Johanna Koljonen is a writer, radio and TV host from Finland. She has researched, written for, about and through Larping and is a popular lecturer on the subject.

This Introduction to Nordic Larp from the Nordic Larp Talks Stockholm 2010 is an overview of what is Live Action Role Playing can be, where it came from and how to create one.

 

 

During this talk on Nordic Larp (2011) she starts by relating her experience in a larp called Ground Zero (1998) designed by Jami Jokinen and Jori Virtanen. The game, who took place in Turku, Finland, was set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. The participants played the roles of ordinary American families who had found refuge in the bomb shelter they had built as the conflict escalated. They spent 24 hours in a basement surrounded by cardboard boxes full of supplies. Only a radio played continuously alternating between patriotic music, news and presidential announcements both historical and fabricated.

They were vaguely told that the Larp may be a historical game or depict an alternative ending. This meant that though they were fully aware the game was based on historical facts they were unable to assume that like in history, the nuclear conflict would be avoided. Indeed, half way through the game, the radio is lost, followed by electricity and an explosion after which the participants continued playing for 12 hours in a context now dramatically turned on its head; they are survivors of a nuclear catastrophe.

Johanna then goes on explaining how this cathartic experience made its way back to her mind years later as she was watching news about bombings in Bagdad. Of course, she couldn’t claim knowing what it might be like to be alongside the victims, but the experience brought about a feeling of empathy. She says:

“Somehow experiencing this thing with my physical body had made this thing much more real and had helped me understand a little bit about what the experiences can be like for other people”.

Nordic Larps have the reputation for being unexpectedly intense both physically and emotionally. 100% of the people I have talked to virtually or in person have mentioned it to be exactly why they kept coming back. They are looking to extract something within themselves through experiencing what they wouldn’t have access to in their daily lives.

In my skype interview with Adam James he emphasised that your choice as a player is to make your character as thick or thin skinned as you can handle. Actually, this is a popular topic of conversation at meetups and conventions;

“Everybody wants to exchange war stories about how they got emotional once.”

Workshops enable you to create your character and his backstory allowing you to get a say in what your character is likely to experience in game. Some choose to play their polar opposites or to participate in games whose subject they know they have an emotional connection to. Others, by choosing to play certain characters, voluntarily put themselves in challenging situations. This is especially true of dystopian themes. In System Danmarc, a game about a near future Danish society who confines the weakest of society in slums, some players were trained by ex-junkies to play homeless and abused characters.

Such investment demands a level of trust one may rarely have with anybody. It demands for players to have confidence in themselves, confidence in other players and trust in the gamemasters. It is only by being open and letting go that you can get the most out of the experience. For this reason, you rapidly bond with the rest of the group. Workshops and debriefs play a major role in safeguarding players during the transition into and from the game. They encourage the sharing of feelings and thoughts to unburden participants dealing with overwhelming sentiments as they return to reality.

The goal of Nordic larp is to offer a change in perspective so that in game experience may affect how participants see themselves and act in society. A gain in empathy can, in my opinion, only be a benefit. However, deep emotional reactions can catch you off guard. During my conversations on Reddit, I have been warned substantially about the effects of bleed. Bleed is when you let yourself get so deeply involved that the experience changes you and seeps into your daily life. Many advised me to look for groups that take emotional and physical health seriously.

“Some games get heavy, if you’re going to be/need other people to be genuine you need to feel supported. If you do then don’t shy away from completely alien concepts, topics, or other players but never feel obligated to do something you’re not comfortable with for the sake of narrative. After each game take the time to stop being in character.”

The pointed (Reddit) ■

 

This made me think about what Larping could bring to speculative design. As a design practice that challenges assumptions by positioning itself against the status quo speculative design could benefit from using embodied experiences to raise awareness about the future. In his presentation on critical design, Tobias Revell introduced us to a large variety of speculative design projects. It occurred to me that projects like United Micro Kingdoms (2013) by Dunne and Raby rely substantially on written text and the explanation of research. Although thought provoking and/or unsettling, a lot rested upon intellectual stimulation, visual cues, narration and diegetic prototypes that for the most part can only be looked at. Embodied experience is baggage we all have which makes it impactful. Speculative objects do not have to work, nor do they even have to be made to make a statement but they could exist in within the magic circle of Larp.

Embodied experiences for speculative design 2

Digitarian Cars – Dunne & Raby (2013)

 

However, there are projects that use role playing. The Extrapolation factory invites the public to engage in discussions about the future and change. In Alternative Unknowns (2015) they invited New York City based practitioners to enacted emergency scenes around seven speculative artefacts for emergency preparedness. These improvisations served as a basis for discussion around issues with the NYC Emergency Management.

 

Micro Nations Revolution (2011) could be considered as a science fiction pop-up show curated by NBH Studios for Shunt-London. The two-day program encompassed a music, performances and workshop exploring the imaginary geopolitics of four fictional micro nations.

Embodied experiences for speculative design 1