Category Archives: Reflections

Eliot Wieslander

February 19, 2015

We have a yes from our planned venue for Between Steel and Glass! We still have to do some planning and organizing to set up exact dates but now at least we can say with confidence that the larp will happen in Stockholm and that we’re planning on doing it the first half of 2016.

Just home from a brilliant Knudepunkt with way too many people to be able to talk to them all leaves us all tired and sad to miss all the lovely people but also very happy. Knudepunkt is a larp convention that originally was a Nordic affair but that has now evolved to a truly international get-together with participants from more than 30 countries. This year we were exceptionally proud to have two of the twelve keynotes performed by people who’ll be involved with Between Steel and Glass!

You will in a near future find them on the official Knudepunkt blog:

  • Jamie MacDonald on rules: Our Genre Can Beat Up Your Genre (And Your Genre Will Enjoy It)
  • Oliver Nøglebæk, who together with Josefin Westborg talked about How we as players approach characters.

We were also very proud to present two physical workshops! Johan Lundby did a workshop on Ars Marte together with Sophia Stenler that had some very valuable comments from the participants. The method, now having been tested at two games, has evolved some and we are working on making some of that available.

I also made a workshop on gender: Playing gender performing drag and we had a very lovely time being reminded that learning through the bodies experience is a very effective way to truly learn and explore.

All in all good stuff!

j-mac

December 9, 2014

I was at the first run of the College of Wizardry at Czocha castle, Poland – yes, the Harry Potter larp for grown-up kids that’s making the rounds on the internet. Read a long-form piece on the larp, plus some thoughts about why intellectual property or fantasy genres can generate good relationships.

I think one thing that made the game extraordinary was the constant need to solve small problems with two things: 1) made-up magic (i.e. bullshit) and 2) at least one other person to help you. Larps are social works of art, it’s generally true, but for some reason even doing evil in this game felt positive—perhaps because you were using a vastly creative medium to do it. I’ve never experienced a larp where the aftermath included such an outpouring of positive energy towards the other participants, and I’m at the age where that kind of bonding happens very infrequently to boot.

Larp and the joy of collective bullshit

j-mac

August 22, 2014

Those hip to the Nordic-prog-arthaus larp scene will be pretty familiar with games that have a social or even activist focus: what-if scenarios that are built not for escapism, but for comparison against our normal, everyday lives. We might play people who are disadvantaged, abused, in a war zone, sick or dying, and living under a system with notable differences from our own sense of the normal. Why do we do this? I think it’s mostly to learn something about the contingency of our own behaviour, and the contingency of our own societies.

This came to my mind because I recently played the excellent/frustrating game Last Will. I experienced some difficulties in play that, upon reflection, have started to clarify what has worked in other games. Last Will was, on paper, about experiencing the dehumanising effect of humans as property, and about the emotional effect on your character when faced with a complete lack of agency. We played slave workers in a stable that produced extreme MMA-type fighters and the entertainment around it, so we were fighters, trainers, sex workers, physiotherapists, guards, etc. It was a game about punishment, deprivation, and quite a lot of suffering, but it was also set in a fictional, dog-eat-dog world of a future.

One of the main difficulties with that run of Last Will is that I and many other players were never quite sure just how dog-eat-dog it was. It makes a game hard to play because you’re never quite sure if your reaction is within the limits of the fiction or not. For instance, I played a trainer and in one scene witnessed the sexual abuse of my fighter. I intervened, but I was never quite sure of this gameplay. Was this really something to be outraged about in this game? Or was it something that happens once a week? If I intervene, does that make me the sort of person who is morally upstanding in this world, or am I a fool who is just asking for more punishment towards me and my team? On a scale of 1 to 100, just how bad is this? 

In a game where I am meant to be dehumanised, I first have to establish what is human. And this was something that was not quite sufficiently done in the workshops and materials – even though there was lots of it.

