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Archive for the category “Academic reflections”

Arguments that need to be weeded out of game studies: A rant

I’ve spent quite a few years of my career doing volunteer work for the budding community of game academia; as a reviewer, editor, and program chair for various conferences. Over the time, I’ve seen the field grow and mature in so many ways. Many of the young scholars exceed us oldies in rigour and knowledge and I love the way they are moving into the space. However, there are some arguments that are rare in other academic disciplines, but that creep into game scholarship in a way that that is detrimental to the discipline as a whole. It is high time that we collectively weed them out.

Thing is, there is a kind of self-confident arrogance among game players and designers that has no place in the academic study of games. It emerges from skill awareness. Game players develop extensive skills in playing their games. Poker players run statistics in their heads, Super Mario players spend hours practicing that one slide-jump-twist. Players are also objectively awarded for their skills by winning, which lets them become self-aware of their skillset in a way than most people ever get a chance to be in any other field.

Something very similar is true for game design: every game designer hones their skills in designing the precise games they build – and game design is intensely difficult. Every game design is a complex web of design decisions where every one of them can be critical. Game designer awards are not quite as closely tied to their skillset as those for players, but typically at least in the commercial world, you will look at sales figures and metacritic scores as measurements of success.

Moving into academic research, all of this of course still matters. It is important to be “well-played” if you want to be able to analyse games as text. If you want to write about game design as a practice, and even more if you want to contribute with knowledge relevant for game design, you should yourself or your sources to be reasonably good at designing games. However, referring to these skills is not an academically valid argument. It is an argument of authority and those have absolutely no place in academia. I have seen all of the following arguments made in academic submissions.

“A way to balance skill trees / optimise weapon mods / whatever in game X” Oh, come on! Fortunately, it was a while since I saw this type of submissions to academic venues; apparently, game professors around the world are doing their job in weeding this one out already at bachelor level.

“I have played for fifteen years and the writeup is based on my knowledge.” This is much more interesting, but if you are making this argument you are doing autoethnographic work. Read up on the term and what is required in terms of self-representation and self-reflection in the text. Reflect not just on what you learn from your own extensive experience, but also on what you have NOT experienced, what are your blind spots. Connect to others’ writing about the game(s), argue with or against them. The fact that you have played a game forever does not mean that your account of the game, or the play practices around it, will be objectively true.

“This writeup is based on the account of X,Y,Z who are experts in the genre // were behind this hugely successful game.” Yes, we do need to value and tap into professional design knowledge. But the fact that you are starstruck by designers X, Y and Z does not make them the ultimate authorities, and neither do you become an authority by proxy by using them in your work. Methodologically, tapping into the tacit knowledge of designers is immensely difficult – the fact that a game was a commercial or critic success does not mean that its designers are good at reflecting on why. If you are going to take this approach, you need to develop your interview technique and critically reflect on what you get. You also need to either tie in to previous theory (yes, connect to literature), or if there is none, build theory from scratch. There are established approaches to the latter (hint: grounded theory). Typically, no method will allow you to just parrot the authoritative voice of your favourite designers.

“This account is based on me playing X, the most successful game in the genre/this year/on this platform.” Turning your obsession into a paper, eh? We’ve all been there. Once, game studies had a whole subfield that could have been called ‘World of Warcraft’ studies. But the fact that a game is commercially successful does not necessarily mean that it is the best candidate for a study.  You need to have a good reason for why this game deserves to be studied, what is unique about it. Games with a narrow audience might be just as interesting, so why does it matter that yours was successful?

World of Warcraft deserved to be studied because of its radical success (as the first MMOG with a massive global audience), in particular for the novel community practices that developed around the game. Other blockbuster games may deserve study because they have made radically novel design decisions that underlie their success. But some are just big, in a large landscape of similar games that are not as successful. The hype is sometimes the only thing that drives players to that particular game.

To summarise, if game studies is to be an academic field, each piece of academic work must argue for its own merits. Nobody is – or should be – impressed by references to authority.


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.

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.

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!

Why I don’t believe in emergent narratives

(This post is about videogames only. There will be a follow-up post about larp.)

Every late autumn, I teach a course in game analysis at Stockholm University. We cover Salen and Zimmerman ’Rules of Play’ cover to cover with some sideboard readings, and the homework assignments include playing games and analyzing them from various perspectives. One of the homework assignments includes this question:

”To what extent does the game create any emergent narrative? Explain your answer.”

