Don’t Touch Me: Physical contact and litigiousness in American and Nordic larp

I learned a lot during my stint at Knudepunkt in Denmark, but one of my most surprising finds was the difference in physical contact routinely permitted on the Nordic larp scene, and the relatively touch-free American style of gaming, a difference that derives in part from different cultural attitudes toward lawsuits and property, in my opinion.

In Norway, Finland, and Sweden, citizens have the “freedom to roam” or “everyman’s right,” which eases larp organization. While the specific parameters of the right vary from country to country, roughly speaking, the freedom to roam means that any member or group of the general public may swim in lakes, gather mushrooms, ski, sunbathe, picnic, etc. on public or private land, so long as they stay a respectful distance away from houses and don’t do permanent damage. The public can even camp on other people’s property for a day or two without asking permission, a feat that seems inconceivable from an American perspective. In terms of larp, the freedom to roam meant that it was easy to organize boffer larps set in the forest, which contributed to strong larp culture among the Nordic countries.

The freedom to roam also illustrates a difference in litigiousness between the US and the Nordic countries. My larp group would never be allowed to camp on your 50-acre farm, thanks, in part, to liability issues. What if I broke a leg while running through your forest at night? Who would pay for my pain and suffering? Of course, in Scandinavia, the nationalized health care systems would pay for the health costs of an accident, but even so, the Scandinavians simply don’t sue each other the way Americans do. The freedom to roam abroad might be compared to the domestic freedom to sue — the US has an attractive nuisance tort, for example, which says, roughly, that if you build a pretty sandcastle on a public beach and my child twists his ankle while kicking it, I can sue you for damages.

This litigiousness of US culture affects the end result of a larp. Boffer games in the states are difficult to organize, both because venues cost money and require advance planning, and because a full-contact game essentially requires liability insurance, and getting liability insurance requires a certain amount of money and organization.

Litigiousness, combined with other cultural values also plays into the level of touching allowed in American and Nordic larps. Nordic larpers often play emotional storylines, storylines involving romance or love, storylines that invite and sometimes require physical contact between players. For this reason, Nordic games often involve touching, mediated either through a game mechanic, such as tango dance, or through mutual agreement made during the workshop or pre-game phase of a larp.

Typically, touching between players is not allowed in American larp, although of course, there are exceptions to the rule. In general, outside of regulated boffer combat, players do shake hands, and occasionally, certain male personages kiss ladies’ hands in a show of chivalry. Touching the shoulder of another person is permissible, for example when casting a spell. If two players are friends, the social bounds of acceptable touching expands to hugs, back massages, arms around shoulders, and in some cases, the larp “cuddle puddle,” a group of several players lying platonically on one another in front of a fire in the inn, for example.

However, touching between strangers is often explicitly or implicitly prohibited at American larps. I asked a number of American GMs and larpers why this was so, and they gave me a number of possible reasons, chief among them was to protect women in larp community, particularly young women or women who might not feel comfortable asserting their own physical boundaries. The rule, the larpers said, is designed to punish creeps who might try to take advantage of a situation in which other usual rules of engagement – like “act normal, not like an orc” – are temporarily suspended, creeps who might use the excuse, “I’m not a groper, but my character is.” In short, the American worry is that players might use larp as a social hack, power-gaming the social rules of engagement in an inappropriate way.

Larpers also cited cultural reasons, noting that Americans like to give strangers plenty of personal space, and that given the litigiousness of American society, no touching rules help avoid potentially explosive “he said/she said” situations, and are a way for large companies or individual GMs to cover their butts. In addition, US larps are usually open to the general public, so while participants are self-selected, they aren’t necessarily screened by the organizers for non-creepiness.

Similarly, the incredible diversity of the US, at least on the East Coast, where I did much of my research, means that a wide range of people, from Asian to Hispanic, from Republican to Democrat, from deeply religious to atheist, may show up at any given larp, and in order for a game to include everyone and keep even the most reserved participants comfortable, no-touching has to be the rule; it lets people know that they are going to be safe, that their physical boundaries will not be crossed.

In short, in Nordic larp, players often negotiate what kind of contact is permissible directly with one another or through explicit rules mechanics (more on this in the forthcoming Leaving Mundania), while in the U.S., such contact is legislated primarily through the rules, out of fear of future lawsuits.

*I know I’m generalizing about American larp v. Nordic larp here, though both scenes are pretty diverse, but the difference in attitude between what I saw in my brief time abroad and what I saw during my research stateside really struck me.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Touch Me: Physical contact and litigiousness in American and Nordic larp

  1. Excellent points, Lizzie

    From my brief experiences at American larps (a few in 2002 and one in 2007), I also got the impression that there’s a totally different expectation when it comes to us pesky Europeans.

    Two of my favorite moments are from the same boffer larp in the Seattle area, where I came and played along in 2002.

    The first thing that happens is that the game organizers lead me on to a winding hill-side path that ends in a small secluded area where some bushes made viewing from the outside impossible. One of the organizers whips out some interesting-looking “pipes” and says “We’ve been looking forward to smoking with you since you wrote on the forums”. Sadly, I had to decline, since that’s not really my thing, and surprise was great. Because, apparently to these (nice) guys, Europeans = Weed.

    The second was later, when I changed from my regular pair of jeans into a set of medieval pants. I thought nothing of doing that sitting on the bumper of a car (after all, I was still equipped with boxers and modest enough, I thought), but one of the guys turns to another while my pants are being exchanged and says “See, he’s European – he doesn’t mind!” as a kind of “Of course this guy is cool – he’s from Europe!”

    Of course I don’t mind getting free social points for being from abroad, but I admit that at the time I was a bit surprised at this attitude. And if it’s a more general thing, then maybe it’s no wonder that Americans are more afraid of the fears and fobias (and lawsuits!) of other Americans than we are of each other. I think most of the people who actually played at the no-pants-larp wouldn’t die from dropping their trousers and changing into larp pants, but maybe their belief that others wouldn’t condone it stopped them.

    This is in no way insightful or new – but since I’ve had experiences like this en masse in regards to the magazine I run (“No, I think it’s cool, but OTHERS won’t like it”), I see some similarities.

    Bottom line. Maybe if American organizers let more go, it wouldn’t end in calamity. I hope. :o)

    • Hey Claus,

      Yeah, we definitely have stereotypes about Europeans: sexually-liberated commie drug-users who are snooty about high culture. Or at least, I think that’s the cartoon version.

      Larp-wise, it can be a little hard to let go of some of the litigation anxiety stateside, which is fueled not just but cultural litigiousness, but also by the less-than-stellar image of larp in popular culture. The hobby is often perceived as kind of sketchy, so maybe there needs to be a higher bar in terms of personal contact.

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