This is a big topic, so I’m probably going to ramble on about it a fair bit. My notes are already longer than a typical full post, so I’m going to break things up a bit. In this post, I’m going to talk about similarities between the considerations for LARP and the considerations for UX. I’ll probably also plough through some introductory ideas to delve into more deeply in later posts.
What is User Experience?
User Experience (often abbreviated to UX) is exactly what it says on the tin – it’s what a user experiences when they use something. People who work in the UX field both study that experience and try to design what that experience will be. It’s often seen as a bit wooly and ill defined, but usually by people who don’t quite grok design as a field in general. It’s a subdivision of the design field that focusses on the users perception of their interaction with the designed thing.
In my case, I’m a user experience designer who focusses on the web and software user interfaces. Wikipedia has a bunch to say about the job, some of which is probably contentious.
What is LARP?
LARP is difficult to pin down as there are so many different flavours. What they all boil down to is a group of people getting together to play out their characters actions when faced with given situations. Sometimes this takes place within fantasy or science fiction settings, sometimes in a setting based on the real world. Sometimes there is horror, or special effects. Sometimes there’s a nice cup of tea. Sometimes this involves people having to fight, using rules to abstract the combat away, sometimes they have at each other with replica weapons – and all kinds of shades in between. Sometimes there’s a pre-defined plot, and sometimes there’s just a starting situation and the players determine everything that happens from there. LARP often goes by other names – Freeform, LRP, Live Gaming, Interactive Theatre or even (jokingly) Cross Country Pantomime. For convenience sake, I’m going to just stick with LARP.
There’s a big similarity – both are about experience… and I don’t just mean in the sense that some old-school roleplaying games are all about gaining more experience points by killing gribbly things! I mean that both of them are about understanding how people percieve the environment that they are in, how they interact with that enviroment and how they percieve the results of their interaction.
There are a few differences in the fine detail here, of course, and in both cases it goes a bit deeper than you might first think.
How does it go deeper?
For the web user experience, the environment appears to be just the webpage at first glance… but it goes beyond that and into the environment and situation of the user. For example, they might be browsing on a mobile device, hoping for an answer that they need to act on right now – for example, standing at a street corner in the rain and using google maps to help them decide which way is quicker so they can get somewhere dry. Or they might be browsing on their home machine, in the warm and dry… looking for which route from the same street corner is quicker so that they can walk it at their leisure at a later time. The task they’re trying to do is the same, but their needs and the experience are quite different.
For the LARP player, the environment appears to just be the physical objects and events around them. Again, it goes deeper than that. They might be standing in a room looking at a box on the ground with a warning label, trying to decide if their character is curious enough to pick up or open the box. In another situation, the same player might be standing in the same room, looking at the same box, and trying to determine if the box is there “in character” or if it’s something “out of character” that they should be ignoring. They’re both trying to establish how to react to the box, but the reasons they’re trying to do so and the needs and experience are different.
How do they relate?
Those two examples aren’t completely analagous, but they have enough similarity for them to be relevant. One is affected by the user’s situation outside of their use of the site, and the other is affected by the situation outside of the game. In one, the user’s “real world” environment is still there, and it affects their experrience of the site. In the other, the player’s “real world” environment is still there, and it affects their experience of the game world.
Some Concepts, Techniques and Approaches
When it comes to designing a website or a user interface, there are certain concepts that you need to understand, and certain things you can do to try to make users enthusiastic about using the site or UI, so that they’ll do so again. Likewise, there are certain concepts in LARP that you need to understand. I’m going to try to explain some of these below.
Affordances are things that inform the user “hey, you can interact with me”, whilst simultaneously making it clear how the user should interact with them. Below are a few examples of what could be seen as affordances in either field, and the obvious responses to them:
|Web / UI Affordances||LARP Affordances|
In web and UI design, you use affordances to make the available options clear to your users. You can’t force them to use them (well, not usually, anyway) but you can make it clear what they are able to do from their current position in the site or UI. If you want to encourage certain actions, you can make the affordances for those actions clearer, simpler or just plain bigger. Of course, there will always be users who want to do something a bit different, and they can do so using the other, less apparent affordances available to them – they might explore for a while, but when it comes down to it, they can’t easily interact without using the affordances they’re given.
