Infrastructural Games and Societal Play

This piece was originally written for the 2016 Solmukohta book (link to come) and is based on my 2015 Nordic Larp Talk, but it's been adapted for a broader audience.  It's a different strand of my work than the security pieces I've released here so far, but it's just as important and intimately tied in with the way I think about security.  I hope this acts as a reasonable introduction to this line of thinking.

I have a Patreon, here, where you can subscribe to support my security and systems-focused writing.  You sign up for a fixed amount per essay (with an optional monthly cap), and you'll be notified every time I publish something new.  At higher support levels, you'll get early access, a chance to get in-depth answers to your questions, and even for more general consulting time. is me.  Along with writing, I consult, give talks, make art, take photographs, and work on a number of public projects.  You can hire me to do all of these things.

© 2021 Eleanor Saitta.

RSS Feed for essays and talks

Return to All Essays

The 21st century will be defined by sociotechnical infrastructural systems.

In many ways, this renders it identical to most of its predecessors throughout the history of human civilization.  Two important things have changed, however — first, we've noticed what's going on, and second, the systems themselves have changed in scale and integration.  Understanding how these systems work and fail is becoming a core part of being an engaged member of society.  Often it's necessary just to navigate the world, and it's even more important if you design or critique parts of these systems.  Nordic larp may be a key to understanding these systems, as it provides us with a toolkit for diagnosing their unpredictable social implications.  Not only that, but we can go beyond just using games to diagnose and teach and use them to intentionally and collectively design the social scripts we want to live within.  The tools larp provides here are well-tuned and unique and it's time we learned how to apply them, but we'll have to unpack a few things to see how and why.

When we talk about infrastructure, we picture things like bridges, container ports, or underground powerlines and fiber networks.  All of these are bits of hardware, invisible in day-to-day life, that act to enable other unrelated activities.  When we go to watch a film on Netflix, we're focused on the film, not on the cable connecting us to the Internet or the data center serving up the film.  However, this infrastructure we're busy ignoring not only determines many of the conditions under which we live our lives, it also enforces power relationships.  For instance, the structure of financial payment systems determines what kinds of otherwise legal work is marginalized and risky, and what is mainstream and profitable.  All infrastructure is political; indeed, one might better say that all politics is infrastructural; we ignore it at our peril.

When we talk about sociotechnical infrastructure, we broaden our view beyond just the hardware.  From the perspective of someone taking a shower, not only are the water mains infrastructure, the water quality inspectors are too.  From the perspective of someone attempting to hire new graduates, the entire educational system and all the social relationships it contains are also just so much infrastructure.  We can have deep and meaningful relationships with others that we still understand fit into this infrastructural frame.  The infrastructural perspective on social relationships can be dehumanizing, but it doesn't have to be, and it's a core part of making social structures scale.  Keeping both the human and systems perspectives in view at the same time is critical to understanding how our world works.

The shift from sociotechnical infrastructure to sociotechnical infrastructural systems is one of mindset and viewpoint, but with profound consequences.  Looking at these entities as systems means seeing them as whole units and in the context of their interactions with other systems.  It brings a different — and much newer — analytic toolkit to bear.  Instead of just seeing a piece of fiber in the ground, we see that fiber in the context of its role in the global Internet.  Separately and simultaneously we also see it in the context of the supply chain that created, shipped, and installed it and may dispose of it.  We also see it in the context of the systems of zoning law, telecommunications regulation, and speculative finance that permitted it, govern it, and paid for and profit from it.

