The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

PRACTICE – game design in detail

In a coffee discussion with Lorraine Hopping.

I’m writing this on my way home from PRACTICE, a game design conference organized by the game center at New York University. PRACTICE is not your standard academic peer-reviewed conference, but dominated by ‘real’ game designers, mostly from industry, who talk about nitty bitty gritty details about their day job. Speaking is by invitation, so I consider it a great honor to have been invited! I participated in the panel on ‘games and not-games’, arguing for the role of fiction in games and how it connects games with role-playing games.

I found a theme in this year’s PRACTICE conference: many speakers talked about the role of players in inventing their own games. Chris Bell spoke about the emergence of playground games in Journey (picked up by Gamasutra), and Richard Garfield on the role of tournaments in balancing games (his full presentation also picked up by Gamasutra). Dan Cook showed us how a rich player culture emerged within the old ‘Realm of Mad God’ MMOG just from adding a simple mechanic of dropping, and in general advocated an approach where more agency is given over to players in shaping their own game (and just as the others, Gamasutra got him nailed too). I went to the extreme, arguing for the power of incomplete rules and player improvisation in role-playing games, but got unexpected support from Christina Norman, who is the lead designer on League of Legends who argued for a richer and more complex approach to fiction in this otherwise very gameistic game, in order to better support (among other things) cosplay and fan fiction.  And then of course, Minecraft was mentioned sufficiently many times to warrant a drinking game. (And Markus should really take the time to come to this conference, he’d enjoy it.)

From a pervasive game / larp perspective, the most intriguing presenter was David Ward, senior military analyst at the war gaming department. David stages “war games” with a double purpose: to gather data on how to address complex issues in war strategy, and as a means of education. You may consider these games simulations, but they seem a bit too abstract for that. The scenarios are abstracted and players only play strategic command. My interest was spurred by the fact that they  are heavily game-mastered – everything outside strategic command is simulated manually by experts, so that the outcome of every decision is recreated as realistically as possible. One of the key design issues that David talked about was how to push as much as possible of the activity to the players rather than to game masters – “we don’t want to create work for us, but for them”. I so much wish that I could study these games  (but that will never happen as they are classified), because it seems like they see the same advantages and problems with game-mastering as we found for pervasive games.

For me, the conference peaked already with the very first presentation, when Richard Garfield  presented on game balancing. (And I got to shake his hand, completely tounge-tied. Wish I had a bit more guts around giants.) I had expected spread sheets, but Richard talked about game balancing as an art – not because its complexity but because there balancing a game might mean different things for different players. Luckily, Richard ensured us, game balancing is pretty forgiving. For example, adding probability level to an otherwise unbalanced rule can suffice to balance it. On a more personal note, Richard’s talk gave me the explanation for why the ‘reverse drafting’ way that I play Magic together with my youngest son works. It goes like this: one of my sons play Magic competitively, so he buys a lot of cards and builds tournament decks. When those decks have been built, there remains a large collection of cards that his younger brother uses to build decks that he and I play with. Richard talked about how these cards are not meant to be worse than the tournament cards, just different. Our casual decks create a slower game with a compelling dramatic curve: starting slowly, they typically build towards a fierce end game. I think I enjoy that game more than the explosive battles common in tournaments.

The social program was good, especially the long coffee and lunch breaks. Zach Gage (artist/game designer) hosted the conference party in his apartment which doubles as his development studio, which by itself was rather awesome. The party acquired just the right level of nerdiness. I had a long discussion with Michael Consoli about his game ‘against the wall’, an art/game design project that has just the artistic sensitivity to become fantastic and win prizes but seems to lack a sense of direction at the moment. The most amazing fact about Michael may be that he’s doing a master at NY University – what do they do to get the experts enroll as students!?!

Need I say that I plan to go back next year, even if I am not invited as speaker?


Alexander, L. The ‘immense responsibility’ of creating value for players. Gamasutra, Nov 13th 2012.

