Can Larp Change the World? 2027- a larp that tried
This is a long version of the text that I wrote together with Peter Munthe-Kaas for ‘Crossing Habitual Borders’ – one of the books for Knutepunkt 2013.
Can Larp Change the World? 2027- a larp that tried
In 2012, Solmukohta opened with an inspiring keynote speech by Mike Pohjola on the theme that ’Larp can change the world’. Pohjola provided us with a model for how this could happen. His idea was that of learning from larp revolution: how players, dissatisfied with the structure of a long-running larp could collectively decide to change it, and how this would provide them with the understanding that their everyday society could be similarly changed.
There are many reasons why this particular model of change could be doubted, as could the idea in general. But in this article, we will take a closer look at a larp that tried, and that even might have succeeded: the larp “2027: life after capitalism”.
2027 was designed as a utopian larp. Its society was formed from several modern political ideas: the Parecon economic system as an alternative to capitalism, farming according to permaculture principles, and the idea of collective learning centres replacing classical schools. The question we want to answer in this article is: what happened? Did 2027 create any kind of change, and if so, what does that change look like? The article is a review of the larp from this perspective, based on our own play experience and on interviews with the players and organisers.
How could larp change the world?
To start with, there are several modes in which larp potentially could change the world, and more than one of them was attempted in 2027. Jaako Stenros and Markus Montola talk about four rhetorics by which larp influence the world: a larp can provide escape from society, it can expose issues of our society, it can allow us to explore alternative societal constructions and finally it can be directed towards non-players, imposing ideas and offering a platform for dialogue. Of these strategies, 2027 focussed on exploring the mechanisms of an alternate society. But many of the other rhetorics were also at play, which we will have reason to come back to.
What then, are the concrete effects a larp can have? Almost every larp can have an effect on players at the personal level: a larp typically teach us something about how it is to think and act like a person who are not ourselves but our role. The empowering effect that Pohjola sketches is perhaps best understood this way, as a feeling of empowerment gained from understanding that you have the ability to influence a society and make it change. Furthermore, explorative larps can change the world through educating players in practical tasks or theories that underlie their fictional society; in the way that knowledge of the Parecon system and permaculture was designed into 2027. Larps can be persuasive, designed to influence our attitudes towards cultural or societal systems. This is perhaps the most common effect, as it can be achieved through exploring or exposing cultural and societal systems in-game – or by allowing us to step out of them for a brief while as in an escapist larp. Finally, Larp can have very concrete effects, as the actions we do in the game can be very much real. In Conspiracy for Good, players helped charity missions and donated books to a library in an African village. In 2027, players constructed permaculture beddings at a farm and helped organize a kitchen for the commune house rented for the larp.
The 2027 larp was born out of a desire to test out the Parecon system – for example, the designers desired for players to at least once participate in a collective decision meeting. However, the idea was gradually abandoned during the design process, in favour of one that would provide more opportunities for a dramatic curve. The larp was designed as a transition into utopia rather than a stable utopian society: although the trajectory was pre-set, it would be the players who would construct their utopian society throughout the larp. The hub of the larp was a collective learning centre, which would be formed through workshopping during the first day of the larp, and to which new groups with very different backgrounds would arrive during the second half of the larp. The idea was to create constant tension and need for change. Hence, the larp revolution that Pohjola envisioned was, in a way, designed into the main storyline of the larp.
The actual larp was a combination of a sequence of pre-planned events (such as going to work on the farm Änggärdet, and fugitives arriving at the learning centre) and off-game workshops. Before the larp, players were free to form their own characters and core groups, based on a rough description of six different cultures (representing similar but different visions for the future). After the first day or two of workshopping (depending on which group you were playing in), the larp played out in a quite realistic 360 illusion setting, that was broken off twice for additional workshops. The latter were used to fast-forward time, so that the larp ended about five years after the time when we first went in-game.
The larp did not play out as intended. In particular, the Parecon system became a backdrop rather than something that was actually tried out in practice; this was reflected on with some regret by one of the organisers:
“We decided early in the project that we should explore working complex and a later part of negotiations and decision-making of what to invest in for the future (future of 2027), but that was taken out to my surprise during the event. I´ve heard from a lot of participants that Parecon was not implemented in the game and that’s also my opinion…we were all kind of surprised that it ended up being so little about Parecon.”
From the designers’ perspective it is of course always disappointing to see a larp play out in a way you did not intend. But in this article we wish not to focus on why this happened but on what happened instead, and on how that affected players. Suffice to notice that the design of the larp as a transition process was not well communicated at the larp website; some players expected to play an utopian larp throughout.
