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Play It Smart: what we can learn from games (and why they should be used to teach us)

Along with two other members of the Games Research Network, Dr Chloe Germaine Buckley and Dr Paul Wake, I was privileged to be part of the “Play it Smart” panel discussing the educational possibilities of games at Tabletop Gaming Live on Saturday 29th September. For those who couldn’t make it, you can enjoy the (slightly clearer) synopsis below.

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Migrations LARP and the value of play

After our run at The Smoke in January, earlier this summer Dr Chloe Buckley and myself ran a small LARP workshop as part of the Manchester Gothic Festival, during the International Gothic Association Conference. This game was open to the public and offered participants the opportunity to experience a gothic-style narrative from the inside, as characters. Inspired by the world of HP Lovecraft’s novels and its surrounding mythos, Migrations aimed to introduce participants to the feeling of being trapped and suddenly ignorant of the basic rules of the world – a common enough experience for characters in Gothic novels.

The scenario for this game, a university talk gone wrong, builds on participant’s existing knowledge and experience of university activities. From unreliable powerpoint slides to disorganised lecturers, we began the scenario with the usual ‘gone wrongs’ that can reliably be encountered and understood. However, drawing on the mythology of Lovecraftian tales, a whole other dimension of ‘gone wrongs’ were about to unfold.

For our participants, the foolish actions of one character caused the entire group to be suspended in a trapped no-space, between our world and another one, one in which ‘magic’ through appeasement of ‘gods’ flourished though threats abounded. Participants had to make sense of the magic and perform it in order to craft their own escape; or refuse and accept their inevitable doom.

In previous and forthcoming research, we have outlined how the construction of experiences in live roleplay games rely on a range of preconceptions based on participant’s experiences, and also on participant’s learned ability to focus on what is relevant. Many experiential games which are now popular share this feature with LARP, such as escape rooms, yet these games are usually a challenge of competence and mastery. In most such games, the environment is highly controlled with game components clearly separated or distinguished, A particular set of skills, usually including pattern-recognition, spatial and numerical problem solving, with a little cultural knowledge, will help you emerge from an escape room as a ‘winner’.

However, in Lovecraftian narrative there are rarely, if ever, any ‘winners’. In LARP more generally, a play-to-win attitude will rarely offer the best experience. In our recent Migrations LARP, participants all to some degree aimed to ‘win’ through survival of the scenario. To strive to understand and to thwart the unknown mystical forces which were effectively ‘counting down’ their last moments. Only a few participants considered or embraced a narrative of loss; whether by abandoning their known world and home or through individual failure in the hope of collective success.

On reflection, we propose that this game experience foregrounds our attachment to ‘known unknowns’. From participants feedback we are aware that most identified the workshop as a bit of fun, the sort of entertaining activity that might be part of a conference social programme or festival. With most participants never having played in a LARP before, the very workshop itself was an unknown quantity. Yet as a learning experience, we would suggest that participants reflect upon their attachment to the known, and consider what the Gothic form can teach us about the barriers, of comfort and success, that must be breached to extend our knowledge.