Tag Archive | Sarah Bowman

Experiments in Aural Resistance: Nordic Role-Playing, Community, and Sound

Sound and PlayEditor’s Note:  Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall series titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? SO!’s Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell reflects upon using sound in role-playing games as a form of resistance. Ready, players?

When we play with sound, how does it influence the ways in which we understand, configure, and experience the world? I have already argued that non-diegetic sound can produce a visceral and emotive effect when connected to player interaction within a game world, that sounds are often structured within games to construct a sort of feedback between player and system, and that often within this feedback loop the narrative voice perpetuates problematic tropes of sexism and racism through its scripting. While I focused on the often dystopic production efforts of large and middle sized game companies in those prior essays, here I will be focusing on autonomous and grassroots examples of how sound is used as a way to stage social experiments which resist these often hegemonic ways that these dominant narratives constrict our views of the world.

Role-playing games, the focus of my post today, offer a more viable path of social resistance than better-known video games. Nordic larp style-games, for example, are written and played within not-for-profit communities, and they utilize themes of social inequality, transformation, and activism within their very scripts. Second, role-playing games, unlike computer games, do not require that their developers are able to code. Instead, games are often circulated by word-of-mouth, or in script format through player communities. In this sense, the genre itself is untethered from many of the problems of consumer capitalism. Many underground role-playing games are designed both around social issues and for local community needs as opposed to the market demands that necessitate big budgets, big programming teams, and few risks in the video game industry today. Finally, because role-playing games necessitate neither big budgets, the ability to code, nor mass audiences, they are an ideal site wherein game designers and referees can stage social experiments that speak to the unique wants and desires of the communities within which they are run.

In The Larpfactory Book Project, a forthcoming book containing several ready to play examples of Nordic larp (a big shout out to Lizzie Stark for hooking me up with an advance copy of this portion of the manuscript!), larpwrights Matthijs Holter and Fredrik Hossmann propose a game entitled “Before and After Silence,” focused on thinking through the collective experience of silence. From the game description:

In a world of more and more sound, silence is becoming more valuable. Before and After Silence is about limitations and listening, and about doing almost nothing. It is non-verbal and uses silence as its starting point. It is about shifting the point of view from “what is” to “what is not,” about shifting the focus from “the sounds” to “the spaces between the sounds,” from “the actions” to what is “between the actions,” and to “what is not done.” Rather than playing characters, we examine how we look at ourselves and how different filters can change how we see ourselves and others.

The game is structured as a social experiment for five to twelve players who are made to select two cards, one of which prompts players with an action they must complete only once during the hour of silence (one example reads “Go over to someone and whisper something in a language you don’t know”), and another which prompts players with a setting through which they should interpret the actions of the other players in the room (one example suggests a player imagine themselves in a community of prisoners, another makes a player imagine themselves as one in a society of telepaths). Before the game there are a set of workshops aimed at orienting players to the scope and silence of the game, and afterward there is a debriefing session where players compare their experiences of silence during the game.

Tons of great examples of work in the Nordic larp genre are in this book. Image borrowed from FransBadger @Flickr.

Tons of great examples of work in the Nordic larp genre are in this book. Image borrowed from FransBadger @Flickr.

Unlike American larps, which often take place in high-fantasy settings and direct their action around combat scenarios, Nordic larps often focus on the everyday and comparatively mundane, and as such tend to be more concerned the problems of the everyday as well. Even those that take place in more exotic environments, such as System Danmarc, a game set in the cyberpunk future of Copenhagen, engage players in real issues regarding class and poverty. After living in a shanty-town simulating the future streets of Copenhagen for a week of game-time (In Nordic-style larps, game-time is often equivalent to real time, and so a week in-game is equivalent to a week out of game) players are shown a documentary about the actual slums of Copenhagen where they realize that their experience within the space of play was made to mirror the experience of those struggling with the these very issues in the real world.

In the case of “Before and After Silence,” it is interesting to consider the ways in which the game designers here play with sound, and how these experiments in sonic game design might provoke new modes of subjectivity. As described earlier, players are both given a particular action and or noise to perform, but also are prompted with a way to imagine the actions that the rest of the players in the room are performing. The resulting group performance is an acid dream of sorts wherein each player is made to imagine the room’s soundscape in a very different way. Is the setting a long-lost silent film, or are you drifting through an ether of emotions and past romances? The game focuses on playing with silence in a way that makes the din of communication an unfamiliar and distant memory. The game affords players an opportunity to imagine the world sound. In doing this, “Before and After Silence” displaces the dominance of the voice as a mode of communication and through this questions the ways in which we imagine the world.

