Persona

The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the category “In the buzz”

2016

14692101_10154520227440396_7304965817657911855_oThe past year was academically hectic, to a level when I just gave up on trying to capture everything in separate posts. This is an attempt to catch up on everything that happened. (I have probably missed things.)

The year started with Jon presenting his thesis that I already blogged about, and the fairly impressive presence that my research group had at CHI that I have also blogged. In addition to those were more or less closely related to play design and play studies, my Ph.D. student Mareike Glöss was coauthor on a great article on Über and how the mobile technology shapes the experience for drivers and passengers.

At CHI, Josh Tanenbaum grabbed me for a short video interview for his pervasive game class. While this interview was originally only intended for his students, he has now put it online and I kind of like the result. It’s a pretty playful video, and it reflects some of the more important things I have learned about pervasive game design and participation since the book came out in 2009. Some of the things we talk about seem to foreshadow Pokemon Go that struck the world about two months later.

DigiFys did not go unpublished for long – for soon, Eva-Lotta Sallnäs Pysander travelled to Australia to present the second project publication at Designing Interactive Systems. The article describes how the environment and the installations affected each other in a schoolyard field test of interactive play technology, and got a honourable mention!

Next, Elena Márquez Segura defended her Ph.D. thesis. The thesis is called “Embodied Core Mechanics: Designing for movement-based co-located play” and focusses on design strategies for the design of physical play. The thesis work focusses primarily on the early stages of design: on ideation methods and on ways to involve participants in shaping play. The core question that Elena has explored concerns what is actually being designed in these projects, as the technology often is just a tiny part of the whole design. Her answer is that the key thing to design is what she calls ‘embodied core mechanics’ – tiny snippets of physical activity that may involve many persons and several resources, and in which are manifest such qualities that the designers and players have found desirable. Elena’s thesis is  based on ideas that she started to investigate already in our joint 2013 CHI article on co-located play, and that have been developed through multiple design investigations.

Only a week later, Patrick Prax defended his thesis called “Co-creative Game Design as Participatory Alternative Media”. Patrick’s thesis is an investigation of how players shape the development of online games over time, not just trough play but also in a very concrete way by developing add-ons and other supporting resources. But it is unclear what power that players have – Patrick argues that their influence could potentially be a critical tool and as such provide some political power. Still, in most of his examples player-developers rather become a resource for unpaid labor for the companies. This is an intriguing thesis that manages to put the spotlight on a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common.

In the midst of summer, Pokemon Go struck bringing brief a brief moment of fame back for this old pervasive games scholar. I have written about the game here and here and in Swedish at the Uppsala University webpage. I was also interviewed by Swedish radio and UNT, the Uppsala daily newspaper. I hope that there soon will be a new blockbuster pervasive game that I can feel more enthusiastic about.

Late summer, DiGRA announced its inaugural selection of distinguished scholars, and I was elected to be one of them. While there certainly are many people that should have gotten recognition ahead of me and my recognition should probably be read as a thank-you for years of service to the organisation as program chair and journal editor, I am very proud of the title.

In October, Mareike Glöss defended her thesis “Technology encounters: Exploring the essence of ordinary computing” and by that, I ran completely out of Ph.D. students. Mareike has been studying how we approach information technology as part of our ordinary life, with a focus on family practices. Mareike’s thesis is anthropological and fits somewhat uneasily into human-computer interaction, but I would still recommend it for reading for all who aspire to develop everyday technology. In the end, Mareike’s conclusion is that despite the way technology is going increasingly mundane, we do not entirely integrate it into our collection of ‘stuff’. Technology doesn’t shrink into the background as other ‘stuff’ does, and it tends to create hubs of activity, sometimes for the whole family together. So essentially, Mareike has shown that I am wrong when I say that it’s becoming impossible to research interaction with IT separately from other interactions, as IT is becoming a part of everything we do. There is no saying that this will always be true – but right now, technology still seems to inhabit its own ontological space.

Later in October, I travelled to Austin to do a keynote at CHIPlay. It was a bit scary – I took the opportunity to talk about research and ideas that I haven’t fully developed yet and that deal with ways to look on play design as an alignment process between players and designers. (Some of this work has gone into an article that hopefully will come out in ToCHI during 2017.) The abstract for the talk can be found here. I also presented a paper that was mostly Elena’s work: the article “Playification: The PhySeEar case” where we basically look upon a more playful approach to gamification.

Late October, I presented a draft paper at the Uppsala Colloquium on “Communication, material and discursive power dynamics”. The colloquium was organised by my colleagues Vaia Douaki and Nico Carpentier, and I was definitely the odd bird out in this context. I tried to work through some of the documentation around two larp productions that were directed towards more mainstream audiences, but I don’t think that topic was political enough for the communication scholars. (I would like to take this text to Knutepunkt, to get some feedback before I finalise it.)

