Jiituomas (jiituomas) wrote,

Book Review - Lifelike (Knudepunkt, 2007)

Here is my subjective and biased review of Lifelike, the book from Knudepunkt 2007. A lot of the writers are my friends, or at least people I've talk a lot with, but I will nevertheless try to stay on at least semi-objective terms. For another opinion on the book (by Markus), see here.

In general

By first look, the book is really impressive, with its 284 pages, hard, stylish covers and clear, professional-looking layout. By second look, it still looks that way. After a third, a lot of small flaws - especially the lack of grammatical proofreading - becomes annoyingly apparent, but that does not make it any less impressive in the areas where it is indeed strong. The preface contains a very good set of brief descriptions about the articles, providing a very good basis for choosing where to start. And the end section, in turn, a fine selection of commentary from people familiar with but not (very) active within the larp community.

One thing I must seriously complain about, though, is the fact that the book lacks a descriptive subtitle. Because of that omission, far too many people may skip it, because only the title will show in searches, not the descriptions. Furthermore, this also means that it will be very hard to search for online discourse on the book: "Beyond Role and Play", "Role, Play, Art", etc. will (mostly) get you to the right places in Google, "Lifelike" without any subtitle will not. So I fear we'll be missing out on a lot of the talks where the book gets mentioned.

Now, to the articles:

Widing: Alive and Role-Playing. While providing nothing new to the old farts, Gabriel nicely manages to convey in two pages the significance of why we must talk about characters if we talk about role-playing. It's precisely the kind of eye-opener for new readers that the difficult Character chapter needs. I think we should have more such short texts in the coming years.

Holter: Stop saying "immersion"! Matthijs raises a good, often discussed point about the problems we face when using this particularly problematic word. The typology on what immersion has been interpreted is quite good, but it unfortunately lacks references to papers that have tried to deal with the issue (such as Harviainen, 2003 and Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005). I do very much agree with his suggestions on avoiding the problems of using such a problematic word in common-day game parlance by using more descriptive approaches in speaking about role-playing games.

Harding: Immersion Revisited Due to my own paper on role-playing hermeneutics having been waiting publication since 2005, I've been expecting/dreading something like Tobias' paper appearing. It uses hermeneutic theory to explain essential larp elements (esp. character and narratives) in interpretation-theory terms. Tobias has managed to find a very good balance between readability for people not familiar with the field and the use of applicable key concepts from hermeneutics. It's a fine look at what lies beyond the surface of role-play-as-text, but without going too far into the details. In my opinion, one of the three best articles in the whole book.

Lieberoth: Technologies of Experience A heavy text, loaded with content. Interestingly enough the very fact that it's so lodged in physicality, the article provides good ground for both theoretical and artistic discourse. I would, however, have liked to see some actual data in addition to the modelling, just to ground the whole thing into reality. I hope the author will provide us with an extended, refereed version later on.

Henriksen: Role Conceptions and Role Consequences Duus finally provides us with a more complex look at what the concepts in the groundbreaking-but-over-appreciated Meilahti school spoke about: larp analyzed as a system of social identities. While there is no field material included, the article contains a good look at both key points and essential theory that can be applied to the subject, moving discourse on character-as-social-identity finally beyond the "I read one book by Stuart Hall" level where it's thus far too often been. I must admit that I did not find the article an especially enjoyable read, but as a contribution to the larp research toolkit it is very, very important.

Lappi: Playing Beyond Facts Certain points in A-P's paper are so strongly tied to some of my own works that I don't feel comfortable in publicly evaluating it because I would have to skip those parts and thus could not treat the piece as a whole. I must say, however, that I found his approach to light and deep immersion quite interesting and will add some of it to my own toolkit, and that the concept of Understanding he uses isn't comprehensive enough in my view and is somewhat misplaced (I believe in character appropriation, not understanding). [EDIT: This part of the review was re-phrased for clarity, as it could be seriously misread.]

Konzack: Larp Experience Design Lars deals with a subject very close to my heart, providing tailored experiences in/through larp. Despite appearing quite heavy, the article is actually a pretty good template of all the basic considerations one need to take into account when creating such intentional experiences. It does not go to any real depth, but, given that this way it's useful also to layman game designers and not just theorists, that way it works best.

Montola: Breaking the Invisible Rules I've seen so many iterations on Markus' rules already that appraising the latest one is hard. On one hand I find the key points quite accurate and useful for further theory, especially with the exceptions included, but on the other the whole thing is a case example of a theory paper that provides the common larper absolutely nothing.

(My own paper I will naturally not review, except to note that Markus' private criticism of it lacking clear conclusions is quite correct. As I will probably continue on the Process Model in next year's book as well, this should not be too much of a problem.)

Bruun, Elf, Enghoff & Heeboell: Larp as Complex Networks At first, this looks like a really heav article, with its terminology and graphics. However, the key matter of it all, modelling play as networks, is quite easy to grasp. I also believe that if the habit does spread, collecting and preserving such network models combined with game descriptions might actually make larp archiving a lot more useful in the future.

Jonsson, Montola, Stenros & Boss: Five Weeks of rebellion and Stenros, Montola & Waern: Post Mortem Interaction both deal with the pervasive game Momentum. The first one is an exemplary piece on how one designs a very complex game and how one improves on an earlier design. The second is much more problematic: while dealing extremely well with issues of social and public play, it steps on to areas such as selfplay where the authors' expertise is clearly not good enough. But, excluding tha one problem point, the two papers are fine pieces showing well how to use theory and still remain highly practical.

