So many outlets, so little time!

…or, why this blog isn’t more regularly updated

Followers of this blog may have been wondering for some time where it’s author has got herself to. In general this is a consequence of writing for other platforms, including academic journals and books, and blogging internally for my students. In order to be more equitable, I have decided to begin simultaneously posting material from my student focussed blog here, for general readers. If you would prefer to see this content on the original site, however, it can be found at http://man30047.blogspot.com

So what is this other blog about?

The MAN 30047 blog is a companion for students studying the module “Contemporary Issues in Management” at Keele University. This module seeks to strengthen student knowledge of management and organisations by emphasising a critical approach to contemporary events. In order to direct everyone’s attention to what happens outside, as well as inside the classroom, the blog serves to encourage students’ active participation with reflections on guest lecture content, links to other source materials and questions for personal reflection. Students have to draw on and reflect upon their experiences of organisations including work and education and share them with the rest of the class. As such, these posts may also be of interest to the general reader.

The taught module relies upon the key text Contemporary Issues in Management, edited by Hamilton, Mitchell and Mangan, published by Edward Elgar. It can be purchased directly from the publisher, or through other booksellers and is available in paperback, hardback and e-book.

Meaningful Work

Thanks to the ESRC Festival of Social Science, last week with the support of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme I ran an event asking individuals to consider what they felt stood in the way of meaningful work. While there has been plenty of academic research into this topic, as well as related concerns about the quality of work in the form of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ jobs, the search for meaningful work as an academic topic and an everyday activity seems to fade into the background when many people count themselves lucky to be earning enough money to not need to rely on food banks just to get by.

The workshop was led by Sue Moffat, director of New Vic Borderlines and advocate of the use of theatrical techniques to get people to engage with each other and express their shared knowledge. As part of the workshop we played games to examine how we learn to trust people we work with, how a competitive urge developed, encouraging us to challenge some individuals and make alliances with others. We then talked about this as a group, exploring how important social camaraderie at work can be to make it a meaningful experience, or even how some types of paid work were only meaningful as enabling independence and freedom to do things in other aspects of life. We also listened to recordings about work, thinking about how the sounds and sensations of working could play a part in bringing meaning to a community as much as to individual people, and reflecting in particular on how the disappearance of those sounds and sensations could leave a feeling of loss.

Much of our later activity, building a narrative around images and objects in the theatre reiterated these themes about society, community and individual approaches to meaning. Using large metal frames we entangled teacups and wallets, stethoscopes and teddy bears. A story of the voyage towards meaningful work was written, considering the importance of the crew aboard the vessel, the storms and dangers of the deep seas, the provisions needed to survive the trip, and the search for dry land. While these metaphors may seem fanciful, they allowed everyone participating in the workshop to easily explore their shared experiences based on how they interpreted these objects and events. Throughout, we discovered that meaning was elusive, and could be challenged or built through our relationships with others. We explored how many of our everyday frustrations with work were those which challenged its goals or meanings, and how the money obtained through paid work was not enough to fulfil our desires for a meaningful life, and for meaningful work to occupy it.

For more information about the New Vic Theatre, follow this link.

This event was followed by an evening discussion about what business can do for society, hosted by Keele University Management School. There will be a follow up post on this next week.

Where is the dignity in suicide?

"Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina - Penn Provenance Project" by kladcat - Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woodcut_illustration_of_the_suicide_of_Seneca_and_the_attempted_suicide_of_his_wife_Pompeia_Paulina_-_Penn_Provenance_Project.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Woodcut_illustration_of_the_suicide_of_Seneca_and_the_attempted_suicide_of_his_wife_Pompeia_Paulina_-_Penn_Provenance_Project.jpg
“Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina – Penn Provenance Project” by kladcat – Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

The Campaign for Dignity in Dying is gathering momentum. It has many well known advocates, including prominent actors and authors who promote the cause of physician-assisted suicide.  Lord Falconer’s Assisted dying bill is soon to be discussed by a Lord’s committee, and polls indicate that the right to end your own life when sufferring from terminal illness is supported by many of the public. I disagree with this, not because I think terminally ill individuals should be forced to live with sufferring, but because I feel this is detrimental to how we recognise individuals’ dignity and worth  in our society.

What is Physician Assisted Suicide?

