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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.


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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Scaffolding (Non)Synthesis

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


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

May the Mindmap Be Ever in Your Favor

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

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

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

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

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


It’s Rhizomatically Delicious!

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

Using their Rhizomatic Stare to Confound Theory Everywhere

Using their Rhizomatic Stare to Confound Theory Everywhere

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

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

Cover of Kerouac's Golden Eternity

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Capital Meme

Works Cited

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

Case Study #3: The Ecosophy of Larp

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

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

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

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

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

Larp Wall Charts Brainstorm three phases

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

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

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

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

We can then add the actual larp roles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibson Ambient Optic Array

From Gibson, 1979

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

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

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

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

Mixing Desk of Larp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abiotic Items in the ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Castells in the Air

Castells points out the dark underbelly of global networks and franchises.

Castells points out the dark underbelly of global networks and franchises.

Don’t read Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society if you’re looking for either a light read or a feel-good tome. You’ll leave with a sense of foreboding and outrage and wonderment at how he can identify such global turbulence and selfish decision-making and yet no policymaker seems to listen. I’m left wondering why he isn’t a Chief Advisor to the President, or the head of the Federal Reserve, or in some position where he can lay out the inter-relations of the various short-sighted decisions and help those with political blinders on see the big picture.

It was only a matter of time before someone exposed the dark side of networking, of how it serves neoliberal late capitalist goals, of how it is a tool to connect those with power and amplify their power, and, by the same means, disconnect, disempower and disenfranchise those who are programmed with the wrong protocol or lack the means to connect. Rather than one, happy, flattened, connected world of unprecedented opportunity and a lack of traditional hierarchy, Castells exposes an inequality of networks within networks: networks of places and networks of flows; networks of implementation and network of decision-making and innovation; cultural networks and information networks; as well as “landscapes of despair” (xxxvi), a term coined by Dear and Wolch, to indicate areas and people outside of the places of networked value creation.

Castells points out the economies of synergy, where “potential interaction with valuable partners creates the possibility of adding value as a result of the innovation generated by this interaction” (xxxvii) are what is most important in the global real-time network. Largely a recreation of the “Good Ole Boy Network” of the past, these face-to-face encounters are where the strategic plans are developed, plans are made, decisions cast, and communication systems created. What emerges from these synergistic economies are the “economies of scale” and “networks of implementation” — areas which are transformed by the “information and communication technologies” into “global assembly lines” (xxxvii). In other words, it’s still a matter of of a manufacturing economy, but the factory is a virtual one, assembled from around the world, and controlled by the panopticon of the overseer: the networked computer.  As Castells points out, this virtual board room/corporate headquarters vs. branch offices and “worker bees” is merely an extension of the old model, but one, by virtue of the global connectedness that outstrips any national laws or regulations, that wields ever more power and controls both the means of production and the livelihood of the world’s workers. Indeed, though, all is not well for those who would control the network, because, as Castells points out, though we attempt to tame the technological forces unleashed by our own ingenuity, we struggle against “our collective submission to the automaton that escaped the control of its creators” (xliii).

Information technologies have replaced work that can be “encoded in a programmable sequence” and enhanced work that requires a human brain:  “analysis, decision and reprogramming” in real time (258).  These two main types of work can be further broken down into a hierarchy of  value, innovation, task execution, and production, completed by the corresponding stratified workers:

  • Commanders: strategic decision-making and planning
  • Researchers: innovations in products and process
  • Designers: adaptation, targeting of innovation
  • Integrators: managing the relationships between the decision, innovation, design, and execution to achieve stated goals [this is where the communication function of an organization lies, I think]
  • Operators: execution of tasks according to initiative and understanding
  • Operated: execution of ancillary, preprogrammed tasks that are not automated. (259)

Furthermore, Castells delineates three fundamental groups within the networked system:

  • Networkers: who set up connections
  • Networked: who are part of the network but have no say about their position there
  • Switched-off: not connected; perform specific tasks; one-way instructions; little to no input (260)

And at the top level of the organization, Castells creates a typology of the decision-making progress:

  • Deciders: make the decision; final and ultimate call
  • Participants: give input; are involved in decision-making
  • Executants — implement decisions (but do not have say in what decision was made) (260)

These various groups become nodes in nested networks, not a flattened system, but a tree network (a tree of enunciative formation, I would argue, channeling Foucault) with a clear root and a clear structure of branching with gatekeepers at critical points. What flows across this network? Information. Information which must be communicated. Thus, the entire network is a rhetorical situation.

Decision Tree Template

This PowerPoint slide placeholder graphic is designed to enable communicators and integrators to fill in the text specific to their organization’s hierarchy. It implies a basic replicable structure that can be templated.

Castells states that “infrastructure of communication develops because there is something to communicate” (xxxvii). He calls it a “functional need” that calls into existence the infrastructure. Bitzer and Vatz would refer to this as an exigence, something that drives discourse. Networks of communication, which disseminate information according to the role one plays in the organization (see above) are dynamically created among the variable pathways that may exists. In some cases, a specific pathway or communication channel is used; in other cases, multiple channels; in still other cases, new channels and media may need to be created. The level of detail, causality, and interactivity within that communication is determined by the place on the network. Some information flows all the way through to the very end of the pathway; other information is stopped by a gatekeeper who determines “need to know” as programmed by the deciders, executors and integrators. In each case, the audience is taken into consideration, and though Castells does not directly look at this communications infrastructure as a rhetorical situation, he does talk about media as the mode of a global society.

Castells points out that the acceleration of time and exploitation made possible by the global network has annihilated our concept of time, and indeed our very humanity, causing us to live in the “ever-present world of our avatars” (xliii). We have lost a sense of past grounding and future obligation, living along the bandwidth as flickering images moving from place to place, doing the work of the machine that keeps us imprisoned. Simultaneously, we will rhetorically position ourselves as having found freedom from the constraints of our bodies and our physical limitations, not realizing that our cybernetic existence is one of less agency and greater self — and world — destruction. Castells calls this the “bipolar opposition between the Net and the self” (3). We are simultaneously created and destroyed by our interactions in the information age, which made me think about Spinuzzi’s centripetal and centrifugal forces in an organization.

