July 31, 2016
“Jeglicher Zauber geht verloren, wenn du versuchst, ihn einzufangen.”
What role does “magic” play in our lives? Is magic already suffused with the powers of the mundane? How does magic duplicate and comment upon the logics of neoliberalism already governing us? To what extent can “rebellion” be realized within a left-leaning institution, and how do such institutions cull and herd their ranks? Is being a wizard the new “it” thing?
These questions have all popped into my head over the course of the past week, thanks to the latest live-action role-playing game (larp) with which I took part. In this post, I will outline the game itself, talk a little bit about its design, go over some of my character’s arc, and conclude with a discussion of the content of this post’s title: introducing major figures of social thought into the curriculum of a magic school. And, of course, royally rocking out while doing so.
The past weekend (July 21-24, 2016), I had the pleasure of attending the third run (NWM3) of New World Magischola (NWM) at the University of Richmond. If you’ve been keeping track of my exploits (or outright stalking me), you’ll note that this was my third multi-day larp experience ever – following the first run of Inside Hamlet and the fourth run of Just a Little Lovin’, which I documented extensively here. Those were Nordic larps over in Denmark, and were a departure for me after I started down the road of Nordic freeform in 2010.
NWM is the American adaptation of the hit European game College of Wizardry, a highly successful blockbuster larp which is to date scheduling its 11th run, not including sequels. Contrary to popular belief, NWM is not the first weekend-long Nordic larp in the United States; that honor belongs to Lizzie Stark’s 2012 run of Mad About the Boy.
Each run of the Harry Potter-esque magic university runs from Thursday afternoon until Saturday at midnight, immersing players in a magical version of the United States known as the Magimundi invented by co-organizers Maury Brown and Ben Morrow and co-created by the player-characters themselves. Thursday evening mark the parties of the 5 student houses and the initial gatherings of the school’s many clubs and secret societies. Friday is the first day of classes coupled with the first-year initiation ceremony into their respective houses. Saturday is the second day of classes, and ends with a spectacular ball and the announcement of the winners of the house cup.
The design of this game focuses on player imagination, co-creation, 360-degree immersion, and emergent plotlines. Overall themes (as far as I could tell) were inclusivity vs. exclusivity, vulnerability vs. coldness, the consciousness and rights of non-human/non-wizard creatures, freedom vs. security, and rebellion vs. control.
Brown and Morrow have deliberately created a larp environment around building empathy and empowering others. When we think about the last 25 years of entertainment larp history, we know that’s often not the case. Vampire: The Masquerade-based larps, the centerpiece of the medium and hobby for many years, famously revolve around player vs. player (PvP) conflict. Baalman and Barchmann (2014) write:
Conflict is the basis of the game – the reasons for conflict are a multitude – and the conflicts are never fully resolved or forgiven, any step towards resolution is simply a further step towards new conflicts. (22)
To be sure, conflict is what drives most narratives, and in theory driving for hardcore antagonism in a larp space is a good thing. In practice, however, a larp culture of PvP can produce many nasty side effects as well. Participants trust each other less and, as Sarah Lynne Bowman (2014) has argued, PvP can lead to long-term community schisms that only hurt the larp ecosystem overall. In fact, PvP games too often instinctively draw upon cultures of scheming and conflict that, in fact, are only endemic to the western world.
In contrast, Brown and Morrow advocate for a larp design that includes rather than excludes, that empowers rather than constrains, and that encourages ignorance of social hierarchies rather than deference to them. In their words: “The rhetoric the characters [use] is invitational and not the agonistic or command-and-conquer rhetoric that is programmed into so many games.” Empowerment therefore stems from players being able to have information at their disposal, decide to opt in or out of play situations, easily create alibis to cover certain plot points, and let them negotiate the outcome of emergent fiction. As any expert of improv theater can tell you, the First Rule is to say “Yes, and…” to any fiction or action thrown your way. Information circulates thanks to a state of transparency unheard of in most larps (Brown has said my own essay on transparency helped her formulate design on this front), and then player-characters choose to engage or disengage using a variety of techniques.
Thus the “magic” of a magic school comes from the collective imaginations of the participants, rather than carefully balanced sets of rules and gamemaster-centered meta-plots. Actually, the latter part – the relative deficit of meta-plot – proves an integral part of this design. In cooperative board games such as Pandemic or Ghost Stories, for example, the reason to cooperate can be found in the relentless external threats pounding down on the player-characters from all sides. In NWM, cooperation stems from player-created drama that is often not directly PvP. A student has an unresolved relationship with their monstrous father, and needs fellow students to help summon him. A professor gets into an unprofessional fight with another professor over methodology. A disruption in the ley lines has brought in more vampires, shadows, and werewolves to campus, meaning that the non-human-sapience advocates suddenly have a whole bunch of wandering actual creatures on whose behalf they must now advocate. Each plot thread stems from situations that offer personal or social drama, rather than drama on an epic or worldwide scale. Countering the usual genre fiction trope of the world always being threatened and the PCs always being entrusted with saving it, NWM instead explores the day-to-day weirdness of being at a magic school and the HBO-style drama of powerful-yet-inexperienced wizards figuring out their lives, finding romance, reconciling with their pasts, and taking action against the social injustices around them.
Speaking of social injustices, I should mention the progressive ambitions of the larp. Gender pronouns defaulted to “them/they” rather than “him/he” or “her/she.” Romance plots were presumed to be agnostic of sexuality. Most of the student organizations available had some sort of activist component to them. All of the Magical Theory & Ethics faculty, myself included, were encouraged to instruct students to question authority and rebel against it. Real social issues around the marginalization of certain populations and the investment of large institutions in criminal corporate enterprises emerged in metaphorical form throughout the game. In other words, NWM created a space in which we might enact our own pedagogy of the oppressed and imagine alternate realities in which our own education system encouraged students to speak out, rather than conform.
NWM’s design had us build a temporary edifice of trust – a heterotopia, if you will – so that we could explore both personal themes and themes much greater than ourselves. By turning conflict toward the extant social system, the game’s design had us form real empathy relations with our fellow players as we then began to address social problems all around us. Those characters who exacerbated these problems also demanded our empathy: we needed to figure out why they were prejudiced against chupacabras, or why they chose to defend the evil Foresight Corporation, or why they dabbled in the dark arts, and then make difficult decisions as to what to do about it. The game gave us the necessary information, and then let us figure out what to do with it all. It felt like a breath of fresh air with a whiff of emotional maturity. It created an environment that, like any good classroom, afforded the players to take appropriate risks.
And that’s where I come in.
Professor Kai Hassinger
The character I was given was “K. Hassinger, Professor of Magical Theory & Ethics, 3rd Year.” He’s a Mundane-born (“muggle”) weirdo from Mishipeshu (the Magimundi Midwest) who happens to be a former New World Magischola student. This character opens with the line “You’re a rebel and proud of it” and later continues:
“As a professor, you’re valued for your brilliant, outsider’s grasp of arcane ethics. You’ve tempered a bit, but you still have a hot streak and you delight in challenging expectations and forcing students to re-examine what they’ve learned.”
This was basically a gift to me as a player, because I’m often playing the quirky, outsider character with left-leaning ideologies. Fit me like a glove. And then I thought: “What if Robert Smith from The Cure was my fashion template?”
Thus Kai Hassinger was born.
Kat did my make-up and showed me how to rat my hair, and it took some planning to find goth-y clothing that would also breathe well in the extreme Richmond-in-July heat. I was very proud with the result: an arrogant agitator and rock star with a heart of gold.
My personality came from both former UMass professors (“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!”), as well as my general impression of impassioned iconoclasts throughout history. Also as an iconoclast: he was thrown out of 2 of the 5 houses in his 3 years as a student, and never really graduated as a practitioner of a specific “major.”
For this run, my character had been given leadership positions in the Fellowship of the Hydra, a do-gooder vigilante group, and the monitorship of the Maison Du Bois, the most upstanding house and one of the ones that threw him out as a student. I attributed Hassinger’s membership in the former to his impulse toward action over mere philosophizing, and his possession of the latter as a mysterious form of punishment handed to him by the Chancellor thanks to political maneuvering by his institutional arch-enemy, Jurisprudence Professor Taggart. So I was grappling with a fairly complex character that, at the same time, needed to provide play for others as faculty. But I otherwise had zero character connections listed on my character sheet.
I attempted to reach out to fellow players on Facebook before the game with some limited success. The Mundane players certainly wanted an ally on the faculty, and I desperately wanted – thanks to prior larp experiences – to be situated in some social situation other than “You’re an outsider and a weirdo.” I chose then to double down on my character’s responsibilities to his networks – Faculty, Hydra, DuBois, Mundane-borns – as well as scheduled a rock concert to happen for ~30 minutes on the Saturday of the game (more on that below). At the game itself, I reached out to several professors for more solid relationships. Prof. Alfred Contreras became Hassinger’s former advisor who also was the reason why someone as outlandish as him even had a job. Prof. Kane, the other ethics faculty, also had a very progressive, leftist approach to ethics, so Hassinger immediately formed a tight bond with him. Prof. Taggart became his arch-nemesis, “The Man” he wanted so desperately to take down (but with whom he secretly agreed on many topics). Prof. Barber, a cryptozoologist, became Hassinger’s equally unconventional frenemy… with whom he later found much affinity. Prof. Barlow in alchemy became a fellow disaffected person from Mishipeshu, and eventually his date to the ball. Prof. Ziegler became the other outsider, whose avocation of necromancy intrigued him. Slowly, the pieces began to fall together, but only with much proactive effort on my part.
But no proactive efforts would outrank the feat that was my course preparation.
How do you teach a “magical theory & ethics” course? Let me count the ways…
Seriously, the topic is so, so broad. And it’s so easy to get wrong.
I didn’t know where to begin, so I thought about what I myself as a German professor and graduate faculty member at the University of Cincinnati would be interested in teaching. What I came up with was a valorization and discussion of the works of several of my intellectual heroes: Hannah Arendt, Antonio Gramsci, and Giorgio Agamben. Basically, those strains of continental philosophy that deal with the politics of demarcating an “enemy” and what we actually do with human (and non-human) bodies subjected to systems larger than ourselves. I wanted to smuggle these thinkers into the larp, even through their own words, with the serial numbers filed off. In other words, I wanted to teach the players something that I myself was actually an expert in, so that they could then feel like they as characters had also learned something.
The faculty are basically gamemastering their own mini-larps, and I wanted mine to A) overwhelm the students with that “out of my league” feeling you get when you first get to college and B) let the students know that they could comprehend the basics and learn to act on what they’ve learned by the end. I also wanted to model how to disagree respectfully with someone with different – perhaps even repugnant – opinions from oneself.
So I invented a worthy straw man: Prof. Joffrey Leadwale (played to a T. by Chris Bergstresser), a well-established Unsoiled professor from the 19th and early 20th Century whose work Arcanium narum was considered a classic at NWM. My first lesson had an intended three-Act structure. Act I was introducing the students to the Arcanium and letting them swim around in its complexities. Hassinger asked them if they could find a passage that made them angry, and one that intrigued them. Hoo boy, did that get them riled up. And just after the students reached the point when they wanted to tear the argument to shreds, in walks the spirit of the guy who wrote it. (It’s kind of an academic’s dream come true, actually). Act II is an act of tense negotiation in which Hassinger tries to mediate Leadwale’s ideas about the semantics of magic to the students, while also questioning the classist and racist presumptions underlying the text. Students have to figure out how to voice their critiques to a worthy opponent. Act III involves Hassinger sending away Leadwale and then revealing his own school of thought and ethics, called the Alternium. The first page of the Alternium is Hassinger’s radical leftist intellectual statements regarding how magic is integrated into societal power politics. The second and third pages are then quotes from philosophers of interest to those looking at the ethics of power: “C. Schvitt” is Carl Schmitt, “The Q” is Malcolm X, “H. Ardenta” is Hannah Arendt, “M.M. Foqua” is Michel Foucault, and “A. Gambon” is Giorgio Agamben. The fourth page contains Hassinger’s rants against other content in the textbook, again reinforcing his “outsider” status. Discussion then launched into the very nature of power and our capacity to act within larger, exploitative social systems. The students finally had to form groups and tackle one of these 18 simple sociological projects, which involved observing class and power dynamics around NWM. So suddenly, magical school students had to take Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and interregnum seriously, or look for signs of discrimination and political economy in NWM. Hassinger helped drive play by suddenly having the player-characters critically analyze the environment around them. The second lesson was mostly about taking their lessons from the projects, and then applying them back to concepts in the Alternium.