November and December were, thankfully, a bit more tranquil. In my spare time, I started to work together with the Cabaret crew to reshape the larp for a third run that will happen in June 2017. In late December, I playtested a scenario based on Cohen’s last record that seems to work pretty well. The scenario is called ‘You want it darker’ just as the record, and it is of course very much centred on Cohen’s music. And death.  I tried to finish a few papers on old projects before January hit with the start of new projects, but succeeded only with those that had set deadlines.

Apart from scary, 2017 looks to be again quite hectic. I hope I’ll have a little time also for blogging.

Why is Pokemon Go such a hit?

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

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

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

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

A known IP

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

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

A Good Game

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

Rich content

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

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

Genre awareness

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

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

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

What kind of game is Pokemon Go?

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

Augmented Reality Game

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

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

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

Location-based Game

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

Pervasive Game

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

Alternate Reality Game

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

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

Other terms

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

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

You don’t have to catch them all

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

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

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

There are places and times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be dangerous or scary

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

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

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

Playing for real

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

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

 

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.)

PRACTICE – game design in detail

In a coffee discussion with Lorraine Hopping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

Summarizing Solmukohta 2012

As usual, Solmukohta was absolutely draining: late nights, intense discussions, at least three parallel sessions you want to go to, both formal and informal parties, and a bar that closes way too late tend to have that effect. I’ve lost track of how many Knutpunkt conferences I’ve been to, but I still end up trying to do too much, and feeling that I’ve missed most of it.

The international presence at the conference is increasing, again. This year it actually became an issue, as the  sign-up filled up so fast that many of the regulars came to late to it. (Luckily, everyone on the waiting list was eventually able to get in.) I think that the number of U.S. participants was what surprised me the most. I was particularly happy to see the practitioners – Apparently Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros have done a very good job of marketing ‘Nordic larp’ to the U.S. tabletop community. I also had a fantastic time talking to the visitors from Belarus – in particular the couple with the most complacent one-year old I have ever met. I believe that a childhood which includes seeing your parents sometimes turn into zombies and gorillas – together with thirty other laughing grownups – must be a pretty good one.

The number of academic participants is also on the rise. Apart from the regular suspects, I shared room with Torill Mortensen (who was moderately impressed by the artistic aspirations of the community – a sentiment I sort of share) and had a brief chat with Sarah Lynne Bowman.  This does not mean that the conference itself is getting academic – the presentations are dominated by discussions, opinions, rants and creative ideas but very little results in an academic sense of the word. Which probably is a good thing.

As with GDC, certain productions get more attention than others. This year, these were ‘KAPO‘ – the prison larp I already played in, and ‘Just a little lovin’ which I have signed up to play when it’s restaged in Stockholm later this year. As both were productions that evoked very strong emotional experiences for at least some of their players, this is not so surprising. Many of those players were at Solmukohta, still in the process of creating their own stories. It wasn’t hard to spot who was who, though: while the ’just a little lovin’ players met hugging and touching, the KAPO players crouched in the corridoors in their black hoodies with prison numbers on the back… Both games featured prominently in this year’s bleed panel – this time focussed on safety measures and potential dangers. I left the panel with a feeling that the Nordic larp community likes thinking about these productions as being psychologically challenging and life-changing – perhaps more dangerous than they actually are. As Karl Bergström adequately pointed out afterwards: larp is likely to kill someone sooner than it will make someone catatonic.

What were my highlights, then? For me, Solmukohta is more about the in-depth discussions that happen in the lobby than the actual sessions. Still, I was impressed by Eirik Fatland’s presentation on ’fundamentals on larp design’. Being a larper schooled in interaction design, Eirik has applied theory from the latter to larp, outlining a middle level theory that might become a ’larp grammar’ of sorts. This is a text I want to read and cite – Eirik please write it!! I also truly enjoyed the 20-20 vision session organized by Johanna McDonald. The session was made up of five seasoned designers, using 20 minutes and 20 slides each to present a vision for what larps could become. The fact that these were positive and visionary contributions made the session particularly interesting – this in comparison to the hour of ”rants” that I participated in myself, that also was good but a bit less productive. I enjoyed becoming a tiny piece of the puzzle that will make up ’the spiral’ – and soon, you will know what that is – I learned more about pre-game workshops from Peter Munthe-Kaas, and about character creation from Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl.

As usual, I left Solmukohta with my mind made up to contribute to next years’ book – I had at least two or three ideas on what to write. In the end, I typically end up missing all such deadlines – let’s see if I can meet them next time!

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:

“LARPS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”

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.”

