This is More Than a Game: A (very) Brief History of Larp Part 2


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.


"The very first thing you need to do once you start playing this game is to choose your highest hope. If you have one, choose a better one. If you can't, don't play. In this game, you are supposed to create a new moral standard, and the choice is part of the gameplay. If you start with an old highest hope, how can you expect to have a new morality and new idea of what is good?" — Ari-Pekka Lappi ["Playing 'Thus Spake Zarathustra,'" States of Play]

The quote above is taken from an essay entitled "Playing 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'". Lappi's choice of the seminal philosophical text on walking away from mainstream morality is telling, set as it is amongst accounts of games which, to a greater or lesser degree of abstraction, attempt temporary walkings-away of exactly the type that Nietzsche was interested in. Consider Emma Wieslander's Mellan himmel och hav , which simultaneously critiques gender essentialism while immersing its players in feminist theory, making them experience a different spectrum of gender as something more than a gedankenexperiment, and System DanMarc, the cryptofascist urban dystopia; these are not outliers.

Other recent or in-progress games include Kapo, set in a prison run by its own inmates; Dublin2, another dystopia, based on EU immigration policy; Valve, a persistent campaign in the Helsinki region wherein shadowy conspirators literally kidnap other players, bundling them into vans pulled up on the hard shoulder. In 2011, a game called Just a Little Lovin', exploring the impact of AIDS on the New York gay scene of the early Eighties, came in for a public drubbing in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, albeit a tame one by US or UK tabloid standards.

If the tragedy of AIDS is not shocking enough, then the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin-ness of Gang Rape is guaranteed to get both ends of the left-right spectrum in a panic. Part critique of rape culture, part experiment in ludic mechanics, its designer openly declares "don't play this game unless you're in a good place mentally, and really think you are up for it. It is not meant to be fun to play."  [emphasis mine]

Society conditions us to view play of any sort as inherently childish, and Nordic larp challenges that assumption by literally, playing around with the biggest and most serious questions of all. There's something deeply — and, to some, disturbingly — postmodern about Nordic larp's more ambitious games. The entire scene, the philosophy, is saturated with the recognition of the subjectivity of experience and identity, but this is seen neither as boon or bane: it's just the default political assumption of its predominantly young demographic. Hence Nordic larp looks to me both leftist and utopian, but it's a young individualist sort of leftism, informed by Marx but not kneeling at his feet: a network-native take on identity fluidity which, perhaps, could only have emerged in small stable nation-states with a strong social security system.

Saga Preview via ranh

Larp presents a toolkit for exploring that postmodern morality landscape, as well as tools for building bridges and dismantling the roadblocks encountered therein. The Norwegian larp organisation Fantasiforbundet has been working with the Peace & Freedom Youth Forum in Ramallah, Palestine, in the hope that they might not only bring a new form of imaginative play and entertainment to young Palestinians living under the shadow of conflict and oppression, but perhaps also to show how pretending to be someone else can bring an understanding of their experience and outlook which may have been lacking before. Perhaps this is what Holmas meant when he spoke of larp "changing the world"; I share his hope, if not yet his optimism.

Boffer larps, by comparison, seem to fail at modelling our more insidious social ills in a useful way. Of the long-running Knight Realms, which features the usual fantasyland panoply of humanoid sub-races, Stark reports that "[i]n-game racism also produces liberal-minded anxiety. Although racism is written into the game, the concept that all men, dwarfs and gypsies were created equal is hard to shed. [...] In other words, few players practise the racism dictated by the rules maybe because tolerance is so ingrained in players out-of-game, maybe because racist assumptions — even imaginary ones — create real-life discomfort." [Stark, 132]

The phenomenon is intriguing, but I find myself wondering if Stark isn't wearing rose-tinted lenses here; couldn't the failure to 'play' the game's racism be rooted in the players' recognition of the mutual privilege they share outside the game? Does racism — remnant of our tribalist instincts that it is — perhaps feel wrong when directed at someone who you know, at some level, to actually be one of your own?

