Alibis for Interaction, a new conference on experience design, was held last week for the first time in Landskrona, Sweden. I gave a talk called Living The Story, Free to Choose – Participant Agency in Co-Created Worlds. The idea of aesthetics of action is something that emerged in discussions with Johanna MacDonald (she started the discussion). We did a pecha kucha on the topic at the Stage theatre festival in Helsinki in 2010. She talked about it at Nordic Larp Talks in 2012 (see the video) and I’ve talked on this topic at Death Animations at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in 2012. However, nothing has been published on the topic thus far. Here is the text of my talk.
Living The Story, Free to Choose – Participant Agency in Co-Created Worlds
In 1999, I was living on a quiet street in a suburb of Tulsa, in southern United States. The year was 1962 and The Cuban Missile Crisis was on.
Not really, of course. Actually I was in a larp called Ground Zero with 20 other players, re-enacting a key historical event, from the point of view of ordinary people. Except that this version didn’t follow history.
The larp started with the sirens going off, and all of us living on that street running to a bomb shelter below one of the houses. We entered the bunker, bolted the door shut, and turned on the radio.
There we sat in our period clothes, or an approximation thereof, in a scenographed bunker surrounded by magazines and books from the era. There were also boxes upon boxes of canned food that we would be able to eat if we had to stay underground for weeks or months.
In the bunker we listen to the radio. As the news was getting increasingly grim, we reacted to it, reassured each other that it would all work out, bickered as families and neighbors do. Neither superpower was relenting, and after six hours the news took a turn for the worse. War seemed to be upon us.
Then the radio transmission ceased.
Later we realized that the East coast of the United States had been nuked.
A few hours later it happened to us. There was a roaring, thundering noise like we had never heard. The light went out. We could feel the whole bunker shaking.
We realized that an atom bomb had been dropped some 20 miles from our street.
In actuality the cardboard boxes had been filled with speakers to create this one special effect of the larp. Obviously the ground had not shook, it had just felt like that.
But we were left in pitch black darkness, with the knowledge that everything we had known and loved outside this bunker was now gone.
But only for 20 hours, as that was when the larp stopped.
This is the kind of live action role-playing that I’m here to talk about today. A style of larping that grew out of Dungeons & Dragons, got mixed with performance art, politics, theatre, activism, and pop culture.
I’ve been involved for almost 20 years, and what sets this subculture apart is that the larps are designed by adult for adults, as uncommercial projects that need not appeal to anyone who is not present. This is very much a niche audience, but it is growing.
Some example: The Krigslive series, an annual Danish fantasy war larp, that usually runs for a weekend for over 400 participants.
Zombie: Night of Terrors married first person shooter aesthetics with a bodybag of zombie film clichés. Who wouldn’t want to run away from the undead in an old military bunker only to finally be caught and eaten?
Just a Little Lovin’ portrayed the coming of AIDS to the gay community in New York in the early 80’s through three consecutive 4th of July parties.
Luminescence shows that though most larps aim for what-you-see-is-what-you-get, immersive aesthetics, there are also more symbolic larps. This one was about life in the cancer ward as lived in 800 kilograms of wheat in white underwear.
Using the tradition of Nordic Larp, I will tease out what we can learn about participation in and co-creation of shared, communal experiences.
I claim that in order to understand participation, we need to develop aesthetics of action as opposed to aesthetics of spectating or the aesthetics of performing.
But first, let’s take a few steps back.
What is role-play
Play is older than culture, older than language, older than humans. The tendency to play is ingrained not just in humans, but other mammals, and possibly even a much greater number of animals.
Animals, like humans, play with their bodies, they play with objects, and they play with others. However, pretend play, pretending to be something we are not, is quite human. Some of our closest ape relatives can exhibit rudimentary pretend play, but human children tend to learn to pretend around the age of two.
The step from pretend play to role-play is quite short. Role-play is pretend play with a social context and shared rules. Rule-based play is another play type that is almost exclusively human. And indeed, role-playing is a thoroughly human activity.
Although role-playing games are associated with Dungeons & Dragons, a game product originally published in 1974, and the term role-play in its modern meaning can be traced back to Jacob Moreno’s work on psychodrama dating back to the 1920s, there are countless examples through history of people pretending together, with some rules, to be something they are not.
“Together”, is important. If I am pretending to be Conan the Barbarian, it is quite ridiculous. Yet if all of you too pretend that I am Conan too, suddenly it makes much more sense.
If we consider role-playing not as a product, but as an approach, a stance we can adopt, then we can find it in many places. Form historical re-enactment to murder mystery dinners, from model United Nations to emergency simulations, from astroturf personas used by ad agencies to sex workers providing fantasy scenarios, pretending together is everywhere.
