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!

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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.”

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

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

Here are my follow-up questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figurative Destruction – A Role-Playing Game for One

by Evan Torner

(Submitted as a contest entry for the “Living in the Future” category of the RPG Solitaire Challenge, Jan. 1-11, 2011; see also The Robber’s Tale in this webring)

Tagline: War kills, power corrupts, evil spreads — and that, friend, is only the beginning.

Fictional Synopsis: Suffering under a tyrannical and inhumane empire, two friends assemble a plucky cell of resistance and miraculously overcome the odds to defeat the source of their troubles.  Yet philosophical and practical dilemmas lay before them, dilemmas that prove insurmountably divisive.  Slowly their fellow resistance fighters begin to choose sides between them, until their infant society is polarized, forcing their respective armies to confront each other in a painful final showdown.

Design Premise: Upon returning home to Iowa, I discovered a vast treasure trove of RPG books, assorted characters from two decades of gaming, and a closet full of action figures.  What to do with all this ephemera?  Design a game around it, of course:  a game that would also replicate a frequently repeated war storyline in my own imaginary play of my youth.  Personal design goals include the expropriation of a large quantity of trademarked action figures and personal campaign-bound characters alike (i.e., their names, identities and powers will be fiddled with at will), their incorporation into a storyline that both showcases their formidable strengths and fatal vulnerabilities pitted against one another, and this storyline’s service to both the player and others as a cautionary tale.  I also want to include a system that uses both audio and digital images to document the role-playing while not kowtowing to the genres of podcasts, video or webcomics.  The point, I think, is to have the game mechanics add adult pathos, nuance and ambiguity to the otherwise Manichean battlefields of the cartoons many of us grew up with.

I leave you with a video about Sectaur: