When larping, we are often aiming to feel immersed. This chapter shows how other internal processes are active as well when we are roleplaying. We may focus in on — immerse into — the experience of fiction while role-playing, but we may also choose to zoom out and observe both reality and fiction at the same time. This metareflection allows us to put the role-playing fiction in perspective with reality in different ways.
The framework of metareflection helps us understand the complexities of what we actually do when we role-play. Built from interviews and theories on theatre and cognitionThe framework of metareflection is based on my master’s thesis (Levin 2017)., it explains how all players move between seeing fiction, reality or both at the same time during their role-playing experience, and how we may play with that to enhance experiences and designs.
Connecting theory to practice, I have gathered examples of how we are already playing with metareflection in Nordic larp. By putting our practice into words, I hope to inspire more exploration and to allow for other art forms to learn from us. For example, our methods for metareflection as well as for calibration could be very useful in the immersive theatre.
This chapter starts with theories behind metareflection. If you are looking for practical tools, you may go straight to Methods for Metareflection.
From Brecht to Nordic Larp
Coming from theatre, my interest in the different layers of larping was sparked by the apparent influence of theatre director Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) in Nordic larp designs. His aesthetics are quite visible in the minimalistic blackbox larps, that are closely aligned with the Brecht-inspired movie Dogville (Trier & Windeløv 2003). If we look deeper, Nordic larp has not only been inspired by Brecht’s visual aesthetics, but also by his methods for breaking the illusion of fiction in order to comment upon it.
In a time with a strong naturalistic theatre tradition, Brecht introduced the Verfremdung-techniques (alienation or distancing techniques) that make the audience question the narrative on stage. His goal was to make the audience aware that the outcomes of the stories were not predetermined but created by humans, and could be changed by humans:
The audience for the Epic Theatre is expected to perceive alternatives to the events: different options open to the characters, different outcomes for the various events, alternative social systems or frames of reference. (Ben Chaim 1984) Through this work, he had a huge influence on the different forms of metatheatre that exist today, especially in political and feminist theatre.
Metatheatre describes forms of theatre that play with self-awareness of form; theatre that plays with being theatre, such as actors stepping in and out of character, or switching between naturalistic and over-emphasized behaviour, or having a narrator commenting on the fiction such as in Dogville. In a similar way, the meta used in larp is describing that we are playing with our awareness of the role-playing as being role-playing, where the metatechniques can allow us to use more abstract levels of play, or comment on the fiction, or in other ways play with an interactive relationship between reality and fiction.
While many larps today use minimalistic aesthetics without considering Brecht, the early blackbox larp When Our Destinies Meet (2009) directly quoted Brecht as the source for their design:
We gather our inspiration from the director, playwright, and theater theorist Bertolt Brecht. […] We ask the player to interrupt their immersion into the character and story and start looking at what is happening and how it happens (Jarl & Karlsson 2013). Inspired by practices from theatre and other storytelling mediums, many different larp and freeform communities have experimented with methods for interrupting or adding other layers to the illusion of fiction for some time. Today, metatechniques are a common design tool with many areas of usage: From introducing sceptical distance, to the sharing of inner monologues, to allowing for simulations and calibration techniques. And still, there is a steady increase of creative ways of using the different layers of larping.
Aesthetic Distance in Embodied Role-Playing
Playing with the layers of larping draws on the ability to be aware of the real world at the same time as you are immersing into fiction. This ability has been observed by many role-playing researchers, among them Stenros (2013):
When you are playing, you will see the world around in double vision. You will see the fiction as real through your character, but obviously you are also aware of the ordinary everyday world as a player. This player ability seems to be taken for granted — but how does it work?
Bowman (2017) has described immersion as a state of creative flow, where the player is feeling emotionally absorbed by the experience. Although the term is sometimes used to describe 360° surroundings, the feeling of being immersed may be reached in both realistic and minimalistic aesthetics. Immersion is created through situations that the participants may believe in and respond to, be it through visual aesthetics or dramatic content. In any larp then, players may become emotionally absorbed, and still, they will be aware of their everyday world.