The classes were exhilarating to teach, to say the least. Students came in not knowing what to expect, and wound up having to take real-life power dynamics articulated by real-life theorists seriously. He found instant affinity with a host of students who held similar opinions: Hebe Hathaway, Beowolf Gonzalez, Katerina Rosener, Tatiana Bradford, Jasper Creed, Rafael DuPont, and the list goes on. Philosophical questions that directly concern contemporary social politics were foregrounded, as well as a kind of polemics that one usually only sees in graduate-level coursework. Hassinger could behave as responsibly or as irresponsibly as he wanted, a liberating feeling for me as real-life faculty who is otherwise beholden to student evaluations. His class began to swell with auditors from other class years, who had heard a rumor or two about Hassinger’s teaching style.
It was in the Magic Theory & Ethics classes that I felt closest to the vision of this larp: social progressivism in wizard school and presenting students with no easy answers (or an “evil” threat to eliminate).
The out-of-class scenes were not as enjoyable as teaching the classes, at least for me.
Many of the recaps and entries related to NWM often tell the tale in a long character arc spanning the whole weekend. Truth be told, Hassinger didn’t have much of an “arc” – more like a series of vignettes and small arcs. Here are a few to satisfy your interest in “what happened” during the game:
• Hassinger attends the Maison DuBois house reception as reluctant house monitor. He openly reveals his fraught history with the house (having been thrown out as a student) and casts public doubts about the viability of the group to compete for the House Cup. Later: He realizes at the moving House DuBois initiation ceremony conducted by Emily Dwyer and Meridia Hayers that he actually still believes in their causes of “truth and ethics,” and rallies to their support.
• Rafael DuPont, a 3rd-year Lakay Laveau, solicits Hassinger’s advice regarding Avernus prison. He’s got a relative imprisoned there, and knows of the atrocities. Hassinger brings him into the Faculty Lounge to discuss things further, where DuPont also gets to overhear all the drunken faculty gossip. Hassinger advises DuPont to gather the signatures of as many Marshalls as possible, to send a clear message that the next generation of law enforcers oppose this for-profit hellhole. Later: DuPont delivers the petition with 14 signatures. The motion to disinvest from Avernus prison is dismissed by the Chancellor out of hand, and the faculty move to table it for the next (contentious) budget meeting. Hassinger flies off the handle when Taggart’s name is mentioned as being pivotal for the petition to get off the ground, and he throws a temper tantrum at the faculty meeting.
• Hassinger spends much of the weekend debating with his mentor Contreras on the point of acting “principled” in contests such as the house cup. Hassinger takes the side of the pragmatists, advocating House DuBois to be “crafty,” should they want a house victory. Later: DuBois wound up coming in 2nd place.
• During the first meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, Hassinger and Faith Myczek look for a direction for this vigilante society, and find in one in sapience rights. One member says it is a pity for us to be holding our meeting at the exact same time as the sapience rights, so we just decide to merge our meeting with theirs. At the end of the major-league activist meeting led by Moxie Brack and Eva Sheridan among others, the gathered group is suddenly faced with a dilemma that Hydra members had to help deal with: a scared chupacabra being hunted down for having killed a wizard’s 12 year-old son. Thanks to the quick thinking of several students led by first-year Sloane Lanczek and the assistance of Profs. Hassinger and Barber, the students heal the chupacabra, conceal it in robes, and smuggle it to safety. Later: On the second meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, we discussed the outcomes of our previous struggles and then re-joined the Sapience Rights Advocates for their plans to speak in favor of vampires, chupacabras, and others.
• Because the Chancellor was otherwise indisposed, Hassinger had to take over taking the house cup points for about 3 hours.
• Hassinger witnessed several rituals on behalf of the students: one that brought a greycloak in from its quasi-existence between dimensions (don’t ask), one that permitted the poltergeist Johnny to possess the body of this other guy, and one that brought Alfie the ghost back from the dead.
• Hassinger notices first-year Jasper Creed has been attending his third-year classes and being of a similar anti-establishment mindset. He randomly asks him at dinner if he could be his TA. Later: At the ball, Creed and Hassinger find themselves awkwardly dancing together… and hatching future plans.
Rock On, Everyone
Of course, I also did mention that concert that I had scheduled. I used an impromptu, weird-ass flyer to advertise it…
Looks pretty hip, right?
In actuality, it looked something more like this:
That thing on the left? It’s a gremlin. That thing on the right? It’s a faun.
They both rocked. Hard.
And it didn’t hurt that the Chancellor himself was really into punk music and down with me dominating the Faculty Lounge with a bunch of loud rock songs for half-an-hour. He hauled in more students to see the spectacle. Thanks, Fortinbras!
For those who know my recent larp creations, you know Kat and I’ve put together a wonderfully debauched game called Slayer Cake, which lets you live out your Brütal Legend dreams of being in a magical rock band vying for the title of Overlords of Rock. The relevance here is that I effectively introduced one of the karaoke, fake-guitar-playing sequences from Slayer Cake into NWM so as to introduce an “event” for other characters to participate in. Since I genuinely love playing fake guitar in front of everyone and screaming “Metal!!” then the deal worked out for people on all sides.
The important thing about blockbuster larps is the dispersal of various random events, some of which drive plotline, and others become empty vessels for plotline to fill. The concert was one of the latter: as Hassinger was rocking out to “Wishmaster” and “Paranoid Android,” there were people next door trying to conduct a ritual, others hiding in the concert from their opponents, and others still launching into new character arcs thanks to the music and lyrics. Player-characters projected what they wanted into Hassinger’s own small act of permitted rebellion, and were rewarded for it.
And there was even an encore permitted during the ball, for those who wanted to keep rocking!
A Few Summary Points
NWM3 afforded me an opportunity to be the rebel, rock-star professor I’d always wanted to be, as well as experience some minor pathos around Maison DuBois, my mentor Contreras, my antagonist Taggart, and student-led activism on behalf of issues that they cared about.
• The game’s design encouraged the players to use the wizard school as an allegory of modern liberal arts education and social justice dynamics.
• Professors being allowed to design their own curriculum gives player-characters in faculty roles the ability to steer the game through their lessons.
• Putting some real content that you are passionate about teaching into those lessons is a pretty good idea.
• My character didn’t really experience a life-changing arc during the game, and that’s OK.
• But I got to rock out and help make the experience an enjoyable one for my fellow players.
I send out much love and thanks to everyone who made NWM possible, and hope to be part of this continuing drama as it unfolds.
“Hat ein einziges [Werk] seinen Zweck erreicht? Haben sie das Rad aufhalten können, das unaufhaltsam stürzend seinem Abgrund entgegeneilt?”
–– Heinrich von Kleist
When we finish a book, exit a movie theater, let the record needle hit the center label, we might ask ourselves: What did this experience mean? Am I moved? Did the work of art “do its job,” so to speak? Did I “get my money’s worth?”
Regardless of the capitalist-consumer ideologies underpinning these questions, I find them fair and valid in some cases. Our time on this Earth is precious, and we must process what we have done with it.
So I say with utmost seriousness that Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), a five-day live-action role-playing (larp) event about AIDS and cancer in early 1980s New York communities, counts as one of the best aesthetic experiences I have ever had in my life.
The content was meaningful and moving, the form elegant and carefully conceived. In a time of mediocre, mass-produced entertainment, we occasionally encounter such gems as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or China Mièville’s The Scar (2002) that deploy well-worn tropes in new and spectacular configurations which can still reach beyond our media-disciplined masks of irony. As a product, JaLL certainly ranks among them. But as a larp, JaLL also has the capacity to exceed them. Finding the words to describe that excess has been the task of the past 2 weeks after the game. Annika Waern offered a few after her experience 3 years ago:
“The level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.”
–– Annika Waern (2012)
When writing reflection pieces, we may feel that they do not take a specific position, but simply neutrally “self-express.” But this is a comforting lie we tell ourselves to get the words out. Our testimonies always have a telos. We write with purpose. I am placing my purpose on the table, out here in the open. My words below contend that JaLL – a work that has now been produced 4 times across 3 different countries – is a game of exceptional quality design, that it created a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us. The result was a conversion from an artificial community into an actual community, the kind that so many movies and other media promise us and also frequently fail to convincingly deliver. The game was designed for care and justice. I will start with my design remarks, then move into my particular character’s story (yes, I will be telling you extensively about my character), and conclude with discussion of the important feedback loop between the event, player, character and actual events beyond the mere diegesis of the larp. This will be a long, possibly unforgiving read. You were warned.
Here is the vision statement for JaLL:
- All participants will experience the three main themes of the larp; desire, friendship & fear of death.
- The organisers shall make the participants feel safe enough to step outside their comfort zone, both as larpers and as human beings
- The larp will be of high and professional quality both practically and artistically
By “design,” I mean two different equally important elements: scenario design and production design. The former refers to the written scenario work done by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo, the latter to the real-world, logistical implementation by Flemming H. Jacobsen, Anna Emilie Groth, Helene Willer Pilronen, Petter Karlson, Rasmus Teilmann, Sarah Cederstrand, Alex Uth, Jakob Ponsgaard, Naya Marie Nord, Nicolai Steffensen and so forth. Neither really functions independently of the other: workshops and character orientation content can only be done if time and space allow for it, players can only play if they’re fed, the decorations and configuration of the site make sense when they fit with the July 4th “feel” in the design documents, etc. And JaLL is a well-oiled machine in part precisely because its mechanisms work so well in tandem with each other.
The JaLL scenario design is widely known, and borders on being completely transparent. The players take on the roles of attendees of three consecutive July 4th parties held in Saratoga, NY in 1982, 1983, and 1984 — NYC gay marketing magnate Mr. T’s guests, the guests of his lesbian secretary Pen, and the Saratoga Friendship Pact, a hippy community of cancer survivors. This motley crue must then face together three nights of partying and mutual pleasure… each followed by a Lottery of Death the next morning, a meta-scene that determines who is infected by or dies of the incoming pandemic known as AIDS. Tears are shed in abundance at the characters’ collective funerals, and the support networks within the gay community re-shape themselves around fighting the disease. We all know from history that this would mark the burial of the 60s utopias and a whole generation of leftist gay performers and activists who might have otherwise helped repel the toxic advances of Reaganism.
The production design in the Denmark run actively supported the scenario design. A full day of workshops and warm-ups helped the group of strangers adjust to the culture shock of the 80s and pretend to be longtime friends. Sound design was carefully attended to in each space: the discotheque, the dining room, the black boxes, the funeral field. Fourth of July decorations could be left up between acts, their gawdy candor testifying to us that this summer camp in Denmark was, in fact, the ever-patriotic United States. Pepper’s Diner, catered by larpers in character, worked around the clock to keep the dinners fresh and distinct across each year and the dietary needs of the players quietly addressed. The dance party every night was an actual dance party, with character attractions otherwise replacing player attractions on the dancefloor.
Several aspects of the design have been (and should be) mentioned as exemplary. Actual sex and drugs were forbidden during the larp, meaning that players had to own responsibility for every action their character took. Breakfast at Pepper’s Diner was sometimes an awkward affair. Every character was embedded within a core, intimate group and a broader social group, along with a network of potentially non-superficial relations. In play, a player-character who had a drama-filled core group could then lean on her/his social group for stability or vice versa, whilst drawing out new emergent connections from the party itself. This permitted us to form clear social goals for the party – “I’d like to get to know Reginald better!” “If Beverley brings up my past affair, I’ll bring up hers.” – while also affording us a safe space.
