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WyrdCon 2013 Companion Book.

The WyrdCon 2013 book is finally out, published just in time to still be a 2013 volume. Lots of diverse content there, but pleasingly no really weak points whatsoever. A couple of the journalistic section parts (edited by Aaron Vanek) slip into being more commercial (read: advertisement) than analytic, and a couple of the academic, peer-reviewed contributions (edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman) do well with either framing or analysis, but fail to provide the other half.

The good sides, however, make all of these small problems disappear amost completely. The book is loaded with solid contributions in both parts, and even the articles of which I remain critical provide good tools people can build upon later. Because I watched several of the works develop from early versions to their full bloom, and because the book contains an article of my own, on larp management systems and structures, I feel not at all able to write an objective review of the contribution.

So I will simply say that give it a try - I enjoyed reading it a lot. The editors have gathered up some very, very useful essays. It provides something rather rare even within the Nordic tradition - academic texts that have direct, practical applications and journalistic articles that are also obvious academic contributions. So even if one half of the book looks not like your cup of tea, it may well be, if you give it a chance.

You can download the book for free here (or buy a hard copy version via Lulu soon).
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Research developments.

In the time I have been neglecting this blog, several interesting pieces of academic role-playing research with which I am connected have turned up.

First of all, the fourth issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing has been published. It contains five articles selected from the Role-Playing in Games seminar at the University of Tampere, Finland, April 10-11, 2012. You can find it online for free here.

Also, my own doctoral dissertation has now been made available online, freely, in full. And in case you have not noticed the fact yet, Markus Montola's dissertation was selected last year's best at our university - a very big, impressive honor.

My wife and I have a chapter on larps in high schools, in Moseley and Whitton's excellent book "New Traditional Games for Learning".

Soon arriving will be more news, as certain journal issues, books and other things with which I have been involved start appearing.
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Book review: The four Knutepunkt 2013 books.

Things escalate and shrink at the same time - this year saw Knutepunkt publish no less than four volumes, one with just photographs and the others with a light, journalistic style. The reasoning behind the style is obvious, and something mentioned already by last year's editor, Juhana Pettersson: with enough academic channels already available, KP editors both can and want to concentrate on what's (to them anyway) important. For me, that feels like a cop-out, but it seems to suit a big part of the audience.

While several of the essay subjects would in my opinion deserve a much wider and more reference-grounded presentation (esp. Heath's nice and accurate but anecdotal-seeming edu-larp piece and Ström's nifty text on milsims), all in all, the editors have succeeded in making something that was easy to contribute to, without sacrificing too much content or quality. I know from experience that several of the more academic authors could have been much more thorough, but their appetite-whetters here do serve a purpose too. And I do love the increasingly international angle in all of it.

High points for me were too numerous to mention, once I got past my innate "He should have referenced X here, instead of just writing conjecture", but if I had to pick one, it would be Andresen & Nielsen's "The Mixing Desk of Larp". So light, so easy, so clever. Even more impressively, this is the first year, among both KP books and all their siblings, that I did not find a low point, an essay that would have annoyed me with some grandiose claims based on nothing but not knowing what's been done before. Well done, editors. Well done, indeed.

Karete Jacobsen Meland & Katrine Øverlie Svela (eds.) (2013):
Crossing Habitual Borders
Crossing Physical Borders
Crossing Theoretical Borders
Exploring Borders


Online versions of all but the photobook can be found here: http://www.knutepunkt.org/page/book/
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Book Review: WyrdCon Companion 2012

WyrdCon's 2012 Companion came out some time ago already, but it's taken me a surprisingly long time to read it. Its expanded version 2 can be freely downloaded here. The book consists of two parts. The first one is journalistic, edited by Aaron Vanek, and the second an academic (non-referee) section edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman. The book also makes very efficient use of hyperlinking, making it a rare larp volume that has gained significant advantages (beside the obvious open access) from not being printed as a hardcopy.

Most of the journalistic contents are new, and what has been chosen for reprinting deserved that reprint. The historical documents focusing on Intercon and Ford Ivey's work are very nice, as are some of the other contributions, particularly the hands-on design guidance of Jason Morningstar and Lizzie Stark's piece on using Nordic techniques in North American larps. Likewise, John Kim's update on the history and influence of the Threefold Model is very welcome, even if it remains quite thin, as the model has over the years been used and discussed by numerous practitioners and scholars of larp. For me, however, the true highlight of the first part was Gord Sellar's wonderful account on using larps for language teaching in Korea, a mixture of culture commentary and methodological analysis. The sole problem point of the section is Maria Alexander's shallow and misinterpretative essay on religious behavior, narratives and fan participation. While her idea is clever and well worth exploring, the execution remains ignorant of basic theories of acting-as-if, social pressure, the impact of a faith component on religious activities and so forth, with the result that the author confuses correlation with causality.

The academic section, after its introduction, starts with the weakest piece: Strix Beltrán provides an eclectic mixture of depth psychology, archetypes, bleed and various other subjects, but whenever she steps outside of her own primary area of expertise, the result reads like an undergraduate summary rather than a research piece, and it, frankly, provides no new results - at least for someone versed in numerous key works Beltran does not quote. In contrast, Rafael Bienia builds on exiting research, providing field data on larper motivations, all the while recognizing and admitting the limits of his claims. Especially nice is that even though the material is German, the project is based on American ideas presented in an earlier WyrdCon book, making the work part of a longer continuity.

I'd already seen an earlier version of Nathan Hook's chapter, and liked the way it had evolved. Discussing immersion, Hook well shows through interviews that certain attitudes and ideologies regarding it exist, even if the comments remain individual opinions the prevalence of which cannot be currently assessed. Yaraslau I. Kot, in turn, presents a fresh look at edu-larp, from perspectives not yet common in the constantly growing corpus of literature on educational larp. In addition, the chapter is important in that it provides fellow scholars with English-language remote access to key work done on that subject in Russian, masses of which appear to exist.

The book wraps up with a very nice report from Neal McDonald and Alan Kreizenbeck, who ran an university course on larp in 2012. Explaining their goals, successes and failures, they present a very intriguing look at larp in an artistic context, its reception by non-larpers, and so on, with moments where intriguing cultural differences show through, and with solid data behind their claims. There's a funny mishap included, however: the authors occasionally use "player" to denote in-character behavior, leading to statements like "Players shot and stabbed each other, wrestled for the gun, defiled the shrine, mourned their children, and died meaningless, pitiful deaths."

The WyrdCon 2012 Companion is impressive, intriguing, and even at points where I felt certain essays would have required serious re-writing, inspiring and innovative, at least on which ideas were discussed. The book is strongly in dialogue with earlier larp literature, and for the most part its authors seem aware of relevant works in the field. It is definitely worth a read, not just skimming, and I believe several parts of it will see very active citation from academics as well, in the coming years.
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Book Review: Larp - Nur ein Spiel?

Along with the MittelPunkt 2013 conference was published the fifth book of their series, this time called "Larp: Nur ein Spiel?", edited by Rafael Bienia and Karsten Dombrowski. (It's available for example from the publisher, Zauberfeder.)

A hundred pages long, the volume contains six essays and some reading tips. The language is German, and the book is obviously directed towards a German audience, not really abroad. Following the tradition of many Knutepunkt volumes, and earlier MP books, the tone is mostly semi-academic, with the occasional opinion piece in the mix.

Several of the earlier MittelPunkt books contained some original research alongside more generic presentations and clever game reports. This one mostly does not, but that's not really the point here. Larp: Nur ein Spiel? is obviously written and edited more as an introductory piece to several key subjects of larp theory, not as an academic volume. And in what seeks to do, it succeeds extremely well.

Starting on its least academic part, the volume opens with an essay by Dr. Heinrich Dickerhoff. In it, the author ponders larp's relationship to adult education, fun, his own religious views and so forth. What connections are presented to wider themes are anecdotal, not referenced, so it's all an opinion piece - but a nice, personal one at that.

