The Politics of Live-Action Role Play Experiences

Our chat with Mario Mu

April 30, 2021

Can games seep into the political, social, and cultural realms of life? Across projects that fuse game development, filmmaking within game engines, LARP (live-action role play), and more, Mario Mu interrogates this question. The Croatian-born artist now lives in Berlin, where he conducts research about games, labor, and memory. After a career illustrating for commercial brands such as Doodle Jump and publishing with Gestalten, Mario continues his independent creative practice, with all projects he thinks of as ‘extended gaming platforms.’

In this talk, we spoke with Mario about his process in designing games and live-action role play experiences, how he incorporates research on politics and labor into his creative practice, and shifting from commercial work to a personal practice situated in the fine-art world.

Check out the recording of the chat (and a live transcript!) below!

Mario was born in 1987 in Croatia and lives in Berlin, Germany. Mario works on various research projects, often constructed as extended gaming platforms apart from frequently incorporating sound and drawing. His practice mainly shifts between game design, 3D animation, and performance. Mario has received a BFA in Berlin from the University of the Arts, a BFA in Zagreb from the Academy of Fine Arts painting department in 2015, an MA from the faculty of graphic arts in 2012. During 2016 and 2017, he was an active member of the research Center for the Proxy Politics in Berlin. Since 2017, he has been working on a series of LARP events as an author, collaborator, or performer in cities across Europe. So Mario, thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining us today. 

Thank you for having me.

Mario, tell us a little bit about some of your influences. I believe you are. You’re speaking from your hometown. Tell us a little bit about some of your childhood influences and how you made your way to becoming a practicing artist. 

I actually tell you where I am, but now I decided I will go just for the sake of breaking the ice. So I’m in my mom’s office. I grew up in a small town on the border between Croatia and Bosnia. And in the 90s, this was not really a place; this was more like a corridor, a buffer zone. A space that was pretty undefined politically, I would say. When I speak with my friends, I have to talk so much, trying to explain something that makes sense about this place. Now that I think about it, the only good example is most Eisley from the Star Wars, you know, like it’s like a just place where you do some crimes on the other parts of the Balkan and then you just come here, and you’re safe, but as long as you are here, so that was it in the 90s. I was drawing a lot back in the 90s. And then, at one moment, after the war, both of my parents got employed again, which was a great thing. And with employment came the computers like that were like 94 or something and then often I would, very often I would go to my parents’ workplace to sit on their computer at our computer. I would install some games that I would find and just spend a lot of time playing games. I think these are the influences that come that are very straightforward, very important for me. I was really into Japanese anime, of course, but games for some games were something that, you know, you would crave for playing games and stuff. Then you had these magazines that would have a series with, like, demos of the games that are about to come out. So you would install those plays. Your father is working in an unemployment agency, for example. And then on the weekend, you smuggle the case, and then you install seeds of evil, for example. And more, sometimes maybe do a lot of damage to the day. But yeah, that was the context. 

I haven’t been here in such a long time. I’ve been living in Zagreb. We’re studying there. I was living a lot in Berlin. And then now during the pandemic, I don’t know, just something started crawling up my back, and I was like, I need to do something, I need to close the circle and go back to where everything started. So here I am. My general influence is just, like, influenced by seeds of evil, I would say.

We’ll talk a little bit about your relationship between design and architecture. But you know, what, what inspired you to move there as a city and help you find a creative community that, you know, that you can connect to and really explore the creative practice of games?