This is connected to a fundamental rule of art called
aesthetic distance (Ben Chaim 1984). We need to see something as different from our everyday reality, to recognize it as art. If we do not recognize the artwork as fictional, we will not respond to it as an artwork, but as an object of reality. We will react very differently to what we think is a real sword, or a boffer sword — or a boffer sword that we pretend is a real sword. Many types of artworks exist as objects regardless of how we interpret them. But in embodied art, real bodies, and real environments need to be seen in a different way for the artwork to exist at all. Even though aesthetic distance is part of all kinds of art, we may choose not to pay attention to it when watching a film or a performance. But when we participate physically, we need to take reality into greater consideration:
[…] in audience participation it is very difficult for this form to be invisible — we will pay close attention to the work that is done to make us participate, so that we will always be aware of our presence in the event, the way that the performers relate to us, and the differences between the participatory frame and the others in which we spend our time. Audience participation in this sense is always metatheatrical.
This metatheatricality, the heightened awareness of reality while taking part in a fiction, is also found in larp:
As a participant, you are experiencing the events as a character, but also shape the drama as it unfolds as a player. You have a sort of dual consciousness as you consider the playing both as real — within the fiction — and as not real, as playing […] you can play with that border, with the difference between the player and the character, play and non-play.
Not only can we use this double awareness constructively when playing with the layers of larping, but it seems crucial to how we take part in any embodied and participatory art.
Role-Playing Through Interpretive Frames
Following the principle of aesthetic distance, several role-playing theorists have described immersion as an
interpretive framework (e.g Balzer 2011, Harding 2007, Järvelä 2019, Lappi 2007), where the larp experience can
be understood as a change in how the player interprets the world (Harding 2007). By seeing the world through the frame of the larp fiction, the player will understand what is happening in a different way. Immersion is then created by focusing on the fictional perspective (Järvelä 2019).
The concept of the interpretive frame of reality and interpretive frame of fiction, that the player can immerse (more or less) in, will help us to further understand how the player can uphold and move between immersion and awareness of reality during embodied role-playing experiences.
In cognitive psychology, the ability to have several interpretive frames in our mind at the same time is called conceptual integration (McConachie 2013). This allows us to be simultaneously aware of different systems of interpretation, and to associate between them. This ability makes it possible for humans to think abstract thoughts, compare different experiences to each other — and to turn play into performative expression:
Regarding performance, the key contribution made by conceptual integration is role-playing.
When we have the possibility to see a situation through different interpretive frames, we may not only put them side by side and compare them to each other. We may also blend them, and try to align the frame of fiction more closely with the frame of reality — which is what we do when we play. By having put this fictional layer over reality through our own interpretation, we have the possibility to blend or un-blend our perspective at will. But, both audiences and role-players usually prefer to immerse into fiction, since it’s enjoyable to us:
[…] spectators may choose to stop the ‘flow’ of a performance by un-blending actor/characters to momentarily think about the work […] But usually not for long. The pleasurable effects of ‘flow’ generally pull spectators back into the cognitive activities of blending and empathizing.
Immersing into the frame of fiction can then be understood as the player continuously trying to see the world through a specific perspective.
The Myth of Total Immersion
Since the frame of fiction is a layer that is put upon real material in theatre and embodied role-playing, we can blend fiction and reality, and unblend back to reality, but we may not unblend into a solely fictional perspective:
We cannot will to accept or reject what we believe to be real, we can only become inattentive toward it (Ben Chaim 1984). To unblend into only believing in the fiction would mean to stop believing in reality, something that rarely happens through experiences of art:
The ‘total identification’ which sometimes appears as a catchphrase of theorists and theatre artists, if psychologically possible short of insanity, therefore appears to be impossible aesthetically. To literally become one with the object would be to cease to ‘see as,’ to cease to sustain distance, to cease to be engaged in an aesthetic experience.
