Reflective Games: Coming Home to a New Form

critical making, reflective games, research

Learning about Nordic Larp and the culture around it is a little like coming home. The discourse often focuses on taking care of people, making sure that consent and boundaries are negotiated, and making sure that larp can be a space to explore difficult subjects as safely as possible. On the other hand, there are so many styles and schools within Nordic Larp, and learning about those is both thrilling and intimidating.

What’s amazing about larp is that there is a huge amount of content (especially proceedings-style papers from the Knutepunkt conference) published each year and available for free. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot that makes me feel uncertain about the best way to proceed. At the same time, the sheer volume and variety of manifestos and articles available signal the lack of unified consensus about larp design. That means that maybe I can carve out a space that I am comfortable designing in. I’ll try to explain my discomfort and excitement a little bit.

So. As a game designer, the subjects and scenarios that I design around are often ones where there is the potential for discomfort and even outright (emotional) harm to the player. To name a few topics, I’ve worked with design questions related to consent and physical touch, sensual relationship with plants, inequality and harassment for women in the workplace, different intersections of oppression, and emotional labour and radical softness.

My games often invite players to be vulnerable. Although they may choose their own level of comfort, players frequently choose to be quite vulnerable, as it turns out, particularly when it comes to my game about consent (In Tune) and the one related to emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter). Negotiating consent and learning about one’s comfort levels frequently means a certain amount of disclosure to one’s partner, by way of explanation for why a boundary exists, or even by disclosing the existence of a boundary. Similarly, since The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter prompts players to draw on their own experiences to come up with a (fictional or non-fictional, player’s choice) trouble, players often wind up coming up with problems that are partially based on the ones that they are already facing.

These experiences are carefully crafted, and I have considered how to facilitate this sort of play through rules, framing, and control of the experience. That is what makes some forms of larp intimidating — there’s a loss of control that goes beyond anything that I am used to as a game designer or as a tabletop game master. There are many techniques to help restore some of that control, though, which makes this loss of control both intimidating and exciting. I am used to crafting moments both as a designer and as a game master, and responding on-the-fly to my players, but I am always there in order to provide additional information, to tell them what they see, to play non-player characters and shape the experience.

There are so many forms of larp to learn about, and relatively few chances to experience them all for someone living in Canada. That means that I will have to feel out what will work best for me as a designer by reading widely — on the other hand, there is so much to read that it has been difficult to absorb everything as well as I would like. I’m working on it, but there’s still plenty to read.

For my larp, I think that I would like to invite the Reflective Games group to play, along with some other folk at TAG and perhaps my usual Monday Night RPG gaming group. That would mean having roughly ten or so people, so perhaps I will create a smaller-scale prototype to experiment with an even smaller group.

When it comes to subject matter for the larp, gender has, as one might imagine, been on my mind lately, as I approach a legal name change and have been using they/them pronouns for roughly a year and a half with most people. I keep thinking about the discomfort of being misgendered, the compromises I choose to make, and the discomfort that some people seem to feel at even the idea of nonbinary identity. This isn’t a very settled subject — there’s a lot of (not necessarily in good faith) debate around this, especially lately with respect to the Jordan Petersen video incident at Laurier. Maybe this is a good thing because of the questions that it raises – questions that I have no answer to. I am also not altogether sure yet what the “thesis” of such a game would be. I’m working on it.

I will continue to read, but this week, I think I’ll also focus on trying to create something.

[PS: I also had the chance to showcase The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at MEGA this weekend — I had some very interesting conversations around it, and on the whole the game was well-received. To children, I got to talk about making conductive buttons and makey-makeys. To parents, I got to talk about the value of emotional labour. To my academic peers and other designers, I got to talk about physical-digital hybrid games and the genesis of this game. On the whole, the feedback that I got was that generally people were surprised by how effective a tool this was. Oh, and of course, in case you missed it, the digital edition of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is available here!]

Reflective Games: GAMERella and the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter

reflective games

NOTE: When I say “week” in this post, I’m talking about the time between the Reflective Games Group meetings, which generally happen on Wednesday mornings.

This week, I decided to focus on getting a project that’s been lingering for a long while done, which is the digital version of the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Up until the previous week, my time when I worked on it (in between my synthesis essay and other commitments) was spent making 3D models. The project is fairly simple, but I am teaching myself Unity in order to make it. Unity isn’t so difficult, but it does have its quirks and of course I’m using it to make something that is quite unlike the usual beginner tutorials. It’s amazing how much of my programming knowledge from other languages and engines applies in Unity, so I’m not quite starting cold. The reason that I haven’t learned Unity up until now is because my previous laptop wouldn’t run Unity at all — some quirk of my particular processor and Windows 7 rather than a speed issue. I had run previous versions and done KO-OP Mode’s “make weird stuff in unity” tutorial, which is quite fun.

I’m hoping to finish the project this week — I already have the “main mechanic” implemented, basically, but now I’ve got to add in explanations, text, menus, an introductory screen, persona generation, etcetera. For now, all the objects are textureless — it’s a look that I’m into, but we’ll see if I stick with it. I think I will for this version.

The other project that I worked on this week was journaling as a form of data collection during the GAMERella jam, where I made a project called #nofilter with Squinky, Serena Fisher and Diana Lazzaro. You can check it out here: https://jekagames.itch.io/nofilter. As it turns out, journaling took up a fair bit of time during the jam. I wound up writing about 2000 words or so.

