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Annotated Bibliography #3

Dolan, J. (1987). The Dynamics of Desire: Sexuality and Gender in Pornography and Performance. Theatre Journal, 39(2), 156–174.
Acknowledging that the role sexuality plays in performance and the visual representation of women as sexual subjects of objects is a hotly contested issue within feminist criticism, Dolan gives a comparison of two main views of the function of pornography within culture.
The first is “Cultural Feminists” whose tradition stems from Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. These theorists posit that all male sexuality is aggressive and violent, and that power creates hierarchies, which lead to violence against women (p. 157). Cultural feminists attempt to emphasize biological differences between men and women, and to put forth the idea that women are superior as well as essentially the same — that there is a common female experience. They locate that “sameness” in the female body; female bodies are capable of procreation (and male bodies are not), and that a female body “stripped to its ‘essential femaleness’ communicates an essential meaning recognizable by all women” (P. 159). Dolan remarks that if one subscribes to this view of feminism, then one is anti-pornography, as the power hierarchies of the production of the media as well as the objectification of the female body within it make it problematic. However, this then removes sexuality and desire from female representation and relegates representation to a supposedly more pure level of spiritual, dispassionate space that is somehow naturalized or idealized. Dolan describes some female performance artists who attempt to reverse these power hierarchies that lead to female objectification by either adopting a masculinized role of sexuality or being deliberately perverse or disgusting in order to remove “her body off this representational commodities market by refusing to appear as a consumable object” (p. 163).
In the second part of her article, Dolan discusses lesbian theatrical performances as reimagining gender roles along an expanded continuum (p. 170) and bringing sexuality and desire to the foreforent as opposed to banishing as a problematic taboo. Lesbian performativity, done primarily for lesbian audiences, imagines a different type of desire and deliberately manipulates traditional gender-coded performances. Their attempt is to point out the “contradictions in and limits to the traditional construction of polarized gender choices” (p. 170). However, within these performances, Dolan does continue to describe a continuum of “butch” to “femme”, which seems to me to reinforce binaries of male/female.
This article will be helpful to me as I look to consider other ways of gender and sexual representation than the heteronormative male gaze, and to note the tension within the feminist criticism community.

Simple Infographic

Column Chart of Underworld Franchise box office information

I wanted to make a comparison of the four movies and their budgets and sales figures. I was only able to easily access total sales figures from the last two movies, so I kept it to box office only, rather than home video included.

Rise of the Lycans is the only movie without Selene, although she has a “stand-in” in the form of Sophia, the daughter of Vincent that Selene reminds him of. Sophia’s costume is similar, and sets a diegetic precedence for Selene’s Death Dealer costume that comes later in the timeline of the narrative but came first in the order of the movies.

I had wanted to do a stacked bar graph to show a total, but it did not work with a budget comparison next to it. I was forced to choose one type of graph, cluster or stacked. I could not combine them with the interface. I also was interested in showing number of attendees for each movie, but those figures were not readily available.

The data set is as follows, culled from the individual movie pages located at

Underworld (2003) Underworld: Evolution (2006) Rise of the Lycans (2009) Underworld: Awakening (2012)
Budget 22,000,000 45,000,000 35,000,000 70,000,000
Opening Weekend $21,753,759 $26,857,181 $20,828,511 $25,306,725
Total Domestic Gross $51,970,690 $62,318,876 $45,802,316 $62,321,040
Total Worldwide Gross $95,708,457 $113,417,763 $89,102,316 $160,379,931

Heuristic: Evaluating Selene’s costume


Iconic language:

What is it made of?
Solid black leather and PVC

What do you see in the artifact?
The suit is tight and covers from toe to neck. The only skin exposed is on the hands and the face. The corset is used over the catsuit, and is laced with long black laces that are visible and reminiscent of bondage. The solid black and corset on the outside is reminiscent of the Goth and Punk scenes, where the kink boots also made their more public appearance outside of the BDSM community. The boots are tall and heeled, but not spiked. The buckles are again reminiscent of bondage and kink, but also of warrior boots or motorcycle/biker culture.