Suicide needs very little definition, it is the act of ending one’s own life. Theoretically, this is an act of complete free will and has a history of religious condemnation. Much of the debate around ‘dignity in death’ stems from the challenge presented by degenerative illness. In most degenerative illnesses, individuals will reach a point where they lose their capacity to act, though they may not have lost their intellectual capacity to make and express a free choice. It is for this reason that families and individuals are campaigning for ‘the patient’s right to choose’ the place and time of their death by de-criminalising the act of a physician allowing their patients access to fatal drugs, and in the case of patients in an advanced stage of degenerative illness, the involvement of a physician or family member in the administration of the fatal drug.

In most countries around the world, access to definitively fatal substances is highly regulated, and they can only be accessed by medical professionals. Yet the long standing ethical practices of the medical profession, to first do no harm, as well as the legal dangers posed to the individual physician mandate against their involvement in cases where patients ask them for help to die. In addition, if the physician is the person to actually insert the needle or push the button there is very little to legally distinguish between medicine and murder.

Yet there is an argument that when a patient is certain to die, or can only survive with the minimal of life quality (as in individuals only alive due to life support machines with no hope of recovery), that such an action is compassionate. In such cases it is only the medical professional, with access to appropriate substances, who can enable a pain free death with the least amount of sufferring. It is also implied that it is only thanks to techniques of contemporary medicine that such a prolonged life span enduring degenerative disease is possible, and therefore the responsibility for any non-intervention or withdrawal of care leading to death also lies with the medical practitioner.

Rights and Duties

Do we have a right to choose? The debate over assisted suicide is based on a deep underlying assumption that we do, yet this is problematic not only on religious but also secular grounds. First there is the matter of scale, if we ought to have the right to choose the time and place of our death in the case of degenerative disease, then we should recognise that death is inevitable and therefore such choices ought to be valid outside of those circumstances. On religious grounds such decisions are a rejection of life and thus sinful or likely to provoke sufferring. In a secular vein, decisions taken to end ones own life when young and healthy are categorised as abnormalities, as expressions of sickness themselves.

A further conflict lies in the very idea of individual rights and the relationship between the individual and the body. It is a quirk of Western legal thought that the body and mind are understood as separate things. Although the embodied person may have rights, those rights do not include ownership of another body (which would be slavery) or of one’s own body (in the sense of exchange, so to sell body parts or the use of one’s body is also often illegal).

Finally, the concept of rights identifies the individual as a separate creature, detached from ties to others. The rights of the individual are often held as paramount over the obligations, duties or other responsibilities between that individual and others. The concept of the individual as a being apart from their social ties is a foundation of rational legal thought, but it omits our emotional interconnectedness as human beings as well as our role in enabling the capacities of others. Although suicide may appear to be an expression of free choice, most individuals see suicide as a last resort, where all alternatives for meaningful life are denied them. Perhaps we should be doing more to explore these alternatives.

The Individual Citizen

We live in a society dominated by thinking that concentrates on a model of the individual. Assisted suicide may alleviate the pain of the patient, but how does it affect their family, friends, neighbours or co-workers? Aside from the concerns of the family this is a debate not often explored, primarily because we already segregate the sick from the healthy in contemporary society. Sickness prevents participation in work, often requiring residential care in a hospital or other institution. Built environments primarily cater to the healthy and able-bodied individual, further excluding those sufferring from illness from full participation in society. Might this be a part of why these individuals feel they simply cannot experience a worthy or dignified life as their illnesses progress?

Dignity and sufferring

While the aim of the dignity in dying movement implies restoring control to patients and allowing them to experience less pain and sufferring, the model of physician assisted suicide has already been tested. In research conducted on Oregon’s legalisation of physician assisted suicide, it has been noted that individuals’ sufferring and requests for assisted suicide were based not on the pain experienced by the illness, but rather as a consequence of social exclusion.

It’s not that I disagree with the need for terminally ill patients to experience death with dignity, but I do think that lethal injections, access to drugs or the rights of the patient is not the main issue at stake here. What potential we offer the sick or the sufferring to engage with a meaningful life is at stake. How should we amend our laws and regulations to support people sufferring from illness in a society dominated by a drive for economic productivity that pursues segregation between the productive and the unproductive?

