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

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LARP imitates life Part 1 (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Ch 6-8)

In Lizzie Stark’s “Leaving Mundania”, there is a historical description of the cultural backlash experienced around LARP in the US throughout the 1990s which presented the game experience as at odds with common Christian family values. This is labelled the “satanic panic”. Since I do not think this issue is directly in evidence currently in the UK (we are after all, a country renowned for eccentricity), I have been thinking instead about how mainstream cultural attitudes and morality are incorporated or explicitly rejected in the creation of a separate ‘game world’.

In the opportunity presented by fantasy, the design of a utopian dream is given a chance at reality. Yet in the pursuit of dramatic experiences demanded by the format of a game, those who write and develop such ‘new worlds’ often incorporate sources of tension. These might involve racial or species differences, limited access to resources or cultural differences. A classical difference present in sources such as Tolkien lies in the difference in longevity experienced by those of different races and attendant feelings of cultural superiority. Playing characters in a game which draw on such different attitudes to our own everyday lifestyles is a challenge requiring imagination and originality. However, adopting novel attitudes to specific groups or issues is only one aspect of performing the character in a given fantastical game, the player is also required to suppress some of their everyday attitudes. For example, attitudes towards racism and slavery may have to be adopted to play a particular sort of character, but gender equality or reversal may also require significant modification to player attitudes, as might a group rather than an individual focus on value in honour-based cultures.

Gender harassment

Gender harassment in LARP is something that anecdotally at least is on the decline (and in this sense I refer to the harassment of women by men. The opposite may occur, in fact I think I could describe several instances of it, but no one has ever told me of it in such terms). Nonetheless, I have experienced several instances of gender harassment myself (and some very recently). The general cultural norm which positions women as inferior (however minutely) to men is reinforced by many of the adventure genres that permeate the LARP hobby. As described in Lizzie Stark’s book on the US scene (and evident in Fine’s study of tabletop gamers) , there is also a ‘boys club’ element to the origins of LARP in wargaming that supports the gender distinction. In the space of play, it is particularly difficult to fight against not only the contemporary cultural norms, but these reinforced attitudes of the particular narrative genre. Although women playing warrior characters, or educated scientists (in victorian or 1920s themed events) are more frequent than they once were, the hobby has not quite reached the stage where there are no impediments to acknowledging this constructive element of the fantasy.
Recent attempts to build game scenarios which are more tolerant of divergences from the written canon of associated genre publications have attempted to provide more egalitarian situations for gameplay (e.g. Profound Decision’s new game, Empire). Yet though such developments to incorporate genre-appropriate variants of democracy and equality/meritocracy are promising for the hobby, this only addresses the ‘added’ aspect of the performance. A notable concern emerges from attempts to encourage players to reconsider their existing prejudices or everyday attitudes which are not adjusted in performance, but which remain as a bottom layer of activity.

Lizzie Stark addresses some of these issues indirectly when she describes the experiences of a player’s life in the military outside of the game compared to his ongoing involvement in a fantasy role as a law-upholding knight (a paladin). This comparison caused the individual concerned to reflect (not always comfortably) over time on the relationship between violence and moral absolutes (what is right or wrong). LARP is at times considered a dangerous hobby in part because it involves the breaking down of particular social assumptions and practices. This raises questions about the authority of those practices in the everyday.  For the knight defending a horde of villagers from goblins things are pretty straightforward. For the infantryman patrolling a foreign province, less so.

To return to the issue of gender then, although the role of women in a particular LARP may allow for differing interpretations of their place in society (and the nature of LARP rarely positions female players as primarily breeders), certain practices and language remain unaffected. In better scenarios, the role of women is presented in a playful fashion, or are explicitly reversed to create a matriarchy. These do not seriously challenge particular structures or attitudes as they tend to position the female players in a mothering role. In most scenarios, the conduct of LARP has no  bearing on the gender relation since the ‘added’ performance of the game is built on existing cultural tropes of woman-as-sex-object, woman-as-secondary or woman-as-homemaker. It is from these categories that many discussions of the ‘healer-girlfriend’, ‘princess’ or ‘catgirl’ and similar LARP clichés emerge. Finally, in the worst scenarios individual players take advantage of the ambiguity of LARP practice to undermine particular cultural standards of women-as-individuals to instead behave in line with standards of women-as-property (which can be stolen, traded, broken, etc at the risk of the ‘owner’).

These observations are not based on extensive theory or empirical research but simply reflect experiences I have had in the field alongside those others have discussed with me. LARP also offers a silver lining on the issue of gender harassment as with so many other issues. By ongoing or reflective participation in LARP, individuals can recognise the disconnect between individual moral choice and prevailing ‘norms’ of everyday practice. It is also easier to notice in LARP how these issues of behaviour and choice can be misinterpreted easily by different groups, and the resulting unintended consequences.