We can even place this lecture on in that context. I’ve taken the role of a speaker, you the role of audience. These are functional roles, but they are on the same continuum with character roles. And much of this talk can be adapted to the experience design of functional roles. Indeed, experience design is often about designing a role, a position, for the user, the visitor, the player, the participant, the viewer, the mark, the guest, the whatever-you-call-it.
Let us consider the form of larp. Larp is embodied participatory drama. As a participant, you are experiencing the events as a character, but also shape the drama as it unfolds as a player. You have a sort of dual consciousness as you consider the playing both as real – within the fiction – and as not real, as playing.
You are both a player and a character, which creates interesting frictions since you inhabit the same body.
There is no external audience in larps. However, there is an audience, the audience of the participators. The performer and the spectator are also brought together in one body. In larp, we talk about the first person audience; in order to see and witness these works, you must participate.
Furthermore, the internal play of participants, is only accessible to that first person audience. This image is from The Executive Game, a larp about a mob-run high stakes poker game inspired by an episode of The Sopranos.
The participants are pretending to be mobsters and assorted seedy individuals involved in an illegal gambling. So, you are pretending that the chips represent real money, perhaps your daughter’s chance of getting a decent education, immersing yourself in the fear of playing with such high stakes, which you also hide from the other players behind your poker face.
That fear may be the cornerstone of your whole experience – and possibly it remains hidden from the other players all through the larp. The fear is the experience and the private performance is just for yourself.
Yet this first person is not just a metaphor for personal experience, but a very concrete description. You will only see what your character sees. You will only be able to witness those parts of the larp where your character is present, where you, bodily, are present. You are the lens or the camera through which you see the work unfold around you.
The mental separation of player and character also means that winning becomes framed in a different way. A positive experience for a character need not be the goal. We talk about a positive negative experience, a meaningful experience that is negative for the character, but positive for the player.
You do not larp just to experience the feeling of being a hero, of success, but also the experience of failing, of succumbing to the darker impulses, of losing all.
It is a way of experiencing emotions that are often considered negative in a controlled environment. Unlike in most games, in these games, if you fail, you are not losing, but creating a tragedy. Indeed, we often play to lose consciously, and it can be encouraged as a design choice to create drama.
This and the previous image come from Europa, a Norwegian larp that depicted the everyday life at a refugee centre. The larp was set in a fictional Eastern European country where people from the Nordic countries were fleeing, after ethnic cleansing and a breakup modeled on that of Yugoslavia had taken place. The larp simulated what happens in a refugee centre. It was hardly fun.
What, then, constitutes a larp? The thing that is considered a larp has three aspects. First, there are the designers, the larpwrights, who create the framework for playing. They decide what the larp is about, they put together the necessary background material for the world, sketch the social network of roles to be played, create game mechanics, and possibly write the character outlines.
They correspond with the players, negotiate characters, run workshop, develop the world of the. However, what they create is only the starting-point, the score, for play. This is the first meaning of larp.
The second meaning of larp is the runtime of playing. Once a larp starts, the players can run away with it. The players create the experience of play, and to certain extent the actual piece. The larpwrights can still steer play, but they cannot remove the influence of the players.
This is the larp as played, and it is lost the moment the larp ends. However, no one sees the whole piece, just what their character sees. And you cannot go back and inspect the same run of a larp form a different angle.
A larp is usually followed by a debriefing, where players and organizers come together, a cooling off period, when everyone bids farewell to the fiction. They discuss what happened during the larp, and in this discussion a shared and communal meaning of the experience starts to emerge.
This is the third larp, the larp as remembered, interpreted and documented. Obviously, as the piece is debated later, discussed and critiqued, its meaning continues to shift.
To sum up, meaning of a larp is framed by the game organizers, built, enriched and interpreted by the player, and negotiated and narrativized by the participant community.
Aesthetics of Action
Let’s move on to the aesthetics. Where is the beauty in larp?
Larps are created by a combination of game organizers and players and people that fall somewhere between the two. However, these groups are not comparable to performers and spectators. Larp is not staged by one group for another.
This means that the conventional aesthetics of, say, theatre, do not apply. You are not just someone sitting back and appreciating something beautiful, nor are you projecting an excellence in performance from the stage. You are participating in the doing and appreciating the action created.
Traditionally theatre and art have been suspicious of participation. The division between those on the stage and those in the audience, the artist and the appreciator, is so fundamental, that even acknowledging the audience has been seen as destroying the work. At the very least it is pandering to the audience.
There is, of course, participatory theatre and art, but even it tends to give the audience a severely limited role, or simply a choice to make. Sometimes an artist crowdsources a project and then curates the best pieces to a participatory show. There is a fear of letting go of authorship. Or at least of losing quality control.
Some have done this to a greater extent, and in a way we can place larp on a continuum next to art movements such as relational aesthetics and dialogical aesthetics. However, as these terms imply, we need different aesthetics to tackle these kinds of participatory works.
