I’m not a goblin, I just play one in Google Docs

19.33, Thursday 5 May 2022

Once upon a time, when I was a young teen, I went with my friends to a place called Cheddar Gorge which is a cave system in the west of England (yes, near where the cheese comes from) and there, in the underground tunnels, we ran around in the dark and pretended to be goblins and hit people pretending to be adventurers with rubber swords.

Larping, is what this is called. (LARP = Live Action Role-Play)

ANYWAY. I just looked at my LinkedIn newsfeed.

I went through a period of my life where I was retrospectively ashamed and never talked about my early teens one-off experience running around in dark tunnels, goblins, rubber swords etc. HOWEVER now I believe it was pretty cool actually.

Larping is improv, right? But whereas participating in your improv theatre group is “highbrow” and “culture” and gets talked about in the Sunday supplements, larping is maybe not seen that way. Maybe it is now! I hope so.

My overwhelming feeling, peering in at LinkedIn, was a sense that I was watching everyone performing an elaborate dance.

I know these people! I barely recognise them!

There are common steps like product launches and hiring and life lessons and being blessed by luck, and these incredible matador flourishes of the cloak like pointing credit at someone else to gather some yourself or a delicate humblebrag that can never quite be called out. And the supporting comments! An art in themselves.

It’s not ungenuine, not insincere. I feel energised and encouraged and amplified just reading LinkedIn. I love it.

I feel like people on LinkedIn are accessing parts of their own potential that perhaps can’t be accessed any other way? Like, LinkedIn is a collaborative machine to summon… something? It’s good. It’s weird. It’s good.

Back in 2009, Phil Gyford started an email list called Pretend Office. It was for a bunch of freelancers to experience the camaraderie of being workmates in an office.


And a weird thing happened.

With no planning, we all started acting as if we were people in a real office. Almost immediately we began to adopt characters and send officious announcements. Soon we were referring to characters in the office who didn’t exist in real life. Meeting rooms were booked, couriers arrived, servers went down, timesheets were requested, and embarrassing emails were accidentally sent to everyone in the company.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed at email so much. It was, and is, the most fun I’ve had on email for a long, long time.

Larping office work.

You can read the archives! Here’s the first email: If you’re reading this then the boffins in IT have got the emailing list working!!!

And here’s a representative month – click on a few emails and start reading. It’s… baffling? Hilarious? Mundane?

Everyone knows what to do.

I spend most of my social media time on Twitter. What on earth are we larping there. Good grief. What a performance.

But again, it doesn’t feel like a performance.

And actually, because I’m closer to it than LinkedIn, to me it doesn’t feel like a performance at all. But I bet it looks like one from the outside.

So, I guess, two thoughts:

  • the gap between my “real me” and the “social media performer me” is more extreme than I had credited – and everyone has this really huge difference between their “selves”
  • we fall into performing different selves so easily and so NATURALLY that this can only be part of the fundamental human condition.

These aren’t performances; there’s no pretence going on.

Being able to become multiple divergent selves is just what we we are as humans.

It’s nice to acknowledge that.

Maybe we wouldn’t all get so angry on Twitter if there were psychological cues to remind us that, yes, fundamentally it’s all role-play. It’s real AND it’s pretend both at once.

I wonder whether work (job work or creative work or whatever) would be easier if we leant into the larping aspect.

What if Google Docs, Figma, Slack, and all the other apps of the modern workplace were built around the idea that we were adopting a character and doing improv? Like, we have roles at old-school work, and I think that helps? Maybe we should have characters in software too?

Maybe locking ourselves into a single identity that remains fixed for all our time with a particular team and a particular app is a kind of mental straitjacket somehow.

I’m reminded of the way that the four ghosts in Pac-Man embody four different algorithms – they chase around the maze using: pursue; ambush; fake-outs; idling. You need them all!

What if, when I opened an app, I swiped in a different direction to consciously adopt a different character – a different personality algorithm. How would I collaborate on a doc as a healer versus a knight, or write email as a wizard versus a goblin?

What if “character” is a top-level entity in the database, as important as “user”?

What’s the minimum viable feature I need to see myself and for others to see me differently, to allow larping-instinct to kick in?

Does my user profile pic need a hat to show which character I’m playing today?

I’m on a discord where, in most of the channels, people are discussing art or activism or potential technical protocols for speculative platforms or socialising about where they live, and in one channel (genuinely) they are running around and very seriously getting excited about goblins.

Goblins again.

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