“Jeglicher Zauber geht verloren, wenn du versuchst, ihn einzufangen.”
–Helga Schäferling

What role does “magic” play in our lives? Is magic already suffused with the powers of the mundane? How does magic duplicate and comment upon the logics of neoliberalism already governing us? To what extent can “rebellion” be realized within a left-leaning institution, and how do such institutions cull and herd their ranks? Is being a wizard the new “it” thing?

These questions have all popped into my head over the course of the past week, thanks to the latest live-action role-playing game (larp) with which I took part. In this post, I will outline the game itself, talk a little bit about its design, go over some of my character’s arc, and conclude with a discussion of the content of this post’s title: introducing major figures of social thought into the curriculum of a magic school. And, of course, royally rocking out while doing so.

Overview

The past weekend (July 21-24, 2016), I had the pleasure of attending the third run (NWM3) of New World Magischola (NWM) at the University of Richmond. If you’ve been keeping track of my exploits (or outright stalking me), you’ll note that this was my third multi-day larp experience ever – following the first run of Inside Hamlet and the fourth run of Just a Little Lovin’which I documented extensively here. Those were Nordic larps over in Denmark, and were a departure for me after I started down the road of Nordic freeform in 2010.

NWM is the American adaptation of the hit European game College of Wizardry, a highly successful blockbuster larp which is to date scheduling its 11th run, not including sequels. Contrary to popular belief, NWM is not the first weekend-long Nordic larp in the United States; that honor belongs to Lizzie Stark’s 2012 run of Mad About the Boy.

Each run of the Harry Potter-esque magic university runs from Thursday afternoon until Saturday at midnight, immersing players in a magical version of the United States known as the Magimundi invented by co-organizers Maury Brown and Ben Morrow and co-created by the player-characters themselves. Thursday evening mark the parties of the 5 student houses and the initial gatherings of the school’s many clubs and secret societies. Friday is the first day of classes coupled with the first-year initiation ceremony into their respective houses. Saturday is the second day of classes, and ends with a spectacular ball and the announcement of the winners of the house cup.

The design of this game focuses on player imagination, co-creation, 360-degree immersion, and emergent plotlines. Overall themes (as far as I could tell) were inclusivity vs. exclusivity, vulnerability vs. coldness, the consciousness and rights of non-human/non-wizard creatures, freedom vs. security, and rebellion vs. control.

Design

Brown and Morrow have deliberately created a larp environment around building empathy and empowering others. When we think about the last 25 years of entertainment larp history, we know that’s often not the case. Vampire: The Masquerade-based larps, the centerpiece of the medium and hobby for many years, famously revolve around player vs. player (PvP) conflict. Baalman and Barchmann (2014) write:

Conflict is the basis of the game – the reasons for conflict are a multitude – and the conflicts are never fully resolved or forgiven, any step towards resolution is simply a further step towards new conflicts. (22)

To be sure, conflict is what drives most narratives, and in theory driving for hardcore antagonism in a larp space is a good thing. In practice, however, a larp culture of PvP can produce many nasty side effects as well. Participants trust each other less and, as Sarah Lynne Bowman (2014) has argued, PvP can lead to long-term community schisms that only hurt the larp ecosystem overall. In fact, PvP games too often instinctively draw upon cultures of scheming and conflict that, in fact, are only endemic to the western world.

In contrast, Brown and Morrow advocate for a larp design that includes rather than excludes, that empowers rather than constrains, and that encourages ignorance of social hierarchies rather than deference to them. In their words: “The rhetoric the characters [use] is invitational and not the agonistic or command-and-conquer rhetoric that is programmed into so many games.” Empowerment therefore stems from players being able to have information at their disposal, decide to opt in or out of play situations, easily create alibis to cover certain plot points, and let them negotiate the outcome of emergent fiction. As any expert of improv theater can tell you, the First Rule is to say “Yes, and…” to any fiction or action thrown your way. Information circulates thanks to a state of transparency unheard of in most larps (Brown has said my own essay on transparency helped her formulate design on this front), and then player-characters choose to engage or disengage using a variety of techniques.

Thus the “magic” of a magic school comes from the collective imaginations of the participants, rather than carefully balanced sets of rules and gamemaster-centered meta-plots. Actually, the latter part – the relative deficit of meta-plot – proves an integral part of this design. In cooperative board games such as Pandemic or Ghost Stories, for example, the reason to cooperate can be found in the relentless external threats pounding down on the player-characters from all sides. In NWM, cooperation stems from player-created drama that is often not directly PvP. A student has an unresolved relationship with their monstrous father, and needs fellow students to help summon him. A professor gets into an unprofessional fight with another professor over methodology. A disruption in the ley lines has brought in more vampires, shadows, and werewolves to campus, meaning that the non-human-sapience advocates suddenly have a whole bunch of wandering actual creatures on whose behalf they must now advocate. Each plot thread stems from situations that offer personal or social drama, rather than drama on an epic or worldwide scale. Countering the usual genre fiction trope of the world always being threatened and the PCs always being entrusted with saving it, NWM instead explores the day-to-day weirdness of being at a magic school and the HBO-style drama of powerful-yet-inexperienced wizards figuring out their lives, finding romance, reconciling with their pasts, and taking action against the social injustices around them.