As opposed to how fearmongers have presented the supposed risks of role-playing, a successful role-roleplaying experience is not one of total immersion, but rather a satisfactory blend between the frames of fiction and reality, where reality does not bother us:
[…] deep immersion takes place when the player is focused strongly enough on the larp so that it fills their consciousness […] However, all that which they are not focusing on — including their everyday selves — does not disappear anywhere (Järvelä 2019). Players may still end up in a larp with structures, actions, or content that they do not wish to take part in. But having trouble stepping out of such an experience is an issue that have more to do with social dynamics and previous life experience, than immersion.
Even though many strive to experience immersion, the role-player is always responsible to not disregard reality more than what allows them to keep being considerate towards the other players. A certain amount of ’double vision’ is therefore, even in the most immersive of role-plays, both requested and expected. By highlighting that we are always somewhat aware of the fiction as fictional, I hope that we may lower the threshold for ‘breaking’ the illusion of fiction for calibration and confirming consensual play.
Hopefully, the knowledge and methods for player safety that have been developed within the Nordic larp community can also be transferred to other participatory fields. The ambition to create the most immersive experience has burdened participatory art with ill-considered design. Examples range from performers not recognizing nonconsensual play, insisting on continuing playing with participants who try to disengage, and safety issues such as actually locked doors in escape rooms. These strategies derive from misunderstandings about immersion and its relationship to reality, where the thought of a real sword seems better than an imagined sharp edge. But this is to overlook that the knowledge of the drama as fictional is an important quality of how we may create as well as how we enjoy these experiences. Pushing a fiction onto the participants is often insensitive, sometimes dangerous, and always counterproductive — since what is needed for the fiction to come alive is the individual player’s will to see it.
Immersion into fiction is less about losing touch with reality, and more about focusing your attention:
According to many of the cognitive scientists who have studied it, attention is a lot like a follow-spotA spotlight with an adjustable opening, allowing us to take in more or less of a visual field (McConachie 2013). Rather than forgetting reality while role-playing, we may try to zoom in on the fiction, and let it fill as much of our attention as possible. Following the idea of a spotlight of attention, we may also choose to zoom out into a larger perspective. From this expanded frame, we can observe both frames of reality and fiction at the same time, the blend that has been created between them and how they might relate to each other. This is the interpretive frame of metareflectionMeta as in transcending, encompassing (the role-playing fiction), a higher or more abstract level (of reflection).
The Framework of Metareflection
When first considering aesthetic distance and reflection in role-playing, I looked at the player’s perspective of the real in contrast to that of the fiction, and how one might move between them. But to just unblend the role-playing experience and go back to the player’s everyday perspective during what is expected to be an immersive experience, will probably create boredom and disappointment, rather than interesting contrast. Through the expanded perspective of metareflection, we do not see the fiction as onlookers from reality, but in context with reality.
Metareflections are reflections concerned with both reality and fiction during a fictional experience. This separates the metareflection from reflections that take place only within the role-play, such as how the noblewoman shall seize the throne, as well as from reflections that are only concerned with reality, such as when the player’s parking ticket will run out. Metareflection commonly means
the consideration of various different points of view (Wiktionary 2017), pointing towards the frame’s interactive nature. The meta also connects the term to metatechniques as well as to metatheatre.
A constructive metareflection puts the embodied role-playing (such as the fictional world, the character, the actions or the game structure) in perspective with the real world, which may concern narrative, personal, social, and/or political contexts. When the player is metareflecting, smaller and larger correlations between these categories can be found, that may inform the role-play or the perception of the everyday reality. The player may realize that the game structure reminds them of a certain power structure, or that they are following a narrative burdened by clichés, or be reminded of a childhood memory, all of which may influence their following play.
Since the management of the interpretive frames of reality and fiction are premises for every embodied role-play, the frame of metareflection is also available to every player, regardless of the particular larp design. As the player chooses to interpret the situation through different frames, they can also change perspective continuously during play:
[…] once engaged in conceptual integration, spectators slip in and out of the blends of performance with little conscious thought (McConachie 2013). While players can metareflect at any time, larpmakers can also apply methods that encourage them to use this awareness of reality and fiction in a specific way.
