It's About Time

Dymaxion.org

An essay on the game Just a Little Lovin', concentrating on the function of time and event in the game, written for the 2012 Solmukhota book States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World.  The full version of the book is available online here.

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Just a Little Lovin', played for the first time in July, 2011 in Norway, explored the New York gay scene of the early 80's, and the impact the coming of AIDS had on people's lives.  The game was played across three consecutive 4th of July parties. While one hesitates to use a phrase like “life-changing” lightly, I feel comfortable saying that Just a Little Lovin' will be, if not a tectonic shift then at least a marked inflection point for many players.  The deployment of time in the game had a significant part in the emotional impact.

Just a Little Lovin' was designed as a mostly “high resolution”, realistically represented game, but not exclusively so.  A number of metatechniques were used throughout the game, to various ends.  Although possibly not conceived of as such explicitly, the way time was deployed in the game ended up being absolutely core to the game experience.  Almost any other single technique could have been replaced or significantly altered leaving the fundamental impact intact, but a significantly different use of time would have completely redefined the game.

Lacking a time machine, there are only so many ways to interact with time as a player or designer.  To work with time as a larp designer is to work with the mapping between events in the game and events as experienced by the player.  To the extent that one can speak of the “natural” timing of events in the context of a more or less realistic narrative, we can consider that our reference measure of time.

We can picture the events of a game like knots tied in a piece of string.  Each event consumes so much string, and is spaced so far apart.  Being larp, there are at least as many strings as players, and even for one player or character, many events may be happening at once; likewise the edges of events are rarely so well defined.  Still, the metaphor is useful.

When we think about creating play, either as a game designer or as co-creating players, we build this string.  We think about how many knots there are, how they're tied, and how they're spaced — plot and pacing, in other words.  Looking at the string as a string, instead of as a series of events, rhythm takes the place of pacing, and repetitive elements are highlighted.  This “whole narrative” view of events, and rhythm and repetition specifically as features of it, will be useful as a tool as we dig deeper.

Critically, the strings perceived by the player and the character need not be the same.  Broadly speaking, there are three distortions that can be introduced to the mapping between character and player experiences of time — compression, expansion, and periodicization, each of which changes the player perception of events.  At the simplest level, distortions of the timeline are a matter of emphasis.  We devote the most of our limited time in-game to those events that matter the most.  This is a simplification, however, and there are many other interesting effects in play.

Expansion

Expansion during an emotional scene builds tension, but only up to a point.  In Just a Little Lovin', at the end of breakfast the morning after each night's party, a lottery was held.  Every player had the opportunity to put in one or more tickets for their character, and then the Tower (every character had a tarot card), supervised by two undertakers, drew names from a top hat.  As the names were called, characters stood and were eventually led away.  The first morning, eleven names were called, and we, the remaining players, didn't quite understand the process.  Those called by fate were lead away, and, unbeknownst to us, a second lottery was held, closed in the black box space, and that lottery determined who actually died.  We stood outside, waiting, held transfixed by Death's slow southern drawl.  The wait was heart-wrenching.

That second lottery took a long, long time.  Eventually, the wait was boring.  No one talked, all-suspended in metatechnique dreamtime.  We had no choice but to slow down and sit with our emotions.  To get to know the contours of our grief, our fear.

On the second and third mornings, the lottery moved more quickly and we mostly knew what to expect, but there was still time then, motionless, standing in the sun with our hearts.  Sufficient expansion of the time experienced by the player at the right moment gives room for the lyric, allows entirely other affects to arise.

Compression

Compression is more common than expansion.  Even the curation we do when we decide which few days of a character's life we're interested in can be seen as compressing the rest of that life away to perhaps some few sentences in a character history, to an hour during workshops at most.  Even long-running campaigns (reasonably) ignore most of their characters' lives.  The games we play, no matter how immersive, how true to life, are almost always hyper-real, more eventful than any un-engineered time period.  As larp designers, we don't want our players to be bored.  We don't want a game to end early, for lack of material.  As players, we manufacture drama, fill in the white space.

Sometimes, this is necessary and good co-creation and sometimes it's excessive embroidery, not leaving room for emotional depth and reflection.  The difference is often a matter of taste.

