Everything is a Game: A (very) Brief History of Larp Part 3

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"Chatting to Integral Danton (aka Warren Ellis) in The Wastelands about his newly acquired Dune Project stillsuit"

"I'm not sure I felt this at the time, but in retrospect, I think my trip to Knudepunkt could be termed an elaborate larp built for one, a larp conducted in public without the knowledge of those around me, a pervasive game... " Stark, Leaving Mundania, p234

 

I'm left with the same feeling as Stark, without having yet so much as played a Nordic game or attended a conference: once you know what a larp can be, then everything starts to look like one.

Furthermore, there's a realisation that the psychological phenomena which larp explores and manipulates might just be the missing link between a whole bunch of artforms, technologies and philosophies. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the toolset in use, namely the human imagination, that lends it this interstitial quality: conceived in reductionist terms, Nordic larp is simply imagination-as-play.

Where does experimental theatre end, and consensual indoctrination into a covert ideology begin? Can a temporary intentional community, in and of itself, be a form of performance art? Can a performance art piece become a political movement instead of just a statement? These questions pivot on the fluid dualities of fiction and reality, of reader and subject, which can be upended with a flick of the wrist or a twist of the frame; if we assume altermodernism to have accepted and integrated (if not fully approved of) the ubiquitous ontological hollowness of the postmodern condition, then might Nordic larp be one of the first truly altermodernist forms, an experimental laboratory for the breeding of new metanarratives?

Maybe, maybe not. But Nordic larp's brisk defrocking of essentialist identity politics, and its repeated demonstrations that convincing and compelling constructs of allegiance and collective identity can be assembled with surprisingly minimal effort, mark it out as a meta form. If a larp is a group of people playing certain roles in a certain imagined context toward some sort of goal, then larp itself — Nordic larp, the school, the movement — is a larp of larps, a metalarp; a game of games.

Larp has more obvious and more commercial cousins, of course. Alternate reality games use the same immersive world-overlaid-upon-world techniques, but the narrative is hierarchical, goal-orientated, and — ideally, at least for their creators — bounded by clear arcs of story which are defined before the game even begins; cosplay is busily turning dressing up and acting out as fictional characters into an acceptable (and in some cases praiseworthy) pastime for those over the age of eight; MMOs like World Of Warcraft have made the essence of the boffer larp experience less exhausting, weather-proof and post-geographical — play when you like, for as long as you like, with fellow players from anywhere in the world.

And then there's Second Life, the notoriously not-a-game synthetic world, which is the closest thing to Nordic larp online: Second Life gives you the space to build your imagined world, and the power to reimagine yourself as anyone or anything, but what you do with that potential is entirely up to you.

(It is perhaps telling that Second Life — wallowing deep in the Trough Of Disillusionment now that the corporate Fortyniners have moved on — suffered terribly from would-be users not knowing what they were meant to do with it. If so, it may be equally telling that the communities that have survived and thrived there — the Wastelands, for instance, which is essentially an ongoing and pervasive post-apocalyptic larp community that meets exclusively in SL — are the ones that used the framework to build their own worlds, games and narratives within it.)

I've already compared genres — or rather the communities of discourse and canon-generation that take place within and around a generic label — to larp; genres are identities, after all, groupings of people as much as (if not more than) they are groupings of works or ideas. No contemporary discussion of identity and allegiance would be complete without a mention of Anonymous; as such, I'd offer that Anonymous is nigh indistinguishable from a persistent larp set in a territory that maps almost seamlessly to the world in which it is suspended. There's only one character you can play, and there's no GM to tell you how to play it. For Anonymoids, as for Second Lifers, code is law, as Lawrence Lessig put it: if it can be done, then you may do it.

But the counterculture has no monopoly on larpish behaviour. I'd also contend that the nigh-viral Six Sigma framework of manufacturing quality assurance took on very larp-like characteristics, especially as it trickled down — poorly understood and richly overhyped — to the very same small businesses that its progenitors were busily eviscerating in the mid- to late-Nineties. Imagine a larp designed to explore perfection and efficiency in the workplace, being played earnestly by a handful of converts among a workforce of disinterested and disenfranchised NPCs who haven't had so much as a sip of the kool-aid... Well, perhaps I'm being unfair, here, but Six Sigma looked to me like an RPG for middle management long before I knew what Nordic larp even was.

