Persona

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Archive for the category “Game reflections”

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!

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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!

 

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.

References:

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.

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.

References

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. http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/threefold/

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.

Storymaking in Larp (an overdue post)

Attentive audience

Participants in the October 2014 run of ‘Cabaret’, a larp musical that I was part of designing and staging.

This is a long overdue post; a follow-up to my reflections on storymaking in sport from 2012 (!) and why I don’t believe in emergent narratives in computer games.

Firstly, a recap: I look at emergent narrative as storymaking; as stories that do not just ‘happen’, but that we actively and consciously create from (or during) an experience of events. It is not something that every player is good at or even wants to do, not even in larp. Players engage in different ways in larp just as they do in computer games. In particular, there is an interesting and confusing interplay between storymaking and character immersion, which I’m not attempting to figure out in this post.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into storymaking. It is a learned skill, but it is also something we do in our everyday lives. Narrativists have studied it e.g. by looking into diaries and memoirs. Labov and Waletzky have characterized such stories as characterised by two aspects: “what happened, and why it is worth telling”. Bruner argues that we as humans organize our experiences primarily in the form of narrative – as stories, excuses, myths, and reasons. But again, narratives are constructed; they don’t emerge just because there are real-world events:

“Narratives do not exist, as it were, in some real world, waiting there patiently and eternally to be veridically mirrored in a text. The act of constructing a narrative, moreover, is considerably more than “selecting” events either from real life, from memory, or from fantasy and then placing them in an appropriate order. The events themselves need to be constituted in the light of the overall narrative … to be made “functions” of the story.” (Bruner)

Bruner doesn’t make a clear-cut difference between narrative in thought and in communication. He believes that creating narratives is like a tool that we learn, and that we internalize as part of our thinking about the world. It doesn’t matter if we tell the stories or not; they are still actively created by us even if only in our heads. The latter happens a lot in larp.

Since we have acquired skills for storymaking, designers can build on those skills. There are some popular cultural phenomena that are designed less as embedded stories, and more as fertile grounds for storymaking. Sports and reality TV shows are just two examples. While larp is less mainstream (although this may be a passing phase), it is interesting because it excels in creating structures that support storymaking.

Firstly, the qualities that I listed for sports are present also in larp:

  • Larp events provide a basic story structure (an identifiable beginning, middle and end points)
  • Larp typically provide background material on setting, characters, conflicts, and various groups/factions/cultures
  • Explicit rules for interaction can help to create a dramatic curve
  • Players create their own stories, in which they are the protagonists (the ‘first person audience’ concept)

But larps are more complex than sports. In sports, the storymaking process is unidirectional, based on a sequence of events that play out pretty much irrespectively of the stories people tell. By contrast, larps are collective storymaking machines. Kim has described how it works in table-top role-playing, and the same is pretty much true for larp:

“… an rpg player is acting in two capacities. As author, a player has a conceived story which is his imagination of what his character is thinking, among other things. By speaking and acting, he communicates this conceived story to the other players. As audience, the player also has a perceived story which is his interpretation of the actions of other players, which becomes his imagination of what happens elsewhere in the world.

However, these two stories are constantly interacting. The conceived story will be revised by what is perceived and vice-versa. Indeed, it is questionable whether they should really be considered as separate entities.”

This powerful storymaking process involves both designers and players. Larp designers will create settings, characters and in-larp events that serve to take the developing stories in certain directions. When players sense a story developing, they can individually or collectively decide to take it further. The stories created in a larp affect and steer the larp, while it is being played.

The key to understanding larp as a collective storymaking machine is that we as players read narrative intent into settings and events. If we were just ‘conceiving’ story, we would do what the sports journalists excel at: pick out the events that together well enough to create something worth telling. But when we assume that what is happening is already part of a narrative (somebody – actually a lot of people – are trying to tell stories), we try to figure out the intention behind what is done and said. We use our background knowledge about the narrator to figure out how each piece of information fits into the pattern. We hope to find some kind of consistency in our personal overall narrative as well, so we interpret the pieces we receive from that perspective – sometimes creatively misinterpreting them. It’s a rather confusing puzzle since a larp typically has dozens of stories going on at the same time. We communicate back in the same way, to gradually converge on synchronized if not identical stories – and the larp develops.

It doesn’t always work, of course. The design can help or hinder; the role of design cannot be underestimated (and I do have things to write on that too). Player chemistry is also important: sometimes we do not trust our fellow players enough to engage in collaborative storymaking, and sometimes we play in storylines that are too disparate to coordinate. But when it works, it’s like a dance where we sometimes lead, sometimes follow, every step contributing to our overarching experience.

REFERENCES

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

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky. Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. Journal of narrative & life history, Vol 7(1-4), 1997, 3-38.

Kim, John. Role-playing games as reverse drama and immersive story: A view of role-played drama. In “Beyond Role and Play” 2004.

Brudpris and the power of ‘skav’

brudprisIt seems like I am fated to digest my Solmukohta rant from 2012 many times over. The larps “Just a little Lovin” and “2027” may not have changed the world, but they have certainly taught me a lot about the world and about myself. And now, I have played Brudpris, beautifully designed by Anna Karin Linder Krauklis and Carolina Dahlberg, in this year’s Norwegian run produced by Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl, and got another reality check.

Brudpris is quite possibly the most terrifying larp I have ever done. This is a larp about a fictional Nordic honour culture, the ‘Mo’ people who live apart from the rest of society and uphold an oppressive lifestyle. In ‘Mo’ everything hinges on how much honour the ‘patriarch’ (the husband and father) of a household is considered to have; and honour hinges on keeping your own emotions and those of your family under tight control. An excellent report from the larp is available here.

In ‘Mo’, women are considered emotional and dangerous, and must be kept under close control. The household patriarchs hold all power and decide all marriages, never to be looked into the eye by a woman. Women serve, obey, and are regularly beaten. The name of the larp – Brudpris – means ‘the price of the bride’. Patriarchs pay to get their daughters married off, to men who can ‘take responsibility’ for them.

My role in Brudpris was that of a woman anthropologist, who coming from a gender-equal society entered Mo with the aim to understand how the Mo women lived. The anthropologists are primarily written into the larp to provide a mirror for the participants playing Mo people, highlighting the differences between Mo and the world outside. As such, they are rather thin characters with little opportunity for development. Yet, playing Beatrice was a horrifying experience. Starting out as a high-spirited, outspoken and active woman Beatrice became more and more subdued and controlled as the larp progressed. She ended up married off as the third and very slighted wife to a widower. who took responsibility for two unmarried women for money and honour. I have no doubts that Mo would eventually crush her, and that she never would write that spectacular book she was dreaming of writing.

What makes Brudpris a terrifying experience is however not its story, but what happens after playing it. Some larps are fairly easy to shrug off even when they are tough to play. KAPO for example, depicted a horrible and slightly absurd concentration camp that I (as an intern, I need to get back to the guard experience) could shake off quite easily as it had little to do with the life that I – or anyone else in the western world – lives. It was hard to see the KAPO camp as realistic, even when it was. For similar reasons, some characters are possible to shrug off even when they are quite despicable. I had great fun playing a racist anthropologist in Terra Incognita (a Lovecraftian horror larp). While enacting a kind of pre-war racism that I had dug up in antique books, I never for a moment considered myself to be racist.

Brudpris didn’t offer those ways out, as became obvious during the debrief. The first part was kept separate for those who had played women and men. The women started to talk about their backgrounds, how they had played their grandmothers, or how similar their patriarch had been to their own fathers. They told stories of abuse. Among the men, those who had played young boys told stories of guilt, and of how much they had to give up to become men. The patriarchs – at least those played by women – told stories of how vigilant and lonely the oppressor must be. But what only gradually dawned on us – sometimes weeks after – was that it had been all too easy to play Brudpris. That we (who played our everyday gender) found it all too easy to succumb to the destructive Mo culture. This same larp report, written by a man who played a young boy in Brudpris, is a good example. What makes Brudpris so terrifying is not only a ‘bleed‘ experience, but one that has been called “skav” (friction) in Swedish. The feeling of awkwardness in a socially dysfunctional setting, and the discovery that that fictional culture we enter as an alien world is in fact all too similar to our everyday experience.

An it is here I have my only real critique against Brudpris: this experience seems not to be all that accessible to the men who played patriarchs. When I first read their post-game reflections, I was struck by their intense desire and ability to distance themselves from their roles. They had a tough experience enacting oppressors, wrote about how horrible their roles were, and how they hated them. There is a distinct difference between these stories and the story told by a person playing the even more abhorrent role of a guard in KAPO. The KAPO guard tells a harrowing story of how easy it was to become a torturer, how it became routine, and how difficult it was for him to acknowledge this as a side of himself. Seen in this light, the patriarchs in Brudpris had it easy.