Although metareflection is an elevated perspective, it should not be simplified to a distancing view taking place at the expense of immersion. As with Brecht’s Verfremdung, some perspective may also result in more emotional engagement, as it may be used to bring the player’s own experiences into the fiction, or make the player realize that the fiction concerns their own life. Through our ability to make reality and fiction interact, we can create interesting experiences that touch us and affect how we see ourselves and the world around us.
Embodied Role-Playing as Metareflexive
Within drama theory, there are pre-existing terms that try to explain some of the same aspects of role-playing as metareflectionSuch as
aesthetic doubling (Grünbaum 2009) and
metaxis (Boal 1995).. But by trying to cover everything from aesthetic premise to learning outcomes with one word, they have ended up with being confusingly broad, mystifying and varying considerably in meaning between users.
The interpretive frames of reality, fiction, and metareflection gives us a clearer understanding of which frames the design and the player may move between, and how these frames are interconnected. It does not only make visible the reflection that may occur while being immersed, and how this is not necessarily opposed to, but rather dependent on, the fiction to be constructive. It also distinguishes reality from metareflection: In the frame of reality, the player might try to immerse but does not manage to believe in the fiction, or chooses to take a break, or needs everyone to stop playing. The frame of metareflection may include the use of intrusive metatechniques, which might also break the flow of the play, but with offering contributions to the fiction. Very different contexts are introduced when someone breaks the illusion of fiction to add to it, or when someone breaks it to address a real issue.
By allowing for variations in terminology, the framework of metareflection may distinguish the different aspects of role-playing with greater clarity than earlier terms, as following:
- the metareflexivity of embodied role-play; the aesthetic premise of the simultaneous presence of reality and fiction (which may be implicit or explicit in the design) within embodied art forms
- the frame of metareflection of the individual player, that make it possible to understand this premise and take part in embodied role-playing
- to metareflect, when the player is actively using their frame of metareflection to put the fiction into perspective with reality
- a metareflection, a specific comparison that the player finds between their role-playing fiction and their reality
- methods for metareflection that facilitates or encourages the player to metareflect
- methods that are using the metareflexivity of the embodied role-play with other purposes than to increase metareflection (such as to overcome the material premise of the embodied role-play (e.g. travel in time and space, act out violence and sex, etc.) and facilitate communication and calibration between players)
By giving all these different aspects of role-playing more precise terms, we may play and design more precisely as well.
Shifting Between Immersing and Metareflecting
Many larp designs focus on conveying the fiction, and let the players manage the frames of reality, fiction and metareflection as they see fit. Metareflections can be used to reflect upon and contextualize the larp during runtime. However, this is not their main advantage, as the larp experience may also be processed and placed into real-life contexts after the larp.
The main difference between reflecting after a larp experience and metareflecting during it, is that the latter may lead to meaningful insights that changes the direction of the following play. Moments of metareflection are thereby important for
steering (Montola et al 2015), which grants the player greater control over their own narrative and experience. The player might become more aware of what kind of game structure they are playing within, and choose to go with or against it. They might realize that their story has become static and uninteresting to them, or remember a route that they have yet to explore. Nordblom & Westborg (2017) explains this through the metaphor of a football game: If the character is a football player, metareflecting would be to take on the perspective of the coach. By not only focusing on playing here and now, but also trying to foresee what strategies might be useful up ahead, we can see more play possibilities and create more exciting interactions.
Even though we can metareflect at will, imposed metareflection might be useful to us. Our immediate ideas, especially in the flow state of immersion, might be full of stereotypes from our lives and from stories that we have heard before. Moments offering some perspective might provide us with constructive new input. When metareflections are facilitated through shared spaces, this also offers possibilities to calibrate the larp as a group.