The Individual Story
Larp is the art of the thousand protagonists. For every player we interviewed, the main experience of the larp was that of a journey of individual development. There was no consensus of main highlights or turning points of the larp – everyone had their own and they were closely connected to their individual storylines. Many of the participants most likely shared the goals expressed by D, an experienced roleplayer:
“I don’t just want to travel to a transition conference and sit and discuss permaculture, I want to experience an adventure. And when I say ’adventure’ I primarily think about an inner journey, that’s what I am looking for in a larp.”
The story arch that D developed is a good example of a successful larp story. His character started as a rich and selfish man. At the beginning of the larp, he lost everything including his self-esteem in the economic crash. Arriving at the learning centre as a refugee, he was adopted into the “family of friends” collective, and eventually married into the family in a beautiful ceremony created in-game by the group. D talks about his experience as “larp magic at its best”.
Some participants were activists attracted by the theme and firstcomers to larp. These may have had different goals with their participation, but seem to still have ended up with an individual journey experience. I was one of those participants, who originally joined attracted by the theme:
“The part that was really attractive to me was the Parecon part, learning about Parecon as a method … I am very concerned about the money system we have and I am convinced that it will collapse again … and I am looking already now for alternative systems that might work.”
I created a character close to herself, and had strong bleed experiences with memories from her childhood popping up in an unexpected way. Her character journey became a personal journey.
We (the authors) experienced some issues with creating our individual larp stories. Annika, who joined the larp with a strong interest in its topics but little theoretical knowledge about Parecon and permaculture, wished to learn as herself rather than as her character. She found it difficult to stay in character and create an interesting story arch and eventually gave up, playing the last day of the larp more as herself than as her character. Peter wanted to engage with the utopian aspects of the larp in the spiritual community of holists, and working with the harmonious experience of living in a positive and caring community – something rarely seen in larps. However, the larp turned out to be much more about conflict.
Given that larp as a medium puts focus on the individual experience, the major changes that players recount are at the personal level. The report from I is characteristic:
“This larp has resulted in more knowledge about my personality and what choices I have to make the next time, maybe” … “I learned a lot.”
What we learn about ourselves is individual. Annika experienced a larp that fostered her creativity and invited her to play with the concepts of learning and teaching in ways that she would like to use outside the larp (working as a university teacher). Despite being a first-time larper, I came out of the larp with ideas for designing her own larps.
The perhaps most upsetting experience was recounted by A., who is a firm believer in non-violent approaches to causing change, but who in-character allowed himself to reflect on the role of violence:
“So NN is wondering: Should he learn to use a gun? Does he need to protect somebody now? … He’s always looked at art as ‘in art I can make a car crash, and if it is not a nice picture or a nice poem, we’ll try again. And he’s thinking now: could he look at a bullet or an explosion as a piece of art, and it’s good if it creates an effect or if it… is that poetry, is that play, is that a game?’”
For the player, the thought is so alien that he cannot attribute it to himself, but chooses to keep it as a reflection from the character’s perspective. Still, when asked about what change the larp caused, it is this idea that he will mention.
“I hope I won’t need to do it in real life, but it is a question. Without the football hooligans who put fire to the cars and held people together, the Tahir square demonstration would not have been possible. Are we helpless? Can we do something? My character and I are clearly for non-violence, but when you see the situations around the world… you ask yourself: If I had a gun, would I shoot it? Would I use a spreycan to spray the police?”
A storyline that emerged during the larp was the story of the veterans. It originated in the pre-designed storyline, with the two groups of players that arrived to the learning centre as refugees from Finland (which had been become a tribal anarchy) and south Sweden (which had turned to fascism). Both groups played on war traumas, and despite the well-meaning efforts to welcome and integrate the newcomers, the newcomers and original centre members did not manage to merge, neither culturally nor socially. The newcomers created a social circle of their own which was named the veterans. The main activities of the group were to provide aid to the resistance movement in the south, and provide support for each other in dealing with war trauma. Socially the group kept to themselves, alienated from the sense of security and peace that the learning centre offered that they perceived as false. During the last act, they participated in a centre celebration event with a demonstration.
The simplest explanation for the storyline of the Veterans is that it provided a rich basis for personal storylines. Some players enjoyed playing on war trauma; others had used it extensively in the back-story of their character. To put it simple, conflict generates better drama than harmony. Furthermore, the pre-game workshops for the newcomers focussed on their war experience. However, this does not entirely explain why the conflict was never resolved but persisted throughout the larp.