The surreal prison camp larp Kapo, which I would say managed to build norms much more successfully and had a greater emotional impact, benefited from some actions that were designed in. To begin with, everyone who entered the camp was entering from the world we live in now, meaning that all new entrants could be expected to have a threshold for justice and morality comparable to what we now have. Immediately upon entering the camp, all players were subject to initiations invented by the in-camp group they’d been sorted into – groups that each had their own private hell of a culture, and that had been developed by some players in advance workshops. All of these initiations were disorienting and unnecessarily cruel. As a Chalker (one who paints), I was tasked with painting a wall with the tip of my finger, and would have to start again if I got any paint drops on the rest of my hand. The stupidity of the task was quickly compounded by the realisation that not completing it resulted in being ostracised by your in-camp group, and the only thing worse than being in the camp was being alone in the camp. It was worth it, as a player and as a character, to submit.

The end result of Kapo was that you entered the game with more or less your own sense of humanity, and exited with a drastically altered one, one that you had grown in order to survive in the camp. It provided an excellent basis for comparison – and made the game resonate in your own life for days, weeks, months after the game. Last Will should be a game that does the same thing for slavery, and it has almost all the ingredients to do so, but might be hampered if you don’t take the time to establish what individual characters and, just as importantly, society as a whole deems normal. Otherwise you are relying on a universal, in-built sense of humanity, justice, and morality to drive play.

Here we get lots of challenges for larp designers. How are we supposed to design and communicate world norms? Won’t some of it be emergent in-game anyway? Is it enough to have a smaller group of players create a norm beforehand and enforce it in-game?

In Halat hisarthe Finnish-Palestinian larp about occupation, I remember one thing that helped set the tone immensely. In the workshops, the organisers asked particular characters to play out certain scenes – family life, protests, interrogations at the border, interviews for political candidates, religious conflicts. The players had no idea they’d be doing this beforehand and hadn’t really established their characters yet, but we all improvised. As usual, most of the scenes were messy, with hesitant acting and only a vague grip on the circumstances of the situation.

However, in one of them, soldiers came to a family home to evacuate the occupants. Some argued with the soldiers; some got upset or afraid. One player stayed in the background, quietly gathering up a tray of cups and other trinkets he found in the workshop space. We all understood: he was quietly saving as much of the family’s sentimental property as he could. This one act spoke volumes: He didn’t expect to return to that house soon, if at all. He knew that confrontation was not his best option. The family items were important, and they would be lost if he left them. He understood what he could not do in that situation, and knew that the best thing to do was to save what he could and get out without incident. He looked like he’d done this before. It was normal.

Many people who watched that scene did so through tears. It featured a bit in the discussion, but the real impact was that all of us could imagine that that was what had happened to our characters once or twice, or to someone else. It was hard to be defiant in Halat hisar before we knew what counted as defiance; hard to be shocked and outraged until we knew what the everyday reality was. We did have some explanatory help from the designers on this front, but I suspect that having a few common scenes played out in front of everyone in the workshops can be very helpful. Some people don’t like them because they feel too much like being “on stage”, and sometimes they are just a bit chaotic. But having had an issue with cultural agreement in Last Will, I wonder if they might serve a purpose in unifying the vision.

Eliot Wieslander

August 20, 2014

Last Will, this years most hyped up Knutepunkt school larp, just finished it’s first round and we were there.

Picture of a person with their hands clasped behind their head and a barcode tattooed to their neck.

Picture from lastwilllarp.com

The game centre around themes of modern slavery, violence, democracy, voting privilege, oppression as well as on trying out some new interesting methods for larp. Sounds a bit too much? It was, especially for a 20-hour game.

I never thought I’d say that an organizer group tried too hard or had prepared too much good stuff, but here it is. The Ursula team did a fantastic job of preparing food, writing interesting characters, creating groups, finding a venue that put a hyper-focus on body ideals and exercise hysteria, fate play, plots, subplots and meta-level drama that would fill up more than three days of intense gaming. For me, their solution of trying to squeeze in three in-game days into those twenty hours didn’t work. It left me utterly frustrated and tired to the degree where my “play” as a violent oppressor revolved more around trying to gauge safety levels and what was possible to do with the people around me. Frustrated because of the many good things I never had time to play through.

Harsh? Maybe, but the problem really is that I like it. I loved the game. Just not how it was practically carried out – this time. My point essentially, is that all of this is fixable. The way it was done now reads to me like a very talented group sat down and brainstormed really good ideas, but because they also had the superpower to transform them into action, no one cut anything out or was forced to kill their darlings. They should have. Alternatively, they should really think about making it a real three-day event. That would probably be the best. I’d love to go to that game.

