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The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Summarizing Solmukohta 2012

As usual, Solmukohta was absolutely draining: late nights, intense discussions, at least three parallel sessions you want to go to, both formal and informal parties, and a bar that closes way too late tend to have that effect. I’ve lost track of how many Knutpunkt conferences I’ve been to, but I still end up trying to do too much, and feeling that I’ve missed most of it.

The international presence at the conference is increasing, again. This year it actually became an issue, as the  sign-up filled up so fast that many of the regulars came to late to it. (Luckily, everyone on the waiting list was eventually able to get in.) I think that the number of U.S. participants was what surprised me the most. I was particularly happy to see the practitioners – Apparently Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros have done a very good job of marketing ‘Nordic larp’ to the U.S. tabletop community. I also had a fantastic time talking to the visitors from Belarus – in particular the couple with the most complacent one-year old I have ever met. I believe that a childhood which includes seeing your parents sometimes turn into zombies and gorillas – together with thirty other laughing grownups – must be a pretty good one.

The number of academic participants is also on the rise. Apart from the regular suspects, I shared room with Torill Mortensen (who was moderately impressed by the artistic aspirations of the community – a sentiment I sort of share) and had a brief chat with Sarah Lynne Bowman.  This does not mean that the conference itself is getting academic – the presentations are dominated by discussions, opinions, rants and creative ideas but very little results in an academic sense of the word. Which probably is a good thing.

As with GDC, certain productions get more attention than others. This year, these were ‘KAPO‘ – the prison larp I already played in, and ‘Just a little lovin’ which I have signed up to play when it’s restaged in Stockholm later this year. As both were productions that evoked very strong emotional experiences for at least some of their players, this is not so surprising. Many of those players were at Solmukohta, still in the process of creating their own stories. It wasn’t hard to spot who was who, though: while the ’just a little lovin’ players met hugging and touching, the KAPO players crouched in the corridoors in their black hoodies with prison numbers on the back… Both games featured prominently in this year’s bleed panel – this time focussed on safety measures and potential dangers. I left the panel with a feeling that the Nordic larp community likes thinking about these productions as being psychologically challenging and life-changing – perhaps more dangerous than they actually are. As Karl Bergström adequately pointed out afterwards: larp is likely to kill someone sooner than it will make someone catatonic.

What were my highlights, then? For me, Solmukohta is more about the in-depth discussions that happen in the lobby than the actual sessions. Still, I was impressed by Eirik Fatland’s presentation on ’fundamentals on larp design’. Being a larper schooled in interaction design, Eirik has applied theory from the latter to larp, outlining a middle level theory that might become a ’larp grammar’ of sorts. This is a text I want to read and cite – Eirik please write it!! I also truly enjoyed the 20-20 vision session organized by Johanna McDonald. The session was made up of five seasoned designers, using 20 minutes and 20 slides each to present a vision for what larps could become. The fact that these were positive and visionary contributions made the session particularly interesting – this in comparison to the hour of ”rants” that I participated in myself, that also was good but a bit less productive. I enjoyed becoming a tiny piece of the puzzle that will make up ’the spiral’ – and soon, you will know what that is – I learned more about pre-game workshops from Peter Munthe-Kaas, and about character creation from Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl.

As usual, I left Solmukohta with my mind made up to contribute to next years’ book – I had at least two or three ideas on what to write. In the end, I typically end up missing all such deadlines – let’s see if I can meet them next time!

Solmukohta 2012 – My rant about why larps may not change the world

Arrived at Solmukohta, I immediately got fired up by the larp correspondant to Gamification: The everpresent idea that Larp Can Change The World that formed the theme of the keynote speech by Mike Pohjola. So I wrote and delivered a rant. (I wrote it while listening to Eirik Fatland’s excellent presentation on the fundamentals of larp design – sorry Eirik for typing away during your presentation!)

“I want to rant about one of the most recent and most popular dogmas in larpdom – in fact, it was the opening talk of Solmukohta this year:

“LARPS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”

I am afraid that this isn’t much more than a convenient excuse for us to feel good about our hobby. I seriously doubt that larps can change the world, and they very definitely don’t do it as they look today.

Most scenarios we design have no power to question anything; rather, they reinforce and emphasise the societal structures that we know from our daily lives, from literature or from history books. Fantasy larps play in societies with feudal structures, racism and rampant hegemony; second world war larps in military settings with set hierarchies, bullying and violence. The reason why this happens is not laziness, it is because these structures are recognizable – they tell people what to do in the larp. Ursula LeGuin faced this problem when trying to write feminist fantasy, and she described is as ’having to walk the untrodden path’. Well, in a larp, it is even harder – because you will have to make all your players collectively walk this untrodden path. So it is no surprise that we stay with these well-known worlds. If you wanna make another ’between sky and sea’, expect to have to train your players in pre-game workshops for a year.

Well, we can still question them, can’t we? We certainly do – I played in KAPO, a game that aimed to re-create the experience of losing your humanity to the system. Nobody goes out of that experience without questioning such systems. But very often we just go out of the larp thinking ’Well we are SO lucky not living in THAT kind of society!’

Furthermore, even if we play a larp that questions structures in our contemporary society, we cannot change the world by just questioning it – we need to also construct the alternatives. And constructing the alternatives in LARP settings is not only hard, it very rarely happens. I don’t think that we ever play alternative utopian societies in Larp settings – a world without conflict is simply too boring.

Can larp change people, then? Can larp change the world one person at a time? Well, yes. I do believe that a good larp can challenge our perspective of the world and allow us to reflect on ourselves. But it happens much more rarely – and may be more shallow- than we’d like to think. When did you see the school bully play a low status role? In the larp, he’ll almost always be a high-ranked soldier or the larp might just break down. When did you last see a beautiful young girl play an old hag? In most scenarios, she’ll be cast as a princess and dressed up in clothes that makes her even more beautiful.

Finally, even if larp did all of this: if we learned to question, enacted the alternative, or learned to understand ourselves, how would this change society? Society doesn’t consist of individuals but is a structure. It is changed by politics and activism on the streets, and not by hiding in a forest or castle larping. And sorry to say, even when larping takes to the streets – in the kinds of larps that I have  both helped stage and studied –  it does not really become a sustainable form of activism. I still entertain a hope that it can, but I have yet to see it happen.

Dear larpdom – don’t fall into the ’gamification’ trap! Face facts – most lapers don’t go to larps to learn. We go to have a great experience! Truth is, most larpers go to larp to have fun – sometimes by crying our eyes out, but it’s still for fun. You may even call it a ’pasttime’ or a form of ’entertainment’.  So if you want larps to change the world, evenif it is  one player at a time, this is what you have to work with – and against.”

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