The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Brudpris and the power of ‘skav’

brudprisIt seems like I am fated to digest my Solmukohta rant from 2012 many times over. The larps “Just a little Lovin” and “2027” may not have changed the world, but they have certainly taught me a lot about the world and about myself. And now, I have played Brudpris, beautifully designed by Anna Karin Linder Krauklis and Carolina Dahlberg, in this year’s Norwegian run produced by Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl, and got another reality check.

Brudpris is quite possibly the most terrifying larp I have ever done. This is a larp about a fictional Nordic honour culture, the ‘Mo’ people who live apart from the rest of society and uphold an oppressive lifestyle. In ‘Mo’ everything hinges on how much honour the ‘patriarch’ (the husband and father) of a household is considered to have; and honour hinges on keeping your own emotions and those of your family under tight control. An excellent report from the larp is available here.

In ‘Mo’, women are considered emotional and dangerous, and must be kept under close control. The household patriarchs hold all power and decide all marriages, never to be looked into the eye by a woman. Women serve, obey, and are regularly beaten. The name of the larp – Brudpris – means ‘the price of the bride’. Patriarchs pay to get their daughters married off, to men who can ‘take responsibility’ for them.

My role in Brudpris was that of a woman anthropologist, who coming from a gender-equal society entered Mo with the aim to understand how the Mo women lived. The anthropologists are primarily written into the larp to provide a mirror for the participants playing Mo people, highlighting the differences between Mo and the world outside. As such, they are rather thin characters with little opportunity for development. Yet, playing Beatrice was a horrifying experience. Starting out as a high-spirited, outspoken and active woman Beatrice became more and more subdued and controlled as the larp progressed. She ended up married off as the third and very slighted wife to a widower. who took responsibility for two unmarried women for money and honour. I have no doubts that Mo would eventually crush her, and that she never would write that spectacular book she was dreaming of writing.

What makes Brudpris a terrifying experience is however not its story, but what happens after playing it. Some larps are fairly easy to shrug off even when they are tough to play. KAPO for example, depicted a horrible and slightly absurd concentration camp that I (as an intern, I need to get back to the guard experience) could shake off quite easily as it had little to do with the life that I – or anyone else in the western world – lives. It was hard to see the KAPO camp as realistic, even when it was. For similar reasons, some characters are possible to shrug off even when they are quite despicable. I had great fun playing a racist anthropologist in Terra Incognita (a Lovecraftian horror larp). While enacting a kind of pre-war racism that I had dug up in antique books, I never for a moment considered myself to be racist.

Brudpris didn’t offer those ways out, as became obvious during the debrief. The first part was kept separate for those who had played women and men. The women started to talk about their backgrounds, how they had played their grandmothers, or how similar their patriarch had been to their own fathers. They told stories of abuse. Among the men, those who had played young boys told stories of guilt, and of how much they had to give up to become men. The patriarchs – at least those played by women – told stories of how vigilant and lonely the oppressor must be. But what only gradually dawned on us – sometimes weeks after – was that it had been all too easy to play Brudpris. That we (who played our everyday gender) found it all too easy to succumb to the destructive Mo culture. This same larp report, written by a man who played a young boy in Brudpris, is a good example. What makes Brudpris so terrifying is not only a ‘bleed‘ experience, but one that has been called “skav” (friction) in Swedish. The feeling of awkwardness in a socially dysfunctional setting, and the discovery that that fictional culture we enter as an alien world is in fact all too similar to our everyday experience.

An it is here I have my only real critique against Brudpris: this experience seems not to be all that accessible to the men who played patriarchs. When I first read their post-game reflections, I was struck by their intense desire and ability to distance themselves from their roles. They had a tough experience enacting oppressors, wrote about how horrible their roles were, and how they hated them. There is a distinct difference between these stories and the story told by a person playing the even more abhorrent role of a guard in KAPO. The KAPO guard tells a harrowing story of how easy it was to become a torturer, how it became routine, and how difficult it was for him to acknowledge this as a side of himself. Seen in this light, the patriarchs in Brudpris had it easy.

I have one possible idea about why this happened. In the pre-game instructions for the larp, the men playing patriarchs were instructed to take a great deal of off-game responsibility for the people playing in their families. As a result, they tended to organize also the off-game discussions and decide when and where they would happen. Essentially, they played patriarchs also off game, albeit of a benevolent character. These roles came easy to them and were accepted by their families, the groups were enacting well-known frames of social interaction from our everyday world. I do not believe that these men recognized their off-game roles as benevolent patriarchs.

Myself, I wrote this as my farewell to my stupid, smart, Beatrice:
“What made it so easy for you to go native? Where did that body language come from, so different from your own? You didn’t have it in you. You are brought up in an equal society, you are used to foreign cultures, you are already a recognized academic. You wouldn’t know how to bend your head or knee.
It came from the teenage girl who wouldn’t ask a boy to dance. Who felt awkward if she laughed too loud or talked too much. Who never could tell a boy that she was in love; since he should be the one to ask. Who could not show her sexual desires for fear of being a slut. It came from the twenty-four year old who fell in love with a man because he was much older and seemed to be able to support her – and fell out of love two years later, when it was clear to her that the support went the other way. It came from me.
I learned to stand on my own and I carried out my career in a male-dominated environment. I am a professional project leader, manager, teacher, and mentor. I found a man who needed not carry me and neither I him, and our relationship is equal. I laugh, I swear, and I dance with whom I want.
And yet, that alluring lack of responsibility for my choices, that wish to be carried, that fear of talking and laughing too much, all resurfaced in you and moved you to give up everything. I wish it all had come from you – because I certainly didn’t want to find that in me. I’m sorry.”