To us the game was also about trying out the Ars Marte. It seemed to really work. We’ll need to fine-tune the workshop and add a nota bene about being clear on when it should be used (or integrated) with other methods of fighting but the overall feedback we got was really positive.

Lots of cred also goes out to those of my co-players that kept me on my toes, among other things beautiful play of psychotic psychologist, madly smitten security guard and fierce but terrified fighter.

Look out for the next run of this fascinating story and great game! It’ll be worth it!

Eliot Wieslander

August 9, 2014

In some larps, especially within the Knutpunkt School of games, oppression is a dominating theme. Discussions on how to play hard and full on, with fictitious violence, where players are safer and characters suffer, has a long and impressive history. As there still are plenty of situations where players would had wanted play performed another way, be it safer, harder or more or less physical, there might be something we’ve not looked at.

A bold suggestion

One feminist suggestion to diminish patriarchal power is to rename ‘penetrative sex’ into ‘enclosing sex’ and thus shifting attention in what party (action) is the active one. This strategy has many merits and a suggestion that, taken seriously, could have monumental impact.

Maybe the most symbolic pillars of patriarchy is the phallus, used directly or indirectly to invade, threaten or to differentiate between ‘active’ and ‘passive’, subject and object or superior and inferior. Symbols of penetration are abundant in the oppressive structure of patriarchy, not only within actual intercourse, but also as in probing with needles, bullets and swords that penetrate bodies, cavity searches or surprise visitations of the cell in a prison.

Note that I say nothing of ’male’ and ’female’ as this has nothing at all to do with individual humans and their sexuality, sex (or even gender), but everything to do with patriarchy as a system of division, upheld by people of all genders and most cultures present on earth today. Shifting focus (and thereby power) from the penetrator to the encloser is one way of breaking, or at least diffusing, this reification of the gendered power stratification. Even further along we might also break the dichotomy completely and relate in non-linear hierarchies altogether.

In game relevance

Playing with intrusiveness/penetrative force is one of the ‘easiest’ ways of achieving oppression and hierarchy in larp. This is probably because it plays along with the theme of patriarchy, a system of oppression that we all, consciously or subconsciously, relate to.

Achieving a superior position (or making others subordinate/inferior) can of course be done in other ways. Just as status achieved by playing down often becomes a ‘game stopper’ but where status achieved by subordinate players playing up creates more game for everyone. What I propose is taking the feminist suggestion serious also regarding oppression and violence. Thus we should explore options to either use the penetrative oppressive methods with extreme care and consciousness or shift how and what methods we use and create into more enclosing ones.

There are many reasons for trying to find better strategies:

  • The most obvious might be that the more we use penetrative force to symbolise superiority, the more we risk upholding the patriarchal system of gender-based power division, especially if done by habit or ignorance.
  • Another, maybe less self-evident, is that ‘real’ oppression creates a larger and messier bleed in[1]. In other words that it makes it more difficult to distinguish between the player and the character. An example would be a gender neutral or same-sex situation where players break that by reintroducing penetrative force to decide who’s the dominant part.
  • Player safety, for both oppressor and victim, can be another reason. It’s almost impossible to remember who wants what kind of physical and psychological game, at least in bigger games. By making the oppressed party the initiator and even the active one we can shift the player power balance in one way while the character power balance rockets the other.
  • More player safety, almost all the current systems and methods of protection (cut break, negotiations etc.) presuppose that the oppressed has the agency to make an action to opt out. While the tools of oppression are intrusive/penetrative and, in the player consciousness, the active action, there’s a lot less possibility for the oppressed to actually remain active enough to make it stop. Shifting the player situation into one where the oppressed is the active one will enable a more seamless way to opt out, preferably without infringing on the emotions of oppression that the scene aimed to realize.
  • And of course, some more player safety for the oppressor: by getting runtime queues on what to do and what to increase both intensity and security can increase. The oppressor won’t carry the sole responsibility to initiate, perform and provide for the interaction. The scene becomes more co-creative.

Whether a scene is pre-negotiated or not (although for rougher scenes personal negotiation of some sort are always advisable) the actions used to create oppression could still be enclosing and not penetrative. In many ways, and certainly in settings that are patriarchal in other ways, this could lead to a higher degree of debasement rather than defusing the potential drama.