GDC in a nutshell

Since I didn’t get to go to GDC (influenza) I wish to share the best summary I’ve found so far: AnnaKaisa Kultima’s GDC sum-up at Akoo’s Game Lab. Apart from giving tips on how to best appreciate GDC as an academic, she points out three themes from the conference: That mobile games are maturing (even though the presentations stay in the mobile games summit and don’t move into the main conference just yet), that developers rant about Free-To-Play (and no wonder), and that this might have been the year that women started to take over GDC. At least if judging by the waiting lines for  toilets. This last observation, you won’t find in any other GDC summary – read this one!

PC gamer on location-based gaming

Following up on Markus Montola’s GDC presentation on Shadow Cities, David Caw writes a column at PC gamer with the title ‘Where are the great location based games‘. The article is basically a rant about how hard it is to make locations actually matter in games, and that it is only a few games that have succeeded in doing so. David mentions Foursquare of course, but I find the example of Nintendo’s ‘Street Pass‘ more interesting. Street Pass is a social community service, that synchs between 3DS players as they pass each other on the street. They swap a tiny player profile, and may also swap game tokens (such as trading cards or puzzle pieces). The function is almost exactly the same as in ‘Hocman‘ that my colleague Oskar Juhlin and his group developed for bikers in 2002. Except Nintendo seems to have missed out on the one function that the bikers found most rewarding – the little ‘beep in the helmet’ that they got every time they passed another Hocman-equipped biker.

The reason why Street Pass (and Hocman) is an important example is that it is not GPS-based. It is a mistake to believe that location-based games must require precise positioning. The key to creating great location-based games is not using the GPS, it is understanding what is fun in locations. And we know quite a lot about that already. Shadow Cities shows that sharing map data of real places can be as interesting as actually being located on the spot (hence the preference for couch play), and Street Pass shows that just knowing that another player is in the vicinity is a great game asset. To these, I would add that it is fun do document  – all tourists know that photographing or filming yourself on location is meaningful, and just as we used it as the core function of the Traveur community service it could be made into a key component in a locative game. The check-in function of Foursquare is the simplest form of documentation (‘I was there’), and nowadays Foursquare supports uploading a photo with checkins. Finally, the physical world affords physical activity: running, climbing, dancing… and right now it seems like the biggest surge in GPS-based apps are apps about exercising. Putting physical activity into locative games may take a bit more advanced technology, but it can be done as Movinto Fun’s Oriboo roll-out shows.

Markus Montola on Shadow Cities

Shadow Cities uses gestures on the screen as its main mode of interaction.

My old friend and colleague Markus Montola has just presented at GDC, this time from the ‘right side of the fence’, as representative of Grey Area, the Finnish game developer behind ‘Shadow Cities‘. (We presented together in 2009, but at that time we were both academics.) His talk was already blogged at Pocketgamer.

Shadow Cities is a beautifully crafted mobile MMOG, using GPS to chart a parallel world in which magic powers roam. The concept is rather similar to the ‘Mythical Mobiles’ game designed within IPerG, but the gameplay is primarily about area control in teams rather than player-vs-player battle (there is a bit of both, though). The major invention of Shadow Cities is its model for remote play, which allows you to ‘teleport’ to play anywhere in the world from your couch.

According to Pocketgamer, this is also what people do: they play Shadow Cities more from home, than on the move. This might be surprising for a location-based game, but it makes perfect sense: after all, phones are becoming a par preference mode of access to the Internet even at home for many users. We might want to game when on the move, but why would we want to stop doing it when we come home? So why shouldn’t locative games also support couch play?

Curiously enough, Markus talked about reaching critical mass as the biggest challenge for Shadow Cities and maybe for locative multiplayer games in general. “We need critical mass in every neighbourhood at all time”, Pocketgamer cites him. But with their support for distant play, it can’t be the locative factor that makes critical mass an issue for Shadow Cities. Rather, I think it is the requirement on synchronized play. In Shadow Cities, players team up to battle other teams or achieve particular feats at particular times and particular places – and I think that is the time, not the place, that’s their problem. Mobile gameplay is typically short term, at least compared to PC or console play. Games like WordFeud and (semi)games like Foursquare don’t run into critical mass issues, and I think the reason is that they are asynchronous. And Foursquare doesn’t even support couch play!

These are important considerations for our current research game prototype ‘Codename Heroes’… We have asynchronous play, but we don’t have a lot of support for couch play. I think we may need to consider that a bit more carefully.

By the way, here is a good reference on why people use mobiles when they have access to computers:

Stina Nylander, Terés Lundquist, Andreas Brännström, Bo Karlson. “It’s just easier with the phone” – a diary study of Internet access from cell phones. Pervasive 2009.

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