Immersion into LARP

Theories of Embodied Narrative Experience

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Sarah Lynne Bowman (Ph.D.) is a role-playing games scholar, designer, and organizer. She teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities for several institutions including Austin Community College. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Bowman has served as an editor for The Wyrd Con Companion Book since 2012 and co-edited the International Journal of Role-playing Issues 6 and 7. She was the lead organizer for the Living Games Conference 2016 and helped coordinate the Role-playing and Simulation in Education Conference at Texas State University. bio-blog

A person dressed as a vampire reads from a piece of parchment

A vampire reads a letter at Convention of Thorns (2016), a Renaissance-era Nordic larp held in a Polish castle. Photo by Przemysław Jendroska and Nadina Wiórkiewicz for Dziobak Larp Studio.

Sedona Winters, House President of Dan Obeah at the wizard college New World Magischola, was in a deep trance at the initiation ritual for her new members. She had asked each group to draw a random item from a bag and verbally state their intentions for the coming year. Then, each student was expected to draw their wands to cast a spell and imbue the item with their intention as a token to carry with them.

Sedona wished for wisdom to know the future outcomes of a current dilemma, a common spell for a diviner of her sort. She felt her consciousness drift through the myriad future timelines, seeking knowledge of one thing: would the actions taken by her boyfriend Saul this evening ruin his life? For he was involved in a dark plot, she knew, that might cause harm to thousands of people; one to bring the privileged down a peg, but with horrible consequences.

She saw him embrace the dark power within himself. She saw him in chains in Avernus prison, broken and alone for the rest of his years. She saw him executed. Her eyes popped open and she rose smoothly, the ritual complete. With purpose, Sedona marched out of the common room to find her love…

Sedona Winters is a character in New World Magischola, a Live Action Role Play (larp) game which surrounds its players in a complex and engaging story within its wizard college setting. Larp is an embodied experience where players enact characters in an alternate setting. Similar to improvisational theatre, players have a significant amount of agency within larps to make choices as their characters. Larps can range from rules-heavy combat simulations with blunt weaponry; to theatre-style scenarios with full costuming; to educational larps in classrooms; to rules-light blockbuster games in high-budget locations; to structured freeform experiences with little costuming or set design; to highly experimental scenarios run with sound and lights in a theatrical blackbox; to intense socially realistic experiences exemplified by the Nordic larp tradition (Stenros & Montola, 2010).

Depending on the style, larps have varying degrees and types of immersion. A contested term in game studies (Torner & White, 2012), scholars and game aficionados have attempted to describe the phenomenological experience of immersion in multiple ways. This article applies six categories of immersion synthesized from these previous attempts by Bowman & Standiford (2016), which hold strong similarities to Calleja’s (2011) model for video game theory. Though these categories are generally applicable to game play, some are more suited to the immersive experience of larp, which often involves a large degree of creative agency, emotional expression, and social interaction. The categories are: immersion into activity, game, environment, narrative, character, and community.

Larp immersion is rarely confined to one of these modes of engagement. Indeed, players often engage in multiple forms of immersion at the same time. However, participants may favor particular immersive activities over others, as evidenced by the various models of motivation presented in virtual and analog game research, reflected in the categories below.

Immersion into Activity

Some forms of immersion focus upon the repetitive execution of a particular task or activity involving a certain degree of agency (Adams, 2004; Holopainen & Björk, 2004; Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005; Calleja, 2011). While in video games, immersion into activity often involves manipulating interfaces using a keyboard, mouse, or controller; in larp, kinesthetic involvement is more fully embodied. Some larps still use representational mechanics for combat, e.g. using one’s hands in rock-paper-scissors in a Vampire: the Masquerade larp. Others use a mixture of embodiment and mechanics, such as hitting a combatant with a foam sword and calling out numbers to represent the amount of damage incurred.

