The Ascent: Experience Design from a Loser’s Perspective

The Ascent: Experience Design from a Loser’s Perspective

Mike Martoccia (@mmartoccia) on The Ascent

Have you ever dreamed of flying?. Of course you have! Everyone does and I actually was able to fly with brainpower…albeit not very far. It would be nice to say I was as triumphant as Ariel Kaminer of the New York Times in my ability to use the raw power of my mind to levitate into the air but I suppose my mind was not strong enough.  Although, I did achieve this sorcery with an enormous metal structure, EEG sensors, and a team of technicians at an installation called The Ascent, last month in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The Ascent, created by designer Yehuda Duenas, was manifested out of his master’s thesis during his time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In Duenas’ quest to create an installation that would provide truly unique experiences, he devised a system to allow strapped users to levitate themselves into the air based on their level of brain activity. The installation took place inside of a massive warehouse that housed an enormous twenty-six foot high metal structure surrounded by a myriad of speakers and lights. After a quick debrief and tutorial in another room, participants were led under this structure and affixed to a system of pulleys and wires via harness. The harness made me realize what babies feel when they are worn on their parent’s chest but that isn’t why I’m bitter. My frustration stems from my poor performance at this and my natural competitive tendencies, especially since I did so well during the practice run.

During the debrief and tutorial, each person who rides The Ascent is fitted with an EEG sensor that measures brain wave activity. The goal was to focus on a meditative state, while calming your mind. Players knew how well they were doing based off the color of lights that were in front of them: a red light indicated unfocused thinking, green indicated slightly focused, and a blue color meant focused thinking. Measured brainwave activity would place players somewhere in that spectrum and how fast they ascended was determined by how close they were to that focused blue light and vice versa. Each player then had a certain amount of time in which they had to clear a certain height to beat a level. Upon a clearing a level, that player would receive more time to ascend and more booming thunder claps, flashing lights, and magnificent music to distract players from staying in that blue zone – something I only know through observation from others; I never got that high.

I maybe reached a maximum height of eight feet at the end of my third run and that was with Duenas’ own personal advice! In witnessing my Dopamine colleague, Mike Martoccia, nearly reach the apex of that giant metal structure and in reading the New York Times journalists success, I feel nothing short of inadequacy. After thinking about what why I and my discussion with Duenas on why I didn’t do well, I actually found out something fascinating:

My own desire to beat The Ascent resulted in my failure.

The apex of my ascent.
Note the red color indicating my progress.

Duenas expressed that he wanted to move away from a “binary win/lose” end result and instead wanted to focus on providing an interesting “personal experience” for everyone who tries his installation. I knew I shouldn’t try to have any preemptive thoughts before an attempt to think about “nothingness” but I was given a benchmark and an expectation the moment I saw another person succeed. I now needed to win. Conceptually, I love the tension between wanting to succeed against clearing your head of such thoughts in order to actually do so but that idea also ingrains a self-competitive aspect into the whole experience. I found that if you were not able to succeed, then the experience is far more different than for someone who does.

Successfully reaching the top must be the most satisfying thing one can take away from The Ascent. As a loser, I felt there was no inherent narrative experience to have gained – only that I could have gained a great one if I reached the top. In thinking about good gamified experience design, the experience in losing should encourage the player to try again. While The Ascent provided me with real time feedback (lights, music, height), I could not fully ascertain the relationship between my actions and the feedback. I knew they were interacting but not in a way that could allow me to improve in my next try. This uncertainty meant a constant struggle with keeping my mind clear while trying to decipher my own performance via the feedback I was constantly receiving. It is difficult to try to think about nothing when the machine you’re strapped to is telling you aren’t performing well. In an experience meant to disassociate from “win” or “lose”, the incremental difficulty of The Ascent meant it aimed to make the user lose. The desirable experience is only possible through triumph, otherwise The Ascent could have assisted lesser-skilled players with handicaps to help achieve that or perform better on the next run. Of course the sole ability to understand the relationship between the lights and my ascension is the whole point of The Ascent; I was not zen enough to ignore the feedback being transmitted to me.

Compare the two experiences in the videos below:


Again, I wish I could write about my personal success in The Ascent as triumphantly as Ariel Kaminer did but having reached heights that was not significantly different than where I started leaves me writing about my inability to rise up in the air. I believe that if my failure actually descended me into an area lower than where I started, with terrible music and flickering lights that told me how awful I was doing, then I could be granted with a new experience that would be hilarious in its own right. Even having been able to compare my height to that of others could have provided small saving graces to encourage repeat tries but it was difficult to compare your height being in the harness compared to how it looks while you’re in the observation deck. Despite all this, The Ascent is a fantastically designed experience that is definitely worth trying and was magnificent to witness when people did succeed. As a loser though, I am left here reminiscing about how my toes were left eight feet on the ground and thinking about how hard it was to think about nothing. Perhaps this is the experience The Ascent was destined to personally give me.


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  1. Ivan! My gosh, I’m sorry I ruined your Ascent experience. Maybe because I tried it before watching anyone else ascend, I had no goals and I wasn’t thinking of it as a competition. I just thought it was amazingly ingenious, and would as eagerly have written about a failure to launch as a peak experience. (Maybe that’s the difference between a journalist’s perspective and a gamer’s? Who knows.) In any case, kills me to see you describe yourself (relentlessly!) as the “loser” or a “failure,” especially if I played a role in that formulation.