Not all is perfect, however, in this utopia of resistance. As Lisa Blackman (2009) argues in her essay “Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-Conscious,” play with the exchange of subjectivities and sound marks an ontological shift from a praxiology of what bodies are to what bodies can do (p. 170). Moving forward from her work in understanding the ritual practices of voice-hearing communities, Blackman explains that similar forms of sonic play (including play with silence) allow for the experience, embodiment, and trade of desire, fear, and trauma. In the context of “Before and After Silence,” this means that as players sculpt and adjust the sonic space of the room, they run the risk of also shaping and altering each others psychic conditions, in unpredictable and perhaps dangerous ways.

The conflation which occurs between these spaces of real emotion and play emotion is, in fact, well documented, and referred to in larp communities as “bleed.” As role-playing scholar Sarah Bowman (2013), explains in her essay “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study,” even though bleed does occasionally create rifts in relationships (some participants that she has interviewed reported in-game events disturbing their out of game relationships), others seek it out as a form of extreme play. For this reason Nordic larps require ethical behavior on the parts of their players, and because of the nature of the psychic and social sculpting which can occur within the play spaces of the game, the possibility exists that a single unethical player could create a negative and perhaps concerning experience for many others. That said, there are several ways the community mitigates the possibility of this problem including meticulous casting processes, before-game workshops, after-game debrief sessions, and safe words for use during play.

Players debrief after a game. Image borrowed from Fiezi @Flickr.

Players debrief after a game. Image borrowed from Fiezi @Flickr.

“Before and After Silence” is a valuable cultural artifact that lies at the intersection of scholarship on sound studies and serious play. At the same time that it promises several new ways to think through how sound, communication, and silence influence the how we frame and approach the world, it also raises deeper questions regarding the nature of social control and the viability of autonomous modes of organization. As silence allows players to explore and interact with a world where the soundscape takes on an increased prominence, do sexist, racist, and homophobic modes of socialization still manage to creep into the play space? And does the voice, along with its physiological and cultural embodiment of race, class, and gender, offer an escape from these experiments in silence if and when they turn dystopic?

Featured image: “Larp” by Flickr user marten vaher, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.

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Orality and Cybernetics in Battleship

The gendered space of play. Borrowed from superpunch.blogspot.com.

His moment has come. After having scoured each vector of a ten by ten grid, the young tactician makes his move. “G-4,” he announces, possessing some intelligence of a large ship in the south-west quadrant of enemy territory. There is a moment of tension, as his dad sizes up the situation. “It’s a hit,” Dad admits, smiling, as he resignedly lifts a token from his board. The women in the family beam proudly from the kitchen. For a brief moment the social hierarchy is undermined as the house patriarch on the front of the Battleship box concedes victory to his progeny.

Sound has been integrated in different ways into the production of simulated warfare after World-War II. Simulated warfare involves, namely, the cybernetics of paper machines (as board games have been coined by Matthew Kirschenbaum), and the gradual effacement of oral mediation therein. As technologies of interactivity improve, the need for oral communication amongst the games participant’s decreases.  The following is a case study of four Battleship commercials that aims to chronicle a set of shifting cultural tendencies parallel to the integration of sound-effects within the material game-form.

As Ong (1982) has noted, writing is powerful because it mediates the vastness of imagination. Once spoken words become grounded in text and inscribed on paper, they become, “locked in our visual fields forever” (p. 11). This is not as totalizing as it sounds, for as words are recirculated in oral cultures, the trace of writing yields slowly to the performative nature of ritual, oral culture. The rules of tabletop games, such as Battleship, although first established in the manual included with the game, are passed through oral ritual more often than not (Fine, 2002; Bowman, 2010). The oral maintenance of game rules is a practice which lends itself, critically, to the cultural attitudes of the group which maintains them. As is evident in the box art above, the game of Battleship is a gendered space where the rules have likely been explained (and maintained) by the household patriarch, then shared with his enthusiastic son.

Borrowed from badhaven.com.

There is an ideological element at play here as well. The box art for Battleship is unmistakably American. From Milton Bradley’s strong red-and-blue branding to the white trim of the son’s shirt, dad’s sweater and the soap suds in the kitchen. After all, the company owed its success to America and the war effort. A 1940s bailout saw Milton Bradley producing landing gear for fighter planes and gunstock for soldiers alongside portable game kits for soldiers seeking diversions in their down-time. The production of board games in post-World War II America owes as much to the military-industrial complex, as the production of video games does today (Dyer-Witherford and dePeuter, 2009). The relationship between the military production and simulation has been well documented by Crogan (2011), who has argued that the production of game interfaces, from the start, has been the by-product of a military desire to map real space onto the virtual in the design of ballistics. To this point, the bombastic introduction to a late-1960s commercial for Battleship (see video below) should come as no surprise. The sonic blast of a real-world battleship is calculated to lure consumers into believing that the game is an authentic simulation of maritime warfare.

