An Editorial: On Identification.

This is an Editorial, this means that I sometimes will get to air game/theory ideas without the need to tie it down to competition. Sadly, this is still my blog, as in all the entries in it are still mine. So I may as well make use of it.
I’ve had some setbacks in that my last two weekends weren’t spent home, so I lost my work-time. But, unlike previous times this is only a setback in the time-tables. Work continues behind the scene. And when I finally shoot, I’ll have multiple bullets in the air.
Over at the Sons of Kryos Episode 32 (MP3, forum discussion) is about Competition Vs. Cooperation, and thus may be of special interests to people who read this blog.

And not to worry, this post will be tied to competition. I can’t undo my mind.


IĀ participated inĀ a discussion on Story-Games that went as follows:

hamsterprophet: im really interested by LARP, but i have interest in actually doing it
which i support makes it difficult to really learn about it
shreyas
: mmm
i’m not interested with how larp basically forces you into an ‘authority over exactly one character’ role and puts you in the company of immersionists
hamsterprophet
: i think its really interesting, actually, how the nature of larp makes it pretty much impossible to break out of one person = one character
shreyas
: mmm
hamsterprophet
: its almost tautological
shreyas
: that’s just a kind of play i’m not really interested in at all
Thunder_God
(me): Nate>It’s just as false as saying that in real life one person = one mask/personality.
shreyas
: if i don’t have some broader authority i don’t feel like i’m participating
Thunder_God
: In fact, I think this is a very interesting point.
hamsterprophet
: cuz even if you take on multiple characters, people associate you with the first one they encounter you in. unless you do extreme makeup, i guess

In LARP the boundary between you and your character, and indeed you and others, is much thinner, in fact, it’s only skin deep. In real life there are multiple personalities we adopt when faced with different situations and people, so why is it that in games we tend to adopt one face?
Because a game is not reality, it’s a simplified model of reality, and usually one which we get something out of modeling. Our faces in games are akin to archetypes.

The more meat we meet, the more effort we need to buy into the fiction. Online you are often what you claim to be. In table-top it’s a bit harder. When you’re a little annoying kid, who can’t be patient about anything, maybe you’re better off not playing the mature Paladin. In a LARP, you and your character are often one. If your character is smart, athletic and female, and you are male, dim and 200 pounds overweight, don’t be surprised if people have a problem reacting to your character fully.
And yes, the smart player/character divide is an issue all of its own.

Why are we capable, or at least willing, to let ourselves be a multitude in real life and unwilling to give others the same benefit during games?
The answer is twofold:
1) We let ourselves be a multitude, not others. When others act in a manner different than that in which we expect (allow?) them to behave, we are surprised, and often offended. We are not honest in our assumptions regarding others. Just as we assume we have free-will but expect others to behave in the manner dictated by their previous behavior.
2) We are different people in different situations, one game, one situation, one mask. Perhaps we can even go further. You know how often some people play the same character in all games? One situation: game, one mask.

It is more than that. It is not only that others can identify us, it is how we identify ourselves. There is no mask as constricting as that of the skin. And that is what role-playing is about eventually, breaking out of the mask, or shapeshifting our skin into a new shape, as if we were shamans.

It is often educational to look at edge-cases. Cases where one portrays many a character (such as most games’ GMs) and games where one does not even play one character. One of the comments about my game, Cranium Rats, and rightfully so, is that people have a hard time seeing what to play in it, because not only do they have a hard time identifying with something or someone, that I actually disturb them. What the players portray is utterly inhuman, and they have a hard time identifying with it/them, and the characters don’t belong to them and are out of their control, and so they have a hard time identifying with them either.

I find that interesting, because how often do you not only find yourself identifying with, but actually imagine yourself in the spot of a character from a book or movie, their stories often complete, with no hooks left for you to immerse yourself in the character. Is it possible that when we come to the role-playing activity we already come expecting to be “let in”, to immerse ourselves in other personalities, to tell stories vicariously. And when denied we feel cheated out of what we came to the table to get?

Anyway, let’s look at competitive games and Identification. I think that people require identification, of sorts, in all of their games, and competitive ones are no different.