That’s true. I was studying painting in Croatia, but I was working in the games industry as an illustrator. And I was really interested in this performative play, and somehow I managed to come to Berlin, and I started studying painting there, but it was still a pretty conventional program. And then I switched to experimental film class, which was, which is still led by Professor Hito Steyerl, where I met this really interesting and amazing bunch of people who were bringing all sorts of experiences to the new media genre to do the experimental film and documentary genre. And there I started there. I got to do some labs, always on a collaborative basis with people from the class. And I think this network started to grow. in 2016 -17, there were more people working, especially in Berlin. I met people at the Omsk social club. This was happening in London, for example, and through this community, I got to learn a lot. I had an opportunity to try out different things about what fits well to my practice, or what is the most you know, what is the closest to what, what I want to do? This lasted until 2019; this first phase, I would say the first wave? Yeah. 2015 2019 was the first wave, definitely awful, coming into the territory of contemporary art, which is always Okay, what is new, what is interesting, what can we appropriate, put in a gallery quickly, abuse, exploit and leave? So there are different attempts, and I didn’t feel that that fits completely into the gallery context. And that’s in 2019 for me was a point of departure when I figured out, Okay, the traditional, contemporary art gallery context is just not a proper framework for LARP.

Before we jump into Games with Architecture in the Title, I just want to ask a little bit about your relationship to tools. What sparked your interest in making films, using machinima techniques, aside from being someone who grew up on games and then working in games like Blender and Unity? Tell us a little bit about that process of entry like using game engines as a vehicle of creative expression.

I did a lot of animation in high school as well, and then it stopped. I was studying painting, and I was working a lot in illustration. And then when I started, when I went to do my MA in Experimental Film, I wanted to do, again, more of animation. And I thought this is a place where I can experiment more with the ways we construct the image with the ways we deal with image space, with the ways we work with pictorial space. And most important for me, I guess, are ways where I can make my research on the game space, this was, this is something that is very important for me. And Blender was the first one that was a really good fit for the 3d animation. It’s open-source software.

And that worked well, until one until the point where I wanted to just explore something which is not controlled so much animation is something that you control a lot, every single frame. And in Unity, you basically can put up some kind of a world environment and this environment just as the life on their own. I wanted to have an ecosystem that I don’t environment, a space that I don’t control. And then I become a part of that environment. That environment, of course, is growing, but I’m bringing the influences, and that environment brings something back. So, we grow together. That’s that with Unity, I really have found I would say a fertile ground for as much exploration as I want. Finding a good direction where I want to go.

You use this word, ecosystem, to describe working with game engines. Could you elaborate on that? I think for folks, maybe you can also maybe explain a little bit more like how game engines work? Is there sort of a unique type of creative software to work with? 

The main particle of the game engines is 3D assets. And 3D assets are very often a ready made component. So Unity engine has this library where you can scroll through and and five will find whatever element you’re interested in. But then there is the moment of compositing, there is the moment of taking all of these things together and just composing them. If you have an experience from for example, painting or film, knowing how to build or what does it mean, to construct an image with 2d, medium, jumping into the game environment is just something completely different.

It is an ecosystem, as I said, because then there are multiple points of view, and you have to get used to the fact that yours is not the most important one. So there is something happening. And at this moment I use the idea of ecosystem, maybe people like Bruno Latour can propose something more adaptive for this genre. But at this moment, it’s just something that ‘s happening. And as I said, and growing with this medium, and we will see like, I don’t, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t say that it’s a fixed category. 

No, that’s a great explanation. This idea of having so many different things, physical objects that are already created, and then you have to figure out how you like them in a way that makes sense. It’s powerful. I mean, I guess to be more specific, can you tell us a little bit about Architecture with Games in the Title? It’s a six-minute video that you released in 2018. But yeah, so for folks who haven’t seen it just sort of as much as you can describe it, you’re exploring the intersection between spatial memory and architecture within games. Tell us a little about the creation behind this and your thought process behind this at this particular work.

Unity in 2019 released a big package, a particle package, which was basically apocalypse or the war package. It wasn’t a package at all. A box full of fire, steam, explosions, grenades, bullets, so a lot of wildlands It was like a Pandora box. I was like, Okay, thank you Unity. I will do something with this because I would never be able to do this by myself. So it’s impressive, but what can we do?

On the other hand, I had like, a broken heart around the time, a broken heart drama, and I got fired. And I was just about to enter a third big burnout of my life. And I was like, Oh, so much fire, let’s do something about it. So put, I would fire it put some fire in the office, it’s as literal as it is, it’s as stupid as it is. Put some fire in the office because my heart is broken. That was the main impulse. And also, let’s work with the particle system. It’s really interesting what can be done…besides just making another super violent, aggressive, macho, escapist environment. I started to think about what is happening here. The main impulse was to approach the inability to talk about labor conditions in a way that it is. 

