The Death of the Auteur

academic, Essay, Opinion

 Jamie Hall is a larp designer, based in the UK. He has been writing and refereeing larp campaigns since the early 2000’s: NEXUS, Carum Live Roleplay, and more recently, Strange LRP.  He likes simple systems that generate complex outcomes.

“An auteur is a director who is considered the most important figure in the art of filmmaking, a creative person equivalent to an author of a novel or a play…[They control] all aspects of filmmaking. [The term] originated in France in the early 1950s”.

Constantine Santas (2002, p18) “Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art” Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8304-1580-9

The idea of the auteur is an easy one to grasp. The director of a film is usually the most important credit. The author of a novel is assumed to have created the story entirely from their own imagination. The designer of a computer game decides what can happen, and what can’t. As consumers of stories in various media, we are conditioned to accept the idea of an authority figure (often male), who has the vision and ambition to create.

In some circumstances, the creator is a true auteur: a novel without an editor or proof-reader; a play that is written, directed and performed by a single person; a film in which every process is overseen by the director. In most cases, the reality is more collaborative. For example, editors can have a significant influence on a novel, and cinematographers and sound engineers have their own artistic intuitions.

Larp is a new medium which is interactive, and collaborative. It has similarities with oral storytelling, theatre, tabletop games, computer games, and sports. All of these have uncertain outcomes, and might develop each time they are performed. This is in contrast to a novel, or a film, which has been finished, and is experienced passively.

Instead, the particpants at a larp are actively engaged in a process of self-organisation or ‘spontaneous order’, in which they simultaneously create and respond to interaction, typically acting within the parameters estalished by the organisers (eg. ‘this is a 1920’s larp’, or, ‘you are a shamanic ritualist’), but ultimately making their own decisions about where, when, and why they interact.

The larp itself is process of self-organisation, and each moment of the larp is a process of self-organisation, allowing the particants to look back on the progress of their narratives, and create or modify their plots in response.

A larp organiser might consider themselves to be an auteur, and control every aspect of the logistics, but by the nature of larp, they are not the only participant; they cannot control the actions of the players, and in particular, the memories of the players. Once the larp begins, the players will respond to what is happening around them, regardless of the intentions of the organiser.

The larp system also has a memory, albeit an unreliable one. After each event and after each interaction information is encoded; primarily in the minds of the participants, who can refer back to their previous interactions and the actions of other participants. It is unreliable because the players experience subjective narratives, and while the organiser may have a better grasp of the story it is hard or impossible to make an objective record of everything that has taken place (instead, organisers typically collect some data, eg. who has died, which rituals have been cast, whether the statue has been stolen from the temple).

No two larps are ever the same. Even if the larp is composed of the same places, people, objects, and ideas, a second run will deliver a different outcome to the first. This is because the story is not a component of the system, but an emergent property of it – something that does not exist within the design of the larp system, or the minds of the participants, and instead develops as the larp is played.

Terms such as “non-linear”, “player-led”, and “character-driven” are often used interchangeably to describe an “emergent” story, but it should be noted that the story is always emergent, even if the larp has a linear structure, if crew characters are running the show, or if the organiser plot is paramount. Each term is useful, and all of them point to a need for freedom – the end result of any larp is the combined effort of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of participants, who (consciously or unconsciously) engage in the process of self-organisation.

Stories and narratives are, by nature, retrospective. If a participant thinks about them or describes them, they are describing what has happened in the past. At a larp interactions are hard to predict, therefore, the outcomes of stories and narratives are hard to predict. The story is objective, in that things either happened or did not happen, but neither players, crew, or organisers have a truly objective view of it. Instead, they understand it subjectively, through individual narratives.

When a participant is thinking about the future, it is not story or narrative, but plot. ‘Plot’ is often discussed as if it is a voyage being marked onto a map, but in this context, it really refers to “plotting and scheming”. Organisers and players must be able to plot. That is, they must be able to conceive plans for future action, based on information about the system (ie. the setting, the rules, things that have already happened). Organisers have a rich array of tools to plot with – they can create and destroy characters, objects, and locations. Players are only able to plan for their own actions, and rely on agency to affect the actions of others.