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14 thoughts on “Brudpris and the power of ‘skav’

  1. Thank you for your thoughts, it is good to hear that the perspectives from across the gender divide were similar to those I had.

    But I’m not sure I agree with your comparisons between the patriarchs and Kapo guards. Firstly because of the power of having a character. The Kapo guards had none and went into the dark place as themselves, (which was completely irresponsible). In Brudpris you had the character insulating between action and player. Another way Kapo was different was the inability for the guards to break from the experience, whereas that was required for the Brudpris players.

    So yes, there was a difference. But it is too fundamental to be comparative.

    And the experience was very much accessible also from the patriarchal side, albeit diluted by the pseudo-gm function and covered up by the fact that the players had spent three days distancing from their emotions.

    • Obviously I can’t speak for the other guards but personally:
      I disagree with the notion that lack of formal character caused (significant) lack of insulation between role and player. For two reasons.
      1) Some sense of character/function hybrid did emerge.
      2) When the roles become demanding like the guards, the patriarchs, and the oppressed, I don’t trust the insulating factor to be worth much. The real work is in the setup of trust and in the debrief, in which role can be a tool to help distance oneself. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that the dark things we did or accepted done, came from our own imaginations and empathies.

      So yeah, the roles were thin and we had to come up with them, but in my experience they were there in some form. The lack of insulation I would argue had to do with the actions taken and the acknowledgement of what we were capable of in such short time.

      I also disagree that Kapo guards were unably to break from the experience although I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. To me it has to do with being able to take a break, get distance, analyse, and adapt. We did that several times a day. Sometimes it was experience technical stuff like which things are working, and how do we keep that situation safe, and sometimes it was checking that everyone is still human and that there’s a Good Person(tm) behind the role.

  2. Waern on said:

    Sure. It was the fact that the guards in KAPO were not real characters – they were doing a job – that made distancing impossible in that larp. What I want to emphasise was that distancing also was impossible for most players in Brudpris (despite the characters), except – possibly – the men playing patriarchs.

  3. I really like the core point you’re making here, but I think that the comparison with KAPO is really telling. The rich world has evolved better barriers to make us believe that we’re further from KAPO than we are from Brudpris; that’s a specialist form of oppression, a specialist violence. The state gives us distance from it, even though it’s just as close to us in many ways. That kind of violence is what makes Norway possible, albeit at several removes. It’s what makes the US possible, at very little remove at all. The note in the book about the player’s father who had been a kapo is telling. Personally, I didn’t play KAPO because it was going to be too close to my life — what Brudpris maybe was for you (and might well have been for me too).

    In addition to the notability of the asymmetry of distancing in Brudpris, there are potentially ethical issues in its design, especially when it comes to sexuality and fantasy. That very easily taken off mantle of patriarch has mirrors in other scenes, and I wonder about who the game was intended to provide an alibi for.

    I don’t yet have words for this, but I think there are interesting things to be explored in the system dynamics of gendered oppression, vs. racial or class oppression. There’s no point in the “which is worse” discussion, of course, but they also clearly impact society in different ways. That gender oppression exists inside almost every family makes it uniquely close, and I think accounts for some of that easy-to-fall-into/hard-to-distance-from feeling.

  4. Waern on said:

    That’s in the post.

    • And I can’t see how that would explain your sudden leap to point that the patriarch-players did not have just as intense and inescapeable experiences as everyone else.

      Is it the third person treatment of the patriarch role after the game?
      The fact that the players did not like their roles?
      Or that they had offgame responsibility as well?

      Please, I simply cannot see why you would make such a sharp distinction and negate the experience of other players?

  5. Waern on said:

    I am not trying to negate the experience of other players and I am sorry if it sounded that way. The players playing patriarchs had a tough experience. What I am saying is that the post-processing seems to have been different for them, as they have both tried to and succeeded in distancing themselves from their characters.

    My partial explanation is that they played patriarchs both in and off, but that the off-game role was benevolent and provided positive confirmation.

  6. I see, it sounded very harsh in your text. But I still disagree, I have spent quite some time talking with patriarch players afterwards and their response to the game is as varied as everyone else.

    But several have had a hard time with precisely distancing themselves from the characters, the actions and the feelings, because they too have internalized the structures of oppression. And most of them try damned hard to not be like that in everyday life, but it’s easy to fall back on your training, just as easy as donning the mantle of victim without responsibility. Realizing that is part of the ‘skav’, the toxic culture of masculinity and silence is still very close to home.

  7. I will agree that some sort of disentanglement of ingame power and offgame responsibility would have been a good addition to the debrief, but it was lacking in many other regards as well.

    • Waern on said:

      Well, I can only use the stories I have access to. You may have heard other stories and the ‘skav’ may also have surfaced later for these players.

    • Alright then, sample size always makes it hard to make generalizing conclusions.

      And: The skav was there from the debrief and onwards, excpet there were bleed-effects (from the stoicism of Mo-culture) obfuscating the reactions of those who played male in the game, that made it difficult to express much towards women.

  8. Waern on said:

    Hmmm… interesting comment and I can well believe that the men had difficulties opening up. But it still didn’t surface much in the postgame reports.

  9. Pingback: Gårdagens värld idag igen, avsnitt 19: sprickor i verkligheterna |

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