Six Levels of Substitution

Six Levels of Substitution

The Behaviour Substitution Model

You are gliding over the parquet, in a constant battle over who’s in charge. You lock eyes and tighten your grip pulling your partner just a bit closer. Your posture and precise footwork radiate confidence. Other players are holding their breath to see which one gives up the battle first. Actually, there is much more at stake: the dance is a metaphor for a duel. The game In Fair Verona, held in Stockholm in 2012, used dancing to simulate aggression and passion.

There are many things that cannot be acted out in a game – and for this reason the behaviours acted out by the player cannot be identical to the behaviour of their character in the game world.

Firstly, the behaviours may be illicit, unethical or dangerous to perform.

Secondly, the behaviour of the character can be simply impossible: sadly, we do not actually have superpowers or control magic.

Thirdly, the player may not have the skills or the knowledge to perform as their character.

Fourth, the player may find it difficult to act out as their character due to a significant discrepancy between the personality, traits and demeanour of the player and the character, or lacking skills or confidence as an actor.
Whatever the reason for the distinction between the actions, we strive to understand them. We have a constant, automatic tendency to seek meaning in other people’s behaviour, and we attempt to attribute a cause for it. This requires us to make interpretations about each other.

In order for these interpretations to be valid, we must understand how big a difference there is between the behaviour we observe and that of the character. This article proposes a model of behaviour substitution by which the diff erence between the behaviours in- and outside of the game can be described hierarchically.

In other words, the model can be used to assess whether a behaviour is simulated, and in what way. The model proposes six categories whose implications are discussed. Finally, it is suggested that this model can also be applied to other genres in which there is a fictional reality.

The Behaviour Substitution Model

The Behavior Substitution Model describes to what extent the actions of the player physically resemble those their character takes. When there is a high similarity between actions, the behaviour of the player is easily and unambiguously interpreted by other people from close and afar. When the behaviours are not similar, they do not physically resemble each other, and they require prior knowledge to interpret.

The model proposes there is a continuum, divided into six categories, between the two extremes (Table 1). On one end, the actions the player and the character take are identical: there is no substitution.

On the other end, the behavior is unrecognizable, impossible to understand and interpret without prior knowledge, or there is no behavior at all.

LevelDescriptionAn Example
No SubstitutionThe behaviour is nearly equal in the game world and outside of itFighting is real
AdaptationThe behaviour is slightly adapted, yet it clearly resembles the one intendedFighting slowly using safe techniques
GrotesqueThe behaviour is changed moderately, it requires effort to be interpretedFighting with grossly exaggerated movements
SymbolicalThe behaviour is considerably changed, and does not resemble the original behaviourFighting is symbolized by dancing
MechanicalThe behaviour is replaced by agreed upon game mechanics, and acted out by the playerFighting is resolved by a game of rock-paper-scissors or a computer game
AbstractThe behaviour is not acted out, but communicated through other meansThe results of a fight are written down on a paper

Table 1: The Behaviour Substitution Model


Dual Process Theory

To understand the model proposed more thoroughly, it is analysed through dual process theory. According to this theory, we have two complementary information processing systems: an implicit and an explicit one. The first system is very fast, automatic, nonverbal and unconscious. For example, consider your friend pushes a bottle from a table at a party. You instinctively try to catch it mid-air, without any conscious thought.

Your reactions were guided by the implicit system that steered your attention to the object, and your hand to grab it. The explicit system operates in a very different way. It is slower, linked to language, logical, and often involves conscious reasoning. This type of processing happens for instance when we strive to learn something new, or try to figure out how to assemble an Ikea chair.

These two systems work constantly together. When we are writing a letter on a computer, or driving a car, we do not have to pay attention to the individual movements of our hands or feet. Rather, the movements are automatic, guided by our implicit system. At the same time, our explicit system focuses on planning the outline of the text or route.

Not surprisingly, these two systems are active also while during role-playing, and they tie closely to the proposed model: there is a correlation between the two systems. When there is no substitution, the more the implicit system can be used. The further we go toward the abstract end of the model, the more the explicit system comes in to play (Picture 1). This argument is elaborated below by each category.