Cultural language

What is its context?
Her choice of clothing hearkens to other female action heroes that have come before her. She is in conversation with these expectations.  See Emma Peel from The Avengers. Catwoman. Trinity from the Matrix (trench coat).

Corsets have a recent history of being used on the exterior of clothing or visible rather than covered to demonstrate armor (video games, Amazon women, Wonder Woman, Xena) and to demonstrate ownership of one’s body and sexuality (Madonna, Beyonce) putting it and the female erogenous zones on display but in a performed role that is for gazing but not touching.

Who is its audience?
Female fantasy played out of bodily strength and subjectivity, embodying the hero. Male heterosexuals who enjoy watching female body perform and derive pleasure from the sexualization and domination fetish.

Theoretical language

What does it mean?
This character is believable in the power given to her as a Death Dealer. She displays sexual potency while being fully covered. She displays physical power – athletic, strong, flexible, agile, all of which are visible on skin-tight suit.

The character is female. The corset and catsuit emphasize female body curves and keep Selene and other female action heroes from becoming too masculinized. Should the character appear too masculinized, she is not only threatening (which is a turn-off) but it also upends the heterosexual normativity on display. Were she to present as androgynous or too masculine, then heterosexual men would have their heteronormative gaze threatened with potential homoeroticism or confused identification.

How do we interpret it?
Argument is that women can be accepted as powerful heroes IF they retain heterosexual allure — men still want to watch and sleep with them. Men “allow” the power in the bedroom — being dominated or overpowered sexually is a turn-on. And it represents a power they are willing to give since it is both temporary, pleasurable and offers them something to gain. The traditional power structure is retained and unthreatened. Giving power to the female in the catsuit doesn’t threaten their dominating power of the business suit. Men remain in a position of controlling the female body as their fantasy is played out on screen.

