“Hat ein einziges [Werk] seinen Zweck erreicht? Haben sie das Rad aufhalten können, das unaufhaltsam stürzend seinem Abgrund entgegeneilt?”
–– Heinrich von Kleist

When we finish a book, exit a movie theater, let the record needle hit the center label, we might ask ourselves: What did this experience mean? Am I moved? Did the work of art “do its job,” so to speak? Did I “get my money’s worth?”

Regardless of the capitalist-consumer ideologies underpinning these questions, I find them fair and valid in some cases. Our time on this Earth is precious, and we must process what we have done with it.

Photo by Åke Nolemo, JaLL 2013

Photo by Åke Nolemo, JaLL 2013

So I say with utmost seriousness that Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), a five-day live-action role-playing (larp) event about AIDS and cancer in early 1980s New York communities, counts as one of the best aesthetic experiences I have ever had in my life.

The content was meaningful and moving, the form elegant and carefully conceived. In a time of mediocre, mass-produced entertainment, we occasionally encounter such gems as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or China Mièville’s The Scar (2002) that deploy well-worn tropes in new and spectacular configurations which can still reach beyond our media-disciplined masks of irony. As a product, JaLL certainly ranks among them. But as a larp, JaLL also has the capacity to exceed them. Finding the words to describe that excess has been the task of the past 2 weeks after the game. Annika Waern offered a few after her experience 3 years ago:

“The level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.”
–– Annika Waern (2012)

When writing reflection pieces, we may feel  that they do not take a specific position, but simply neutrally “self-express.” But this is a comforting lie we tell ourselves to get the words out. Our testimonies always have a telos. We write with purpose. I am placing my purpose on the table, out here in the open. My words below contend that JaLL – a work that has now been produced 4 times across 3 different countries – is a game of exceptional quality design, that it created a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us. The result was a conversion from an artificial community into an actual community, the kind that so many movies and other media promise us and also frequently fail to convincingly deliver. The game was designed for care and justice. I will start with my design remarks, then move into my particular character’s story (yes, I will be telling you extensively about my character), and conclude with discussion of the important feedback loop between the event, player, character and actual events beyond the mere diegesis of the larp. This will be a long, possibly unforgiving read. You were warned.

JaLL’s Design

Here is the vision statement for JaLL:

  • All participants will experience the three main themes of the larp; desire, friendship & fear of death.
  • The organisers shall make the participants feel safe enough to step outside their comfort zone, both as larpers and as human beings
  • The larp will be of high and professional quality both practically and artistically

By “design,” I mean two different equally important elements: scenario design and production design. The former refers to the written scenario work done by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo, the latter to the real-world, logistical implementation by Flemming H. Jacobsen, Anna Emilie Groth, Helene Willer Pilronen, Petter Karlson, Rasmus Teilmann, Sarah Cederstrand, Alex Uth, Jakob Ponsgaard, Naya Marie Nord, Nicolai Steffensen and so forth. Neither really functions independently of the other: workshops and character orientation content can only be done if time and space allow for it, players can only play if they’re fed, the decorations and configuration of the site make sense when they fit with the July 4th “feel” in the design documents, etc. And JaLL is a well-oiled machine in part precisely because its mechanisms work so well in tandem with each other.

The JaLL scenario design is widely known, and borders on being completely transparent. The players take on the roles of attendees of three consecutive July 4th parties held in Saratoga, NY in 1982, 1983, and 1984 — NYC gay marketing magnate Mr. T’s guests, the guests of his lesbian secretary Pen, and the Saratoga Friendship Pact, a hippy community of cancer survivors. This motley crue must then face together three nights of partying and mutual pleasure… each followed by a Lottery of Death the next morning, a meta-scene that determines who is infected by or dies of the incoming pandemic known as AIDS. Tears are shed in abundance at the characters’ collective funerals, and the support networks within the gay community re-shape themselves around fighting the disease. We all know from history that this would mark the burial of the 60s utopias and a whole generation of leftist gay performers and activists who might have otherwise helped repel the toxic advances of Reaganism.

The production design in the Denmark run actively supported the scenario design. A full day of workshops and warm-ups helped the group of strangers adjust to the culture shock of the 80s and pretend to be longtime friends. Sound design was carefully attended to in each space: the discotheque, the dining room, the black boxes, the funeral field. Fourth of July decorations could be left up between acts, their gawdy candor testifying to us that this summer camp in Denmark was, in fact, the ever-patriotic United States. Pepper’s Diner, catered by larpers in character, worked around the clock to keep the dinners fresh and distinct across each year and the dietary needs of the players quietly addressed. The dance party every night was an actual dance party, with character attractions otherwise replacing player attractions on the dancefloor.

Several aspects of the design have been (and should be) mentioned as exemplary. Actual sex and drugs were forbidden during the larp, meaning that players had to own responsibility for every action their character took. Breakfast at Pepper’s Diner was sometimes an awkward affair. Every character was embedded within a core, intimate group and a broader social group, along with a network of potentially non-superficial relations. In play, a player-character who had a drama-filled core group could then lean on her/his social group for stability or vice versa, whilst drawing out new emergent connections from the party itself. This permitted us to form clear social goals for the party – “I’d like to get to know Reginald better!” “If Beverley brings up my past affair, I’ll bring up hers.” – while also affording us a safe space.

Structured, ritualistic events and black boxes helped maintain a sense of player agency. Every night of the party, one could count on the raising of the flag, the drag show, the dancing, the green drink at midnight that may intensify or reverse character behavior, the awkward late-night heart-to-hearts. Though anything could happen within it, such structure permitted players to plan their evenings and react to subtle changes over time accordingly. If players wanted to reinforce or explore certain elements of their characters’ stories, they could wave a feather and invite others to a “black box,” rooms outside of the diegesis that permitted one to play out the past or one’s fantasies. Players were invited to read all the characters before the larp if they wanted, permitting vital information to be communicated even before the absolutely transparent player workshops began. In end effect, one had no excuse to sit around and look bored, despite a general lack of intrigue, mystery investigation and violence – staples of most larps.

The gestalt effect of the game’s design promoted player agency, risk-taking, and mutual care. We produced an approximation of the 1980s with all kinds of anachronisms, and that was OK. Players could steer their plotline the way they wished, but always in dialog with the other players as co-creators. The physical safety of the game let players take emotional risks, which then came back to haunt them at the character funerals. The constant stream of information between players and characters led to an environment in which everyone could take care of both player AND character without fear of in-game consequences. After all, we were playing to lose… and then be uplifted. Let me use my character’s story as one example of the above.

 

Tony, Day 1

Tony, 1982. Still rocking the disco.

The Ballad of Gay Tony … the DJ

Originally an organizer character in the first three runs of the game, Tony was my top pick among the characters on offer for this run of JaLL. I do DJ work on the side, and know generally how to move crowds with music. This would offer me a chance to finally reckon with the music of the 1970s and 80s — to get to know how that historical transition from disco to Duran Duran. I wanted a character who could draw on my natural tension between playing what the crowd wants and my personal, fairly esoteric taste.

As a character, Tony both fit me like a glove and posed me a number of challenges. The character rewarded me for deep study of the gay New York and popular music scenes, having me download and listen to over 300 tracks from ABBA to Yazoo. My own knowledge and appreciation of music for its own sake could be sated. The character’s challenges came in the form of his personality and social being.

Tony was designed as a melancholic introvert, something I generally don’t play, who also is supportive of others but not emotionally communicative – he likes to pretend everything is cool when it really isn’t. It’s fairly straightforward for me to play a character who lies to himself, but ultimately such characters are sometimes of limited utility in reaching out and providing others play opportunities. I’m used to telegraphing my thoughts and intentions far and wide, so that other larpers can hatch their plots and act on the information they’ve been given. As far as his social being was concerned, Tony starts the game as a gay man in an open relationship with a younger gay man, Francis, and his sexual history with the others  at Mr. T’s party runs fairly deep. Though I’m bi, I have been in a monogamous heterosexual relationship for 13 years and thus had to come to terms with being in an open relationship that was at least meaningful as we both went off and hit on men. My lack of interest in a jealousy plot around said relationship actually became a major driver of Tony’s narrative, as you’ll read below. Finally, Tony’s longstanding presence in the club scene meant that he consumed a serious amount of drugs, also something not in my own lifestyle, which caught up with him as the 1970s faded into the cold, hard 1980s.

The music is weaving
Haunting notes, pizzicato strings
The rhythm is calling
Alone in the night as the daylight brings
A cool empty silence
The warmth of your hand and cold gray sky
It fades to the distance

– Ultravox, Vienna

Who is Tony? Born in 1950 in Manhattan and raised in the Village by liberal parents who worked at NYU, Tony experiences a fairly cushy upbringing, such that his coming out at 16 is seen as “no big deal.” He finds himself watching from down the street as the Stonewall protests took place, and becomes accustomed to playing the Velvet Underground and Jimmy Hendrix everyone was requesting at the emerging gay bar scene. In 1971, Can’s Tago Mago hits the shelves and Tony is now obsessed with crazy European avant-garde music, experimental electronic soundscapes, and Krautrock. After some time spent shooting heroin while listening to outrageous music, he cleans up a bit and plunges some gathered funds into his record collection. By 1975, he owns his own store, Tony’s Records, on Bleecker St.: pop hits in the front room, bizarre and psychedelic imports in the back room. Pepper’s Diner, another gay-run establishment, is located just down the street and is his favorite dive to grab an omelette and meet interesting men. During this extroverted period, he befriends Daniel, one of many lost new gay arrivals to the City, and shows him the scene. They are best buddies briefly until Daniel meets and starts dating Larry, another local. The relationship does not seem healthy by Tony’s standards, but Daniel abandons Tony as a friend instead of listening to him. Around the same time, Tony finds Artie, a flirty idealist who turns out to be not the best of boyfriends but is the greatest of close friends. Hook-ups within the gay club and nascent drag ball scene describes Tony’s sex life through the 1970s.