Daniel Steinbach, one of Germany's leading experts on edu-larp (and a contributor to all but one of the earlier MP books), provides an excellent short description of two larps that set out to teach the effect of Germany divided by the Berlin Wall. He skillfully presents enough details to give a reader a clear picture of the concepts, yet stays away from excessive minutiae, keeping the text interesting at all times. It's something many a larp educator shoud read, despite the potential language barrier.

Gerke Schlickmann presents a gender analysis, one that's solidly anchored to existing, earlier research and shows that the author has done homework. The text remains on quite a basic level, probably due to it being a re-worked part of a thesis, but it functions very well as an introductory piece to a complex subject, and the data gathered from 50 larpers is good, especially as it's contextualized by other researchers' works.

Likewise, Dennis Wienert-Risse too provides a good, easy introduction to a popular subject: frame analysis of larps. He too has done his homework well, shows that he knows the key references, and explains the key concepts in a relatively light, yet sufficiently complex manner, and when necessary, dips into issues of immersion and metainformation as well. Again, the purpose of offering something useful instead of heavy precision shows through, in a very good way.

Carl-David Habbe adds one new step on the discussion on the theatricality and performativity of larps, while showing that he knows what's already been said. At the same time as the work contains some novel points, it also functions as a good introductory reading list for people interested in the subject - a subject that keeps popping up.

The first place it pops up is the following essay, in which Bodo Jentzsch tackles with the same issues, but without the necessary references. (Dates in footnotes hint at the text being an older work, which excuses some omissions, but not all, as the author would have had access to a good reading list in another article of a book he quotes...) This lack of anchoring makes the book wrap up with anecdotality once more, but to Jentzsch's credit, his interview data is good and he uses it well.

As a whole, Larp: Nur ein Spiel? is the most solid, most professional MittelPunkt book so far. It is for the most part in exemplary dialogue with earlier research, easy to approach yet offers some new research as well. It's semi-academic, layman-friendly larp writing at its best. For a larp studies professional there isn't much that is really new, but still some, and it is obviously targeted to a wider audience, so that's no fault. The only thing I had a problem with were the different referencing styles and the occasional mis-written author names, but that's a small detail.

All I can say in judgment is that I hope this good book gets the readership that it deserves, in both Germany and abroad.
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Games, Social Media and Information.

Today, after a month's wait, I received my own author copy of the Emerald book Social Information Research, edited by Åbo Akademi luminaries Gunilla Widén and Kim Holmberg and published by Emerald. It's a peer reviewed publication about various facets of social media research (from a LIS perspective), with the author list including several brilliant people whom I really admire, from professors to fellow post-grad students.

My own contribution to it came as a part of "Information Phenomena in Game-Related Social Media", which I co-authored with two friends who share my interest in using LIS to understand games (and vice versa), Richard D. Gough and Olle Sköld. It continues to surprise me how little the connection of games, social media and information has so far been explored, so getting a book chapter out about that feels almost like trailblazing.

The book is very expensive, but also very important reading for researchers of social media from various fields and perspectives, not just LIS. (I especially liked Olsson's analysis of SoMe in the context of drama, something many a larp scholar should read, and Heck's chapter about SoMe in academic networking). So I wish what copies of it end up in university libraries will see heavy use, and that the occasional pre-publication draft will make its way into the right hands.

Damn proud to be included in such fine company, with such fine co-authors.
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Polish Edu-Larp Book.

Normally, I'd write a review when I come across a new book on role-playing studies. This time, however, I can't understand what I have (just like I can't read the Russian or Czech larp works on my shelves...). In any case, LARP. Myśli i szkice, published by Gdanski Klub Fantastyki, looks very intriguing. Low on references, high on content - both essays as scenarios that have commentaries alongside them. It includes my own 2009 article, "Notes on Designing Repeatable Larps" as a translation, and also a Polish version of Morgan Jarl's "Creating a Character" from the same KP 2009 book. The local contributions appear intriguing to even a foreign eye, making me want to understand them.

