Tips and traps when making participatory culture

Eirik Fatland kindly translated this post from swedish.


  • Communicate the agreement clearly and explicitly. Only when the participant knows the rules of play, that is: how communication and participation are meant to be done, is she confident enough to act.
  • Consider banning passive spectators and documentation. The external, critical, view is not always productive. It may in some cases prevent participatory action. People do not behave the same way in front of a camera as they do in front of confidantes. Documentation usually fails at capturing the qualities of a participatory work, but easily pushes participants from dialogic action to simple performance.
  • Use an aesthetic or story as basis. In this way, a framework is easily made for the action. With total creative freedom, it is easy for the participants to drift off into darkness without knowing what to do. Stories help us find meaningful actions.
  • Use the body and its senses. Whether participation is verbal or physical, the various senses can be employed. Sharing smells, sound, rhythm, music and food together can intensify the meeting.


  • Over-confidence in the Will to participate. We are schooled in the spectator paradigm, and many fear participation.
  • Interactivity instead of participation. Rather than creating a space for action, one creates only a limited set of options to choose between. This is common amongst producers with a need for control.
  • Too high threshold. The skill of participation must be learned. It works differently in different contexts and cultures. Consider how to avoid making the rules governing interaction too difficult and complicated.
  • Narrow space of action / little possibility for impact. The participant’s must have the possibility to act in a way that has a genuine influence on the experience and actions of other participants. Putting a piece of paper in a box, or hanging it on the wall at the end of an exhibition – these are not participatory.
  • Work / alienation. Mandatory participation with a results focus is pervasive in our society, e.g. in schools. Grading individual contributions to a group work is an excellent way to destroy the participatory process.
  • Provocation. Trying to cross the barrier between producer and consumer using provocation rather than formulating new agreements.

6 Common Mistakes in Live Role-playing Design

This article was published in the anthology Playing Reality by Interacting Arts 2010.

DESIGNING LARPS IS A COMPLEX PROCESS and one must have courage to take on the responsibility of doing it. The players are demanding and bring creative power as well as infinite demands. I have assembled a few common mistakes that are made in larp design. If you avoid them you we’ll be pretty much on track. They are of course a generalization and there are probably exceptional situations where all of these design choices can be motivated. So rather than banning them from larp design I wish that you, as an organizer, think twice before using them. The mistakes all have a common feature: they disable role-playing. So the work-arounds would generally be focused on how to enable participant interaction by the means of their characters.


There is a revolution going on – but you are not there. Placing the characters outside the actual drama is quite strange, but still common. It is as if the organizers wish to save the players characters from drama. But drama is not dangerous, its the nerve of role-playing. This doesn’t mean that only big actions are important, the small ones can be great experiences too. Forgiving, approaching, confessing, trusting can all make nice scenes, but we must also dare to let our characters suffer and hate, murder and make love. This means placing the characters center-stage. If you write a story that is imposssible to enact within the confinements of the physical space of live role-playing you should reconsider the means for telling the story. Maybe a freeform role-playing session would suit it better. Larp is not neutral – so we must find stories that surf on the waves of collaborative improvised character interaction rather than writing up epic or cinematic narratives that in the end is forced off stage. The problems with cinematic aesthetics in larp was noted ten years ago in the Dogme ‘99 (Fatland and Wingård 1999), but it’s still a holy grail for all too many organizers.


Many organizers has an urge to ”create a world”. Nothing wrong about that, but its very common that the world is described by 50+ pages, followed by one page about the actual setting of the scenario. This way the backdrop of the story becomes very heavy and the players are afraid to improvise in a way that conflicts with the pre-written world. Neither are they helped in relating to each other. If the larp is set in a small village in the forest, you are not very supported by knowing how big army or deep religious beliefs or flourishing trade the people of the neighbouring country has. What you actually need is to be informed of the context of the actual stage: the village. Who lives there? How are they related? What are they doing on a Friday night? What are their dreams about? And for the purpose of creating drama: What are their holy cows? Who is in debt to whom?


Organizers trying to save their players from boredom through an unexpected rupture in the dramaturgy of the scenario is quite common. When organizers doesn’t believe in the basic strengths of their scenario they are tempted to save the players from boredom by twisting the whole scenario. This works perfect in most media, like litterature and film: think Trueman show, The Matrix, Fight Club etc. But in the context of live role-playing it generally fails to serve its purpose. Why? Because putting the character in front of a completely unexpected situation – Your world is not what it seems to be! – also decontextualizes the player. The message being: Whatever you have prepared yourself for doesn’t make sense anymore. This makes the player insecure and alienates her from the character, erase the genre frames etc. The player must thus rethink her character. What would my character do in this super-strange situation? How would she feel? This generally disable the interaction between the characters for quite some time.

A deceptive design has sometimes been promoted, for example by the finnish pseudonym Markku Jenti in Nothing is True; Everything is permissible – Using Deception as a Productive Tool, but the article fails to communicate when it’s a good idea to decept the players in that way. Most of the text is actually about when it’s problematic designwise or morally dubious to do it.

There is nothing wrong about strange turns within a larp story – but neither is it a problem to communicate those twists on beforehand.


Negotiations within the fiction is not a bad thing per se. But its all too common that the negotiations is about something that doesn’t exist on the actual setting, something off-stage. “I have an army of 500 men, only two days travel from here” (the larp ending in one day). “But I have an army of 800 men, haha!” This kind of non-sensible negotiations will never support good drama. How about the beggar saying: “I’m prepared to work in your shop, just for free food and lodging.” The trick would be to put the things at hand into play. What matters to the characters at this point in their life?

Political negotiations does require more abstract conceptualisation and it’s potentially interesting to play. But if you don’t think it through carefully it is likely that the players will reenact present day ideological dogmas. We have seen many times how pseudo-medieval feudal villages has turned to present-day democracies. This is of course a sound impulse on behalf of the players, but sometimes a little bit too predictable and dull. Another problem in the same direction is how a conflict between upper and lower classes in a larp story turns into an argument between social liberal and social democratic ideologies, echoing the last debate between parlamentary left and right. Sometimes the political negotiations even resemble the yearly member metings where we choose a new board for the club. Is that where we want to go within our fantasy worlds too? Another board meeting, chewing through trivialities.

I would suggest political scenarios on another level – stories about affinity, forming groups and collectives, breaking them apart, regrouping, being in conflict, making peace, going to war.

After all larp is not about D.I.Y. but D.I.T., do-it-together.


It’s rather easy to write a political scenario where 15 important people meet up to negotiate and have a nice time. It’s a lot harder to make all their servants, associates and subordinates to feel and become center stage. Extras are sweet in movies, but dull in larps. This does not mean that everyone on larps should play high status people, but rather that equal focus should be turned to all players involved, also in terms of theme. If the game has a political theme, then everyone should be involved in the political process one way or another. If the game has a social theme then social relationships should be the base for character interaction. All too often the theme of the game doesn’t involve more than a bunch of the characters. So please relieve us from “important” meetings in wich only a few are invited to play. The dynamics between open and closed rooms can be useful, but should be used with care.


During the years of manifestos (1999–2003) the theorists of the Nordic larp scene set out to find “the possibilities inherent in larp, […] unique laws; the essence of larp” (Fatland and Wingård 1999). It was like a reenactment of the early 20TH century modernist rapture in art. The problem was that we came back with a dozen of “essences”. Is it the story, the character immersion, winning the game, meeting people or making art that is the “essence” of larp? I would say that the general conclusion that came out of years of heated and friendly debates was that any of these directions can be made into the essence of larp. But, there is a but, if you combine two or more of those player motivations you can get into trouble. Thus communicating the style of play on beforehand is a win-win situation for everyone involved. If you are into intrigues and gaming you will find it pretty dull to interact with an esoteric immersionist. If you just want to hang out and have a nice time with your friends within a fictional framework, then you don’t want some maniac swinging rubber in close proximity etc. So organizing as if there was an essence in your way of doing larp is recommendable. The interaction will run smother and everyone will be content in the end.


So, why are these mistakes done over and over again? I mean this text is definetly not a critique of a certain group of organizers or genre or style.

My hunch is that we are a little bit scared by the potentials of the larp. Many organizers intentionally or unconsciously wish to «save» their participants from the larp. This happens in many ways and the consequences are most of the time disturbing or even ruining the player experience. My point here is that there is nothing fundamentally new about the design issues that I’ve tried to pinpoint.