In 1978, Tony begins filling in as a weeknight DJ at the hottest nightclub in New York: Studio 54. All the drugs, money, attention and cock he wants are suddenly there for him, and he certainly takes advantage of it. New gigs spring up for him, from small-time basement clubs to hip parties held by Mr. T. This employment (thanks to club promoter Sorrento). These gigs boost the ego of an otherwise sullen, gay record peddler, and he gets increasingly ambitious in his sets and purchases for the record store. His risks are rewarded. Business booms. So does the drag ball scene, and it is there where he meets the energetic Francis, a modern dancer from a rough background and aspiring queen. After Francis loses his mother to heroin in 1980, her death propels him into Tony’s arms. Tony is unused to keeping a long-term partner, but his undeniable empathy for Francis pushes him to commit to him as part of a supportive, open relationship. Francis in turn brings Tony into the fold as a volunteer counselor for gay youth at a local shelter, which means talking to teenagers about suicide prevention and finding gay-friendly places in New York to live and work. Daniel, who reappears in Tony’s life as part of the drag troupe Club Diamond in which Francis sang, helps get them an apartment together in Soho across the hall from him (as well as the dancer Reginald and the misfit Trevor). Success seems to reign in Tony’s romantic, artistic and commercial lives. Life is good.

1982: Mr. T invites Tony to DJ his July 4th party in Saratoga, NY. Tony, Francis and Artie had attended the previous year’s party and remember it as an orgiastic event with lots of drugs and hook-ups. They are definitely up for it again, even though there were a bunch of Saratoga cancer-survivor hippies also in attendance. Nevertheless, the Studio 54 crew gets right to business at the start of the game by doing coke on the cabin’s tables and setting up an awesome disco party. After hanging out at dinner with the band Urban Renaissance (containing Tony’s crush for the first night, Rain) Tony and Francis go on a “date” to the tantric workshop, a hippy affair which leaves them unimpressed but mutually amused. They have to part ways early in the evening to do their respective jobs: Francis preparing the drag queens and Tony readying the stage for the queens and the party afterward… while also doing coke with the writers Eli and Jerrod, among other things.

The evening’s performances include music from Mary Lou, a singer-songwriter, a striptease by the go-go dancer Chain, and a poetry reading by Abner, a pretentious professor who had been dating Eli, one of Tony’s old flames. Urban Renaissance take the stage and rev up the party for Tony, who then brings on all the Studio 54 classics. During this initial phase of dancing, Francis comes up to Tony to ask for permission to sleep with the neighbor Reginald, who just rocks the evening with his interpretation of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance.” Tony gives them his blessing, and they disappear. At midnight, the party collectively imbibes green drink, a weird herbal concoction that (mechanically) forces JaLL players to intensify or reverse their play. Francis comes to Tony with guilty feelings after his hook-up with Reginald: he may have inadvertently damaged Jerrod and Reginald’s supposedly monogamous relationship. Tony spends the rest of the evening keeping the party stoked and introducing other party-goers to coke. At one point, he asks for a piece of paper from Abner to use for snorting, and Abner gives him a poem… which Tony gladly uses. Nevertheless, along with Tony’s debauchery comes the suspicion that disco is dying, that these days will not last. Melancholy sets in.

Music playlist for 1982:

• Earth, Wind & Fire – “Let’s Groove”

• Sister Sledge – “He’s the Greatest Dancer”

• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”

• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

• Musique – “In the Bush”

• Shalamar – “Right in the Socket”

• Man 2 Man – “Male Stripper”

• Miquel Brown – “So Many Men So Little Time”

• Modern Talking – “Brother Louie”

• Donna Summer – “I Feel Love”

• Yellow Magic Orchestra – “Rydeen”

[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]

• Donna Summer – “Bad Girls”

• C.J. & Co. – “Devil’s Gun”

• Vicki Sue Robinson – “Turn the Beat Around”

• Blondie – “Call Me”

• Donna Summer – “Love to Love You Baby (Giorgio Moroder Mix)”

• Yazoo – “Goodbye 70’s”

• Prince & the Revolution – “Erotic City”

• The Pointer Sisters – “He’s So Shy”

• Madonna – “Borderline”

The next morning, Tony is up with several of the monied gay men, Bruce and Artie among them, gossiping. They reach the conclusion that most of the relationships they had known of the previous night had dissolved or were severely on the rocks. Breakfast see Artie, Francis and Tony recruiting potential volunteer counselors for the shelter, including Chain and a quiet young guy named Ike, whom he also interviews for a potential job at his record store. Then he sits listening to his more experimental records in the empty disco with a rotating cast of other listeners: the spiritual Joani, the gay father Lester, the art photographer Micky.

The Lottery of Death hits on schedule after breakfast. It gives many a brush with the afterlife, and takes two of us — Max and Sinclair — away. Tears begin to flow already, even though we as players barely know each other. It all seems so very unfair.

Between July 1982 and July 1983, more knowledge of the “gay cancer” that took our friends’ lives becomes available and the volunteer counselors, Tony included, become the de facto people disseminating it. AIDS is now known as a CDC-recognized epidemic that doesn’t just affect gay people. Yet few in the community respond rationally to this information, which makes for intense awkwardness. Tony abruptly turns from counseling 16 year-olds away from suicide to conducting full-blown youth HIV prevention seminars, a process which slowly takes its psychic toll on Tony. It pains him to watch the adult New York gay community not listen to the latest medical data as the teenagers did.

In the fall of 1982, two crackheads mug Tony within a block of his store. They only take $20 and rough him up a bit, so Tony never tells anyone about it. But the city that had given him so much suddenly assumes a darker look. Tony’s style changes to suit it: black leather, studded gloves. His taste in music also shifts: Italodisco replaces disco, British new wave and synth rock putting the 1970s to rest.

Tony 1984

Tony keeps the party going. Now in leather.

1983: Tony, Francis and Artie come to Mr. T’s party as the HIV crusaders, armed with data on how the disease spreads and whom it kills. No one wants to talk about it, however, and arguments quickly erupt. Much of Francis and Tony’s social interactions revolve around how busy they’ve been this year and how much they still have to do to keep afloat. But old habits die hard, and Tony is soon back to snorting lines, popping amphetamines, and trying to forget his troubles.

Club Diamond has a bigger line-up this year, also with more complicated acts. During the show, Tony fumbles a bit on account of having done too many drugs and being under high pressure from all sides. Many of the acts bring down the mood, such that Urban Renaissance has a tough time sustaining the party –Tony later gets chewed out by Urban Renaissance’s manager for permitting such downer acts. Tony, Daniel, and Francis abscond to a lounge to engage in a post-drag show threesome. This sexual retreat turns out to be the high point of Tony’s story arc – a moment of reprieve with two handsome men about whom he cares deeply. Due to Tony’s DJ responsibilities, such a moment had to be carefully pre-planned and pre-arranged, but when it happens, time seems to stand still and the intimacy shared makes a lasting impression. It is a good thing that he’s enjoyed a moment of quiet, however, because the party itself has become very tense in the meantime.  Intense arguments flare up on the patio outside the discotheque, and Mr. T testily demands that Tony get back behind the decks and get the music flowing again. Tony complies, though adding a touch of darker music (Coil, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode) to reflect the overall mood. After the party’s participants imbibe the green drink after midnight, Francis tells Tony with rapture to play whatever music he wants, which takes him to New Order and The Smiths, as well as to stripping off his mesh shirt (as “Topless Tony”) and tearing up the dancefloor with Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf.” Studio 54 bartender Enrique hands him a pile of uppers, and he switches to disco again. A particularly moving moment is aging disco star Leon’s reprise of his only hit single “I Was Made For Dancing,” in which the singer collapses in despair two-thirds of the way through the performance and Tony has to prop him up.

Music Playlist for 1983

• Klapo – “Mister Game”

• Giorgio Moroder – “Chase”

• Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”

• Salt N Pepa – “Push It”

• Afrika Bambaataa – “Planet Rock”

• Silly – “Mont Klamott”

• Ultravox – “The Voice”

• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”

• David Bowie – “Suffragette City”

• Tangerine Dream – “Phaedra”

• Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf”

• Freeez – “Pop Goes My Love”

• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

• Chaka Khan – “I’m Every Woman”

[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]

• DDR TV – “Aktuelle Kamera=Titel”

• Coil – “Clap”

• Devo – “Whip It”

• Michael Jackson – “Beat It”

• A Flock of Seagulls – “I Ran (So Far Away)”

• Prince – “When Doves Cry”

• Jessica Williams – “Queen of Fools”

• Mr. Flagio – “Take a Chance”

• Frida – “I Know There’s Something Going On”

• Patti Smith – “Gloria”

• The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”

• Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”

• Yazoo – “Don’t Go”

• Talk Talk – “Talk Talk”

• Adam & the Ants – “Whip In My Valise”

• The Cure – “Lovesong”

[GREEN DRINK]

• Joy Division – “She Lost Control”

• Man 2 Man – “All Men Are Beasts”

• Gary Numan – “Metal”

• Duran Duran – “Save a Prayer”

• Dead or Alive – “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”

• Depeche Mode – “Master and Servant”

• Soft Cell – “Sex Dwarf”

• New Order – “Blue Monday”

• The Flirts – “Danger”

• Leif Garrett – “I Was Made for Dancing”

• Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff”

• Musique – “Keep On Jumpin'”

• The Weathergirls – “It’s Raining Men”

• Madonna – “Like a Virgin”

• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”

• The Village People – “Y.M.C.A.”