I also channeled Spinuzzi with Castells’ three dimensions to define the new division of labor:

  1. First Dimension:  actual tasks in a given work process. Also called Value-Making.
  2. Second dimension: Relationship between an organization and its environment, including other organizations. Also called Relation-Making.
  3. Third Dimension: Relationship between managers and employees in a given organization or network. Also called Decision-Making. (259)

These seem to correspond in interesting ways to Spinuzzi’s Microscopic, Mesoscopic, and Macroscopic levels of activity. Interestingly, I think, Spinuzzi’s levels seem to make sense in the way a telephoto lens works: focus closely on the workers’ tasks (microscopic), zoom out to the mesoscopic to look at relationships between workers and workers within a system or network or the organization; zoom out further to the macroscopic level of strategy and organization within an industry. However, Castells puts what would be Spinuzzi’s macroscopic level as his Second Dimension, and what would be Spinuzzi’s mesoscopic level as the third dimension. I’m wondering then, if these are to be seen in the same sort of stratified or wide-shot, mid-shot, close-shot way as Spinuzzi. It suggests that the OUTSIDE influence — the organization within the larger world — is an intermediary between the actual work done and the decisions made about that work. The paradigm of internal vs. external communications, as well as the flow from worker to organization to economy is disrupted, with more importance and relevance given to the competitive, connected, global environment rather than the immediate supervisor. Decisions made internally are connected through the external world. The model would look more like the managers and employees sending information up to the cell towers and satellites and then back down to the production line, informed by outside perspective, which is subsumed somehow into the organization.

I’d like to complicate Castells’ view with two articles in the past two weeks that seem to challenge the prevailing opinion of a globalized society, asserting instead a return to hyper-localization and regionalization. I am wondering, since Castell’s theory in this book is now 15 or more years old, if the pendulum is swinging the other way, toward a renewed sense of group affiliation and identity (which may or may not be connected to a modern constructed idea of a “nation-state”).  Robert D. Kaplan, in his Time Magazine March 31, 2014 cover story “Old World Order: How geopolitics fuel endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st century” reminds us that although “the West has come to think about international relations in terms of laws and multinational agreements, most of the rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water” (32). He goes on to show the instability of nation-states and the importance of actual physical spaces and resources to the world’s geopolitics and economy. While this seems to support Castells’ notions of space as well as flow, the concentration of resources and talent in particular cosmopolitan mega-nodes, it also underscores the importance of tribal, local, regional and national cultural pride and identity that cannot be merely summed up in the trade of ideas and the flow of goods across a global production system. What Kaplan continues to point out is that according to privileged Western philosophers, politicians, policymakers, and businesspeople (Kaplan calls them the “global elite”), “this isn’t what the 21st century was supposed to look like” (32). We were supposed to post-physical space, post-geography, post-political power grabs for physical resources. We were supposed to be an information economy and a global production system operating on trade among stable entities. Recent changes in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring remind us that what the mind can extrapolate and theorize often does not take into account visceral and physical loyalties that may operate beyond reason and individual or communal prosperity.

A week later, Rana Foroohar, in “Globalization in Reverse: What the global trade slowdown means for growth in the US — and abroad”, posits that many economists and trade experts are talking about “a new era of deglobalization, during which countries turn inward” (28). If this trend continues, then “markets, which had more or less converged for the past 30 years, will start diverging along national and sectoral lines” (28). While Castells discussed the convergence of the markets, there appears to be a counter movement, according to some, that would dismantle that synergy and supposed “free movement of goods, people and money across borders” (28). Personally, I do not believe that this means the end of the network society, only that the configuration of the network will change again, with a movement to more unique protocols for individual networks, attempting to communicate with a global mega-network. Rather than considering there to be a unified global economy or a “world-wide web”, there may indeed be more of a multiverse model, with pockets of independent development that coexist, and pathways must be set up to port between them.

Works Cited

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Second Edition. Vol. 1. Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print. 3 vols. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.
Foroohar, Rana. “Globalization in Reverse | TIME.” Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. “Geopolitics and the New World Order | TIME.” Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Pictures used

Decision Tree.

Welcome to the Dark Side.

My Mind is an ever-changing Map

This week I added more gray boxes to signify information related to neurobiology. They are gray, as are the ecosystems boxes from last week, partly because I am out of colors in the Popplet scheme, and partly because I rationalized that the biological stuff could go together. Certainly one is a macro view and one is a micro view, but from the lens of considering each a network, their relationships among constituent parts makes some sense.

I discovered that my main theme for the week seemed to converge around the inability to transform a message as it is relayed through the neuronal network. It moves along without the message itself changing (although the strength and intensity of the signal can be altered via hormones and neurotransmitters).  HOWEVER, the movement of the message itself, makes changes in the brain, in the network. It may inscribe a new pathway or make a former one stronger. So it is change but without agency; a kind of transformation that occurs despite conscious awareness or intention. I had thought about mediators (ANT) as being transformative as a result of an intention to create change — at least by someone. But in looking at this neurobiological system, it seems there can be change that happens merely in the course of the doing, not according to some plan, or exigence. I have more to mull there.

Crossing the Nodes of Ranvier

There were many things that struck me as I read through the Neurobiology textbook and related the physical and electrical structures and impulses of the brain to our other readings on computer networking, ecosystems, and the rhetorical situation. Most importantly, unlike a computer system, the brain is constantly adjusting according to a symbiotic feedback loop between the organism and its environment. It is far more complex than a computer system that uses binary logic to make decisions between inputs. In the brain, whose model is no longer thought of as a computer network or system of file drawers, the neuro-plasticity lasts a lifetime, and the experiences of the organism have a real physical impact on the network of neurons, which in turn governs memory, learning, thought, and systems. The movement of electrical impulses — action potentials — through the network physically changes the cell structures. The transmission itself actualizes the potential and creates the capacity for future transmission.

I was immediately struck by the language used by the researchers that mimics communication and rhetoric: neurons communicate constantly, they can listen and speak at the same time. In the computer networking materials I read at the beginning of the semester, this dual capacity was spoken of as something that evolved in networking: originally the cabling only allowed for taking turns — a node had to listen and receive before it could speak — but the development of fiber-optic cabling allowed for parallel pathways of outgoing and incoming information, what was described as listening and speaking. But the brain is different, and here I’m thinking of Latour’s concept of intermediary vs. mediator. In a computer network, the information is relayed without change, although it could be amplified by a particular node to have a larger reach. In the brain, the information is transformative as it moves along the network of neurons. In a computer network, packets of information are bundled and labeled for a particular recipient that takes a predetermined action. In the brain, the neurotransmitters mediate between the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic terminals, effecting change as a result of their interaction. This change is not merely for the current transmission, but it creates the possibility for future transmissions, strengthening and building a pattern. In this sense the movement itself creates the pathways, inscribing the network. The brain controls behavior and behavior makes the brain. They are in a co-creative loop that sets up the potentials for the next scenario encountered.

