Nordic Larp and American power

Last weekend, I was at the Nordic roleplaying and larp conference Knutpunkt in Sweden. Like always, it was a wonderful experience, showing how furiously the scene and the artform are progressing into new and exciting directions. Sometimes it feels like things are going so fast, you have to work hard just to keep up.

One of the interesting discussions that the Knutpunkt scene is having right now concerns the idea of Nordic Larp. What is Nordic Larp, how is it defined, and how it should be defined?

History

The idea of Nordic Larp as it’s currently understood is surprisingly recent. When I went to one of these conferences for the first time, Solmukohta in Finland in 2000, there was no “Nordic Larp”. As a Finnish larper, I was becoming aware that there were larpers in other Nordic countries too. They were doing cool things, and I wanted to meet them. It was about cultural exchange between local larp scenes.

As the years progressed and contact with the rest of the world increased, a sense of a Nordic larp community was formed. We were no longer Finns and Swedes marveling at each other, but Nordic larpers. Our national communities still had huge differences in larp philosophy and practice, but many things in common too. Creative ambition was often named as one.

This kind of thinking was solidified in 2010 through the publication of the book Nordic Larp, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. It attempted to collect together important and interesting games from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and to showcase essential examples of what had been done so far. The book’s project was to describe the Nordic scene through its games, and its conception of Nordic Larp was geographic.

That conception was soon called into question. In the book I edited for the 2012 Solmukohta conference, States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World, I argued for Nordic Larp as a creative idea separate from the national scenes in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. My idea was that not all Finnish larp was Nordic Larp, and you could do Nordic Larp in Germany or the U.S. It was a creative philosophy that just happened to be born in the Nordic countries.

This idea was not without problems. There’s a rift between the Knutpunkt scene and the many national Finnish larp scenes we have, and I’m under the impression that this has happened in other Nordic countries as well. Having the concept of Nordic Larp float free of its cultural origins makes this rift worse.

Another point of criticism came from outside the Nordic countries. At this point, it was no longer about just Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway: people from many parts of the world had come to the Knutpunkt conferences. Turns out, many of these people didn’t want to use the words “Nordic Larp” to describe cool projects in their own countries. They felt that we in the Nordic countries didn’t have the right to assume ownership of the idea of creatively ambitious larp.

Thus, in many parts of the world, larp designers have created local names for their own movements. In the U.S., it’s American Freeform. Indeed, Nordic Larp doesn’t have a monopoly on creativity even in the Nordic countries. We have a strong Jeepform scene, the Fastaval tradition of scenario design, Finnish tabletop roleplaying publishing, and many other distinct philosophies of ambitious design.

The most recent definition of Nordic Larp comes from Jaakko Stenros. At the Nordic Larp Talks in Oslo in 2013, he proposed a circular definition where Nordic Larp is: “A larp that is influenced by the Nordic larp tradition and contributes to the ongoing Nordic larp discourse.”

This definition is in the same category as what I proposed in States of Play in the sense that it separates Nordic Larp from the national larp scenes in the Nordic countries. Many, maybe most, larps played in Finland do not contribute to the “ongoing Nordic larp discourse”.

In his talk, Stenros makes the point that Nordic Larp is a concept that has power. It has brand recognition, and it’s important for the identity of its practitioners. This means that there is also power in defining it.

Progressive Larp

At Knutpunkt, larp and transmedia designer Martin Ericsson proposed during the Hour of the Rant to replace Nordic Larp with the concept of Progressive Larp. The idea was that by removing the national geographical signifiers, we could have a global movement all about creativity, ambition and all the cool stuff without national and cultural borders getting in the way.

At this point, it’s necessary to make a long detour into U.S. cultural imperialism and the privileges it represents. The U.S. machine for cultural production, from Hollywood onwards, is probably the most powerful in the world. That power is sometimes characterized in U.S. politics by the term “soft power“, meaning influence that creeps without strongarm tactics or violence. Why bomb and conquer when you can just give people in other countries so many entertaining American movies that they start to identify with American interests more than their own?

The reality of how this works often boils down to capacity and quality. In Finland, the movie industry produces maybe 10-20 films a year. A budget of five million euros would be truly extravagant by our standards. Because of this, our cinemas are mostly full of American movies, expensively and expertly made.

