Friday, May 7, 2021

Three Forms of LAOGs

LAOG logo floating in a spiral between a camera, an eye and a palette icon

In this article, I present a categorisation of LAOGs - depending on how they make use of the communication channels in place. I identify three different forms: The Diegetic Call, The Invisible Call and The Metaphorical Call. Let me take you on this journey of design exploration. Then make up your own mind how your experience fits or does not fit into this picture. 

LAOG stands for Live-Action Online Game. As the name indicates, this is a category of games which a strong live-action component and are designed for online play. LAOGs have dramatically increased in popularity due to the pandemic of 2020 / 2021 when many larpers turned online to find an outlet for the grief on the loss of their hobby in the time of social distancing. Many people also use the terms online larp, digital larp or LORP (Live-Online Roleplaying) for more or less the same thing. It does not matter that much how it is called. 

However, LAOGs have the distinct claim that they are designed for the online space and are not a mere replacement for something else. Moreover, as the author of this piece is personally coming from a TTRPG background, the word LAOG nicely combines these worlds: taking the LA from larp, the G from RPG and then merging the two and their design world in the O for the online space.

The concept existed already before. The LAOG manifesto was published in early 2018, first as a collaborative Google Doc, then later on the larp theory website The first LAOG in existence though at that time was already a few years old. ViewScream by Raphael Chandler came out in 2013 and already had all the ingredients in place.

The Golden Cobra freeform / larp competition recognized the existence of the design framework first in 2019 when the jury made LAOG its own category to win a Golden Cobra. The 2020 competition of the Golden Cobra was then already all and only about LAOGs (plus epistolary games).

With the plethora of LAOGs now in existence, it is time to take a step back and see if they can be categorized in a meaningful manner. Categorization is not to be understood to once and forever put ideas and designs into a box and never let them out again. It will also inevitably fail to recognize the beauty of imagination of game design and how it slips out of any attempt to pin it down on one definition. Quite the opposite, the following categorization shall be an invitation to break it. Designers, please look at this and prove it all wrong!

The video call – communication kernel of LAOGs

The core of most (not all, more about exceptions later) LAOGs is the video call. Google Hangout was the first and most prominent service for many years in which RPGs could be played in a video call for free (well, paying with your personal data in your Google account, that is).

In a video call you have many ways to express yourself: there is your voice, with all its nuances, your face expression, your background, i.e. what is behind you, the side chat. In some services you see yourself as a group (gallery view), other services provide an AI controlled speaker focus, most modern services allow you to choose whatever you prefer.

Virtual backgrounds add another dimension (thanks to AI identifying your upper body that even now works without a proper unicolored background – aka green screen). Many side chats allow for direct messages to other participants, allowing for secret communication. You can mute yourself and switch your video off. Hosts often can do so for others.

Features, fancies and the future

Every platform has its own set of features beyond that – allowing for very different design surfaces. However, as a designer it is a big bet to rely on a non-standard feature. Not only will the game be less likely played if players are forced to use a platform they are not on yet. More so, if the service your game relies on switches that feature off or goes completely out of service, your game is dead.

Another array of video platforms has arisen in 2020: 2d- or spatial chat services like or imitate a two-dimensional landscape one can wander on. A video call is established as soon as people are in a certain proximity to each other. For some services, the sound volume depends on how close you are to somebody.

Finally, Discord is until now the most elegant way (though by far not the most elegant video call service) to connect many video, voice and chat channels together in a meaningful way. Games designed for a Discord use channels to imitate real world places or thematically separate players and their in-game-abilities.

Forms of LAOGs

Yet, the dominant play form still is the video call in one version or another.

Given this preset, what forms of LAOGs have we seen emerge in the last years? The following is the attempt to categorize some of the games we have observed and how to set them into position to each other. A disclaimer right at the start: no form is better than the other. However, I have to admit that I personally am more excited by some forms than by others at the moment. You can probably guess which.
Cover of 
The Space Between Us

 The Diegetic Call

The first category or form of LAOGS, diegetic video calls, has been around since the very beginning. This is about LAOGs where the video call is a video call in-game or something very close to a video call for the characters.

