Theorising LARP using symbolic interactionism

academic, Design, Essay

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[1]. 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 [1]. 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.

LARP Interactions

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.

Footnotes

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Immersive, interactive, in-character: larp edges into mainstream entertainment

Community, Essay

Harry Harold

This article first appeared on larpx.com on March 17th 2018. Republished with permission from the author.

The Peckforten Papers is a collection of writing about UK larp published by the Wychwood Press. You can buy it on Lulu should you wish, or get the pdf here.

I wrote a bit for it in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, and it’s down here so I don’t lose it…

I am sat where it all began. For values of “it” and “all” that are arguable, for sure, but they’re certainly true for me. The entire family tree of Treasure Traps; Durham, Cambridge and late-lamented Birmingham (in no particular order), of Labyrinth, of fests and of Fools and Heroes, maybe. Of a small Norfolk system called Overkill where I first ran linears, absolutely. Of the live-combat side of larp in the UK, probably.

Peckforton_Castle_1

(Image credit: Stephen Charles licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

I’m leaching Peckforton Castle’s wifi with a pint of Estrella and a laptop, sat in what was the “smoke room” in the original Treasure Trap’s “basic” adventure. Back in the day, monster weapons were coated with paint, and a ref checked if you’d been hit with red for a small amount of damage, black for a lot more or even green for poison. The staff blame the paint that still marks the walls in “off limits” areas on “an American paintball company.” I am unconvinced, but better an unnamed company than an entire hobby which happened to be born here. Right now it’s a luxury wedding venue. It would make an excellent phys-rep for a College of Wizardry, but would need a ticket price to match and I’m sure it’d be worth that.

Next year, I hope to be sitting in a hotel in Walt Disney World, just starting out on an experience where I’m in character for a couple of days, immersed in a Star Wars themed environment, interacting with Star Wars universe characters, and inspired to change my own and others’ narratives with my actions. The kind of thing their 2013 patent and the news stories since then have fanned as rumour, delivering storytelling through emerging technology, I think they call it these days.

In the 35 years since I started larp, the mainstream has been embracing bits and pieces of the hobby. I didn’t notice for years, but now it’s hard not to. “Immersive”, and “interactive” appear with increasing regularity in advertisements for various types of live entertainment. I’ve seen them used to describe theatre, cinema, music from classical to art-rock, newer forms such as Escape Rooms, Zombie Runs and what we’d once have simply called Haunted Houses. The words “immersive” and “interactive” mean more to more people.

There’s a bit of the mainstreaming of parts of geek culture that can be traced from Harry Potter, bless’im, the cinematic release of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the re-birth of Star Wars. There’s something in individualised or even mass-customised experiences vs. commodified digital delivery of the same entertainment to everyone.

In this article, I’ll place larp in a landscape of other events I’ve been to that are a little bit “larpy”: immersive, interactive, and maybe even a little bit in-character…

Immersive

By this term, the mainstream tends to mean an activity happening in an environment which is authentic to a setting, with people who are dressed and act authentically to the setting. Note, “a” setting – Plunkett and Maclean is my favourite example – it’s lousy at being authentic to Regency Britain, but it’s fabulously authentic to “Plunkett and Macleany Britain,” an altogether better place in which to play. They don’t mean mentally immersed, or at least I don’t think they do, with a very few exceptions I’ve come across, they also don’t mean “in character” – more on that later.

Punchdrunk is a well-funded theatre company with a magnificently executed schtick; the audience moves. Not merely in the sense that a promenade performance moves; where the audience move at the prompting, urging or instruction of ushers. Punchdrunk audiences simply wander about. Punchdrunk shows are unique to their environments, which are simply stunning. I’ve been to two of their shows for adults. The “Masque of the Red Death” took elements from Edgar Allan Poe stories, and wove them round Battersea Arts centre. “The Drowned Man” created a Hollywood cinema studio with accompanying trailer park and town in the shell of a disused Royal Mail sorting office.The attention to detail in the set dressing in particular verged on the obsessive; with documents, letters, and props all forming part of the story.

As a member of the audience at a Punchdrunk event you’re immersed in the story, in that you have a physical presence where you wish to be. You are certainly in a place which is itself part of the action. You’re all given white masks, so you were all blank faces staring at the action. At “Masque of the Red Death”, you were given black robes if you weren’t dressed for the time, so many of you were raven-like, flocking round points of interest. What you experience is (probably) unique because you move at your whim.

Secret Cinema create immersive experiences based on films. You show up, you’re in a space appropriate to the film, then you watch the film. Some actors do some stuff appropriate to the film. Back in the day, you never knew what the film was. You showed up, not knowing what to expect, they took you somewhere, you watched something.

Now, that’s pretty cool, but what I think they realised is that an immersive experience needs the people as well as the environment to be dressed right, and act right. So nowadays their blockbuster shows tell you what you’re going to see, how to look, and there are crew about to give you something to interact with before the film. I’ve only been to a couple: “Empire Strikes Back,” and “Moulin Rouge”.

The immersive element before “Empire Strikes Back” was the setting of the original “Star Wars” story: Tatooine, a couple of shuttle runs, and the Death Star. The set was simply stunning, and it turned out there were enough geek-sci-fi-fans around for the audience to look good too. When we landed in Mos Eisley, my inner seven year old just stumbled about open-mouthed, when we walked into the cantina with the diddly diddly music playing, he was slack-jawed, when we got to use Jedi mindtricks on a stormtrooper, he was in seventh heaven, when the Death Star pulled us in a tractor beam, he was punch-drunk with experience-shock, and when a life-size x-wing executed an attack run over our heads, he actually exploded. It was pretty awesome.

“Moulin Rouge” was a film-set street in Mountmatre: a couple of bars, a stage and a dancehall with double level seating they managed to hide until we entered the “Moulin Rouge” itself. It was a beautifully effective use of space, and we were moved round impeccably, to the extent that I only really noticed what they were doing on my third run, when I went with a more analytical frame of mind, and a more analytical companion. It wasn’t – to look back critically – as immersive as the set for “Empire Strikes Back”. What I think made it, were the other people. Everyone I noticed had gone to town on costume, in a setting where, unlike “Empire Strikes Back,” there are some easily accessible tropes: “posh” or “performer” are pretty easy to do, steampunk fits, if you feel the need, and low status male at least is a charity shop standard. The audience got (physically) immersed amongst a whole pack of other folk who’d also gone to town on their look.

That physical immersion is one of the elements I prize in larp. Yes, you can patch anything with imagination, and yes, in most games I run you need to. But I think imagination is overrated in larp. What sets larp apart from tabletop roleplaying is physical presence, and there are stories to be told where tabletop is simply a better vehicle. Let it have them, and reserve larp for the stories it tells best, the ones where participants can be physically immersed in an environment and where physicality plays its own part in how the story unfolds. Like a Punchdrunk show, in fact, where the experience is unique precisely because participants define it by exactly where they move to and when.

Like my first linear way back in the day at Peckforton, where I arrived at the main gate of an actual castle to go on my first adventure…

Interactive

I’ve moved castles. I’m now in the chapel at St Briavels, a former royal hunting lodge turned youth hostel. I ran an event here once; a parliament I helped organise for the faction I led as an NPC for the Lorien Trust. I can’t remember the plot too well, actually I’m not even sure we had any beyond some meetings and decision-making, maybe a haunt or two. I distinctly recall not letting the orcs in the poshest meeting room, on account of their OOC (out of character) facepaint and that becoming a bone of contention IC (in character). Nice place, anyway. Decent venue for the right sort of larp, but as so often these days I’d look at it first, then design the game around the location. Anyway. There was interaction, but the focus would have been the IC business of running the kind of political organisation that that needed doing for a faction called the Vipers.

