The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Why is Pokemon Go such a hit?

Pokemon Go 2One more, and hopefully last, Pokemon Go post…

One of my favourite researchers Katherine Isbister recently wrote a great blog post  on the design features of Pokemon Go, explaining what makes it such a fun game to play. To briefly summarise, she notices that the game is simple to pick up and play, that it gets us moving, and that it lets us connect with other people in the real world, rather than just online. These are all great points, but she calls her summary ’Why Pokemon Go Became an Instant Phenomenon’ – and I don’t think her article answers that question.

Pokemon Go is not the first location-based game out there, nor is it the first mobile phone pervasive game or the first Augmented Reality game. (I even hesitate to call it an Alternate Reality game, more on that below.) Although Botfighter was too early and launched while the technology was not ready for it, GeoCaching was successful already from its launch (in the year of 2000) and has around 3 million users worldwide, and since the IPhone came out we have seen games and entertainment apps like Foursquare, Zombies, Run!, Shadow Cities, Turf, SpecTrek, AgentX come – and very often also go. Most of these were fun to use, had stable user bases, and some of them have been very good games. (Others not so much – despite the fact that there always is at least one or two on the market, the genre of location-based MMORPG seems to be doomed to fail.)

The success of Pokemon Go is similar of that of World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2004. Neither of these games was the first of their kind, but somehow they manage to take an established genre to the mass-market and do it fast – they are blockbuster games. So let’s see if there are some commonalities.

A known IP

The fact that Pokemon Go is based on Pokemon – a very well-known brand and game concept – is the most important reason for its success. It has often been argued that WoW was so immediately successful because it capitalised on the Warcraft brand. While this definitely mattered to attract a first player base, it can’t be the full explanation since the game so very quickly attracted more players than ever had played the previous Warcraft games. However, with Pokemon Go the importance of the IP cannot be understated. Firstly, there is a large number of people out there who have grown up playing Pokemon. Secondly, what you did in the virtual Pokemon games is essentially the exact same thing as you do in Pokemon Go: you walk around in the world searching for Pokemon, and you let Pokemon fight other Pokemon. Now you get to be a Pokemon trainer for real – something some people have dreamed about their whole life

Just as for blockbuster larp, a known IP doesn’t only help with attracting attention and hype, it helps players to know what to do in the game.

A Good Game

A blockbuster game is typically not all that innovative, but it must be reasonably bug-free, well designed, and accessible to players that haven’t played this particular genre of games before. This is true for Pokemon Go and it was true for WoW – although if I was to write a review (which I am not doing) I would say that this was truer for WoW than it is for Pokemon Go. Go back to Katherine’s blog post for the reasons why Pokemon Go is fun to play.

Rich content

One thing that sets Pokemon Go apart from its predecessors is that it is rich in content, and this was also a major ‘wow’ factor when WoW first came out. In Pokemon Go, there are two sources of content: the Pokemon themselves but also all the places – the Pokestops and Gyms – in the physical world that are meaningful to visit.

This is a very interesting aspect of Pokemon Go, since almost all previous games in this genre have been developed by startups and very small companies. No matter how good the games have been, the content has often been minimal at launch, often expected to be crowdsourced through play. In Pokemon Go, the Pokestops and Gyms have indeed been crowdsourced (they are geo-tagged locations of notable places and artwork), but this was done through Ingress, the previous game from the same company. While Ingress slowly and steadily has built up a large player base, it was not all that fun to play in the beginning when there were few players and even less content. If it had not been for Google funding the game, I doubt it would have lasted for three years.

Genre awareness

A blockbuster game can’t be the first of its kind. While a new and innovative game genre can attract a very dedicated and skilled player collective, it is bound to grow only slowly.

It is only when these games have been around for a while that a genre starts to exist in people’s minds. By now most people know of somebody who has played a location-based game. You know somebody who has been out GeoCaching, you may yourself have been an avid Foursquare-user once, you have friends who play Ingress. You sort of know what kind of experiences they offer, and while it seems fun there hasn’t been a game out there that were in your precise taste – until now. This is what Mattias Svahn calls category knowledge. You know what kind of product it is that you are buying and you are selecting this game in competition with other games you also could have been playing.

