Five Ways Larp Can Benefit Digital Game Design

During the last couple years, I’ve made a cottage industry out of talking larp, running larp, and workshop larp, for students and profs in game studies and design departments.

Most of these departments focus on digital games. And yet, until a recent trip to visit the Entertainment Arts & Engineering department at the University of Utah, no one had asked me the so-obvious-I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-think-of-it question: what can digital designers learn from larp?

This post takes a first stab at defining some potential answers to that question. I hope folks who straddle the digital/larp divide will weigh in with thoughts, questions, and caveats I’ve missed. Digital gaming has many different formats, and I expect some of these answers to be more applicable to certain forms than others.

1. Prototyping is simple in larp.

Designing a larp requires only a game design mindset, a few friends, and perhaps some paper, pens, and masking tape. This means it’s easy to prototype, refine, and iterate things like fictional cultures, mechanics, and spatial arrangements.

This could benefit digital games in two ways. Firstly, you can try things out and refine them before investing a bunch of resources into coding and art design. Secondly, as a teaching tool, I think it expands the pool of potential game designers. In a school without cutting edge technology? No problem. You can still teach how to think like a game designer.

Norwegian larpwright Eirik Fatland has an amazing talk on rapidly prototyping realities through larp. 

2. Larp generates satisfying new story arcs that can be scripted.

For anyone who works in storytelling, larp can quickly produce fascinating plotlines. Because larp is collaborative, and no one person controls the storyline, it’s an easy way to loosen up ideas about what happens next. Can’t figure out what happens to your superhero after he becomes a zombie? Figure out a few simple rules and then larp it out.

If you’re looking to figure out what happens next, you might consider picking up one of the following, freely-downloadable, make-a-larp sets (I’ll be sharing my own make-a-larp workshop in a later post):

3. Some larp techniques would work great in a digital game.

During my make-a-larp workshop at EAE, one group decided to create a horror scenario. I talked them a bit about things that larpers have used to create feelings of horror or insanity–playing scenes out of chronological order, for example, or the “shadow play” technique. In shadow play, one player portrays a character, and another their shadow. The shadow gives the player physical input–making snapping noises in their ears, to freak them out, putting pressure on their shoulders to make them feel depressed, etc.

Assistant prof of digital game design, Ashley ML Brown, suggested that some of these techniques would port easily into digital games. For example, a panning audio file that gives players the feel of something passing behind them. There’s no reason asynchronous scenes wouldn’t work as well.

At the same time, I’d suggest that larp probably has a lot to say about the design of virtual reality. As I like to say–in larp, your VR goggles are your mind. In larp, players interface with one another and their environment in a very physical way, and larp designers have given great attention to how, for example, gaze plays a role in how people feel in a space or relationship.

4. Larp design is a process over time; digital designers should think of their products the same way.

This idea comes from Annika Waern, larp/game designer and professor of human computer interactions at Uppsala University in Sweden.

As she wrote to me, “It concerns how larp designers tend to work with design as an alignment process over time; ranging from the website information and pre-signup hype, through running or participating in the player discussions as well as designing for player’s own space of relationship building and creative play, up to and including the post-game narratives. As computer games stop being one-off products and move towards being constantly updated on-line services, computer game designers need to do more and more of the same thing.”

5. Loosens up your design chops.

The main creative work that I do is not larp design. I’m trained as a journalist and a fiction writer; I write narrative nonfiction books and essays for a living, and have for the past eight years. Working in multiple formats keeps my brain fresh. Dabbling in poetry makes my sentences better. Experimenting with fiction makes my storytelling better. Moonlighting as a larp consultant has deepened the complexity of the stories I tell (and made my parties better, but that’s a topic for another post).

Sometimes what you need to make a creative breakthrough is to step away from your main format, try something new, and return with a fresh perspective. I think this would work as well for digital game designers as it does for plain old storytellers like me.

So larpers and digital designers: this list is surely too short. Tell me what I’ve gotten right, what I’ve gotten wrong, and all your brilliant ideas for other ways in which larp and digital game design go together in all the right ways.

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2 thoughts on “Five Ways Larp Can Benefit Digital Game Design

  1. “I’d suggest that larp probably has a lot to say about the design of virtual reality.”

    After watching episode two (“Playtest”) of the latest season of Black Mirror (and Charlie Brooker’s tweets about VR) I’ve realised the future of video games will likely be a lot more like larp.

    At which point a whole raft of difficult issues larp has already encountered will become very relevant to video games. Things like:
    – Immersion, it’s artistic use and dangers, once you have a realistic 360 environment
    – Bleed, which comes from being immersed for a long period of time. What happens to your mind and emotions when you really *live* in a war for a week, as opposed to shooting pixels in Call of Duty for an hour?
    – Consent (I think this is actually the core horror/problem in the Black Mirror episode): if I can physicality interact via VR, people will probably abuse that

  2. Regarding the LARP prototyping/ideating: Check out Bodystorming Methods for Game Design by Judeth Oden Choi of CMU

    LARP is Directly Applicable to virtual reality game design, and only one step removed from informing first-person video games.

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