I had a brilliant visit to Knutpunkt in Sweden this year. Knutpunkt, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a Nordic larp convention that rotates around the Nordic countries and serves as a melting pot of larp-related ideas. The convention features games, talks, and workshops.
In my last post, I described some of the cool, off-book stuff I saw at Knutpunkt 2014, and in this post I’m going to talk about the theory stuff I witnessed.
Along with Norwegian designer Tor Kjetil Edland, I facilitated a panel discussion on cultural appropriation and larp with five brave panelists hailing from the US, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland.
Our aim for the panel was to have some initial discussion about cultural appropriation—to outline what some of the issues are, get some vocabulary on the table, and to create a friendly atmosphere in which it’s OK to try out ideas, make mistakes, be wrong, and change your mind.
Some working vocabulary we laid down at the beginning of the talk:
cultural appropriation – not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself. We all borrow ideas from other places all the time. But there are more and less respectful ways to do it.
race – Race is how we reductively group people based on how they look. So “black” in the US, for example, groups together recent African immigrants from all over the huge and diverse continent of Africa, as well as people who are the descendants of slaves.
ethnicity – more about country of origin or place of origin. Norwegian is an ethnicity as well as a nationality, where “white” is more of a race.
Of course, defining these terms is a huge effort in its own, and we did not want to spend our whole time on that, so these definitions are merely working ones we laid down to help get to the rest of the discussion.
Here are the questions we asked:
- What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
- What do you do when you are inspired by source material that contains racist stereotypes?
- In what types of situations can using real world nationalities get you in trouble?
- What are some good practical rules of thumb around this topic when it comes to game design?
Discussion spanned quite a lot of ground, and we talked around to many many issues. To me, since I’ve been writing about this a bit on my own blog, the most interesting parts of the conversation were ones that felt new to me. Here are a few points that emerged:
- Talking about cultural appropriation (trying to impose moral codes on other cultures) is itself cultural imperialism. Some of the Nordics feel that the discussion about cultural appropriation is, itself, a form of cultural imperialism on the part of the US. Basically, the US exports culture to the rest of the world, like, say, the Spaghetti Western, and then some of us get mad when Nordic countries use the cowboys and Indians trope because it’s culturally appropriative of Native Americans. It’s sort of like we’re giving other cultures toys and then saying there are only certain right ways to play with them.My take is more that because US society is more diverse than most of the Nordic countries, we’ve had more opportunity to royally screw up–we are kind of experts in screwing this up, trying to fix it, screwing up again and then trying to fix it again. My concept is more like, “learn from our mistakes so you can do better.”
- If a culture that is 99 percent Finnish, and itself the product of a long time of Russian occupation makes a larp exploiting stereotypes of people who don’t live in Finland in great numbers, is that really an act of cultural oppression? The Nordic countries are comparatively quite monolithic, so issues of cultural appropriation have not come up in the normal course of business there, though in recent years, folks are becoming increasingly aware of them.
- Nationality and religion can be proxies for race in Europe. Issues of cultural appropriation often intersect with issues of nationality in the Nordic countries. In contrast to the US, which has a large endemic population of immigrants, kids of kids of immigrants, etc., many places in the Nordic countries seem to be dealing more with first or second generation immigrants, so rather than speaking about race, nationality or religion seem to be the statuses discussed. In other words, issues around race can be disguised as issues around culture.
- Beware the Internet. The Internet is awesome because it lets us all talk to each other across the world. But it also strips away all context. You made a larp relevant to your particular cultural context? Great. Put it on the Internet though, and people all over the world will see it—and that context will be lost. When context is lost, Internet battles can occur. Think before you upload.
- Think before you appropriate. And do some research to know what you’re getting into. Getting inspired by other cultures is a good thing. But often we take things without examining the context of our own privilege. Borrowing is cool, but be a conscientious borrower: think critically about what you are taking, why you need it, and how you are using it before you take it.
This only scratches the surface of what we talked about, and there was plenty of debate. Clearly, there was enough material here for about seventeen panels. I hope the discussion is continued with greater specificity and depth at future KPs.
At the hour of the rant, another American, roleplaying researcher Sarah Lynne Bowman and I did a satirical take on cultural appropriation. I wrapped myself in the flag (literally) and my partner took on the persona of the Statue of Liberty. The point of our rant was two-fold:
- To point out the rather monolithic view of the US that our Nordic compatriots superimpose over our country. Seriously—the first ten times people hate on the US, it’s like, “you do have a point, the US has done some really problematic things” – and then after that, it’s like, “Dudes. We invented the lightbulb, cars, the IWW, and hippies.” The critical leftist voice in US politics is rendered nearly invisible abroad.
