Steering Made Clear: Play Style and its Theory
We play Adventure Games because we want a specific experience. We want to cry, we want to laugh, we want to look cool, we want to hit stuff with foam sticks. From filling out a character survey to the final moments of game, you as a player are tailoring your character and your portrayal of them to achieve these ends. This tailoring is often called steering- you steer your character’s actions to suit what you want to get out of the game. Steering is pretty intuitive to most players, it’s more defined terminology to say that you, the player, are in control of your character. (This is the sort of revolutionary idea you come across reading larp theory.) What’s helpful about recognizing that steering exists is that it makes you more likely to use it to your advantage, and better optimize your character’s actions to get what you want. Recently we’ve been talking about making out-of-game goals alongside character creation. Steering is the tool you use to achieve those goals.
One particular type of steering I find interesting is playing to lose, which is also conveniently exactly what it sounds like. I’ve had a lot of great scenes come out of playing to lose, like two rounds of the Oldest Game that I played in Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Grad School, run during Winter Game 2017. Allowing my character, Puck, to lose the first game led to a quest to seek revenge and win– only to lose another round of the Oldest Game in an even more epic and disgraceful fashion. Books and movies are no fun if everything goes right for the protagonist. Playing to lose gives your character those speed-bumps an author would normally give to their characters, and often makes for a more interesting, cathartic story. Playing to lose can also be a great way to make your scene partner look good, which is one of the key rules of improv and always a good way to make a great scene.
Steering is ultimately about achieving goals in game, and the Three Way model is one way to categorize how people achieve these goals. The Three Way model (a larp-specific adaptation of the Threefold model, which is used in general RPG theory) proposes that all play-styles fall loosely into three categories: gamist, dramatist, and immersionist. Gamist players play to win; they want to solve a riddle, they want to outsmart the villain, they want to stab the Big Bad even after it’s dead. Dramatist players are playing to tell a cool story, and often control their actions to fit into a traditional narrative with a nice satisfying ending. Immersionist players play because they want to be as true to the experience of their character and the world they’re playing in as possible- if their character would sit in a corner and cry, goddamnit they’re going to sit in that corner for as long as their character would.
Of course these three play styles, like gender and dark chocolate, exist on a spectrum, and the boundaries can often be blurry. I myself fall somewhere between dramatism and immersionism. This is something I think shows in Puck’s actions; playing to lose both was definitely dramatist, but the desire to seek revenge was a result of deep immersion. Overlap is normal, and blending these different styles can often be unintentional. Someone accustomed to winning cool battles and finding loopholes in the magic system (typically a gamist perspective) when confronted with no fighting or magic can quickly become an adept narrative player, since the way to “win” that sort of scenario is to tell the coolest story. In a similar vein, playing for immersion can also get competitive, with some players bragging about bleed and overflowing emotions. These different type of players also often use the same mechanics. For example, steering can be used for both gamist and dramatist purposes, though is often frowned upon in cultures that put a high value on immersion. These elements can also easily co-exist in the same game, depending on whether there’s a tavern scene or a big battle or a mass ritual. It’s best to think of the distinctions of the Three Way model as ideas to play with rather than strict rules to follow. As the creator of the model, Petter Bøckmen, admitted, “Shoehorning everything into this model may lead to some really funny results.”
Playing style is ultimately up to the individual player, but some games are more suited towards one end of the spectrum than another, and game writers should consider these different styles when writing. The most obvious distinction is that Wayfinder intro games lean more towards gamism, while our advanced games are more conducive to immersionism, though this is certainly not exclusive, and any play-style could be implemented in any game. The Three Way model can be useful for a game writer in helping to define what they want out of their game and what the audience of the game is. Recognizing that they want players to win leads to creating very different scenes than wanting their players to feel immersed, and oftentimes these games attract different types of players.
Whether you were aware of all this theoretical jibber-jabber before or not, you have already used your intuition as a player to tailor your play style to different scenarios. You wouldn’t play a comedy game with the high dramatic style you might use in a fantasy game, and you probably wouldn’t put on a Texan accent in a fae court. The ideas behind steering and the Three Way Model are all similar ways to change how you play. They’re not set in stone, and one is certainly not better than the other, just different. What my hope is, with this knowledge in hand, you will try something new in the next game you play, and maybe learn more about yourself and this delightful artform we all create together.
The original proposal of the Three Way Model by Petter Bøckman, from the 2003 Knudepunkt book, As Larp Grows Up
An article from the 2018 Knutpunkt book, Playing the Cards, about some further dramatist concepts and how to incorporate them into large-scale larps.
The Manifesto of the Turku School, which contributed to the overwhelming prevalence of immersionism in Nordic larp. While it does have some flaws and make some polemic statements (most hysterically in reference to sacrificing designer’s work “to the unholy altar of social relations”), it’s essential in understanding the history of larp.
Written by Julian Schauffler