Non-Digital: Becoming a Perfect Human

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

Recently, me, Jaakko Stenros and Tuomas Puikkonen did a larp called Täydellinen ihminen (The Perfect Human). The idea was to delve deep into the clean, bright world of office stock photos. For a few hours, our participants would become these happy, smiling, efficient and joyful people. They would embody a certain type of corporate dream.

Me and Jaakko did the design, and Tuomas handled the photography. It was an unusual larp project in the sense that the photos were an integral part of the experience, instead of just documentation. After being a perfect human, the participants could then see themselves in actual photos, permanently part of that world.

The game was played in Helsinki on the 20th of September, 2015. Jaakko wrote a few personal reflections about the game here, and the full set of Tuomas’s wonderful photos is here.

That's me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

That’s me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The game was about an ordinary Monday at the consulting firm Creative Solutions. The characters all worked there, and were thrilled to be back at work after the weekend. During the day, they met three clients (one about bottled water, the city of Salo and the Guggenheim) and had several internal meetings. That was it: No twist, no surprises, no drama.

One of the ideas behind the game was the concept of “the Soviet man”, the perfect communist citizen. A popular idea in the Soviet Union, this ideal also revealed the problems inherent in the system. The ideal human is not what we have. We just have ordinary humans.

For Täydellinen ihminen, corporate stock photos replace the paintings and statues of Socialist Realism. Instead of the noble, strong factory worker, we have the happy, innovative consultant. The perfect human of the larp is just one of the ideals we live with in today’s society. Another ideal of capitalism is a super-competitive individualist motivated by greed, but we chose to focus on creating the world as it appears in the photos. A place where teamwork and positivity are the most important qualities. This meant that in the workplace of Creative Solutions, everyone collaborated on everything, and always gave positive feedback. Meetings made the characters happy. The team was everything.

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

I understood the idea of using larp to generate a certain kind of visual surface after I participated in the Brody Condon larp and video project The Zeigarnik Effect in June 2015. In this, as well as earlier pieces by the same artist, larp and video have complemented each other. A larp has certain qualities that are hard to achieve otherwise, and those qualities can be captured on video, or in photos. I knew the idea, but really only realized the potential after having experienced it myself.

In Täydellinen ihminen, game design and visual design came together in the physical play style we workshopped together before the start of the game. In office stock photos, people are happy. They smile. They stand very close to each other. They touch.

In stock photos, people are close, and they're physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

In stock photos, people are close, and they’re physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The idea was that practising these modes of being beforehand would produce the right kind of images, but also generate a certain atmosphere for the game. We forbade all subtext, hidden agendas, sex, and other distractions to focus on the game’s dream of happy, corporate efficiency and teamwork. This also made it easier for the participants to be casually physical.

Tuomas didn’t play a character and the participants were instructed to ignore the photographer, but it’s clear his presence had an impact on the in-game dynamics. When I was in the game playing a supportive character, I noticed myself and others behaving as if they were on camera even when Tuomas was not in the room. It became part of the physical, bodily language of the game.

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

So what does it mean to play a larp and become one of the perfect humans? I played a few supporting roles, so I’m perhaps the wrong person to explain what the experience was all about. That’s best left to actual participants.

At one point, I played a normal, non-perfect municipal representative, and it felt overwhelming to be subjected to the team’s energy. I felt like a hick who had come to the big town.

Non-Digital: Seven Larps, Seven Countries

Alexander Norppa, the CEO of Norppa Industries, is holding a private preliminary high-level meeting before the start of the actual summit. Photo: Harmke Heezen

Alexander Norppa, the CEO of Norppa Industries, is holding a private preliminary high-level meeting before the start of the actual summit. Photo: Harmke Heezen

One of the great things about larp is that it’s such a young medium, we can do things for the first time. Exploring new frontiers of larp is easy since there’s so much that hasn’t been done yet.

I worked on the Baltic Warriors project as a larp producer this summer. We did a tour of seven countries, and ran seven larps with a loosely continuous story. The tour culminated in Helsinki this weekend with the finale, longer and bigger than the previous games.

