Jiituomas (jiituomas) wrote,

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Playground Worlds – a subjective review

Despite being involved with Playground Worlds myself, as an author and as one of the proofreaders, I feel like commenting on the book. This isn’t an actual review, jus a set of opinions.

Montola, Markus & Stenros, Jaakko (eds): Playground Worlds. Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games. Solmukohta, 2008.

In general:

First of all, I must say that I like the balance between authors: mostly Nordic, but again also some key contributions from outside the local scene. Secondly, I really like the split between article styles: It gives a chance to present things from a certain point of view, without imposing one rule set upon all papers. There is a problem in it, too, and one that I really dislike: the “lighter” papers have been allowed to state things without basing them on data, unlike the research papers. And I think people will end up quoting those anyway, treating the statements as if they were facts. Nevertheless, the whole books works in a nice progression of increasing reference lists, from one section to the next.

Proofing quality is decent enough, especially given the speed that was needed in the end. Every article has a couple of typos left, but nothing too dramatic. I’m really annoyed that I missed one significant one in Emily’s paper. It seems that two articles are missing references, though – Parsler two, Kim one.

The introduction is nice, but weirdly enough lists most, but not all, of the articles in the book. An understandable choice, but once you list all but a few, the effect is almost dismissive.

The use of pictures in this year’s book is definitely a good thing, they really work as an important part of the works they accompany, illustrating key points that would not be as apparent otherwise.

The Journalism & Community section

Hyltoft’s report on the Danish boarding school is a nice piece of advertisement. It’s very positive, naturally, but contains just the right amount of self-criticism to save it from appearing just a promo piece. Combined with Henriksen’s works and Harder’s article in Lifelike, it gives a good basis for any discourse on role-playing based teaching.

Ahlroth’s clever critique of Laws is really fine, I especially like the “minimum input of any participant” –idea on ideal position for a critic. There’s an almost Wilde-like attitude in what Ahlroth writes on being a critic, and his system is simple, yet thorough enough, and elegant. One of my definite favorites among this book’s articles.

Koljonen’s paper on Dragonbane is OK, and contains what it promises. It’s not, however, particularly notable as a text – from a writer and game analyst of Joc’s caliber, this is a clear disappointment.

Which leads us to Westerling’s paper, which is a sort of “success revisited”. It’s got all the reasons why En Stilla Middag was a success – many of her tips (such as “avoid micromanagement”) standing in direct contrast to the reasons why Dragonbane didn’t exactly become what it was meant to be. It’s a fine, fine text, and will further help establish ESM’s deserved status as one of the “canonized” Nordic larp works.

Kjaer’s list of production tips is again, well, OK. I think the practical applications of it may be good for many, but to myself, being an experienced larpwright and one who does almost all of the work by himself, it did not offer anything new or useful.

Hook’s almost list-like text on the history of British larps is an important document on one playing culture. I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s been put in the first section – despite a lack of academic references, it’s clearly a research work. I hope we get more of these sorts of papers in the future.

The Art & Design section

Parsler’s paper is a nice counterpoint not just to the preceding one but also the Nordic design papers in the book, presenting one small-scale, high-end British larp. It’s a decent report, nothing spectacular, but illustrates its points well enough. The design aspect it was meant to convey gets through very nicely.

Norgren’s communication-based article on Totem is extremely evocative. It was very nice to read something that both explains concept design and makes it possible to really envision the results.

Pedersen & Munck, too, manage to convey the experience of the game they portray very well. Their work on the Dogma hobo-larp The White Road is short, but clever and suitably critical. And again, as with Nordgren, special emphasis is made on points of design that were unique, which is something I really like.

After these two, Lassila’s piece on adventurous romanticism as a style seems like a publicity, self-praise work, even though it does describe the genre quite solidly.

Likewise, Holter’s text on Agabadan, an ARG work resembling chaos magic more than larp, seems a bit out of joint: Holter is extremely player-critical, to the point of hostility. While it is understandable, given how the game went, it makes the report very hard to read.

Wrigstad has written a concise summary on Jeepform, which is great – both the fact that it’s been done and the article. The text is open and easy to access, despite having loads of attitude in it. This is an extremely important contribution, for both designers looking for techniques and as an introductory piece for people interested in the Jeep way.

Hultman, Westerling & Wrigstad return to En Stilla Middag, this time from the design point of view. The article is a nice summary, but I would have preferred a bit more of a critical approach – for example, many of the techniques advertised here actually weakened the game experience for me. (Having to run to the door every time someone says something loud in the next room, just to see if he’s on the “inner monolog” podium or not, simply sucks.)