Together with artist Johanna MacDonald I’ve been developing the Aesthetics of Action to account for the beauty of doing together.
First of all, as we already covered, these works are very much embodied. They are beautiful to do, but not necessarily interesting to watch. If you are watching larp from the outside, it will usually look like bad improvisational theatre, and if you are lucky, it will look like life. But it can be very meaningful to participate in.
Larps are embodied of course also in the way that larping is not something that is seen or described or even just witnessed, but something that is bodily inhabited. The internal play, that play that is only available to the first person audience, shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Like all systems of fiction and games, larps have endogenous, internal, meaning. Things and actions mean something in the context of the larp, and this meaning can be different from that of everyday life. Yet these acts are not just symbols for something, the very act of doing can be a source of meaning.
In a larp tending a garden, like in this image, or washing the dishes, or other even menial tasks can be key parts of the experience. Not because they are being done as joke, or ironically, but because they are being done with utmost earnestness.
Second, aesthetics of action are rule-bound. There are game mechanics, agreed-upon rules as to how the world, the society, and the individuals are conjured into reality. Larps are shared worlds with explicit rules. Often they are preceded by workshops, where participants learn the rules, the new sign systems, new body language.
Comparably film and theatre have an intuitive seamless interface. We know how to read them. Partially this because we are encultured to understand them, but even for slightly more experimental pieces there is an implicit rule that you are supposed to understand the rules of how to view a film by watching it. The work contains the keys to unlocking its meaning.
The director usually does not appear before the screening to explain what a film is about, or what the colour red symbolized in this particular piece. Obviously there is a whole paratextual industry of marketing, reviews and behind the scenes featurettes, yet mainstream films, plays, and books are supposed to stand on their own. There is a hesitancy to give explicit guidelines to an audience in situations where there is a division between the audience and the performance.
However, when doing things together, it certainly makes sense to haggle out the rules of conduct in advance, and settle the language of the work. And since everyone knows the rules going in, it is possible to engage in subtle play knowing that all participants understand it, even if it would be completely incomprehensible for an external audience.
And, by the way, this doing-things-together seems to be hardwired in humans. Two people doing something together cannot be stripped down to two people doing similar things side by side. We are built to play together. And once we commit, we all have a vested interest in having the best possible experience of it.
One of the areas where the Nordic larp scene has been developing tools is amorous interactions. In larp we used to have a plethora of mechanics for dealing with violence, not just the iconic padded swords.
But we had fewer tools for dealing with sexuality in a safe and respectful manner. Sexuality and violence are examples of areas where players are hesitant to play encounters out bodily without some kind of representation.
One mechanic, Ars Amandi pictured here from a workshop preceding Totem, is based on the idea that we can decide where the erogenous areas of a human reside. In the Ars Amandi technique the participants pretend that in their culture the erogenous zone is hands, arms, shoulders and upper back. The area is the same for men and women and most people do not find it too awkward to touch each others arms.
Lovemaking in Ars Amandi is touching these parts of a body, while maintaining eye contact, pretending that it is sexual, and breathing heavily. These mechanics are first practiced in workshops and then used in the larp if the need arises. The secret here is that once everybody pretends together, it does become quite strong, it will feel real enough. Not the same as sex, but sexual enough.
This will, of course, recode your mind. Seeing people fondle each others hands after the larp will seem obscene for a while.
The rules also help enact a coherent fictional world. A key element of larp is that players can be separated from each other, yet maintain a shared fiction that is still cohesive when they meet again.
The participants improvise the world into being, but this improvisation is tempered with the world that is already there. This sounds hard, but is actually quite easy in practice. Participants are so invested in the larp and doing together a coherent world, that they will bend backwards to make it all fit.
Of course, sometimes games are hijacked because players misuse this power.
Thirdly, aesthetics of action arises when works are truly co-creative. The participants are not just making choices amongst a preplanned set, but actively create the world and the drama.
The flipside of this is that there is a mid to high level demand of input. You cannot just stand passively in a corner. Everyone needs to collaborate, otherwise the work will crumble.
Also, because these things are co-created, communicating a clear message though larp is difficult.
Larps are not really a medium any more than dinner parties are. The message will be scattered as anyone can bring their angle or spin on the issues that are in focus.
The players can hijack a message and turn it on its head. Larps are good for exploration or themes and situations, but using them for, say, propaganda, requires social control and control of the message around the larp.
Larps are not one story. If you want to tell a gripping narrative, pick another method. Larps are a network of dispersed events, not a coherent sequence. Larpers are fond of saying the every character is the main character. This is idealistic; like in life some characters in some events really are just supporting cast.
However, each character’s experience of the event is valid. Each sequence of events is important. It is in the debrief that a unified story of a larp is constructed. As we find out what went on in other parts of the larp we reframe our own interpretation of events.