I have one possible idea about why this happened. In the pre-game instructions for the larp, the men playing patriarchs were instructed to take a great deal of off-game responsibility for the people playing in their families. As a result, they tended to organize also the off-game discussions and decide when and where they would happen. Essentially, they played patriarchs also off game, albeit of a benevolent character. These roles came easy to them and were accepted by their families, the groups were enacting well-known frames of social interaction from our everyday world. I do not believe that these men recognized their off-game roles as benevolent patriarchs.

Myself, I wrote this as my farewell to my stupid, smart, Beatrice:
“What made it so easy for you to go native? Where did that body language come from, so different from your own? You didn’t have it in you. You are brought up in an equal society, you are used to foreign cultures, you are already a recognized academic. You wouldn’t know how to bend your head or knee.
It came from the teenage girl who wouldn’t ask a boy to dance. Who felt awkward if she laughed too loud or talked too much. Who never could tell a boy that she was in love; since he should be the one to ask. Who could not show her sexual desires for fear of being a slut. It came from the twenty-four year old who fell in love with a man because he was much older and seemed to be able to support her – and fell out of love two years later, when it was clear to her that the support went the other way. It came from me.
I learned to stand on my own and I carried out my career in a male-dominated environment. I am a professional project leader, manager, teacher, and mentor. I found a man who needed not carry me and neither I him, and our relationship is equal. I laugh, I swear, and I dance with whom I want.
And yet, that alluring lack of responsibility for my choices, that wish to be carried, that fear of talking and laughing too much, all resurfaced in you and moved you to give up everything. I wish it all had come from you – because I certainly didn’t want to find that in me. I’m sorry.”

My family is playing GTA V

... and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

… and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

I spend quite a lot of my evenings not playing GTA V at the moment. (There is something with the controls for Rockstar games that I have never quite overcome – I get sufficiently frustrated to give up on their games.) Since the rest of the family play I get to watch a lot of the game, though.

GTA V seems to be a really good game. The gameplay is both strategic and tactic and possible to adapt to your skill level. The world design is exquisite with a lot of detail. The storyline is what I like the best as a spectator: It is ironic and often rather funny, and the main characters are strangely likeable despite their machismo. There is some British humour at play in the TV ads and the imaginary companies (if Facebook was called Lifeinvader for real, I would apply for a job there). There is rampant sexism throughout the game that is difficult to forgive, but that is not what I want to rant about.

My problem is the description of GTA V as a sandbox game. Granted, there is a large mapped area to explore, with a lot of exquisite detail. There are random event quests (57 total according to the GTA V Wiki) outside the main event storyline and if you play the game long enough there are some neat tricks to uncover. But there basically no permanent effects you can create in the world. You travel around to explore the landscape in all its exquisite detail; knock over lamp posts that will be back next time you run by them and kill people who will be there again the next time you pass. And while the map is large, it is patchy: most houses are back drops, impossible to enter. A sandbox is a box full of building material. It is an opportunity for creation and destruction. Gary’s mod and Minecraft are sandbox games, GTA V is very far from one.  Wikipedia describes the GTA series as ‘open world’ games, which is more accurate.

I have a hunch that sandbox games support storymaking better than games that are just open-world. While it is easy to find plenty of imaginative  stories diaries about Minecraft and the Sims, the stories you experience in GTA are primarily the one programmed into the game through the quests. And given that I don’t particularly like the gameplay and the stories are linear with few alternatives, I might just as well continue to just watch.

A bachelor thesis on Shadow Cities

Last fall, I supervised this bachelor thesis by Linnéa Nordlund and Alex Sjöberg Larsson. Their job was to investigate how players of a fairly hardcore pervasive game, Shadow Cities, felt about the fact that the game uses a freemium model of payment. Linnéa and Alex played the game, scrutinized forum discussions, and performed a small survey.

Their results are rather surprising. In the forum discussions, players either complain about the in-game purchases as they provide play advantages, or downplay their importance in the game. But in the (anonymous) survey, players agree that the in-game purchases provide play advantages and, at the same time, like to use them. There seems to be a difference between the public discourse around the game, and how players actually use the function and play the game.

