We Don’t Abide to the Law of Jante

We Don’t Abide to the Law of Jante

Editors note: This is a reply to the opinion piece by Sanne Harder titled “The Law of Jante in Nordic Role-playing” that ran on Nordiclarp.org on 11 July 2014.

I read Sanne Harders text about “good role-playing” with great interest. Harder pinpoints some very important issues within the Nordic larp scene. Status and nepotism are indeed present, though we perceive ourselves as open minded and egalitarian. We are absolutely lacking a discussion about “what makes a good role-player” and how to improve ourselves. I will however argue that discussion must have different premises than the ones Harder suggests.

How can the good larpers help the Nordic larp scene as a whole?
There are problems within the Nordic larp arena concerning the perceived equality. Questions about accessibility, equality and everyone’s right to feel welcome and getting the support one needs (regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ableness etc, not to forget previous experience or lack there of). This of course overlaps questions such as “what makes a good larper”. A non willingness to address questions about what makes “a good larper” can conceal underlying structural problems concerning status. Status among larpers and status concerning different genres. Believe me, as a player and producer of Vampire larps, somewhat perceived as the larping equivalent of Harlequin novels, I have some experience in the matter. But let’s focus on the text itself. What problems are determined, what is the solution and – of course – what is a good larper? And how can the good larpers help the Nordic larp scene as a whole?

“The Law of Jante”, I would say, is one of the most misleading descriptions of scandinavian collectivistic culture.
To pinpoint the essence of the problem Harder exemplifies with “The Law of Jante”. “The Law of Jante” (established by danish-norwegian author Aksel Sandemose), I would say, is one of the most misleading descriptions of scandinavian collectivistic culture. The premise is highly individualistic – the collective holds back and shames any individual that outshines, or threatens to do so, any other member in the collective. For instance the 6th law of Jante is – “You’re not to think you are more important than we are”. Well, guess what – I couldn’t agree more. Nobody is more important than anyone else. I do believe this sentence should pervade every larp. Even if you are an outstanding larper (I will address this question later on) your experience and your presence is not more important than anyone else. An “anti-Jante-approach” to larping would be somewhat dangerous or at least counterproductive. Do we want larpers to strive after outshining each other? To teach them that talent makes you more important than others?

Harder also exemplifies with a stereotypical (and yes, I absolutely agree, highly recognizable) character; the Gamemaster of Doom. A big problem seems to be letting newbies have their first experience lead by such a person, risking scaring them off. But what about the Gamemaster her/himself? Who should she/he play with? How should she/he become a better player/gamemaster? I don’t see how “rescuing” newbies from this horrible first experience benefits the larp scene as a whole. Simply because the larp scene is a collective. Simply because elitism and focus on individuals will always be somewhat excluding.

Let me be crystal clear. Opposing elitism does not mean avoiding boosting each other or acknowledging talent. It means that a talented person (in one particular area) is not more important than a non-talented person. It does not mean not acknowledging people’s safety concerning questions about gender, ethnicity, sexuality or ableness. What it means is that no person is more important than another because of talent.

A good experience starts long before the larp itself – making props, building the group, making people feel welcome and safe, taking care of possible conflicts, communicating and inspiring people.
So what makes a good larper? I will address two issues here. The authors focus is individual talent, acting especially. It seems like the author means that a good larper enters a group and inspires them with formidable acting. But first of all; larping is not about acting, not only.  A good experience starts long before the larp itself – making props, building the group, making people feel welcome and safe, taking care of possible conflicts, communicating and inspiring people. Not by outshining them, but by making the experience interesting and of course somewhat challenging on a personal level. This demands a whole set of different talents – logistics, a bit of leadership, communication, craftsmanship, writing, composing, creativity, social skills and – this is important – the ability to step back and let other people into the limelight. Not everyone can possess all qualities, but everyone can possess one or a few, which are equally important and – of course – should be boosted and verified.

