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New Media & Digital Culture Faculty of Humanities Utrecht University Kromme Nieuwegracht 46 3512 HJ Utrecht ABSTRACT This paper examines whether the increase of ludic (playful) activities in postmodern society, caused by the development of new media technology, can be reflected in the social expansion that pervasive games create. Focusing on pervasive role-play games, it follows the evolution of significant examples of this genre and examines the different way players interact with outsiders in each case. The research shows that the boundaries between the game world and real life tend to become more blurred, as players tend to increasingly approach the passersby they encounter as part of the game. It is argued that this relationship can be indicative of the phenomenon of the “ludification of culture”, as everyday life seems to become transformed into a big playground. Keywords Pervasive role-play, lusory attitude, magic circle, semiotics, game awareness INTRODUCTION In recent years, game studies discussions have shown an increased interest towards the rise of playful activities in postmodern society. An important amount of current research is being devoted to the examination of way many fields of the mainstream culture, such as economy, work and education, are being encountered with a lusory (playful) attitude. The term has been defined by Bernard Suits in his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia: "To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]" (1978:41). In the vast majority of current research examining this “ludification of culture”, Johan Huizinga‟s essay Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture, which is considered to be a foundational work for the current study of games, plays a predominant role. The Dutch theorist attempted to show that play is a fundamental element in human culture. He specifically states that “civilization is, in its earlier phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it” (1955:173).
While Huizinga‟s essay was published as early as in 1938, notable work of recent years has been expanding his analysis, in order to examine the ways new media development has brought an increased pervasion of playfulness in current culture. A remarkable attempt has been made by Valerie Frissen, Jos de Mul and Joost Raessens (forthcoming), who look at the way digital technologies nowadays are constructing our identity and the role that playfulness holds in this construction. The authors wonder whether this ludification of culture “consists of an increase of playful activities or rather a transformation of perspective, in which we use play as a metaphor to understand entities and domains that in themselves are not necessarily considered playful” (7). By criticizing Huizinga‟s claim that modern technology would mark the end of playfulness, Frissen et al. argue that the relationship between technology and playfulness is interrelated: not only do digital media provide us with new platforms for play, but, the way we are using them with a lusory attitude is stimulating “the ludification of our worldview” (Ibid.). This tendency of approaching new media through a playful perspective is evident in recent game studies research, which is focusing more and more in the “repurposing and extension of games beyond entertainment in the private home” (Deterding, 2011: 2). Remarkable research has been increasingly examining serious games- defined by Ritterfeld et al. as “any form of interactive computer- based game software for one or multiple players to be used on any platform and that has been developed with the intention to be more than entertainment” (2009:6)- and gamified applications- which use “game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding, 2011:2)-, concepts which challenge the boundaries between play and real life, by constantly transferring the player between a serious and a playful mindset. One indicative example of this vagueness between the serious and the playful can be detected in René Glas‟ essay “Breaking Reality: Exploring Pervasive Cheating in Foursquare”. In order to examine the influence of cheating to the boundaries of play and the playful identity, Glas distinguishes two frames of participants of the popular mobile application: the players, who view Foursquare as a pervasive game- defined by game researcher Markus Montola as “a game that has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play spatially, temporally, or socially” (2009:12)- and the “aware nonparticipants”, the mere users of the application, who do not engage in its ludic frame. The matter of perspective in the construction of playful identity which Frissen et al. describe is apparent in Glas‟ frame analysis. As the author explains, although Foursquare “might be considered a pervasive game due to its gamified nature, for many users, it is mainly a location-based social network application” (2011:5). Therefore, it becomes clear that the level of the engagement of the player is an important element in the construction of the game boundaries. The interrelation between the frames of engagement and the formation of the boundaries between the game world and the real world is particularly evident in pervasive role-play, which this paper will focus on. An analytical description of the content of this form of play will be given later on. However, it is evident so far that, conforming to the aforementioned definition of pervasive games, pervasive role-play can be spatially expanded, as it takes place in everyday life environments, usually public places. It can expand the temporal boundaries of the game by mixing it with real life activities, as it
