I’ve been meaning to learn more about the serious “unfun” games known as “Nordic Larping” ever since I learned about the activity from Eleanor Saitta at WeirdShitCon. Lucky for me, Paul Graham Raven just happened to finish a three part series of articles for Rhizome on the topic:
First played in 1998, Ground Zero has a good claim to ur-game status, and is a great example of the ‘un-fun’ ideas that Nordic larp plays with: its players sat in a room standing in for an Ohio nuclear shelter circa the Cuban Missile Crisis, listening to mocked-up radio reports of a blossoming bout of Mutually Assured Destruction, then spent the rest of the game having their characters come to terms with the annihilation of the world outside. Far from being an outlier, the deep emotional implications of Ground Zero are indicative of the psychological spaces that Nordic larp would go on to explore.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be following Stark’s lead and using ‘Nordic larp’ to refer specifically to the avant-garde school of gameplay rather than the geographically-defined set of players. As Stark is careful to point out, larp in the Nordic countries is not a monolith so much as a collection of localised scenes, and the Knudepunkt circuit — despite its greater visibility to outsiders — is a marginal part of the greater whole.
Marginal it may be, but Nordic larp is a teeming ecosystem of styles and approaches which, again, mirrors the confusion of subgenres and styles to be found in the contemporary genre fiction scene.
Other larps build a more open-ended world. The White War, a larp about military occupation, is one; Mad About the Boy is another: it has a few scripted events, but the outcomes have been vastly different over its three runs. In one Norwegian run, the Last Man’s arrival was met with tea and blankets. In our version, the game ended with a convoluted quadruple-cross and a lot of brandished prop guns — although, while our organizers feared Americans might be trigger-happy, none were actually fired. The forty of us were given a place to live and people to be; what we did with that was up to us.
Giving players this control tends to lead to unexpected results. “I don’t think I’ve ever organized a larp where at one point I haven’t said the following words: He did what? She did what?” Raaum says. In one of her larps, the World War II-based 1942, a group of soldiers was meant to execute a prisoner, but the plan was derailed. “They were meant to feel what it was like to look her in the eye and shoot her.” Their commander, however, “wanted to spare his soldiers their feelings, so he did it himself. That’s bullshit,” she adds.
In some cases, though, this turns out well, even if it started with a failure on the organizers’ part. Finnish war larp Valokaari was meant to feel cramped and filled with interpersonal conflict, but due to a misunderstanding, participants decided to play it as a hyper-realistic military enactment. “The characters who we expected to get on each others’ nerves never did,” the organizers wrote in larp anthology States of Play, “because most of them spent all their time either patrolling, eating or sleeping.” At the end, the players considered the game a success, even if the game hadn’t worked out remotely how the organizers intended.
But some believe gamification may do more harm than good. Kathy Sierra, a game designer who has given talks on the dark side of gamification, tells Wired that game designers and scholars are almost universally against gamification.
As Sierra points out, gamification replaces an intrinsic reward with an extrinsic one. In other words, it shifts a participant’s motivation from doing something because it is inherently rewarding to doing it for some other reason that isn’t as meaningful. This, she says, is ultimately less motivating.
Sierra cites research from University of Rochester psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, which was popularized by Dan Pink’s book Drive. Deci and Ryan concluded that the most powerful motivators for employees are the mastery of the task at hand, autonomy, and something called relatedness, which might involve helping a customer with a meaningful problem. Gamification replaces these motivators with extrinsic motivators like points and badges.
The other problem is that gamified applications aren’t necessarily fun. Most of what is called gamification would be better described as pointsification, according to game designer Margaret Robertson. “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience,” she wrote in a 2010 blog post
Nicolau Chaud is a Brazilian psychotherapist and indie computer game developer responsible for such hits as Marvel Brothel, which is actually more of a business simulator than a sex game, and Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. Here’s Joel Goodwin’s description of the latter:
“The Dungeoneers” is a clandestine society of sociopaths who believe “pain to be the most intimate form of relationship one person can have with another”. They carry their mental disease with pride. They inflict it on their victims with impunity. A dungeoneer’s finest hour is when he or she tortures a victim to a sweet spot on the verge of madness and death called a “beautiful escape”. They also upload videos of these torture sessions for others to review, in an intentional nod to the experience of releasing games online for peers to high-five or tear down.
You are Verge, a dungeoneer of poor reputation with honed self-loathing skills. This is a game without heroes. Verge is not a likeable character.
Chaud is now using his RPG Maker skills to create a new game called Polymorphous Perversity. Not much has been revealed, but he’s given a few interviews on the game. Here’s an excerpt from Goodwin’s:
In May, Chaud’s mood was ebullient: “I had a very weird insight today: I treat my game like a girlfriend… Yeah, I know, weird. But the good thing is: it loves me back.”
