Immersive Gameplay – Interview with Emily Care Boss

July 11, 2012

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 second interview is with role-playing designer and theorist Emily Care Boss. She co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and J. Tuomas Harviainen. In the article, she helps provide a breakthrough analysis of Nordic and American interpretations of role-playing immersion, contrasting emotionally resonant and creative play/design philosophies and advocating for a bottom-up definition of immersion, based on communities’ play experiences.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are often cited for your 2008 article “Key Concepts in Forge Theory,” which does an excellent job of summarizing key debates within the American independent role-playing games scene between 1998 and 2005. It’s one of the most cited articles in the Nodal Point book series. Did you think your article would make that huge of an impact? How has the theory shifted (in your opinion) since you wrote the article?

Emily Care Boss – Thank you! That article was a labor of love. How well it was received took me by surprise. It came about as an attempt at a cultural exchange between the US independent game design community and the nordic game community where it was published. In the previous year I had visited Europe for the first time as a Guest of Honor at Ropecon, the largest game convention in Finland. The Forge was well established as an online forum where serious discussion about role-playing occurred, but the discussion happening there was viewed by outsiders variously as arcane, elite and impenetrable.

At Ropecon, I was viewed as an ambassador for the Forge (figuratively speaking), so I tried to do my best and speak well for the community. I found bafflement was a general response. Some of the games had already become successful, Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson was translated into Finnish as well as My Life with Master by Paul Czege, but the commitment of learning the ideas that had come from the Forge community was too high a barrier for most. And the ideas that were known were also hotly contested or outright rejected.

Ironically, during my stay I was converted to being a proponent of the Nordic tradition of role play known as jeepform or jeep. Jeep is a live style of play (different from larp) that emphasizes hard hitting emotional stories and simple rules that help heighten tension. It was such an exciting new approach to play that I came home to my fellow Forge and indie game compatriots talking of nothing but jeep. It was a nice reversal of my experience in Europe: those who played learned and understood what jeep entailed (and loved it or ran screaming), but others confronted only with the website and it’s principles gave a blank stare.

All this hit home that while there were ground-breaking innovations and analysis happening on both sides of the Atlantic, there was very little of this making it over the ocean. The need for dialog seemed pressing. Opportunity knocked when I heard that the Nodal Point convention, a larp oriented event hosted by four of the Nordic countries in turn (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) had a book associated with it that was soliciting submissions. When one of the editors, Markus Montola, mentioned that it would be a helpful thing to have a brief overview of Forge theory from a participant that sealed the deal for me. The fact that in that volume, Playground Worlds, a jeepform founder, Tobias Wrigstad was presenting an introduction to Jeep, was icing on the cake. The cultural exchange would be complete.

Shortly after that time, I was able to return to northern Europe and attend Fastaval, an avant-garde Danish game convention and Nodal Point, or Knutepunkt as it was known in Norway where it was held that year. Much more conversation had occurred during the intervening years, many other people crossed the Atlantic to attend events and share ideas, and the article had been in circulation. The difference was palpable. General exposure and understanding was near universal. One Knutepunkt participant referred to Forge theory as a “settled” body of work, not controversial in the slightest. And the best moment for me was when two Danes I met at Fastaval explained to me central tenets of the theory. I am glad to have been part of making what was once a yawning gulf of theory seem like the merest gap, easily overcome and understood.

ET – As a game designer, how do you perceive the conversations in academic game and media studies?

ECB – Currently much of the time and energy of academia seems centered on digital game play. That makes sense, that is where the money is, and also digital media are penetrating markets that tabletop role-playing historically has not been able to touch. Casual gamers, non-self-identifying-gamers. Most people now at least know what Angry Birds is, or have tried it a time or two. The applications of games are being seen. Discussion of gamification makes it a strong marketing tool, and games as a way to change people and change the world is a message that is getting attention. What seems missing is analysis both of the literary and narrative structure of games with fiction, and deeper understandings of how the rules of a game shape and interact with the emotions, choices, motivations and actions of participants. The idea of reward cycles is well understood and worked to death. But the dynamics of communication, expectation-setting, levels of identity and emotional experience triggered and explored by narrative based play are all things that have much more room to be explored.