Two characters, or many characters, who try to portray, try and fail constantly talk about their own personal experience of working in a toxic environment. And there’s something happening between them, there has to be some kind of dynamic. Are they in love? Is there a brief you know, there, I was also opening emotional space this way and then things started to fit very nicely together. As for me, at that time, I also wanted to depart from theory. And from some kind of lecture performative aspects of the lot of work to deal with the contemporary and digital virtual condition. Incorporating dialogues was a way to try to find another way to talk about issues that I thought were important. 

Yeah, of course, it was, it’s just been typical for you in terms of, starting from a particular set of assets or systems has that been normal for you in the past in terms of like having that as a trigger for creating something,

I’m still a while as well, studying painting, I was also experimenting a lot with collage. So there is one component of collage, but also collage doesn’t work completely in the game engine, you have to think spatially constantly. And when it comes to spatial reasoning, I started to read more about space and architecture, because I’ve seen just the knowledge I had from painting and film doesn’t fit anymore. And there’s this really simple, I mean, very small book by Swiss architect called atmospheres. Which I really love. Which was like a good trigger for me to think about our relation to the environment, and how the environment influences our behavior. Our emotions are our objective and subjective feelings about any phenomena. This was one part of the research while working on Architecture with Games in the Title.  

The project from the beginning was imagined as a research project with undefined results. What we see are the videos, the first season of Sites of Encounter, which is the actual piece that came out of the research project Architecture with Games in the Title. Why architecture? You said that you felt like painting was not a helpful guide for you. What was it about architecture that was offering you creative space that maybe some of your previous training in painting could not?

On a more experiential level, I was actually working as an editor and publisher for a publisher where we were doing a lot of books about architecture, and I had to read a lot of texts about architecture and I got really interested in it. I wanted to get this knowledge into something that’s my own personal project. This is how I came to get to know more about some tours and I met some other, actual architects.

If they’re here, I would say hello to Stefan, I would say hello to Marine who helped me a lot to understand more. What architecture is, I’m a complete noob. Through these discussions, I learned a lot and learned about how spatial reasoning and how thinking with our environment is important to get out of our own heads . To get out of these 2d systems is to wake up and just pay attention to your surroundings. And this is something that contemporary architecture also wants us to do. So it’s not all about the first seed. It’s about what has happened inside what has happened around the environment, what is the political context? What is the social context? How can we improve political and social context? And then what does this mean for the architecture of video games? I wanted to put these two things in relation to video games and architecture? And what is the virtual condition? How do we relate to it?

I would say definitely, this is still an ongoing research. One thing that I’ve come to notice is that I want personally to get rid of the body, or the avatar or the character, and see if we could find other ways to explore virtual environments without using an avatar. Without using some kind of a body, this is still something that is conceptually bugging us, we can’t get rid of it. But as you know, it’s like a 19th century photography medium, and then all of the early photography for the first 50 years just wanted so hard to look like painting. And I guess, I guess this is what is happening. Also, with video games and VR systems in general, there are certain elements, I think that are a burden, and we are still finding our ways to use the medium in its full potential. 

Tell me a little bit with Sites of Encounter how you were trying to break away from that for folks who have not who have not seen this work like in the construction of it, like how are you trying to break out of this idea that you need an avatar to exist, kind of to remove that, you know, that lineage of having avatars in video games, for that particular work?

I did a lot of character building, building, writing a script or defining a pre-defining character and building it with other participants.

So it was a lot of these projects, participatory projects were based on where character-based experiences. I wanted to clean out or get rid of certain elements and try to get more focused on a sensation that feels most natural to me. And that was the spatial sensation is just something that feels more most natural to me on how you know how to work around this spatial sensation. This is where I started to take most of the reviews the LARP or the reviews the narrative, the plot the script, to the basic dialogue and what I have left is just with the dialogue. And there are no characters in the sites of encounter you can’t see any characters anything resembling humans, monsters, demons, slime swarm creatures, bacteria, non human agents. There is nothing there just environment. So what is it? Is it the landscape? n I think landscape is another trap is a final destination. How can I not finishing just depicting the landscape? And I guess the dialogue sort of, like something that’s a fixed point, something that keeps the consciousness in, in the game, the dialogue?