The Punchdrunk events I have been to are only modestly interactive. As a member of the audience you’re not in control of the interaction: they are. There’s the edge case of the serial Punchdrunkgoer who knows not only where to stand to see what, but even where and when to stand to get what for the rest of us is the rarest of the rare, a one-to-one interaction with a Punchdrunk performer.

Back at Secret Cinema’s “Empire Strikes Back,” cutting deals with Jawa or using Jedi tricks to break rebels out of jail were ace, but also pretty structured. Interactions at their “Moulin Rouge” were more like larp, in my experience anyway. While I wasn’t and couldn’t be in charge of the big arc, the event did respond to my actions. There were more small goals and more I could interact with. As well as the signposted interactive elements, the “quest NPCs” if you like, there was reason enough to interact with the majority of the other people there. If participants signed up for it, they got a character name with an objective, and something of a lever on the world which involved other archetypes. More of the interaction could be, should be, would be with the other punters. So when I signed up and was given “Impressario” as an archetype – well, then, best to turn up with a show to put on, and find performers to perform.

These interactions seemed to make the immersion more, well, immersive. Notably, I experienced the film as part of an *us* rather than a member of an *audience*. The film at “Empire Strikes Back” was an irrelevance: we just watched. The film at “Moulin Rouge” carried on the immersive, interactive, inspirational, communal experience. More of the action in the film was conducive to this approach; and we were expertly orchestrated by Satine’s conducting. We were dancing when there was dancing on screen, we were singing (badly, and off-key, but singing) whenever there was singing on screen. We were making the experience together. Was that “interaction”? No, not really. But I absolutely, totally loved it. Essentially, I think it’s a fest larp done brilliantly. There’s enough for people to watch if they simply want to be immersed in an environment. There’s interaction if participants choose to chase it. If they don’t, some other player like me might invite them along anyway and there’s enough inspiration in the background to give those players the tools they need.

My enthusiasm for Secret Cinema isn’t universal. According to some other folk who’ve gone, the reality of the more signposted stuff involving crew characters – the “plot”, I guess – didn’t match the promise. I tend to approach my larp-event-fun pretty defensively – I bring my own fun every time – so this didn’t hit me. Because not *everyone* learns their “character brief”, those sorts of interactions never worked out for me. I don’t think I asked anyone their name, so that passed me by. One person described it as a club night with a film in the middle. They go to better clubs than I do.

Interactive is possibly even more of a trend within popular culture than immersive right now, with a number of sub-genres and related styles I have little or no experience of. I’ve been to one “pervasive game”, an event set in the real streets of London. Their main mistake to my mind was setting an event with a espionage theme in a triangle of London bordered by Westminister Barracks, the Ministry of Justice and New Scotland Yard. My experience was dampened by an initial brief, delivered in-character, which demanded I “Trust no-one”. I managed that so successfully that I avoided the whole rest of the game. One encounter with a “security guard” I heard of second-hand felt a little too immersive for my tastes, helping support my contention that the boundaries of the sandbox are best described out-of-game, not in-game. Another, differencEngine & Dean Rodgers’ “Heist,” was more successful for me. They did well enough at the interactive and immersive element that I forgave them not allowing us to use the props and plans we’d brought with us in favour of operating within the parameters they set us. Then there’s the Crystal Maze experience based on the 80s TV show opened in London in 2016, with another slated to launch in Manchester. Murder mystery evenings, with a longer heritage, and escape rooms, where participants have to solve puzzles in a set time-frame to emerge successful, a more modern invention.