Last but not least, larp bears more than a passing resemblance to a post-geographical evolution of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone: polders and pockets scooped briefly out of consensus reality, wherein the normal rules of behaviour are suspended or rewritten. The European soundsystem-rave circuit of the 1990s, the Burning Man festival in the States, squats and communes and refusenik pseudocommunities like Slab City... they all play with(in) the world in a larpish way, which is to say they find a place in which to make of it a stage, sweep it clean of association, and improvise their roles upon it, unbound by any rules other than those agreed to among the players.

Herein, then, lies the terrible beauty of larp's promise: you can play whatever rules you like, whenever you like, wherever you like.

All you have to do is define them.

Game theory: the ethics and mechanics of play

It turns out that the Nordic larp scene is more aware and engaged with its own intrinsic risks than I expected — not only the psychic-backlash potential of the immersion in otherness, but the subject matter too. Unsurprisingly, the Stamford Prison Experiment is a touchstone for both.

In his paper "The Golden Rule Of Larp" [States Of Play, p20], Simo Järvelä declares the eponymous ethic to be "things informed adults do consensually amongst themselves are acceptable" [emphasis in original], and the Knutepunkt books, which function as a rough'n'tumble annual academic journal, burgeon with ethical navelgazing — some serious, some playful — alongside deconstructions and rakings-over of old games, successful or otherwise; the scene is always looking to improve, enhance, expand the boundaries of what larp can do. Taking care of the players — taking care of each other — is a big motivator, an elevated sense of communal responsibility and mutual support that, again, reminds me very strongly of the the raves and warehouse-party scene of the Nineties here in the UK: the shared acknowledgement of risk, the shared thrill of an adventure outside of mainstream reality, are powerful bonding agents.

To an onlooker, the "amongst themselves" bit is the most interesting component of Järvelä's formulation, because within it can be found the seed of that ostracism, the very necessary outsiderdom of larp. Either a larp is played away from all other non-players or, as in the geographically or temporally larger 'persistent' games, among mundanes who are oblivious to the game's context. The scene is lucky in the former respect, as the Nordic countries retain their ancient 'right to roam' statutes, which frees up vast expanses of countryside for play without permission (and may well explain why all sorts of larp are so much more commonplace there by comparison to the States or the UK).

But when playing amongst non-players, the possibilities for problematic leakages between realities become clear. It's easy enough to restrict players from interacting with mundanes, but in a highly-charged and public scene — a chase through a shopping precinct, say, or a kidnapping — there's always the possibility of a bystander breaking through the fifth wall by accident, which could lead to all sorts of grief for all concerned. Järvelä candidly admits that this risk has yet to be fully quantified, let alone planned against — but his framing of the question (and its implicit plea for further discussion) is more like an earnest fanzine letter than a chin-stroking ethical polemic.

One suspects such developments will always be forced by events; in its newness, its enthusiastic experimentation and its occasionally narcissistic self-regard, Nordic larp looks destined to encounter any number of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. The only way to test the rules is to play the game.

This test-to-destruction approach, combined with Nordic larp's fascination with the deeper emotions, have led to the development of some fascinating game mechanics. Tabletop play still tends toward dicerolling, and there are a variety of approaches to boffer combat (including, in some cases, the requirement that an injured player method-act the effects of their imaginary injury as fully as possible); mainstream games less focussed on combat might use a combination of memorised statistics, cards drawn by chance or stone-paper-scissors hybrids to model interactions like an attempted theft or bluffing past a guard. But the Nordic scene adores abstraction, especially when modelling the affairs of the heart: Stark's account of playing In Fair Verona, for instance, a love-larp that required its players to interact via the medium of tango, is as strange as it is charming.

Emma Wieslander, author of the aforementioned Mellan himmel och hav and one of the scene's more prolific academics and theorists, is also the inventor of Ars Armandi, a larp game mechanic or system for the safe simulation of love and sex which underpinned her groundbreaking game. Ars Armandi essentially maps the entire body onto a limited area thereof — arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears — where touching is permitted. It sounds like an actor's workshop exercise (which is exactly where Wieslander got the idea from), but it's still powerful stuff, and Ars Armandi's impact can be seen rippling through the last decade of Nordic larp, with articles and papers and workshops spreading the idea, challenging and refining and reapplying it.

