CMS 2017 Conference illustration by Vanessa Randle

Critical Management Studies Conference

Back in July I attended the Critical Management Studies conference in Liverpool, an interesting experience as it was very close to home (unlike last year’s hike to the USA) and also my first attempt at attending a conference when presenting more than one single-authored paper. While I usually find that conferences are tense affairs until after my presentation is out of the way, the need to be prepared for two paper presentations incentivised me to be very organised for this conference and plan my materials and outlines well in advance. I was also co-convenor of a stream, though as two streams were merged we had plenty of support in organising things. We really needed it, as the conference venue was a beautiful period building (The Adelphi in central Liverpool) but with somewhat compromised facilities when applied to this conference format, and a confusing layout of rooms and corridors at times reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel.

I agreed to present one of my papers at an internal university event only a few weeks prior to the conference which really helped refine my thoughts on the contribution of the paper and I felt nicely confident about conveying the message (if not, perhaps, in the specified timeframe of 20 minutes). This paper explored the possibility of more humane and dignified work relations that might be promoted through turning to rewards based crowdfunding, as the process could encourage workers and organisations to think about their ‘backer’ communities and other stakeholders in a new way. I hope to begin an empirical project on this soon. The stream more broadly included research into how workers are negotiating the digital-analogue interface of app-enabled working, coworking spaces and other forms of innovation and meaning-making around platform capitalism. There were some great papers and I was really pleased with how the stream turned out.

In contrast, however, I heard many colleagues were very dissatisfied with the conference. This was partly instances of poor planning or lapses in organisation of the conference (registration and the lunch buffet each day were chaotic for the number of delegates and the conference dinner venue too prone to echoes to hear the speeches), but also a concern that much of the conference had become hostage to academic performativity. Such a claim is especially tense given that CMS as a scholarly community has been critiqued for its anti-performative stance § , but we ought to distinguish between the published narratives of CMS academics or actions taken in the service of their research ambitions with participants and the performative acts of the community as scholars policing their own boundaries and subject to their own managerial scrutiny.

At the root of colleagues dissatisfaction seems to be the question; what are conferences for?

  • meeting scholars with similar interests
  • engaging in scholarly discussions
  • keeping up to date with developments in the discipline
  • maintaining or reviewing the objectives of a distinct scholarly community
  • presenting research-in-progress to peers for comment and feedback
  • challenging unconventional methodologies
  • disseminating results from completed research projects
  • obtaining support or solidarity for politically unfashionable research topics or agendas
  • reinforcing academic status or position
  • improving manuscripts pre-submission for publication
  • proposing ideas for special issues to editors of journals
  • maintaining your influence or brand image
  • learning or reinforcing norms and expectations about an academic career in the discipline
  • commissioning content for special issues of journals
  • influencing or controlling debate through exclusion
  • finding out about upcoming job opportunities
  • meeting the requirements of a funder
  • demonstrating research activity or influence to your university

The above list suggests a range of ambitions for conference participation, some of which may surprise you. However, despite the ideal of an academic conference as a venue to test ideas and progress knowledge, they have increasingly also contributed to the performative outcomes required by university managers. Conferences as regular features of the academic landscape also play a substantial part in reinforcing dominant power relations; notable concerns at this conference from i) the pre-conference critique on mailing lists of the requirement in the call for stream proposals that planned outputs such as a journal special issue would be expected as part of the application and ii) organising by the women in academia CMS support network VIDA to encourage submissions and activism to address and expose the integrated performative heteronormativity at the conference.

Activity that seemed to fit within the more instrumental or discriminatory practices in the above list was upsetting for some. In the environment of CMS in UK academia that has begun to feel uncertain post-Brexit thanks to the strategic cuts at some universities and threats of them at others, the anti-performativity of CMS is a justifiable worry.  Such an approach results in fewer opportunities for ‘impact’ – an area in which it is expected that management and business schools should excel. However, it is also the case that actions within the community to exclude or fail to approve the work of marginal scholars, or to attempt to replicate the behaviours and paradigms of ‘macho business’ or ‘hard science’ in order to validate scholarly activity in the eye of university management can only be to the detriment of the discipline. This is particularly so in a discipline which spends much of its energy critiquing such behaviour elsewhere. Consequently it was especially refreshing and energising to see these concerns being aired in the intervention by some scholars in the form of development of a game of solidarity/bullshit bingo.

The conference organisers had engaged an illustrator to record the conference (her output is shown in the header picture) and I was personally very excited to see the overviews come together. Yet again, however, engaging an illustrative artist with no grounding in the intellectual debates of the field characterises the activity of illustration as an archival one. While it may make the content more accessible, this objective is in service once again to academic performativity rather than to enhancing understanding of the material. The illustrator, however, consented to some of her materials being appropriated in the production of this poster:

solidarity bingo vignette

For me, the beauty of this poster lies in it’s action to call out the discrepancy between the topics acknowledged as significant to the scholarly community of CMS and its internal actions; streams of research papers were running on ableism, feminism, de-colonialisation and emotion in organisations. Yet in the co-ordination of the conference these very issues had not been addressed. Furthermore, the many features appearing on the bingo boards as evidence of scholarly ‘solidarity’ (e.g. active listening to research presentations, encouraging introductions) or of academic ‘bullshit’ (e.g using Q&A time to tell everyone that your work is of key relevance to them and should be cited instead of engaging in constructive criticism) were being foregrounded by the poster and the game.

All in all, the CMS community, like the broader academic community, may well be in difficult times and have numerous internal tensions over solidarity and action that need to be resolved. Although conferences like these remind us of these tensions, I was extremely pleased to see and support interventions and activism that encourage us to reexamine our priorities and actions with an ambition to forge a better type of scholarly engagement with problems inside and outside of the university.