The hype helps, because it creates a need for the product. Now suddenly, you realise that not just are there games of this type out there – you also must play this one, since everyone else seems to be doing it.

What kind of game is Pokemon Go?

Above, I have used several different terms for the ‘type of game’ that Pokemon Go is, and the same happens in other articles. So let’s go through some of these terms to see which ones fit, and which ones fit less well.

Augmented Reality Game

This is primarily a technology term, describing a set of techniques to locate virtual content in the physical world so that it can be seen or heard by the user when coming close to the right location. When you come close to a Pokemon in Pokemon Go, you see it through your phone as if it was located in the physical world. Other solutions for Augmented Reality use locative sound, and creating Augmented Reality glasses is a long-standing technology dream with more or less good products coming out now and then (such as Google glasses).

This is the term that I see used for Pokemon Go the most, and there are probably several reasons for this. Firstly, while this is by far not the first mobile game that uses AR (we experimented with two such games in IPergG, in 2005 and 2007) it is not the most common technology in use in mobile gaming. Secondly, there has been a lot of recent hype about VR helmets, so this appears as an alternative but a bit similar technology. Journalists (especially game journalists) are often keen to attribute the success of any game to technology innovation, and since the AR function is the most innovative technology in this game it looks like it makes sense to call it an AR game.

But, while Pokemon Go does use Augmented Reality, it does so in a very weak way. The location technology is imprecise (Layar does a much better job of locating virtual content in the world) and the augmentation has no real function in gameplay. The function still plays a very important role: it allows players to take cool pictures of Pokemon and post them in social media, adding to the viral hype of the game.

Location-based Game

This is another technical term, meaning that the game is tied to real-world locations, or at the very least to real-world movement. (Some location-based games use relative rather than absolute positions.) Ever since phones started to come with location services, there have been location-based games launched over and over again. Pokemon Go is definitely a location-based game.

Pervasive Game

The concept of ‘pervasive games’ is a design-oriented term, highlighting specific aspects of how the game is designed and played. Pokemon go is a game that you play in the real, physical world as part of your everyday life. It has no clear boundaries in time or in space, and while playing it you mix with people who are not themselves playing and may not know that you are. This makes Pokemon Go a pervasive game, which creates some spectacular forms of fun and a whole batch of safety issues, as I discussed in my previous post.

Alternate Reality Game

Alternate reality games is also a design-oriented term, this time highlighting the narrative of the game. Alternate reality games are games that offer an alternative narrative about our everyday world: players may for example be hunting a secret conspiracy or solving a murder mystery or stopping an alien invasion or – as in this case – hunting fictional animals that can be hiding anywhere in the world. Just as with the (more widely scoped) concept of pervasive games, alternate reality games can be played in the real world and online. In a limited sense, Pokemon Go is also an alternate reality game.

I would still be hesitant to use the term ‘Alternate Reality’ to describe Pokemon Go. Alternate Reality games tend to be much more rich in content, and have often been transmedia productions and included web content, real-world events, and sometimes a film or a TV series. Very often they play out over limited time and present a single, timed, mystery that players collaborate to solve. Most have been produced as marketing campaigns. Hence, the term doesn’t quite fit – if any players sign up for Pokemon Go thinking it will be an alternate reality game, they will be rather disappointed.

Other terms

Pokemon Go is (of course) also a mobile game and a massively multiplayer persistent world game. It is furthermore a real-time (rather than turn-based) game and a host of other things related to specific design choices in the game. My prediction is that this game will create a genre of its own, tightly constrained by a host of specific design choices just like how WoW set a standard for how MMORPG games must look and function.

But I also predict that in contrary to WoW, it will not be the last successful game of its genre. There are so many design opportunities untapped by this game, that there are bound to be successful successors – or at least, I hope so!

You don’t have to catch them all

Pokemon Go 2So, there is finally a blockbuster pervasive game out there. You have probably heard of it by now: it’s called Pokemon Go and it is an extended and re-skinned version of Ingress (which is, in turn, is very similar to Shadow Cities, discussed here and here on this blog, but without its subtleties). Both Pokemon Go and Ingress are marketed by Niantic with heavy funding from Google and Nintendo. Pokemon Go was released in the U.S. and Australia on July 6th, and the player base exploded. In fact, it is already extensively played in many more countries (including Sweden) even though not released. Since this means that there suddenly are a lot of players out there who never played pervasive games before, I thought it could be a good idea to review some of the basic safety rules for this type of games.

Thing is, Pokemon Go is not a safe game. It’s not unsafe because the designers intended it to be so; in fact I am sure they made every effort to make it as safe as possible. It’s unsafe because all pervasive games are unsafe. A pervasive game is a game that you play in your everyday life and anywhere in the real, physical world. That world is not like that of a computer game: it contains real dangers, as well as a lot of people, places, and vehicles that are not part of the game. The reason that the game designers can’t keep you safe is that they have no idea what you will run into.

Whenever you play a pervasive game, it’s you, the player, who is responsible for your own safety as well as of the safety of those around you. With Pokemon Go, this boils down to one simple rule: you don’t have to catch them all.

There are places and times

Not all places are safe. Obviously, there’s the issue of physical safety: you aren’t gonna try to catch that Staryu on that steep cliff, are you? Good.

In the city and suburbs, social safety is a more pertinent issue. Entering private property to hunt Pokemon may sometimes be completely safe and sometimes extremely dangerous. Make sure you know what kind of place you are in, and make sure to gain the trust and permissions you need to enter. Some places are safe (or even accessible) only at certain times and not at others. To add, there is a small risk that popular meeting spots in the game could attract robbers prying on players, which creates additional reason to be careful with the place and time. If you are unsure, go with friends and fellow players.

Since you can be playing Pokemon go while doing other things at the same time, it matters what you are doing. Just as with texting, you have no business playing Pokemon while driving your car, and you should probably be a bit careful playing it while cycling as well (that was my experience at least). Pokemon Go doesn’t seem to ever make you run, but just to make it explicit: don’t run around in the city with your eyes fixated on the phone.

However, much of the thrill with playing pervasive games come from exploring places out of the ordinary, at out of the ordinary times. Make sure you know the difference between feeling safe and being safe! You might feel uncomfortable and scared hunting Pokemon in the forest at night, but this is most likely safer than hunting them in the middle of the day in a very busy intersection. Bring a friend and a flashlight to the forest – and leave that Pokemon waiting in the middle of the street alone.

Don’t play with people who have as their job to take things seriously

This is the golden safety rule of all pervasive gaming. There are people out there who have as their job to take things seriously. For Pokemon Go players, the most relevant professionals will be the police and various brands of guards and watchpeople. They are not there for your amusement. If those are around, make sure that they know and accept that you are playing a game – and if they don’t allow it, you’ll just have to leave that Pokemon uncaught.

Yes, I know. It could potentially be a fun game challenge to sneak into a guarded area, catch a Pokemon, and sneak out again before the guards find you. Don’t. Guards may be armed and scared, they can be angry and violent, and they will most likely fine you no matter how convinced they are that you are a Pokemon trainer. (And you will get absolutely NO sympathies from anyone: guards and policemen have much higher status than Pokemon trainers.)

From this perspective, right now is probably the most dangerous time to play Pokemon Go because the police and the guard companies haven’t learned to recognise the play activity. All they see are people in strange places acting weirdly. In time, they will learn to recognise both the popular places and the players’ behaviour, which will make it less dangerous to play. (And then, it may get more dangerous again, if criminals start to use the game as a coverup excuse.)

There are other groups too, that have as their job to take things seriously. Firemen, doctors, nurses, psychologists… You probably don’t have much reason to get in their way to catch Pokemon – but still don’t.

Don’t be dangerous or scary

Finally, you may yourself be a danger to others, players as well as non-players. Again, don’t play while driving your car!!

It is also dangerous to scare people, for their sake as well as yours. For example, if you are a big middle-aged man, you may think twice about playing in the close vicinity of schools and day-care centers. (This lession was learned already by Geocashers.) And don’t demand of that young girl who you befriended playing Pokemon, that she will follow you out on Pokemon-hunting in the forest at night. With or without flashlight.

Remember that it is also dangerous for you, the player, to scare others. As little as we like it, being a black man could be extremely dangerous for Pokemon players.