 

 

Epistemology and the study of games

Some of you might know, I recently attended a conference in Cornwall where I presented a joint paper with a friend and colleague based on her work on Cthulhu horror LARP. The conference was interdisciplinary, with a keynote speech from a renowned Medieval Historian and we both had a fabulous, if tiring, time. In the same panel as our own paper, there were two papers on horror themed computer games, and it was interesting to see how these were also being theorised. This post presents a bit of a rant about how these are studied but I also highlight some of the useful overlaps between the study of computer games and the study of LARP.

In the past I have dabbled in reading about studies of contemporary computer game RPGs and classic MUDs and MOOs (basically multiplayer text-based gaming). However, I often find the claims made about the player experience are based on little more than the imagination of the researcher. While this kind of thing might be fine for a games reviewer, I tend to feel that university researchers are obliged to do a bit more work than that, or at least be honest about the limits of what they are claiming. This is due to different opinions on, or confusion about, epistemology.

So, for non-philosophers, here’s the cheat sheet:

ontology = the study of what exists.

epistemology = the study of what we believe, or can know.

Questions about ontology, what exists, are usually for all practical purposes, simple. This campsite exists. My tent exists. The rain exists and if I don’t get my tent set up soon all my equipment exists and will get pretty wet! The problem comes in when we start talking about individual or collective experiences or symbols. For example, my hardware exists and is downloading the newest patch which will then allow me to get around the DRM and play the game I’ve purchased.  Well, the concept of ownership and digital media is a bit ropey at best, as peer-to-peer filesharing has highlighted. And is an experience a game if it feels dull and monotonous (regardless of whether it’s packaged in a shiny box)?   These debates start to cause problems for our certainties about what exists, because we cannot be certain in our epistemology – what we can know.

If you are having trouble following at this point – swallow the red pill. This illustrates the problem of ‘Descartes demon’; someone or something (like a demon, a cat, or a race of intelligent machines) could, unknown to us, be interfering with our perceptions of the world. And even if there is no interfering demon, this example implies that we cannot trust our own senses 100% of the time anyway. How we interpret what we see is based on our existing frameworks of knowledge and language built over time and experience. It is either really difficult or impossible to imagine our perceptions of reality outside of that experience. So the position most scholars of social science take on this is somewhere between ‘really difficult’ and impossible’.

If your position is ‘really difficult’, your solution to this problem of epistemology (which you have to come up with, otherwise what would be the point of research) is to find techniques to improve the likelihood that your study is an accurate study of what exists (such as running your experiment many times, or comparing your findings with multiple other scholars). If your position is ‘impossible’, then you basically accept that you can never know what exists, but only what you think exists, and you limit yourself to the study of that. Very few scholars are this far down the spectrum, but they might, for example, limit themselves to the study of ‘my experiences of gameplay’ rather than ‘gameplay’. You then have to address a further problem; is what you think the same as what everyone else thinks? This is the question of epistemology in social science, because it basically screams ‘am I doing anything useful?’  Again, it can be quite simple when we are looking at the uncomplicated things the world often seems to be.  Does that look like a wasp over there? Yes, it’s a wasp, I agree. Okay, based on our compared experiences/perceptions of the world, let’s stay away from it then!

But what about if you have never seen a wasp before? Or been stung by one? What if different people have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world based on their experience? Well that makes it difficult. And this is when both individuals are supposedly sharing ‘the same encounter’ with the wasp.

If you are studying a game, or any social experience, it is maybe okay to assume that most people will share some common cultural references or models. Ideas that seem ‘natural’ among a particular group, culture or society. However, it seems like a bit of a leap to suggest that the audience of gamers act like a sponge, absorbing the game experience as designed. We might instead agree that their individual experience will be specific to them as an individual. So studies of a game or social experience need to be based on information about that experience, collected by doing it, observing or questioning the people who do. And subsequently, what we can claim to ‘know’ about the game, needs to be acknowledged within those limits or compared across a broad range of gamers experience.

So, in my personal approach to epistemology, I have written about LARP based on my experiences and on those reported to me by other participants. I do not suggest that this resembles the definite or common experience of all LARPers. But there are (at least) two parts to a LARP game, and people have written a lot about this. There is the story, and the gameplay. There is what the organisers try to make happen, and have players experience, and then there is what they experience. Many different things influence both of these dimensions.

In discussions of computer gaming, there is the same acknowledgement of the importance of the game narrative (studied by narratologists, sometimes referred to as the diegesis or diegetic frame), and the game design (studied by ludologists).

This is a simplification, but for the sake of this (long) post let’s keep things simple. Narratologists broadly claim there is no difference between games and storytelling, and therefore no meaningful distinction between oral epics,  printed novels or point and click adventures. They argue these can all be studied using theories traditionally applied to narrative. Ludologists argue that the ‘story’ part of the game is just the icing on the cake, and what ought to be the focus of study is the rules and mechanisms of the game.

It seems that both of these approaches focus on the game itself as a real thing that exists. Or at least, the focus is on the created narrative as a cultural product, or the set of rules as an algorithmic product with multiple possible operations. I am perfectly happy with studies looking at this, but where I get twitchy is when either side starts to make claims about how players experience the narrative/ludic elements without a clear statement that outlines how the problem of epistemology has been overcome here. This requires some sort of claim about what we can know about players (by being one, observing one or asking one). But the interesting thing is, the relationship between game and player is not a simple one of design and receipt (and most scholars of games do acknowledge this). No game is thrown out into the world on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis of meaning or interpretation.

So let’s go back to LARPers again. There has been a bit of debate among LARPers about how a game operates, rules, story, and the difference between ‘Roleplayers’ and ‘Powergamers/players’. It raises its head in discussions around Player versus Player elements of games most frequently. And in such discussions there is a lot of awareness that the people who write or design the games are players too, and players switch between their focus on story and on gameplay. There’s even a sort of complex cool creative  doublethink between being your character among your enemies and being a LARPer hanging out among your friends.

So in this blog post I have included multiple hyperlinks to demonstrate the cultural codes and references I am thinking of when I use some of the terms here. But I’d like any readers to comment on whether they think that simply by adding these connections I am restricting or enhancing your diversity of (narrative or ludic) experience in reading this post.

 

tl:dr IMHO studies of games should look at what the players actually experience, not just the story or gameplay design. Studies of computer games distinguish between ‘plot’ and ‘game mechanics’ just like big debates in LARP do, but they could learn a few things from LARP.

LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism

New year, new LARP system.

Since some friends and I are involved in running events a lot of the time which often results in failing to get an opportunity to relax and play events, quite a few of us have decided to spend some time playing in a new system. Much of the holiday has therefore been spent discussing our plans for new characters, new costumes, how we will use the rules on character creation to generate appropriate skills for those characters, and how we want the group to ‘feel’.

Part of the difficulty surrounding these discussions has been focussed on the real-world cultural associations of the fantastical backgrounds presented by the new system. To date, most of my LARP experience has been in playing roles inspired by the 1920-50s English upper and middle classes, fantastical ‘others’ based on Celtic mythology, Welsh chambermaids, London jazz singers, and one instance of Celtic-sailor’s-daughter-raised-as-an-arabian-dancer (though no-one ever did comment on my pale skin-tone). In all of these experiences, although there have frequently been community discussions about ‘how Celtic are we?’ and ‘how Celtic were the Celts, actually?’ most of the group have been pretty comfortable that even though the fantasy setting mangles the myth in many ways, it is our own island heritage we have been toying with. In the new game world we intend to play, we will instead be adopting a culture which (although it has been very carefully designed) is predominantly inspired by Arabian, Persian and North African mythological traditions.

So is the step from fantastically-torturing-my-own-ethnic-heritage to fantastically-torturing-someone-else’s-ethnic-heritage such a big problem? And is it even genuinely someone else’s heritage if it’s a fantastical construct? There are several traditional rules in LARP, and notable for the associated forum community is rule 7: don’t take the piss. This rule invokes the collaborative nature of the game to stress that where the rules of the game leave some ambiguity, players should take care to embrace the ‘spirit’ of the game as conveyed by the organisers and the community as a whole. Such ‘spirit’ might be interpreted as a matter of culture, but in my experience of UK LARP it incorporates fair play, sensitivity to the contribution of other players (as well as organisers, crew or ‘monsters’) and an awareness of the limitations of the LARP form as a game which relies upon a combination of imagination, physical representations and embodied skills.

