0 comments on “Meaningful Work”

Meaningful Work

Thanks to the ESRC Festival of Social Science, last week with the support of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme I ran an event asking individuals to consider what they felt stood in the way of meaningful work. While there has been plenty of academic research into this topic, as well as related concerns about the quality of work in the form of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ jobs, the search for meaningful work as an academic topic and an everyday activity seems to fade into the background when many people count themselves lucky to be earning enough money to not need to rely on food banks just to get by.

The workshop was led by Sue Moffat, director of New Vic Borderlines and advocate of the use of theatrical techniques to get people to engage with each other and express their shared knowledge. As part of the workshop we played games to examine how we learn to trust people we work with, how a competitive urge developed, encouraging us to challenge some individuals and make alliances with others. We then talked about this as a group, exploring how important social camaraderie at work can be to make it a meaningful experience, or even how some types of paid work were only meaningful as enabling independence and freedom to do things in other aspects of life. We also listened to recordings about work, thinking about how the sounds and sensations of working could play a part in bringing meaning to a community as much as to individual people, and reflecting in particular on how the disappearance of those sounds and sensations could leave a feeling of loss.

Much of our later activity, building a narrative around images and objects in the theatre reiterated these themes about society, community and individual approaches to meaning. Using large metal frames we entangled teacups and wallets, stethoscopes and teddy bears. A story of the voyage towards meaningful work was written, considering the importance of the crew aboard the vessel, the storms and dangers of the deep seas, the provisions needed to survive the trip, and the search for dry land. While these metaphors may seem fanciful, they allowed everyone participating in the workshop to easily explore their shared experiences based on how they interpreted these objects and events. Throughout, we discovered that meaning was elusive, and could be challenged or built through our relationships with others. We explored how many of our everyday frustrations with work were those which challenged its goals or meanings, and how the money obtained through paid work was not enough to fulfil our desires for a meaningful life, and for meaningful work to occupy it.

For more information about the New Vic Theatre, follow this link.

This event was followed by an evening discussion about what business can do for society, hosted by Keele University Management School. There will be a follow up post on this next week.

2 comments on “Where is the dignity in suicide?”

Where is the dignity in suicide?

"Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina - Penn Provenance Project" by kladcat - Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woodcut_illustration_of_the_suicide_of_Seneca_and_the_attempted_suicide_of_his_wife_Pompeia_Paulina_-_Penn_Provenance_Project.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Woodcut_illustration_of_the_suicide_of_Seneca_and_the_attempted_suicide_of_his_wife_Pompeia_Paulina_-_Penn_Provenance_Project.jpg
“Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina – Penn Provenance Project” by kladcat – Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

The Campaign for Dignity in Dying is gathering momentum. It has many well known advocates, including prominent actors and authors who promote the cause of physician-assisted suicide.  Lord Falconer’s Assisted dying bill is soon to be discussed by a Lord’s committee, and polls indicate that the right to end your own life when sufferring from terminal illness is supported by many of the public. I disagree with this, not because I think terminally ill individuals should be forced to live with sufferring, but because I feel this is detrimental to how we recognise individuals’ dignity and worth  in our society.

What is Physician Assisted Suicide?

Suicide needs very little definition, it is the act of ending one’s own life. Theoretically, this is an act of complete free will and has a history of religious condemnation. Much of the debate around ‘dignity in death’ stems from the challenge presented by degenerative illness. In most degenerative illnesses, individuals will reach a point where they lose their capacity to act, though they may not have lost their intellectual capacity to make and express a free choice. It is for this reason that families and individuals are campaigning for ‘the patient’s right to choose’ the place and time of their death by de-criminalising the act of a physician allowing their patients access to fatal drugs, and in the case of patients in an advanced stage of degenerative illness, the involvement of a physician or family member in the administration of the fatal drug.

In most countries around the world, access to definitively fatal substances is highly regulated, and they can only be accessed by medical professionals. Yet the long standing ethical practices of the medical profession, to first do no harm, as well as the legal dangers posed to the individual physician mandate against their involvement in cases where patients ask them for help to die. In addition, if the physician is the person to actually insert the needle or push the button there is very little to legally distinguish between medicine and murder.

Yet there is an argument that when a patient is certain to die, or can only survive with the minimal of life quality (as in individuals only alive due to life support machines with no hope of recovery), that such an action is compassionate. In such cases it is only the medical professional, with access to appropriate substances, who can enable a pain free death with the least amount of sufferring. It is also implied that it is only thanks to techniques of contemporary medicine that such a prolonged life span enduring degenerative disease is possible, and therefore the responsibility for any non-intervention or withdrawal of care leading to death also lies with the medical practitioner.

Rights and Duties

Do we have a right to choose? The debate over assisted suicide is based on a deep underlying assumption that we do, yet this is problematic not only on religious but also secular grounds. First there is the matter of scale, if we ought to have the right to choose the time and place of our death in the case of degenerative disease, then we should recognise that death is inevitable and therefore such choices ought to be valid outside of those circumstances. On religious grounds such decisions are a rejection of life and thus sinful or likely to provoke sufferring. In a secular vein, decisions taken to end ones own life when young and healthy are categorised as abnormalities, as expressions of sickness themselves.

