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The academic homestead of Annika Waern

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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10 thoughts on “Solmukohta 2012 – My rant about why larps may not change the world

  1. I think the most intresting thing with LARPs is that they make the participants feel that the actually CAN affect something, and feel that what they do matter. That is the most prominent part of how LARP (and other participanting culture expressions) can change the world. There are also numerous secondary effects, like people getting more interested in the questions raised, and get an education in the subject, or just dig into something else of interest.

    In a way, the question “can X change the world” is not very successful to ask, cause the answer must be “of course it can”. Change doesn´t occur in “society” as an anonymous entity, but in people. The same would go for “can literature change the world” or “can culture change the world”.

    So it all boils down to the strength of the expression. My personal opinion is that LARP probably has more to give in this matter, than both literature, film and music.

    • Waern on said:

      Well, I guess we disagree on one thing: I think of society as quite a bit more than a collection of individuals, and that if you want to change the world, changes must happen that are not just ‘in individuals’. In legal systems, for one thing. But else, I agree with you!

  2. I seem to agree with your rant, but I refuse to disagree with my speech. 🙂 Let’s meet before the Solmukohta is over and discuss!

    I don’t think a larp itself changes the world. But with the tools of and especially the mindset one may gain from it, we have a chance to try out the same stuff for real. The real change happens through demonstations, political parties, NGOs, the media, businesses, science, art, and elections. We have to also work in those fields, and many of us do.

    But first we have to realize the world can be whatever the society collectively decides it wants it to be. And that is not an easy or obvious thing to understand or to believe or to experience. But most larpers have that ingrained in their souls.

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  5. If only we LARP’d Ursula’s The Dispossessed?

    Signed,

    Somebody who never LARP’d

    • Waern on said:

      Ah, but I nearly did that about a month ago, and I’ll be writing about that experience for the next Solmukohta. Could do a blog post too, I guess!

  6. Christopher Amherst on said:

    (Poster’s Note: I found this while googling LARP and bullying)

    I’ve heard many people remark about how emotionally intense KAPO was.

    However, as someone who lived in a place where the school district is currently under investigation by the government over a rash of suicides within the LGBT K-12 community and whose family was ostracized in the our community simply because my parents divorced in the 80s (when divorce was practically taboo).

    I have never viewed the “system” nor my “community” (which includes the LARPing community) nor my “society” as looking out for my interests.

    This makes me wonder about the actual impact of KAPO and whether it really is more of an upper class dystopic fantasy, where people can delve into a world that some of us have lived in (and survived / crawled out of).

    Signed a US LARPer (who wonders whether LARP as an participatory experiential art-form should focus on changing the community within, before contemplating how to change the world beyond.)

  7. “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. ”

    But surely society is constantly questioning itself anyway, otherwise it would never have evolved? And I say evolve quite deliberately, as I don’t believe it is theoretically possible at all to diverge one’s own thought processes entirely from your cultural background. So why would you expect participation in LARP (or anything else) to produce a person or structure of society not at least in part based on what has come before?

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