A focus on the acting part of larping also makes a rather narrow path to walk on the way of improving. A path demanding talents that not all players have to begin with. Hence arguing good acting makes a good larper is somewhat excluding. But once again, there are so many other qualities that benefits the group, should we choose to change our focus. And I believe we should. Because, second:

Larping is namely not individualistic, it´s collectivistic. Larping is not a tabletop RPG; the “good larper” being the equivalent of the hero/PC and the “not so good larpers” the NPCs. Every players experience is equally important, some needing more boost and guiding, others quite self sufficient, and some very experienced and/or talented can help and push their fellow players.

The good role-player’s focus is one the group, not on her/himself.
The players I have encountered that I would describe as good role-players are the ones that makes the inexperienced player feel more confident, the ones that easily can take over an entire scene but takes a step back and boosts the quite wallflower to take the lead, the ones that make people solve problems, challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zones. I would argue a good larper builds the group, facilitating other players, plays in a giving, generous and not self centered manner. The good role-player’s focus is one the group, not on her/himself.

I do agree that “leading by example” is not a bad thing. I do agree this is a discussion we should have to improve ourselves as players and producers. I do agree that recruiting “good larpers” can lift an arrangement or a group, but not by making it a “one man show”. It`s all about the group. Discussions about what makes a good larper and how to use the good larpers to inspire and challenge other players are more than welcome. But if so I do believe the premises must be larp as a group effort where nobody is more important than anyone else, where nobody is excluded due to lack of talent. Not even the Gamemaster of Doom.

Authors

Mia Sand
Mia Sand is a Swedish larper and former producer of the swedish Vampire chronicle Stockholm By Night. Has a past in the Swedish navy, a present as a free lance writer and hopes for a different, more solidaric future for Sweden after the election in september.
  • Very interesting thoughts, Mia. Thanks for writing.

    I’ll focus on something you wrote about the sixth Law of Jante; the one about no-one being more important than any other. Ironically enough, the example I’ll refer to is from a Danish vampire larp campaign that some of us played in once over ten years ago.

    For the larp we’d gathered a group of 20 or so players who were widely regarded as talented, high-status, experienced, etc. – “good players” in the most loose definition. Whether we were is of course open to debate, but we were seen as such, and several in the group were also larp social powerhouses, with huge networks and influence in parts of the larp scene.

    At the larp we got into a conflict with another group that ended up quite unsatisfactorily with all of us killed off after one evening of play. The head Game Master was furious. As he himself said: “If your group had had a good experience, for our next game we’d have had 50 more players – and some of those people we really wanted to come and play.”

    This didn’t happen of course, as none of us came back. We hadn’t encountered the Game Master of Doom, but the Players of Doom (or so we felt, and so did the GM in question). Maybe it wouldn’t have happened anyway. We’ll never know. 😉

    The point is of course, that his analysis had something to it, no matter what.

    And as communities have grown, the point has become more valid. If I’m doing a larp and want many people to come, I have an idea of who I have to convince. If I want a certain group of players (from a certain organisation or player culture, for instance), there are some people who can help me get them.

    I understand the thinking behind “Everyone is equal”. To me it’s not only utopian, though, it’s also an outright lie.

    With that out of the way, I very much agree with you that there are many skills that “The Good Larper(tm)” possesses, and acting skills are far from the most important in my book. So I don’t necessary disagree on methods, but most certainly on premise. 😉

    • Mia Sand

      Thank you for commenting! Needless to say, I – and probably a majority of roleplayers – recognize your experience. There will always be conflicts, larger or smaller, within campaigns and player groups. As I pointed out in my text, handling conflicts is a big part of roleplaying, both as a player and a producer. I do believe that for instance workshops can prevent some conflicts.

      I also believe producers are in their full right to state out premisses for participation (everything from “we want a 50/50 % gender balance” to “this larp explores the possibilities of a socialist/libertarian/whatever utopia, participants should feel comfortable working within that vision” to lists exemplifying “this is ok” and “this is not ok”). My text is based on the premisses that a certain player group is established, on the players and/or producers established premisses, whatever they may be.