Playing for real

The situations above are just examples, and most likely the safety issues you encounter will look completely different. That’s where I started, right? You have to take care of your own safety because no one else can do it for you.

In pervasive games, the fun and excitement comes from doing things for real, from letting fictional adventure into your everyday life, and from meeting fellow players in person rather than just online. It’s awesome! It is nice to see that there finally is a game out there that everybody plays – and I am sure there are others to come. There are many exciting adventures waiting for us all – so bring your flashlight, have fun, play safe!


Playing @ CHI

My former and soon-to-be former Ph.D. students presented work at the CHI conference this year that is relevant for this blog. (CHI is the biggest and most prestigious conference in human-computer interaction.) Elena Márquez Segura and Laia Turmo presented on ‘Embodied Sketching‘, detailing and illustrating an approach to ideation for co-located physical play. Jon Back presented on “Designing Children’s Digital-Physical Play in Natural Outdoors Settings” as late-breaking news. This is a first publication from a very interesting collaboration project, in which interactive installations are designed into a landscape environment to support children’s play in a rich way.

Being a supervisor in the final phase of a Ph.D. is a slightly weird feeling. Of course, you have known for a long time that they already know their subject better than yourself. Still, when they start to realise that they do and get self-sufficient, you feel at the same time proud – and old and useless. But mostly proud.

(I had a paper in CHI myself too, on ethics of unaware participation.)

The recent Ph.D. Back

jon disputation

Jon was fated to defend his FAtE model… Photo by Sofia Stenler.

My (by now former) doctorate student Jon Back defended his Ph.D. thesis in February.The thesis is called ’Designing public play: Playful engagement, constructed activity, and player experience’.

This is a thesis is one of a range of recent dissertations that focus on play rather than games. It is not entirely easy to make this move. Play is typically seen as a broader category than gameplay, and is by that even more difficult to delimit and frame. What is play, to start with? To this, Jon adds the challenge that he is interested in designing for play, privileging the role of a designer in shaping the play activity. This is tricky. Whereas there are ways to make that distinction reasonably clear for game design, it becomes extremely problematic for play design, as so much of play is creative.

Jon’s been researching and designing public play for a long time now, both as an academic and as an active street performer.  A key feature of his work is that he wants to make it relevant for designers. This is not a philosophical thesis, it clearly belongs to the pragmatic approach to design research that characterises third wave HCI. The central contribution of the thesis is still rather abstract, and consists of two frameworks to help the designer  conceptualize of play in a way that foregrounds the rather loose relationship the play activity to the produced design. Based on several case studies including our joint project Codename Heroes, he is also able to provide some hands-on guidelines.

Jon and I think very much alike; and I am not sure if he has influenced me or vice versa. I am of course immensely proud of him at this time, and want everyone to read his thesis! But I cannot escape thinking that the relationship between designer and the designed play activity is even more complex than this thesis makes it – that it only begins to scratch the surface.

The (not so) recent Ph.D. Stenros

Jaakko captured together with his opponent Miguel Sicart and supervisor Frans Mäyrä.

Jaakko captured together with his opponent Miguel Sicart and supervisor Frans Mäyrä.

My long-term partner in research Jaakko Stenros defended his Ph.D. thesis in May this year. The thesis is named ‘Playfulness, play, and Games: A constructionist ludology approach’ which must be one of the more bold thesis titles I have seen. While almost every thesis in the game studies field contains some attempt at a game definition, making the general concepts of games and play the core topic of a thesis means that the author is tackling, heads on, a philosophical and scientific problem that has haunted scholars since ancient Greece.

Jaakko belongs to an emerging collective of researchers to which I guess I should count myself, that primarily aim to understand play rather than games. A common trait is that these researchers investigate play and game phenomena that include, but are not restricted to, computer games. These are researchers that refer to Caillois and Huizinga, and very often also Goffman, to emphasise the nature of play as voluntary and socially constructed. Jaakko goes beyond these well-established sources to explore just about every single text written about play during the twentieth century, to construct a complex and many-faceted perspective on play that is consistent with this basic social constructionist perspective. Games are not left out of the thesis: Jaakko devotes a thorough discussion to the relationship between play and game constructs, distinguishing between playing ‘the game’ and ‘the system’, the latter presenting opportunities for subversion and creative play. His constructionist approach also gives him a good tool for analysing forms of play that are not voluntary and socially agreed upon, he investigates the work of play in sports and online games as well as grief play.