Speaking of social injustices, I should mention the progressive ambitions of the larp. Gender pronouns defaulted to “them/they” rather than “him/he” or “her/she.” Romance plots were presumed to be agnostic of sexuality. Most of the student organizations available had some sort of activist component to them. All of the Magical Theory & Ethics faculty, myself included, were encouraged to instruct students to question authority and rebel against it. Real social issues around the marginalization of certain populations and the investment of large institutions in criminal corporate enterprises emerged in metaphorical form throughout the game. In other words, NWM created a space in which we might enact our own pedagogy of the oppressed and imagine alternate realities in which our own education system encouraged students to speak out, rather than conform.

NWM’s design had us build a temporary edifice of trust – a heterotopia, if you will – so that we could explore both personal themes and themes much greater than ourselves. By turning conflict toward the extant social system, the game’s design had us form real empathy relations with our fellow players as we then began to address social problems all around us. Those characters who exacerbated these problems also demanded our empathy: we needed to figure out why they were prejudiced against chupacabras, or why they chose to defend the evil Foresight Corporation, or why they dabbled in the dark arts, and then make difficult decisions as to what to do about it. The game gave us the necessary information, and then let us figure out what to do with it all. It felt like a breath of fresh air with a whiff of emotional maturity. It created an environment that, like any good classroom, afforded the players to take appropriate risks.

And that’s where I come in.

Professor Kai Hassinger

The character I was given was “K. Hassinger, Professor of Magical Theory & Ethics, 3rd Year.” He’s a Mundane-born (“muggle”) weirdo from Mishipeshu (the Magimundi Midwest) who happens to be a former New World Magischola student. This character opens with the line “You’re a rebel and proud of it” and later continues:

“As a professor, you’re valued for your brilliant, outsider’s grasp of arcane ethics. You’ve tempered a bit, but you still have a hot streak and you delight in challenging expectations and forcing students to re-examine what they’ve learned.”

This was basically a gift to me as a player, because I’m often playing the quirky, outsider character with left-leaning ideologies. Fit me like a glove. And then I thought: “What if Robert Smith from The Cure was my fashion template?”

Thus Kai Hassinger was born.

K Hassinger

Kat did my make-up and showed me how to rat my hair, and it took some planning to find goth-y clothing that would also breathe well in the extreme Richmond-in-July heat. I was very proud with the result: an arrogant agitator and rock star with a heart of gold.

My personality came from both former UMass professors (“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!”), as well as my general impression of impassioned iconoclasts throughout history. Also as an iconoclast: he was thrown out of 2 of the 5 houses in his 3 years as a student, and never really graduated as a practitioner of a specific “major.”

For this run, my character had been given leadership positions in the Fellowship of the Hydra, a do-gooder vigilante group, and the monitorship of the Maison Du Bois, the most upstanding house and one of the ones that threw him out as a student. I attributed Hassinger’s membership in the former to his impulse toward action over mere philosophizing, and his possession of the latter as a mysterious form of punishment handed to him by the Chancellor thanks to political maneuvering by his institutional arch-enemy, Jurisprudence Professor Taggart. So I was grappling with a fairly complex character that, at the same time, needed to provide play for others as faculty. But I otherwise had zero character connections listed on my character sheet.

I attempted to reach out to fellow players on Facebook before the game with some limited success. The Mundane players certainly wanted an ally on the faculty, and I desperately wanted – thanks to prior larp experiences – to be situated in some social situation other than “You’re an outsider and a weirdo.” I chose then to double down on my character’s responsibilities to his networks – Faculty, Hydra, DuBois, Mundane-borns – as well as scheduled a rock concert to happen for ~30 minutes on the Saturday of the game (more on that below). At the game itself, I reached out to several professors for more solid relationships. Prof. Alfred Contreras became Hassinger’s former advisor who also was the reason why someone as outlandish as him even had a job. Prof. Kane, the other ethics faculty, also had a very progressive, leftist approach to ethics, so Hassinger immediately formed a tight bond with him. Prof. Taggart became his arch-nemesis, “The Man” he wanted so desperately to take down (but with whom he secretly agreed on many topics). Prof. Barber, a cryptozoologist, became Hassinger’s equally unconventional frenemy… with whom he later found much affinity. Prof. Barlow in alchemy became a fellow disaffected person from Mishipeshu, and eventually his date to the ball. Prof. Ziegler became the other outsider, whose avocation of necromancy intrigued him. Slowly, the pieces began to fall together, but only with much proactive effort on my part.

But no proactive efforts would outrank the feat that was my course preparation.

Classroom Prep

How do you teach a “magical theory & ethics” course? Let me count the ways…

Seriously, the topic is so, so broad. And it’s so easy to get wrong.

I didn’t know where to begin, so I thought about what I myself as a German professor and graduate faculty member at the University of Cincinnati would be interested in teaching. What I came up with was a valorization and discussion of the works of several of my intellectual heroes: Hannah Arendt, Antonio Gramsci, and Giorgio Agamben. Basically, those strains of continental philosophy that deal with the politics of demarcating an “enemy” and what we actually do with human (and non-human) bodies subjected to systems larger than ourselves. I wanted to smuggle these thinkers into the larp, even through their own words, with the serial numbers filed off. In other words, I wanted to teach the players something that I myself was actually an expert in, so that they could then feel like they as characters had also learned something.

