Interaction Codes

- understanding and establishing patterns in player improvisation.

Author: Eirik Fatland


This article deals with the concept of interaction codes: sets of player-held assumptions that create patterns in improvisation during a larp. While interaction codes may be established by players, the article examines two ways for larpwrights to establish them: by derivation from reference, or by construction from the ground up.


Imagine a larp that declares itself to be "Science Fiction", and the characters to be the staff of a large military space ship, but declines to specify any more of what this means.

Imagine further that the majority of players are familiar with Star Trek, and approach the larp looking for the familiar thrill of the series. In this case - they are likely to do a number of things derived from that series: they are likely to speak in a manner similar to that of Star Trek scripts ("Beam me up, Scottie!"), to assume their characters are the "good guys" and that non-player characters who oppose them are "bad guys", and to play their characters as "Star Trek" stereotypes. They are likely to attempt to make moral choices in conflicts, to be tolerant of aliens, to be friendly, optimistic and jovial towards each other, and use a large degree of casual (body-)language. And they are likely to remain optimistic and jovial even in the face of grave danger - after all, the typical "Star Trek" story always ends well.

If, on the other hand, we imagine that the players' associations to a military organisation in "Science Fiction" derive from authoritarian dystopias - like Orwells "Nineteen Eighty-Four", the Empire of "Star Wars" IV-VI or the "peacekeepers" of space opera "Farscape" - they are likely to approach the larp in a very different way. Their characters may as well be the "bad guys". They are likely to deal out harsh punishments to their inferiors, and to speak in authoritarian language ("Activate the teleporter, that's an order!"). They are likely to make immoral decisions in the name of "greater good", and to be intolerant of opponents, especially those that look different. They are likely to treat each other roughly, not shying away from fighting with or even murdering an opposing member of the crew, and their characters may become complex examinations of the personalities of fascism. Finally, they may approach the event with a high degree of fatalism, since this kind of story usually ends pretty tragically.

Of course, our imaginary larp is just that - imaginary. Most larps will be marketed with at least some references to similar works, or with the larpwright having some knowledge of what the players will expect. Still, our imaginary examples show clearly the impact that players' assumptions have on their improvisation.

It is these sets of assumptions that I propose to call "interaction codes". This article deals with the concept of interaction codes: what they are, how they function, and how they can be put to use.

Interaction codes: What they are.

Approaching any given larp, the players will have assumptions as to typical content and behaviour in the larp. When an inter-connected set of assumptions are used to make decisions of improvisation, and are shared amongst groups of players, they are what I call an "interaction code". An interaction code may contain stereotypes and principles for at least the following elements of role-playing:

As the interaction code is used in decision-making during the larp, players who share a similar interaction code will tend to make similar decisions in similar situations. Interaction codes thereby establish patterns of improvisation. This makes the concept useful for analysts and authors of larps; if patterns of improvisation can be detected, it is possible to test whether these stem from an interaction code. And establishing an interaction code can be a crucial tool for the larpwright in building a larp's dramaturgy.

What do I mean by "decision-making"? During a larp, players face decisions constantly - to fight or flee, to propose a toast or not, how to respond to a question, whether to run for president, how to seduce that guy, how to greet a stranger, what would my character do now... These decisions need not be consciously made, but every time a player faces a situation where several different courses of action are possible - which, in larps, is pretty much all the time - it is a situation wherein a decision is made. A decision is rarely the sole domain of a player. During a larp, players usually face challenges of keeping the illusion of a single diegesis (see Montola, 2003), of coming up with an idea for what to do next, and of playing in a manner satisfactory both to oneself and to co-players. While some (see Pohjola, 2000) may hold as an ideal that players improvise only according to their immersion in character - this is with most larps and players, not the case. If it were, there would be no need for anyone to insist that players concentrate only on character immersion.

Interaction codes are by no means the only criteria used by players to take decisions. Creative Agendas - Gamist, Simulation or Narrativist (Edwards, 2001) - can be seen as key criteria in decision-making. The character interpretation plays an important part in decision-making. Non-diegetic factors ("if I impress her with my swordplay, maybe I'll get laid?") also play a part, whether we like it or not.