One way to read Jaakko’s thesis is as a successor of Sutton-Smith’s ‘Ambiguity of Play’. Where Sutton-Smith successfully teased out the complexity of the concept of play, he was less successful in establishing synthesis. Jaakko manages to at the same time accept this complexity complexity and consistently argue a coherent perspective. A bit arbitrarily chosen, the following citation is from the chapter on games (page 142 in the thesis). Here Jaakko summarises the relationship between playfulness, play and games as such:

“Playfulness is a brute fact rooted in biology, something that is expressed in the paratelic metamotivational state of doing things for their own sake. Although it has its uses and functions, it cannot be reduced to other processes such as resignification or learning. The playful mindset is expressed in a personal boundary, a psychological bubble, which is related to a feeling of safety. Play(ing) is a socially negotiated activity (and thus a social fact) that is often engaged in under a playful mindset, but which can sever that connection. The negotiation sets up a magic circle of play, which is a separating porous boundary that allows for traffic, although usually anything that crosses the boundary is resignified. When the playing becomes more structured and rule-bound, it is referred to as a game, although game-activity would be a more precise term. Once the social negotiation is formalised, on the spot, due to historical processes, through an acquired designed artefact, or a combination thereof, and this form achieves a modicum of stability, a game-artefact appears. This game-artefact can be used to enact game-activity. As the rules become complete and clear, the game becomes an institutional fact. The game-artefact implies the boundary of arena and game space. When used, a magic circle of play aligns with the arena. Although analytically separated here, these processes are deeply intertwined.”

While I basically think that Jaakko has nailed the constructivist perspective and agree with it, I have some problems with the citation. For me as a design scholar, the most problematic part is the sense of “emergence” implied by Jaakko’s wording. The deliberate act of design, by designers as well as players, is left out of the discussion and since I believe that design and play are deeply intertwined I think that this may be a serious oversight.

But here is an idea: I have started to toy with the idea that play is difficult to define because it is primary. The very small child makes no distinction between play and work but toys with everything, and nothing is real until it’s been thoroughly explored over and over again. Everything is purposeless to be manipulated for the pleasure of senses: the hands, mouths, ears and eyes. The five year old has learned that things can be done for a purpose, but still toys with reality through resignification: the stick becomes a horse so that you can ride when you want to. The process of reaching adulthood is a continuous process of figuring out and artificially constructing work and reality, as opposed to play and fiction that we understand intuitively.

Needless to say, Jaakko’s thesis is a must-read. It is downloadable here.

Children that play a tablet game learn – but how?

The DiGRA 2015 articles are now up in the DiGRA library. This year I got one article in together with my fantastic master student Gunnar Bohné, on his study of pre-school children playing a very simple tablet game. The setup of the study is very much Gunnar’s work. He created a fun and engaging method of figuring out the children’s understanding of the game content – check it out!

The theoretical part is perhaps less exciting, or at least dissatisfying. We argue that existing models for game-based learning don’t match what the children do with this game. The issue is that the children play with the game; they don’t just play the game. They do actions that are inspired by but not included in the game. There is no model of game-based learning that captures this attitude towards games – as a play material. We argue that Ian Bogost’s basic framing of procedural rhetoric as entymeme, a rhetoric where the required player actions complete the games’ argument, comes the closest. But the game itself is not a good example of procedural rhetoric, as its procedural game challenge has almost nothing to do with the narrative, and it is the voluntary actions that the children add that extend, rather than complete, the game’s rhetoric.

The article can be found here.

A comment on ‘Brute Force’ design of larp

In-game footage from Monitor Celestra by John-Paul Bichard,

In-game footage from Monitor Celestra by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard Studios.

I recently read this piece by Eirik Fatland and Markus Montola on what they call ‘Brute Force’ larp design. The piece analyses two larps: The Monitor Celestra and the College of Wizardry, that both received viral attention and attracted players – and commercial interest – far beyond the Nordic larp scene. Within the scene, they were also two of the productions with the highest participant fees ever, opening a route towards commercial viability (remember that these still were non-commercial fandom larps).