As this post has become excessively abstract, I have broken it into two parts.  The second part will consider cultural imperialism in costume as an example to discuss some of the points already made above.

The usual disclaimers apply, please feel free to comment.

 

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.

What is normal? Reflections on ‘Leaving Mundania’ Chapter 1 & 2

Having read Lizzie Stark’s book on the US LARP scene, I was reflecting on the many everyday aspects of the LARP community that are represented there which I have also encountered. The book describes the experience of attending LARP for the first time, the connection between LARP and pen and paper roleplay games (also known as tabletop), and the central role that participation in the LARP community beyond the game itself holds in the life histories of some people. There is also an implicit discussion around LARPers defining themselves against a “normal” stereotype which is not always accepted by the “normal” people they encounter.

In these descriptions, LARP is taken seriously, and Lizzie makes a point of highlighting the skills and benefits that participants take from the activity into their lives. She highlights the close bonds of the community that in many cases substitute for difficult or dysfunctional family relations. One of the defining features of being a LARPer, however, seems to be the expectation that the activity is never taken seriously by outsiders. Or, in rare cases, is taken far too seriously and considered some sort of obsession. I once read an introduction to a collection of short stories by a well known horror writer who highlighted how the word ‘hobby’ was used to cover any number of peculiar and irrational obsessions. In this light it is fairly easy to extend the curiosity about LARP to many well known and accepted hobbies.

In previous posts I have compared LARP to football, not only because that is a hobby I have particular difficulty understanding myself, but also because it has a strong cultural currency. When meeting football fans I find it difficult to appreciate their arguments about the rules, their fascination with the tactics and talent of individual footballers, or the aggressive camaraderie that accompanies wearing the same scarf as everyone else. Yet these activities are very similar to those engaged in by LARPers. The ‘cultural currency’ and associated stereotyping, however, is not one of machismo and belligerence (as often associated with football fans), but instead often portrayed as one of unattractive friendless ‘nerds’ with dubious social skills, self-image problems and ‘fringe’ attitudes to prevailing social structures and politics. Football fans, then, are ‘super’normal, while LARPers are associated with a not-quite-normal ‘sub’class. Like any stereotype, these are insulting generalisations that apply to few in the hobby (though I don’t doubt there is some truth in any stereotype for some individuals). However, an important core aspect of the LARP community for many is its high tolerance of diversity. As such, people are potentially more likely to be open about matters they might otherwise keep hidden from public knowledge.

In Lizzie’s book, there is an incident where LARPers in a public space suspend their activities while some non-LARPers pass through the area, while the LARPers shout “look out, normals”, a label which the individuals concerned mildly object to. By contrast, I thought about occassions when I have encountered football fans in the street, roving groups of ‘lads’ chanting and singing at anyone they encounter, with one at the back of the group quietly apologising for his friends’ behaviour. LARP, it seems, makes a point of excluding (protecting?) outsiders, while football fandom attempts to recruit them. Personally, friends have accused me in the past of being something of a LARP ‘evangelist’, attempting (like the football fans) to ‘convert’ people I meet to the practice of the hobby, and I wonder at the role this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘others’ plays in reinforcing the stereotypes mentioned above. Further, the strength of the definition of those in the LARP community as “not normal” seems to be foundational to the community in some way.

One possible answer might be that the attempts made by the community to present themselves as “not normal” is the equivalent to the apologetic friend of the football fans. LARPers, much like football fans, are often causing disruption of order in public spaces by appearing in strange costumes, making conversation on outlandish topics or shouting rule-based effects at one another. It is possible that by shouting “suspend play! Time-freeze! Normals!” LARPers attempt to convey the message to general passers-by; “yes, we are doing something strange, sorry for the disruption.”

An important aspect of the instance in ‘Leaving Mundania,’ however, was that the so-called normals responded in kind; “we are not normals!” which rather upsets the attempts by the LARPers to distinguish strict boundaries around their gameplay. In many UK LARPs I participate in, over teh past ten years there has been a decrease in the use of ‘normal’ as a label used to define the community against, with scenarios such as the one Lizzie described pausing with the use of phrases such as “people passing”, “public”, or “mind the path”. This seems to imply the possibility of a growing awareness that people coming across a LARP event may have ‘not-quite-normal’ tendencies of their own, and even might want to ask where to go to buy a costume and join in.

As always, comments welcome below.

LARP – Cultural differences

Today’s post is bright to you partly in response to Lizzie Stark’s commentary on the differences between Nordic LARP and US LARP. Since UK LARP has as long a provenance as either of these two countries (according to Lizzie’s book anyway), I thought it would be worth highlighting the differences through focussing on a key distinction in UK LARP: the IC/OOC divide.