All of these criteria, however, undergo an interpretation in context. If the character's natural response, according to character text, is to fight - the player may still decide to flee when all the other soldiers are fleeing. It is both as criteria in their own right, and as guidelines for interpretation, that interaction codes play their part. In the case of a criterion: the hero who arrives discreetly and un-announced may, inspired by Aragorn/Striders entry in "the Lord of the Rings", choose to sit secluded in the corner of the inn looking for hobbits in need of help. In the case of interpretation: the mystical stranger may be interpreted as a possible hero (Strider) with a Tolkien-derived interaction code, a probable spy in a LeCarre-derived larp, or perhaps a smuggler (Han Solo) with the potential to do good in a Star Wars derived larp.

Our imaginary military space-ship larp illustrates the uses, impact and problems of interaction codes. The two different references would create, in effect, two very different larps where characters move, speak, decide and behave very differently. And one could well imagine the possible confusion and conflicts of a third larp, where half of the players were inspired by "Star Trek" and the other half by "Nineteen Eighty-Four".

Interaction codes are not always authored by the larpwright. Players may invent an interaction code of their own, as was the case in the above example, based on their prior understanding of the larp. With no interaction code established, players may negotiate one through improvisation - assumptions being derived from the improvisations of co-players, and how well your own improvisations are received. From the larpwright's point of view, however, it is possible to identify two common ways of constructing interaction codes - either relying on conventions, for example by identifying the larp as "Star Trek"-like, or by designing interaction codes from the ground up. The rest of this article concerns itself with these methods, and through the examples described I hope to explain interaction codes further and to demonstrate that they are a convenient way of understanding and establishing patterns in player improvisation.

Interaction codes by convention

Conventions of Genre and Reference

Interaction codes may be created by referring to the conventions of a specified literary or cinematic genre, such as "murder mystery", "film noir", "dystopian science fiction", "soap opera" or "Swedish arthaus larp".

Because the conventions of genre are often familiar to players, they need not consciously be aware of them in order to intuitively act on them. At a "hard-boiled detective larp", the detective may begin telling the bartender his personal problems over plenty of whisky, even though this is not stated in his character description, without risk of inconsistency.

Genre-derived interaction codes, to be functional, require that the majority of players are familiar with the specified genre. "Fantasy", like most genres, may be divided into many sub-genres but if the players share a familiarity with only one of them the word "fantasy" alone would imply a specific interaction code.

Likewise, interaction codes may be constructed by giving familiar works (for example "Star Wars", "Ulysses" or "the novels of Knut Hamsun") as a reference. The larp may or may not be an adaptation of the specified work, what matters is that the conventions of the specified work are used in the larp. As an example, the Swedish larp "Röd Måne" ("Red Moon") was set in Star Wars-derived setting with three factions: rebels, imperial troopers, and indigenous aliens. During the larp, the Imperial troopers managed to capture a rebel base. They then set out to play as drunk as possible so that the expelled rebels would have a chance to ally with the indigenous population and re-take the base while the troopers were sleeping and hung-over. According to players of Imperial characters I spoke to, they did this since it was "an appropriate Star Wars thing to do".

Larpwrights may also specify combinations of works, genres or both from which to derive the interaction code. A larp could be announced as "a film-noir space opera", "a murder mystery in a TV sitcom milieu (canned laughter provided by the organisers)" or "Star Wars, played as a Greek tragedy".

Conventions by situation

Another kind of conventions are those which are tied to specific real-life situations and traditions - for example the school yard, a family dinner or a job interview. Interaction codes derived from such situations are often quite detailed and easy to follow, since players not only have a clear idea of the conventions involved but have personally lived and experienced these situations. "Tony and Tina's Wedding" (Corcoran, 1988) , an "interactive theatre" which by all definitions is a larp, is a good example of this - actors play the lead roles of Tony and Tina, the "audience" are the wedding guests, and the audience are encouraged to play their parts and interact with the rest of the wedding party. Despite attracting a paying audience with zero experience of role-play or acting, "Tony and Tina's Wedding" has been a major success, and has been played non-stop since 1988 on three continents.

