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.

_The Functions of Role-Playing Games_ –> Review and Notes

Bowman_FRPG_CoverSarah Lynne Bowman’s 2010 text, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, fills a basic gap in the literature about role-playing games by giving an overall history of the development of role-playing games in the United States and addressing the high-level benefits of role-playing to education, business, military and individuals. She attempts to connect research on role-playing, and the positive attitudes toward the benefits of simulation for developing creative scenarios and solving them, to leisure-based role-playing games (RPGs), which have frequently been stigmatized in the United States as frivolous or even dangerous. Her secondary research draws on anthropology, psychology, education, business management, and theatre/drama to make parallels and demonstrate commonalities in role-playing and its benefits across its many manifestations. Her primary research consists of interviews with friends in the role-playing game community, as well as her own experience with table-top and live-action role-playing games (LARPs). In particular, Bowman has been involved with Dungeons & Dragons-based games, and the White Wolf franchises, Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, two popular larps in the US that she and her interviewees have played.

Throughout the book she conflates role-playing with role-playing games, giving  passing mention to the fact that a game has a structure and rule system, whereas role-playing does not. She does not elaborate on this distinction, and instead focuses on the role-playing aspect of the game. Much of the research is about role-playing itself, and its social, creative, problem-solving, and psychological implications. Bowman assumes that this research is applicable to the role-playing game community, by virtue of role-playing being part of the game. The benefits of military simulation, for example, or classroom role-playing, or using computer games for learning, must transfer to the D&D or larp games she describes. I find this move between role-playing that is not in a game context and RPGs (table-top or larp) to be somewhat problematic, especially since there is a distinction, which Bowman notes, regarding their execution and their esteem. The question of WHY “serious” games or role-playing in the context of education, business, or the military is seen as useful while RPGs (computer, table-top or larp) are stigmatized is noted, and Bowman hopes her research can help eliminate this difference, but she does not attempt to explain why. That is a study I would like to see done. What is it about US culture in particular, that stigmatizes these activities seen as “leisure” or “fantasy” while heralding the same general behaviors in other more utilitarian setting? I have some ideas related to America’s utilitarian, protestant, capitalist culture, but that’s to be explored another day.

Bowman outlines three major benefits to role-playing that she connects to RPGs via the role-playing research, the anecdotes and reports of the players she interviewed, as well as her own experience. These are: (1) socialization, social skills, and community building; (2) problem-solving, innovative thinking and creativity; and (3) identity exploration and self-actualization.

She gives literal examples of her own role-playing characters and uses Erving Goffman’s notion of role-playing in everyday life to draw parallels between the skills she used in the game situation and the “fronts” she put on there, and the “fronts” (clothing style, mannerisms, and speech patterns) she uses or began to use out-of-game. She gives anecdotal evidence that playing in the game world with these etiquette and leadership skills (pp. 136-138) helped her to cultivate more mature skills and roles in the mundane world as a result of the practice in the safe space. She also briefly toys with the notion that players are projecting or attempting to embody their Ideal Selves through role-playing.

Bowman gives a primer on the classes and races of Dungeons & Dragons characters, which she ties to cultural archetypes, indicating that D&D draws on some deeper narrative and psychological tropes. Drawing briefly on Jung, Propp, and Campbell, Bowman delineates:

Character Classes in D&D, based on Archetypes

The warrior/fighter archetype, which includes subclasses such as the Cavalier (the chivalric mounted knight, typified by Camelot), the Paladin (typified by Lancelot, combines cavalry with limited spiritual power and devotion, the Ranger (best seen by Strider/Aragorn in LOTR,  skills in tracking and herbalism), the Berserker (Viking lore, undisciplined fighters who can sometimes transmogrify into wolves or bears), the Barbarians (after Conan, powerful and brutish and primitive, fearing magic and civilization) (p. 147).

The Cleric archetype or class, which also includes the Druid. A Knight of Holy Orders, dedicated to faith more than fighting. Uses healing magic and has limited combat skills. Often in the “true neutral” moral philosophy, viewing the binaries of good/evil, dark/light, etc. to be balancing forces of nature. (see Treebeard, Tom Bombadil in LOTR for druid types).

Wizard class, dedicated to magic. D&D divides these spells into “spheres” or “schools”, such as Illusionists (making reality appear different) or Psionicist (exerting control over reality using mental powers). Wizards are often mentors, advisers, tour guides for the heroes; helpers or donors. In RPGs, wizards are often also the hero. (Gandalf)

Rogues — follow their own individual creed and sometimes “swindle, beguile or foll others for personal gain or amusement” (p. 149). Subclasses of rogue archetypes include the Thief (finds treasure, is stealthy, pilfers, unlocks doors); the Assassin; the Bard. The roots of the Rogue class are in the Trickster archetype, boundary-crossers who blur the conceptions of ethical behavior and confuse the binary distinctions that humans tend to make.

Bowman delineates the races seen in D&D, including Human, Halfling (which Bowman sees as representing the friendly innkeeper, country bumpkin, or humble environment from which a hero emerges); Gnomes (typified by skills in the arts and building, as well as pranks) which appeared in Germanic myths and European folklore; Dwarves (superstitious miners who distrust magic) appearing in Germanic and French folklore, often living underground or in caves, including subraces of Duergar Dwarves, Hill Dwarves; and Elves (long-lifespan, associated with beauty, gracefulness, art). Subraces include High Elves, Gray Elves, Sylvan or Wood Elves, Drow (Dark) Elves.

Bowman notes that the general tendency to place characters into archetypal figures, bloodlines, clans, races, and classes is a way of replicating or mimicking traditions in the mundane world and also archetypal personality types such as Caregiver, Fanatic, Judge, Loner and Visionary (p. 153). I would argue that there is a basic sense of nostalgia and a desire to categorize as a way to push back against the fluidity and fragmentation of the post-modern world that is at play in these desires to replicate strict hierarchies in the RPGs, and not merely a psychological connection to shared universal humanity.

Psychological Basis for Role-Playing

In her attempt to legitimize RPGs, Bowman traces the impulse to role-play to early childhood explorations of alternate identities, adolescent blending of various social codes and mores to create a stable ego identity, and the postmodern world that demands a stronger fluidity of identity and multiplicities of self, which she sees as “sub-personalities” that also reflect archetypes that bubble up through the collective unconscious and are identifiable by their continual recurrence in cross-cultural narratives (p. 154). She defends modern role-playing games against critics who would relegate them to “abnormal escapism” by demonstrating that they are connected to inherent archetypal structures, legitimate identity exploration, and a tradition of role-playing.

Bowman sees role-playing as a natural outgrowth of this post-modern sensibility of having to play so many different roles, but then she also traces the popularity of role-playing to the freedom of expression and breakdown of social structures of the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in the US, and also to the basic origins of humanity in tribal cultures. These are never reconciled into a narrative or theory in the book, however, so one is left feeling uncertain whether Bowman thinks today’s role-playing is anything more than modern expressions of basic human behavior or something new and different, though connected to the past. It seems that her point is to demonstrate the connection in order to legitimize modern RPGs such as D&D and World of Darkness. Her point is not to theorize or offer an explanatory or descriptive model, but to report linkages between RPGs and other disciplines as a means to demonstrate that they are “good” and beneficial.

Bowman destabilizes her previous six chapters at the beginning of chapter 7 by saying, “creativity is, by nature, an unconscious process” and thus it may be impossible to understand the causes, motivations and reasons for the characters enacted by players (p. 155). This is surprising, because Bowman has spent the previous chapters attempting to show that the behavior of the storytellers and the players in RPGs is based on unconscious archetypes and cultural traditions being expressed anew in ways that are fundamentally healthy and quintessentially human. She relies on self-reported “flashes of insight” into the creative process of her informants to attempt to pinpoint this process she sees as being unconscious, rather than using the previous research to corroborate a theory that role-playing can be predicted and explained via the psychological and sociological methods. After saying this, however, she goes on to trace the development of a role-playing character using typology and psychological identification between the player and the archetype.

The ideas of identity alteration, though only one of the three functions of role-playing initially identified in the book, seem to be where Bowman is most interested and where her greatest contribution lies. She is interested in HOW a player adopts a new identity and creates the multiple sense of of self. She spends a great deal of time reporting on clinical psychology and ideas of Dissociative Identity Disorder and Multiple Personality Disorder, positing that these may not be disorders (and deserving of stigma or repair) but “advantages, resulting from an active, creative and intelligent basic consciousness” (p. 140). Her reasoning is that fantastical escapism can be present without trauma or alienation (though she spent much of Ch. 1 an Ch. 2 discussing how many role-players characterized themselves as outcasts); that the behaviors could be the result of “deeper wells of creative power” and an inherent human nature to draw from the wells of unconscious and represent with symbols, such as art. Bowman believes that role-playing is this same process of art creation, but that the medium and product of an RPG is simply not societally acceptable or economically feasible; and that clinical psychology as a discipline prefers to pathologize rather than “celebrate his or her uniqueness” (p. 141). Her example is that Vincent Van Gogh’s “unorthodox behavior patterns and roller-coaster like emotions” were the result of “high level of creativity” rather than lunacy, and that if only these artists “can acquire patronage or acclaim they become ‘rehabilitated'” (p. 141). Bowman sees exceptional creativity as a heightened identity crisis (drawing obliquely on Erik Erikson) and that role-playing is a manifestation of this creativity and identity exploration (p. 141). While I admire her point that humans do have a tendency to marginalize and stigmatize that which they do not understand, I would offer that a distinction between the creative imagination and true mental illness still exists, and that not all artists would find their troubles disappearing if only they were paid properly with money and esteem.  What I would like to explore here is our (United States) society’s tendency to hold up actors (who are indeed role-players) in high esteem, and to celebrate their talent and eccentricities as well as lament their tragic downfalls as a result of sacrificing themselves to their art or being the type of “creative soul” that is consumed by “normal society (e.g. Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman), while simultaneously stigmatizing those who role-play or act as a hobby (community theatre, larping), counseling against the dangers of a loss of self or not living “in reality”.

