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Live-action in the world of reality

by Juhana Pettersson
Jul 31,2002


Live-action in the world of reality

- Juhana Pettersson

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves;
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

- Matthew 10:16

Of the best experiences I've had with live-action roleplaying, only two are from actual larps. The others are from larplike real-world situations in which I have found myself adopting a role, usually accidentally. Drawing on these experiences, I'm going to present here a concept I call real-world larping. To understand the concept of real-world larping, one has to accept for now that the essential point in live-action games is the experience, and not roleplaying as such. There's a wonderful word in Finnish, eläytyminen, which roughly means immersion in a character, a situation or a work of art. For roleplaying experiences where I immerse myself in a character, eläydyn, I play tabletop. To experience living through nuclear holocaust, I play live action. In this latter case, the character is, for me, a mere provider of context for the overall experience. This means that live-action roleplaying may be likened to any situation where I adopt a role to provide context in an unfamiliar situation. At the core of such situations lie unfamiliar social contexts that force the assumption of such a role. If these situations are clearly defined departures from routine life, they may be highly larplike.

The journalist game

I'm a writer by trade, but there have been many occasions when the pose of a journalist has greatly resembled a character. A recent example of the newsman game has been the premier wacko fundamentalist Christian happening in Finland, called Suviseurat or, roughly translated, Summer Fair. It is the yearly gathering of Finland's largest non-mainstream Christian sect, named after its founder Lars Levi Laestadius. 73,000 people, most from the countryside. No dancing, no alcohol, no television, no premartial sex and an average family size of parents + seven children. I had failed to sell the story, but I decided to go anyway with a couple of friends. We were going to pose as television journalists. We were curious about the other Finland represented by the Suviseurat, completely unfamiliar to city- bred brats like us. Happily, our material was later used by a Finnish indie channel, so it wasn't a complete professional loss. Skills acquired at vampire games were very useful in dodging around the questions of the cult leaders and the role of a journalist was weirdly pronounced in the midst of this highly insular society. Being yourself was impossible. It would have gotten us lynched.

If there is one thing that experiences like this teach you, it's tolerance. I'm a basic white guy, so I'm not used to being discriminated against. I don't look very radical, but radical enough to stand out like a sore in the middle of these religious types. The male fashions consisted of rubber boots (because of the mud), a crew cut, unflattering blue jeans and a short-sleeved, collared shirt. Any departure from this, like say a black t-shirt or bright orange raincoat, brought unremitting jeers, scorn and malevolent laughter. Of course, matters were worse for my friend, a good-looking guy who had long, bleached hair, earrings and a velvet jacket. Never in my life have I felt this much like a sideshow exhibit.

The activist larp

My other main larp-role in real life has been that of a political activist. A mass demonstration bears a surprisingly close resemblance to a live-action game, especially if you're not familiar with the scene. The first political act in my whole life that went beyond the teenage posturing of an art school punk was going, along with my brother, to a civilian disobedience action opposing nuclear weapons, in the NATO airforce base in Kleine Brogel, Belgium. A Finnish anti-conscription group organized the trip, and about 30 activists came along, in addition to me and my brother. We were on as a result of some bloody-minded impulse and vague interest in activist subculture. We knew nobody, but it was sort of assumed that if we were willing to go from Finland to Belgium for the sole purpose of entering a military base illegally, getting arrested and beaten by the soldiers, facing medieval lodging in a squat and grueling travel conditions, we would have to be committed. These assumptions made about our motives and the fact that the experience was a rather dramatic departure from our normal life made the whole experience highly larplike.

There is a strong case to be made for real-world larping as opposed to conventional, arranged games. There is no off-game, no bad players, the props are always very realistic, the organizers are not around to fuck up their own creation, and the scale can surpass anything possible in a normal live-action game. Unfortunately, the real world places some constraints on the scope of the games. No fantasy or sci-fi, but only a fool would presume that stuff like surreal horror or comedy were impossible. They just usually appear without warning.

I generally prefer live-action games that provide an experience to ones that focus more on social interaction, character or a plot. These games are around because in the real world, experiencing life in a concentration camp (as in the pan-Scandinavian megagame Europa) may be hazardous, and the nuclear war of bunker games like the Finnish Ground Zero has yet to materialize. In many ways Ground Zero was the best game I have ever been into. The 20 participants were playing the citizens of a street of a small American town during the Cuban missile crisis. The game starts as one Sunday morning the alarm goes off and we all huddle into the bomb shelter. The game lasted for 26 hours. For the first eight hours, we listen to the radio. The news bulletins on the crisis get more and more alarming. We learn that communication with the East Coast has been lost. Suddenly, the radio goes out and a tremendous explosion rocks the shelter. After that, nothing. Can't get much more intense.

But still, why settle for anything less if you can experience Mormon life by infiltrating their annual gatherings in Salt Lake City? Or live the thrill of surging through the gates of a guarded military installation with thousands of screaming, singing, chanting people? Or join the grandest live-action game of them all, the army. What's one more shitty WWII-game compared to the possibility of getting killed in Afghanistan?

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