The relationship between the regulChiquita-DM2-minion-banana-1ation of potassium and sodium drives the movement of these electrical impulses, which were termed “action potential” down the neuron.  I began to wonder if my 9 p.m. salt cravings have to do with sustaining mental energy and concentration. Then I ate a big bowl of popcorn and figured I should get a banana.

As the scientists discussed the brain as being a link between the outside world and regulated internal behavior, I started thinking about the brain as a boundary object. I also started thinking about it as an ecosystem on the forage- eat- poop loop. The brain takes in information, processes it, then makes outputs. It is its own system, within the system of the body, in constant interface with external systems. I became consumed with the thought of the brain as a rhetor, and the action inside the brain as mimicking the movement in a rhetorical situation. The pre-synaptic terminals as the rhetor, the audience as the post-synaptic terminals, and the discourse or message traveling across the synapse via a medium — a selected and appropriate neurotransmitter. The magic happens in the exchange, where, based on the intensity of the message, the receptors can be “keyed up” or stimulated in such a way that they repeat or escalate the message, depending on how it is interpreted. One neuron firing — one instance of discourse — can cause a single other neuron to fire or thousands of them.

As the chapter discussed the movement of the electrical impulses along the Sheaths of Myelin covering the neurons, jumping tiny gaps called the Nodes of Ranvier, I was envisioning a Rider of Rohan galloping along, the ground lightingRohan Rider charging up under the horse’s feet,  jumping the ravines (synapses) to continue to relay the message. (Must have been the word “Ranvier” that put me into the fantasy realm of Dagohir or Isengard).

There is fruit to this notion of an impulse being an “action potential” in the network, and to the idea of vescicles holding a variety of (genre) neurotransmitters, waiting for a particular exigence that would allow them to be deployed. There is also fruit to the idea that the post-synaptic receptors are predisposed to accept particular neurotransmitters, but that this can be altered by changing the strength and type of the action potential signal. The imbalance of sodium and potassium creates “membrane potential” which cannot reach stasis — an inside/outside imbalance is necessary for the communication to take place. These ideas bring me back to discussions about the rhetorical situation, which is predicated on tension and creating an opening to receive the message.

I have not gotten as far as I should have in the Castells reading. It is fascinating! Castells notion of  simultaneous communication networks that are more than mere “horizontal” and “vertical” but a convergence of autonomous content creation that he terms “mass self-communication” (xxx) is amazing. This jives with the notion of the brain creating and reinforcing the pathways and potentialities. Castells says that communication (discourse?) is “self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception” (xxx) and distributed in a many-t0-many multimodal model. So individuals are the creators and they create the collective perception and reality that is a conglomerate of individual perceptions and affected by the messages they come in contact with.  The question is, how do people come together as communities? How do they find commonality among their individual experiences and interpretations? Is there a way for the network to unite the fragmented post-modern society?


Annenberg Learner. “Unit 10: Neurobiology.” Rediscovering Biology. 2014. Web. 31 March 2014.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Second Edition. Vol. 1. Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print. 3 vols. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.


Minion Loves Bananas:

Rohan Rider:

Here we go updating the Popplet, the Popplet, the Popplet

This week I added the gray boxes that have to do with Ecosystems and Affordances and Constraints. The new Popplet (Redux) is organized around the questions for the case study, forcing me to add information related to how this theory describes a network. I was able to add a lot about ecosystems, as they are comprised of relationships with energy moving within it. The Popplet and those questions helped me to focus in on the agency and lack of agency that is assumed within and ecosystem, a theory which really helps you explain a particular node, an individual within the system. I’m interested in how that individual has both instinctual and inherent qualities that govern its behavior as well as the limitations of perception and analysis of the ecosystem to provide benefit to the individual. There is a dance between affordance and constraint, not just a listing of the two. It seems to me that the dance — the tension, the movement — is what constructs the system.

Topic Proposal Redux: Play With Intent American Freeform Larp Techniques

I noted in my first topic proposal, “I will study a particular LARP that I will play between February 28 and March 2.  …  I am currently leaning toward the Jeep Form LARP, which is less structured and more dynamically co-created in the four-hour session via improv and lots of character autonomy and agency. … The game is neither playable nor solvable alone; thus a system or network is needed to experience the reality that is LARP.”

I have indeed selected the larp that stems from the Jeepform tradition, and is categorized by its writers as part of a burgeoning self-defined style called American Freeform [Larp]. The use of the term “larp” to describe it is under debate by the community (see Lizzie Stark’s post), but in the largest genre sense, it definitely is larp — live, embodied players taking on roles and enacting a particular scenario using rules/mechanics and techniques for the purpose of exploration and fun. (Truth be told, the use of the term “freeform” is also contentious, as is the word “American”, but such is larp.) But the American Freeform style takes table-top as a closer progenitor (much like most US larps, as opposed to their European, especially Nordic counterparts), and borrows from the table certain meta-techniques that carve the larp into clear scene breaks and acts, something considered sacrilege to those who espouse that “true larp” is immersive and continuous while in game. Read Evan Torner’s manifesto to learn even more.

The focus of this study will not be whether American Freeform (or Jeepform for that matter) is larp; rather, I will look at the specific meta-techniques outlined by a particular American Freeform game, Play with Intents – -Noir Version. (You can read the system here: Last Chance Noir). According to one of the authors, Emily Care Boss, “Freeform meta-techniques are procedures which interrupt into the flow of the narrative, but which give players access to additional layers of storytelling and embodiment of character.” In this sense, the techniques make for a constantly changing activity system that moves between and among the players and techniques, and among the layers of role-play in-game/out-of-game, in-character/out-of-character, social norms, tropes, motivations, etc. The game is set up for maximum flexibility and is dependent on the players adaptability to change to keep the narrative moving.