The underlying problem seems to be that we know that it’s bad but still we do it, over and over again. Thus the philosophical/psychological twist to these hands-on design tips is to question wether we actually want involving, mindtwisting and breathtaking events, or if we are content with the stumbling scenarios that we keep on repeating? It is as if we unconsciously wish to fail to realize our fantasies, but with the right proximity. Neither too good nor too crappy. Might be that we do not really want our fantasies to come true, because that would probably have far-reaching consequences for our daily life. Our praxis is directed to almost getting there.

Are we too coward to use our full set of methods and learn from previous mistakes? Are we afraid of what can happen if we design at full throttle? I dare all the organisers out there to be even more daring in your proposals.
Let’s see how good we really are.

Thanks to A-K Linder for input.

GABRIEL WIDING teaches game design and cultural theory. He is cogeditor of Interacting Arts Magazine since 2001, a publication that aims to promote participatory artistic prac- tices and discuss its political implications. In 2008 Interacting Arts released a book in Swedish named Deltagarkultur (“Participatory Arts”). He has organized a handfull of larps, but lately been more into reality game design, working with mask play in public environments. He is also exploring the possibilities of combining role-playing with improvised dance.


The Character, the Player and Their Shared Body

The article is written by Gabriel Widing & Tova Gerge, published in Role, Play, Art, edited by Thorbiörn Fritzon and Tobias Wrigstad,  in conjunction with the 10th Knutpunkt Convention in Sweden, 2006.

What happens to our bodies when we give them to characters and place them in new environments and situations? Where do these memories go? The aim of this essay is to write a genealogy of muscles and organs; to try out visions and conflicting thoughts concerning the body in play.


Live role-players put their bodies at the disposal of the destinies of the characters. Thereby, their bodies are also at the disposal of the aims of the organisers. New experiences are imprinted onto the organism of the participant, and new desires and aversions are born out of these experiences: the brain is pulling in one direction, the stomach just wants to quit, the heart is rushing. As the motivation for playing lies in the body, so do reactions in the game.

Our starting point is that each player has interests in his or her character—sexual desires, social awards, psychological challenges, need for confirmation, etc. Yet the choice of character is often disguised by false neutrality. A characters choice directed by personal interest, seems somehow dirty and suspicious. “I can play anything” is a common expression when it comes to picking a character. It is shameful to want, shameful to choose.

Within each player culture, there is a norm for what thoughts and variations are acceptable. This norm might be good in terms of controlling and moderating our behaviour. The tradition of some interests, for example “psychological challenges”, being more legitimate than others means that, in practise, a controversial choice of character will only be welcome if the player has a billion brilliant intellectual reasons to explain it with. The success rate in passing this social test is entirely individual,which is why we wish to describe these interests on a structural level rather than an individual.

If we can identify which desires one might be gratifying by entering a live role-play, we can also produce scenarios that are fulfilling specific needs or interests. In other words: scenarios and characters that make the greatest possible impact on their participants, and vice versa.

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Post Panopticon

This was my first text published in english and it has some weak parts but I’ve left it unchanged. It was published in the anthology Beyond role and play, edited by Montola & Stenroos in 2004.

Analysing live action role-playing has always been problematic. The subjectivity of every experience makes the personal reflection a lame weapon for an analysis. We need to find new of writing about the phenomena. Any attempt to go farther than a diary from character/player perspective or ”the food was very bad” is welcome.

This article is an attempt to use and introduce post-structuralism as a tool for looking at role-playing. It is about how signs and symbols are used and created. It is about positions and perspectives. It is about power.

The post-structural theory has been developed in many scientific fields. Some examples are Foucault’s historian writings on social thoughts, Barthes’ medial analysis, Lacan’s neopsychoanalysis and Derrida’s philosophy of signs. It has also been a crucial element in contemporary feminist theory underlined by writers like Weedon.

I will use the poststructuralist approach to deconstruct the Norwegian contemporary scenario Panopticorp, by Irene Tanke. I will read the “text” Panopticorp, and view it as a frame for the interaction. Panopticorp was a story about an international advertising agency. Real life agencies like Panopticorp work with the production of meaning in the media environment and everyday life. The scenario made great use of language to construct identities, divisions and the illusion of something different than everyday life. The consious way of creating the frames for this scenario made it one of the most interesting and dangerous events 2003.

