The Magic of the Silicon Screen

The Magic of the Silicon Screen

The digital world is a place of magic. It is a liminal space that can connect your home with other realms, gives you the power to summon things, grants you access to vast stores of knowledge and ideas, and allows you to be anyone and anything you choose.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, mainstream larp has ventured into the magic of modern technology and what it has to offer. Many larp writers have begun to discover ways to use the varied online mediums and availability of transmedia technology to bring the extraordinary into bedrooms and living rooms. Digital larp has proven that it can be:

  • Immersive
  • Largely accessible
  • Profitable (when desired)
  • Transformative
  • Social
Photo of a laptop

A laptop on a desk, screen up and waiting

Yet this is a medium which has long been used by larpers who have frequently found themselves unable to access the magic of in-person larps. Barriers of cost, time, distance, and mobility have led many people with caring or parental responsibilities, disabilities, or chronic conditions to seek alternative ways to larp through the use of online games. Through the magic of their computer screens, people have been quietly creating and transforming their own sacred spaces (Clapper 2018).

In this article, we seek to recognise the enchantments of these accessible spaces and some of the reasons why you should consider using the silicon screen to create and share the magic of larp.

1. Portals

Digital larp refers to online roleplaying experiences where the majority of the interaction is character-to-character; i.e. non-narrated (Clapper 2019). For larpers with accessibility needs, digital larp can be a necessary gateway to social gaming – and one often dismissed by some able-bodied larpers, especially prior to the pandemic.

There are some who combat the use of the word larp to describe digital larping (also known by other monikers such as online larp, remote larp, and e-larp). Game designer Gerrit Reininghaus invented and popularised the term LAOG (Live Action Online Games), viewing digital larp as enough of a distinctive format to merit a new term (Reininghaus 2019). While there are potential advantages to using a different label to highlight the features of the online experience, many who oppose online larping consider it a less legitimate format, which we feel provides an ableist perspective.

Photos of players in a virtual larp

Screenshot of contestants in the Astrovision Song Contest (2020) about to perform

Digital larp can be used to create an immersive portal into another realm. In Dealmakers and Dreamers (2018), the computer screen represents the dream world, and players use masks and dreams to create an ethereal atmosphere. In both CHARIOT (2017) and ViewScream (2013), the screen is integrated into the worldmaking itself, becoming a video screen on a spaceship. As in in-person larp, participants of video-based games will usually wear appropriate costumes for immersion. It is also common for participants to either rearrange the objects they choose to be in view, or to make use of background images to show scenes that would be more difficult to re-create in-person.

Photo of person in blue makeup larping online

In CHARIOT (2017) characters on starships speak through screens, making the computer diegetic

2. Magic Mirrors

During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 onwards, larpers around the world gained extra accessibility requirements due to the loss of safety in in-person gatherings, additional difficulties with travel, and higher financial strain (Ebuenyi 2020). In addition to the expanded accessibility options in other features of life such as an increased capability to work at home, our societies discovered that while different, it is entirely possible to larp at home. The use of digital larp expanded significantly, leading to many new digital designers to experiment with different ways of using the online medium. For many seeking remote work status and advocating for digital larp as a means of physical accessibility, their needs suddenly became the world’s needs, and therefore more acceptable. As a result, many such gamers have found themselves with many more opportunities to take part in larp.

Digital larp designers have played with the idea of using the features of video chat clients to provide different visual experiences. In Makeup Moments (2019), participants use the mirror-like image of themselves on the call to mimic an actual mirror as their characters get ready for a night out. Players in The Batcave (2020) turn their cameras upside down to create the appearance of a colony hanging from the roof of a cave. Outscored (2019) uses changes in the screen image to visibly alter the lighting in a dark room, varying players’ light levels as a way to visually reflect their respective social standing.

Photo of four people larping online

Screenshot from Outscored; the game mechanic causes lighting to vary, a visual reminder of character scores.

3. Scrying

Your digital screen is a crystal ball that allows you a glimpse into another location. Its use allows digital larps to span countries and continents, granting distant players who do not have easy access to transportation a chance to play. Larpers facing disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health concerns have been historically prominent users of digital larps, as most digital larps only require the participant to remain stationary in a chair or bed.