• Duran Duran – “Girls on Film”

• Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing”

• Donna Summer – “Last Dance”

• Bauhaus – “She’s in Parties”

The next morning, Tony awakes, still high and out of sorts. Fortunately, the drag queen Marcus is ready with a joint and a kind word, and Francis, Artie, Ike, and Chain are there to keep pulling counselors into the fold, though it’s an intense, uphill battle. To loosen everyone up, Artie, Francis and Tony make public plans for an awesome party trip to San Francisco. Hope crawls its way back into the room, a bit.

During the second Lottery of Death, Francis’s name is called, and Tony tears up and can’t stop bawling for the next 20 minutes. Thankfully, Francis is spared Death’s cruel scythe (meanwhile: Reginald, Rain, Barbara and Lawrence are not). Tony suddenly feels hollow inside. I realize that something must have come between Tony and the others in San Francisco. As a player uninterested in a jealousy plotline who also wanted Francis to explore a budding relationship with Daniel, I steered Tony into the nascent drug addiction hell he was already headed. What better way to shield one from the psychic pressures of dealing with the AIDS crisis?

Tony’s 1983-84 is the hardest year of his life. The caseload at the volunteer clinic becomes insane. Studio 54 is still a hip spot, but its days are numbered. The record store presents its usual hurdles. The San Francisco trip turns into a nightmare – Tony reconnects with an old acquaintance heroin dealer at a party, a transaction happens, the pain vanishes, and Tony is nearly comatose on the plane ride home. Francis, whose mother was taken from him by heroin, is dumbstruck. Within the next week in November, Tony leaves his old life and responsibilities behind in favor of glorious heroin: he closes up the shop, squirrels away the records he likes, and vanishes from the lives of everyone around him. What happens over the next 6 months is fairly hazy, but predictable. He puts his remaining things in a storage unit under a pseudonym, takes up residence in a basement with 3 other men, and they spend their days shooting up and making sure everyone’s fed and not dead. Needles are shared, and frequently. Tony hits rock bottom in a drug-fueled vision of his own creation, a dark city under the waves called Black Atlantis ruled by African slaves who jumped overboard en route to America. There he moves slowly, compressed by great weight, listening to distant music through the wall of water.

The day when Tony swims up from Black Atlantis is when one of his fellow addicts sent out to get food doesn’t make it back, instead dying in a Burger King. Tony receives a vision from Black Atlantis releasing him from its bondage, and promptly moves into his storage unit with his records and starts the detox and rehab process. Part of Tony’s rehab process is apparently to scrawl cryptic poetry with his shaky hands.

Unsure of re-approaching Francis out of fear of traumatizing him, he instead turns to Sorrento and his contacts at Studio 54 for work. Sorrento obliges him, and Tony is back to spinning disco hits on weeknights, although now clean of drugs and totally dependent on the DJ gigs and occasional incognito bussing of tables at Pepper’s Diner to keep himself afloat. In exchange, Sorrento has his ex-flight attendant sister Ellie apprentice under Tony, so she can learn the trade of DJing. He complies, since he is thinking of exiting Studio 54 for Club Diamond anyway, assuming he and Francis would be able to patch things up. Ellie is a proper “fag hag” in the nicest sense of that derogatory term: a straight woman who adores hanging out with gay men like Tony, and an enthusiastic protégé. To pad the Studio 54’s meager earnings, both Tony and Ellie are dealing coke and amphetamines despite Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” made all the more ironic now that Tony doesn’t do them anymore. Somehow word gets to Tony that Mr. T would like for him to do the July 4th party again, and he finds the necessary garb and records among his remaining belongings to throw a proper party. But before he heads up with the Sorrentos to Saratoga, NY, Tony reconnects with Artie and goes with him to get an HIV test.

Tony sits in a darkened waiting room surrounded by other nervous people, his hand in Artie’s. The wait is excruciating. The risk factors are damning: unprotected sex with many different male partners over the last 15 years, and recent sharing of needles with fellow heroin addicts. The verdict: Tony is HIV-positive. 2 days later, Mr. T’s 1984 party begins.

Tony and Ellie

Tony and Ellie

Tony shows up to the party with his DJ assistant Ellie, already full of trepidation about seeing people whom he abandoned for drugs during the past year. Immediately, Daniel and others seize him and ask him how he’s been. Tony is evasive, but assures those in the know that he’s on his methadone and ready to put the past behind him. And hey! he’s still at Studio 54, right? Everything is as it should be. He takes Ellie aside and talks about how they will deal drugs to their potential customers, and to make sure to ask for some kind of payment later (earlier, the drugs were always free). Meanwhile, he pulls out his little black notebook every now during this awkward first hour and jots down a few unrhymed lines of poetry from “Black Atlantis.” Embarrassed at the introvert he’s become, he leaves them around the party for others to find, and disavows their creation.

Black Atlantis

A Black Atlantis poem that Tony wrote and placed somewhere.

With awful secrets bubbling up inside of him, Tony finally takes aside Ellie and Chantelle, the Hi-NRG singer, and spills the beans. He tells them he is HIV positive, that this might be his last party, because next year he would be dead. They immediately comfort him and give him some advice: make this night a night to remember AND take care to do some drugs, but just not downers like heroin. Then Ellie and Tony snorted some coke, and Tony got his groove back. Still avoiding Francis (while sharing longing glances with him across the room many times), he also tells Artie about the situation, which means that word travels fast about Tony’s condition. Suddenly, he feels the embrace of a community that he didn’t even know he had envelop him.

The drag queen (and other) performances in the 1984 party are both fantastic and compelling. Everything from a Sappho poem to a lesbian fisting demonstration to a group sing-along to “(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay” and “I Will Survive.” A guest Claire reads a statement about HIV and Tony follows up by asking the crowd to safely get laid, in a way coming out about his own HIV condition. As Francis (“Lady Francesca”) gets up to perform, Tony interprets his address to “his love” (now Daniel) as meant for him and starts to sulk. The dancing that erupts after the Urban Renaissance concert is intense and heartfelt. Everyone out on the dancefloor wants to be there, and stays there. Sorrento and the other Studio 54 associates do their job to keep the party rolling.

After the green drink is imbibed, Tony cautiously approaches Francis and then breaks down sobbing in his and Artie’s arms. “Can you help me find a place to sleep?” he asks without a hint of dignity. “I live in a storage unit and I barely make enough to eat.” Artie and Francis embrace their estranged friend in his sorry state, and encourage him to keep up the good DJing. He and Ellie do some more coke, and then Tony throws down a set to remember from the various records he brought with him. Bruce tears down the house with his singing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” At one point, Tony approaches the mic and sings along with Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” Anyone will give Tony a hug, anyone who needs to cry or celebrate with him, does so.

Music Playlist for 1984 (Reconstructed from Memory – Sorry!)

• Casco Presents BWH – “Livin Up”

• Michael Zager Band – “Let’s All Chant”

• Bananarama – “Venus”

• Madness – “Our House”

• Queen – “I Want to Break Free”

• Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”

• Bananarama – “Cruel Summer”

[GREEN DRINK BREAK]

• Cerrone – “Supernature”

• Laura Branigan – “Self Control”

• Miami Sound Machine – “Dr. Beat”

• Deniece Williams – “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”

• Shannon – “Let the Music Play”

• Pat Benatar – “Love is a Battlefield”

• Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”

• Madonna – “Everybody”

• Diana Ross – “I’m Coming Out”

• Nena – “99 Luftballons”

• Rocky Horror Picture Show – “Time Warp”

• Queen – “The Show Must Go On”

• Patti Smith – “Summer Cannibals”

• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”

• Shannon – “Give Me Tonight”

• Amii Stewart – “Knock on Wood”

• Sister Sledge – “We Are Family”

• Genesis – “The Brazilian”

• ABBA – “Thank You For The Music”

• Tangerine Dream – “Speed”

• Teenage Jesus and the Jerks – “Red Alert”

• Negativland – “Track 10” from Negativland

The final five tracks of the night, well after 1 am, contain their own story. Tony announces the last track, and then shocks the party with an entirely instrumental piece by Genesis: “The Brazilian.” Shaking from a night of mixing coke with methadone, green drink and his fear of dying a lonely death, Tony walks onto the dancefloor and begins a sort of gyrating vogue dance. At a climactic point in the song, he is suddenly overwhelmed by the moment and collapses in tears. But Daniel is there to catch him and lift him up, hoisting him aloft and giving him strength to pull himself together. This moment was likely the closest I’ve ever come as a player to experiencing something “transcendental” in larp, and the song will never be the same for me again.

Ever the party master, Sorrento addresses Tony: “Come on – you can’t just end the night with an instrumental song! Try ‘Thank You for the Music’ by ABBA.” Tony obliges him. The gathered company almost immediately links arms, sways back in forth in a circle and sings the melody in unison. The magic continues, as if we had become a collected bundle of raw nerves ready to be moved at the slightest prompt. Intimacy and fear of death fade into the kind of collectivity so many musicals and dramas seek to emulate, yet fail to achieve.

Once the song ends in a round of applause, Tony sends away the crowd with three avant-garde tracks representing his personal taste. Micky, with whom he had listened to similar tracks on a prior morning, comes to sit on the couch with Tony and bask in the sonic pleasures of Tangerine Dream, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Negativland. Eventually, Ellie sees the HIV-diagnosed DJ overindulging himself, and orders him to bed. He obliges her too: lifting the record needle, stopping the decks, cutting the power, packing up his records, and walking out the door, briefcase in hand.

