Labor and Play

Labor and Play

Have you gone to a larp that somehow required more work than your day job? Have you done work in a larp and been compensated with fictional resources in the larp rather than money or in-kind, real resources such as shelter and food? Have you had video of your larp experience used in a commercial setting outside of the play context? While larp is in no need of a Marxian revolution, the community is in need of a reckoning with regards to players’ play being also valuable as labor.

Let me explain.

Modern societies operate based on a division between human activity considered “productive” — i.e., that delivers value to someone — and “non-productive,” that seems to deliver value to no one. Value is a central part of labor, and also part of play. Despite recent public discourse on the topic (Bogost 2019), few players care about the distinction between play and labor. We all understand that the line between work and play is murky in late capitalism, as evidenced by so-called “modding” culture, streaming, eSports and other “playbour” movements (Kücklich 2005). But, as Aleena Chia (2019) asserts, players do care about who is gaining what benefit at the expense of others, and whether or not they are burning themselves out in the process:

Vocational passion energizes social, cultural, and organizational practices that create economic value for companies, yet drains workers and aspirants through class-based expectations to compromise employment security in ‘doing what you love.’

Few play more intensely and passionately than larpers.

This chapter continues research begun four years ago with our piece “Playing At Work: Labor, Identity and Emotion in Larp” (Jones, Koulu, Torner 2016), where we asserted that “core larp activities — playing roles as supporting characters, pretending to dig ditches, putting up with off-putting players — involve labor during the game’s runtime”. Larpers’ passion for play means a lot of work before, during, and after the game. We also introduced a three-fold taxonomy of labor during a larp: first-order labor (that which keeps players alive, beyond any system of value), second-order labor (non-survival-critical work that would otherwise be financially compensated in other contexts), and third-order labor (entirely fictional work performed with entirely fictional rewards.)

Such research continues to accompany discussions as they evolve around a wide range of labor-related topics: the art of larp volunteering (Mutsaers 2018), in-game larp counseling and post-game debrief (Atwater 2016) as well as the range of skills that larp requires as an assemblage of practices (Kamm 2019). Our work focused on in-game labor, as pre-game and post-game labor has a different set of issues associated with them.

It appears that structured live-action role-play with preparation, rules, and unspoken play cultures is indistinguishable from labor. When players enter the “magic circle” of play, supposedly they have entered a space in which different rules apply from social reality. Yet from the start of the game, players perform intensive work to keep the game itself afloat as well as support their own play experience. Moreover, such “playbour” may create surplus value for the players themselves or, more frequently, others. This work is inseparable from the bodies and emotions of the participants, just as play is (Keogh 2018). Using the conceptual framework of the human body, a model used in a notable film theory textbook (Elsaesser and Hagener 2010), I discuss below the varied ways in which play and work intermingle, and how players actively evolve skills not only to do this labor well, but also to effortlessly elide it from their consciousness as “play.” Relying on several examples from Nordic larp and freeform, I explore the complex relationship between play, work, the body, mind and, above all, capital.

Hands and Feet

Let’s begin with the hands and feet as metaphors for physical labor play, the most obvious form of playbour. Building, crafting, cleaning, cooking — there is so much to be done in a larp, and much of it can be done in-character. Olle Nyman’s post-apocalyptic larp Skymningsland (Dusk Land 2010), for example, incorporated “chopping wood, making coal, pumping water and other labor-intensive jobs” into the design, so as to let the refugee and marginalised characters in the game feel their lower stations in life in their very bodies. Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo’s five-day larp experience Just a Little Lovin’ (2011-) has a whole kitchen staff, the cooks of Pepper’s Diner, that is also in-character; they spend most of the game preparing food for the other characters, but are also able to get involved with fictional plotlines and take part in the party. The Czech game Legion: Siberian Story (2016) involves long, physical treks on foot through January snow in order to move from one location to another.

This form of in-game, physical labor has wildly variable value, since its value as play may not be as high as its first-order contribution to the basic survival of the larpers (i.e., food preparation, custodial work, transport), but such physical activity can certainly contribute to the deepening of one’s investment into one’s character and the core themes of the larp itself (i.e., survival, hardship, labor inequality, etc.)

It is interesting to note that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed his concept of flow (1975), or the pleasurable mental states produced by a steady, voluntarily chosen set of achievable tasks and competence at those tasks, against the backdrop of Italian fascism. His family was in Italy during the chaos of war, and he was able to nevertheless maintain a stable mental state by playing chess. How do certain physical and mental activities secure our minds against fear and despair? How could both play and work be actually two sides of the same coin? Csikszentmihalyi’s schema Flow is created through concentration and effort, a revolving state of being mildly challenged and rising to meet the challenge.

