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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.