Some eight years ago, I decided to study interactive media – as an undergraduate at Designskolen Kolding and then for a masters degree at Media Lab Helsinki – in order to better comprehend what we did with larp, as well as to find a profession where I might benefit from my experience as a larpwright. The result was disappointing. I learned plenty of useful things about interaction design, usability and user-centered design processes that led me to my current profession. But the only thing I learned about interactive narrative, participatory drama and the like was that we in the role-playing community already understood more than industry and academia.
Most “cybertexts”, to borrow Aarseths catch-all term for things like hypertext fiction and narrative games, use structures similar to the most basic and rudimentary larp dramaturgies. Interactive television and interactive installations are more primitive even than that, usually allowing for only one of two kinds of participation: either the same kind of pick-one-of-two-paths interactivity as in “choose your own adventure” books, or some kind of indirect influence – opaque to the participants – for example by having a computer select scenes to show based on the movements of the viewers.
There are some non-digital interactive dramas, from Grotowskis “beehives” to “Tony and Tinas wedding”, that approach larp in their level of dramaturgical sophistication. But again, larpers (at least of the Nordic kind) have come further in a) establishing stable, reproducible, forms of dramatic interaction and b) writing about it so that others might learn.
Now, I might be wrong about this. I haven’t read everything ever written about interactive narratives, nor participated in every one ever made. If you know of any counter-examples, please do let me know!
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But assuming I’m right in this negative assessment: Why is it so? There are several plausible explanations: the cycles of larp production have enabled rapid, iterative development of the form. The volunteer spirit of larp communities has made experiments cheap to produce and test, while the communities themselves have provided the continuity of a stable form. Personally, i tend to blame the high-brow arts on one hand for being too concerned about the meaning of individual works, and not enough about reproducing the structures of successful ones, while the low-brow stuff on the other hand, such as the computer games industry or television, has been too risk-averse.
But the main advantage of larp when approaching “interactivity” and “participation” is that it is inherently both interactive and participatory. Rather than beginning with something that is passive and linear, like television or the Novel, and trying to open it up for participation, live role-playing begins with the a group of equal participants who ask “What can we build together?”.
From that staring point, anything is possible.