A further conflict lies in the very idea of individual rights and the relationship between the individual and the body. It is a quirk of Western legal thought that the body and mind are understood as separate things. Although the embodied person may have rights, those rights do not include ownership of another body (which would be slavery) or of one’s own body (in the sense of exchange, so to sell body parts or the use of one’s body is also often illegal).

Finally, the concept of rights identifies the individual as a separate creature, detached from ties to others. The rights of the individual are often held as paramount over the obligations, duties or other responsibilities between that individual and others. The concept of the individual as a being apart from their social ties is a foundation of rational legal thought, but it omits our emotional interconnectedness as human beings as well as our role in enabling the capacities of others. Although suicide may appear to be an expression of free choice, most individuals see suicide as a last resort, where all alternatives for meaningful life are denied them. Perhaps we should be doing more to explore these alternatives.

The Individual Citizen

We live in a society dominated by thinking that concentrates on a model of the individual. Assisted suicide may alleviate the pain of the patient, but how does it affect their family, friends, neighbours or co-workers? Aside from the concerns of the family this is a debate not often explored, primarily because we already segregate the sick from the healthy in contemporary society. Sickness prevents participation in work, often requiring residential care in a hospital or other institution. Built environments primarily cater to the healthy and able-bodied individual, further excluding those sufferring from illness from full participation in society. Might this be a part of why these individuals feel they simply cannot experience a worthy or dignified life as their illnesses progress?

Dignity and sufferring

While the aim of the dignity in dying movement implies restoring control to patients and allowing them to experience less pain and sufferring, the model of physician assisted suicide has already been tested. In research conducted on Oregon’s legalisation of physician assisted suicide, it has been noted that individuals’ sufferring and requests for assisted suicide were based not on the pain experienced by the illness, but rather as a consequence of social exclusion.

It’s not that I disagree with the need for terminally ill patients to experience death with dignity, but I do think that lethal injections, access to drugs or the rights of the patient is not the main issue at stake here. What potential we offer the sick or the sufferring to engage with a meaningful life is at stake. How should we amend our laws and regulations to support people sufferring from illness in a society dominated by a drive for economic productivity that pursues segregation between the productive and the unproductive?

 

 

1 comment on “Theories about Learning motivation and practice”

Theories about Learning motivation and practice

Following a recent post on a friend’s blog about undertaking postgraduate certificate qualifications in teaching at university, I thought I would start the process I have been promising myself I would do for months now: publish my blogs on learning to teach. NB: some of this material has been recently submitted for assessment purposes, enjoy the read but don’t quote in your own teacher training programme!

I formally started the teaching at university programme about six months after I began working at my current university. Unsurprisingly, like at a lot of universities I have heard of, the programme was not held in high regard by academic staff, mostly because they were compelled to undertake it and had developed (over the course of the PhD or over many years of research focussed work) some cynicism towards the programme tutors. Broadly, this cynicism related to three factors; (1) a belief that students who are motivated to learn, do, regardless of  techniques applied by lecturers, (2) a view that programme tutors did not sufficiently account for the constraints on lecturers following from large class sizes, limited resources and bureaucratic impediments to change, (3) skepticism about the political aims behind the programme and whether this signified a move to a ‘customer oriented’ model of teaching that fundamentally undermines the authority of the lecturer as ‘expert’. Following from this third element was a critical attitude towards the political status of universities in the UK and the consequences of changes to student fees and recruitment in the most recent attempt to create a higher education ‘market’.  But I’ll come back to this issue in a later post.

Today’s post focuses solely on point (1): theories about learning and the motivation to learn, and summarises two broad theoretical approaches; behaviourism and cognitivism. What is interesting is that each model has a different role for the teacher, and requires them to engage with the students in a different way. Each also suggests that different rewards or learning environments will produce varying results in how much and how well students learn.

These approaches to the study of learning have much in common with the fields of psychology and social psychology generally, and as such I have been a bit sweeping in my assertions which follow. Each has it’s historical place in influencing learning institutions and systems, and consequently some aspects of learning, teaching and assessment that are often taken for granted can be linked to different parts of these theories.

Behaviourism: looking at external action not internal subjectivities

Behaviourism is one of the earlier approaches to learning, drawing on the notion that since the internal workings of the mind are objectively unknowable then only the external factors can be studied. “Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour” (Pritchard 2008:6). Central to this is the basic premise that all creatures respond to stimulus to increase positive experience and decrease negative experience. Central theorists include Watson (1958), Skinner (1953) and Thorndike (1966). Historically, this approach to the study of psychology was particularly functionalist, and much of the research in this area focused on ‘conditioning’ subjects into a particular habit of response. You might have heard of famous examples of this sort of research such as Pavlov’s dog experiments, where dogs are trained to associate the noise of a bell with food, such that eventually, even when the food is not present, the sound of the bell will make them behave as if food is present.