Losing track of time in the “playbour” state of larp can be a positive thing: it means the player is thoroughly engaged in activity, whatever it may be. In the larp context, Sarah Lynne Bowman (2018) calls this “immersion into activity,” or when the physical and cognitive tasks of a game become rewarding in themselves and, in turn, a player’s activity as a character becomes spatial-motor and tactile. Neither play nor labor induces flow by necessity, however. There can be play that is not remotely fun (Stenros 2015, Sharp and Thomas 2019), and there is plenty of work that serves no purpose in society other than to subjugate us with mind-numbing tedium (Graeber 2018). Players must voluntarily enter into the activities of a larp, but they’re better when conscientiously designed and implemented.

Larp as a medium often exhibits its best side when these structured physical tasks are introduced by way of conscious design. Rather than simply standing around as if at an awkward party, players have something concrete to do that may require additional in-character problem-solving, player physical effort, and time. Larp designs that revolve around professionals performing small talk while taking care of volumes of tasks, either fictional or not, preoccupy the players with various stakes in their characters’ stories as well as brute reality. If dinner at the historical larp Fairweather Manor (2015- 2018) isn’t served by in-character servants, for example, then players do not get to eat.

As we have argued earlier (Jones, Koulu, Torner 2016), first-order and second-order labor in larp can also cause jarring context collapse: the vital tasks that would ordinarily be compensated with money are both (A) variably or not remunerated outside the larp and (B) now mixed in with ingame drama that may interfere with the tasks themselves, forcing players to make a choice between dropping character and doing the task well or doing the task poorly (or not at all) and risking both ingame and out-of-game consequences.

Larp play can itself produce objects of value and transaction in the open market. For example, Martin Tegelj’s game Polka Pillow Production (2018) simulates a Slovenian workers’ co-op that stuffs pillows, all while interrupting work on occasion for music and dance. The four stages of production — spinning yarn, looming the cloth, embroidering the cloth, and constructing and stuffing pillows — can be play-acted, but there is at least one group who has played the game and constructed actual pillows. Who owns these pillows? These are clearly artifacts of play, having emerged from a fictional context, and one with starkly different regimes of value (i.e., Slovenia under communist rule) at that.

Larps that produce actual goods, even those just meant as keepsakes for their participants, have added “commodity creation” as one of the design outcomes, meaning that the play that produced them now has monetary value, scant as it may be.

Obvious physical labor in larp thus straddles a wide range of value to the players and organizers. Ingame cooking, cleaning, and security may be vital to the larp, or entirely marginal. Tasks that players must perform in-character may create flow states, allowing the player to lose themselves and induce a positive mental state in the player or they may be distractions and liabilities that sideline play away from the larp’s core focus.

In turn, larps may create objects with exchange value or services with use value, in which case an organizer team has an ethical obligation to their players in being transparent about who profits from those goods or services. Larps have the power to engage their participants in vigorous, meaningful physical activity, but design and play must mediate against distraction, drudgery, and economic exploitation.

Eyes, Mouth, Ears, and Brain

Turning next to the eyes, mouth, ears, and brain in our metaphor, we conceive of our ideal larper as someone actively investing their cognitive energy and sensory capacities in making the larp work: they are noticing details, making sense of them, and communicating about them in a certain way. Players work and create value in the larp as a whole when they pay attention to others, in particular to in-play cues. They then perform additional labor by sorting the cues and acting upon them with their full cognitive and emotional capacities.

Almost any play advice worth mentioning will encourage players to, at bare minimum, listen to each other. Players in larps are typically not “lost” in character, but rather are constantly shifting their attention between various in-character goals, extant player needs, and just “being” in the game. This requires active awareness, or the devotion of one’s full attention to the comprehension of one’s environment and fellow players. For example, in blockbuster games such as the magic school larp College of Wizardry (2014-), whether or not someone is aware of a group of students headed off to follow a serpent spirit or is in an area cordoned off for an impromptu magic ritual can make or break multiple players’ larp experiences.

The core skill being exercised in many games is reflective listening, or the basic repetition of material one has perceived to ensure one understands. Players do this every time they noticeably state a fellow player’s character name aloud instead of their real name: “Hi Miguel!” They are confirming “I understand you are playing a fictional entity by the name of Miguel and acknowledge you as this entity.” Reflective listening in larps also manifests with respect to all the meme-like nuggets of plot information normally circulated: “The king has a traitor in his court!” “Susanne has an illegitimate child.” “I am not actually a horse.” Larps are usually robust enough to deal with the social realities of tacit misinformation — think of how a message transforms over time during a child’s game of “telephone” — but accurately passing on the message “Stefan is not actually a horse” can have profound effects on subsequent play, due to the host of fictional triggers and social opportunities at hand in a larp.

