Monthly Archives: July 2014

Bakhtinian notion of Carnival as applied to Larps

The Bakhtinian notion of carnival offers an interpretation of culture as a “two-world condition” (p. 6), one of the official life of institutions, hierarchies, classes and rituals, and a “second world and a second life outside officialdom” (p. 6) that all people inhabited at one time or another, often publicly. This world was based on laughter and folk humor, and becomes that basis for the study of popular culture. Bakhtin links it to the idea of spectacle, but is careful not to relegate it to a separate world of art. Rather he locates it on the border between art and life and states that “it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play” (p. 7).  Carnival, says Bakhtin, “does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators” noting that such an idea of a separation would destroy it. In a description that sounds quite like Huizinga’s description of the demarcated and ritualized magic circle of a game, Bakhtin refers to carnival as: “carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, tehre is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part” (p. 7). Thus, carnival is something that participants embody, they become carnival incarnate, and together they enact and encompass it. In so doing, they recreate spectacle, themselves, and the world of officialdom that they reenter upon leaving carnival space. (Hmm …. this is beginning to sound like a larp).

Bahktin says clowns and fools (hmmm, and tricksters, too? what about kender?) represented the carnival spirit all the time, and as such represented a form of life that is “real and ideal at the same time.”

Also, carnival, says Bakhtin, is the “second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance” (p. 9) — a place to play and revel in what they do not have in the mundane world. It is separated from the mundane world of “practical conditions” by being part of the world of ideals, “the highest aims of human existence” (p. 9). Bakhtin states that this realm must be sanctioned as this other form  in order to be allowed and to be festive (e.g. fun). However, official feasts did not lead people out of the existing order into the second life, but instead reified it, “assert[ing] all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions … the predominant truth that was put forward as eternal and indisputable” (p. 9). Carnival, on the other hand, is a temporary liberation from this “prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (p. 10). Bakhtin says that by design, carnival was hostile to all things that had been immortalized and completed. (this makes larp especially carnivalesque because there is no preconceived script or ending — it is made up and made new).

Carnival also was a social equalizer, Bakhtin says. One did not have to adopt the forms and rhetoric of his/her mundane world status and position. He says, “people were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only the fruit of imagination  or abstract thought; they were experienced” (p. 10). Carnival thus was a fusion of “the utopian ideal” and the realistic, made incarnate and embodied. (Larps as breaking away from mundane responsibilities and identities and having their own social codes and at least the perception of greater autonomy and agency via rules that seem less complex, make more sense, and in which one has the power to argue/advocate for self in a direct, relational way with an embodied and present GM vs. a non-corporeal distant entity that controls or enforces.)

Bakhtin stresses that this second life becomes a “world inside out” of “ever changing, playful, undefined forms” that include “parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (p. 11). He notes that this is not “bare negation” or a “negative and formal parody” that we may associate with such humor or behavior. He notes that the purpose of carnival was to revive and renew one’s participation in and acceptance of the official culture that is temporarily displaced by carnival. It is as if, through play and the temporary agency gained withing, that one is able to accept and then return to the mundane world. It is a temporary escape that allows one to subvert “burnout” or depression. Go obtain agency and fun and debauchery during carnival and then return to the official, mundane world with an adjusted attitude and ability to re-engage.

**return to this article for the notion grotesque realism, especially as applied to the horror larps and The Rejects — Theatre of Cruelty.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press.





Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press.

A Circular Wall? — Steven Conway’s notion of reformulating the fourth wall for video games

I read Steven Conway’s GamaSutra article “A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games” with interest, since I have been doing work on live action role-playing games, where the concept of bleed is used to describe what theatre and game studies critics and scholars often refer to as breaking the fourth wall between the diegetic and the non-diegetic worlds.

Conway’s premise is that video games do not so much break the fourth wall, as they do expand or contract the magic circle of the game. What might seem to be a breakage, whereby the player becomes aware that s/he is playing a game is actually a technique that enhances the immersion of the player. Conway cites this quote by James Newman (2002) from “In Search of the Video Game Player: The Lives of Mario“:

Importantly, the … relationship between player and the system/gameworld is not one of clear subject and object. Rather, the interface is a continuous interactive feedback loop, where the player must be seen as both implied and implicated in the construction and composition of the experience.”