Another possible explanation was voiced by one of the designers: it is harder to construct a new society by participation and acceptance of you own power to change your situation, than to be against any given structure no matter how benevolent.
“It is hard to play something you are unfamiliar with…people have a very strong tendency, when you put them in charge…that this is uncomfortable and confusing and they want to stay in a position of being against the system instead of understanding that now we have the power – together”.
But there was a third reason, and one that makes us think that the storyline of the veterans was perhaps the most interesting one to emerge during the larp. It originated in the experience of the immigrants, who felt completely alienated when they first arrived in the learning centre. The experience of feeling excluded by the set structures of a completely well-meaning society was a major takeaway for some of the players, and one they wanted to play on. Oliver Nøglebæk writes about this experience in his blog post on 2027.
”I was with the newcomer group and the cultureshock of arriving at the commune was scary and offputting to say the least. After playing on fear and secrecy for a long time, being pulled into a big circle of people to introduce yourself and then being pulled from those you came with was incredibly threatening. Even though it was done with the best of intentions.”
”you had your wonderful utopian society intruded upon by loud, angry people, who did not value your culture or your functional ways of doing things.”
”When we tried to create awareness of our struggles as refugees and guerilla fighters, they were largely ignored or countered with being inappropriate.”
The demonstration during the final celebration was particularly interesting from this perspective. To put it into perspective, it is good to know that the veterans were invited to do this demonstration by the performing group of holists. The story of this invitation was told by A:
“And I said ‘hey, you come, you make posters… and you just make things you hold up in your hands. And you just smile and become part of the dance, but be present with the message that you have. You do what you want to do, and you just come if you want to do it.” … ”And one said, ‘you just give me a sign when you’re ready’, and I chose the sign to look at him, and the other would follow. So they had picked up the idea, but everything was then done by them.”
As players, we danced together with both veterans and the dance group, and when the dance ended one of the larp organisers (in character) thanked the performers – omitting to thank the veterans. Wether it was an oversight or a sign of her ignoring a case of larp hacking we don’t know – but we suspect it contributed to the sense of being made invisible that Oliver recounts.
Oliver concludes his discussion by applying the sense of being alienated and invisible to contemporary social problems:
”I can imagine how this mirrors why ghettos form. Where the anger at society starts. How much easier it is to fight and break things. How painful it is to be unable to explain yourself. How there’s no room for your way of life, even in the most accepting of societies. How much work it takes to bridge the cultural gaps and understand each other. How little things can trigger negative emotions.
I’ve come to the realization that why these insights are so strong, is that they were unintended. There was no special focus on it, on the contrary we were told to make our stories utopian. There was no active attempts to make us feel unwelcome, we did not set out to disrupt the utopian. But we still ended up feeling very much us-and-them. And they probably feel that we were an unwanted interruption, ungrateful and abrasive. All things I see every day in the immigration/integration debate.”
The norm discussion
If the storyline of the Veterans was an unintentional case of larp-hacking, the norm discussion was a more intentional diversion from the original larp design. The norm discussion was initiated by a group of politically active players with no previous larp experience and who also were active members of ’Magasinet’, the communal house that was used as a learning centre in-larp. In-game, they recruited a group of players that would study the norms enacted within the larp, and later organized a norm discussion where their observations were listed and discussed. The discussion had two concrete results; the most visible one was that the notes from the discussion were posted in the food area afterwards, so that everyone could read them. Secondly, the ’infopoint’ group (which originally consisted of the larp organizers) decided to replace themselves with a group of players.
One of the reasons why the norm debate was enacted seems to have been a case of bleed between the off-game organization of the larp, and the perceived in-game power structures of the larp. In all preparations preceding the larp, one of the organisers took a strong leading role, both concerning the artistic vision for the larp and the practical arrangements. This form of organisation stood in stark contrast with how the in-game community was supposed to function, and something that some participants reacted against. The power structure persisted in-game, as the central storyline of the larp was pre-scripted. For example, the decision to take in refugees was not done collectively in-larp, but the participants were instructed to play as if the decision had been done in a collective meeting. The pre-scripted storyline was the main reason why the organisers formed a special group in the game called the ‘infopoint’. Their in-game role was to spread information around the learning centre, and off-game they timed the storyline events. In-game, a rumour spread that the info-point was not only gathering and spreading information, but also taking decisions on its own. This rumour (which was largely spread by the group playing insurrectional anarchists) could potentially have been a good dramatic tool, as the control over information is a means of power and could well become problematic in an anarchist society. But due to the bleed between the in-game and off-game roles of the organisers it became very hard to treat it as an in-game play tool. The organisers’ decision to replace themselves was a wise one.