Some examples:

Person Arendt, Butler and Cixous are part of a subordinate group of soldiers; Pizan and Quinn are officers with the right and tradition to abuse the subordinate soldiers. Arendt wants physical and psychological oppression, Butler wants physical, but no verbal abuse and Cixous wants verbal but no physical.

Example one

In a penetrative system Pizan and Quinn will invent play around intrusion. This might mean separating Arendt, Butler and Cixous (making play between them difficult), stripping them, searching them, planting things on them, diminishing them through yelling, making them feel insecure by invading their tents or planting bugging devices. A, B and C can react to all of this. If there’s a method of letting other players know beforehand (through a so-called oppression matrix or similar) there’s a chance that A and B will have a more physical play but it’s more likely that none of them will get a very physical play (if not individually negotiated) and that C will get a strange feeling of having limits breached without having had a concrete situation to opt out of.

Example two

In an enclosing system Arendt, Butler and Cixous take initiatives or react in a more game-promoting way earlier on. When Pizan and Quinn enters the space of A, B and C, obviously up to no good, A shows P and Q that physical play is wanted by taking a step towards them, thus telling the players that an interaction is wanted. A might actually give them a hint on what kind of play A wants by saying something insubordinate about fighting back. When P approaches A, C steps in and tries to talk A back. Arendt gets a chance to struggle forward and stay insubordinate. P can talk back to C. C doesn’t take any step forward but jokes under their breath, communicating to the player that some verbal abuse is ok. Q steps in and starts verbally abusing C. Now B steps forward, in front of the others clearly ready to fight. P gets close and asks quiet ‘green?’ as B answers quietly ‘green!’ P punches B in the stomach (holding or not holding depending on general agreement) or starts an ars marte fight. A who want’s some too tries to jump in and a similar fight breaks out with Q or C manages to hold A back and both Q and P has a go at B who’s at this point playing to lose (albeit while struggling and feeling the adrenaline, fear and all that) to make sure that P and Qs characters are still in power and that the hierarchy is upheld. P and Q interacts and reacts with force, drama, violence and abuse but it is A, B and C as players that can escalate and decelerate the scene. When someone uses a safe word or withdraws/lies still the interaction is over for now.

Example three

Butler would like to get a very violent beating and has talked to Pizan and Quinn before about this. They negotiate (fx through The Compass [2]) and decide that the scene will start in ten minutes by B kicking a bucket full of water. When B kicks the bucket, P and Q are close by and start interacting. B is forced to hold the bucket out with arms straight while P and Q takes turns beating. B has to count and each time the bucket drops they start over. B can accelerate the scene by stumbling and taking several steps. This means go harder. B can also decelerate either by saying the agreed word for break or cut or by falling. The scene is over when B falls and doesn’t get up. Butler can stay in control as a player while the character gets a pretty bad beating. As Pizan and Quinn takes turns they check each other if it’s still ok and any of them can break or decelerate too, regardless of what signals B give.

Lets explore!

Many talks and discussions on safety in larp so far have focused on retaining safety and control in spite of ‘real’ terror and oppression. Very few of these have, to my knowledge, focused on the type of violence and how it’s played out in this respect. Neither have we created methods with specific focus on who’s the active party in an oppressive setting. Instead it seems most common that oppression in it self, very much like with other forms of penetrative/enclosing activity, is considered penetrative by nature.

In less than a week I’ll be playing a guard in a slave pen at Last will. I’ll try this some more there and let you know. It would be interesting if others would too at as many different games as possible. I’m very much looking forward to discussing and hearing your experiences on this. Lets explore!

[1] For an explanation of bleed in and designing for it watch the short talk from Larpwriters summer school 2014.
[2] This method was developed by me and Eleanor Saitta and introduced at Knutepunkt 2013.

Eliot Wieslander

August 4, 2014

To change the world for the better has been on my agenda since I was a very small person. In big and small, I try. Still there are some things that feel more in tune with that ambition than other. Being a teacher, one of the experts, at the Larpwriters summer school this year wasn’t only a very humbling and thought provoking exercise in how to design and produce games, more than anything it was one of those experience where ‘change’ was the cornerstone of it all.