Frequently, we don't recognize what we're doing as compression — it's simply an eventful evening.

Compression isn't always just about fitting more in, though.  In addition to the fear of death, Just a Little Lovin' was a game about desire.  While specifically marked as not just a gay game, much of the sex and sociality in-game was gay, and specifically gay, not queer — in the period, narratives of bisexuality or androgyny would be (and were in the game) met generally with derision at best.  Sex was played with a variety of techniques, negotiated between each couple or group.  Scenes ranged from the entirely symbolic to the somewhat realistically simulated, while still leaving room for a ludic circle to pass between what was happening and anything that could be called player sex.

It was stated ahead of time that desire in play wasn't expected to only be character desire, that bleed into or from player emotion was entirely acceptable, within limits.  While challenging for some players (but not, as far as I am aware, in a way which resulted in players being pushed beyond their own limits), overall this seems to have worked well; certainly it contributed a lot to the emotional impact of the game.

In part because of this bleed, managing desire and managing sex scenes seems to have involved a lot of compression for most players.  For instance, a sex act that might have taken ten minutes in the real world might be played through in a minute or two; an orgy that would last most of an evening might be 45 minutes or an hour.

While the previously mentioned interest in fitting in as much plot as possible was clearly at play (no slow, languorous love-making when you're a playboy with six other people and a command performance at the drag show to fit in), compression here also allowed players to limit the degree to which their own desires were exposed, acting as a second safety net.

The lottery periods acted in some ways as a form of temporal compression, fitting one facet of the actions of a year into an hour or so of real time.  That said, the framing of these events within the metatechnique made them feel more like a separate continuum, largely unmoored from normal experience.

Each act, each year, in Just a Little Lovin' had its own emergent feel, along with more explicitly declared and shaped themes.  Sampling just one day from each year definitely encouraged plot compression and time compression, even with a heavily used black box and much off-game coordination of intervening events — there was just a lot of living to get through.

Periodicity

The intervals in play were absolutely critical to telling the story.  The tragedy of AIDS, sudden as it was in some ways, didn't happen overnight, and the story needed years of character time to develop an appropriate weight of tragedy.  The final theme of the game was friendship, and the gaps were as equally critical for giving definition to friendship as to tragedy.

Theorists of tradition speak of “pastness” as the property that leads us to take relatively arbitrary social constructs and rules seriously.  Pastness isn't just the age of a tradition, as something can be old but irrelevant; it's closer to the extent of lived experience.  Not just age, but age accounting for activity across time.  Additionally, tradition requires presence, the accessibility of a past pattern to contemporary life, and what is called traditio, or the property of having been passed down person to person.  Without both of these, a tradition is not alive. In larp, both presence and traditio are easily embedded within a fiction.  Likewise, we may elect to imbue elements of our fiction a priori with pastness as part and parcel of the creation of characters who take those elements seriously within a created tradition.  In doing so, we allude to the presences of some prior interval of nonlinear time, but in the interest of convenience, we often elide its performance.

The core of larp, what gives it much of its emotional punch, its flexibility, and its (sometime) subtlety and veracity of affect, is embodied performance.  When we make explicit the pastness of our fiction, playing it bodily, we engage a deeper emotional register and make that pastness firmer.  Without explicit enactment, we have only the textual, not physical, notion of the reality of tradition.

Repetition is as important as embodiment for pastness.  Even in the second act, having once before enacted all the little pieces of the evening in Just a Little Lovin' made that act much more real, both in the current iteration and in my then-memory of the previous iteration.  Repetition combined with explicit enactment is very effective at building pastness, and the fact of repetition is consecrated in many areas of human behavior; the genesis of rites.  We often think of repetition as a negative, a trigger for boredom, but pastness can't accumulate without it.

Repetition which happens as part of a linear temporal sequence carries relatively less weight, however, than when temporal gaps (in the fictive timeline) separate those repetitions.  While not providing any more of an embodied trigger, separation permits the player to construct further repetition internally, provides room for the accretion of fictive pastness, and also gives an avenue for long-term change.  As in this game, many narratives must play out over years for sufficient change to happen for either the characters or setting.