Summit participants discuss the issues on the way to the gala dinner, unaware of the impeding zombie attack. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Summit participants discuss the issues on the way to the gala dinner, unaware of the impeding zombie attack. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Our creative producer Mike Pohjola likes to say that this has been the most international larp campaign in history, and he might well be right. I don’t really know of any others that would have reached seven countries. We also had participants from something like 16 countries. The core team worked from Germany, Finland and Sweden.

Baltic Warriors was a political game about eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. In the Helsinki game, a summit meeting about the future of the Baltic Sea, the political aspect was realized with perhaps the greatest nuance. We also learned a lot about playing in public and playing privately, and how that affects the larp dynamics with both first-timers and experienced larpers.

The zombie action was realized in partnership with the Zero Hour zombie festival. Photo: Sigrid Reede

The zombie action was realized in partnership with the Zero Hour zombie festival. Photo: Sigrid Reede

One of the things I’m happiest about in this project is the number of first time players who participated. In some games, like in Kiel, Germany, it was over two-thirds of all players, but the Helsinki game had a lot of first-timers too. Before the game, I was worried whether it was a good idea to throw novice larpers into an unguided city game where you’re supposed to direct your own experience to a large extent, but this worry proved unfounded. Indeed, the naturalism and heightened privacy of this style of larping may have made it easier for first-timers than our previous games.

One reason we were disposed to attract first-timers was probably the anomalous production structure of Baltic Warriors. Produced by the German company Kinomaton Berlin and Goethe-Institut Finnland, the initial impulse to do all of this came from outside the larp scene. I have never worked with institutions who were as motivated to do good larp as we had this time.

A debrief discussion held after the game was over at the Goethe-Institut. Photo: Sigrid Reede

A debrief discussion held after the game was over at the Goethe-Institut. Photo: Sigrid Reede

Non-Digital: Larping in the Middle of a Demonstration

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Our venue for Baltic Warriors Copenhagen was the square in front of the parliament building, Christiansborg. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Some people do larps in highly controlled environments such as the “Black Box”, a featureless room with lights that can act as the abstract stage for any larp scene. In these games, the players can enjoy freedom from the distractions of the world and the organizers have maximum control over what happens in the game space.

Last Saturday, we did the fifth game in this summer’s Baltic Warriors series of eco larps in Copenhagen in conditions that are pretty much the opposite of that. Our game was held at the square in front of Denmark’s parliament building Christiansborg. Sharing the square with us was a demonstration against the war in Iraq, and a counter-demonstration that was also against the war but with a different political analysis.

In the photo above, you can see the anarchist counter-demonstrators.

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Participants in the middle of the game. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As in every Baltic Warriors game, the characters were lobbyists, activists and politicians debating an issue related to the dead zones in the Baltic Sea caused by eutrophication. Every game has been about politics, but this time the politics was a little more tangible than usual, given the non-fictional political action going on all around us.

In each Baltic Warriors game, we have a local producer or producers helping us make the game. This time, we worked with the Danish company Rollespilsakademiet, and they had the necessary logistical resources to build us the tents, the benches and the tables that defined our play area.

This time, we had an unusually high number of dog participants. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

As an organizer, doing a larp in this kind of environment means that you have to make peace with the fact that anything can happen. We had wildly different estimates about the size of the demonstrations. Some said there’s be thousands of people, while others had lower numbers. We were afraid that a big demonstration would swamp us, and if a demonstration went bad, there would be further safety issues.

The way it happened, the demonstration was of a manageable size, so none of our worst-case scenarios were realized. There were no obvious cops. A lot of people stopped by to see what we were doing (or to steal our coffee). For a political game, this is of course a good thing, but it also meant that this game wasn’t about fragile intimacies.

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

This is what happens when you leave your guard posts unattended. Photo: Juhana Pettersson

Doing an aggressively public larp like this raises many interesting questions that can be explored further. What are the ethics of sharing a public space with another political event? Can this be used deliberately, as a central part of the larp design? What kind of new social spaces can be incorporated into a larp experience?

Our larp design was merely adapted to the venue we had, but perhaps in the future, we’ll see interesting new works that make these questions the thrust of the game.

Pikseliparatiisi: Kohti Gamescomia

Olen tänään lentämässä Kölniin ottamaan osaa Gamescom-pelimessuille. Käymme tekemässä Tilt-tv-ohjelmaa varten haastatteluja erilaisista pelintekijöistä.