While many conditioning experiments may seem crude, or even laughable, by today’s standards, they were incredibly influential in their practical implications. However, the perspective was not universally well-received, as it placed human beings in the same category as any other kind of animal. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a particularly vehement response to his critics, arguing that humans had to ‘get over’ their belief in their own special status if society was to be functionally improved. This experimental approach was also criticised for oversimplifying the study of behaviour (see Eddie Izzard’s sketch about Pavlov’s cat for a laughable example of what happens when not all variables are controlled)

Based on a simple view of student motivation as merely learned response to stimuli, learning approaches that adopt this view might be summarised as ‘stick’ or ‘carrot’ techniques. Approaches as different as the Victorian ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and contemporary practices around the need for ‘positive feedback for psychological engagement’ all fit in with this approach. Any focus on rewards for correct behaviour is underpinned by behaviourist theory, whether it is a directly ‘conditioned’ response or a ‘shaping’ (using goal-setting approaches) towards ideal behaviour.

Limitations to using a behaviourist approach to designing learning activities are usually listed as including a limited or ‘surface’ approach to learning, as the desired response could be produced without developing an understanding at a ‘deeper’ level; it is limited to rote-learning (Pritchard 2008).

An interesting part of behaviourism, however, is that it places the responsibility for ‘correct learning’ directly upon the teacher, provided the student complies with the system. It is the responsibility of the teacher to identify desired behaviours and reward them appropriately. Additionally, students may have come from schools or colleges that use this sort of approach, and therefore to an extent are already ‘conditioned’ to expect this sort of learning activity and reward.

Cognitivism (or Constructivism): Looking inside the black box

A different approach to learning is apparent in cognitivism. Focusing on the workings of the brain from multiple different perspectives, cognitivism gives primacy to the idea that learning is an internal process. Much of the research on which these theories are based comes from developmental studies with children, or with those suffering from developmental difficulties. The underlying principle contends (against behaviourism) that learners are active agents in the learning process, and that learning should be approached in a holistic manner (this is associated with ‘gestalt‘ theories). This suggests that students respond to patterns as much as to individual stimulus.

Many different approaches tend to get clustered under the cognitivist label. Two early theorists in the area are Piaget (1926) and Vygotsky (1978). While both share similar principles, they do differ in terms of the priorities they give to particular aspects of the learning experience. Vygotsky’s approach (ibid) focussed on the social interaction between teacher and learner, stressing that it is within that relationship that the teacher can help provide a framework (and break down earlier frameworks) which the learner then strengthens and models for themselves. Piaget, by contrast, stressed that the learner engages with artefacts provided by the teacher independently and develops knowledge which is incorporated into schema (a sort of subjective framework, see Smith, Dockrell & Tomlinson 1997). Both theorists stress the significance of activity undertaken by the learner alone or with the teacher as a key part of the process (Jarvis 2003).

Compared to the behaviourist approach, the constructivist approach as a consequence of a more subjective understanding of learning (by experience) tends to offer a view of learning which allows pluralistic versions of knowledge (i.e. there is space for more than one ‘correct’ answer or way of doing things). By contrast, the behaviourist view presents a much more rigorous position on what does and does not constitute legitimate knowledge that indicates a one-way transmission of that knowledge from teacher to learner. Both different approaches also commit to different priorities and techniques for the design of the teaching and learning environment. Clearly, certain training programmes may tend towards the behaviourist perspective, as some interpretations or behaviours are considered illegitimate, misguided, or even dangerous, whereas disciplinary areas more tolerant of pluralism may be more inclined towards a cognitive view.

A synthesis of constructivist and behaviourist theoretical leanings is apparent in the majority of current approaches to institutionalised learning, perhaps thanks to inherited behaviourist systems of the past, or the failure of cognitivist learning experiments to revolutionise teaching styles. One frequently-used reference point which demonstrates this is Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of (cognitive) knowledge[1]. Bloom’s taxonomy presents multiple ‘building blocks’ as a progressive hierarchy of knowledge attained through learning where the achievement of each stage requires proficiency in the stage below (this strongly informs international comparison standards regarding the level of achievement in particular qualifications) .

bloom

The original presents a continuum which presents a programme suitable to behavioural ‘shaping’, but also stipulates the cognitive activities it is expected that students will undertake. Bloom’s framework was revised in 2001 in order to more comprehensively represent changes in educational language and to incorporate the type of knowledge the student is expected to master (factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive), as well as the cognitive process they engage in to do so (Krathwohl 2002). There have been some critiques of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, which suggest that the hierarchy of cognitive approaches may be reversed, and that the production of knowledge in the form of ‘facts’ is a hard-won outcome of the other processes (Wineburg & Schneider 2010). After all, in scientific endeavour, that is how research produces knowledge!

Wineburg and Schneider’s (2010) argument could be seen as a revisit to Bloom’s framework which highlights a shift away from behaviourist models of learning towards cognitivist approaches.  A behaviourist approach to learning, with its focus on stimulus-response-reward, privileges a basis in the accumulation of facts through rote learning followed by study in the skills of manipulating those facts for logical analysis and evaluation. In this presentation of Bloom’s taxonomy, the teacher provides students with ‘legitimate’ knowledge in the form of facts, then slowly leads them through a process whereby each stage in the process is reinforced through reward, often in the form of good test marks though also sometimes using more mundane rewards (such as sweets or book tokens). Wineburg and Schneider (ibid) argue that the taxonomy may instead be represented in the opposite direction, where knowledge is the outcome of the learning process rather than its base. This derives from a more constructivist approach which builds upon the notion of the learning ‘scaffold’ (see Sylva 1997).

