Recently I rediscovered one of my absolute favorite texts about larp, “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond” by Andie Nordgren. Now, eleven years after it was written, it is a topic well worth returning to.
In the article, Nordgren introduces the concept of high resolution larps as a way of trying to understand the larps Mellan himmel och hav (English: Between Heaven and Sea) (Wieslander et al 2003) and Totem (Andreasen 2007). Mellan himmel och hav was a science fiction game exploring gender, sexuality, and relationships inspired by the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin (Stenros 2010). Totem explored the life of a post-apocalyptic tribe as they carried out their traditional coming-of-age rites (Munthe-Kaas 2010). Nordgren found both of these games to be were powerful, fulfilling experiences. The question she asked herself was, why? The larp community at the time did not have a terminology to describe what made these games special.
High resolution here is an analogy to computer games, in which high resolution is a description of the level of detail in the computer graphics. Nordgren suggests that some larps have higher resolution than others; however, she does not see this as a function of the level of detail of props, character descriptions, etc. Instead, she argues that high resolution games are characterized by high fidelity in two dimensions of play. Firstly, they have a high level of depth (subtlety) in interactions between characters. Secondly, they are able to represent a wide spectrum of the human experience in play. This is defined as width (“High Resolution Larp – Nordic Larp Wiki” n.d.). She presents the game Totem as an example of a high-resolution larp, proposing that “maybe the interaction in the tightly knit tribe at Totem felt so real and powerful because we had managed to create a game world and vision about the game that enabled subtlety across a wide spectrum of possible diegetic interactions.” (p. 91) Her main thesis, as I see it, is that high resolution interactions are (or at least can be) a design feature of a game and not a matter of player skill.
A term that is often used to describe these types of powerful experiences is immersion. However, the exact definition of this proves difficult to pin down, and varies in use and understanding between traditions (Bowman 2017). In this article I will instead define these powerful experiences as flow-like experiences, as discussed in a larp context by (Hopeametsä 2008):
“Flow gives a deep sense of enjoyment through the feeling that we are in control of our actions. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the best moments occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is an end in itself: the act of doing is a reward in itself. This is an accurate description of larp experience at its best.“ (p. 190)
This type of flow-like experience can be found in the heat of combat in a larp focusing on epic battle simulation, or in the glances between lovers in a modern day drama. Different players will seek out different experiences. The strength of the concept of high resolution is that it can be applied equally well in both situations.
In this article, I attempt to summarize Nordgren’s thoughts on high resolution larp and high resolution interaction, and expand on them, mainly from a designers’ perspective. I argue that the terminology of high vs low resolution interactions is a term that is useful for designers in understanding the games they create. I also discuss the idea that rules in themselves act as affordances of interaction and tools for emergent storytelling, beyond simulation and safety mechanisms. While player skill is likely an important factor in enabling high resolution interaction, it will not be covered in this text.
Tools for Lowering the Cognitive Load
Nordgren presents two main tools for achieving high resolution larps: diegetic rules and ensemble play. Diegetic rules are rules that are part of the fictional world and take place within it, i.e. the character and the player both experience the same thing. Ensemble play describes the practice of running communal pre-game workshop where the players co-design the larp.
I find that both diegetic rules and ensemble play focus on depth of interaction, rather than on the width of interaction. However, these tools implicitly broaden the spectrum of interactions that can be included in the game; they allow the designers of a game to explicitly state which interactions are a part of the game, instead of relying on common culture between the players to dictate it. Both of these tools are commonly used in Nordic larp today. However, the idea of differentiating between low and high resolution larps and interactions seems to have been lost to time.