But his posts were infrequent and in June he made a quick remark that this special relationship was fast becoming dysfunctional: “Making this game has been a very interesting and weird experience. Researching sexual preferences, googling for pictures, spriting 24×32 sex, reading and writing porn, getting e-mails with naked pictures from players… it’s all very weird. Fun, at first, but gets somewhat unpleasant after a while, and the feeling of numbness I’m getting towards the theme is disturbing.”
1. When the game originally came out, video games were hard, very hard. If a bad guy hit your platform-jumping character, that was it. Start the level over until you ran out of lives. If you’re just learning the game, that really doesn’t encourage you if you’re still trying to get better at it. Being able to get hit without starting over is big, since you can still realize you screwed up without being wholly penalized. It’s kind of like having a save game point, except there are still consequences to getting hit. (Two hits and you really are dead.)
2. It’s a simple way for a character to have health without getting meta and having a “health bar” or “meter”. It keeps the game within it’s own strange fiction and makes the mechanical rewards part of the universe that Mario lives in. Yep, immersion.
And to some extent, “pointsification” is just quantification – something enterprises should be doing anyway. In fact, most the principals of a good game should apply in the workplace.:
Quantification: Tracking sales, average customer support response time, server uptime and other metrics that identify success.
Recognition and Reward: Raises, bonuses, promotions.
Autonomy: Robertson notes that for a game to be truly engaging players must be able to make decisions that “meaningfully impact on the world of the game.” Autonomy has been identified by Daniel Pink and others as a requirement for motivation and job satisfaction.
Challenge: I think this should be self-explanatory.
Looked at this way, is there any difference between “gamification” and “good management”?
With all this in mind, is it possible to effectively apply game mechanics to work-related applications? The jury’s still out on Rypple and Moxie’s implementation of badges, but I’m hopeful about both. Meanwhile, Pietro Polsinelli has written an essay on game mechanics and how he applied game design to his social bookmarking/task management web app Licorize. Polsinelli considered how certain common game activities correlate to activities in the application and added points and scoring to those activities. The essay is well worth reading for anyone interested in game mechanics in work related applications.
New York based game designers Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard fame) and Jared Sorensen (known for octaNe and the various games released through his Memento Mori imprint) are sometimes referred to as godfathers of the indie game scene. Tomorrow they’re releasing their new game FreeMarket at GenCon – you can find them at booth #1732. I talked to them a couple weeks ago about what FreeMarket’s all about.
Could you briefly go over what FreeMarket is and why it’s different from other role playing games?
Luke Crane: FreeMarket is a transhumanist RPG in which players take on the roles of telepathic, immortal infovores living on a space station orbiting Saturn.
Jared: That’s also what makes it different from other RPGs.
Luke : In order to get ahead on the station, players must make friends, cooperate and give gifts to one another. Doing so enhances a player’s reputation. Players can then spend this reputation to accomplish personal goals. It uses a unique card-based mechanic, comes in a box and is really pretty.
Left: Jared Right: Luke
It also sounds like it’s a more intellectual game than most – you’ve said you can, for instance, play the role of a philosopher and have that be meaningful within the game.
Luke: Yeah, but don’t think you can’t play Soulshitter Killfuck and have fun, too. But, unlike many other games that I’ve played, you can play an artist and have serious conflict about what you do. It’s impossible to just make a piece of art in this game and have it sit there, inert. Art is controversial.
Jared: And conflicts (especially philosophical, critical and artistic) are both internal and external and can have wide-reaching and unplanned repercussions.
Right. So you could do a more typical hack and slash scenario, or you could do something where you’re dealing with post-scarcity speculation. Or maybe both.
Luke: Yes. But the “typical” scenario is also turned on its ear.
Jared: Definitely. “Death artists” is a common FreeMarket trope we see in our games.
Luke: You can kill the living shit out of something in the game. In fact, when you get into a fight, someone is going to die, period. But that is very costly, so you better be ready to have another side to your character. You better be ready to cooperate and give gifts. Otherwise, you’re not going to survive.
Jared: Some of the nicest people on FreeMarket Station are killers… because they have to be nice in order to remain viable members of society.
So you can kill or be killed in the game?
Jared: Yes, but not permanently
What do you mean?
Luke: Yeah, the station just resuscitates you or reloads your back up into a new body if you’ve “perfect deathed.”
Jared: There are different levels of death… from induced death to brain death to total bodily destruction. If you just go around murdering people left and right, people are going to shun you and you’re going to burn your social capital to ashes.
Luke: Right, killing costs a lot of your reputation.