Similarly, in a LARP, the affordances are a way to give the players possible courses of action – you can’t force them to follow them (or if you do they may resent it) but you can make certain paths and c
ourses of action clearer and more obvious if you wish players to go down that route. Often players will want to go completely off-piste and do something you hadn’t prepared for – but that’s fine too, as the only way that they can really do so is by interacting with the affordances they’ve been given… namely the game world in which they are playing. They might pick an affordance you hadn’t planned for, but if you know your setting well enough then you can let them explore the environment until they find a way back into territory that you’d planned for.
Personas are a tool used in UX circles to describe a user of a particular archetype, explaining what they want from a game, what kind of experience they might want and why it’s relevant to the developers. In the examples above I explained how the users situation and environment can affect the experience they want… well, personas can be used to differentiate between types of user and the situations in which they tend to use the site or UI. Putting these together is useful but often time consuming – part of the idea is that the users are often different and have different wants and needs to the developers, so you have to do a lot of research to find out about those people.
In a LARP it’s actually a little more complex, as you have both the player and the character they are playing to think about, but you have a means to cheat. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Character Sheets. Every character will usually have something like a character sheet, and if they’ve picked or prioritised certain capabilities, it’s likely that they’d like to see these come up in their games. This doesn’t directly cover the behaviour of the player, but it can serve as an indicator of what they’re looking for, even if it doesn’t cover how they’ll behave when they’re playing.
By taking a selection of character sheets for a game, you can probably pick out what is important to various players and use that to influence what you include in the game. There’s more work to be done to make sure you fulfil other player requirements too, but this is a good start.
User Flows / User Journeys
Whilst affordances tell people what they can interact with next on a given page, User Flows are a way of mapping out a path through several parts of a site or a UI. They are used to map out the experience of performing a task or achieving a goal that takes them across multiple screens on the site. Usually, you would map out the optimal path for a user to move through the site or UI to achieve their goal, which in turn leads to thinking about how users can diverge from that ideal path, explore the site for a while and then return to the path. What is key is that there usually isn’t just one of these for a site – there are usually many, depending on what the user is trying to achieve and what behaviour they are likely to exhibit along the way. They also don’t have to be a single path. Whilst having one optimal path for the user who just wants to get things done as quickly as possible is a good plan, having alternatives for users who want to explore is a good idea. Likewise, ensuring that there are places where users can be pulled back in to a flow after they’ve made a mistake or become distracted is helpful too. Sometimes this can even be a way to encourage the user to learn more complex features of the site – by making the simple route obvious, but the more advanced options more apparent if you diverge from the optimal path.
A lot of techniques used for mapping out user flows can also be useful for mapping out how a plot is likely to work. Certainly the idea of making sure that your players have at least one clear path through your plot is absolutely essential. If they feel that they’ve hit a brick wall and can’t see how to get to encounter B from encounter A then you’ve got a problem, and you need to add some affordances to make their route clear. Likewise, you can have the easy but less rewarding path most obvious, but reward exloration of the setting by having some perhaps more rewarding variations available if they deviate from that obvious route a little.
This is one of the areas where LARPing feeds directly back to UX work – when planning a LARP, you have to have a good sense of story, and of how people will piece things together to come to conclusions… and how to understand stepping though stimulus, action and effect, which maps on to affordance, action and result.
Future Topics are likely to include, but not be limited to:
- Atmosphere, mood and the user/player experience
- Encouraging exploration
- The New LARPer experience
- Mapping the experience of a typical LARP
This post has become plenty long enough at this point, so I’m going to break it off here. It will pick up again in a future installment. I welcome feedback on this topic, as it’s something I’m still working out in my head – I can see and use the similarities, but explaining them is a different matter. Feedback will give me clues about how to explain things better, and perhaps even lead to me explaining more about how to do things.