Already in 2013, ViewScream was published and immediately a success in TTRPG circles (not in larp circles interestingly). ViewScream by Raphael Chandler is a space drama to be played fully in-character about a crashing spaceship with just not enough tools to rescue everybody. Players are connected via video call which is interpreted as the board communication system. The call is call. Characters are at different locations. They connect through a video call -just as the players do.

Another example is ‘So Mom, I made this sex tape’. This game by Susanne Vejdemo came out in the Hashtag Feminism anthology in 2016. The LAOG variant was first played in 2018. In the original game female family members meet for coffee and cake to discuss the involuntary publication of a private sex tape. In the LAOG variant, the setting is naturally modified to have the family members only be connected through a video call. Bad connection, grandma not finding the unmute button etc, you can build all your technology troubles into your game play.

The same principle applies to Winterhorn by Jason Morningstar. The LAOG variant was first played only a week after the game was published in 2017. A group at the Gauntlet Community, which is known for the forefront work on online play, played the game as a LAOG. In its original version it is supposed to be a series of office meetings of secret agents and state policy to sabotage a group of political activists. Obviously, these meetings can equally be held in online meetings – as the rest of the world learned in the pandemic of 2020.

There are plenty of games now using the video calls in this diegetic manner. ‘The Space Between’ by Wibora Wildfeuer, maybe the most often played LAOG until now, and winner of the prestigious German larp award FRED as the ‘Best Mini-Larp 2020’, is returning to the video call as a remote connection between spaceships as did ViewScream 7 years before.

There are games which go a bit further in the diegetic interpretation. For example, games in fantasy settings consider the video call as ‘magic crystal balls of distant communication’. But in the end, the call is a call.

This seems important to many people coming from a physical larp background. I have heard voices who claim that their immersion fails if games consider the video call in other ways. It seems difficult to imagine doing what you did before out in the world, face to face, now disrupted by screens, headsets and microphones.

However, I would suggest thinking about this: wasn’t it equally difficult to imagine at the beginning of your larp career that you could ever take foam swords or foam fireballs seriously? That people with crossed arms on their chest can be ignored as if they were not there although they obviously are? Suspension of disbelief is a difficult beast. But I ask myself why it should stop at a video call but has not for other meta techniques.

This especially goes for safety techniques. I still remember the days when safety techniques were considered as making our games lame. The disruptive nature of the X-card or an out-of-game check-in if somebody is ok with certain content seemed problematic. But safety techniques did not take away the fun, instead quite the opposite. People got over it. We now have a widened repertoire of techniques and more games available than we had before. The same goes for LAOGs in which video calls are not diegetic. Which brings me to the next form of LAOGs.

The Invisible Call

Second generation LAOGs did not mind about the video call. The call stayed invisible in the background. That you and the other players could not interact physically was considered as much of a fact as that you would not hurt or sexually interact with other players in a physical larp although your characters would possibly do that.

They might have taken inspiration from freeform RPGs like Witch: Road to Lindisfarne or Fall of Magic which were already played freeform widely online without trouble and often enough pretty much all in-character within a scene. More likely though they were inspired from the Nordic Larp tradition of chamber larps or black box larps.

Digital Black Box cover from
the Wine Queen

The first was The Election of the Wine Queen (Gerrit Reininghaus, 2018) which started as an adaption of a physical larp but quickly turned into its own beast. It was labelled as a ‘digital black box larp’ back then (that was before the LAOG manifesto was published) and it delivered on these terms: The game ignores the video call. Players who are not in a scene, switched off their camera. As this game is about a competition in a wine region (a bit like a beauty queen contest), players not in a scene are invited to make wine drinking noises, like pouring water or wine close to the mic, or letting two glasses clank. This is purely for ambience. Between acts, each consisting of 4 to 6 scenes, players step out of character to plan scenes and discuss the progress of the story. Then scenes are played without further breaks.

Inner monologues are part of the game: while everybody else has their camera off, the monologuing player talks to themselves as if they are alone in the room. Sometimes this can be interpreted as a video diary. Sometimes it is seen as talking with your mirror.

