Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Living Games Conference

This weekend, I attended and worked at The Living Games Conference, a three day academic event where scholars, designers and players from all across the globe joined to discuss, theorize, argue, celebrate, commiserate, explore and play larps. The event was held at NYU's Magnet Center, where students learn to design and develop games of various shapes and formats. The conference was conceived of by resident New Yorker and CEO of Outlaw Phoenix Productions, Shoshana Kessock. The conference is Shoshana's Master's Thesis, and parallel to that, it is the first Academic Larp conference to be held in the United States.

Some people bitch about having to do a research paper for their Thesis. Shoshana created an unprecedented conference. Gauntlet. Thrown.

The conference began with Shoshana, telling of her journey to put this event together. She travelled the world, going to various gaming conventions and larp conferences, networking and learning how to develop and run the event and also to speak to the attendees, to broach their interest and get many voices on board. "No ideas grow in a vacuum," she had said, speaking of her intent for this conference to generate ideas from the diverse backgrounds of all those who attend. She also commented on the difficulty to share larp. It's not something that transmits easily to a passive audience, it must be shared and experienced.

Shoshana also announced the development of Dresden Lives, the Live Action Roleplay version of the Dresden Files RPG game. For as long as I've known Shoshana, she has attempted to make the Table Top into a larp, and working with Evil Hat (creators of the RPG) she and her company helped produce it. This brings me immense joy. The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher is in a highly convoluted way responsible for my entry into larp. There's an odd symmetry in that, and a vital passion.

In short, take my money you blessed lunatics.

Note: My review of the conference will be kept to highlights. Far too much note taking happened and I want to be concise without writing a dissertation just on the conference. These notes and themes will crop up again in future writing, as they touched a lot of points for me that I have either been talking about or wish to discuss more. I only caught the afternoon panels, and ran for errands during others, so I missed several speakers, including author Lizzie Stark on Sunday. If I missed anyone, it is for those reasons. I will also note that this is not an objective blog. My bias and perspective is always present, and I will attempt to be transparent about what is opinion and what was said as I write. When the presentations are released on video, I will upload them. They are worth it.

The Conference then began with a bang, introducing the first of three key note speakers: Marcus Montola, renowned game designer and scholar. He wrote "On The Edge of the Magic Circle", a dissertation that is a cornerstone in academically examining roleplaying games. His Keynote speech, Larping in the Magic Circle, focused on the Rules that quintessentially make up a larp and the rules that make up the fabric of role play. From the laws of nature and physics and the laws of man to the laws agreed upon in the Role Play world.

It was followed by Josh Harrison's speaking on the Console Wars of larp. Taking it's cues from the Playstation and Xbox's generational war for 'which one is better', Josh spoke on the stratification of the various forms of larping. Josh noted that tensions rise partly out of the fact that ours is a hobby/subculture that is often critiqued and demeaned by the Mainstream. We tend to self-define, which leads to dissonance to rules, understanding, which leads to stereotypes, protection of traditions, and the fragmenting into smaller sub communities.

David Simkins of the Rochester Institute spoke about Player types. From Bartle's graph, the GNS Model, the RPG Triangle and Simkins own take on the Triangle and subsequent Pyramid, the types of players and their motivations is discussed. The reason for learning and measuring player types helps in academic studies and in marketing to potential customers of these games.

Friday night after the conference spilled out into the streets of Brooklyn, where most of us ended up in a small bar and began to co-mingle. It was during this time I got a chance to sit down with Sarah Lynne Bowman. Sarah is a professor, writer, gamer, and overall amazing human being. We got to sit down and discuss gaming, our mutual love of Carl Jung, and academia in larping. Sarah and I have spoken a few times on facebook, her Functions of Role Play book was the first text I had read about larp academia, so being able to sit down and speak with a brilliant and beautiful mind such as hers was a treat and a joy.

