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My Dissertation Now Online (Plus some Thoughts on Polishing)

My doctoral dissertation, Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-play was published online today, without two of the articles. Those are still copyrighted by Sage, and will be added to the pdf next August, when the embargo period ends. The defence is at the University of Tampere, Finland, at noon, on October 18th.

Looking back at the dissertation, and my other recent works, I have come to understand that I suck at final wrap-ups of my texts. When I think something is finished, I can't bear to look at it with any thoroughness any longer. That's a very bad thing, when combined with how a lot of publishers do sloppy work and leave it for the author to correct their errors. I don't furthemore like reference-checking software, as it doesn't fit my writing style, and my experiences with proofreaders over the years have left me distrustful of them (too many try changing content along with language corrections, doing more harm than good). So I do things by myself, leading inevitably to some typos getting past me. So too here. As soon as things come out from the press, I start seeing all the errors I missed, once more, with annoying clarity.
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    A Winged Victory for the Sullen - s/t
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Montola's Diss, Now Online.

Markus Montola's doctoral dissertation, On the Edge of the Magic Cirle: Understanding Role-playing and Pervasive Games, which I reviewed some time ago here is now online. Here's the link to that completely free piece of essential role-playing research. Go read.
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    Massive Attack - Mezzanine
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Book Review: Immersive Gameplay (2012).

After a long wait, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing, edited by Evan Torner and William J. White, is finally in my hands. I co-authored one chapter in it, due to which I won't be posting a review on Amazon, just here. McFarland, as a publisher, isn't always exactly as academic as it claims to be, but in the case of this book the authors have done a very good job at balancing layman-friendly with a suitably academic approach.

The key concept is immersion, one of the most debated things in game studies, making the volume a very important contribution. Examination takes place from many perspectives and on many subjects, ranging from psychology experiments to extreme role-playing and reality television - the last of which has, surprisingly, been tied really well with the game studies content, through analyzing its visible game-components. A big plus goes to the editors for that, and for the fact that Torner himself has in his own article (which I thought the best of the book) built an exemplary bridge between the two subjects, one I hope gets both cited and emulated in the future.

The essays present various important points, with varying thoroughness. Some might just as well have come out in academic journals, others are more like openings than thorough research, but they too have their function in the mix. Even the ones I had problems with, due to lack of in my opinion mandatory references (Writing on Nazi representation in games without citing Frasca, 2000? Or on casual games without Juul, 2010?), I will probably cite a lot. I also hope that the authors will produce more - I can for example see a lot of potential in Fuist's work on self-improvement through tabletop combining with that of, say, Meriläinen. (I personally lament the fact that I did not have access to Newsom's data before I submitted my dissertation the most.) And the fact is that while I may think articles with just 10 references may be somewhat shallow on one side, the findings themselves can nevertheless be very impressive. In addition, the shared bibliography at the end is quite remarkable, and is something especially inexperienced role-playing scholars should pay a lot of attention to, when they think about making off-handed remarks about immersion, bleed, game presence, or so forth.

All in all, a solid book, an approachable book, and a good academic contribution to the study of immersion. Were I an outsider reviewing it, I'd probably give it four stars out of five, with some harsh words on the references of a couple of authors and a lot of praise for the clever audacity of certain others. As one of the authors themselves, however, I settle for saying "I like this, and I'm proud to be included in such fine company".
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    Deadmau5 - For Lack of a Better Name
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Theses, Three.

Three new master's theses (or the equivalent) on the market, all freely available through the right channels (and it's possible to buy Hook's in print, too).

1) Nathan Hook: Identities at Play. Available here.

Nathan presents some really nice points on in-play identities, in a rather abrupt manner. Some typos disrupt the flow, but all in all, good work. (Nathan has severely misunderstood my ilinx idea, but I see now that it's my own wording's fault). Nathan is in strong contact with other researchers, so no surprise that he's well informed. Clever ideas.

2) Kivinen, Sari: Spin-Fold-Spill : a textual investigation about role-play, narrative, and fictitious truths. Available here.

Coming from a theatre studies angle, Kivinen presents a game/artpiece design, and its theoretical framing. Some ideas I liked a lot, as I did her permutations on what the medium allows, but the fact remains some very relevant key works (at least one of Harviainen, 2008, or 2010, or Lampo, 2011, or Stenros, 2010, should have been there...) were not at all mentioned. So: nice, but lots of unused potential because of a limited frame of reference. If you're into the larp-theatre angle at all, however, do check it out. Valuable.

3) Mosley, Ian: Beyond the 4th Wall: Exploring Identity in Live Action Role Players. For this one, you need to contact Ian personally.

Mosley looks at larps from a sociological viewpoint, especially with serious leisure as a concept in mind. Sadly, his reference base is strangely limited (rumor has it, at least partially due to supervisor bias), and key works like Brenne, Balzer and Stenros aren't used - nor is the absolutely seminal Fine. Some important others are there, however, as are some surprising texts, and the arguments are mostly well presented, so I get a very mixed reaction from it all. In any case, the author shows obvious talent that in my opinion just needs a bit of more reading to get into full bloom. Larp sociologists, do ask him for a copy.
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    Enigma - MCMXC a.D.
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Bizarre Philosophy Triangle.

Some months ago, I spotted the CFP for a Blackwell book, "Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy, to be edited by Christopher Robichaud. I, like a dozen colleagues, sent in an article proposal. Then, nothing happened. Not even a confirmation of proposal reception. Through indirect means, I eventually found out that the editor had apparently decided to put it on indefinite hiatus, without informing any of us. He then stopped answering messages about it.

Imagine my surprise when I saw an ad for "Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy", edited by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox, scheduled to appear from Open Court Books. Asking around I found out that yes, it'd formerly been a Blackwell concept. So I fumed for a while, and then decided to send a message to one of the editors, to find out what the hell had happened.

Turns out, it's a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BOOK - compiled some months before Robichaud's, without any open CFP, and first offered to the same publisher. Therefore all search engine uses led to the impression that it's the same volume, and that some authors had been very rudely dropped. Not true. Just synchronicity and some bad manners from one person.

You can find out more about the real book here. I know some really good authors are included, so my hopes for it are very high. I have already pre-ordered myself a copy.
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    v/a - Mojo presents: Electricity
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Thesis on Religion in D:tF.

Through a hint, I came across a recent Canadian master's thesis on religion in Demon: the Fallen. Given my history and own research, it naturally interested me. You can find it here. Trenton Streck-Havill bases a lot of his ideas on Cover's book on tabletop rpg (which as you may know I don't think of as a very high-quality piece of research), and he uses the classical paradigm of study of religion, without addressing the cognitive angles at all, so the work itself had little initial attraction for me despite the topic.

I don't criticize master's theses much these days, but honestly, when someone writes "I do not deny that Huizinga, Caillois, and many other scholars of both religion and game theory, are right in their assessment of the gaming ritual as religious. Instead it is my opinion that these scholars have not yet studied the full breadth of religious expression provided by gaming." while himself completely ignoring cognitive study of religion, I do get somewhat irked.

Likewise, "An emphasis on narrative has likewise sparked the first vestiges of interest in the internal reality of the game setting. This is what I focus on in this discussion, and for the most part it is an entirely unexplored part of game studies. Jennifer Cover is perhaps the only scholar to give any theoretical thought to the notion of game reality, and even then it remains a survey of methodology and theory meant to assist others in tackling the subject." makes me wonder through what use of search engines he came to that conclusion of an unexplored territory.

Nevertheless, the author had some very insightful points about game rules relating to religion, and on game-internal logic. Demon is a very good choice of rpg for that. I've for fun analyzed it myself many years ago. So while I dislike certain parts of the work that seem to me both arrogant and ignorant, I can easily forgive those as common masters-thesis symptoms, and concentrate on the solid parts. I really liked several ideas on Setting, in Chapter Two, and it makes me in a way sad to know just how well those could have been presented with a wider set of references at the author's disposal. So I sincerely hope he continues his line of research.

(A note to scholars of role-playing rules: Even if you're not interested in the religion angle, give the thesis a look. It's got stuff on game mechanics creating game-internal reality that you may want to cite some day.)
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    Sebastien Tellier - My God Is Blue
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Fat Man, Down.

By request, I ran Frederik Berg Østergaard's jeepform "Fat Man Down" to quite a mixed group. For those who don't know it, it's about people being mean to an overweight man - a social commentary on how people treat others, in the form of a freeform game. One of the harshest games on the market (actually, it's downloadable for free, here. Being mean to someone is actually very taxing for a mostly sane person - as is finding out just how easily the slurs do surface.

We had some problems due to a language barrier, and the safe word use could definitely have benefitted from a clearer explication at the start. And the GM has actually very little control on the pacing or the tone, once the game starts. Therefore, I concentrated on running scenes for escalation, a trick I've tried to hone when organizing Nathan Hook's excellent "Black Dog" several times before.

While I don't consider the run a complete success, we had some great moments (feel free to steal, should you run it somewhere). Mikko Pervilä did a great job increasing his level of sloughing, as the Fat Man, creating a palpable atmosphere of tragedy. Peter Adkison came up with a really powerful scene where the Fat Man passes his favorite restaurant after two successful days of dieting. A phone call between a skinny brother and the Fat Man who had just been rejected from a flight (as too big for a seat) to their father's funeral was really distressing, as was a job interview where he was promised a job - if he'd ever drop under 85kg. FMD is one of the games that makes you feel really bad about laughing, even as you can't avoid doing so.

More experiments with it are definitely needed. Even at moments when it did not really work, I could feel the inherent potential in the script.
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    Theodor Bastard - Remixed
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Book Review: States of Play.

Last on my list of delayed reviews comes the Solmukohta 2012 book (with varying covers), States of Play edited by Juhana Pettersson. After the Danes presented three books last year, a change of style was needed, and Juhana provided just that. The book reads like a cross-over between game documentation and game journalism, in a good sense. The key idea guiding it is the spread of Nordic larp concepts around the world, and the resulting interaction with other larp cultures, which in turn may have a lot to offer of their own. Spanning a hefty 35 essays, it documents old and new Nordic games, grants a look at songs in Russian larps, and on introducing larp to Palestine, and so forth.

Most of the texts are very short, and remain on the level of descriptive anecdotes. They are nevertheless surprisingly good. Those that are not descriptive tend to be opinion pieces. As I am a theorist and a designer, for me the highlight of it all was Michal Mochocki's theory-framed description of Polish historical larps. And on a totally subjective note, I am very happy about having finally written about our intriguing success of a failure, "Valokaari". Most of all, however, I liked the way some games were presented through multiple viewpoints, bringing them a lot more to life than a single essay would have.

All in all, however, the book reads to me more as an advertisement of ideas and larps past rather than a serious new contribution. It manages to create loads of interest in what's in there, and inspires more questions, but does not answer them by itself. I would prefer the texts to be at least double-length each. The upside of this all is of course that it's an easy book to pick up, skim, read here and there, appreciate, and be intrigued by. It may no be as deep as the ones that came before it over the last few years, but as promotion it is excellent. After so many increasingly heavy volumes, perhaps that's exactly what we needed?
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    Donis - Ein Saulelė Aplink Dangų
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Book Review: The Book of Kapo (2012)

The documentation tradition amongst Nordic larpers has reached the point where people are starting to demand a focus on design rather than just documenting others' works (see Talk Larp...), I know. Some documentary works, however, nevertheless not only merit their existence but also justify loads of promotion. The Book of Kapo, edited by Claus Raasted, is definitely one of those. In its 200 picture-loaded pages, it documents the design and play of Kapo, a brutal prison camp larp run in Denmark in 2011.

It was not a fun game, but rather something played for the harsh experience itself, and the book very much reflects that. A very big part of it consists of personal reports - to the point of frankly becoming somewhat repetitive. That's a small issue, however, as the book in general is a very impressive piece of documentation, easily able to open the concept - including its essential motives - to also people who did not attend, and even to interested non-larpers. I highly applaud its existence. It does have one big problem, though - it's clearly been designed for aesthetics rather than readability. The changing fonts are often small and messy, making it a slower read than it should content-wise be.

Harsh, visual, effective, this is a game-documentation book that should be found right next to Nordic Larp on the bookshelves of all afficionados of serious larping. It sets a new standard for how extensive larp documentation can - and in the case of certain games should - be.
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    Alexander Scriabin - Poème Satanique, Op. 36 (Xiayin Wang, piano)
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Book Review: Playing the Learning Game.

The short book, Playing the learning game: A practical introduction to educational roleplaying, edited by Martin E. Andresen, is a layman-friendly guide to the basics of edu-larping, in a very hands-on manner. Born out of the Larpwriter Challenge project, it gives example scenarios, a few experience reports and some practical ideas for people interested in either using such games or just reading about them. What it does not provide, however, is any sort of an educational science framework on game-based learning, and in many ways seems to represent black-box thinking on that part.

Nevertheless, the fact that it's based on actual experiences and well-tested games means that it can be trusted as a guidebook for actually functioning ideas. The editor's excellent introduction outlines that point well. Of the short essays, of particular interest to me was the one by Malik Hyltoft, which while quite blatantly advertising role-playing pedagogy also remained wisely critical of it. In turn, Aarebrot and Nielsen, presenting the intriguing edu-larp "Prisoner for a Day" provide an excellent example of the necessity of proper post-game anchoring in order to avoid harmfully situated learning. Some more language correction would have done each of the pieces good, however, as small but frequent linguistic errors may make the book seem amateurish to some readers, and it most certainly is not. While it may be down-to-earth in style, the authors are notable experts in what they write about.

Included are also three mini-larps and one jeepform game. Two of them are inspirational, two directly educational, yet the inspirational ones can be used for education, too, and the edu-games played without educational goals. In the first category goes the brilliant "Family Andersson" by Nolemo & Röklander, a game about dividing an inheritance that uses shared character ownership. The other one is more an outline than a complete game: "Hostage" by jeepers Fritzon and Wrigstad functions as a system of scenes, which can be played in multiple ways. It's very powerful, but left me wondering if it's really as beginner-friendly as all the rest of the material in the book. Then there's my own "The Tribunal", which has now been run more times than I can count, in a dozen countries, with a wonderful new illustration next to it. The fourth is the winner of the Belarusian Larpwriter Challenge, Sergey Loparev's amazing "1942: The Police". Sharp historical drama and commentary, packed inside a smartly streamlined, stylish and brutal mini-larp.

Rounding up the package is a set of tools, with discussion on debriefing, workshops and warm-up. Quite elementary, but all the more suitable for use by beginners as well as reminders for experienced organizers. All in all, while not very complex (excluding the game designs), Playing the learning game is practical, useful and oftentimes also impressive. It's the kind of user-oriented larp theory that critical voices from outside ivory towers have been clamoring for, so I seriously hope it finds the right audiences - the people who will put it to good use.

The book can be purchased from Lulu. It's a bit pricey compared to its size, but I nevertheless recommend it for any serious enthusiast of edu-larping.
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    Melody Gardot - The Absence