 

[1] It is important to recognise that the committee of which Bloom was head intended to encourage a synthesis between three different types of learning; cognitive, affective and psychomotor (see Krathwohl 2002). I have rarely come across discussion of the latter two dimensions at university, which may be instructive in how far such discussions have penetrated in the educational domain.

 

 

 

0 comments on “Epistemology and the study of games”

Epistemology and the study of games

Some of you might know, I recently attended a conference in Cornwall where I presented a joint paper with a friend and colleague based on her work on Cthulhu horror LARP. The conference was interdisciplinary, with a keynote speech from a renowned Medieval Historian and we both had a fabulous, if tiring, time. In the same panel as our own paper, there were two papers on horror themed computer games, and it was interesting to see how these were also being theorised. This post presents a bit of a rant about how these are studied but I also highlight some of the useful overlaps between the study of computer games and the study of LARP.

In the past I have dabbled in reading about studies of contemporary computer game RPGs and classic MUDs and MOOs (basically multiplayer text-based gaming). However, I often find the claims made about the player experience are based on little more than the imagination of the researcher. While this kind of thing might be fine for a games reviewer, I tend to feel that university researchers are obliged to do a bit more work than that, or at least be honest about the limits of what they are claiming. This is due to different opinions on, or confusion about, epistemology.

So, for non-philosophers, here’s the cheat sheet:

ontology = the study of what exists.

epistemology = the study of what we believe, or can know.

Questions about ontology, what exists, are usually for all practical purposes, simple. This campsite exists. My tent exists. The rain exists and if I don’t get my tent set up soon all my equipment exists and will get pretty wet! The problem comes in when we start talking about individual or collective experiences or symbols. For example, my hardware exists and is downloading the newest patch which will then allow me to get around the DRM and play the game I’ve purchased.  Well, the concept of ownership and digital media is a bit ropey at best, as peer-to-peer filesharing has highlighted. And is an experience a game if it feels dull and monotonous (regardless of whether it’s packaged in a shiny box)?   These debates start to cause problems for our certainties about what exists, because we cannot be certain in our epistemology – what we can know.

If you are having trouble following at this point – swallow the red pill. This illustrates the problem of ‘Descartes demon’; someone or something (like a demon, a cat, or a race of intelligent machines) could, unknown to us, be interfering with our perceptions of the world. And even if there is no interfering demon, this example implies that we cannot trust our own senses 100% of the time anyway. How we interpret what we see is based on our existing frameworks of knowledge and language built over time and experience. It is either really difficult or impossible to imagine our perceptions of reality outside of that experience. So the position most scholars of social science take on this is somewhere between ‘really difficult’ and impossible’.

If your position is ‘really difficult’, your solution to this problem of epistemology (which you have to come up with, otherwise what would be the point of research) is to find techniques to improve the likelihood that your study is an accurate study of what exists (such as running your experiment many times, or comparing your findings with multiple other scholars). If your position is ‘impossible’, then you basically accept that you can never know what exists, but only what you think exists, and you limit yourself to the study of that. Very few scholars are this far down the spectrum, but they might, for example, limit themselves to the study of ‘my experiences of gameplay’ rather than ‘gameplay’. You then have to address a further problem; is what you think the same as what everyone else thinks? This is the question of epistemology in social science, because it basically screams ‘am I doing anything useful?’  Again, it can be quite simple when we are looking at the uncomplicated things the world often seems to be.  Does that look like a wasp over there? Yes, it’s a wasp, I agree. Okay, based on our compared experiences/perceptions of the world, let’s stay away from it then!

But what about if you have never seen a wasp before? Or been stung by one? What if different people have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world based on their experience? Well that makes it difficult. And this is when both individuals are supposedly sharing ‘the same encounter’ with the wasp.

If you are studying a game, or any social experience, it is maybe okay to assume that most people will share some common cultural references or models. Ideas that seem ‘natural’ among a particular group, culture or society. However, it seems like a bit of a leap to suggest that the audience of gamers act like a sponge, absorbing the game experience as designed. We might instead agree that their individual experience will be specific to them as an individual. So studies of a game or social experience need to be based on information about that experience, collected by doing it, observing or questioning the people who do. And subsequently, what we can claim to ‘know’ about the game, needs to be acknowledged within those limits or compared across a broad range of gamers experience.

So, in my personal approach to epistemology, I have written about LARP based on my experiences and on those reported to me by other participants. I do not suggest that this resembles the definite or common experience of all LARPers. But there are (at least) two parts to a LARP game, and people have written a lot about this. There is the story, and the gameplay. There is what the organisers try to make happen, and have players experience, and then there is what they experience. Many different things influence both of these dimensions.

In discussions of computer gaming, there is the same acknowledgement of the importance of the game narrative (studied by narratologists, sometimes referred to as the diegesis or diegetic frame), and the game design (studied by ludologists).