  • In most sports games, or games where what is at stake is your own skills and is known (chess), we are the players and we are the ones we identify with. Win or loss, it’s ours. The easiest identification there is, with ourselves.
  • Sometimes a game is of ourselves, or abstract, and yet we tend to latch onto identification. Look at Monopoly, supposedly it’s our skills that let us win or lose, but more often than not it is luck, and Monopoly games are quite long as it is, and actually serve the purpose of teaching kids the value of money. And yet, people often make “Vroom vroom” sounds when they play the car, or portray the dog kicking someone away. Identification is that important.
  • In abstract concept but detailed competitive games, such as Settlers of Cattan, it is obvious we are not the settlers, nor are we actually the rulers. The luck of the die rules much and yet it is not as widely accepted as Chess that winning in Settlers proves one’s intellectual might (more likely their social acumen), and yet we yell and shout when we are winning or wish to stop another party from winning. We clearly fell invested, we feel as if it’s us who are at stake.

In your games, either make the competition so entranching that the players identify with themselves, make the stake personal so they have no option but to identify with themselves or give them tools to latch onto something, to enable identification. The easiest way is obviously to give them a character that is theirs to create and control, a role-playing option. But if you want an external storytelling vantage point, you should consider how to let your players into a mask.

This is what they come to the play with, this is what they pay you money for. Success and failure often hinge on identification, and its strength.

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6 comments on “An Editorial: On Identification.

  1. Jiituomas says:

    I’ve found that people differ very much on how they use social masks, identities, chatracter/player states, etc. These things do seem to correlate, but, for example, even highly immersive larpers may have multiple social masks in real life.

    One thing I’d really like to study more is the impact of knowing the other players has on larp play, including situations where characters change during the game. Juhana Pettersson wrote about this in “The Art of Experience” (In: Role, Play, Art, 2006). While my experience of this subject differs strongly from his, comparison are always interesting.

  2. Guy Shalev says:

    That is my point, real life is where we have limitless masks.
    In game-play, we simple it down and have only a few archetypical, perhaps even stereotypical masks. And masks for the character, even less.

  3. Nathan P. says:

    Well, right.

    In gaming, the point of the activity includes consciously creating masks, so we actually think about it. In most of life, your masks move quickly and adapt to changing circumstances, often unconsciously.

    Gaming is where we get to test out our masks.

    (And my point about LARP, in a nutshell, is that the nature of the activity makes it much more difficult to portray multiple characters because of physical and mental human reactions, which is a really interesting thing. Thats all.)

  4. Guy Shalev says:

    I also think it’s interesting, and that’s the point that led me to this article, though I kinda went a layer down.

    I think it’s more interesting when the masks we created for our games evolve and become something different than they were meant to be originally.

  5. Filip says:

    I rarely ever indentify myself with my character in the game. Even in LARPs I often run my character like it was my personal pawn.

    Also, I find most LARPs I participated in extremely competitive – and the competition is mostly on the player-player, not player-character or character-character level. This may be due to the specifics of Polish convention LARPs, that is one-shots with clearly stated character goals.

    Only one LARP in which my character actually changed comes to my mind now, although there could have been others. Back then, it was due to mine, as a player, decision, and I’ve been carefuly framing the whole situation for the first part of the game. The change occured in the moment I’ve chosen, the way I’ve chosen.

    As I see it, in the context of gaming, the character is not really a mask. The mask taken in this context is not the character itself, I think. I’d say it’s rather the mask of a player.

    (as a side note, I wonder how many people get turned off by such postmodernist talk ;) )

  6. Filip says:

    Hmm, what I mean is:

    We take different masks in different social context.

    Game is a social activity. The fictional events are a product of this activity, but are not a social activity itself.

    So, during a game one puts on his gamer mask. This is the set of behaviours used while manipulating the character, but most of all while interacting with other gaming persons.

    The character is a different thing, as it can be put in different fictional social context, and the player can make it assume a different mask in each one. Still, its a fictional construct, and its masks as well. The character’s masks have nothig to do with the mask of the player, as the player influences them in the same way he influences his or her character.

    For example, personally I’m not a charismatic type in general. At a gaming table, though, I often asume a leadership role, with some organisers behaviour (even if I’m not the one running the game, and it’s often the same with LARPs). At the same time, I can run a character that isn’t like this at all.

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