Chewing on the Cutting Edge

400px-The_Cutting_Edge_of_Nordic_LarpImagonem reviews one of this year’s Knutepunkt books, “The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp”.

Knutepunkt is an annual larp conference alternating between Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Every year since 2001, one to several books have been published in connection with the conference. They’ve been distributed to all attendees as part of the entrance fee, but are also made available as PDF documents online for anyone interested.

You can find a collection of links to all previously published books at the Nordic Larp Wiki, including this year’s books.

The articles in the books have varied a great deal over the years. Essays, academic texts, pseudoacademic texts, larp documentation, manifestos, and articles with a more journalistic bent. What they have in common, though, is that they all deal with larp one way or the other. And usually this peculiar breed that has come to be known as “Nordic Larp” (a term or brand that has come into existence for a great deal thanks to the Knutepunkt scene. More on that below).

This year’s Knutpunkt in Sweden will be the sixth time I attend the conference, and I have several previous Knutepunkt-books on my shelf. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t read most of them. Maybe a handful of articles? Usually the ones written by people I know, or on subjects that interest me especially. I have an above-average interest in larp and role playing games. I don’t really mind academic jargon (as long as it’s explained). I’ve followed many of the online debates on roleplaying theory over the years. Why haven’t I read more of these articles?

I think maybe I’ve sometimes found them a little daunting. Some of the articles have tended to throw around big words from various academic disciplines I’m not familiar with. Some might have had a tendency to presuppose a lot of knowledge on the reader’s part. About larps organized, theories discussed, terminology, etc. It’ll probably always be a tricky balance for the authors and editors of these books to ensure enough clarity and explanation that most interested readers can follow the topic at hand, whilst retaining some kind of limit on space.

Anyway. I thought I’d give this year’s collection of fresh articles a chance, and take you – faithful Imagonem reader – along for the ride.

There are two books this year. “The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp” is a collection of articles from previous Knutepunkt books, sort of a Greatest Hits of Knutepunkt. The one’s I should’ve read, probably.

In this walkthrough article/review, I’ll concentrate on “The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp”, which consists of texts that are (mostly) new.

The book has a sober and functional layout. Some of the articles even have photos with captions, which I appreciate.

The book is available as a PDF and will be available in physical copies to attendants of the conference. I would have very much liked for the articles to be available in web format as well, for ease of reference in online discussions and articles such as this one (that way, I could hyperlink the various articles I’ll go through below, and you could just click on the ones that interested you the most).

The 25 credited authors are presented at the end of the book. They are an interesting bunch with lots and varied larp experience. Most of them have various academic backgrounds, some work specifically with game research, most have designed games themselves.

This year’s editors have worked by the following criteria, where the articles had to meet at least two to be considered for publication: “how well they related to the Nordic larp discourse, how well they used this year’s theme of looking towards the future, and how well they were targeted towards the Knutpunkt audience”.

– The Game and the Design –

Larps from the Factory – How to Write a Good Larpscript (Elin Nilsen, Lizzie Stark & Trine Lise Lindahl)
“The book Larps from the Factory came out in October 2013. It is written in English, and contains larpscripts of 23 Norwegian larps. In this article the one American and two Norwegian editors share some thoughts about the book, the process, and about larpscripts in general.”

I was a contributor to this project, so it’s hard for me to have proper distance to the article. It’s more or less a three part thing: the first part argues why one should write scripts for re-runnable larps (and that it’s possible to do so), the second part briefly outlines the requirements of such scripts, the third part says a bit about the actual work process and experience with editing this particular book.

I think the authors should have included a sentence or two on what the “Larp Factory” concept in Norway was (basically they were monthly, cheap, one evening larp events which required no or very little preparation on the part of the players). Other than that, I think I’m too biased to say much more. I’ll say this, though: you should really check out the Larps from the Factory website!