I find this quote interesting in terms of larps because of two factors:

  1. Markus Montola’s oft-cited larp theory of subjective diegeses vs. objective diegesis. Montola proposes that an individual player has an individual, subjective experience of the game that cannot be aggregated, and that there are as many games as their are players. He also dismisses a notion of an objectivity (a collaborative diegesis or “the game”). Moving beyond the binary of subject and object to a model of a continuous interactive feedback loop liberates and complicates Montola’s notion.
  2. Also, since larps are enacted through open-ended player speech and actions (as opposed to finite encoded options written into the game), the idea of continuous feedback loop is interesting to discuss the recursive nature of a larp (if I speak it, it is true and you are provoked to respond) as well as the collaborative nature of it (larps are built through multiple players who simultaneously interact and also create/compose the world as well as the experience of that iteration of play.

Interesting to my work on how triggers function in larps, Conway proposes that when the player is cast out of the magic circle — when the dynamic magic circle contracts to exclude the player, to use Conway’s model — this is not a “slap in the face” as Ernest Adams states in Designer’s Notebook (Gamasutra). Rather this is a moment of fun because of the surprise. Games operate under the notion that the player is in control, that the player possesses agency and power. The player is the one “doing” or “enacting” or “making” the game happen or respond. When the game — which we assume to have no personality, consciousness, or adaptable agenda — behaves in a way that inverts this supposed hierarchy of control, taking power away from the player then there can be a thrill in the thwarting of expectations. In a larp, breaking the fantasy of immersion such that the player becomes consciously aware of him/herself and has to contemplate — extra-diegetically — how they feel and what to do next is one such time when control is wrested away. A trigger, as I’ve said elsewhere, breaks immersion by making the player conscious of actions and experiences that occurred extra-diegetically and aware of one’s status as a player. Conway notes that rather than being entirely negative, this movement when the game contracts and leaves the player exposed can be delightful and fun, as it is unpredictable. In the taking away of the agency to contract the circle, the player reasserts agency to expand the magic circle and respond diegetically. Furthermore, Conway believes that such a ‘break’ or contraction actually increases immersion because the player further invests in the game via increased engagement.

Conway, S. (2010.). A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games. Gamasutra: The art & business of making games. Retrieved July 8, 2014, from

Bakhtin and the World of the Utterance

The nascent field of larp theory, dominated by the Scandinavians since 2003 or earlier, has struggled with defining what a larp “is.” By this, I mean not just what it constitutes in terms of components and logistics (although there has been debate about that, too, most notably regarding whether freeform is a larp), but how to determine what a particular run or instantiation of a larp means or says. It is generally agreed that each run of a larp is unique; this is as a result of having different players in the various roles, as well as different rhetorical and physical circumstances. To tell a story by larp is to never tell the same story twice. But how do we know what one of these particular larp stories, unique manifestations of a written larp is, says, or means? One of the prevailing larp theorists, and the one most often cited related to how a larp making its meaning through its participants’ storytelling, Markus Montola, claims in his 2003 article “Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses” and again in his 2012 dissertation, On the Edge of the Magic Circle: Understanding Pervasive Games and Role-Playing, that what “happens” or “means” in a larp can never be fully known because the game takes place in the minds of individual players who interact with each other, but never fully express their experience of the game. In the debrief following a game, when individual players narrate what their game experience was, and  these personal or subjective diegeses are collected and shared with the other players, a semblance of the larp as a unit is conveyed. However, Montola argues, this still does not approximate what the larp “is” or means, since a collection of individual stories, imperfectly and partially narrated, does not constitute the larp itself. The experience of the larp is deeply personal, he argues, and exists only in the mind of each individual player, never fully shareable or expressible, and never brought to any true collective vision or cohesion. As many diegeses exist as their are players, Montola states, with no über-diegesis or diegesis that “is” the larp. It’s a post-modern view of fragmented narrative that is akin to Biesecker’s adaption of Derrida’s différance; only in the opposition of the various views of the narrative (or the rhetorical situation) does the situation exist or unfold. Like Biesecker, Montola would reject any notion of a unity or underlying diegesis or a “truth” or “singularity” that drives the rhetorical situation of the game or that “is” the game, something Bitzer might allow for in his notion that there exists such a unity to solve or uncover.

I think Montola is right that each player has a personal experience of the game. But I think he is wrong that these subjective diegeses never congeal into THE game. I disagree with the idea that it is impossible to have a singular diegesis or cohesive description of a larp (by larp I mean a particular instantiation or run of the larp — larp as played in a particular context of place, time, and players).




Bakhtin, M. (2000). The Problem of Speech Genres. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present (Second Edition edition., pp. 1227–1245). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Bakhtin, M. (2000). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present (Second Edition edition., pp. 1210–1226). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Montola, M. (2003). Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses. In M. Gade, L. Thorup, & M. Sander (Eds.), As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 82–89). Frederiksberg: Projektgruppen kp 03.
Montola, M. (2012). On the Edge of the Magic Circle: Understanding Pervasive Games and Role-Playing. Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press.