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.