The framework presented for the interaction with the game is a three-fold model of person, player, character. The negotiation between these three and the game itself dictates which topics, and interactions are broached in the game. The person exists in the wider social context of real life and takes on the role of a player in the game. The role of player has a certain set of encouraged modes of behaviour as decided by explicit game rules and common culture. Finally, the player embodies a character, which interacts with the diegesis. Nordgren makes the point that the person constantly needs to recognize at which level any interaction during the game is taking place, and that high resolution play emerges when character-to-character interactions are as unambiguous as possible. That means that the player needs to spend less time thinking about at which level an interaction is going on, thus lowering the overall cognitive load. This in turn serves to make the experience feel more immediate.
Interestingly, the contextualization of experiences during a game as in-character has been indicated to be an important factor in preventing negative bleed-out. The ability of a person to manage their experiences is decided both by their individual capabilities, as well as by the circumstances dictated by the game design (including unforeseen factors). In particular, the cognitive load placed on the player by the game is an important factor here (Leonard and Thurman 2018). However, the purpose of high resolution interactions is a different one. Instead of aiming at acting as a psychological safety mechanism, the purpose is to increase the probability of flow-like experiences. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the intent from a design perspective is different.
An example of how players need to properly contextualize experiences in a game could be that a person in-front of them is screaming at them. The player needs to decide if the person standing in front of them screaming is doing so in-character or not. Preferably the cognitive load of making that decision should be low enough that the player is free to scream back with gusto (or react in whatever way it would make sense for their character).
“We use rules when we cannot trust players to represent a topic inside the game in a safe, coherent way that doesn’t spoil the game. Using diegetic rules is a way of moving these topics back inside the game world rather than excluding them or representing them with rules that are clearly off-game in the player’s head.” (Nordgren 2008)
As can be seen above, rules are presented as a tool for incorporating topics that would otherwise be risky to represent in games. An example of such a rule is ars amandi. Ars amandi represents sensual situations by touching only the hands, arms, and neck (Wieslander 2004). This interaction can be either diegetic or non-diegetic depending on how it is understood in the game. Hence the distinction of diegetic vs. non-diegetic rules.
Portraying Love and Trying New Genders, Eliot Wieslander (Nordic Larp Talks)
The difference between the two lies in whether the player and the characters are experiencing the same thing or not. If the characters experience kissing when the players touch each others’ hands, the hand-touching would constitute a non-diegetic (or simulating) rule. On the other hand, if the fiction of the game is such that touching of the hands would be concidered an erotic act in itself, the discrepancy between the character and player interaction is lessened. For example, in Mellan himmel och hav, touching the arms was erotically charged in the fiction. Thus when players touch each others arms, the player and the character were experiencing the same thing. Nordgren argues that the latter increases the opportunity for high resolution interactions. The reason for this is that it lowers the amount of the players’ mental capacity that has to be spent in interpreting at which level the interaction is occurring.
The resolution of the interaction is a key here. The strength of a rule like ars amandi is that it allows for the expression of a wide spectrum of interaction, from the shy first kiss of a teenager to the wild orgy of a rock band. Compare this to another common diegetic rule: fighting with boffer weapons. Boffer weapons, at least for the most part, will represent lethal violence. This loses out on a large part of the spectrum of human violent experience. Before cold steel, there are many other forms of violence, often progressing from one to the other: first shoving, on to a fist fight, and finally weapons drawn and used. With this in mind, designers can inspect the interactions in their design, and decide on which parts they want to be of high vs. low resolution.
Rules Beyond Safety and Simulation
I am not in complete agreement with Nordgren on the function of rules. I believe that rules in themselves fulfill a wider role than acting as a safety mechanism for the game. The rules in themselves act as affordances of the game, thus encouraging particular modes of behaviour. Introducing boffers into a game increases the probability of there being a fight in the larp. Thus, the rules in themselves have a wider function than acting as a safety or simulation mechanisms.