So the question which worries is to what extent ‘rule 7’ is compromised by adopting  practices or props which could be seen as racial or cultural stereotypes. In the development of their new game world, Profound Decisions‘ (PD) development team have made explicit attempts to steer around such tropes and encourage players to build on the fantastical element of the culture rather than relying upon stereotypical portrayals of ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ drawn from Britain’s colonial past. An example of this may well lie in PD’s banning of the fez as headgear, considering its associations with colonial recruitment to the armed forces and multiple different conflicts. Yet at the same time, the community of LARP in the UK is used to a relatively unrestrictive approach to game participation and part of the enjoyment of the game often lies in the ability to make references to cultural ‘memes’ (such as quotes from cult TV programs or other LARPs) within the game.

In the course of developing our group ethos and sensibilities to participate in the new game, many of these issues seem to come up again and again, often through material concerns regarding costume and props. Such material objects can be fundamental to the construction of a new fantastical world as I mentioned in my previous post. Our group, along with those designing the game, are facing a very similar dilemma. Creating a fantastical universe with no correlation to those experiences shared by participants outside of the game is likely to result in failure as regards ongoing participation, even if it is possible to maintain over a short time. Any LARP is therefore to an extent parasitical on the knowledge, experiences and cultural preferences of its players.

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.

 

What’s that coming over the hill?

…is it a monster?

Most LARP activities rely upon a crew of volunteers to run, often known as ‘crew’ or ‘monsters’. These volunteers may help with anything from digging holes, to acting out the roles of ‘bad guys’, refereeing game regulations or providing first aid assistance. They are usually rewarded in some way for their time and involvement, either through in-game benefits, or out of game considerations such as free food, indoor accommodations and the like.

Such a description does not really ‘fit’ the idea many people might have of a monster, or a monstrous agent. Quite the opposite. In the above illustration monsters seem to be quite helpful, self-sacrificing creatures; more beauty than beast. I thought in this post it might be interesting to highlight both the function played by ‘monsters’ in LARP, and a broader reflection on how monstrous they seem in general. To be more specific in the use of the term, although volunteering to monster, or ‘going monstering’ may refer to undertaking any assistant backstage task to facilitate the game on behalf of the organisers, in the majority of cases it refers to performing a costumed acting role according to a specified ‘monster brief’. A brief comprises a rough guideline from which the volunteer may improvise an appropriate script of dialogue or behaviour.

Igor, the servant of the god-like master

Where a player in a LARP game may have full control of their actions and dialogue, subject to the restrictions of their embodied capabilities, monsters can be understood as lesser people, subject to the whims of the organiser or referee. Some monster roles may involve representing ‘cannon fodder’ such as weak little goblins or gretchen tasked with inconveniencing players, who are obliged to slaughter the beasts and reaffirm their status as heroic figures (this is the LARP equivalent of removing a household spider from the bathtub). There is little opportunity, in such roles, for the monster to act autonomously or to sway the course of events.

Even in more developed monster roles, such as reoccurring appearances of ‘evil masterminds’ or knowledgeable figures to interact with players, the detail of the brief and the abilities associated with the role lie firmly in the hands of the organisers. Monsters, then, are in this sense the serfs of the fantastical performances constituting LARP events, with organisers and plot writers their masters. As creatures without free will they are not fully human, but stunted individuals subject to their Machiavellian overlords. In a sense, they are pitiable monsters, unable to reach the status of a fully autonomous player.

The mercenary, the gunslinger, the barbarian outsider.

Such a depiction of monstering is one many players would likely reject, as it is not entirely accurate and it is slightly derogatory. Like any labour, monstering is often a process with tangible and intangible rewards. To paint a picture of monster volunteers as shackled servants would be the same as stating that the ticket sales clerk at the cinema, or the teenager in the House Griffindor costume at a Harry Potter attraction is in some way ‘monstrous’. While Karl Marx would likely take such a view, it is perhaps worth exploring the potential rewards of monstering more thoroughly.

In most games that require significant numbers of monsters, a select crew of volunteers will be recruited for the whole period of the event. As well as the potential enjoyment offered in the guise of successful role performances, social camaraderie and broader exploration of the fantastical world experienced through the ‘bad guys’ perspective, monsters are also often provided with free food and/or board. In persistent game worlds, monstering may likely confer benefits on the volunteer’s player experience, through transferable advantages or items which have a particular effect in the game. These are often tailored to the volunteer’s preferences by way of a token exchange system, so those playing fighting characters might ‘buy’ a special weapon, while knowledge based characters might ‘buy’ access to libraries of information on languages or herbs.