We can call repetition with gaps periodicity, a specific pattern in the manipulation of time that evokes the rhythms of everyday life, allows them to build, and then highlights how those rhythms change or break down.  Rhythm implies memory, the visceral recall of earlier instances but also the heightened awareness of the distinction between occurrences, the shifts.

The relationship between Max and Steven in the first run of Just a Little Lovin', was a great example of how periodicity can work.  In the first act, the two characters barely interacted; in the second, they hooked up.  Their players decided that, over the course of the intervening year, they'd begun a serious relationship.  The combination of the enacted past, the repetition of life pattern, and jumping ahead in time meant that in the third year, their relationship had a visceral emotional depth to a degree which proved difficult to dispel after the game.

For in-depth games where character pasts are defined before the body of the game begins, one can either write out a character or play out the details in workshops.  Workshops require more organization and bias the game toward a certain kind of emergence which may be difficult for tightly plotted fictions.  While the pastness developed in-game in Just a Little Lovin' worked very well, a number of players reported difficulty performing elements of their written backgrounds.  Sometimes, this was because there was just too much material to remember, but it was also because they had no enacted anchor for the material.  For tightly plotted games, thorough use of black-box scenes during workshops may be a happy medium.  That said, reports from the character development process in the game Totem, where all relationships were played out in sketch form, not pre-planned, suggest a preference for organic development.

The issue of available workshop time raises another note on time in Just a Little Lovin', especially interesting to a relative outsider to the medium (despite some experience with tabletop and reenactment, Just a Little Lovin' was my first Scandinavian larp).  The degree to which players were co-creators was delightful and surprising, and one of the ways this was most obvious was in management of the rhythm of play.  Time off-game between acts was very short, and players worked hard to fit everything they needed to do in.  Similarly, the timing of pre-planned events was adjusted between acts, trying to ensure everyone could make it to what they needed to do.  What on the first act felt like bumpy, ue were true.  Time was under the control of the game organizers, who intercut past and future, without necessarily making it clear to the players, let alone the characters, which was which.  In effect, this added a third viewpoint, sandwiching character time between player time and “real” time in the fiction, radically warped to the point of being almost divorced from both.  Needless to say, this is a temporal frame only suitable for some fictions.

Event Cities

I'd like to switch metaphors at this point, having exhausted the understanding of time as knots on a string at one level, and talk about the spaces we play in as temporal objects.  Although the ludic circle within which we play is an embodying artifact in its own right, it must be situated within real space(s).  Bernard Tschumi, in Event City and Architecture and Disjunction, discusses physical spaces, whether buildings, entire cities, or merely some marked place, as spaces of movement and events having a beginning, when they are first marked as a space, a following temporal narrative, as the space happens, and eventually an end, as the space is un-marked.  Trivially, one experiences this entire trajectory every time one has a picnic in a park, creating a temporarily delimited space that, for all that it's only a blanket and circle of friends, feels like an almost bounded, indoor room to the people inside it.  This is socially defined, performed, event-space.  Tschumi argues that all spaces are like this, regardless of how much concrete or steel may be used in the social performance.  As we socially perform spaces, an understanding of those spaces as having a deep history, a before and an after, may be productive.  From Architecture and Disjunction:

“Bodies not only move in space but generate spaces produced by and through their movements.  Movements — of dance, sport, war — are the intrusion of events into architectural spaces.”

“…architecture is inhabited: sequences of events, use, activities, incidents are always superimposed on those fixed spatial sequences.  These are the programmatic sequences that suggest secret maps and impossible fictions, rambling collections of events all strung along a collection of spaces, frame after frame, room after room, episode after episode.”

We overlay an additional event space every time we play, whether entirely figuratively (as in many jeep games), or more literally, in either a dressed pre-existing environment (like Just a Little Lovin', which used a set of cabins near Vestby as a set), or even more obviously in a completely created environment, like the set of the game Kapo.  Spaces are always bound to what is enacted in them, and Tschumi examines various degrees of binding, an avenue which I will elide for space but which may be fruitful for the theory-inclined.  This notion of the temporally performed space is clearly demonstrated, almost multiply so, in Delirium, with its transient, physically reconfigured but fictively static environment, a space literally becoming a simulacrum.  Just as altering the structure and pastness of relationships in games provides for much deeper meanings, we can alter the performed structure and pastness of spaces.