§ An introduction to the current state of this debate can be found in the recent special issue on critical performativity published in M@n@gement with the remarks from the editors available here

Academy of Management

So after 18 hours of travelling and an 8 hour time difference, I think I can safely say my circadian rhythm has been well and truly disturbed. My business class upgrade on the outgoing journey also definitely spoiled me for the return experience! I returned to the UK at 10am yesterday and just about kept my eyes open until 5pm, then awoke at 4am this morning. At least the early start has allowed me to make some headway with my laundry.

My first experience of the Academy of Management, probably the largest international conference of business and management academics worldwide, was mixed. While some of the sessions in the main program were of extremely high quality, others seemed very underdeveloped. The Academy is broken down into divisions, or interest groups. As I was attending events across multiple divisions I found it particularly interesting to see how the Academy serves, for some, in breaking down institutional silos and encouraging broader views of the topics by drawing audience members from across disciplinary boundaries as well as engaging practitioners. Nonetheless, I was also impressed with a strong feeling of homogeneity of methods and approaches which was slightly worrying in its indication that there is a clear perpetuation of a single way to do research in business and management studies, and that way relies upon survey data collection and statistical analysis. A colleague who shares similar concerns and I got into a very heated debate about this in one of the bars on Sunday evening, but perhaps that’s a tale best left to the imagination…

The role of conferences in academic research are multiple. They serve as a form of peer review of research methods and findings, presenting an opportunity for conclusions to be tested and questioned and in consequence strengthening research. Conferences also act as a vehicle for the dissemination of research findings to a broader interested public, a function which should not be underrated as it is often much more effective to absorb this information over a few days in a conference than to spend weeks and months reading books or articles on the topic. But this dissemination is also of importance to academics too, as an opportunity to find out what research is being done at other universities where we might not have contacts. Finally, though, this is also a mechanism for networking with colleagues and those in the position to recruit new staff in other institutions, as individuals have an eye to their future career prospects.

I found the conference extremely satisfying as an opportunity to meet people at other institutions who are interested in researching the same topics as myself. Since my research is in a very niche area, there are a very small number of academics across the globe studying the subject and it was fabulous to come together and meet in person for the first time. The career-driven networking, on the other hand, was very intimidating to observe and seemed to add a high level of tension to some social events. Nonetheless, in the current UK academic climate, where UK working conditions and research opportunities are looking fairly bleak in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is perhaps not surprising that many are looking for fresh pastures.

My superiors will no doubt want to know if this expensive conference (in terms of travel costs) was worth the investment. Despite the long-haul discomfort and the disjointed feeling of culture shock, I would say that the activity was definitely a good one as a means of personal development and potential research improvement. If nothing else, I have returned inspired to write and develop my research in a number of different areas alone as well as with those interesting researchers I have met while away, and that’s no small thing.

Theories about Learning motivation and practice

Following a recent post on a friend’s blog about undertaking postgraduate certificate qualifications in teaching at university, I thought I would start the process I have been promising myself I would do for months now: publish my blogs on learning to teach. NB: some of this material has been recently submitted for assessment purposes, enjoy the read but don’t quote in your own teacher training programme!

I formally started the teaching at university programme about six months after I began working at my current university. Unsurprisingly, like at a lot of universities I have heard of, the programme was not held in high regard by academic staff, mostly because they were compelled to undertake it and had developed (over the course of the PhD or over many years of research focussed work) some cynicism towards the programme tutors. Broadly, this cynicism related to three factors; (1) a belief that students who are motivated to learn, do, regardless of  techniques applied by lecturers, (2) a view that programme tutors did not sufficiently account for the constraints on lecturers following from large class sizes, limited resources and bureaucratic impediments to change, (3) skepticism about the political aims behind the programme and whether this signified a move to a ‘customer oriented’ model of teaching that fundamentally undermines the authority of the lecturer as ‘expert’. Following from this third element was a critical attitude towards the political status of universities in the UK and the consequences of changes to student fees and recruitment in the most recent attempt to create a higher education ‘market’.  But I’ll come back to this issue in a later post.

Today’s post focuses solely on point (1): theories about learning and the motivation to learn, and summarises two broad theoretical approaches; behaviourism and cognitivism. What is interesting is that each model has a different role for the teacher, and requires them to engage with the students in a different way. Each also suggests that different rewards or learning environments will produce varying results in how much and how well students learn.

These approaches to the study of learning have much in common with the fields of psychology and social psychology generally, and as such I have been a bit sweeping in my assertions which follow. Each has it’s historical place in influencing learning institutions and systems, and consequently some aspects of learning, teaching and assessment that are often taken for granted can be linked to different parts of these theories.

Behaviourism: looking at external action not internal subjectivities

Behaviourism is one of the earlier approaches to learning, drawing on the notion that since the internal workings of the mind are objectively unknowable then only the external factors can be studied. “Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour” (Pritchard 2008:6). Central to this is the basic premise that all creatures respond to stimulus to increase positive experience and decrease negative experience. Central theorists include Watson (1958), Skinner (1953) and Thorndike (1966). Historically, this approach to the study of psychology was particularly functionalist, and much of the research in this area focused on ‘conditioning’ subjects into a particular habit of response. You might have heard of famous examples of this sort of research such as Pavlov’s dog experiments, where dogs are trained to associate the noise of a bell with food, such that eventually, even when the food is not present, the sound of the bell will make them behave as if food is present.

While many conditioning experiments may seem crude, or even laughable, by today’s standards, they were incredibly influential in their practical implications. However, the perspective was not universally well-received, as it placed human beings in the same category as any other kind of animal. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a particularly vehement response to his critics, arguing that humans had to ‘get over’ their belief in their own special status if society was to be functionally improved. This experimental approach was also criticised for oversimplifying the study of behaviour (see Eddie Izzard’s sketch about Pavlov’s cat for a laughable example of what happens when not all variables are controlled)

Based on a simple view of student motivation as merely learned response to stimuli, learning approaches that adopt this view might be summarised as ‘stick’ or ‘carrot’ techniques. Approaches as different as the Victorian ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and contemporary practices around the need for ‘positive feedback for psychological engagement’ all fit in with this approach. Any focus on rewards for correct behaviour is underpinned by behaviourist theory, whether it is a directly ‘conditioned’ response or a ‘shaping’ (using goal-setting approaches) towards ideal behaviour.

