In a nutshell, Ars Amandi allows players to touch permitted zones (arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears) using permitted bodyparts (hands, arms, neck). Experienced practitioners say it’s all about the eye contact, and the rhythmic breathing, which allow couples to dial the intensity up and down.
I based my workshop on the detailed account that Swedish mechanic creator Emma Wieslander sent me. The workshop operated a bit like a dance class, with participants swapping partners after short sessions. I functioned as the square-dance caller, telling people where to go and what types of touch or emotion to explore during each segment. While they explored, I watched and kept neutral music on in the background.
At first, we limited ourselves to just the hands, and the pairs rotated until everyone had “met” each other. Folks tried out active and passive roles with their eyes closed, then with eyes open. The permitted zone expanded from hand to elbow. Then, instead of taking on active or passive roles, couples mutually explored each other’s hands and forearms.
During this first leg of the workshop, the participants laughed and talked with one another, across couples, almost incessantly. All the chatter helped them diffuse the tension in the room, but it also helped them ignore the intimacy of touching someone else’s hands. At first, their touching was tentative and very unsexy — they simply tried to touch every different part of their partners’ hands. But by the end of this first phase, they were touching each other with more liquid strokes, and were experimenting with different hand positions. Still, the chatter was protecting them from really going for it emotionally.
During the second phase of the workshop, they graduated to the shoulder. We had discussed the clavicle and neck as a zone of touch, but not everyone was comfortable with that, so we stopped at the shoulders. I forbid talking and enforced it, with the almighty power of the “shh.” For the first few rounds, there were still some nervous giggles, but the air in the room subtly changed, becoming more charged. They tried moving around each other, touching their partners’ arms from behind. They tried breathing more sexually. At first, everyone tried out the novelties incessantly — lots of eye contact, lots of heavy breathing, lots of walking around each other, arms folding together and apart like some swing-dance move. Very quickly, everyone backed off of the new additions, using them more as a garnish to the lovemaking than as its substance. Later, they mentioned how far a very small amount of eye contact goes toward increasing the intimacy.
As the workshop progressed, the sessions between partners lengthened, and we tried playing scenarios — storybook romantic love, oppositional and angry love, a one-night stand, the casual sexual opportunities of a long-term relationship. By this point, each of the participants seemed to have developed a signature style, a method of playing Ars Amandi unique to themelves. The dynamics between different couples differed quite widely, even when I didn’t give them anything specific to play — I saw innocent flirtations and intense, fraught bedroom scenes. Some pairs touched each other with slow tenderness, some almost danced together, others seemed both exploratory and ashamed at time. Beautiful love scenes unfolded.
Afterward, we all sat down and talked about the mechanic and its possibilities. Here are some of the observations that came out of that discussion:
- All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.
- As a group, they said they really enjoyed this technique and asked when it might be used in a larp and how this technique might play out in a five-hour convention larp setting. Sadly, I didn’t know the answer to either of these questions. I figure you’d have to require workshop attendance before a game, and I didn’t know whether convention-goers would be willing to give up two slots of time (one for the workshop, one for the larp).In terms of running an Ars Amandi larp, I’m no game designer, but I’d borrow and run someone else’s shorter scenario, if such a thing existed. However, most of the Scandinavian Ars Amandi larps I’ve heard about lasted a couple days and had really complicated staging unsuited to a short convention game. So, Nordic people: are there shorter Ars Amandi games out there?
- We had some lively discussion about costuming possibilities — velour opera gloves (kinky!) — staging possibilities — wouldn’t chopping celery in the kitchen make for a great, handsy set-up? — and made lots of jokes about everyone being arm sluts now.
- The participants felt that as the workshop became more intense, everyone got better at enforcing their own limits, typically in a non-verbal fashion. People said things like, “you showed me how you wanted to be touched,” and “you could tell when someone wasn’t comfortable with a specific move.”
- While the workshop proceeded without interruptions, during the debrief, a couple people tried to walk through our room, despite the signs I’d put up. This led to some interesting discussion — one participant said that she wouldn’t have cared if someone watched the workshop, but that now, in this moment, while talking about her emotions, she especially didn’t want an outsider in there. Several people echoed her feeling, testament, I think, to the power of this mechanic.
- Some interesting discussion about whether an Ars Amandi game could have a “non-combat” equivalent. Many stateside boffer games, for example, allow players, either by choice or by necessity (in the case of children) to wear a non-combat headband. If you’re wearing the headband, that tells other people not to hit you with boffers. Instead they call their damage from a distance. Would this work in an Ars Amandi game?
- Ars Amandi ettiquette. A couple people thought it would be fun to write up a little sheet advising hand-lotion, getting the grit out of your fingernails, and gum. At least one of the ladies sighed longingly after another’s manicure. If only she’d known it was going to be so intense, she said, she’d have done the same.
- General improvements: I could make the workshop better by limiting talking earlier on, introducing a safe word or a specific motion that people could use to ask their partners to back off, just as a fail safe. I could also have done a better job of letting people know when they were about to change partners — several people (very politely) complained that my abrupt cuts had resulted in coitus interruptus. I needed like a one-minute warning method, or a “3-2-1, stop.” Also, a more formal warm-up game might have helped diffuse some of that initial chatter.
Not enough Ars Amandi in your life? Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Emma Wieslander, creator of the technique.
Thanks to the folks at METATOPIA, Double Exposure’s new awesome game design convention, for making space for this. Rob Donoghue has a really nice description of what the rest of the convention was like.