Students have huge problems answering this question for just about any videogame they analyse, and I  understand why. To summarize, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players.

Morrowind aimed for a rich story world, and used a combination of scripted stories and procedural content (such as the reputation system) to create it.

The concept of ’emergent narrative’ is most commonly seen as part of a more general design ideal of a ’360 illusion’, a complete and consistent fictional universe that is there for the player to explore. The idea is that such worlds also could function as story spaces, in which numerous stories could emerge depending on what the player chooses to do and what to explore. (The 360 illusion is a very old design ideal that predates computer games, and for video games it has been advocated by e.g. Jane Murray in ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’.) Games that have aimed to achieve this ideal include many single-player RPGs such as Morrowind. It is not an ideal that appeals to everybody: many players value challenges more highly than exploration, or favour a good story above a complete simulation.

The problem is that a rich and complex world is just a world. Worlds are not in themselves stories or challenges, but they can function as a canvas or a backdrop for both. (I believe it poses issues for both, but here I focus on stories.) As a storytelling canvas, the 360 illusion poses several limitations. The most obvious one is related to time: unless you tweak the representation, the player can only experience any plot in the order it is played out, as a story world ‘now’. For this reason, most 360 illusion games include a back story that is both represented in the world (through architecture and relics, clothes and cultures, posters, books lying around etcetera) and in dialogues with NPCs in the world. The back-story lends itself to free exploration but is static – in this sense little has changed since MYST. Already the separation of the back-story from the story in-game sets games apart from traditional narrative media, but more seriously, the stories that play out within the 360 illusion will always be told in the order that events happen in the world. This is true even when stories are triggered or generated as an effect of the player moving freely in the world and selecting her own interactions. More interesting and complex narrative structures can be created as players re-load earlier saves or replays the entire game to explore various options – but these are narratives generated by players and only occasionally foreseen by designers.

A second limitation is that it is the player who will play the protagonist in a 360 illusion game. In literature, it is possible to present stories from a first-person perspective or a third person perspective, and in film, the perspective is typically a third person perspective; all forms offer plenty of ways to present the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist to the viewer or reader. But when the player enters a 360 illusion world through an avatar, it is to play the role of the protagonist. If the game prescripts what the avatar can say or do, or how it should react, it will limit the expressivity and freedom for the player. But if it does not, it will be up to the player to create all those reactions and emotions – and there is no guarantee that he or she will. I believe that when Tom Cross’ argues for creating meaningful games by populating them with NPCs with their own goals and purposes can be seen as a way of overcoming this problem: using his model, the player becomes an in-game spectator and less of a protagonist.

The third limitation I want to bring up is both a limitation and a potential: the randomness of a world open for free exploration. There is a level of randomness already in letting players explore a world at will, and another layer in that the events they trigger can affect each other. But narratives are not perceived as random but as intentional structures: Tom Cross puts this as ”narratives speak of an intelligent, exterior design to readers”. When we are looking for narratives, we are looking for the intent to tell a story.  Random occurrences will still seem random unless they have been carefully designed (and yes, it is possible to design for coincidence, as discussed by Reid for location-based games). Hence, most computer RPG games include pre-scripted story content where the intent to tell a story is clearly in place, that serve as a context in which random occurrences become meaningful. Cross argues for procedural narrative: stories that have been designed into the game but that are generated rather than pre-scripted.

Hence,  in order to create coherent stories out of random coincidences (with or without linking to pre-scripted story content), the player must be active in making the connections. The player becomes not just the protagonist but part author of his or her own story. Steve Gaynor talks about this as ‘storymaking’:

“One should not ask a game designer to tell them a great story; rather, the game designed should be judged on the player’s ability to make his own stories within its mechanical framework.”

If we are given nothing but random coincidences from the 360 illusion, this is a very hard task. Such stories do not just ’happen’ or ’emerge’ out of a rich world to explore – they are actively and consciously created by players. It is not necessarily something that every player is good at or even wants to do, and furthermore, the 360 illusion is not necessarily the best way to support storymaking. Calling this form of narrative ’emergent’ just obscuring what is really going on.

Stay tuned, because there are some that got this right – the table-top and larp communities.