Yeah. I like drama. As I said, I like the drama. So now, you use an office space. It was related to some of you, your previous, what was happening in your life at that time? 

I said in the beginning, I guess my first gaming experiences were in the office environment. And yeah, I wouldn’t just, I wouldn’t just play games, I would have to kind of interact with the office environment. And this was happening a lot between 95 and 95. And 298, I guess. And they were like, this is Yeah, this is where it started. I guess I can’t. I couldn’t, I couldn’t help myself.

Tell us a little bit about Confessional Stage Diving. You know, it’s a single champ do installation, but there’s a strong role playing strong role playing element I understand you know, Hana rent was an inspiration for you or that was to helped inform some of the work here, can you tell us a little bit about how you know, this this particular experience and how it functions and maybe how you see it fitting in with your previous body of work on the game engine?

Well, this is happening in the retrospective and confessional stage during 2018 and 19. So, this is what I did before Architecture with Games in the Title and before Sites of Encounter, I would say that this is all conventionally speaking, like on the con, something the most classic term of LARP. This is the LARP in its most classical term, of all my projects, conditional stage diving, I started to develop it in 2080. I wanted to do research on the topics of canceled culture, and doxxing. So, um, I came out, I was I was, I was researching a lot. And I found a lot of these ridiculous examples of people being cancelled, sometimes very ridiculous, and also doxxing practices of like, opening up breaking through personal private data of people and exposing private data of people. What does it happen when your data is exposed? versus what does it happen when you expose yourself to something which is a secret? So there’s a lot of these elements that remind the minds of a lot of traditional mode of confessing confession, people are constantly confessing something and what does this mean in social media in the environment of social media, how does it influence cultural dynamics globally, internationally. And canceling culture is also something that can be very toxic.

Sometimes it also provides nice outcomes, but in general, there is a lot of pain. So all of these characters have somehow been canceled. The LARP is based around their inability to understand what had happened. So they all come as blank states, to the, to the LARP. To the employees, this is also like LARP, slash improvisational theater. So they all come and they don’t know anything about themselves. It’s like they had amnesia, um, and by but they have some clues. They have some knowledge and only by interacting with other participants, they get to know more about themselves.

And here, this dialog is very strong, very direct, where you are getting to know more about yourself by helping others to get to know more about themselves. And here I wanted to definitely explore the sensation of collective memory versus personal memory. There is one particle, you are one particle of the broader set of knowledge. Yeah, referential field, let’s say, and you come in with your input, and then you are in the process of constant exchange. Another thing in the end, what the last thing in the end that was very important was, I thought that it was important, how to how to put something in action, how to get Okay, there is something that is bothering you, but how to get it out how to how to break through certain walls. And so how to act directly. And the stage diving was something that came as a final result.

I really love this idea of hardcore punk concerts, where you have to go around the guards jump on the stage, and then jump into the audience. And you get it’s like a rite of passage. It’s some kind of a ritual, it’s some kind of a very dynamic, very adrenaline-driven moment. And where you’re exchanging yourself with like, it’s like the sea of people; basically, you’re jumping into the CFP, and then you do it. And then somebody else does it. It’s a very participatory element. It’s so everybody, everybody can just go on the stage and jump back in and sit just like constant exchange between the collective and an end and the singular experience.

Yeah, I suspect you’re speaking from personal experience as a stage diver. 

That’s true. I was. Yeah, I was always into stage diving. In 2017 there was a Flying Lotus concert in Berlin. And I went, Okay, Flying Lotus. Let’s see what’s happening. And then, at one moment, he mixed in Lil Uzi Vert. All of the teenagers are going crazy. And the mosh pit thing and stage diving. And I was very happy. I was very happy. I didn’t know that that was the thing and the trip scene. And I was like, Yes. That was the moment of enlightenment for me. Absolutely. The Flying Lotus concert in the summer. 2017. Wow.

