|Let the ritual begin|
Here’s a few thoughts on the impact of the first moments of a larp on the immersion and some tips on how to intensify that effect.
A larp can be considered a kind of a ritual , since it is an activity altering the state of mind in which events and objects acquire a symbolic meaning. The toy gun becomes a real one, stroking one's hair turns into the act of lovemaking thanks to a pre-agreed mechanic. A larp has a beginning and an end, which mark the time of the ritual. The key factor we are looking for in a larp is immersion. We may call it the rituals' power, its ability to make us believe a given perception of reality and ourselves, different from the mundane. A deeper immersion means a stronger impression (but not conviction) that we are the characters in a designed story.
From a creators' point of view, causing the players to achieve a deep immersion is one of the goals of game design. In this paper we will attempt to find ways to facilitate immersion by using the beginning of the larp, its setting, and the way the mundane is abandoned for submersion in the story.
Many larpers who play the big fantasy games (but probably not only them) have observed the indescribable yet magical effect that the first minutes and hours of a long awaited game have. After arriving to the larp, taking care of the sleeping arrangements, briefings, dressing up, preparing and awaiting, the start of the game is announced. We are now surrounded by players in unusual attire, a couple or couple dozen people around us now act like their characters. The ritual begins, and the magnitude of the larp induces a lot of symbolical actions we can experience.The beginning of games is a magical moment, no quote marks. We rapidly achieve deep immersion, often times even a deeper than we will later on in the larp. Smaller games, set in an environment closer to reality or with a high level of make-believe (like most chamberlarps), are often unable to achieve this goal. In these cases, shouting "1-2-3-action!" not enough for the players to suspend their disbelief and start feeling like a part of the fictional game world. The suggested solution is to purposely include a rite of passage in the game design - an absorbing and clear initiation of the ritual, allowing the players to distance themselves from reality. Later on in this paper I will suggest a couple of ways doing just that.
Let us note that when we speak of deep immersion, the first that comes to mind often are "360 larps", "5:1" or "dogma larps”. The larps in which the scenography of the game is prepared in such a way that you cannot notice any elements which don't fit the game story. This method might - on one hand - seem the universal answer to achieving immersion, on the other - a unreachable ideal. In my opinion neither the first nor the latter are true. 5:1 larps are not difficult to prepare and they do not guarantee instant immersion.
The simplest way to achieve 360 illusion is to make a game with a story slightly differing from the reality. A kitchen sink drama about a family dinner, played at the table of one's home, a game about trade negotiations conducted in a restaurant or an office, a game about a journey starting at a train station. By limiting the differences between the game and the reality only to the character design, it's easy to fulfill the demand of 360-degree illusion. Indeed, every observation the player will make, everything s/he will hear, see or feel will be just as it should be in the game world. But...when thinking about the players who negotiate at the table, we will intuitively notice there's something missing. I believe that starting such a game with only an "Ok, let's start" will not help players achieve deep immersion. Their observations will be consistent with the game world, but their mindset, what they remember, how they think will be left in the real world. They will remember that they're not the characters in the story, that they're playing a larp, in which they're supposed to achieve goals or tell a story. They probably won't notice that their surroundings fit the story perfectly. This problem, usually easily solved in costume larps, becomes more pronounced in chamberlarps, and in reality-simulating 5:1 larps becomes critical. We will use this example to illustrate the idea of purposely initiating a larp ritiual.
Let's take care to focus the participants in the early stagesof the larp and engage them in the game. This can be achieved by using pre-larp workshops, which are usually considered only a way to give the players some meta-game information about the mechanics and rules of the game or the relations between the characters, but they also have a more important function. They are the bridge between the reality and immersion, boosting the quality of the game, even if they're not important in terms of providing pre-game information.
Whether the opening, transitional moment will occur before the larp, during the opening or in its early stages doesn’t matter in terms of invoking an appropriate mindset in the players. It only matters that it does happen.