Cross, T. Analysis: Story and the trouble with ’emergent’ narratives. Gamasutra, July 10th 2009.

Elder Scrolls III: MORROWIND. Bethesda game studios 2002.

Gaynor, S. Storymaking. Blog post, Jan 31st 2009.

Murray, J. Hamlet on the Holodeck. MIT Press 1998

MYST Brøderbund, Robyn and Rand Miller, 1993

Reid, J. Design for coincidence: incorporating real world artifacts in location based games. Proceedings of the 3rd international conference on Digital Interactive Media in Entertainment and Arts, Pages 18-25. ACM.

Waern, A, Montola, M., and Stenros, J. The three-sixty illusion: designing for immersion in pervasive games. Proc. CHI’2009.

Just a little lovin’, and techniques for telling stories in larp

The poster for ‘Just a little lovin’.

I am trying to gather my thoughts after participating in the art larp “Just a Little Lovin” (or JALL for short), designed by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. The larp was first staged last summer in Norway, and was now re-staged in Sweden in collaboration with Miriam Lundqvist, Anna-Karin Linder and Petter Karlsson trough LajvVerkstaden. Reports from other players are gradually coming up on-line: I recommend in particular Elin Dahlståls report for a comprehensive and accurate description of the larp design and its game mechanics, and Mikolaj Habryn‘s report of a first-time larpers experience of this quite hard-core Nordic larp – larps that designed to move you at a personal level rather than to be fun. Also, Nathan Hook has written a light-weight review of the techniques used in the game, especially concerning sex simulation techniques.

The Nordic larp genre differs from most other forms of larp in its focus on immersion (in role and world) and storytelling. You cannot game a Nordic larp because there is nothing to win. Whereas ten years ago the genre was dominated by a strive towards complete and realistic simulation, the last ten years have seen an increased focus on various ‘meta techniques’ – here we could call them game mechanics. Some meta techniques are primarily about safety – techniques for simulating violence and sex as well as the safety words for pausing play belong to this category. Some of them focus on the development of story, and this is where I would like to focus this post, because I think that “Just a Little Lovin” provided the best storytelling mechanics that I have so far seen in a larp of this genre.

From a storytelling perspective, the goal of larp  is to make every single character the protagonist of his or her own story. To make this work, players must  collaborate by getting involved as support characters for each other. You will constantly present invitations to plot openings and play on the invitations of others; you will be playing out several stories at once and so will your co-players. In practice, this becomes unmanageable unless you have some game mechanics to help you. JALL used four main techniques to support this: inner monologues, black box scenes, act breaks, and an element of randomness. In addition, many players made up individual or collective goals for the dramatic curve of their storyline. For example, I had decided in advance that my character would emerge from the larp as a stronger and less conflicted person (unless she died), no matter what she went through during the larp. My core group decided to play on the theme of children (I had two fictional children in-game, with different fathers and no functioning relationship with either father), going from a custody conflict towards a rainbow star family. Hence, we added an element of fate play into the game – we did not know exactly how to get there, but we knew where we wanted to take our story from start.

Inner monologues: These are thoughts that a character says out loud, in-game, to let your fellow players know your feelings, plans, or thoughts without communicating it to their characters. Inner monologues provide great opportunities for plot openings and story development, but they need a game mechanic so that players know when something is a monologue rather than something the character says. In JALL, the inner monologues were part of the sex simulation – if your character had sex with another character, the scene should end with the two characters side by side both speaking their thoughts. Personally, I think this might have been the story development technique that worked the least well. Sometimes, these inner monologues indeed became very intense and emotional, but since they were compulsory they very often just became reflections on how good/bad the sex had been. Furthermore, the monologues were usually only heard by a few people (often only one sex partner), it was impossible to share an inner monologue with a character you could not share a sex scene with, and some players preferred to play out pillow talk post-sex rather than inner monologues. I think the game would have benefitted from an additional form for inner monologues that players could initiate at will.