Bowman posits that Robert Assagioli’s theory of psychosynthesis, or an assimilation of alternate egos and fragmented consciousness may help get past the context of trauma and pathology associated with multiple identities, but Assagioli himself notes that the cycle of dissolution and reconstruction sometimes is healthy and other times creates “toxic conditions” and “psychopathological abscesses and tumors” (qtd. in Bowman, p. 143). Bowman, agreeing with Assagioli, states that “Integration” (the goal of psychotherapy and the “norm” of psychological health) can take places after ego identity dissolution. Following this logic, though, it would mean that role-playing is an immature consciousness struggling to integrate, and that after a role-playing stage, the player would dissolve these alter-egos and construct a healthy, normative, whole. Perhaps Bowman is attempting to say that the healthy, normative, ego identity is itself a blend of multiplicities and fragments, and that it is never stable, but always evolving and being re-synthesized. However, she does not say this explicitly, nor posit this as a theory to integrate the various sources she uses. This is an interesting idea, though, to think of a role-player as being hyper-aware of the performative nature of everyday life, more comfortable and adept at moving among roles and “fronts” both in-game and out, and eschewing a single “ego identity” that would be formed at a particular time in life, after the adolescent crisis, in favor of a more fluid identity that incorporates experience and the various psychosocial crises outlined by Erikson and that is a more accurate manifestation of the post-modern self than an ostensible singular integration that was posited by psychologists more than a century ago. Bowman spends her time justifying role-playing in broad terms and concentrating on de-stigmatizing or de-pathologizing it. She does conclude with the idea that role-playing various selves (see ch. 7) does help the player with his/her out-of-game primary identity, channeling Mackay, but she does not then reconnect that idea to this psychological research. She argues, agreeing with Daniel MacKay, that role-playing is an art form and role-players are artists. (p. 142). Here, she would agree with the proponents of the Nordic Larp movement, who, since the turn of the 21st century, have been advocating for larp as art.

Bowman puts forth the idea that the creation of alternate selves is an inherent human impulse, and that the content of these identities may arise from specific archetypes that exist in the collective unconscious as explained by Jung.The book is mostly a broad literature review related to role-playing and its origins and contribution. Its research scope is ambitious and broad, making it struggle to come to cohesion. Yet in Chapter 7, (this is the book)  Bowman offers a process for character creation and the beginning of a theoretical model of archetypal roles, which are corroborated by the experience of various players in modern US RPGs and larps.

She offers a four-stage process of character evolution:

  1. Genesis — origin or inception arising from a combination of archetypes, game mechanics, literature, popular culture, personal experience. May be motivated by social needs or psychological needs. Bowman sees this as an individual process, as existing internally to the player creating the character (I might argue that this is inherently social, given that it draws upon culture and society — see Bakhtin). Bowman sees this as the Gestalt of the character, the essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.
  2. Development — adds more details through creative exercises. This is still an individual activity which might include research into costuming, a particular time period, skills, etc., including the writing of backstory or scenarios.
  3. Interaction — a testing of the character within the game system and world. “Brought to life” and tested through play. The nascent personality is enacted and the player attempts to think “as” the character and immerse into the character and the world.
  4. Realization — The player has a distinct sense of “character’s past and present motivations, their complexities and idiosyncrasies” (p. 157). This comes as a result of passing through the previous three stages.

Bowman states that in this process, the player is the “Primary Ego Identity” which still exists, although “the more immersed in the game world the players become, the more they perceive the character as a distinct entity from the Primary Self” (p. 157), manifested in nine different ways with various degrees of similarity to the Primary Ego Identity. Bowman, then, sees a character as an alternative self that is brought to life by the player as a result of tapping into primal psychological urges, universal narrative, collective unconscious, and formed via interaction with other character identities and the social norms of the game world. For Bowman, a character (or persona) is a distinct entity and identity that is related to the player in one of nine ways.

Her Nine Categories of Archetypal Selves that are enacted in role-playing games are as follows (though she notes that some characters will share qualities of multiple categories). She derives these from the interview questions that she asked her informants:

Doppelganger Self — closely resembles the primary ego identity. Puts primary self into new situations. Sometimes  (Bowman says “the majority of the time”, citing Fine and Mackay) dismissed in role-playing (at least in the US and in the traditions Bowman explores) as amateurish and immature, used by “younger, less-skilled players” (p. 165), claiming that “serious role-players” instead concentrate on the  “successful enactment of an entity other than the self” (p. 165). This is seen as “surface level” and a lack of immersion. Bowman cautions that this Self need not be viewed as shallow; that playing a Doppelganger can “enhance self-esteem” and allow the “ordinary” (by which she means the player) to do “extraordinary things” in the game situation.

Devoid Self — this is basically the Doppelganger Self minus one or more essential qualities the player possesses out of game. For example, the character may have a physical disability, lack of empathy, etc. Bowman notes that this single change often radically changes the behavior of the character, distancing it from the Primary Ego Identity.

Augmented Self — Doppelganger Plus. Take the player and add a super power, wealth, immortality, etc. Again, this change tends to change the behavior of the character to create a more distinct persona.

Fragmented Self — take a fragment of the player’s personality and accentuate, amplify it. By exaggerating this aspect, one creates a “new” identity or way of being. Bowman notes that these aspects are played out archetypally (rogue, rake, femme fatale, vixen, animalistic impulses through anthropomorphic play, sexuality — feminine side or masculine side — altruism or greed, etc.) and allow expression of behaviors that may be repressed.

Repressed Self — Bowman refers to this as the Inner Child. Open expression of “childish” or naive behaviors and play with a sense of “well-meaning mischievousness” (p. 170). Can be seen as regression to a less-evolved state or to play or reason with childlike perspective and abandon.

Idealized Self — a persona that possesses qualities the player wishes that s/he had (Fine: “taking on a role helps one overcome deficiencies of one’s ‘real self’ … qtd. in Bowman, p. 172). Often a hero with great physical strength, acumen, and sex appeal who accomplishes amazing feats (and thus, hopes to transfer some self-esteem and confidence to the player). Often the idealized characters behave with altruism, nobility, strength of purpose, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

Oppositional Self — complete opposition to the primary ego identity, including attributes and behaviors that the player finds repulsive (though not always). Could be a philosophical difference (e.g. playing a homophobe or a passive female when the player is tolerant and accepting or an independent, strong woman). Can be a way to explore other mentalities and ways of being to understand those the primary personality has conflict with out of game.

Experimental Self –– character created as an exercise to test the bounds of role-playing and rethink assumptions. Might be fantastical.

Taboo Self — a persona that is able to explore, in the generally safe and consequence-free space of the RPG, topics that are normally off-limits, such as rape, abuse, incest, cannibalism, etc. Often the player’s moral stance is reaffirmed rather than subverted due to the role-playing in this persona.

MacKay, and then Bowman, posit that as a result of experiencing these alternative selves in the role-playing environment, players have an underlying sense of psychological unity that helps them as they navigate the fragmented out-of-game world. Bowman attributes this to the ritual space of the gameworld, which allows for reintegration at the close of the ceremony/game. Using the anecdotes from her informants, Bowman concludes that enacting other entities helps players better understand their primary selves (ego identities). She does not connect this to psychological phenomena or role-playing research she delineated in the first few chapters.

Limitations: Bowman bases all of her conclusions on the slice of RPGs and Larps (particularly World of Darkness) that she has played. Her ideas about character creation presuppose that the player creates the character him/herself (many larps have pre-written characters) and is able to develop the character over time.

Bowman does not give information about her research methods, so it is unknown how she selected her informants, who they comprise, how she collected the information, etc. It is unclear whether those she spoke with constitute a viable sample of the role-playing community and whether their anecdotes are generalizable.


Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games how participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
Fine, G. A. (2002). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mackay, D. (2001). The fantasy role-playing game: a new performing art. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Coded Chaos, Decoded Fun: the Rhetorical Ontology of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Coded Chaos, Decoded Fun: the Rhetorical Ontology of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Scholars have studied and theorized role-playing games in terms of information systems (Harviainen, 2012, 2009, 2007; Hakkarainen and Stenros, 2003), organizational structures and social processes (Montola, 2003, 2004, 2009), archetypal psychological forms and shared fantasies (Bowman 2010, 2012; Fine, 2002; Mackay, 2001), narrative immersions (Kim, 2004; Harding, 2005; Larsson, 2005; Torner and White, 2012) and as, well, games that are fun to play (Edwards, 2001; Bøckman, 2003; Huizinga, 1955; Salen and Zimmerman, 2003; Zimmerman, 2013; Stenros, 2012). Though some of these studies consider role-playing in its various forms — tabletop, live, and online — the primary focus of this theoretical paper is the experience of role-playing as a performed embodied character, within a physical environment, in interaction with others: Live Action Role-Playing, or larp (aka LARP). This particular type of RPG’s relevance as an object of study to English Studies is three-fold: larps are important sites of cultural production that both challenge and replicate social constructions; they are also an increasingly popular form of participatory media that can be seen as a space of interactive narratology and rhetorical activity. Furthermore, they function as an information system marked by enculturated networked individualism. This paper will explore existing theories of larp as a chaotic system that attempts to aggregate individual narratives into a cohesive whole by looking at larp activity as discourse within a rhetorical situation. I complicate this idea by bringing in Hall’s notion of encoding-decoding, which helps explain the interpretive and action-based agency afforded individual players in the game and the culturally dominant semiotic system that causes players to enforce or prefer certain interpretations, thus affecting game play and its outcomes. Ultimately I posit that using rhetorical theory to analyze larps helps us to understand how information in a larp travels, is interpreted, mapped, and enacted, thus creating the game itself. My goal is not merely to describe the experience of a larp, as other theorists have done, but to begin to think about why and how larps are experienced in this way.

Hansen (2003) claims that role-play is an emergent phenomenon that arises from individual players’ interaction with each other. Montola (2003) claims that larps consist of players who “construct diegeses in interaction,” and that these in-game truths are subjective to each individual player, but developed collaboratively over the course of the game. It should be noted that in a larp, as opposed to a table-top game, for example, the physical reality of the game-space is used as a basis for in-game (diegetic) reality. Unlike computer-based games, which have an interface of binary decision-making that forces players to make choices from among scripted opportunities created by game designers, larps have simply a starting point and the “vectors of the characters” (Hansen, 2003, Montola, 2004). The game emerges from the starting situation and is the result of improvisation and interaction among the players, who can draw from their imaginations, creating a wider range of play possibilities. Montola applies Aula’s (1996) chaos theory of human communications to the unpredictable but non-random system of larp. Montola notes that Aula’s three characteristics of chaotic systems — nonlinearity, recursivity, and dynamism — apply to larp game play.

Nonlinearity, or the absence of linear dependency on changes made during play, is similar to Latour’s concept of the mediator, rather than an intermediary. Messages or energy expended to cause change in the game are not merely transferred along a network of players. The message or action is changed as it travels, if it travels at all, as a player may choose to keep information secret. Inputs into the game do not equal outputs; there is a sense of randomness that is an integral part of the game experience.