Videopelikokemus rajoittuu usein ihmisen ja ruudun väliseksi vuorovaikutukseksi. Vaikka peli olisi sosiaalinen, toimii välittäjänä tietokone tai konsoli. Pelaaminen ei vaadi jalkautumista sohvaa kauemmaksi, ja maailman rajoina ovat olohuoneeni rajat. Pelien ihmeet ovat virtuaalisia, kuvitteellisia.

Talouskysymykset ja ilmiöiden rakentaminen ovat pelikeskusteluissa keskeisessä roolissa. Suomalaisista peleistä kuten Angry Birds tai Clash of Clans kirjoitetaan usein juuri taloustarinoita, ja isot pelit kuten Call of Dutyt tai Assassin’s Creedit pyrkivät olemaan maailmanlaajuisia mediajättiläisiä.

Tyypillisiä Gamescomissa liian kauan olleita kävijöitä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Tyypillisiä Gamescomissa liian kauan olleita kävijöitä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Tämä monumentalismi ei kuitenkaan yleensä ole osa varsinaista pelikokemusta. Jos pelaan Angry Birdsiä metrossa, on vaikea tuntea elimellistä yhteyttä siihen kuinka Suomen peliala pelastaa pienen maamme talouden. Kotona Assassin’s Creed on vain Assassin’s Creed, ei valtava media-ameeba, josta pulpahtelee ties mitä spin-offeja tasaisin väliajoin.

Kaikki tämä kuitenkin muuttuu, kun menee Gamescom-pelimessuille. Olen käynyt niillä jo monena vuonna työn takia, ja joka kerta kokemusta on voinut luonnehtia samoin. Kun messuilta lähtee, tuntuu kuin poistuisi armeijan ammuntaradalta, jossa testataan raskasta tykistöä.

Koelnmesse-messuhalli on suunnilleen suomalaisen pikkukaupungin kokoinen valtava kompleksi. Jos haluaa kävellä Gamescom-messut päästä päähän, täytyy varata 20-30 minuuttia aikaa, ihmismäärästä riippuen. Messuhallit ovat täynnä omakotitalon kokoisia mainospömpeleitä, jotka hehkuttavat milloin mitäkin suurellista julkaisua.

Varsinaisten messuhallien lomassa kulkeva yhdyskäytävä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Varsinaisten messuhallien lomassa kulkeva yhdyskäytävä. Kuva vuodelta 2012.

Kaikki tämä kuitenkin kalpenee Gamescomin perussoundin äärellä. Se on tasainen, kaikkialle tunkeva bassojylinä. Jokaisessa pelissä on jyrmeä basso, ja kaikki näytteilleasettajat haluavat että heidän bassonsa kuuluu parhaiten. Kun sisällä on ollut pari tuntia, tuntuu kuin joku olisi tasaisen rauhallisesti puristellut aivoja kunnes ne eivät enää kykene muodostamaan mitään koherentteja mielikuvia.

Gamescomin perusolemus on brutaali. Yksinkertainen viesti välitetään totalitaarisella enemmän-on-enemmän metodilla: Mitä tahansa muuta pelit ovatkin, niin ainakin ne ovat isoja.

Non-Digital: New People at Baltic Warriors Kiel

Last Saturday, we ran the Kiel game of our Baltic Warriors campaign which tours the countries around the Baltic Sea this summer. Kiel is a small coastal city in northern Germany, close to Hamburg.

The larps have a story continuing from game to game. They are set as close to their real-life venues as possible, and feature environmental conferences about local issues. And that worst of all effects of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea, zombies.

Our venue was the Kiel Kunsthalle.

We’ve always wanted to have both larpers and newcomers as participants in the Baltic Warriors games. I believe that our games are a good choice for those who are interested in larp but shy away from traditional larp themes and genres. If our games manage to spread the joy of larp to new people, that’s a wonderful thing.

However, I also believe newcomers are good for the game. They bring an energy and a perspective that cuts into the core of why larp is so fun and interesting and shake established practices, forcing us to question why we do things a certain way.

Characters trying to find out how to complete the anti-zombie ritual.

In previous Baltic Warriors games, the newcomers have been a minority, but in Kiel, two thirds of our players were participating in their first larp.