There is also a deep divide between different communities of play and the various analytical cultures. Players need not be troubled by theory when they enjoy a game, but it would make sense for designers to be aware not only of the discussion and analysis going amongst their colleagues, but also of what’s going on in other related fields. Just as the divide between the Nordic and the independent gaming communities is being bridged, better communication between academics and designers seems necessary.

ET – What recent games have you played that you think will create huge ripples in the way we think about, design and play games?

ECB – Microscope, by Ben Robbins. This is a game that takes many standard assumptions of a role-playing game (participation primarily via the use of an ongoing character, the presence of a Game Master or facilitator, chronological fiction, solitary world creation) and stands them on their head. In the game, the players share the creation of an over-arching storyline of an epic nature. Some examples are the rise and fall of an empire, the mythic beginnings of human culture, or a bloodthirsty war between interstellar species. Using an egalitarian, round-robin structure, the players create eras and specific events that create a timeline. Scenes are played out within events, in a fashion much like that found in any role-playing game. But the scenes’ purposes are to clarify and define the specifics of the overall sweep of events by answering a specific question about the event, rather than for the purposes of developing the characters or gaining mechanical advantage. It’s a unique storytelling engine that sweeps away blinders of limits we enforce on the medium, which, I hope, will help us better realize the full potential of this form. There is so much more we could be doing. Microscope is a great start.

ET – Given your famous aversion to the term “immersion,” do you think our title “Immersive Gameplay” does participatory media and role-playing games justice? Why or why not?

ECB – As I have the pleasure of still saying after all of these years, immersion is a broad, broad term that encompasses so many facets of the experience of role-playing that further refinement and further definition and re-definition are always needed. So here we are with our endeavor taking another look at ways people can immerse, feel, experience, revolt from, subsume, identify, over-identify and reframe their view of the world through play.

Looking at participatory media, immersion is a hallmark. Not unique to role-playing and first-person narrative forms like the video game, but certainly it establishes the engagement of the immersive experience in a unique way. By asking the players to make freeform choices that determine the direction of the narrative based on taking the role of a character within the narrative itself. The restrictions of a video game are blown wide open in tabletop and live-action role-playing. (Nearly) the full realm of human choice, negotiation and adjudication are available. There is no other narrative form that allows this. And whether you are looking at the word “immersive” from the point of view of it being the holy grail of gaming experience (i.e., having a full body/mind/spirit experience of “being” the role) or merely taking the stance of the narrative person you’ve been issued to portray, this is the touchstone of role-playing gameplay. Certainly it is not the full complement of what could be done (as the game Microscope so clearly shows) but it takes from the linear path of acting, and adds the sculpting of events that is writing, making a gorgeous new field of expression that is role-play.

Emily Care Boss is a writer, game designer and forester living in western Massachusetts and has independently published games since 2005. Her game Under My Skin won the Player’s Choice Otto award at Fastaval in Denmark. She has been published in Playground Worlds and Push: Volume 1 New Thinking About Role-playing. Her games can be found at Black & Green Games.

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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4 Responses to “Immersive Gameplay – Interview with Emily Care Boss”

  1. Daniel said

    Thanks for putting up these interviews, I see I’ve got a lot of summer reading to do…

  2. […] sage and savvy Emily Care Boss being interviewed by Evan Torner on his blog Immersive Gameplay. Evan Torner: What recent games have you played that you think will create huge ripples in the way […]

  3. […] Superstar game designer Emily Care Boss talks about the current state of game design, and what current offerings ring her bell. […]

  4. Tomas said

    Interesting! Thanks for putting it up here!

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