Both of the techniques described above tend towards simulation; however, the idea of increasing the fidelity of interaction can also be applied from a narrativistic perspective. An example of such a technique is the use of in-character, monologues as an expression of a character’s thoughts and emotions. While the other characters do not hear what is said, the other players will. Thus, they can steer (Montola, Stenros, and Saitta 2015; Pohjola 2015) their own characters interactions with that character to create the most appealing narrative. In this case, the resolution of the narrative itself, as well as that of individual interactions, increases, as more nuances of the characters’ inner lives come into the light. One game using monologues is A Nice Evening with the Family (Westerling et al. 2007). This game adopts nine theater plays into a larp set in a modern-day upper-class birthday celebration.
Steering has been introduced mainly as player skill by Montola et al. (2015); however, they also note that it is something that can be more or less encouraged by the design of a game. The example of the monologue above demonstrates how steering can be facilitated through selection of appropriate rules and techniques.
Rules can also be used in creating emergent narratives. One example of this is the use of acts to divide the time of a game. A Nice Evening with the Family utilizes this rule. In each act, the perfect facade of the happy birthday party, breaks down a bit more, until, in the final act, nothing is kept hidden, and not even murder is out of the question. This way of explicitly stating the narrative structure beforehand lowers the cognitive load of the players in steering for the appropriate interactions in each act. Thus, this structure increases the chance of flow-like experiences.
I appreciate the aesthetics of diegetic rules over non-diegetic rules, that said, I am not convinced that non-diegetic rules cannot achieve the same effect in terms of facilitating flow-like experience. However, such rules add to the game at the player level, rather than the character level, by providing a context through which players can interpret and steer their characters’ actions. The use of acts, as described above, provides and example of how a non-diegetic rule can facilitate steering. However, my understanding is that Nordgren is trying to articulate what she felt has been special about Totem and Mellan himmel och hav, rather than pass judgement on what is a fulfilling larp experience in general.
The second tool for enabling high resolution interactions presented by Nordgen is ensemble play. The idea here is that the players, as a group, are taking an active part in designing the game itself, i.e. going through things like communal character creation workshops.
Nordgren focuses on how ensemble play allow the players to negotiate and strengthen the boundaries of the game. This negotiation of a common understanding of game boundaries has the effect of making diegetic interactions less ambiguous. That is, a player needs to spend less energy deciding which interactions are diegetic and which are not. While this is not specifically addressed in the text, I think it can be argued that a significant part of this strengthening of the game boundaries comes from the establishment of trust between the players. Getting to know everyone out of character prior to the game, as well as the act of collaborative creation, establishes trust within the group. To aid in this, many workshops will contain silly elements. As Nordgren (2007) puts it, “When you have acted like screaming monkeys hunting for mango, everyone has already embarrassed themselves in front of each other, and can afford to take game relationships to a more serious level without any significant risk of further embarrassment.” (p. 96)
High Resolution Larping, Andie Nordgren (Nordic Larp Talks)
In a sense, this trust established prior to the game can be seen as a type of currency in the game. This is spent towards ensuring that actions are interpreted at the appropriate level of the game. Returning to the example of a person screaming at you, it is easier to interpret this as an in-character action if you have established a higher level of trust with that player.
An additional component to ensemble play in the form of pre-game workshops is that they blur the line between designers and players. The extent to which this happens depends on the original design. In some cases the players are asked to create a large part of the fiction, from details about the world to their own characters. In other cases, they are only asked to create their own characters. Finally, sometimes there is little novel material generated in the workshops, but instead, players are asked to work on interpreting their characters, relationships, etc.
The co-creational aspect of ensemble play does more than strengthen the game boundaries. It increases the players’ understanding of what interactions to expect in the game. In a game where the players are made co-designers, they will have a greater degree of understanding for the parts that they have designed themselves. It can be argued that this greater degree of understanding increases the resolution of those interactions, and decreases the cognitive load placed on players, hence facilitating flow-like experiences. This suggests that it may be an effective design decision to allow players to co-create the parts of the game which require higher resolution, leaving the low resolution parts entirely in the hands of the designers. Exactly how to design the co-creation process is an important decision for the designer. Too much freedom may move the game away from the designers intent, and/or leave the players facing decision paralysis. On the other hand, to little freedom may reduce the resolution of the interaction.