The next morning, Tony is his usual social self and gets to go through his usual routine: picking up cans, gossiping with Bruce and Artie, eating the delicious breakfast from Pepper’s Diner, talking to Ellie about the art of DJing, and getting some more words to Francis and Daniel, listening to his music in solitude before attracting Chantelle over to him and having a moving heart-to-heart conversation. Having made his peace with both losing his friends and death itself, Tony sits down with Ellie and Sorrento and waits for the Lottery of Death. Hank, Enrique, Leon, Evelyn, and Ike are taken, Tony and all the others are spared, though many, many partygoers bear the lethal sentence of the HIV virus. Tears flow all around, and we close the curtain on the game itself as Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” plays in the background.

A Feedback Loop to Die For

Why go through the thousands of words to tell you Tony’s first-person experience of the game’s events? Above, I wrote that the game helped me create

“a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us.”

I’d like to talk about these socially realistic decision trees and emotions and the persistent dialog among the participants. The decisions trees and emotions emerged from the very well-written characters, whose lives resemble those of people you might know and who are integrated with each other in such a way as to provide ample story options for the players. Usually, one found oneself between a drama-filled sub-group and a comforting other sub-group, and one could reliably go to each to experience those particular emotions. For Tony, his friends Artie and Francis were his safe haven, and Studio 54 was full of drug addicts and party-heads. Ritual and repetition within JaLL form an important foundation stone for player immersion, as argued by Sarah Lynne Bowman. But so does the predictability that such repetition brings. The players could anticipate future decisions, and play their characters accordingly, without shutting out options for emergent play (i.e., Francis and Reginald’s tryst, Tony’s crazy heroin binge) that lets one be surprised. Getting HIV in the game, for example, was a gift that changed all the decision trees in the third Act for the better – suddenly, I felt like I was experiencing the denouement from a 1980s melodrama or romantic comedy in my own flesh. Suddenly, I felt human and alive.

The persistent dialog among the players formed a feedback loop that cemented the players, characters and whole larp collective into a cohesive unit. Between acts, players could talk to each other about where their character was headed and the possibilities for action. Meta-level negotiation was encouraged, which also meant that one knew that as a character, one was being supported by the players around her/him. Especially in the third Act with the theme of “Friendship,” the player support and the character support began to merge, the intimacies of the earlier acts fading away into a jouissance of togetherness and raging against the dying of the light. Constant negotiations and dialog produced the feeling at the end that we all had known each other for a very long time, that we could probably accomplish great things together beyond this larp… if only we didn’t all have to go to work on Monday morning.

Aesthetic experiences can seep into our lives and change us in unexpected ways. For many people, this may take the form of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony or hearing the Thug Life album for the first time or seeing Inside Out (2015) and feeling understood. For me, JaLL and its participants have become a part of me, a fake Saratoga whose propositions produced real feelings, real community and real ideas.

Thanks for coming with me on this journey.

[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]

In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.

image

Timothy Murray’s book. He’s at Cornell, I think.

Sure.

Fine.

Alright.

In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”

a-mad-max-fury-road-imagea4

Publicity shot for Mad Max: Fury Road. You’ve probably seen this sort of thing all over the Internet this month

Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.

Dredd2012

Dredd (2012) may be seen as a precursor to Mad Mad: Fury Road

It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.

I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.

Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.

Why “baroque?”

Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)

Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.

Mad Max's sci-fi cousin?

Mad Max’s sci-fi cousin?

How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?

Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.

So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.

Digital baroque?

Dystopian baroque?

21st Century baroque?

Who knows?

As a German instructor and an alumnus of the Iowa City School District (’00), I feel obliged to post this open letter of protest against the closing of the German program in the Iowa City Schools.

 

April 11, 2014

Dear Superintendent Stephen Murley and the Board of the Iowa City School District,

 

We the undersigned request that you cease plans to phase out the German program in the Iowa City School District starting in the 2014-2015 school year. We understand that the district has a temporary budget shortfall, but can assure you that the disastrous effects of phasing out German would be permanent.

 

German is a language widely recognized as a foundation for excellence. There are economic, cultural and historical reasons for this fact. Germany remains not only one of the most robust economies in the European Union, for example, but also one tied into a productive international network of innovations and ideas. Over 1 million Americans work for German companies. A March 11, 2014 editorial in The Economist argues that students who choose to learn German are better positioned to supply their skills in a market over-saturated with Spanish and French-language speakers. German-speaking cultures have significantly contributed to modern thought and, with only 3-5% of contemporary German works being published in English translation per year, volumes of new research and fiction are being overlooked by an English-language-only market. Given the fact that not only 15% of Americans are of German ancestry but also that German is the fourth most frequently spoken language (other than English) in American homes, the relevance of German to our local and national heritage is indisputable.

 

Phasing out German is akin to directly denying economic and academic opportunities to your students from the Iowa City area. Numerous German-speaking alumni have gone on to successful careers in academia, law, medicine and finance. The primary author of this letter has just become an assistant professor in German Studies at a research I university. Alumni have been able to immediately major in the language in institutions of higher education, and create active intercultural connections while studying abroad on grants or other programs. These opportunities simply would not have been available, had the Iowa City School District not provided the baseline support for German language education from 7th through 12th grade. Students learning German in middle school, high school  and college have an incredible advantage in securing a job in our global society over students who possess no foreign language skills. It is a well-known fact that the study of German at grades 7-12 exposes students to numerous higher-order thinking and study skills they urgently need to prepare them for  a successful college experience and an enhanced quality of life. All evidence points toward this program remaining a good investment.

 

Lean times usually cause us to re-assess priorities. Yet German language education remains a fairly inexpensive and reliable way of keeping the Iowa City School District “child-centered” and “future-focused,” as advertised on the website. Indeed, money should be invested in opportunities for children and their future, and keeping German is a solid investment. Canceling the language signals a move within the district toward other priorities, namely the support of the administration over the needs of the students. It also signals a most regrettable neglect of foreign language skills needed by our students to stay competitive with the worlds’ economies. In many, if not most, countries outside the USA, most children start learning foreign languages at age 10. The US simply cannot afford to deprive  our children of the same advantages most students receive in most European countries as well as in China and many other countries.

 

Thank you in advance for considering our letter, and we hope you make the right decision to maintain support for German language education in the district.

 

Sincerely,

Dr. Evan Torner
Gabriele Auerbach
Pam Peters
Heidi Galer

Margy Winkler
Bev Humphrey

Neva Christensen
Dr. Johanna Schuster Craig

Dr. Glenn Ehrstine

Dr. Vance Byrd
Dr. Dan Reynolds

Dr. Berna Gueneli
Dr. Sigmund Barber

Dr. Jennifer Michaels
Dr. April Eisman

HeeJin Lee
Dr. Mary Larew

Dr. Lauren Stefaniak

Dr. Felicia Kruse Alexander

David Gerlits
Susannah Lewis

Kara Kimm
Cindy Opitz
Eleanor Price
Gary Shullaw

Kate Hawkins
Ben & Carolyn Van Zante

Linda Muhly
Phillip Rademacher
Lizzy Ronana
Ute Brandenburg
Hannah Twitchell
Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba
Sonia and Ronald Ettinger
Jeneane O’Toole Stepan
Justin Preuschl
Brian Burkhardt
Nancy Pacha
Kimberley Swanson
Robin Torner
Jay Torner
Dr. Jonathan Skolnik

Dr. Larson Powell

Dr. Henning Wrage
Jenny Gringer Richards
Dr. Caroline Kita
Jenny Hilsenrad Graff
Christine Øien
Eirik Fatland
Lisa Anne Scism
Andrew Evans
Natoshia Askelson
Dr. Erin Alice Cowling
Dr. Carrie Shanafelt
Beth Richards
Denise Tiffany
Maryann Askelson
Melissa Villamil
Sarah Karniski Rasch
Shannon Toomey
Lilly Brown
Stanley P. Nuehring
Sara Neymeyer Eisenberg
Laura Hoffmann
Keith Collins

Lauri Deninger

Anne Hesse

A.K. Traw

Jean Dobyns

Carilyn Gardner

Margaret Clancy

Carla Durkee

Suzanne Soderberg

Reingard Jordan

Horst R. Jordan

Patricia Gauron

Susan Soderberg

Mary Jo Hockmuth

Nathan Gibbs

After being carefully steered through our existence by others, it should come as no surprise that we are granted legitimacy only as nodes of a social network much larger than ourselves.

Facebook is what you might call a vulgar expression of that network, a vast human information-gathering service that interpenetrates business, art, personal, and public spheres with equal impunity. In this respect, Facebook is not unique: Google, Microsoft, Apple — these are all companies that have built business models around the harvesting and control of global information flows. The recent NSA scandal has only sharpened global interest in these for-profit surveillance industries, but only the naïve could have earlier thought that all the personal information supplied to these industries was simply being tucked aside somewhere, unexamined and encrypted. On the contrary, the dot-com crash of the late 90s more-or-less drove market models specifically toward the following end state: users are brought in with “free” products, and then the users themselves become the product. James Schirmer has recently described such “services” as “institutionware.” Here I excerpt his argument:

Institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. … The aims of institutionware: decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, contain “features” … Institutionware decreases user agency and increases user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user compliance. … Institutionware preserves market dominance through a blanket of equivalence in systems and users. Even limited use propagates further use. … Instititutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing/supporting rather than challenging/threatening.

To return to the idea of the network: there is an overdetermined quality to how we are seen today as being “plugged in.” What if the voluntary nature of our being interpenetrated by digital networks is fundamentally flawed? That is, Facebook would rather see us never log out, than see us engage in other forms of networking (face-to-face conversation, letter writing, reading each other’s books, etc.) What if, given our consent to be plugged into just a little, we have consented to a whole-scale strip-mining of our digital identities for profit? But this is not Facebook’s fault; it is, rather, a company “merely” trying to survive in an exceedingly regressive, reactionary business climate that privileges only establishment ideas and passes the consequences of “social change” onto the consumer, as per Ian Bogost’s idea of hyperemployment.

