TL;DR Goffman provides a framework useful for analysing the social interactions of LARP. We can apply his three assumptions; life as theatrical performance, that the alignment of performance requires work, and that individuals are motivated to save face and uphold the group by ensuring consistency. This gives us a new perspective on the IC/OOC divide, roleplay for self-development, preferred play styles and LARP culture that can usefully learn from other academic studies of culture and the arts.
This post is based on a talk I gave at Camelot – UK larp conference in Birmingham in November 2019.
There are lots of existing concepts out there for theorising larp and larp design. Yet many attempt to do so from the ground up without considering the rich resources available to us elsewhere, such as sociological writing on small group behaviour. If we think about how we use our existing social knowledge to enact our characters in roleplaying games, this can help us take discussions on playing outside of our own cultural norms further, and enhance the potential of larp for self-development.
In order to do so, in this article I propose we break down the distinction between the dramatic performance we call ‘roleplaying’, and that of everyday social life. An historic advocate of such ‘dramaturgical’ methods was Erving Goffman, famous as the author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Yet Goffman also wrote on games, and his style of analysis greatly informs Gary Alan Fine’s 1983 study of tabletop roleplaying Shared Fantasy: Roleplaying Games as Social Worlds. Goffman’s work developed and expanded the interactionist perspective on ‘role theory’ outlined as part of social development by G.H.Mead around 100 years ago. Despite their age, these texts have been foundational in studies of social interaction in sociology, and provide an excellent way to approach the study of live-action gaming.
In this article, I outline several of Goffman’s key concepts from Interaction Ritual and suggest how these map onto equivalent roleplay behaviours.
Basic assumptions from Interaction Ritual
Assumption 1 – What is going on here?
When we interact socially with other people or objects, we assume that our attitudes and behaviours are informed by the meanings we attribute to them. We develop those meanings (norms) through previous socialisation and try to identify which applies in a given situation. In our interactions, we use our lexicon of language or symbols to negotiate the meaning that applies to this context. In doing so, we collectively define the situation. If we feel we are unsuccessful at this we review our symbols and situation, proposing alternative understandings using our imagination and taking different points of view to those we hold.
In this assumption, ‘here’ relies on interactions happening in the same physical space. However, mediated interactions (such as video conferences or online spaces) can also be explored using these assumptions. One of the ways in which we often try to control interactions so the meaning is less variable is by limiting the scope of interaction, or establishing explicit symbolic codes which will formally apply to a given social space (a dress code in an office during work hours is one example of this). When Goffman was writing in 1950s America, these norms were perhaps less flexible than today, with social groups being more fixed. Yet the framework still holds for contemporary social groups.
Assumption 2 – Keeping everyone in line
Keeping our meanings in order requires work by all involved to ensure alignment between actions and interpretations. And this alignment work is hidden . In order to resolve the ambiguity of multiple possible interaction scenarios, we tend to adopt a type of ‘policing’ of the storyline. This assumption relies upon everyone in the social performance accepting a specific ritual boundary such as that of a ‘game’. Within this frame of activity, everyone must undertake to perform an assigned role related to the game such as ‘player’, ‘combatant’ or ‘storyteller’.
A failure to demonstrate competence in line with the specifically chosen, claimed or attributed social role which maintains alignment with “what is going on here”, endangers the frame with collapse. Other participants will question the validity of ‘what is going on’, or may impose an alternative ‘frame’ to explain the behaviour. An example of this is when players in a game revert to their social roles, e.g as friends, family members and are no longer only ‘players’ but instead are ‘daughter’, ‘father’, ‘best friend’. This frame shifting is very common when playing some games such as family board games!
Assumption 3 – Doing ‘face work’
Individuals need to demonstrate role competence to maintain their ‘face’; their presentation of a coherent self-image in which the expectations of their social circle are in alignment with their own behaviour. In order to maintain their own ‘face’ and that of others, individuals will do ‘face work’. Face work relies upon a range of social procedures which are learned from the social exchange and etiquette of everyday life. These procedures may include engaging tact to avoid conflict with clear rules of alignment (such as behaviour in designated game spaces or engaging in non-game behaviour), policing a corrective process, or engaging in competitive point-scoring against other participants.
Employing tact is often an example of cooperation with the face work of others. A group may collectively ignore a slip in the social performance of another member in order to maintain their face and uphold the ‘line’ regarding what is going on. This avoidance of calling someone to account for incorrect behaviour is only one form of tactful face work, another might be to offer an adjustment to the line, or to the expectations regarding the individual’s behaviour.
When an individual makes a mistake in their performance, they may also engage in a corrective process to admit their error and restore the ‘line’. Apologies are the most common example of a corrective process, following a clear pattern; from the challenge to the behaviour, to offerring atonement, to acceptance or forgiveness by the group, and expressing gratitude. The agreement of the social group to uphold a corrective process are key to this variety of face work.