Another origin of the norm discussion was that even in-game, the larp was enacting gender and race norms from our society today, rather than those that would be likely to exist in a post-capitalist syndicalist society. The only general meeting that actually was played out in-game went badly for this precise reason. Hence, the norm discussion resulted in a list of observations that more reflected the power structures of the larp organisation as a whole and norms of our society today, than the power structures and norms enacted in-larp.
This becomes particularly visible if we consider the ‘holists’. The holist culture and social groups were an attempt to play a utopia, working with personal and social development through spiritual, artistic and physical practices. The culture was based on one of the premises of 2027; that of enacting utopian larp with focus on the positive stories and a working society. The players in the group tried to immerse into an positive and caring everyday life, leaving the problems of the “real world” behind. The culture was very individualistic, working with personal change before societal change and thus practiced silent “doism”, working with how to live to their own lives to the fullest without hurting anyone else, and from the perspective that you cannot talk your way into a better society – “in the end what is done is what is done”.
Consequently, these groups never asserted themselves in the larp; they did not participate in the norm debate nor did they voice their opinions in meetings. In the actual in-game situation, no other group was as marginalised, invisible and ridiculed as this group. The veterans had a particular grudge against them, calling them things like ‘happy go lucky flower power’ people. The effect was that the group became very isolated in the larp, playing mostly among themselves.
The individualistic and pacifist tendencies of the group could have been dramatic tools for low-key conflicts, as collectivism/individualism and pacificm/militancy was presented as central issues before the larp. But instead, they ended up being so different from the central storylines about the resistance and the internal problems of magazine, that the group was in many ways playing a different larp. This is reflected by a holist player, who found the experience frustrating.
“I had the experience that the holist group was playing the larp I had imagined on beforehand, while 90% of the other players was playing something completely different”.
Going further –lasting changes
Although many of the participants in 2027 are themselves active in various political movements, the larp itself was not a political movement. It did not leave any lasting changes (apart from the fact that Änggärdet got their potatoes harvested and Magasinet got running water in their kitchen), and neither did we as players learn much about how to change the world. The emergence of the norm debate also shows that we enacted an anarchistic community rather poorly. The meetings that were acted out in-game were unorganised and unconstructive in a way that gave some of us with an activist background uncomfortable flashbacks to early years in various leftist movements. The takeaways that people recounted in our interviews were personal, related to their individual storylines, and most had little to do with the utopian theme of the larp.
Still, the larp retained some of its explorative and escapist rhetorics and this is reflected in our interviews. As most larps do in some way or the other, the larp provided an opportunity to experiment with the personal experience of living in a physical and social setting that is not accessible in ordinary life. And this seems to be enough: many participants still left 2027 with a sense that it is possible to change the world. I expresses this feeling well:
“I used to be more afraid about the future than I am now. Because I met so many people having the same ideas as myself.”
Despite all the changes that the larp went through, we shared one core experience. For two or three days, we lived in a sharing society, taking equal parts in physical and intellectual work, helping each other when needed, and aiming for a culture where every voice could be heard. Even if each player explored an aspect of this that was most important for that particular player, the collective experience was that it is possible. We let D have the final words:
”We are all traumatised, in some sense of the word, by the capitalist time we live in today. And even if we at an intellectual level want to put ourselves above it, it is a large and tough thing to do in practice. You have to see it and work on it together and individually, so that you develop as humans. Then, you can also develop as a group. I had ideas about this before the larp, but here I got to experience it emotionally.”
Nøglebæk, Oliver. Unintentional larphacking and learning. Blog post, Nordic larper, November 2012. http://norper.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/unintentional-larphacking-and-learning/
Koljonen, Johanna. Eye-Witness to the Illusion: An Essay of the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing. In Lifelike, book of Solmukohta 2007. http://www.liveforum.dk/kp07book/lifelike_koljonen.pdf
Kim, John. Immersive Story: A View of Role-played Drama. In ’Beyond role and play’, book of Solmukohta 2004. http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/narrative/immersivestory.html
Stenros, Jaako, and Montola, Markus. Critical Strategies of Larp. Nordic larp talks 2010. http://nordiclarptalks.org/post/650936264/critical-strategies-of-larp