Taking the job

The participants of Panopticorp enrolled as the employees of a multinational corporation with the same name as the event itself. The registration for the event was an on-line employment form for people going to the newly started Panopticorp Oslo Unit. This way of entitling brought the fiction close to ”the real world” and challenges the traditional agreement of live role-playing to never let fiction and reality meet. The participants were put in the position of a character, but without the context of the enactment.

Only one thing was given to the participants in printed media: The corporate dictionary, CorpDic. The contents of this folder framed the whole event, putting focus on certain perspectives while marginalizing others. It presented dozens of concepts, transforming language and the usage of it:

”CorpSpeak – The ’slang’ of Corpers. Since CorpSpeak embodies PanoptiCorps CorpFil and organisational structure, mastering CorpSpeak is not just a question of ’fitting in’ but a measure of ones understanding of how PanoptiCorp works.”
–    Panopticorp CorpDic, 2002

Language is a way of positioning. The dictionary most certainly structuralized the character interpretation and expression in certain patterns. In most role-playing events, the organisers define and state an agreement with terms and rules that everybody must obey. As a participant one can chose to accept those terms, or just avoid signing up for the event. This is very important in order to make the medium function. But participants must be conscious about that they are surrendering a lot of power to the organisers. Sometimes the organisers define the participants’ life conditions for days.

Living the job

”CorpFil – The Corporate Philosophy of PanoptiCorp. reflected in our way of life and work. The core of our CorpFil is that optimum (NexSec) CreaProd is achieved through the creation of functional MemeFields within horizontal, competetive, organisational structures. Because of our emphasis on MemeFields over formal structure, CorpSpeak is not just ’office slang’ but an embodiment of our corporate identity.”
–    CorpDic

Abandoning one’s own language transforms one’s way of thinking, which is a method for immersing into the character and the surrounding setting. All the characters at Panopticorp had clearly defined roles, different classes and functions at the agency. Those roles had new concepts attached to them; carders, dozers, spotters, divers, suits and more. The participants did not have any pre-understanding of these words, which made it possible for the organisers to maintain total control of the definitions.

The Panopticorp unit was the life of the characters. They ate at the agency, they slept at the agency and they even shagged at the agency. During the days of the event the Panopticorp agency was the one and only reality for both participants and their characters.

The agency had new concepts for the relation to time. “Now” was never good enough. The characters strived for being “NexSec”, trying to guess their way towards the next upcoming hot ideas, brands or persons. Saying something that became interpreted as “LasSec” ruined one’s social status for hours or even days.

Since Panopticorp was a contemporary, realistic scenario, there was an unexplored possibility to let ”real people” without characters enter the event, without even knowing that it was a fiction. Would this be an offensive act, degenerating their reality, or would it be an invitation to take part in our reality? I still wait for scenarios with the courage to explore these fields.

Decentralized hierarchy

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”
– Michael Foucault, Panopticism

The panopticon theory, which inspired the name of the event, was written by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Imagine panopticon as a cylinder with prison cells all around. The cells have one open wall, only covered with bars, as transparent as the fourth wall of a theatre stage. In the middle of the cylinder there is a tower with windows black as sunglasses. From the tower, all prisoners can be watched. The people in the tower cannot look at all prisoners at the same time, but the prisoners do not now when they are under surveillance, only the fact that they are. Panopticorp was somewhat different.

Take away the tower, so the prisoners can see each other, and give the prisoners reason (shorter penalty for example) to report on each other – then you have Panopticorp. The corporation had a flat structure, with no bosses or certain demands from owners (except profit, of course). There was no board of directors. Still, the characters were strictly put in a dynamic but hierarchic order. This was visualised through the hotnot-system:

”Hotnot – The standard PanoptiCorp system of rating perfomance, HotNot votes occur at least daily at any Unit. Unlike the rating systems of more LasSec agencies, where the Human Resources director performs the rating, PanoptiCorps HotNot is democratic, giving all co-workers an equal vote in HotNot ratings.”

