Larp Culture and the Southern Way

5 Jun, 2017 | Games Studies, Insights, Reviews, What people say

by Evan Torner

Larps are not only designed; they emerge from specific larp cultures and communities. When we look at this thing called “larp,” its surface of uniformity belies the seething conflicts and ideologies that create the games that we play and the events that we run. Why else would the Italian larpwrights issue a slick website in April 2016 proclaiming the “Southern Way: New Italian Larp” as a manifesto? I speak from experience when I say that such acts are some of the only ways to get a broader audience to listen. Besides continuing to design and run larps, of course. In any case, below is my attempt to situate the contents of this text within some larger international context.
Larp manifesto culture runs deep in the Nordic scene, where major tussles with respect to design took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mike Pohjola’s 1999 Turku Manifesto, intended “to tell the world what role-playing is, how and why it should be done, and why everybody else is wrong,” lashed out against a larp culture dominated by competitive, treacherous play and railroaded gamemaster plotlines. At the time, backstabbing Vampire: The Masquerade and strategy-dominated boffer games filled larp schedules, marginalizing those who sought games that explored character, theme, and tone. Pohjola seized upon Internet RPG theory terms such as “gamist”, “simulationist” and “narrativist” to then invent his own style: “eläytyjist,” or prioritizing “experiencing everything through the character.” Specific games began to emerge from both those who believed in the manifesto and those who vehemently rejected its tenents. Jami Jokinen and Jori Virtanen’s Ground Zero (1998), a game in which players spent 24 hours in a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter, emphasized character reactions to the darkness and uncertainty over some overriding plotline. Martin & Anna Ericsson, Martin Brodén, and Christopher Sandberg’s Hamlet (2002), on the other hand, encouraged players to divorce themselves from their characters and sacrifice them in an orgy of carnage in the end. It could be seen as a Swedish response to the Finns. Action. Reaction. Design. Counter-design. That is what artistic and intellectual dialogue looks like, and ambitious larps began to give the Nordic larp scene a distinct profile.
Eventually, the American indie tabletop role-playing gamers took note. People such as John H. Kim, Emily Care Boss, Bill White, Julia Ellingboe, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Kat Jones, Lizzie Stark and myself found ourselves on the other side of the pond at Nordic game events between 2007 and 2012, enmeshed in these new, weird freeform larps that we sought to understand on a mechanical and cultural level. The chief features of these games, as we noted, appeared to be their unwavering dedication to larp as a serious artform. Transparency of player-character information, design for flow of emotions from player to character and back (what we now call “bleed”), a commitment to the everyday and the surreal over the fantastical and wish-fulfillment –– these were the hallmarks of jeepform, the Swedish-led international movement of larpwrights seeking disciplined emotional design. We Americans were so affected by these games that we began to design our own. And that’s when the manifestos began.
Lizzie, Emily, Kat, and I decided after a couple of years in 2013 that we were “American freeform” larpwrights. Our games were seen as Nordic in the USA, and as American in Europe. Without a home, we created one for ourselves: American-created semi-live larps featuring intense, focused play that often used scenes, transparency, meta-play, and short play periods. Lizzie wrote up a blog post proclaiming its existence, Jason Morningstar called his hit larp The Climb (2012) “American freeform,” and suddenly the Internet was all up in arms. How could we do this? Wasn’t it cultural imperialism to call ourselves “American?” Why couldn’t we just call what we were doing “games?” I wrote a manifesto “American Freeform: A Transatlantic Dialog,” people got mad, and games began to churn out. We got psychologically powerful works such as The Curse (2013), Cady Stanton’s Candyland (2014), and Resonance (2014), as well as the Golden Cobra contest (2014–present). But we also got return runs of Across the Sea of Stars (2004), the ascendance of Planetfall and Dystopia Rising, and other games that alternately rejected and incorporated aspects of this Nordic-American larp exchange. Action.
Reaction. Design. Counter-design.
Which brings me to the subject of this book “The Southern Way: New Italian Larp.” When I first looked at this manifesto, my immediate thought was of what vibrant disagreements must have produced it. Look at some of its strictures. “Play unsafely” means that these larpwrights have slammed into some kind of risk-averse culture and want it pushed aside.
“No customers allowed” means one must adopt a proper attitude to play these games, reinforced with the mandate: “[Choose] to tell stories with a rich allegorical value.” This manifesto speaks volumes about the intentions of the games contained within the Crescendo Giocoso anthology.
These aren’t just larps designed in the “shadow” of Nordic games: these are creations from a very specific milieu engaged in very specific and ongoing debates with other larpwrights. With such thorny seeds and fertile soil, monumental creations that will begin to impact the global larp scene are now sprouting and growing.
Are you paying attention now?
Evan Torner
Covington, KY, U.S.A.


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