Engaging with Games at Babycastles Summit

On Saturday, I spent a great day over at the Babycastles game design summit, which took place at the Museum of Art  & Design in Columbus Circle.

Nietzsche and Game Design

Nicholas Fortugno, chief creative officers of Playmatics, gave a thought-provoking talk on narrative in games, covered in depth over at the Verge. Although he explored a lot of intriguing ground — including the public perception that games shouldn’t address serious topics — his discussion of games as an art form most interested me.

In particular, he focused in on a quote by critic Roger Ebert suggesting that games aren’t art, since games invite in players as co-creators, and often, players aren’t artists. As Fortugno put it, if you gave Romeo and Juliet to some dude off the street, chances are good it wouldn’t surpass Shakespeare’s version.

Fortugno gets around this “games aren’t art” argument by exploring what we mean by “art,” using Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian artistic impulses. There’s probably been a jillion books written on this, but to grossly simplify, Apollonian art appeals to reason and aesthetic, while Dionysian art appeals to emotion and sensuality. So as Fortugno suggested, ballet is Apollonian — it’s meant for looking! — while Dionysian art is dancing while wasted — meant for doing. If you judge a drunk dancer on whether his toes are pointed, you’ve missed the point.

Fortugno extended this understanding of art back to games, suggesting that games are a Dionysian art form, one where judging the poignance of the story misses the point, which lies in the doing of the player, the engagement and engrossment of the player.

Of course, my mind jumped to larp. Nietzsche held that theater — well, the ancient Greek tragedies — unified the Apollonian and Dionysian elements. And it seems to me that good larp does the same thing, encouraging a Dionysian participation — immersing players in their characters — while still telling a beautiful Apollonian story. To me, the Apollonian element in good larp is the design of the game, which should create moments of Dionysian intoxication, of intense emotion on the part of the player.

Take, for example, the jeepform game Doubtin which Tom and Julie, a pair of actors in a relationship, perform as Peter and Nicole — a couple having relationship problems — in a local play. Two people play the real-life couple Tom and Julie, and two play the fictional couple Peter and Nicole. Game play cuts sharply between them. The game design has an Apollonian elegance, with themes that play against and echo one another, almost regardless of the quality of the players. I’ve run this game six or seven times, and the story is always intriguing to watch on a thematic level. And yet it’s got the Dionysian too — the structure of the game allows people to pour themselves into their roles. It’s written to create bleed — the interplay between a character’s emotions and a player’s emotions — and it does so with amazing frequency. Not every run of Doubt I’ve facilitated cuts close to the bone, but it does so with remarkable frequency.

So to me, that’s good larp design — using the Apollonian to create opportunities for Dionysian immersion. (FWIW: I feel dirty and academic even writing that.)

I have the sense that perhaps applying notions of the Apollonian and Dionysian to larp is nothing new in the larp world. I’m not well-read on this topic, so I’d love suggestions for further reading in the comments, if you feel so moved.

Ars Amandi

I ran my fifth Ars Amandi workshop for some of the Babycastles crowd. Ars Amandi is a method for simulating romance/intimacy in larp, where the touching of arms represents amorous contact, including sex. It’s one of a host of methods of simulating romance in Nordic larp, and it’s one of the most successful at creating emotions of intimacy as well as an in-game representation.

I had twelve participants, and as usual, even though I warned them it’d be unexpectedly intimate, the intimacy of the technique suprised everyone. One source of tension in the room, I think, is that the vast majority of participants weren’t roleplayers, but rather digital gamers. In the workshops I’ve run for larpers, participants take on a sort of amorous persona as they experiment with the technique, which is a way of creating some distance from the intimacy.

In this workshop, the stakes felt higher, I think, for the participants, who didn’t create a facade between themselves and the technique — they represented themselves in a very brave, but perhaps anxiety-producing way. Roleplayers are used to slipping in and out of character, for example, so the idea of what happens after the experience (off-game) is over is more familiar. So I think the participants evidenced a lot of courage in trying something new, especially given that our room had a glass wall that attracted spectators. (Typically, I try to cordon the workshop off from prying eyes). I wish I’d done a better job of easing the folks in to the idea of roleplay up front.

Still, judging from the intense debrief after the workshop, I think the participants went away changed.

Games in Public Spaces

I enjoyed the panel “Designing Games for Public Spaces,” which featured three interactive game designers, including Ramiro Corbetta, who designed the simple sports game Hokra, played with four people, numerous spectators, and a large screen; Mathew Parker who created Recurse, a game played by moving crazy with your body in front of a screen; and  larpwright J.R. Blackwell, who recently scored a judge’s spotlight Ennie for her one-shot zombie larp Shelter in Place.

Listening to the digital designers discuss their work alongside an analog larpwright created some interesting resonances, particularly after watching Fortugno’s talk. Here were three games, two of them digital and narrative-less, and one of them analog and narrative-heavy.

Parker and Corbetta’s games directly involve only a few players — one to four people could play their games at a single time — but they got around this limitation by creating games that are interesting to watch. In the case of Hokra, people like to root for a team, and in the case of Recurse, spectators gather to watch people moving their bodies in silly ways. In contrast, Blackwell’s Shelter in Place directly engages ten to twenty-one players, although it may not be clear to spectators what is going on.

Parker and Corbetta’s games seek to engage people for a few minutes (but hopefully longer), while Blackwell aims for a few hours. And the sort of engagement they are aiming at is fundamentally different. Larp, arguably, has a transformative aim — in embodying a character, participants leave the magic circle fundamentally changed by it, while the digital games offer a quick-hit of achievement and skill-building.

This creates an interesting inversion. The digital games are for a small direct audience of players, but a large possible audience of casual observers. The larp, in contrast, has a bigger direct audience, but is less accessible to the casual passerby because it requires a deep engagement. At the same time, spectator engagement, when it does happen, is deep and intense.

I’m reminded of the larp Dublin2which took place in the Helsinki city center in 2011, and is slated to be run again in Stockholm this year. The game, set up in a public space, looked at what it’s like to seek asylum in a foreign country — what it’s like to go toe to toe with the migration board, risking possible jail time or deportation. Players were able to talk to passers-by about their in-game plight during the run, creating public engagement around the issues of asylum. And sometimes, casual observers became very involved. In his Nordic Larp Talk, game creator JP Koljonen talked about these interactions, including what happened when some players — portraying fascists — staged a riot against the camp.

Thanks for a thought-provoking Saturday, Babycastles!

One thought on “Engaging with Games at Babycastles Summit

  1. Talk to Evan about Appallonian-Dionysian, he just posted that somewhere.

    The Ars armandi workshop – sounds like they needed a Nordic “alibi” (the new buzzword).

    Spectator-player inversion – interesting point, and quite true. I almost always insist that people can’t just watch a larp, whereas you can always watch someone play a video game and derive enjoyment out of it.

    Thanks for the report!