I make no solid claims, here, because I don't feel I can defend them using only secondary sources. But Stark's discussion of the more workaday sexual disparity in Knight Realms offers a supporting riff:

"... despite the game's strong female population, few women have achieved titled in-game power. In the course of the game's thirteen year history, there have only been a small handful of female knights - six out of about forty — and only two women have been appointed ladies of the land, out of about twenty-five appointed lords, though five women have married into noble titles in-game."

There's little sign of liberal hand-wringing over that particular manifestation of privilege... if people are unwilling to play world-appropriate racism in Knight Realms, why isn't there a similar hesitation over world-appropriate sexism? After all, feudal states aren't exactly known for their enthusiastic enfranchisement of women, while our understanding of racism in similar settings is more limited.

Perhaps it's partly down to the American liberal psyche, which has internalised the existence and wrongness of racism, but which still struggles to see the ubiquitous influence of kyriarchy in the social fabric. Perhaps it's partly because, in the case of the gender disparity in Knight Realms, the physical trigger of the character's otherness — her femininity — is likely to be explicit in the physicality of the player. By contrast, you wouldn't get the same triggers for racist responses from the non-baseline-human characters in Knight Realms because, beneath the layer of make-believe, they still look just like One Of Your Lot.

Or perhaps these issues don't crop up in boffer larp because that's not what people play it for. In this, it lies close to its roots in American re-enactment groups. "The intent of re-enactment," explains a former Sergeant 1st Class of the US Army, who uses larp and re-enactment as 'safe zones' in which he can explore his post-PTSD outlook on the world, "is not to offend but to entertain, enlighten and educate." [Stark, 151] Elsewhere, another re-enactor mentions his group's refusal to perform Nazi salutes or fly swastika banners, despite the otherwise obsessive attention to detail of the hobby. Some things, apparently, are just a step too far.

But perhaps not so for the Nordic school.

The scene that documents itself


"When larping, we are given the chance to test out things we cannot or should not do outside of the safe frames of the game. If I had been in a situation similar to this in real life, I would have fought these feelings with my ethics, my intellect and my ideals. But because it was a game, I could let these emotions and impulses show me what kind of a person I hope never ever to become.
And that knowledge, and the process by which it was gained, was a hell of a high." [Elin Nilsen, States Of Play, 11]


Neonhämärä via darkismus

Nordic larp is both a godsend and a curse to a writer; there's enough source material to drown in. The peripatetic Knutepunkt conference has been producing books that collect the best papers of the year into one place, and many of them are freely available as PDFs; in the last few years, videos of the paper presentations have been appearing on YouTube. There is, naturally, a wiki . There's enough primary material floating around to form at least a dozen doctoral theses, and that's before you even start looking at interdisciplinary intersections.

That said, you'll want to do a proper search of the literature before you begin. The academic influence on larp is clear to see in its nomenclature, in its intense self-theorisation; indeed, the scene is already producing its own larp-focused PhDs. True to its network-culture demographic, however, the openness and conviviality of the Knutepunkt circuit stand in stark contrast to the more staid conferences of the liberal arts, resembling science fiction fandom conventions — an important nursery for larp of all types — far more than literary symposia; open discussion and dialogue are not just important to the scene, but central to it. It's as if the community itself is a collective author, a gestalt entity — an interesting counterpoint for an artform where authorship is inherently unstable and slippery.

All this would be of some note even if larp were just another branch of the plastic or narrative arts as we already know them. What’s fascinating about larp is its seeming potential: all art could be considered software which interacts with the localised cultural operating system running on the platform of our minds, but larp goes one step further, achieving its aesthetic affect by kludging, amending or outright rewriting that code — hacking it, in other words. If mainstream larps are the equivalent of the homebrew software BBSs of the Eighties, developing and sharing new games to play on their newly-accessible hardware, then perhaps the Nordic school are equivalent to the FOSS hacker hardliners, trying to see how completely they can PWN the machine. Pure diversion and escapism have been sidelined somewhat in favour of philosophical and ideological exploration. The language of theory is everywhere, including many scene-specific coinings and neologisms: 'narrative bleed' (not always as undesirable as it might sound, apparently); 'diegetic briefings'; 'fictional positioning'; 'formal transparency'. 'Metagaming'.