The faculty are basically gamemastering their own mini-larps, and I wanted mine to A) overwhelm the students with that “out of my league” feeling you get when you first get to college and B) let the students know that they could comprehend the basics and learn to act on what they’ve learned by the end. I also wanted to model how to disagree respectfully with someone with different – perhaps even repugnant – opinions from oneself.

So I invented a worthy straw man: Prof. Joffrey Leadwale (played to a T. by Chris Bergstresser), a well-established Unsoiled professor from the 19th and early 20th Century whose work Arcanium narum was considered a classic at NWM. My first lesson had an intended three-Act structure. Act I was introducing the students to the Arcanium and letting them swim around in its complexities. Hassinger asked them if they could find a passage that made them angry, and one that intrigued them. Hoo boy, did that get them riled up. And just after the students reached the point when they wanted to tear the argument to shreds, in walks the spirit of the guy who wrote it. (It’s kind of an academic’s dream come true, actually). Act II is an act of tense negotiation in which Hassinger tries to mediate Leadwale’s ideas about the semantics of magic to the students, while also questioning the classist and racist presumptions underlying the text. Students have to figure out how to voice their critiques to a worthy opponent. Act III involves Hassinger sending away Leadwale and then revealing his own school of thought and ethics, called the Alternium. The first page of the Alternium is Hassinger’s radical leftist intellectual statements regarding how magic is integrated into societal power politics. The second and third pages are then quotes from philosophers of interest to those looking at the ethics of power: “C. Schvitt” is Carl Schmitt, “The Q” is Malcolm X, “H. Ardenta” is Hannah Arendt, “M.M. Foqua” is Michel Foucault, and “A. Gambon” is Giorgio Agamben. The fourth page contains Hassinger’s rants against other content in the textbook, again reinforcing his “outsider” status. Discussion then launched into the very nature of power and our capacity to act within larger, exploitative social systems. The students finally had to form groups and tackle one of these 18 simple sociological projects, which involved observing class and power dynamics around NWM. So suddenly, magical school students had to take Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and interregnum seriously, or look for signs of discrimination and political economy in NWM. Hassinger helped drive play by suddenly having the player-characters critically analyze the environment around them. The second lesson was mostly about taking their lessons from the projects, and then applying them back to concepts in the Alternium.

The classes were exhilarating to teach, to say the least. Students came in not knowing what to expect, and wound up having to take real-life power dynamics articulated by real-life theorists seriously. He found instant affinity with a host of students who held similar opinions: Hebe Hathaway, Beowolf Gonzalez, Katerina Rosener, Tatiana Bradford, Jasper Creed, Rafael DuPont, and the list goes on. Philosophical questions that directly concern contemporary social politics were foregrounded, as well as a kind of polemics that one usually only sees in graduate-level coursework. Hassinger could behave as responsibly or as irresponsibly as he wanted, a liberating feeling for me as real-life faculty who is otherwise beholden to student evaluations. His class began to swell with auditors from other class years, who had heard a rumor or two about Hassinger’s teaching style.

It was in the Magic Theory & Ethics classes that I felt closest to the vision of this larp: social progressivism in wizard school and presenting students with no easy answers (or an “evil” threat to eliminate).

Scenes

The out-of-class scenes were not as enjoyable as teaching the classes, at least for me.

Many of the recaps and entries related to NWM often tell the tale in a long character arc spanning the whole weekend. Truth be told, Hassinger didn’t have much of an “arc” – more like a series of vignettes and small arcs. Here are a few to satisfy your interest in “what happened” during the game:

• Hassinger attends the Maison DuBois house reception as reluctant house monitor. He openly reveals his fraught history with the house (having been thrown out as a student) and casts public doubts about the viability of the group to compete for the House Cup. Later: He realizes at the moving House DuBois initiation ceremony conducted by Emily Dwyer and Meridia Hayers that he actually still believes in their causes of “truth and ethics,” and rallies to their support.

• Rafael DuPont, a 3rd-year Lakay Laveau, solicits Hassinger’s advice regarding Avernus prison. He’s got a relative imprisoned there, and knows of the atrocities. Hassinger brings him into the Faculty Lounge to discuss things further, where DuPont also gets to overhear all the drunken faculty gossip. Hassinger advises DuPont to gather the signatures of as many Marshalls as possible, to send a clear message that the next generation of law enforcers oppose this for-profit hellhole. Later: DuPont delivers the petition with 14 signatures. The motion to disinvest from Avernus prison is dismissed by the Chancellor out of hand, and the faculty move to table it for the next (contentious) budget meeting. Hassinger flies off the handle when Taggart’s name is mentioned as being pivotal for the petition to get off the ground, and he throws a temper tantrum at the faculty meeting.

• Hassinger spends much of the weekend debating with his mentor Contreras on the point of acting “principled” in contests such as the house cup. Hassinger takes the side of the pragmatists, advocating House DuBois to be “crafty,” should they want a house victory. Later: DuBois wound up coming in 2nd place.

• During the first meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, Hassinger and Faith Myczek look for a direction for this vigilante society, and find in one in sapience rights. One member says it is a pity for us to be holding our meeting at the exact same time as the sapience rights, so we just decide to merge our meeting with theirs. At the end of the major-league activist meeting led by Moxie Brack and Eva Sheridan among others, the gathered group is suddenly faced with a dilemma that Hydra members had to help deal with: a scared chupacabra being hunted down for having killed a wizard’s 12 year-old son. Thanks to the quick thinking of several students led by first-year Sloane Lanczek and the assistance of Profs. Hassinger and Barber, the students heal the chupacabra, conceal it in robes, and smuggle it to safety. Later: On the second meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, we discussed the outcomes of our previous struggles and then re-joined the Sapience Rights Advocates for their plans to speak in favor of vampires, chupacabras, and others.