Petterson: Castle Caldwell - Redux Juhana tells of experimental games done with that most abominable scenario from our youth, The Clearing of Castle Caldwell. I liked almost everything about the article, from the innovation to the recycling of both bad old material from the module and from each others' running of it. This is art-roleplay at its most exemplary. My only real complaint comes from the fact that I still haven't had the chance to run my "marxist critique" Caldwell to the that playing group.

Hook: The Bristol Manifesto Nathan's latecomer manifesto fills a missing spot in the set of larp manifestoes, that of simulationist emphasis. It has several connection points to the others, but stands well enough on its own legs, and thus merits an existence of its own.

Lehrskov: My Name is Jimbo the Orc Lehrskov's paper is partially a description on the cultural gap between different ways of looking at (or even experiencing) larp, partially a methodology for making an approximation and then a reading on what some theorists (such as Kellomäki and myself) call the "fourth layer" of play. In essence, the non-existing hypothetical level of pure diegesis where the events of play would be real for the characters. Lehrskov's arguments on why we indeed should look at that level (a matter that has been seriously debated among theorists) work quite well, and his "Symposium", a way to play with re-interpreting a larp's story afterwards, looks very enjoyable. (I'll certainly give it a try at some point.)

Barkholt & Trier: What was the Story About? continues on the story-emphasis aspect. The authors present a clear, if biased, case on why and how more effort should be placed on communicating the story of the larp to the participants both during and outside of play. While the article does contain good ideas about implementing that ideal, to me it read more like a larp manifesto for narrativism than a practical guide for creating improved play.

Koljonen: Eye-witness to the Illusion Joc continues her tradition of contributing the most evocative texts of the KP books. This treatise on the 360-degree illusion ideal proceeds through history of such attempts, by way of clear examples and with sufficient criticism. There is also some very clever typology included. However, I found it rather annoying that by using a simple stereotype the author skips over many small-scale (Finnish and other) larps that would be just as good - or even better - examples as the massive Swedish productions. Especially since she contrasts external perfectionism and immersive play. Despite that problem, this is definitely one of top three pieces in the book.

Raasted: the "Bigger! Better! More!" problem Claus has done a propaganda piece on players spending money on larps, in order to get more impressive larps. I agree with his view that many larpers have learned to expect too much for too little money, but I doubt we can solve the issue by following the route of more expensive projects. Maybe it's just the artiste in me, but I prefer the ability to choose good players for my game ("to implement my vision") without having to worry about whether they can afford to come.

Olmstead-Dean: The Impact of Relationships on Games Yet another very fine piece, and one based on actual data to boot. Gordon has expertly outlined the problems and potentials created/caused to larps by the complexities of both in- and off-game relationships. And he has done it in a manner that is not significantly culture-dependant, despite being based on American role-players. I know from my own larp design history how important this is, even if I do not agree with Gordon's every point. This paper is a must-read for any people planning to include even low-level emotional/relationship content in their larps. It's also an example of just the kind of papers we should see much more in the KP books: practical, with a grounding on theory, and actual data to prove the key points.

Hutchison: The Norwegian Larp Archive Ragnhild presents both a brief history of Norwegian larp and discusses preserving as much of it as possible. A nice example of what is being done on the practical level to preserve knowledge on larps and larp-making, including a useful list of problem areas that anyone else seeking to do likewise will certainly appreciate.

Thestrup: Warhammer Freestyle A short text on combat-oriented larping with children. While brief and almost anecdotal-seeming, there's a clever message about not ignoring the potential of various kinds of larp play with children.

Harder: Cofessions of a Schoolteacher Harder's personal account on her experience with using role-playing as an educational tool is very welcome. It deals with improving their use, the concept of "fun" in role-playing and the areas of education where it fits best. While of only passing interest to me (mostly due to having read several such works recently), I can imagine it seeing a lot use in the hands of people actually working with educational role-play.

Waade & Sandvik: "I Play Roles, Therefore I Am" is mostly about the general ways of defining larp by its key traits and similarities with other phenomena. The points in it are good, but the article is too short to really get anywhere with them. Which is a pity, given that it shows insight in treating an already common subject of discussion from some fresh viewpoints.

Brian Morton: Larps and Their Cousins Through the Ages By far the finest article in the whole book. Brian goes through larp, its potential parents and its sibling phenomena, in a comprehensive yet easily understandable and readable form. We have seen works doing parts of the same before, but this one's far superior. This is precisely the kind of article larp researchers have been waiting for, in order to reference, agree or disagree with it. I personally have a very different definition system for what counts as larp, but I simply love having something I can mirror my own views with.

Overall, this is definitely the best of the KP books so far. I doubt it will be quoted as much as ALGU or BRAP, but that is only due to those books containing most of the "classics" of our young field. As far as general article quality goes, I was positively surprised. While some papers are clearly better than others, the uniform quality is good, and none of them immediately struck me as being crap - something I honestly can't say of any of the earlier books. If the editorial team had committed more resources on linguistic refinement (especially grammar), this would have been an awesome book. Now it's just very good, and a highly welcome addition to the line. Although, as always, I would have wanted many of the authors to back up their words with some hands-on evidence from the field. But the number of such papers has been rising in the recent years, so I remain hopeful. And I believe readability too will improve soon, as larp theorists and analysts are able to publish their more hardcore material elsewhere and then, maybe, make popular science versions for them in the KP books.
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