Recursivity indicates that the “end result of the first situation is used as the beginning of the next one” (Montola, 2004). What is constructed by one player or gamemaster is used as the basis for what other players can and do construct as a result. This refers to both within a single instance of a larp (e.g. during game play), and over the course of a campaign game, played over many sessions. Recursivity is another way of stating that the game is co-constructed, woven together as Deleuze & Guattari’s assemblage or Levi-Strauss’ bricolage, from the available materials, over time, with each addition building on the next. A co-player’s contribution cannot be discarded, removed, or ignored. It must be incorporated. This, like nonlinearity, can cause the outputs to little resemble the inputs, as game play must veer into the new direction after the contribution of any player.

The third principle, dynamism, refers to the plasticity of the game situation, of the entire system’s ability to morph, in real-time, as a result of changes to the system. A change in the character changes the way the character behaves, and a change in the character’s behavior changes the system  s/he participates in and co-creates. The interaction of these three principles accumulate over time in a game, causing a seemingly insignificant utterance at the starting point to have potentially enormous consequences later.

Hansen (2003) notes that communication changes social relationships, and since a larp is fundamentally about a network of social relationships being role-played, these relationships change constantly as a result of communication. However, that is the extent to which Montola and Hansen consider communication as the “change agent” in a larp. They identify the larp  as an unpredictable, though not random, system best characterized as an emergent phenomenon and demonstrate that it follows the chaos system principles of nonlinearity, recursivity and dynamism. They do not look at what drives these principles, what causes them to be observable in the larp.

While these scholars have looked at describing what components comprise a larp, what players experience during a larp, or how to design larps that afford fun and authentic experiences, few, if any, scholars have considered what actually occurs during a larp, what creates or enacts the experience of the larp. They have looked at the “what” of a larp and not the “how” a larp happens. Larps are performed through speech, they are spoken into existence. Game play occurs as description, narration, and conversation among participants. Larps are discursive scenarios, and larps are fundamentally rhetorical acts.

According to Lloyd Bitzer (1968), rhetorical discourse “comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem” (p. 5).  Bitzer refers to a situation that requires a discursive response as the “rhetorical situation”, which he defines as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relationship presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (p. 6). In other words, a situation is rhetorical if it can be resolved or changed through the introduction of discourse, or speech.

It’s not quite that simple, because Bitzer further defines exigence as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be … an exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (p.6). Conversely, an exigence is not rhetorical if it cannot be changed, or it can be changed without discourse, by the use of a tool or one’s own action, not in conversation with another. Furthermore, Bitzer notes that a rhetorical situation requires an audience that is comprised of not merely “hearers or readers” but those who can be influenced through the discourse to become “mediators of change” (p. 7). Lastly, Bitzer lays out the idea of constraints, or “persons, events, objects, and relations” which have the “power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (p. 8). An orator who enters the situation harnesses these “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, and the like” and uses them to create change via the audience members.

Using Bitzer to look at the rhetorical nature of a larp, we can find some parallels. Certainly larps contain the basic elements of a rhetorical situation by Bitzer’s definition. The basic triangle of an exigence, audience, and constraints exist in the form of the game to be played and the central premise or conflict, the other players, and the mechanics and rules and setting of the game itself. The rhetor, or individual player, enters this situation, and through diegetic discourse, changes what happens in the game. Individual actions by a player would not be rhetorical under Bitzer’s definition, but speech by a player — the primary method to enact a larp — would constitute rhetorical action, especially as that speech evokes a response from other players, who in turn create change in the original exigence. As you can see, however, an immediate problem arises in trying to apply Bitzer to a larp. Bitzer’s model assumes a single rhetor (or a rhetor on behalf of a corporate entity) and a passive audience, neither of which exist in a larp. Larps consist of a multitude of rhetors, each discoursing in response to the perceived exigence, which, in another contradiction to Bitzer, may not be “the” exigence, as characters may have different goals and information about the situation they are engaging with. The only audience in a larp are the other players, who are not there merely to be acted upon by a rhetor and a mediator of the change s/he wishes to effect. They are there as their own agents of change.

Furthermore, for Bitzer, the situation is paramount: “rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse” (p. 8). The situation itself drives the resulting speech and governs what is appropriate, or “fitting” speech that can be said matches the situation and resolve the exigence. Other responses that are not designed to cause audience members to change the situation are not considered fitting; each rhetorical situation invites, and often requires or demands, a particular and proper structured response (pp. 9-10). In fact, Bitzer notes that, “the situation controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution. Not the rhetor and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the source and ground of rhetorical activity” (p. 6, emphasis mine). Thus, Bitzer’s sense of discourse and the rhetorical situation is prescriptive, leaving very little — if any — agency for the speaker/rhetor. In fact, Bitzer seems to be advocating a linear pattern of communication; if I say this, I expect that, my outputs can be predicted by my inputs.

The primacy of the situation and lack of agency for the rhetor under Bitzer’s model makes it unsuitable for explaining a larp fully. While the genre of the game and the basic premise — the situation that requires a response — certainly constrain what is fitting for in-game discourse, the purpose of a larp is to create the game as an active agent, and to interact with others who also have that discursive power. Larps are unscripted, and also have outcomes that are restricted only by the players’ imagination and the constraints of the game’s runtime. As Hansen noted, the gameframe is only the starting point of the larp, and the character descriptions are seen as “vectors” that provide direction for the players. A larp that is too scripted or controlled cannot be played; a larp does not consist of a single question or a single problem to be solved by a single rhetor. The multiplicity of agency and situation through plot arcs, conflicts, and players, might create a network of Bitzer’s rhetorical situations, occurring simultaneously, and then recursively, one resolution leading to the next, but even then the structured approach of his argument fails to describe the dynamism of a larp’s continuously changing situation and the nonlinearity that belies Bitzer’s notions of predictable desired outcomes as a result of the “proper discourse” to the “proper audience.”

Unlike Bitzer, who believes rhetorical situations are discrete, discernible, objective, and thus “real” or “genuine,” Richard Vatz, in a direct response to Bitzer, contends that the speaker perceives a situation, and often does so as a result of communication created through the interpretation of another rhetor (1973, pp. 155-156).  Vatz says that the characterization of a situation and the discourse used to describe or “respond” to it are not “according to a situation’s reality” (as Bitzer would have it), but according to the “rhetor’s arbitrary choice of characterization” (157). Vatz implies that we can manufacture exigence, and indeed situations themselves, out of language. Thus, Vatz flips Bitzer’s position to argue that rhetoric itself creates the exigence. Vatz contends that “meaning is not discovered in situations, but created by rhetors” (p. 158). Agency is placed within the subjective rhetor and not in a supposedly objective situation.

Vatz’s interpretation of a rhetorical situation comes closer to making sense for a larp, as it privileges the discourse itself and acknowledges the rtheorical choices made by the players as ones that not only are “fitting” or “dictated by the situation” (Bitzer) but also as ones that themselves create the salience of the situation (Vatz, p. 158). Vatz allows for the rhetor, or the player in a larp, to create reality through language, not merely communicate with an audience in response to a situation. Vatz acknowledges the primacy of the perception of the rhetor, and the choices s/he makes as constructing what becomes the “situation” or what discourse is put into play. The primacy of perception and the constructive nature of the reality that is acted upon with language liberates the player-rhetor from the prescriptiveness of an observable situation and makes more sense applied to the discursive activity of a larp, which takes place as Vatz would allow, in relationship to the rhetors who have come before, whose perceptions and interpretations through language have informed the current rhetor. This aligns with Montola’s explanation of the recursivity property of a larp, that one statement informs the next.

However, Vatz’s notions do not explain the synchronous and multiplicitous nature of simultaneous perceptions and utterances in a given larp. Indeed in a larp, there is no clear singular conversation (even though there often is a main story arc), but a multitude of them. Vatz does allows us to see that none of these competing discourses represent an “objective” or “correct” perception of the overall rhetorical situation of the larp; indeed, Vatz’s view of the primacy of the rhetor’s perception corroborates Montola’s (2003) view of that “every participant constructs his or her diegesis when playing” (p. 83).  Vatz’s model acknowledges that interpreted language creates the perceptions that constitute the reality, recognizing that the discursive activity is indeed a representation not an actuality, further corroborating Montola’s theory that the larp consists of personal, subjective diegeses that coexist and are related through communication (2003, 2012). But his model also does not allow us to take into account the physical reality of the larp, an important component that distinguishes it from other forms of role-playing games. Additionally, neither Bitzer’s nor Vatz’s model allows us to think about the movement between the competing yet combined realities of the fictional game (diegetic) and the brute reality of the world it is played in (non-diegetic).

As mentioned, a larp has a multiplicity of rhetors speaking simultaneously, a variety of exigences that are both in game and out of game, and no true audience, since all who participate have agency to speak and create. Furthermore, in a larp, speech is more than an epistemological construct or a heuristic device. Speech is actually a creative activity; through discourse, the game, the character, the shared experience is made. This is quite literal in a larp. If you speak something, it becomes true in the world of the game, the game diegesis. Other players must accept what you have said or described as true or real, and they must adjust their views and play accordingly. Gamemasters may have to intervene to connect the new generative speech act to the game’s narrative or canon, but it cannot be undone. In addition, some actions in larp are not performed, but described, so as not to put the physical bodies of the players in danger or discomfort (for example, a player may say, “I’m stabbing you with my dagger” or “We are having sex.”). In a larp, rhetorical speech acts are ontological. Discourse is not only the way of knowing, but is the way of being, of bringing into existence, of making reality. This is, to a degree, what Vatz was saying when he noted that the interpretation of a situation constitutes it, calls it into being, but Vatz’s purpose is to negate the universality or unity of situation, thus allowing for his premise of the speaker’s rhetorical agency.

Speech in a larp is more than the mere interpretation of communicated ideas, and more than the rhetorical requirement of having to be persuaded before taking action or creating change. Another player-character in a larp could disagree completely with the rhetorical turn a player just enacted, not wish to follow that thread or engage that discourse, and even actively attempt to thwart the intentions of the rhetor. But what he or she cannot do is ignore or invalidate the spoken truth. It cannot be argued, only complicated or twisted through additional, recursive speech acts. Thus, speech in a larp actually does create a kind of unity and universality that must be accepted by the other players. However, unlike Bitzer’s notion, this unity is not pre-existing and waiting to be discovered, but instead is created together through the interactive dynamism of the game. Bitzer and Vatz allow us to see that rhetoric is a plausible way to look at larps, but they do not account for the interactivity of the discourse, the fact that other players talk back and interact, that there is no primary rhetor, no distinction between rhetor and audience, and no stable message or narrative — only the nonlinear, recursive dynamism that unfolds rhetorically.

