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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.

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!

Storytelling in games

Game studies was more or less formed out of the ‘ludology – narratology’ debate, well documented in First Person. Basically, ludologists argued that games do not need to tell stories to be good, and they may not even be a good media for storytelling. The debate was a bit loop-sided as nobody really represented the opposite view (that games are about storytelling), but Hamlet on the holodeck is perhaps the book that comes the closest. In this book, Janet Murray presents a vision for a full 360 illusion narrative environment, giving players the power to shape stories in which they take active part. It is not a completely unrealistic vision: Murray was deeply influenced by table-top roleplaying, and although she was unaware of it, the Nordic larp community had already been experimenting with 360 illusion live role-playing for some years when the book came out. Later, research prototypes such as Façade have aimed to realise this vision in computer technology. (Façade exists in a holodeck version – AR/Façade.)

However, there is a huge difference between creating a 360 illusion and storytelling. In The art of videogames, Grant Tavinor argues that videogames are great vehicles for creating fiction (due to their simulation capabilities), but that storytelling requires a level of narrative control that is not entirely compatible with giving the player agency. And player agency is, after all, what games ultimately are about.

Since this debate, we have seen many, many storytelling games being produced; as larps, table-top games, and computer games. But these are seldom aspiring for a 360 illusion, and some of them don’t aspire to be games either. I find this development interesting, so I will blog about some such games over the coming weeks.

Trouble sleeping? You might have been playing a horror game

Half a week ago, a popular science article about violent computer games topped the news of the Stockholm University homepage. As the article is in Swedish, I’ll summarise it for you: it is about two studies performed at the stress research institute in Stockholm where they compared the heart rate for boys (age range 12-15) playing a ‘violent’ and a ‘non-violent’ computer game. The studies showed that the heart rates of the kids were affected by playing the violent game both during play, and during the night after. The kids also reported trouble sleeping. Furthermore, a second study compared the effect for boys who play games a lot (more than three hours a day), with those who play only a little (less than one hour a day). This second study showed that the heart rate and sleeping problem affected only the boys who play less. Malena Ivarsson (who is interviewed in the article) interpret this as a sign of general desensitization towards violence. I have been able to track down a publication on the first study, but not the second.

I would first like to point out a strength of this study, and that is that it was actually measuring psychophysiological effects, and moreover, that it was able to do so under ordinary play conditions. The kids wore the heart rate sensors while playing at home, in their normal play environment. I would love to see more studies done with this kind of methodology, rather than the host of contrived ‘measurements of agression’ (such as the ‘hot sauce‘ test) that psychologists have come up with over the decades. Secondly, I would like to point out that the study doesn’t even try to prove that boys become violent from playing violent video games – it is not set up to study transfer effects at all.

However, there is a huge problem with the games used in the comparison. It seems like both studies compared the same two games: Manhunt versus Animaniacs. Wikipedia classifies Manhunt as an ‘action horror’ game, and Animaniacs as an ‘action adventure – comedy’. The latter has rating E 10+ whereas Manhunt has been rated Adults, 18+ and it is also unusual in that it has been banned in a number of countries. Notice that little word ‘horror’? Notice that it is missing in the genre description for Animaniacs? Manhunt is a game designed to scare adults shitless – no wonder 13 year old boys have trouble sleeping after playing it! (I wonder how on earth they could get this experiment approved by an ethics board…)

So, the study compared a violent and scary game with a non-violent and non-scary game. But there are more differences. Animaniacs is a rather derivative game, using a well-established gameplay model (GameSpot reviews it as a ‘good old-fashinoned platformer’). There is almost no other interpretation of Animaniacs than through its ludified meaning: the game is about counting coins and vanquising the occasional enemy to advance to the next scene.

Manhunt is a revolting, scary, and from an ethical perspective very interesting game. It raised a critical controversy and was apparently also controversial within the development company. In his 2009 DIGRA article, José Zagal discusses it as a game that create ethical dilemmas for players. In Manhunt, the player is tasked with murdering his way through a host of victims, but the player is given a choice in method: the murders can be done more or less violently. The interesting thing is that there is almost no gameplay reward at all for choosing the more gruesome models; it just intensifies the narrative. This way, Manhunt resists the ludic trivialization that Linderoth writes about. Just as most action games, Manhunt is about killing, but Manhunt is also about making players feel bad about killing.

This is why their second study is more interesting than their first. Remember that the second study showed that the boys who played little games reacted stronger to Manhunt than those who played a lot of games. Ivarsson interprets this as a desensitization towards violence (in general), but there are at least two other possible explanations. One is that the boys who played a lot of games understood the horror genre better, thereby getting less scared. But the other explanation, and the one I think is the right one, is that they were better at understanding the game as a game. Their tendency would be to ignore the fiction as much as possible, seeing it as ‘adornment’ on top of a gameplay reward system that they focus on mastering. This is trivialization through resignification, and need not have anything to do with desensitization towards violence in general or even the horror genre in particular. Their ‘desentitization’ is tightly tied to the context of playing a game, as the ludified meaning is created by the game rules and goals and cannot exist outside of the game.

