J. Tuomas Harviainen’s PhD defense

Another interesting PhD dissertation will be publicly defended soon (Oct 18th) here in the University of Tampere:

Harviainen J. Tuomas, “Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-play”. Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 1764, ISBN: 978-951-44-8913-6, Electronic series: Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1237; ISBN of the electronic version: 978-951-44-8914-3; URN: http://urn.fi/urn:isbn:978-951-44-8914-3. Tampere: University of Tampere Press, 2012.


This dissertation examines information phenomena that take place in, and related to, physically performed pretence play. The emphasis is on one hand on the play experience and the elements constituting it, but underneath that all exist information processes which essentially define the perimeters of what can be done during play and how.

Being primarily a metatheoretical work, the dissertation draws on the empirics of earlier researchers and practitioners, further supported with the author’s own experiments and field observations. References are analyzed with the use of systematic analysis, a hermeneutical method for finding their key essences, which are then compared with other works. Through this process, new data emerges from the combinations of the old, as seemingly disparate concepts are shown to actually discuss the same things.

The primary research question of the dissertation is “What are the essential information systems traits of live-action role-playing situations, and how do those traits affect information behavior during play?” To understand that question, I explain how live-action role-playing can be defined and what the discursive limits of the phenomenon are. Through a look at how larping takes place also in activities such as historical re-enactment, sadomasochist roleplaying and post-modern magic, I show that the same processes exist in them, but with a different type of framing.

People inside a play-space require information, and their play consists of information behavior: active searches, ongoing searching, passive attention and passive searching are all utilized. Players interact with each other and the fictional environment through cognitive subject representations, constructed as extrapolations from information given by the organizers. This makes a larp a self-referential, multiple index entry information system. Within it, the play is its players’ primary frame of reference, and the activities within seem separate from mundane existence.

As parts of any inevitably missing information cannot be found inside the game-system, players use various strategies to handle the conflict between needing more information and not being able to access optimal sources for it without breaking the fictional reality. Their reliance on second-hand sources, particularly cognitive authorities – persons or groups presumed to be in the know – is heightened.

Players also protect the illusion, by engaging in boundary control, the act of screening what is allowed to cross the magic circle. Participants berrypick information so as not to disturb the illusion of play with direct searches to outside sources. They also blunt information that would cause problems to the activity at hand and its fiction, and they seek to follow the agreed upon rules of the play while supporting the immersion of others.

In a hermeneutical sense, role-playing consists of multiple texts that interact with each other. Some of them take place outside the fictional reality of play, others within, and some cross the magic circle, being transformed by it. Players constantly re-signify elements within the fictional reality, so as to keep it functional and interesting, thus creating evolving texts out of the re-significations and any meaningful actions they perform. The participants interpret such texts and reference to them in their own play. In order to be intriguing, many larps manipulate their players’ information uncertainty, in the form of an anomalous state of knowledge (ASK), to either extend the experience or to enhance learning.

To study and explain these issues I construct and introduce the sub-field of liminality informatics, the analysis of ritualistic, liminal activities as information systems. Liminal spaces do not just include key information processes – their very liminality requires those processes (as well as others) in order to exist.

All these phenomena also exist in information environments that are not connected to games or play. The play-context, however, makes them more prominent and visible than in many other cases, and thus easier to observe and analyze. The artificial nature of games, including the way a designer can manipulate their systems properties and internal documents, further emphasizes this. By analyzing the impact of the information environment in liminal games, it is possible to understand much more also about the influence of information environments in mundane life.

See: http://acta.uta.fi/english/teos.php?id=1000162

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.

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