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Nordic Larp: Performing for the First Person Audience


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In the Nordic countries a distinct performance movement has evolved during the last 15 years. Nordic larp is an improvised, collaborative theatrical performance for players who act out fictional characters to create an aesthetic experience for themselves.

For example, Ground Zero (1998) was an alternate history larp about what would have happened if the Cuban missile crisis had triggered a nuclear war. Players portrayed ordinary people living in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1960s, rushing into a bomb shelter on an ordinary Sunday morning. They spend the following 24 hours there trying to understand what is happening and what it means. For some hours the radio reports news from outside: the confusion, the gradually progressing nuclear holocaust, and finally just silence. At some point the electricity goes dead and the bunker falls into darkness. As a missile hits Tulsa, a massive sound effect is used to drive home the fact that the world outside is no more.

As the inevitable is happening, mothers try to take care of their children while the men talk politics and play cards. Since the shelter is small and enclosed and filled with props from the 1960s, it becomes a tangible and believable microcosm where almost nothing reminds the players of the fact that none of it is “real”.

Ground Zero is just one example. In terms of format, Nordic larps are extremely diverse. Small games have half a dozen participants, large ones have hundreds. Short ones last for a few hours, long ones for four days or more – around the clock. Some games consist of physical action, others are social or cerebral.

What is common to Nordic larp is that it is primarily directed at a first person audience: the participants are the primary audience of the performance. If I play a mother of a family in Ground Zero, I try perhaps to remain calm and composed in order to avoid frightening my children, performing a strong mother to the other players. At the same time, however, I probably try to engage emotionally with the horrible tragedy, playing an ordinary scared civilian to myself. Everyone in the shelter is engaged in these two performances for the whole 24 hours, pretending to be a refugee in a bomb shelter.

Even though many Nordic larps expend little effort on scenography and costuming, some pursue the ideal of a 360° illusion in a total what-you-see-is-what-you-get environment, where nothing reminds the players they are inside a fiction.

In fantastic genres, the ideal of 360° illusion is usually impossible to achieve, but this has not stopped ambitious attempts. Dragonbane (2006) featured an animatronic dragon and used pyrotechnics to simulate magic. The Monitor Celestra (2013) rigged a museum destroyer with custom-built computerized battle stations to allow players to have real-time space battles in the fashion of Battlestar Galactica.

While games are often played in enclosed spaces to minimize needed scenography, contemporary games are also sometimes played out in a town or city. Playing covertly in the middle of unsuspecting outsiders of course requires ethical awareness, and violent themes must be avoided.

Even though mainstream larps aim at producing fun experiences, the Nordic larp movement explores the whole expressive and experiential repertoire of embodied role-play. Experiences can be valuable even if they first appear to be negative, stressful, boring or tragic. The search for intensity sometimes goes to extremes; for instance KAPO (2011) was described as follows:

Kapo is a story about the prisoners in a surrealistic Danish prison camp, a story of powerlessness and dehumanization. Players will be introduced to an environment of bizarre social norms and values. The camp is ruled by an eat-or-be-eaten mentality: you will die or prey on those weaker than you, ultimately forcing you to choose between yourself and your loved ones.

During the 48 hours of KAPO the players were subjected to sleep and sensory deprivation, stress positions, hosing downs with cold water and so forth. Yet it was not merely an exercise in misery, but also a commentary on contemporary politics.

Numerous themes have been explored by political larps, such as consumerism, refugee politics and gender issues. Most recently, Halat hisar (2013), created in a collaboration between Finnish and Palestinian organizers, explored the occupation of Palestine. The game was set in Occupied Finnish Territories and the characters were students and university staff living under occupation. They had to pass checkpoints, endure night raids, survive random arrests and deal with media. Characters included religious extremists, victims of house demolitions, collaborators and political activists.

Organizing an ambitious larp for 50 players can easily take a year of work. Games are rarely played more than once or twice. The fact that it is almost impossible to earn a steady living from this kind of larp has kept it free of commercial pressures. Players also sometimes spend months working on costuming, character development and workshops and studying the historical period.

In the Nordic countries the most significant larps make it to the national news. In recent years, the international interest in Nordic larp has grown as well: larps have been restaged abroad, there have been international collaborations, and non-Nordic larpmakers have started making their own games in the Nordic fashion. Nordic larp has spread to places such as Belarus, the Czech Republic, Palestine and the US. Even though the movement is small, it keeps exploring larp. And every year, it finds new things to say with larp, and new ways of saying them.

Markus Montola; Photo: Jakob la CourMarkus Montola
is a Helsinki-based game scholar and game designer. As a designer, he focuses on free-to-play mechanics and game economy. As a scholar, he worked from 2004 to 2010 at the Nokia Research Center and University of Tampere Gamelab. His award-winning doctoral dissertation, On the Edge of the Magic Circle (2012), discusses role-playing and pervasive gaming, and proposes a theoretical framework for studying ephemeral games.
Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
January 2014
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