Wow. And yeah, I think around that time, I started developing Confessional Stage Diving

On the preparation side, tell me a little bit about the character development in particular, for folks who might not be familiar with LARP in this particular context. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about the preparation of the characters. And, you know, how do you go about composing something like this, for folks who may not have gone to one or aren’t familiar with this style of performance.

This is really a big challenge.

I once went to this play called London summit, where I met very experienced LARPers coming from Nordic LARPing traditions, and the amount of dedication to developing LARP. And how they do it, it’s beyond any limits of what I have seen, even in theater, there’s so much care, I would say, so much care and so much understanding.

There are certain techniques that Nordic LARP has developed, that are very much community based and are more based, like even in the even in the moments of healing, for example, or encountering personal trauma, if alive, can be very much psychologically charged, and it often does become even if you don’t want to have it. There are certain things that can trigger people with the character. So it’s a costume. It’s some kind of invisible costume that you give to people they put it on is their character, but you have to be very careful not to trigger something that might feel dangerous for them and for the others. And the way you do it basically is you think as a whole, you think constantly about the whole situation as a whole, you think about, let’s say, there are 20 characters involved. You’re constantly writing all of these 20 characters. If you focus yourself just on one, you fail, because you’re giving attention to just one, you constantly have to be focused on the collective. And this is what helps. What I’ve seen is just the Nordic LARP is fantastic. I wouldn’t even go there in that direction, because there is somebody who is doing this amazing job, and a community that is just wonderful.

And I wouldn’t as a visual artist, if this is with a compressional stage that I’ve seen, okay, I don’t you know, I don’t want to go into that territory, because there’s already someone who is doing it. Who is doing an amazing job. And I don’t want to go with my visual artist ambitions in that field, because that field serves other purposes than just the artistic career and so on. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. No, I mean, it’s an upgrade. Sorry.

Oh, you learn from somebody. And I’ve learned a lot in this process, as I said, but this was productive for that moment, my last law because, as I said, I just came to the point where I have to know Okay, what is the bed? What do I want to do? What is my driving force, and I’m a true visual artist, and they find so much focus on it. I shouldn’t be using other people for constructing an image. And I am interested in the ways the images are constructed. So I don’t want to use other people for my own purposes for my own endeavors. 

We were talking about the body earlier. And this seems like a fitting way to kind of close our time together. Tell us a little bit about Walkthrough, this multi-channel installation. Yeah, some of the costumes work around this particular piece. Oh, well, thank you for pointing that out. This was very much about what this was all about the body.

I have imagined this idea of a collective memory as a body that we all share. And I came up with some kind of a community idea of having a community-owned, Arthur community-owned character, or one, one entity that a lot of people are sharing, and but in the process of sharing, they’re leaving their own traces their own history, let’s say, and somebody else inherits this and does something else with that. I have tailored this practice around also my research and gamification in gamification. So the ways game systems are incorporated into non-gaming environments. And this in particular was, this is where I started to work more on the ideas of a notion of gamification of labor.

I wanted to come from this position. And what is, yeah, well, let’s say what are the forms of organizing what can be a self-organizing entity. And that was a walkthrough, which I did in collaboration with the gallery again, Kai in Zagreb, in Croatia, and with a lovely curator appendage on. And we also did another project program, where we invited a lot of people from LARP, and people from gaming, to give their own talks and to give their own perspectives on the general topic of gamification.

But the Yeah, the body here was the strongest element, the idea of a history of a body, the idea of transformation, participating in something which is in constant transformation. Thinking about is this a beast of burden? Is this something that provides me with a solution? Is there an emancipatory moment in this? What do we share together? How do we do it? So there was this cost you 2025 people have been using it and after each of the performances, I would document with the process of photogrammetry, the 3D scan of their output. Then I put them all together and made an animation out of this just made all of these different phases, all of these different experiences to animate them into something that is, let’s say, greater than a personal experience. 