Smoke and mirrors - focus
One of the ways to initiate the game moment, shaping the mindset of the players, could be a sudden, emotional focus. Instead of explaining the story or the meta-rules of the game in hopes that the players will be sufficiently interested, let's make them not to think at all, be swept of their feet by a wave of emotions. Ideas will flow in naturally. You can scare them. You can present them with an emotional movie scene. You can use an erotic scene to provoke a moment of sexual arousal. Intense emotions and a focus can be triggered by traditional games, e.g.. gambling. Physical activity, such as a race could be a way to go, just like making the player do something that they wouldn't usually do, e.g.: playing the guitar in a public space. Physical violence in pre-agreed form and intensity, restricting the intimacy zone – hugging or nakedness also could work. Encouraging players to enter a cold body of water and begin their game from there works for sure .
Some of these methods will be transgressive, but overstepping boundaries is not the main point here. It's important to induce emotions or/and focus the player.
Let's call this effect "a focus".
Losing balance - illusion
Recall the moment of your deepest immersion in a larp. The moment that you almost forgot about your disbelief, you felt like a part of the game world. Did you try to find the 'seams' of the game world, the differences between the game and reality just moments later? I believe that a frequent reaction to deep immersion is a certain loss of balance in the reality perception, the need to 'catch the rail', find an element that will prove that you're in the game. The sword turns out to be made out of latex and foam and we are reminded we're in a fantasy larp. After reaching the focus the illusion built by the larp is subjected to a test, which is where it usually breaks. A player stays immersed in a satisfactory way and can continue to play.
What if the illusion of a larp passes this - usually superficial and instinctive - test of sorts. The participant doesn't actually want to find the 'seams', and s/he will soon stop looking for them. That's where the possibility of providing a suspension of disbelief occurs, the long awaited and permanent - within the larp timeframe - immersion. Let's go back to the example of the negotiation game at the restaurant's table. Everything seems to be aligning for a 360-degree illussion, but the players still know that it's a game, they try not to startle the people around them who don't participate game. What, if the non-disclosure has been broken? What if there's a brawl or one of the participants hits the other one? It’s a moment of shock, narrowing one's attention to the attempt of resolving the situation without escalating the conflict and attracting attention. Focus. We look around and...remain in game. In front of us is the negotiator, at the table next to us an uneasy patron, turning his gaze away... The illusion held, we're the character in a story.Of course, that’s under the condition that we don't use the safe word, get kicked out of the restaurant or otherwise leave the game.
Designing the moment of initiating the game keep in mind it can't be too intense, especially if we don't know our players really well and know their behaviors, it's best to play it safe. What's crucial is that the game should enable - or help - the participants in leaving the mundane behind them when they enter the game.
The abovementioned points described the idea of initiating a larp ritual. There's another term that comes to mind, suggested by Piotr Labenz  - an epiphany, a situation when the deep immersion is accompanied by the feeling of being in a situation we recall from a movie or novel. It’s the feeling of being in a fictional reality, while fully experiencing it and knowing what will happen in a moment.
An epiphany is a very attractive and terribly difficult reaction to purposely invoke in a larp. It might be that this paper will help us find a way to generate epiphany. It would require including the focus and illusion - the pattern. The order of events leading to an epiphany would look something like:
Focus - the feeling of being immersed and focused on the game untll s/he loses balance
Illusion - the scenery of the larp passes the reality check, not giving the player an opportunity to remember that it's only a game
Pattern - nevertheless, the scene has a characteristic pattern, which allows you to forecast the following event
Getting back to the main point of this paper - we encourage a conscious design of the larp initiation in such a way that the players would not only get the required knowledge, but also a good mindset.
 What You See is Still What You Get, Martin Ericsson Keynote presentation, Knudepunkt 2015
 Geas: The Pilgrimage, Argos 2014
 Epifanie, Piotr Labenz 2014
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