceeded to vomit words on a document, about my entire experience, practically crying by the end of it because it was such an emotional journey. But so much gets lost if we don’t have this documentation and it is really difficult to gauge your success and improve a year after the experience. So no matter how tedious or irrelevant it seems — you have only one opportunity to get it right, so please don’t regret losing it.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
A leading complaint people have is that they feel purposeless, they don’t contribute anything of value or gain recognition for their contributions. By making a positive impact, you’re working towards a never ending goal — truly chasing a purpose. And that makes getting up each day worth it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This is probably an unusual choice, but somebody I’d love to chat with is Laurene Powell Jobs. I somehow found her during my research on Agents of Influence, as media literacy is so entangled with journalism which she’s very involved in. I found one comment she made in an interview particularly fascinating, “We are able, each of us, to manipulate the circumstances.” This is something apparently her late husband said to her, and it aligns very heavily with the Alterea purpose — to show how each individual’s independent story and actions impacts a collective experience. I truly find the work she does at Emerson Collective interesting as it seems to be pushing what new age education could look like and so many of our projects seem to be the vein of rethinking the system to help people realize their individual power today.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!