A Lion’s Game – a Vampire’s Tragedy (Marije Baalman & Rene Barchmann)
This was a confusing and somewhat frustrating read, starting with the lead and just getting more convoluted from there on out. Basically, I think it’s down to a problem of poor structure (of the article itself) and poor editing (of the language). The essence seems to be that some people in Germany and the Netherlands have been running a larp campaign since 1998, which is basically set in a variant version of the well-known larp/tabletop setting of Vampire: the Masquerade. But you have to read a lot of weird, quasi-philosophical text before the authors choose to reveal this fact. There are some musings about how what they’ve been doing seems similar to the so called “Nordic larp tradition” (rules light, focusing on “immersion and bleed”, etc). But there’s also a bunch of text before that dealing with what it would feel like to be a vampiric elder and whatnot, which might as well have been presented as White Wolf fluff text back in the 90’s. It seems the organizers have encountered the problem of munchkins/power gamers in Vampire larps, and found a way to deal with that. The dichotomy of how Vampire presents itself (“a game of personal horror”) and the playing style the mechanics seem to fuel (XP-driven munchkinism) was part of the foundation for a lot of Ron Edward’s essays over at the indie table top RPG site The Forge, the GNS theory and all of that. The authors of this piece seem to be a little late to the party, and reading the article feels a bit like hearing an especially opaque artist explaining his work. Which is a shame, because I have fond, nostalgic memories of Vampire (as I’m sure many, many gamers and larpers do), and would’ve loved to read a more accessible presentation of this campaign. Preferably with some photos.

Typology in Character Creation (Charles Bo Nielsen and Hanne Urhøj)
Another quirky, and quite complicated, article. This one has better structure, though. It basically deals with Jungian typology (mapping people’s personalities with archetypal labels, it seems?) and how you can apply various forms of that when creating characters for larps and role playing games.

I’m somewhat apprehensive when it comes to both Jung, the concept of archetypes and “personality tests” of different kinds (and scientific qualities). In parallel with reading this article, I asked a psychologist friend on Facebook whether Jung is considered “kosher” amongst psychologists. “Depends on who you ask, but mostly no”, was his reply.

But the article admits as much, stating that “Viewed with strictly academic eyes, typology as a method in psychology is frowned upon, and the studies of Carl Jung lack credible studies.” The main intent of the article seems to be the use of these typologies as inspiration for character creation. It also uses Star Wars characters to exemplify various typologies, which I thought was a nice touch.

A fun and inspiring basic idea. All in all, I found it to be an unnecessarily difficult read, though. Page 39, for instance, I barely understood at all. Too many specialized terms are introduced in a very brief space, with little in the way of definition/explanation. I might be stupid, the authors might need to dumb the article down a couple of notches, or both.

(I’ve signed up for the workshop relating to the article at Knutepunkt, where reading the article first is recommended, so now I’ve tried to do that, anyway.)

Sharpening Knives – Integrating Phone Use in Larp Design (Elin Dalstål)
A clearly written, accessible article in a down-to-earth language about something I could easily understand: using cellphones (of the smart phone variety) as a tool in larps. Dalstål uses an ongoing campaign (that sounds like a lot of fun) as an example, and elaborates on how cellphones can be utilized for in- and off-game communication, documentation and creating handouts, meta-game techniques and more. Inspirational, easy to grasp, and the author didn’t find the need to use the word “diegetic” even once. There are even a couple of photos.

A Critical Review of the Mixing Desk (Nathan Hook)
This is one for the especially interested or those who have been paying attention to the “Nordic larp discourse”, I guess. But it’s presented in a reasonably straightforward manner, gives good and understandable examples, and briefly explains the stuff it references whilst keeping it short. Basically the article is a response to/consideration of the so-called “Mixing Desk of Larp”, a model for larp design that has been used at the Larpwriter summer school (an interesting project in itself, by the way – check out their webpages) and presented in last year’s Knutepunkt book “Crossing borders”. The article also references the GNS theory I mentioned above and the “Turku manifesto”. I think Hook raises important questions and makes some good points, but as I’m only superficially familiar with the Mixing Desk model, I’ll leave it at that.

