Posted by: Stenros | October 16, 2009

Pervasive Gaming Is a Harmful Phenomenon to Whole Larp-Culture

Our book and this blog is generally quite positive towards pervasive games. Though we certainly have tried to tackle the murkier ethical questions regarding pervasive play we have done so from an angle that is never completely dismissive of pervasive games. Our fifth guest blogger Illuminatum argues that pervasive larping is harmful to players, non-participants and the larp-culture as a whole.

I first heard of pervasive larping in Ropecon some years ago in a presentation held by Markus Montola. After that I have read some descriptions of pervasive games and I have been very concerned, even offended, of what I have learned. I have played and written larps for nine years and in this time I have created some absolute fundamentals which I see pervasive gaming violates. These fundamentals concern absolute rights of players and absolute rights of nonparticipants.

Fundamental principles of larping

Fundamental principles concerning all players

  1. Any player has right to cut off a situation in the game she feels too uncomfortable.
  2. Any player has right to leave the game if she feels she cannot continue playing.
  3. Any player has right not to be judged in real life due to actions of her character in larp.
  4. Any player has right to know what kind of game she is attending. If some parts of the game must be kept secret prior to game, players must be warned somehow. For example by asking player capability to withstand offending and threatening situations, if “violent robbery” or “hostage situation” will take place in game.
  5. Any player has right to know, who are the people behind the game.
  6. No person must be taken into the game without her personal wish and knowledge of the matter.
  7. Nonparticipants must not be disturbed due to game.

Fundamental principles concerning nonparticipants

  1. No person must be taken into the game without her personal wish and knowledge of the matter.
  2. Nonparticipants must not be disturbed due to game.

Differences between pervasive larps and traditional larps

The key, if I have understood correctly, in pervasive larp is to blur the edge between larp and the real world. Game characters are written so that character is mixed with player’s own personality (including name) and game world is mixed within the real world. Ultimate goal is, according to the Ropecon presentation, to create a game where no player knows, who are players and who are not, when game starts and when it stops or pauses, and even who are the persons behind the whole game. When character is mixed with player’s own personality and player cannot know what and who are part of the game, immersion into game certainly increases. However, this approach violates the principles I have learned to follow while writing and playing larps.

First of all, if player cannot tell, what is game and what is not, she cannot cut off unpleasant gaming situation and she cannot leave the game. This is wrong because if someone thinks her psyche has had enough, she must be able to leave the game reality behind her. Furthermore due to mixing of game and reality, and the fact that player does not know who are players and who are not, player cannot prevent judging her own personality due to actions of her character. This may create social problems.

Can a game character actually change player’s own personality? This is a debate with no absolute answer, but if a player cannot “step out of character”, actually she cannot even say that she is “in character” to anyone (if player follows the deepest principles of pervasive larping), the possibility is certainly higher than in traditional larps.

Why it is so important to know who are behind the game? If playing turns unpleasant or disturbing, it is very important to talk with people who have actually created the game and thereby in some level the disturbance. Every player but also player’s relatives and friends must have the possibility to this as well as the authorities. This is very rarely really necessary, but the possibility must exist. Also let us not forget that the larp-culture was long considered as “a dark under-culture” or even “a cult of some sort”. Hiding the background organization instead of having it in the open will recreate these harmful images of secretive underground clubs.

And what about the nonparticipants? I do not oppose the more traditional “city larps”, where characters wander in normal cities among nonparticipants, go eating or bar in character etc. However, you must not mix nonparticipants into the game. Player can go to a bar table and order a beer in character. She can talk to the bartender using the character’s way of speech, but she must not start talking about her character’s fictional problems to the bartender. The player can go to a church in character, but, again, she must not start taking up the priest’s time with her character’s fictional problems.  These are examples, but the principles apply to other similar situations as well.

Why not? Doesn’t a bartender hear such crap every night? Doesn’t a priest get her salary partly because she is ready to listen to anybody’s problems? There are three problems with this:

1. Someone else may have a real need to speak with the person a player reserves.

    This argument is often rejected by laughing: “What kind of an idiot really needs to talk with a priest or a bartender?” People may have real problems and it might be that they have no other listeners. Also this kind of attitude indicates, that a player thinks her character’s problems are equally important than problems of this so called “idiot” who does feel the need to speak with a priest or a bartender. This simply is not true, since a real person is always more important than a fictional one.