Nordic larp seems to be evaluated primarily in terms of its design (in which sheer scale or operational expense play roles minimised or inverted from those they play in the boffer mainstream), its theoretical daring or sociopolitical controversy, the level of affect induced in players, or a combination of all three. Fun is fine, of course, but out on the experimental edge it takes a back seat.

Like other artforms before it, larp has spawned its own little academy. Perhaps its techniques and rhetorics will spread, osmose into other disciplines, metastasise — become another conceptual toolkit through which we can observe, interrogate and manipulate the world, and ourselves-in-the-world.

Stockholm syndrome

"The rules-light nature of Nordic games keeps the illusion of the game world intact." [240, Stark]

Equinox via danielleblue

The growth years for tabletop RPGs saw more than a few morality scares based around the timeworn concerns of the baseline puritanical, and boffer larp stands ready as target for more of the same: the identification with and/or acting out of world-views that are false, deviant or outright Evil (where 'Evil', as always, refers to the morally untenable as defined by the moral majority). People imagining themselves to be something other than Americans — well, what more could you possibly want to be? There’s something fundamentally unAmerican about wanting to be anything other than American, after all (indeed, it's the contradiction under the weight of which the constructed American identity is currently collapsing)... and anyway, pretending to be someone else is kid’s stuff. Or maybe girlie-stuff. Certainly not man-stuff.

Stretch these imaginative exploits out all the way to Nordic levels of reconceptualising the self, though, and there’s something even more terrifying — not just to the mind of Middle America, but to hierarchists everywhere. Viewed from atop the ivory tower of governance and control, larp techniques start looking a fair bit like indoctrination or brainwashing tools — tools whose use should be regulated, if not outright banned. (The authorities, of course, may continue using them to defend Our Freedoms; Big Brother knows best.)

These tools are, like all technologies, neither good nor bad – but nor are they neutral, per Kranzberg . Even though a chisel isn't a weapon, it can cause harm when used carelessly, and I find myself wondering what sorts of accidents we might see when arrivistes start rummaging around in the larp toolbox just for the lulz. After all, Stark and others tell tales of real-world relationships destroyed (and created) by the shockwaves from in-game events, and of sexual orientations reassessed in the wake of the more ambitiously sociopolitical games.

Stark suggests that "intense larp gameplay creates an altered state of consciousness", and as I read game-design papers from the Knutepunkt circuit I kept hearing echoes bouncing back from Timothy Leary's psychedelic theories of "set and setting". Implicit in both is the idea that not only is the mind plastic, but that experimenting with that plasticity is something akin to a duty, a possibility for personal development that shouldn't be passed up by those brave enough to take the plunge and step outside of themselves; a willing step toward becoming one's own post-Nietzschean ubermensch, if you like. So we might say that the Nordic larp scene is pioneering the development of a new toolkit for meddling with identity and empathy; a non-invasive intervention methodology based on consensual manipulation of environmental triggers and narrative framing.

Stark remains confident that the risk of psychological splashback is pretty low, thanks in part to the design of the Nordic games, with their pre-game workshops, safe-words and debriefings, but thanks also to human nature:  "larp can't release something in you that isn't already there", she says, and mentions the Nordic scene's practice of selective ostracism, which is in part intended to keep risky or problematic players at arm's length from the hardcore stuff: people deemed 'unsuitable' are not encouraged to return, not embraced by the community.

My concerns linger, based on a rather bleak and cynical view of the sort of behaviours that, regrettably, are already there in most ordinary people, buried under layers of social protocol and the keeping-up-appearances of modern civilisation. I ask Stark what she thinks a disastrously failed larp might look like.

"We already have a great example of that, actually," she replies. "Have you heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment?"

Previously: This Is a Game: A (very) Brief History of Larp Part 1

Do pop back for part three, wherein I'll further probe the permeable membrane between roleplay and reality, and argue that larp techniques represent an erosion or thinning thereof, potentially positioning the form at the vanguard of contemporary countercultural praxis.