might last for several hours or even days. Finally, another main characteristic of pervasive role-play is the social expansion it causes, for example by including outsiders along with the actual players. Although a lot of research has focused on the social expansion of pervasive games and the way it adds playful elements in non-game environments, few authors have been occupied with the role of the “outsiders”, the audience of those games that take place in everyday life locations. Montola has characterized them as “unaware participants” and he states that they are not players, as they don‟t play voluntarily, don‟t recognize the semiotics of the game or act according to the game rules (2009:16-17). However, not all pervasive role-play games promote the same kind of interaction with outsiders. The level of interaction varies from cases in which they are mere spectators, without having any involvement in the game route, to cases in which they can contribute to it by enhancing the sense of immersion of the role-players. In such cases as the latter, the social expansion that the design of pervasive games allows brings us back to the issue of the increased pervasion of playfulness in postmodern culture, which was described in the beginning of this paper. By absorbing bystanders inside the boundaries of the game and making them unaware participants, the fictional world of pervasive role-play games interacts with the ordinary world in an innovative way. In this paper I will attempt to find whether this interaction can be indicative of the increase in our tendency to approach society with a playful attitude, as described above by Frissen et al. My hypothesis is that we can observe that the boundaries of pervasive role-play games tend to become more blurred, as game designers tend to “encourage” more interaction with the outsiders. In order to examine this relationship, I will study cases of pervasive role-play games from the early 1990s until today and the way players either excluded or tried to absorb the audience inside the magic circle. I believe that this research can lead to interesting findings about the way our culture becomes more and more “ludified” through time, as the real world appears to get transformed into a big playground. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND Setting the boundaries between two worlds Before proceeding to a further analysis on the construction of social space in pervasive role-play, I will first give a thorough description of the content of this genre. In his essay “Tangible pleasures of Pervasive Role Play”, Markus Montola analyzes role-play in order to define pervasive role-play as a new form of this genre, which emerged from early assassination games, including elements of pervasive games. The author first discusses the dominant characteristics of the typical forms of role play: he explains that they are based on the construction of an “imaginary game world”, where each player undertakes the role of an “anthropomorphic character” and acts according to a defined “power structure” (2007:178-179). Pervasive role-play includes one additional characteristic: being a pervasive game, it blurs the boundaries between the fictional and the real world. Indeed, Montola defines it as a form of play which “combines the boundary-blurring features of pervasive
games with the pretence play, performance and make-believe of role-playing” (2007:180). When game researchers deal with the issue of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, the concept of the magic circle, which has already been mentioned above, often comes up. The term originates from Johan Huizinga‟s analysis of the characteristics of play, which is defined as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside „ordinary‟ life as being „not serious‟, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means” (1955:13). The Dutch theorist explains this spatial separation of the game from the ordinary life: “the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain” (10). This idea was later expanded by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who, in their book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, borrowed the term and created a definition which conforms to more recent forms of play, including digital games. According to the authors, the magic circle is “a special place in time and space created by a game” (2004:95). The space that it surrounds is “enclosed and separate from the real world”, it is “repeatable, a space both limited and limitless”, “a finite space with infinite possibilities” (Ibid.). From the aforementioned definitions, one can observe that for Salen and Zimmerman the magic circle is more of a metaphorical, a less absolute boundary, a more corresponding one to modern forms of play, where the distinction between the game world and everyday life tends to become more and more unclear. Pervasive games are definitely an indicative example of this tendency, due to the way in which they broaden the concept of the magic circle. Examination on this form of play has led to a lot of criticism against the concept of the magic circle, with scholars claiming that it is no longer applicable for recent forms of play, where the game space is not separate from the social and cultural context of everyday life. Apart from the criticism, notable research has attempted to adopt the idea of the magic circle to the new forms of space created by pervasive games. Markus Montola has explained that the function of this metaphorical boundary is “to forbid the players from bringing external motivations and personal histories into the world of game and to forbid taking game events into the realm of ordinary life” (2009:11). However, the relationship between reality and fiction in pervasive games is still interrelated: this genre transfers the fun of the game to ordinary life and, at the same time, transforms real world challenges into a game experience (18-20). In a further attempt to define the boundaries between game and real life in pervasive games, Eva Nieuwdorp has focused her examination on the different meanings that accompany everyday behaviors and objects when one enters the magic circle. Therefore, she envisions it as a Goffman-like (1961) metaphorical membrane, through which “conventional meaning, psychical artefacts and environments, and players alike can slide in and out of the game” (6).