The reason that I want to comment on the article is that Christopher Sandberg has criticised it in semi-public. Since I can’t link to his criticism here, I will briefly summarise it: Christopher argues that the design principles brought forward as key elements by Eirik and Markus were in fact problems and design issues, and that the key to blockbuster success was that both larps attached themselves to well-known IPs.

Firstly, it’s interesting to see what Eirik and Markus are trying to do: they are trying to outline what they see as a new and potentially commercially viable approach to Nordic larp design. We may even call it a genre. Attempting this on the basis of exactly two larps is of course a bit dangerous. With a data set of two, you are bound to uncover design choices that are similar but may have very little to do with how the larps played out, and underplay crucial design decisions that may have been instrumental – but different – in the respective productions.

So, let’s abstract a bit, to see what Eirik and Markus include as common design elements for the two productions. The highlighted design choices can be summarized as

  • An established IP and a cool location,
  • A ‘more is more’ approach, incorporating basically every trick in the book from classical fantasy larp design, and
  • Various design elements brought in from art-house Nordic larp.

What I find particularly interesting with the text is that in arguing for this as a ‘blockbuster formula for Nordic larp’, the authors prioritize quantitative evaluation over the experience of the individual player. Celestra faced problems with individual players being extremely dissatisfied, and both larps have been described also by players that enjoyed them as ‘not very good larps’. In selecting a quantitative approach, the authors deliberately take a step towards mass-market approaches of larp evaluation. They are establishing a ‘Candy Crush’ attitude towards the study of larp, where Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry stand as models for larps that people are willing to pay for playing – but not necessarily like. (I don’t mean that this was a design strategy from the designers, nor that these were bad larps. It’s the approach to analysis I’m talking about.)

From this perspective, the central question becomes if there is a design approach emerging here that is at the same time key to success for the many, and a source of problems for the individual. Markus and Eirik seem to argue that there is, whereas Christopher argues that the problems can, and should be, eliminated. I think we can isolate the core issue as ‘plot trains’ and I need to dig a bit deeper into the highlighted design features to get at the controversy.

Firstly, the established IP. No controversy here. All three agree that this is a good thing, but not only because it generates hype and viral attention. Where old-style fantasy larps came with extensive world creation documents (the infamous ‘wall of text’), the use of well-known IPs means that the players already understand the world and knows how to act in it. Without much preparation, the players are able to co-create the fantasy and escapism that is a fundamental factor in the positive experience for these larps. A cool location – a battleship and a genuine castle, respectively – has essentially the same effect.

The controversy arises from the ‘more is more’ approach. Included in this design feature are things like overt command hierarchies that can be adhered to or subverted (teachers vs students, officers versus privates), prepared conflicts (rebels vs reactionaries, enemies and allies), secrets and quests given as personal information beforehand, and plot twists and quests introduced during play through NPC characters. Both larps used all of these, in abundance, and the effect was that there was “a lot going on all of the time”. Crudely summarising Markus and Eirik, they argue that this is at the same time a problem and an asset: while this means that there is always something to do and a plot to catch onto, the risk is that your attempt to play on a certain plot collides with another group on another quest; you ‘get run over by a plot train’.

But this must happen in traditional fantasy larp as well, yes? But this is where the last design feature comes in: these weren’t designed to be traditional larps. In particular, both productions included instructions to ‘play to lose’. As Eirik and Markus point out, this instruction is a very strong indicator of a larp that emphasises drama and narrative over competitive / gamistic play or even simulation. (Compare this to when Bøckman depicts a dramatist player as someone who “decides this would be a fine time to make a dramatic scene, and sacrifices him selves for the town, without regard for the role’s agenda”.) Furthermore, both larps combined this with rules of combat that emphasised its narrative rather than competitive role.

Thing is, dramatic play is hard. In a previous post, I discussed how dramatic play emerges from a mutual engagement in collective storymaking. It requires a fair amount of agency and negotiation. In this context, being run over by a plot train is not just irritating but outright destructive. If you play to win and lose, it still makes for a good story. If you play to lose and fail to do so, you end up with no story at all. (Christopher’s critique is more elaborate than this, but for me this is a core issue.)