      As a producer I´ve had the unpleasant task to work through really infected conflicts. A few times I´ve had to say no to players wishing to participate in my production. But that decision has not been made because of talent/status, or lack there of, but because of other players safety and/or the players lacking ability to participate within the premisses of the production. That is completely different.

      I don´t want to intentionally misunderstand your concerns about equality. I believe equality, like democracy, is a process. We make equality. By listening to minority groups and their needs, by communicating, by making our productions open to player influence through workshops and such, and so on. The more we work towards equality, the more equal our productions – and the larp scene – become. If we don´t, the less equal they become.

      Thanks again for your input!

    • Tommy Schouw

      Seems like you intentionally left yourself open to a counterargument in your example. I’m sure you are just trying to spur further discussion so I’ll bite.

      While it’s quite possibly true that you and your group could bring another 50 players to the campaign and that would make you “more valuable” from a PR-standpoint, it doesn’t give your playing experience more value as an individual.

      If you had empathized how much your group was doing to lift the experience for everyone involved in the campaign, it might have made sense. At least from a limited perspective. But at the end of the day, we are all human beings, and while some contribute more than others, that doesn’t make everyone else “less”. Utopian you say? Absolutely. But consciously neglecting the playing experience of part of your community in order to please a select minority is a pretty good way to cultivating the darker sides of elitism.

  • Good answer. Thanks! 😉

  • Hi Mia,

    Thank you for your thoughts on the matter. I think we both agree on the importance of this debate.
    After having read your piece, I feel like there are some things I need to make clear:
    You say “Nobody is more important than anyone else”. If you mean this from a humanitarian “all human beings are created equal” kind of perspective, I couldn’t agree more 🙂
    But if you mean that all players have the same value in a larp, and that all positions have equal responsibility and impact on other players, I strongly disagree.
    I would like to explain why: First of all, some positions within a larp will very often come with a bigger responsibility than other. Let’s say I’m organising a typical fantasy larp, and I want there to be a royal family. What I would focus on in that case is getting players that won’t just play the game to win, and become the most powerful ruler ever – but players who aim to create and distribute all the interesting play that this position will generate. In short: Good players. In my point of view, it would be a huge mistake to cast a player who does not see fit to deal with the responsibility this elevated and interesting position call for. These considerations would be for the benefit of the larp as a whole – not because I want to glorify specific players. Unfortunately, I might very easily wind up in a position where people see my casting as nepotistic, because players do not like to acknowledge each other’s skill.

    Regarding the Gamemaster of Doom: I do not mean that he should be left to his own devices! On the contrary, I think he deserves more respect than that. He needs for someone to point out what seems so obvious to everyone else, and give him the tools to improve. Trying to shield him from the truth does him no favours.

    A side note: I have a problem with the word ‘talent’. While I won’t deny that some people seem to have an almost instinctual idea of certain aspects of role-playing, I have never met a person who was all-round ‘naturally talented’. Larping is too diverse and too complex for that to happen. Most of us have our weaknesses and our strengths. Really good role-players are people who have worked hard at consciously mastering the many different aspects of role-playing. In my experience, role-playing is a skill set, not a talent. If anyone feels otherwise, they are welcome to convince me with some hard, empirical facts 😉

    Concerning acting and role-playing: Much to my chagrin, it seems like you are not the only one who read my piece as a tribute to acting in role-playing. In that case, I have not managed to make myself clear at all! Actually, I don’t think acting has much to do with good role-playing. I have made a comment on my blogpost as to why that is, if anyone is interested.
    I completely agree with you when it comes to your definition of a good larper.

    I think our main disagreement concerns how open we should be around players when it comes to acknowledging a player for being particularly skillful. I guess I still don’t understand why we have to pretend that we are all equally skillful when it comes to larping.

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