Many of the systems we're talking about have existed in one form or another for a long time, even at a global scale.  What's changed is their degree of interconnection and dominance.  For instance, we have evidence of long-distance trade going back over 16,000 years, but since 1970 the tonnage of global shipping fleets and of intermodal freight have both jumped by a factor of three and the value of that trade has increased by a factor of thirty, both adjusted for both population and inflation.  Not only are these systems having more impact, they're also being managed as global systems.  While large, vertically-integrated, cross-industry corporations were an artifact of early 20th century industrial capitalism, most of these companies were centralized in single countries with uncomplicated and loosely-managed supply chains.  Indeed, one of the drivers of vertical integration was the difficulty of managing external supply chains.  The discipline of systems thinking, complex transnational supply chains, and related infrastructural systems co-evolved with the information systems needed to manage them.  While a century ago looking at the world through the lenses of culture, politics, and economics without thinking in terms of systems was sufficient to read the shape of society, these ways of seeing do not account for this century's management and control structures — what we might call our societal metacognition framework, or how our world structures its self-awareness.  As this framework changes, how we see the world must also change.

Kranzberg's First Law: Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

While sociotechnical infrastructural systems will continue to define our century, their unintended consequences deserve particular scrutiny.  Unintended consequences can be large, like the climate change that threatens the future of human civilization, but they can be smaller too.  Any system of sufficient complexity will demonstrate emergent behavior, which is to say behaviors exhibited by the system as a whole that were neither designed nor observable within the behavior of any subsystem.  Whenever two complex systems interact, their interaction usually demonstrates emergent properties.  Sociotechnical systems necessarily contain at least one complex component (the social side of the system) and most systems at scale contain many such components.

As we become better at building large-scale systems, we see more emergent behavior, not less.  All intentionally-created systems have a set of things the designers consider part of the scope of what the system manages, but any nontrivial system has a broader set of impacts.  Often, emergence takes the form of externalities — changes that impact people or domains beyond the designed scope of the system.  Especially when operating in accumulative domains like capitalism, systems tend to evolve more complexity whenever they can increase relative or absolute returns on their primary structuring metric (income, under capitalism), until they reach either the limits of their problem's space or of the capacity of their control system.  Managing a system is much simpler than analyzing how it is working, let alone predicting what it may do next.  This means few systems stay small enough to be within the envelope where their behavior can be predicted, and many cannot even be analyzed, as neither of these are necessary for the systems to function under normal conditions.  In almost all cases, the system (or rather, the interests of those operating it) will not permit modeling for the control of externalities to constrain growth or optimization, as mitigating harm in those cases is by definition optional.

When a team of folks sat down in Estonia to create the program we now know as Skype, they wanted to solve the practical problem of making calls cheaply using the Internet.  They could take advantage of the fact that the Internet didn't (and still doesn't, for the moment) allow existing national monopolies to extract economic rent from users on the basis of the content of their traffic.  This philosophy — that all packets are equal — is baked into the architecture and history of the Internet.  Shaking up the global voice telecommunications market was an expected emergent outcome of Skype's success.  As the effect of this for Skype customers was to allow people to stay in touch across the world when they couldn't otherwise afford to, we might be tempted to judge this technology as “good”.  This ignores other emergent impacts, however.  In addition to making it cheaper to call people, Skype made it cheaper to surveil those calls, to the same degree and for the same reasons.  The expansion of Internet communications (and the conversion of most traditional voice traffic to similar technologies) is directly and causally linked to the expansion of surveillance states around the world, and thus to the concomitant mass violations of human rights that have occurred.  Hearing this, we might be tempted to call this technology “bad”, but this would be just as wrong.

The creation of new infrastructural systems changes the possibility space of the societies which interact with them, but not in simple, reducible ways.  One of the unexpected emergent effects of Skype and similar systems was to invert the financial power balance between international aid agencies and international migrants with respect to the economies of the countries the migrants came from.  In 1970, countries spent about five times as much on international foreign aid as migrants sent in overseas remittances.  As of 2011, remittances were almost three times larger than aid, despite aid spending in constant dollars having more than doubled.  The lines crossed in 1994, but remittances really accelerated around the turn of the century, following the timeline of drops in the cost of communications.  As communication got cheaper, families weren't split up by migration but rather stayed in regular social contact and migrants had both the incentive to send money and the necessary understanding of social context to see when and where it could be most useful.