Structured, ritualistic events and black boxes helped maintain a sense of player agency. Every night of the party, one could count on the raising of the flag, the drag show, the dancing, the green drink at midnight that may intensify or reverse character behavior, the awkward late-night heart-to-hearts. Though anything could happen within it, such structure permitted players to plan their evenings and react to subtle changes over time accordingly. If players wanted to reinforce or explore certain elements of their characters’ stories, they could wave a feather and invite others to a “black box,” rooms outside of the diegesis that permitted one to play out the past or one’s fantasies. Players were invited to read all the characters before the larp if they wanted, permitting vital information to be communicated even before the absolutely transparent player workshops began. In end effect, one had no excuse to sit around and look bored, despite a general lack of intrigue, mystery investigation and violence – staples of most larps.
The gestalt effect of the game’s design promoted player agency, risk-taking, and mutual care. We produced an approximation of the 1980s with all kinds of anachronisms, and that was OK. Players could steer their plotline the way they wished, but always in dialog with the other players as co-creators. The physical safety of the game let players take emotional risks, which then came back to haunt them at the character funerals. The constant stream of information between players and characters led to an environment in which everyone could take care of both player AND character without fear of in-game consequences. After all, we were playing to lose… and then be uplifted. Let me use my character’s story as one example of the above.
The Ballad of Gay Tony … the DJ
Originally an organizer character in the first three runs of the game, Tony was my top pick among the characters on offer for this run of JaLL. I do DJ work on the side, and know generally how to move crowds with music. This would offer me a chance to finally reckon with the music of the 1970s and 80s — to get to know how that historical transition from disco to Duran Duran. I wanted a character who could draw on my natural tension between playing what the crowd wants and my personal, fairly esoteric taste.
As a character, Tony both fit me like a glove and posed me a number of challenges. The character rewarded me for deep study of the gay New York and popular music scenes, having me download and listen to over 300 tracks from ABBA to Yazoo. My own knowledge and appreciation of music for its own sake could be sated. The character’s challenges came in the form of his personality and social being.
Tony was designed as a melancholic introvert, something I generally don’t play, who also is supportive of others but not emotionally communicative – he likes to pretend everything is cool when it really isn’t. It’s fairly straightforward for me to play a character who lies to himself, but ultimately such characters are sometimes of limited utility in reaching out and providing others play opportunities. I’m used to telegraphing my thoughts and intentions far and wide, so that other larpers can hatch their plots and act on the information they’ve been given. As far as his social being was concerned, Tony starts the game as a gay man in an open relationship with a younger gay man, Francis, and his sexual history with the others at Mr. T’s party runs fairly deep. Though I’m bi, I have been in a monogamous heterosexual relationship for 13 years and thus had to come to terms with being in an open relationship that was at least meaningful as we both went off and hit on men. My lack of interest in a jealousy plot around said relationship actually became a major driver of Tony’s narrative, as you’ll read below. Finally, Tony’s longstanding presence in the club scene meant that he consumed a serious amount of drugs, also something not in my own lifestyle, which caught up with him as the 1970s faded into the cold, hard 1980s.
The music is weaving
Haunting notes, pizzicato strings
The rhythm is calling
Alone in the night as the daylight brings
A cool empty silence
The warmth of your hand and cold gray sky
It fades to the distance
– Ultravox, Vienna
Who is Tony? Born in 1950 in Manhattan and raised in the Village by liberal parents who worked at NYU, Tony experiences a fairly cushy upbringing, such that his coming out at 16 is seen as “no big deal.” He finds himself watching from down the street as the Stonewall protests took place, and becomes accustomed to playing the Velvet Underground and Jimmy Hendrix everyone was requesting at the emerging gay bar scene. In 1971, Can’s Tago Mago hits the shelves and Tony is now obsessed with crazy European avant-garde music, experimental electronic soundscapes, and Krautrock. After some time spent shooting heroin while listening to outrageous music, he cleans up a bit and plunges some gathered funds into his record collection. By 1975, he owns his own store, Tony’s Records, on Bleecker St.: pop hits in the front room, bizarre and psychedelic imports in the back room. Pepper’s Diner, another gay-run establishment, is located just down the street and is his favorite dive to grab an omelette and meet interesting men. During this extroverted period, he befriends Daniel, one of many lost new gay arrivals to the City, and shows him the scene. They are best buddies briefly until Daniel meets and starts dating Larry, another local. The relationship does not seem healthy by Tony’s standards, but Daniel abandons Tony as a friend instead of listening to him. Around the same time, Tony finds Artie, a flirty idealist who turns out to be not the best of boyfriends but is the greatest of close friends. Hook-ups within the gay club and nascent drag ball scene describes Tony’s sex life through the 1970s.
In 1978, Tony begins filling in as a weeknight DJ at the hottest nightclub in New York: Studio 54. All the drugs, money, attention and cock he wants are suddenly there for him, and he certainly takes advantage of it. New gigs spring up for him, from small-time basement clubs to hip parties held by Mr. T. This employment (thanks to club promoter Sorrento). These gigs boost the ego of an otherwise sullen, gay record peddler, and he gets increasingly ambitious in his sets and purchases for the record store. His risks are rewarded. Business booms. So does the drag ball scene, and it is there where he meets the energetic Francis, a modern dancer from a rough background and aspiring queen. After Francis loses his mother to heroin in 1980, her death propels him into Tony’s arms. Tony is unused to keeping a long-term partner, but his undeniable empathy for Francis pushes him to commit to him as part of a supportive, open relationship. Francis in turn brings Tony into the fold as a volunteer counselor for gay youth at a local shelter, which means talking to teenagers about suicide prevention and finding gay-friendly places in New York to live and work. Daniel, who reappears in Tony’s life as part of the drag troupe Club Diamond in which Francis sang, helps get them an apartment together in Soho across the hall from him (as well as the dancer Reginald and the misfit Trevor). Success seems to reign in Tony’s romantic, artistic and commercial lives. Life is good.
1982: Mr. T invites Tony to DJ his July 4th party in Saratoga, NY. Tony, Francis and Artie had attended the previous year’s party and remember it as an orgiastic event with lots of drugs and hook-ups. They are definitely up for it again, even though there were a bunch of Saratoga cancer-survivor hippies also in attendance. Nevertheless, the Studio 54 crew gets right to business at the start of the game by doing coke on the cabin’s tables and setting up an awesome disco party. After hanging out at dinner with the band Urban Renaissance (containing Tony’s crush for the first night, Rain) Tony and Francis go on a “date” to the tantric workshop, a hippy affair which leaves them unimpressed but mutually amused. They have to part ways early in the evening to do their respective jobs: Francis preparing the drag queens and Tony readying the stage for the queens and the party afterward… while also doing coke with the writers Eli and Jerrod, among other things.
The evening’s performances include music from Mary Lou, a singer-songwriter, a striptease by the go-go dancer Chain, and a poetry reading by Abner, a pretentious professor who had been dating Eli, one of Tony’s old flames. Urban Renaissance take the stage and rev up the party for Tony, who then brings on all the Studio 54 classics. During this initial phase of dancing, Francis comes up to Tony to ask for permission to sleep with the neighbor Reginald, who just rocks the evening with his interpretation of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance.” Tony gives them his blessing, and they disappear. At midnight, the party collectively imbibes green drink, a weird herbal concoction that (mechanically) forces JaLL players to intensify or reverse their play. Francis comes to Tony with guilty feelings after his hook-up with Reginald: he may have inadvertently damaged Jerrod and Reginald’s supposedly monogamous relationship. Tony spends the rest of the evening keeping the party stoked and introducing other party-goers to coke. At one point, he asks for a piece of paper from Abner to use for snorting, and Abner gives him a poem… which Tony gladly uses. Nevertheless, along with Tony’s debauchery comes the suspicion that disco is dying, that these days will not last. Melancholy sets in.
Music playlist for 1982:
• Earth, Wind & Fire – “Let’s Groove”
• Sister Sledge – “He’s the Greatest Dancer”
• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”
• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”
• Musique – “In the Bush”
• Shalamar – “Right in the Socket”
• Man 2 Man – “Male Stripper”
• Miquel Brown – “So Many Men So Little Time”
• Modern Talking – “Brother Louie”
• Donna Summer – “I Feel Love”
• Yellow Magic Orchestra – “Rydeen”
[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]
• Donna Summer – “Bad Girls”
• C.J. & Co. – “Devil’s Gun”
• Vicki Sue Robinson – “Turn the Beat Around”
• Blondie – “Call Me”
• Donna Summer – “Love to Love You Baby (Giorgio Moroder Mix)”
• Yazoo – “Goodbye 70’s”
• Prince & the Revolution – “Erotic City”
• The Pointer Sisters – “He’s So Shy”
• Madonna – “Borderline”
The next morning, Tony is up with several of the monied gay men, Bruce and Artie among them, gossiping. They reach the conclusion that most of the relationships they had known of the previous night had dissolved or were severely on the rocks. Breakfast see Artie, Francis and Tony recruiting potential volunteer counselors for the shelter, including Chain and a quiet young guy named Ike, whom he also interviews for a potential job at his record store. Then he sits listening to his more experimental records in the empty disco with a rotating cast of other listeners: the spiritual Joani, the gay father Lester, the art photographer Micky.
The Lottery of Death hits on schedule after breakfast. It gives many a brush with the afterlife, and takes two of us — Max and Sinclair — away. Tears begin to flow already, even though we as players barely know each other. It all seems so very unfair.
Between July 1982 and July 1983, more knowledge of the “gay cancer” that took our friends’ lives becomes available and the volunteer counselors, Tony included, become the de facto people disseminating it. AIDS is now known as a CDC-recognized epidemic that doesn’t just affect gay people. Yet few in the community respond rationally to this information, which makes for intense awkwardness. Tony abruptly turns from counseling 16 year-olds away from suicide to conducting full-blown youth HIV prevention seminars, a process which slowly takes its psychic toll on Tony. It pains him to watch the adult New York gay community not listen to the latest medical data as the teenagers did.
In the fall of 1982, two crackheads mug Tony within a block of his store. They only take $20 and rough him up a bit, so Tony never tells anyone about it. But the city that had given him so much suddenly assumes a darker look. Tony’s style changes to suit it: black leather, studded gloves. His taste in music also shifts: Italodisco replaces disco, British new wave and synth rock putting the 1970s to rest.
1983: Tony, Francis and Artie come to Mr. T’s party as the HIV crusaders, armed with data on how the disease spreads and whom it kills. No one wants to talk about it, however, and arguments quickly erupt. Much of Francis and Tony’s social interactions revolve around how busy they’ve been this year and how much they still have to do to keep afloat. But old habits die hard, and Tony is soon back to snorting lines, popping amphetamines, and trying to forget his troubles.
Club Diamond has a bigger line-up this year, also with more complicated acts. During the show, Tony fumbles a bit on account of having done too many drugs and being under high pressure from all sides. Many of the acts bring down the mood, such that Urban Renaissance has a tough time sustaining the party –Tony later gets chewed out by Urban Renaissance’s manager for permitting such downer acts. Tony, Daniel, and Francis abscond to a lounge to engage in a post-drag show threesome. This sexual retreat turns out to be the high point of Tony’s story arc – a moment of reprieve with two handsome men about whom he cares deeply. Due to Tony’s DJ responsibilities, such a moment had to be carefully pre-planned and pre-arranged, but when it happens, time seems to stand still and the intimacy shared makes a lasting impression. It is a good thing that he’s enjoyed a moment of quiet, however, because the party itself has become very tense in the meantime. Intense arguments flare up on the patio outside the discotheque, and Mr. T testily demands that Tony get back behind the decks and get the music flowing again. Tony complies, though adding a touch of darker music (Coil, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode) to reflect the overall mood. After the party’s participants imbibe the green drink after midnight, Francis tells Tony with rapture to play whatever music he wants, which takes him to New Order and The Smiths, as well as to stripping off his mesh shirt (as “Topless Tony”) and tearing up the dancefloor with Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf.” Studio 54 bartender Enrique hands him a pile of uppers, and he switches to disco again. A particularly moving moment is aging disco star Leon’s reprise of his only hit single “I Was Made For Dancing,” in which the singer collapses in despair two-thirds of the way through the performance and Tony has to prop him up.
