Structured Freeform is a Form, Not Content

January 5, 2009

A comment by Linnaeus made me realize something critical.

To confess a bit, I haven’t previously been that interested in Nordic theory, design, and practice, including both larp and Jeep. I thought it was great that it existed and wanted to know about it, but I didn’t want to take part in it or really understand it fully. The reason is that I’m not strongly attracted to immersion or the kind of “emo realism” play content that seemed to be the norm. Scenarios like The Upgrade, Under My Skin, and A Flower for Mara are great, but they just don’t push my buttons and I haven’t actively pursued information about them or opportunities to play them. My sockets currently tend to be more social (focusing on the other people I’m playing with) and aesthetic (wanting to create something beautiful) than emotional or experiential.

However, my disinterest in the content that seemed to surround these play traditions made me oblivious to the fact that, structurally and procedurally, they’re very closely related to the structured freeform play that I was trying to explore in Heavenly Kingdoms, Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Waiting/Tea, the Avatar game, The Good Ship Revenge, When the Forms Exhaust Their Variety, Mwaantaangaand, Transantiago, and other games. In fact, I would go so far as to call them different schools of structured freeform.

Basically, I wanted to use structured freeform techniques to create games similar to or natural extensions of the kinds of games that were already being created in the Anglo-American indie game community, while folks in Nordic countries were extending their own play traditions. Consequently, it’s not surprising that our games play very differently. However, I do think that, like myself, many folks in the Anglo-American scene are mistakenly assuming that the traditional content of Jeep (specifically, though maybe Nordic stuff in general) is inherent in or suggested by the kinds of play procedures they use, when this is not necessarily the case.

It seems totally reasonable to me (and, indeed, this is the kind of design work I have been doing) to create a structured freeform game about swashbuckling pirate adventure. Indeed, games like Polaris, It’s Complicated, and Mist-Robed Gate are largely structured freeform and wallow in the trappings of genre fiction. Part of the attraction of Jeep for many foreign roleplayers is surely that the content is so different from the genre fiction trappings so overwhelming in the Anglo-American scene. But there are artificial divisions of personal taste here, including several that I’ve erected myself against Jeep and Nordic larp, that could potentially prevent us from more fully exploring the possibilities of this emerging area of design and play.

Since my own tastes lie somewhere in between pure genre fiction and the contemporary emo novel — a magical place where Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie play volleyball with Milan Kundera and A. S. Byatt — it would probably serve me well to cross those divisions as much as possible.

9 Responses to “Structured Freeform is a Form, Not Content”

  1. Matthijs Says:

    “(…) structurally and procedurally, they’re very closely related to the structured freeform play that I was trying to explore (…)”

    …which is why I’m reading your blog 🙂

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Thanks, Matthijs. Just catching up!

  3. Matthijs Says:

    Thing is, in Norwegian and Nordic games, there hasn’t been much actual discussion of techniques, AFAIK. People make games that do cool things, but there really isn’t any terminology to discuss it, and people don’t write articles about these techniques. The closest thing I’ve seen was a workshop at last year’s Solmukohta called “meta-techniques”; I tried to get the person responsible to write an article about it for the book, but no luck.

  4. Interesting. So, in many ways, crashing the Nordic scene into the Anglo-American indie scene may be beneficial for both, yeah? We get a more solid foundation for structured freeform and you get our obsessive tendency to categorize play and focus on techniques.

  5. Jmstar Says:

    There’s a clear content bias in Jeepform, for what it’s worth. The focus on everyday vs. epic, the de-emphasis of setting, etc.

  6. Yeah, Jason. I totally find it fascinating that the Jeep folks seem to have been led into a similar design space (as myself) by the content they wanted to approach. They had to develop procedures that made more sense for the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. Whereas, in my case, I was fine with the content of my current play, for the most part, but not the structure or how it was created procedurally.

    When I did approach really unusual (for roleplaying) content, I went for surreal instead of Jeep’s decision to focus on the banal, as a tool for developing the kinds of procedures I wanted to port back to less surreal play. So yeah, very different approaches to reach a similar design space.

  7. Matthijs Says:

    Hey, Jonathan, I’d be very interested in hearing what you think about Archipelago. Actually, I’d be interested in writing a book with you on structured freeform techniques, but it’s too early for that.

  8. I’ll add it to my reading list.

  9. […] Thousand One (Structured Freeform is Form, not Content) (The Beginning of Structured Freeform […]

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