Some of them were in their twenties, others over sixty. A few had been specifically invited by us, while others were intersted in larp, Nordic Larp specifically, or had heard of the project in the local or national media. Our benefactors at the Goethe-Institut were responsible for some of the more important ones.

Larp inside art.

Larp inside art.

The Baltic Warriors games we run have similar templates, but vary according to local conditions. This was especially obvious in Kiel, where both our wonderful venue of the Kiel Kunsthalle and the unusual participant composition meant that the game would run differently.

It’s probably no surprise that as an organizer, this has an energizing effect. We added features such as the in-game art tour and tried to stay on top of the chaos of different languages and experiences.

First-time participants deep in the game.

First-time participants deep in the game.

Having players who have larped before brings a kind of “herd competence” to the game: If enough players know how to do it, the rest will pick it up. When the percentage of larpers goes down, chaos increases, but as an organizer I had the feeling that after doing Baltic Warriors in Tallinn, St. Petersburg and Sopot, a little chaos doesn’t faze us.

Non-Digital: Beach Larp Manifesto

Today, we played the third of this summer’s seven Baltic Warriors eco zombie larps in Sopot, Poland. Finding a good venue for the serious political discussion and the even more serious zombie action proved to be difficult, but we found a wonderful host in a place called Klub Atelier, a venue in a beach theatre.

Since the weather was good, we held the game itself on the beach. This proved to be a very good choice: The presence of the Baltic Sea was palpable every moment of the game, a very important feature considering the themes and aims of Baltic Warriors in general. It’s easy to ignore the problems of the Baltic Sea when it’s out of sight and out of mind, but it’s something different when it’s right there.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Setting up the scene for the larp.

Doing a larp on a beach made me ask a very obvious question:

Why are beach larps so rare? Why don’t we larp on beaches all the time? Why can’t we have fun in the sun?

This prompted me to write this manifesto in favor of beach larp, a phenomenon I foresee will take the larp world by storm in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 before it becomes mainstream and attains global success and recognition as the primary beach activity of our species by the end of the decade.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

The politicians, lobbyists and activists come to discuss environmental issues.

Beach larp is:

1 – On a beach.

2 – Features an intimate thematic link to the water.

3 – Goes beyond the mere superficialities of fun, and becomes a profound participatory experience combining serious questions about our role in the world with being on a  beach.

4 – For players ready to take the experience seriously and dedicate themselves to fulfilling it. Or have been forced to participate by their employers. One of the two.

5 – Conflates surface and content by accepting the fact that larp is public. You don’t go to the beach to not be seen, and the same goes for beach larp. The larp experience becomes complete in the confused Tweet of a stranger. Or a spot done by local television.

6 – For romance. Our beach larp ended with a woman proposing to her pregnant lover.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

Viking zombies crawling out of the Baltic Sea.

7 – For tragedy. The lover said no.

8 – Engaging with the public. Beach larp is not insulated. Beach larp takes interventions by outsiders in stride. In our case, in the form of a zombie attack on schoolchildren.

9 – For emergence and coincidence. Anything can happen in a beach larp. The larp incorporates coincidence. Whether military helicopters or a sailing ship, everything becomes part of beach larp.

10 – For meeting larpers and non-larpers, the young and the old, friends and strangers. Everyone is one on the beach.

Join the beach larp revolution now!

Non-Digital: The Joy of the Zeigarnik Effect

I’m standing in front of a wall. It’s made of wood, painted white. There are two black, small holes, probably made by nails, at my eye level. I run my hand along the surface of the white paint. I’m in the present, aware of what’s right in front of me.

I’m playing in a larp called The Zeigarnik Effect, run in Moss in Norway 11th – 13th of June, 2015 as part of the Momentum biennial of contemporary art. Created by the artist Brody Condon, The Zeigarnik Effect consists of two complementary but separate pieces, the larp and a video installation based on material recorded in the larp. During the opening of Momentum, the camera feeds from the larp are displayed live at the installation.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

A banner advertising Momentum in downtown Moss.

The voice tells me, tells all of us to move our focus to the other people in the room. I turn around and face the room. I see the other participants. I look at their faces. I look at their eyes. I’m aware of their presence. I’m in the moment.

