|Scenes from a Pervasive Larp
||[Apr. 26th, 2009|06:36 am]
(cross-posted to Story Games)
As one of the three Americans at Knutepunkt this year (the other two were John Kim and Emily Care Boss), I want to report back to the U.S. indie-gaming crowd (my people!) about the goings-on there. Long story short: had a great time, learned a lot, met good people, want to go back.
Knutepunkt (the "nodal point") is one of the names given to the annual Scandinavian larp conference that rotates its location among Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. It is an event originally intended to enable larp organizers in those countries to share their experiences and trade ideas about how to create a better larp experience. Its major effect has been to solidify (or maybe even reify!) the culture of the "Nordic larp tradition," which is centered on an ideal of "360 degree immersiveness" in the same way as the Forge scene is centered on the Big Model--i.e., it's the idea around which the conversation revolves, even when people are talking about something else. Through a fortunate historical accident, the lingua franca of the conference is English. Combined with the increasingly assiduous effort of the Nordic larpers to document what they're up to ("pix or it didn't happen" is a chapter in the book of essays accompanying this year's conference, a custom of several years standing), the effect is to make the Nordic larp tradition inclusive (anyone can play!), syncretic (not above borrowing from elsewhere...), and assimilable (...but we can steal from them, too). So, for example, inclusive: the Germans hang out with the Israelis at the Scandinavian larp conference, and I met a guy there from Brazil. Syncretic: there are folks speaking from the theatre tradition, and last year's book had an article by Emily laying out the basics of Forge theory. Assimilable: This is the intellectual home of jeepform, the experiential drama-centered freeform roleplaying design style that has recently begun to influence some folks here on Story-Games, and I understand that German larpers have begun to adopt some of the conventions of the Nordic tradition, even going so far as to name their annual convention "Mittelpunkt" (mid-point).
My excuse for going was to give a talk on the chapter I wrote for this year's Knutepunkt book, and I was eager to meet the scholarly sub-community that has grown up within the Nordic larp tradition. These are the folks responsible to a great extent for the International Journal of Roleplaying, for example. My talk was nothing to write home about: I had an hour-long slot that I combined with a Swedish scholar named Tobias who was doing a presentation called, "Are Larps Good for Democracy?" because I wanted to hear it, and I thought we'd get a bigger audience by joining forces. But there was actually very little conceptual overlap between my talk and his, and that meant that I wound up with only a very short window of time in which to talk about my ideas. This was good in a way, in that it saved me from having to talk about things that I'd proposed to talk about when I submitted the abstract but about which I was actually not all that prepared to discuss -- for example, I'd named the presentation "The Ironies of Roleplaying" because I thought I'd be able to get at some of the internal contradictions or tensions that shape role-playing (e.g., nothing's real until we say it is!) but that wasn't a focus of the talk. One young woman, a Swedish grad student with whom I talked later at a party, said a few times, "Tell me again how you mean ironies?" Anyway, I filled 15 minutes and then turned it over to Tobias. I was hoping for a muscular discussion from him about how role-playing enables or inculcates a sensitivity to deliberative democratic procedures (i.e., letting everyone have their say, avoiding a rush to judgment, reflexivity about decision-making) or something, but his talk was far more tentative, and the audience clearly wanted more: "What's special about larp? What's special about democracy?" This meant that we never got back to my talk. So, ultimately, through a couple of bad decisions on my part and the normal vagaries of audience attention, I didn't have enough time to do justice to the ideas about which I did have things to say. A few people pointed this out afterwards, albeit politely (that is to say, obliquely) and in an encouraging rather than blameful way.
So that was my contribution, but the other talks I went to were really interesting. I listened to talks by Wagner Luiz Schmit of Brazil (a psychologist) and Jesper Bruun of Denmark (a physicist) about using role-playing in education. Wagner talked about using RPGs to help underachieving students build academic skills, and Jesper talked about developing a role-playing exercise for an interdisciplinary museum program where students would take the role of 16th century Jesuits hashing out the relative merits of the heliocentric versus geocentric models of the solar system. I also went to a scintillating talk by art-house larper Johanna Koljonen on the fuzziness of the boundary between player and character, and how the two can sometimes "bleed" into one another. I heard a less scintillating but still engaging talk by a fellow named Gabriel from Interacting Arts, a Swedish group interested in pushing the boundaries of game and real life.
Besides the formal talks, I also got to listen in on some interesting conversations. I heard the jeepform crew argue about whether they were ready to publish a book detailing jeep methods, or whether publishing a book would in codifying jeepform have the effects of pinning it down prematurely, causing fights about the "one true way" to jeep, and aggrandizing themselves inappropriately. "We can't write a book about jeep," said jeeper Thorbiörn Fritzon. "We don't even really understand how it works." Thorbiörn was okay with the notion of a jeepform unbook, though.
I met the man who may be the most widely read person in the world in the area of role-playing studies, a Finnish academic librarian named Jiituomas Harviainen (who sometimes posts here on Story-Games). He is scarily intense, but in a cool way. Jiituomas says to me:
"In your chapter, you mention [Roger] Caillois, do you not? Which of his four types of play do you believe best describes role-playing?"
Shit! A quiz! Hedge, Bill, hedge! "Well, I was just reading an article where the authors say that while it has elements of agon and alea, it's mostly mimicry, but I don't know that I buy that. You know, I'd really like it to be ilinx, but I can't quite get there."
"Hmm...it is funny that you should say so. I have argued that ilinx underlies all role-playing because it is characterized by dislocation from everyday identity."
That impressed the hell out of me, given that I've participated in some discussions (and seen others that would have gained some clarity with Jiituomas's comment.
And on the bus ride back to the airport, I sat next to Markus Montola and he showed me the manuscript of the book he is editing along with his colleague Jaakko Stenros about "pervasive games"--all those forms of play where the edges of the "magic circle" of the game are hazy, like ARGs (alternate reality games) and so forth. There is some wild stuff in it, like the chapter on the Manhattan apartment that was refurbished as a Myst-like puzzle palace.
I also got to play some games! The opening game was called The School Trip and was sort of a parlor larp about a high school reunion where an unsettling event from years before got dredged up and, through the miracle of time travel, literally revisited. The scenario suffered from some incoherence, and there were some folks who were non-plussed by the date-rape motif driving the fiction. I enjoyed playing, though, and watching others play, but my favorite part was talking afterwards and trying to figure out how to make the scenario more pointed, so that player's choices about whether or not to change the past (and thus alter the future) would be more meaningful.
And I ran a freeform version of Ganakagok that went very well. The players created a tale of islanders adrift in a serpent-filled sea, who ultimately had to swim to the safety of a new, green isle on the horizon as their island of ice melted beneath them. One of the nice things about the game was where we played: the Knutepunkt organizers had created a space they called "the color box." The color box was a basement room with white cloth arrayed on the walls and lighting equipment installed so that users could adjust the color and strength of the light in the room. We started out with a deep blue to represent night on Ganakagok and moved through a pale purple for twilight and light gold for dawn. The atmospheric lighting was really a plus. I am going to tweak the rules and run the game again at Camp Nerdly, perhaps starting an hour or so before dawn and playing as the sun rises to try to take advantage of the atmospheric lighting of an actual dawn (rain date TBD).
Knutepunkt was an awesome experience. I met many others who really made me feel welcome and who were doing interesting things with their own games, and I'm looking forward to going to Sweden next year. I already have an idea for what I'll talk about...