Bringing the Occupation Home (Kaisa Kangas)

halat

Students and staff cross a checkpoint on their way to the university. Ingame photo, Halat hisar. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen.

“[The larp] Halat hisar (2013) was an attempt to transfer the Palestinian experience of living under occupation to Finland.” An essay dealing with the challenges of constructing such a game and alternate reality, larp as a tool for/form of political activism, nationalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The author references other larps that have been organized in the Nordic countries dealing with similar or related subject matter, but in a way that will probably not be alienating even to an “uninitiated” reader. Kangas makes some claims/statements about the real life conflict in the Middle East that will be considered highly controversial in other political climates, but are relatively uncontroversial on the Scandinavian left: “there is not only a military occupation, but also a situation of settler colonialism and apartheid.” Halat hisar sounds like a deeply unpleasant, and maybe important, game (the larp was organized in collaboration with Palestinians. No Israelis, as far as I can tell). An interesting read and a well-written article. The Halat hisar webpage.

– The Play and the Culture –

Larp for Change – Creating Play for Real World Impact (Juhana Pettersson)
Another article dealing with Halat hisar, discussing whether or not larps can work as political projects and concluding that they can by way of example. The text is very concrete and down to earth, patiently describing how various game mechanics (and off-game media relations) where utilized for achieving the goal of creating a political larp/project. No high-falutin’ theoretical terms (whether from larp theory or political science/sociology/psychology/etc) or namedropping of political thinkers. I think both this and the previous articles were very interesting and worthwhile reads. Some might see it as an overkill to have two different organizers of the same larp writing on similar subjects using this particular larp as an example. I didn’t mind.

The Psychology of Immersion – Individual Differences and Psychosocial Phenomena Relating to Immersion (Lauri Lukka)
This article deals with the hoary old topic of “immersion”, variously described as the Holy Grail of Nordic Larp and a misleading/confusing term. It does so from a psychological perspective (the author is a clinical psychologist and game designer). I found it super-duper interesting, as it deals with altered states of mind, the concept of “flow” and immersion, and how all this relates to role playing, subjects that are all dear to my heart. For me, as a layman, it also comes across as a “proper academic article”.

Larping in Lebanon (Harald Misje, Martin Nielsen & Anita Myhre Andersen)

Scene from the Wolf larp; the first children larp for and by Palestinians. (Photo: Ane Marie Anderson)

Scene from the Wolf larp; the first children larp for and by Palestinians. (Photo: Ane Marie Anderson)

An essay on running a children’s larp in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, with the aid of local volunteers. The Norwegian organizers from the Fantasiforbundet youth organization give a run-down of the project, practical challenges faced, lessons learned and future plans. A mixture of idealism, humanitarian work, political activism and children’s larp. It’s a nice read, and an accessible presentation, somewhat marred by typos and poor language editing. Fantasiforbundet’s project portal: http://fantasiforbundet.wordpress.com/

Larps, Interactive Theatre and Participatory Arts – Cutting and Pasting (Alexey Fedoseev)
Looks at “art approaching/akin to larp”, rather than “larp considered/labeled as art”. Gives many interesting examples, without any photo documentation (for some reason).

New Tastes in Brazilian Larp – From Dark Coke to Caipirinha with Nordic Ice (Luiz Falcão)
A presentation of larp in Brazil over the past 20 years, with especial emphasis on the influence of “Nordic larp” over the past five years or so (which I guess is sort of natural, given that this is a Knutebook). It was fascinating to read about a larping culture developing in parallel with ours, and how ideas from the US and Northern Europeans scenes have been picked up, disseminated and tweaked to fit a Brazilian context. I also feel a certain sense of pride that my friend’s games, concepts and theories have influenced play culture in a faraway place like Sao Paulo. It says something interesting and nice about internet as a communication tool, globalization and the international language of geekery. Art, sorry. I mean “art”.

