5 ways the Milgram Experiment can help us run better live games

We had to build people into a sort of middle-management lynch mob in the space of three minutes.

Day seven of the Ten Days of Blogging experiment that I’m doing with my wife.

You’ll have heard of the Milgram Experiment, even if you don’t recognise the name. In an effort to understand the actions of soldiers during the holocaust, an experiment was carried out into the human capacity for cruelty whilst under the supervision of an authority figure.

There were two participants – a “teacher” and a “learner.” The teacher had to help the learner remember multiple pairs of words; they did this by administering non-lethal but increasingly painful electric shocks whenever the learner answered a question wrongly. The teacher had visual contact with the learner throughout the experiment, as they were separated by a pane of glass, so they could see the learner convulse and hear them scream and watch them bang on the glass and ask the experiment to stop.

Very few teachers stopped the experiment, and several went on to administer the strongest possible electric shock to the learner. Much of this is attributed to the fact that there was an authority figure in the room with the teacher who encouraged them to continue, saying that the shocks were required for the experiment to function.

Thankfully, the experiment was an act; the electric shocks were just buzzing noises, the “learner” a stooge. I’m not sure quite how many parallels it made with the holocaust, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless and one that, as game-makers, we can learn from.


Games operate in a magic circle; a space in which the normal rules of society are suspended and acting in strange, non-standard ways become acceptable and encouraged. Building an efficient magic circle is an absolute requirement of an effective live-game; if the participants can’t act without fear of embarrassment, then they can’t lose themselves in the game and play to the fullest extent.

(It’s not just live-games, of course: sports have a magic circle, too. Imagine seeing two guys knocking the shit out of each other in a park, stopping every three minutes and then piling back into each other until one of them passes out. Now imagine that same situation in a boxing ring, surrounded by lights and a screaming crowd of dignitaries. Framing is very important.)

Many of the games we run operate around closed space, in that they are not pervasive and the magic icrcle is easy to maintain. In other games, most notably The Trial at the London Science Museum, we’ve had to work a little harder. We still had a closed space, but it’s in the middle of a vast array of fun things to do and our “game,” if you can call it that, involved examining evidence and cross-referencing witnesses to pass judgement on zombie-virus-infected murderers.

We needed to build an air-lock into our magic circle, to build a safe space and a set of implicit instructions for players. We did so by having a front-of-house team (me) who briefed every single player on their objectives with the same crisp, upbeat script. We showed them all a cameraphone video of a murder (which glistened with the full £20 of its budget) and asked them to make choices based on deliberately stark statements printed on cards: things like “Zombies should be killed,” and so on.

We had to build people into a sort of middle-management lynch mob in the space of three minutes, and we did that through giving them authority. I wore a suit and told them how important they were. There were posters all over the walls praising the organisation that they were working for. They were told that their opinions mattered and would shape the future of a challenging and difficult world. The suspects were sat on small chairs and spotlit from above, giving the players a measure of control over them, a sense of superiority. Some participants became rude or abusive to the suspects, for a variety of interesting reasons. Some broke out into arguments over this imaginary situation.


There are definite comparisons, there, with the Milgram Experiment, although we behaved in a manner that handed on the authority to the players, rather than holding ourselves in a superior position and encouraging them to act in a certain way.

Imagine the Milgram Experiment being run in the back of a pub, by some bloke in a leather jacket. Imagine coming home to find your flatmate carrying it out on a friend. You’d not participate; hell, you might even try to stop it. But the presence of an authority figure in a white coat, assuring the teacher that they had no choice but to proceed, made everything better. It made the range of human actions much wider.

As game-makers, we have a responsibility to be that authority figure, to wear the white coat, to tell the people that their actions are supported and encouraged. And not just violent or unpleasant ones, of course, although they’re the most interesting to read about. Pleasant ones, too. I assume. They aren’t really my cup of tea, when it comes to games.


So how can we do this? How can we build an environment that supports behaviours that seem unusual or even abhorrent outside of it? Here are a few ideas. They won’t work for Fest LARPS, but to be honest I haven’t a clue about how anyone would want to go to one of those, let alone run one, so that’s not something I can even begin to offer advice on.

Perhaps, though, if you’re interested in running livegames there’ll be something you can take away from them.

ONE. Be vague. You are not Professor Frank Denham, lead researcher for Psychology at Harvard University. You are a Doctor. Better yet; you are a scientist. You wear the white coat and the less people know about you the more they can write over the top. Your cover story will never be as good as the one people subconsciously invent.

TWO. Be professional. In many games, NPCs are the first line of contact with the game system, so for the love of God stop trying to be mysterious. If a player asks you if they can help, if they try to engage with the game, don’t say “Well. Hm. Perhaps – you – can.” Don’t be aloof about it; if they think for a second that talking to you is not as easy as it could be, then why the hell should they bother? Be clean and crisp and efficient.

THREE. Maintain your magic circle. You are guarding that magic circle. You are what stops the outside world coming in; don’t let your guard down. Don’t break character. That’s obvious, of course, and it won’t be the first time you’ve read it. If you’re having problems keeping character, change the character. Do it on the fly. Improvise and adapt. That’s where the “vague” bit before comes in especially handy.

FOUR. Don’t give players too long to think. Run shorter games, if you can, and if you want to run longer ones then offer smaller magic circles within those large spaces. If you leave players alone, if you give them the opportunity to stop playing by inaction, then you’ll lose them. Keep them moving, keep them active, don’t allow them to become embarrassed or get doubts about participating. Give them goals. Give them danger. They can think about that they’ve done once they’ve done it.

FIVE. Kick them out when it’s over. Don’t let players stick around and look behind the curtain until you’re packing up the game. Don’t let them stew in the game world; keep it distinct and separate from reality. Kicking them out of the airlock cements the experience as a distinct and memorable event rather than just something that happened that day.