Annotated Bibliography #2

Fields, J. (1999). “Fighting the Corsetless Evil”: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930. Journal of Social History, 33(2), 355–384.
Fields focuses on the rhetoric that the corset industry used to redefine corsets and position them as essential items for all American women to own at the beginning of the 20th century. She connects the corseted body to medical and scientific rhetoric, changing conceptions of female beauty, the rise of feminism, morality arguments stating the importance of containing female bodies and sexuality as necessary for social stability, and to capitalism and economic gain from the sale of corsets to women as they attempt to conform to these norms and negotiate these rhetorics.
Importantly, Fields notes that “the corset became the locus for a number of competing significations” (p. 356) as scholars such as Steele, Roberts, Kunzle, and Banner all demonstrate that the corset has long-lasting and iconic power as a conveyor of social meaning, but disagree about what that meaning is, even in the Victorian period. Arguably, the corset’s meaning has become even more contentious and varied in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Fields looks at the “altered shape” of the corsets as a parallel trajectory to women struggling to “alter the shape of femininity and gender relations” (p. 357). There is a discursive relationship between the way that corset manufacturers used rhetoric about female bodies and social norms and the way that “women viewed, imagined, and experienced their own bodies” (p. 357). In addition, the changes that women demanded regarding their social status and mobility affected the types of corsets made and the language used to describe them. This discourse shaped and reshaped gender structures and identities as it also demonstrated changing body shapes under various corsets or — gasp — without a corset at all. The latter was something that corset manufacturers were heavily invested in preventing.
Fields notes that fashion is a codified system of of constraints that both signifies and represents a set of regulatory practices. Fashion is something people work within and against to “fashion” identities in such categories as “gender, personality, sexual preference, class, social status” and one works to express one’s individuality within this set of constraints that determine these categories and what is considered acceptable within them.  She notes a significant change in the discourse about corsets due to industrialization: the arguments about moral turpitude and questionable respectability (which could be contained by a corseted body) were replaced by arguments about science and modernity. Uncorseted women went from being “loose” to being “imperfect, imperfect, unfashionable, and unscientific” as manufacturers preyed on fears of aging and connected the fears of unrestrained women to a fear of diminishing profits (p. 357). These discourses were bolstered by new science such as that of Havelock Ellis, which claimed that female humans required corseting because of evolutionary reasons that female bodies had more difficulty making the transition from horizontal to vertical. Corset manufacturers used such scientific studies to demonstrate both the safety and necessity of corseting.
Women had more access to sports and physical exercise in the 1920s and demanded less restrictive garments. This prompted manufacturers to develop and market “sports corsets made of lighter and more flexible materials” ( p. 358). Dancing, especially the tango, also affected corset use. As women began taking off stiff corsets at parties, manufacturers responded by making “dance corsets” (p. 359-360). This had the added bonus of requiring women to purchase not just one or two corsets, but many, for various occasions and needs. Fields notes that corsetlessness had been “long identified with radical feminist and utopian movements” and the idea that woman could decide to “support herself” by going without the support of a corset. Throwing aside the corset was seen by many as a sign of radicalism and manufacturers enlisted the help of scientific studies to demonstrate that corsetlessness was a threatening menace for such reasons as: “dissipation of muscular strength, injury to internal organs, corruption of standards of beauty, damage to moral fiber, contimination of race pride and purity, and destruction of American sovereignty” (p. 363). These themes emerged from discourse analysis of trade journal articles about corsets in US publications in the 1920s. She categorizes the tactics of corset panic articles as “denial, attack, and incorporation” and demonstrates that the proscriptive discourses were used to “infuse corset use with ideologies of domination” and “panic about losing control over their female market” being eased by reasserting control over the female body (p. 364). During this time between 1920 and 1950, corsets were renamed girdles, and the junior department was born to train up young women to wearing foundational garments despite their generally slim figures not needing them. One of the most insidious and ingenious discourses was the naturalization of the corset, making the corseted body more natural than an uncorseted one. Wearing a natural corset produced a natural female form; to be natural was to wear one of the new corsets that conformed the body to what was deemed natural by society.
Manufacturers also used racial rhetoric that appealed to fears of looking like a “squaw” or having a “wayback” ancestor that had passed on the “mattress-tied-in-the-middle’ proportions” (p. 366-367). They also attempted to show that uncorseted women would never marry well, since they would be perceived as too domineering  and of the “Amazon variation” (p. 367). Women who dared to go uncorseted would also then be subjugated by a new master: the exercise regimen necessary to maintain the female form once muscles began to inevitably sag. Thus to go corsetless was to be constrained by other norms, and to be seen as unfeminine  … “the woman with a tight-muscled tense abdominal wall, flat hips, mannish chest, is usually to be pitied … the number of biological mistakes among females are [sic] increasing” (Schoemaker, qtd. in Fields, p. 367).
This piece will be interesting to use as I look at the changing meaning of the corset, and how the corset is used as a way to enforce and control female bodies while at the same time women embrace and re-perform the corseted female body in subversive ways. It seems to me this dynamic is played out on the corseted female action hero’s body. She represents at once the dominant ideology of performed femininity, and a subversive ideology of female power. What is also interesting to me is that corseted female action heroes would fall into the category of women who do not “need” corsets because they are the smaller bodied, physically fit women who have the strength and agility to perform action-based scenes and acrobatics. Indeed I am wondering if the corset is used to promote and accentuate femininity so that they do not appear too “mannish.” I am also wondering if the constraint of the corset represents a dominant ideology continuing to control the female action hero. I’m considering comparing the corseted torso to a bullet-proof vest. Or Selene’s costume to Batman’s.

Integrating Visual Argumentation

Visual arguments are indeed arguments, but they don’t work in the same ways that verbal/textual arguments work (in fact, I would argue that not all verbal arguments work the same way, either). Arguments do put forth premises, and they do have a grammar of how they are constructed, with major, minor premises, a hierarchy of evidence and support, a misuse of these elements to create fallacies, etc. More than words, I think, visual arguments have the viscerality that Gibson discusses, the kind of gut reactions that are then justified with logic afterwards.