One of the core inspirations of The Zeigarnik Effect is the Gestalt therapy of the German psychotherapist Fritz Perls. Being in the moment, being present, is one of the ideas that makes Gestalt therapy so interesting to experience. We play loose characters that consist of motivations for being in therapy, and little else. The specific rituals of Gestalt mean that although everyone in the group is in close, constant interaction with everyone else, we don’t really need anything very elaborate in terms of larp fiction. I have little else than the simple motivation granted to me by my imagined affliction, and it sufficed.

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The installation after the first day of larp, before the exhibition opens the next day.

The voice is telling me to focus on my body. I feel the cramping in my back, the itching in my scalp and the anxiety in my fingers created by the condition I came up with: The fear of losing sensation in my hands and feet.

When we’re not doing mental and social excercises designed to bring us into the present moment, we’re working on someone. The language of Gestalt foregrounds the experiential, meaning that when we describe dreams, it sounds like this: “I’m experiencing remembering standing on a brown granual surface. It’s dark. I feel the heat on my face.” And so forth.

The ideas of Gestalt therapy, combined with the game design features designed by Condon with Nina Runa Essendrop, create a series of extremely intense, socially high-resolution interactions that are sometimes joyful and always interesting. A particular favorite is an excercise in which half the group moves eyes closed and the other half guides them, forcefully or with only a light touch.

In another interesting excercise, one participant asks the question “What do you want?” over and over again, and the other tries to answer. When I do this, I end up tearing my partner’s t-shirt into two. When it’s his turn to answer, he hits me in the face.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

The first day is intimate and personal. The second day, animosities come to the surface.

Playing The Zeigarnik Effect feels like someone has constructed an experimental language of larp, something honed and perfected in earlier prototypes until it runs smoothly and efficiently. Everything is simple, but I’m aware that to reach this level of simplicity, a great deal effort and trial and error is necessary.

The documentation required by the video installation is rigorous and thorough. Implemented by Paul Shin, the set-up includes wireless microphones on every participant and two cameramen who move in the game space, capturing emotions in close up.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

During the game, sound goes live from the microphone on each player to the video installation in the exhibition space.

Visiting the installation space, it’s obvious that this strategy really pays off. Capturing the visual surface of larp has rarely been done to such powerful effect as here, and the key is making sure that the camera is always right there, zeroing in on the face of someone who is not performing.

Non-Digital: Baltic Warriors in St. Petersburg

Last Saturday, 6th of June, the second Baltic Warriors game of summer 2015 was played in St. Petersburg. I’m working on the project as a larp producer, and it’s surprisingly strange to make a game that’s being run in a language I don’t understand, in this case Russian. Others have done this before me, but now was my first time.

Thankfully, the game seemed to be a success.

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(Members of the crew in front of the venue, the art space Taiga on the shore of the Neva river in St. Petersburg)

Each Baltic Warriors game has a similar design and structure, but we’ve learned that local variation will always play a part. The St. Petersburg game was our most aggressively localized one, with character and game design elements adapted so they’d make sense. We also had to provide all material in Russian to make sure all players can comfortably engage with it.

In each country, we have a local producer who’s job it is to do this localization, in addition to practical organizing. In Russia, we had Olga Vorobyeva, who did a wonderful job. We also had significant help from the local Goethe Institute. The Goethe Institute makes the project financially possible, but in St. Petersburg they went above and beyond in terms of practical work.

(Participants workshopping before the game starts)

Bringing people together is one of the key goals of the whole Baltic Warriors project, and if we can do a little larp evangelizing on the side, that’s good too. Because of this, I was happy to see that approximately one third of our players had never larped before. We’d been warned that the actual experts we invited to participate in the post-game panel discussion probably wouldn’t want to play, but in the end every single one did.

(The game is in full swing as some characters listen to speeches given by the politicians, activists and lobbyists, while othets write news articles and make backroom deals)

As in every Baltic Warriors game, eventually the zombies will attack. In the fiction of the game, eutrophication causes the undead to rise from the Dead Zones of the Baltic Sea. The style of the game changes, and debate turns into action as the characters try to save themselves.

This time the action was so fast, we had trouble following it with our cameras.

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(A zombie hangs back as the participants do a debrief round after the game has ended)

Non-Digital: The Last Ropecon at Dipoli

Ropecon is a Finnish roleplaying game convention. It’s also been something that’s been a part of my life for twenty years now.

