Being and Doing: Default Modes of Play
Updated: Mar 14
I often start these by saying I think it will be brief.*
But I have learnt. It might be brief.
The core thought here is identifying a division within game theatre between being and doing.
It also depends on the idea of a ‘default mode of play’ - regardless of what the creators think of as options within the space, most interactive shows have one or two core behaviours that, by default, the audience are guided to.
When assessing a show, it is meaningful to treat these as the most important elements for categorisation. Someone I went to school with enjoyed discussing music during compulsory football, but it would be unreasonable to describe that as the point of the game.
I’m pretty sure Chloe Mashiter’s already articulated the following distinction in their notes towards Shield & Torch, but… writing blogs has become a part of my process. And I like a pretty juxtaposition and a Sartre reference.
Doing is the default form of play in most interactive (game) theatre. You come in, and you do stuff. Normally to overcome something.
That might be sending faxes, researching lore, commanding armies, or other such things. You have a degree of agency and control over the outcome of the show.
Or are promised agency, and that promise is betrayed. But this is not about such betrayals.
Being is a rarer mode of interactive theatre. In some ways, it treads into the territory of a LARP: be an entity in the space.
Perhaps you are a wandering merchant, a KGB spy, or a concerned local.
The level of preparation required varies hugely between different forms of being; at one extreme, it takes months of preparation sessions and costume-building, at the other, a guest is given a broad archetype and expected to leap into it.
Being and Doing are not mutually exclusive within a show. Indeed, most forms of doing acquire narrative weight by asking the guests to be (even escape rooms). Most forms of being acquire an element of interest by asking the guests to do.
While most doing shows don’t have being as a default mode of play, you hypothetically could spend the time getting to know the actor-characters, or sitting at the bar. After all, many of the actor-characters have built elaborate backstories against just such an eventuality. But in getting to know them, one builds up a sort of way of being in the space.
Most being shows (in my experience) offer a mix of both. There’s stuff to do, but mostly it is stuff to do that augments what you want to be - a helper, fighter, explorer, singer, and so on. Or just sitting in a crafting circle having a chat.
However, I think being and doing are distinct experiences to design for. The escape room is probably the most doing-focused form, while Nordic LARP is probably the most being-focused form.
In escape rooms, what you’re being is (much like in OSR TTRPGs) a thin veneer of character over your own cunning ability to overcome an obstacle. The genre assumes that, even if you’ve been told you’re the schmucks who’ve been landed with an impossible bank heist, you’re not going to commit to being the foolish character if you-the-guest understands how to solve a puzzle.
In Nordic LARP, what you’re doing is a way to reflect and extend your being. If your selfish character wouldn’t join the effort to make medicine, then you are not expected to (though finding a reason for your character to, and thus support someone else’s story, is courteous).
That is to say: if a show is about doing, then it’s likely you’ll be designing fun toys to play with that advance the plot, but not necessarily advance character.
If a show is about being, then you’ll likely be designing fun toys to play with that develop character, but not necessarily advance plot.
It’s something that Come Bargain With Uncanny Things tried (partly successfully) to do throughout: every mechanic asked the audience ‘how does the semi-fictionalised version of yourself in this space want to relate to the world, others, and the Uncanny Thing?’
That is to say, it used doing to guide being. Aided, admittedly, by music. Music created a separate track to what the audience was being, and therefore opened up emotional space for them to feel vulnerable.
As I’ve written recently, being a protagonist creates different emotional effects to watching one, even in the most doing-focused show. While we might whoop and cheer like Luke Skywalker when he destroys the Death Star, our feeling when Ripley escapes the titular Alien (relief) is not the same as hers (trauma).
That is to say: heroic doing is comparatively easy, as generally the protagonist’s feelings align with our own. Guests expect to do and overcome, as in our heroic fantasies onscreen. When characters fail to save the cat, they do so nobly. Doing is an easily-recognisable default mode of play.
Forms of doing that are more about losing unromantically (e.g. horror) or caring and vulnerability (e.g. community narratives) are harder; they often require an emotional engagement and intimacy that sits outside conflict and attempts at victory.
The doing in such cases is not about overcoming, but about relating (for community) or enduring (for horror).** To lose in such cases is not to do wrong and feel bad; merely to embrace the mechanics offered.
I think this offers a way to bridge the gap between doing and being.
While LARPing is offered as an example of being above, it offers things to do that help define being. If we want to make shows about being without preparation (among the major distinctions between interactive theatre and LARP), then we must design mechanics to do in ways that aid it.
For example, many shows have an element of attempting to persuade someone to help. Currently, that might mean looking over a file of information about them, and essentially playing a cheap dating sim where, by saying the right things, you can peel aside layers of resistance to reveal secrets, or make a friend (… or more?***). That is to say, they approach the show in a Dungeons & Dragons-type way about overcoming by doing.
A show focused on being (thus relating) is more likely to decide that pushing the right buttons to get someone to help, overcoming their opposition, is not central. Instead, it might try to build the relationship, or examine the emotional consequences of what you ask the person to do - are you, dear guest, willing to hurt this person’s feelings as you exist in this space? How will you support this person helping you? What level of risk are you willing to accept exposing them to, and what does that make you?
That is to say, shows about being can usefully start in questions about how to be in a certain situation (a haunted hospital, a decadent dictatorship, a great feast); shows about doing can usefully start in questions about what to do in a certain situation (a government crisis, a war, a polluted world).
They’re not mutually exclusive, but lead to very different designs.
And yes, this was not brief.
*I held off publishing this for a few days while I tried to remember the word ‘Simulationist’ from my TTRPG/LARP theory. I realise that, essentially, what I’ve articulated above rehashes a debate from 1990s game design between Dramatist, Gamist, and Immersionist/Simulationist approaches. In their terms, I am arguing that current interactive theatre is almost exclusively gamist-dramatist, and could be more dramatist-immersionist.
Quick reference for those terms, thanks to Oliver Darkshire:
“"Dramatist" is the style which values how well the in-game action creates a satisfying storyline. Different kinds of stories may be viewed as satisfying, depending on individual tastes, varying from fanciful pulp action to believable character drama. It is the end result of the story that is important.
"Gamist" is the style which values solving a plot, or setting one up if you are an organiser. The challenges may be tactical combat, intellectual mysteries, politics, or anything else. The gamist players will try to solve the problems they are presented with, and in turn the gamist organisers will make these challenges fair and solvable to the players.
“Immersionist" is the style which values living the roles [sic.] life, felling what the role would feel. Immersionists insist on resolving in-game events based solely on game-world considerations. Thus, a fully immersionist player will not fudge rules to save its role's neck or the plot, or even change details of background story irrelevant in the setting to suite the play. An immersionist organiser will try to make the plots and setting such that they are believable to the players.”
Another concept in TTRPG theory that I cannot remember the name of is the raging debate around ‘if the players do not look behind the door of a dungeon and see the villain’s child, does the child exist in the game world?’ Because I think how you answer that strongly shapes whether or not the existence of character backstory the audience will almost never encounter is considered reasonable.
**It is at this point that the author realised, once again, that the article was essentially a meditation on Le Guin’s quote about narrative not being, as Hollywood claims, about conflict, but instead being about relating.
***This is a joke aimed at an audience of exactly two people, neither of whom is likely to read this.
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