Although in theory monsters might be paid in ‘real’ coin for their time, I have never encountered this or heard of it in the UK LARP context. The closest such exchange I have ever come across has been through payment ‘in kind’ in the form of monsters being offered the ability to keep game costumes or props for personal use, or discounts on such items from affiliated traders. However, there are distinctly intangible benefits accrued through regular monstering. Experienced monsters gain expertise in many aspects of the game such as the rule mechanics, the makeup and costume presentation of particular monster types, and in the improvised portrayal of diverse and sometimes complex roles. In each of these areas such stalwarts acquire a level of kudos or respect from the community, and are often consulted on difficult situations or recruited to show new volunteers ‘the ropes’. Such veterans are often identifiable by their extensive repertoire of stories or accounts of earlier experiences which often figure them in a significant (and at times even maverick) role. It is this social approval of the volunteering role that perhaps lifts the ‘monster’ from wage-slave to contributing citizen. However, as I once discovered, rejecting some form of payment is considered unacceptable, as such behaviour impunes the status of monsters as a whole as no more than the Igors described above. As much as such community members may be applauded, monsters must remain outsiders, secondary and parasitic agents.

The invisible man, the terrifying unknown

The function of monster roles in LARP is to introduce or advance moments of dramatic tension as part of the narrative encountered by players. However,
when they appear in the game, it may not always be apparent that they are a ‘monster’. Some games make frequent use of ‘planted’ characters under the control of the organisers, either to add drama to the game or simply to add colour and assist with creating a particular ambiance. Although referees and ‘backstage’ crew are frequently easy to spot by specific markers that denote them as outside the game world (high-visibility jackets, specific costumes or coloured markers are often used), many in-game monsters are carefully costumed to be indistinguishable from a player character. Although in many circumstances players within the game can identify monsters by their lower costume standards, or by recognising the volunteer as someone they can identify as associated with a different character, conspicuous by their absence, monsters which are concealed as players or simply well-costumed and prepared can pose an ‘invisible’ threat.

A key aspect of this lies in the function and status of a monster. These ‘monsters’ are dressed as players, in the same space as players, indistinguishable from them, yet their intentions are unknown, and may be threatening. These ‘double agents’ may be less attached to their roles than players, and as they are under the control or direction of the organisers their motivations are unpredictable. Should a monster ‘die’, they are likely to still fulfil their function by adding to the drama of the game, yet for such an occurrence to befall a player undermines their position as key agents or ‘heroes’ in the narrative drama. Monsters are in this sense a threatening ‘other’, different from players and yet seemingly the same. As chimera, in this sense monsters truly are monstrous since they illustrate the arbitrary distinction drawn between player and game-world. At the same time as monsters heighten and draw attention to that boundary, their task is to artfully conceal it from players; to promote a sense of ‘reality’ in the construction of the fantasy.

To be a monster at LARP is something of a double-edged experience. The very existence of monsters, as of the back-stage crew in general, is to perpetuate the dominant fictional narrative. Yet in the liminal space they occupy, the in-between world that separates the fantastical construction from the mundane one, monsters perhaps highlight the fragility of both those worlds.

LARP is not theatre nor psychodrama! And I am not Spock.

This post has been two weeks in the making. I couldn’t bring myself to upload it last week because it seemed to me to be on matters so controversial to the UK LARP community. However, following quiet and ‘ladylike’ discussion of the issue with a friend over tea this weekend I thought it had better be aired after all.

Leonard Nemoy famously wrote two autobiographies; I am not Spock (1975), followed by I am Spock (1995). In both books, Nemoy discussed his relation to the character he famously portrayed on tv and film. Apparently many Star Trek fans took exception to the first book, not having read it, at such a rejection of the character by the actor. Such issues of identity between character and player are often an outsider’s view of LARP. Also, I have previously compared LARP to pantomime, art installation, and personal development exercises without clarifying the extent of that relation.