    2. Fictional problems may bother the listener afterwards since she cannot know that it was fictional.

      It is wrong to think that people in these “listening professions” can just forget all they hear every day or night. It might not be a big possibility that a bartender will lose her sleep due to a sad love story told by a larp character, but even a theoretical chance is too much. Priests, social workers, psychologists, and others on the other hand most likely will think about what they hear even after talker has left. It is not right to cause concern about fictional problems to other people, especially to people you don’t know.

      3. Most importantly, people must not be used as entertainment without their knowledge.

        Someone once compared mixing a nonparticipant into a larp without her knowledge to the same that somebody would secretly take nude photographs of someone and publish them in some far away country. Some unknown people would get entertainment and the photographed “would not be harmed”, since she would not know anything. (The one who made this comparison was criticizing pervasive larps.) Comparison is very good since the key is to make an entertainment of someone who does not know that she is entertaining unknown people. This is simply wrong and there is no way to make it acceptable. Furthermore problems 1 and 2 indicate that this entertainment also can hurt other people.


        I believe that pervasive larping harms players, nonparticipants and the whole larp- culture itself. It will increase the level of immersion into a game but also prevents leaving the game if a player cannot continue anymore for whatever reason. Potentially it creates problems to both players and nonparticipants, individually and/or between them. It recreates an image of secret society with unknown leaders. In many ways, pervasive larping actually recreates old problems between larp-culture and society.

        To sum everything up, I say that pervasive larping is nothing more than simply harmful phenomenon to people, society, and larp-culture. I believe that people, both players and nonparticipants, have certain absolute rights and I have based my opinion of pervasive larping on those beliefs. This article is not intended to start an argument, just to provide a statement of opinion. Comments will be welcome, but will not be answered to by the writer of this article.

        Earlier guest bloggers: Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl, Neil Dansey on apophenia, David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009 and Steve Payette on accessibility.


        1. This sort of argument surfaces from time to time, often – as here – based on someone’s personal principles. To me, it looks like principles like these are being violated in the real world all the time.

          How do you feel, Illuminatum, about hidden camera shows on TV? Or practical jokes? Or George Orwell’s radio airing of “War of the Worlds”, which some people thought was a real news report? Or radio programs with prank phone calls? Or the showing of documentary films in cinemas? People are used to having their sense of reality twisted for fun and dramatic effect.

        2. The opinion seems directed more towards some particular pervasive games than the whole genre.

          Some pervasive games, and other reality-bending exercises are firmly rooted in postmodernism and the idea that nobody has any one true identity and that there is no objective reality or even truth. It’s easy to see how this can be seen as dangerous nonsense, if you don’t believe in it. For all I know, maybe it is dangerous nonsense, but maybe it’s fruitful nonsense, or maybe it makes some dangerous kind of sense. At least to some people. Your nonsense may be someone else’s sense.


          Another argument here is that affecting the outside world in any way by a larp or a pervasive game is automatically bad and harmful. A priest may lose their sleep, a bartender may be driven insane, a sad drunk may lose their chance to talk to the bartender, and commit suicide.

          Sure, that’s undeniably possible. But the same can also happen with a book or a movie. And furthermore, the effect can be positive! A priest may gain new insight into their job, a bartender may become more motivated in their personal life, a sad drunk may stop drinking.

          Pervasive games are a tool and a medium, and no medium is inherently evil. It’s what you do with it that counts.

          I wonder if Illuminatum would think of a pervasive game where the players gained points by doing good deeds to non-players? Still dangerous?

        3. Is it possible to run a larp (or any role-playing) game so that these fundamentals are not violated? To me, it seems that principle 3 (players) is impossible (people do not discard their experiences just like that–especially if ones first impression of the other is from the game).

          The principles concerning non-participants (as well as principles 6 and 7 concerning players) imply that games should not use public space, because any game in public space will potentially offend these principles. Is that intended?

        4. “3. Any player has right not to be judged in real life due to actions of her character in larp.”

          While I personally agree with the concerns of Illuminatum, I do not agree with the conclusions. For example, the traditional social contract of role-playing (as per Sihvonen) would certainly have “… in real life by the other players due to…” in te mix. That’s very different from general (mis)judgments by outsiders.