It turns out that paying attention and good communication are some of the most basic and valuable work skills there are. German rationalist philosopher Christian Wolff already outlined in Psychologia empirica (1732) and Psychologia rationalis (1734) the formal bases of our perception, apperception, and attention, with the goal of controlling one’s own conscious thought for as long as possible. Centuries of inquiry have been devoted to how to increase one’s self-control over one’s attention, and it is an overt commodity in the digital age (Dean 2012). 21st Century capitalist societies both require extensive intellectual work in programming, engineering, teaching, and management to survive, and also relentlessly exhaust those capacities through advertising, email, and the daily distractions of digital life. John Tierney (2001) argues that this relentless struggle over our attentive decision-making capacities is more taxing than one would think:

No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired-but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts… (Tierney, quoted in Dean 2012)

When we larp well, we are not just good players. We are also good co-workers and employees of the larp (Saitta 2012) — we not only submit to its rules system and genre expectations, but we also watch out for fellow players and listen to the various subtleties in their expression and demeanor. Taking it all in and making in-character decisions is both the object of most games and also, as described above, substantively exhausting.

Listening empathically to both player and character, performing emotional labor where needed (see Koulu 2020, also in this volume) — a responsibility that often falls to the already marginalized — can be part of play for certain, but also constitutes labor in the informal sense. Participatory art is thorny in this way. Cognitive and emotional load take center stage in larp design (Li and Morningstar 2016), and players self-manage their labor on this front, regardless of whether organizers do.

One scenario I have witnessed on occasion is the labor performed by close social acquaintances of high-maintenance players. If said player regularly does not have a good time at games without playing with their acquaintances, they will likely steer their play toward these acquaintances, who suddenly have the labor of providing a decent larp experience for this player. I mention this after encountering multiple players weighing their in-game emotional labor before a large event: “If Janaki is in the larp, then that will mean they will eventually wind up playing with me, and I do not know if I can handle it this time when they suffer their typical emotional breakdown after Act II.”

Another scenario includes players actively steering away from portions of the larp that make them uncomfortable, especially when they know someone in power might nevertheless choose not to keep them safe (Algayres 2019). Much of this labor goes unseen, but is absolutely vital for maintaining seemingly “effortless” play.

Skin

We turn to the metaphor of skin specifically to validate costume and beauty work as an immense portion of both pre-game and in-game player efforts, as well as the physical preparations to embody a character. Such efforts are often feminized and de-valued, something I consider every time I watch a woman apply make-up on a man’s face when he exhibits no capacity to put it on himself.

For events that last hours, one wants a topnotch look that acceptably portrays one’s character for the evening. For events that last days, one wants a durable set of costumes that can be easily donned or taken off at the end of a larp day. And in our current era, we also need to look good for the cameras: larp photographers dart amidst us, taking hundreds of photos for perusal afterward. Sharing good photos shores up self esteem and confers social capital.

Preparing one’s body for the portrayal of a character can prove intensive. Characterization changes one’s posture, voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and dozens of other details that, often, only the player knows about. Characters that require cultural sensitivity to play also mean that players must balance between their own desires for the character and what is respectful and acceptable in a cosmopolitan, multicultural society; embodying the character without using harmful accents or mocking bodily movements. Costuming and make-up simply add another layer of labor on top of this. Larp costuming and make-up straddle four primary focal areas: character portrayal, comfort, durability, and overall polish, and few of these come without a financial or labor cost.To portray a character, it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to upwards of an hour to get ready for a game prior to a larp’s start time. This is not to mention all of the planning, measuring, shopping, sewing, experimentation, and touch ups required before one even sets foot on the larp site. Some larps such as the period game De la Bête (2016-) provide costumes themselves in order to achieve desired “looks” for the game; others such as Inside Hamlet (2015-) rely on players to supply their own costumes, but one needs to fit the 1930s style for an “epic party and heartbreaking tragedy.” Players scour online photo boards, consider historical fashion textbooks, and do video make-up tutorials in order to get the proper look.

The comfort of costumes or make-up cannot be underrated as part of a player’s labor. Discomfort impacts all aspects of play, including the sheer amount of energy required to simply “be” that character. One makes oneself comfortable through a variety of means: padding, extra zippers, breathable fabrics, and lightweight materials. A heavy make-up mask that looks stunning for staged larp photos can be substituted for a lighter make-up mask for actual play. Those who have theatrical or dress-up skills that allow for such shortcuts are able to help the players who have chosen onerous costume and make-up arrangements. The same goes for costume and make-up durability: regardless of one’s monetary investment in a particular look, a player must be mindful of wearing out the elements of that look before the end of the larp. That level of care and attention to one’s materials is also labor.