This post is a struggle over the ‘outsider’ view of LARP as theatre or psychodrama (including identity struggle) rejected by many UK LARPers, compared with the reality of such themes emerging in many events. The existence of particular types of European LARP which encourage the hobby as a means of self development or political commentary are themselves akin to art installation or public theatre. Also, there are ‘thin’ types of LARP which are familiar outside the community as a type of  theatre; murder mystery evenings or themed restaurant experiences which demonstrate a more passive or superficial engagement than most LARPs. The majority of UK LARP events I have attended would strongly publicly deny any affiliation with this ‘sort of thing’, yet would also, within the community, admit to the potential LARP offers to provide it for those who wish to explore other aspects of their identity or find joy in the presentation of a conventional narrative scene. In some few respects this struggle seems rather similar to the one Leonard Nimoy faced, not only is it a personal struggle, but there is a large community of people who may misinterpret the headline.

So, LARP is about having fun, the sort of fun grown-up people are not supposed to be allowed to have unless its something morally dubious such as sex, drugs, alcohol and chocolate cake. Added to that, ‘wholesome’ fun is really considered quite unfashionable. So my previous comments in the posts Introduction to LARP and What is normal? do highlight the fact that yes, on occasion the ‘sinful’ elements do make an appearance. Especially the cake. Perhaps we should admit that yes, LARP is indeed a bit silly, childish even. Why is that disallowed among adults? Perhaps the underlying concern comes from the idea that children’s play is practice, for an unforgiving world, undertaken in a forgiving fantastical one. Our role as adults lies in putting that utopia in the past and instead attempting to forge a new one rather than escape to the old.

To all intents and purposes LARP does offer an escape. An escape from self, from structures of everyday life, from work or family and from social demands. It is perhaps a retreat from a world in which individuals feel they have no impact into one where they may change the narrative of history. Yet simultaneously what all LARPers know and few outsiders realise, is that such an escape is illusion. The best that can be hoped for, as in any hobby, is to experience ‘flow’: being-in-the-moment. Participation in LARP is dependent on having holiday from work, finding a babysitter, raising the spare cash for the entry fee. It is impossible to leave the cares of the world behind, or to experience a social environment with morals and rules dramatically different to our own (more of this in later posts). It is also near impossible to explore and perform a character role that does not draw upon the knowledge, experience and personality traits of the player. Everything that surrounds a LARP event continues for players within it. LARP could not exist if it were not for the rest of our economic and social lives. In this sense, LARP is an activity which exists in a parasitical relationship to our everyday ‘mundania’. Yet we gain additional benefits from it above the ‘escape’, benefits often attributed to psychological development or engagement with the arts.

LARP is fun, escapism, theatre and psychodrama. LARP is LARP.

And Leonard Nemoy is and always will be Spock. Live long and prosper.

LARP Sights and Sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Debates I – Immersion versus PvP

Disclaimer: all of the views represented in this article are my own and I confess to immersionist sympathies, though I have tried to represent both perspectives fairly in the below article.

In Live-Action Roleplay there are various different aims and objectives. As a theatrical-simulation experience one significant aim lies in developing a sense of ‘immersion’ in the game world; convincing yourself, even if only for a moment, that you are your character and the events around you are real. This is usually a part of the game new players find difficult, though some are perhaps more ‘natural’ than others. One of the ongoing controversies of LARP lies in the validity of different aims of play. Although LARP is described as a game, much like ‘life’ there are no clear win conditions. Nonetheless, to some it can be considered a ‘lose’ condition if your character dies (especially if this is unexpected or unplanned). There are complex feelings around this issue among the community. While immersion is relatively uncontroversial as a goal of the game, other aims include competitive rivalry to develop greater ‘powers’ or strength according to the game rules. The best way to test this is by player versus player interaction. The matter of PvP (which usually refers to player versus player combat, often resulting in character death) is therefore controversial as it brings these different aims of play into conflict.

Immersive PvP

Taking the broadest possible interpretation of player versus player interaction, every aspect of play in most games incorporates an element of this. Players may (and do) compete on grounds of inventiveness in on the spot improvisation, on costume, on wit, and on talents that cross the in-character / out-of-character boundary, such as music. As such, player versus player interaction which is embedded in the context of the game is the foundation of the roleplaying ‘art’.

PvP which ‘breaks’ immersion

It is possible, however, for some forms of PvP interaction to come into direct conflict with immersion. Where resolution of competition involves extensive recourse to the rules of the game, or where one party perceives the other to be infringing either the letter or spirit of those rules. At such a point, the interaction drifts from in-charater interaction to out of character gameplay (sometimes referred to as ‘meta’).   For the immersionist, this is a deviation from the object of play. For the competitive player, this is recourse to the laws of the game, which form a key part of play. However, the competitive player experiences just as much tension in such conflict, for unless an adjudicating referee is to hand, the trust system on which rules are applied may be infringed (intentionally or unintentionally) by players who are ignorant of the detail of the rules. This is also likely to ‘break’ immersion through creating inconsistencies in the game world.