I am not sure what the study tried to achieve, but there are a couple of comparisons that I think would have made it more interesting. I would have liked to see a comparison between the reactions to a horror game and a horror movie, or, between somebody who plays the game and one who just watches it being played. I have yet to see a study that focusses on the effects of players acting in a game as opposed to just seeing the same things play out. Secondly, I think it would have been interesting to compare an action horror game with a survival horror game (like Amnesia) to single out the effect of performing violence, rather than just running from it. Finally, I wish that all of these comparative studies would pay more attention to how players talk about the games, to identify whether they refer to a fictional or a ludified reading of the game.


Malena Ivarsson, Martin Anderson, Torbjörn Åkersted, and Frank Lindblad. Playing a violent television game affects heart rate variability. Acta Pædiatrica 98(1):166-72, 2009.

Zagal, José P. Ethically notable videogames: Moral dilemmas and gameplay. Proc. DIGRA’09 Breaking new ground: Innovation in games, play, practice and theory, Brunel, U.K. 2009.

Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”

"The Grasshopper" was re-published in 2005 by Broadview Press and is available from all on-line bookstores.

Getting a blog read is, I hear, about being first with news. Well then, this blog post won’t quite cut it.

I re-read Suits’ book “The Grasshopper: Games, life and utopia” while ill. Originally published in 1978, it must be the best philosophy book ever written on what constitutes a game. It is funny, witty, readable, well-written, and presents a very convincing argument. To be more precise, Suits defines what it means to play a game, and the back cover presents the non-technical version of his definition as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. I always quote Suits on my introductory lecture in game analysis.

I tend to get carried away by the rhetoric of good philosophy, believing every word of the text. So after re-reading Suits I took two steps back to try to hunt down his critics. Most of the debate spurred by ‘The grasshopper’ was published in the Journal of the philosophy of sport (there were not a lot of venues for game academics in the eighties), and came to deal with the tricky issue of distinguishing between game-play, play, and sport.

What I find missing in Suits’ book is its purpose. Why does Suit want to define game-play at all? You could choose to read it as a game in itself, that Suits is playing a game at defining game-play. I also think that he has set up a particular goal for this exercise: Suits wants to prove Wittgenstein wrong in arguing that games can’t be defined (Wittgenstein uses ‘game’ as his chief example of words that only have family resemblances). Suits wants to prove that game-play is definable. Hence, there is an implicit rule in Suits book: he must create a definition of game-play that the reader accepts as true, independent of its definitional context or the intended use of the definition. Suits never discusses why game-play takes the form he describes: it just is. Neither does he discuss the consequences it has for culture or society (an embryo of an argument is however present in the discussion of game-play and utopia), or how it can be used to distinguish between good and bad game designs.

I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Suits had written his Grasshopper twenty years later, and the debate had been held in game studies? I believe that the simulative powers of computer games would have given Suits some problems. Suits shoe-horns role-playing games into his concept of games by classifying them as open games, by which he means games that have as their goal to keep going for as long as possible. The role-playing as such, he doesn’t consider important for them being games. But what role-playing games and computer games have in common is that they emphasise fictionality, the creative construction of fictional universes. Much of modern game studies has revolved around this mix of fictional universe and game-play (Juul, Tavinor, Bogost…), and as Larp researchers have begun to point out, the phenomena is not at all limited to computer games.

I think that Suits is mostly right (I’ll catch up on the game-play, game, and sport controversy some other time), but I think he is plain wrong in assuming that the only game-relevant stuff going on in role-play is a goal to keep the game going. This, I must write an article about some time.

Jonas Linderoth on ‘ludified meaning’

By a fluke, my Gothenburg-based colleague Jonas Linderoth started his blog ‘Spelvetenskapliga betraktelser’ the same day as I started my blog. I think he was tired of always get called to the barricades when games are under attack in popular media in Sweden, and wanted to create a place where he could develop his argument a bit less defensively.

His second post deals with the ‘ludified meaning’ that games create. The ‘ludified meaning’ is the reason why e.g. backgammon is the same game played no matter if you use pieces made of ebony or capsules – the meaning of the game is created internally, and related to the rules and goals of the game. The thing with ludified meaning is that not only does it create meaning within the game, it also redefines the meaning of things brought into the game, such as, things that the game simulates. Killing something or someone in a game is usually not perceived as killing by its players, but as a way to score points. Through this resignification, games create a very local meaning that tends to trivialize concepts and themes brought into them. Ludification is more than a hypothes: it’s a pretty well documented phenomenon and Jonas provides a host of references – look them up!

Ludification is a strong counterargument in the game violence debate, and it is a core challenge to the concept of gamification (using game structures to make people have more fun while doing something else, particularly learning). The only problem I have with it is that given my research into (and experience of) role-play, I don’t think ludification is the only thing that goes on in games…

(Jonas blogs in Swedish, as he is very active in the Swedish debate. Try google translate on his text – it’s well worth reading!)

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