Oscar Strik is a writer from the Netherlands who is on the brink of finishing his PhD thesis in historical linguistics. He writes about games for The Ontological Geek and about music on Evening of Light.
Live Action Role-Play(ing), or LARP, is a type of playful activity incorporating elements from (tabletop) role-playing games, improvisational theatre, historical re-enactment, and performance art, among other things. In the book Nordic LARP, editors Stenros and Montola present an engaging and valuable overview of LARP in the Nordic countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland), a tradition and community that has become famous for its experimental and artistic approaches to LARP. The book is filled with accessible sketches of selected LARP games from the Nordic tradition, illustrating the diversity of the LARPing scene, as well as Nordic LARPing communities’ inclination towards exploring the boundaries of the medium itself. As such, it is a book aimed both towards the critical LARP enthusiast and those involved in the study of games in a broad sense.
The roughly three dozen descriptions of individual LARPs featured in Nordic LARP, each in its own chapter, are bookended by a pair of essays by the editors. The first essay, “The Paradox of Nordic Larp Culture”, presents a short history of Nordic LARP as a community, or rather, a network of communities divided along national, linguistic, and local lines. LARPs from the different Nordic countries have been establishing connections since the early nineties, and the annual pan-Nordic Knutepunkt (lit. ‘knot-point’ i.e. ‘crossroads’) meetings started in 1997.
The first essay also conveniently groups the described LARPs along the lines of game design philosophy, structure, societal context, and narrative theme (24–25). In this respect, the games described in this chapter, as well as in the rest of the book, are quite diverse. For someone like me, whose experience with LARPs is limited to traditional sword and sorcery fare, many of the games described in the book will be surprisingly original. One event that certainly defied my expectations was Föreningen Visionära Vetenskapsmäns Årliga Kongress (The Annual Conference of the Society for Visionary Scientists). The 24-hour LARP saw the players take on the role of a group of eccentric scientists who each had different mental health issues. In addition, the LARP was held in public, overnight on the ferry between Sweden and Finland. Of course, the other ferry passengers did not have a clue that something fictional was going on. The LARP, in a tragicomic way, simulated a charged event in the life of each of the scientists: an important conference, a research award, being confined with colleagues in a small social space, the ferry. The organizer who describes the event, looking back, found that it was burdened by too many lectures (every player held one), but I would say that a tiresome lecture-packed day is pretty essential to the immersive experience of a long academic conference.
In Nordic LARP, we encounter everything from games like Föreningen Visionära Vetenskapsmäns Årliga Kongress, mentioned above, to games with fantasy, vampire, and zombie themes. We see historical pieces set during WW2, after a nuclear apocalypse, or in fin-de-siècle bourgeois Sweden. In addition, there are kid-friendly romps through the forest, symbolic artistic performances, and sexually charged shadow realms; a full, varied range of games are represented within the book. Describing a large number of these individual events is of course not feasible within the scope of this review, but a few may serve as examples alongside a summary of the main issues presented in the book.
What characterizes a lot of the event descriptions in the book is a high degree of reflexiveness and awareness of the position of each event in the broader LARP context. This recognition is indicative of the tradition of Nordic LARP theory that has developed alongside the tradition of simply organizing LARPs. Analogously, the Nordic scene appears to have an equally strong tradition of documentation: for each event, there are multiple written sources, and this is reflected in the book. The extensive, high-quality photographic illustrations not only make the book come alive, but also bear witness to some creative aspects of LARP that words simply cannot do justice to: costumes, make-up, props, and scenery.
A thing — or perhaps the one thing — that can make LARP so engaging is the fact that players literally embody their characters. Rather than a virtual avatar, a miniature, or an imaginary prop, the players’ bodies themselves are the character props in LARP. Arguably, this can make maintaining a conceptual distinction between player and character more challenging, and the boundary between play and the private may become unclear. This need not necessarily be a problem, but it does call for strong inter-player trust in cases of, for example, sexual or violent play situations. The need for trust between players is something that is pointed out regularly by various authors in the book, and most players with a bit of LARP experience will be familiar with this need. However, that does not mean that problematic situations cannot arise during LARPs.
