Thinking about larps for research dissemination about technology and society
I spent some of last week at a wonderful larp (live action roleplaying) camp for kids run by Tidsreiser, and had a wonderful time. I have secretly wanted to try larping since I was a teenager, but there weren’t any local ones, then I didn’t dare try, and then I sort of forgot and just settled into being a boring grownup. Luckily, one of the advantages of having kids is you get to try out new stuff. So after a year of sitting around watching the kids battling and sneaking around the forest with their latex swords, and dropping them off at the Nordic Wizarding Academy (Trolldomsakademiet), I’ve started joining in a bit, and I absolutely love it.
After chatting with the fascinating game masters and larpwriters at last week’s camp, and trying out some more different kinds of larp there, I started thinking about what a great tool larping could be for teaching and research dissemination – perhaps especially in subjects like digital culture, or for our research on the cultural implications of machine vision, because one of our main goals is to think through ethical dilemmas – what kind of technologies do we want? What kinds of consequences could these technologies have? What might they lead to? A well-designed larp could give participants a rich opportunity to act out situations that require them to make choices about or experience various consequences of technology use. This post gathers some of my initial ideas about how to do that, and some links to other larps about technology people have told me about.
To my delight, when I started talking about this idea, I discovered that two of the larpwriters at the camp, Anita Myhre Andersen and Harald Misje, are also working with the University Museum here at the University of Bergen, which is just relaunching this autumn with a big plan to host more participatory forms of research dissemination. We’re going to meet up after the summer holidays to talk about possibilities.
What might a machine vision larp include?
So what would a larp about machine vision be like? There’d need to be some technology. At a minimum lots of cameras – surveillance cameras, body cams, smart baby monitors or smart door bell cameras. Somewhere, somebody watches those images, or someone can gain access to them somehow. Someone can maybe manipulate the images, share the images, alter the images. Perhaps there’s a website that participants could access from their phones with news, in-game blogs, private photo messaging – and perhaps some people might have access to more of this than others, and some might find ways to access “private” images by nefarious means. There might be tools that could (fictionally) analyse people’s emotions, health, attractiveness, mental state, whatever, based on the images. Maybe we could adapt some of the scenarios from this speculative design research paper by James Pierce: “Smart Home Security Cameras and Shifting Lines of Creepiness: A Design-Led Inquiry” (Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems).
I’m thinking participants would be given roles such as
- director of/salesperson for a technology company – perhaps one trying to sell emotional recognition software to the city for use in schools, public surveillance, by the police, etc., or trying to sell smart home surveillance systems, or something slightly more outlandish, smart body cams with built-in facial recognition and networked tracking of suspect individuals for personal protection for young women worried about being raped or something, or even more Black Mirrorish, optical implants with total recall. Their goal would be to convince people to use their technology.
- people with roles that allow them to make choices about buying/implementing technology that will affect other people (e.g. politicians, bureaucrats, the chief of police, the principal of a school or university, a shop owner).
- Groups or individuals with ill intent who (using some game mechanism) can gain access to or alter personal data from the technology or generate deepfake videos or something to do something scary – this could be scammers, an oppressive regime, or something else.
- Activists who are for/against the technology for various reasons. Could have backstories explaining why they hold strong opinions. (Could lead to interesting protests etc – have materials available for making banners etc 🙂
- Regular users who experience some specific situation that makes them think about the technology. This could include something like a teacher or parent or prisoner told to wear a body cam to monitor all their social interactions, or somebody who works in a shop who is being constantly surveilled.
- People whose job it is to watch the surveillance feeds, monitor the “smart” facial analysis algorithms etc.
Participants could be told that their character follows a specific ethical framework, such as utilitarianism, care ethics, deontology, ubuntu, confucianism etc. (If using this in teaching, I’d base it on Charles Ess’s chapter on ethical frameworks in his book Digital Media Ethics.)
Obviously these are all very early ideas, from a professor with very little larping experience (i.e. me), and we may end up doing something completely different.
Other larps and related projects dealing with contemporary technology and ethics
To learn more about what’s out there, I posted a question to the Association of Internet Researchers’ mailing list to see if any fellow internet researchers had experience with using LARPs in connection with research. As usual for questions to the list, I got some great answers, both on and off list. Here are some of the projects, people and books people told me about.
The most developed LARP-based teaching program for universities that I’ve seen so far is Reacting to the Past at Barnard College in New York City. Reacting to the Past is a centre that has developed lots of LARPs for teaching history. They have a system that seems really well-thought out for taking games through various levels of development and play testing, and once a game is very thoroughly tested, they publish it so others can use it in their own teaching. Here are their published LARPs. Their focus is on historical situations, so none of their games seem to be directly applicable to the emphasis I want on ethical negotiations about possible near futures – except possibly Rage Against the Machine: Technology, Rebellion, and the Industrial Revolution. I’ve filled out the form to request to download the materials for that game, and am looking forwards to seeing how they have it set up.