I want to take a look at these meta-techniques as creating the protocols and boundaries for the larp to unfold. Each of the techniques functions as a node in the network, and can be called upon at any time during a scene by a player or the GM. I think this particular larp style will work will for Actor-Network Theory, and the actants and actors and various types of agency. In addition, this role-playing style is less about simulation and more about making use of what is available — a dynamic network is created through player/GM-chosen protocols and sustained for the duration of the game. This form is more fluid between in-game and out-of-game, which is why the techniques are called meta-techniques. In addition, individual players have more agency to “direct” the action and control the flow, which to some traditional larp players can feel like less autonomy over their own characters. Costumes (which are far less elaborate than in a traditional larp) are created on-the-fly and are “suggested” via props, often taken up spontaneously. These features, along with the form’s obvious nods to the table-top and Nordic traditions make for an interesting ecosystem and ANT approach. I also envision analyzing the affordances and constraints of each technique individually and how they work to an accumulative system.

To give an example, one of the Nordic larp techniques that is incorporated into  is Monologuing, known in the American Freeform Play With Intent – Last Chance Noir as Inside/Outside Voice. Using this technique a player alternates between character’s inner voice and external narration/dialogue. Players are directed to “Speak interior thoughts other characters would not perceive. May also speak broad connecting information, like a narrator’s voice-over in a film, that fill in pieces of the puzzle or push the characters in new directions.” This gives information to the PLAYERS that would not be known to the CHARACTERS, and is a method of information control in the game, especially as a character can be directed to give a monologue by another character or the GM, whenever s/he is interested in learning the motivation or thoughts behind an action, or to reveal information that would demonstrate a central tension or character trait.

This OOS is important to English studies because it represents a form of collaborative composition and interactive narrative. Using techniques, not unlike writing tools and rhetorical moves, players jointly compose. The GM behaves much like a teacher by planting the seeds, gathering the components, and regulating the action, but also letting it unfold. It models a kind of creative problem-solving that we wish to include in classroom spaces. Furthermore, it is a site of cultural production that makes allusions to literary and historical pieces, adopting tropes from literature and theater. In addition, as these larps are remediations from movies or table-top games, they offer interesting insight in terms of genre study.

I am lucky to be in contact with four of the major players in American Freeform: Lizzie Stark, Emily Care Boss, Evan Torner and John Stavropoulos. I have played two of these games in the past six months, and read many others. I also participated in a workshop about the techniques at the Living Games conference in New York City last month, conducted by Boss and Torner.

Works Cited

Boss, Emily Care, and Matthijs Holter. Last Chance Noir: A Play With Intent Tool Kit. 2014.
Stark, Lizzie. “Introducing American Freeform.” Lizzie Stark. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Stark, Lizzie. “Jeepform for Noobs.” Lizzie Stark. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Torner, Evan. “American Freeform: A Transatlantic Dialog.” The Guy in the Black Hat. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Torner, Evan, and Emily Care Boss. “Transforming the Narrative: Freeform Meta-Techniques.” New York, N.Y: N. p., 2014. Print.

They are not eclogues. They are ecologies.

* The title refers to my misreading of the title of Guattari’s book multiple times on my bookshelf, so many times, in fact, that my brain has inscribed it as The Three Eclogues. He can sit next to Virgil on my shelf.  One meaning of eclogue is a “draft” or a “reckoning” so perhaps I’m not too far off, at least in terms of this post, or of a theory of composition.

So, I’m picking and choosing and synthesizing among this week’s reading about ecologies and ecosystems. Some of the texts are explained literally in terms of eating and pooping, and while that is interesting (as is the rate at which the speaker speaks in the video posted … wow. Can’t read a teleprompter that fast, can you? It must be accelerated in post-production … reminds me of my favorite YouTube channel, PBS’s IdeaChannel, but he also talks fast, so maybe this is a post-modern ethos and we really can listen and absorb that quickly, which makes me think about those speed-reading programs (like Spritz) that purport to elevate your reading speed to more than 500 words per minute by lining up the words, one at a time, at the optimal recognition point , which I would like to be able to use for this week’s reading, which seems excessive, but possibly I’m just jaded after finishing a case study and last week’s asynchronous work, as well as being tired after attending a conference and being behind on … well…. life**), I’m more interested in the metaphoric application of an ecosystem to my object of study, or to writing, as Peg Syverson does in her book, The Wealth of Reality.

**Did you read the parenthetical maroon textreally quickly, staccato-style, imagining quick edits and zooms? It was intended that way.

Anyway, Guattari, the Cary Institute and the Ecological Ecosystems Crash Course are all talking about webs of interdependencies of multi-variate organisms co-existing in nested complex systems that together, create an über-ecosystem we might call “life on earth.” Ecosystems are ways to explain things that are dynamic, in a state of flux, and whose outcomes/outputs cannot be fully predicted mechanically (or, I would add, computationally or logarithmically, even as our AI gets ever more complex and interwoven into the system). An ecosystem’s concern with distribution, flux, exchange, and transformation by invested adaptable members who are co-creating the system makes sense to view as a network, at least a very complex one, such as my object of study, larp. Computer networking and encoding seems to be to take as its object a replication of such natural world complexities and systems, in an effort to more closely map and mimic (and plan and influence) our quotidien life. Indeed, members of an ecosystem appear to continually assess its affordances and constraints, with their own survival and needs as paramount.

Excerpted takeaways from ecological ecosystems readings:

  • An ecosystem is composed of biotic and abiotic members (compare to actors/actants in ANT?)
  • An ecosystem has blurry boundaries (fuzzy gradients that bleed) and flexible dimensions, depending on what you are hoping to see (your research question, perhaps?)
  • The story of the source and transference of energy is the story of the ecosystem
  • Ecosystems can be measured in terms of their abundances and their efficiencies.
  • What began as a study in the hard sciences and is most commonly used in mass media to refer to environmental studies, has moved into nearly all disciplines, with analogies for “artificial” and “constructed” environments such as organizations (and games!)
  • Ecologies promote synthesis and integration, rather than fragmentation (Cary Institute); an ecologist is a “synthesis scientist” (Spellman). In fact, Spellman weaves in and among literature, poetry, art, parables, government statistics, and scientific inquiry to illuminate the concept of ecology; his chapters themselves are ecologies of texts.
  • Ecology [like rhetoric] has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy and the founding of the Western Tradition, fell out of fashion, and had a resurgence with the Enlightenment focus on scientific inquiry in the 18th century. The word “ecosystem” is more modern, coined in 1935 by Brit Arthur Tansley and adopted by Eugene Odum, the “father of modern ecosystem ecology” (Spellman 12-13).
  • Ecologies are fundamentally concerned with what is produced, consumed, and wasted. Another way of saying this is what is created, transformed, and dissolved.
  • Ecologies are fundamentally dynamic networks in that they exist only in the relationships, in the movement among the nodes, which operates according to protocols unique to each member, but translated into a working, mutually beneficial partnership.
  • Odum refers to an organism’s niche (which hearkens back to the affordances reading of Gibson) as its “profession” (Spellman 15) which has interesting rhetorical implications related to “job” and “work” and “membership” that might be fun to unpack later.