The fame of Mellan himmel och hav is well-earned; not only does it still stand as a flagship experiment in political larp design and the deconstruction of gender, but it combined larp with other 'higher' arts - theatre, light art, music by contemporary composers. Most fascinating to me, however, is what happened after the game had finished.

The Way Out Is Through

"... none of these things seemed to have any meaning. Maybe these ideas I had about who I was weren't as important as I thought they were, and maybe I didn't need to be any of these things. But if so, how could I still be me? More than that, if these identities were something I could put on or take off at will, if all identity was fluid, how could anyone have an identity at all? [...] I was definitely in the middle of some sort of existential quandry." Stark, Leaving Mundania, p237

 

Mellan himmel och Hav left lingering marks on its players, and on its creator. After the game ended, a number of players were unwilling to return to the social structures of consensus reality, with its institutionalised loneliness, its crude gender binaries, its doctrines of consumption for consumption's own sake.

So they didn't return — or rather, they only returned halfway, carrying over the communalism of the game into reality. A handful of them crammed themselves into an apartment meant for a single occupant; the need for personal space had been exposed as a myth, a narrative seemingly designed to drain money (and, by extension, time and passion) from the individual in thralls to it. Living together meant they needed less income, which meant everyone could work less — much less. This left time to spare for the true work: the exploration of a new mode of living.

"I guess that, in regards to the lifestyle, it was the other way around for me," Wieslander tells me by email. "I have never felt comfortable with the heteronormative nuclear family, I guess; I find it a nuisance. Not only is the idea of autonomous individuals grouped together in too-small-to-be-functional groups scientifically unnatural to the human species, it also seems to me to be morally indefensible: it's a guilt-trap where most people are set up to automatically fail, but it also seems to be one of the cornerstones of gender-based discrimination

"So for me, making Mellan... was about taking that big 'what if?' and really trying it out. If gender roles are human constructs, we should be able to deconstruct and reconstruct at will — and as it turned out, we could! But as it's virtually impossible to deconstruct the gender binary without having a go at twosome partnering; that had to be part of the package, too.

"It turned out to be a greater epiphany to many of the participants than they'd thought. I guess there wasn't a conscious decision on anyone's part to take the game out of the box so much as the experiment having a great impact on people, on both participants and others.

"A few months later there was another game set in the Swedish green-wave seventies, playing a communal lifestyle with very much the same set of players. I think it was a reaction to the alienation many of the players felt in the 'normal' world, and a longing to go back to the community that we constructed in order to establish the high level of trust that was needed for the experiment to work."

It was a passing allusion to this very story that first piqued my interest in Nordic larp. What would it take, I wondered, what sort of depth of experience would you need to have in order to come back to reality and decide you were going to rewrite the role of your own life?

With hindsight, the connection is obvious, though it might not be so to someone who never rode the UK raves'n'festivals circuit of the Nineties. It's the Temporary Autonomous Zone effect, the euphoric sensation of having escaped without moving: having seceded, somehow, stepped sidewise out of a mainstream culture that marginalises or demonises you. I can recall any number of times when I was sat among a bug-eyed circle, with junkyard tablas tapping Morse over the top of industrial-strength techno just past the hedge or over the next hill, every breath held tight like a nervous dove at a peace rally as dawn starts to stain the edge of the sky, then loosed all at once in wordless triumph as the sun rises on a world that looks at once smaller and far bigger than it ever has before, and thinking it would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if we could live like this forever?

Wonderful might not be quite the word, of course — indeed, the outgoing Tory government of the time had set in motion the fait accompli annihilation of the travelling lifestyle, and was busy luring rave culture out of the black economy and into expensive (and, more mportantly, legal) nightclubs. But it's worth remembering that people still do this: they drop out, they join cults or movements (or bands), they live in squats or on the road or in nameless permaculture ghost-villages far from civilisation.

And what else have they done, then, if not swapped the societal software suite with which they'd been inculcated for one they've modified to their preferences? That the new software is based on a historical social paradigm or an entirely imagined one is irrelevant; the hardware will run any software that's coded well enough to compile. Design yourself a different life: draw a door in the air, and step through.

Of course, you'll run into friction whenever your new set of rules puts you in conflict with others — especially those who aren't playing the game, and who may well view your game as dangerous, treacherous, blasphemous or insane. And so you modify and tweak and hack, adjust the game so it fits into the cracks where the rules of the non-players don't penetrate so thoroughly. You go interstitial.