A recent larp fashion in the Oslo scene has been to rely on situation conventions and only these. Larps such as "Thirteen at the table" (a family dinner), "The crisis meeting" (in an office) and "the Re-Union" (of high school friends) specify only the first name of characters and the situation. Everything else - including back story, personal relations, what exactly the crisis is and the family name - is improvised.

Conventions of larp scenes

Finally, larpwright troupes and communities of players almost always have conventions as to what a "larp" is and how it usually is played. In ongoing larp series, interaction codes may develop over time and be easy to pick up for new players who enter the series. In communities where larps are fairly similar, the interaction code of the previous larp easily enters the next one. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on what the larpwright desires. If the idea is to provide the local scene with "more of the same", the scene conventions can be useful and save time in organising the larp. If the idea is to break with tradition, to encourage the creation of content the local scene hasn't seen before, scene conventions are often a problem that needs to be consciously dealt with.

In Sweden, the country Larpia ("landet lajvien") describes an interaction code shared by almost all fantasy-genre larps: mysterious strangers with heroic quests sit in the corners of inns, while the peasants happily consume beer and dance the same dances as on the last ten larps they attended, strangers greet one another with the words "Be greeted!" and the Orcs (or whatever name given to the evil humanoids) can be relied on to spoil the party. Once established, Larpia has seemed almost impossible to eradicate no matter how larpwrights specify different worlds, periods, characters, traditions and narratives for their larps. At the same time, Larpia allows players to easily join events in other parts of the country with a minimum of preparation.

Interaction codes by design

Interaction codes need not be derived from an existing work or situation. There are a number of examples as to how larpwrights have created interaction codes without resorting to external references. While I will list these examples as they relate to specific elements of an interaction code (spoken language, body language etc.), few of the examples mentioned have bothered to define every possible element of an interaction code. Quite often, a single well-defined element will lead players to adopt behaviours and assumptions regarding the other aspects as well. An example of this is the interaction code of "Dance Macabre" (Solberg&Bardal, 2000) - primarily established by teaching players Elizabethan ballroom dancing. The polite, codified and subtle movements and atmosphere of the dances ended up pervading the entire larp - including body language (stiff, formal, but gracious), spoken language (stiff, formal with many subtleties), etiquette (obviously), stereotypes of narratives (flirtation, a smiling mouth and a poisonous gaze) and diegetic society (formal, gracious, with much going on beneath the surface). The sensibility of 17th century ballroom dancing did not just turn the dance floor into an interesting and unique place for character interactions, but to a certain degree turned the entire larp into a dance floor.

In 2001 I worked on a larp together with Norwegian playwright Fredrik Hossmann. The larp, which would be based on all the works of novelist Knut Hamsun, featuring a meeting between characters from several of his novels. The idea never reached production, but our take on it's interaction code serves as another example of construction: since a key theme of Hamsuns work was alienation, characters who were perpetual loners incapable of forming close personal relations, a sense of alienation would be achieved by prohibiting all physical contact between players. A hug would have to be without skin touching - suspended in the air, faces 10 centimetres apart. Handshakes would be a mutual shaking of nothing. This forced distance in body language, we hoped, would encourage a mentality close to Hamsun's loners, while still permitting for a great deal of interaction.

Spoken Language

The language (including jargon, dialect, slang) that characters speak during a larp can be taught in a number of different ways. One is by simple reference, e.g. "Cockney", "Streetwise New Yorker", "Shakespearean", "Aramaic". Another is through dictionaries and language examples - "'schpaa' means 'cool', as in 'that movie was soo schpaa'." Language might also be taught through implied messages - by communicating to the players in the language their characters are expected to speak.

Since languages, dialects and accents are frequently connected to cultural conventions and stereotypes, the impact of constructing language as part of an interaction codes goes further than just influencing the actual talking at the larp. English spoken with a strong, but fake, German accent has for a half-century of Hollywood been associated with any kind of devious evil, from the Nazis through mad scientists and vampires to international super-terrorists. Cockney brings the mind to the English working-class, with it's pub culture, aggressive football fans and simple machismo, while the Queen's "posh" English conveys the snobbishness, arrogance and dry wit associated with that country's upper class. The language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible brings the mind to epics, pondering existential questions and speaking in metaphor. And so it goes.