The human mind is generally better at focusing on one thing at a time than it is at multitasking. Rather than always staying in a middle ground, it may be more constructive for players to focus in on immersion and metareflection at different times. This is brought forward by larpmakers Bergmann Hamming & Bergmann Hamming (2017), claiming that the player may deepen their larp experience by shifting between diving into the immersion and coming up to the surface to breathe:
Larpers need to breathe and dive […] we try to immerse into these scenes, dive as far down as we can, feel and act on what makes sense and what could be fun, and then resurface and breathe. Consider where it would be great to go and if we can set the next great scenes up on our own, then dive back in and live them out.
But, shifting between deep immersion and more distanced reflection might be taxing to do often. Lukka (2014) points out that:
Conscious immersion is first upheld by the attentive processes controlled by the player. Once immersion is deeper, it is upheld by automatic attentive processes and biases. When immersion becomes more subconsciously fueled, we might reach emotional landscapes and insights we didn’t know we had in us. Too many breaks might hinder this process, and a shift does not guarantee an interesting insight in itself. This makes it very understandable that many designs allow the players to immerse as much as possible during the larp, and leave reflections for later.
Methods for Metareflection
To help further experimentation with metareflexive designs, I’ve gathered some examples of methods for metareflection from Nordic larps. The methods mentioned here are used, mainly or possibly, to create deliberate design for contextualization, reflection and processing. Methods that use the metareflexivity of larping for other means than metareflection, such as simulations and safety techniques, are not included here.
Act Breaks and Meta Rooms
Act breaks give the opportunity to process, discuss, and calibrate the role-play in a shared metareflexive space. It’s a method that caters well to players who do not like frequent shifts, as the duration of acts and act breaks allows for more uninterrupted processes.
Among others, the larp Just a Little Lovin’ (2011) uses act breaks to move the larp one year forward in time, allowing for collective calibration of how the characters’ intertwined lives have developed during that time.
Meta rooms (where larpers can play out flashback scenes, dreams, etc.) and offgame rooms may offer some of the same space for shared metareflection, but only for the players who choose to enter these spaces.
Editing: Stopping, Rewinding and Changing Scenes
Although one great feature of larp as a medium is how easy it is to interrupt and modify, these strategies are more visible in our workshops than in our runtime designs. One of the few examples is found in the free-form scenario Lady and Otto (2005): In this comedic antidrama, every scene has to start all over again as soon as conflict arises.
There are many methods for revisiting scenes that might be directly transferred from forum theatre and other drama practices. These kinds of methods may also be used to deconstruct a narrative, and allow several perspectives to be shown. It is also possible to play with switching characters between the players, such as in the larp The Family Andersson (2008), where two players share one character. As they take turns playing and observing the larp, the observing player will get a literal outside perspective on the character they just embodied.
Monologues and Player’s Comments
The inner monologue is a commonly used metatechnique that works slightly metareflexively, as the player will get more information about the other character than their own character, and may use that in steering the following play. More explicitly metareflexive is allowing the player, and not the character, to use the monologue to comment what they think about the fiction, as in When Our Destinies Meet (2009).
These are methods that emphasize or comment on certain aspects of the play without interrupting it, such as exaggerated actions or behavior, gestures, coded words, or audiovisual communication. These strategies are often used to communicate efficiently between larpers without interrupting play, but they also hold great potential for metareflexive play. Looking to Brechtian and feminist theatre might be an inspiration, where emphasized behavior is often used to expose the performativity within social roles and other norms.
In a larp about teenagers and peer pressure, En apa som liknar dig (2013), the players are instructed to “do the monkey” — goof around — whenever a situation turns emotional or serious, which exposes the goofiness as a compulsive flight behavior.
In the larp Joakim (2011), which takes place at a party, every angst filled monologue is instructed to be followed by all players roaring with laughter before resuming play, emphasizing the collective upholding of the facade.
Internal Metareflection: Sharp Choices
Methods for internal metareflection are very common, as they are subtle enough to not break the flow of playing, and they allow the players to self-regulate how much they want to redirect their attention. But, as they occur within the player’s mind, they do not offer any shared reflections.
