Spatial Design Workshop

This year at the summer school, I had two programme items and a lot of socializing. The first item was my regular Kapo presentation, now sharp as a razor after four runs.

The most fun and interesting duty at the school was doing a Spatial Design Workshop with Signe Hertel. She is an architect like me, but we trained at different schools and focused on different areas of the field, so I was super excited to see how we worked together. It didn’t take us long to hash out an outline before going and we finalized it once at Rutâ. It was a real pleasure to get to work with my two favourite subjects: Larp design and humans in spaces. We kept it basic and accessible, with a focus on showing and experiments, rather than talk and theory (since we only had an hour). I’ll try to write down what we said during the workshop and how we structured the excercise here (it might differ from actual experience, since we improvised and improved in each of the four runs of the workshop):

Introductory talk

We made a point of coming late to the workshop, allowing the participants to settle into the room before us, then asking them to explain why they were sitting/standing where they did. As humans we make a lot of subconscious decisions about where to put ourselves in a space. We tend to be pretty consistent within a given culture, which is something you can work with in your larp design. But be careful with international audiences, there can be a lot of variation in the customs and norms around the world.

The thing that makes it nearly universal though, is the human body and especially how the senses work. We relate to the world through them and that shapes what is comfortable and what is not. A rule of thumb is that the more senses we can use at the same time, the more comfortable we are. Remove or confuse one or more of the senses and it becomes unpleasant.

Photo by Simon James Pettitt

The first factor we can work with in designing spaces, is distance. We tend not to fully recognize people until they are within 7 meters, until then, they are are just random human shapes unless they have very distinct clothes or hair. It’s at 7 meters we start to see faces and can read their expressions as well as the rest of the body language. We can tell if they look approachable or if we should just walk past. At 3 or 4 meters is where we usually greet them and move into a conversational distance, if we want to talk. We feel most comfortable at around 1.5 meter for conversations with strangers. Unless there’s a lot of noise or we’re good friends, then we move in closer. For very intimate conversations with lovers or similar, we can even touch while talking. If we’re that close with strangers, it can get uncomfortable really fast. This is why there’s always elevator scenes in movies. It’s a space we can all relate to being too close in. Especially with enemies or colleagues.

When we’re too close, we will try to look away from the person we’re talking to, to avoid inappropriate intimacy, that’s why everyone always faces the door and looks upwards in elevators. And that brings us to the second factor: Direction.

Photo by Simon James Pettitt

The eyes are in the front of our heads, allowing for depth perception, but it also means we can only see things in a 160° arc in front of us and focus is limited to an even narrower area. Our ears are also much better at distinguishing sounds in front of us, even though they can hear all around. So we tend to want to keep interesting or dangerous things in front of us. And that tends to include other people. This is why we prefer standing with our backs against walls when we feel insecure socially and tend to sit in a circle in social situations. We actually need a lot of visual information for conversations, about when we should let the other person speak or when it is okay to interrupt, so having a conversation without seeing the other can be super awkward.

Photo by Jakub Puškáš

Another thing that is awkward is if we’re not at the same eye level. And height is our third factor. Humans tend to equate height with authority, looking down is much easier and feels more natural than looking up. (Except for us architects, who tend to look up at buildings and walk into traffic or other people.) This gets worse as we move close and the difference becomes more obvious. It’s okay to talk to someone sitting down at a few meters of distance, but if you stand right next to them, they have to crane their neck and quickly tire out, making the conversation unpleasant. This is one of the things actors often use to portray the status of their character and it’s also something you can use in larp.

A quick word about theatre and scenography here, which is a term we often use about the physical spaces and objects used in larp design: It comes from the theatre world and basically means all the stuff on the stage, that the actors move around in. It is designed to communicate the place to and situation the audience, not the actors. This is an important thing to keep in mind for larp, where we design for the players inside the spaces rather than outside observers. And why we prefer talking about “environment”, as it encompasses the importance of how it is experienced from within, as well as all the other things we can use to make it.

2015-07-16 11.54.43
Photo by the author

The excercise

We’re going to divide you into four groups of four (or five) people. The assignment is for each group to set up a space for a situation that one of the other groups will play out in that environment. Work with the factors we talked about and anything else you think would contribute to the experience of the space. We’ll see how each of the four spaces affect the interactions of the players and the mood of the scene.

The scene is “Meeting the in-laws for the first time” The charactesr are the two parents: One who is sceptical and negative, one who is positive and welcoming. Their child who is trying to make everyone comfortable and the new partner who is of course nervous about the situation. In case of five players, we’ll ad a sibling that is a troublemaker and joker. The scene starts with the arrival of the young couple and ends when we’ve seen a glimpse of how the meeting turns out.

You can use anything in the room for the setup, share with the other groups, we can move stuff around between scenes. Focus on the spatial design, play around with the furniture and various places in the room, see what happens. Don’t worry about finding the best idea, just go for the first one and try it out, see what you can change to make it better. You have 12 minutes to plan your setup and 5 minutes to instruct the players and have the other group play it out.

Each of the four groups will have a slightly different goal for their scene. The first group will try to make the most comfortable scene possible. The second will try to make something uncomfortable that creates conflict or unpleasantness. The third will be about creating something too intimate and the fourth will try to see how awkward and weird they can make the interactions.