Black box scenes: Black box scenes are scenes played out outside of the time and place of the ongoing event. They are often used to play out scenes in the past or the possible future of the characters, they can be dream scenes or abstract scenes representing a mood or emotion. In JALL, there was a room reserved for blackboxing, but players could just go offside to play out a black-box scene anywhere, and players could do them on their own or recruit an organizer to help direct the scene. We also did some blackboxing before the larp and in act breaks. The black box scenes became really popular in JALL, to the extent that the organizers started to recommend players to consider playing out more of this content in-larp. I played about four blackbox scenes in-larp, which is more than I have ever done before, and found them extremely useful. In particular, they helped my core group develop their parental relationship to each other and to the (non-present) children. On one occasion, we recruited help from a co-player to act as the teacher of the oldest son, and her confusion when three parents turned up for the teacher meeting. It was funny, but became very uncomfortable when she started to talk about how our son did not respect the personal border of the other children…

Act breaks: One of the most important story development method used in JALL. The larp lasted for three days, but the larp was broken off at eleven o’clock each day for a round of debriefing, ‘world’ briefing for the next act (as it played out a year later), and work-shopping to develop new relationships and plan out the core group goals for the next act. (The next act would then start at five in the afternoon the same day.) I found it very hard to break game after the first day of play, but it worked better the second time. The act breaks were crucial in order to develop new stories and groups, and to get a story back on-track that had been going in a unproductive direction. Some players would change characters between acts (especially those who’s characters had died), or re-design their character a bit. In my case, I used the act breaks primarily to develop secondary relationships. When the larp started we had two main contact networks: the core group (me and the two ex-boyfriends) and a social circle. My social circle had basically no play at all during the first act. For the second act, we reshaped the social circle a bit and I also got a tiny link into a second circle. In the third act we decided to dissolve it altogether, and I changed to a new circle ‘the aids prevention campaign’ which worked much better. Also, my core group got together to plan out when to play out our main story arch. We also had debrief sessions in larger groups to see that everyone was feeling (reasonably) well and having a good play experience. In my debrief group, there was one player who definitely didn’t. We helped him to reshape the character and his social relationships, and he ended up having a much better play situation in the last act.

Randomness: JALL was a larp about love, desire, and living in the shadow of death. Whereas the techniques for simulating kissing and having sex were central to play on love and desire, the risk of dying was simulated by a lottery. Any character could get infected by HIV, ill in aids or cancer, or die. Each morning, we played out a very emotional meta-scene (as all participated, it can hardly be called a blackbox scene) called ‘lottery of death’. It was conducted by two angels in black costumes, who handed out lottery tickets. Depending on your risk level, you put one to five tickets with your name on into the lottery. Ten people were called, who went off to the black box to get their sentence: maybe they had a false call and were well, maybe they got infected or ill in cancer – or maybe they died. These scenes were among the most emotional in the game. Those who were not called up waited silently, and we were then called to the chapel for a funeral ceremony that was the end of the current act. On our way there, we would be met by those who had been called away but allowed to come back, and together we would go up to the chapel to say farewell to those who did not. The lottery of death came very close to almost everyone in the larp, and in my case it became the device that shaped my character’s story arch throughout. One of my character’s former boyfriends (the one she was still in love with) was called up already in the first lottery but came back. I cried the whole time while waiting, and when I ran up to meet him (together with all the other women that loved him – he was not particularly monogamous) he was strangely distant. The year after, he was called up again and when I walked towards the chapel I soon understood that he was not among those who met us. I collapsed in a hug with his most permanent girlfriend, and while she started crying I let out a scream that I know not where I got – it was a sound I have never heard from myself before. For me, the last act became entirely centred on mourning someone I’d lost twice and had no real right to mourn – a deep and complex emotion and a great story arch.

Fate play: Fate play means that you have some sort of pre-planned story development for a character or a group of characters. JALL used a tiny bit of fate play in the pre-set story arch, as it was played out over three years and certain events were scripted into those years. During the first year, aids was still largely unknown and we were just partying wildly. During the second year, people had started to die (only one in-game character), and we understood that many more were infected although we did not know how it spread nor how to prevent it from spreading. This year was played on fear and paranoia. During the third year, the HIV test had been discovered and we also knew it could be prevented by using condoms, but it was still a death sentence to get infected. As many had died and even more were ill,  the story became focussed on comforting each other and overcoming loss. It was up to us as individual players to use this story content. For example, since my former boyfriend had died from aids I decided I had fairly high risk between the second and third act (I still escaped in the lottery of death) and I also decided to take the HIV test in a very uncomfortable blackbox scene (negative, phew!). Secondly, I got involved in aids prevention (and as a consequence, handled more condoms than I probably have done in my entire life before). I have also mentioned that my core group planned out a story arch concerning parenting. When one of the guys got infected after the first act, we decided to speed it up so that it would be completed during act two, as he most likely would be either dead or seriously ill during act three.