Internal metareflections can of course happen at any time, but they may also be encouraged by the design. One such method is integrating sharp choices. These will present an imposed request for steering, where the player has to assess how the outcome of the situation will affect the following play. In the poetic larp Innocence (2014), this is created through symbolic props that the characters gain throughout the larp, that give them new abilities. The players will then need to choose between returning the props and the beloved abilities at specific times, or keeping them and giving up the character’s chances of returning home. Through this, the player has to decide if the abilities gained or the hope of home is most important to their character.
Voting is also a way of enforcing contemplation, be it for the future outcome or for the past. By the end of every act of Just a Little Lovin’ (2011), everyone has to think through their character’s past behavior to be able to put down votes corresponding to their risk of having contracted AIDS. Have You Come Here To Play Jesus? (2013), a larp dealing with euthanasia, ends with a vote where the character has to come to a conclusion about what they believe is morally right in the difficult situation.
Internal Metareflection: Moments for Processing
Internal metareflection may also be encouraged by downtime, where the players can pause and process while still staying within the fiction. It is quite common to let the larpers pace this by themselves, but looking to other media such as slower montages in film, it is also a feature that may be designed for at certain times and in certain ways. In the larp Do Androids Dream? (2017) the players were instructed to wait for two minutes at “the bus stop” before moving on to the next scene, providing a short break to process and gather new ideas. The player may also process through certain activities, such as writing a letter, painting, etc., which may condense and deepen a specific part of the experience.
Constant Metareflexive Layers
There are also strategies that accentuate the metareflexive aspects of the larp to keep them more present for all the players throughout. One common strategy is transparency, where the player has more information about the fiction than the character, which will encourage the player to use this knowledge when navigating through the shared narrative.
An opposing strategy is to give the players thin characters with little information, which may lead them to bring more of themselves into play.
Characters playing characters will add an additional layer of fiction to the larp, such as in the larp The Solution (2016), or as some of the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are a troupe of actors that put up a play. When having fictional characters portraying yet another fiction, the players will have to manage four interpretive frames (reality, fiction one, fiction two, and metareflection), and keep up with how they interact more frequently.
In pervasive larps utilizing real surroundings, such as The White Road (2006), We Are Citizens (2015), and Home Planet (2019), the frame of reality will be more present and offer more direct interactions with the role-playing fiction. The presence of reality in larp may also be heightened by strong realistic and/or historical content, such as in 1942 — Noen å stole på? (2000), and Just a Little Lovin’ (2011). A player portraying what could have been an actual fate is likely to continuously compare their larp story to how it might have been in real life.
Larps are Made of Interpretation and Participation
The Nordic larp scene is well underway with developing metareflexive methods to refine the storytelling. Considering the interpretive frames of reality, fiction, and metareflection furthers a more dynamic understanding of what we do when we role-play, and how we can experiment with different variations of immersing and reflecting to deepen our experiences. There are many design possibilities yet to explore, and still plenty of inspiration to gather from other storytelling mediums.
The framework of metareflection suggests that an important task for the larpmaker to create a successful experience, is to communicate their vision clearly so that the players manage to envision that particular fiction together. This also includes creating willingness to bring it to life:
[Fictionality] rests on the prior condition of a willingness to engage ourselves with an unreality. […] it is a voluntary commitment to participate in the creation of an alternate universe (Ben Chaim 1984). The interpretive frames also point quite clearly to why sudden larp twists and surprises usually work so poorly — you have to get the players on board with what they are supposed to imagine, for them to be able and willing to see it.
This also goes for how methods for metareflection are put to use. Larps are very pluralistic, as the players experience them through their individual character journeys. A too rigid method with specific insights to be drawn between larp and life will easily turn irrelevant to many players, while a design that allows players to draw their own connections between their particular larp and life experience will often prove more constructive.
As embodied role-playing occurs by putting a fictional interpretation over real material and real bodies, it may directly invite players to new ways of seeing the world and themselves. Be it through an explicitly metareflexive sociopolitical larp, or an escapist immersive larp: Regardless of form, larps are made out of player interpretation and participation. Invite your fellow players to explore the different layers of larping, and they will put their interpretive skills to use to fill the larp with meaning.
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