Agency is integral to larp. It is the “self” in “self-organising”. A participant without agency is unable to affect change, and therefore cannot contribute to the emergent story. Their individual narrative is likely to consist of numerous interruptions, which will occur every time their attempted changes are ignored or over-ruled by the organisers. The larp is not judged by how ‘good’ the story is, but how many individuals ‘enjoyed’ their experience, and give a positive review. Therefore, the role of the organiser is not to create a ‘good’ story, but to facilitate ‘enjoyable’ experiences among the other participants.

To understand agency, consider a larp without it. The characters would be scripted, the outcomes would be decided by the organisers, and in-character decisions would be ignored or redacted. The players would be actors in a play – or if they were only allowed to observe the roleplay of others, then they would be the audience at a play.

Most larps have some limits on agency. By the time the larp begins, the participants will have an idea of what the larp is about, based on information provided by the organisers. This is subjective, and will vary between participants without causing problems. A participant with strongly divergent ideas can cause a crisis of agency for themselves, or others.

When designing a larp, the organisers should attempt to describe their ideas as clearly as possible, with an emphasis on the iconic aspects of the larp. For example, “Tudor nobles gather for a meeting of their secret cult”. Beyond that point, they should concede that the players have a natural agency, and further, they should make efforts to enhance that natural agency. For example, granting social status or abilities to particular characters, and validating them (“The bailiffs follow the instructions of the nobles, even if the nobles have committed a crime”, or “The cultists perform the ritual, and a demon does appear”).

The organisers do not need to validate every interaction. Instead they should concentrate on validating the areas of enhanced agency that they have described during the design phase. In this way, the players know the limits and scope of their natural agency (and receive minimal interruption from the organisers), and can rely on the organisers to support the iconic aspects of the larp, which would otherwise be beyond the grasp of the players.

As the organisers have a limited awareness of what the players are doing, they must be careful not to undermine the agency of the players by accident. That is not to say that the organisers should have no influence. Instead, it is a matter of scale. Once the larp is in progress, they should respond to the data they collect, but the response should be on the scale of the players, using characters, objects and ideas.

This can involve subverting the player’s assumptions, but it should not override their efforts. This is the critical point when considering agency – an interaction is best understood by those who participated in it, and invalidating that interaction (intentionally or accidentally) is an attack on the agency of the players.

Designing a larp is designing a system. It is not a hard system, but a soft system – one in which the active components are human participants. As explained above, it is difficult or impossible to establish centralised control of interactions within the system. A larp system does not provide reliable outcomes, and the thoughts, words, and movements of the participants are usually beyond the control of the organisers.

A larp is nonetheless a cluster of control subsystems, which define the norms and meanings of various other components. For example, a 1920’s historal setting defines the norms for costume. Rules for a fantasy larp could describe a system of elemental magic, thereby defining the meanings of certain symbols and colours.

The participants rely on this common set of norms and meanings, which are foundational, but need minimal enforcement – typically, a participant will come to a 1920’s larp because the era and the costumes appeal to them. Likewise, they will learn the magical lore because they want to play as a magician, and know the things that magicians know.

This foundation exists before the larp takes place, and serves a dual purpose, which is to provide common norms and meanings, as well as appealling to potential participants, who must be convinced to attend, and spend their money. The iconic aspects of the larp provide a ‘unique selling point’, as well as encouraging particular styles of play, and types of interaction.

The foundation could be minimal, or extensive, but it must be reliable in any case, as the participants will plan their initial interactions based on the information provided. Their initial sense of agency will be driven by their ability to assess the larp, and make plans for the future.

This initial sense of agency is important, and the start of a larp can be a moment of crisis – “I want to be a charismatic politician, but I don’t actually know who I should talk to”. Various methods are used to avoid a negative outcome, as this can persist throughout the larp. For example, written or verbal briefings, pre-larp workshops, or a planned set piece.