I looked at Laurie’s, Jenny’s, Dan Cox’s, Megan’s, and Chvonne’s arguments. Megan and Donovan commented on mine. While my intention in the argument I thought I was conveying in the composed photo was closer to what Megan wrote, Donovan’s interpretation is not incorrect. I would say that it is more like Megan’s is my major premise and Donovan’s is my minor premise. My argument was one of girl power, and also one of familial love. The princess tropes are more “typical” femininity, while my daughter and I are dressed as female superheroes and “mutants.” We stood together in solidarity, back to back, united, deliberately in the same pose as Elsa and Anna to create the juxtaposition. Of course we are “real” and they are cardboard cutouts, but we are also not fully ourselves as we are cosplaying Storm and Black Widow.

I believe visual argumentation exists, and that the logic of design and placement and argumentation can be decoded and conveyed. Just like with text, however, there will be some who don’t “get it” and there will always be the variance of reader response. That variance exists whether with words or images, as arguments are layered and nuanced and audience members are diverse. Just because an argument is decoded that the designer did not intend does not negate the concept of presenting an argument. But just as an author must consider all the meanings of a word or phrase, as well as of the sentence, paragraph, and the whole, a designer must consider all the meanings and implications of design choices. As Stuart Hall notes, there will always be difference in the encoding/decoding as a result of individual and ideological particularities as a result of lived experience.

Visual Argument

We composed this picture deliberately on Halloween 2014.