Two examples of recent games using workshop to enable ensemble play is Here is my Power Button (Atwater 2018) and The Naked Truth (Hanska and Katko 2017). Here is my Power Button is an American freeform game about people forming relationships with an artificial intelligence. The game uses the workshop to familiarize the players with each other (thus building trust), as well as to develop the short characters that are assigned to each player. A large part of the game is played in pairs with one player portraying a human, and the other player an artificial intelligence. In the workshop, the pairs can also discuss what they want to experience in the game, as well as decide on topics to avoid, etc. These pre-game discussions facilitate steering, as discussed earlier.
The Naked Truth is a slow-paced game about friendship in which four Finnish men gather for a sauna evening. In this game, the pre-game workshop takes on an almost ritualistic tone, where short pieces of text are read by the gamemaster as an introduction to each exercise. The exercise in the workshop develops the characters, but also bring the players into the slow contemplative mood of the game itself.
Ensemble play is very common in Nordic larp today. In particular, it appears to be common in games where characters and relationships are the focus rather than world building.
Constructing Shared Realities
Both of the tools presented above have the added benefit of making all interactions more transparent to all players. This point of the high resolution idea is stressed by Nordgren in her presentation of the text in the Nordic Larp Talks series, where she says: “And another interesting question is how can you make interactions between two people visible to others?”
Extending from the idea of high resolution interactions, when it is clear what a particular type of interaction represents, you need to spend less energy in parsing the interactions you see around you. This frees up mental space for players. It can also be used by players to better steer their characters through the fiction, thus, once again facilitating flow-like experiences.
An example of a technique which makes interaction visible to other players comes from the much celebrated larp Just a Little Lovin’ (Edland and Grasmo 2011). This larp is set in the 1980’s and deals with themes of friendship, desire, and fear of death in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the New York LGBTQ+ community. Just a Little Lovin’ utilizes a technique called the phallus method to simulate sex. In this method, the players use a phallus to simulate sex while fully clothed. This method could be used to emphasize whether a condom was used during sex or not, which played into the setting, as the spread of HIV/AIDS is central to the story (“Phallus – Nordic Larp Wiki” n.d.).
Indices to Icons
Previously in this text, I have discussed how a property of high resolution interactions is that they put a relatively lower cognitive load on the person interpreting an interaction. One way of understanding why this might be is to take a semiotic view on the interaction. With this perspective, we understand everything that is part of a game as signs (of communication).
These signs — everything from the locale and props to interactions — can be interpreted as indexes, iconics, or symbols. Or, indeed, they can be interpreted as any combination of these at the same time. Icons are linked to the concept they represent by being similar to the object, e.g. a boffer sword can be seen as an iconic representation of a real sword. Indices are linked to the concept they represent by having a relationship to what they represent. An example of this is using a cardboard card with a picture of a skull to represent poison. Symbols are understood to relate to a concept only by convention. An example of this is the use of words, which in general have no direct relation to the concept they represent (Loponen and Montola 2004).
Loponen and Montola (2004) write about the interpretation of props in larps, stating, “The problems arise when players are confused as to whether to interpret a sign as an iconic, indexical or symbolic sign“ (p. 42). The same can be said for the interpretation of interactions. Iconic interactions are generally the easiest to interpret, as they are close to “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG), i.e. boffer fighting represents a real fight. Iconic interactions place a low cognitive load on the player. As interactions become more indexical, i.e. touching of the hands represents sex, the interpretation of exactly what is happening becomes more difficult. The cognitive load consequently becomes higher. According to Loponen and Montola’s model, meaningful role-play will occur when the players’ subjective diegesis — i.e. their understanding of the fiction in the head of each player — are equifinal. That is, their understandings of a situation are similar enough to have indistinguishable consequences. (Loponen and Montola 2004).