Jared: Especially if you’re killing people who are valuable members of the society. Assholes who kill each other off can get away with that for a while
Luke: *Laughs* True!
Jared: But kill a baker? Or a garbage man? You are FUCKED.
I haven’t role played in years, and it’s been even longer since I’ve been at all serious about playing. But Free Market sounds like something I’d like to play. Do you think this is the sort of game that people who have lost interest in role-playing or maybe never even role played before would get into?
Jared: We had a woman play — she was the CFO of a game company — who had never played an RPG before. She got it in five minutes. It was awesome.
Luke: It’s different. It’s not about roll-to-hit and not a number style play. People who are diehard RPG players have the most trouble with it, actually.
Was that your intention? To create a game for non-gamers?
Luke: No, we just wanted to create a game that we liked (and that Peter Adkison would like).
Jared: We wanted to create a game for people interested in science fiction.
Luke: That, too!
Jared: Not SF gaming, but actual SF.
Luke: Yeah, this isn’t space pirate romance.
Jared: No travel, no aliens. Which are two mainstays of the game genre.
You’ve said before this is the first actual science fiction game.
Jared: We say a lot of things.
Luke: *Laughs* True. Paranoia is the first science fiction roleplaying game. Our friend Joshua made a really neat science fiction game called Shock, but it’s not really an RPG.
What makes it a science fiction game and other sci-fi themed games NOT science fiction games?
Luke: They’re about fighting and romance. FreeMarket is about time, space and identity.
Luke: Not really!
Jared: D&D is as much about economics as FreeMarket. The title of the game is ironic commentary — the space station was renamed “FreeMarket Station” by its residents and it’s probably ironic commentary by us as well.
So it’s not Milton Friedman: The Game?
Jared: Hah, no.
Luke: Unfortunately, no. Milton Friedman would probably hate the economy in this game.
Jared: More Malcom Gladwell.
Luke: There’s no money. No market.
Jared: That’s the joke. The market is one of ideas.
More “free” than “market.”
Jared: And it’s a truly free society. For the first time ever, people have real freedom. And it’s terrifying.
And you’re going to be giving the game, sans artwork, away for free online at some point, correct?
Luke: We already did that.
Jared: With artwork even.
Luke: We gave away a PDF from November to April. We took it offline while we launch.
Jared: It was limited to 1,000 people. And we used that for our “colony program.”
Luke: I’m sure it’s out on torrent sites.
Jared: It totally is.
Luke: We’re discussing the future fate of the electronic life of FreeMarket. We need to see how well the printed version does. You can definitely get a sense of the game from the PDF. But to play it, it’s best to have the materials—the cards and chips.
How did you get interested in transhumanism and why did you decide to write a game based around it?
Luke: I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk since I had a brain…since about 1991. Transhumanism seems like the next natural step. It’s like cyberpunk, but without the 1980s and with some more thoughtful science fiction.
Jared: The game has gone through a lot of development and research but even from the first step we knew “transhuman science fiction” was going to be its thrust. And it was kinda unexplored as a game subject at the time (2007).
Luke: Yeah, somebody said to us, “What would you do with X” and we both said, “Transhumanist SF RPG. Space stations and weird technology.” I think I was reading Bruce Sterling at the time.
I suppose it would be hard to create a normal hack and slash transhumanist game. Unless you count Rifts or something.
Jared: You can play out brutal combat sequences in FreeMarket and it’s very satisfying. It’s just the consequences are all backward and upside down.
Luke: Rifts is totally transhumanist. But Eclipse Phase, our cousin, is a TH game about fighting. Did I just say that out loud?
Jared: *Laughs* Except that DEE-BEES are not human (so really, it’s transdimensional).
Jared: Rifts also has space whales I think.
Were virtual worlds like MOOs and MUSHes and newer things like Second Life an influence?
Luke: Absolutely. Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter too.
Jared: Everything from MUDs and Second Life to Facebook, dating sites and Slashdot.
Luke: Good science fiction expresses the present through the fiction of the technology. We wanted FM to feel like an outgrowth of today.
How were social networking sites an influence?
Luke: Well, in the game, you friend each other. Friending each other increases your overall reputation and provides “social insurance.” The more friends you have, the harder it is for you to be kicked out of the community. So the influence is rather naked. It was more “What if that shit was about people and real life rather than your profile?”
Why wouldn’t everyone just friend everyone then?
Luke: Hah, well, do you go around friending everyone on Facebook? Do you love the people who do nothing but friend you?
No, but it doesn’t really keep me from getting kicked off my space station.