Limitations to using a behaviourist approach to designing learning activities are usually listed as including a limited or ‘surface’ approach to learning, as the desired response could be produced without developing an understanding at a ‘deeper’ level; it is limited to rote-learning (Pritchard 2008).

An interesting part of behaviourism, however, is that it places the responsibility for ‘correct learning’ directly upon the teacher, provided the student complies with the system. It is the responsibility of the teacher to identify desired behaviours and reward them appropriately. Additionally, students may have come from schools or colleges that use this sort of approach, and therefore to an extent are already ‘conditioned’ to expect this sort of learning activity and reward.

Cognitivism (or Constructivism): Looking inside the black box

A different approach to learning is apparent in cognitivism. Focusing on the workings of the brain from multiple different perspectives, cognitivism gives primacy to the idea that learning is an internal process. Much of the research on which these theories are based comes from developmental studies with children, or with those suffering from developmental difficulties. The underlying principle contends (against behaviourism) that learners are active agents in the learning process, and that learning should be approached in a holistic manner (this is associated with ‘gestalt‘ theories). This suggests that students respond to patterns as much as to individual stimulus.

Many different approaches tend to get clustered under the cognitivist label. Two early theorists in the area are Piaget (1926) and Vygotsky (1978). While both share similar principles, they do differ in terms of the priorities they give to particular aspects of the learning experience. Vygotsky’s approach (ibid) focussed on the social interaction between teacher and learner, stressing that it is within that relationship that the teacher can help provide a framework (and break down earlier frameworks) which the learner then strengthens and models for themselves. Piaget, by contrast, stressed that the learner engages with artefacts provided by the teacher independently and develops knowledge which is incorporated into schema (a sort of subjective framework, see Smith, Dockrell & Tomlinson 1997). Both theorists stress the significance of activity undertaken by the learner alone or with the teacher as a key part of the process (Jarvis 2003).

Compared to the behaviourist approach, the constructivist approach as a consequence of a more subjective understanding of learning (by experience) tends to offer a view of learning which allows pluralistic versions of knowledge (i.e. there is space for more than one ‘correct’ answer or way of doing things). By contrast, the behaviourist view presents a much more rigorous position on what does and does not constitute legitimate knowledge that indicates a one-way transmission of that knowledge from teacher to learner. Both different approaches also commit to different priorities and techniques for the design of the teaching and learning environment. Clearly, certain training programmes may tend towards the behaviourist perspective, as some interpretations or behaviours are considered illegitimate, misguided, or even dangerous, whereas disciplinary areas more tolerant of pluralism may be more inclined towards a cognitive view.

A synthesis of constructivist and behaviourist theoretical leanings is apparent in the majority of current approaches to institutionalised learning, perhaps thanks to inherited behaviourist systems of the past, or the failure of cognitivist learning experiments to revolutionise teaching styles. One frequently-used reference point which demonstrates this is Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of (cognitive) knowledge[1]. Bloom’s taxonomy presents multiple ‘building blocks’ as a progressive hierarchy of knowledge attained through learning where the achievement of each stage requires proficiency in the stage below (this strongly informs international comparison standards regarding the level of achievement in particular qualifications) .

bloom

The original presents a continuum which presents a programme suitable to behavioural ‘shaping’, but also stipulates the cognitive activities it is expected that students will undertake. Bloom’s framework was revised in 2001 in order to more comprehensively represent changes in educational language and to incorporate the type of knowledge the student is expected to master (factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive), as well as the cognitive process they engage in to do so (Krathwohl 2002). There have been some critiques of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, which suggest that the hierarchy of cognitive approaches may be reversed, and that the production of knowledge in the form of ‘facts’ is a hard-won outcome of the other processes (Wineburg & Schneider 2010). After all, in scientific endeavour, that is how research produces knowledge!

Wineburg and Schneider’s (2010) argument could be seen as a revisit to Bloom’s framework which highlights a shift away from behaviourist models of learning towards cognitivist approaches.  A behaviourist approach to learning, with its focus on stimulus-response-reward, privileges a basis in the accumulation of facts through rote learning followed by study in the skills of manipulating those facts for logical analysis and evaluation. In this presentation of Bloom’s taxonomy, the teacher provides students with ‘legitimate’ knowledge in the form of facts, then slowly leads them through a process whereby each stage in the process is reinforced through reward, often in the form of good test marks though also sometimes using more mundane rewards (such as sweets or book tokens). Wineburg and Schneider (ibid) argue that the taxonomy may instead be represented in the opposite direction, where knowledge is the outcome of the learning process rather than its base. This derives from a more constructivist approach which builds upon the notion of the learning ‘scaffold’ (see Sylva 1997).

 

[1] It is important to recognise that the committee of which Bloom was head intended to encourage a synthesis between three different types of learning; cognitive, affective and psychomotor (see Krathwohl 2002). I have rarely come across discussion of the latter two dimensions at university, which may be instructive in how far such discussions have penetrated in the educational domain.

 

 

 

Monstering: changes in the air

It has been a really long time now since I attended a fantasy LARP. Well over a year, and unfortunately my work and personal commitments this year make the outlook bleak. I missed much of last year due to personal and wedding plans,  and subsequently I’m a bit out of the loop on what is going on in our ‘finely woven webs of magic and belief’! I hope to attend 2-3 events later in the summer though, so hopefully we will have fabulous LARPing weather!

So this rather explains why the blog has remained in stasis for so long, but there are new entries to come! In this entry in particular, I have recently noticed that this year seems to be shaping up to be the year of controversy over monstering. So, for the non-LARPers out there, monstering is basically being the helpers, crew or bad guys in any given event (see my previous post). Monsters traditionally participate in events for free, and recieve small benefits in return: this is where controversy is emerging, as some events are beginning to request small fees from monsters to secure a place, or promising bigger rewards. There are always concerns for organizers about monsters, for several reasons;

1) monsters are a cost

Most sites have a per-person charge, or a scale of charges based on occupancy, so the price of tickets for players will always be directly or indirectly affected by the size of the monster crew. Even for the rare event which is being held on an open site, public liability insurance charges also scale on a per-person basis (usually at 50 participants, 100 participants, >150 participants basis though this varies). Keeping costs for players low therefore will always rely on having an effective and appropriately sized monster crew.