Picture 1: The Behaviour Substitution Model and the Dual Process Theory

Picture 1: The Behaviour Substitution Model and the Dual Process Theory

The Six Levels of Substitution

#1: No Substitution

On this level, the behaviour of the player is nearly identical to that of their characters’ in the game world. No substitution is required because the player is able and wants to physically, emotionally and socially act the behaviour out. Importantly, the player receives immediate, visceral feedback within themselves while acting. This strengthens the immersion: the player feels what their character is feeling.

The behaviours, however, have to occur inside the magic circle of the game. This means that the player views themselves rather as a character in a game world than outside of it. At the same time, other players understand the player has transgressed the line to the game world. This can be communicated through the tone of one’s voice, clothing or the physical game space. When this distinction is clear, the behaviour itself is easily, intuitively and swiftly interpreted by the other players.

#2: Adaptation

On this level, the behaviour is slightly adapted to the situation, without compromising its communicative function to the player themselves and others. The player feels as if they are acting out behaviour, and other players often unambiguously understand what the player is doing within the reality of the game.

#3: Grotesque

The behaviour is moderately changed to suit the situation. In comparison to the levels above, the behaviour is clearly a compromise: it is acted out, but it does no longer clearly resemble the action portrayed. Therefore, it can be difficult to interpret, and in the worst cases it is unintentionally comical or embarrassing.

The behaviour may be seen as true within the game reality, yet it seems somehow out of place, unnatural, acted, or false.
The grotesqueness is exaggerated due to the discrepant information received through the two systems. The explicit system is telling the player they are doing one thing, but the information they receive through the implicit system does not support this. For instance, the player may walk but within the game they are running.

Yet, they are not sweating or out of breath. At the same time, the other players struggle to interpret the behaviour. They have to remind themselves about the previously agreed upon rules, forbidding running, to understand the behaviour. Everyone has to invest conscious effort to correct the information received and possibly suppress conflicting physical reactions. This conflict between two levels of information may break or weaken the immersion of the game. Compare this to T-1000 from the Terminator 2, or zombies: they are both alive and dead at the same time, a key conflict behind their unnaturalness.

#4: Symbolical Substitution

On the symbolical level, the behaviour is given new meanings or it is substituted by another, similar behaviour. In the above mentioned example, tango was used to simulate interaction between two people. The relationship between the behavior and its meaning is no longer completely transparent. Observers oblivious to substitution may see the act as merely intensive dancing, while the players understand a fierce fight is occurring.

This level can be used to give the player skills they do not have or cannot employ.

Further, it can be used to simulate things blatantly impossible using the skills the player already has. The range of behaviours is no longer bound by the player’s skills or the physical world. It is important the players receive sufficient practice in the substitution before the game. The more the method is practiced, the easier it is for the players to interpret in the game. Also, the substituting behavior should be something that is not often acted out in the game. For instance, if knocking on the door means casting a spell, some awkward situations may arise.

Even if one behaviour can be substituted by nearly anything, it is not irrelevant at all by which it is replaced – the choice of substitution greatly affects all the players. For example, social interaction can be simulated by a game of tennis, tug of war, or dancing. Each of these communicates differently to the player themselves and to others. Some behaviours can more easily and clearly convey emotions than others. Basically, the more you have options to move about, use your voice and gestures, the better your emotions will be conveyed.

The substitutive behaviour also crucially affects the players acting it out. The more the behavior physically resembles the original, the clearer the implicit connection is. Substituting bull-riding by dancing or pulling a rope does not give the same sort of visceral feedback. When the two behaviours are intuitively connected, they are easy to compare and interpret. Consider again the example of dancing: the tone of the dance, which person leads, and how they hold their hands, is indicative of the relationship to the viewers, the partner, and the player themselves.

The symbolical behavior can also be more allegorical, an extended metaphor. The game I love Ana used group exercises, support and writing rules to reinforce the players’ dedication to the cause.

The whole game could be a metaphor in itself. A game could be about walking, a common metaphor for leading one’s life. The feeling of walking would give players visceral feedback they could explicitly interpret, making the core of the game. The road would add another layer to the game: the surface, inclination, views and other travelers would be given new meanings.