Clip from Spellman article re: homeostasis

  • Spellman says that homeostasis is a prerequisite for an ecosystem to exist, but Syverson problematizes this to a post-modern sense of stability as existing in a particular temporo-spatial reality and according to prevailing exigence (rather than as a stable “unity” without the system itself).
  • Ecosystems are comprised of nested levels of ever-more-complex members; here is one (though not all-compassing) explanation by Odum (as illustrated in Spellman): Screenshot 2014-03-25 14.36.00
  • Guattari defines three ecologies: the environment (or nature), social relations and human subjectivity (mental) and posits that they make up an ecosophy, or an interconnected network. Only by looking at all three, can we have any effect on the environment proper or enact a holistic methodology (24).

Guattari’s notion of combining levels of ecologies to include attitudes and beliefs and social dynamics, rather than mere material goods is very useful when looking at rhetoric, which seeks to change such beliefs in order to change behavior. I’m beginning to wonder if the three ecologies can comprise the rhetorical triangle, or a kind of three dimensional rhetorical situation, whereby action in one ecology crosses into another (the effect on the situation). Calling it an ecoSOPHY puts more emphasis on the knowing, and the wisdom, the “house-wisdom”, or the idea of, perhaps, the confluence of ontology and epistemology that becomes “common knowledge” or “conventional wisdom”, which can be the hardest to defeat in an argument.

The thought of an interconnected network of ecologies operating on the physical, mental, and social level … well, this larp walked into a bar …

 AND …. I now have my Case Study #3: an analysis of the affordances and constraints of the American Freeform Larp, Play With Intents techniques in creating the ecological ecosystem of its larp.

Can I just say how much I enjoyed Syverson? Want to read that whole book. When the Doctor picks me up in his Tardis and takes me to the future, that is.


“Definition of Ecology.” Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. N. p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.
Ecosystem Ecology: Links in the Chain – Crash Course Ecology #7. CrashCourse, 2012. Film.

Flower of Life 61 circles. Wikimedia Commons. Licensed Creative Commons Reuse.

Guattari, Félix. The three ecologies. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.
Spellman, Frank R. Ecology for Nonecologists. Lanham, Md.: Government Institutes, 2008. Print.
Syverson, Margaret A. The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. Print.

Featured Image: A form of the “Flower of Life” hexagonal pattern (where the center of each circle is on the circumference of six surrounding circles of the same diameter) made up of 61 complete circles (making clear the way in which the pattern is constructed). Since only complete circles are used, the full pattern is only visible towards the center of the diagram.

Case Study #2 — Diegetic Construction of Hyper-Actors in a 3-D Hyper-Network


Live Action Role-Playing games, or larps, are a kind of role-playing that is done, as its name implies, live, dynamically, with actual people in costume, in physical spaces with props, actively portraying characters and interacting with a scenario and environment. Larps have a rich tradition in communities across the world, with active communities in the United States, Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden), Italy, France, Belarus, Pakistan, Australia, and others. These communities developed independently of each other beginning in the 1980’s or 1990’s, and have been sharing their history, traditions and practices via the Internet for some time. Recently, cross-pollination of larp communities has begun, as players, storytellers, gamemasters, theorists, and scholars are gathering together at gaming conventions and comparing methods of play.

Before we go any further, I want to clarify three conventions I will use throughout this article:

      1. In the United States, Live-Action Role Playing has been abbreviated LARP, with all capital letters to delineate the word’s status as an acronym. However, words that begin as acronyms, such as radar, laser, and scuba, through regular use become recognized as words understood on their own, without reference to their etymology as a shortened form of a descriptive phrase. In other countries around the world, particularly in Scandinavia, where scholarship on larp aesthetics has a decade-long tradition, the word is used as a lower-case word, and not as an acronym. In her 2012 book, Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games, US author Lizzie Stark chooses to follow the European countries and de-capitalize the word, a move she hopes will “destigmatize the hobby, making it seem less like unrelatable jargon” (Prologue, x). I choose to follow this trend and will use larp as its own word throughout. The word is flexible and is used in many ways in the community: larp can be a verb:  Do you larp? Are you larping this weekend? I larped last weekend); noun: I was at the larp in Boston; Monsterhearts is an American freeform larp. It can also be used to describe the player as a larper or the writer of a larp as a larpwright.
      2. When I refer to a larp in this paper, I am referring to the action of playing the larp, the larp is it is experienced by the players. Although the word larp can be used to describe the written text of the game, such as Play with Intent – an American Freeform Larp or Dystopia Rising, a US Boffer larp, I am attempting to theorize larp-in-action – the live notion of Live Action Role-Playing. I am working to understand what happens IN the larp, as the larp unfolds. In my mind the text produced the gives the parameters of the game merely sets up the possibility of a larp; it is not the larp itself, even though it is necessary and convenient to be able to use the word larp in other ways, such as “Which larp do you play? – Dystopia Rising”. The central premise of this paper is to try to theorize the act of larping, a particular instantiation or iteration of a game title.
      3. Larp is a rich tradition with many forms, methods, and aesthetics. As mentioned above, these communities are cross-pollinating each other, but the question “what is a larp?” is difficult to define and will elicit varied answers, even within a single nation or game community. Cameron Betts, a member of a robust and long-standing New England larp community that annually hosts the Intercon conference and games showcase, has made an attempt to answer this question by interviewing gamemasters and participants:

For this paper, I will be focusing on the larp tradition in the United States, which has more discrete ties to the table-top role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons tradition. I do not have time to explore the differences in the US and European traditions fully in this forum, but the US games tend to have more concrete rules and mechanics, reminiscent of the table-top tradition. Although most of the larp scholarship has been done in Scandinavia, and uses the Nordic larp tradition as its basis of understanding, I will be focusing on the US larp tradition in this paper. Some theories developed for the Nordic tradition will be applied to the US-style games, while other theories, never previously applied to any larp, will also be explored.