A powerful example of the use of spoken language in constructing interaction codes can be found in Orwell's "NewSpeak". In George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four", a future totalitarian state changes the English language to become simpler and consist of fewer words. By removing nuance, adding new words and forbidding others, the Party sought to make it impossible to think, much less express, thoughts critical of the state. The same method has been used in larps - by removing and re-defining words, players are forced to think, act and express themselves in ways consistent with the larpwrights plan.

PanoptiCorp (Tanke et al, 2003), set in a satirical present-day advertising agency, used as it's pre-larp information only a sign-up form and a dictionary of "CorpSpeak" (office slang). The 40-50 words of CorpSpeak, while providing factual information about the corporation, also made it impossible for characters to talk about anything without expressing the social darwinist world-view of their workplace. Normal people were "munds" or mundanes, "corpers" (PanoptiCorp employees) were by definition not munds but could be sorted into "Hot" (productive) and "Not" (not so productive). Something "now" wasn't trendy any longer, while "NexSec" (Next Second) was the only acceptable way of talking about hip and cool ("cool" was a really mundy word). The result was a larp called "a brilliant mindfuck" (widing, 2004), where players spent days after the larp re-finding their normal pattern of thought (see Widing, 2004 and Gievaer et al, 2003).

Body Language

Body language may be taught through written examples, though in most cases actual demonstration and practice have been more effective methods to establish this aspect of interaction codes. A successful example of constructing body language at larps could be seen with the aforementioned Norwegian larp "Dance Macabre" (Solberg&Bardal, 2000). Another good example from the same troupe was the body language taught to slaves at "Amaranth III: Nemeth" (Solberg, Bardal&Jacobsen, 2001), set in ancient Rome. Slaves were simply forbidden to look into the eyes of free people. This made it almost impossible for slave characters to assert themselves in any way, and made it equally impossible for players of slave characters to act anything but submissive.

Another example is AmerikA (Evang, Grasmo et al, 2000), where players of the central characters developed their characters and body language both through three weekends of physical theatre exercises. A character, in this system, was initially it's movement/body language and it's relations to other characters. Developing the character's history and spoken language came at a later point in the process. The exercises allowed for the use of strongly visible body language at AmerikA, and many interactions were carried out non-verbally.

Stereotypical characters and stories

Stereotypes of characters that are likely to exist in the diegesis may both influence a player's interpretation of her own character, and how she interprets and relates to characters played by others. Such stereotypes are perhaps more easily constructed with genre references - everyone is familiar with the stereotypical soap opera witch - but can be defined using descriptions of class, profession, nationality etc. For example: "Norwegians are hobbits on speed" or "Barbers in this world are both barbers and surgeons, who perform amputations and coarse medicine. A grizzly kind of blood-lust and black humour seems necessary to the profession. Mothers warn their children against spending time with barbers." The clan "archetypes" of "Vampire : The Masquerade" are a good example of such constructed stereotypes in role-playing.

The word "story" is a mine-field in larp theory, as there are many divergent opinions on what a story is and whether it is desirable for larpers to improvise / enact one (see for example Pohjola, 2000 and Rognli, 2004). I use the word here in the simple sense of "a meaningful chain of events", where the entire chain in sequence yields a greater meaning than it's individual components. The imprisonment of Robert Doe, the discovery of a blood-stained axe, and the murder of Baroness Thatcher yields a greater meaning when Robert Doe commits the murder early in the larp, Sherlock Holmes fiends the weapon in the middle and Mr. Doe is imprisoned in the end. In a murder mystery larp, this story will be stereotypical - murderers leave clues, clues get discovered, crimes get punished. Players will be inspired to attempt to follow this pattern of events by leaving clues, hunting for clues and holding back the dramatic revelation until the end. The example of "Röd Måne" (see "Conventions of genre and reference", above) shows how players may adhere to perceived typical chains of events

Stereotypical stories follow easily from references, but seem to me to be much harder to construct from the ground up. Techniques like fate-play or narrative puzzle structures are not elements of an interaction code - they are not assumptions held by players, but structures planned by the larpwright. The pre-larp telling of stories as inspiration to the players may be of use here, as may techniques such as writing a character as a short story - a technique used at the legendary Swedish larp "Knappnålshuvudet". The overall theme(as opposed to genre) of the larp - is it for example a tragic story? A comedic one? A tale of love and redemption? Of the fall from grace? - may also have an influence on what players see as a plausible and typical story.