So, with two days spent on the digital version of The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter last week, followed by the GAMERella jam — an intense two days of making — I find myself rather tired. I think that I’ll spend the next two days on The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter and try to finish it. That way, I can focus on my dissertation proposal, getting some writing out there into the world, my Reflective Games design work, and my tabletop game design work (Radio D-20 and my new time travelling campaign) from now on. Perpetually working on so many different projects is tiring sometimes because I have to keep them all in mind. In a way, that’s what I find refreshing about jams — you make something self-contained and finished in a single weekend. I’m ready to finish something on my task list!

Reflective Games: Roleplaying for Reflection

reflective games

I began my work this week by brainstorming actions that could have meanings ascribed to them, or that seemed to easily support meaning-making in ways that could potentially be reflective. I’m including this portion of my week as a record of my process, even though I didn’t pursue this avenue for very long, because it led me, along with other factors, to what I’ll be working on next for Reflective Games. Here are a few of the actions that made my list:

— Sorting (Categorizing)
— Dividing/Separating
— Button-clicking
— Rolling Dice
— Teaching
— Speaking
— Running to/Running from
— Searching/Hunting
— Attacking/Defending

After this point, I finished reading Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, which is going to be of use for both reflective games as we study design processes and for my dissertation. Then, as part of my weekly roleplaying group activities, I started to roll up and conceptualize a character for a campaign where everyone will be playing a monster, and we have the opportunity to play with some powerful abilities and character concepts. Mine is the ghost of a Dhampir, and let me tell you, with the Dhampir and ghost stat boosts, my ghost character now has a charisma score of 25, and is only level 3 (+2 levels for the ghost template, which is powerful).

The process of character creation made me think back to the avenue that I was exploring with Blast Theory, bleed, deictic language, and Nordic Larp.

I have been considering the strengths, limitations and challenges of narrative as a tool for creating reflective moments. So, it occurred to me that a roleplaying campaign, either purely physical or with a special added digital element or alt controller, might be an interesting thing to design. I next thought about how I could design a campaign in an extant system, and how I am currently designing a tabletop roleplaying system called Radio D-20, which involves sections of play divided up according to the structure of radio program segments (inspired by the usual structure of a Welcome to Night Vale episode), and involves collaborative character creation and a shared character pool. In roleplaying games, there are always a lot of unknown elements and it is difficult to say whether players will ever reach the content that you write for them (railroading and reorganizing aside), so there are no guarantees whether the moment that you as a writer/designer think is so poignant will also affect them. However, I have had many reflective moments as a player, and I think that the openness of the system can support that by balancing that openness with constraints. This is still a strong possibility for a future design, but it occurred to me that this is a potential opportunity to experiment with a format that I have been curious about designing around for a long, long time, and doubly so after reading about some of the amazingly reflective game examples within it: larp (Live-Action Roleplay).

Having never designed a larp, but read about them at length, my next step is to read some larp manifestos and creation guides, starting with the ones listed here, all while considering the subject of my larp:
https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Category:Documentation

Thematically, there have been explorations of some incredibly nuanced and difficult topics in larps, especially in the Nordic Larp scene in particular. The tip of the iceberg includes terminal illness, the 1980s AIDS crisis, and sexual assault. Larping can be a very intense experience, especially when one deals with these kinds of themes. For some LARPs, the organizers have mental health professionals on-hand as a resource for during or after the experience.

“Bleed” is the idea that one’s experience in a larp, where one is asked to totally identify with and embody a character, can “leak” (y’know, or bleed) over into the rest of one’s life. This might happen during a break in the game, but it can frequently also happen in the weeks and months that follow a larp. These feelings, which may be negative and difficult to deal with, are one reason why many larps include a sort of debriefing session with the organizers, potentially the other players, and mental health professionals. It seems like an excellent opportunity for critical reflection.

This hearkens back to Blast Theory’s Ulrike & Eamon Compliant and the interview at the end of the experience — something that I have been considering all along. It’s satisfying to have circled back around this way.

Thus far, I’m thinking that I will choose a theme that relates to my own lived experience with my intersectional identities. I also think that this should be a short larp, although I’m not sure how short. Larps can range between five minutes (Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou) to being spread across multiple sessions over the course of months, or even years (Vampire: The Masquerade). More experienced larp writers have experimented with characterless larps that are about the environment created, with very specific constraints around speech and language, but I think that even for a short larp, I’d like to have the players participate in character development sessions ahead of time. I am not an actor, but I think that I may be able to design exercises to help players discover who their character is, and perhaps I can enlist the help of some friends who are involved in the Montreal Improv community.

Even before having settled on a subject, I am thinking of the kind of “gamemaster” that I usually am, and the techniques that I use to approach the control of information. This makes me think that I don’t necessarily want to just provide the rules and see what happens. I think I’ll have to communicate with players either in-character or through technology. I’m already considering how to diegetically pass along information. I know that some styles of larp are very directed and take place in a contained space. This is where reading more about larp manifestos will be invaluable.

Some of the themes that I’m considering right now relate to queer identity (and, in particular, my lived experience with nonbinary gender identity) or mental health, or queer identity and mental health. Although the stakes are very different, I was deeply affected by the actions available to the player in …&maybetheywontkillyou, where the actions available to the player are to speak up, or choose to be silent. This is something I think I might want to experiment with. And, although I didn’t like A Closed World (MIT GAMBIT) very much, one of the ways that it has been easier to talk about gender identity, pronouns and sexuality with my family has been by “swapping the norm”, which is something A Closed World sometimes does (this is, if I understand correctly, randomized at the beginning of the game). The premise there is basically, “What if being heterosexual were the ‘abnormal’ identity?” or, y’know, calling someone whose gender identity matches their assigned-at-birth identity the wrong pronouns for five minutes to let them see how they like it — these things obviously don’t stand in for lived experience, but I suppose they illustrate a rhetorical point.

Well, these are the thoughts and work that is percolating at the moment. On to researching nordic larp design!