Posted by: Stenros | February 26, 2010

Unwelcome Pervasive Play: The Long Con

The next guest blogger is researcher and larp designer J. Tuomas Harviainen. An expert on live action role-playing, he writes about one-sided pervasive role-play.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, Jr. as a PanAm pilot in Catch Me If You can (2002), based on a true story.

One of the key topics in discussing ethics of pervasive play is the question of unaware game participation. This is a very important question, especially since a sibling phenomenon already exists. A certain group of confidence tricks, such as false romance and infiltration projects, works on the very same principle as does pervasive gaming.

While not necessary as common as other sorts of confidence tricks (or “games”, as they are also quite fittingly called), role-playing cons are of particular interest to role-playing studies. What we have in them is a person or a group of people, playing fictional roles for a purpose that is not disclosed to unaware interaction participants. These role-plays can be either simple changes in social role (such as altered behavior) or complete fictional characters as complex as those of any live-action role-playing game.

So what is taking place is effectively a one-sided pervasive larp, of which the other party will only know of once the scam is at end – if even then. It is malignant role-playing which cannot be easily defended, except maybe in the case of spies and cops in the service of common good. And even those cases come under frequent debate. Yet, excluding ethical issues and a lack of explicated rules, is there anything that really sets the role-playing confidence game apart from a pervasive role-playing game?

The bestseller pervasive RPG manual.

One distinguishing factor could perhaps be character immersion, yet nothing says that a larper will be deep in his character or that a con artists won’t – popular culture is full of stories where the infiltrator will have divided loyalties as he immerses too well in his new, fictional role. The other factor that can be suggested is lusority, yet serious infiltration can be just as playful as can gaming: The conmen in House of Games (1987) take definite joy in their work, and Danny Ocean’s crews have an undeniable sense of glee in the added challenge of their infiltrations.

Pick up that box of Lost episodes (or Wiseguy, if you want camp value) from your shelf, and take a new look at what exactly Sawyer is doing in the flashbacks. Looks a lot like a pervasive mini-larp, doesn’t it? Just a very one-sided one. And very, very differently framed as far as play ethics are concerned. So how do we keep the two apart in the public eye?

Earlier guest bloggers: Matthijs Holter on Cathy’s books, Päivi Kymäläinen on Akayism, Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo on SecretCPH, Illuminatum on problems of pervasive larp, Steve Payette on accessibility, Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl, Neil Dansey on apophenia and David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009.


  1. Also, I don’t think it’s coincidence that Sawyer is called Sawyer. The character of Tom Sawyer was, even in the first place, a blur of, uh, reality and fiction.

    Quoting the source of all human knowledge:

    “The fictional character’s name may have derived from a real-life Tom Sawyer with whom Twain was acquainted in San Francisco, California, while Twain was employed as a reporter at the San Francisco Call. The character himself is an amalgam of three boys Twain knew while growing up.”

    But yeah, Strauss’s The Game should definitely be on the list of inspirations for pervasive game designers. Haven’t read it though.

    – M

  2. Neil Strauss’ The Game is indeed much closer to a pervasive larp manual than you might expect!

    Or rather, a description of him getting into the pervasive larp group, and learning the rules and techniques, and befriending the game master (called Mystery).

    Mystery has invented lots of guidelines on how to become a pickup artist by acting in a certain way, dressing in a certain way, speaking in a certain way etc. (And these guidelines are what many people take from this book, wanting to become pickup artists themselves.)

    Most of these are things that seem unlikely until you try them, after which they seem obvious: Such as if you dress a nice but bland way (as many people do when going out), you won’t be approached by anyone, but if you dress in a strange way (such as wearing goggles), you will be approached by many people. They’re easy enough to test: Grow a mustache and go to a bar, people will make contact.

    But! What’s really interesting for a game researcher or an afficionado is the story of what Mystery was like before he invented his style of pickup artistry, and how he invented it.

    Because, as it turns out, Mystery was a D&D geek who couldn’t get a date. Reading the book you can imagine the wheels turning in young Mystery’s head: since he was a game master, he started realizing the social structures at large events: everybody has their own motivation, some people with Charisma 18 will also have Intelligence 18, but some will have Intelligence 3. If there’s ten pretty girls in this bar, all of them won’t be looking for company, but some will. Of those that will, many will be looking for jocks but maybe not all. How do they recognize a potential mate? He’s interesting and funny? How do I give the impression that I’m more interesting and funny than anyone else here?

    So what he did was going to neighboring towns where people didn’t know hip, hitting every bar there and hitting on every girl in those bars, trying out different tactics and keeping a list of what worked and what didn’t, and honing his skills. Gathering experience, and leveling up.

    So the most popular tricks for pickup artists are developed by an RPG nerd utilizing RPG understanding.

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