–    CorpDic

Depending on your status in the hotnot, you were assigned different roles on projects of different importance. It visualized the current hierarchies within the agency. It is evident that the repression that used to originate from the top of the hierarchy can actually be distributed and shared by all.

An illusion of power?

Live role-playing is generally far more democratic than most other media. It decentralizes the power of stimuli creation, breaking down the traditional mass communicational idea of a few producers sending stimuli to many consumers. But since live role-playing claims to be an anti-authoritarian medium it is very important to be aware what kinds of power structures are created. One should not be content with the conclusion that the medial structures are far more democratic than tv. Exactly what are the functions and positions of organisers, writers, participants and others in relation to the project?

One authoritarian position is stated in The Manifesto of the Turku School by Mike Pohjola:

”The roleplaying-game is the game masters creation, to which he lets the player enter. The game world is the game master’s, the scenario is the game master’s, the characters (being a part of the game world) are the game master’s. The players’ part is to get inside their character’s head in the situation where the game begins and by eläyminen try to simulate it’s actions.”

The turkuists consider the organiser to be an artist in a very modernist sense of the word. The organiser is a genius and God. The participants should be grateful that they are allowed into the brilliant artistic work that the organiser has set up. The participants are the puppets of a content puppet master. This approach is honest, but hardly desirable. I want to consider live role-playing as a fellow-creating process. The organiser must be ready to lose control of the event.

Another view is represented by the Norwegian manifesto Dogma 99, written Eirik Fatland and Lars Wingård. They claim that the organisers should not in any way manipulate or direct the story:

”5. After the event has begun, the playwrights are not allowed to influence it. /…/ As organisers take control during a LARP, the players become passive. This leads to players learning to expect organiser control, even demanding it. Only a LARP entirely without organiser influence will place the real initiative in the hands of players, where it belongs. As we learn how to make LARPs work independent of organiser control and influence, it will become possible to develop more constructive and activating methods of organiser interaction.”
– Dogma 99

Participants will never be free from the control of the organisers, but they should be aware of when and how they are manipulated. Dogma 99 wants to give the power over the event to the participants. But the organiser still defines the themes and agendas. The participants have freedom, but only within the framework defined by the organisers.

There is a difference between control before or after the event has begun. If the organisers are communicative and give input during the enactment, they become part of the process. If they only set the frames, they do not partake in the development of the actual event. I prefer organisers that dare to be fellow-creators of their own event. And I prefer to be participating in setting the frames of an event, even if my only function during the enactment is to play my character.

The participants of live role-playing events are often denied the possibility to partake in the designing of the milieu, rule system and dramaturgy of an event. Panopticorp took this even further. The participants became deeply manipulated by the clever organisers as they gave away their language and thus their thoughts. After just a day many participants were thinking like binary machines: hot/not, lassec/nexsec, upcard/downcard, always judging co-workers as effective or worthless. It took weeks for me to erase the thinking of dividing people into useful or non-useful out of my mind.

This is not a matter of morals. The organisers of Panopticorp made their point very clear. It was a brilliant mind-fuck and an indispensable learning experience. Unfortunately the structures of Panopticorp are not just fiction, they are real. Dr Belbin is one of the profilers in the team-work company that bears his name:

“Over the years many people have been interested in the team role theory expounded in my book Management Teams ‘Why They Succeed or Fail’ first printed in 1981. More and more jobs involve people working together and here the roles individuals play are very important. With our new online version of team role feedback, we aim to give individuals a fuller insight into their own behaviour in the workplace by taking account of how they are seen by others. The reports include advice on developing a personal management style suited to your team role profile.”
–    Dr Meredith Belbin

This is scary. Role-playing could be a great defence against the assigning of roles from the surroundings, but only if we are not blind to our own processes. Participants should be part of the pre-process. Organisers should partake in the story. Both participants and organisers should refuse their assigned roles as participants or organisers.


Belbin, Meredith:
Bentham, Jeremy: Panopticon, 1791
Fatland, Eirik & Lars Wingård: Dogma 99
Foucault, Michael: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (NY: Vintage Books 1995) translation by Alan Sheridan
Pojhola, Mike: The Manifesto of the Turku School, 2000
Fatland, E: CorpDic, 2003
Tanke, Irene, et al. Panopticorp