To sum up, on this level the behavior is interpreted through prior knowledge. When the substituting behavior is physical, and intuitively connected to the behaviour portrayed, it can be used to convey a wide enough range of emotions.

#5: Mechanical Substitution

Playing poker in the game world is not a mechanical substitution, but a case of no substitution, while playing poker to determine the winner of a gun fight would be a mechanical substitution. This sort of substitution happens clearly outside the game’s reality, and requires rules and explicit explanation. As the name implies, the substitution often includes rolling dice, drawing cards, or comparing values.

This is a fast and clear way to resolve anything from brief interactions to world- changing events, but it can feel light. The substitution underscores that everything within the game world is merely agreed upon, make-believe. This may break the immersion by reminding the player about the rules, which can be a welcome break from intense action.

#6: Abstract Substitution

On this level behaviour is no longer required, as it is implied by the consequences. For example, there may be a sheet of paper declaring there is a hovering sphere within the hallway.

This level can be used to introduce players to elements of mystery, or to avoid mechanical substitution. At times, the behavior cannot objectively be deduced from the signifiers, but educated guesses can be thrown around. This lets the players use their imagination and storytelling skills which can result in more vivid and elaborate description than any above. This is especially true for such hard to simulate events such as magic, gross changes in the environment, or communicating events to players not present.

Implications and Conclusions

The six levels described above are already widely used in live action role-playing games. The model can be used to describe individual occurrences of substitutions, the range and the primary level used. It can also be extended beyond games, to genres of arts where there is a fictional world. No substitution is used as a primary level in 360 degree live action role-playing games, historical enactment, and many theatre productions. Adaptation is employed by many live action games, digital music games, and theatre performances. Grotesque level is generally not used as main level, but it is often briefly and unintentionally visited. The symbolic level is used in modern dance, and jeepform or freeform games. Table-top and digital role-playing games often mostly use the mechanical level. The abstract level is used, for instance, in the description of games.

The level of substitution should be chosen based on its overall suitability for the game experience. The designer should carefully choose the techniques and levels of substitution to fit the message of the game, the theme, and the atmosphere. An ill- chosen level may break immersion, while a harmonious one can keep it up for hours. The culture affects the level of substitution. In some countries or subcultures hugging may be a convention, while in other places

it may be frowned upon. The norms of the culture shape not only which behaviours should be substituted and simulated, but also how they are substituted. The more unconventional something is, the more abstract the level of substitution should be. For instance, sex can be such a taboo in some cultures that it can only be indicated indirectly; but in other parts of the world it could be presented symbolically. The level of substitution can often become silent information: new players are unaware of the conventions of the group. Therefore, substitutions should be clearly stated, preferably written down, to assure a pleasant and safe game experience for new and old players alike.

In Summary

The Behaviour Substitution Model describes the degree by which the actions of the player correspond to those their character takes within the game world. At times, the behaviour of the player and the character is identical: there is no substitution. In cases when the player is unable to act as their character due to their attributes, limitations of the physical world, or for ethical reasons, the behaviour may be substituted: simulated by something representing it. This can resemble the intended behaviour closely, symbolically or very remotely.

How the behaviour is substituted should be assessed in the light of several factors. Optimally, the behaviour should convey the intended message clearly and richly, it should be physical, and it should be intuitively comparable to the activity portrayed. The result of the behaviour is easily understood by all the participants. In the best cases, the substituted behaviour adds to the game and gives it new depth. The way that something is substituted should be explicitly stated before the game, to ensure it is understood by all the participants.

This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.


Lauri Lukka
Lauri is a psychologist and game designer from Turku, Finland. As a psychologist he has worked in the fields of clinical, occupational and school psychology, and rehabilitation. At the moment he is employed at an adult psychiatric clinic. Professionally his interests lie in the psychotherapeutical treatment of mental disorders both individually and in groups, and personality research. During the last decade he has designed and organized numerous freeform, tabletop and live role-playing games, such as Prelude, The Cube and Black Rose, respectively. His game, Mikodine XA, won the Knutepunkt larpwright challenge of 2013. He haa also participated in the field of academic game studies with his candidate thesis and Knutepunkt articles. In the future, he would like to combine the fields of clinical psychology, psychiatry and role-playing.
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