When one enters this membrane, they have to accept the change in conventions which are valid in everyday life, due to the rules of the game. As Nieuwdorp states, “what happens in a pervasive game is a change in the relationship between an object and its accepted conventional meaning that has been constructed in a specific cultural discourse”. In 2010, the players of Conspiracy for Good (The Company P.) had to walk through the city of London and scan digital tags which were hidden in different places using mobile technology, in order to find clues that would lead them to their next task. Therefore, the objects where these digital tags were hidden in, for example street art and graffiti, were provided with a different meaning than the conventional one they hold in the real world. Inside the frames of the game, they functioned as clues that would lead the players to the next level, rather than artworks of public spaces. This mix in semiotics between the real life and the game world domain can be better understood if we look at Gregory Bateson‟s idea of metacommunication. According to Bateson, “play could only occur if the participant organisms were capable of some degree of metacomunication, i.e., of exchanging signals which would carry the message „This is play‟” (2006:316). Metacommunication ascribes ordinary life actions and playful actions with a different meaning. When we enter the magic circle of the game, we do acknowledge that we are engaging into certain actions which are assigned a different value than they would have in everyday life. This is what Suits describes, as it has been mentioned above, as the lusory attitude: the state of mind which is required from the player in order to accept the new conventions and semantics and enter the game space. So far, this concept has helped explain the different way the player envisions the world when entering the magic circle. However, it has not been a sufficient term for clarifying the instance when this shift occurs in the player‟s mental state. When does exactly this change take place when one steps from the real life domain to the game world domain? I argue that more light can be shed to this issue if we approach the different frames of participants in pervasive role play and, subsequently, we can gain more insight about the phenomenon of the ludification of culture, which is the main preoccupation of this paper. Wavering in and out of the magic circle Whether a game takes place inside the frames of a magic circle or through a metaphorical membrane, the participants need to accept the social contract that rules the game space. As we saw in the previous chapter, in order for someone to correspond to the definition of player, it is required that they accept the new conventions which govern the magic circle. In order to understand this distinction between players and outsiders more clearly, it is useful to look at Gary Allan Fine‟s frames of players in Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds. The author extends Erving Goffman‟s frame analysis and examines the different levels of engagement that the players experience in fantasy role play. Goffman uses the idea of frames in order to analyze the different levels in which individuals or groups tend to interpret the new meanings that come into force when entering a new context of actions (1974:21). The sociologist calls this process
“keying”, which “performs a crucial role in determining what it is we think is really going on” (45). Based on this analysis, Gary Allan Fine distinguishes three main frames between which the players are wavering when participating in a fantasy roleplay game. He elucidates that the interpretation of meaning is a more complicated process in fantasy games than in other forms of play, because this kind of games are based on the simulation of actions, which have their corresponding in events of the real world (2002:184). Fine discerns three main frames: the first is a “primary framework” which consists in the acknowledgement of external-game events occurring. In the second frame, participants are recognizing themselves as players and are subject to the conventions of the game. Finally, in the third frame the players acquire a character identity (2002:186). Fine‟s frame analysis is helpful for understanding the construction of boundaries in role-play games. However, in pervasive role-play, where the boundaries of the game are broadened, outsiders can also participate in the game along with the players. They can become part of the magic circle even without being aware of its semantics. In 2006, the players of pervasive game Prosopopeia Bardo 2: Momentum (The Company P.) had to enter an art gallery and show interest to a specific painting that the game masters had put on display. The gallery workers- who had not been informed there was a game going on- had to encounter an abnormally big amount of people who were interested in the same painting. After the ludic nature of the event was revealed, the gallery workers were interviewed. They stated that “their exposure to the game had been a positive one and that the fact that they did not know what was going on was a central reason why it was fun” (Montola, Stenros & Waern, 2009:120). In their examination of the outsiders of the game, Montola et al. have distinguished three levels of game awareness: the aware, the ambiguous and the unaware state (2009:118-119). The aware participants know that there is a game going on and, therefore, are able to understand the unexpected encounters they face. Ambiguous participants can notice that there is something abnormal going on, but are not informed about the ludic nature of the encounters they witness. Finally, the unaware participants do not notice that there is something strange going on, even though they sometimes might hold a place in the game without realizing it. The authors emphasize on how the actions of unaware and ambiguous participants are hard to predict. Therefore, how does this affect the route of the game? Montola et al. also note that their framework of participant awareness is not an absolute one: even aware participants sometimes fail to recognize “what is and what is not part of the game”. Therefore, how do outsiders influence the boundaries of the magic circle, either by confusing the actual players on what is part of the game or by becoming part of the magic circle without being aware of it? These are the questions which will be examined in the following examples of pervasive role-play cases and which can hopefully lead us to interesting findings about this playful attitude that increasingly tends to surround many fields of current culture.