Mutual aid and the state support always exist in direct opposition, as they are different ways to structure solutions to the same need.  A shift of this magnitude from one structure to the other has significant implications for sovereignty and inter-state relations in the medium term, and was profoundly unanticipated.

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

As ethical creators of systems, we want to understand the impact of the things we build.  As a public, we see that engaging with the impact of these systems before they're a foregone conclusion is in our interest.  This can mean becoming involved in the evolution or operations of specific systems, but it can also mean investigating larger dynamics or specific scenarios we each see as important.  Global-scale sociotechnical infrastructural systems are by definition the result of millions of people interacting over time.  They are as shaped by culture as much as by our technical capabilities.  We can have a voice in these systems if we choose to have one, and it can be argued that we have a civilizational duty to do so.

Any system, when seen as a thing in the world semi-intentionally created and changed over time, can be thought of as existing as the focus of a loop of activities: plan, decide, execute, monitor, repeat.  Of these, the first and last are most interesting to us as civic outsiders.

Unless you're high up in the power structure of a system, you have little direct say in the decision process for changing a system; if you are, that process (itself a system) will determine your actions.  Likewise, during the executive phase, the system follows its intended operation pattern.  Unless you're a direct part of its operations, there's little to do here but interact with it in the ways it affords.  The goal of infrastructure is to be boring and invisible and to function as planned; the interesting bits are elsewhere.

This leaves monitoring and planning.  We could liken these to reading and writing — reading the pattern of interactions caused by the last cycle of execution and then writing a new set of instructions.  As civic outsiders to a system, we can take part here in a critical or speculative mode.  Regardless of our involvement with the system, these phrases are where the majority of the metacognition, analysis, and creativity takes place.

Both reading and writing systems have well-established associated disciplines.  However, these disciplines exist mostly for the structural aspect of systems, across both the technical and legal domains.  We have few tools for reading and writing the social and emotional (or affective) aspects of infrastructural systems.  To better understand the infrastructural systems shaping our lives, it's critical we have a basic level of literacy across all of these quadrants:

Sensing Changing
Structural Reading Writing
Affective Immersing Embodying

The structural reading techniques are the traditional domain of systems modeling.  This can mean anything everything from the tools of systems engineering, the core field that looks at systems and control structures (and the related mathematical, statistical, and computer modeling disciplines) to a number of more specialist fields.  These include everything from electrical and telecommunications engineering to supply chain and logistics studies and the civil engineering of physical infrastructure.  There is a core set of topics and techniques that form the civic literacy of system structures — what everyone should understand to be a literate citizen of a system-driven world — but it's still evolving and we're still figuring out how to teach it.  Thankfully, this work is already ongoing.  While I recommend going digging here if you're interested in how the world works, our story lies elsewhere.

There is a similar variety of tools used to write systems into the world.  The intersections between modern finance, international technical standards, enabling laws, international treaties, intellectual property, and zoning and industrial regulation are a mess.  Worse still are the extralegal tools used to drive infrastructural systems that intentionally benefit or harm specific groups — propaganda, outright bribery and graft, lobbying, and abusive uses of state or corporate power like censorship, choice architecture, or malicious legal actions.  Again, understanding these tools and their impacts, how to counter or influence them, and some of the stories of their use is a civic duty, but one we'll leave as an exercise to the reader.

With so many tools for the structural side, surely we must have something for the affective?  We're not completely bereft, but we are much closer to the edges of disciplines and practices — critical and speculative design, science fiction, participant-observer anthropology and ethnography, experiential futures, diegetic prototyping, and some parts of experience and service design all come into play.  All of these can be described as at least larp-adjacent fields, if not larp proper.

Eirik Fatland said in his 2014 Nordic Larp Talk (Fatland 2014) that he didn't know if larp was important, but that larp design definitely was.  This is part of why.