Other elements

In discussions of roleplay versus immersion, other elements are often introduced into the argument. Some of these I hope to discuss in later posts, as they highlight some of the most interesting parts of LARP as a carefully maintained fantasy world. However, such concerns often detract from the argument above. They include ‘professionalism’, or discussions over the difficulty of maintaining clear internal distinctions between IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) knowledge, emotion and behaviours. There are also concerned discussions over emotive ‘bleed’ as a significant aim of the activity and the emotive distress felt at character death. This in turn often highlights and questions the parasitic relationship between the hobby and ‘real life’ in terms of income and skills; this is often added to the discussion in economic terms related to the cost or time required to put together costume and weapons, the ability to regularly attend events and so on.

The nature of immersion

Roleplay is a narrative game, albeit an improvised one. To maintain the aspect of narrative requires commitment to preserving the game world, sometimes at the expense of the norms of everyday life (as any LARPer who has gone four days with only cold showers will tell you). Narratives cannot continue if the ‘book’ is closed, the ‘tv’ muted, or the fantastical game world interrupted in a similar way. Yet equally, in a world which is not a perfect simulation, some recourse to a world outside the narrative genre is required. It is rare you see a fantasy hero/ine visit the bathroom on camera (unless it furthers the narrative).

Yet the goal of immersion is to be fully absorbed in the flow of the narrative, to set aside the thoughts and worries of an outside world and be ‘in the moment’. This requires support in maintaining the suspension of disbelief, even in order to be the biggest good or bad guy in the field. It is likely that conflict between the goals of PvP and Immersion will always be in some small amount of tension.

Quotes from players (unsolicited by the author):

“Roleplay is a means of escapism, It’s a way to be more theatrical than in real life, to be more than we can be. Immersion does not equal roleplay, I actually prefer tabletop to lrp, It’s easier to lose myself in a world of my imagination uninfringed by others interpretations. I have been to ‘highly immersive’ systems and seen some of the shortest roleplay ever, but with 4 to 5 people sat round a table I have had some of the best, most emotional roleplay in the 15 years I’ve been doing tabletop and lrp. Pvp I support, as long as its well grounded, look at history, famed figures did kill and assassinate each other, heroes and villains should die in battle with each other, and sometimes people who have aroused the ire of bad people should just disappear… I am however against random murders and killings, deaths should be earned. All good stories, historic, mythic, sci fi, all have deaths, and the people killed don’t always know why, and sometimes aren’t even the right people, for me, roleplaying is all about being part of a story, live or die, its about being a good character, not winning, its lrp, not a board game.” Matt Strange

“it’s a difficult line to draw, but it’s the actual monetary investment, the osps and clothing, effort making armour that affects the way you feel about losing your character and therefore makes you pissy when some random bod kills you for nothing other than fun…don’t have a problem dying by getting caught in the night by monsters, or even players accidentally mistaking me for someone they’re trying to job for a reason (for example), like I’ve done something stupid to upset them IC (perfectly possible for a kender).” Sam Rose

“Personally I think that dying IC is a big part of the game, and is what makes the game feel real, I myself am giving myself a massive pvp tag at some time in the near future by becoming a werewolf, because if my character dies, then I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep that character alive…” Deklan Howells

“In my opinion, PvP has its place, but there is no hard and fast answer to the ‘good or bad’ question. It will probably always happen, but is affected by two major aspects: firstly, the aims of the system (to generalise – family fest system or hardcore immersive) and secondly the motivations behind the PvP actions (i.e. are they IC or OOC). I’m not a big fan, although I’ve been involved in some in the past but it’s part of the game so not really avoidable.

All I have to say about mugging, with Jen and I having been mugged twice at the G (did we mention “Twass! – In 5 minutes – within 50yds of the gate!”), both the mugger and the ‘muggee’ need to be aware of the search rule. One of the times, I was searched for about 5 secs and asked “What have you got?”, so I said “nothing you can find!” and the mugger moved off. If I’m searched properly, then they’re welcome to what I’m carrying, otherwise…” Mark Bateman