This is a simplification, but for the sake of this (long) post let’s keep things simple. Narratologists broadly claim there is no difference between games and storytelling, and therefore no meaningful distinction between oral epics,  printed novels or point and click adventures. They argue these can all be studied using theories traditionally applied to narrative. Ludologists argue that the ‘story’ part of the game is just the icing on the cake, and what ought to be the focus of study is the rules and mechanisms of the game.

It seems that both of these approaches focus on the game itself as a real thing that exists. Or at least, the focus is on the created narrative as a cultural product, or the set of rules as an algorithmic product with multiple possible operations. I am perfectly happy with studies looking at this, but where I get twitchy is when either side starts to make claims about how players experience the narrative/ludic elements without a clear statement that outlines how the problem of epistemology has been overcome here. This requires some sort of claim about what we can know about players (by being one, observing one or asking one). But the interesting thing is, the relationship between game and player is not a simple one of design and receipt (and most scholars of games do acknowledge this). No game is thrown out into the world on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis of meaning or interpretation.

So let’s go back to LARPers again. There has been a bit of debate among LARPers about how a game operates, rules, story, and the difference between ‘Roleplayers’ and ‘Powergamers/players’. It raises its head in discussions around Player versus Player elements of games most frequently. And in such discussions there is a lot of awareness that the people who write or design the games are players too, and players switch between their focus on story and on gameplay. There’s even a sort of complex cool creative  doublethink between being your character among your enemies and being a LARPer hanging out among your friends.

So in this blog post I have included multiple hyperlinks to demonstrate the cultural codes and references I am thinking of when I use some of the terms here. But I’d like any readers to comment on whether they think that simply by adding these connections I am restricting or enhancing your diversity of (narrative or ludic) experience in reading this post.

 

tl:dr IMHO studies of games should look at what the players actually experience, not just the story or gameplay design. Studies of computer games distinguish between ‘plot’ and ‘game mechanics’ just like big debates in LARP do, but they could learn a few things from LARP.

8 comments on “Monstering: changes in the air”

Monstering: changes in the air

It has been a really long time now since I attended a fantasy LARP. Well over a year, and unfortunately my work and personal commitments this year make the outlook bleak. I missed much of last year due to personal and wedding plans,  and subsequently I’m a bit out of the loop on what is going on in our ‘finely woven webs of magic and belief’! I hope to attend 2-3 events later in the summer though, so hopefully we will have fabulous LARPing weather!

So this rather explains why the blog has remained in stasis for so long, but there are new entries to come! In this entry in particular, I have recently noticed that this year seems to be shaping up to be the year of controversy over monstering. So, for the non-LARPers out there, monstering is basically being the helpers, crew or bad guys in any given event (see my previous post). Monsters traditionally participate in events for free, and recieve small benefits in return: this is where controversy is emerging, as some events are beginning to request small fees from monsters to secure a place, or promising bigger rewards. There are always concerns for organizers about monsters, for several reasons;

1) monsters are a cost

Most sites have a per-person charge, or a scale of charges based on occupancy, so the price of tickets for players will always be directly or indirectly affected by the size of the monster crew. Even for the rare event which is being held on an open site, public liability insurance charges also scale on a per-person basis (usually at 50 participants, 100 participants, >150 participants basis though this varies). Keeping costs for players low therefore will always rely on having an effective and appropriately sized monster crew.

2) monsters are needed

A good quality event relies on good monsters who are experienced, informed and enthusiastic. Including organizers in the category of ‘crew’ here, it is simply impossible to have an event without them. It is also true, however, that player expectations in fantasy LARP are seen to demand fewer low-activity events where little effect can be made on the world, and more open-world events where players have free choice to engage in different aspects of the plot or storyline. These type of games require more props, bigger sites, and more monsters.

3) are monsters motivated?

Following the above very significant points, most participants (whether players or monsters) know that enthusiasm and contribution to the event can weigh much more than money. An eager monster who finds some great costume in a drawer and brings it along, a group of friends who come along as a group and can work well together to portray a military unit or even someone who gets enthusiastically stuck in to whatever job needs doing (even making the tea!) is an incredible contribution to the success of any event. Motivated monster crews are also important to increasing player numbers, because many people get their first introduction to LARP through monstering an event.  Yet this is a completely unpredictable element, which may rely fundamentally on any variety of possible causes, so may be nerve-racking for the organizers! There are little things that organizers try to do to improve motivation, including providing tea, coffee and sweeties, priority bunks, experience for your player character or other incentives, but these often include costs which need to be outweighed by the benefits. And there is always the danger that these incentives might drift into ‘payment’, resembling the feeling of work (see below).

 

So that explains why organizers might have to deal with conflicting ideas about what monsters should be expected to give or pay, and how much/whether they should be rewarded. Yet there also seems to be a problem for monsters around obligation and enjoyment which overlaps between the hobby and other commitments.

4) How much does it cost?

People volunteering to monster an event may well participate for ‘free’ but may have to pay associated costs of transport, catering, accommodation and equipment. These are the same costs that might be a part of playing the game, but with no guaranteed level or type of enjoyable participation in the game, and less leeway to ‘make your own fun’ these costs may seem more significant.