Many of you reading may be wondering why I'm talking about larp at all here, and why being Nordic is relevant.  A full introduction is beyond the scope of this essay, but I'll quote from the preface I wrote for The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp (Saitta 2014):

The Nordic larp, or live-action roleplaying (but it's one word now) scene started back in the 80's, but is generally considered to have started to come into its own around 1994.  In larp, you usually portray a character in the same way you might in a stage play, physically acting out whatever you wish to do.  Unlike a stage play, there is no script and no audience, just the setting, props, and a few details everyone has agreed on — names, relationships, and the like.  Together, you and the other players explore the story you choose to tell together.  Unlike more traditional “tabletop” roleplaying, you act out your role physically, doing whatever your character would do, with appropriate substitutes like latex foam boffer swords for real weapons so no one gets physically hurt.

Since 1994, the community has moved from being centered around fantasy and vampire games to addressing a wide variety of subject matter in almost every genre imaginable, from hard SF through film noir mystery, romance, what one would call modern literary fiction (were it written), and beyond.  Our games have come alive as a truly collective art form, one that lets us share experiences and explore lives far beyond our own while introspecting on our deepest desires and most well-established social scripts.

The Nordic larp community differs from larp culture in other places.  It spends more time telling stories that emphasize naturalistic emotion, it emphasizes collective, rather than competitive storytelling, and it takes its stories fairly seriously much of the time — far too seriously if you ask some other folks who larp in the Nordic countries.  And yes, that's right, there are other kinds of larps played in Scandinavia; the Nordic larp community is a specific and by now reasonably well-defined subset.

Nordic larp differs from other larp cultures in one more important way — while all larp is co-creative to some degree, this is much more pervasive in Nordic larp.  While there is still a distinction between the writers who set the initial scenario, the organizers and production team who help make it happen, and the players who make it come to life, everyone involved has agency within the fiction and responsibility for the experiences of those around them.

It may seem odd to be talking about something as frivolous as play in the context of these very serious systemic concerns, but play is one of humanity's primary tools for open-ended exploration.  While larp, when seen as a tool, is still working as art and not engineering, this is in our favor for the work we're trying to do.

The toolkit for developing these games is robust, and at this point, after 20 years of books and papers within the community, well-researched.  While there are any number of ends to which larp can be put, many of them attempt to explore complex social situations with a high degree of social and emotional realism.  These situations may be modern, historical, or future, but often the choice of genre is defined by the dynamic the group wants to explore.  As players all come to a game with their own preconceptions and relationship to culture; genre is in part a question of taking players from where they are to what they want to explore.

As larpers, we experience and understand the emotional content of a situation by immersing in it.  Where the reading process associated with the structural view of systems creates a definite “truth” — or failing this, a set of probabilities and their accompanying truths — immersion creates a personal, subjective experience.  The emotional and social meaning of a system can be generalized — we can talk about more global “truths” in this domain — but only after experiencing the system singularly and subjectively and then triangulating between and paying attention to many personal truths.  Even then, any generalization must admit its incompleteness, must allow that all real meaning can be lost as soon as details are abstracted out of sight, must acknowledge possible contradictions, and most of all must be aware that it carries with it a specific set of points of view that can eliminates some other points of view.

Immersion is most useful as a tool to either understand someone else's point of view, to understand the potential social impact of a system that doesn't yet exist, or both.  Traditional system development processes make use of prototyping, but their aims are functionalist.  Prototypes are built to see if a system is fit for its primary purpose or whether users can complete their tasks within the system.  With immersion, we can ask questions about people's emotional relationships with a system.  We can surface subtle and emergent power relations that appear as a system becomes embedded in society.

Emotion is considered in normative system design processes and structural tools for reading systems, but only from a single viewpoint.  Every time a design team talks about the branding associated with a system, they're designing intended emotional reactions.  The tools of emotional shaping in capitalism are sophisticated, detailed, and rarely admit challenges or other viewpoints.  The structural tools of system development that come from these contexts have the emotional relationships they are most effective at constructing embedded within them.  Our larp-world tools, without these limits and coming from outside that context, are uniquely powerful when used to surface emotions and relations outside this scope.