A player with an appearance that nails the character and period, looks sharp for others and the camera, and is easy to take on and take off is what Karl Marx would call “congealed labor,” in which the commodity’s effortless appearance belies how much labor went into its creation, and that it is not correspondingly valued either. And yet we also deny social capital to those nerds who just throw on a cape over street clothes and show up for a larp: they have not shown proper deference to the play of the larp through their labor, and will pay a subsequent social cost. This can vary, from exclusion from recognition in the larp itself — and thus, play — to visual absence in the post-game documentation.

Smartphone

Finally, I have included the smartphone as a body part, as it represents an object that is both an extension of our being and also something fully external to us. Modern smartphones represent outside forces endlessly pushing in on our lives, as well as our externalized memory and communication with the world. In our metaphorical universe of larp labor, the smartphone represents the permeability of the magic circle and the pressures of non-larp forces on our larp play. Larp as a medium demands much of its participants but generates little to no profit, as one can see from the collapse of many for-profit larp companies over the years and the struggle of even Disney’s 2019 Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge immersive entertainment resort. Nevertheless, there are many stakeholders lurking at the edge of our play. Larp-adjacent activities such as military or search & rescue simulations are designed to teach real, testable skills and responses. Political messages can be advocated in a larp (Rantanen 2016), and larps funded through government grants may be obligated to take a particular position on a topic or on the outcome of the larp itself. Larp organizers and players are not necessarily the owners of the overall larp business which pays for the event itself, and thus labor on behalf of for-profit entities.

It is odd to think the actual play of a larp could be financially exploited, but the 21st Century has seen to it that neoliberal financialization will creep into every activity we do. In particular, content creators on social media and video-sharing platforms, many of whom seek clicks and advertisers for revenue, now use larp as a rich trove of imagery and stories with which to provide content for a wider audience.

Gone are the earlier days of stilted larp documentary (Torner 2011), replaced by “influencers” and media professionals making high-quality webisodes for Larp House or The Nerdist. Influencers can increase the Internet attention paid to a particular larp, and there are occasions in which their publicity labor is exchanged for perquisites such as free admission, lodging, and more. Yet the players’ playbour becomes contested terrain once the influencers’ cameras start rolling. Players are suddenly “performing” for an unknown, broadly conceived global Internet audience, and their playbour is likely to go uncompensated, despite the congealed result of their physical, mental, emotional, and cosmetic efforts. Even if organizers clearly state in the photography and video policy that their images will be circulated in such a fashion, the value being derived from the players’ play is highly suspect. Players are in theory exchanging money for not only the larp but also high-quality imagery of them in-costume and in-character, and yet in practice are providing surplus value to be extracted by others in the digital economy.

Organizers must be mindful of the external stakeholders in the images generated by a larp, and streamers must be particularly mindful of the wishes of the players for the circulation of their larp character images online. It is hegemonic to simply ask players to be happy that they are getting high-quality images taken of them. Moreover, the labor of creating quality streaming material means, in practice, that the influencers become a separate larp within the larp with different stakes and stipulations. Players are forced to take on more labor to collaborate with or avoid such entities.

The Whole Body

It is not of much intellectual or social benefit to distinguish between play and work — the modern age has produced a surreal sliding scale of play that also makes its participants millions of dollars and worthless work that serves only to occupy the time of those who do it. It is, however, of great importance to recognize the value of one’s playbour as a player. Physical and/or remuneration-worthy work in a larp can be of great surplus value to the players and organizers, or not. Players who pay active attention to each other, communicate, and respond in consensual, socially acceptable ways are absolutely crucial for most larps, and are thus producing value internal to the whole operation. When we travel long distances or do uncompensated emotional counseling of fellow players, we are putting work into making the play experience better. But when we make ourselves beautiful, presentable for the camera and the outside world — beyond our own gratification and the game itself — the value of our playbour becomes increasingly clear.

When our larp play becomes consumed vicariously — through photos, videos, or a live, ticketpaying audience — then our playbour is producing surplus value for outside stakeholders. When we actively employ it to teach a lesson or transmit a political message for some institution, our playbour now has investors seeking a particular outcome or effect, possibly resulting in the conferral or denial of future resources.

Good play and good make-up/costuming among the players does indeed increase the larp’s value to others. Our communities can be financialized and, in doing so, our playbour alienated. One begins to think of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s long-rolling DAU project: players staying in costume and on a set for 24 hours a day, but still being filmed for some future moving-image project.

Above all, our players should attend to these principles:

Your play is also labor.

Your play has value.

Keep track of what others do with the products and recordings of play.

Do not subjugate yourselves.

Bibliography

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Eleanor Saitta (2012): It’s About Time. In Juhana Pettersson (ed.), States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World. Helsinki: Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 124-128.

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Authors

Evan Torner
Evan Torner (b. 1982) is an American professor of German who began doing larp theory and design a decade ago. He co-founded the Analog Game Studies journal and the Golden Cobra Challenge. Photo by Jenni Toivanen.
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