Once the initial crisis is over, what then? Pressure can be applied by the organisers – more briefings, more workshops, more set pieces. This is the agency of the organiser, which can be used to great effect. For the other participants, this external influence can be jarring, either interrupting their experience, or bypassing their own agency.

If autocratic control is removed, how can the initial momentum of the players develop into an emergent story? The social behaviour of humans can be relied upon to provide some interaction, even in the absence of the organisers. This social behaviour is the engine that drives all the interaction that takes place within the larp, and initial momentum (eg. “I have lots of money”, or “My wife has just been murdered”) is met with a range of responses from the other participants, whether they are moral, logical, or emotional.

In addition, the norms and meanings provided by the organiser can enhance and amplify the interaction of the participants on an ongoing basis. In the UK, this is what we usually call “setting” and “rules”, which must be designed to generate interesting roleplay, or risk hindering it instead.

For example, a positive effect might be one that encourages a strong bond between two characters, or encourages more people to debate and trade together, or encourages the resolution of a conflict, while a negative effect might come from enforced social isolation (diminished social stature, hours of solitary meditation, or feuds that never end).

Each character has a series of meanings attached to them (eg. Police officer, magician, grieving widow), and will tend to gravitate towards participants with resonant or dissonant meanings attached (eg. the police will tend to work together but oppose the mobsters, the magicians will covet each other’s grimoires, grief-stricken characters will console one another).

No two participants are ever really the same, and as the number of participants increases, the range of meanings will tend to expand. If there are two police officers, perhaps one will be honest, and one will be corrupt. If there are numerous police officers, then the meanings can exhibit greater variety (“She is taking bribes to pay for medical treatment for her dying mother, but he does it to pay off gambling debts”, or “He is a hard-working honest cop, waiting for retirement, but she is focused on promotion, and rooting out corruption).

The attempt to resolve these resonant and dissonant meanings – against a complex backdrop provided by the other participants – encourages interactions that involve morality, sacrifice, desire and all sorts of drama.

Meanings can also be attached to props (eg. an ancient ritual dagger), furniture (“Only the Queen may sit upon the throne”), and the site itself (“This room is the bar”, or “All rituals must be performed in that glade”). These inanimate entities cannot process meanings themselves, but the participants can make use of them to achieve resolution (“Priests search the woodland, and interrupt the ritual”, or “My ancestral sword has been stolen!”). Documents are a particularly effective tool, as they can provide detailed meanings, and encourage discussion and argument. For example, a scroll that describes a demonic ritual will offend some by its mere existence, some will wish to study it, while others will desire to perform the ritual. As it explicitly invokes a specific control sub-system, it can encourage and validate interaction at the same time, with minimal interruption by the organisers.

Ideas are the intangible cousins of inanimate objects. They only exist in the minds of the participants, but they are nonetheless a powerful force. A rumour, whether introduced by the organisers or the other participants, can spread like a virus. If a secret exists, then there is roleplay to be had from learning it, keeping it, sharing it, or being oblivious to it.

Though ideas are intangible, they are the driving force that binds the participants, props, and site together. The setting of a larp might be epic (“Vast empires wage war with dragons”), or intimate (“The family have dinner together, and discuss whether to move house”), but it will in any case be a tangle of resonant and dissonant meanings.

The resulting stories are complex, and collaborative, but they happen at a very human scale, utilising bodies and minds, objects and places, They are stories that evolve, just as the history of the world evolves – as an emergent property of countless simple actions, and without the controlling hand of a single creator.

Larp is uniquely able to tell these kinds of complex and collaborative stories as the product of diverse participants, creating a story through action and reaction, instead of intention. As creative agents (whether organisers, crew, or players) we should abandon our preconceptions of control, embrace the emergent story, and celebrate the death of the auteur.

Is LARP culture? Seeing LARP as Cultural Capital

academic, Community, Essay

by Dr Jenny Barrett

Jenny has played and volunteered in three roleplay systems since 2001, from a cop to a queen to a goblin. She regularly admits that it’s the dressing-up that she loves and always manages to forget the rules.