Larp is rare in the sense that while its origins are in the U.S., it’s not dominated by U.S. product. We have a strong, local tradition of larp that looks good in global comparison.

Having your arts and entertainment dominated by U.S. movies, books and comics has some distinct negative effects. It makes the U.S. the center of the world. It makes us import controversies and discussions to Finland that actually make no sense in our context. It makes us think that American soldiers are somehow people we should emphazise with, instead of their victims who don’t have Hollywood or HBO to dramatize their stories.

I grew up with G.I. Joe and the X-Men. I’ve made a larp called The American Dream: Happiness (although I was 20 when I made it). I’m not immune to any of these effects, and maybe that’s what makes all this so melancholy for me. Like Rammstein says in a song, “We’re living in America.” I love all these things, from Game of Thrones to The Wire, but I’m very happy that larp is a field where the balance of power and cultural influence is at least somewhat more neutral.

At Knutpunkt this year, some American participants made a joke about U.S. imperialism and appropriation by calling the event “Living Games East”. Living Games is a U.S. larp conference. This joke is based on a conception of the U.S. as a hungry appropriation machine that rampages around the world, stealing ideas and rebranding them as its own.

Perhaps that’s what it looks like from inside the U.S. From the outside, the view is sadder. The U.S. media market seems closed, uninterested in anything that’s not from within. The traditional way to try to sneak in has been to try to make things look and sound as if they came from the U.S. The videogame industry does this all the time. The Finnish game Alan Wake is set in Washington State, and it’s spin-off is actually called American Nightmare. Other Finnish success stories like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans are also notable in having nothing that would reveal them as Finnish.

In movies, one example is the Resident Evil series. It’s made as an international co-production, but the idiom is as American as possible. Bizarrely, since American cultural influence is so pervasive around the world, it’s used by Europeans to sell stuff to other Europeans. A German moviegoer will be more comfortable with a Finnish fake American movie than a Finnish Finnish movie. Monitor Celestra is a larp example of how this works: to find a theme that has enough power to bring together so many players from the Nordic countries and around the world, we need to use an American tv series.

All this cultural power makes itself felt in privilege. If we want to be international, we talk English. As a Finn, if I want to access this world, I have to learn a language, but if I’m American, I don’t. As a Finn, I can’t expect anyone but other Finns to understand references to my culture. As an American, I could talk about G.I. Joe and the X-Men to my heart’s content. Often, the privilege seems to manifest in the assumption that American cultural context is global, but perhaps that’s understandable. In using American references, we make it easy for others to forget we also have our own.

Ericsson’s concept of Progressive Larp is the equivalent of Alan Wake: American Nightmare. It’s an attempt to make the movement more palatable to global audiences by scrubbing it clean of its cultural background. By accepting the privileged position of the English language and downplaying who we are, we can become one big ambitious global larp family.

The way this works is partly coded into the very word “progressive”. My first association is prog rock, an Anglo-American musical trend that came from the U.S. to Finland. Thus, when the word is used to describe what we do to people who don’t know the history, it’s easy for our heritage to be erased from the narrative and replaced with the familiar pop culture story of stuff originating from the U.S. and then consumed and processed by us here in the rest of the world.

Nordic

I love seeing Americans at Knutpunkt. I love to see our ideas spread and be challenged. I love the cultural exchange that goes on, and I have yet to meet an American larper I didn’t like as a human being. But I’m happy to do Nordic Larp. Maybe this is why I liked seeing Germans and Americans protest against my concept of Nordic Larp as explained in States of Play. By creating American Freeform, American designers free us from the imperatives of a global movement. We can be Nordic again, one scene in dialogue with many other interesting scenes.

Research Blog Antarctica #129 – Freeze ‘Em All

Freeze ‘Em All is a concert given by Metallica at the Argentinean Carlini base on 8.12.2013. It’s part of an attempt to make a record by playing a gig on all seven continents within a year.

I’m an Antarctic geek and I like metal, but this doesn’t do much for me. The bludgeoning Metallica sound doesn’t really seem to be in any dialogue with the Antarctic environment, and the Cocal-Cola-related branding creates distance between the viewer and the show.