I got interested in how people perceive themselves and their co-players dropping out of characters, and have studied this topic for my MA thesis. I have collected a database of 600 cases of frame switching at larp using systematic self-observation and analyzed them from the point of view of Goffman’s frame analysis.
The database collected with the help of 15 players has data from 13 larp in which I took part and from some other larp events. I proposed a classification of triggers that cause dropping out of character that reveals some features of this phenomenon. In this paper, I won’t dwell on the triggers themselves, but will concentrate on the ways in which larpers switch from in-game to out-of-game frame.
In what follows, a classification of switching types is presented.
The first division is based on the social expression of frame switching: we distinguish between those which are externally expressed and thus become part of social interaction, and those which take place in a participant’s mind and get no expression.
When considered as phenomena of individual consciousness, all frame switchings are first of all “internal” in a sense, like diegesis is a fact of the players’ consciousness (Montola 2012).
Meanwhile, the game world is a result of mutually agreed behaviors of the participants. Its creation and maintenance involves coordinated activities, some of which belonging not to the game itself but to its meta-level, and so require frame switching.
Here is an exampleExamples from my database contain references to game titles marked with bold italic. of internal switching that is essentially an inner experience that disturbs immersion and indirectly influences the participant’s behavior.
“The First Age”: Sure, there are a lot of reasons why immersion is difficult to reach: for example, playing with close friends makes me think, like, “Oh, it’s just my friend P eter wearing a garb!” So I try to avoid playing with them, but it is not always possible.
External switchings fall into two broad categories: those which comprise a signal to mark frame change and those which are unmarked.
Both types occur systematically, but the latter are usually perceived negatively, whereas the former are regarded more acceptable.
Two kinds of markers are employed to index a frame change, verbal and non- verbal. The Russian verbal marker resembles the Western practice of safewords: the utterance of a conventional word immediately turns ongoing interaction into out-of-game mode (Brenne 2005).
A safeword is a control device that is used to maintain participants’ psychophysiological conditions to inform partners about the sender’s current troubles having to do with the everyday world.
In the Russian community, in order to pause the game, either local equivalents of “break” and “cut” are used (literally “out of the game”, “in the real world”) or real life names of participants or their nicknames are employed for address instead of their characters’ names.
The verbal markers appear in case of meta- game disputes, in occasional conversation about events in participants’ real life or bodily states, or when asking for pause or help.
It is often uncertainty about partner’s physical condition that makes a player turn to out-of-game question, cf.:
“There is a craft”: Somebody noticed blood (real) on my eye: What happened to your eye? Oh, it’s a memento about my fail in a combat with a strong monster! It won’t heal until I find him again and kill him. Are you serious?
(Whispering) And out of play?
(Smiling) Everything’s OK.
Non-verbal markers include frame switching signals of various kinds, such as:
Tactile contact: to approach closely, to hug, to take a partner’s hand, to take aside. This kind of switching markers are used when the rules of the game world ban these proximating behaviors.
It should be kept in mind that, as far as I can judge from my participant observation at Knutepunkt 2014, Russian larps generally involve less physical contact than the Nordic ones.
Since most Russian larp game worlds represent a variation of hierarchic society with interpersonal etiquette differing from the way people communicate in everyday life, demonstrations of egalitarian and friendly relationship can signal frame switchings.
Conventional gestures: hands crossed over the head represent the character’s absence from the game world; a gesture like a time- out signal used in sports like basketball and American football is performed to accompany an out-of-character utterance.
Facial expression: winking, “hinting” face, expressive gaze.
Non-verbal characteristics of utterances: lowering the pitch, whispering, prosodic emphasis to index an implicit meaning. Utterances like these often pretend to camouflage the reference to out-of-game things, so as not to break explicitly the magic circle of the game, cf:
Deathly hallows: Towards the end of the game, during an in-game conversation S. (male) approaches closely to me and asks me while lowering his voice if he can interrupt my playing. I agree. S. asks me to speak to M. (female) who is playing his sister, because she needs a relaxing talk, and his own talk to her has obviously not been enough.
I call M.’s character, take her hand (my character used to avoid any bodily contact), take her nearer to me, bow to her ear and address to her with her real life name. I ask her whether she wants to speak out-of-game. She agrees eagerly, we enter an empty room together, she expresses her negative emotions connected with playing and participants’ behavior. W e leave the room and continue playing when we hear noise outside.
In this example, the frame switches are expressed with a range of signals: approaching closer than regular social distance, that is, entering intimate distance, lowering the voice (opposed to what is required for characters’ interaction in the game-world), touching, and verbal means (out-of-game name and expression “out of game”).
Along with cases where frame switch is explicitly announced, there are some in which the player’s speech is recognized by co-players as such, but it is merged with the character’s speech without specially marked borders.
Conscious Unmarked Switchings
Explicit out-of-game utterance is a prototypical case of unmarked and unmasked frame swithing. It usually interrupts diegesis in a rather rude way making participants have to cope with an inappropriate element.
In the following example speaker A unexpectedly shifts from the character’s speech to the player’s one, mentioning meta-game problems and the game master’s nickname that confuses the partner:
“France: the Cold Summer of 1939”: An in-game conversation in a pub:
A: I am looking for my wife. And I’d like to find Bird.
B: What bird?…
A: W ell, Bird, our game master. N ew players have arrived and are waiting for the check-in.
Implicit switching is an action (utterance, gesture) with a hidden agenda; it looks adequate from the diegetic point of view but contains out-of-game information that is expected to be deduced by recipients. This kind of frame switch is appreciated within the community because it doesn’t break the game world and at the same time also adds to playing some extra pleasure to guess the riddle.