Linnéa and Alex also made some attempts to find out which players are most positive towards in-game purchases. As they wanted a short survey, they did some shortcuts here and the player classification method they used did not fully work out. Still, they found that players that classified themselves as hard-core players were more accepting towards in-game purchases, something that again contradicts the usual perception of the hard-core player as someone who wants to win by skill alone.

I find their results intriguing and plausible, and it is also a very well written bachelor thesis. Hence, I have asked Linnéa and Alex if I can make it available here. Due to the small size of the survey it has no chance of getting accepted into an academic venue, and my hope is that there might be a scholar out there who’d like to take this work further.

And thanks to you, Alex and Linnéa! You were awesome students!

eriklinnea

A Knutepunkt 2013 report

The Knutepunkt bird burned as an ending ritual.

The Knutepunkt phoenix, in flames during the ending ritual.

This year, I started Knutepunkt in Oslo to speak at the Nordic larp talks. My presentation was the last and shortest one, and I talked about how to study larp. As most previous articles (including those I have co-authored) make this sound almost impossible, my aim was to give a few useful hints that make the task manageable. (I am not particularly proud of the presentation, by the way. Since I always go overtime, I had prepared a script. But as I am not used to speaking from a script I didn’t manage to use it, and ended up desperately chasing my notes. Did I already say this? Oh, I missed that! I think I managed to say about half of what I had planned to say.)

Of this year’s Nordic larp talks, I would recommend Stefan Deutsch’s presentation of serious educational larps. Very interesting and thought-provoking. And of course, Jaakko Stenros’ presentation of a definition of Nordic larp is a must-see.  (Actually, he gave us two definitions.) His presentation is smart and true, but don’t expect simple and easy to use definitions from a die-hard academic like Jaakko.

Next, off to Knutepunkt, situated at a gorgeus Norwegian fjord. I find it harder to summarize Knutepunkt this time than last year. The main reason is that I tried to stay off the beaten track: I skipped the rants to play a small larp (“Autumn of life” by Tomas Mørkrid, a small gem), and I skipped several high-profile workshops and talks of which I have seen previous incarnations. No doubt all of them were worth attending more than once, but I wanted to see things that were new to me. In this vein, I attended a workshop on writing larp Russian style, the costume larp panel, and chaired the panel on political larp.

The larp of the year was without doubt the Monitor Celestra. Johanna Koljonen organised a whole afternoon session discussing the production, with panellists ranging from the designers and producers, over players to game academics who also had played in the larp. In all, I think the session managed to capture both the truly awesome ambitions and achievements of the production, as well as its problems and shortcomings. The only thing the session missed was to discuss why we came to expect so much of the Celestra production. The marketing hype of Celestra was a double-edged sword, which at the same time managed to draw a lot of attention and participants from all over the globe, and raised expectations to a level that is almost impossible to meet. Despite all its production value and the professional experience of most of the crew, Celestra was still a volunteer production with few of the organisers lifting any sort of salary. I am deeply grateful that I had a chance to play Celestra, it is a memory that will live with me for years to come – but I have had stronger larp experiences from much less ambitious productions.

For me, the highlight presentation was again Eirik Fatland, this time talking about how to design characters for larp. (Seriously Eirik, you have to write a book on larp design!) Right after the talk, there was a character design workshop that I most fortunately was thrown out of for lack of space. The six of us that did not get in teamed up, occupied a cottage and sat down to read and de-construct character descriptions from four different larps (material that had been handed out for the workshop that we missed). This analysis exercise was really useful (thanks to you all that participated), and judging from reports by those who attended, more of a workshop than the real one. (And I spent most of the train ride back from Knutepunkt designing a larp together with some other Knutepunkt participants. It might even materialise sometime in the future…)

I also enjoyed chairing the political larp panel. The panel consisted of larp designers that all have designed larps with clear political agendas. It started a bit mellow, but heated up when the audience got involved both with asking challenging questions and answering them. I want to direct a particular thanks to Teresa Axner who was not on the panel, but still contributed with very interesting experiences from ‘LajvVerkstaden’, and the educational larp they stage in Swedish schools. ‘We teach the ethical agenda about democracy and equality that is written into the Swedish school curriculum. We might just be a bit more thorough in doing so.” Kudos!

On a sad note, this years’ Knutepunkt might become remembered as the year of the harassment scandal. It was a bad story that I don’t care to recount, but I think that it also was a sobering moment for the community. (And luckily, I have yet to get laid at Knutepunkt.)

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