Stuart Hall (1993) agrees that the traditional communication model of a circuit or loop, as advocated by Bitzer, Vatz, and others, is too linear and too focused only the moment of message exchange, failing to take into account moments that precede and follow that discursive moment. Instead, he posits that discourse is a process of linked articulations in five distinct moments: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction (p. 478). Communication must be translated and transformed from one articulation to the next; at any one of these border-crossing moments, there is the opportunity for miscommunication or misinterpretation. At these gaps, the message is decoded, transformed, mediated or interpellated, and what was encoded by the rhetor is not guaranteed to be if-i-cant-hear-you-its-not-truedecoded by the recipient. Hall notes that “no one moment can fully guarantee the next moment with which it is articulated” (p. 478). In other words, the inputs do not equal the outputs, capturing the nonlinearity inherent in communication and in a larp. The idea of seamless transfer from speaker to hearer is a fiction that rhetoricians such as Bitzer, Vatz and others pretend to believe as it gives credibility, and perhaps validity to the necessity of intervening in a situation with discourse, and of the importance of rhetorical training to effect these supposed seamless transfers of information and causation.

Hall notes that the audience does not play a passive role in his model, indeed if the audience does not take any meaning from the discursive form, then it cannot be said to have been “consumed” or to have the desired effect (478). Indeed, any one of these moments of encoding and decoding are “determinate moments” where meaning has the possibility of being communicated, and then acted upon. Furthermore, Hall notes that communication isn’t as simple as person to person, even if we acknowledge what may be implicit in the message being spoken or the ability to understand and receive that message on the part of the hearer. Communication does not take place in a vacuum; what is both encoded and decoded is a result of social norms and practices, and the action that an audience member takes in response to discourse must enter this structure. It does not do so strictly in behavioral or positivistic terms, Hall notes, but through a complex network of “social and economic relations, which shape their ‘realisation’ at the reception end of the chain and which permit the meanings signified  in the discourse to be transposed into practice or consciousness (to acquire social use value or political effectivity)” (p. 480).

Hall helps us see that what is said is not the same as what is meant  or what is heard. And what is heard is not the same as what is understood or done as a result. Hall calls these equivalences or symmetries between the “encoder-producer and the decoder-receiver” which “interrupt or systematically distort what has been transmitted” (p. 480). As meaning crosses these gaps, especially if it must cross unequal relationships of social, political, ideological or discursive power, there is opportunity for intervention from an outside (or internalized) force that causes the meaning to be changed or transmuted. Montola (2004) agrees with Hall that “communication is never perfect; no meaning is ever perfectly translated to symbols, and no symbol is ever understood perfectly” (84). As a result, Montola argues there cannot be “an objective diegesis shared by all participants” because such an “objective diegesis” cannot be shared via discourse. The opportunities for the communications misfires are at least doubled in a larp, as one negotiates between the brute and gameworld realities; it can be argued that they are exponentialized due to the sheer number of rhetors and the conflation of rhetor and audience. Thus, the chaotic system of the larp comes from the nature of the performative, and discursive medium.

In a larp, where the discourse quite literally creates not only the perceived reality but the actuality of the game, communication misfires change the outcome of the game itself; they are the cause of the non-linearity and dynamism that are crucial to the larp medium. Furthermore, these encoder-producer ←→ decoder-receiver determinate moments (Montola’s (2004) bifurcation points) can come from either within the game (diegetic) or outside of it (non-diegetic). They can also be discursive or ambient. For example, a player could actually mishear another player, perhaps as a result of other conversations or action going on simultaneously. To stay immersed, the player-character may choose to react based on what was heard and interpreted, rather than interrupt action flow with a request for clarification. The physical positioning of players at the start of a larp, as Montola (2004) notes, affects the order in which a character meets other characters, potentially affecting every subsequent interaction, relationship, and interpretation of discourse, and thus, the outcome of the game. Other possibilities for interruption in this discursive action are from non-diegetic sources: a player’s hunger, the reminder that his car needs an oil change, or some other thought not related to the diegetic conversation at hand. In addition, a psychological trigger that comes up unexpectedly as a result of a spoken or ambient rhetorical choices can create an interruption in the transfer of information that might otherwise occur in a more predictable or structured or anticipated way. When one of these interruptions occurs, or when a player says something in the larp that is a “game-changer”, Hall notes that such “new problematic or troubling events, which breach our expectancies and run counter to our ‘commonsense constructs’, to our ‘taken-for-granted’ knowledge of social structures, must be assigned to their discursive domains before they can be said to ‘make sense’ (p. 483). More often than not, these unexpected statements get default-mapped to what Hall calls “preferred meanings” that have “the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices, and beliefs” (483).

Indeed, as we know from rhetorical theory, a speaker’s effectiveness is based in part on how something is stated, and who states it. A speaker’s ethos is important in allocating him or her rhetorical powers and creating what Bitzer and Vatz desire: the ability to persuade and cause change as a result of the communication. Ethos is certainly something that can be calculated and advanced rhetorically, via both discursive and ambient elements such as

Prof. Xavier of X-Men

Patrick Stewart as Prof. Xavier in the X-Men embodies these qualities that create attractors.

grooming and dress/costuming, but ethos is also something that is interpreted by the receiver and may be connoted through social constructs that the rhetor may or may not be endowed with and powerless to change, such timbre of voice, height, squareness of jaw, or race, gender or sexual orientation. Hall discusses assigning these rhetorical choices and enactments to a set of “performative rules” or prearranged codes that “seek actively to enforce or prefer one semantic domain over another” (p. 484). Hall’s explanation of these default, or naturalized interpretative meanings, according to dominant social mores can help explain why, as Montola (2004) notes, “chaotic systems tend to follow attractors,” or “dynamic pattern[s] of behaviour the chaotic system tries to follow “ (p.158).

The only attractor that can be scripted in a larp is an initial one, such as a quest or a task, given by the gamemaster at the player briefing. After that, the players themselves choose whether to follow the given attractors or create new

Captain Kirk is awesome

Hmmm. We just do what the captain says.

ones (Montola, 2004). When the system attempts to decide whether to follow one or another attractor, mathematicians call these bifurcation points; we might call them determinate moments of rhetorical activity. Montola or Aula do not attempt to

Dr. Who David Tennant is awesome.

Hmmm…. I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

discover how or why players might choose one attractor over another; they only report that such bifurcation points exists and additional attractors arise. We can discover, however, that players are drawn to one attractor or another based on their rhetorical choices and the interpretation of those encoded discursive and ambient rhetorical acts. A character who speaks loudly, or with authority, who presents as strong or as having qualities of a leader, or who happens to have the hegemonic attributes of the dominant code will draw more attention and credibility from the other players, even if he (and it usually is a he, though not always) and thus become one of these attractors that has additional agency in the larp through other players’ interpretation at the determinate moments and willingness to follow at the bifurcation point.Furthermore, Montola (2003, 2012) notes that although meanings are encoded in the “building blocks of role-play” and these are interpreted by the players, that the actual meanings arise “from the diegesis constructed [by individual players] using the interpretations” (p. 88). Though he does not say so explicitly, Montola’s explanation corroborates Hall’s notion that meaning is not assigned until it is made part of a system, which, according to Hall, will, in all likelihood, be uncritically adopted from the dominant hegemonic codes. Yet, Hall notes that “there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding” and that we must recognized that “‘correspondence’ is not given, but constructed” (p. 485). The equivalence between a rhetor and his or her interpretive audience can thus be altered or engineered. By understanding how a player-character, aka rhetor, aka encoder-decoder makes rhetorical choices about what is said and what is interpreted (and thus what is possible and what is played in a larp) one can make more accurate predictions of the probable game play and outcome and make some order in the chaos. These can be useful in terms of designing and enacting game scenarios that might work toward Hall’s negotiated code and against the dominant codes.

Rhetorical theory is also useful in helping us understand how information travels, is taken up and interpreted, is mapped to existing systems of meaning, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and creates the game play from the realm of possible articulations. Montola (2003) argues that “in role-play the amount of diegeses equals the number of participants and telling a story by larp requires successfully communicating the story into every diegesis in game” (p. 88). Approaching the larp as a rhetorical situation, or, better yet, as Barbara Biesecker’s deconstruction-based rhetorical transaction, whereby discourse equals “radical possibilit[ies]” of symbolic action (p. 127), gives us the tools to understand what seems to be a chaotic system governed by unknowable bifurcation moments and unpredictable attractors that drive action. Though we cannot predict a larp outcome because of the multiplicity of interpretations, the imperfect nature of communication, and the encoded power structures contained within, we can understand that discourse creates the actuality of the larp, it’s nonlinear, dynamic recursivity and its playability.Thus, it’s not mere chaos, or even “organized chaos.”  It is instead a rhetorical network of actors with the agency to speak the game into existence, to co-create, using diegetic and non-diegetic means, the flow and fun. Through this rhetorical transaction, meaning is interpreted, constructed, and enacted; the game is articulated and enacted, and the player-characters’ identities continually shift within the dynamic, nonlinear, and recursive contexts.


Biesecker, B. A. (1989). Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of “Différance.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 22(2), 110–130.

Bitzer, L. F. (1992). The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 25, 1–14.

Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games how participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Bowman, S. L. (2012). Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games. In E. Torner & W. J. White (Eds.), Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing (pp. 31–51). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Fine, G. A. (2002). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hakkarainen, H. & Stenros, J. (2003): “The Meilahti School: Thoughts on Role-playing”. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (Eds.): When Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp. Projektgruppen KP03, Copanhagen.

Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 477–487). London; New York: Routledge.

Hansen, R. (2003). Relation Theory. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (eds.). As Larp Grows Up — Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 70-73). Knudepunkt 2003, Copenhagen.

Harding, T. (2007). Immersion revisited: role-playing as interpretation and narrative. In Lifelike (pp. 25–33). Dansk Ungdoms F\a ellesr\a ad. Retrieved from

Kim, J. H. (2004): “Immersive Story. A View of Role-Played Drama” in Montola & Stenros (eds.): Beyond Role and Play. Solmukohta 2004. Retrieved from

Larsson, E. (2005): “Larping as Real Magic” in Bøckman & Hutchison (eds.): Dissecting Larp. Knutepunkt 2005. Retrieved from

Mackay, D. (2001). The fantasy role-playing game: a new performing art. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Montola, M. (2004). Chaotic Role-Playing. Beyond Role and Play Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination Ed. Montola, Markus and Stenros, Jaakko. Solmukohta. Retrieved from

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. (2009). The invisible rules of role-playing: the social framework of role-playing process. International Journal of Role-Playing, 1(1), 22–36.