The first print is apparently dealt out (as it wasn't sold, but rather just given to interested people), but there is hope for a second, expanded edition, I hear.
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Dr. Harviainen.

I defended my doctoral dissertation successfully last Thursday against the brilliant Dr. Whitton. Today, I was formally granted the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, Finland. I am very happy, also with what I heard of the appraisal, even though formally our School only recognizes two grades of "accepted". I placed on the high end of the lower degree. And that's awesome, because:

Markus Montola, who defended his a few weeks before me, got his degree in the same board meeting, rightfully earning the absolutely deserved "with distinction", which SIS gives just one per year, if at all. So it's been an extremely good day for academic role-playing scholarship.

On a related note, I've finally created a formal web page of my own, so as to make the promotion of relevant role-playing scholarship and teaching easier.

Also, a new peer-reviewed article by me, Richard D. Gough and Olle Sköld was apparently published today. More on that later, however, once I get the book.
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Book Review: Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (2012).

(This is a copy of the review I posted on Amazon, partially in reaction to an extremely biased one that was already there. While I too remain critical, the book certainly did not deserve all the prejudiced crap the first reviewer had uttered.)
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Jon Cogburn & Marc Silcox (Eds.): Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (Open Court, 2012)

Shallow, at times clever, consistently entertaining (three stars)

This isn't a deep book about the philosophy of games. Nor is it one that's in proper discourse with preceding books on the philosophy of games (role-playing or other). What it does do, however, is entertain its reader with philosophy-connected examples from Dungeons & Dragons and certain cultural phenomena connected to it, and now and then raise questions deeper than where it manages to go on its own. Unlike several other books on role-playing, this one is obvious about why it has chosen a certain style of approach and excluded some pathways, language tone included. I also enjoyed that it at times presented points where the authors critiqued one another.

It is unclear, however, whether the authors (excluding two) were aware of existing research on what they talk about, and this (apparent or factual) ignorance at times causes significant problems. They make claims that should be presented in discourse with established works on the same subjects (the most obvious omissions being Suits and Tavinor, but the list is quite long), not as personal statements. The only one of the authors who says something really novel is Chris Bateman, in certain parts of his second essay. The biggest problem part in the book is Olson's gender essay, which falls into the same fallacy as did Nephew (2003, 2006) and confuses the games' supposed inherent attitudes with those of their subject group, American males, blaming the games for what appears to rather be an issue of local male culture. Likewise, several authors seem to be fixated on the old ludology/narrative split in game studies, which is for the most parts considered rather obsolete (or irrelevant) by the majority of game studies scholars these days.

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy is light reading and an easy introduction, but it would frankly function a lot better if the authors would have cared to include some more of the philosophy of games already in existence, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel once again.

(LJ addendum: the list of ignored but very relevant earlier works at the very least includes Arjoranta, Bergström, Crookall, Oxford & Saunders, Lappi, Montola and Nephew.)
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Book Review - Peterson: Playing at the World (2012).

Here's a copy of my Amazon review of Jon Peterson's book Playing at the World. A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-playing Games (San Diego: Unreason Press).

Wonderful in some areas, worthless in others. (three stars)

Jon Peterson has written a huge, very ambitious tome. As far as historical data goes, the work is incredibly devoted, including almost-unnecessary minutiae, but there is good reason to include it all, in order to give credit where due and to debunk myths in other places. The author has done a massive amount of work to provide as much information as possible.

However, the minute Peterson starts speaking of the influence of rules on play, narrative, and especially immersion, the fact that he is almost totally ignorant of existing research shows through. I therefore found the book very valuable (5 stars) on some parts, harmfully oblivious on others (barely even one star).

For anything beyond exacting details of the early years, Michael J. Tresca's "The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games" is the weapon of choice. For the precise history of how and why it all began (and that alone), Peterson's absolutely great.
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