Explicitly performing and reworking our relationships with the built environment points toward new frontiers which are architecturally interesting, if nothing else — shades of the work of architect Cedric Price, rebuilt into a temporally complex augmented reality game, made even more charged by the current (as of this writing) occupation movement, temporary autonomous zones writing themselves permanent in cities around the world by performing those spaces differently.

Atemporality

That the occupations around the world will almost certainly (for better or worse) mean something different as they become history brings us to our last time-construct.  Atemporality, coined by William Gibson in a talk at BookExpo America in 2010 and expanded on by Bruce Sterling at transmediale 10, is the collapse of meaning in previously historically-marked aesthetics — and, for that matter, ethics.  The now-current meaning of the occupations will be equally accessible when this is read as the contemporary meaning is; likewise the fashions of the 40's, or indeed the 80's, are equally as available today as contemporary fashion is.  In pre-atemporal times, seeing someone walking down the street in 40's fashion would bring to mind someone playing a historical role, would explicitly load that temporal frame.  Now, we no longer load that frame; we see a contemporary person wearing contemporary clothes which are referencing one equivalent aesthetic scheme.

While walking to the train to Just a Little Lovin', I noticed a bunch of people dressed oddly — a little more color than I'd expect to see in NYC, for instance, but still within bounds where they wouldn't get much more than a second look; I didn't read the clothes then as being 80's-specific at all.  It turned out that these were other players, some already dressed in costume.  Just after the game, again waiting for a train with other players, I noticed two people off in the distance and almost called out to them that the train was coming, as from within an 80's-era aesthetic viewpoint, their clothes were very strongly period-marked.  Of course, they weren't players at all.

Finding evocative near-modern clothing is always somewhat difficult, especially when trying to avoid things which will be read as ironic within our modern, hipster-saturated fashion milieu.  That said the mass appropriation of fashion from all periods, network-culture driven instant recall, makes reading temporal contexts much harder.  The key in this case was reading back into a culture which was much less sophisticated in its use of image, was relatively naive to visual quotation, appropriation, and mash-up.  When the two people I saw after the game got closer, it was just this fluid use of image that made them obviously not players.

While atemporality for image is both useful and complicating, it will be interesting to see how atemporality alters our understanding of the traditions, rituals, and fictions we create.  If we can use our more fluid understanding of time to imbue an easy pastness and we become used to an assumption of all historical traditions having some degree of presence, we may find our worlds increasingly easy to invoke thanks to a more nuanced understanding of the temporal effects and affects at our disposal.

Bibliography

  • “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond”, by Andie Nordgren, in Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, ed. Markus Montola and Jaako Stenros, 2008, Ropecon ry, ISBN 9789529235803
  • Legal Traditions of the World: Sustainable Diversity in Law, 4th Ed., by H. Patrick Glenn, June 2010, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199580804
  • Architecture and Disjunction, by Bernard Tschumi, 1996, MIT Press, ISBN 9780262700603
  • Event-Cities, by Bernard Tschumi, 1994, MIT Press, ISBN 978-0262700528
  • Rhythmanalysis, by Henri Lefebvre, trans. by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, 2004, Continuum, ISBN 9780926472991
  • A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement, by Gerald Raunig, trans. by Aileen Derieg, 2010, Semiotext(e), ISBN 9781584350859
  • Canadian Center for Architecture, Cedric Price Archive, here, accessed 2012.1.1
  • “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”, speech by Bruce Sterling at transmediale 10, Febuary 2010, text available here, accessed 2012.1.1

Ludography

  • Just a Little Lovin' (2011) Tor Kjetil Edland & Hanne Grasmo, played in Vestby, Norway, July 10-13 2011, more information here
  • Kapo (2011): Anders Berner, Kim Holm, Juliane Mikkelsen, Peter Munthe-Kaas, Frederik Nylev, & Rasmus Petersen, played in Copenhagen, Denmark, September 30-October 2 2011
  • Delirium (2010): Mathias Kromann Rode, Peter Munthe-Kaas, & Peter S. Andreasen et al, played in Viborg, Denmark, July 22-25, 2010, more information here
  • Totem (2007): Peter S. Andreasen et al, played in Randers, Denmark, July 2007, more information here