- We also decided to behave according to the rules laid down by this narrow-minded view of the US. (Hey, tell us that we’re jerks, and we’ll be jerks.) So we appropriated Knutpunkt, or should I say “Living Games East,” on behalf of the US.
The Great Player Safety Mess
In case you haven’t gotten the memo—psychological safety in larp is a difficult, fraught thing. This round-table, hosted by Danish organizer Søren Lyng Ebbehøj, looked at debriefing. Debriefing is the practice of having a mandatory, structured discussion with all participants after a larp.
The structure of the discussion was intriguing—the participants were divvied up into groups of eight, each sitting at a table, and with a moderator-chosen secretary to report on the results of each discussion round—we did three or four, each based on a question chosen by the moderator. I liked the participatory elements of this panel.
To me, the take away was that there is no one debriefing technique that is going to work for everyone, and that there are no easy solutions. I might hate answering the question, “what are you going to leave behind about your character?,” but for another person, doing a round of sharing like that may be essential—and it may be essential that everyone mandatorily contribute to such a discussion, confounding efforts to make certain elements of debriefing opt-in.
When it comes to beating the post-game blues, the biggest help—if my group was any measure—is not necessarily the formal debrief, but going back home and doing the things that make you feel like you.
This doesn’t mean that a structured debrief isn’t useful—far from it—but it does suggest that organizers might tell that to players in addition to any other formal debrief stuff they do.
Run by Danish experience designer Jakob la Cour, this participatory workshop focused on helping people enter into a state of superreality, that is, a state where all senses are heightened.
La Cour suggested several methods for helping people enter into this state. Here’s what I remember, though there may be more:
- Emotion. Make people laugh loudly for as long as the organizer does it. Or make them seem very sad, etc.
- Motion. Doing stuff all at the same time can bond the group and sensitize them. La Cour had lived in Africa for a time, and the Masai boys in his village, when they came home, would all stand in a circle and jump at the same time in a particular way. He got us doing that, and sure enough, the sensation of doing something in a group bonded us.
- Physical contact. We hugged the person next to us in the circle for a full minute, and tried to understand the physicality of that person through the hug. Sure enough, immediately afterward, instead of standing in an evenly spaced circle, we were naturally standing closer to our partner.
- Individual/Group work. You can do lots of cool stuff with an individual versus the group. We had one person stand facing the group, then we put our hands on them, or on a person who had their hand on them, and focused positive energy in that direction. The recipient of this seemed to feel cool and quite upbeat afterward.
For the final exercise, we split into four smaller groups, each of which came up with an exercise designed to help one or more people enter a state of superreality. They all seemed pretty cool, but I’m already rambling, so won’t relate them here.
Before we started working, la Cour let us know that there is a price for entering into the superreal state–you feel great for a while, but you crash afterwards. And crash, I did. I was barely capable of speech for a while later.
Run by Danish designers Nina Rune Essendrop and Peter Munthe-Kaas, this participatory workshop is a system for trying out cool new larp mechanics.
Here’s the system:
- Get some people in comfy clothes in a room.
- When someone has an idea, don’t talk about it, just try it out.
- Under no circumstances should there be more than five minutes of talking.
- Don’t talk. Try it out!
Sure enough, we tried a bunch of stuff out. For example, we all sat down close to each other, and when one person said their name, the people around that person repeated it more softly until it faded away. This led to the idea of trying it with noises instead of sounds. Then we thought it’d work better if when you wanted to pass along a sound you touched the people next to you. Then we did a thing where we sat closer to each other and faced outward.
We also tried hooking up a single person with four or five others, who lifted them for slow-mo superhero battles.
We tried rambling around like zombies with our eyes closed and arms outstretched, moving very slowly. When you ran into someone else, you made a “bzzt” sound and withdrew your hand. That was pretty cool. Getting caught in a traffic jam made me feel very vulnerable and disoriented–overwhelmed by sensation. Could be interesting in the right game.
The workshop was very fun, and opened us up to some new design idea, I think. Peter and Nina mentioned that when running this, it can be helpful for the organizers to have a few ideas in their back pocket, in case the group isn’t feeling inspired.
Sexy New Theory
Admittedly, I could not make it to this lecture—there’s so much cool stuff at KP, that there’s no way to make it to everything, and this year I chose to prioritize workshops—but folks were buzzing about some suave new theory laid out in speech form.
I’m sure I won’t do either of these theories justice, but happily, the originators will be finishing up the theory and probably publishing it soon. If the peanut gallery wants to jump in to correct me, please do so.
Markus Montola, Eleanor Saitta, and Jaakko Stenros coined this concept, which describes a type of good metagaming.
