Immersive Gameplay – Interview with J. Tuomas Harviainen

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The third interview is with role-playing designer, librarian and scholar JTuomas Harviainen. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and Emily Care Boss. Harviainen contributes a significant body of Nordic larp scholarship that points to a fundamentally different play/design philosophy regarding “immersion” from the Anglo-American definition.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are defending your doctorate in Information Sciences in the fall. What is the focal point of your research?

J. Tuomas Harviainen – My dissertation, within the discipline of Information Studies and Interactive Media, deals with the information-systemic properties of physically perfomed role-playing in its various forms (larp, BDSM and so forth). The core idea is that, by adopting the social contract of play, people create temporary spaces in which access to information is significantly altered. I claim that by looking at the information-environmental properties of those temporary social systems, we can understand a lot more about both play experiences and the way social contracts affect our information seeking and distribution in everyday life.

ET – What is an example of the kind of information-seeking that happens in role-playing games that would then be directly applicable to everyday life?

JTH – All sorts of information needs appear during role-play, and people respond to those accordingly. Most of the time, the behavior is very similar to mundane life, regardless of the context in which one is acting. The most interesting thing for me, however, is that the artificial constraints of the games show us just how much of an impact the social expectations we have on how we seek information. If, for example, one plays in a game where certain actions are forbidden within the fiction (say, envisioning democracy as a viable concept, in a Medieval game), we can get an inkling how such limits affect people in real life. As Bernard Suits put it, games are about artificial limitations. Many of those, in many games, concern information acquisition and use.

ET – How do rituals, information systems and game systems intersect?

JTH – On many grounds, which is what led me to my current line of research. The adoption of temporary rulesets, limitations and boundaries, the change of social identities, and the act-as-if with things one cannot really perceive, these are very common in both games and rituals. I do not claim that they are all information systemic things, but I do parts of them can be very well analyzed from an information studies perspective. The ritual-game connection in particular has been noted by many earlier researchers, but I dare claim that it has not been properly examined until very recently. Games being highly ritualistic social systems, it is actually hard not to see a connection, yet scholars and designers both have been quite happy to just rely on a quick nod towards Johan Huizinga and Victor Turner, plus a set of black-box thinking where ritualistic games are expected to provide ritual-like results, without going into the actual mechanics of why and how.

ET – As a researcher and game designer, you have on occasion used games you’ve designed to test your hypotheses. What are the advantages of this “scientific” approach, and how might more game designers adopt it?
JTH –The idea is that in such games, it is possible to combine the idea of a laboratory experiment with the playful, unpredictable nature of games. I know it’s imprecise, but a lot of human communication actually involves such creative chaos. Because people like the game, they run it for others, and that way I get a convenient data build-up which helps me analyze the results. The great thing about laboratory-larps especially is that it’s possible to insert some artificial parameters into the fiction, in order to test the effects of those parameters in a chosen setting. For example, it’s quite easy to experiment on gender role expectations by making a game that plays on those expectations – or where they are defined as totally absent, or altered, by the game’s setting. That’s something rather hard to accomplish through means other than role-playing. I’ve also noticed that this research application of design has made me analyze my games much more thoroughly, and significantly improved the quality of my games. For that reason alone, I’d suggest others try it out, even if they are not interested in experimentation for the sake of research.

ET – What key role-playing scholarship are game studies scholars not reading, but should?

JTH – My two pet peeves are game scholars’ focus on digital gaming and the way they tend to read just their own field’s research. The former has lead to a kind of tunnel vision, where people publish brilliant stuff on, say, immersion in digital games, but talk about it as if that description were descriptive on all sorts of game immersion, while their concepts would not actually hold water in a larp or tabletop role-playing context at all. And vice versa. So people really should look beyond the confines of their chosen platform.

The second thing that does not get sufficiently read is original works. Too often, game scholars just quote from quotations or excerpts, leading to a build-up of bias. The recent discussion on the differences between what Huizinga actually meant with the “magic circle” and the way that concept was appropriated to game studies is a good example. If one reads Juul’s or Salen & Zimmerman’s descriptions of Wittgenstein or Suits, one gets a distorted picture of what they actually said – and then very likely propagates that false impression. So I think reading the actual base references should be mandatory for any serious researcher of games of any type.

ET – Do you know what concept might replace “immersion” within the next decade as it is exhausted within the discourse? With what term would you replace it, if you could?

JTH – I doubt “immersion” will be replaced, despite being very problematic. I would, however, like to examine it from many more perspectives, and to add new clarifications and potential ideas to the current discussion. For example, presence research, traditionally conducted in the context of telepresence or virtual environments, offers a lot of useful concepts that game scholars have thus far, in my opinion, neglected to take into proper account – especially on the question of immersion vs. spatiality and the sense of place. (As a great starting point, I’d recommend this article: Turner, P. & Turner, S. (2006). Place, sense of place, and presence. Presence, 15(2), 204-217.)

J. Tuomas Harviainen is a Finnish library chief information specialist, game studies researcher and designer, who specializes in live-action role-playing. His mini-larps have been run in at least 14 countries, used as training tools in schools and universities, and been translated into seven languages. He is finishing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Tampere, Finland, on role-playing games as information systems, and is an editor at the International Journal of Role-Playing.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”


One response to “Immersive Gameplay – Interview with J. Tuomas Harviainen”

  1. […] Finnish academic J. Tuomas Harviainen, drops some science on under-read game studies scholars and talks about information-seeking behavior in roleplaying games. […]

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