In all, the level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.

Finally, our individual stories were put in context. After the larp, we had yet a ‘world brief’, this time with  a queer activist, an aids activist and a HIV-positive participant who told us about the status of alternative lifestyles, aids prevention in the world today, and the life as HIV positive. Larp is primarily a personal experience and a collective ritual, but by this world brief our personal experiences were put in context and politically and ethically framed. I believe that in particular the queer movement gained many new members this day – many of us straight. Through this framing, JALL succeeded to bee not just an artsy larp but also a persuasive game. This was probably my best larp experience ever – heartbreaking, mind-opening, and life-changing. Larps may not change the world directly, but they can surely change people.

Solmukohta 2012 – My rant about why larps may not change the world

Arrived at Solmukohta, I immediately got fired up by the larp correspondant to Gamification: The everpresent idea that Larp Can Change The World that formed the theme of the keynote speech by Mike Pohjola. So I wrote and delivered a rant. (I wrote it while listening to Eirik Fatland’s excellent presentation on the fundamentals of larp design – sorry Eirik for typing away during your presentation!)

“I want to rant about one of the most recent and most popular dogmas in larpdom – in fact, it was the opening talk of Solmukohta this year:


I am afraid that this isn’t much more than a convenient excuse for us to feel good about our hobby. I seriously doubt that larps can change the world, and they very definitely don’t do it as they look today.

Most scenarios we design have no power to question anything; rather, they reinforce and emphasise the societal structures that we know from our daily lives, from literature or from history books. Fantasy larps play in societies with feudal structures, racism and rampant hegemony; second world war larps in military settings with set hierarchies, bullying and violence. The reason why this happens is not laziness, it is because these structures are recognizable – they tell people what to do in the larp. Ursula LeGuin faced this problem when trying to write feminist fantasy, and she described is as ’having to walk the untrodden path’. Well, in a larp, it is even harder – because you will have to make all your players collectively walk this untrodden path. So it is no surprise that we stay with these well-known worlds. If you wanna make another ’between sky and sea’, expect to have to train your players in pre-game workshops for a year.

Well, we can still question them, can’t we? We certainly do – I played in KAPO, a game that aimed to re-create the experience of losing your humanity to the system. Nobody goes out of that experience without questioning such systems. But very often we just go out of the larp thinking ’Well we are SO lucky not living in THAT kind of society!’

Furthermore, even if we play a larp that questions structures in our contemporary society, we cannot change the world by just questioning it – we need to also construct the alternatives. And constructing the alternatives in LARP settings is not only hard, it very rarely happens. I don’t think that we ever play alternative utopian societies in Larp settings – a world without conflict is simply too boring.

Can larp change people, then? Can larp change the world one person at a time? Well, yes. I do believe that a good larp can challenge our perspective of the world and allow us to reflect on ourselves. But it happens much more rarely – and may be more shallow- than we’d like to think. When did you see the school bully play a low status role? In the larp, he’ll almost always be a high-ranked soldier or the larp might just break down. When did you last see a beautiful young girl play an old hag? In most scenarios, she’ll be cast as a princess and dressed up in clothes that makes her even more beautiful.

Finally, even if larp did all of this: if we learned to question, enacted the alternative, or learned to understand ourselves, how would this change society? Society doesn’t consist of individuals but is a structure. It is changed by politics and activism on the streets, and not by hiding in a forest or castle larping. And sorry to say, even when larping takes to the streets – in the kinds of larps that I have  both helped stage and studied –  it does not really become a sustainable form of activism. I still entertain a hope that it can, but I have yet to see it happen.

Dear larpdom – don’t fall into the ’gamification’ trap! Face facts – most lapers don’t go to larps to learn. We go to have a great experience! Truth is, most larpers go to larp to have fun – sometimes by crying our eyes out, but it’s still for fun. You may even call it a ’pasttime’ or a form of ’entertainment’.  So if you want larps to change the world, evenif it is  one player at a time, this is what you have to work with – and against.”

Flying and falling – on the emotions of motion

Screenshot from "The Journey"

I got two story-based single-player games for my birthday, The Journey  and Catherine. The games make an interesting comparison, so I will write about them both at the same time, although I am far from finishing Catherine.