I’ve also received tips about two different artist-researcher collaborations that have resulted in LARPs. Omsk social club developed a LARP at Somerset House earlier this year, based on research on digital intimacy by Alessandro Gandini and artist/curator Marija Bozinovska Jones. They’re still working on putting documentation online, but you can get some idea of how it worked from this short video:
Secondly, Martin Zeilinger responded to my question to the list to tell me about a series of LARPs developed by Ruth Catlow with Ben Vickers. Martin himself is currently in the early stages of developing a LARP with Ruth about cashless societies, aimed at 15-25 year olds. I found a description of one of Ruth and Ben’s earlier LARPs that explored the excitement about blockchain and tech startups in a workshop called ‘Role Play Your Way to Budgetary Blockchain Bliss’. The LARP was hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam in 2016, and conveniently for me, they wrote up a blog post about it. This LARP was designed like a hackathon set in a near future, where all the projects that were pitched were about cats, and participants were “assigned a cat-invested persona and the general goal of networking their way into a profitable enterprise for themselves, the cat community, and the hosting institution.” The blog post explains that after the pitches:
The rest of the first day gave chance to the multiplicity of attendees to ask, negotiate, and offer their skills to their favourite projects. It became rapidly clear that the diversity of the audience had different motivations, skills, and ideologies. Each participant performed a part of the complex ecosystem of fintech and start-ups: investors, developers, experts, scholars, and naive enthusiasts had the difficult task to sort out differences in order to build up lasting and successful alliances. Everyone had something to invest (time, energy, money, venues, a van full of cats) and something to get in return (profits, cat life improvement, patents, philanthropy aspirations).
It’d be pretty straightforward to copy this structure and make a kind of speculative startup hackathon for new machine vision-related technologies – and that could certainly lead to many ethical debates. I can imagine something like that working well for teaching, and being reasonably easy to carry out. I’d really like to make something more narrative, though.
Netprovs are another genre that has a lot in common with larps, and which we’ve been involved with in our research group. Netprov is sort of an online, written version of a larp, that lasts for a day, a week or several months. Rob Wittig wrote his MA thesis here on netprov, and he and his collaborator Mark Marino have explicitly compared netprov to larps. Scott Rettberg is planning a machine vision-themed netprov in our course DIKULT203: Electronic Literature this autumn, which should be fun, and which may provide good ideas for a larp on the topic as well.
Another thread to consider is design fiction, design ethnography and user enactments. A really interesting paper by Michael Warren Skirpan, Jacqueline Cameron and Tom Yeh describes an “immersive theater experience” called “Quantified Self”, designed to support audience reflection about ethical uses of personal data. They used a script and professional actors, asked audience members to share their social media data, and set up a number of technological apps and games that used that data in various ways. So this isn’t a larp, because the audience aren’t really actors driving the narrative: they stay firmly audience members, but participatory.
The show had an overarching narrative following an ethical conflict within a famous tech company, DesignCraft. Imme- diately upon signing up for the show, participants were invited to a party for their supposed friend, Amelia, who was a star employee at DesignCraft. As the story unravels, they learn that Amelia is an experimental AI created using their personal data, who, herself, has begun grappling with the ethics of how the company uses her and its vast trove of data.
Within this broader plot arc, main characters were written to offer contrasting perspectives on our issues. Don, the CEO of DesignCraft, represented a business and innovation per- spective. Lily, the chief data scientist of DesignCraft, held scientific and humanitarian views on the possibilities of Big Data while struggling with some privacy concerns. Felicia, an ex-DesignCraft employee, offered a critical lens of tech- nology infiltrating and destroying the best parts of human re- lations. Evan, a hacker, saw technology as an opportunity for exploitation and intended to similarly use it to exploit De- signCraft. Amelia, a humanoid AI, struggled with the idea of being merely an instrument for technology and the artifi- ciality of knowing people only through data. Felicity, an FBI agent, believed data could support a more secure society. Bo, the chief marketing officer at DesignCraft, felt strongly that technology was entertaining, useful, and enjoyable and was willing to make this trade-off for any privacy concern. Finally, Veronica, a reporter, was concerned about the politics and intentions of the companies working with everyone’s personal data.
Skirpan, Michael Warren, Jacqueline Cameron, and Tom Yeh. “More Than a Show: Using Personalized Immersive Theater to Educate and Engage the Public in Technology Ethics.” In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 464:1–464:13. CHI ’18. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174038.
But what I would really like is to develop something both more participatory than the immersive theater example, and more narrative than the artist-led larps, with events and conflicts and problems to solve. That’s probably quite ambitious and difficult. I am very much looking forwards to sitting down with Anita and Harald, who have lots of experience (good thing, since I have practically none).
(And here’s a rather fun NRK documentary som 2011 about Anita – the kids’ larp in the forest is still going strong, and we played a version of the murder master at the camp last week.)
Here are some names of people doing relevant work that people have suggested:
- Elena Márquez Segura (Uppsala University, research related to using technology at larps – and she just organized a workshop on larps and embodied design methods in San Diego, that my UiB colleague Frode Guribye said was great.
- Nadja Lipsyc, research fellow at the Norwegian Film School who made Lone Wolves Stick Together, a 360? cinematic experience involving roleplaying.
- One person wrote me to say they’d heard a great talk by Katherine Isbister about using wearable tech as a tool in LARPing.
Also I was recommended the following books:
- Stenros, Jaakko and Markus Montola. Nordic Larp. Stockholm: Fëa Livia. 2010.
- Simkins, David. The Arts of Larp: Design, Literacy, Learning and Community in Live-Action Role Play. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2015.
If you know about larps about technology and society, or that are used for research dissemination or teaching, please leave a comment! I would love to know more!