Returning to the concept of high resolution, we see how diegetic rules work by making symbolic or indexical interactions iconic. Touching each other’s hands no longer represent having sex in the diegesis; it is having sex in the diegesis. Alternatively, ensemble play works with teaching the correct interpretation of symbolic and indexical concepts. By knowing the interpretations well, players need to spend less mental energy on parsing them once the game starts. Furthermore, it hopefully makes the players’ interpretations of the interactions equifinal, which according to Loponen and Montola, is critical for role-playing games to work.
High Resolution and Bleed
Nordgren closes with discussing the question of how much we want games to resemble reality with regards to relationships. She posits that the higher the resolution of the game, the more lifelike these relationships are bound to become. When the resolution of the interaction increases, the boundary between player and person becomes thinner, thus increasing the risk of the game impacting real life. This concept of things leaking through the semi-permeable boundaries between character, player, and person, are commonly referred to as bleed in today’s Nordic Larp discourse (Bowman 2015; Kemper 2017; Hugaas 2019). Strikingly, in Playground Worlds (2008) in which the text was first published, this term is not used to describe this phenomenon; however, in the foreword to the reprinting of the essay in The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp (2014), Nordgren brings up the term and identifies that the text formed a foothold into that part of the Nordic Larp discourse.
The term high resolution larp has not caught on to describe specific games. However, the idea of high resolution interactions is one well worth bringing back into the discussion.
High resolution interactions can be understood as a way for larp designers to better understand the tools they have at their disposal. Nordgren identifies diegetic rules and ensemble play as two components of high resolution larp. I believe that these can be understood from a slightly different perspective.
Diegetic rules should be seen as one of the tools in the designers’ toolbox – one that can be used to create high resolution interactions by transforming symbolic or indexical interactions into iconic ones. This is likely to prove successful in games that focus on simulation, either in the sense of having 360 degree aesthetics, or in the sense of simulating relationships and personal interactions. This may be why they worked so well in Mellan himmel och hav and Totem.
If we change the perspective from simulation of character-to-character interactions to the narrative structure of the game, rules are still interesting. In this context rules can enable steering on the parts for the player, which in turn increases the resolution of the narrative. Thus, both ars amandi in Totem, and monologing in A Nice Evening with the Family, are examples of high resolution interactions. The first increases the resolution of the character-to-character interactions, while the second one increases the resolution of the player-to-game interaction.
Ensemble play on the other hand is mainly a facilitator of high-resolution interactions. Its main purpose is the establishment of trust within a group. However, it also has a number of auxiliary functions, such as teaching the game, setting the mood, etc. As noted previously, ensemble play in the form of pre-game workshops is very common today in Nordic larp, probably owing to the fact that it has strong positive effects on the game, as well as having many practical benefits.
To analyze the level of resolution (depth) in an interaction, consider a keyboard, with one or more keys available to the musician. It is possible to make music with a single key, for example pressing it to create a rhythm. If we add more keys it suddenly becomes possible to play a melody. However, just as the music is limited in which keys are used at a particular time by the musical key and time signature, the designer can select which interactions to make available to the players in order to create the desired experience. Incorporating the concept of resolution into a design framework, such as the FAtE (From Activity to Experience) model (Back 2016), could prove an interesting way forward. Briefly, the FAtE model suggests that the larp designer creates a construct (e.g. characters, workshops, etc) that encourages certain activities. These activities are what creates an experience in the player. Exactly how to create constructs that elicit high resolution interactions, beyond what has already been discussed in this text, requires further study.
Cognitive load has been a key concept discussed throughout this article. While important, I think it provides only part of the explanation of why some interactions are more likely to produce flow-like experiences than others. As always, larps are very complex interaction systems, and understanding the whole from the parts will only provide part of the truth. Furthermore, I recognize that the concept of flow-like experiences is in itself inadequate in capturing what a good roleplaying experience is, however I think that it has served its purpose in this text.