5) Am I having fun? (is this like work)

As a player, it’s easy to choose your own preferred style of play. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing very minor monsters; the squishy one-hit-goblin type who is destined to lose (as monsters are, unlike some amazing one-hit super-goblin players with magic swords I could mention). However if you prefer a competitive playing style, taking on roles where you have no chance of winning is not going to be particularly enjoyable. In addition, many of the other tasks that might be necessary as a crew member can be draining and mundane; too much like hard work rather than fun. Even an unlimited supply of sugar and caffeine can sometimes be a poor substitute for enjoyment.

6) Do I have to be here?

As paper bookings gave way to email and online forums have become wider through social media such as facebook, there is in some ways a stronger sense of a LARP community. But in some places this seems to put a serious (stated or implied) obligation on regular players to participate as monster crew or risk losing their hobby altogether. There is an equally strong tendency to report on events as they happen, emphasising what is sometimes termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, a wider reach of advertising about events puts more pressure on players and monsters to attend more events, and increases demand for experienced monster crew (including referees and organizers). This presents monstering as a more serious obligation, as a necessary way to maintain the community, adding a level of pressure which may simply override a decision to participate on other grounds.

These pressures on monsters and event organisers are hardly new. In addition, there have been a number of events in the past which have been so popular to monsters and players alike that these grievances have been shown to be insubstantial. But in the circumstances of rising site costs, rising transport costs, dropping player numbers and more significant ‘real-life’ demands, these problems seem to be getting squeezed from both sides.  Of course, this is only a rough summary of debates I have seen elsewhere and I am only adding a little information drawn from wider debates around conditions of economic life in the UK to spice up the discussion.

What has your experience been? As a monster or organizer what is your best experience of an event? Or the worst?

Comments especially welcome to this post!

 

 

0 comments on “The blog is dead, long live the blog…”

The blog is dead, long live the blog…

After several months without a post, I have finally accepted the inevitable, that I simply lack the discipline to commit to a regular blog on a single topic every week. I have therefore decided to resurrect the blog by incorporating more of my writing activity on other topic areas, including reflections on the everyday aspects of academic life and research writing on other topics.

Recently, there has been a rush of interest in the Treasure Trapped LARP documentary and the Scandinavian LARP Panopticorp. I still find these things interesting and will blog about them where possible. This week I have mostly been reading up on social science fieldwork and the production of ethnography. Ethnography, generally speaking, is an attempt to study and portray cultures and sub-cultures. Journalist writing such as Lizzie Stark’s book is one of the areas in which the academic and the popular overlap, and this can be considered a sort of ethnography. My fieldwork reflections on LARP always came from the perspective of being a LARPer first, and social scientist second, so because of that the tales I can (or am willing to tell) are from a more native, and in a sense less ‘scientific’ perspective. However, I did use techniques to try to create a bit of distance between my experience and reflection, and it’s techniques I see role players using all the time (and if you check out the Panopticorp video you will find them there). One technique is to imagine explaining your actions to a very different audience (and people may distinguish between character roles and players here). Another is to try to closely examine the emotions experienced during and after the game, especially reflecting on times when you were just in a good ‘flow’, ‘in the zone’, or ‘effortlessly in character’. Personally, I especially find this an occurrence in horror LARP.

So I have found the Panopticorp video interesting, in particular because the player’s reflections have made me think a bit more about what I take away from a game besides whether it was fun or not. Also, it seems to be common practice in ‘Scandi-LARP’ to have these debriefing sessions both during and after the game. These seem to be really valuable to players and to game organisers, but I also think it’s important to stress the overwhelming preference in UK LARP for action. While I may well write a future post on this at length, some readers might want to look at this blog where the author reflects on the sheer beauty of doing LARP.

0 comments on “Shared Fantasy: Live-action versus technologically mediated hyper-reality”

Shared Fantasy: Live-action versus technologically mediated hyper-reality

Hello world. It has been some time since I had the leisure to post. But now I have a wordpress app! It’s the future. Jetpacks. Robot servants. A life of opportunity. Utopia or dystopia?

The fictional stories I read in the 1980s promised technological wonders such as these, and none so wondrous as the idea of virtual reality. Whether you remember the headsets of the 90’s or the holodeck from Star Trek, the notion of advanced technology blurring the line between what was ‘real’ and what could be experienced as real was a topic of much excitement and possibility. Of course, so was teleportation, but this post isn’t about that.
What I have been thinking about is the distinction between ‘swords and sorcery’ style LARP and the recent popularity of ‘augmented reality’ games made possible by the popularity of technologies like the iPad or smartphone. These games need such technology to create a consistent game world in a way that messing about in a field with some foam swords does not. Yet even foam swords and costumes are products of technology, artifacts that ‘mediate’ our engagement with our imagined world.
So I wonder about the role such objects play in our ‘pretend’ world compared with the ‘real’ one. Food for thought… (To be continued….!)

1 comment on “Praying at the shrine of Loo”

Praying at the shrine of Loo

aka no I won’t pee in a bush.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers (all five, six of you?). I’ve not been blogging recently because I have been writing up my previous blog post about monsters for an academic conference in Manchester. I am also working on another academic paper at the moment and it seems that all the writing juice has just been squeezed out of me. On second thoughts, bad metaphor there considering the subtitle. But I’ve been inspired to go back to this post by recent comments around gender and sexism in LARP. This post considers how far it is acceptable to go in LARP events when trying to promote immersion in the game. As a player, referee and organiser this is something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Specifically regarding bathroom breaks.

Now I’ll come back to bathroom breaks in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about sexism in LARP. Now I think that sexism in LARP is not as big a problem as it might sometimes seem, or as is sometimes reported. Many men and women play and enjoy LARP, and if there are fewer women who play outdoor fantasy LARP compared to men, well I think that says more about our social norms around gender and the limitations of campsites than anything else. In my experience of players who have no family commitments, and where events are predominantly situated indoors such as in Cthulhu LARP, there is no clear gender divide in participation. Now what is interesting in settings such as Cthulhu LARP is that as a historically situated game, players often have a lot of fun acting out and challenging the gender norms of the time in a crisis situation. I expect that in games inspired by Jane Austen’s novels players experience the same. However, in playing these games we create a hybrid gender-reality of sorts; a space where despite the conventions of the setting, the values and attitudes of the ‘real world’ we live in tend to come through.

So when addressing issues of gender inequality in LARP, we have to think about how the genre presents gender stereotypes, and how our contemporary society presents gender stereotypes. The game presents a creative space where norms can be challenged and overturned. And lets face it, sometimes its fun to play the damsel in distress, to be the dumb blonde who might cause everyone else in the game to be captured and eaten because they are forced to either abandon the lady (and look like a cowardly character), or otherwise break with the norms of the game genre by allowing the ‘mere girl’ to be the sacrificial hero. So these roles have a sort of power to them which can still be exercised – it just might be quite risky to the character to do so. The fact of LARP is that it is transient, and unlikely to offer an ongoing solution to gender inequality. What tends to get people upset seems to be when the inequalities of the ‘real world’ are brought into the game as if to a ‘natural’ habitat, or when players struggle to accept the differring inequalities presented by the LARP setting.

So to look at a similar example; one of the things our contemporary society has a lot of etiquette around is bathroom breaks. Or, to be more specific, going for a pee. As a woman, I’m not entirely up to speed on gentlemen’s etiquette regarding relieving yourself, but certainly in the fantasy genre, a bush would usually do. Also, considering what I have heard about which urinal men choose to use, I presume if you came across someone else using the bushes, you would have to move a few bushes further down. Stabbing someone with your sword and using their bush may be all very well in the Conan canon, but it just wouldn’t be right in a contemporary LARP. You’d get pee on your sword, for starters. So in the vague in-between space that is part game and part something else, we’ve made a compromise. Ladies, it is said, often go to the bathroom in pairs. But in fantasy novels and movies, they never seem to go at all. It just isn’t ladylike. Bathing, on the other hand, is very ladylike, and there are often many frissons experienced by the characters in books and legends over the challenges of preserving modesty. Now, these genre specific tropes don’t fit very well with contemporary needs. First of all, however immersive and appropriate to the setting and character it might be, I will not pee in a bush. My costume is difficult enough to manage in a portaloo. Secondly, I won’t be bathing in a stream either. Not with Britain’s weather conditions, anyway. Sadly, I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime’s hardship on the tundra my character might have. Luckily, most of the women I know who LARP broadly take the same view, and don’t take such ideas seriously.

Unfortunately, solutions to these particular difficulties often require resolution out of character, in another area or by temporarily dropping out of the game. The maintenance of the game illusion, however, requires that these interruptions be kept to a minimum. They are directly in conflict with the pursuit of immersion.

Bathroom breaks can therefore become quite serious business. One incident which happened some years ago involved a large group of ladies in the playing area stranded some way away from the toilet block. At this point they would have to travel in character across hostile enemy territory or drop out of game in full view of the other players. A sudden feeling of piety saved the day, as the ladies agreed that it was of utmost importance they pay their respects to a noted ancestor revered nearby. This ancestor was named ‘Loo’. In consequence, a large number of characters headed off together across this no-mans land, and in doing so married the demands of immersion with everyday etiquette.

So where does this address issues of sexism and inequality? Fundamentally there are several motifs common to the ‘romance’ of horror and fantasy genres which conflict with contemporary ideologies. For example, family and caste honour which claims ownership of special privileges is not compatible with freedom of individual expression and reward according to merit. Women were traditionally considered property under this feudal perspective, and even in fantasy it presents problems.

So what about ‘progressive’ LARP which incorporates equality into the very fabric of the setting? Well this too presents a struggle where players try to make sure their performance ‘fits’. Perhaps we could all pee on the same bush? I confess, personally I’d find that difficult. But then, perhaps there is still something of the message being put across in such LARP, as there is in presenting Shakespeare in contemporary costume. Although the purists hate it, it brings accessibility to the archaic language. Sometimes the medium and the message have to compromise. So feminist LARP utopia is some way off as yet.

0 comments on “Trying something new”

Trying something new

So, this bank holiday weekend was spent in gruelling cold conditions attempting to represent a character from a gloriously sunny coastal port town on the edge of a great Mediterranean-esque plain of farms and vineyards. Needless to say, I grumbled both as my character and as myself. The return to the comforts of unfrozen pipes and hot food more or less on demand have been a reminder that however much I enjoy ‘playing at’ being in the dark ages, I’d rather live with first world comforts. It puts in perspective those at risk from fuel poverty and homelessness in today’s world.

So I suppose I should make this clear, this weekend was not ‘research’ and I do not have the permission of participants to report on it as such, so this post will be confined to my own experiences of a new LARP community and system. For those in the LARP community, it will be quite obvious which events I am referring to and there are already a number of detailed first-person accounts of this event online and easy to find.

So, the weekend was one of the coldest on record for this time of year, and some of my close friends at the event left early, unable to face the hardship of numb and painful extremities caused by freezing and below-freezing temperatures any longer. Having packed every single insulating rug and duvet in my possession and supplied with as much hot coffee as I could buy, I managed to last until the bitter end. My long-suffering partner diligently heated the ice to hot water each night so we could defrost our poor feet, and I think we were probably as well prepared as it was possible to be. Nonetheless, the cold did detract from my ability to keep to the game. The fact that the cold was escapable, that we could have given up and gone home, made it very hard to ignore.

Aside from the bodily challenges, showing up to a new game, with new people to interact with is always difficult. Explaining away unfamiliarity with the customs and practices of the countrymen (fellow players) camped alongside is a hurdle to be added to the many one might experience when trying a new game. In this instance, the game itself is new, so it wasn’t possible to rely on the community of existing knowledgeable players to cue you to what is and is not standard practice, no matter how much of the setting you might have read in advance.

Further, this was the first time I have purposefully played a character who avoids combat. Because of the cold and reports of poor ground in the combat area I also did not volunteer to engage in combat as a monster role, which I usually thoroughly enjoy. This left me in a strange position to discover those aspects of the game with which I could engage and contribute. Several of our group did join me in discovering various ways to keep warm that superficially engaged with the ethos of the group as a performance oriented culture. That is to say, we indulged in some silly dancing that mostly involved prancing about or jumping up and down to keep warm. But this glossed over the reality that we were too cold to take the game seriously.

Nonetheless, we did go out and do business. I negotiated on behalf of the group and got involved in the politics around business and trade. I went to meetings as a ‘priest’ and discussed the merits of business practices as moral or immoral (though this began to uncomfortably sound like university work). The politics around priests trying to influence business was something I really enjoyed actually, and I think if the cold had been less biting this part of the game could have really taken much more of my attention, as well as the role of ceremonies. The little phys-reps and metal coins seemingly more at home in a one-shot environment really made it feel like there was an urgent need to trade and swap things.

However, the cold and the site difficulties did make it feel like I was a visitor to someone else’s game, many organisers seemed preoccupied with other troubles and so left new people like myself to explore with little advice to guide them. The number of familiar faces, also strangers to this new game meant it was not wholly unwelcoming, but there was not the same feeling of community achievement in this ‘shared fantasy’, only a sense of a shared struggle.  However, it has definitely thrown elements into the game which I never expected in a ‘fest’ scale event, so I think I will visit it again in the future.

A more coherent follow-up post may appear when I have recovered more of my wits from the elements.

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Alternative uses of roleplaying games

It is not a new thing to recognise that the impact of games, or of leisure activity, goes beyond a superficial understanding of entertainment. Competitive sports have been used as training exercises, frameworks for peaceful interaction and even to distract a population from starvation and riot. We know that there is value to be found in the playing of games. It is interesting, then, considering how in UK culture RPGs are generally denigrated and ridiculed, to see how often such games are used for ‘serious’ reasons.
A few weeks ago, I met with the documentary makers of Treasure Trapped to do an interview about LARP and I was asked to comment on the broader use of LARP as a training tool. It will come as no surprise to the LARPers who read this blog that ‘doing it for the experience’ can encompass more than even serious gaming. Lizzie Stark has discussed the use of LARP as a military training exercise in Leaving Mundania, and equally the Nordic LARP scene is well known for it’s serious treatment of realistic scenarios for personal development.
Today, on twitter, I saw someone post a link to the following website, which presents the visitor with a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ style written RPG. Depression Quest is an attempt to raise awareness about depression through the empathy (and possibly pleasure or frustration) people playing the game will experience. The goals of the developers in this case are not necessarily that the player will have a ‘good time’, but that they will have an ‘experience’. One of the main distinguishing features between a written RPG scenario and a live-action event is that in the latter the experience is more dynamic and unpredictable. But more broadly, then, this got me to thinking about the differences between ‘roleplay’ as a game, and ‘simulation training’. LARP may well be taken seriously by few people outside of the LARP community in the UK, but even for those of us who play in LARP games, it is not ‘serious’. The experience is not focussed on a particular outcome with real-world ramifications. Rather, that experience has different meaning for different players based on their engagement with the game. Fundamentally, LARP games are collaborative rather than ‘directed’ in the way that a training exercise might be. So I played through the above game (Depression Quest), and although it aims at promoting empathy, it is a puzzle. The objective is to try to get your character through the scenario and on the road to recovery. Your progress is monitored by criteria listed at the bottom of every page. Objectives in LARP are often not clear, or are negotiable (after all, you could always give in and join the zombie hordes). Perhaps this is where the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘training tool’ lies.

To be continued….

Comments welcome