About six months ago I participated in a game called “Mad About the Boy”. I’d like to share with you how that experience changed my perceptions both of myself and of the world at large, and how it got me hooked on a burgeoning subset of gaming known as Nordic larp.
As a scholar of performance, it should come as no surprise that I am deeply interested in experiences that challenge us to perform new identities, as well as to examine the ones we perform on a day-to-day basis. This is what draws me to world of larp. A “larp” is a live-action role-playing game. You may have encountered this word before, perhaps written in all caps, as LARP. I’ve recently started writing the acronym in lower-case letters, in an attempt to destigmatize and normalize the word, an idea which I first encountered in Lizzie Stark’s excellent book, Leaving Mundania.
You may or may not be familiar with larp, let alone Nordic larp, but I’m willing to bet that 99.99% of you have all larped before, even if you didn’t call it that. Because at its essence, larping is playing a game of make-believe. You pretend to be someone else doing something else somewhere else, just like you probably did all the time when you were a child. Granted, larps can be a bit more complicated than “playing house” – the costumes are more elaborate, the rules of the game are more complex, and there’s an overarching plot or structure that is implemented and overseen by a GM (Game Master) – but they come from the same impulse to imagine scenarios unlike the ones we are currently in, and to explore those scenarios with others.Role-playing is a common occurrence – sometimes it’s used as an educational tool (you have probably been wrangled into participating in “role-playing exercises” before in training programs for work or school), and sometimes it evolves into a dramatic art form. Live-action role-playing, then, just removes the passive spectator from the equation, so that all participants are performing simultaneously. It is improvisational and not just performed for an audience, and the game part overlays a structure and purpose to it all through the use of rules (what you can do) and mechanics (how you do it – e.g. rolling dice to determine the victor in a swordfight).
Most traditional larps in America are about fantasy and sci-fi themed stories. After all, I’m sure you have all heard of the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons (a role-playing game, but not a live-action one). But I am interested in an emerging genre of larp known as Nordic larp, so named because it originated in Scandinavia. Nordic larp diverges from traditional larp in several important ways:
Nordic larp has a serious tone. These games tend to be about normal humans in real-world settings. Plots may focus on subjects like cancer, war, global catastrophe, depression, and failing relationships. That is not to say that there aren’t humorous or joyful moments in these games, but rather that the focus of the plot is on realism.
Nordic larp is fully immersive. Some traditional larps are also fully immersive, but this element is integral to Nordic larp (again: we’re going for realism). Immersion means that you play in an environment that actually looks like the setting of the game (as opposed to playing in a hotel room and pretending it’s a dungeon), that you use props that actually are the items your character is using in game (as opposed to using a broom handle to represent a sword), and most importantly that you remain in character for the entire duration of the game. As these larps may last as long as several days, that means you even sleep and eat in character.
Nordic larp is about collaboration over competition. Nordic larp may also be called collaborative storytelling, because one of the goals is to create an engaging and vibrant story as a group. Sometimes that means “playing to lose”, or allowing your character to fail at achieving his or her goals if that lends itself to a richer storyline. This is one of the most drastic differences from traditional American gaming, where competition can get heated, and where achieving your individual character’s goals is often your top priority.
Nordic larp employs unique gaming mechanics. Nordic games use special mechanics that to help create a collaborative storytelling experience. One example is the inner-monologue, where a player might express what his or her character is thinking silently, even if she does not express it out loud or act upon it. Another example is the use of the “black box”, a specially designated space where players may enact scenes which take place in a different time and/or location than the rest of the game. Both of these techniques lend themselves to developing a rich storyline for the players to experience, but would be unusual (if not outright antithetical) to most traditional American larps.
Nordic larp is a lot like theatre. So many of these techniques remind me of acting exercises, and the experience as a whole is a practice in improvisation. Throughout my first experience with Nordic larp, I couldn’t help thinking how much actors would probably enjoy it. I think one of tne of the most interesting aspects of larping is how each player is simultaneously performing and observing.
Nordic larp is a lot like reading a book. You go into it knowing all the characters’ backgrounds, and you learn more about the characters’ pasts or inner experiences through inner monologues and black box scenes. You get subtext and exposition about the overarching story of the game, which enriches your experience as a receptive subject, even if it doesn’t get played out in game. This is also pretty different from traditional American larps, where you guard your secrets closely and where surprises are revealed in-game.
Nordic larp is a lot like therapy. Nordic-style games are all about exploring the convergence of identity between yourself and your character. When this happens, it is called “bleed”, such as when your personal background “bleeds in” to your character’s in-game experience, or even vice versa, when your character “bleeds out” into your day-to-day life. These experiences encourage you to be analytical and introspective, and can often lead to moments of revelation.
Nordic larp is an invaluable tool for social exploration. This, I would argue, is one of larp’s most important attributes, and why more people should know about it and try it out! Participating in a serious-themed larp allows us to safely explore potential scenarios which help us learn more about ourselves as individuals, but also more about our society and culture. That’s why many of these games pertain to political subjects, and are set in potential futures or alternate realities.
I believe that larp is not only fun (and does not deserve the negative stigma it seems to have developed in the U.S.) but that it has great potential as a tool for societal artistry and innovation. Why is it that we relegate games to childhood? Why should we grow out of playing, instead of just letting the games mature as we do? If, as children, play helps us to explore and make sense of our world, helps us to learn new skills and rehearse potential identities, then why can’t it still serve those functions for us as adults?
Next week, I will post Part 2, in which I will address some of these questions by sharing my own experience playing in a Nordic larp called “Mad About the Boy”, which focused on themes of gender, family, loss, and community. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Nordic larp, but don’t want to read a whole book yet, Lizzie’s got you covered at her blog.
Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Emma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor. She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research. Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”. Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.