I’m going talk to you guys about larp and. Larp and a whole lot of oth­er things. Because I think the most inter­est­ing things about larp are maybe not actu­al­ly larp itself, but when larp meets a whole bunch of the rest of the world.

So, the 21st cen­tu­ry will be defined by sociotech­ni­cal infra­struc­tur­al sys­tems. All of these great big net­works of things and peo­ple and code, and pat­terns and prac­tices and per­for­mances that make the world do what it actu­al­ly does. And you know, this is the ship­ping sys­tem, right. The glob­al trans­porta­tion sys­tem that we use to get basi­cal­ly all of our stuff. Everything that you’re touch­ing right now almost cer­tain­ly went in a con­tain­er at some point.

However, this sys­tem has all sorts of unin­tend­ed impacts that we don’t real­ly know about. For instance, all the pol­lu­tion that comes from ship break­ing. Global warm­ing that comes from the CO2 out­put of these mas­sive ships. We built the Internet, which is an amaz­ing sys­tem that start­ed from this Swedish tele­phone exchange, from from ori­gins like that.

And then went all over the place. Through Google Glass, right. Google glass­es are a fas­ci­nat­ing sys­tem. It has all sorts of weird unin­ten­tion­al social effects. If you’ve ever actu­al­ly been in the same room as one, they’re real­ly creepy.

Ingrid Burrington, Submarine Cable Taps

This is a map of of glob­al cables. All of the ones in orange are sur­veilled by these guys. So, we didn’t intend that when we built the Internet. If we want to under­stand these sys­tems, we need to start tak­ing them apart and read­ing them and writ­ing them.

When we inter­act with sys­tems, we look at them in a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways. We sense sys­tems, and we change sys­tems. We look at their struc­ture, and we look at their affect.

Now, we have a lot of tools for read­ing sys­tems. This is the world of sys­tems mod­el­ing. It’s very bor­ing. We won’t talk about it. Well, it’s real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing, but it’s long. When we want to write sys­tems, we do all sorts of things. We do struc­tur­al pol­i­tics, we look at reg­u­la­to­ry domains and soft infra­struc­ture. We nudge peo­ple. We do cul­tur­al manip­u­la­tion and pro­pa­gan­da and bribery and blah blah blah blah blah blah.

So, let’s talk about the oth­er half, because this is the half that larp can actu­al­ly help with. This is the half that we’re real­ly not very good at right now. Immersion. Immersion is a thing that we talk about a lot in larps. Let’s say that you want to under­stand rad­i­cal his­to­ry. You want to under­stand the polit­i­cal tra­di­tions in dif­fer­ent places. This is a thing that we can build games that teach, and teach quite well. Yes, there are lim­its to what you can do in terms of anthro­po­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. However, espe­cial­ly when you’re in cul­tures fair­ly close to yours, you can get close enough. You can get enough of an under­stand­ing of what a spe­cif­ic piece of his­to­ry meant that it gives you a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent feel­ing for mod­ern polit­i­cal strug­gles. And this can be sep­a­rat­ed in time or in space. That pho­to is from some of the traf­fic stop­pages that have hap­pened in Oakland right now over the Black Lives Matter protests.

We can look at transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. How do we break down nation­al bor­ders. This is more of that kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty across space. That’s from the PKK reg­i­ments in Kobani. We can under­stand dif­fer­ent kinds of oppres­sions and dif­fer­ent kinds of social struc­tures. And a lot of the immer­sion that I’m talk­ing about right now is obvi­ous­ly polit­i­cal­ly loaded in a cer­tain direc­tion. That’s com­ing from my pol­i­tics, but I think that this is the stuff which is buried in the struc­tur­al read­ings. All of the struc­ture read­ings, if you want to under­stand what it’s like to be rich, the struc­tur­al read­ings are going to tell you about that. They’re not going to tell you about what it means to be poor, because the struc­tur­al read­ings that exist are most­ly cre­at­ed in the ser­vice of the rich.

So, let’s say we want to talk about writ­ing. Let’s say we want to talk about the chang­ing sys­tems. Now we’re talk­ing about pro­to­typ­ing. I could give an hour talk on this slide, but I’m not going to. These are two sys­tems Taarifa and Briar. Taarifa is a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing sys­tem for man­ag­ing water points in— It’s being used in Dar es Salaam right now. It can be used for a lot of dif­fer­ent things. It’s basi­cal­ly a report­ing man­age­ment sys­tem so some­one can report a fail­ure in the field and walk through this whole chain of get­ting some­thing fixed. Now, one of the things we’re work­ing with them on Briar is build­ing a decen­tral­ized ver­sion of this sys­tem that doesn’t have a tra­di­tion­al con­trol struc­ture in the mid­dle of it.

What does that mean, polit­i­cal­ly? What hap­pens polit­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly to a com­mu­ni­ty, if you don’t have a cen­tral water man­age­ment bureau? How do you write new scripts to under­stand that? Well, that’s a thing that we can game. That’s a thing that we can test in a game before we deploy that in somebody’s real water sys­tem. Which might be kind of nice because unin­tend­ed con­se­quences.

Image: Cold House

Architecture is anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing area for larp. Modern archi­tec­ture has a lot of real­ly great a dis­course around it, just about every­thing but emo­tion. But archi­tects are actu­al­ly real­ly bad at under­stand­ing the emo­tion­al impact of build­ings, because they have basi­cal­ly no lan­guage for talk­ing about it. This is some­thing that I would real­ly like to bring some of our great lan­guage for affect over to the archi­tec­ture world, and maybe we can bring some of their inter­est­ing lan­guage for talk­ing about time and space into the larp world.

Being a good stranger. This is a larp. This is larp that’s run every­day. It’s a one-day long game. It’s run for every new US Marine. It teach­es them what DoD thinks is how to be a good stranger. You’ve just thrown a breach­ing grenade through the wall of somebody’s liv­ing room, and now you go in and point a gun at them and try to de-escalate the sit­u­a­tion. [audi­ence laugh­ter]

I’m not going to say that this is an easy larp. This might even be play­ing to lose. But it’s a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing game, and if you’re going to insist on throw­ing a breach­ing grenade through the wall and jump­ing into the room with a gun, maybe you should fig­ure out what comes next and try to under­stand and think about that and learn it. It’s not easy, but you know, there we go. So, these are things that we can embody.

There’s a whole toolk­it that we have here that I’m just going to burn through, because we don’t have that much time and this is a real­ly inter­est­ing one-hour talk. However, we can build things in games. This is how we do a lot of the embody­ing. We can build past­ness. This is how you under­stand the weight of his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion and what it actu­al­ly means.

We can build belief. This is how you say, Okay, either I believe at this thing works in the world that doesn’t work right now.” Or, I want to arm see how this sys­tem feels if I believe some­thing else about the world.” So, we can tweak our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty in real­ly inter­est­ing ways.

We can build rit­u­als, right. And this is real­ly impor­tant, because all of these big sociotech­ni­cal sys­tems have per­for­mances and cer­e­monies asso­ci­at­ed with them. And in a lot of cas­es we don’t know what those are going to be when we build the sys­tem. We do a bunch of tech­ni­cal work, and then we throw it in the field and something…happens, we don’t know what. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad. Who knows. So, we can build rit­u­als this way.

We can also do a lot of dif­fer­ent kinds of diag­no­sis work through larp, and this is where it’s real­ly inter­est­ing. This is shades of Eirik’s talk from last year. I don’t know if larp mat­ters, but larp design def­i­nite­ly mat­ters. We can diag­nose pow­er struc­tures. Larp is an incred­i­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed tool, and larp design is an incred­i­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed tool for read­ing the pow­er struc­tures out of a social sit­u­a­tion and writ­ing the pow­er struc­tures that we’d like.

We can diag­nose affect. Being in a char­ac­ter and embody­ing your­self into a sit­u­a­tion gives you a much fin­er sense for what a sys­tem means emo­tion­al­ly. Which is the big thing that we have prob­lems writ­ing, or you have prob­lems under­stand­ing right now oth­er­wise.

We can diag­nose via­bil­i­ty. So, you cre­ate a bunch of things, you per­form them, you do all of this stuff. And at the end of the day you real­ize you know, this is nev­er going to work. No one’s ever going to do this. This is ridicu­lous, right. This is not some­thing that we’re actu­al­ly very good at doing right now before we go spend bil­lions of dol­lars on deploy­ing sys­tems. Which seems kind of sil­ly. Maybe we should use some bet­ter tools. Thank you.

Further Reference

Overview blog post for the 2015 Nordic Larp Talks, and for this presentation


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