Emotional resonance across time is an interesting example of this.  Every sociotechnical infrastructural system we interact with today has historical equivalents that shape how we understand today's systems.  How we see the historical system depends on history that has been transmitted to us via a lossy, biased system of reconstruction and revision, at least in terms of popular narratives.  As folk singer, storyteller, and political troublemaker Utah Phillips once said, “the most radical thing you can have today is a long memory.” It is no accident that most of us have lost those memories.

When we look at a system like labor allocation via waged employment today, we see a historical inevitability.  Depending on our position within that system, we may have various feelings about it, but it's unlikely we have an intuitive understanding of the range of emotional and social relationships that people had with the equivalent system 150 years ago.  Without that understanding — that memory — it's difficult to understand what our relationship might be (or what we might want it to be) with new systems of labor allocation.  Upon understanding this history, we may find a new desire to resist some systems or exploit their cracks.  We may also see resistance as more possible than we thought.  Understanding our history tells us what we are capable of now.  Immersion lets us reclaim history as our own.

Much of the successful function of globalization depends on the ability of transnational entities to play different legally and territorially restricted populations off against each other.  One emotional meaning of this is encoded in the invisibility of workers within the supply chains that bring us goods — their absence speaks to organized violence at scale.  Like globalization, geopolitics between states rests on the notion of a homogenous state and foreign “others”.  Much of the power of the state in practice comes back to this emotional identity, especially during conflicts.  Unwinding abusive state power and its corresponding social manipulations and making visible and working to flatten or route around global neoliberal infrastructural oppressions both depend on transnational solidarity.  Until we not only feel for but understand the practical and emotional realities of fellow humans in other countries, it is difficult to act.  A practical understanding can help us figure out how to act; solidarity and emotional experiences teach us why to act.  Immersion can help bring us to both.

Even within our society and in our own time, there are stratifications, divisions, and oppressions that are not always visible to us, and likewise, perks, privileges, and commonalities.  Many of the aggressive parts of systems that perform social enforcement are held out of sight of people not subject to them (albeit more out of irrelevance than malice).  The social arrangements people subject to them make to manage their interactions with these enforcement systems, and how those arrangements unite, divide, or color the experiences of communities are even less legible.  If we want to do our duty and understand and feel the systems in our own societies, we need to take the time to see them.  Immersion can show us the lives of others.

Each of these examples points to a type of goal-oriented (telic) empathy that we might want to build.  This kind of empathy is a diagnostic tool for the health of a social structure.  Immersion lets us diagnose viability, power, and affect.

Viability is the most basic of the immersive sociotechnical diagnoses.  When presented with the lived interaction pattern and even just a thin simulacrum of real lives, we're good at understanding how forced a social situation feels.  All novel social interactions feel awkward at first, but larp gives us a toolkit to get past this while still maintaining a meaningful critical perspective.  System designers sometimes create systems that assume a specific social script that, in practice, isn't functional.  Sometimes this leads to systems failing to reach their goals.  For example, toward the end of the last decade, a bunch of tools were built to help people share goods they were no longer using.  Many of these systems failed because the social interactions they built drove both conflict and awkwardness, without providing more utility than existing social exchanges.  While this is a trivial example — indeed, the interaction is so thin that building a meaningful game on it would be difficult, which may be part of the failure of such systems — they're a good example of the pattern of system building and failures to diagnose social viability.

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation.  Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift.  This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis.  When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change.  For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers.  They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system.  Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways.  Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects.  Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

Immersion also lets us ask questions about the broader emotional nature of a potential sociotechnical infrastructural system.  Things like the affective labor requirements of interactions with a system are often illegible to traditional design tools, and the differential impact of that affective labor can be even more opaque.  Often, designers will be blinded by the brand intents they wish to convey, and will fail to see that many of the people who interact with their systems will have a different emotional relationship with it.