Sometimes individuals engage in competitive face work through challenging others’ behaviours as out of line, or by emphasising their own successful performances at the expense of others. Such competitive point-scoring is risky, however, as the individual is intentionally exposing their competence to challenge.
In roleplaying games, we rely on the assumption that interactions involve multiple sets of meanings. One meaning is clearly “I am a participant in the roleplaying event (player/NPC/monster/referee)”, while another is “I am a part of this narrative (character)”. Additional meanings may be “I am a game-player enacting the rules” or “I am a crew member directing the players“. We have established a wide lexicon of symbols, language and gestures in order to convey these meanings, though these are most clear in reference to play actions outside of the narrative. The meanings of character’s performance in the narrative are more ambiguous.
For most players, the answer to ‘what is going on here’ is, quite obviously, “this is a LARP event”. Yet a huge amount of work goes into establishing that ‘reality’, from booking a venue for hire, through to advertising, and even establishing norms about what an ‘event’ is. Downtime, for example, is commonly ‘not an event’, even though players may narrate or spend time with each other as their characters acting out interactions that will have an effect in game.
The complexity of explaining “what is going on here” is clearly evident when unsuspecting members of the public accidentally enter a game space and have to be advised against its hazards. But even players moving between different systems or communities may struggle to learn the different expectations, and are likely to bring their knowledge or experience from other activities. For example, does the event require a ‘sign in’ before it begins? Tickets like a theatre show? Is there a clear space for the event or is it pervasive across physical and virtual space – even the bathrooms? Is there a guide or clues like an escape room experience? Are players customers of a game experience or contributors to a performance?
Between ourselves, we generally refer to alignment challenges as those of managing the boundary between in-play and out-of play action space. LARP games occur within a designated play area, in which certain rules of behaviour are set out in advance using play culture and codes of practice. In the conventions of UK LARP culture this usually includes the advertising, rulebook and pre-game materials as well as the in person pre-game briefing. The rules of behaviour set out in these materials serve to specify the ‘line’ of acceptable versus unacceptable conduct when engaging in LARP play. A wide range of these techniques fall into the category outlined by Goffman as ‘face-work’; keeping up appearances as a competent player. Face-work relies upon the alignment between the way the player sees themself and the way others see them, so in LARPing this includes (diegetic) narrative and non-diegetic actions in the flow of events.
Between ourselves, we generally refer to alignment challenges as those of managing the boundary between in-play and out-of play action space. LARP games occur within a designated play area, in which certain rules of behaviour are set out in advance using play culture and codes of practice. In the conventions of UK LARP culture this usually includes the advertising, rulebook and pre-game materials as well as the in person pre-game briefing. The rules of behaviour set out in these materials serve to specify the ‘line’ of acceptable versus unacceptable conduct when engaging in LARP play.
The techniques which establish what is or is not ‘acceptable conduct’ are outlined by Goffman as ‘face-work’; keeping up appearances as a competent player. Face-work relies upon the alignment between the way the player sees themself and the way others see them, so in LARPing this is made more complex by the need to do so simultaneously in reference to the (diegetic) narrative and non-diegetic aspects of events (e.g ludic rules of play, social norms of the wider community culture). Attempts to embed rules in the game narrative through euphemisms of performance are common ways in which LARPers conceal inconsistent game behaviours. For example, in fantasy tales, you rarely hear of warrior heroes stopping to visit the bathroom, or to have their spellcards issued by the game organisers. But they might ‘pray’ at a shrine, or seek to ‘restore their power’. Players also may engage in competitive face work as their characters (within the diegetic reality or through the ludic rules) in ways that they would find too risky in their out-of-game social roles, directly or subtly using narrative tropes or knowledge of the game system to call out other characters or players as ‘doing it wrong’ in order to boost their own standing.
So why are these theoretical ideas useful for LARPers, LARP theory and design?
First, the LARP community is not different to other subcultures, and faces many of the same challenges in how it is represented. Looking at how behavioural norms cross between the larger community and the hobby subculture can offer a way to understand how to maintain community safety and manage recruitment of new players. Exploring differences between different LARP groups regarding what is considered part of ‘what is going on here’ shows how different communities evolve different play styles, and provides insight into the differences between LARP events or systems. Finally, looking specifically at how individuals try to engage in competitive face-work within games compared with outside them provides a way to understand the underlying social mechanisms of LARP, and open the medium more thoroughly to design for training or self-development.
If you want to dive deeper into the application of Goffman to LARP you might like my 2016 academic article available here.
- Scholarly articles on LARP can be found in a range of specialist journals on culture, ethnography, computer science as well as specific journals such as Analog Game Studies, with a long history of work emerging from the Nordic Knutepunkt/Knudepunkt/Solmukohta conferences
- Harold Garfinkel’s work, and particularly his breaching experiments, highlight this. Applied mainly to textual analysis of (spoken) interaction, this area of sociology emphasises ‘glossing practices’ as part of a requirement for individual acknowledgement as members of a shared community.