2) monsters are needed

A good quality event relies on good monsters who are experienced, informed and enthusiastic. Including organizers in the category of ‘crew’ here, it is simply impossible to have an event without them. It is also true, however, that player expectations in fantasy LARP are seen to demand fewer low-activity events where little effect can be made on the world, and more open-world events where players have free choice to engage in different aspects of the plot or storyline. These type of games require more props, bigger sites, and more monsters.

3) are monsters motivated?

Following the above very significant points, most participants (whether players or monsters) know that enthusiasm and contribution to the event can weigh much more than money. An eager monster who finds some great costume in a drawer and brings it along, a group of friends who come along as a group and can work well together to portray a military unit or even someone who gets enthusiastically stuck in to whatever job needs doing (even making the tea!) is an incredible contribution to the success of any event. Motivated monster crews are also important to increasing player numbers, because many people get their first introduction to LARP through monstering an event.  Yet this is a completely unpredictable element, which may rely fundamentally on any variety of possible causes, so may be nerve-racking for the organizers! There are little things that organizers try to do to improve motivation, including providing tea, coffee and sweeties, priority bunks, experience for your player character or other incentives, but these often include costs which need to be outweighed by the benefits. And there is always the danger that these incentives might drift into ‘payment’, resembling the feeling of work (see below).

 

So that explains why organizers might have to deal with conflicting ideas about what monsters should be expected to give or pay, and how much/whether they should be rewarded. Yet there also seems to be a problem for monsters around obligation and enjoyment which overlaps between the hobby and other commitments.

4) How much does it cost?

People volunteering to monster an event may well participate for ‘free’ but may have to pay associated costs of transport, catering, accommodation and equipment. These are the same costs that might be a part of playing the game, but with no guaranteed level or type of enjoyable participation in the game, and less leeway to ‘make your own fun’ these costs may seem more significant.

5) Am I having fun? (is this like work)

As a player, it’s easy to choose your own preferred style of play. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing very minor monsters; the squishy one-hit-goblin type who is destined to lose (as monsters are, unlike some amazing one-hit super-goblin players with magic swords I could mention). However if you prefer a competitive playing style, taking on roles where you have no chance of winning is not going to be particularly enjoyable. In addition, many of the other tasks that might be necessary as a crew member can be draining and mundane; too much like hard work rather than fun. Even an unlimited supply of sugar and caffeine can sometimes be a poor substitute for enjoyment.

6) Do I have to be here?

As paper bookings gave way to email and online forums have become wider through social media such as facebook, there is in some ways a stronger sense of a LARP community. But in some places this seems to put a serious (stated or implied) obligation on regular players to participate as monster crew or risk losing their hobby altogether. There is an equally strong tendency to report on events as they happen, emphasising what is sometimes termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, a wider reach of advertising about events puts more pressure on players and monsters to attend more events, and increases demand for experienced monster crew (including referees and organizers). This presents monstering as a more serious obligation, as a necessary way to maintain the community, adding a level of pressure which may simply override a decision to participate on other grounds.

These pressures on monsters and event organisers are hardly new. In addition, there have been a number of events in the past which have been so popular to monsters and players alike that these grievances have been shown to be insubstantial. But in the circumstances of rising site costs, rising transport costs, dropping player numbers and more significant ‘real-life’ demands, these problems seem to be getting squeezed from both sides.  Of course, this is only a rough summary of debates I have seen elsewhere and I am only adding a little information drawn from wider debates around conditions of economic life in the UK to spice up the discussion.

What has your experience been? As a monster or organizer what is your best experience of an event? Or the worst?

Comments especially welcome to this post!

 

 

Praying at the shrine of Loo

aka no I won’t pee in a bush.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers (all five, six of you?). I’ve not been blogging recently because I have been writing up my previous blog post about monsters for an academic conference in Manchester. I am also working on another academic paper at the moment and it seems that all the writing juice has just been squeezed out of me. On second thoughts, bad metaphor there considering the subtitle. But I’ve been inspired to go back to this post by recent comments around gender and sexism in LARP. This post considers how far it is acceptable to go in LARP events when trying to promote immersion in the game. As a player, referee and organiser this is something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Specifically regarding bathroom breaks.

Now I’ll come back to bathroom breaks in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about sexism in LARP. Now I think that sexism in LARP is not as big a problem as it might sometimes seem, or as is sometimes reported. Many men and women play and enjoy LARP, and if there are fewer women who play outdoor fantasy LARP compared to men, well I think that says more about our social norms around gender and the limitations of campsites than anything else. In my experience of players who have no family commitments, and where events are predominantly situated indoors such as in Cthulhu LARP, there is no clear gender divide in participation. Now what is interesting in settings such as Cthulhu LARP is that as a historically situated game, players often have a lot of fun acting out and challenging the gender norms of the time in a crisis situation. I expect that in games inspired by Jane Austen’s novels players experience the same. However, in playing these games we create a hybrid gender-reality of sorts; a space where despite the conventions of the setting, the values and attitudes of the ‘real world’ we live in tend to come through.

So when addressing issues of gender inequality in LARP, we have to think about how the genre presents gender stereotypes, and how our contemporary society presents gender stereotypes. The game presents a creative space where norms can be challenged and overturned. And lets face it, sometimes its fun to play the damsel in distress, to be the dumb blonde who might cause everyone else in the game to be captured and eaten because they are forced to either abandon the lady (and look like a cowardly character), or otherwise break with the norms of the game genre by allowing the ‘mere girl’ to be the sacrificial hero. So these roles have a sort of power to them which can still be exercised – it just might be quite risky to the character to do so. The fact of LARP is that it is transient, and unlikely to offer an ongoing solution to gender inequality. What tends to get people upset seems to be when the inequalities of the ‘real world’ are brought into the game as if to a ‘natural’ habitat, or when players struggle to accept the differring inequalities presented by the LARP setting.

