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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.

0 comments on “Alternative uses of roleplaying games”

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

3 comments on “LARPwriting, the 25-step list…”

LARPwriting, the 25-step list…

Event organiser, LARP director, Entrepreneur, Logistics expert, Referee…being in charge of a LARP event makes you all of these things and more. Some groups attempt to separate the different roles of running a LARP event among a team of people but in many cases unless running a full-scale ‘fest’ system, one person will ‘wear many hats’. For the uninitiated these are some of the many tasks;

1. Register with a group to run an event using their rules system or design your own system and publicise it.

2. Survey and book a suitable site (scout camp, country house, self-catering cottage, municipal parkland…) for an appropriate date.

3. Purchase public liability insurance for your event.

4. Write an event plot which incorporates a scenario overview and planned ‘encounters’ to provoke crises, details any costume, props and makeup that will be required and outlines an approximate timeline of the narrative.

5. Write character details and background narrative for non-player characters of substance. Recruit volunteers to play these roles.

6. Book a caterer or plan catering for players and monsters/volunteers.

7. Create an advertisement or booking flyer. Advertise the event to potential players and  monsters/volunteers.

8. Write character outlines or request that these are submitted for review by players.

9. Take payments or deposits from players. Register monsters/volunteers and assign roles (including first aid or other roles as required by insurance policy).

10. Manufacture or purchase props, costume and makeup or special effects

11. Provide players and volunteers with all relevant and sufficient information they require prior to the event (including character information and OOC information such as directions or catering information).

12. Acquire radios or walkie-talkies if needed.

13. Arrange transportation of all relevant materials to the site.

14. Travel to the site to prepare the event. Walk over the site to ensure all locations can be used as planned for encounters. Make any last-minute changes or adjustments. Liaise with site manager and put up signposts to the event if required. Check all site facilities (e.g. bathrooms, lights) are functional. Check all props and equipment. Complete a risk assessment if required by insurance policy. Establish and set up any any set-piece areas. Mark out a control area or ‘monster room’. Direct caterers if required. Direct vehicles of volunteers and players as they arrive. Brief all volunteer crew and players.

15. Start the game…..

As may be clear from the above list, there are many tasks not directly involved in the ‘writing’ of an event. In fact, very few of the above tasks will even ensure that an event is ‘good’ or enjoyable for the players (and volunteers). If an event is poorly written, or if the caterers are not appropriately set up, or if all the players get lost trying to find the site….all of these things could result in a poor game before the game even begins. The tidy nature of the above list also conceals the chaos of organising many such events, when a site is re-landscaped or props are not transported to site on time, key NPCs are delayed by traffic and last-minute changes have to be made. Even these challenges seem quite orderly compared to the problem of trying to manage the budget or cash-flow of such an event. Many costs have to be paid up before the event is even advertised, and props can only be commissioned once money is available to pay for them. So the above list is really a misleading model of what might go into organising such an activity.

Any person or team running a LARP event may also face numerous challenges once the event begins. These might at first seem clear, but in so many cases the problem becomes remarkably complex;

16. Brief, make up and costume monsters, send out to ‘encounter’ the players according to the timeline.

17. Liase with caterers around timing of ‘crises’.

18. Adjudicate rules queries and provide players with information regarding IC enquiries.

19. Improvise additional encounters or set-pieces ‘on the fly’ to respond to player improvisation or to account for differences in the pace of the event.

20. Debrief monsters and NPCs to attempt to predict player actions.

21. Respond to any OOC problems with the site, catering or relevant crises.

22. Orchestrate the ‘finale’ of the event, or final encounter (this will often involve a larger scale written encounter with more significant props or special effects) to present a narrative ending – either by killing the player characters or through resolution of a final challenge.

23. End the game

24. Debrief players and volunteers.

25. Ensure all event materials are cleared up and site keys returned, any breakages noted and paid for. Collect all remaining consumables and props. Congratulate volunteers and players, then transport all materials off-site or to secure storage.

How hard can it be? Let’s take number 16. Do you have the person who wrote the narrative available to brief the monsters? Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is the font size on the printout too hard to read in the approaching darkness of a crowded tent with few lanterns? Do you have time to brief the monsters after they are made-up or do you have to brief them during costume changes and make up being applied? Who is applying the make-up? Do they have the appropriate skills and expertise? Are the monsters allergic to latex prosthetics?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Many of the articles I have read about running LARP events seem to concentrate on the narrative and matters of pace in the game, ensuring appropriate levels of immersion and so on. Yet this ‘directorial’ focus seems to obscure the ‘backstage’ chaos and skill which goes into any LARP event. Some games notably employ a ‘meta’ level of discomfort to players in order to help with immersion, insisting they ‘survive’ on their own rations and ability to find a safe space to sleep, another character trustworthy to keep watch and so on. Yet not all games (or game organisers) are prepared to take this line. The notion of ‘bleed’, a beneficial crossover between IC and OOC experience, is a helpful one in understanding why organisers may wish to promote such activity, yet how often do we see Conan the barbarian visit the lavatory, or Sherlock Holmes tying his shoelaces? In some cases the narrative genre which inspires the LARP event encourages the game to eliminate various spaces and activities from the storyline. In our pursuit of immersion, we have to make decisions about what will be part of the game and what will be outside of it. This post, then, simply serves to highlight the hidden parts of organising a LARP which nonetheless have a huge impact on the game itself.

Usual disclaimers apply. YMMV. Comments welcome.