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of play: game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Stenros, J. (2012). In defence of a magic circle: The social and mental boundaries of play. In DiGRA Nordic 2012 Conference (pp. 1–18). Retrieved from

Torner, E., and White, W. J., 2012. Introduction. In: E. Torner and W. J. White, eds. Immersive gameplay: Essay on Participatory Media and Role-Playing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Vatz, R. E. (1973). The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 6(3), 154–161.

Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from


Toi Kairoi — Attuned to Ambience (as long as it’s not Bob Seger)

The Mindmap that is Not (but tries to be, if only for a moment)

I enjoy visualizing things. I really do. One thing I definitely do more of after taking this course is visualizing in new ways. When I visualized in the past, it tended to be with paper and pencil, and an attempt to draw things in that visceral way. In the heat of an excited epiphany, I still tend to reach for paper/pencil, either to jot or to draw. Old habits die hard, and, well, these tools are ubiquitous, cheap, and don’t require batteries or cords.

But I find my life and learning transitioning ever more to the digital realm. I also am doing more natively digital, vs. using a paper-based process and then transliterating it to the digital. Google Drive is now a regular part of my thought process, and I see benefits to parking my thinking in Popplets as well.  Being forced to continue in a visual media, and to revamp and revisualize thinking over time using Popplet has forced me to think about how ALL the things might fit together, rather than as a series of blog posts or reading notes. Being forced to reconceptualize it in a non-linear way, too, is a good exercise for extending critical thinking and making connections. I had already done that a few weeks before we were assigned to do so, as that method began to make more sense to me in terms of finding places of consonance and dissonance. Thus, my last few MindMap posts and updates have been on this new format, organized around the questions we were using with our Case Studies, modified slightly to create some über-nodes, Castells-style.

It is also nice to have a record of my developing thought processes over the course of the semester. I see how at first I was using the tool as a kind of note-taking place, adding quotes surrounded by the particular authors. This makes sense as a start since I didn’t have a lot to connect the ideas to. This approach quickly became unwieldy, both due to the size of Popplet boxes and it kept me within each text, even though I could draw lines between authors. What frustrated me a bit was that I couldn’t demonstrate the TYPE of connection with the lines. I enjoyed the Theory Tree better because we could have some basis of describing influence: citations, publication dates. That made me think that a network and a visualization have this in common: both need a basis and protocols to define the parameters for what is being connected, why, and how. There must be an “according to” that regulates what gets included and how it is placed. Otherwise, it can resemble stream-of-consciousness or a scatter-plot that doesn’t converge. I felt my original mind-map was becoming that way: mere boxes and lines without a structure. Although I recognize this now as a more organic or rhizomatic growth structure, it was not conducive for constructing meaning (beyond the meaning that connections could be made anywhere).

I am struck by the notions that several of our authors made (help me out here: Foucault, Biesecker, Latour, D&G, I believe), that one MUST construct meaning, one must impose subjectivity, one must recognize the imperfectness of any map or graph or use of language to describe or capture or “see” or “mean”, but one must use these tools nonetheless. Otherwise, we have no individual agency or means to construct, resist, narrate, make sense, or in a Cartesian sense, to exist. Earlier in the semester I was playing with Cogito Ergo Sum and variants earlier in the semester. Loquor ergo sum (I speak, therefore I am) might be useful for rhetorical theory, the idea that the act of discourse is not only epistemological and ontological, but also existential. Scribo ergo sum (I write, therefore I am) is useful in terms of rhet/comp and genres. The creation of text, of artifacts, of boundary objects and actants, creates and constructs reality. Bazerman, Miller, Hall, Popham, Johnson-Eilola, Joyce, Spinuzzi, and possibly (I have not decided yet) Rickert would agree. But the one I was really thinking about for the 21st century information society is Intersum ergo sum, I am involved/participate, therefore I am. It seems to me that nothing is made, understood, or exists except in relation to another (which has been a theme in our reading all semester). I am my own network. We are the network. The network is us. Reticulum est nobis. A mesh. A weave. We are the weavers and the wearers. We are we.

From the Hall(s) of Althusser, to the Shores of Rickert!

In many ways, this week’s readings have me shouting, “Preach!” from the amen choir seat, and punching the air with exclamations of agreement and “where have you been all semester?” I find echoes of my previous reading notes in Hall and Rickert. Places where I pushed back at previous theorists regarding translation of the message and the importance of the situational factors in communication. Marginalia where I called Bitzer and Vatz out on over-simplification and where I wrote about actors not playing prescribed roles in a network or agents taking up their given niche in an ecosystem. I wrote about the GAPS that had to be crossed, and how this was imperfect. And I wrote about how rhetors become complicit in the motives of the entity on whose behalf they are speaking. NO message is without motivation for action; communication is not merely to express, but to urge people to do. What you want them to do is always bound up in what is beneficial for the speaker or entity s/he speaks for. I have struggled with not being complicit with the Althusserian model of educational institutions as Ideological State Apparatuses, and instead embrace Deweyian and Freirean liberatory pedagogies to push back at this tendency to limit, enforce, and comply. So this week’s combination of Althusser, Hall and Rickert has me feeling validated in some of my seemingly cynical and jaded musings, derived in part from my own radical sensibilities and experience as one who designed/s communications (while I am no longer a corporate communicator producing professional/technical writing per se, as an academic and as a teacher I still produce and design communications — lectures, graphic organizers, syllabi, articles, presentations, prompts, etc.).

Stop repressing me! I never gave consent! Oh, but by participating in society, you did. You certainly did. Monty Python gets Althusser and Marx quite well:

Althusser’s MAIN IDEA: Ideology, not economic forces (Marx) is the ultimate power in a capitalistic society. Ideology creates subjects who submit to the state and the status quo. The state is a “machine” that represses through violence and ideology, maintaining the dominance of the ruling class. Ideology creates subjects through interpellation. Recognizing you as an individual identifies you as part of the repressive system; co-opts your identity and subjectivity. Ideology exists as a materiality.

Althusser says that “you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.” ← in other words, we seek reminders of our own existence and ways to be recognized (like in The Odyssey); ← how does this relate to larp? when we roleplay; participate for this as a player? Althusser says this act of recognition as a self, as having subjectivity, then is co-opted and constructs you as a ‘subject’ as in subjected to the ideology, to the state to the system; CLAIMING to be outside ideology only demonstrates that one is within it (“you’re drinking what they’re selling” — Cake)  → claiming to objective demonstrates one’s subjectivity (and thus  complicity with ideology whereby a privileged fiction of ‘scientific method’ or objectivity is dominant)

  • “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.” ← ideology is not intangible; it has form; this form is not merely a representation, but enacts power ← consider artifacts, consider traces

How does this relate to networks? I’m thinking about being part of the network, and how Castells says that you become elided with it; your identity is bound up in it. And how once you are recognized on it, then you are now serving it. Thinking of Facebook and Twitter and Google and all the other “service for profile” companies that exploit your activity and use it to market. Or the crowdsourcing that co-opts your labor. Or the “prosumer” idea, where you both produce and consume (yourself). Or the Selfie movement, whereby you are given a way to be interpellated, and this binds you to the system.

Indeed, it certainly relates to Hall’s “Encoding, Decoding” (1980). During says in the editor’s introduction to the chapter that Hall notes that “messages have a ‘complex structure of dominance’ because at each stage they are ‘imprinted’ by institutional power-relations”  and the communication circuit is also a circuit which reproduces a pattern of domination” (477). Thus ideologies are created via discourse, with a preferred or dominant or privileged method of interpreting that seems naturalized to those receiving the information, thus reinforcing the dominant ways of knowing, being, doing.  Hall posits that discourse is  message exchange that is a process of linked articulations in five distinct moments: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction (478). At any one of these moments, as the message crosses the border from one articulation to the next, there is the opportunity for miscommunication or misinterpretation. At these gaps, the message is decoded, transformed, mediated or interpellated, and what was encoded is not guaranteed to be decoded. As meaning crosses these gaps (synaptic spaces, I say), there is opportunity for intervention from an outside (or internalized) force that causes the encoded meaning to be changed or transmuted. Receivers of the information need the receptors to accept a particular message (to continue lightly with the neuronal network metaphor), and if they cannot accept the code or the meaning, then the message goes into the void or the receptors are filled with something else, which mimics the original message but changes the meaning.

Hall hearkens back to Johnson-Eilola and his maps, noting that the representation of the product is not the product itself, what is consumed is the idea or the language about the product; this is already mitigated through the rules of the symbolic in language. Hall also debunks the notion that what is produced is free from rhetorical choices (have to say that was a “duh” moment for me, having made such rhetorical choices as a media relations/corporate communications professional). To be fair, he acknowledges that is shared fiction of objectivity that is a result of the institutions having been naturalized in our thought or an unexamined portion of the communication circuit. Hall was channeling Althusser when he says that “natural recognitions” have the “ideological effect of concealing the practices of coding which are present” (481) noting that this sense of seamlessness or transparency is simply the “fundamental alignment and reciprocity — an achieved equivalence — between the encoding and decoding sides of an exchange of meanings” (481). Indeed when this alignment happens, the message simply “feels right” or “seems true” or “fits”. It activates something other than logic; a sense of intuitiveness that itself is constructed. It allows for Truthiness:

Slight aside: Hall speaks of the linguistic sign for cow, and the iconic sign for cow and how they are referents for the thing they represent. My mind went to the time when I was in Japan and came to a restaurant and was trying to decipher the kanji to determine what sort of restaurant. (I thought of kanji because the Chinese radical system is more pictorial than phonetic). The first symbol, according to my dictionary, was “flaming” or “on fire”.  The second symbol was “cow.” It took me an interpretive moment to realize that “flaming cow” meant it was a barbecue restaurant, of the Japanese or Korean style, with strips of beef cooked on a central grill on your table (not teppanyaki). There were multiple moments where meaning could get lost in this transaction, but I successfully decoded the intended meaning that had been coded, and I took action by eating at the restaurant.

Rickert’s concept of rhetoric as taking place within an environment that affects the what/when/who/how/why of what is said is a breath of fresh air. AND has huge implications for my theoretical work with larps.