The Journey is the rare example of an arts game that becomes an immediate bestseller. It is abstracted to the extreme: just as Shadow of the Colossus, The Journey takes a few interaction elements from the singleplayer genre, slims them down and refines them to the extreme, and integrates them into a hauntingly beautiful graphical and audial setting. There is very little you can do in The Journey. There are very few enemies and the ones that exist you cannot fight, only free from. The puzzles are few and simple. There are no dialogue trees to choose within as there is no dialogue at all, even though there is a cryptic backstory that gets revealed through graphical cutscenes throughout the game.

Action-related emotions in The Journey, the full game.

Instead, the gameplay experience in The Journey is completely based on how it feels to move in the game. You are travelling through a barren desert landscape, initially just walking. Almost immediately, you find out that it is easier to walk in some directions where you can slide with the sand; in other directions the sand and wind will instead work against you. Soon, you also learn to jump and to fly, creating an enormous feeling of empowerment and freedom. But when the problems start to mount, you lose your abilities and must struggle forward against wind, sand, and snow.

The ability to jump and to fly is very often used in games to make players feel powerful; just think about the double-jump from the platformers. The feeling is particularly liberating when it comes after being earth-bound. I remember Black and White in which you were cast as a god over the villagers on a small island. But for being a god, you were rather crippled: your avatar was a huge hand, and you moved through the landscape as a clumsy five-fingered crab. If you got enough worshippers, they could give you the ability to fly, at least momentarily. After hours of earthbound struggling, the feeling was exhilarating.

The Journey casts the player as a hero throughout the game. Although it is a bit unclear what you are expected to accomplish, it is clear that you are not guilty for the problems depicted in the back story, but that you can help. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that The Journey can be played together with other players. If you play online, you get paired with another player to complete the game together. You cannot talk to each other, but you can help each other and you can play simple music together. This wordless interaction creates the strongest sense of togetherness that I have ever experienced in a game. It reminds me slightly of the very rare occasions in World of Warcraft when I collaborated with a player of the opposite faction, and the communication was almost as restricted. In line with the rest of the game, the collaboration is slimmed down and refined to its purest essence in The Journey, creating a much stronger emotion than in WoW.

Activity-related emotions in Catherine, the initial part.

Catherine can be seen as the very opposite of The Journey. The best way to describe its genre is as a survival horror platformer. The player is cast in the role of Vincent, who is having strange nightmares and a strong fear of women, and finds himself cheating on his long-term girlfriend. (I have mixed feelings about the misogynic theme of the game, but it is still a great game.) From the very start of the game, the story generates a feeling of guilt, as Vincent feels a bit guilty for his reluctance to commit himself to his long-term girlfriend. The feeling of guilt is reinforced throughout the first part of the game, as Vincent gets more and more entangled in a web of lies and threats.

Catherine consitst of a mix of quite extensive cut-scenes, some scenes in which you can walk around and interact with characters in the game, and a puzzle-solving platform game mechanic. The latter occur primarily in dream scenes, and consist of a timed puzzle in which you must find a way to climb upwards on a wall, where the lowest part keeps falling off and you sometimes are hunted by a monster.  Catherine is not about flying but about falling, or rather, the fear of falling. If you fall you die, even if it is in a dream. Just as in The Journey, Catherine offers no enemies that you can fight – all you can do is to flee from them to survive. But there is no game element that creates a sense of power and freedom in Catherine – at least not as far as I have played.

A nice touch in Catherine is that your character doesn’t level. You never get any lasting powers, although you can find or buy temporary power-ups. Even so, you do get a feeling that you are getting slightly more empowered, if only through the fact that you are learning how to solve the puzzle.

Finally, just as The Journey, Catherine offers an online element. In line with its horror theme, it is one that breaks the fourth wall, directing itself directly towards the player. Throughout the game, the player gets to answer questions related to his or her ethics, and the results are compared to what other players have answered. (At the point where I am now, these questions seem to have nothing to do with the game at all, but this might change later in the game.) Ultimately, Catherine is a game about ethics and morals, and interpret this element as an attempt to create a bleed effect.

(I need to finish off this sequence of blog posts on single-player games soon, to get to more juicy stuff on role-play. But there is at least one more post to go.)

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