Music Playlist for 1983
• Klapo – “Mister Game”
• Giorgio Moroder – “Chase”
• Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”
• Salt N Pepa – “Push It”
• Afrika Bambaataa – “Planet Rock”
• Silly – “Mont Klamott”
• Ultravox – “The Voice”
• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”
• David Bowie – “Suffragette City”
• Tangerine Dream – “Phaedra”
• Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf”
• Freeez – “Pop Goes My Love”
• Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”
• Chaka Khan – “I’m Every Woman”
[DRAG SHOW AND PERFORMANCES]
• DDR TV – “Aktuelle Kamera=Titel”
• Coil – “Clap”
• Devo – “Whip It”
• Michael Jackson – “Beat It”
• A Flock of Seagulls – “I Ran (So Far Away)”
• Prince – “When Doves Cry”
• Jessica Williams – “Queen of Fools”
• Mr. Flagio – “Take a Chance”
• Frida – “I Know There’s Something Going On”
• Patti Smith – “Gloria”
• The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”
• Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”
• Yazoo – “Don’t Go”
• Talk Talk – “Talk Talk”
• Adam & the Ants – “Whip In My Valise”
• The Cure – “Lovesong”
• Joy Division – “She Lost Control”
• Man 2 Man – “All Men Are Beasts”
• Gary Numan – “Metal”
• Duran Duran – “Save a Prayer”
• Dead or Alive – “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”
• Depeche Mode – “Master and Servant”
• Soft Cell – “Sex Dwarf”
• New Order – “Blue Monday”
• The Flirts – “Danger”
• Leif Garrett – “I Was Made for Dancing”
• Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff”
• Musique – “Keep On Jumpin'”
• The Weathergirls – “It’s Raining Men”
• Madonna – “Like a Virgin”
• Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”
• The Village People – “Y.M.C.A.”
• Duran Duran – “Girls on Film”
• Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing”
• Donna Summer – “Last Dance”
• Bauhaus – “She’s in Parties”
The next morning, Tony awakes, still high and out of sorts. Fortunately, the drag queen Marcus is ready with a joint and a kind word, and Francis, Artie, Ike, and Chain are there to keep pulling counselors into the fold, though it’s an intense, uphill battle. To loosen everyone up, Artie, Francis and Tony make public plans for an awesome party trip to San Francisco. Hope crawls its way back into the room, a bit.
During the second Lottery of Death, Francis’s name is called, and Tony tears up and can’t stop bawling for the next 20 minutes. Thankfully, Francis is spared Death’s cruel scythe (meanwhile: Reginald, Rain, Barbara and Lawrence are not). Tony suddenly feels hollow inside. I realize that something must have come between Tony and the others in San Francisco. As a player uninterested in a jealousy plotline who also wanted Francis to explore a budding relationship with Daniel, I steered Tony into the nascent drug addiction hell he was already headed. What better way to shield one from the psychic pressures of dealing with the AIDS crisis?
Tony’s 1983-84 is the hardest year of his life. The caseload at the volunteer clinic becomes insane. Studio 54 is still a hip spot, but its days are numbered. The record store presents its usual hurdles. The San Francisco trip turns into a nightmare – Tony reconnects with an old acquaintance heroin dealer at a party, a transaction happens, the pain vanishes, and Tony is nearly comatose on the plane ride home. Francis, whose mother was taken from him by heroin, is dumbstruck. Within the next week in November, Tony leaves his old life and responsibilities behind in favor of glorious heroin: he closes up the shop, squirrels away the records he likes, and vanishes from the lives of everyone around him. What happens over the next 6 months is fairly hazy, but predictable. He puts his remaining things in a storage unit under a pseudonym, takes up residence in a basement with 3 other men, and they spend their days shooting up and making sure everyone’s fed and not dead. Needles are shared, and frequently. Tony hits rock bottom in a drug-fueled vision of his own creation, a dark city under the waves called Black Atlantis ruled by African slaves who jumped overboard en route to America. There he moves slowly, compressed by great weight, listening to distant music through the wall of water.
The day when Tony swims up from Black Atlantis is when one of his fellow addicts sent out to get food doesn’t make it back, instead dying in a Burger King. Tony receives a vision from Black Atlantis releasing him from its bondage, and promptly moves into his storage unit with his records and starts the detox and rehab process. Part of Tony’s rehab process is apparently to scrawl cryptic poetry with his shaky hands.
Unsure of re-approaching Francis out of fear of traumatizing him, he instead turns to Sorrento and his contacts at Studio 54 for work. Sorrento obliges him, and Tony is back to spinning disco hits on weeknights, although now clean of drugs and totally dependent on the DJ gigs and occasional incognito bussing of tables at Pepper’s Diner to keep himself afloat. In exchange, Sorrento has his ex-flight attendant sister Ellie apprentice under Tony, so she can learn the trade of DJing. He complies, since he is thinking of exiting Studio 54 for Club Diamond anyway, assuming he and Francis would be able to patch things up. Ellie is a proper “fag hag” in the nicest sense of that derogatory term: a straight woman who adores hanging out with gay men like Tony, and an enthusiastic protégé. To pad the Studio 54’s meager earnings, both Tony and Ellie are dealing coke and amphetamines despite Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” made all the more ironic now that Tony doesn’t do them anymore. Somehow word gets to Tony that Mr. T would like for him to do the July 4th party again, and he finds the necessary garb and records among his remaining belongings to throw a proper party. But before he heads up with the Sorrentos to Saratoga, NY, Tony reconnects with Artie and goes with him to get an HIV test.
Tony sits in a darkened waiting room surrounded by other nervous people, his hand in Artie’s. The wait is excruciating. The risk factors are damning: unprotected sex with many different male partners over the last 15 years, and recent sharing of needles with fellow heroin addicts. The verdict: Tony is HIV-positive. 2 days later, Mr. T’s 1984 party begins.
Tony shows up to the party with his DJ assistant Ellie, already full of trepidation about seeing people whom he abandoned for drugs during the past year. Immediately, Daniel and others seize him and ask him how he’s been. Tony is evasive, but assures those in the know that he’s on his methadone and ready to put the past behind him. And hey! he’s still at Studio 54, right? Everything is as it should be. He takes Ellie aside and talks about how they will deal drugs to their potential customers, and to make sure to ask for some kind of payment later (earlier, the drugs were always free). Meanwhile, he pulls out his little black notebook every now during this awkward first hour and jots down a few unrhymed lines of poetry from “Black Atlantis.” Embarrassed at the introvert he’s become, he leaves them around the party for others to find, and disavows their creation.
With awful secrets bubbling up inside of him, Tony finally takes aside Ellie and Chantelle, the Hi-NRG singer, and spills the beans. He tells them he is HIV positive, that this might be his last party, because next year he would be dead. They immediately comfort him and give him some advice: make this night a night to remember AND take care to do some drugs, but just not downers like heroin. Then Ellie and Tony snorted some coke, and Tony got his groove back. Still avoiding Francis (while sharing longing glances with him across the room many times), he also tells Artie about the situation, which means that word travels fast about Tony’s condition. Suddenly, he feels the embrace of a community that he didn’t even know he had envelop him.
The drag queen (and other) performances in the 1984 party are both fantastic and compelling. Everything from a Sappho poem to a lesbian fisting demonstration to a group sing-along to “(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay” and “I Will Survive.” A guest Claire reads a statement about HIV and Tony follows up by asking the crowd to safely get laid, in a way coming out about his own HIV condition. As Francis (“Lady Francesca”) gets up to perform, Tony interprets his address to “his love” (now Daniel) as meant for him and starts to sulk. The dancing that erupts after the Urban Renaissance concert is intense and heartfelt. Everyone out on the dancefloor wants to be there, and stays there. Sorrento and the other Studio 54 associates do their job to keep the party rolling.
After the green drink is imbibed, Tony cautiously approaches Francis and then breaks down sobbing in his and Artie’s arms. “Can you help me find a place to sleep?” he asks without a hint of dignity. “I live in a storage unit and I barely make enough to eat.” Artie and Francis embrace their estranged friend in his sorry state, and encourage him to keep up the good DJing. He and Ellie do some more coke, and then Tony throws down a set to remember from the various records he brought with him. Bruce tears down the house with his singing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” At one point, Tony approaches the mic and sings along with Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” Anyone will give Tony a hug, anyone who needs to cry or celebrate with him, does so.
Music Playlist for 1984 (Reconstructed from Memory – Sorry!)
• Casco Presents BWH – “Livin Up”
• Michael Zager Band – “Let’s All Chant”
• Bananarama – “Venus”
• Madness – “Our House”
• Queen – “I Want to Break Free”
• Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”
• Bananarama – “Cruel Summer”
[GREEN DRINK BREAK]
• Cerrone – “Supernature”
• Laura Branigan – “Self Control”
• Miami Sound Machine – “Dr. Beat”
• Deniece Williams – “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”
• Shannon – “Let the Music Play”
• Pat Benatar – “Love is a Battlefield”
• Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
• Madonna – “Everybody”
• Diana Ross – “I’m Coming Out”
• Nena – “99 Luftballons”
• Rocky Horror Picture Show – “Time Warp”
• Queen – “The Show Must Go On”
• Patti Smith – “Summer Cannibals”
• Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”
• Shannon – “Give Me Tonight”
• Amii Stewart – “Knock on Wood”
• Sister Sledge – “We Are Family”
• Genesis – “The Brazilian”
• ABBA – “Thank You For The Music”
• Tangerine Dream – “Speed”
• Teenage Jesus and the Jerks – “Red Alert”
• Negativland – “Track 10” from Negativland
The final five tracks of the night, well after 1 am, contain their own story. Tony announces the last track, and then shocks the party with an entirely instrumental piece by Genesis: “The Brazilian.” Shaking from a night of mixing coke with methadone, green drink and his fear of dying a lonely death, Tony walks onto the dancefloor and begins a sort of gyrating vogue dance. At a climactic point in the song, he is suddenly overwhelmed by the moment and collapses in tears. But Daniel is there to catch him and lift him up, hoisting him aloft and giving him strength to pull himself together. This moment was likely the closest I’ve ever come as a player to experiencing something “transcendental” in larp, and the song will never be the same for me again.
Ever the party master, Sorrento addresses Tony: “Come on – you can’t just end the night with an instrumental song! Try ‘Thank You for the Music’ by ABBA.” Tony obliges him. The gathered company almost immediately links arms, sways back in forth in a circle and sings the melody in unison. The magic continues, as if we had become a collected bundle of raw nerves ready to be moved at the slightest prompt. Intimacy and fear of death fade into the kind of collectivity so many musicals and dramas seek to emulate, yet fail to achieve.
Once the song ends in a round of applause, Tony sends away the crowd with three avant-garde tracks representing his personal taste. Micky, with whom he had listened to similar tracks on a prior morning, comes to sit on the couch with Tony and bask in the sonic pleasures of Tangerine Dream, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Negativland. Eventually, Ellie sees the HIV-diagnosed DJ overindulging himself, and orders him to bed. He obliges her too: lifting the record needle, stopping the decks, cutting the power, packing up his records, and walking out the door, briefcase in hand.
The next morning, Tony is his usual social self and gets to go through his usual routine: picking up cans, gossiping with Bruce and Artie, eating the delicious breakfast from Pepper’s Diner, talking to Ellie about the art of DJing, and getting some more words to Francis and Daniel, listening to his music in solitude before attracting Chantelle over to him and having a moving heart-to-heart conversation. Having made his peace with both losing his friends and death itself, Tony sits down with Ellie and Sorrento and waits for the Lottery of Death. Hank, Enrique, Leon, Evelyn, and Ike are taken, Tony and all the others are spared, though many, many partygoers bear the lethal sentence of the HIV virus. Tears flow all around, and we close the curtain on the game itself as Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” plays in the background.
A Feedback Loop to Die For
Why go through the thousands of words to tell you Tony’s first-person experience of the game’s events? Above, I wrote that the game helped me create
“a character arc for me that mirrored socially realistic decision trees and emotions, and that this arc became what it became thanks to a persistent dialog with the other players and characters, which the design forced upon us.”