• Because the Chancellor was otherwise indisposed, Hassinger had to take over taking the house cup points for about 3 hours.

• Hassinger witnessed several rituals on behalf of the students: one that brought a greycloak in from its quasi-existence between dimensions (don’t ask), one that permitted the poltergeist Johnny to possess the body of this other guy, and one that brought Alfie the ghost back from the dead.

• Hassinger notices first-year Jasper Creed has been attending his third-year classes and being of a similar anti-establishment mindset. He randomly asks him at dinner if he could be his TA. Later: At the ball, Creed and Hassinger find themselves awkwardly dancing together… and hatching future plans.

Rock On, Everyone

Of course, I also did mention that concert that I had scheduled. I used an impromptu, weird-ass flyer to advertise it…

Hassinger Flyer

Looks pretty hip, right?

In actuality, it looked something more like this:

K and the Cryptids

That thing on the left? It’s a gremlin. That thing on the right? It’s a faun.

They both rocked. Hard.

And it didn’t hurt that the Chancellor himself was really into punk music and down with me dominating the Faculty Lounge with a bunch of loud rock songs for half-an-hour. He hauled in more students to see the spectacle. Thanks, Fortinbras!

For those who know my recent larp creations, you know Kat and I’ve put together a wonderfully debauched game called Slayer Cake, which lets you live out your Brütal Legend dreams of being in a magical rock band vying for the title of Overlords of Rock. The relevance here is that I effectively introduced one of the karaoke, fake-guitar-playing sequences from Slayer Cake into NWM so as to introduce an “event” for other characters to participate in. Since I genuinely love playing fake guitar in front of everyone and screaming “Metal!!” then the deal worked out for people on all sides.

The important thing about blockbuster larps is the dispersal of various random events, some of which drive plotline, and others become empty vessels for plotline to fill. The concert was one of the latter: as Hassinger was rocking out to “Wishmaster” and “Paranoid Android,” there were people next door trying to conduct a ritual, others hiding in the concert from their opponents, and others still launching into new character arcs thanks to the music and lyrics. Player-characters projected what they wanted into Hassinger’s own small act of permitted rebellion, and were rewarded for it.

And there was even an encore permitted during the ball, for those who wanted to keep rocking!

A Few Summary Points

NWM3 afforded me an opportunity to be the rebel, rock-star professor I’d always wanted to be, as well as experience some minor pathos around Maison DuBois, my mentor Contreras, my antagonist Taggart, and student-led activism on behalf of issues that they cared about.

• The game’s design encouraged the players to use the wizard school as an allegory of modern liberal arts education and social justice dynamics.

• Professors being allowed to design their own curriculum gives player-characters in faculty roles the ability to steer the game through their lessons.

• Putting some real content that you are passionate about teaching into those lessons is a pretty good idea.

• My character didn’t really experience a life-changing arc during the game, and that’s OK.

• But I got to rock out and help make the experience an enjoyable one for my fellow players.

I send out much love and thanks to everyone who made NWM possible, and hope to be part of this continuing drama as it unfolds.

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“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.

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.”

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.”

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 sixth interview is with role-playing designer, professor and my co-editor Bill White. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with J. Tuomas Harviainen and Emily Care Boss. In the article, he looks at 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:

1. As a tenured professor in communications, how do you see the field of game studies developing with respect to your field?

This is an interesting question. One of the first things I did when I was thinking about how to shift my research focus to gaming was to try to figure out how the study of games fits into the field of communication, which has a chimerical disciplinary history that interweaves social psychology, political science, classical rhetoric, anthropology, journalism, information science, performance studies, and things even further afield. One scholar has called communication an “archipelago within the university,” meaning that it pops up here and there within the larger intellectual system of the academy. So it’s not clear for any given class of phenomena what is the “proper way” to study it from a communication perspective. What I found was that communication as a field currently sees (digital) gaming primarily as a medium, like radio or television, and at least to date has spent a lot of time worrying about its dysfunctions, like addiction, alienation, and aggression. At least, that’s the stuff that has been published the most; it overlaps considerably with social psychological studies of the impact of media violence.

But I think that’s changing; the “moral panic” over digital games has been blunted by the sheer cultural force of videogames, computer games, and on-line gaming. So communication as a field is adapting to that. I think there’s more interest in understanding the psychological and physiological dimensions of the gaming experience, with an eye toward providing practical information to game designers. In my chapter with Jiituomas and Emily in Immersive Gameplay we mention in passing some of the ways that media scholars are doing that, looking at “passion” and “flow” and “presence” as central elements of the game experience.

At the same time, there are communication scholars who are taking a more cultural perspective on gaming, trying to understand what it means to be a gamer in terms of identity and belonging to a community. This is an approach that I find more congenial to my own interests. The direction that I would like to take, and to find an audience for, would investigate how gamers form “cultures of production” that are engaged in the creation of meaningful aesthetic experience. This is the thing that connects game studies to the study of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture”; Jenkins is known for his studies of science-fiction fandom.