Implicit switchings are mostly used for the maintenance of game illusion in case of some slight metagame problems. Here is an example of such case where the problem consists in mistaking an NPC for a player:
“The last submarine”: As usual, something exploded, something is out of order, a service technician is needed. One player looks at a passing NPC and mistakes him for a technician: “W e need help in the armory!” I don’t want to bother: “N o, this technician is not trained enough for that, trust me!” NPC nods and passes by.
In the following example we can see three modes of referring to out of the game information, one after another:
“To kill a dragon”: We are working in a hospital. We use beakers with special liquids provided by game masters. W e should return the beakers to the organizers for refilling. I collect empty beakers and tell to my colleagues:
(1) I: I’ll bring them to the medical depot.
(2) Partner: Where?.. But if they must be brought to orga…
(3) I (Winking, interrupting on purpose): Listen to me: I’ll bring them to the medical depot.
In (1), the speaker employs implicit switching: she talks about the medical depot, but actually announces that she is about to go to meet the organizers. This information is to be deduced by her co- player. This is a case of implicit conscious unmarked switch.
In (2), her co-player makes a meta-game statement with no signaling of its out- of-game mode. This is a case of explicit conscious unmarked switch.
In (3), the initial speaker makes an attempt to repair game-world communication, recurring to interruption and to signalling the utterance pragmatics by means of non- verbal sign (wink) and intonation. This is a case of marked switch with non-verbal signalling.
Implicit switching can and often does imply a joke. Obviously, there is a lot of in- game humor in larp, but some of it is based on a second meaning of in-game phrases that thus turn out to refer both to in- and out-of-game things. Such switchings are performed for fun and also contribute to constructing a group identity.
The humor can be built on a common background of young Russians and thus contain allusions to popular movies, songs, or references to historical, current political and social events, or to internet-memes. It can also be a common memory of a group of real life friends, participants of a long larp campaign who have played together many times, or even just a group of those who had taken part in certain episode of a previous larp. Coming to the joke’s point is a manifestation of a common identity, cf:
“There is a craft”: Walls in the Main H all are covered with inscriptions. One of them says: “Even a rat casts charms better than you!”
Rat is the nickname of the participant who plays the Charms teacher. This is insider knowledge of this particular larp community.
Unconscious Unmarked Switchings
These are cases when someone makes her co-players drop out of the game frame unwittingly and notices the fact of the switching only from the co-players’ reaction.
Ambivalent utterance is not intended by the speaker to have double meaning, but while the speaker has told something in-game, her co-player perceives it as out-of-the- game discourse. The speaker keeps in the game world until she catches the fact that co-player has switched into out-of-game mode.
At first sight an ambivalent phrase looks like an implicit frame switching, but the crucial difference is that here implicit meaning is in the eye of the beholder, it has not been implied intentionally by the speaker.
The frame switch that the speaker has noticed in her co-player’s behavior becomes a surprise.
Cues that typically bring about such ambivalence include any statement that can be perceived in both in-game and out-of- game frames, terms that occasionally coincide with concepts from other game worlds and settings, or with participants’ names and nicknames that belong to other characters.
In the example below, the first utterance is a case of an ambivalent saying that is perceived as potentially ambiguous, while the joking answer is a case of explicit conscious unmarked frame switch.
“Western: Deadlands”: – I have a headache! – Do you need opium or painkiller?
Slip of the tongue is an inadvertent use of a word that is inappropriate to this particular game-world, best exemplified by speech patterns like fillers or swearings that that are ill-suited to the game world, or out-of-game names of co-players or other customary patterns of daily speech.
This kind differs from the previous one in that ambivalent utterance is used by the speaker is an appropriate fact of game world from the speaker’s side, and slip of the tongue is ill-suited from any point of view, but is hard to prevent.
An altered state of consciousness may also contribute to slip of the tongue that switch frames: players not fully awaken, under influence, or physically exhausted can easily loose control over their discourse (see below an example: the sender does not even notice his slip until his co-players attract his attention to the case).
“There is a craft”: At night we discuss fighting drills. B. complains how difficult it is to remember the exercises and suddenly says: “When I drive my car, I am sometimes so tired that I stop understanding what is going on…” We gaze at him in horror, but he does not notice our facial expression and goes on. I have to intervene: “What are you saying?” He slaps his forehead and complains in-game that he has lost his line because he is exhausted.
Our classification of data from the database allowed us to single out relevant features of cases of dropping out of game-world in social interaction. These are: external expression or its absence, presence or absence of signalling, intentional or non- intentional character of switching, explicit or implicit type of reference to out-of- game world, initial perception of switching by the speaker and/or by her co-player, use of speech cliches.
In case of an intentional switch from the game to out-of-the-game frame, a player drops out of character because of some inner or outer reason (need, willing to distract, inappropriate conditions etc.) and makes the switching perceivable to the partners (e.g., in order to receive help, to express displeasure, to maintain group identity, etc.).
In case of unintentional frame switching (ambivalent phrase and slip of the tongue), the author is a “victim” of the effect that her own words produce in her co-players.
- Brenne G.- T. Making and Mantaining Frames: A Study of Metacommunication in Laiv Play. Oslo, 2005.
- Montola M. On the Edge of the Magic Circle. Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games. Academic dissertation, University of Tampere, 2012.
- “France: the cold summer of 1939” (St. Petersburg, October 2012),
- “The last submarine” (Moscow, February 2013),
- “Deathly hallows” (Moscow, February 2013),
- “Western: Deadlands” (St. Petersburg, June 2013),
- “There is a craft” (Moscow, August 2013),
- “To kill a Dragon” (Moscow, September 2013).
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.
Cover photo: Stockholm Scenario Festival 2014 by Johannes Axner is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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