Like most scrying devices, the screen grants a limited view. This grants a potentially enticing feature: it is possible to imply events taking place ‘off screen’. In Disconnected (2020), players are encouraged to ”vanish off screen and return to report something strange, and blame technical glitches on the breaking reality”. Tale As Old As Space (2020) instructs players to ”move to different spots if you are able, or otherwise find different camera angles, letting your camera angles change wildly as your character runs to reach the next spot before you are caught”.

Person larping online in a spaceship setting

Screenshot of The Inhabitant in Tale As Old As Space making use of costume and backgrounds.

4. Hearth and Home

A digital larp brings the game into the protective circle of hearth and home. For some players this can allow them to create a safe space containing their own accessibility devices. The ability to switch off video or microphone at any time and the control over their space is helpful for people with anxiety disorders or sensory issues. Additionally, in some areas of the world, it is not always possible for every player to feel moderately safe at physical larp locations, particularly for marginalised participants.

A number of digital larps have taken advantage of the integration with the home circle to create a sense of intimacy. Sanctuary Avalon (2020) used ritual and guided meditation to invoke spirituality and allow participants to explore themselves within the safety of their own spaces. In Live Online Raptor Experience (2020), players who are able may use their devices while walking through a house or other location, creating a mobile ‘on the scene’ effect.

Photos of people larping online

Participants in Sanctuary Avalon performing a ritual and guided meditation.

5. Time Travel

Scheduling and travel time are difficult for many larpers, but digital larps can take place in one or more sessions in front of the computer. This makes larp more accessible for some parents and caregivers, who are disproportionately more likely to be of marginalised genders. It offers a shorter, more manageable time commitment for people with chronic health conditions or limited energy.

The House (2012) was one of the earliest digital larps, based on reality TV shows where contestants compete to be the last remaining inhabitant of a shared household. In this game, players record daily videos in which their character speaks to the audience about their experiences and their opinion of the other contestants, allowing for asynchronous play and looser time constraints. Uneasy Lies The Head (2020) is another vlog-based game with flexible timing; characters post vignettes as short video blogs which can then be commented on as other players speculate on answers to questions and rumours.

Photo of a text-based role-play session

Characters in text-based game Thread explore links between theology and the labyrinth.

6. Fairy Gold

Digital larps are typically free or inexpensive, especially when compared to in-person larps. Even when run for a profit, digital larps require lower overhead and less resources; for example, there is no need to hire a venue, feed players, or purchase site-based insurance. This can make them more accessible for players with lower incomes.

Digital larps can make use of inexpensive or even free technologies and resources to supplement the main game. Animus: The Eternal Circle (2020) uses a mixture of bots and websites to provide a puzzle element that unlocks extra plot and allows players to discover literal virtual connections to weave a feeling of connection to a larger force. Thread (2020) utilises background soundtracks and philosophical bots to invoke ancient myth and play with existential questions intrinsically linked to the online medium. And Tale As Old As Space includes password-protected files that are gradually opened to provide new information during the course of the game.

7. Telepathy

While in-person interaction favours personalities who are more extroverted and confident, a recent study found that online communication favoured more organised goal-oriented types (Purvanova et al. 2020). Other studies have found that gender can also be a factor; female-presenting people are more able to be assertive in virtual negotiations (Stuhlmacher et al. 2007). The differences in communicating online could mean that quieter players, who struggle to have their spotlight moment in in-person larp, get a chance to shine.

Video is not the only medium for digital communication. Tankers (2020) uses audio-only while players lie in a dark room to create an experience simultaneously intimate and set in the vastness of space. As We Know It (2015) is a game played entirely by text message as survivors of an alien invasion try to connect with each other. Another  possibility is to use video and text communication for different purposes; for example, After Dark (2020) allows dead characters to communicate by text chat after their video is turned off, and Disconnected uses text chat as a method for the facilitator to pass out-of-game guidance to the players during video-based scenes.