0 comments on “Hello (again) world”

Hello (again) world

Dear internet,

it’s been a while hasn’t it? I do apologise, I have missed you. Sadly the ‘real’ world of work is not as forgiving as the fantastical world of roleplay, where if you neglect your position some bright adventurer will often seize power in a brutal coup, leaving you to calmly roll up a new character on your next visit to the field.

I have been putting together costume for a new game I am attending at Easter, and investigating wedding garments for myself and spouse-to-be. I was struck by how many of my concerns were similar during these shopping trips and online forays; how re-usable would the garment be for different events? How comfortable will it be? What associated props do I also need to budget for? These questions apply just as much to a wedding suit or dress as they do to costume for a given them and setting at a LARP event. I began to think about how important wedding clothes were for what in LARP would be called ‘immersion’. Will they make the day significant and convey my identity and life decisions by representing me in my ‘best’ light? How important is it that they be customised rather than ready-to-wear? Do they appropriately represent ‘me’ as a person?

I began to wonder how many of these concerns affected the other shoppers I could see around me in the gleaming urban shopping centre. I suspect (from my admittedly quite snobbish position) that they have the same worries but are perhaps less aware of the extent to which these worries are informed by the social power of ‘brands’ or our consumer habits. However, these criteria have changed significantly over time, as those items which are of significance and notable ‘in society’ are transformed by change in taste and technology. Hand-made items are now the preserve of luxury goods, but variety of colour and textile appearance is now something attainable by most consumers.

At LARP events our props and costume are generally considered relative to the setting or genre we are trying to portray, and also due to the skill and uniqueness apparent in their making. Sometimes there is talk of adding to the ‘authenticity’ of the narrative or experience in the same way that re-enactors value the authenticity  of historical reproductions. In our attempt to find commercially produced items (in the form of wedding stuff) that held the same value in portraying something about a ‘special day’ (and how I am beginning to hate that term), I reflected on how it must be hard to do the same with everyday shopping. Perhaps this lies behind the close attachment people develop to certain ‘brands’ as representing their identity.

One to think on….

Comments welcome!

….the role of props and background representations for conveying membership and performing ceremonial rituals…

0 comments on “LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism”

LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism

New year, new LARP system.

Since some friends and I are involved in running events a lot of the time which often results in failing to get an opportunity to relax and play events, quite a few of us have decided to spend some time playing in a new system. Much of the holiday has therefore been spent discussing our plans for new characters, new costumes, how we will use the rules on character creation to generate appropriate skills for those characters, and how we want the group to ‘feel’.

Part of the difficulty surrounding these discussions has been focussed on the real-world cultural associations of the fantastical backgrounds presented by the new system. To date, most of my LARP experience has been in playing roles inspired by the 1920-50s English upper and middle classes, fantastical ‘others’ based on Celtic mythology, Welsh chambermaids, London jazz singers, and one instance of Celtic-sailor’s-daughter-raised-as-an-arabian-dancer (though no-one ever did comment on my pale skin-tone). In all of these experiences, although there have frequently been community discussions about ‘how Celtic are we?’ and ‘how Celtic were the Celts, actually?’ most of the group have been pretty comfortable that even though the fantasy setting mangles the myth in many ways, it is our own island heritage we have been toying with. In the new game world we intend to play, we will instead be adopting a culture which (although it has been very carefully designed) is predominantly inspired by Arabian, Persian and North African mythological traditions.

So is the step from fantastically-torturing-my-own-ethnic-heritage to fantastically-torturing-someone-else’s-ethnic-heritage such a big problem? And is it even genuinely someone else’s heritage if it’s a fantastical construct? There are several traditional rules in LARP, and notable for the associated forum community is rule 7: don’t take the piss. This rule invokes the collaborative nature of the game to stress that where the rules of the game leave some ambiguity, players should take care to embrace the ‘spirit’ of the game as conveyed by the organisers and the community as a whole. Such ‘spirit’ might be interpreted as a matter of culture, but in my experience of UK LARP it incorporates fair play, sensitivity to the contribution of other players (as well as organisers, crew or ‘monsters’) and an awareness of the limitations of the LARP form as a game which relies upon a combination of imagination, physical representations and embodied skills.

So the question which worries is to what extent ‘rule 7’ is compromised by adopting  practices or props which could be seen as racial or cultural stereotypes. In the development of their new game world, Profound Decisions‘ (PD) development team have made explicit attempts to steer around such tropes and encourage players to build on the fantastical element of the culture rather than relying upon stereotypical portrayals of ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ drawn from Britain’s colonial past. An example of this may well lie in PD’s banning of the fez as headgear, considering its associations with colonial recruitment to the armed forces and multiple different conflicts. Yet at the same time, the community of LARP in the UK is used to a relatively unrestrictive approach to game participation and part of the enjoyment of the game often lies in the ability to make references to cultural ‘memes’ (such as quotes from cult TV programs or other LARPs) within the game.

In the course of developing our group ethos and sensibilities to participate in the new game, many of these issues seem to come up again and again, often through material concerns regarding costume and props. Such material objects can be fundamental to the construction of a new fantastical world as I mentioned in my previous post. Our group, along with those designing the game, are facing a very similar dilemma. Creating a fantastical universe with no correlation to those experiences shared by participants outside of the game is likely to result in failure as regards ongoing participation, even if it is possible to maintain over a short time. Any LARP is therefore to an extent parasitical on the knowledge, experiences and cultural preferences of its players.