Cultural Appropriation and Larp (Shoshana Kessock)
The term “cultural appropriation” offends my postmodernist sensibilities. ;)

Kessock writes:
“The term arose as a way to recognize the borrowing of cultural materials of one culture by another, implying an uneven cultural exchange in which a dominant culture incorporates items from minority groups. Cultural items can include any item from a group’s way of living, including “language, customs, basic values, religion, core beliefs, and activities.” (Young 2005) The item becomes assimilated into the dominant culture’s narrative, stripped of its original context and is instead reinterpreted from the view of an outsider.”

This infamous Che Guevara painting is actually a forgery created by Gerard Malanga (who was in need of money) and sold to a gallery in Rome. When Warhol heard of the fraud, he "authenticated" the fake, provided that all the money from sales went to him.

This infamous Che Guevara painting is actually a forgery created by Gerard Malanga (who was in need of money) and sold to a gallery in Rome. When Warhol heard of the fraud, he «authenticated» the fake, provided that all the money from sales went to him.

(To me, that seems to be partially how cultures operate and change over time, by borrowing and incorporating from each other, a process obviously speeded up by globalization and mass migration.)

However, she also notes that:
“It is important to note that the idea of cultural appropriation by its initial definition is not inherently positive or negative. It is simply the act of taking another’s cultural artifact and utilizing it in another cultural context.”

Most of the article deals with how such “appropriation” can come across as negative, though. It’s written for a larp context/audience, and gives examples (especially from Nordic larps).

A positive example of “cultural appropritation” might be the Brazilian larpers mentioned in the previous paragraph, who run Nordic games and are influenced by the Knutepunkt discourse. It’s a source of pride for our community that our ideas and games are spread in this way. And spreading the ideas was probably part of the idea behind documenting them in the first place. A negative example given by Kessock is (presumably white) players showing up to the game “Darfur Bingo” at Intercon 2010 in “blackface”.

(I think that might be another thing I find problematic about the appropriation concept, the tendency to conflate terms like “ethnicity”, “race” and “culture”.)

“(…) the artist who puts Che on their t-shirt must then understand that their statement of revolutionary ideals also incorporates everything Che embodied, as well as the notion that there are those that might see the use of their cultural icon in that way as insensitive or offensive.”

I guess I disagree with the conception in the first sentence of how symbols work, and how art works. A swastika has several different connotations, depending on who it’s viewed by and what their personal connotations with the symbol are. To some, it’s a holy symbol. To others it primarily represents a horrific political movement. To some, Alberto Kordas iconic photo of Che and its derivatives might symbolize “revolutionary ideals and everything Che embodied”, to others “machismo and the oppressive state socialism of the Cuban regime”. To the hypothetical artist in question, the statement might be exactly about the stuff Kessock’s article discusses, like “political symbols disassociated from their original meaning and context”?

That some might see such use of cultural icons as offensive, I agree with. But some people will find something to be offended by no matter what. I guess I’m just more afraid of artists and larp designers limiting their range of expression, motifs, subjects and themes out of fear of causing offense than I am of “cultural appropriation”. Good art can be offensive, but it obviously helps to consider whose toes you want to step on. And whether you want to kick those who’re already down. I guess a lot of it boils down to intent.

All that being said, the article gives plenty of food for thought, and good ethical questions to consider for designers and players alike.

(This seems to be something of a hot-button issue on the scene these days, and is the subject of at least one panel debate at this year’s Knutpunkt in Sweden.)

Crowdfunding Celestra (Markus Montola)
Discusses benefits and drawbacks of using crowdfunding for financing larps (where the participants pitch in money at a certain level before it’s actually certain that the project will materialize, thus spreading financial risk). The article uses the big Swedish production The Monitor Celestra, a Battle Star Galactica larp, as an example. It was the first Nordic larp to use the crowdfunding model for financing. I found the article both interesting and clearly written.