Althusser, L. (1969). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Retrieved April 22, 2014, from
Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society (Second Edition., Vols. 1-3, Vol. 1). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 477–487). London; New York: Routledge.
Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (1 edition.). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Scaffolding (Non)Synthesis

  • Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?
    • Ecosystems/Ecologies (Bateson, Spellman, Gibson, Norman)— Looking at larp as a system that is organic, makes more sense to me than as an organization (such as what activity system theory would allow). Larps are, by design, interactive, with individuals being given a particular role within the system to enact. Ecosystems allows me to look at the relationships between the nodes in the network, and to look at how the environment affords and constrains gameplay and fun for the members.
    • Three Ecologies / Ecosophy — Guattari  — Guattari looks at layers of ecologies combining to create a rich reality that operates on the physical, mental, and social levels. Looking at the larp as a multi-layered system allows me to explore the dual-consciousness of player-character, the interiority of the game experience through personal diegesis, and the interactivity within the limitations of physical bodies in physical spaces (which have both diegetic and non-diegetic meanings, contexts and affordances.
    • Role playing as diegetic construction of worlds — Montola → this Finnish larp theorist discusses how the individual interacts with the environment and his/her individual perspective constitutes the reality of what the “game” is. I can use this to show how perception influences what the affordances and constraints of an environment are, and how this can differ from designed affordances by the GM; also how this duality of player and character, who may have different abilities yet coexist int he same body.
    • Three Aspects of Larp — Stenros → the mapping of pre-, during- and post- play for larp as creating an ecosystem (and recognizing that larp is more than the playtime; the playtime is afforded by the pre-work and meaning is made of it from the post-work)
    • Possible: Castells: His concept of the elision of self into the network, timeless time, and the space of places and space of flows will allow me to look at the particular continguity of a larp that takes place in a particular physical reality (brute world) and in a network of imagined personal diegeses (“the game world”).
    • Possible: rhetorical situation, Bitzer/Vatz: in that larps are spoken, they are enacted primarily through discourse and resultant action. They are in response to a rhetorical situation. The exigence may be from in the game (diegetic) or outside the game (non-diegetic) or both.
    • Possible: Rainie Wellerman and networked individualism, which can demonstrate how the larp ecosystem provides benefits for the players (non-diegetic) by affording opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making, personal interaction and EMPATHY.
  • How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?
    • Ecosystems theory allows me to look at how the larp works as a system, that co-creates, using living and non-living things. It also allows me to look at the individual nature of the role played
    • Guattari allows me to bring in multiple layers of a larp into simultaneous ecosystems; layers of play between a brute and diegetic ecosystem.
    • Rainie, Wellerman let me talk about benefits of such a networked system (both for play and for the player) and get at the individual within the system
    • Castells lets me talk about how the network of the larp moves in and out of the spaces and flows, with power changing hands and new networks forming as capital (in or out of game) is exchanged; this can help get at perceived affordances and constraints (vs. designed ones)
  • How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?
    • I see myself as a social-constructivist and larp helps me explain the co-creation of worlds, narrative, composition, behavior, and as a microcosm of society that can be more safely explored in terms of its norms, roles and boundaries.
    • I am a writer and a teacher, and believe English studies affords a means to know oneself and find one’s place and power in the world through narrative, alternative points of view, control of language and expression of thoughts and feelings.
    • Pedagogically, understanding larp design and experience allows one to design for experiential learning, especially learning to create empathy.  In many ways a teacher in a flattened classroom that fosters learner-to-learner interaction functions as a GM in a larp, with the bulk of the work done “pre-larp/lesson” then monitoring the instance of play/learning, then debriefing from it.  A larp and a lesson are both designed to achieve goals. I will not focus on “gamification” or levels or points as motivational tools; instead I will focus on game design (with both content and affective goals) as lesson design. The power and information exchanges of larps allow players and GMs to alternate between “guide-on-the-side” and a “sage-on-the-stage” roles, which is more indicative of the microcosm of a classroom and the macrocosm of society, rather than a false binary of one or the other.
  • How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?
    • I came to this project because of my belief that larp offers something beneficial for both individuals and society → a way to help us understand:
      • The roles we play everyday
      • The norms we uphold, consciously or unconsciously
      • The beliefs we have about ourselves
      • The relationships we form, rules we follow, power we express and give
    • By creating the safespace of the larp, we can be freed from our mundane world and explore other points of view (but we carry those beliefs and physical limitations with us) (individual level)
    • Larps are interactive and require people to collaborate → this is a pedagogical lesson important for democratic society
    • Rhetorically, larps are sites of cultural production and fuse elements of composition, performativity, and play — all of which are areas of English Studies.
    • Larps are embodied and culturally situated, and thus are a site of analysis of norms related to play, story, gender, mores, etc. while bringing the body back into the reality of experience (rather than attempting to transcend it through a digital avatar).


  • Explain larp as an ecosystem
  • Introduce Stenros’s three aspects; map larp to pre-, during, post → how that functions as ecosystem
  • Introduce Montola
  • Benefits of looking at larp this way

May the Mindmap Be Ever in Your Favor

This week’s Mindmap gets double duty because I neglected to map Castells the previous week. I have colored Castells red in the same way as I colored Post-Modernism/Foucault. I see Castells as theorizing the same kind 0f global über-theory as Foucault, even if they aren’t saying the same things. Both are attempting to theorize “the way things are” and how we, as societies and individuals making them up, think, do, and interact.

In adding Castells, I was able to see how his system of networks within networks, and all networks not being made equally, could jive with ecosystems theory of systems within systems, and constraints due to access and protocol. I was also able to see the tension between an idealistic flattened hierarchy and the hierarchies of power that exist — not all nodes or networks are created equal. Furthermore, these constantly change, depending on needs, which can be based on capital: financial or human.

I added Social Media theory (Rainie, Wellman, Scott) as an orange set, the same color as CHAT and activity theory. I grouped them together as both are setting up and mapping traces and what users actually DO in a system. I see connections between Spinnuzi’s user modifications and movement away from designer-as-hero, and the activity by users of social media and how they determine by their actions the shape of the network. The users themselves create the design through their activity system. Every piece of content on the web is an “action potential” (another connection I made to neurobiology in looking at the Popplet) that is actualized through user activity. It is then inscribed and becomes the preferred neuro-pathway via repetition, sharing, and being valued.

I put D&G as the same color as ecosystems, since their rhizome concept is organic and based on interconnectedness.

I am discovering that some of the questions around which I based this Popplet Redux (which are the questions for the Case Studies) are really related to each other and causing me to converge on some similar answers. So I plan to reorganize the map to consolidate or at least bring those similar nodes into closer contact with each other. That’s for next week!


It’s Rhizomatically Delicious!

Ah. Deleuze and Guattari. The undoers. Undoing theory trees and dichotomous binaries everyone. Tearing apart psychoanalysis, parental hegemony, and enlightenment ethos. Laughing in the face of neatly mapped neuronal networks. Scoffing at the idea of traces as containing anything more than a fleeting moment, tracing instead anything but “meaning”. What do they offer instead? The “bible of the American dentist”, Amsterdam, a fetish with canals, in-betweens, constant change, the Kerouackian elusive search for “it”, a disdain for copses and groves of all sorts, and a predilection for “grass” and “weed”, traveling rhizomatically all across this land. Here are our intrepid superheroes, opening minds and freeing us from binary fallacies and obfuscating certainties everywhere:

Using their Rhizomatic Stare to Confound Theory Everywhere

Using their Rhizomatic Stare to Confound Theory Everywhere

Rather than a neat, western Enlightenment flow chart of activity, D-Money and G-Spot offer an “acentered system” in which “communication runs from any neighbor to any another, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment — such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency” (17). Put that in your Organizational Management pipe and smoke it! Such a “machinic multiplicity, assemblage, or society rejects any centralizing or unifying automaton as an “asocial intrusion” (17), so take your hegemonic patriarchy with you when you leave this mythical place where it doesn’t exist. Dolce & Gabbana go on to quickly remind us that such an egalitarian ethos is certainly not Western and definitively not American, in love as we are with our phalluses, trees, and generals (a “schema of aborescence corresponding to preestablished, arborified, and rooted classes” 19). However, our intrepid theorists remind us quickly that despite such codified systems of hierarchy, bureaucracy and centralized control, even in America a rhizomatic structure exists as an undercurrent, flowing underground …. which, gets transformed and appropriated and taken up by the system to create a neocapitalism which … brings us to an impasse. Uh-oh. If we have set up a binary between roots and rhizomes, then we have joined the arborescent structures we purport to dismiss. Shoot. Time for an interlude by The Talking Heads (they get it, man)

See. Life happens. Not like how you planned. And the water flows underground. Same as it ever was. Same as it will be.

Cover of Kerouac's Golden Eternity

Cover of original publication of Jack Kerouac’s The Golden Eternity, 1960. The ostensible Japanese Sumi-e looks suspiciously like a rhizome.

Now, it’s time for a quiz! Which of the following is Catholic-Buddhist, East-West spanning Jack Kerouac, and which is D&G?:

“When you’ve understood this scripture, throw it away. If you cant understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.”

“The problem of writing: in order to designate something exactly, anexact expressions are utterly unavoidable. … Arrive at the magic formula we all seek — PLURALISM=MONISM — via all the dualism that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging” (21).


A. “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody, which is what everything is.”

B. “there is no dualism, no ontological dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes, and rhizomatic offshoots in roots” (20).

Shoot. Yes. Offshoot. Go with it. First thought, best thought. It’s jazz. Play it and the notes become zen, baby. Blow, man, blow! Follow it to your solo. I can dig it. You’re a hepcat, man.

Beyond the abstraction that is Deleuze & Guattari, Scott demonstrates how one can concretely and mathematically map such rhizomatic growth which epitomizes modern social networking. By flattening the hierarchical structures, as Latour, Castells, and Deleuze & Guattari note in various ways, there are  no longer single structures, or even a “root” for a binary decision tree. Networking becomes more about multiple entry and exit points, a system of redundancy, and a way of anticipating user behavior, while simultaneously recognizing (and expecting) a variety of “user modifications” that augment or thwart these expectations. I think what I like about Scott is that he recognizes that the patterns do not exist in some sort of pure form waiting to be discovered and then “understood” or replicated. This is what bothered me about activity theory and CHAT. It seemed to thwart the post-modern notion of the absence of an underlying “truth” and instead search for it, Bitzer-like. If it didn’t exist, they would create it through the flow chart of “ideal” behavior, and assume it could be replicated or made even better through the intervention of rhetor-designer. I chafed against this notion for several reasons: 1. because I’m not sure such a convergent solution is either real or even desired and 2. because I am cynical about the profiteering and exploitation that can be achieved through “optimization” and homogenization. I believe strongly in equifinality: more than one way to get to the solution. I think this is why I never applied activity theory to larping, as I found the fundamental idea of trying to map a constantly changing system to be difficult, if not ludicrous.

