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.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Spatial Design Workshop

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