Are there any, you know, with gamification, this idea that, like game design systems can work their way out into the wider world? Are there things that you’ve seen that you feel like have worked? Well like? Or is it once your move kind of games from their context? To turn them into labor in some shape or fashion? It kind of pollutes the original, I don’t know, the original sweetness of games? You know, is it? Is it zero-sum like using games and non-gaming contexts? Or do you see opportunities to, you know, kind of do something unique? 

I do see opportunities. Definitely. I also see them as identification as an unavoidable process of further development of ourselves as a techno-driven society, and gamification will play a major part in this on how other people are going to do it. It’s just everybody will bring their own experiences.

Science, there are scientific projects, amazing scientific projects, which use gamification for a great purpose. It’s not dystopian at all. So I would say; definitely, for us, it’s very important to get rid of all of these cyberpunk dystopian images we have in our head and just move forward. Enough with dystopia. And just there is a tool. It’s an amazing tool. Use it. You can do something out of it. That’s what I think at this point. I just don’t have a really good example. I feel I get that question from time to time because do you see any good, good examples of gamification out in the world?

Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of people who know this, that Google has been using gaming that Google has gamified, the way you would prove that you are a human or not human. You know, you would write this couple of letters to prove if you’re human or not human, but you’re actually providing Google with a lot of labor for free. That was gamification that happened without people’s knowledge. That was one example, which is like, Oh, no, everything is going bad. This is a dystopia. But as I said, they’re like scientific researchers, where people, for example, have a model of a molecule or a virus or bacteria. And the more people try to give some kind of constellation, the more results they provide for scientists. And this is just something that needs or can or has to be done, and human participation, it cannot be done with AI prediction. So I would say there’s also hope for the people there. What’s next on your creative docket? 

Hmm. Well, it’s been a funny year, to say the least. A lot of things have changed. A lot of the projects have been just on hold, and they have vaporized and somehow disappeared in the meantime, because we cannot hold on to the past and just wait for the future to start happening again. And then oh, look what I did two years ago. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.

But the one thing that I still hope will happen is the collaboration I did with the audit, which should happen in the Math Museum in Lisbon. We did a collaborative project on queer histories archaeology, and this was also the first proper game that I did, like a video game, I would say the first proper interactive setup. Before that, I did one collaboration with Josh Crowe and other artists from Cornwall and Britain. We played a mini-game. And these two projects are the only two projects that are like that in classical terms or video games. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how this game will play a part in the museum environment.

I am now working with a choreographer on a project that revolves around the idea of, again, queer identity and horizon, and it’s something that will happen in France beginning of next year. I am, and I’m finishing the sites of the second season. Um, which we will show in the end, you’re gonna be another in September.

Someone wanted to know how the video and the live roleplay components were integrated with each other in confessional stage diving. So I think we had shown we could go back here.

That’s a great question. Um, it’s a setup. It’s a backdrop that also consists of the video essay. So I wrote an essay about the whole topic of doxxing and cancer culture. And this is a video, where the video and there are titled, the video that consists of this essay in the written form. There is something that I use a lot in my work

that comes from the cinema and the cinematic tool called the MacGuffin, which was termed, which was coined or developed mostly by Alfred Hitchcock. MacGuffin is any kind of object. That is not important, doesn’t it? It’s not important as for what it is, but it’s an object that sets the whole action in motion and serves as a catalyst for the drama to happen. And I guess this video is that kind of a MacGuffin is just like a focal point, the center point where and then around this drama is happening on and there is I took a 3D model of Sonic the Hedgehog, and just combined it with a lot of data that was left from the Walkthrough. Project, a lot of that just a bunch of stuff and put it on to Sonic the Hedgehog. And there was this crew and, and then I made sonic, sonic. And I made this character jump into the very low fi hands, like in a stage diving.

So yeah, it was here to contextualize to give you some kind of a mood, some kind of an atmosphere and to evoke this stage dying moment. Yeah. I definitely wasn’t forcing anybody to stage that because yeah, yeah, I would love to do it. I would love to do it, but with people who would go through a very hardcore workshop before that.