Sociotechnical infrastructure has been having unexpected emotional impacts for a long time.  One of the clearest examples is the evolution of the telephone and the impact that it had on social lives and the kinds of emotional labor that young women were asked to perform as telephone operators.  Today, having seen enough examples of new communication mediums, we expect that almost any new medium will become a place for flirtation and gossip (regardless of gender) along with everything else, but the phone companies intended the telephone to be a business tool and their worldview didn't leave room for anything else.  When it turned out to have other uses, moral panics ensued as the companies struggled to understand and control what they'd built.

So far, we've talked about reading — immersion — but what of writing?  As larpers, the moment, if we can define it to a singular point, when we write a thing into existence is when we embody it and bring it to life.  When we think about larp as immersion, we're focusing on picking out emotions and feeling them deeply, letting them lead us where they will.  When we focus on embodying, we focus on larp's ability to make things real and to create or draw out emergent responses from systems.  We have traditional prototyping tools to make not-yet-existing systems functionally real, but we need embodiment to make them emotionally and socially real.  As with immersion, larp embodiment is most effective at realizing those things that exist outside the mindset embedded in existing structural tools.

While critical perspectives are often introduced either speculatively or reactively, embodiment can introduce them as a co-design tool.  For example, consider a system designed to give people a way to report failures in public water points online.  In most rich-world countries, this would be a boring city service; an afterthought or a minor convenience at best.  In a place like Dar es Salaam, where only 8% of the population has direct access to clean water, getting water points fixed when they break is a life or death issue.  There's a neat tool called Taarifa that works as a ticketing system for community-reported issues, so they can be tracked, shepherded through bureaucracy, fixed, verified, and everyone in the chain notified.  The system is great and having an impact, but it relies on a centralized system and its basic structure was created outside of the deployed context.  Technically, it's possible to build a decentralized system that provides the community with a greater degree of flexibility in the social patterns the system supports.  The evolution of new social patterns for interaction around infrastructure is usually slow and constrained by their current forms — this is known as the path dependency of system evolution.

With larp, we can help communities prototype their own organizational structures directly.  With the technical constraints removed, embodied play used as a design tool has the possibility to allow the community to design and implement new social patterns more quickly.  Lived prototypes allow a higher-resolution collective understanding of the social dynamics of a system to emerge.  When built honestly and inclusively, games for either testing a specific social script or exploring and generating alternatives also hand interpretive agency to the participant co-creators.  Determining who is permitted to authoritatively describe the social meaning of an interaction is a critical step in creating systems that support political ideals.  Inclusivity here has far-reaching effects.

Another opportunity for this kind of lived prototyping comes from the architectural program diagram.  We think of architects defining buildings via floor plans, cut-through section drawings, and external and perspective views.  While the final design representation these days is mostly a 3D model, these drawings still define much of the creative process of the building-as-structure.  Before an architect thinks about form, they need to understand what the building is trying to do.  This phase is called program design — what activities people intend to perform in the building, how much space will they need, what activities should happen adjacent to what, etc.

Architects at their most egocentric would happily claim to be designing the social scripts being performed in the building, but they have no formal toolkits to represent or work with these scripts.  Architecture is a conservative field.  While firms work closely with the folks paying them, it's rare to see them work with the people who will be performing the building-as-social-system.  When they do, it's mostly by survey and drawings.  Larp offers us a tool to both represent social scripts and to collectively redesign them.  Christopher Alexander's work in A Timeless Way of Building (Alexander 1979), A Pattern Language (Alexander 1977), and other books comes halfway here, but he still focuses more on form than script — and forty years on, he's still seen as a radical, well-outside the architectural mainstream.  Tides are shifting however, and functional tools can help them move more quickly.