Who am I to talk about LARP and Cultural Capital?

My personal perspective on LARP as a cultural experience is informed both by my professional background (I am an academic working in the humanities), and my own background. To give you a picture, I finished my PhD around 17 years ago, and I’m now a Reader in Film and Popular Culture. Before I entered academic life, I worked mainly in the charitable sector. I enjoy working with ideas as well as people, I’m a creative writer myself, and I love stories both personally and professionally. I also come from what I suppose would be described as a religious background, growing up in a close spiritual community, and although my worldview has changed substantially since my childhood, I continue to hold certain values dear, particularly about accepting others, encouraging fairness and equal participation. So, adding to this my professional perspective, I’m convinced that LARP is another close community where we can find elements that could be described as ‘cultural capital.’

I got into LARPing many years ago with my partner, and as soon as I heard about the way LARP works, that it engages this passion for stories, I was hooked.  The idea that you can not only read, but be another character and wear different costumes to be who you are not, or perhaps who you could be – that just drew me in. 

I’ve found many LARPers, like me, are great lovers of stories. Stories can tell us something about the lives we are living, no matter how fantastical or implausible the tale. Quite often the truth in those stories, however, is biased towards a particular ideology or worldview. As LARP is another way of engaging with stories and storytelling, I think we can learn a lot by applying some critical distance to these stories we live out in LARP events.

What is Cultural Capital?

Anyone else out there with a humanities background will know that many of our perspectives on how societies work has a debt to the writings of Karl Marx. Marx wrote about and encouraged us to become aware of ‘capital’ as a concept representing (economic) assets in private ownership and a means of exchange. This concept offers a way of understanding our social structure and highlights there are a set of relations between ownership, power and control in the production of goods and wealth. Cultural Capital, an extension of Marx’s idea, is a concept attributed to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who extended this idea to consider things that were not material assets. Instead social and cultural capital are noneconomic characteristics. They are symbolic or embodied assets that someone may benefit from ‘owning’. Cultural capital may include things like our language or power over language, our education, lifestyle or habits; to name only a few. It includes the type of art, music or pastimes we enjoy and, importantly, how those things are regarded by others. And this capital is produced and reproduced socially within groups of people who tend to identify together – a family, a community, a nation and so forth.

Economic and cultural capital are often related. Those who have a lot of economic capital (mainly in the form of wealth), often also have certain cultural activities that they value or hold dear. These ‘tastes’ are often dictated by the social ‘class’ with the most advantage, identifying what is deemed to be valuable in the arts or culture. This creates divisions between ‘high’ arts and ‘low’ arts, or ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture.

This hierarchy occurs across a society, but cultural capital is also distinct and identifiable within social sub-groups, such as the Punk movement in the 1970s or other underground music scenes that have helped to define a generation’s identity in contrast to the mainstream. These groups can resist the dictation of ‘tasteful’ art from the majority by performance and display of radically different forms of ‘taste’. In doing so, these displays emphasise a shared identity and shared values, establishing a shared community. 

Economic, social and cultural capital intersect, so people can climb the social ladder more quickly if they have economic capital. They can buy tickets to exclusive events for celebrities, for example. But cultural capital can also affect social position, where performers in the arts or highly educated individuals might also gain prestige and invitations to such events without having the wealth to access them otherwise. 

Is LARP ‘tasteful’ art or culture?

So, in the UK context, in the context of my experience, LARP is often regarded as ‘low’ culture or even a counterculture. In some ways it also resembles popular culture in recent years, as it increasingly draws on movies, books and other cultural influences which, along with other ‘geek’ material, have become more mainstream. Many of us will be aware that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels have influenced fantasy genre LARPs, but the release of The Lord of the Rings movies and associated paraphernalia have made it even more broadly popular. Likewise, the Harry Potter movies introduced an entire generation to the ‘glamour’ of being witches and wizards. Nonetheless, in the cultural hierarchy of UK arts, LARP would be rated quite low.

