Posted by: Montola | January 29, 2010

Pervasive Psychology Experiments

I’ve recently been mostly writing about role-playing games and larps, looking into — among other things — larplike psychology experiments such as The Grindstone Experiment. In the same vein, someone should have a look at the psychology experiments that share traits with pervasive games. Instead of the magic circle, these experiments break the similar confines of the psych lab.

One excellent example turned up in my Facebook stream; Stanley Milgram’s experiment on questioning the social norms of a subway ride. Usually seats are allocated on a first-come-first-serve principle, but Milgram had his students enter a metro car and ask people to give up their seats with no rational explanation. Turns out that even 68% of the passengers complied with the request.

What is even more interesting, though, are the descriptions of the emotional strain the experiment caused in Milgram’s students:

Those tension-filled subway rides in the spring of 1972 are still easily recalled by many of Dr. Milgram’s former students scattered across the country.

”I really did feel sick to my stomach,” said Dr. Krogh, remembering her first attempt. ”Afterwards, I thought, ‘I wonder if that wasn’t helpful because the person must have thought: ”This person looks sick. She needs the seat.””’

Milgram tried it himself, as well:

Dismissing his students’ fears, Dr. Milgram set out to try it himself. But when he approached his first seated passenger, he found himself frozen. ”The words seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge,” he said in the interview. Retreating, he berated himself: ‘What kind of craven coward are you?” A few unsuccessful tries later, he managed to choke out a request.

”Taking the man’s seat, I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request,” he said. ”My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish.”

This thing is connected to so many relevant things I have hard time even listing them. Why people create magic circles out of their bodies in pervasive games? Why is breaching social norms and conventions and how it be leveraged for pleasure, like in bachelor parties, bleed games and griefer playstyles? Why you need play as an alibi? Is this a little or a lot like Boal’s invisible theater piece on sexual harassment in a metro car (e.g. here)? What’s the deal with metro cars anyway; remember also No Pants Subway Ride and Surprise! by Improv Everywhere, and Metrophile of CO&P 2008? Even Mogi ended up as a bit of a subway game. Some of the Milgram’s people even had info cards to be slipped to the unaware participants afterwards, just like the players of Go Game and Momentum.

I must have been a 60’s hippie psychologist in another life; I just love the spatial, temporal and social expansions of the magic lab.


  1. This reminds me of the breaching experiment David Myers conducted in City of Heroes/Villains, where he played the game (only) according to the literal rules – and ended up being hated and ostracized.

    But– in your earlier life– ?

  2. Regarding the subway, here’s a whole article about psychological studies on the subway. Plus there’s Train Mafia another game to be played on the subway.

  3. In an earlier life, before reincarnating as a games researcher, Jaakko. :-)

    Thanks for the links, Thejhyde!

    – M

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