THE OUTSIDERS: OBSTACLES, SPECTATORS OR UNAWARE PARTICIPANTS As we saw previously, the levels of participation of outsiders in pervasive role play can range from mere spectatorship to their full absorption inside the boundaries of the game. In this chapter, I am going to examine popular examples of such games, which employ outsiders in different ways. My main preoccupation will be to see how they influence the boundaries of the magic circle in each case. In Killer: The Game of Assassination, created by American game designer Steve Jackson in 1981, the game takes place in a public location, where the players act as undercover assassins. Each one of them has a specific target, another player assigned to them by the game organizers. The target must be killed with the use of fake weapons, such as toy guns, fake poison (e.g. vinegar) and alarm clocks that function as bombs. Once a player is killed, they are eliminated from the game and their “killer” is assigned with a new target, usually the target of their last victim (Montola & Stenros, 2009: 3-6). Markus Montola is using Killer as his main case for the analysis of the concept of pervasive games in the first chapter of “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design” (2009: 7-24). The game corresponds to the spatial, temporal and social extension that pervasive games cause, as it blurs the boundaries of the magic circle by using real world environments and people. Killer includes the simplest form of outsider participation, in comparison to the other examples that I am going to refer to in this chapter. The players are mainly trying to avoid public attention. However, there are some cases in which outsiders can get inevitably involved, influencing the boundaries between the game space and real world. Passersby might notice that there is something suspicious going on and, therefore, they can pass into the category of ambiguous participation. Sometimes, they can accidentally get involved in the route of the game, for example by unwittingly triggering a fake bomb. At the same time, the actual players can involve outsiders as unaware participants, in order to use them as informants while looking for their target. Montola mentions the example of a player calling their target‟s girlfriend to get information on how to find them (3). It could, therefore, be suggested that, in such cases, outsiders can become part of the magic circle, by functioning either as obstacles or as assistants. This vagueness in the state of participation of passersby can influence the awareness of the actual players. The players become unaware of the exact boundaries of the game and they are not able to discern between the deliberate actions of their coparticipants and the coincidental involvement of outsiders. Only the game organizers, who have assigned the roles of assassins and targets to the players, know how far the magic circle is extended. This uncertainty can create a feeling of pronoia, of “positive paranoia” (Montolla, Jaakko & Waern, 2009:123) to the players, as they suspect everything as part of the game. This creation of pronoia, “the sneaking feeling one has that others are conspiring behind your back to help you” (Marshal, 1994), is sometimes employed by game designers in order to enhance the fun for the players. This technique has been analyzed by Hector Rodriguez, who uses the example of Eric Zimmerman‟s card game Suspicion. In this game, the “playground” is not a public place, but the working environment of the players. The game starts without them
knowing who participates in the game and who is not. As a result, the players start to encounter everyone as game related. As Rodriguez states, “in paranoid gaming, the player is led to question where the boundaries of the game actually lie, sometimes even whether they exist at all. The location of the magic circle is no longer taken for granted; it becomes the very subject of the game” (2006:9). A different kind of outsiders‟ involvement can be seen in Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf, 1991), a game where players immerse themselves in the roles of vampires. Even though such games can take place around a table top, Vampire can also be played as a street LARPG (live-action role-play game), with participants dressing up and acting as their characters in public environments (Hagen et al., 2000:15). The players seek to avoid public attention, but in a different way than in Killer: here, the outsiders serve the role of “the others”, from which the vampires have to hide. As Jaakko Stenros describes: “usually pervasive larps only use a city as a backdrop, featuring rules that forbid startling bypassers, and often the playful action is hidden through fiction. The vampires of The Masquerade hide from the mortal world, and revealing the existence of the supernatural is a crime that can be punished by death”(2009:36). The hiding from the passersby is actually a rule of the game, rather than a tactic that helps avoid accidents and obstacles as those mentioned in the case of Killer. In this way, the outsiders are being unknowingly “absorbed” into the magic circle and help enhance the player‟s immersion in their role by “uniting” them against their “enemies”. However, this secrecy can sometimes