So to look at a similar example; one of the things our contemporary society has a lot of etiquette around is bathroom breaks. Or, to be more specific, going for a pee. As a woman, I’m not entirely up to speed on gentlemen’s etiquette regarding relieving yourself, but certainly in the fantasy genre, a bush would usually do. Also, considering what I have heard about which urinal men choose to use, I presume if you came across someone else using the bushes, you would have to move a few bushes further down. Stabbing someone with your sword and using their bush may be all very well in the Conan canon, but it just wouldn’t be right in a contemporary LARP. You’d get pee on your sword, for starters. So in the vague in-between space that is part game and part something else, we’ve made a compromise. Ladies, it is said, often go to the bathroom in pairs. But in fantasy novels and movies, they never seem to go at all. It just isn’t ladylike. Bathing, on the other hand, is very ladylike, and there are often many frissons experienced by the characters in books and legends over the challenges of preserving modesty. Now, these genre specific tropes don’t fit very well with contemporary needs. First of all, however immersive and appropriate to the setting and character it might be, I will not pee in a bush. My costume is difficult enough to manage in a portaloo. Secondly, I won’t be bathing in a stream either. Not with Britain’s weather conditions, anyway. Sadly, I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime’s hardship on the tundra my character might have. Luckily, most of the women I know who LARP broadly take the same view, and don’t take such ideas seriously.

Unfortunately, solutions to these particular difficulties often require resolution out of character, in another area or by temporarily dropping out of the game. The maintenance of the game illusion, however, requires that these interruptions be kept to a minimum. They are directly in conflict with the pursuit of immersion.

Bathroom breaks can therefore become quite serious business. One incident which happened some years ago involved a large group of ladies in the playing area stranded some way away from the toilet block. At this point they would have to travel in character across hostile enemy territory or drop out of game in full view of the other players. A sudden feeling of piety saved the day, as the ladies agreed that it was of utmost importance they pay their respects to a noted ancestor revered nearby. This ancestor was named ‘Loo’. In consequence, a large number of characters headed off together across this no-mans land, and in doing so married the demands of immersion with everyday etiquette.

So where does this address issues of sexism and inequality? Fundamentally there are several motifs common to the ‘romance’ of horror and fantasy genres which conflict with contemporary ideologies. For example, family and caste honour which claims ownership of special privileges is not compatible with freedom of individual expression and reward according to merit. Women were traditionally considered property under this feudal perspective, and even in fantasy it presents problems.

So what about ‘progressive’ LARP which incorporates equality into the very fabric of the setting? Well this too presents a struggle where players try to make sure their performance ‘fits’. Perhaps we could all pee on the same bush? I confess, personally I’d find that difficult. But then, perhaps there is still something of the message being put across in such LARP, as there is in presenting Shakespeare in contemporary costume. Although the purists hate it, it brings accessibility to the archaic language. Sometimes the medium and the message have to compromise. So feminist LARP utopia is some way off as yet.

Alternative uses of roleplaying games

It is not a new thing to recognise that the impact of games, or of leisure activity, goes beyond a superficial understanding of entertainment. Competitive sports have been used as training exercises, frameworks for peaceful interaction and even to distract a population from starvation and riot. We know that there is value to be found in the playing of games. It is interesting, then, considering how in UK culture RPGs are generally denigrated and ridiculed, to see how often such games are used for ‘serious’ reasons.
A few weeks ago, I met with the documentary makers of Treasure Trapped to do an interview about LARP and I was asked to comment on the broader use of LARP as a training tool. It will come as no surprise to the LARPers who read this blog that ‘doing it for the experience’ can encompass more than even serious gaming. Lizzie Stark has discussed the use of LARP as a military training exercise in Leaving Mundania, and equally the Nordic LARP scene is well known for it’s serious treatment of realistic scenarios for personal development.
Today, on twitter, I saw someone post a link to the following website, which presents the visitor with a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ style written RPG. Depression Quest is an attempt to raise awareness about depression through the empathy (and possibly pleasure or frustration) people playing the game will experience. The goals of the developers in this case are not necessarily that the player will have a ‘good time’, but that they will have an ‘experience’. One of the main distinguishing features between a written RPG scenario and a live-action event is that in the latter the experience is more dynamic and unpredictable. But more broadly, then, this got me to thinking about the differences between ‘roleplay’ as a game, and ‘simulation training’. LARP may well be taken seriously by few people outside of the LARP community in the UK, but even for those of us who play in LARP games, it is not ‘serious’. The experience is not focussed on a particular outcome with real-world ramifications. Rather, that experience has different meaning for different players based on their engagement with the game. Fundamentally, LARP games are collaborative rather than ‘directed’ in the way that a training exercise might be. So I played through the above game (Depression Quest), and although it aims at promoting empathy, it is a puzzle. The objective is to try to get your character through the scenario and on the road to recovery. Your progress is monitored by criteria listed at the bottom of every page. Objectives in LARP are often not clear, or are negotiable (after all, you could always give in and join the zombie hordes). Perhaps this is where the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘training tool’ lies.

To be continued….

Comments welcome

LARPwriting, the 25-step list…

Event organiser, LARP director, Entrepreneur, Logistics expert, Referee…being in charge of a LARP event makes you all of these things and more. Some groups attempt to separate the different roles of running a LARP event among a team of people but in many cases unless running a full-scale ‘fest’ system, one person will ‘wear many hats’. For the uninitiated these are some of the many tasks;

1. Register with a group to run an event using their rules system or design your own system and publicise it.

2. Survey and book a suitable site (scout camp, country house, self-catering cottage, municipal parkland…) for an appropriate date.