2. How has that slippery term “immersion” changed over time and space?

This is a hard question! The thing that we try to show in our chapter for Immersive Gameplay is how variable are individual understandings of what immersion is. Ron Edwards, one of the founders of the Forge game design discussion site, makes the point that immersion is often used to valorize whatever one finds enjoyable about the gaming experience. So if what you like is the story, you experience a kind of “narrative immersion,” but if playing a different person is what makes you happy, then you enjoy “character immersion,” and so forth.

The one important change that I hope is becoming increasingly prevalent is a rejection of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call “the immersive fallacy” in their magisterial game design text Rules of Play. The immersive fallacy is the idea that the goal of game design is to create experiences that are ever more indistinguishable from reality—that immersion requires a comprehensive sensory experience in which you are literally “immersed.” But that’s not true! Whatever we take immersion to be, we know it can be achieved in circumstances short of complete virtual reality. We don’t need the holodeck to be immersed. So it’s useful to have a term that lets us challenge that assumption.

3. What role do you see academic works such as yours playing within the game design community itself as it stands?

I would like to think that the academic study of gaming can be in dialogue with the practice of game design, that it can provide insights into the gaming experience that enables designers to interrogate their own assumptions about what makes a game, and what makes a game work. In the heyday of the Forge, this sort of thing happened all the time. The theoretical discussions about Creative Agenda and reward cycles led to efforts to create games that explicitly played with those ideas, producing I think some interesting experiments as well as some real innovations.

Of course, Forge theory wasn’t academic; it didn’t have to justify itself in the institutional context of the academy, which is another way of saying that it didn’t have to talk to anyone other than those inside the tabletop RPG community. This makes it harder for academic game studies to “speak to gamers,” because it’s also speaking to other scholars, trying to enlist them in its project, and speaking in front of an institutional audience (i.e., tenure and promotion committees, university administrators) that has to make judgments about the intellectual value of the work.

But here’s my secret hope: that the academic study and criticism of games can move us as gamers to an appreciation of role-playing as art. I see my own work heading in that direction.

4. What games interest you most these days, and how might we go about researching them?

I honestly cannot stop thinking about Traveller. I run a game at cons that I call “Mustering Out Blues,” where the players randomly create their characters, veterans of military service in a galaxy-spanning space empire now suddenly on their own, and are randomly deposited on a planet in search of gainful employment. What are they willing to do in order to make a buck? If they’re offered 100,000 credits to shoot a man in the head with a laser, will they do it? The gameplay is so interesting, because it involves this constant sense-making of random results, forcing a pattern upon what is essentially “noise” in the information science sense. And yet narrative emerges from that! It’s novelistic, in that not much really happens but we get a chance to get inside a character’s head for a while, but it’s a definitely a story. It says something.

As for studying that, I am a big advocate of the close reading of RPG “actual play” transcripts to see how they produce the fiction. This means listening to audio (and maybe video, but I think that’s inessential) and seeing how the game system’s rules and the the table-level player-to-player exchanges produce the imaginary actions and reactions of characters and game world. The result would be an account of the production of a fictional experience as well as an interpretation of the fiction thus produced. I think that might be really interesting.

William J. 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.”

Say hello to my little friend.

…and there’s more where that came from.

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 fifth interview is with game scholar Jussi Holopainen. In the volume, he co-authored  “First Person Audience and the Art of Painful Role-Playing” with Markus Montola. The article looks at experiences playing the controversial larp GR (2008) in terms of the surprising egalitarianism of shared psychological stress. They find that role-playing games specifically designed to elicit negative emotional experiences are actually considered rewarding by their participants.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – Last decade, you and Staffan Björk released a book called Patterns in Game Design. Could you tell us a little more about your purpose with the book and what you saw as its successes and failures?

Jussi Holopainen – I had been collaborating with Staffan since the end of 90s on experimental game design projects, especially based on ubiquitous and wearable computing principles. As we were doing the design work, we consciously tried to explore which game design suited the technologies the best. In other words, we were doing technology analysis from a game design point of view. While doing this work, we were getting frustrated about the lack of proper conceptual frameworks for game design and decided to develop our own. This framework development eventually resulted in the “game design patterns” approach. So we initially wanted to build a tool for ourselves, but then realized that the patterns approach would, if published, benefit both the game development and game studies fields.

The patterns material has mainly been used as a tool for analysis in a number of game research projects, whereas the adoption in the game industry has been limited. I guess that the patterns are more useful in analysis than in the day-to-day design work itself – although, of course, analysis is always a part of game design work process. I have not been that active in game design patterns work for some years now, as my interests have shifted somewhat, but Staffan has continued the work. Staffan is also the main force behind http://gdp2.tii.se/, a wiki-site dedicated to refining and expanding the patterns collection.

To sum it up: the main success is that the patterns approach is useful for analysis of game design, but that using it as an actual tool for game design itself has been a bit problematic.

ET – If you were going to re-write Patterns of Game Design based on the patterns you’ve found up until 2012, what would you add and/or change?

JH – It is not about the new or old patterns as such, but I would like to have a different overall structure to them. At the moment, we have patterns for goal structures, actions etc. but not a real coherent hierarchy or structure. Something like having a hierarchy akin to MDA (Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics) and basing at least some of the aesthetics layer patterns in existing frameworks for human emotion and understanding (e.g., Ortony, Clore, Collins: The Cognitive Structure of Emotions and Lakoff-Johnson’s work on metaphor would be suitable candidates). Actually, that started to sound like a project. I have to talk to Staffan. We will keep you posted on the upcoming revised game design patterns book!