lead to unexpected reactions from the audience. Research on pervasive LARP has featured a plethora of reports of cases, where nonparticipants, who are lacking the lusory attitude of the players, have become obstacles for the game by interrupting its route. A search in LARP internet forums can reveal many players‟ reports of incidences where the police had to intervene, since the actions of participants raised suspicion to the passersby. The user “Darkness” mentions their experience at the World of Darkness forum: “I was standing at a bus stop downtown on a typical workday and a young man walked down the street with a bow and arrows (I immediately thought of Weatherman). The guy next to me immediately called the police on his cell phone. I caught my bus not long after, but even if it is perfect legal to carry around a bow and arrows, that doesn't mean that other people won't freak out. The same would definitely be true of a katana, which is in fact more often than not illegal to carry openly exposed or concealed” (2010). Such anecdotal evidences reveal a way in which the involvement of outsiders can break the magic circle, bringing the players back to the real world. A solution to the possible problems caused by the unexpected involvement of pervasive games passersby was suggested by the designers of The White Road, which was played for three days on the roads between Copenhagen and Frederiksund, on September 2006 (Pedersen et al., 2008). The six participants pretended to be a group of hobos, strangers to each other, who were brought together by the death of a person they had met during their journeys, “the most powerful symbol of hope and enlightenment the characters have ever experienced in their life” (103). The narrative of the game consisted of a journey to the sea, where the six players had to walk and burry the remains of their friend. During their route, the players had to interact with non-players they encountered on the road. In order for the organizers to avoid possible
obstacles that would occur from this interaction, they attempted an innovative construction of the game space: “we decided to eliminate this problem by not considering the game world as a created reality placed in a fraction of the real world, but instead decided to view the entire ordinary world as the game world” (105). This technique not only helped prevent unexpected incidents as those mentioned in the analysis of Vampire, but served as an enhancing element for the game experience, strengthening the player‟s immersion to their roles. As Pedersen and Munck describe: “a great surprise to the players was the way the real world forced the characters upon the players: truck drivers we encountered constantly greeted us, confirming our road knight characters as real. When trucks passed by they honked and waved and expected us to wave back. This ritual confirmed that the two different groups, the road knights and the truck drivers, both had their daily life on the road and thus shared a kinship. This experience gave the players confidence in their characters and helped them believe that they would not be exposed as players” (106). CONCLUSION This paper has set out to determine whether the increase of playful activities in society can be reflected in the construction of social space in pervasive games. It has investigated the relationship between the interaction of players and outsiders in pervasive role play to the phenomenon of the “ludification of culture”. By analyzing representative examples of this genre, we have observed that, through time, role play games which take place in everyday locations tend to encourage more interaction with passersby, who are gradually leaving the role of mere observers to become part of the magic circle, as ambiguous or unaware participants. From assassination games like Killer, which dates back to the early 1990s, to more innovative forms of pervasive LARP, which have appeared during the last decade, it becomes evident that, the more blurred the boundaries between the game world and the real world become, the more the players tend to approach everything they encounter as part of the game. Pervasive role-play is, of course, only a small sample of the new forms of play which have appeared along with the recent development of new media technology, which promotes the invasion of playfulness in everyday life. However, I believe that this research has succeeded in shedding more light to the issue of the “ludification of our worldview”, which has been an important preoccupation for many game studies scholars. It is recommended that further examination focus more on the role of nonplayers in pervasive games, expanding the findings of this essay to other forms of this genre. REFERENCES Bibliography Bateson, Gregory. “A theory of play and fantasy”, In: Salen, Katie, Eric Zimmerman (Eds.), “The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthropology”. Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2006, pp. 314-328.
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Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo, Pia Basballe, Kristin Hammerås, Lars Munck, Bjarke Pedersen , Linda Udby (2006). The White Road. Denmark.
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