This is not an elevator pitch

As much as I was excited about launching a blog column on Diversi, I was also dreading the introduction. I had some inkling that “This will be a column about games” wouldn’t suffice. The sheer idea of introducing myself and giving an elevator pitch is enough to give me a deer-caught-in-headlights blank stare. After having spent enough time directing that stare at an empty writing processor, I decided to begin with a love letter instead.

Here’s me, in a nutshell: I work at a university by day and write fiction by night. And I wouldn’t be playing games if not for love of stories.

I was about 15 when I discovered tabletop rpgs. The first sessions I played were, well, first sessions – often awkward and resulting in truckloads of teen angst. But no matter how we fumbled with mechanics and storytelling, I was hooked. The stories, however clumsy, were immediate and intense. They came with force comparable only to my favorite books and films, vividness matched by video games… And no restraints, plot-wise. I found a space in which I could tell the stories I wanted, and engage other people in them. Soon after, larps followed – and I found that adding some props and a bit of acting to my rpg was exactly what I needed.

I had fun playing larps, but it paled in comparison to writing them – and seeing others bring my scenarios to life. Creating the basis for plot, and then letting go of it, can be elating: it’s inviting others to surprise you. It’s one of my favorite forms of dialogue. And still, I have so much to learn.

Growing up as a larper and game designer – which happened along changing from embarrassing pseudo-renaissance garb and combat boots into costumes that were adequate and actually looked good – is rather a cumulative process than one moment of illumination. (And I hope this process won’t be over, ever.) But there were a few moments that sparked certain thoughts. Perhaps the biggest shift of perspective took place when circumstances forced me to reflect upon the weirdness of games.

Once, after wrapping up one of the larps that I co-authored, our larping group decided to go for a drink. It was a summer day, unwinding into a long, golden evening. We couldn’t talk about anything but the game. We decided to hit the pub as we were – in costumes. This brought us to the attention of another patron; fair enough, we did stand out. And I’m usually glad to introduce people to larps. So I joined the guy’s table and went about the improvisation, the cooperation, and all other things I enjoy in larping. Turned out he was a TV producer – and not impressed at all.

To him, larping was a waste of time and creativity. You don’t get anything out of it, he argued. If you would at least record it. (Here I protested that it would defy the point.) Then you’d have a concrete outcome, he said, something that could be repeated in exactly the same shape. Something persistent and unchanging.

We couldn’t meet any agreement. When the discussion became too heated, the producer’s companion dragged him away, and I returned to the larp crowd, consoling myself with a drink. But I couldn’t let that conversation go – after all, the guy had a point. By larping, I didn’t create anything that would last. Even when written down, the same game could reach different endings, depending on players, surroundings, and so on. And while some people seem to enjoy watching larps, I don’t get it – for me, larping is about that fleeting experience of being a part of a narrative. Knowing that it would inevitably pass constitutes a big chunk of its allure. Writing the game or making costumes and props is just a warm-up before this intellectual and emotional feast. Same goes, to some extent, for all types of games; I focused on larps because they gave me most freedom. But I tend to favor the element of experiencing the story regardless of whether I’m rolling dice for my character, moving pieces on a board, or gaping at amazingly life-like graphics in video games.

This element was something I couldn’t put my finger on, for a long time. “Immersion” was too narrow a term, and too loaded. I only knew that this thing happens between a sense of meta-level cooperation, and the part of me that is completely detached from my character and thinks: wow, that’s a great story. Now, I suppose I know what it is. It’s the tiny act of creation. Of course you can’t record it. Witnessing won’t be the same as participating. You can try to reenact, but honestly, why would you? You can create something new instead, and experiment on the fabric of your own imagination.

In a sense, games are mirrors. We reflect ourselves – our ideas and memories and the media we consume – onto them. The stories we tell in games, the way we tell them, are unique and fascinating. They’re something you can learn from, and by this I mean both unstructured pondering and academic studies. While the latter are immensely interesting, I’m not writing as a researcher. I have all intentions to make this column personal and deriving from my own experiences, interests, and observations. This also means I won’t cover every type of game in existence; only those that strike my fancy, with emphasis on larps and tabletop rpgs. Expect my musings – on the ways games intersect with other media, on events and people from the industry, and on the gaming community. There will be some reviews and thoughts on game design and storytelling. Sure, focus on storytelling is just one of possible approaches to games – but it happens to be my personal favorite.

Feel invited to read the mirror writing. I hope you find something that stirs curiosity, and inspires. And don’t hesitate to drop me a line when it does.

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