Alexander, L. Magic: The Gathering’s Richard Garfield’s strategies for game balancing. Gamasutra, Nov 1oth 2012.

Alexander, L. Beautiful folk play and emergent interaction in Journey. Gamasutra, Nov. 10th 2012.

Jonsson, S. and Waern, A. The art of game-mastering pervasive games. Proceedings of the 2008 International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology.

The recent Ph.D. Montola


Markus after his defense, flanked by the primary supervisor Frans Mäyrä, and the thesis opponent Mary Flanagan.

My longtime friend and co-author Markus Montola defended his Ph.D. thesis on September 22nd. Since I was formally appointed his co-supervisor about two years ago, it also means that I got my fourth ph.d. student through the system. (Not that Markus really needed any supervision – he was way ahead of both me and Frans Mäyrä almost from start in selecting subject and approach. The only thing he’s needed has been resistance.)

Markus thesis is about role-playing games (with a strong focus on larp) and pervasive games (with a focus on pervasive role-playing games). Hence, his focus of interest is rather similar to mine. Markus’ frames his domain as that of ‘ephemeral games’ – games where every game session is so unique that it might not even make sense to talk about a ‘game’ that exists outside of the individual session.  Role-playing games fall into this category as they leave plenty of room for player improvisation, and pervasive games due to the infinite ways in which the real world can interact with the game. I am probably biased, but I think everyone who is interested in role-playing games or pervasive games should read this thesis.

Markus’ main strength is how he carefully frames every concept he’s working with. He was the person behind the definition of ‘pervasive games’ that framed our book on the subject, and in the thesis he does the same to concepts such as role-play, ephemeral games, and first-person audience. Markus is creating language for us all that are studying this class of games and play activities. His weakness may be method – the thesis lacks a thorough discussion of epistemology and the individual papers represent a mix of descriptive scoping of core concepts and qualitative empirics. The advantage is that the thesis becomes unusually readable – the introduction could be used as a textbook on ephemeral games and their significance in the field of game studies.

Markus is already a quite well-known scholar, in particular for his work on creating an academic discourse around Nordic live role-playing. Markus has already made a brilliant career as a games researcher – and I predict that it will continue, even though he’s currently working as a game designer.

The recent Ph.D. Harviainen

J. Tuomas Harviainen

I am a bit late on catching up on recent game-related dissertations (including Markus Montola who defended more than a month ago). Since I happen to have J. Tuomas Harviainen’s thesis at home, that’s the one that will make it into this blog first.

J. Tuomas’ thesis is about larp, and larp only – a perspective that makes it rather unique. Coming from a background in cognitive perspectives on religion, his thesis lies firmly in the domain of information studies. He shows how larp can be described as information systems, and how larping can be characterized by its information-seeking behavior.

How then, can I begin to summarize the thesis? Let me start with a warning: this is a very clever text. If you want to thoroughly understand what he’s writing, it takes time and I have not penetrated it all. But I find treasures everywhere. The methodology article on role-playing analysis is a gem (although I think that the argument on treating action as text would need more space), and I am also extremely happy for his lucid description of play-space as a “resignification zone”, something he is not the first one to do but by far the clearest. The article where he compares games with rituals is also very illuminating.

J. Tuomas is the most well-read role-play researcher that I have met – I think that he’s read every scholarly text there is to read about role-playing games, and most there are on games in general. His interpretation of this vast landscape of references seems a bit eclectic, but his own contribution remains hermeneutic and at least partially self-ethnographic (J. Tuomas is a well-established larp designer); an approach that is becoming more or less standard in game studies. For this reason alone, I believe that many Ph.D. students in the game domain would benefit from picking up this thesis to read its methodology section – J. Tuomas presents you with the references you need to understand what it actually is that you are doing.

I know that J.Tuomas is planning to pursue his research towards a ‘docent’ – which means that he will have to write a book. I already look forward to reading it!

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