IC is the abbreviation for In Character, playing the game, while OOC is the abbreviation for Out of Character, or not playing the game (temporarily or otherwise). People say “I’m just going OC for a moment” or “I’m just going to get into costume and nip to the bathroom and then I’ll be IC”. The ability to maintain and manage the process of being IC or OOC is an important part of being considered a ‘good’ roleplayer.

In the UK, many games commonly have geographical zones which correspond with being onstage or offstage, IC or OOC. Bathrooms for example are often OOC and at ‘fest’ events there is usually an OOC camping area as well as an IC camping area. Players will often ‘go’ OOC during a part of the day and chat with other players who IC they have little interaction with. So why is this important?

Like the Nordic LARPs, UK LARP often aims for a level of immersion which allows for both personal (internal) plot development in terms of character growth, as well as external (world) plot which requires puzzle-solving and skill use (determined mostly by the rules). A significant part of playing the game lies in maintaining immersion while engaging with the rules. As a case in point, in a previous game scenario I suggested some magician types who were working with my character refer to a spell as lasting for “600 heartbeats”, which was well received since the rules stated a 10 minute period. Attempts to conceal the IC /OOC boundary in this way are common in UK LARP, in order to promote an immersive experience.

Metagaming, the activity of using knowledge gained outside the state of play to advantage oneself in the game, is disapproved of as potentially undermining the opportunity to engage in externally designed plot (much the same as in US LARP). It also has repercussions for personal development, and many systems have strict restrictions against playing characters with similar histories consecutively. However, an awareness of the meta-level aspects of the game, once again, is often seen as the mark of a seasoned player. Combat moving into uneven territory will often be declared “holy ground” or even referred to as a dangerous cliff face on the initiative of one player in order to mark it off to other players as an area to stay away from. Further, in order to advance character development, players may speak to one another OOC beforehand so as to plan scenarios for IC interaction, such as the meeting of long-lost family, or even hated enemies.

Going OOC is sometimes an activity with unclear etiquette in UK LARP. Which geographical zones are definitely OOC can change according to the game organisers, and smaller scale LARPs are more likely to demand that players remain IC at all times during the game (including while asleep!). Fest LARPs, by contrast often have clear zones for catering and toilet facilities which are specifically OOC. Transitions between these areas are considered a matter of etiquette, and putting one hand in the air is a near-universal sign in UK LARPs that you are not present IC. It is also tiring after a while, which encourages you not to go about it for too long!  However, each system has its own accepted behaviour, and the use of ‘safewords’ is nowhere near as common or as frequent as appears to be the case in Nordic LARP.

If anyone has any further reflections on the distinctions between UK LARP and the European/US models, please feel free to comment below.

LINKS

Lizzie’s post:

http://lizziestark.com/2012/08/08/nordic-larp-for-noobs/

Cantwell’s (2009) comparison between UK and French LARP:

http://knutepunkt.laiv.org/2009/book/TenComparisonsBetweenUKLRPAndFrenchGN/

A New Beginning

I started this blog quite some time ago in the hope of using it to facilitate writing. I struggle with getting my thoughts down on a page, to the extent that I will do just about anything with them rather than write them down. I thought that with a blog, an audience, this might make a difference. However, the internet is a big place, with few landmarks or signposts. So I am starting anew, with a particular focus. For some time I have been performing, doing, organising and coordinating as well as writing about, LARP. It even made its way into my PhD Thesis. I am convinced that it is both fundamentally interesting as a hobby and as a social phenomenon. It is also amenable to photography, although it is usually impossible to an outsider to “guess what it is yet”. I will therefore use this blog to write about LARP, for a non-LARPing audience, as well as for those who may wish to reflect on the hobby.

Before I take on the task of writing my own extensive wanderings on the subject, it is worth making a short list of other sources on the subject. I am enormously indebted to the publications of the Knutepunkt/Solmukohta/Knudepunkt conferences which I have sadly never been able to attend but have read from afar with great interest. The website does tend to move around but with the help of Google you can find most publications online (I recently found most through here: http://xklsv.org/viewwiki.php?title=Knutepunkt ).

In traditional format, I will also be discussing the book “leaving Mundania” written by Lizzie Stark which focuses on the hobby in the US, with input from the Nordic scene. She lists her top sources here: http://lizziestark.com/2011/11/28/advice-for-first-time-larp-scholars/

As a community source, I am not always a regular attendee on this particular forum, but the Rule 7 forums are a longstanding location of discussion and debate for roleplayers and can be found here: http://forums.rule7.co.uk/

The popular German magazine on the hobby “LARPzeit” is also now published online in English: http://www.larpzeit.de/international/

Finally, in the past the journal of interactive drama has featured articles on LARP, although it has had something of a turbulent history. Archived material can be found here: http://www.interactivedramas.info/jarchive.htm

Aside from other writing on LARP, there has also been material on roleplaying games generally, and an often overlooked source is Gary Alan Fine’s “Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as social worlds”.