Rhetoric of Female Badassery — Annotated Bibliography #1

In this entry I evaluate three fairly short articles: one conference proceeding, one first-person ethnography, and one newspaper article.
Proctor, G. (2008). Structure, constraint and sexual provocation. In E. Rouse (Ed.), Extreme Fashion: Pushing the Boundaries of Design, Technology and Business: Conference Proceedings 2007 (pp. 70–84). Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD).
Proctor traces the development of “foundation wear,” specifically corsets, as ways to remold the body to a preferred silhouette. She gives some historical background about the rise of corsetry as linked to the industrial revolution, moving from hand sewn items to the introduction of the Singer sewing machine and steam power allowing for mass production. Differentiation by the Symington’s corset company, the largest producer of corsets founded in 1830 and mass producing them beginning in 1880, allowed for women of every class to afford a corset. The company also marketed its corsets worldwide and acknowledges that the corset design was changed to conform to the culture’s ideals of beauty and the common physical size/shape of the native women (71). She also traces the “shifting errogenous zone and resulting silhouette” as one that morphed from ample stomachs to narrow waists, a focus on the breasts and the bottoms, calling for the development of bustles and other padding with horsehair and the “stays” of whalebone and then steel (73). She makes a quick reference to Elizabethan fetishization of the codpiece as a “sexual power source” and then discusses the concept of the “Phallic Woman,” or a woman sporting a fake phallus, which has Freudian and psychoanalytical theory implications. One interesting development she highlights is the “busk” or a “rigid strip of carved bone or ivory worn between the breasts” under the funnel-shaped bodice in the Elizabethan era, something she notes was “a useful place to carry a dagger” (p. 75). She discusses how the shape of the corset changed over time with the S-Bend corsets popular at the turn of the century with Gibson Girls and the tubular corset called “The Spat” that came to the knees and worked well with the “hobble skirt”; the combination of the two items several restricted a woman’s ability to walk naturally, only “tottering” with small steps (79).
Proctor reiterates Corsetiere Pearl’s three types of corset wearers as remaining relevant even to modern corset design as done by fashion designers Gaultier, LaCroix, Mugler for celebrities such as Posh Spice, Kylie Minogue, Lady GaGa, Beyonce and Madonna. These three types are: ‘corset nonconformists’ who want to change the shape of the body for an ‘aesthetic ideal’; second, ‘corset identificationists’ who associate corsets with femininity; third ‘corset masochists’ who find erotic discomfort in the tight lacing. Significantly, Proctor points out that there is not only pleasure in gazing upon a woman in a corset, but that the corset wearer derives pleasure in seeing herself transformed: “seduced by teh contouring potential of the corset” and obtaining “that immediate rush of pleasure at seeing their waists reduced, their breasts lifted and their hips emphasized, all without breaking a sweat on a treadmill” (p. 83). In this way, the corset is a kind of empowering shortcut to the pleasure of portraying an idealized form of the female body, of mastering the culturally normalized silhouette of the time using a piece of technology. It is a body enhancer or modification that is not permanent like surgery, but an available accoutrement that can be used by choice.
Chabon, M. (2008). Secret Skin. New Yorker, 84(4), 64.
 Chabon’s main premise is that the superhero costume, like the superhero him or her self, is fictitious. The costume is not like a fashion designer’s sketch, a prototype found in the comic book and awaiting being brought to life by the wearing, by the physical embodiment on an actual human form. Chabon believes that the costumes for superheroes are impossible and are a sign without a real world referent. They do not exist in reality and indeed cannot exist in reality; it is “a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x: 1” (p. 4). He states that when a person attempts to create and embody a superhero costume, one is instead reminded of all the ways that one is not a superhero: the “superhero costume betrays its nonexistence” (p. 4).  This is because the superhero costume is not constructed of “fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand” (p. 4). It is a drawing and to attempt to take it out of the context and into a new media, the realm of embodiment is  like “one of those deep-sea creatures which evolved to thrive in the crushing darkness of the seabed” and “when you haul them up to the dazzling surface they burst” (p. 4).
Edwards, D. (2012). Widow Weaves a Wicked Web: Profile Squeezing into a Tight Catsuit, Scarlett Johansson Joins the Superheroes in Avengers Assemble. The Mirror (London, England). Retrieved from
In this short newspaper article, the author interviews actor Scarlett Johansson, who plays the female superhero Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. As is often the case with female action heroes (see Anne Hathaway or Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, Kate Beckinsale as Selene, etc.) the focus in the headline and as part of the interview is the skin-tight leather or PVC suit: how to fit into it, what it was like to wear it, or how good the actress looks in it. In this interview, Johansson makes some interesting observations about sex appeal and the embodiment of portraying a female action hero. She acknowledges that she did not want to part of being one of the “superheroine characters [who] are relying on their sexuality and being posy and sexy as opposed to being badass” (p. 5). She also states that when she met with Marvel, she understood the intention to be to “get away from that overly sexy superheroine thing” (p. 5). She also speaks about the physicality of the role, both in terms of its empowerment and its limitations: the physical part was “one of the most challenging things” and she discovered she needed “an ice pack too for all of [her] injuries” (p. 5) However after months training to get in shape both for the action nature of the role and “to ensure she could squeeze into her character’s trademark catsuit” Johansson admits that she discovered the fun and power of what she was capable of physically, something she had not known previously as she “wasn’t an athlete growing up” (p. 5). After fielding yet another question about her “striking good looks” and figure, Johansson dismisses it with “I think that’s just a by-product of being curvy. I never think about it, except when I get constant questions in interviews about sexuality. I really have nothing to say about any of that stuff because it’s so boring” (p. 5)
Yet, Black Widow’s superhero uniform is a skin-tight leather suit and high-heeled boots, one that demonstrates her curves and has ties to the fetish community. Although Johansson claims that her and Marvel’s intentions are not to portray the overly sexy superheroine, clearly the costume is designed to be sexy. So the idea of what is “overly sexy” or how the sexuality is used is called into question. Black Widow never exploits her sexuality as a superpower or a ploy, something that Charlie’s Angels or Foxy Brown did. It is also clear that the appeal of the actor in the catsuit is part of what markets the movie, but that is something that the actor herself finds tiresome.
I intend to bring in some of these mainstream media examples of fetishizing the female action hero costume in my analysis of the corset and catsuit as a commodity.

Tech Comm Luminaries: Dobrin, Connors, and Katz

A provocateur, a historian,  a rhetorician, and a pragmatist walk into a bar. Who breaks Godwin’s Law first?

Readings for this week look at how one defines Technical Writing/Communication and how the field of Technical Communication has been derived and constructed.