Basically, steering is when you do something for out of game reasons to make the larp better for yourself or others. If I see a new player sitting in a corner during a larp, I might find a reason to talk to them, even if our characters don’t have a natural or obvious reason to larp. I’d steer my character to interact with that person, giving them more play.
Or if I’m playing a loner character who hates parties, I might steer my character to go to the party. That would mean, essentially, finding in-game pretense for social interaction. Steering is vital to larping—most larpers do it constantly. We come up with in-game reasons to do stuff that we wanted—as players—to do anyway, and we do it without breaking the game world.
It’s nice to have a name for this phenomenon for a couple reasons. For starters, it’s a way of talking about meta-gaming without using the phrase “meta-gaming,” a term that carries the negative connotations of cheating in many US larp communities. It’s also useful because it allows us to talk about it as its own phenomenon, which means we can talk about how to do it well.
New larpers often worry about doing exactly what their characters would do at all times, not realizing that it’s OK to metagame a little bit for social interactions. I think it’d be a useful concept to explain to noobs that could improve their first experiences.
You don’t have to take my word for it—go read the slides!
There was also some talk about coherence, a concept coined by Norwegian larp scion Eirik Fatland that relates to the consistency of a larp. I’m distraught that I missed the lecture, and rather than write down my bastardized third-hand knowledge here, I’ll just say that I look forward to reading the theory whenever it’s ready!
The Prog Larp Debate
Nordic larpers like to argue about what “Nordic larp” means. Does it mean stuff with artsy aspirations hailing mostly from the Knutepunkt conference? Larp produced in the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway) in general? Can you do Nordic larp in England? Can US authors write Nordic larp? Is it something that contributes to the Nordic larp discourse?
This year, Swedish designer Martin Ericsson proposed that folks throw over “Nordic larp” in favor of “Progressive larp” or “Prog larp.” This launched a thousand Facebook arguments, and–be still my heart–along with the American rant, it inspired three satirical websites.
Sure, “Nordic larp” has problems as a term. So does “Progressive larp.” Among the counter-arguments floated are that it subtly insults other forms of larp by stating that they are not progressive, that it sounds snotty, that it supposes a certain political stance on the part of the creators, etc. etc. On the upside, it’s more internationally inclusive.
I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but I think it’s a debate worth knowing about, especially as it will let you in on some of the inside jokes on the aforementioned websites. I find it fascinating that people argue so fiercely over terminology, since I find those arguments among the most mind-numbing and soul-killing debates. I mean, no one’s going to die if we call it “Nordic larp,” right?
To each their own [label], I guess.
Some larps I heard about
Guys: there are literally SO MANY cool new games I heard about that I’m forgetting about 8,000 of them. Here’s what I’m remembering off the top of my head.
Two games that took place this year that I heard rumblings about. Here’s what I was able to vaguely gather about them.
A Swedish game about a patriarchal society in which women must be controlled because they have the dangerous but necessary “force of life” within them. I believe it was a feminist venture aimed at raising discussion around gender issues. It will be re-run in Norway this fall.
A joint effort between a Finnish and Palestinian organizing team run in Finland. The larp reenvisioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set in a fictional version of occupied Finland.
And here is a random sampling of the big, full-immersion, let’s-spend-several-days-together ventures set to take place in the next year:
Gladiators in the dystopian near future! It’s running twice, in Stockholm this August. Sign-ups for the first run are due in by May 1. I believe it is open to International participants and will be played in English.
Norwegian larpers doing what Norwegian larpers do best: having tribal rituals in the woods. Sorry foreigners: you’ve got to speak Scandinavian to roll with the big kids in Norway this July.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
OK. I have no idea what this larp will be called or even how likely it is to be produced. Or where. Or by whom. But at the end of the Just a Little Lovin’ dance party, there was an announcement that a game based on the cult movie is forthcoming.
(JALL is a larp about the summer AIDS came to NYC that has be re-run three or four times now, in different Nordic countries.)
Hippie commune goes wrong in the 1960s. Sorry kids, you need to speak Danish to play. Also, it’s sold out, but there is a waiting list!
Harry Potter in a Real Freaking Castle Er…College of Wizardry
Harry Potter + castle in Poland=this game sold out within 26 hours of tickets opening. But I have heard whispers of a second run, so watch that space on Facebook.
More Cool Stuff about Knutpunkt 2014
- Nordiclarp.org has a great round-up of other posts, slides from talks, photos, and more!
- Swedish larper Petter Karlsson and I have started a brand-spanking new larp talk show. See our four videos on Knutpunkt here!
Anything I missed, y’all? Post in the comments.
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