It was first organized in 1994, but I missed the initial years. I’m pretty sure my first Ropecon was 1996. I was sixteen and had just discovered Werewolf: the Apocalypse. I had made a character I figured was real badass, and wanted to play it in a game.

Dipoli is a conference center in Espoo, Finland. It has been home to Ropecon from 1998, but now was the last year. Next time, it’s going to be at Messukeskus, or Helsinki Fair Centre.

For me, Dipoli was “the new Ropecon venue” for maybe ten years, because the first ones I attended had been at another place. The building has come to define the event with its labyrinthine interior and plentiful greenery outside. The event is usually held at the end of July, but this time it was last weekend.

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(Mike Pohjola places a viking helmet on top of a flapboard at our Baltic Warriors presentation.)

My Ropecon experiences tend to be defined by the program items I go there to hold, and this year was no different. We started on Friday with Mike Pohjola by doing a presentation about Baltic Warriors, the larp campaign we’re organizing this summer. This is something I’ve done a number of years: Go to Ropecon to talk about my latest things.

I got downright sentimental later when we went to drink outside with a few friends. We headed to the end of a pier down at the waterfront, because I wanted to stand there one more time. I’ve published or helped to publish five books at Ropecon, and after the book publishing presentations, we’ve had a little champagne to celebrate at the pier. This time we didn’t have a book, but it was still nice to go there anyway.

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(A larp prop from the game Tonnin stiflat, this is a “torpedo” of canisters that are filled with booze for smuggling during the Prohibition. It was used at the larp costume gala.)

On Saturday night, I held a presentation called Larpin rajoilla, the Limits of Larp, with Maria Pettersson. Our idea was simply to see what are all the places larp has gone to, geographically, socially, within the human body. It was one of the most fun presentations I’ve ever worked on, and seemed to go down well.

Here’s the Argentinean video about Hitler and Vampire larp we used:

On Sunday, we walked around the con area with Maria. It felt nostalgic to think about all the things that had happened there, the larps we’ve run, the books we’ve published, the presentations, the parties, the games and the conversations.

Ropecon will go on, but I suspect that at least for the next ten years, it will feel like its at “the new venue”.

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(The view at the entrance on Sunday.)

Non-Digital: Baltic Warriors Tallinn

I work as a larp producer in the Baltic Warriors project, and first game of our summer season was played last Saturday in Tallinn. It’s quite intimidating to go another country to do a game there. I had never even played in an Estonian larp, but it seemed to go well.

(The Estonian producer of Baltic Warriors, Aapo Reitsak, as a viking zombie. Ingame-photo by Juhana Pettersson)

This summer, we’re doing a series of seven Baltic Warriors games, each in a different country. In each game, the subject is eutrophication and other environmental disasters afflicting the Baltic Sea. The zombies are there to remind us that while we talk, the situation is steadily getting worse.

(For the venue, we had the museum ship Suur Tõll. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

We had the distinct advantage of having a really cool venue, the ice breaker Suur Tõll, now a museum. It was almost too spectacular: It was easy to imagine a much bigger, much longer game taking place there.

The larp, like all Baltic Warriors games, was divided into two parts: Politics and zombie action. During the political part, characters come together to talk about a given issue that’s being voted upon in the parliament.

(One of the techniques we used was the media wall, in which characters can make news headlines. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

After the debate has gone for a few hours, the zombies attack. In this case, two viking zombies shambled forth from the hold of the ship, attacking the living. The museum was open to normal visitors during this time, and it was fun to see how they reacted to the screaming and gurgling that was going on.

(Not even the Bible helps against newly zombified people. Photo by Juhana Pettersson)

After this, we have Baltic Warriors games in St Petersburg, Gdansk, Kiel, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. It will be fun to see how they change depending on the players, the local issues, the venue, and other matters.

Non-Digital: Murder in Helsinki

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat is a Finnish larp campaign played in Helsinki in 2014. Consisting of three games, it was organized by the veteran city game designers Niina Niskanen and Simo Järvelä.

The setting is Helsinki in the year 1927, and the subject matter crime, prohibition, working class life and the violent legacy of the civil war. The characters were bootleggers and policemen, struggling artists and their sybaritic patrons.