Saturday's events for me began with Anders Berner and Claus Raasted, veterans of the Nordic Larp scene and coming all the way from Denmark. The topic of their discussion was how to market and sell your larp. While others will go on about the exploratory nature and intellectual underpinings of larping, Berner and Rassted acknowledge that Larping is also a business. Game designers are working on a product, and they need to sell that product to investors, developers and/or publishers. While I could write a paper on they wrote (and I really, really want to) I want to note something that they said near the end: that the skills you learn in developing and running a larp are portable to other facets of your life. I have developed better leadership, organizational and political skills in the two years I've been running a game. I'd agree wholeheartedly with that statement.

Continuing the discussion of Larp as a business, Michael Pucci and Ashley Zdeb, the co-founders of Dystopia Rising. Their focus, matching that of Josh Harrison from the night before, was of the tribalism of larps. It was brought up that larpers tend to only reach out to other larpers to try their games, instead of reaching out to the broader audiences; that out of protection of their traditions (and player base) that some members will take on an air of judgment, claiming what is the right way or wrong way to game; that sometimes the focus becomes more on the game, rather than the really important aspect: the community. To combat this, Pucci and Zdeb made several simple suggestions. Admit that we're all talking about Make Believe, Reach out to the outside world, Community over Individual Products, Focus on open and honest discussion of what larping means.

Next, Nick Fortugno talked about Serious Larps, and using role play to handle trauma. My notes are nil for this one (sorry Nick, I think I may have been running errands here), but I do remember that what I remembered struck a chord with me. What Nick was doing, in some very real sense, was using Live Action Role Play to help victims of abuse, PTSD and severe trauma learn to cope. He didn't call it a game to them, or larp, but that's what he was doing. This brought up my time studying with a Drama Therapist. We were using Theatrical Exercises and games as a means of exploration, destressing, insight and training for when patients left the outside world. This was what I got from Nick's speech, that larping can be used to help, to train and to heal. This is something that I will come back on.

The Second Keynote Speaker was Aaron Vanek, coming out of California. Aaron runs Seekers Unlimited, an NPO that designs larps to help educate. Aaron's speech talks about using larps for education, recalling two larps and the affect it had on students. Larp works in education because, instead of just having the information dumped on you by a potentially just as bored teacher, you are given context and given the opportunity to apply the information which allows for a deeper understanding. Growing up in the New York City education system and being consistently bored with the process, I could appreciate this system as even if people just try to coast during the exercise, they are still picking something up from it. It reminded me a lot of my Graduate School program, where in some classes we were actually a group therapy session, or a symposium and collaborating, talking. Aaron and I had bumped into each other previously on facebook larp pages, where he gave me some sage advice about employing more social rules for Kensei. It was amazing to sit and talk with him for a brief while.

Next we had Evan Torner discussing Character Creation. I'll be honest, my notes for this one aren't really...coherent. My notes formed into a screed about character creation and the character sheet effectively being a psychosocial evaluation of the character. The PSE establishes, through self reporting and monitoring by the assessment taker, the mental and physical presentation of a client. Are they groomed? is there a stiffness or waxiness to their facial features. Are their sentences fluid or are they clipped? These evaluations change over the course of stay, not unlike a character sheet especially in one like we use in Mind's Eye Society. One of my professors saw one of my character's sheets (I brought the wrong book to class, sue me!) and noted how much like a PSE it looked like.

Finally for Saturday, we had Sarah Lynne Bowman. Sarah spoke on where characters come from in terms of our internal selves. She mapped out various different forms of character creations, from fragments of ourselves, to idealized selves, to divergent or exploratory types. Sarah mapped out the whole process using Jung's model of the Self and psyche as the legend. In case some of you haven't realized, Jung is a major influence in my writing and my philosophy, so I wasn't taking much notes during this and just enjoying the lecture. So, Sarah, if you're reading this, I'd love to see a copy of the presentation so I can give it the attention it deserves.