When Nordgren wrote her original text, she wished to express what was special about larps such as Totem. The language to describe it was lacking, so she came up with the high resolution analogy. Language lets us not only understand the world, but also shape it. I believe that by adding the resolution analogy to our vocabulary and refining it further, we can make more powerful, fulfilling games in the future.
I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Sara Engström for reading this text and providing feedback. I would also like to thank Sarah Lynne Bowman for her excellent editing and feedback, pushing me to take this text much further than I could have done on my own.
A Nice Evening With the Family (2007): Anna Westerling, Anders Hultman, Tobias Wrigstad, Elsa Helin, Anna-Karin Linder and Patrik Balint. Flen, Sweden.A Nice Evening with the Family was redesigned by Tor Kjetil Edland, Elli Garperian, Kajsa Greger, Susanne Gräslund, Anders Hultman, Caroline Holgersson, Frida Sofie Jansen, Maria Ljung, Gustav Nilsson, Martin Rother-Schirren, Daniel Sundström, Anna Westerling and Emma Öhrström in 2018, and subsequently re-run in 2018 and 2019.
Here is My Power Button (2017): Brodie Atwater. USA.
Just a Little Lovin’ (2011): Tor Kjetil Edland, Hanne Grasmo. Lunde Leirsted, Oslo, Norway.
Mellan himmel och hav (2003): Emma Wieslander, Katarina Björk & Ars Amandi. Stockholm, Sweden. Eng. “Between Heaven and Sea”.
The Naked Truth (2017): Arttu Hanska and Joonas Katko. Finland.
Totem (2007): Peter S. Andreasen, Rasmus Høgdall, Mathias Kromann Rode, Peter Munthe-Kaas and Kristoffer Thurøe. Copenhagen/Randers, Denmark.
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Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2015. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.” Nordiclarp.org. 2015. https://nordiclarp.org/2015/03/02/bleed-the-spillover-between-player-and-character/.
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Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordiclarp.org. 2017. https://nordiclarp.org/2017/06/21/the-battle-of-primrose-park-playing-for-emancipatory-bleed-in-fortune-felicity/.
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Loponen, Mika, and Markus Montola. 2004. “A Semiotic View on Diegesis Construction.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montola, Stenros, and Jaakko, 39–51. Ropecon ry.
Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Eleanor Saitta. 2015. “The Art of Steering: Bringing the Player and the Character Back Together.” In The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book, edited by Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted, 107–17. Rollespilsakademiet.
Munthe-Kaas, Peter. 2010. “Totem – Body Language and Tribalism in High Definition.” In Nordic Larp, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 255–61. Fëa Livia.
Nordgren, Andie. 2008. “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond.” In Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 91–101. Ropecon ry.
Pohjola, Mike. 2015. “Steering For Immersion in Five Nordic Larps – A New Understanding of Eläytyminen.” In The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book, edited by Charles Bo Nielsen and Claus Raasted, 95–105. Rollespilsakademiet.
Stenros, Jaakko. 2010. “Mellan Himmel Och Hav.” In Nordic Larp, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 158–67. Fëa Livia.
Wieslander, Emma. 2004. “Rules of Engagement.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montala and Jaakko Stenros, 181–86. Ropecon ry.
Cover photo: Arm painting at Totem (photo, Mathias Kromann Rode).
Content editing: Sarah Lynne Bowman.
|A Nice Evening with the Family was redesigned by Tor Kjetil Edland, Elli Garperian, Kajsa Greger, Susanne Gräslund, Anders Hultman, Caroline Holgersson, Frida Sofie Jansen, Maria Ljung, Gustav Nilsson, Martin Rother-Schirren, Daniel Sundström, Anna Westerling and Emma Öhrström in 2018, and subsequently re-run in 2018 and 2019.