ET – What books should prospective game designers and/or game studies scholars be reading in order to best prepare themselves for the field?

JH – Patterns in Game Design, obviously! Well, there are also some books around which better prepare for the game design or game studies work in a more comprehensive manner. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play and the follow-up anthology Game Design Reader are both extremely valuable sources of information for both game design and game studies. For more practical game design work, I would recommend Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop and Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. Ernest Adams and Joris Dorman’s Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design is also a valuable contribution to the field of game design. Perhaps a bit less well-known but very comprehensive and enjoyable book about game design is Aki Järvinen’s doctoral dissertation “Games without Frontiers.” It is availble for download at http://acta.uta.fi/english/teos.php?id=11046 and is in my opinion one of the best pieces of work on game design research ever.

ET – What are some of the main issues in field research regarding larp?

JH – Perhaps the best introduction to these issues is the paper Jaakko Stenros, Annika Waern & Markus Montola (2012): “Studying the Elusive Experience in Pervasive Games.” Even though they are discussing mainly pervasive games, many – if not all – of the issues are relevant to larp research as well. The ephemeral nature of larps is to blame and especially the first-person audience: that each of the players in a larp will have their own distinctive experience which can be drastically different from the other players’ experiences. This makes it really difficult for the researchers to get a comprehensive view about the player experience of any given larp. I am currently interested in using methods such as psychophysiological measurements and eye-tracking in combination with the usual interviews and video analysis for investigating the players’ experiences in larps. They might turn out to be too invasive and burdensome for useful research and also extremely difficult to generalize, but I would like to at least try them out.

ET – How might psycho-physiological or eye tracking measurements be conceivably woven into a larp plot somehow, combining research experiment with the game fiction?

JH – It is conceivable, but then you have to be really, really careful about the research design. For example, if you are interested in how people allocate their attention (i.e., where their gaze is focused) while attending a larp and the game mechanics using gaze-tracking favor certain focus areas, the results are going to be messed up. I would rather see two different set-ups: First, where the instrumentation as biofeedback is used conspicuously as part of the game mechanics. Second, where the instrumentation is as unintrusive as possible and they are not part of the game mechanics in order to get as reliable data as possible about how people really react and experience events in a larp.

ET – Do you think that larp will ever be “normalized” as a medium like theater, television or film? Why or why not?

JH – I doubt that larps will ever be as culturally pervasive as film or even theater. The main reason, I guess, is that larps tend to be cognitively, socially and affectionally (sometimes even physically) very demanding and many – if not most – people find very demanding entertainment (and art) out of their league. And if you make a larp less-demanding enough, it tends not to be about live role-playing anymore, but some kind of low participation theater. So somewhat paradoxically, a demanding larp will not get to be mainstream and a non-demanding larp is not a larp anymore!

ET – What is the factor that, in your opinion, is most decisive in getting individuals to committing to larp as a medium? Is it their social group? Their talents? The appeal of an individual larp?

JH – Sheesh, I was expecting easy questions! I do not think there is a common decisive factor relevant for all kinds of larps. It is more about the player’s personality and expectations about the larp, including peer commenting, available information about the larp itself, organizers’ previous larps,  who is going to attend the larp and so on. For me, personally, the most important things are that the larp does not require much investment into physical items (e.g., having to make your own chain mail) and there are people I know who are also attending or running the larp. This also means that for lazy and shy people like myself, these are going to be the most important factors. I guess it is about feeling secure and comfortable socially even though the theme and the events in the larp itself could be extreme. For example, I guess most people would not like to play GR for the first time with complete strangers.

Jussi Holopainen is a Finnish game scholar whose main research focus has been on design and player experience principles for games of all kinds. He has long worked at the Nokia Research Center in Tampere. His publications include Patterns in Game Design co-authored with Staffan Björk and numerous conference and journal papers as well as various book chapters.

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 fourth interview is with sociologist Todd Nicholas Fuist. His article in the volume “The Agentic Imagination: Tabletop Role-Playing Games as a Cultural Tool” offers the notion of “agentic imagination” to explain the social interactions that pivotally shape narrative and identity within tabletop role-playing games. The essay combines ethnographic data with speculations about broader implications of role-playing research on the gaming hobby.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner –  In your article for Immersive Gameplay, you discuss a concept called “agentic imagination.” What is that exactly, and how does it help us understand how role-playing games work?

Todd Nicholas Fuist – The “agentic imagination” is a theoretical concept I have been developing out of my research on gaming. In the piece in Immersive Gameplay, I specifically describe it as “the active ability of social actors to shape their identities through immersive imagination.” There are two things you need to know as background to understand the concept, so I’ll talk about those first:

a) Some of this concept references the notion that, in sociology, we tend to think in terms of “agency” and “structure.” Structure is what is “hard” in social life: class position, the legal system, economics, politics, institutions, etc. It’s often defined as the things that pattern our behavior, relationships, and expectations. Agency, on the other hand, is what social actors can do on their own: free choice, independent thinking, being able to break out of the structures of society, so to speak. Sometimes these concepts are pitted against each other, as in “agency vs. structure.” This is a problematic way to approach it: agency and structure are two sides of the same coin. Agency only makes sense in a world that is structured, and structure only has meaning and relevancy if people can push against the edges of it sometimes.

b) The concept also draws on the sociological understanding of “identity.” Identity is, in sociology, largely about identification with social groups and how your particular pattern of identifications makes you both different from others as well as recognizable to others as a certain “kind” of person. With regard to gaming, one could say that “identification” with gaming as a hobby and a culture provides some of your “identity,” giving you and others a sense for who you are. As such, “identity” doesn’t refer to some kind of fundamental, static, core being. Your identity, in sociology, is an ongoing social process that requires active identification, either by you or others, to be a thing.