And you realise, in the process, that the non-players aren't non-players at all.

They're just playing a different game.

 

Larp, the Universe and Everything

The response of John Major's Tories to the flourishing of rave culture was one of horror and disgust, akin to finding one's serene ornamental arboretum infested with tribes of manic squirrels with boomboxes; much as a part of me would quite like to see secessionary sub-cultures gestated in larp and birthed into consensus reality, I suspect I've already seen the sort of reaction they will provoke from the players of the more popular game. (Nietzsche might have recognised it, too.)

But the world is fecund, full of interstices. Entropy sneaks into our software as well as our hardware, and the The Biggest Game is too big and complex for the gamesmasters to patch every bug right away. Gradual iteration would be the key, I guess: start with the small things, change slowly enough that the neighbours won't notice you any more than they notice the plane trees at the edge of the pavement adding sneaky inches of xylem and phloem. Think of it as an inversion of the boiled frog metaphor, where everyone else is the frog, warming up all unknowing on the outside of your jar... and before you know it, you've got the seed of something like the anarchic 'unlicensed sectors' of Delany's Triton.

You'll have to be careful, of course, to boil the frog very slowly indeed, lest the licentiousness and liberty of your polder be accused of succouring our epochal bugbear, terrorism. Second Life suffered a similar fate during its time atop the Peak of Heightened Expectations, back in late 2007; its unregulated sprawl of freeform simulation space looked — to those who look for such things, and who tend to find them wherever they look — like an infinite digital agar plate awaiting a sneeze of seditious sputum.

(The irony being, of course, that Second Life was a hotbed of terrorism, albeit a memetic and pop-cultural terrorism. Indeed, recalling the rampaging mobs of phallus-spawning faux-furry trickster avatars controlled by 4Chan and the SomethingAwful goonswarms — a few unprotected fucks further up the family tree from Anonymous — you might even argue that Second Life really was a training ground for one of the most successful international terrorist (dis)organisations of recent history.)

The fear of the refusenik Other validates the notion of culture-as-larp: to conceive of the threat presented to mainstream cultural stability by the potential of people to reprogram themselves or each other, one must make the tacit admission that 'stable mainstream culture' is not a natural state — nor a stable, nor even a mainstream one — but is itself an ideological construct, a pervasive larp into which most people in a given region have been indoctrinated by default.

Where authority sees horror, I see some little hope, like Holmas: might larp let us literally play our way to more equitable social structures? It might, at the very least, let us test out adjustments to the one we've got.

 

"[Knutepunkt] evoked in me the yearning to return to that terrifying and fascinating place where there were no boundaries or rules, where there was no self, where identity itself seemed impossible. I felt as though I had peeked over the precipice of human existence, and in that one moment I was terrifyingly, truly alive." Stark, Leaving Mundania, p241

 

It occurred to me at a very late stage in the drafting of this essay that I've been blind to the most obvious comparison for the larp experience, namely the experience of being a child: the period in your life when starting an open-ended larplike game is as simple as saying to a friend "I'm Metatron, you're Starscream," and running away. (The trigger for this particular epiphany was novelist Tim Pratt, whose tweets about his toddler son are a wonderful window into a mindstate I barely remember.)

So I've perhaps put the cart before the horse, here: Nordic larp isn't building a new toolkit for mindhacking so much as it is exploring an old forgotten mindstate we all once shared, rediscovering the completely immersive and freeform nature of play as experienced in childhood, and retooling it for an adult context. Childhood is when we assimilate the protocols of society; it's the pre-game workshop for the larp that is our lives.

So how about larp as a sort of software transhumanism? An ongoing project to transcend the limitations of the human, but not by hacking the body, nor even the brain, but the mind? Exploiting the recently-revealed plasticity of our thought patterns and social engrams; rooting and rebooting yourself into the imagination-theatre of childhood, then holding down F8 so you can fiddle around with the BIOS, install a different OS, tweak the power management settings...

It's a sweeping metaphor, I'll grant you, and only time will tell whether Nordic larp will make any measurable difference to human civilisation as a whole, even as it makes a huge difference to the individual lives it touches. But I maintain that larp's implicit lesson is true: canonical consensus reality is, in effect, a roleplaying game that we're all playing, and so involved in that we've forgotten that the rules are all our own creation.

So: who do you want to be today?

 

Previously: