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 hisar, the 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.