One such problematic case seems to have been The Executive Game, a LARP themed around mobsters and gambling in pre-war USA. Under the banner of “perfectionism” in terms of faithfulness to the setting, the gambling table in the game was occupied by white men exclusively, “as the genre dictates” (120). The male characters were expected to behave misogynistically towards the few women characters (waitresses), who didn’t mind this part of the game, at least according to one of the female players: “One time a family member grabbed my butt and was immediately told off. […] I would have preferred even more groping! Nicky kept everyone in line, so no-one dared to touch us” (120). The article’s author (editor Markus Montola) then makes a bridge to playing racist characters:
On the surface level, The Executive Game was a racist and misogynist game; a larp where white heterosexual males throw racial slurs, mock sexual minorities and engage in greasy flirt with the waitresses.
In some sense, the misogyny aimed at the female players served as an enabler for playing racism as well. Being able to toss lewd jokes at the girls, trusting that they would only be offended on the diegetic level, allowed one to trust that a given black person would likewise understand the ludic nature of the discourse: Just like one’s misogynist quips were not aimed at the players but their characters, the racist remarks were similarly aimed at fictional people.
Toni Sihvonen […] has argued that according to the role-playing contract, it is forbidden to make assumptions regarding players based on their characters, and vice versa. Thus, it’s forbidden to label a player racist because he’s playing a racist character. The waitress players served as a psychological proxy for all minorities; as they consented to the role-playing contract, it felt reasonable to assume that other targets of the slander would have accepted it as well. (119–120)
Without any practical discussion from the perspective of players of color to back it up, such a stance seems gratuitous and perhaps typical of North-Western European ‘progressive’ attitudes towards (the representation of) racism. A similar lack of awareness is suggested by Totem, a LARP about “a society without civilization in a tribal culture where taboos and rituals dominated life” (256). Despite it being situated in a post-apocalyptic world, it uses highly exoticized and racialized trappings (totems, taboos, tribes, sweat lodges) to symbolize the regress into a pre-civilized state. That this aspect of the LARP goes uncommented on in the book is an oversight.
A couple of other LARPs stood out to me as well, in a more positive sense than the previous two mentioned. Luminescence was a highly abstract LARP where participants in their underwear played terminally ill patients, in rooms that were lit by soft green light and covered in ten centimeters of flour. As you might imagine, this was an avant-garde performative event with unique light, sound, spatial, and tactile design. Another one called System Danmarc was a large-scale dystopian LARP held in a public square in Copenhagen. Although the game drew spectators, there was a still a firm ludic boundary between System and the surrounding real-life Danish capital in the form of a plastic-covered fencing. The game was a highly political event, critiquing diminishing democracy and growing inequality in Danish society. Despite the semi-public nature of the LARP and coverage in the media, however, the event did not lead to the broader political discussions it had aimed to foster.
A book like Nordic LARP highlights some of the difficulties of categorizing activities generally gathered under the banner of LARP. While there are definitely formal similarities to be found, the range of events described in the book — and therefore considered as LARP — appear to be held together as much by their origin in a particular community as by their shared features. Although it may seem trivial, the question “what is LARP?” does crop up often while reading this book. What are the goals that game designers, organizers, and players are aiming for? What sets LARP apart from other games and performative activities?
At the risk of writing myself into a bind, here, I believe we are justified in saying that LARP is not ‘just a game’. The editors of Nordic LARP themselves indicate as much in the latter of their theoretical articles in the book. LARP is play, performance, social togetherness, and the showcasing of theatrical and artisanal creativity. LARPs usually have rules, but these need not be very elaborate: a simple system for resolving combat, for example. Most events described in the book have only a few such rules. Much more essential are character and narrative directions, as provided by the games’ designers, game masters, and the players themselves.
This defintional issue surrounding LARPs ties in with yet another terminological issue, namely: “what is a role-playing game?” The term role-playing has its origins in theatre and emphasizes the ‘getting into character’ of a player. The term role-playing game, however, has its roots in the miniature wargaming hobby (Appelcline 2013), where the emphasis is first and foremost on the ludic role a character (and player) occupies within the rules of a game, e.g. a character suitable to hand-to-hand fighting, magic, healing, or ranged combat. It is this latter sense of the word role-playing that is particularly prominent in computer RPGs, where the options for character expression are limited — the main exception being MMORPGs.