We're all familiar with educational larps, but when the students are understood to be the human elements in a sociotechnical system, they go from a way to convey skills to a way to reshape one of the most complex parts of a system.  While tools can carry ethics with them, where those ethics are located and what their sensitivities are is complex.  In larp, a lot of the political structure and impact is encoded in the co-creative nature of the medium.  While some of the tools we've built, or their equivalents, can be used from various political positions, doing so often means changing their structure and losing much of their impact.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) has a long history of both systems thinking and of thinking of people as part of its systems, although it rarely chooses to do so in ways that preserve their humanity.  They're also heavy users of simulations, some of which are larps in all but name.  In education larping it's a truism that the real learning happens in the discussion after the game, not during play.  It's less clear that this is true for rehearsing new social reflexes.  DARPA, DoD's research wing, has a specific series of games they put new soldiers through to try to give them instincts that will lead them to being “better strangers”.  Much of this is focused on de-escalation and moving tense but not hostile interactions in calm or cooperative directions (the inverse of much of the rest of their training).  The political and structural impacts of projects like this are complex and hard to see; more humanity in the force projection of Empire may be a net good, if a messy one.  Regardless, it points toward possible uses of educational larp to modify systems, drawing on a more complete version of the larp toolkit and a less dehumanizing political standpoint.

When we describe embodiment as building, the core of what it allows us to build is pastness.  As mentioned, traditions and interactions often feel unreal, uncomfortable, or even ridiculous when they're new, and the more they change our personal lives and how we interact with each other, the more this is true.  Diegetic prototypes let us skip this step and assume we have already integrated a new interaction — they let us confer the patina of time all at once.  In combination with the co-creative process, this can let us shortcut and shape system adoption.  We do this all the time in games — every time we create a set of rituals for a game, rehearse it beforehand, and then begin play with the assumption that we've been acting like this our whole lives, we're conveying pastness onto a social script so we can explore what it means.

In the ideal world, a tight loop exists between the more structural design processes (which are extended to create the material for diegetic prototypes) and the immersive and embodying modes of larp-driven systems work.  The larp side begins with a focus on immersion as the system is explored, and shifts toward more embodiment-focused play as systems become more firm.  At the start of a process like this, much of the experimental diegesis can be built around metaphorical or parallel constructions.  This allows designers a maximum of flexibility in how systems are represented and helps players move away from their lived contexts, improving immersion.  Later, play can become more representational, to help emerge subtler issues and to drive embodiment.

Larpers are familiar with building rituals and social scripts.  As embodiment conveys pastness to collectively-constructed social scripts and new systems move from theory to deployment, embodiment can become teaching, helping the community integrate new social scripts while retaining the political framing they've worked hard to embed.

Larp is no more a magic bullet for fixing the politics of sociotechnical infrastructural systems than anything else is.  Many conflicts in these systems are inherent in the management of scarce resources, even before we add greed for money and power, moral biases, and the systemic issues of capitalism and state violence.  Neither better tools nor even more carefully designed systems can erase these forces.  However, without larp we lack the most basic tools for the diagnosis and construction of politics and sociality in this domain.  The degree to which systems run our world is only increasing, and our ability to create political change depends on us coming to terms with them.  As larpers, we have the toolkit.  It's time to put it to work.


Eirik Fatland (2014): Does larp design matter?.  Nordic Larp Talks
Eleanor Saitta and Jon Back, Eds. (2014): The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp.  Knutpunkt
Christopher Alexander (1979): The Timeless Way of Building.  Oxford University Press
Christopher Alexander (1979): A Pattern Language.  Oxford University Press

If you liked this essay, you can sponsor me writing more.  I have a Patreon where you can pledge to support each essay I write.  I'm hoping to put out one or two a month, and if I can reach my goal of having a day of writing work funded for every essay, it will make it much easier for me to find the time.  In my queue right now are the vision document talking about how we see the world with Briar/Bramble (and decentralized systems in general), a piece on how to move away from email attachments for high-risk organizations, more updates to my piece on real world use cases for high-risk users, and a multi-part series on deniability and security invariants that's been in the works for some time.  I'd much rather do work that helps the community than concentrate on narrow commercial work that never sees the light of day, and you can help me do just that.

Thanks again!
Eleanor Saitta
New Delhi