Will the problem go away? The blockbuster formula article may be mistaken in concluding that the ‘more is more’ approach is a key feature. College of Wizardry indeed toned it down a bit in its later runs, in particular by making NPC-initiated plots less important. But it is also possible that these games work well for players that go with the flow, who react more than act. The sheer abundance of content will ensure that there will always almost be something to do, some plot train to board. If the goal is to create decent experiences for many, it may be less important if the design strategy sometimes backfires for the individual player.


Bøckman, Petter. “The Three Way Model“. As Larp Grows Up (2002): 12-16.

Fatland, Eirik and Montola, Markus. “The blockbuster formula – Brute force design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry”. In ed. Nielsen and Raasted: Knudepunkt 2015 companion book, 2015. Available here.

In the crucible of science

Early prototype for one of the technology-supported experiments.

Last year, my group ran a collaboration project with Tom Tits Experiment in Södertälje; a hands-on science center in the tradition of the Exploratorium in San Fransisco. The goal was to rebuild some of their experiments to become part of an overarching game. While the game definitely has the purpose of teaching science, it is not your typical learning game; instead, focus is placed entirely on increasing engagement with visiting families.

The first article from this project was published in November at ‘Advances in Computer Entertainment Technologies‘ and is now available from the ACM library. The article is focussed on the design choices, challenges and solutions, and only briefly describes the initial evaluations. (The full-scale evaluation was done last summer and we are still working through the data.)

The best part is that the science centre is seriously invested in the project. We did two public tests last year – first in February and then scaled-up in July-August – both open to the public. While the research project ended in August, Tom Tits has taken the game further and is now making it a permanent part of their exhibition. From what I have gleaned, the final version looks really cool; the ugly screens are gone and replaced by mechanical devices that show scores, and a fabulous end reward installation. I hope to be able to do some kind of study of the final installation as well.

Larp Design for Storymaking

Beatrice of house Polonius from Inside Hamlet; A larp with heavy use of fate play. Photo by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard studios.

Beatrice from “Inside Hamlet”; a larp relying heavily on fate play. (Most of us died.) Photo by John-Paul Bichard, Bichard studios.

In refusing my very first sketch at a scenario for the Stockholm Scenario Festival, Tobias Wrigstad once gave me this advice: “A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.” This is what this post is about.

To be clear: I won’t go into any itty-bitty gritty details on role-play design. Firstly, I am by no means an experienced designer myself. Secondly, to design is to balance a host of design factors, in a complex web of design decisions where all affect each other. Every designer does this differently, guided by his or her own preferences and experiences. Finally, storymaking is just one possible design goal for role-play design. Some role-playing games focus on telling a set story, others on creating good game experiences, and some on creating an alternate world for players to immerse into.

In previous posts, I have discussed why I believe that the stories that are generated by gaming do not just ’emerge’ but are consciously created by players. I have started to sketch why it is that the structures of a design help players in generating stories – by first analysing sport  and then role-playing games. But so far, I have primarily discussed what players do; I haven’t discussed what tools are available to designers to help players engage in storymaking.

First, a bit of theory, again from Bruner’s article ‘Narrative construction of reality’. Narrative is one of the most important ways through which humans make sense of the world – we tell stories about it. Narratives are not true or false: Bruner describes them “a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and ‘narrative necessity’ “. But Bruner makes an even stronger argument: he argues that narrative is an instrument of mind that “operates in the construction of the world”. This makes sense if you accept social constructionism (Burr 2003). It is immediately and obviously true for the collective creative process that constitutes the fictional worlds of role-playing games. Bruner identifies ten different qualities that make narratives into narratives. Most of them are relevant to role-playing games, but I will focus on three that are readily applicable to larp design.

Hermeneutic composability is the requirement that a story must take the form of a text or something equivalent to a text, through which somebody has attempted to express meaning and from which somebody else is trying to extract meaning. As I discussed in my previous post, storymaking in larp is aided by the way players read narrative intent into the actions of others, by interpreting them as invitations to collaboratively tell a story.

The Nordic larp scene has imported meta-techniques from freeform and jeepform scenarios, that primarily are used to support hermeneutic composability. Inner monologues allow players, but not their characters, to hear what a character is thinking. Black-box scenes can be used to play out things that have happened in the past, may happen in the future, or even be dream scenes that never happened. For example, in my recent scenario ‘Revolver’ I used a version of blackboxing where scenes are replayed from the perspectives of different characters. Finally, a great tool is also to just pause the larp for a while. A break lets players re-plan their course of action and re-negotiate their relationships. Finally, while safety words are used primarily to ensure safety (duh), they can also function as meta-communication for negotiating what kind of narrative you are playing towards. I saw this use in ‘Monitor Celestra’, where the in-game swearword ‘Frakk’ was used as a signal that a scene could be escalated. In this usage, the word is not just a safety word but also functions as a signal about what kind of scene you are playing towards. ‘I am inviting you to a particular type of narrative, are you cool with that’.

The concepts of canonicity and breach explain why not all sequences of events are stories worth telling. According to Bruner, as story can only be created when there is a breach of script, where a ‘script’ is what we typically do in a culturally defined situation. An example is going to a restaurant: we know that we will be ordering food, eating and paying and exactly how to do it, and unless something out of the ordinary happens it doesn’t make for a story to be told afterwards. To be worth telling, a tale must be about how a canonical script has been breached, in a way that somehow questions the script. But Bruner also points out that the breaches in turn tend to be highly conventional, they follow narrative conventions and typically describe well-known human plights. Innovative storytellers are marked by their ability to tell stories that subvert the familiar conventions for breaches. In larp design, you cannot assume that your players will be innovative storytellers, but you still expect them to engage in storymaking. This is where Tobias’ advice comes in: ‘A larp scenario should help players tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell by themselves.’

I think we can identify three main strategies in how larp designers do this. The first is to subvert normality. When larp designers create a fictional society with different norms and social rules, they install social scripts that are alien to the players. When playing along with such scripts, the players experience a breach of normality. Giving players characters, with personality traits and goals that are different from their everyday personality, also subverts normality. Even when these characters live their normal everyday life, it generates a stories for players.

It can be hard for designers to subvert norms that are ambient in our everyday society. A recent report from the larp ‘KoiKoi‘ illustrates this. While the cultural compendium for KoiKoi explicitly instructed players that marriages needed neither be heterosexual nor pairings, the players still ended up in classic heterosexual pairs.

The second strategy is that designers embed story content that push narrative progression in their desired direction. There are a host of more or less explicit ways to do this. Tested and tried methods include presenting players with new information during play (e.g. sending them a letter from a long-lost love), or use non-player characters. Rules regulating fate play (such as telling a player that they should die at a certain time) is also an explicit way to control storymaking. Less explicit strategies include giving characters personal goals to play on, or design characters that, when meeting, are more or less certain to react in certain ways to each other.

And finally, there’s chance. There is always a level of randomness in larp; so much depends on events such as who happens to meet with whom, external factors like weather, how the players inspire each other, etcetera. Every run is a unique event. Hence, designers tend to rather work against chance to make the events a bit more predictable; but chance can also be conciously designed into larp. Staged battles and the lottery of death in Just a Little Lovin are examples of this. As a player in Mare Incognitum, I learned to do basic card reading – which turned out to be a realy useful way to introduce a controllable level of chance into the game. I personally like when there is a bit of chance designed into a larp. Meybe it is when chance intervenes that we as players start to feel that stories truly ’emerge’, that our experiences are unique enough to be worth telling.

Oh well. I am not sure that I’ve been useful to a designers here; actual design is a good deal more complex. Let Tobias’ wise words guide you: Design for storymaking is not about designing stories into larp, it is about helping players to tell stories they wouldn’t be able to tell on their own.


Jerome Bruner. The narrative construction of reality. Critical inquiry (1991): 1-21.

Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge; 2Rev Ed edition (2003).

John Kim. The three-fold model.

Your larp sucked – or how to get useful feedback from players

So, I did a little inspirational talk and a follow-up workshop at Knudepunkt 2015. Some people seemed to want to get access to my slides. They are available here.

It’s about things to think about when gathering feedback from players after a larp. Since it may all sound very obvious and simple, I would recommend anyone who want to do it to carry out the exercise at the end of the slides. The devil is, as always, in the detail.

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