Some larps emphasize a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) ideal, in which any sort of action is physically acted out. For example, in the historical Nordic larp 1942, villagers in German-occupied Norway wore period-accurate clothing and engaged in the daily activities of people from the time, such as physically catching their own fish (Stenros & Montola, 2010). In larps that include some sort of crafting element, characters may create actual objects in-character, such as works of art (D, 2015), or use representational mechanics to simulate crafting, such as banging a hammer lightly on a rock to mimic mining in the sci-fi colonization larp Planetfall (Webb, 2015). Other larps may use physicality in surprisingly abstract ways, such as restricting movement in order to represent the struggle of human existence in White Death, which makes the most simple of physical tasks difficult (Nordic Larp Wiki, 2014). Therefore, larp expands the possibilities for immersion into activity by bringing more of the body into play.

Two people in costume hold hammers and pose next to rocks

Colonists on a new planet mine essential resources in the hard science fiction larp Planetfall (2014-). Mining is simulated by banging tools lightly on rocks for several minutes.

Immersion into Game

Immersion into game involves solving problems through cognition, including strategic thinking, abstract reasoning, and tactics (Adams, 2004; Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005; Bowman, 2010; Björk, 2011; Calleja, 2011). In order to be game-like, these challenges often include a tension between risk and reward, which creates a productive intersection between what Nicole Lazzaro (2004) describes as frustration and fiero, or triumph. This type of immersion is called gamism in the Forge theory developed by indie tabletop designers (Edwards, 2001; Bowman, 2013). Gamist players focus upon achievements and “winning” when possible.

Larps are game-like to varying degrees. Many larps feature game elements, such as levelling, plots with success conditions, social achievements, and other ways to “play to win.” Traditional boffer larps (larps using faux weaponry) and, to a certain extent, Mind’s Eye Theatre games emphasize these elements. Other larps focus on the experience itself, with game-like elements removed completely or only used for representational purposes. An example is the Monitor Celestra, a Battlestar Galactica-inspired weekend-long larp in which the emphasis of the game is “playing to lose,” also called “playing for drama” or “playing for what is interesting.” Run on a decommissioned naval museum ship, in Celestra, anyone who pulls a gun in a scene has control over the situation, but no characters can die without their player’s consent (Alternaliv, 2013). Such games emphasize catharsis and pushing characters to extreme circumstances for dramatic effect. Interestingly, Celestra also included a sort of mini-game solely for the bridge officers in order to simulate maneuvers on the ship, which had win conditions. Similarly, players within more traditional boffer or Vampire larp settings can also play to lose, meaning they can push their characters to perform actions that would be detrimental or painful. Ultimately, the design of the game does not reflect necessarily the way that players immerse.

Immersion into Environment

Immersion into environment involves exploring and rendering “realistic” the different aspects of an alternate world, whether physical, mental, or virtual. Realism in this sense can mean representational mechanics, such as a larp’s combat system closely resembling the physics in the mundane world. Alternatively, realism can involve attempting to render a visual space as accurately as possible: e.g., high-fidelity simulations in medical training (Standiford, 2014; Bowman & Standiford, 2016); historical reenactment societies (Stark, 2012); online worlds with 3D virtual reality technology or advanced graphics (Calleja, 2011); and larps designed with the 360 degree immersion aesthetic, in which all props and scenography represent real places and objects in the fictional world (Koljonen, 2014). Forge theory refers to this mode as simulationism (Edwards, 2001). While a realistic world is not always sufficient to generate a sense of immersion in players (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, 451; Koljonen, 2014, 89), realism can help ease the transition from the mundane frame of reality to the frame of play.

Larps vary widely with regard to immersion into environment. Freeform games are often played with no costuming in neutral settings such as classrooms, yet still inspire highly emotional catharsis in a short period of time, e.g. Lizzie Stark’s The Curse (2013), a larp about couples making decisions around hereditary breast cancer and the BRCA mutation. Theatre-style larps feature some degree of costuming and props, but are often played in hotel spaces or other neutral locations. Blockbuster larps feature high production values and a realistic setting, such as the recent Renaissance Vampire larp Convention of Thorns, held in a Polish castle with extensive costuming and prosthetics (Bowman, 2016).