          This is a judgment issue of another kind, essentially: Pervasive larp play – even controversial, edge-playing such – is under the same rules of sanity and common sense as any other larp play. Should you take the play beyond the constraints of normally accepted behavior, you – as a player – risk the sanctions for transgressive play, even if you do follow the character’s logic. Break the law or some social constraint, and the player pays the price for it. “Character performs, but the player takes both credit and blame” is the key reaction.

          Any ARG and/or larp play in public is full of risks, either to you or to others. The participants of any larp that mimics real-world events also have to consider getting mixed up with the real thing as a significant risk. The ponderings of the players of The White Road are one good instance of this manifesting.

          For another example, at a session of Helsingin Camarilla, we had a very stylish meeting between suit-wearing vampires and vampires in biker regalia at a remote parking lot. Many cars and bikes with high-beams on, etc. Suddenly, a bunch of about 15-year olds come there, riding their little mini-motorcycles (i.e. “paikalliset mopopojat”). They come to the lot, see us there, and ride away at full speed, apparently scared shitless. While I think the shock itself carried possibly good (“I do not want to mess with those guys”) or maybe also bad (“Those guys have real power, I want that”) influences, what it really reminded me of was the fact that it could just as easily have been the guys from the MC ______ clubhouse nearby, taking us for new rivals.

          The key point is, every performance in public is a play on the real thing, wth the conjoined risks. That risk and play take place for some constantly, be it in 24/7 bdsm arrangements, the noveau riche playing beggars, con artists, or larpers in a non-larping crowd.

          The question should not be one of banning, but of raising consiousness on the fact that this sort of stuff takes place in society all the time. It’s about the ethics of the inevitable everyday lusority, not about banning such lusority itself. As the latter, unfortunately, does not work.

        5. As Illuminatus seem to have many similar opinions as I had few years ago, I decided to comment and update a bit my statement by four quick comments I share many of Illuminatus’ concerns. Still, I find his/her (?) argument a bit one-eyed: Pervasive games per se and as a medium are ethically both problematic and valuable.


          Pervasive roleplaying games as games aren’t ethically problematic, the role of a participant in them is. The concept of ‘role’ in the context of games – and, especially, of pervasive games – is very complex. That complexity is reflected to the ethics of them.

          I can find six different layers of ‘role’:

          (1) the role as an author: a position or stance in a process in which fiction is created. C.f. role of actor, role of director, role of playwright etc.

          (2) the role of a character: (commonly) an artificial personality taken as if it was real

          (3) the role of player: player’s position as a part of game as whole; player’s willingness not to ruin the play by playing against the rules (he might not exactly know)

          (4) the ordinary social role in community: player’s role in the community that is unaware of the game.

          (5) the role as a performer: player’s role among those who *are* (at least partially) aware of concurrent play but do not participate in it.

          (6) the role as a multilayered composite of (1)-(5)

          This phrase from “Theory and Design Pervasive Games” (by the authors of this blog) is an example of a conflict between layers (3) and (4) *or* between (2) and (4): “Pervasive games often require double consciousness. Player needs to be aware of the game world and ordinary life. It is difficult to make the right choices if one does not comprehend consequences of one’s actions. Indeed, willingly allowing one’s understanding be blurred in such a way may be considered irresponsible in itself – a case perhaps comparable to levering one’s mental capabilities through the use of inebriating substances.”

          I suggest that focusing on the ethics of role instead of the ethics of games will lead to better ethical analysis from most ethical issues the pervasive games face.


          Many games are apt to repel ethical considerations as such. Take boxing as an example: boxers must accept brute violence as only allowed way to play the game, and, thus, temporarily suspend from thinking that hitting others is wrong. Are the rules of boxing the actual ethical fundament of the role of boxer? I claim that a boxer, while in the ring and while in the role of player, repels all ethical constrains that are not directly followed from the rules of boxing – that is ‘the anti-moral’ of boxing.
          Can such ‘an anti-moral’ morally valuable? Definitely can and often is! For example, boxing help us to understand better aggression and responsibility concerning that aggression.

          In the case of boxing, the boundary between play on non-play is clear, but what if the boundary was not that clear. ‘The anti-moral without boundaries’ is definitely a difficult *moral* question – it is neither amorality nor immorality.