Fourth, aesthetics of action are also emergent. Two things are important here. First, larps are ephemeral. Once a larp is complete, at the moment it ends, it ceases to be. They are singular. You can’t go back.
Secondly, since pretending a specific functioning shared social world from scratch at the start of runtime is quite a task, larps are preparation focused. When you go see a play in a theatre, very little preparation, on part of the spectators is need. Obviously the performers will prepare for a good long while.
In larps, both the larpwrights and the players spend considerable time preparing.
It also means that expectation management is extremely important. The players will show up with notions as to what it is that they are participating in. And since they have agency, they will act as if whatever it is they are participating in is the thing they envision it to be.
If enough participants expect the same thing, it will emerge. If the environment is not built for that, problems will arise.
The fifth element of aesthetics of action is that these works are reflexive. When you are playing, you will see the world around in double vision. You will see the fiction as real through your character, but obviously you are also aware of the ordinary everyday world as a player.
In Bertolt Brecht’s terms there is a built-in Verfremdungseffekt, alienation effect. In literature studies it would be called ironic imagination, since you are reading the world around you in at least two ways.
One ideal in larp is to achieve full immersion and have the real world drop away and only see the world in terms of your character in the fiction that has become real. And, indeed, those are magical moment. But they do not last.
There is a dialogical relationship between the fictional and the non-fictional, and the joint work need not be uninterrupted and seamless. Larps are interruptable. Everyone has the possibility to step through the fourth wall, to stop the larp and address people as players and, say, discuss the rules.
An unfortunate effect of this is that you can run into a pair of bored players discussing off-game maters. But the useful effect is that you can play with that border, with the difference between the player and the character, play and non-play.
It also allows you to bring in metatechniques. To, say, play out the dreams of a character, to jump ahead a year, to tweak rules, to step aside and build a fictional history from scratch for two people.
The participants are able to work on two levels to bring about an interesting piece. And they are quite able to edit out the meta from the work itself.
This is a lovely offgame photo from a vampire chronicle that ran in Finland in the mid 1990s. These are two of the gameorganizers, gathering money from the participants before play starts. The orange vests communicate that they are game organizers. The vests do not exist in the fiction.
They are wearing character name tags, again not visible in the fiction, but the information is available to players who might not remember the names of all the characters.
There is a plush rat, which is obviously an actual rat within the fiction. The red scarf on the chair also has special significance: if you wear it as a sash, you’ll have a majestic presence and others will be in awe of you.
As a player you read all these cues, interpret them and edit the visual signs out of the fiction.
Finally, aesthetics of action are built on inter-immersion. Participants are not just immersing in their own characters, but they are pretending to believe together.
In order to have prisoners, you need to have jailors, in order to have rock stars, you need fans. These games are about building community, and the relationships between those people. So these experiences are not just communal, but they are often about community.
They are about the quality of engagement, not about the quality of the performance or the generated visual surface.
There is also the role-playing agreement, that you are not supposed to make assumptions about characters based on players – or vice versa.
This agreement is the basis of trust, trust which enables us to pretend to be someone we are not without being judged. The alibi.
Obviously this agreement is constantly violated: people do actually make those kinds of assumptions, yet without the polite fiction of the role-play agreement, we cannot have the basis of trust and safety to be someone who we are not.
Together these six things point towards an aesthetic of action. These can be helpful in understanding if a participatory thing is artistically valid, if it “beautiful”.
Do you get en embodied sensation from the doing? Do the rules construct a working world? Is there a feeling of agency? Did it bring about your particular story? Is its juxtaposition to the non-play world interesting? What was the quality of doing things together?
I have talked about larp, or more specifically Nordic larp and mostly from the point of view of the participant. Yet I think the implications of the aesthetics of action are wide ranging for experience design.
Yielding agency, the possibility to act, to the participant is a huge risk according to conventional wisdom.
However, the people gathered here today know that magic can happen when that is done. But participation is not a thing you sprinkle on top of an existing design. It should to be embraced head on.
The concepts and analytical divisions like first person audience and the larp as a designed system, a runtime experience, and the collectively negotiated interpretation, can be brought to bear on most experience design.
Keeping in mind embodiment, rules, co-creativity, emergence, reflexivity and inter-immersion can empower us to truly work with our audience, and to overcome the barrier between developers and participants.
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A properly academic version of this talk is in the works. In the meantime some acknowledgements: The talk builds on an understanding of Nordic larp that has been built in the community over the past decade. For example the formulation of positive negative experience was introduced by Heidi Hopeametsä in 2008, whereas first person audience can be traced back to Christopher Sandberg’s article from 2004. Inter-immersion was coined by Mike Pohjola, and the ephemeral nature of larp has been analyzed by Johanna Koljonen. The influences of Markus Montola and Eirik Fatland are particularly strong.