Then we get to one of the book’s weak points, by Trier-Knudsen. His article on Agerbørn is annoyingly pretentious, and makes unsubstantiated claims about the originality of the sort of narrativism the game was built upon. Skipping over written descriptions of similar games made earlier, as well as theory/manifesto works like Kim (2004) or Westlund (2004), while making claims of novelty, is simply arrogant. This paper should not have been published without heavier editorial work.

Barkholt-Spangsbo has written something that I would love to see appear more: a practical work in applied larp theory. In this case, it’s mostly about ho Fatland’s interaction codes (2006) were implemented in a larp, and in what context. Very nice, and well told. I would have liked a bit more references, though, as some of the points are now just anecdotal.

Pettersson’s paper on indulgence is also nice, and necessary, even though he’s again returning a lot to the same games as in his previous works. The idea of designing for indulgence in some cases is very solid, and resonates strongly with some of my own older works, such as The Sin-Filled Nights of Bratislava. Again, some wider references on key points would have been nice.

Kim’s piece on Parlor Larps is one more necessary addition to our knowledge on larp phenomena around the world, and he presents a clear picture of the composition, strengths and weaknesses of the form. It’s direct, solid, and contains all the necessary info. So a good paper, if not something that’s awe-inspiring.

Research & Theory

(Here I am a bit more critical than before, given the differing criteria for these works.)

I was already familiar with Hopeametsä’s paper, having been present when she first introduced a verion of it in 2006. I really like what she has done – analyzing an immersive larp that’s been run multiple times, via debriefs and interviews, is solid research. While I do not agree on her thoughts of optimal game presence as flow (I’ve suggested in 2006b that it’s a similar, different autotelic state), Heidi argues her points well, and ties it all in with game studies material, from classics to recent. As far as the quality and depth of research work on larp goes, I find this the best paper in the book. It’s something that’s also useful for my own thesis work, and I am very glad it’s now been published.

And then we jump immediately to low point number two: Rognli has come up with a good idea, but when the “as” in the title was switched to “is”, the results got seriously damaged. Instead of a look at similarities and possible connections between children’s pretence and larp, we get an ideological manifesto. What could have been something useful is now an unfounded claim – Rognli fails to establish why similarity and common roots should, as he said, make the activity the same one, identical, instead of a sibling. The concept of pretence as a tool is left out, and with it, sufficient reasoning.

Lieberoth also deals with the same issue, but from a much more reasonable standpoint. He argues his points well, and the material from the side of children’s play is good. Yet I do think that what’s being said on role-playing games, though, comes at times without sufficient data or references, which leaves the contribution a bit suspect.

Of my own work I will only say two things: one, I am quite pleased with it, and two, I should have made references to Kim, Westlund and Lehrskov (whose post-game reduction and Kaprow’s ideas on Chance-based art are interestingly alike) in the section where I talk about narratives.

Emily Care Boss has given us this year the true highlight piece, as Brian Morton did last year. While I think the article could be a bit deeper, simply having a condensed entry on key Forgean concepts is great. Having one of this quality is magnificent! We finally have something holistic that researchers can access – and something people attempting to grasp the Forge can start with. Along with Ahlroth’s paper, this is my favorite contribution in the book.

Denward and Waern present the process of build Sanningen om Marika, the (now) Emmy-awarded, highly impressive interactive larp/ARG/tv-show/whatever project. It is an excellent report, and an intriguing read, but should in my opinion have been a part of the Design section of the book. It’s a paper on how things were done, not new data.

Widing gives us this year’s application of “take philosopher X and apply his/her thoughts on larp”. This time its Arendt, and Gabriel indeed manages to deal with the points of social criticism, alienation and larp quite well. Given the subject matters of capitalism, individuality and temporary spaces, I nevertheless would have liked a few steps outside just one line of thought – for example, also referencing Deleuze & Guattari would have added a lot of strength to this article.

Finally, Konzack & Dall discuss Medievalism in role-playing. Their emphasis seems to be on tabletop, but much of it is very fantasy larp relevant as well. It’s got a very solid research basis, which is then applied to role-playing games. Yet as with Lieberoth, I was left wanting more: there’s extremely good material on Medievalism and the Medieval Times, but applying those to the games is done by just mentioning some rpgs’ traits.

I may be critical here, but excluding the two articles, I was really pleased with this book. It’s got both interesting stuff and important contributions to larp designers and researchers alike, and often many of the articles manage to be both interesting and important, making it enjoyable reading as well.
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