We had participants from almost all over the world. Canada, Brazil, Russia, Belarus and Palestine to mention a few. Most experts and content producers were, as the initiators, Martin and Martin, from the Nordics and the practical logistics were masterminded and beautifully executed by the Belarus organizers.

I found it very refreshing to sit and talk to people who are aware that they live in dictatorship and want to change it but who can also explain, plainly and without dogma, what is missing in the, often capitalist, reform attempts. It turns out that Putnam’s theory on what makes democracy work might be applicable in these cases too; a functional democracy requires trust in community, confidence in reciprocal systems and non-work activities in which people to things together rather than alone and isolated.

Larps can be one solution to all of this! Trough being part of introducing these tools I felt I could inspire and contribute, helping our fabulous participants in their future endeavours. Almost as much as I felt they gave me motivation, new thoughts and most of all some new people to admire, people who will surely better the world both locally and on a global scale.

Resourses

The summer school uses The mixing desk of larp to explain the different aspects of designing larps. You can read about it here or watch Barke Pedersens talk here.

Three papers representing players before, during and after the larp

The illustration used to explain bleed.

During the summer school all of the faders were each introduced in a 15 minutes talk given by the different teacher. You can find all of them on youtube here.

I presented the faders of Bleed in and Representation of theme, possibly creating a new, visual, definition of bleed, The felt pen definition, in the process.

I also gave a longer talk on creating playable cultures.

You can find all of the talks form this year here

Eliot Wieslander

April 8, 2014

Coming down with some international witch-brew of a flu seem to be a common side effect of going to an inspirational meeting of any sort. Once the flu is gone, so is inspiration. Although the memory of greatness, fun, people and learning lingers, the real momentum of “let’s do it!” can easily drown in the ordinary catching-up after a sick leave or just the not-so-helpful comments of colleagues asking if it was “fun”.

Knutpunkt is an annual conference on one of the most interesting forms of participatory learning and performance art: larp. This year, an unusual number of program items (ranging from an open mic night to insightful panels on cultural appropriation) contained loads of inspiration. As usual, some are also coming downs with a post-knutpunkt flu, called the KP-plague.

To me though, the real plague is not the cold itself. To me, after this and other such gatherings, it is always the lack of action that is the biggest loss. It seems we all too often pick up next year right where we left off, both with friendships and, more unfortunately, with our ideas and collaborations as well. Of course not everyone is affected. A lot of inspired, exciting and otherwise mind-blowing stuff happens, but what if we could somehow make that the rule rather than the exception?

As an educator in the NGO field I face this issue quite a lot and that’s why one of the best presentations for me this year was the one done by Trine Lise Lindahl, Lizzie Stark and Elin Nielsen. It was about writing scripts. Of course I was interested in the topic, but what made it more effective than other talks, as interesting and inspiring as they were, was that I could start then and there. Not just to try out what their method, but to try it out on one of my own projects and connect it to something I already wanted to do. It is always easier to continue something you already started when you had the slides in front of you, than to try to remember and start on your own when everything else competes for your attention.

This is to me one example of how workshop facilitators and lecturers can help us make better use of the marvels of coming together. There are certainly more techniques. Everyone at a conference is an expert in something, if nothing else, an expert of being new to that setting or of their own experiences. To make room for us to share that, without every presentation having to collapse into public debates, is another challenge I see way too few attempts to take on in most conferences, despite the wealth of experience in most scenes.

Most facilitators and lecturers are not professionally trained to do this. Instead they are generously giving from their other areas of knowledge and knowhow. The challenge is then for the conference itself, for organizers, program planners and for the participants together to change the culture. In larp this is something we know how to do. We need adequate tools and to learn how to use them. Instead of taking up creative energy for the new tools we need in larp we could easily use existing ones. Maybe there could even be instructions from the organizers handed out to those who respond to call for program items, covering participation and documentation?

So here’s a call for participation! I’d like to hear about your best ideas of making a presentation worthwhile. It can be anything from full on manuals on participatory workshop techniques to:

At the beginning of a lecture to ask participants to think about a few things to make it more worthwhile: Take a moment and decide in which capacity you are here now. As an organizer for a particular game, curious gamer or maybe a colleague? During the talk, try to put what is said into that context.

Let’s make tools for better workshops and lectures available to this community! Lets talk about this before next year!