The players in this commercial are actively engaged in a discussion amongst themselves. They laugh, and joke as they engage one-another in a tactical crossfire. In some cuts, the players seem particularly engrossed in the games strategy. Even though the commercial showcases two players actively engaged in oral communication, it is important to note that the players are both white males, and that the winner callously gloats as his opponent tumbles into the water. Milton Bradley’s connection to the American military is distinct here, and it plays out as a set of social relationships between the players. Reminiscent of Cold-War politics, the games action plays out as a series of tactical exchanges. Consumers are urged to practice at winning in their living-rooms, or on the go. The portable elements of Battleship are played down in an advertisement about 15 years later. Here, Battleship is situated as a centerpiece of family life.

Also integrating stock footage of real-world military battleships the narrative in this mid 1980s commercial begins with a squabble over domestic space. The actors are (at first) two boys (10 and younger), playing Battleship in the bedroom. After winning, the older boy banishes his younger brother, presumably forever, from his bedroom. Although this act could easily be imagined as selfish, in the context of the 1985 nuclear family, competition is fostered and encouraged. In a second skit, the older boy emerges again victorious at Battleship, his opponent (and father) slouches, consoled by the mother while the grandfather eagerly congratulates the young victor. Electronic Battleship is introduced here as a product as well, and the players are depicted commanding the electronic elements of the game. Feedback is given to the players sonically, as programmed game moves result in dynamic military explosions. There is still a residue of oral communication here, notably the father lamenting, “You sunk my battleship,” as the older boy lets out a strong cheer. Even though the embarrassed father is a commercial trope designed to stimulate the consumer imagination of aspiring child tacticians, it also functions as an in-joke for caring parents looking to instantiate intellectual (mathematical) competition as a centerpiece of domestic life in the age of Reagan’s Star Wars economics and family values.

Ten years later, the commercial narrative has more to do with overt warfare than family life. The competing children are spliced alongside clips of competing Navy officers performing various technical tasks on a real Battleship. As the background music takes on a tense, and somewhat militaristic tone, a command to “Man your battle stations,” is echoed as the two boys careen into their chairs. No longer is the narrative established as a civil exchange between two military masterminds, Electronic Talking Battleship uses sound to enhance the player experience of the simulation. When a hit is scored, a quick shot of the player pumping their fist and shouting is quickly replaced by stock footage of a battleship-explosion. Even wavy radio-lines are used to enhance the over-the-top comic feel of the product’s sound. A number of shots showcase the players programming their battle-stations. The commercial explicitly connects the discourse of soldier-controlled military technology, to player controlled information technology. Good players are able to program on their toes, the only conversation between players is a series of taunts and cheers. At one point, a player refers to the rules. Electronic Talking Battleship is evidence of the increasing capital of information technologies, and deterioration of orality in electronic games in the mid-1990s.

A final, 1997, commercial for Electronic Talking Battleship disposes entirely of the oral element of gameplay. The commercial begins with a child in what seems like an office conference room. After he presses a green button, a virtual matrix appears before him, and two navy officers materialize across the table from him. The viewer is to assume that one is an officer, and the other his superior. The narrative has the Navy officers desperately trying strategies against a hooting and smiling child. The Navy officers are a metaphor for the game’s computer, which can, at this point, serve as a virtual Battleship opponent. The affective work of companionship, which was once performed by one’s friends and family is now, in at least this commercial, replaced by a machine interface. The oral communication, which once governed the rule-set in a social space, has been outsourced to a machine which governs the rules, precisely, in cybernetic space

As computers begin to take a more active role in our culture, a by-product is the exchange of oral ritual for cybernetic participation. This odd shift can be read as having both positive and negative potential. One positive aspect is the estrangement of the social hierarchies which have been a necessary for the ritual infrastructure of oral communication dating back to Homeric times. While the children in the commercials (and on the original box) seem increasingly autonomous, they also begin to dialogue less with themselves, and more with the game. This, unfortunately, is the negative potential of this cybernetic shift. Where the early advertisements of the game depicted a product which provided a potential escape from a war-ravaged world, later advertisements seek to situate the consumer in the center of the action. A common thread amongst these social, and technical shifts is the instantiation of an electronic voice and interface as keeper of the rules. And, with this shift, the military discursivity of the game-form and its accompanying electronics is inscribed, and made to seem innocent in our imagination and understanding of childhood games and play.

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.

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