Scott’s methods do not assume an underlying “optimal” network shape or user behavior. They recognize, as do D&G, that these networks grow rhizomatically, and loop back on themselves, moving in fits and starts, with periods of growth and dormancy, with nubs that took off in one direction then abruptly stopped, only to start again in a tenuous new direction. The resultant map is not a pure demonstration of what could/should be done, when done “right” or “well” or “efficiently”, but simply what was done. It recognizes that the map itself is a past representation, and limits what generalizations can be done from looking at it.  Playing with Scott reminded me of playing with the logic problems from the old GRE and LSAT, which used to occupy me for hours LSAT logic(and still do, sometimes, especially as a teacher). It’s looking at areas of congregation and areas where there are gaps, which to social media marketers translates to customers: where they are, and where there is potential for new ones. What I love about the SM analysis is that it doesn’t assume that the way it is today (or more accurately, the way it was yesterday, as you are always mapping what is in the past, not what is the present), is the way it will continue to be. While digital games and computer code and network theory seek to create a closed system, real life works with constant disruptions which are not necessarily aberrations or “noise” to be diminished or destroyed. These places of convergence and divergence are popularity and innovation, and they cannot be predicted (only seen in the past).  Once seen, you can design for a repeat of that behavior, but there is no guarantee that the inputs will match the outputs. In fact, they likely won’t, given the fickleness of human behavior, and the propensity, driven, I think by the internet itself, to undermine patterns for the sake of distraction, irony, or a recognition of having been co-opted, and actively resisting.

Rainie and Wellman discuss the benefits of being a networked individual, freeing us from the claustrophobia of nuclear families and the constrictions of tight-knit social groups (much like Castells discusses being freed from the contiguity of space). The rise of social networking, the internet’s ability to empower individuals, and the continual connectivity of mobile devices has brought about this networked society.

Social Capital Meme

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., & more, & 0. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.) (1 edition.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Scott, J. (2012). Social Network Analysis (Third Edition edition.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Case Study #3: The Ecosophy of Larp

Note: This case study is building towards a larger theory, as proposed in my Topic Proposal Redux. In that theory, I will use Guattari, Gibson, Bateson, Norman, and other theorists related to the affordances and constraints of an ecosystem and ecologies. I will also bring in multiple levels of play (as written, as played, as remembered) and the types of play displayed by various members of the ecosystem (Forge Theory, Edwards, Bøckman). I will relate that to the larp as a rhetorical situation with multiple rhetors (who are simultaneously the audience) and to the movement between diegetic and non-diegetic worlds (a system within a system) as expressed by Montola and others. The graphic below is a chart that delineates some of the connections I am making among the various theories. Though this is too complex to entertain in the short space of 2,500 words here, I am giving a taste of what is to come. In this space, I will discuss how I arrived at the idea of larp as an ecosystem, discuss how it behaves as one as well as how its phases correspond to Guattari’s ecologies. I will also discuss a pedagogical tool that can be used as a theoretical lens to analyze the designed affordances and constraints of a given larp. I will not yet discuss the tension between these designed or inherent affordances and constraints and those perceived by the players or characters – that will be developed in the final theory.

Literature Review
Finnish larp theorist Jaako Stenros delineates what he calls three “aspects” of larp in his Aesthetics of Action conference presentation. He lists the “framework” as designed by the larpwrights as the first or primary aspect, consisting of background material, the sketch of the roles and their social network, game mechanics, and sometimes character outlines. The second aspect is the larp runtime, during which the larp’s first level is turned over to the influence of the players, who create the experience. Stenros notes that this larp aspect is ephemeral and dynamic: “the players can run away with it” and “it is lost the moment the larp [allotted gametime] ends.”  His third aspect is the larp “as remembered, interpreted, and documented” during which the players come together to share their individual experiences of the larp as played, and to co-create a kind of communal meaning of the experience. Markus Montola (2009) notes that larps use the principle of equifinality, or multiple paths to the same end state. This agreed-upon end state is co-constructed during the third aspect of larp, which follows the actual game.  However, as Stenros reiterates, this is not to be considered a finite resolution that is simply decided upon once and codified. Rather, “as the piece [the particular instantiation of a larp] is debated later, discussed and critiqued, its meaning continues to shift” (Aesthetics).

I will summarize Stenros’s three aspects as 1. Larp As Written; 2. Larp As Played and 3. Larp As Remembered or Narrated, noting that the three levels take place before, during, and after the runtime of a particular iteration or instantiation of a larp. Stenros goes on to discuss the activity of the three aspects as framing, building/enriching and negotiating. The table below summarizes these simultaneous concepts:

Phase or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity
As written Prior to game-play Framing
As played During game-play Building, enriching, interpreting
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing

Here is a brainstorm of the activity that takes place pre-larp, during-larp, and post-larp:

Larp Wall Charts Brainstorm three phases

These three phases of larp seem to create an ecosystem of larp, where any given larp is an interactive system moving within and between these three aspects — as the network or system is created, enacted, and dissolved. Ecosystems are ways to explain things that are dynamic, in a state of flux, and whose outcomes/outputs cannot be fully predicted mechanically or even computationally or logarithmically. An ecosystem is concerned with movement, distribution, exchange, and transformation enacted by invested, adaptable members who together co-create the system through production and consumption in relationship with one another.

Layers of rainforestEcologies are fundamentally dynamic networks in that they exist only in the relationships, in the movement among the nodes, which operates according to protocols unique to each member, but translated into a working, mutually beneficial partnership. Of course, a larp is a constructed ecosystem, a world made by intelligent design – at least the geometry and geography or framework of it, as discussed above. In a larp, people are portraying roles within the constructed game-space ecosystem that is nested inside the outer ecosystem of the mundane world. This system is an ecosystem because it is dynamic, teeming, and alive, with each player occupying a particular niche and behaving according to his/her own perceptions and interpreting his/her own diegesis. Indeed, as Stenros notes, “Role-play is pretend play with a social context and shared rules” (Aesthetics, emphasis added).

In an ecosystem, every entity has a role, according to his/her affordances and constraints, in order to keep the system moving toward its goal of homeostasis, during which an individual population or an entire ecosystem regulates itself against negative factors and maintains an overall stable condition (Spellman 20). Spellman identifies roles into two categories: living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) (15). He further divides the abiotic components into three categories: inorganic substances, organic compounds, and climate regime. I will return to these three levels as depicted in a larp later, when I discuss artifacts and The Mixing Desk.  Defining an ecosystem as “a cyclic mechanism in which biotic and abiotic materials are constantly exchanged”, Spellman delineates levels of production and consumption of these materials (15-16). I have added this column to my larp grid below to demonstrate how these roles and levels of production/consumption fit into the ecosystem of a larp:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer &Decomposer

We can then add the actual larp roles:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role Larp role
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer GameMaster/ Larpwright
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer Individual players
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer &Decomposer Community of playersGameMaster/ Larpwright

So the larp ecosystem continuous cycle would look like this, with the green level being before a larp runtime begins, the blue level being during larp runtime, and the red and orange being post-larp runtime:

Demonstrates the dynamics of play among the roles of production and consumption. Upon completing one cycle, another instantiation of the larp as played is ready to begin.

Demonstrates the dynamics of play among the roles of production and consumption. Upon completing one cycle, another instantiation of the larp as played is ready to begin.

Indeed, both players in a larp and members of an ecosystem appear to continually assess its affordances and constraints, with their own survival and needs as paramount. A player-character in a larp also functions this way, following a path and plan in the game ecosystem that is based on two types of survival/needs assessment: in-game and out-of-game. In game elements: skills, relationships, goals, revealed secrets, mechanics are designed by the GameMasters or co-created against constraints given by GMs, the genre, or the world of the game. Out-of-game elements may refer to the player’s preferred play style, as a Gamist, Dramatist, or Immersionist, to use Bøckman’s “Three-Way Model” (2003). This dominant play style for each player helps determine the approach they take to the ecosystem, and how they perceive their niche within it.  Dramatists, called Narrativists in Edwards’ Forge Theory Model (2001) are concerned with in-game action and plot, with the primary goal to create a satisfying story (Bøckman 14; Edwards Ch. 2). Dramatists perceive the game as affording opportunities for a cohesive and believable narrative, and choose to use or conserve resources with that goal in mind. Gamists are problem-solvers who use strategy to advance their in-game (and, often, out-of-game) social or material capital. Their goal is to survive and thrive, and will make calculations about resources in the game (or mundane) ecosystem(s) to ensure their own longevity and comfort (Bøckman, Edwards). Lastly, Immersionists (known as Simulationists in Edwards’ model) want to be fully engaged in the game ecosystem without any bleed from the outside mundane ecosystem that constructed it. As Bøckman explains, “a fully immersionist player will not fudge rules to save its role’s neck or the plot” (13). If the character is meant to, must, or otherwise cannot avoid harm in the constraints of the game’s ecosystem, an Immersionist will allow that to happen and focus on fulfilling that given role.

So, we may further break down the ecosystem roles into the three role-playing models of Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist as three types of protocols governing the design and play of the larp in the three phases of writing, playing, and remembering. It is important to remember that these are neither static nor fixed roles: a player may be predominantly Gamist but also enjoy a good story, or may consciously seek an Immersionist experience but become more Gamist when a character’s survival is threatened. These typologies are also not necessarily fully inclusive; some theorists suggest a fourth level: the social. Under that paradigm, I would agree that the larp ecosystem itself is the social level, providing the space of enactment for players and Gamemasters to interact and enact their fluid play styles. This notion of role perception, which is how I see this theory as being valuable, is both a design element and a play element.  A good GM should design games with elements of all three types of interaction with the game: an ecosystem that affords activity and enjoyment for all members.