Tabletop RPGs, over the years, have evolved towards more diversity in this respect. In the history of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, we can see a move towards more complicated character-driven play in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first and second edition), as well as in the D20 system (third edition D&D), and back to a more combat-focused system, partly inspired by CRPGs in a fascinating circular influence(fourth edition D&D). Contemporary tabletop RPGs occupy many different positions along the spectrum between rule-emphatic and character-emphatic play. Surveying the LARPs described in Nordic LARP, and based on my own (admittedly limited) experience with LARP in the Netherlands, it is safe to say that LARPs tend to be firmly on the character-emphatic end of things as well.
The final essay in Nordic LARP explicitly asks the question of whether LARPs are art, game, or theatre (or a combination of these) and presents several perspectives to approach this question: theory, self-determination of players and organizers, etc. In the end, as the question itself suggests, LARP is not easily reducible to any one of these categories:
Larps are like improvisational theatre without an audience that is (not) performed for its own sake, rather than performed for an audience. Larps are Situations and Happenings that have been largely disconnected from the canons and traditions of art, set in internally relatively consistent story worlds that feature characters enacted by the participants. Larps are games set in simulated social worlds that do not necessarily have a winner – and even if they do, the players may still prefer to lose.
It is possible to situate larp in the fields of theatre, performance art and games, and to create larps that also fit under those labels, but larp in general cannot be reduced to any of those three categories. Illuminating though these approaches can be they all reduce larps to a framework that is ultimately ill-fitting. (313)
This is a statement I would agree with, but that being said, I believe play as an overarching category of human activity might instead be the most fruitful approach to giving LARP a place in our culture. Art, games, and theatre can all be analyzed as types of play (see e.g. Bateman 2011), and LARP is no different.
While this perspective is not explicitly taken up by the editors of the book, Caillois’ classic typology of play (Caillois 1961) offers some basic insights in the protean nature of LARP. Playing a character, like in theater, is an instance of mimicry, as is the recreation of fictional and/or historical props, and indeed the whole suspension of disbelief surrounding a LARP event. Elements of agôn may be found in representations of combat or other conflicts in LARP, but on another level, thatcompetitiveness sometimes exists in the creation of costumes, props, or in how well a person plays a role. The conflation of player and character body will often lead to play situations where players are physically exhilarated and overwhelmed by sensations, which can be analyzed as an instance of ilinx. Only alea, the submission to chance, does not appear to play a large role in LARP. When it comes to the spectrum between free play (paidia) and rule-constrained play (ludus), LARP seems to lean towards the former, as emphasized above. Most ‘ludic’ are those events that have explicit combat rules, very fixed characters or plots, and the like. The majority of Nordic LARPs, however, tends to be less constrained than that and favor emergent play that depends on the players’ abilities to improvise and interpret their characters.
There’s a lot of material in this book for different audiences. For those people who are interested in LARP specifically, but are unfamiliar with the Nordic scene, this book will serve as a great introduction to some of the things that make this scene unique. More generally, the large number of descriptive articles in the book provides valuable data for both scholars of play and games, as well as for game designers. Some aspects of play theory have already been mentioned above, but the book also contains descriptions of a lot of issues and pitfalls that come with designing emergent multiplayer games, such as managing communities of players and game moderators, issues pertaining to communication and language, boundaries between play and the private, and so forth. In the early days of truly massive online (computer) roleplaying games, LARPs could be used as reference material for such concerns (as described in Tychsen et al. 2006). Nowadays, the MMO genre has its own history to look back on, but LARP may still provide an interesting contrast for future study.
Above all, though, Nordic LARP is a beautiful document of some of the achievements of a very creative scene in the history of game design.
Appelcline, Shannon. 2013. Designers & Dragons: The 70s. Evil Hat Productions.
Bateman, Chris. 2011. Imaginary Games. Zero Books.
Caillois, Roger. 1961. Man, Play, and Games. The Free Press of Glencoe.
Tychsen, Anders, Michael Hitchens, Thea Brolund & Manolya Kavakli. 2006. “Live Action Role-Playing Games Control, Communication, Storytelling, and MMORPG Similarities.” Games and Culture 1(3). 252–275.