The Historian

Connors, R. J. (1982). The rise of technical writing instruction in America. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 12(4), 329–52.
Connors lays out a history of Technical Communications as a discipline, beginning in 1895. As editor Gerald Nelms notes, Connors wrote this piece in a historical time of its own, and it reflects the values and even the conception of history constitutive of the period it first appeared in the early 1980s. Connors conceived of history as a “grand narrative” to be discovered and told, and Nelms points out that there are counter-narratives and other histories that are left out here. But the article is still an excellent overview of the field’s development, and its parallel construction with the field of composition studies beginning immediately following the Civil War with the rise in land grant and agricultural and mechanical schools as a result of the 1862 Morrill Act and the second Morrill Act of 1877 and continuing as a result of the Gilded Age’s rampant rise in technology through the Industrial Revolution. He chronicles the development of an engineering curricula and the early mismatch between expected writing skills for engineers and their abilities. He also traces the contentious relationship between humanists and humanities-based education and skills-based learning, as well as the exploitation of labor in the academy for those teaching and researching in the technical writing area. Since neither the engineering departments nor the English departments claimed the faculty or valued them, the courses were assigned to graduate students, NTT, and generally seen as “professional suicide” (10). Interestingly, Connors notes that composition teachers were seen as emasculated: feminized or deemed homosexuals: “it was said in the thirties that many English teachers ‘appear to their critics as not of a sufficiently masculine type or of enough experience in the world outside their books to command the respect of engineering students’ and they were called ‘effeminate’ … one student was quoted in 1938 as calling his teacher ‘a budding pinko’ (10)
Connors details key dates in the field such as the founding of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education  in 1894, and IEEE in . He also lays out a history of seminal textbooks published in the field, studies conducted, and figures within it. Early centers of technical writing included Tufts, University of Cincinnati, Princeton, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and University of Kansas. The first notable textbook of technical writing was T.A. Rickard’s A Guide to Technical Writing (1908), though Connors calls it a precursor to a true pedagogical book — more of a usage guide for practitioners. The first true textbook intended for college courses, according to Connors, was The Theory and Practice of Technical Writing (1911) by the “Father of Technical Writing Instruction”, Samuel Chandler Earle of Tufts College (6). This text used the “modes of discourse” (current-traditional composition) perspective, which has since fallen out of favor, Connors claims (though remains the predominant way FYC is taught in many cases, especially two-year schools). Connors claims the first “modern technical writing textbook” was in 1923 with Sada A. Harbarger’s (S.A. Harbarger, so her status as a woman was not revealed) English for Engineers, which was the first to be organized around “technical forms” or genres used by technical writers in the field, still the predominate method of organization for technical writing textbooks today. By 1938, Connors claims, corroborated by a comprehensive study by Alvin M. Fountain, that technical writing was a thriving industry.
By far the biggest rise in Technical Communication occurred in the years following WWII, and is again predicated on a rise in both technology, automation, an increase in the number of students attending college, and educational reforms to address both the apparent skills gaps they possessed and, in this case, a debate in education between a Dewey-inspired platform of social relationships and a practical techniques or occupations or industries approach (11). The Hammond Reports of 1940 and 1944 were instrumental in making reforms that lead to greater rise in technical communication. Connors notes that in 1954, with the publication of Gordon Mills and John Walter’s Technical Writing, the discipline began to take a rhetorical approach rather than a “types of reports” approach, and the ethos of “does it work” as the only good criterion for technical writing became established. Connors calls this the beginning of a user-based, “writer-reader relationship” approach to the field (13).
I definitely would like to have a visualization of this article so that I could see the timeline of events laid out next to each other and interact with them. Wish there was such a web interface. I tried searching for one, and found some unhelpful Rose Diagrams, as well as articles about the USE of visualizations in technical and scientific communication, but not a visualization of the field itself.

The Provocateur

Dobrin, D. N. (1983). What’s technical about technical writing? In P. V. Anderson, R. J. Brockman, & C. R. Miller (Eds.), New Essays in Technical and Scientific Communication: Theory and Practice (pp. 227–250). Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishing.

The Rhetorician

Katz, S. B. (1993). Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Hitler’s Program, and the Ideological Problem of Praxis, Power, and Professional Discourse. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 7(1), 37–62. doi:10.1177/1050651993007001003

The Pragmatists

Longo, B., & Fountain, K. (2013). What can history teach us about technical communication? In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Bakhtinian notion of Carnival as applied to Larps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bakhtin and the World of the Utterance

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

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




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

_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.

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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.

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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.