A person in an elaborate costume poses at the Convention of Thorns live action role playing event

Realistic locations and costuming can lead to greater immersion, such as in the Convention of Thorns (2016) vampire larp held in a Polish castle. Photo by John-Paul Bichard for Dziobak Larp Studios.

Immersion into Narrative

Some researchers focus on the importance of a fictional narrative in producing an immersive, participatory experience (Murray, 1997; Harviainen, 2003; Ermi & Mäyrä 2005; Jenkins, 2008; Cover, 2010; Björk, 2011; Calleja, 2011). Stories engage people by creating an identification between the audience and the narrative events undergone by the characters. Transportation theory emphasizes the importance of narrative as a vehicle for immersion, as it transports the mind to another time and place (Gerrig, 1993). While all forms of narrative are potentially transportative, the act of role-playing is particularly immersive due to the first-person audience (Montola & Holopainen, 2012; Stenros, 2013). In role-playing games, players both enact the narrative and observe it without an external audience. The emphasis on story as the primary motivator for immersion is called narrativism in Forge theory (Edwards, 2001).

Larp narratives are unique in that they often feature a great deal of individual agency of action, meaning that the experience is not curated as heavily by a game master or computer interface as in other games. While some larps, such as certain freeform games, feature loosely scripted scenes, players in most larps undergo their own personal narrative alongside the metanarrative of the game, including interpersonal relationships and dramatic arcs. Commonly, players report wildly different experiences at the same larp based upon what emotions, themes, and stories they chose to explore. Also, larps vary in terms of the degree to which the organizers create the narrative during play time. Some larps feature pre-written characters with embedded goals and relationships, with little-to-no interference from the organizers during runtime, such as the Nordic larp Just a Little Lovin’ (2011) about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s. Other larps have plot teams that send out regular “mods” – optional storylines with which players can interact – such as the zombie apocalypse game Dystopia Rising (2008-). For some players in these environments, interacting with the plot of the game is the “point” of the larp, whereas others avoid mods altogether, focusing on personal stories and interactions.

Immersion into Character

One of the most common uses of the term immersion refers to the experience of enacting a character (Harviainen, 2003; Björk & Holopainen, 2004; Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005; Yee, 2006; Cover, 2010; McDiarmid, 2011). In the Nordic larp community, the Turku School posited by Mike Pohjola (2003) emphasizes immersionism as the primary goal of role-playing (Bøckman, 2003). Pohjola (2004) suggests that in order to become immersed, players must actively pretend to believe that the events of the game world are real and respond faithfully as their characters. Additionally, some role-play scholars emphasize gaming as conducive to identity exploration through the enactment of alternate personalities or avatars (Bowman, 2010; Banks, 2015).

The degree to which a character is experienced as distinct from the player differs from person to person, as does the level to which the player “loses” themselves in the character (Harviainen, 2006; Bowman, 2015b). Regardless of degree of character immersion, this identification can produce a temporary loss of self-awareness (Balzer, 2011, 25); feelings of greater empathy for people from other viewpoints; increased awareness about a player’s own perspective (Meriläinen, 2012); and deep catharsis (Montola, 2010; Montola & Holopainen, 2012).

Although larps vary with regard to expectations of immersion into character, this facet is perhaps one of the most defining features of most larp experiences. With the exception of sport games such as Amtgard, most larps expect a certain degree of character enactment within the fiction of the world. In Nordic larps, this expectation is paramount, as players should remain deeply in character throughout the course of the experience. The American campaign larp Dystopia Rising (2008-) also expects constant immersion in order to maintain horror and intensity, although small breaks to discuss mechanics or record skills on character sheets do occur. Even with deep character immersion, the player can still choose to direct the character’s actions through a process known as steering (Montola, Stenros, & Saitta, 2015; Pohjola, 2015).