I’d like to talk about these socially realistic decision trees and emotions and the persistent dialog among the participants. The decisions trees and emotions emerged from the very well-written characters, whose lives resemble those of people you might know and who are integrated with each other in such a way as to provide ample story options for the players. Usually, one found oneself between a drama-filled sub-group and a comforting other sub-group, and one could reliably go to each to experience those particular emotions. For Tony, his friends Artie and Francis were his safe haven, and Studio 54 was full of drug addicts and party-heads. Ritual and repetition within JaLL form an important foundation stone for player immersion, as argued by Sarah Lynne Bowman. But so does the predictability that such repetition brings. The players could anticipate future decisions, and play their characters accordingly, without shutting out options for emergent play (i.e., Francis and Reginald’s tryst, Tony’s crazy heroin binge) that lets one be surprised. Getting HIV in the game, for example, was a gift that changed all the decision trees in the third Act for the better – suddenly, I felt like I was experiencing the denouement from a 1980s melodrama or romantic comedy in my own flesh. Suddenly, I felt human and alive.
The persistent dialog among the players formed a feedback loop that cemented the players, characters and whole larp collective into a cohesive unit. Between acts, players could talk to each other about where their character was headed and the possibilities for action. Meta-level negotiation was encouraged, which also meant that one knew that as a character, one was being supported by the players around her/him. Especially in the third Act with the theme of “Friendship,” the player support and the character support began to merge, the intimacies of the earlier acts fading away into a jouissance of togetherness and raging against the dying of the light. Constant negotiations and dialog produced the feeling at the end that we all had known each other for a very long time, that we could probably accomplish great things together beyond this larp… if only we didn’t all have to go to work on Monday morning.
Aesthetic experiences can seep into our lives and change us in unexpected ways. For many people, this may take the form of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony or hearing the Thug Life album for the first time or seeing Inside Out (2015) and feeling understood. For me, JaLL and its participants have become a part of me, a fake Saratoga whose propositions produced real feelings, real community and real ideas.
Thanks for coming with me on this journey.
November 23, 2013
Quiet waves of change have rippled through the role-playing community. On Monday of this week, Lizzie Stark posted an introduction to American freeform on her blog, an entry that codified design practices we’ve been using here in the States since at least the middle of the 00s. As one of the numerous designers whose work she listed, I am both honored and humbled by having my work mentioned in a public forum. My own blog post here is intended to continue that discussion, leading into my thoughts on the development and current state of what we’d like to call “American freeform.”
American freeform games are hybrid tabletop/larp creations that share the following set-up: 3-12 players in a 4-hour-or-less game act out scenes related to a single, compelling situation, having transparent access to much or all of the plotline information and altering the flow of the game using meta-techniques. The game format prioritizes emergent properties of a given scenario over someone knowing more-or-less what’s going to happen in advance. In addition to the games that Lizzie mentioned, one might add Marc Majcher’s game poems or Luke Crane’s Inheritance. There are probably plenty of such games floating out there in the North American scene, but rarely do they get collected together and examined seriously in terms of their commonalities.
What do I already have invested in this hybrid format? Those who know me may have heard me talk of a book-length collection of freeform games that specifically treat topoi of German cinema. Films that have already received the freeform treatment from me include: Metropolis (1927), Run Lola Run (1998), the cinema of Uwe Boll and Silent Star (1960) / In the Dust of the Stars (1976), with future games planned for Marriage in the Shadows (1947), Three Good Friends (1931), Hard to be a God (1990), and 3 (2011). Such mature, odd games were only conceivable as of late, due to inspiration from the unique Nordic larp forms that have evolved over the past fifteen years through venues such as Fastaval and Knutepunkt, carried across the Atlantic by figures such as Tobias Wrigstad and Emily Care Boss. In addition, I have co-developed several “parlor sandbox” games BloodNet and The City of Fire & Coin, which emphasize player agency (working in concert with others) and gamemasters’ improvisation abilities. These freeforms I have developed owe much to indie tabletop games, such that some portions of them involve not-insignificant levels of pencil and paper action. But one might also say that American freeform elements in my design emerged from a critical eye toward current practices in live-action role-playing in the United States.
My expectations for freeform games have significantly changed over the years. In effect, I have subconsciously desired the mechanical/narrative fluidity from indie tabletop RPGs such as Fiasco, 1,001 Nights, or Shock in the larps that I joined. But compared with either the indie tabletop RPG experience or the Danish freeform experience, most American larps weren’t really delivering the goods. (Negativity alert: if you want to dodge my rant, skip to the end of the paragraph) Instead what I typically got for my long hours assembling my costume and “getting into character” were these awkward intrigue parties where players were sizing up each other to do rock-paper-scissors or play some card from their game-specific deck of fun. In such larps, the gamemasters were the Great Concealers of Plot, such that it was hard for me to get cues as to how to behave or what direction to push other players. What I really wanted were genre (i.e., ship crew, fantasy, steampunk) larps, comedic larps and serious/dramatic larps that gave the players the tools they needed to make the most out of the experience, rather than larps that had you read a 10-page backstory for a character who will then flounder around in an unpleasant social void for a Saturday night. By contrast, the Danish freeform larps I had played were all about playing your character to the hilt in a tightly constrained scenario, but with few rules that genuinely propelled the action along. American freeform, simply put, satisfies my demands as both a designer and consumer of larp-y games.
The American freeform community no longer wishes to be treated as the exception, but to be taken seriously. In my years as a writer for the Danish convention Fastaval, I received feedback that pointed out how much I was doing something relatively outside of the bounds of their expectation. See, for example, this Danish evaluation of The Posthuman’s Progress:
The game is a daring adaption that insists on a radical decomposition of the traditional gamemaster and as a result is highly collaborative. The game design is somewhat influenced by North American gaming culture – using an analytical approach to explicate the necessary game-elements – and somewhat by a Scandinavian approach to game design – insisting on the possibility for the participants to intuitively find common ground through play.
What I could have used here was a primer on the American freeform tradition that would let the judges know how to see my work. What Lizzie has done is given voice to our in-between-ness, so that we will in the future receive evaluations that accept what we’re doing as part of a certain culture, rather than as some continuously rolling role-playing “experiment.”
American freeform is European-style freeform with American-style indie game mechanics. The word “American” is there to orient ourselves toward the international freeform scene, rather than colonize/exclude certain scenes that are within or outside our borders. The word “freeform” is there to say that these games are hybrids between tabletop and larp, such that we steal from both formats with equal aplomb. We want narratively rich games that let us rise up from the table and use our bodies to communicate things our voices and paper cannot. We want to welcome gamers of all backgrounds and identities to explore themselves and their emotions in a safe and supportive space. At the same time, we do not want to uncritically import the baggage of older larp traditions into our format, with their emphasis on player scheming and gamemaster-centric plotlines, though we do acknowledge our fundamental debt to these traditions. At the core of our game design lies the active emotional experience of the player, and the mechanics we design place the player experience at the very center of the game.
We have seen our fair share of criticism. There have been some long-term disputes in the online RPG community about what freeform is and how we should employ the term. Naturally, these debates were primarily about according proper credit to certain individuals for their artistic contributions and about the annoying properties of labels like “American freeform” or labels in general. There has also been a reactionary strain in discussions among larpers that this format has existed for a long time, and that they have already been generating games like this for decades. To these points, I would like to say that American freeform constitutes an inclusive community that neither stops at the borders of America nor seeks to co-opt other play cultures. Lizzie simply put words together to describe what characteristics a certain set of games share. Nevertheless, American freeform is in some respects definitely a set of a few individuals, mostly located in the American Northeast, and they appear from the outside to have a kind of hipster/scenester aesthetic. Do such attributes make the movement a worthy subject of attack? I don’t think so. I would like to remind the movement’s critics of the significant presence of women among our ranks. The typical American freeform creator is female, which makes me (perhaps unfairly) suspect patriarchal impulses behind some of the “controversy” we’ve experienced. There is a mass of gamers that would like to control what we create and play, and its designs are conservative and status quo. American freeform attempts to push beyond the status quo without sacrificing the player on the altar of our creation. Finally, the supposed monopoly on innovation that older larp communities presumably possess has not appreciably shifted the American larp culture into the space that American freeform games now occupy. The average U.S. larp still employs drawn-out combat mechanics, has no mechanical exploration of human intimacy, uses player/GM secrets as the primary narrative engine, and holds task resolution to be the focus of its rules. Little experimental larps here and there do not. a movement. make. What I’d really appreciate is if our critics were to actually play at least one of the American freeform games in question, rather than dismiss a whole format out of hand because they don’t “play that kind of game.” Trolls and jerks follow the road of dismissal; constructive critics do not.
Where are we headed? Well, looking at Lizzie’s list, American freeform currently appears to have its hands full adapting indie tabletop games to semi-live play. We’re concerned not only with expanding the scope of genre larps, but also with making space for larps to express the unconventional. Nevertheless, as awareness of the meta-techniques and philosophy of the American freeform movement spreads, we imagine we’ll see effects in not only established U.S. larps like One World By Night or Dystopia Rising but also across the Atlantic in Europe, where we now will be seen as coming from a distinct tradition. The point of the movement has always been to design and play more games, and not to waste time navel-gazing about what our collective goal might be. But I do fantasize of the day when I can walk into any larp in the States and see our holistic design ideals at work. Maybe that’s what American freeform is about for me.
So don’t be shy – play one of the games on Lizzie’s list, and let us know what you think!
August 27, 2012
In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.
The seventh interview is with role-playing designer and writer Nathan Hook. His article “Circles and Frames: The Games Social Scientists Play,” argues that Solomon Asch’s 1951 Conformity Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Prison Experiment among others, when read as games, interrogate the boundary between the so-called “magic circle” and “protective frame” of play. His article implies that there is but a thin line between psychology experiments and live-action games, and between player and character in such situations.
Here are my follow-up questions:
Evan Torner – How does being a game designer affect your work in psychology?
Nathan Hook – Games can be viewed as systems that alter player behaviour. Since psychology studies behaviour as an expression of inner mental states, understanding how systems can influence that behaviour can be crucial.
To give a particular example: there is an incredibly strong social contract in a game that, once it has begun, the game must be finished. We need to be mindful that this applies to psychology experiments as well. In one of my undergraduate experiments, a participant was stung by a bee halfway through and still refused to step out of the experiment, ‘playing’ through to the end. Explaining the right to withdraw from the event is not in itself sufficient if participants bring in their own frame which impairs their judgement in using this right.
NH – The history of experimental psychology is full of game-like examples. To give one simple example: a classic cognitive psychology experiment often repeated by undergraduates is to measure under different conditions participant’s digit span – the maximum length of a string of characters a person can remember. One form of this is to tap out a sequence on a number of blocks which the participant then tries to repeat – essentially identical to the ‘Simon says’ game. Psychometric testing could also be considered a game, if people were to start comparing their scores.
To give another example: an experiment had participants undertake an IQ test and then gave them a predetermined result to induce a particular emotional state. On their way out, a person planted by the researcher tried to ‘chat up’ the participant and get their phone number. In many ways, this is a role-playing game – the organiser has created a situation, briefed the participant-player and then arranged an encounter with a scripted non-player character (NPC) to see how the player responds to it.The line that separates these two lies is the intent of the designer. The psychologist (like other scientists) is normally creating a situation for the purpose of attempting to acquire data to test a hypothesis (or, in ‘grounded theorising,’ to form a new hypothesis). In contrast the game designer is designing a situation/system to give the players some kind of experience – often but not always ‘fun.’ The difference is a question of intent of creative agenda.
ET –Fundamentally, what impact do experimental larps or larp-as-experiments have on their participants that ‘normal’ larps do not?
NH – Experimental larps often push people boundaries outside the comfort zone to offer experiences that would not otherwise be had, such as being an abused prisoner or a having a different sexual orientation.‘Normal’ larps (which is a heavily questionable concept, since what is a normal in larp varies massively) tends to offer a greater element of wish fulfilment – for example, being a hero with a sword. While they do offer an experience outside the everyday, they neither push boundaries nor challenge the player’s core identity.Being an adventurer killing an orc is very psychologically different to being a guard abusing a prisoner. There is a distinct lack of research on the psychological safety of experimental larps. Just as people choose to engage in high-risk physical sports knowing the risks, it is important that we understand the risk factors of such larp events.
ET – Why should psychologists read larp research?
NH – Psychology is a very broad subject and itself is difficult to define. Literally ‘the study of the soul,’ one common definition is ‘the study of people (except for animal psychology).’ Some would define it as ‘the study of the mind,’ but that presupposes a binary division between body and mind.
All games involve people, and structured games are a defining trait of being human. For this reason, the study of people needs to acknowledge and include a widespread and defining human activity.
In the early days of psychology and the wider social sciences, one approach was to study human creations to gain insight into the minds and cultures that created them. By studying a work of art, we might gain insight into the mind that created it. If we accept that games are art, then studying games is a direct continuation of this tradition. As Lizzie Stark recently argued, the unlimited progression of Dungeons & Dragons is analogous to the American dream and reflects the culture that created it.
ET – As someone who has, on occasion, gotten addicted to certain video games, the ‘hidden formula’ behind the games that really arrest your attention for hours on end is interesting to me. What characteristics do the most addictive games share?
NH – One of the underlying reasons for computer game addiction is called ‘flow’ This is a cognitive state caused by being challenged just enough for your skill level, and challenge(s) increasing the difficulty at just the right pace to match for increasing skills. The rhythm of the activity creates a mental state of focused motivation and ignoring other wider motivations.
All games are about constructing new frames for meaning. The positions of pieces on a chess board are trivial and of no importance to us before a game. Once we start playing, they become vitally important. We imbue them with meaning because we attach symbolic value to that data. In the same way, once we start playing a computer game, the position of virtual pieces becomes of vital importance – so important that it drowns out other important elements of our lives. This is studied from different angles both in sports psychology (sometimes called being ‘in the zone’) and educational psychology as principles to achieve effective learning.
ET – How does larp itself become addictive?
NH – I don’t think larp is addictive, at least not in a formal medical or scientific sense. In a more casual sense of addictive, I think there are many factors at work. For some, larp does offer escapism from the stresses of everyday life, as shown in the documentary film Darkon (2006). It offers power and agency, and power (even pretend power) is addictive. A campaign larp can be ‘addictive’ in the same way that a good book is addictive – people care about the characters and want to follow their story and, in larp, identification with a main character is implicit in the design, since they are living inside your body. I’d also recognise that larp also extends to involvement in the social community of larpers, comparable to team sports or amateur dramatics. While social conflict does happen, the larp community is also very accepting. Having intense emotional experiences – even negative ones – tends to bond people together and larpers often tend to have other common interests, such as computer games or an interest in certain genres of fiction.
ET – You say on the one hand that there is perhaps no “normal” larp, but on the other hand suggest this analogy of an “adventurer killing an orc.” Semi-genocidal fantasy adventurers seems a very specific legacy that is nevertheless attached to “normal” role-playing. Why has this particular psychological investment in killing orcs had such power over the gaming hobby since the 1970s?
NH – Michelle Nephew argues a strong element of role-play is male fantasy wish fulfillment – being the lone hero outside of society armed with the sword. While I don’t agree with all of her argument, I do accept that part of it.
In some respects, this kind of fiction is designed to make it easier for a scenario writer. D&D happens in a dungeon, since walls and corridors stop players from wandering in a direction the GM hasn’t mapped out. Having some orcs, zombies or bandits to fight is easier to design than a complex murder mystery or political intrigue.
One reason I’d suggest newer tabletop role-play games have moved away from this has been that computers became better at running games of dungeons and orcs, ane a number of board games also simulate fighting through dungeons well. Tabletop role-playing games responded by becoming about intrigue or horror, something more challenging for computer games to do.
Nathan Hook recently finished his master’s in psychology research methods with The Open University. He uses an ethnographic approach to study identity construction by recreational role-players and emotional bleed from fictive play experiences. He lives in Bristol, United Kingdom; his website is www.nathanhook.netii.net
Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”
This enormous blog post is dedicated to my entire trip to Finland via Stockholm from April 6-April 17, 2012. The post functions as a therapeutic information dump of the major threads from my journey. It interweaves academic, personal, theoretical and actual details of my trip. Don’t expect great truths, but do expect my impressions and subjective biases!
For the sake of reader convenience and sanity, I have at least organized it into several distinct sections:
On Easter Sunday, I ate my last homemade meal for a while and Kat then drove me to the Hartford airport so I could embark on my journey. Kissing her goodbye was hard. This whole trip had wound up a bittersweet plan to some degree, for Kat wanted to come with me and be a part of it all, but her presentation at another (very interesting) conference prevented her from doing so. I had a lot riding on this trip in terms of personal finance, time and energy investments, so my expectations remained high. This lengthy post gives evidence to the effect that those expectations were met.
The flight took me to Newark, also known as Hell on Earth for Vegetarians (where I ate a yogurt), and then to Stockholm, or Purgatory.
Hours of Sleep Caught on the Plane: 2
Stockholm Arlanda airport has, for reasons central to the Swedish tourist economy, consigned travelers to 8-12 hour layovers so one can convert one’s wealth into kroner and spend it on Swedish goods/services. The airport itself bears many architectural similarities to Düsseldorf Airport, my usual point of entry to Germany. Planes land on the tarmac, and passengers are whisked by bus over to the terminal, which is peppered with the usual overpriced cafés and duty free shops. The airport’s main feature is the SkyCity (see above), a mall that opens up like an IKEA beachfront over the tarmac. One can sit (or sleep) in the comfy chairs and enjoy the sun, or plug in one’s laptop and work on one’s dissertation. Due to the Swedish conspiracy to get tourists to spend money on their soil, I was given a 12-hour layover to Tampere. I chose to use this time to work off my jet lag in the airport’s plethora of non-spaces; after all, I did have to give a presentation on Tuesday morning, and my dissertation chapter is due at the end of this semester. The work done during this airport stay would be the last real work I would manage to complete for the next 6 days.
Finally, Stockholm relinquished me and I wound up on the snowy streets of Tampere, Finland with its imposing statues of men holding fish and the like. There, I met up with my first trip roommates – Nathan Hook and Sarah Lynne Bowman – at the Omena Hotel. “Omena” means “apple” in Finnish, but what it really ought to mean is “labyrinthine network of doors,” because that’s what the staffless hotel offers you. One enters a number on a keypad 4 times at different airlock style entrances in order to prevent anyone from having ready access to your room (including you) as well as anyone from being actually hired to serve you as a consumer. It was completely sci-fi, but in a weird, no-frills, retro sorta way. My arrival at the Omena delivered the wonderful news that Metropolis, a larp based on Fritz Lang’s eponymous 1927 film, had received a Nomination for Best Technical Innovation at the Danish role-playing convention Fastaval. Fastaval, the Danish convention which I reviewed here and Lizzie reviewed here, is one of the best forums for role-playing in the world and an extremely competitive environment for larp scenario writers. It was truly an honor to receive a plaque with the scenario’s achievement written out in full. Nathan and Sarah, as well as Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Emily Care Boss, and Epidiah Ravachol, had all taken part in its splendor this year, a fact that I thoroughly envied. Despite my total lack of sleep, we stayed up discussing Fastaval and rehearsing/critiquing our academic presentations for the morning. We knew that in Europe, especially in Finland, it would be a tough academic seminar. But no anxiety took hold: the moment my head eventually hit the pillow, I had gone into desperate sleep mode.
Hours of Sleep: 5.5
The Role-playing in Games Seminar (RPIG) constituted the academic portion of my trip.
A group of far-flung scholars assembled in a room off Pinni A at the University of Tampere and game studies rock star Frans Mäyrä (Finland) gave us the opening welcome. Since the seminar was intended to thoroughly interrogate working papers on role-playing-related topics, it functioned under a unique presentation structure. Panelists submitted working papers to the entire group ahead of time for all to read. These 5,000 word-max. essays were then interpreted in light of a panelist’s 10-minute presentation to the gathered crowd of 50 people. Finally, the two commentators J. Tuomas Harviainen (Finland) and Torill Mortensen (Sweden / Denmark) provided feedback before turning the discussion over to the group for 20 minutes. This meant that no paper was spared a thorough critique, and panelists had to nevertheless pare their main point down to its base elements in order to remain on-time.
So as to keep track of these rolling arguments and the intense discussions afterward, I wound up Tweeting about the whole two days under the hashtag #rpig. It provided a secondary, sometimes humorous discussion to supplement the main discussion.
On to the first day of panels:
• Marjukka Lampo (Finland) – An Ecological Approach to Gaming Processes in Larps
A paper conducted as a kind of acting exercise, Lampo proposes a framework of micro-interactions that add up to an ecological picture of a larp. Phenomenology of human interaction in game studies is always good when done well, as here. Lampo also published with me in the Think Larp academic book last year, so I know her theatrical angle on larp performance well.
• Jaakko Stenros (Finland) – Between Game Facilitation & Performance: Interactive Actors and NPCs in Larps
Stenros essentially argues for a typology of NPCs (Prop, Interactor, Proactor, Gamemaster), as well as for the point that NPCs are also essentially players as well – his evidence are the games Conspiracy for Good and Sanningen om Marikka. Inter-immersion as a social practice becomes more important for the role-playing experience than donning a role. I posited an economic distinction in the case of the U.S.: NPCs don’t pay (or as much) as PCs do.
• Evan Torner (USA) (me, in case you were wondering) – Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop RPG Combat
A thought experiment and discourse analysis leveled against an old foe of mine – the procedural time thievery involved with rolling to hit and damage in fights. I received useful feedback on how to reduce my book-level argument to article length. Ambition is part of my game; also, animated PowerPoint slides.
• Nathan Hook (UK) – Social Psychology Ethnographic Study of “Immersion” among Larpers.
Hook found the annoying word that never goes away – “immersion” – turning up among participants of a study that did not use the term as an explicit variable, and wondered if there was some inductive definition of the term to be gleaned. Harviainen pointed out that his participants were too well-schooled in role-playing theory to begin with…
• Laura Flöter (Germany) – The Avatar’s Life of Its Own
Flöter used art and aesthetic theory to explore the “life” conferred onto an avatar or role after a player has made one (as in: the avatar can now make autonomous decisions). It may have contributed the nice German word “Eigenleben” to game studies discourse.
• Sarah Lynne Bowman (USA) – Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-playing Communities
Bowman constructed a typology of all the ways that diegetic politics among characters can affect out-of-game relations and vice versa. The resultant schisms from such “bleed” often have cascading, larger effects on larp cultures in the USA. Basically, we have to get over issues of emotional overinvestment in the hobby and in the characters.
• Angelina Ilieva (Bulgaria) – Cultural Labor, Memory and Concepts in Larp Discourses
Ilieva follows up on her previous socio-linguistic cultural studies work to analyze the role Bulgarian folk fantasy plays in constructing the fiction role-players work to produce. I’m interested to read more.
• Rafael Bienia (Germany / Netherlands) – Role-players Creating Networks
Another ambitious piece, Bienia’s project proposal seeks to apply actor-network theory to the spread of certain role-playing processes. Focusing on just larp, tabletop or MMORPG may strip this otherwise massive undertaking into an accessible dissertation.
• David Jara (Germany / Chile) – Framing Strategies in RPGs
The paratext piece. Jara brilliantly demonstrates how artwork, sidebars and other paratexts frame key expectations about RPG texts. We just have to place this research in dialog with Forge theory, which looks at the game rules and design against tests of systemic and stylistic coherence, and we’ve got an important argument here.
Following the seminar on Day One were two other events for me. One was an unintentionally intense discussion between Karl Bergström (Sweden) and Pekko Koskinen (Finland), Lauri Lukka (Finland), Michal Mochocki (Poland) and myself about neoliberal principles governing our economy. Bergström (who later apologized for “trolling me,” as well as generously gave me a copy of his dissertation) wondered why a merit-based, survival-of-the-fittest economy was problematic, whereas the rest of us likened finance to a broken game system gone wild that steals money from most people. Many of my out-of-seminar conversations, come to think of it, turned toward advanced political thought about hte U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. The second event was an Open House at the Game Research Lab in the University of Tampere. There, we saw all their console systems and collection of other video game paraphernelia. Meanwhile, I spent substantial effort proselytizing about the U.S. independent role-playing game scene to Josef (Czech Republic) and Richard (UK). We wound up in a bar afterward, where I got into two different discussions about the U.S. scene – one with Carl David Habbe, and another with Jiituomas, Anastasia Seregina, Nathan and many others. I seem to recall using lewd metaphors to describe certain aspects…
Hours of Sleep: 6.5
Day 2 of the panels:
• Alexey Fedoseev (Russia) – RPGs as Educational Technology
A look at activity theory in keeping students engaged with complex topics through larp. Fedoseev showed us some example history lessons played out in costume, and traced his tradition back to educational philsophers like Lev Vygotsky and his heirs.
• Michal Mochocki (Poland) – How Edu-Larps Work for Subject-Matter Knowledge
My summary: we need a larp textbook to teach with. I agree.
• Eliane Bettochi, Carlos Klimick, Rian Oliviera Rezende (Brazil) – Incorporeal Project
The presentation concerned a joint design project that let Brazilian students design their own role-playing game books. Absolutely in dialog with the indie publishing movement in the states. We should be getting project cooperations (I’m looking at you, Cary Collett).
• Lars Konzack (Denmark) – How RPGs Are Presented in Public Libraries
Konzack looked at collections of tabletop RPGs in Danish libraries, as well as his Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk model of interpreting RPG presentation. Still wandering what one had to do with the other…
• Ashley Brown (UK / US) – Threesomes, Waterfalls and Healing Spells
Brown’s interpretation of kinky MMORPG erotic play (which tends to happen near waterfalls and sometimes involves sadomasochistic play requiring healing potions) gave us many more insights into how today’s cybersex is conducted. This was by and large the most entertaining paper.
• Richard Gough (UK) – Information Acquisition for the RPG
Gough looked at information acquisition and knowledge management schemas in use during role-playing activities, with many charts and models showing how it works. Suddenly the medium seems more complicated than I could imagine.
• Petri Lankoski (Finland / Sweden) – Role-playing in Single Player Video Games
After a seminar that complicated concepts behind RPGs, we suddenly found Lankoski’s method to be somewhat reductive, with “role-playing” as just one experimental variable among many, causing doubt and controversy among the seminar participants about what data could be gleaned from the study.
Overall, there were several patterns that emerged. The professors were more heavily critiqued than the graduate students, and major questions about methodology, discipline and framework for looking at RPGs were raised. Yet the sheer quality and quantity of questions raised was promising. I feel as though we’re on the cusp of a rapidly expanding scholar base and interest on a global level in diverse role-playing scenes from around the world. Everyone talked of an experience akin to having their brain detonated by the seminar, so I can only say it was its own kind of success.
Five of us – Nathan, Sarah, Carl David, Jiituomas and I – piled into Jiituomas’ admittedly smallish vehicle on a 2-hour road trip to Helsinki. This prompted the surreal experience of conversing about my Metropolis larp as well as new directions in role-playing scholarship while balancing my suitcase over my legs so that they would not be crushed by the weight of my clothes. Our motley crew pulled in next to Karl Ludvig Engel’s famous cathedral in downtown Helsinki and then walked down past the train station in Helsinki to PRKL, a bar named with 4 consonants that form a dirty Finnish word when the vowels are pronounced. The basement of this heavy-metal bar would be the site of the Nordic Larp Talks, TED-style talks delivered about concepts and trends in larp by smart people. Knowing full well I would view them later online, I used the opportunity to mingle with Jaakko and his psychologist partner, Carl David, and especially Anastasia, who is studying games in relation to her business degree. Once all the Americans had assembled in the basement of the bar – Sarah Bowman and Harrison Greene, Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol, Jason Morningstar and Autumn Winters, John H. Kim, Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Ashley Brown and myself – I suddenly got this tingly feeling, like we were part of this deep-rooted community that crossed oceans, ideologies, and national boundaries. In a basement surrounded by broken Jaegermeister bottles and death-metal logos, everyone could geek out knowledgeably about RPGs. Emily, Eppy, Lizzie and I were to room at Markus Montola’s place afterwards and we kept making as if we were going to leave (we were tired). But instead, we kept finding ourselves either meeting people or getting more drinks or… you get the idea. Rather than exhausted, we all felt giddy and as if we were at some kind of alumni sleepover.
Well, it certainly wasn’t all bells and roses at this point. The dark underbelly of the whole experience had become apparent by Wednesday: disease. See, Fastaval in Denmark the prior weekend was also a lot of late nights, people in tight sleeping quarters (i.e. a school gym floor), semi-bad food and worse hygiene. The so-called “Fasta-Flu” was born in this cozy environment and, with indifferent malice, ripped its way through the ranks of Danes, Finns and Americans alike. Then about 50 of them indelicately transported it through their coughing and sneezing over to Finland so as to spread it in similar conditions. That night in Helsinki, I sensed the rumbling thunderclouds of the storm of plague to come, which would directly affect the Solmukohta experience of many (Lizzie, Eppy, Jason and Harrison, to name a few).
Hours of Sleep: 9
There is a way to capture the spirit of Solmukohta in a single description. On Friday night, Emma Wieslander stands before a hall packed full of some of the greatest minds in game and larp design in the world. The topic of her lecture? “Gender for Dummies.” In cool, methodical fashion, Wieslander explained the sub-categories of sex, gender & sexuality, writing down key concepts such as “intersexed” with a big green marker. The rapt audience, a mixture of well-dressed and slovenly dressed European geeks, are not only taking notes, but they’re responding to the points she raises as they come up. And they’re doing this while knocking back glasses of beer and port wine in the lecture hall all the while.
Welcome to Solmukohta/Knutepunkt/Knudepunkt/Knutpunkt, an annual combination of global larp convention, drinking party, pop academic convocation, alumni reunion and adult sleepover. Like it or not, its ideas have technically shifted larp practices around the world, and its extensive transnational communities are so tightly knit that its members wager considerable time and money in order to find their way back to the convention’s (many) embraces.
So our journey as a group continued. Many from the RPIG seminar were also to take part in Solmukohta, and all the larpers bound for the convention boarded packed buses outside Kiasma, the Helsinki art museum. Story Gamers from our forum – including Raffaele Manzo (Italy) and Alex Fradera (UK) – all found the rest of us and we reached critical mass as we boarded the buses. Heck, I only stopped talking about indie tabletop games when Autumn Winters – bless her soul – asked me about East German cinema. 45 minutes of me jawing her ear off later, we found ourselves in the remote sport lodge/school of Kiljavanranta. Located on a semi-frozen lake out in the Finnish wilderness, the boarding school came with classrooms, auditorium, gymnasium, sauna, pool, cafeteria and bar. There was also free Wi-Fi “available” in the lobby, but I employ quotation marks due to the bandwidth required by the sheer load of iPads, smartphones and laptops that overwhelmed any chance of the Internet being a useful tool for some of us. This really would be a retreat! Hotel rooms were dorm style and held 3 souls apiece. Part of the suspense factor behind our arrival at the hotel meant finding out who were to be our roommates for the week. Fortunately, I was rooming with Jason and Autumn, whose awesomeness could be presupposed. Everyone geared up for the opening ceremonies in the middle of endless chatter and reunion hugs.
Opening ceremonies commenced, and they were short and sweet. There’s a panic number that the organizers might not answer after midnight. Condoms and painkillers are free at the info desk for those who would need them. And then suddenly they were over and we were all handed characters for the “Solmukohta Plague,” the first larp of the convention. One appreciates the irony of the horde zombie larp’s title. People began to run for the doors, the starting zombies stumbling after them. Our characters were simple, but at least persisted after we were inevitably turned into zombies – caring humans would become caring zombies, leader humans would become leader zombies and so forth. I was eaten by Oliver in the Bleed Lounge after we humans had ineffectively barricaded it with chairs and tables. Then I wandered around groaning until we were shot to death by the con organizers in a dramatic display of fiat. And so it began…
Note: When I say the word “chat” in the below descriptions, it means I remember it being a long discussion. There were many more short discussions than I can list here. I guess you’ll have to ask me about them.
• Nordic Larp 101 – Reps from each of the Nordic countries presented the state of the scene in their respective country. Fact: every larp scene is aging and coping with the avant-garde/mainstream divide. Sweden’s post-apocalyptic scene is on the rise, next to its long Vampire tradition. Norway has a lot of money for youth larp, but those usually have to be fantasy larps. Also nobody north of Trondheim does larp for any reason. Finland uses primarily pre-defined characters, and larp is a mostly female activity. They’re trying experiments with the “new weird” genre fiction (a la China Miéville). Denmark usualy sees people write their own character in pre-game workshops and has a very diverse scene otherwise. Somewhat informative overall, though nowhere near as informative as…
• The Hour of the Rant – Hosted by Claus Raasted, the Nordic larp rockstar. Here’s the gist of all the rants, which were delivered to a packed auditorium.
-J. Tuomas Harviainen – “Read more academic work and write more games based on it!”
-Andras Perna (sp?) – “Build your own damn national larp organizations!”
-Alex from Germany – “Nudity improves larps!”
-Jason Morningstar – “Play more damn games!”
-Johanna McDonald – “Players should be allowed to say ‘cut’ in an intense scene!”
-Osher El-Netanany – “Grow the fucking up, Knutepunkt!” (Note that Osher’s contribution lasted something like 5x longer than anyone else’s, and contained PowerPoints full of photos of poo)
-Annika Waern – “Larps have to question social norms, not reinforce them!”
-Jørn Slemdal –“5 best things about larp: drinking, fighting, burning, shouting, frightening people… and fucking, which falls under drinking!”
-Frederik Berg Østergaard – “Safe words won’t prevent damage that’s already been done!”
-Emma Wieslander – “Cultivate more trust so men can play women and homosexuals, etc.”
-Lizzie Stark – “Write a damn rule book already!”
• Playground Party – A celebration of the re-release of Playground magazine. Champagne and conversation with Karolina, a Mexican computer scientist who attended the Tampere seminar, about activism in gaming.
… a long chat with Pixie, an organizer of Fastaval, about the future of the convention and potential scenarios to write for next year
… a long chat with Trine Lindahl and a Finnish larper whose name I’ve forgotten about the Larp Factory in Oslo and its larp-a-month design.
I was in bed by 3:30, up by 8:45.
Hours of Sleep: 5.25
• Playing with Intent – Emily Care Boss and Matthijs Holter’s game draft provides a framework for using different freeform techniques to tell a collective story. Nine players larped a Nordic tragedy about a family that resorts to plundering the angsty family treasures to get an illegally donated heart for their dying daughter. Well, it doesn’t work out, so the daughter commits suicide in the family lake. An awe-inspiring and emotional run of the game with even skeptical players won over in the end.
• A Matter of Time – A silly parlor larp by Martina Ryssel about a time traveler convocation going horribly wrong. Martina’s scenario has so much German history that it may be worthy of a German Studies paper on my part….
• Gender for Dummies – See the intro of this section
• Kapo Documentary – Documentation of a prison-camp larp made in Denmark last year. Obviously the larp was more emotionally powerful than the documentation, which lacked focus beyond a few in-game shots and post-game interviews.
… chat with Jaakko and Jiituomas about the quality of game scholarship at the Tampere seminar.
… chat with Charles from Fastaval who ran Metropolis twice on my behalf. He and I talked about the cultural translation problems of the game, especially the transposition of Nordic larp techniques into rules that then the Danes have to follow…
… several rounds of vodka with the Russians (without any side effects)
… chat with the Germans, especially Myriel, Carl David, Alex and Katherina about relationships and about German films.
In bed at 4:00, up at 8:45 — this night is what gave me a cold, btw.