The three play models of Gamist, Dramatist/Narrativist, and Immersionist/ Simulationist cannot be easily added to the matrix we have been building. They exist within each of the ecologies, not strictly within a single phase or role. Players make choices both during the game and in the post-game debrief that are based on their preferences, but, I am arguing, more on their perceptions. These include perceptions of their role, themselves, the Gamemaster, other players, other characters, their abilities, their character skills, the physical environment, the game environment, their likelihood of success, their energy level, gametime remaining, and a host of other ecological factors – both in the ecosystem of the game and the larger mundane ecosystem surrounding and influencing it. GMs design games with more of one interaction than another, and steer characters and game development toward that preferred end during a game.  In short, both GMs and players design, steer, and enact role-playing games based on the affordances they perceive at a given moment in time, what Syverson refers to as a spatio-temporal reality.

J.J. Gibson (1977, 1979) introduced the concept of affordances, which he defined as “an action possibility available in the environment to an individual” (127).  According to Gibson, these “actionable properties” are objectively measurable, independent of an individual’s ability to recognize them. To Gibson an affordance exists in relationship with an individual; it is intended to offer an action to another; however, the affordance exists regardless of whether any actor perceives it.

Gibson Ambient Optic Array

From Gibson, 1979

Gibson puts forward the Law of Ambient Optic Array as a theory of optics that attempts to demonstrate what and how individuals see in a given environment. He notes that perception is determined by the individual from information accessed in the environment and then assessed in terms of its possibilities and usefulness to create the aforementioned affordances.  Gibson notes the importance of the position of the observer to what is perceived, since “at any fixed point of observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are concealed” (136). This idea of the personal position of experience in an ecosystem is hugely important in larp. As Stenros reminds us, when role-playing, “You will only see what your character sees. You will only be able to witness those parts of the larp where your character is present, where you, bodily, are present. You are the lens or the camera through which you see the work unfold around you” (Aesthetics).

As an individual player, you create an individual perception and experience of the larp; the game exists for you, in your mind, in relation to the environment. Montola (2003) states that, “every participant constructs he or her diegesis when playing” and “the crucial process of role-playing [is] the interaction of these diegeses” (83). This takes place in the second phase of larp, or larp as played, as well as, to a lesser extent, in the third phase of larp, larp as remembered.  A  single player’s diegesis is their view of the world, which they interpret as a series of affordances and constraints based on abiotic and biotic factors from the diegetic and non-diegetic world, such as (but not limited to) character sheets, skills, experience, knowledge of plot, knowledge of game world, information from other players/characters, etc. In Actor-Network Theory, this information would be the connected nodes flowing into an actor; here, these are affordances of an ecosystem perceived and interpreted by agents who make decisions based on this information, within the constraints of the physical or brute world and the in-game world.  In larp, as a constructed ecosystem, this relationship between agent and his/her environment is complicated, because the character/player exists in a layered double consciousness and simultaneity, even though s/he intends to interact in the diegetic world via immersion and will attempt to make decisions based primarily on that environment.  As Stenros points out, “[l]arp is embodied participatory drama. As a participant, you are experiencing the events as a character, but also shape the drama as it unfolds as a player (Aesthetics). However, as Montola, Saitta and Stenros (2014) note, a player/character will often “steer,” or use information and impetus from the non-diegetic world with the purpose of affecting the diegetic world for individual or community goals. Gibson noted this duality of position as he remarked about the law of ambient optic array, whereby “the observer himself, his body considered as part of the environment, is revealed at some fixed points of observation and concealed at the remaining points” (Gibson 136). There are times in an ecosystem, and certainly in a role-playing game, when the individual is aware of him or herself. In the case of a larp, I propose, these are moments where immersion breaks, and a player makes an in-game decision based on out-of-game knowledge or preferences, the definition of “steering” put forth by Montola, Saitta and Stenros (2014).

According to ecologies theorists, ecosystems can be measured in terms of their abundances and their efficiencies, what resources are plentiful and how they are distributed, used, and used up within the system. These are the kinds of settings that are engineered, or designed, in a constructed ecosystem, such as a larp.  Don Norman (1988) revised Gibson’s idea of affordance to create the concept of “perceived affordances” which amount to what a user/actor believes to be possible (or not possible), and are independent of the real affordances an object or environment may have. Thus, for a Gibsonian affordance to be actualized or enacted, it is dependent on the individual actor’s ability to both perceive it and his or her capability to use it. Norman cares about perceived affordances because that is what the designer has control over in terms of a user’s experience.  And designing, interpreting, and analyzing a larp’s affordances and constraints is where we now turn.

As we attempt to determine what a larp affords, and what makes a good larp, I will turn to a recent development out of the Nordic community, “The Mixing Desk of Larp” (2012), which uses the analogy of the audio-visual technician creating a live experience to create a series of “sliders” or “faders” that can be manipulated to produce a desired type of play. The Mixing Desk is a visualization of the inputs that go into an ecosystem to determine outputs, and it helps to describe the protocols and territories in play in a particular game ecosystem. One of the primary creators of the system, Martin Andresen said, The Mixing Desk “allows us to visualize the opportunities in larp design” and functions to “make larpwriters/designers aware of their default positions” (Andresen).

Mixing Desk of Larp

While primarily developed as a tool to help take something complicated, such as larp theory and design, and turn it into a pedagogical aid that visualizes important concepts and organizes around a simple metaphor in order to help inexperienced larpers and larpwrights to design playable games, The Mixing Desk of Larp is an excellent tool to use to analyze the affordances and constraints of a particular larp, both as it is written and as it is played. The faders each represent a design element of the larp, or a construction of the relationship between players, players and GM, the outputs of the game. The faders are the INPUTS and the game is the OUTPUT, at least on the first level of being written. The first level “Larp as Written” is the wireframe that becomes the larp. Using The Mixing Desk of Larp to consciously construct the first level of larp: “As written” is an excellent way to afford “The Larp”, which is “as played”, the level of interaction within the ecosystem created using the faders on the mixing desk (controlling the inputs into the system). However, as the larp is played, a Gamemaster, or in some cases, a player or group of players, can change the levels of the mixing desk dynamically during play, either as a result of individual or collective action that required intervention by the GM to keep the levels at their desired positions, or as a result of “steering” or conscious behavior that uses non-diegetic knowledge to affect the dramatic experience and/or outcome of the larp as played. The Mixing Desk of larp can be used as a Mobius strip to continually test and tweak the desired inputs and outputs of the larp to achieve homeostasis – the desired characteristic of the ecosystem.

Where this is going (undeveloped thoughts, not part of the “complete” Case Study #3)

(I’m including this in case you wish to offer feedback re: the direction and conclusions)

  • More about the mixing desk and the affordances listed there
  • These are notes and quotes re: relationship of player/character to environment
  • Perceived vs. designed affordances
  • Outcome of play phases 2 and 3
  • Relationship of self to world — dual world consciousness
  • Steering & Metagaming

What happens when, as Bateson outlines in his  chapter “Form, Substance, and Difference,” we see ourselves as separate and above the natural world– “If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables” (468)?

Steering – Metagaming:  But, what happens when a species consciously decides to adapt the environment to its own desires rather than adapting to the environment?

“We may have modified, as put by Gibson, our surroundings in order to escape from this cycle by making “more available what benefits [us] and less pressing what injures [us]” (130).

Fictional world as an ecosystem (within a larger non-diegetic ecosystem)

The way one interacts with the ecosystem depends on one’s perspective

  • single player diegesis, yes, but also how one perceives one’s ability to interact and make change within the ecosystem; what one’s role is; whether one sees self as part of something bigger (diegetic or non-diegetic, as in a community experience, a game that has responsibility for the fun and custody of self AND of others)
  • if consider self PART of the game or ABOVE the game; Montola would say that no one has an uber-view of the game, not even gamemaster. This is true. But some players act as if they have a greater knowledge or calling or purpose OR do not care about communal but engineer to “win”  — God-Trick
  • “Play to lose” in a sense, means to allow oneself to more fully embed in the diegetic world

Abiotic Items in the ecosystem

Affordance – is part of the relationship between the environment and animal that can be found through “the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays,” but  it “must be measured relative to the animal” as it is what the environment “offers the animal, what it provides, or furnishes, either for good or ill” (Gibson, “Theory of Affordances” 127).

Objects  (attached and detached) can also offer animals (humans included) affordances, but what they offer is often “extremely various;” “detached objects must be comparable in size to the animal under consideration if they are to afford behavior. But those that are comparable afford an astonishing variety of behaviors, especially to animals with hands. Objects can be manufactured and manipulated” (Gibson, “Theory of Affordances” 133).

Cybernetic Epistemology – “The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system” (Bateson 467).

Guattari defines three ecologies: the environment (or nature), social relations and human subjectivity (mental) and posits that they make up an ecosophy, or an interconnected network. Only by looking at all three, can we have any effect on the environment proper or enact a holistic methodology (24).

So we may add a fifth column, corresponding to Guattari’s layers or ecologies that together make up an ecosophy:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role Ecology (Ecosophy layer)
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer Physical
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer Mental
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer Social
This chart attempts to map the three phases of game play, to roles in an ecosystem, Guattari's Three Ecologies, and roles and levels in a Larp.
This chart attempts to map the three phases of game play, to roles in an ecosystem, Guattari’s Three Ecologies, and roles and levels in a Larp.

Works Cited

Andresen, Martin Eckhoff. The Mixing Desk of Larp – Martin Eckhoff Andresen. Knutpunkt: Nordic Larp Talks, 2013. Film.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps To An Ecology Of Mind: Collected Essays In Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, And Epistemology. Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1987. Print.

Bøckman, Petter. “The Three Way Model.” As Larp Grows Up. Knutpunkt, 2003. 12–16. Print.

Edwards, Ron. “GNS and Other Matters of Role-Playing Theory.” The Forge: The Internet Home for Independent Role-Playing Games. Adept Press, Oct. 2001. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Gibson, James Jerome. “The Theory of Affordances.” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Psychology Press, 1986. Print.
Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Montola, Markus, Eleanor Saitta, and Jaakko Stenros. “Steering for Fun and Profit.” Knutpunkt 2014.

Montola, Markus. “Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses.” As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Ed. Morten Gade, Line Thorup, and Mikkel Sander. Frederiksberg: Projektgruppen kp 03, 2003. 82–89. Print.
Montola, Markus. “The Invisible Rules of Role-Playing: The Social Framework of Role-Playing Process.” International Journal of Role-Playing 1.1 (2009): 22–36. Print.

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Spellman, Frank. R. Ecology for Non-ecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes, 2008. Print.

Stenros, Jaako. “Aesthetics of Action.” Jaakko Stenros: researcher, player, writer. 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“The Mixing Desk of Larp.” Nordic Larp Wiki. N. p., 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.