Photo by Simon James Pettitt

The results

The scenes the participants set up were absolutely amazing! So much variety and ingenuity. They really got into both the setups and playing the scenes, we got a ton of useful observations from the players about their experiences and the designers about their thoughts and intents. And I think the participants went on with a clear understanding of how much you can do with spatial design. We got very positive feedback from the daily debriefs and a lot of nice conversations afterwards. They also got a hands-on experience with the power of playtesting design elements and an encouragement to explore the spaces they are in for the potentials they offer larping, from individual scenes to whole larp ideas.


Some of my personal thoughts about how to continue with the subject:

1. Take it to some conventions, like Solmukohta. I think everyone could have fun learning time with this.

2. Make my Bodies-In-Space workshop where I show my repertoire of techniques for players of larps to make the most of spaces and their bodies in them.

3. Spatial Programming Workshop for Larp Designers. A sort of advanced course in spatial design, focusing on larger larps and how to plan their physical enviroment. Again with Signe, because she is awesome at explaining programming.

4. Applied Semiotics for Larp Environments. I’d really love to combine the cleverness of Jaakko Stenros’ theoretical work with my practical experience in some way.

Rūta Magic

2015-07-07 09.45.25

I have returned from my fourth stint at teaching at the Larpwriter Summer School and it was amazing as always. I love how we’ve done this so many times now, but still keep getting better at explaining the topics and building new concepts.

For me a big point this year was finally feeling entirely comfortable and at home at Rūta, our “Soviet Hogwarts” where we have the school. I forgot to check flight information in time and suddenly had to pack in an hour, but I still managed to get exactly everything I needed with me. I also tend to have difficulty sleeping in new places, it takes a couple of days for my body to trust the bed and night time sounds, but this year my head hit the pillow and I switched off immediately. This was a big part of feeling much more comfortable and social for the whole week.

2015-07-12 12.07.04

It also felt like the speakers and facilitators group had reached an important plateau. The intense emotions and stresses of the first couple of years have been replaced with more relaxed surplus and focus, which in turn reflected onto the participants. I didn’t experience much of my usual anxiety at meeting 48 new and interesting people from strange lands and they took to our lessons and excercises like naturals, despite the expected language difficulties and learning tricky new concepts. We also had the time and energy to make sure the new additions to the speakers and facilitators crew felt at home and confident.

2015-07-12 12.22.25

Each year we manage to sharpen the lectures and workshops, we simplify the language and examples without dumbing anything down. And we share and discover new aspects in the theory. The Mixing Desk is a super teaching and design tool, continually developing. It is far from a unified theory of larp design, but very handy for what we are trying to do. This year had some very clever new takes:

1. Jaakko renamed the “Scenography” fader to “Environment”. It’s not just a new name, but an important shift in focus. Scenography is theatric, constructed and aimed at visual communication to an audience. Environment is much more inclusive and centres on the experience from within, it also removes the articial flavour that scenography tends to invoke. I’m gonna have to rename all of my work now and I love it!

2. Tova Gerge completely refurbished the “Representation of theme” fader to go from “Story” to “Action”. Traditionally we think of designing for stories in our larps, but a lot of design is actually more about setting up independent actions that create an experience. As someone who is a complete idiot at building stories, I love that I no longer have to feel handicapped, but that I make a design choice instead.

3. Eirik Fatland’s annual udate to the world map of larp is always fun, this year he could report that larp across the world is diversifying away from monolithic traditions to embrace many more ways of playing and a much more open exchange of ideas.

4. He also included “norp” and “prognorp” in his serious list of synonyms for Nordic Larp, which means that my joke word is now completely ruined. Great. Now I have to say “Inter-nordic Progressive Arthaus Larp Tradition” in order to be amusing. Just great.

5. Working with Signe Hertel on spatial design was super, we really got down to basics and found something solid to build on. I used to be afraid that I’ve been using too fancy architect speech and specialist terms, but now we have a foundation. I want to see if we can build a new field of design in larp on top of it. I’ll share our workshop in my next post.

6. Hearing Jaakko talk about play is great, it was a wonderful addition to the serious talks about larp and education. Play is an important aspect of larp, that deserves a place in the curriculum.

2015-07-11 00.03.19

The alumni of the summer school are turning into quite the force, we had thirty of them invade us this year. Next year they might even outnumber the regular participants! They planeed some fabulous projects for the coming year and made a magical Black Metal Children’s Party with literally thousands of balloons, for the participants on saturday. They really embody the best sides of the larp community: Community building, playfulness and inclusivity as well as international project making. I used to fear for the future of larp as we grow older and more boring, but with these guys on the block it’s going to stay magical pony land for quite a while!

There were signs of renovations and additions at Rūta, so our special place seems to be doing well, that makes me quite happy too. Even though the service culture can be esoteric, the food very… authentic and the facilities rough, it’s a really nice place that takes good care of us.

2015-07-06 20.18.43

I can also report that Vilnius is gentrifying very well in some important aspects: It’s gone from only serving the most terrifying coffee in my life, to a virtual hipster’s paradise in just a couple of years! So many flat whites and open wifi in quirky coffeeshops! Next year I will bring my lady love for a vacation there, after the summer school.

If you or someone you know would benefit from learning the basics of larp design with an educational focus, keep an eye out for the application opening up in 2016. I promise it will be a great experience, both socially and educationally!

UPDATE: The videos of the lectures can be found in these two playlists.
Fader Talks