The RPG Course – Lecture Six

Well, it’s been a while. Soon after writing the last post, I found myself with all sorts of deadlines and duties and even parties, which, among other things, led to me finishing the study journal for this course two days late, writing the last pages in a hurry with a second-degree burn on my left hand. I managed to steam-cook my hand in the afterparty sauna of the Helsinki University RPG club’s anniversary celebrations. While alcohol was involved, I hold that it was mostly my own stupidity.

The study journal required for the completion of the course is now finished, though I haven’t yet received a grade. I will probably not post it here, because in the end, I opted to write it in Finnish, and because even those who can read it are unlikely to glean anything interesting out of it. Also, there’s a good chance that it’s crap, since parts of it were written in a hurry and I had to fit in a great deal of material, not all of which I found entirely fascinating. After a while, even the interesting schoolwork starts feeling like schoolwork, which is destructive to my motivation.

Aaanyway, the penultimate lecture of the course discussed pervasive games. The lecturers recently published a book on the topic with one Annika Waern. After finishing the book, they also started a blog about it, since they couldn’t fit everything in, and new stuff keeps coming up.

In short, pervasive games are games that break the “magic circle” of the game. The “magic circle” is the contractual area within which the rules of the game preside, and sometimes override the general laws of the land. To use their example, when you step inside a boxing ring, it suddenly becomes permissible to hit another man in the face, but you are not allowed to remove your gloves. In Monopoly, it’s the board; in tabletop RPGs, a bit fuzzier but generally around the space the players occupy. The game is played in an area more or less clearly marked, it has a clear beginning and end, and the players generally know they’re playing.

A pervasive game, then, erases one or more of these things (or at least expands it to such a size that it might just as well be gone). Instead of a LARP taking place within three rooms in a schoolhouse, the playing area is the entire city. A pervasive game does have beginning and an end, but the game might be continuous for several months (also, at least one of the Prosopopeia games had a false ending before the game really kicked off). Finally, it’s possible that people unaware of the game get interacted with in the context of the game.

Examples of pervasive games include the live Pacman games played in Manhattan, assassin games such as Steve Jackson’s Killer, alternate reality games like I Love Bees, and pervasive LARPs.

As an interesting example of pervasiveness in a LARP, they presented the Finnish trollpunk LARP campaign Neonhämärä (“Neon Twilight”) where some of the PCs belong to a troll rock band Sysikuu (“Darkmoon”). Some weeks ago, actually during the RPG course, a session of the LARP was played at Cultural Arena Gloria in Helsinki, at the band’s gig. As I recall, there were actually two bands playing, the first of them not even associated with the game in any way. Anybody could buy a ticket. Players had white armbands to mark them. For the players, it was a LARP session, but it also doubled as a gig (and a rather good one, I’m told). Hell, I think this is the first I’ve heard of an RPG session of any stripe that had meaningful content for an audience.

Other examples included Sanningen om Marika, the Swedish TV production that had interactive elements and went on to win an Emmy last year, and street LARPs that have been popular in Finland for a long time. This has spawned a number of anecdotes about things going pear-shaped when innocent bystanders or police officers have taken the game for real. For instance, there’s one tale the lecturers related, of a criminal LARP of some description, where members of two rival gangs encountered at the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Everybody was packing, so they pulled their reasonably realistic-looking prop guns on one another – and caused everyone else to hit the floor or take cover. At this point, the players went “oops”, and made themselves scarce before the police showed up.

In another case I’ve heard of, a few players were doing an arms deal in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, at night, and the authorities took an interest. Things were easy to explain, though, since their guns were toys and the money in the briefcase wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

This, of course, brings up the ethics of pervasive gaming. There’s a chapter on ethics in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, and we had to read it for the course. Taking your game out into the streets does bring up all sorts of interesting and important things to consider, such as how responsible it is to wave a realistic-looking replica gun in a crowded place. I’d imagine the questions are even more important in places like USA, UK or Israel (yeah, they do larp over there), where you’d likely stand a good chance of getting shot or prosecuted for it. In Finland, you’d probably get told off by the police and might even avoid a fine if you didn’t do anything spectacularly stupid.

Pervasive games aren’t my area of expertise (and it occurs to me that there are exceptionally few people in the world who can claim they are), but they are interesting. Somewhat annoyingly, my university seems to lack a Killer guild to run assassination games, and setting one up would be an awful lot of trouble. It seems like an interesting game with a low threshold of participation. Also, contrived plots to assassinate people? Excellent.

Next up is the seventh and final lecture of the course, RPGs and society. I’m also gonna be posting about the Praedor session at some point, though that’s gonna be more relevant to how I found the game and what happened in the session than to the course.

asive Games: Theory and Design

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