Now that we have the background, we can talk about the concept a little bit more.

I am, obviously, drawing on the idea of agency for the concept of the agentic imagination. Where does agency come from? Conversely, what stifles agency? I would strongly argue that part of what is required for agency is the ability to have some sense of how things are and how they could be. This requires a bit of a reading, perhaps an intuitive one, perhaps a conscious one, of both social structure and identity. A person might think “I am poor. I know this because the things that are unavailable to me that seem to be available to other people who live in different parts of the city than me.” That’s a reading of both social structure and identity. This person may also think “However, if I were to attend college, I could get a degree and become successful and change my lot in life.” Their ability to think and do this would represent their agency.

I would argue, however, that a large part of the background of agency comes through the ability to imagine. Can you imagine a different world? What about a different life for yourself? Can the hypothetical person in the example above imagine themselves as a doctor or an executive? Many social movements, I would suggest, have been predicated on the idea that “Another World is Possible” (to borrow the motto of the World Social Forum). The Feminist Movement, for example, involved women (and eventually men as well) imagining a world where women were able to participate in society in ways they currently were not. In my dissertation research, on progressive religious groups, a woman who is a member of the woman priest movement within Catholicism told me how soul-crushing it was to feel called to be a priest when she was a little girl but never see the female form represented on the altar or hear a woman’s voice saying mass. It was literally “unimaginable” that she could be a priest. When she heard about the woman priest movement, her perspective was radically shifted and she could suddenly imagine herself as a priest. Now, she says mass regularly at an alternative Catholic community.

This circles back around to the concept and what it has to do with role-playing. As the example above suggests, imagination is a powerful tool for shaping our identities and, as such, our ability to act in the social world. We envision possible futures, different versions of our self, and ways the world could be different. Role-playing games are a fascinating place to observe and practice this sort of agentic imagination.

One theme that has emerged through the interviews I have conducted for this project is that gamers use role-playing to “try on” various selves, model different ways of behaving, work through personal issues, connect with ideas bigger than themselves, and prefiguratively live out alternative social realities. While I’m not so naive to suggest that role-playing will end oppression or usher in some kind of new utopia, I was consistently intrigued by how many people reported to me being able to come to real understandings about who they are, what their social positioning is, how they feel about social problems, etc., through role-playing. As such, while I don’t believe that imagination is all it takes to change social structures, I do believe that imagination has liberatory potential, and the kinds of things that we feel capable of imagining shape the sorts of ways we conceptualize the world. As such, the creation of liminal spaces, such as is done when groups of people get together to role-play, where these sorts of imaginations can flow freely are potential sites of renewal and resistance for people.

ET – As a sociologist, what do you think the emerging field of game studies does well, and what could it do better?

TNF – I don’t profess to be an expert on game studies, but my exposure to it, through the International Journal of Role-Playing, the Game Studies Journal, and various books, suggests that game studies has two main strengths:

a) Authors in game studies seem to be doing some sophisticated theorizing. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I cite pieces by Arjoranta, Balzar, Hitchens and Drachen, and Montola that feature some interesting and useful theorizing.

b) Additionally, work in game studies seems enviably interdisciplinary. Many sub-disciplines would be thrilled to have people from so many different fields actively collaborating on their area of study.

Having said that, as a sociologist, I tend to want theorizing grounded in as much empirical data as possible, and I do feel that game studies could, as an emerging field, use more empirical research, particularly more interviews and participant-observation. I see a lot of gaming studies research that looks at the games themselves (i.e. examining the content a particular game) or theorizing out of what appears to be the author’s personal gaming experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but gaming is a broad and varied hobby and, following audience studies media theorists such as Henry Jenkins and Ien Ang, it seems to me that we do ourselves a favor by concentrating more on the actual experiences of people who game. I would recommend Sarah Lynne Bowman’s book The Function of Role-Playing Games for a good example of qualitative empirical work into gaming.

ET – Participant-observer studies appear to be one of the best ways to do sociological work on RPGs. Are there other methodologies we could be using?

TNF – I had not really thought about this much prior to you asking this question, but something leapt immediately to mind when you asked this. In sociology, some researchers use a method called photo elicitation. This usually involves having someone take pictures of important things in their life (for example, you may ask someone to take a photo of ten things in their life that are important for their religious beliefs) and then the researcher would go through the photos with the subject, having them explain each one in turn. The idea is that this puts some power of interpretation in the hands of the interviewee and moves it away from the researcher. A researcher might ask “how do you feel when you go to church,” for example, assuming that “church” is where this person is “religious.” By asking, instead, “show me pictures of important religious things in your life,” you may find that “church” is not where this person feels religious, but other place, such as nature, their bedroom, or at work.