– The Meta and the Agitator –

What Does “Nordic Larp” Mean? (Jaakko Stenros)
motivational_norpThis article was delivered as a keynote speech before last year’s Knutepunkt in Norway, and posted online shortly after that. Stenros sets about defining the term, tradition and brand “Nordic larp”, and does so in an eloquent way. One may like or dislike the term (I personally think it’s a little counter-productive with a fixed geographic label, as the ideas and traditions are now spreading and the discourse has gone global). One may enjoy or detest definition debates (I’ve spent far too many hours discussing whether role playing games can be considered “art” or what constitutes a “gamist” approach, hours I could rather have spent playing and designing games). Nevertheless it’s useful before entering a discussion to agree upon the fundamental terms utilized.

Before bandying about more or less informed opinions about “Nordic larp” and what that term entails, I highly advise at least skimming through this article. It tells you the basics of what you need to know about the term and how it’s used in current discussions.

Play: The Soul of Knutepunkt (Markus Montola & Jaakko Stenros)
This article might not be about Nordic larp discourse, but it’s very much about the Knutepunkt discourse. Which are sort of intertwined subjects. It was posted online after a social debacle at last year’s event in Norway, which spilled over online, involved people who didn’t attend the conference (but felt a stake in the scene), and kind of snowballed from there. Depending on your point of view, you might call it “storm in a teacup” or a “shitstorm”. Or a shitstorm in a teacup. Anyway, it was (and still is) unpleasant for many people, and the debate this article is part of continues at the time of writing, both online (Facebook and forums) and over many a beer. Montola & Stenros’ article is diplomatic, carefully worded and expresses great love for the Knutepunkt community. It also gives some suggestions on how to deal with unwanted behavior. It’ll probably be of interest mostly to participants at this and last year’s events, but might prove valuable to anyone who’s interested in fostering liberal, playful and reasonably safe communities/spaces.

Nordic-Russian Larp Dictionary (Yaraslau I. Kot)
I don’t understand Russian, so I skipped this article.

On Ethics (Eleanor Saitta)
A compact article where the author sets out to give a descriptive overview of what she finds to be the current ethical consensus in the Nordic larp community on various topics. The author has consciously constructed the examples instead of taking them from actual games. I think it was a good read, which might have been even more interesting given real life examples and anecdotes to ponder (although this might have proved controversial, I think one could have found a way around it given consent from parties involved). It’s also a timely and useful summary, given the tendency to push for extreme experiences and treat controversial, charged subject matter that has for many years been a facet of the Nordic larp tradition.

So You Want to Spread the Larp Revolution? (Claus Raasted)
Danish larp professional Claus Raasted rounds off the book with a fast paced, tabloid, tongue-in-cheek ten point manifesto of sorts, which basically deals with how you can get more people interested in larps.

[EDIT = For some reason I overlooked this article in my initial read-through]
From Hobbyist Theory to Academic Canon (J. Tuomas Harviainen)
This meta-article deals with the reception of previous Knutepunkt books in academia (especially in the fields of larp and game research), and which articles seem to be cited the most.
[/EDIT]

Conclusion

So there you have it. I’ve read my first Knutepunkt book, and ended up with this long-winded text that’s hopefully somewhat useful/informative/ interesting for you as well, if you bothered to read this far.

As you have noticed, I’m not a native English speaker. The same is true for many of the anthology’s authors. My impression is that some (too many) of the texts written by non-native English speakers could have benefitted from some stricter editing.

The anthology sort of confirmed my preconceived idea of the Knute-books: it’s a mishmash of various styles, genres and subjects. Some contributions are proper academic articles. Some are essayistic, there’s a manifesto, practical guidelines, some larp documentation… it’s a varied mixture. I think that’s just fine. Previous conferences have approached this by publishing several books, this one has a three part structure that thematically seemed a little vague to me.

Lots of interesting ideas to chew on, many highly skilled contributors, and it’s impressive indeed that these books come out and have such a reasonably high quality, considering that they’re made by unpaid labor, by idealists, and given away for free.

See you in the diegesis!

 

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