Immersion into Community

Immersion into community emphasizes larping as a social state (Bartle, 1996; Björk & Holopainen, 2004; Yee, 2006; Bowman, 2010; Cover, 2010; McDiarmid, 2011; Bienia, 2012; Calleja, 2011). For many players and theorists alike, the experience of role-playing immersion cannot be divorced from the social contexts – both in-game and out-of-game – within which they transpire (Stenros & Hakkarainen, 2003). Todd Nicholas Fuist (2011) posits that role-players immerse socially with their immediate group, the game world, and the greater collective identity of the gaming community (114). Even within the Turku School, Pohjola (2004) stresses the importance of inter-immersion: the ability for players to draw one another into deeper states of immersion through portrayals of character.

A group of larp players

Despite canonical rivalries, the House Presidents from the second run of the wizard college larp New World Magischola (2016) formed a lasting social connection both in- and out-of-character. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp, LLC.

Larp is a highly social activity, as players embody physical space with one another as the primary interface. Many larps focus entirely on social interactions, such as Just a Little Lovin’, which emphasizes romantic and friendship relationships in a group stricken by trauma and death (Nordic Larp Wiki, 2015). Other larps such as Vampire have conflict resolution mechanics for combat, but are mostly focused upon maneuvering within political hierarchies, making it possible for players to engage in an entire session without once interacting with any formal game mechanics.

Finally, larps often afford a high degree of social activity and community building outside of the game context, such as players getting married, new creative projects emerging, and off-game social activities occurring such as meetups and parties. While these outcomes are hardly limited to larp, the high degree of personal expression in physical space often intensifies interactions between players, leading to lasting social bonds and extensive social media involvement. Alternatively, negative social outcomes such as cliquish behavior, schisms between communities, and unpleasant emotions spilling over from the game to mundane life – a form of bleed can also elevate (Bowman 2013; 2015a). In order to ameliorate some of these issues, an active discourse around emotional safety has emerged in larp circles, emphasizing checking in with other players, consent-based play, debriefing, and safe words (Bowman, 2014; Brown, 2016; Koljonen, 2016).

Conclusion

Larp holds great potential for providing unique immersive experiences. This article has discussed six  common modes of immersion in role-playing games, with a special emphasis on larp as a more fully embodied experience than other forms. This act of embodiment can prove life-changing for participants, who can transform their physicality and perform traits not afforded by the mundane world, such as performing gender in a new way or improving one’s physical capabilities in a simulated battle.

In addition, exploring the ways in which players immerse in larp worlds can help scholars better understand the constructedness of our own identities and realities, uncovering the ways in which people can find the agency to reconstruct their lives and senses of self. As larpers can adopt temporary identities and create new social structures through play, their insights may help us to understand how to create lasting psychological, interpersonal, and cultural change.

Cover photo credit: A mermaid, one of the many magical species at the larp New World Magischola (2016-), immersed in water. Photo courtesy of Learn Larp, LLC. Mermaid Gem – Jewel of the Sea.

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  • Robot Parking

    Very cool essay. I’ve only played tabletop RPG sessions. I had some friends that were way into Vampire the Masquerade LARP, but weren’t interested in having a few tabletop sessions beforehand. Would be really interested to explore that shift from sedentary/imagined action to LARP.

    • Sarah Lynne Bowman

      That’s a fascinating shift! One way to try it is to ask your tabletop friends to stand up and play out some scenes with you. Take the table out of the equation for a while and try some freeform role-playing without the dice in the living room or wherever you play. Act out small things and wear bits of costuming. The transition is a lot easier than you think!

      • Robot Parking

        Thanks for the suggestion! I think moving incrementally is probably a good way to acclimate the players. I’m running a game of The Sprawl now and a few of my group are relatively new to RPing. They’re very keen on playing, but not used to improvising scenes and character moments. Curious to see whether they’d find LARP a bit easier, or if acting out the scenes would be branching out of their comfort zone a little too far.

        At any rate, your piece really helped clarify what some of the stakes might be if we start experimenting with LARP. Thanks for writing it!

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