Literature Review

Although larps have not been studied by academics in the United States, they have a decade-long tradition of scholarship in Scandinavia, particularly through three researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland: Jaako Stenros, Markus Montola, and J. Tuomas Harviainen. Montola (2003) points out that the concept of “diegesis”, or an objective truth about a fictional world, is important to understand the theory of role-playing. Montola points out that passive media, such as movies, create a single diegesis that is interpreted differently by every viewer (Montola notes that certain movies such as The Truman Show or The Matrix can be seeing as having a layered diegesis, but in general, there is a single fictional world of the work) (Role-Playing 82). He contrasts this with the interactive and participatory medium of role-playing, which allows for a number of simultaneous diageses equal to the number of players in the game: “every participant constructs he or her diegesis when playing” and “the crucial process of role-playing [is] the interaction of these diegeses” (83). Montola notes that these diegeses differ from varied interpretations of a single passive text due to four reasons, but I will focus on the notion that “role-playing diegesis and movie diegesis are different” because of the internal construction of meaning in the players’ heads. This individual diegesis will be personal and based on the interactions had in the game, which will not be the same as those experienced by another player. In addition, these meanings that a player imagines into their personal diegesis may never be communicated in the game, or be imperfectly communicated, either diegetically or non-diegetically. This imaginative and individual meaning-making powerfully affects the construction of the reality, the decisions of the player, his/her interactions, and the experience of the game for the individual, and ultimately for the group, who co-creates and collaboratively interpret the unfolding experience.

Italian larpwright and theorist Raffaele Manzo in “There is No Such Thing as A “Game Master” (2011) notes that role-playing games ‘play’ with our “long-lived acquaintance with spectator arts” which humans approach “expect[ing] an author distinct from the audience” (115) While in certain larp traditions, most notably in the US tradition that grew more directly from the Dungeons & Dragons narrated tabletop games, the gamemaster certainly has more of what Ron Edwards calls “authorities”, there certainly isn’t an author or “auteur” proper of an RPG.  Manzo agrees with larp author M. Pohjola (2000) who argues that those who wish to retain dramatic and narrative control over their stories are free to write them: as short stories or novels (115). Remediating them into a larp elides the distinction between audience and author and distributes narrative authority among the players who tell the story. However, in some games (particularly US ones), a gamemaster does play the crucial role of “referee”, or, one might say, of a router in a network. S/he determines which protocols to use at a given moment, to translate an object or utterance from a player into the diegesis of the game, or to determine in an “on-the-spot ruling to make up for a gap in the rules” or protocols (113). The GM functions as interpreter and gatekeeper: this belongs in the game, this does not. This will enter the game, but only with these properties, according to these rules and protocols and procedures and precedents. As such, the GM is more than a mere node in the network, possessing greater power than a single ordinary player, and get simultaneously s/he has less power in that s/he is dependent on the ordinary players to create the content that will be interpreted. Larps, thus, are a both a collective authorship within a participatory media as well as a socially contractual activity system with a creative leader who manages procedural tasks to some degree.

Montola’s notion of individual diegeses interacting through play to co-create an experience resonates with Foucault’s notion of the post-modern space. He says in “Of Other Spaces” that “[w]e are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (23). In a larp, different player diegeses are juxtaposed, dispersed throughout a game, experienced simultaneously but not personally. Each person’s game happens at the same time, but they do not have the same game experience, both due to varying physical interactions and the varying meaning-making occurring within their minds.  The experience of the larp becomes, as Foucault articulates, “that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein” (23). A larp exists in the warp and the woof of the weaving of the game, but without a single weaver; a gamemaster may fancy him/herself as such an omniscient narrator, but, as Montola notes, “there can’t be ‘an objective gamemaster’s diegesis” because the gamemaster is not the sole creator of the fiction” (85). The most power a gamemaster holds is to be the judge when multiple player-character diegeses are found to be in conflict. Even still his subjective view is only partial; s/he lacks access to the imagination of the player. Decisions are made only on what is successfully articulated and communicated, though other meanings are present, and the meaning of the GM’s interpretation will immediately be re-interpreted into the individual player-character’s diegesis, dispersing the moment of convergence almost instantaneously.

Montola further notes that larps are a kind of social construction with “intersubjective phenomena” where “[e]very player has subjective, unique, unverifiable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable perceptions of the game state and game rules” (Social Construction 303). However, games should also possess John Searle’s “collective intentionality” so that we can agree that “some things count as other things in certain contexts” and have some shared experience of a fictional world created through symbolic representations (303). Montola notes that the traditional frames for understanding games: objectivist views such as systemic or materialistic, and subjectivist views such as referee-centric, player-centric and designer-centric all fail to understand larps as they are “social systems of meaning-making” (Social Construction 307) where player choices – both conscious and unconscious – influence play significantly. Harviainen goes on to try to account for this multiple layers of diegesis and play through approaching a larp as a Hermeneutical Circle that can be interpreted as a “liminoid, but not truly liminal experiences” (71).  Role-playing cannot be interpreted as a single text due to the variety of player-character diegeses, but “role-playing is never a state of pure imagining, because the player is always connected simultaneously to both the diegesis and the real world” (71). After a discussion of Edwards’ Gamer-Simulationist-Narrativist levels, Kellomäki’s four layers, Fine’s three frames, and Mackay’s five frames, Harvianinen notes that each of these layers, regardless of definition system exist temporarily and simultaneously to create a role-playing experience that “is realized as event but understood as meaning” (Ricoeur 1981) in a temporary social frame (Goffman 1974) which can be read as a layer of text.

Hypertext theory, then, may afford some insights into how to read and understand the temporary instantiation of a text that emerges as the role-playing experience. Indeed, I will posit that a larp makes visible what hypertext theory posits; a larp is an embodiment of the abstract meaning-making along the web’s wireframes and enacts the potentiality that early hypertext theorists such as Bush, Nelson, Bolter, and later ones, such as Johnson Eilola and Joyce have celebrated.

Hypertext Theory
Hypertext makes readers into writers; it takes a postmodern dispersed subject and re-instantiates it, temporarily, in a co-creative experience manipulating objects, making choices, and creating a narrative by following paths. As Joyce notes, hypertext affords random access to information: “readers access the symbolic structures of a hypertext electronically in any order that they choose” (Of Two Minds 20).  He furthers this thought in Othermindedness when he notes the presence of others in the user-reader-writer’s navigation of hypermedia, whereby they “select among possibilities already visually represented for them by successive authors of the hypertext or its previous readers, or they may create new choices by discovering them within, or adding them to, the visual organization of the hypertext” (20-21). In a larp, the reader is the writer is the player, with no real distinction during the game. In fact, a larp can only exist because the players have the agency to become writers; otherwise, as Manzo and Pohjola note, the author would not use the larp medium if s/he wished to retain control over narrative and characterization. The loss of authorial control as discussed in hypertext theory is enacted in a larp since a gamemaster creates an interface by writing characters and a scenario, which gets presented within the limits of a particular space and time.