8. Running out of Spell Slots

While digital larping is generally more accessible for larpers with disabilities, some have reported challenges. For players with visual impairments or hearing loss, over-reliance on either sound or images can create extra difficulties. Ideally, game designers should ensure that information can be accessed in other ways; use image descriptions and use text that can be read by text readers. In video play, ask players to display strong emotional signals and show their mouth clearly when speaking.

Larpers with autism, ADHD, and auditory processing difficulties have noted that video platforms or fast scrolling text can challenge their ability to focus and comprehend. Neurotypical players can also find sustained engagement challenging: “Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy” writes Manyu Jiang (2020) for BBC. This means that digital larps must be run, if not designed, with video chat fatigue in mind.

9. Divination

The use of technology in larp and games containing partial digital experiences has been increasingly used in recent years (Segura 2017), and it is possible that this trend will continue towards integration with digital larp design, allowing some players to take part entirely remotely.

Larp studios aren’t the only organizations pivoting towards online experiences in the wake of the pandemic; theatres, escape rooms, and other immersive experiences have moved to online environments in creative ways. And there are many others who play with the construction of identity online to create larp-like experiences, though most of these would not call this larp (Manavis 2019). As these experiences become more widespread, there may be a cross-pollination of ideas and techniques.

It is our hope that digital larp experiences will continue, following the cessation of the global pandemic. Now that more players have experienced larping on digital platforms, it’s time to normalize the legitimization of digital larp and to recognize the considerable flexibility and accessibility digital larps provide to many participants.

References

Clapper, Tara M. 2018. “5 Things I Learned about Running Digital Larps.” TGI. https://geekinitiative.com/digital-larp-experiences/

Clapper, Tara M. 2019. “What is Digital Larp?” TGI. https://geekinitiative.com/tgilarps /what-is-a-digitallarp-faq/

Ebuenyi, Ikenna D., Emma M. Smith, Catherine Holloway, Rune Jensen, Luc´ıa D’Arino, Malcolm  MacLachlan. 2020. “Covid-19 as Social Disability: The Opportunity of Social Empathy for Empowerment.” BMJ Global Health 5, no. 8: e003039.

Jiang, Manyu. 2020. “The Reason Zoom Calls Drain Your Energy. BBC, April. https://-www. Bbc com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-areso-exhausting

Manavis, Sarah. 2019.Why Young People are Turning to Online Live-action Roleplay.” New Statesman (July).

Purvanova, Radostina K., Steven D. Charlier, Cody J. Reeves, and Lindsey M. Greco. 2020. “Who Emerges into Virtual Team Leadership Roles? The Role of Achievement and Ascription Antecedents for Leadership Emergence Across the Virtuality.” Journal for Business And Psychology (June): 1-21.

Reininghaus, Gerrit. 2019. “A Manifesto for LAOGs Live Action Online Games.” Nordiclarp.org, June 14. https://nordiclarp.org/2019/06/14/a-manifesto-for-laogs-live-action-online-games/

Segura, Elena Marquez, Katherine Isbister, Jon Back, and Annika Waern. 2017. “Design, Appropriation, and Use of Technology in Larps” In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, FDG ’17, New York, NY, USA. Association for Computing Machinery.

Stuhlmacher, Alice F., Maryalice Citera, Toni Willis. 2007. “Gender differences in virtual negotiation: Theory and research.” Sex Roles 57, no. 5-6: 329-339.

Cover photo: Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash.

Authors

Rei is a non-binary LARP designer and organiser from the UK. They have been primarily active in the UK Freeforms community, and has recently become interested in designing digital LARP. Rei likes to design games for inviting and exploring connection. Rei's games include 'Born This Way', 'Tale As Old As Space', and 'The Bathhouse', a Golden Cobra Honourable Mention game played online while players take a bath. Rei has written articles for Knutepunkt about online LARP design and non-binary inclusion in games.
Tara M. Clapper (she/her) is a writer, world builder, inbound content marketing expert, and digital larp innovator and designer from the United States. Tara runs The Geek Initiative, a website and community striving for inclusion. She has worked on dozens of larps and related blog posts and articles. Her work has been featured and used by High Level Games, Learn Larp Studios, The Game Theatre and larping.org.
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