For those of us for whom this is our favourite hobby, perhaps as players, perhaps as volunteers, writers, referees, caterers and more, LARP is our cultural capital along with its multifarious cultural and literary influences. We accept each other’s passion for LARP whereas others, those who don’t value it culturally, would not admire it.

“Yes, I’m a nerd. I do live-action roleplay and I don’t care who knows it!”

There is a common identity people claim in UK LARP culture, many openly putting up their hands and proudly admitting to be nerds. This acknowledgement challenges social norms and highlights the position of LARP at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy. 

As a ‘low’ form of culture or art, UK LARP does not fit the category of ‘tasteful’ leisure or valuable cultural activity. But it’s interesting to explore how this might be changing and how. Developments of closely related cultural leisure activities in popular culture which focus on experiential products (such as escape rooms, Secret Cinema and the like) show an increasing monetisation of similar cultural products. This bringing together of economic and cultural capital may impact UK LARP and ensure it remains ‘poor taste’, or in contrast, the merging of new virtual games with professional theatrical experiences enjoyed by ‘the great and the good’ may elevate the hobby.

How does this concept help us think about how we LARP?

Imagine a new player, one who has enjoyed fantasy computer games and stories for years. Their first experience of LARP may be when they arrive and discover that the other people involved are familiar with and value the same stories and have the same cultural touchstones as they do. This gives a sudden feeling of acceptance, especially where these stories and activities have been devalued or disrespected by others.

Over time, you play the game, you come along, you get to know people. As you do, symbols and different elements of the game become apparent as they learn the things that are held in higher esteem than others. This manifests in a valuing of different ‘play styles’, such as a character-orientation or a gamist-orientation. Even within the LARP community, then, there are different kinds of cultural capital, and that capital is incredibly varied.

Examples of the type of cultural capital LARPers might utilise in the field include; knowledge of folklore or historical storytelling traditions, storytelling skills such as imagination or public speaking, theatrical skills in delivery and performance, ecological knowledge or outdoor skills, imagination and creativity – as well as experience and skills in costuming, prop-making, bodypainting, combat or martial arts, to name only a few. 

Now LARP is not a cheap hobby. You could get by with one sword, a good pair of boots and something waterproof which could be enough for years of play. But there is a culture of wanting more that it’s easy to get caught up in, and this requires economic capital to spend. So you end up with a new social hierarchy, where some people have incredible costumes, custom-made masks and armour costing hundreds of pounds which is valued highly. And it’s a challenge to be critical or wary of this, which mirrors an almost ‘pay to win’ ethical concern about the status these players are given. One way of being wary of this is by instead valuing the use of personal creativity in costuming and doing more to recognise the makers of costumes than their wearers. To have a cool costume is great, but to make a cool costume is also impressive.

In the LARP field there are many social hierarchies. In bald terms, I suppose, we can see these as chains of popularity and they may be linked to the display of economic capital as much as being charismatic or having an intricate understanding of the rules. None of these are inherently bad of course but, I confess, I often find myself gravitating to the newer players, where the thrill of entering such an exciting world is still vivid and the social hierarchies are yet to impact on their game. LARP forms an amazing community, because we come together with a shared passion for storytelling, playing and enjoying those stories for lots of different personal reasons. But I feel it’s good to acknowledge that it’s not always the perfect inclusive community we might imagine or remember it to be. There is a need to work hard to ensure the welcome often expressed to new players is continued and extended to fellow participants throughout their experience. None of us want to re-live the experience of being the child who doesn’t get chosen to join in team sports – whether that is through skill, popularity, or having the ‘right’ equipment. Roleplaying is a community game and maybe we will all find it enriching to recognise that we have a shared responsibility to make sure that game can involve everyone who wants to play.

Photo credit: Kren Cooper

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.

Further Reading

If you want to dive deeper into the application of Goffman to LARP you might like my 2016 academic article available here.


  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.