Hours of Sleep: 4.75
Note: At this point, I should mention the few-holds-barred grabbing/touching/kissing among participants of Solmukohta, as the level of “comfort” here with each other surpasses both European as well as all gamer events I’ve ever been to. During the day, lots of hugging and grabbing. After midnight, rampant make-out sessions and people headed for dark corners. My objective as a married man sans spouse was always to not get caught in the crossfire…
• Beyond the GM – Emily Care Boss (presenting) and Jason Morningstar (present) gave an overview of GM-less tabletop systems, and then ran demos of Polaris, Microscope, and Fiasco, with which I helped. The article in the Solmukohta book is good enough that you should just read it.
• Trance Mask Workshop – Hoo boy. An exhausting workshop with Alex Fradera demonstrating the mask technique developed by the improv master Johnstone. Basically, you clear your mind of expectations, put on a mask with staring, creepy eyes and only the lower mouth showing, look in a mirror and then make a disturbing-yet-appropriate noise that then turns into the Urstoff of your character. I liked it so much that I did a demo for others later that evening and watched videos of other trance mask practitioners. My favorite was a slobbering rage mask that one of the workshop presenters (Juhanni) donned which made him essentially wreck the room.
• Trash – Anders Karls ran us through a 1-hour introspective larp in which we all played pieces of trash. The room was covered in trash bags, we had to put them on ourselves and then pretend we were things like banana peels and scratched CDs. My character was a piece of pocket fuzz, and I wound up sticking to the lonely glove. Not too serious, but not too silly either.
• Design Party – Everyone put on their fanciest get-up, and socialized like mad fiends. I talked with…
…Aaron about H.P. Lovecraft films.
…Raffaele about the Italian RPG publishing industry
…Erik Nesby and Alex Fradera about the state of the world
…Markus, Eibo and Emily about traditions at Solmukohta
…Bjarke Pedersen about Brody Condon and Level 5
…Eirik Fatland about his mid-level larp theory he’s developing
…and many more.
… plus dancing to much Daft Punk. Too much Daft Punk.
In bed: 3:45, up at 8:45
Hours of Sleep: 5
• Playing with Intent Redux: This time with Alex, Emily and Matthijs. We played out a scenario of sailors making bad deals with flying fish. Very productive discussions about what to do with the game poured out of us all. Heck, they could have a published game on their hands before they know it.
• … lunchtime chat with Annika Waern and John H. Kim, one on the use of fiction in video gameplay and the other about procedural deathspirals in combat.
And then most of us, sick and limping, said our inadequate goodbyes after such an amazing weekend and got on the buses to the airport or Helsinki respectively. I wound up going to Helsinki and lo! was suddenly staying at Markus’ place one more night with two charming Slovakians: Dominika Kovacova (who’s studying Scandinavian languages in Brno) and her mother Sava. Dominika took me on a substantial tour of downtown Helsinki before we then met up with the rest of the larpers in Cantina West for our final goodbyes. We then got back to the apartment so I could get some work done and call Kat.
Hours of Sleep: 9
Markus and his fiancée Sanna, my wonderful hosts, met me the next day at a hippie establishment called Zucchini and then had coffee with me before I took a train to Tampere and a plane to Stockholm. I spent the night in a comfy airport chair in Stockholm this time, deciding against a hotel room on account of the price ($180) for one night. Apparently, the rest of the airport agreed with this. When I woke at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom, most of the chairs in the SkyCity had travelers’ bodies lying on them. I see no more fitting a portrait of today’s class divide than a half-empty hotel and hordes of tired travelers sleeping just outside its entrance.
Hours of Sleep: 4 (with many interruptions)
Before I reach my final remarks, the point about the sleep must be reiterated. Over the course of 9 days, I got about 51 hours of sleep, or about 5.66 hours per night. Though I survived the sleep deprivation quite well, the depressed immune systems were quite visible throughout the ranks of the Solmukohta attendees. Some of the Americans were taken out for days at a time. But the compelling intensity of every talk, every conversation, every game made many of us thirsty for more, regardless of our bodies’ feeble demands. It was a period of time no one wanted to see end, but which ended all the same, with a promise of Knutepunkt in Norway in 2013…
My week in Finland proved, using Nietzsche’s formulations from The Birth of Tragedy, to be both Appolonian and Dionysian in character, an absolute indulgence that may have performed important work on both my academic and artistic souls. “Appolonian” in this context refers to the possession of robust, healthy, “rational” qualities, while “Dionysian” refers to the debauchery and art we engage in so as to provide fertilizing manure for the very introspection required to interrogate the society in which we live. Creative labor demands a cycle of feverish anxiety and even physical sickness in order for its practitioner to emerge once again into the ranks of the so-called “happy and healthy.” To forget this cycle is to slowly dismantle the apparatus of human creation. The twin conferences almost playfully churned through these creative cycles, spinning from high intellectual game theory debate to globalization ennui, from carefully conceived interdisciplinary lectures to vodka rounds with Russian role-players, from delicate cultural negotiations to in-game raw emotional manipulations. From theory to gameplay to drinking to camaraderie and back again, over and over again.
While in the alienating Stockholm Arlanda airport, I found in Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Radicant a deep longing for artistic nomadism and cultural translation to be the new guides for an emergent aesthetic of exodus. Specifically, he observes the torn shreds of universalist, progressive grand theories (i.e. modernism, postmodernism, Marxism, democracy) that given way to the construction of “archipelagos” (Bourriaud 185). These voluntary island groups – social networks, if you will – form the basis on which an altermodernity can develop. They create their own spheres of knowledge, customs and practices both in dialog with and against the grain of the sociocultural practices encouraged by globalizing megacorporations, the faceless tyrants of our era. As these corporations and their political lackeys lock away and proceed to otherwise waste the natural resources of the future, archipelagos of the coming generation such as Solmukohta may indeed prove at least the emotional and institutional proof that another world is possible, that resources could be allocated differently, that we could dream differently too. For there could be a place among the closely knit larp networks where new dreams can take shape.
Thank you to all you people who made my trip possible. There are too many.
July 7, 2010
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The days seem like hours now, so short they are in my perception. I fly to Chicago on July 14th, where I will be picked up and delivered back to Iowa, where I’ll be until early August.
Yes, that means no more Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin in less than a week. Egal – I’ll switch the name to Guy in the Black Hat Meets [Wherever My Permanent Residence Happens to Be at the Time]. I figure anywhere I go will provide me with interesting encounters to post on the Internet. Long live Guy in the Black Hat Meets Northampton!
Berlin has been more than kind to me: I have never felt as cosmopolitan before in my life. I met filmmakers, drank in nice places/dives, attended a few concerts, saw a lot of movies, rummaged through archives, churned out articles and essays, visited Prague, Aarhus, Venice, Bremen and Göttingen, spent some time in an artificial tropical rainforest at Brand (Niederlausitz), saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit, experienced the elation of the Germans as Lena Meyer-Landrut won the Eurovision 2010 contest in Oslo, hung out with people from around the world, and managed to get plenty of much-needed sleep in the midst of it all. All in all, I should not be complaining. Still, a small update is necessary:
Just as my article and blog post on Uwe Boll came out, I discovered he was coming to the HFF on June 24th. So I decided to audio-record the entire speech, which is an enjoyable 2.5 hours if you understand any German. In fact, it was one of those instances in which understanding the German language quite literally gave me a better level of access to information about how the world works, which is why I am continuously baffled by why universities think cutting back on German is a great idea. Understanding German connects you with a whole next level of cultural production that, well, needs to be situated within its context.
Kat left for Iowa on the 29th, and I don’t think I’ve actually had a phone conversation with her since then, on account of her not having a cell phone but being on the road up in the Twin Cities and the time difference and all. This makes me sad. 😦
All the more sad beyond having to leave Berlin and doing so alone is the fact that I missed the very wedding I didn’t want to: that of Preeti Gupta and Seth Bacon. These are two exceptional individuals with whom I’ve spent many a fine day, and whose wedding I knew was going to be awesome. And then it was scheduled to take place within my last two weeks here, also on the very weekend I had a conference in Bremen. So to all my Grinnellian alumni friends that were there (Taylor, Megan, Eve, David, John, Katie, Aaron, Ann, Sean… oh, the list is too long): I missed dancing, gaming and reveling with Preeti and Seth. And to Preeti and Seth: the present’s on its way, but my well-wishes now will have to do.
So: the Bremen conference. It was my first official conference paper delivered in German to a German audience on German soil, and I think it went fairly well. The topic was “Turns und Trends in der Literaturwissenschaft,” and was designed to gather young scholars into debate about the field of Germanistik via papers delivered. I dealt with material pertaining to a racist “geopolitical fiction” science-fiction novel – Pereat Austria! – from 1907 written by a right-wing self-help author Marie Carola Freiin von Eynatten. My paper was described as the “postcolonial turn” of the conference. In any case, it will be published (with revisions) in German in October. I’m psyched. But I was even more psyched to by chance visit with Sarah, a former UMass professor, and her coterie of German exchange students to Dickinson College. It was like being back with Grinnellians for the evening – interesting liberal-arts college types – and I felt suddenly at home amidst an otherwise somewhat alienating conference experience.
Naturally, we stopped our final discussion on Saturday as Germany trashed Argentina in a World Cup quarter final showdown. Though it didn’t pan out for Germany in the semi-finals against Spain, the victory celebrations for the quarter final were extremely intense in Bremen, with cops and smoke bombs and yelling people and vuvuzelas and (enough booleans) such. I remember exiting the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin and asking myself: “Is this a warzone?” Men were hauling up random people off the street and stuffing them into a van to drink. A couple in Tiergarten seemed to be celebrating with a deliberately heavy amount of heavy petting. Bottles flew, music blasted, Germans yelped for joy. Well, at least they made it to the semi-finals.
For reasons I’ll not state here, I was back early from Bremen and found myself in Berlin for the Fourth of July, which was celebrated at Tempelhof Park by the Young Democrats Abroad. Hilary Bown ’02 and Justin Torrence ’03 were present and made me feel at home there. We had a cherry pit spitting contest, and some guy named Jerry impressed me with his deep knowledge of Cold War history as an American ex-pat who lived in Kreuzberg. Then Kira and I commiserated and had ice cream.
Monday night was a BBQ in Prenzlauer Berg in one of the older houses along Husemannstr. After exactly one beer, I was repeatedly told by the Germans that I was “zu laut,” leading me to believe that I project my voice much better in the foreign language…
And now Peggy, my landlady, has come and inspected the apartment. I am most definitely leaving, and the sparseness of my surroundings bears testimony to that fact.
But what’s life without melancholy, bittersweet endings, or the sending off of old friends to new places?
Die Liebe und die Königin (1976)
Based on Viktor Hugo’s novel Maria Tudor, this film stars Gojko Mitic as the dashing Fabiano Fabiani, an Italian nobleman who murders a Jewish loan-shark plotting to overthrow the throne, starting a whole chain of events. The first time I’ve ever seen Mitic play a villainous role, though it looks like he’s still only got about two possible expressions. It supports my argument for my GSA paper in the fall anyway…
Die schöne Lurette (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, 1960)
An adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s operette by the same name. Best watched on fast-forward, I think – then you see fast-moving soldiers and peasants weaving in and around each other, occasionally donning masks and kissing. Much better than its awkward Powell/Pressburger aspirations.
I took the (loneliness-fueled) plunge and joined a choose-your-own-adventure Twitter app called Echo Bazaar. The premise: you are a quasi-damned, quasi-deceased soul in Fallen London, an underground version of the same that happens to share a border with Hell. Quite addictive and quite well-written (because it’s British), my character has already done any number of dubious tasks, such as fed a hapless drunk to a demon and composed an ode about a fungal creature. Fun times.
Shifting Forest Storyworks
A LARP community in California, Shifting Forest Storyworks, has been so generous as to offer many of their written parlor LARP scenarios for free. I took a gander at several, including the Mirror Room, and was pleasantly surprised with how tightly structured and playable they all seemed. It made me excited to run several upon my return. Any players willing to have a go?