LAOGs with invisible calls might be designed in a way that they are about people sitting together at a table (like in the Wizards Querulous Dramas (Stark, Morningstar 2019) or in the Society of Vegan Sorcerers (Gorman, 2018)) over the whole play time and will not interfere physically by design. But, like the Election of the Wine Queen, they can also focus simply on the dialogue. Aspects of the surrounding can be brought in easily as direct speech, in a way audio plays would also do it: “How do you like my new green dress?” establishes smoothly what your character is wearing. “Shut up, little sis’, I’m now talking to mom” introduces an NPC without ever hearing an actual word from them.

While Diegetic LAOGs have to care less about the limitations of an online connection compared to being physically present in the same space, Invisible Call LAOGs have more freedom in the design.

Another important is tone setting: Diegetic LAOGs inherently emphasize the isolation between the players. We are not in the same space and this fact is part of the game. Invisible LAOGs allow us to forget the physical distance for a moment. We can feel like sleeping together in a room with bunk beds, focusing on hearing the others breathing, in the flow of play we can forget about the fact we are bound to a computer screen and a keyboard. Especially in times of a pandemic, many people consider games an escape from feelings of isolation. So Invisible LAOGs might be a better choice for them.

The Metaphorical Call

Finally, the call can be a metaphor. This goes beyond coming up with a different interpretation of what the call stands for. Instead, what I mean by the metaphor is that the call is stripped to its essential ingredients, re-interpreted in some of its elements and transformed into an integral mechanic of the game. This might become clearer after some examples.
The communication setup of Last Words

Last Words (Gerrit Reininghaus, 2019) is a three-player LAOG about a deceased and a living which still have unresolved business with each other. The Living frequently comes to the grave of the Deceased and tells them what is changing in their life. The spirit of the Deceased is responding but cannot be heard by the Living. An Angel, the third player, is instead communicating for the Deceased by sending images into the Living’s dreams. This is all realized by a video call in which the Living is putting their volume to zero as does the Angel. If the session is recorded, which is especially recommended for this game, the player of the Living can later listen to what the Deceased had to say. The Angel still can hear what the Deceased has to say but not what the Living says, as Angel and Deceased are connected through a separate voice-only call. The dream images are sent through a shared Google Drawing. If you want to go full in, the Deceased can play the game from their bed, in the dark, emulating the feeling of lying in a grave.

As we see, the call is dissected into its communication components: who sees whom and can hear or express themself is limited by the game’s logic. The Metaphorical Call feels much less like a call than an intermittent medium subordinated to the meaning of the in-game equivalent.

Other games do not go that far and yet turn the video call into something new. In Makeup Moments (Gerrit Reininghaus, 2019) players are a group of friends or colleagues preparing for a big event, by putting up makeup on together. Players actually put makeup on in the game and are asked to use their webcam view as a mirror. The intimacy of caring about your appearance is literally mirrored by the secret not so secret observer who can look at you as if they are behind the mirror. The webcam as a mirror is a powerful re-design of a tool which is in its original design meant to look at others, not yourself.

In The Batcave (Gerrit Reininghaus, 2020) players play a family of bats hanging from the ceiling of their cave to figure out to which cave to move next to. Feeling like a bat is achieved by putting a blanket around your shoulders – and by turning the camera view upside down – a feature Zoom currently offers and which can also be reached through the OBS video processing software. That way, players look like hanging from the ceiling. While in the game, one gets quickly used to that view – a group of people in a call all upside down is absurd enough – and players turn fully bat in their body motions and noises they make.

Screenshot from The Batcave

What’s next

I have given a short introduction into the art of LAOG and offered a categorization on what forms a video call can take in a LAOG. The LAOG manifesto will present to you more important stuff I could not pack into this article, like talking about the many aspects of inclusivity LAOGs are providing or discussing safety issues in LAOGs.

More and more sources about potential and interpretations of this design framework are getting published. The best place to stay in touch with the latest developments currently is a Facebook group called Remote, Digital Larp and Live-Action Online Games. There, you will also find out how many other forms LAOGs can take, far beyond the expected video call.

Playing a LAOG through sending songs to each other alone (Radio Silence by Hannah J. Gray, 2020) or a text chat based LAOG accompanied by its own pace setting soundtrack (Alice is Missing by Spenser Starke, 2020), playing through Instagram by sending euphoric and supportive comments to each other’s best yoga poses (#instayogathegame by Shawn Roske, 2020) – there are more options the “Online” can provide to us.

Give it a try. LAOGs come in all kind of flavours and forms.