It seems like you could do a similar thing with gaming, but as opposed to using pictures, use gaming artifacts such as character sheets, maps, dice, and gaming books. In my research, I tend to argue that culture is best understood as being “embedded” in objects, relationships, and practices. Put simply, we tend to understand culture through things. As such, I think that interviewing someone about gaming is interesting, but actually having them pull their favorite gaming books or character sheets off their shelf and explain, say, why these particular books are their favorite, what they have meant in their life, etc. would be very revealing. I suspect that gaming artifacts like books and characters sheets, like many objects, are very much containers of relationships, culture, memories, and practices and may provide interesting data on the role gaming plays in people’s lives and how it shapes their social world and biography. This could also, as with photo elicitation, minimize the researcher’s understanding of what gaming is supposed to look like, feel like, and be about, and privilege the understanding of interviewee.

ET – How do you see RPGs as folk art and oral culture interacting with other wider social movements across the United States and, if I may, the world right now?  Is there some kind of dialog between role-playing and the Occupy movement, for example?

TNF – That’s a really interesting question, and to be honest, I have no idea if there’s actual dialogue going on between any movements and the role-playing world. Having said that, I can see some points where I can imagine points of contact would be, including within the work I am doing.

“Play” and “storytelling” broadly, has become a big part of cutting edge research into social movements. I’m thinking in particular here of the work of Benjamin Shepard who wrote a book called Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance it’s Not My Revolution, drawing on the wonderful Emma Goldman quote, as well as work by Francesca Polletta on storytelling in movements, particularly her book It was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. This work tends to discuss a number of things, but a predominant theme is how play and storytelling bring emotions into social movement participation. Playful protest can diffuse tension at a high stakes protest, it can provide a bit of levity while dealing with difficult issues, and it can dramatize people’s experiences in a way that opens the space for multiple and varied interpretations, creating dialogue around issues.

Many social movements, I would suggest, already have a role-playing aspect built in. I remember being at a mass protest event in Buffalo, New York in 2001 and at the convergence center where all the activists were meeting people were doing training that involved playing out scenarios such as peacefully confronting police officers and dealing with a combative news reporter. The idea was that we would build up the skills necessary to be able to handle these difficult situations when they happened if we tried them out in a safe space, first.

This suggests a point of connection between movement activity and role-playing, related to what I was talking about with the agentic imagination in the piece in Immersive Gameplay. Nina Eliasoph, a sociologist of social movements, analyzes how important talk about politics is in her book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. What she finds that is so interesting is that people want to talk politics with each other, but often lack the spaces to do so. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I argue that gaming can provide safe, liminal spaces that are not “real” in that they take place in the shared imagined space of the game, but also not totally “fake” in that they represent actual interactions people are having with each other. It seems to me that these sorts of liminal, in-between, spaces are ideal contexts for serious talk about politics to happen, not necessarily in the way Eliasoph studies (linking the experiences of individuals to larger structural realities) but perhaps in the way Shepard and/or Polletta may understand (creating complex narratives that channel emotion and make room for dialogue). Part of what I suggest in the piece on the agentic imagination is that my interviewees were often able to work through complicated personal and social issues such as racism, sexism, and sexual identity through play in the safe space of role-playing.

On the gaming side of things, what games have this sort of liberatory potential? Theoretically, all of them, but I’d like to highlight a few. Robert Bohl’s science-fiction game Misspent Youth is very clearly designed to trigger the righteous indignation of the players. Players will spend the game feeling helpless before a powerful authority, as well as experience the excitement of direct action against that authority as the game progresses. Julia Bond Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan is designed to create a similar sense of feeling constrained by authority. Unlike Misspent Youth, however, Ellingboe’s game deals with the very real history of slavery in the southern U.S. I can imagine almost no better game for people to create stories where they develop empathy and experience powerful emotions with regard to a social issue than Steal Away Jordan. Joshua A.C. Newman’s game Shock allows players to create an alternate reality to exist in during the game, either dystopian or utopian, and provides rules to specifically explore the social consequences of living in such a world. If, as I suggest, imagination is an important component of liberation, then the ability to explore alternative realities and feel how they would be different than our own is a valuable tool. Finally, while I have little personal experience with them myself, I’ve heard some talk about jeepform games, which seem to place a high premium on immersively exploring a central theme. Having said all this, as mentioned in my piece in Immersive Gameplay, one of my participants said they learned about racism through playing Dungeons & Dragons. While I would suggest that certain games are more geared towards creating the kinds of liminal spaces I’m discussing here, I do believe that almost any space where people are given free reign to use their imaginations can develop liberatory potential.

To conclude and return to the original question, I would say that while I am unaware of any direct contact between social movements and role-playing, there does seem to be a number of places where social movements are exploring play and storytelling and role-playing games are confronting social and political issues. If there is any direct connection, say a social movement group that actively incorporates gaming into their work, I’d love to hear about it. If not, however, I can certainly imagine that the kinds of spaces fostered by role-playing games could have the kind of liberatory potential that scholars of social movements see in play, storytelling, and talk, and could imagine them becoming tools in movement activity in the future.

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Todd Nicholas Fuist is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Loyola University, Chicago. His work is on religious communities that have messages and projects which revolve around social justice. His other academic interests include gaming and gamer culture, social movements, media, and identity.

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.”