Thus, a larp is, like hypertext, an “ambivalent technology” in which “objects or concepts that can be used in various ways depending in part on the social conditions in which they are constructed and reconstructed in use” (Johnson 23). Like a creator of hypertext, the larpwright may assume a particular flow, but control is turned over to players who interpret and change the order, make dynamic choices, and go unintended places. Montola notes that “while a book is a piece of art we interpret to enjoy, a role-player creates his own piece of art, interpreting symbolic feedback to augment the creation he makes for himself” (85). As hypertext theorists posited an elision between reader and writer, this elision is made manifest in a co-created, though, as Montola notes, not perfectly co-imagined, space.  As a non-linear narrative that unfolds in separate pockets, meaning is only made in the interaction between the reader/writer/player, in the kind of hermeneutical interpretation of the text that Harviainen advocates. Despite interacting within the same temporo-spatial physical reality and enacting a given story arc, larps are fundamentally a blending of texts, not a univocality but an intertextuality.

The constituent elements of a larp, such as the player-characters, non-playing characters, the gamemaster, paratexts, mechanics, props, costumes, and the physical space, can be seen as nodes within such a network. The game is a manifestation of the constituent elements (nodes) coming together in a particular blend of real and imagined temporo-spatial reality, Johnson-Eilola’s geography and geometry. These nodes exist as an ecology where agency is a possibility — an articulation awaiting action or exigence.  They are situated in ways that make them available and accessible as needed. Indeed the game texts exist in the database-like structure of hypertext, as what Johnson-Eilola calls “multiplicities and contingencies and tendencies” (23) that can be “served up” (or refused) as needed by the players. They are situated in absence, only visible if they are both imagined and  communicated to others within the game. As Johnson-Eilola notes, there is no “discrete” situation since “the text is no longer a linear or hierarchical string of words.” Rather it is “an explicitly open space of text that can apparently be entered, navigated, deconstructed, reconstructed, and exited in nearly infinite ways” (147).  If Harviainen notes that a game experience can be read as a text, then hypertext theory would note that these texts only become actualized through the activity of being contextualized and recontextualized (160) through play. In their enactment they reveal multiplicities, a “play of signification or the deferment of meaning” and an attempt to recapture authorial context, (what did the GM want? Am I playing this ‘right’? Will I break the game’s intent if I do this?) though it will be a co-created reality that cannot approach singular perspective or univocality, as mentioned earlier. This would agree with Montola’s notion of individual diegeses interacting with one another.

According to hypertext theory as I am applying it here, in the course of the larp, texts are read (as the text as created). As content is transferred from one place to another (indeed, through and among the many game-frames/layers and texts), a decision is made as to whether that content is relevant to the user/player at that intersection of space-time. Meaning is made by the confluence of the nodes, as interpreted by the user/player, Montola’s individual diegesis.  Instantiated networks are brought together solely for a single game, enacted from among the texts presented in the geometry and geography of the physical space. What constitutes the experience or “reading” of a larp is co-created by players and GMs at the moment play begins, and dissolves at game wrap; in the interim it continually grows and changes – is created or remediated — through player interactions.  Unlike a fixed hypertext presented through a digital media, intertextualities are constantly shifting as new texts are added and removed from the network, beyond those originally linked by the creator of the hypermedia. Content is discarded after it is used/read/written, but the potential network remains at the end of a larp in its database fields of texts, players, objects, and memories – in the traces –  that can be called forth again in various combinations, but never repeated.

In Othermindedness, Joyce notes: “I make change and am changed by what others make” (71). This, fundamentally, is the co-creative feedback loop in a larp. Joyce quotes Hélène Cixous: “I didn’t seek, I was the search” (1991 41, qtd. in Othermindedness 73).  Joyce explains it as the process or journey of collecting not the sum of the items collected. This is the larp, which is known as it is played but cannot be known by looking at its traces and artifacts.

In fact if we take Joyce’s definition of hypertext:

“Hypertext is, before anything else, a visual form. Hypertext embodies information and communications, artistic and affective constructs, and conceptual abstractions alike into symbolic structures made visible on a computer-controlled display. These symbolic structures can then be combined and manipulated by anyone having access to them”  (Of Two Minds 19).

and insert use the word “larp” where “hypertext” appears and substitute “through the characters and setting present in a controlled physical space” where “on a computer-controlled display” appears, you’d have a pretty good definition of a larp:

Larp embodies information and communications, artistic and affective constructs, and conceptual abstractions alike into symbolic structures made visible through the characters and setting present in a controlled physical space. These symbolic structures can then be combined and manipulated by anyone having access to them.

Larp is hypertext made manifest at the intersection of discourse and imagination. Like hypermedia, it is located in the liminoid space – Deleuze and Guattari’s intermezzo – between in the brute world of physicality and the fictional world. As players/readers/writers, we are Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads, journeying through the space where reality is a personal continual present in which our agency is manifest, called into being through the immediacy and interactivity of communication between and among networked nodes.

Actor-Network Theory

Another useful approach for understanding the experience of a larp is Actor-Network Theory (ANT). ANT allows me to see larps for the emergent and dynamic items they are. A larp is not an artifact; it is not revealed by looking at the character sheets and the blue sheets and the mechanics. It is not revealed by looking at the cast lists or knowing the players. It cannot be determined by interviewing the gamemaster. It is only revealed during play, with the particular set of players brought together for that particular instantiation of the scenario. ANT allows me to discuss the instability of the network, the inability to draw or map the movement or activity system of a game, which evolves in an unpredictable, though not random fashion. In fact, a larp is always about to dissolve; it exists in tenuous boundary crossings which are manifestations of player choices based on their diegesis. In fact, Latour describes ANT via a set of “uncertainties,” the first being the idea that there is no stable “group,” only “group formation” (29). By this he means there is no such thing as a fixed entity, only controversies tenuously collected by the people (Latour would call these ‘actors’) doing the collecting at that moment. It is not the project of ANT to “stabilize the social on behalf of the people it studies; such a duty is to be left entirely to the ‘actors themselves” who “generate new and interesting data” by making their performance visible through their inter/actions (31). Fundamentally, this helps explain the difference between a larp and a digital video game; a larp leaves the actions and the traces up to the players, while a video game these are encoded and inscribed prior to the game via a designer who seeks to define and stabilize game possibilities. For Latour, boundaries are not fixed, but demarcations of tension, such as that between the imaginative and the physical, or the individual and collective diegesis in a larp. The situation of a larp evolves and shifts constantly, with sub-networks and alliances among players and various combinations of in- and out-of-game information.