Etiquette and social rituals

Etiquette are the rules of politeness, of proper conduct, which more than anything exist to save strangers from embarrassing themselves or each other. Friends, in any culture, tend not to worry too much about etiquette, while any more formal occasion - from saying hello to eating a dinner - usually has appropriate rules of etiquette. All cultures perform rituals. Some rituals, such as the hand-shake and the prayer before eating, also function as etiquette, while others - such as transitional rites (confirmation, graduation, wedding) have a central societal and personal function. Social rituals and etiquette tend to be powerful expressions of the culture to which they belong, and are useful in larps as they establish patterns of appropriate behaviour. Etiquette and rituals are also easy to teach - through written text and demonstrations.

Consider, for example, the manner of greeting. Is hand-shaking appropriate? A bow or curtsy? Which words are said, and what do they imply about the relationship between those who meet? Or the manner of eating - with hands, with knife, with knife and fork? When does the meal begin? Whenever you arrive at the table, or when a specific person (the cook? The head of the household? A ranking guest?) welcomes you?

Etiquette is a powerful way of expressing hierarchy. "Wa - forandinger" (Gunnerud et al, 2003) was a semi-historical larp set in Japan at the time of the arrival of ambassadors from the Chinese T'ang court.

Players of Chinese characters noticed how their way of greeting also established a keen consciousness of hierarchy: one held one open hand over the other, a closed fist. The distance between the open palm and the fist signified the distance in rank between you and the one you greeted - the greater the distance, the lower was your rank. It doubled as a sign of familiarity - even if the difference in rank was great, friendship and kinship would decrease the distance between palm and fist, person and person. The Japanese characters of the same larp followed a less subtle rule : one was never to stand taller than ones superior. Most players became adept at a kind of movement in-between crawling and walking, so as always keep their head low. These codes established hierarchies in both camps, but also visualized the sophistication of the T'ang embassy in comparison with the lesser civilized Japanese.

Arriving in contemporary China, I made my first cultural blunder by lifting my glass to toast with a person twice my age. When toasting with someone who outranks you (typically the elder generation), you are supposed to hold your glass lower than the other person. After becoming aware of this rule, I was for a while conscious about questions of rank, always trying to figure out which of the co-diners ranked higher than myself. After a while, this becomes second nature, and the Confucian hierarchy enters your subconsciousness due to a ritual as simple and informal as toasting. I had absorbed one piece of the interaction code of 21st century China.


This theory is not based on "hard evidence" or external theory, but on the experience of myself and others as players and larpwrights. If other larpers recognize what I am describing, and find the concept useful in writing and analysing larps, it may be considered a stronger theory. Otherwise it may be chucked into the garbage bin.

If we accept my notion of "interaction codes" as valid, it may help explain one of the great mysteries of larp history. During the last century or so, several avant-garde directors and theorists of the theatre have attempted to break through the barrier between "actors" and "audience". While these experiments have been more or less successful in artistic terms, none have succeeded in turning their experiments into a self-sustained alternative to the stage theatre.

The establishment of interacting drama as a genuine alternative to the stage or film was first accomplished, with far less resources and recognition, by role-players in the 1970s - people who for the most part were neither actors nor artists but fans of genre literature (fantasy, science fiction) and war-gaming; people who sought to immerse themselves more deeply in their work of choice, with a community of like-minded people.

What the theatre avant-garde did not have, but the early role-players had, were interaction codes. "Dungeons&Dragons" tapped into the powerful set of clichés, stereotypes and languages of J.R.R. Tolkien and his plagiarists in literature and gaming. Unlike the participants of avant-garde interactive theatres, the early role-players did not need to pause to ask themselves "What is this? What do I do now? What does the director expect me to do?". The first role-players knew very well what you do when a group of Orcs appear : you shout a war-cry in Elvish, raise your sword, and charge head first into battle.


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