3. Purchase public liability insurance for your event.

4. Write an event plot which incorporates a scenario overview and planned ‘encounters’ to provoke crises, details any costume, props and makeup that will be required and outlines an approximate timeline of the narrative.

5. Write character details and background narrative for non-player characters of substance. Recruit volunteers to play these roles.

6. Book a caterer or plan catering for players and monsters/volunteers.

7. Create an advertisement or booking flyer. Advertise the event to potential players and  monsters/volunteers.

8. Write character outlines or request that these are submitted for review by players.

9. Take payments or deposits from players. Register monsters/volunteers and assign roles (including first aid or other roles as required by insurance policy).

10. Manufacture or purchase props, costume and makeup or special effects

11. Provide players and volunteers with all relevant and sufficient information they require prior to the event (including character information and OOC information such as directions or catering information).

12. Acquire radios or walkie-talkies if needed.

13. Arrange transportation of all relevant materials to the site.

14. Travel to the site to prepare the event. Walk over the site to ensure all locations can be used as planned for encounters. Make any last-minute changes or adjustments. Liaise with site manager and put up signposts to the event if required. Check all site facilities (e.g. bathrooms, lights) are functional. Check all props and equipment. Complete a risk assessment if required by insurance policy. Establish and set up any any set-piece areas. Mark out a control area or ‘monster room’. Direct caterers if required. Direct vehicles of volunteers and players as they arrive. Brief all volunteer crew and players.

15. Start the game…..

As may be clear from the above list, there are many tasks not directly involved in the ‘writing’ of an event. In fact, very few of the above tasks will even ensure that an event is ‘good’ or enjoyable for the players (and volunteers). If an event is poorly written, or if the caterers are not appropriately set up, or if all the players get lost trying to find the site….all of these things could result in a poor game before the game even begins. The tidy nature of the above list also conceals the chaos of organising many such events, when a site is re-landscaped or props are not transported to site on time, key NPCs are delayed by traffic and last-minute changes have to be made. Even these challenges seem quite orderly compared to the problem of trying to manage the budget or cash-flow of such an event. Many costs have to be paid up before the event is even advertised, and props can only be commissioned once money is available to pay for them. So the above list is really a misleading model of what might go into organising such an activity.

Any person or team running a LARP event may also face numerous challenges once the event begins. These might at first seem clear, but in so many cases the problem becomes remarkably complex;

16. Brief, make up and costume monsters, send out to ‘encounter’ the players according to the timeline.

17. Liase with caterers around timing of ‘crises’.

18. Adjudicate rules queries and provide players with information regarding IC enquiries.

19. Improvise additional encounters or set-pieces ‘on the fly’ to respond to player improvisation or to account for differences in the pace of the event.

20. Debrief monsters and NPCs to attempt to predict player actions.

21. Respond to any OOC problems with the site, catering or relevant crises.

22. Orchestrate the ‘finale’ of the event, or final encounter (this will often involve a larger scale written encounter with more significant props or special effects) to present a narrative ending – either by killing the player characters or through resolution of a final challenge.

23. End the game

24. Debrief players and volunteers.

25. Ensure all event materials are cleared up and site keys returned, any breakages noted and paid for. Collect all remaining consumables and props. Congratulate volunteers and players, then transport all materials off-site or to secure storage.

How hard can it be? Let’s take number 16. Do you have the person who wrote the narrative available to brief the monsters? Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is the font size on the printout too hard to read in the approaching darkness of a crowded tent with few lanterns? Do you have time to brief the monsters after they are made-up or do you have to brief them during costume changes and make up being applied? Who is applying the make-up? Do they have the appropriate skills and expertise? Are the monsters allergic to latex prosthetics?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Many of the articles I have read about running LARP events seem to concentrate on the narrative and matters of pace in the game, ensuring appropriate levels of immersion and so on. Yet this ‘directorial’ focus seems to obscure the ‘backstage’ chaos and skill which goes into any LARP event. Some games notably employ a ‘meta’ level of discomfort to players in order to help with immersion, insisting they ‘survive’ on their own rations and ability to find a safe space to sleep, another character trustworthy to keep watch and so on. Yet not all games (or game organisers) are prepared to take this line. The notion of ‘bleed’, a beneficial crossover between IC and OOC experience, is a helpful one in understanding why organisers may wish to promote such activity, yet how often do we see Conan the barbarian visit the lavatory, or Sherlock Holmes tying his shoelaces? In some cases the narrative genre which inspires the LARP event encourages the game to eliminate various spaces and activities from the storyline. In our pursuit of immersion, we have to make decisions about what will be part of the game and what will be outside of it. This post, then, simply serves to highlight the hidden parts of organising a LARP which nonetheless have a huge impact on the game itself.

Usual disclaimers apply. YMMV. Comments welcome.

Death (in LARP)

It may seem strange to non-LARPers that the death of a character in a game can be extremely emotionally affecting. As an entertainment, a friend of mine once ran a one-evening horror LARP two nights in a row, one evening attended by regular LARPers, and another evening by interested work colleagues. The event was in some respects inspired by the murder mystery genre, and there came a point when the players discovered a body hidden in an attic. The LARPers responded with extreme performances of distaste and shock, while the non-LARPers made some indicative remarks over how unfortunate it was and quickly set to ghoulishly examining the body for clues. When some of their own party were in turn murdered, the distinction between the two groups’ behaviour remained evident.

In such a short timespan, it is hardly to be expected that either group would develop a genuinely strong connection to their character. Equally, the non-LARPer contingent in this case were less involved in the initial development of their character’s history and background. Furthermore, these characters were played for no more than an evening. In fantasy LARP, however, some players perform the same characters for over a decade. Even more than actors in a long running West End/ Broadway production, these performers become closely entwined with their performed alter ego. The ‘part’ is written by them, for them. They costume the character, develop their history, respond independently to life events. And if actors feel a sense of loss at the end of a long run of performances, LARPers too may have an emotional response to an end where the character can no longer be played.

There are of course in-character responses to death which are separate to the out- of-character response to the loss of a character. As I am considering character death generally I am not going to discuss the IC responses, although they are varied and interesting in their own right, particularly in the relation IC responses have to OC responses (see previous post on Immersion versus PvP). Last week I attended an academic workshop on death and loss which made me realise there might be correlations between the tangible experiences of losing a character, and how it could compare (albeit in a ‘thin’ way) to the loss of a loved one.

What comprises ‘death’ in LARP?

In the majority of different LARP systems there is an established mechanism for ‘death’. Under particular circumstances, the character enters a liminal condition which requires intervention from other players to preserve their ‘life’. The character may have limited or no participation in this process (for example, they may be ‘unconscious’ or they may be able to demand help). Without this intervention, the character will ‘die’ and the player loses all claim or control of that narrative and performance (there are some few exceptions, as when the organisers might find it useful to transform the ‘dead’ character into a threatening zombie or guardian spirit, but the discretion lies with the organisers and no longer wholly with the player).

Fear of death

While characters may have a particular attitude to death appropriate to the culture and setting of the game, players are likely to have a healthy reserve about the death of their character from the offset. On a basic level, to die is for the game to end, to ‘lose’ in some form. If the player is competing on systemic advancement of the character with other players, death eliminates all acquired advantages. If the player’s intent is to engage in the game on a narrative basis, then the narrative is completed or cut short dependant upon the circumstances of the death. All developed ties to other characters cannot continue with the player in a new identity, even if they re-enter the same game, therefore there is something of a ‘social death’ experience. Finally, costume and props which may represent significant investment of time and money can also become unusable or have limited applicability in the next role.

Each of these aspects is something that a player may justifiably ‘fear’; yet does this constitute a fear of ‘death’ or is that instead a matter of a transfer of emotion from performed to embodied self? This touches upon a difficult area. While the Scandinavian model of LARP may encourage the pursuit of ‘bleed’ and emotional transfer between player and character, this is not widely held to be the case in Britain. Instead, the performance of emotion is applauded, but any inability to maintain the distinction between self and character is an infringement of a fundamentally cherished principle of the game.

Recalling several near-death and death experiences of my own in LARP, one aspect which does seem to strike home is the narrative aspect regarding being ‘ready’ for death. I have experienced some deaths which I felt were ‘good’ in that they fit with the narrative I was attempting to portray, and others which were troubling in the sense that they were unexpected, or followed periods of uncertainty. In every case I have felt a little upset, often proportional to the length of time I invested in the character; however I do not expect that my experiences reflect those of everyone. I may discuss these instances further in relation to social connections and the role of momentos in a later post.

Ignorant of the rules – avoiding death

One of the most controversial issues in LARP surrounds the administrative process of death and its associated loopholes. In one large well known LARP system, characters are marked as dead by cutting the player’s laminated card in half with scissors. This can only be done by a referee. In other systems players must self-declare as dead, a type of altruistic suicide which preserves the integrity of the rules system. In the minority of games I have experienced, the referees or game organisers take whole responsibility for the character’s lifespan, and will inform the player of their status accordingly. Each and every system of this type works on a basic set of principles (the rules system), and upon trust among the players and the organisers. However, there are instances where that trust is infringed or broken, through ignorance or arrogance. I confess to making mistakes of ignorance myself, although I was lucky enough to have a referee on hand at the time to correct me. My short term memory is particularly poor and I have a tendency to miss things in the heat of the moment. However, when players specifically set out to ‘cheat’ death, this suggests that it is indeed something to fear. That such circumstances do exist lends some support to the idea that perhaps death in LARP does have some significance for players that is more than the sum of its inconveniences listed above.

Finally, the distinctive scenario of a game populated by LARPers and one populated by non-LARPers demonstrated one distinctive difference. Those who were not used to playing this sort of game, in concentrating on the puzzle solving element, were inclined to ‘forget’ their responses to wounds and the death of other characters after a few moments. They focussed on ensuring the solution was found to the outlandish scenario they found themselves in. The LARPers familiar with the format instead seemed to revel in the emotive responses which frustrated their overall aims, struggling on despite their ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ limitations. I do not know which group had more fun.

Comments welcome as always.

LARP Sights and Sites

I was talking with a colleague today about how people tend to paint the countryside as an idyllic fantasy land and it seems that in LARP we don’t just do that, we try to make it a reality. And importantly I think we tend to be more successful in doing so than Disneyland (which my father once said was the name of an engine room on board a ship he was on; this disney wurk, that disney wurk, and yon twiddly thing over there, well it disney wurk eether). All bad jokes aside though, there is always the search for a ‘perfect’ site.

What makes a perfect site for LARP? Often I think it is about versatility; what can the place be ‘dressed up’ to represent? How many places can we stage a ‘safe’ fighting area while also changing it enough to keep it interesting? How conveniently can the ‘behind the scenes’ work of costume, makeup, catering and game management be concealed while also being close enough to ‘the action’ to be responsive? The agenda of the game organisers is to ‘use’ the geography of the countryside to produce an ‘immersive’ environment (see previous post), but this dream of fraught wilderness, sophisticated country mansion or remote planet is just as idyllic as the arcadian vision of the beautiful peaceful countryside untouched by man (the very dream many other visitors to the same sites are often pursuing). Let’s look at the pattern of a ‘usual’ event…
Friday afternoon: the event organisers arrive, with weeks if not months of pre-prepared props and set dressing to transform the site into a fantastical environment. As hangings and fake blood, mysterious twigs, eerie wind chimes and hidden lights are placed in position, toilet rolls and soap are fully stocked along with huge amounts of tea and coffee. Tents are erected or sleeping bags unrolled on bunks. Doors are checked and unlocked and last minute supplies are scrambled for, sometimes with the assistance of the site owner or management. The area is walked, evaluated, claimed as usable or unusable for the purposes of the game. Perhaps the ground is too waterlogged, or riddled with badger holes. Bracken may have overgrown the paths. Areas identified as ideal locations for ‘key’ scenes or hiding points are found to house chickens or sheep. Worse still, it may transpire that public paths or farm tracks are well used by local people. Arrival paperwork is put in place and walkie talkies charged.

Friday Evening: Players of the game arrive in vehicles, with their own camping equipment ranging from authentic medieval cooking tents to state of the art mountaineering boots. New players discover the difficulties of setting a camp and turn to the more experienced for assistance, who reprimand them for their lack of planning for an outdoor setting. Tales are told of players who in extreme weather simply accepted the challenge of nature and survived without the comforts of home. Cars get stuck in muddy verges or sandy bowls and people rush hither and thither to don their costumes, in the process taking on their character roles. After a discussion and reminder of the rules and the limitations of the site (clear your rubbish, don’t park there, mind the ground-nesting birds, don’t leave the designated area), the game begins. The rush of the players calms to an engagement with a calm and fictitious world while the organisers place crew members in position. As the excitement builds and the players move from one location to the next, the crew try to remain one step ahead of them, coordinating in fevered whispers over hand held radios in an unknown pitch blackness. Scrambling in the dark raises tension to a height and after the game concludes for the evening, players and organisers alike settle to a companionable drink, drawing the tent doors to shut out the cold night air or gathering by a bonfire of destroyed transportation pallets.

Saturday: As all on site awake to the unfamiliar noises of the lark, the rooster, the donkey braying in a nearby field (or was it the chap snoring three tents down?), the lack of the ‘ordinary’ adds to the sense of adventure. Whether the rooster was mistaken for dedicated crew creating mysterious noises as part of the game, or the cold showers simply highlight what is often taken for granted in presenting one’s ‘face’ to the world, the discrepancy between the wild and the civilised is clear. All the ordinary rules may well be broken, but they are replaced by new ones. The remainder of the day continues much as the previous. In the evening, a lycean spirit takes hold of many, and  the drinking often reaches a different pitch (as do some individual’s singing voices), to set the birds aflight.

Sunday: As the unfamiliarity of Saturday begins to resemble a pattern, the game winds to a close. The tents are packed, the props boxed away and loaded into the vehicles, and some compare their experience of the weekend happily before they stream away towards Birmingham, London, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Glasgow, Dublin. Some find it difficult to leave this community so recently forged, and linger among the waste and forgotten scarves as the organisers and volunteers clean the site buildings and pack away their own things. Eventually, time and tide may not wait and even the M5 cannot be put off forever; the site is left behind in the hands of its caretakers once more.

Well, I didn’t promise an objective account. What continues to interest me here is how the countryside LARP site is used to host events, interpreted in a particular way which is sensitive only to the needs of the game, and while players and organisers alike wish to ‘escape’ the modern world, the city, to a fantastical realm, it is very much on their own terms. While the requirements of the locals and site owner/manager might be respected, the countryside is not visited on its own terms, but only through a lens of usefulness. Yet it remains the ideal retreat; it is just that ‘ideal’ is understood a little differently.

LARP Precedents & Antecedents (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Chapter 3)

Unfortunately I missed last week’s regular update due to our two-day research retreat in the peak district. The windswept moors, however, and the rocky crags did give me some pause for thought on the geography of LARP. There are some areas which look fabulous as settings on the big screen which simply do not work as event venues, either for reasons of comfort or of safety. However, the geography of a place also has significant implications for staging events which is not always necessarily helpful.

Queen Elizabeth a LARPer, eh?

Well not really, in Lizzie Stark’s book, Elizabeth I was immensely entertained by theatrical pageants which required her participation as monarch. She was hardly playing a character, she was ‘playing’ Queen, which, incidentally, she was…

However, the point that links LARP with pageantry, improvised theatre, war simulation games and the like is an important one. LARP has a lengthy history that differs in the UK from the US, and sources differ as to whether it emerged in Europe simultaneously, or subsequently to the US. Certainly most persistent LARP games in the UK trace their emergence to “Treasure Trap” of the 1980s, which was a predominantly freeform game that made use of a local heritage site, sadly not the class of venue often available to LARP groups. In contemporary LARP, numerous country houses, nature parks and scout camps still play host to games up and down the country, as do many university campuses.

If the theatrical characters envisioned by a community ideology (in the case of pageants) or a playwright are too constrained to be comparable to LARP, and the intellectual rigour of war games is too regulated, a comparison can at least be drawn by reference to the use of space and venues to create the immersive experience so particular to the hobby. The Tudor and Elizabethan antics often emphasise the ludic reinterpretation of space to create chaotic revelry in the order of the Royal Court, and events of heroic and fantastical stature in the countryside (assisted as often as not by a crew of theatrical performers, puppeteers and staged effects). This element is shared by contemporary LARP and art installations alike, although one attracts more social status than the other.

As LARPers arrive in period homes or scout camps across the country, they often disrupt the everyday goings on and expectations of the inhabitants. They do not fit the genteel middle class tourist stereotype, their costumes provoke attention and their aims at reinterpreting lawns as rolling grasslands, dining rooms as construction areas for outlandish beasts and tranquil parks as fields of battle resemble the disruption Queen Elizabeth’s touring court may have caused as it descended upon a rural idyll. Scout groups and those who maintain period houses are sometimes thrown out of their depth by individuals who instead of demanding TV and phone facilities, ask if they can build a fire in the portico or drape lights from the hedges. Public liability insurance is only offerred by a small number of firms, for while injury in service of entertainment to Queen Elizabeth may have brought honour on a family, a dog-walker slipping in treacle placed to represent eldritch gloop is more likely to make claims for any subsequent accident.

In summary, while it is valuable and interesting to identify the links between LARP and similar historical activities, it is important to recognise that one of the features of LARP lies in a very inward-facing community, carefully trying to limit the accidental incursion of their world into that of passers-by. Compare this to the inclusive agenda of the historical pageantry and even of modern day contemporary art, which aims to affect others, LARP is focussing on affecting ourselves.

All examples drawn from personal experience. The usual disclaimers regarding my personal point of view apply.