Interaction is where larp can genuinely stand out amongst other media, and good larp does. I’ve heard, and now tend to use, words like “lever” to encapsulate this kind of thing, the idea that the world is a system a player can bend to their will somehow. If a decision does not have consequences that are reflected by the world, it’s not as meaningful. There is some interaction on offer in the more mainstream immersive experiences. I’ve seen immersive and interactive events that said participants would be shaping an actual narrative. I’ve often been disappointed. Possibly because to my mind, if a story cannot be influenced, it is not interactive, it’s a show. Maybe a good show, but a show nonetheless. I’ve been to larp events which did the same, either by accident or sometimes by design, railroading the action so I felt like a spectator.

“You must be able to make a difference and you must want to make a difference,” is something I think Matt Pennington said about good larp once. Part of this is inherent in consequences, if the world recognises and reflects your actions positively, you’ll be more likely to actually do things. Big things. Impactful things. I don’t mean to suggest an action should only have a positive effect. An action should not produce a positive effect simply because a player took it. Heroism cannot be granted, it can only be earned. However, to my mind the world should try damned hard to say, “that was a good thing to have done”, as well as, “You did that thing. Here are the consequences”. “That was a good thing to have done”, as opposed to “That was the Best Thing!” I think I am saying that every defeat should be a Dunkirk. I find this extraordinarily hard to manage myself.

Part of it is leaving sufficient space for the players to make an event their own, so they bring their imagination to the party, so they bring their things to do. Small things, maybe, but personal things perhaps, relationships that mean a lot to their characters or stunts that bring others into the action.

This is a right pig sometimes, because some of the immersioning I want to do requires set dressing ahead of time, groups of non-player characters to be moved to somewhere specific at just the right moment, things to go bang at the right moment, and not some other moment, that kind of thing. And the sign-posting to these scenes kinda stands against interactivity in the active sense I want it, the sense where every interaction has an effect. What of that effect is to kill one of the scenes I want to bring a really cool moment to life? Heigh-ho. No-one ever said this was easy.

In-character

This is where we depart from the mainstream.

Secret Cinema kinda do this, I’m pretty confident no-one else does, really. After “Empire Strikes Back,” I said I’d not bother with multiplexes so much, I’d just save up until Secret Cinema did something else in a genre I liked. “Moulin Rouge” It wasn’t *exactly* a larp, in that there was precious little characterisation or *emotional* immersion going on. However, I’d be happy going to one fewer larp a year, and blowing the cash on another night out in Mountmatre. It was kinda like a gateway drug to larp. To me, it’s weakness in that was it’s “character generation” system; only luck gave me a role that I was comfortable with, which led me to the kind of experience I delight in.

Other “immersive” pieces have said something like, “It is the future. You’re a citizen.” or “You’re a spy”, but put nothing into the experience except that assertion to make attendees think or behave differently. Sometimes, less forgivably for me, they’ve gone so far as to reject my efforts to behave as someone in that environment might behave in favour of only recognising conformity to the narrow behaviours expected of audience members, as opposed to participants. I think I’ve learned to set my expectations as I’ve gone to more “interactive” events. It’s a matter of identifying the power I, as a member of the audience, has, and pushing those limits so they bend but not break. Just as I’d do in a larp, in fact. There’s social contracts everywhere after all, even if they aren’t always as clear as you’d like.

As pointed out by one of the wise at the time, an earlier “immersive and interactive” piece I wrote didn’t explicitly require “participants to be playing a character rather than being themselves” at all, which was a bit revealing to me in retrospect. I think there’s something in the sort of “my body is a puppet” roleplaying I do, and the “I become my character” roleplay which others do. Something to ponder anyway. It’s quite something of a volte face to move from not even mentioning “in-character” to the realisation that it is the uniqueness of larp as a hobby, but there it is.

This is what we do that no-one else concentrates on yet. That Disney resort? They might. We’ll see.

References

College of Wizardry

The 2013 Disney patent

An example story concerning the Disney resort

Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk: Masque of the Read Death

Punchdrunk: Crash of the Elysium

Punchdrunk: The Drowned Man

Secret Cinema

Heist

http://www.sixtostart.com/onetoread/2008/everything-you-know-about-args-is-wrong/