In ANT a network is not a structure but a set of transformations; the situatedness of the nodes in the network is in constant flux. Clusters of actors come together for a certain time and have both material and semiotic meaning, a duality that corresponds well to the physicality and imaginative spaces of a larp. Nodes may be intermediaries, merely carrying or relaying information between actors, or, more likely, and certainly in the case of a larp, they are mediators, which transform information as they carry it. Their outputs cannot be determined by their inputs. In fact, Latour notes that “Actors themselves make everything, including their own frames, their own theories, their own contexts, their own metaphysics, even their own ontologies” (147). As Montola and Manzo have noted, this describes the process of diegetic meaning-making in a larp, which is highly individualized and exponentialized to include the number of players in the game. ANT focuses on controversies and the connections among nodes as defining a network; indeed games must have controversies to not be stagnant, and plot is a series of conflicts and responses to them. As new controversies emerge, they must be incorporated diegetically and made real; in a larp, once you speak it or do it, it is true and must be justified, sometimes by the GM or by the players as a whole, but in order for the game to continue, the explanation must be agreed upon diegetically. The aberration or deviance must be incorporated (embodied into the world), and the possibilities of action shift as a result.

Using ANT allows me to bring into the analysis the variety of items affecting and being affected by the play. According to Latour, “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor” (71), thus anything that makes a difference to the game or leaves a trace becomes a node. In larp, this can become quite an exhaustive list, since two worlds are “in play” simultaneously: the brute physical world and the imaginative one. Examples include, but are not limited to: player-character; non-player character, GM, character sheet, blue sheet, costumes, props, genre/style of game, mechanics/rules, card pulls/dice/other interfaces, furniture, room/physical space, venue, player experience as gamer, player knowledge of other players, out-of-game beliefs, out-of-game relationships, player goals, character goals, time, player knowledge of scenario, character knowledge, physical attributes of the player or character (e.g. bodily abilities, stamina, blindness, injury, etc.), experience of GM, when game was written, number of times game has been play-tested, other games played recently, player/game master expectations, functionality of items in game, etc. Agency in a larp is defined in many ways, which makes sense using the lens of Actor-Network Theory, which divides nodes into human actors and material actants (which are interpreted or defined by the humans). For example, a GM attempts to assign agency to actors and objects by controlling their use, the timing of when information is revealed, who may use items or skills, and how they are used. S/he enacts this agency regulation via mechanics that control information flow and time (e.g. no one can die until the third hour; guns are not live until 15 minutes before wrap; character x has combat rating of 5 while character y has CR of 2). Yet players may not take all of the agency they are given, or they may push for additional agency by arguing for it with the GM or taking it from other actors. ANT helps to describe that in a particular actor-network, not all nodes are used, nor would they be used in the way the GM defined the agency. Agency may also be delegated to others as well as shared, and can be removed at any time by actions by other “nodes.” This shifting, repositioning and redefining is something ANT could account for by considering how a node is temporarily enacted. For ANT, anything social – and a larp, as we have established, is profoundly social – is constantly constructed through complex performances by mediators, who create anew forms and meaning. This is not done in order to give a “true” representation of something else (such as an author’s intent or a repetition of a particular socio-cultural moment, but in order to create a temporary instance that ANT might refer to as a translation.

Here is my attempt to begin to map movement of information in an instantiation of a larp, given a particular temporo-spatial reality, a translation of a network. It’s MESSY. What I am attempting to do here is to show that each actant or actor is multi-layered. I am using four layers broken into the two worlds that interact/intersect in larp: the “brute world” of physical reality and the diegetic or fictional world the game. The four layers are a synthesis of Fine, Mackay and Harviainen’s layers or frames, as partially explained by Harviainen in his article cited below. A player-character (or an NPC for that matter), is an entity operating on all four layers, and play moves among his/her individual layers to produce his/her diegesis. The player/character is also interacting with other actors and actants, each of which have the same four layers. Interactivity can occur between and among any of the four layers of each node. I have tried to demonstrate the 3-D nature of an actor or actant, and to show the ability for information, and most importantly, meaning, to go from any one level to another, within and among participants in the network. What the graphic does not show (and I would need a video to do it) is another node joining the network to interact, or one leaving it.

In this graphic, there are two actors and one actant behaving as nodes. Each node has the four levels, as explained. Information and meaning can flow bi-directionally between any of the four levels of any of the nodes and within the four levels of a single node.

In this graphic, there are two actors and one actant behaving as nodes. Each node has the four levels, as explained. Information and meaning can flow bi-directionally between any of the four levels of any of the nodes and within the four levels of a single node.

This graphic attempts to demonstrate a single layer, with the other layers beneath it, as one gets deeper into the world of the character's fictional reality and mindset. Again, information and meaning may move between and among any layer of any node, and within the layers of a single node, which represent levels of consciousness and the movement between in-game and out-of-game.

This graphic attempts to demonstrate a single layer, with the other layers beneath it, as one gets deeper into the world of the character’s fictional reality and mindset. Again, information and meaning may move between and among any layer of any node, and within the layers of a single node, which represent levels of consciousness and the movement between in-game and out-of-game.



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Harviainen, J. Tuomas. “A Hermeneutical Approach to Role-Playing Analysis.” International Journal of Role-Playing 1.1 (2009): 66–78. Print.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Manzo, Raffaele. “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘Game Master.’” Larp Frescos: Affreschi Antichi E Moderni Sui Giochi Di Ruolo Dal Vivo. Ed. J. Tuomas Harviainen and Andrea Castellani. II: Affreschi moderni. Firenze: Larp Symposium, 2011. 103–122. Print.

Montola, Markus. “Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses.” As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Ed. Morten Gade, Line Thorup, and Mikkel Sander. Frederiksberg: Projektgruppen kp 03, 2003. 82–89. Print.

Montola, M. “Social Constructionism and Ludology: Implications for the Study of Games.” Simulation & Gaming 43.3 (2011): 300–320. CrossRef. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.

What Is LARP? How LARPers Define and Describe LARPing. LARP Out of Character, 2014. Film.