Jared: There are game equivalents of “like” and “mod down” buttons, social groups and trolling. There are people on the station who try and friend everyone. But friending carries serious social implications. Friending is like allowing someone access to your Google Calendar. And Ebay account. And email. Etc.
So there’s a real trust relationship there.
Luke: And if you’re worried about getting kicked off, then I don’t know if we should be friends. because you’re obviously up to something that’s going to get me in trouble. When your reputation tanks, your friends all take a hit, too.
Jared: Klint’s friends are all switchers, breakers and wetworkers! Don’t friend him!
What advice would you give people who want to be game designers?
Jared: continue to want to be that.
Luke: *Laughs* Play lots of games. Start breaking games. And then play your games. And break them. Also, recruit tolerant friends.
Jared: And stay the hell off of game forums.
Luke: That, too.
Are there any books on game design you’d recommend?
Luke: I like Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman. But Jared and I are both self-taught.
An interview with Gamepocalypse blogger, game designer, and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell:
In short, we already see games creeping into our everyday lives in all kinds of funny ways. You go to Starbucks, and you get points if you have a Starbucks card. And, in fact, they have a whole leveling system. The more times you visit, the more you move from level green up to gold level, with special privileges and free soy milk.
Already, we have this whole system of economies floating around out there. And at the same time, we have all these technologies showing up that are allowing us to track new things, things that we couldn’t do before. […]
I think camera-based technology and tracking is going to be one of the things, in the next 10 years, we’re going to see a lot of evolution in.
The idea of cheap little cameras and disposable cameras are going to become fairly normal. And when you combine that with the fact that we’re getting used to touch-based interfaces and gesture-based interfaces, I think we’re going to see these cameras in a lot of places for interacting with a lot of things.
You’ve got Google Goggles, where you take a picture of like anything, and it will tell you what it is. We haven’t really started to make games with that yet, but I think we will start to.
And if you look at the new Nintendo DSi, which is their newest handheld, it has two cameras on it, which at first seemed kind of crazy to people, but the idea is you have one camera that faces out into the world and one that faces you the user, so it can look at your face and study your face.
No one’s quite figured out exactly what that’s for yet.
A couple weeks I linked to to an article about a professor who replaced grades in his class with “experience points.” I didn’t realize it, but that was a blog write-up of another article which is more focused on applying his ideas to the work place:
Clearly defined goals and fair, incremental rewards are two game design techniques that could motivate the ‘gamer generation’ in the workforce, according to a US academic.
Lee Sheldon of the Indiana University believes managers may have to rethink how they engage the next generation entering the mainstream workforce.
“As the gamer generation moves into the mainstream workforce, they are willing and eager to apply the culture and learning techniques they bring with them from games,” said Sheldon, a gamer, game designer and assistant professor at the university’s department of telecommunications.
“It will be up to management, often of pre-gamer generations, to figure out how to educate themselves to the gamer culture, and how to speak to it most effectively,” he told iTnews.
This is an interview by Arthur Magazine editor Jay Babcock from Mean Magazine in 1999.
WHAT ABOUT THE TECHNO-PRIEST BOOKS?
The Techno-Priest I write about the whole new industry of the CD-ROM, the new games in the world. The world is going to be dominated by the games, now. Video games. But more advanced than video games. They are audiogram games, no? The games directs the galaxies, and the ruler of the galaxy are the businessman, who is the Techno Priest. Business became religion.
I THINK WE HAVE THAT IN AMERICA, NOW.
Yeah, you have that and you don’t realize. [laughs] In America the god is the dollar, no? That is God. At one time the dollar will be sacred. And the industry will be the Church. That I am doing. Then the Techno Priest is the history of the high priest of that church, that industrial church. You need to learn to know how to make games, how to use the humanity, how to conduct the humanity to make the games, and to buy the games, etc. It is very interesting.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN DESIGNING VIDEO GAMES YOURSELF?
Yes. Last year I did in L.A. They’re doing that now. I went there and proposed, I say, Listen, I want to make this type of story, are you interested? They said, Yes, sure. I made two games of, and I am making a game of the Meta-Baron, then they are doing. I think, “There is a new artform.” Very interesting.
AND IF YOU COMBINE THE GAME WITH THE INTERNET—
Yes. It is normal. Why is important? Because in the future world, the humanity will work less and less. And will have more and more time for them, the games. And then we will get bored. See my meaning? We are animals, we are bored. And then the games will be the most important thing. You know now, the world, no? All the world we have are games. We see the world through television, like games. You are in America, you know that. You have the live television—when a person is killing somebody, you see that on the television, you can follow that. Life is becoming a show, a game, no? More and more.
SO YOU HAVE TO DESIGN A BETTER GAME—
Yes I think it is important. An artist needs to go there.