Gloriana via darkismus
It is tempting to view the wildly different natures of Stateside boffer larp – the rubber-swords-in-the-woods fantasy romps – and the Nordic art-house scene in terms of sociopolitics, not least because the majority of people I've spoken to on the topic have made the point before me, in some cases quite bluntly. Eleanor Saitta, a security consultant who's been a participant in the Nordic scene for some years, suggests that the demands of the Nordic school of gameplay — the willing surrender of an element of your consciousness to a collective experience, rather than simply playing a 'flat character' from off the peg — is "maybe a little too socialist in character for your average American".
Indeed, with its growing catalogue of worthy (if occasionally blunt-edged and sensational) experiments in experiential dystopia, the Nordic school of play looks to be, at a very abstract level, an explicitly political project that leans leftward, interested in reflecting reality with a view to interrogating the truth of the human condition, and perhaps to improving it with the knowledge brought back.
Boffer larp, at the other end of the spectrum, looks like pure escapism - about as political as dressing up with your neighbourhood gang on Halloween. But Stark suggests I'm looking for boffer's politics in the wrong place: it's not in the game's content so much as its structure. In her paper "We Hold These Rules To Be Self-Evident: larp as metaphor for American identity" [States of Play, 171], she advances the theory that the original tabletopper RPGs (and the boffer fantasies that are their direct descendants) can be read as The American Dream in ludic form, "an idealized vision of the archetypal immigrant's journey in which no one is left behind and everyone inexorably rises in stature. Boffer larp does more than reflect American values; national values structure the game."
Boffer larp's reliance on large casts playing in large outdoor spaces means that money matters start raising their heads early on, and there's an argument to be made that this — plus the legendary litigiousness of the United States — is inimical to the more arty or experimental forms of larp. Once your monthly game has become a business, there are bottom lines to meet... and regular customers to keep happy. A set-up like Knight Realms won't play a 'world-ender' plotline; why risk killing the golden goose if it's still laying?
Hence the episodic nature of such campaigns: each instalment comes loaded with threat and jeopardy, but the game-world is 'rebooted' between episodes, returned to a stable state ahead of the next disruptive narrative. As with an series of cookie-cutter fantasy novels, there's always another volume, full of locations and characters you already know, and experiences for which you have some sort of precedent — not to mention the expectation of enjoyable escape from reality.
Boffer larp, then, like pulpy fantasy fiction, could be considered a project that neutralises the threat of Otherness by familiarising certain limited examples of Otherness within a fictional space whose intrinsic Otherness is sufficiently familiar. As an imaginative act, it demands a number of layers of separation between the player's true identity and their played character: you are playing not only someone who isn't you, but you're playing a someone who you could never be, among people you could never meet, in a world that is explicitly not the one in which your true identity resides.
The Nordic style, by comparison, delights in keeping the layers of separation as few and thin as is possible: characters that are a warping or expansion of the player's own personality, played in a world that (with varying degrees of abstraction or symbolic reduction) reflects the one within which it is nested.
Or, to put it another way: trad larp takes an individualist approach, wherein the players — equalised/normalised, at least in theory, by the complex rules and stats surrounding character generation and interaction — must make their own mark on a imaginary world that was designed specifically for them to make a mark upon. Nordic play, by comparison, is interested in character as changed and influenced by the game's narrative...