So many of us depend on Facebook, not only for information but also employment and familial contacts. So much of Facebook relies on such co-dependency, and our present-day obsession with the service (before it is replaced by something even more megalomaniacal) should give us pause about the kinds of drugs peddled here in the 21st Century. Why rely on chemicals, when the digital can give each and every one of us our fix for free?

Free for a price, of course.

Metropolis

Players enact the city of Metropolis during the Intercon 2011 run of my eponymous American freeform game.

Quiet waves of change have rippled through the role-playing community. On Monday of this week, Lizzie Stark posted an introduction to American freeform on her blog, an entry that codified design practices we’ve been using here in the States since at least the middle of the 00s. As one of the numerous designers whose work she listed, I am both honored and humbled by having my work mentioned in a public forum. My own blog post here is intended to continue that discussion, leading into my thoughts on the development and current state of what we’d like to call “American freeform.”

American freeform games are hybrid tabletop/larp creations that share the following set-up: 3-12 players in a 4-hour-or-less game act out scenes related to a single, compelling situation, having transparent access to much or all of the plotline information and altering the flow of the game using meta-techniques. The game format prioritizes emergent properties of a given scenario over someone knowing more-or-less what’s going to happen in advance. In addition to the games that Lizzie mentioned, one might add Marc Majcher’s game poems or Luke Crane’s InheritanceThere are probably plenty of such games floating out there in the North American scene, but rarely do they get collected together and examined seriously in terms of their commonalities.

What do I already have invested in this hybrid format? Those who know me may have heard me talk of a book-length collection of freeform games that specifically treat topoi of German cinema. Films that have already received the freeform treatment from me include: Metropolis (1927)Run Lola Run (1998), the cinema of Uwe Boll and Silent Star (1960) / In the Dust of the Stars (1976), with future games planned for Marriage in the Shadows (1947), Three Good Friends (1931), Hard to be a God (1990), and (2011). Such mature, odd games were only conceivable as of late, due to inspiration from the unique Nordic larp forms that have evolved over the past fifteen years through venues such as Fastaval and Knutepunkt, carried across the Atlantic by figures such as Tobias Wrigstad and Emily Care Boss. In addition, I have co-developed several “parlor sandbox” games BloodNet and The City of Fire & Coin, which emphasize player agency (working in concert with others) and gamemasters’ improvisation abilities. These freeforms I have developed owe much to indie tabletop games, such that some portions of them involve not-insignificant levels of pencil and paper action. But one might also say that American freeform elements in my design emerged from a critical eye toward current practices in live-action role-playing in the United States.

My expectations for freeform games have significantly changed over the years. In effect, I have subconsciously desired the mechanical/narrative fluidity from indie tabletop RPGs such as Fiasco1,001 Nights, or Shock in the larps that I joined. But compared with either the indie tabletop RPG experience or the Danish freeform experience, most American larps weren’t really delivering the goods. (Negativity alert: if you want to dodge my rant, skip to the end of the paragraph) Instead what I typically got for my long hours assembling my costume and “getting into character” were these awkward intrigue parties where players were sizing up each other to do rock-paper-scissors or play some card from their game-specific deck of fun. In such larps, the gamemasters were the Great Concealers of Plot, such that it was hard for me to get cues as to how to behave or what direction to push other players. What I really wanted were genre (i.e., ship crew, fantasy, steampunk) larps, comedic larps and serious/dramatic larps that gave the players the tools they needed to make the most out of the experience, rather than larps that had you read a 10-page backstory for a character who will then flounder around in an unpleasant social void for a Saturday night. By contrast, the Danish freeform larps I had played were all about playing your character to the hilt in a tightly constrained scenario, but with few rules that genuinely propelled the action along. American freeform, simply put, satisfies my demands as both a designer and consumer of larp-y games.

The American freeform community no longer wishes to be treated as the exception, but to be taken seriously. In my years as a writer for the Danish convention Fastaval, I received feedback that pointed out how much I was doing something relatively outside of the bounds of their expectation. See, for example, this Danish evaluation of The Posthuman’s Progress:

The game is a daring adaption that insists on a radical decomposition of the traditional gamemaster and as a result is highly collaborative. The game design is somewhat influenced by North American gaming culture – using an analytical approach to explicate the necessary game-elements – and somewhat by a Scandinavian approach to game design – insisting on the possibility for the participants to intuitively find common ground through play.

What I could have used here was a primer on the American freeform tradition that would let the judges know how to see my work. What Lizzie has done is given voice to our in-between-ness, so that we will in the future receive evaluations that accept what we’re doing as part of a certain culture, rather than as some continuously rolling role-playing “experiment.”

American freeform is European-style freeform with American-style indie game mechanics. The word “American” is there to orient ourselves toward the international freeform scene, rather than colonize/exclude certain scenes that are within or outside our borders. The word “freeform” is there to say that these games are hybrids between tabletop and larp, such that we steal from both formats with equal aplomb. We want narratively rich games that let us rise up from the table and use our bodies to communicate things our voices and paper cannot. We want to welcome gamers of all backgrounds and identities to explore themselves and their emotions in a safe and supportive space. At the same time, we do not want to uncritically import the baggage of older larp traditions into our format, with their emphasis on player scheming and gamemaster-centric plotlines, though we do acknowledge our fundamental debt to these traditions. At the core of our game design lies the active emotional experience of the player, and the mechanics we design place the player experience at the very center of the game.

We have seen our fair share of criticism. There have been some long-term disputes in the online RPG community about what freeform is and how we should employ the term. Naturally, these debates were primarily about according proper credit to certain individuals for their artistic contributions and about the annoying properties of labels like “American freeform” or labels in general. There has also been a reactionary strain in discussions among larpers that this format has existed for a long time, and that they have already been generating games like this for decades. To these points, I would like to say that American freeform constitutes an inclusive community that neither stops at the borders of America nor seeks to co-opt other play cultures. Lizzie simply put words together to describe what characteristics a certain set of games share. Nevertheless, American freeform is in some respects definitely a set of a few individuals, mostly located in the American Northeast, and they appear from the outside to have a kind of hipster/scenester aesthetic. Do such attributes make the movement a worthy subject of attack? I don’t think so. I would like to remind the movement’s critics of the significant presence of women among our ranks. The typical American freeform creator is female, which makes me (perhaps unfairly) suspect patriarchal impulses behind some of the “controversy” we’ve experienced. There is a mass of gamers that would like to control what we create and play, and its designs are conservative and status quo. American freeform attempts to push beyond the status quo without sacrificing the player on the altar of our creation. Finally, the supposed monopoly on innovation that older larp communities presumably possess has not appreciably shifted the American larp culture into the space that American freeform games now occupy. The average U.S. larp still employs drawn-out combat mechanics, has no mechanical exploration of human intimacy, uses player/GM secrets as the primary narrative engine, and holds task resolution to be the focus of its rules. Little experimental larps here and there do not. a movement. make. What I’d really appreciate is if our critics were to actually play at least one of the American freeform games in question, rather than dismiss a whole format out of hand because they don’t “play that kind of game.” Trolls and jerks follow the road of dismissal; constructive critics do not.

Where are we headed? Well, looking at Lizzie’s list, American freeform currently appears to have its hands full adapting indie tabletop games to semi-live play. We’re concerned not only with expanding the scope of genre larps, but also with making space for larps to express the unconventional. Nevertheless, as awareness of the meta-techniques and philosophy of the American freeform movement spreads, we imagine we’ll see effects in not only established U.S. larps like One World By Night or Dystopia Rising but also across the Atlantic in Europe, where we now will be seen as coming from a distinct tradition. The point of the movement has always been to design and play more games, and not to waste time navel-gazing about what our collective goal might be. But I do fantasize of the day when I can walk into any larp in the States and see our holistic design ideals at work. Maybe that’s what American freeform is about for me.

So don’t be shy – play one of the games on Lizzie’s list, and let us know what you think!

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The ninth interview is with sociologist Katherine Castiello Jones. She wrote “Gary Alan Fine Revisited: RPG Research in the 21st Century.” In the article, she examines Fine’s Shared Fantasy study on the basis of contemporary cultural sociology, arguing for a conditional reading of his influential findings. She levels a critique at scholars who do not historicize Fine while also expanding on several under- appreciated aspects of his work, such as comparisons of gaming with broader leisure cultures.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – In what context is Gary Alan Fine usually cited in most game scholarship? How would you recommend we use his work instead?

Katherine Castiello Jones – Often Fine’s work is used to justify game scholarship. As an academic who studied role-playing games, Gary Alan Fine provides legitimacy to the scholarship that follows. While it seems that Fine is often cited as a “game scholar,” being one of the first academics to publish a book on the topic, within sociology Gary Alan Fine is better known for his cultural scholarship, particularly his study of small groups. Fine has published on a variety of cultural activities: mushroom hunting, high-school debate, restaurant workers and most recently he’s focused on the study of rumors. He’s been quoted saying the following about his work:

My central research and writing focus is on the relationship between culture and social culture. This interest informs all of my writing from my study of Little League baseball to that of rumor to that of fantasy games. The question I ask is how is expressive culture shaped by the social system in which we all live and how does this social system affect the culture that we create and that we participate in. I examine the way in which small groups affect and give meaning to our shared experiences.

Fine’s wider research focus is linked to my own research interest in role-playing games. RPGs are an ideal location to study the interactions between expressive culture and social systems. RPG groups also provide an interesting location to examine small group interaction and shared experiences.

While Fine’s research on role-playing is interesting in what it tells us about role-playing specifically (and at this point it is really a historical document that tells us what role-playing was like in the early days of the hobby), it also speaks to questions beyond role-playing. I would really like to see game scholarship engage with these wider issues. As a sociologist, I am interested in exploring more general social processes and systems—I think game scholarship could provide a valuable contribution to that and would like to see more game scholarship address areas of interest beyond simply the games themselves. Gary Alan Fine’s body of work provides a way to link role-playing to larger questions about social systems and culture. Rather than focusing solely on his study of role-playing games, scholars might want to take a look at some of his other work. What larger questions has he examined that role-playing games could help answer?

ET – Sociology and other disciplines are concerned with issues of social inequality along race, class, sexuality and gender lines. How might we better understand these issues’ impact on wider gaming culture?

KCJ – Role-playing games and groups do not exist in a vacuum. The people that write and play RPGs are still part of the larger culture, one in which inequalities along the lines of race, class, sexuality and gender do exist. While it seems that some people expect fantasy settings to allow us to transcend social relations, this is not the case. As Gary Alan Fine argues, social systems will impact the culture which we create and in which we participate.

Ideologies about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc are often so deeply ingrained in our culture as to be invisible. Often well-intentioned game creators or players will reproduce these inequalities without realizing it. Certain taken-for-granted assumptions–such as the idea of Races with particular skills or weaknesses in many game systems—reify categories of difference or “otherness” in ways that may not be consciously racist, but serve to maintain particular understandings of race, gender, etc. Interactions within gaming groups or at gaming conventions may also serve to reinforce these differences and hierarchies.

This is not to say that I don’t believe RPGs can be used to challenge some of these inequalities, I definitely feel that role-playing games have the potential to be a force for social change.  And there are certainly games and groups that have taken up this challenge successfully.

There does need to be a more conscious discussion and examination of these issues, however. There has been a lot of recent activity on various online forums that has dealt with this aspect of the subculture, particularly around issues of gender and race. The blog Gaming As Women has really been useful in raising consciousness and opening up spaces to discuss these issues.

As has been made clear by these discussions, being a progressive person who doesn’t personally hold racist or sexist views is not enough to challenge social systems. Conscious effort needs to be put into making role-playing games more diverse and making the subculture more welcoming to different folks. It won’t always be easy to make these changes, the process of recognizing inequality is not necessarily fun, people will make mistakes and may often feel uncomfortable. Yet to continue to maintain the myth that RPGs are open to everyone and welcoming to everyone, while refusing to recognize existing inequalities, does a disservice to the RPG community. I definitely think the first step is recognition, which is already taking place, and then creators and players can more effectively work to create fantasies that are not only more diverse but that may potentially challenge inequalities.

ET  – If you had to use a game to teach cultural sociology, what would that game be and why?

KCJ – Well that depends – cultural sociology is a pretty broad topic, so I think it differs depending on what aspect of cultural sociology I was attempting to teach. One version of culture focuses on culture as shared repertoires of action, shared orientations to the world, shared common sense. In that sense all games can be great examples of culture. A popular game used in Intro Sociology classes is Monopoly, because you can break down the actions encouraged by the game, the way the game orients you towards the world, the shared beliefs and values that are perpetuated when you play the game. But even more complex games: computer games, tabletop RPGs and live-action RPGs, are built on these shared actions, orientations and common sense. The beauty of using games to examine culture is that most games have explicit rules you can analyze about how players should be behave, actions that are prohibited, beliefs of the world, and so forth that are often much harder to explore in “real world” cultures and societies.

ET – What is the reading list of books that game researchers should be reading but aren’t?

KCJ – It would be a reading list that focuses on sociology of culture. As I mentioned earlier, this is a vast field, so I’m highlighting works that are either a useful background or seem the most applicable to game research.

For information on distinctions and symbolic boundaries, Pierre Bourdieu and Michèle Lamont are two important authors. Bourdieu’s work Distinction can be intense to go through but his theories on habitus and cultural distinction are useful when thinking about how culture is used to create distinctions and hierarchies.

Howard Becker’s Art Worlds is a contemporary classic in the “production of culture” vein. Becker looks beyond the artist to see how suppliers, performers, dealers, critics, and consumers all contribution to the production of a work of art.

Ann Swidler’s book Talk of Love is another important work. She looks at how culture influences action. Focusing on how Americans talk about love, she examines how individuals can hold different orientations and common sense understandings of the world, often simultaneously.

Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” from The Interpretation of Cultures should also be read. This is a classic in the sociology of culture, and a good introduction to theories of culture.

Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style is also important. Though he focuses on punks and other youth movements in Britain, his larger conclusions can be usefully applied and expanded by looking at gaming subcultures.

Lyn Spillman’s Cultural Sociology is a great introductory resource. You’ll get readings from a lot of the big names in cultural sociology along with an introduction to some of the main themes within the sociology of culture. Very useful if you want to get an overview of cultural sociology and makes links to gaming research.

For another take on small group interaction, Elusive Togetherness by Paul Lichterman has some interesting perspectives. He examines cultures of interaction within church groups that enable some actions while preventing others. Definitely applicable when looking at gaming groups or other locations of small group interaction.

I really think more game researchers should think about gaming, particularly RPGs or live-action role-playing, as a serious leisure activity. The serious leisure perspective distinguishes some hobbies and activities by the intense investment of time, money and effort practiced by their participants.Unfortunately there haven’t been a lot of books published, most of the work is only available in academic journals or as dissertations. There is a website devoted to the Serious Leisure Perspective (seriousleisure.net) that provides a good overview of the perspective along with a bibliography and a digital library.

 

Katherine Castiello Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology (researching three American groups promoting abstinence until marriage) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which she has a graduate certificate in advanced feminist studies. Her article “The Possibilities Are Endless: Creating New Worlds in an All-Woman Game” is in the August 2010 RPGirl zine. Her research interests include culture, gender and sexualities.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

Gedankenspiel II: The iPhone

September 18, 2012

How ephemeral is that which we type with our thumbs?

And if it’s so ephemeral, why do we commit so many moments of our limited lives to entering such text?

Importance itself, so it seems, has been awarded too much importance.

Ever wonder how, for example, Coca-Cola possesses so much clout in the world? Remember that their chief product is a sugary beverage that contributes little to human well-being and much to tooth decay and diabetes.

Coca-Cola gained its power by cornering the market on triviality.

Or in other words: in a system that privileges exchange-value, the winners are those who maximize this aspect of their product regardless of its use-value. Expenditures that might’ve been made to increase a trivial product’s use-value to the broadest possible demographic (I.e. making Coke products healthier) instead endeavor to increase the exchange-value in the minds of the target demographic. Triviality itself – the communication of Coke as a leisure product – becomes an asset in maintaining this exchange-value. And so the trivial takes on the thickness of hardened clay, a coldness worthy of finance capital’s indifferent gaze.

The heavy attention traffic flowing through the weightless center confers upon it the illusion of weight. Partaking in this illusion activates us, stimulates our social and sensorial instincts. We drink our Coca-Cola, tap out our messages with our thumbs, post on Facebook, precisely because the stakes on such activities have been set so low for us. The paradoxical effect of our involvement actually investing these trivial products with meaning does not become visible at the moment of contact, but only afterwards as metrics.

One spends 2 hours a day “on” Facebook.

One drinks 2-3 Cokes per week.

One taps out a single message on an iPhone over the course of 45 minutes.

Numbers heavy as lead, for an activity light as air.

Sent from my iPhone

Gedankenspiel I: The Pen

September 13, 2012

Image

[I have written a series of blog posts on paper entitled “Gedankenspiel” that I am entering verbatim into WordPress. The thought is that I write differently by hand than via computer.]

I.

The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s mightier than the COMPUTER.

When I confront my students with the task of research, I usually present to them their mightiest tool:

the pen.

Why this, in an age of smartphones, micro-cameras and ubiquitous information?

First of all, information is neither neutral nor ubiquitous.

It is invested, complicit, contextual, and throttled.

Invested, in that powerful interests support only certain information flows

Complicit, because the flows themselves impact the information available (McLuhan, Kittler)

Contextual, in that it cannot convey but a partial view of the given story

&

Throttled, because access even to the permitted information is part of someone’s profit model

You use your pen to invest in your own, simple information flow

The pen allows us to be selective about reality, because we by nature have to be.

No circuitboards or touch screens or operating systems stand between us and the comparatively simple algorithms of writing.

Pens afford a mastery over language, which is itself not only a means to power over others, but also over one’s own thoughts.

Should our notebooks be set alight, our memories, narratives and control over them blown away as ashes into the wind, then we shall use our pens to once again inscribe power – via the written word and image – into the personal realities we perceive.

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The eighth interview is with myself, Evan Torner, conducted by my co-editor Bill White. In addition to co-editing the book and the introduction, I also wrote a chapter called “Kid Nation: Television, Systemic Violence and Game Design.” The article shows television’s reliance on game mechanics through an analysis of the 2007 CBS reality show Kid Nation. These game mechanics often compete with the voyeuristic fantasy presumably offered by the show and wind up producing instead an incoherent, ideologically charged end product.

Here are Bill’s follow-up questions for me:

Bill White – What tools does being a scholar of film and television give you for the study of games? In other words, how does your field approach games as an object of investigation?

Evan Torner – Film studies approaches games primarily as media. Such a definition situates games as yet another artificial means of information storage and transmission, akin to painting, music, or newspapers. But like these other media, games then also have their own medium-specific logics, to which we must seriously attend in order to understand them on their own terms.In Marshall McLuhan’s media studies rubric, for instance, games would be considered a “cool” medium, meaning that they require much more user input in order for the content to be communicated. Players produce meaning and narrative by interacting with the game mechanics within a specific social context. The compulsive activity loops of Farmville (2007) replicate repetitive-but-satisfying labor, the die-rolling in Monopoly (1934) approximates the whims of opportunity, and the character auctions of Amber: Diceless Role-Playing(1990) reifies the latent competitive instincts of the players in their characters, to name but a few mechanics. Every game mechanic, every line of code (or lack thereof) is a design team’s specific intervention into social reality, just like every shot and cut of a film are scrutinized by its creators with respect to how the audience will react (all the moreso now in the digital age).And just as ironic re-appropriations of films can be folded back into cinephilia, subversion of a game’s mechanics and/or cheating can be easily folded into the overall meaning that gameplay produces. For example, when I use cheat codes in Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2003)to throw half-a-dozen stormtroopers into the air, I intensify my engagement with the game’s physics algorithms and satisfy certain power fantasies of my own regarding the manipulability of space and human bodies. The medium rewards interactivity – even the re-coding of said interactivity – but in the end, the medium is still the message. Every game frames its players’ attention, this act of framing has a history, and every such history interfaces with the tangled media histories of the archive.

Then there is the obvious point that most games from the late 20th Century to the present draw heavily on codes of filmmaking for their aesthetic and narrative tropes. Films and games both unfold vividly in real time, but film still gives shape to our temporality. Any player of video games like Red Dead Redemption (2010), board games like Arkham Horror (1987), live-action role-playing games like Delirium (2010), or even alternate reality games (ARGs) like The Beast (2000) can articulate their vastly different experiences in terms of “being in a movie,” even though each of their durations far outlast that of most feature films. That very cinematic consciousness will continue to be somehow latent in most new media, and film studies still has the tools to address that consciousness, as recent work by D.N. Rodowick, Vivian Sobchack and Thomas Elsaesser has shown. Games are also having a huge impact on the way today’s blockbusters are made, which Lorrie Palmer, Nitzan Ben-Shaul and Steven Shaviro among others have also illustrated. For a good depiction of what I mean, watch District 9 (2009), and you’ll see the master medium informing the aesthetic switch from television to film to video games over the course of one film.

Finally, a welcome shift in film studies since the 1990s has reframed the viewer into an active agent over their media experience, rather than mere passive consumers who feed off the pre-packaged ideologies and propositions of industrial Hollywood. Theodor Adorno, as much as I admire his work, fed a deep and often classist cynicism about the nature of your average filmgoer that’s taken us scholars decades to overcome. The new framework offered by Janet Staiger and others reformulates “reception studies” in a way that could also accommodate players of games as well: as discerning subjects processing and interacting with material, possibly to repurpose within their own socio-cultural milieu. Mashing up videos on YouTube and playing Skyrim (2011) as a pacifist character may seem like media experiences alien to one another, but reception studies has the methodology to bring these comparative appropriations into mutual dialog.In summary, film studies opens doors to the structures that underpin media products and their consumption within an evolving media ecology. Games are just another species of plant in the garden, but they’re rapidly growing to be the most important one, so it’s imperative that film studies now follow game design developments as well.

BW – In your chapter, the reality show Kid Nation (2007) emerges as a really badly designed game, at least as far as the children who were its participants were concerned. If you had been a producer of that show, what would have been the most important change you would have made in its organization, and why?

ET – The short answer is: I’d have changed everything. Kid Nation could have become so much, and instead contented itself to be a lame Survivor(2000-present) clone in a fake Wild West town. The problem lies in its vacant core concept (“just another CBS reality show!”) beyond the fascinating initial pitch (“40 kids out in a desert town for 40 days have to learn how to survive together.”) This tends to happen with any network television programming, but such risk aversion becomes increasingly indigestible in our diversifying media diets. Viewers want television to deliver the unexpected, not pre-arranged TV “events.”Given the above, here are the two radical paths I might have taken, had I produced Kid Nation.

1) The Self-Reflexive Documentary Path – Most people alive do not recall watching the PBS documentary American Family (1971), but this was the TV docu-drama precursor to MTV’s The Real World (1992) two decades later. What the series captured was the elliptical, unscripted nuances of one American family’s daily life (in spite of plausible accusations of performance for the cameras). The suspense of the unexpected that “life unscripted” delivered kept the 1970s viewer also conscious of the presence of the intrusive camera on intimate moments. Kid Nation had a fairly large crew of about 50 adults on location, meaning they actually outnumbered the kids they were filming out in the New Mexico desert. After the show was over, some children who were made out to be villains (i.e., Taylor) revealed in interviews that this ponderous crew played a large role in sculpting and editing their various behaviors for TV, from giving them lines to say to staging some of the various major “events” around Bonanza City. Due to legal reasons, adult supervision in such a scenario cannot be avoided, so why not integrate it into the show? The TV audience would have cared more, had the filmmakers not staged themselves as the wizard behind the curtain, but as a real part of the children’s lives – working with them as a TV crew but also giving the children the end authority and agency over how to govern their space. This re-imagining of Kid Nation would most significantly have no game rules whatsoever, except for those which directly guaranteed the survival of the town (i.e., don’t eat all your food supplies in one evening, etc.) What would emerge would be, I think, a fascinating portrait of children who were both politically autonomous, but also under the constant surveillance of adults. You would find tasks and responsibilities breaking down like those of a workplace, as well as tensions regarding who is, in fact, in charge of the town or the “star” of the show.

2) The Larp Path – If you had to structure the Kid Nationshow in a game format, however, why not have the kids play something they know very well: pretend! Every kid would create a fictional persona for themselves, dress up as that character, and behave according to a series of negotiated rules regarding who could determine what in the story world. A fictional alibi for coordinated interventions in the children’s lives would do wonders for everyone involved, as well as maybe demonstrate the strain of living for 40 days as a made-up character. There can be little doubt that this would fulfill the fantasies of many of the kids there, and eliminate much of the personal investment in popularity contests and mugging for the camera otherwise found in the show (since one’s character differs from one’s reality TV persona). This would give us a kind of anthropological insight into kids at play, and also see how they address real-world responsibilities through personas or roles they adopt.In any case, the better Kid Nation would’ve been one in which the kids recognized and solved genuine problems experienced by the community, and used the games (or lack thereof) as a means to that problem-solving. Making a TV summer camp game show is just not properly addressing the kids’ autonomy, the Lord of the Flies metaphor, or the needs of the viewers.

BW – Following up on the previous question, granting that it was a poor game for children, was it nonetheless compelling (or even immersive) television? And even if so, is there any sense in which the the experience of being a viewer of the show could be called “ludic”?
ET – That’s an interesting question. Television shows have only recently been re-envisioned through a game studies lens – particularly Lost (2004-2010) and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (1998-present) – and generally these shows revolve around fan participation in terms of creating wikis and/or steering the plot/competition with their interests. Kid Nation had the idea in mind that it was creating a grand “what if” scenario on the level of science-fiction or social experimentation: what if a group of kids were isolated from their elders and had to form their own society? What would that look like? These questions invite viewers to play around with concepts such as civilization, necessities, luxury and impromptu authority. In contrast to the allure of these questions, however, Kid Nation instead focuses its attention almost myopically on the “characters” – the children playing themselves in a reality show – and mostly avoids the larger ramifications of the social experiment at hand.So the show as it appeared should not necessarily be considered “ludic” with regard to the viewer, though its very production could be considered (as I argue in the essay) a piece of game design. Nevertheless, the show certainly awoke in me the curiosity about the present possibilities of television within a new media environment, and how burdensome reality TV conventions appear to get in the way of the viewers being able to “play” with the material.

BW – It’s clear that the study of digital games is gaining academic respectability. Where does the study of role-playing, particularly in the form of tabletop games, fit in to that picture, as far as you’re concerned?

ET – Tabletop role-playing games are powerful conceptual tools for looking at the construction of narrative and character in the media. Game mechanics create their own narratology. Just look at Jason Morningstar’s summation of the Coen Brothers’ localized crime-gone-horribly-wrong genre in Fiasco (2009; about which Felan Parker has recently written this excellent paper), or the way Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ Unknown Armies (1999) affords the creation of David Lynchian modernist horror. On the topic of horror: the depletion of sanity points in Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu (1983) simulate the way H.P. Lovecraft’s figures slowly lose their grip on reality over the course of a story. Pulls from the Jenga tower in Epidiah Ravachol, et al.’s Dread (2005) show that a player is risking his/her character’s life with a specific course of action, with a character’s eventual death conforming to generic expectations. Heck, Bret Gillan’s Final Girl (2012) paces scenes through the waypoints of individual characters being killed off in a slasher film simulation. Cinematic consciousness rises up again even in our folk oral tradition! My point is that game mechanics do a lot more work than just produce “entertainment,” whatever that is. They instead frame expectations, incentivize certain behaviors, discourage others, and help players negotiate the social fiction unfolding before them.

On a side note: tabletop RPGs may also structure serial television more than one would think. While I was translating the permanent exhibit at the Filmmuseum Potsdam, I noticed that the process that scriptwriters for a German soap opera used to generate new content was analogous to a role-playing game: about 6-8 writers would sit in a room and, playing their favorite characters, improvise their way through a series’ arc. The writers’ room is, in other words, a perfect foil to the backroom of your local gaming store, but one of them then produces fictional properties worth sometimes millions of dollars. My analysis of the Joss Whedon cult classic series Firefly (2003), for example, finds it directly informed by forms of storytelling from tabletop role-playing games. Each of the series’ nine core characters insists on their own reality, their own instrumental knowledge, and their tongue-in-cheek archetypal quality, as player-characters are wont to do. One can only guess how much television fiction comes from something akin to a role-playing game, and how much role-playing games then draw on serial television to structure their narratives. I venture that it’s way more prevalent on all sides than one would suspect!

So to get back to the “digital games” aspect of the question: developments in tabletop RPGs eventually trickle into digital games (RPGs and otherwise), digital game developments into tabletop, and increased dialog between the different media allow each to re-purpose ideas from each other. I remember how Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic (2004), one of the most addictive solo digital RPGs you can play, was entirely built on a framework adapted from the D20 Star Wars system published by Wizards of the Coast. Though any layperson could sit down at their computer and play a Jedi with them, the game’s sub-systems are, in fact, nearly unintelligible unless you’ve got some experience with tabletop (i.e., talk of saving throws, DC20 skill difficulties, and so forth). The computer calculates all the data for you – there’s no need to roll the dice or even know what’s going on behind the scenes – but it’s somehow comforting to players that there’s this familiar tabletop RPG system underwriting the whole engine.

In a similar vein, World of Warcraft (2004) owes much of its iconography and tropes to Dungeons & Dragons (1974; 2000; 2008), yet fuses them with a short-term, medium-term and long-term mission structure that’s much more complex than any dungeonmaster could offer. I’m also thinking of the Call of Cthulhu-esque sanity points system found in that Nintendo GameCube classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002), in which monsters drive you insane and begin to affect the console player’s actual ability to play the game. On the other hand, tabletop RPGs steal ideas from digital games all the time: John Harper’s swashbuckling RPG about air pirates Lady Blackbird (2009) could have been adapted from console RPGs like Final Fantasy VII (1996) or Skies of Arcadia (2001). Its visual elegance and rules simplicity allow for a plug-and-play feel that appeals to gamers who want tabletop RPGs to play like those games do. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (2010) boils all choices down into a series of lists of options – menus, if you will – and reduces the range of player choices to a series of individual “moves” which necessitate interesting narrative outcomes, rather than simply producing player success or failure. These moves could easily be translatable into the forking paths of, say, a work of interactive fiction or a digital game. That is to say, digital games have attained academic respectability, but tabletop role-playing games lurk as the underappreciated conceptual and design basis from which many of these games’ mechanics and storylines emerge.

Digital games are profitable and require all kinds of hardware in practice, but the theory behind them can be simply formulated via pencils, paper and dice. Understanding tabletop RPGs should constitute yet another component of any citizen’s media literacy as the hobby spreads on a global level and remains, above digital games, a low-tech-but-effective way of engaging in collective storytelling, a powerful medium with its own logics like any other.

Bill White is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, where he teaches speech communication and mass media courses. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in communication, information and library studies. His research interests include communication theory and the rhetoric of science and science fiction. He is the designer of the small- press tabletop RPG Ganakagok.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The seventh interview is with role-playing designer and writer Nathan Hook. His article “Circles and Frames: The Games Social Scientists Play,” argues that Solomon Asch’s 1951 Conformity Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Prison Experiment among others, when read as games, interrogate the boundary between the so-called “magic circle” and “protective frame” of play. His article implies that there is but a thin line between psychology experiments and live-action games, and between player and character in such situations.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner –  How does being a game designer affect your work in psychology?

Nathan Hook – Games can be viewed as systems that alter player behaviour.  Since psychology studies behaviour as an expression of inner mental states, understanding how systems can influence that behaviour can be crucial.

To give a particular example: there is an incredibly strong social contract in a game that, once it has begun, the game must be finished. We need to be mindful that this applies to psychology experiments as well. In one of my undergraduate experiments, a participant was stung by a bee halfway through and still refused to step out of the experiment, ‘playing’ through to the end.  Explaining the right to withdraw from the event is not in itself sufficient if participants bring in their own frame which impairs their judgement in using this right.

In terms of role-playing rather than games in general, being a successful ethnographer is extremely close to role-playing.  In the classical tradition of ethnography, an ethnographer immerses oneself into a different culture or subculture to gain insight into the actual living experience.  They are playing a role –sometimes that of a tolerated outsider, sometimes using their social status to get commitment, sometimes fully undercover and immersed.  I’ve found that applying ethnographic principles to researching role-playing an extremely self-reflective and recursive experience.

In clinical psychology, debate is ongoing about the medical recognition of computer game addiction.  For me, this is ironic, given that academic computer game texts explain quite clearly how one makes any given game addictive.

ET – At what point do psychologists become game designers, even to a limited degree? Where is the line that they cross?

NH – The history of experimental psychology is full of game-like examples.  To give one simple example: a classic cognitive psychology experiment often repeated by undergraduates is to measure under different conditions participant’s digit span – the maximum length of a string of characters a person can remember.  One form of this is to tap out a sequence on a number of blocks which the participant then tries to repeat – essentially identical to the ‘Simon says’ game.  Psychometric testing could also be considered a game, if people were to start comparing their scores.

To give another example: an experiment had participants undertake an IQ test and then gave them a predetermined result to induce a particular emotional state.  On their way out, a person planted by the researcher tried to ‘chat up’ the participant and get their phone number.  In many ways, this is a role-playing game – the organiser has created a situation, briefed the participant-player and then arranged an encounter with a scripted non-player character (NPC) to see how the player responds to it.The line that separates these two lies is the intent of the designer.  The psychologist (like other scientists) is normally creating a situation for the purpose of attempting to acquire data to test a hypothesis (or, in ‘grounded theorising,’ to form a new hypothesis).  In contrast the game designer is designing a situation/system to give the players some kind of experience – often but not always ‘fun.’  The difference is a question of intent of creative agenda.

ET –Fundamentally, what impact do experimental larps or larp-as-experiments have on their participants that ‘normal’ larps do not?

NH – Experimental larps often push people boundaries outside the comfort zone to offer experiences that would not otherwise be had, such as being an abused prisoner or a having a different sexual orientation.‘Normal’ larps (which is a heavily questionable concept, since what is a normal in larp varies massively) tends to offer a greater element of wish fulfilment – for example, being a hero with a sword.  While they do offer an experience outside the everyday, they neither push boundaries nor challenge the player’s core identity.Being an adventurer killing an orc is very psychologically different to being a guard abusing a prisoner.  There is a distinct lack of research on the psychological safety of experimental larps.  Just as people choose to engage in high-risk physical sports knowing the risks, it is important that we understand the risk factors of such larp events.

ET – Why should psychologists read larp research?

NH – Psychology is a very broad subject and itself is difficult to define.  Literally ‘the study of the soul,’ one common definition is ‘the study of people (except for animal psychology).’  Some would define it as ‘the study of the mind,’ but that presupposes a binary division between body and mind.

All games involve people, and structured games are a defining trait of being human.  For this reason, the study of people needs to acknowledge and include a widespread and defining human activity.

In the early days of psychology and the wider social sciences, one approach was to study human creations to gain insight into the minds and cultures that created them.  By studying a work of art, we might gain insight into the mind that created it.  If we accept that games are art, then studying games is a direct continuation of this tradition.  As Lizzie Stark recently argued, the unlimited progression of Dungeons & Dragons is analogous to the American dream and reflects the culture that created it.

ET – As someone who has, on occasion, gotten addicted to certain video games, the ‘hidden formula’ behind the games that really arrest your attention for hours on end is interesting to me. What characteristics do the most addictive games share?

NH – One of the underlying reasons for computer game addiction is called ‘flow’  This is a cognitive state caused by being challenged just enough for your skill level, and challenge(s) increasing the difficulty at just the right pace to match for increasing skills.  The rhythm of the activity creates a mental state of focused motivation and ignoring other wider motivations.

All games are about constructing new frames for meaning.  The positions of pieces on a chess board are trivial and of no importance to us before a game. Once we start playing, they become vitally important.  We imbue them with meaning because we attach symbolic value to that data. In the same way, once we start playing a computer game, the position of virtual pieces becomes of vital importance – so important that it drowns out other important elements of our lives. This is studied from different angles both in sports psychology (sometimes called being ‘in the zone’) and educational psychology as principles to achieve effective learning.

ET – How does larp itself become addictive?

NH – I don’t think larp is addictive, at least not in a formal medical or scientific sense. In a more casual sense of addictive, I think there are many factors at work.  For some, larp does offer escapism from the stresses of everyday life, as shown in the documentary film Darkon (2006).  It offers power and agency, and power (even pretend power) is addictive.  A campaign larp can be ‘addictive’ in the same way that a good book is addictive – people care about the characters and want to follow their story and, in larp, identification with a main character is implicit in the design, since they are living inside your body.

 I’d also recognise that larp also extends to involvement in the social community of larpers, comparable to team sports or amateur dramatics.  While social conflict does happen, the larp community is also very accepting.  Having intense emotional experiences – even negative ones – tends to bond people together and larpers often tend to have other common interests, such as computer games or an interest in certain genres of fiction.

ET – You say on the one hand that there is perhaps no “normal” larp, but on the other hand suggest this analogy of an “adventurer killing an orc.” Semi-genocidal fantasy adventurers seems a very specific legacy that is nevertheless attached to “normal” role-playing. Why has this particular psychological investment in killing orcs had such power over the gaming hobby since the 1970s?

NH – Michelle Nephew argues a strong element of role-play is male fantasy wish fulfillment – being the lone hero outside of society armed with the sword.  While I don’t agree with all of her argument, I do accept that part of it.

In some respects, this kind of fiction is designed to make it easier for a scenario writer.  D&D happens in a dungeon, since walls and corridors stop players from wandering in a direction the GM hasn’t mapped out.  Having some orcs, zombies or bandits to fight is easier to design than a complex murder mystery or political intrigue.

One reason I’d suggest newer tabletop role-play games have moved away from this has been that computers became better at running games of dungeons and orcs, ane a number of board games also simulate fighting through dungeons well.  Tabletop role-playing games responded by becoming about intrigue or horror, something more challenging for computer games to do.

Nathan Hook recently finished his master’s in psychology research methods with The Open University. He uses an ethnographic approach to study identity construction by recreational role-players and emotional bleed from fictive play experiences. He lives in Bristol, United Kingdom; his website is www.nathanhook.netii.net

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

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