          I mean that many pervasive games have ‘an anti-moral’ (Illuminatum gives many good examples of anti-moral in pervasive games) and this is a fact not worth of denying. Instead of denying the anti-moral, the “defenders” of the pervasive games should be able to show the value of the anti-moral – and currently they (including me, in some issues) have not succeeded in that very well. In addition, it is worth of asking, how can a player live with and enjoy of the anti-moral of play? I.e. what kind of moral agent we are and how games have changed our moral agency?


          I take an example that isn’t nominally a games but … well, here you have: Think of Stanford Prison Experiment ( The participants of the experiment acted within a partially fictive context. Participants had clear, minimal roles (a guard, a prison). Social situation seemingly had unbreakable, *fictive* rules. Some participant didn’t want to ruin the ‘play’: They rather suffered physically than broke the implicit rules of the play. As a result of this all their ability to take responsibility of their acts and to do what they think to be right was diminished.

          The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to be an example of unethical pervasive game design. I propose that fictive, game-like or game-based roles are an effective way to blindfold moral actors. We should be terrified by the fact that we indeed can architect roles, by which we can transform a kind student into sadistic guard who unpromptedly humiliates others.

          Blindfolding a moral agent is a form of nihilism. The difference between it and the anti-moral of a game, is that the anti-moral override certain moral norms/values by the absolute rules of play, ‘moral blindfolding’ conceals norms and values without giving anything back. Can such nihilism have a moral value? I would answer ‘yes’. (Don’t ask reasoning for the answer, I’m not going to explain this answer anyhow in this blog…)


          The pervasive games are apt to ‘anti-moral without boundaries’ and ‘moral blindfolding’. This doesn’t make the medium of pervasive games bad or evil, but only a potentially dangerous one – perhaps even more dangerous than writings or videos are. Even if pervasive games and similar game-like structures are dangerous media, they are, at the same time, strong media to make us more moral and more humane – as are writings and videos as well.

          The ethics is not only about restrictions and obligations (the negative side of ethics). It is also about values, which makes our acts and life meaningful (the positive side of ethics). Games can have similar significance to moral being than ethical discussion (philosophical, religious, etc.) and art (literacy, theatre, movies etc.) have. Games have not yet taken their role as a facilitator of moral growth on the positive side of ethics. In my opinion, they should.

        6. One of the most rewarding things during the years of research leading to Pervasive Games were the numerous debate workshops we organized on ethics of pervasive gaming. At least I think in Knudepunkt, Ropecon and PerGames. So many people had numerous takes, angles and ways to contribute, and we really were taking notes afterwards, and you can see many of the arguments from there in the final version of the chapter.

          This discussion reminds me of those debates. Thank you, everyone who’s contributing! :-)

          – Markus

        7. I was positively surprised when I read the chapter on the ethics in the book. It was significantly better than the report I had read before. Good work.

          The boxing example was partially inspired by the book. I forget to mention that. If I remember rigth you analysed it as amorality or immorality… Anyway, I disagree in that. It is not only moral but also potentially significant in the process of becoming-moral.


          Personally, I find the whole discussion, in which I participated, uneasy and frustrating. It is kind of weird to think of that Markus found it one of the most rewarding things in his research on pervasive games.

          All those spelling mistakes in my last comment reminded me how irritated and ashamed I was during the discussion few years ago. I should have argumented better and more consistently, but… At least, I learned that argumentation without knowing exactly correct concepts is pure masochism. And still I feel that many significant ethical issues concernig playing are poorly seen or even lost due lack of proper concepts. By the way, I just found one of the lacking concepts from Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy: ‘transvaluation’.

        8. A-P,

          it’s a rare rare treat for an academic to have a packed room enthusiastically debating over your work in a constructive fashion. The best debate was definitely, I think, the Ethics of Urban Role-Playing in Knudepunkt 2007.

          And if you compare our progress from the Mediaterra paper to the ethics report and from the report to the chapter, you can see the vast progress we made over the years.

          Still, the issues will never be “solved”, so we feel that the discussion should continue.

          – Markus

        9. […] guest bloggers: Illuminatum on harmfulness of pervasive larp, Steve Payette on accessibility, David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009, Neil Dansey on apophenia, […]

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