The night's panels ended, and it was time to attend the game showcase. We moved from the Magnet Center to Triskelion Arts Studio where several games were to be held. I did my task of guiding a handful of conference goers through Brooklyn. During our trip, Sarah and I explained to several goers the joys of Mage, both Ascension and Awakening. I spoke for the latter and Sarah spoke for the former, describing it in a very right brain left brain sort of way.

Getting to game, we all got our spots and I signed up for a game (I was initially listed as an usher, but Shoshana wanted me to go and play). I played Prisoner, an adaptation of a Russian Larp adapted and lead by Christopher Amherst. Set in a Dystopian Country where a four tier caste system, the Affluent Alphas, the Middle Class Betas, the Worker Class Gammas, and the Lower Class Omegas. Members of each caste were arrested for crimes against state and thrown into jail, with their execution being slated for the dawn. Alone, without any guards inside the cell, save for a camera (which lead to the gamemasters outside) the prisoners were all alone. At random intervals, announcements would be made declaring two of the prisoners judges. Those judges would select another of their prisoners to die, with their own lives at risk if they don't.

It was a good game. Surprisingly it was the first time I ever played a Pre-generated PC, it was a fascinating experience and reminded me more of a theater prompt as much. The game and it's experience deserves it's own blog (a lot of things here do...which is frustrating). I got to play with Markus Montola, who played a character that, as I said that night, I was convinced was either the key to breaking out of the prison or the Devil himself. I did not make it to the end, though, my character, an Omega Caste Criminal, decided to walk off and give the system what they wanted. Chris told me I was the first person to ever willingly refuse orders and be sent to summary execution. It's nice to be first. And ultimately was an awesome way to spend your birthday.

The next day I arrived later, missing out on Lizzie Stark's keynote speech, which from all I've heard was entirely kick ass and I'm looking forward to when the video of that will be ready. Lizzie, bless her soul, posted in her own blog her notes and thoughts on the speech, which focused on Building Larp Communities. Lizzie is the writer of Leaving Mundania, her exploration into the beginnings, present and exploration of Live Action Role Play. It is written in such a way that it explains, quite clearly to those not within the culture, what larp is and could be in all facets. There were several moments in the book where, yes, I admit to getting emotional. I'm sorry I could not get to sit down and speak with her, as I was caught somewhere from running errands and suffering from The Shy.

As groups broke off in to workshops, I stayed to help the main floor. At one point, Shoshana and I noticed that, sitting in a circle in the main floor were some of the most brilliant minds in larping sitting and talking and joking. I could *feel* the IQ spike like a heatwave.

The night, and the conference, ended with a panel by Samara Hayley Steele of California, who spoke of Larp as a Leisure Labor, using the bartering system at events like Burning Man and equating them to the practices that are used in Larps. Gary Gatano recounted his experiences as a Sociologist using Vampire the Masquerade as the subject of research, and finally we had Shoshana Kessock herself, describing Ethical Content Creation and the Social Contract players and gamer runners have with one another in terms of what they all wish to experience. The Social Contract is there to develop a safe space for players and gamerunners to enjoy their experience.

The Living Games Conference was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was the first pure gaming conference/convention I'd attended (the only other one being a Cam only event). It was amazing to speak to so many intelligent people who were passionate about larping, about the culture of larping. What I took from it are ideas and inspiration. Ideas about talking more about building safe spaces for play, about helping players in situations of negative bleed, of burning out and being exhausted. Not just by having a space prepared for relaxation, but to have someone available for debriefing. I have found new inspiration for what I need to do to get Kensei off the ground, and to begin looking in to getting much of this blog, at least in it's spirit, published.

I want to thank Shoshana for putting this together. That sentence sounds a lot less than it really is. This has never been done before in the continental US, and she pulled it off. Was it perfect? No. But for a first time, it was amazing.

Shoshana, you've done the impossible, that makes you mighty. Thank you for letting me take part in the madness.



1 comment:

  1. It was great meeting you, Craig, and talking, and thanks for the write-up. Feel free to ping me anytime about anything. If you can get to Los Angeles, let me know.