Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "From a discussion of the Australian systemless role-playing tradition"

So, having LARPed a great deal with a group whose members run the LARPing gamut from mostly theater folks to mostly gaming folks, I have to say I do enjoy character-driven improv gaming. In that venue, the body is hugely important. My drunken master character's schticks were almost entirely physical comedy, and he wouldn't have been nearly as much fun as a tabletop character. However, I find theatrical LARPing emotionally demanding in a way that a tabletop role-playing game isn't.

If I sit down with two or three friends for a couple hours, I would typically rather have an experience more like Cosmic Encounter or Settlers of Catan than like a Norwegian LARP/ System acting session. I enjoy a diversion now and again, but I can only really handle LARPing about once per year; I need the down time.


Posted by Matt at February 6, 2013 06:22 PM

Your axis between game and play is difficult for me, if only because I enjoy heavily rulesy games, and enjoy making and tweaking rules for games, and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater.

Hm. As I'm thinking about it—from the performer's perspective, I'm not so sure that the spiel of Hamlet has an ending that is known. Sure, we know that Fortinbras will bid the soldiers shoot, but that's similar to knowing that Clue (or Cluedo, as the English say) will end with the discovery of the murderer. In the show, we don't know who will win, that is, will the performers succeed or fail in putting on a good performance. There are very definite rules—you have to say the lines, for instance—and there are penalties for breaking them. The scoring system is very imprecise, I'll admit that…

I'm also thinking of play on the toy/game scale, wondering where (f'r'ex) building a castle with big colorful blocks lies. I know there must be rules, because my son keeps telling me I'm doing it wrong.


Posted by Vardibidian at February 6, 2013 09:13 PM

and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater.

I thought that's what I was saying. Or do you mean so different that the two cannot be placed on a single axis?

I think you're talking about a different thing when you talk about the metagame of whether the actors will do well. Sure, that's undecided; it's also undecided whether the players will have a good time on their dungeon crawl, whether the GM will succeed this time in getting them to the boss monster before everyone has to go home, or whatever. That's the metagame, though. Both the players and the actors are also in the business of producing a portrayal of a fictional narrative; in one case this narrative has a fixed end (in terms of what the audience sees), in the other case not. The destinies of the players are distinct from the destinies of the characters.

How the distinction game vs (theatrical) play relates to the distinction game vs toy is another interesting question. Clearly this also has to do with rules; when your son insists you are doing it wrong, he is either making an esthetic or engineering objection to your construction (no rules, not a game, and about the real world) or he is saying you have violated some arbitrary and voluntarily chosen constraints which create a ludic space of what's "allowed" and "not allowed" and thus create the possibility of winning and losing -- or at least, or engaging or failing to engage with the game. If he's saying the latter, he's playing a game, and on some level that implies a fictional narrative. It may be an extremely fictional narrative, but it transports us out of the now. Even the simplest game has a narrative. Checkers has, at the very least, some little guys who want to get somewhere without getting "captured", and Pong has us imagine the thunk of a ball against a paddle, not just lines and a circle on the screen.

A toy can be very complex. A pure simulation engine, like Sim City or Second Life, is in a sense really a toy, even though there are games you can play with that toy.

A basketball is a toy. If we just bounce and toss a basketball idly, we are playing with a toy. The minute we create a goal for ourselves -- even as simple a goal as to alternate catching, to make a basket, to see if we can get the basketball stuck in the heating vent, etc. -- we have created the constrained ludic space of a game.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 6, 2013 09:26 PM

I guess it's a little odd, on reflection, to say that a game like basketball -- not basketball on a screen, but IRL -- creates a fictional narrative. Perhaps it's useful to distinguish between games which are narrative, fiction-generating, and games which are not. But even the games which don't create fictional narratives are still in the business of creating narratives. Sports narratives are gripping -- we want to know who won, and how. If the basketball players were just fooling around, lobbing the ball back and forth, inventing every moment something new to do with it, with no constraints or set goals, I don't think we would turn in as eagerly for the play-by-play. Can you imagine a play-by-play of the Harlem Globetrotter's visually artistic basketball performance? ("Now, Steve, he's rolling it behind his shoulders... and down his arm!") In order to make play narratable, it needs the structure of a game. At the Olympics, what the sportscasters say about ice skating or gymnastics is all about fitting it into the structure of a game -- she's trying this move, she did it well or poorly, the judges have given her a 5; if you wanted to narrate ballet in the same way, you'd have to do the same thing to it.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 6, 2013 09:32 PM

and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater

Well, and what I meant was that if I were to map my fave rave game/play activities on that line with, say, chess at +1 and Hamlet at -1, I think I would wind up clustering between 0.5 and 1--and then having that big red dot on the -1. Which usually means that the model is wrong for my perception of the world.

On the other side of the topic, I think that for the audience/fans, a basketball game very much creates a fictional narrative (if you believe, as I do, that momentum is essentially fictional). I don't know how much that is true for the players; probably quite a bit. But the players are only incidentally creating that narrative; their goal is not to amuse the fans but to win. The owner's goal is fan-amusement, that's the reason they are there, but they are, we hope and believe, ignoring that goal and concentrating on the goal of winning. This is very different, as you say, from the actors in Hamlet, who are supposed to be focused on fan-amusement (for varying values of amusement); the actor playing Claudius is not trying to win the narrative. So, sure, I see that as an axis. But that's in an audience-focused frame, not a player-focused frame. And in a taxonomy of play, I would use a player-focused frame.

And then the blocks…I suspect that my son makes games of his blocks, rather than toys. I vastly prefer games to toys, myself—if I am building with colorful blocks I will consciously impose rules on myself (make the tallest possible building from a given set, or don't allow two blocks of the same color to touch, or make the ricketiest possible structure, or don't allow setting aside of blocks for later, uswusf) which may not be obvious to anyone watching, but which I could fully articulate if anyone were willing to listen. I suspect that M. could not fully articulate his rules of the moment—he is building this way and not that way. But yes, game rather than toy, as he's using it. I think.

Taking this back somewhat to LARPing, wondering how this toy/game/play idea works out. Take a ren faire: there are people who are performing as (employed) actors in plays with a fixed narrative; people who are playing fixed characters without fixed narratives (perhaps demonstrators, vendors or regular visitors), people who are playing with the idea of renaissance-y characters without any fixed purpose much like your putative basketball-toy-er, people who aren't participating at all… do you feel that your axis helps to model that universe?


Posted by Vardibidian at February 6, 2013 11:27 PM

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