Niskanen and Järvelä have edited and published a documentation book about the larps in English. It’s downloadable here, for free, and definitely worth a look.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

The book is especially welcome as Finnish larp has traditionally been something of a poor cousin in the milieu of Nordic larp. There have been interesting games aplenty, but documentation has been scarce and Nordic attention usually limited to the games that Finnish writers have pushed the hardest, like Ground Zero.

City games played in an open urban environment have traditionally been a Finnish strong suit, and Niskanen and Järvelä are masters of this form. It’s especially nice to see this type of game documented in book form and in English, as the games that tend to receive this treatment are usually one-weekend affair played in a closed environment, such as Kapo and Mad About the Boy.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat (the title is an expression for very expensive shoes in the traditional Helsinki slang) benefits greatly from the fact that it’s been documented by the Finnish larp photographer Tuomas Puikkonen. His photos are all over the book, and you can see the full set here.

There are many good larp photographers in the Nordic countries, but Puikkonen distinguishes himself by his ability to be in the moment and capture the subjective feeling of the player.

The only real complaint that I have for this book is that it’s so short. I could’ve read more about this stuff.

Non-Digital: Real Hamlet

This past weekend, I played in the larp Inside Hamlet, in Denmark. The larp gave the play a Marxist vision of decadent nobles living their last murderous days while the Reds were closing in. In the end, when the rebels finally break down the doors, they find only piles of corpses and cowering survivors.

The game was played at the actual Elsinore castle. That was pretty cool.

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(At the venue, during a break between the acts. My character was a priest.)

The game had the rule “What happens in Elsinore stays in Elsinore”, so I’m not going to go into specifics. Instead, I’ll write about something that occurred to me as I watched the final moments of the dying court. I had already died myself, and was present as a mute ghost.

To prepare for the larp, I watched every Hamlet movie I could get my hands on. The Laurence Olivier Hamlet, the Derek Jacobi Hamlet, the Soviet Hamlet, and so on. Most of them shared a theatrical quality, a feeling of the actors and the director playing with the text and the language. Almost all of the movies were quite good, but they also made it seem as if adapting Hamlet was a bit of a lark.

Or a game of sorts.

When I was in my own version of Hamlet, larping my character, watching Queen Gertrude die of poison, I didn’t feel like we were playing. It felt deadly fucking serious.

The world of Inside Hamlet was grotesque and the characters monsters. It wasn’t played in a realistic style. Yet still, living inside this fictional context gave everything that happened a tragic weight. In the movies, the final duel has been done in many different ways, but only in the larp it felt like it was two people fighting over the deaths of their loved ones.

The movies were a game. The game was not.

Non-Digital: Interaction Design Love From Denmark

This weekend, I was at the larp and roleplaying conference Knudepunkt in Denmark. The conference has a heavy focus on larp design, which often boils down to interaction design.

It was interesting to see how the tools we have developed to make larp could also be used to design conference spaces and programming.

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(View from a table at the Bazar social space.)

One of the simple yet clever design choices was made in the way the social spaces were organized. At night, there were two main social spaces, the bar and dancefloor, and the Bazar, a big space with a stage, tents with board games and roleplaying books and tables and chairs scattared around in groups. It acted as the setting for a diverse set of events, from an open mike to a Norwegian ritual.

Both the Bazar and the disco had bars. Non-alcoholic options were available at both. The disco served beer, and the bar at the Bazar served drinks. This created an unobtrusive motivation for people to keep moving around from place to place, and not get stuck in one spot. It was one choice, but there were many like it.

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(Mike Pohjola at the Baltic Warriors presentation.)

My perhaps favorite was in the Saturday party, with a theme of sins and virtues. One of those virtues was Temperance, and there was a special, dark and empty room dedicated to it, with a sign saying you couldn’t drink beer there. The only thing I ever saw anyone use the room for was to drink beer with the added thrill of breaking a rule.

The program included keynote talks that collected everyone together before we scattered into our various workshops and discussions. Big parts of the Sunday morning clean-up operation were turned into games.

In short, larp design FTW.

If you want to read more about the ideas presented at the conference, check out the two books, Nordic Larp yeabook 2014 and The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book.

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.