Setting the Stage
Livsgäld, translated roughly as “the price you pay for your life”, was a low-fantasy larp held in November, 2014, in Halmstad, Sweden. The larp was played in Swedish, had 40 participants, three non-player characters and four organizers. The spots for the players were given out through a lottery process, where participants first signed up over the span of a week after which a draw was made to see whom among the players would receive spots. The larp used two criteria to divide the various players into different pools – we first divided the player group into self identified men, women and non-binary individuals, with a goal of as many self identified men as women in the player group. After this division was made, we went on to divide by age. Ten spots were reserved for the 25% who were youngest of the player group, twenty spots were reserved for the 50% in the middle and ten spots for the oldest 25% of players.
Despite our efforts to achieve this balance, when drop-outs were taken into account, we did not have enough reserve players among men in the latter stages of the process and the actual game ended up with a skewed ratio, with more women than men attending.
The setting for the larp was a world known as Xaos, constructed by organizer Simon Svensson.
The larp itself was centered around an isolated culture that had been existing on its own for hundreds of years in a single village. The culture entirely lacked a social sex-based gender, the focus was instead on four elements that were seen as part of your biological entity in the same way as gender is for us today. The concepts ‘man’ or ‘woman’ did not exist, even if the members of the culture were physically identical to us.
The story played with themes of survival, both literal in avoiding starvation, but also cultural survival when the old ways did not work as they used to. The food stores were low and for many years, the fields had gotten more barren, the hunting had diminished and tensions were on the rise. During the larp, the People, as they were called, had to confront whether they would rely on the extremely conservative foundations of their entire people, the cultural values they held sacred, or brave the dangers of the unknown.
The unknown also held the mythological threat from a civilization that once held the people as slaves and were said to roam the wilderness in search for them.
The culture was one of shame and guilt, where the personality traits that are often seen as good today were considered destructive and bad (bravery, creativity, being outspoken, self-confidence), while atypical leader abilities – intuition, empathy, carefulness and cowardice – were seen as positive and constructive traits. Conflicts were solved by smoothing over and handling the fallout rather than the cause.
If the main storyline was the food crisis, the actual focus of play was the social pressure that was a natural part of such an isolated society; a society where the equilibrium rests on shame and the silencing of dissenting voices. When the crisis became more outspoken, all the tension that was stored in the various dynamics between the collectives (the family units of the game), individuals and between element-genders rose up to the surface. Love was lost, forbidden love was uncovered and the young members of the village were initiated into their collectives, to live with them for the rest of their lives.
During the larp, three unknown spirits also appeared, brought into the village by some of the fire-gendered, the most oppressed of the four elements. These spirits turned out to have different agendas that they tried to pursue through affecting the people and their ways.
In the end, a choice was made. Their existence doomed, they refused to go quiet into the night and fade away. The village abandoned their ancestral home to face the unknown on a great exodus, knowing well that most of them would not make it.
Calm gazes with the power to silence loud voices. Tears that are swallowed, hidden away to uphold the illusion of well-being. A collective where everyone is included. Yet, some are still left outside, isolated. Love filled with demands exists side by side with the search for acceptance. To be loved, not for the person who I am but despite of it. Livsgäld. One larp, many emotions followed by important insights. I was not poor when I went there but I left richer than I was before. My new found riches are thoughts and a new way to view the world.Player, Air-gendered
These thoughts by one of the players include some of our core design elements. When we created Livsgäld, we had three major design goals. They were:
- A gender-equal larp
- Reversing fantasy stereotypes
- Narrow focus
The first point was one of the first that we decided on and our philosophy towards gender was based around the thought that, in order to achieve gender equality in a larp, you could not simply remove gender inequalities and otherwise keep the same traditional fantasy or modern setting. We would still have hidden patterns and behavior that were modelled on inequality. Instead, you have to remove them and replace them with something else that could take their place. This philosophy guided us as we created the Livsgäld world.
The second idea was based on the observation that fantasy worlds are often inherently conservative. They are worlds where uprisings are bad, where feudalism works, where power is rightfully inherited and where loyalty to authority is something noble.
They are worlds where individual bravery and vigilantism is held as the norm of heroic behavior. We wanted to challenge these concepts and show a world that worked differently from how we expected a fantasy world to work. We knew this would be a challenge for our players since we had already removed so many other familiar points from the players’ horizon of expectations and recognition, but we did not want to create a gender-equal world only to reproduce the normative, traditionally masculine traits as superior.
The third point, narrow focus, was something we’d learned from the countless fantasy games that exist out there in the more mainstream fantasy genre. Many of them present a whole fictional world for the prospective larper with nations, maps, cultures and religions all presented in short written format, easily overwhelming their players. We wanted Livsgäld to exclusively present relevant information for the players, where every piece of information was something that had an impact for the People and the experience at the larp.
Inspirations from the Nordic larp tradition were games such as Mellan himmel och hav, for a different way to construct gender and personality traits, Hemligheten, for the way it portrayed a low-key fantasy setting, and Brudpris for handling a culture of shame and invisible barriers.
There were many things that did not happen as planned or expected and there were many story elements that were identified as flawed or working in an unintended way. Even as the game came to a close, we had already learnt a lot. After the game, the players were asked to give the organizers a week of stories, a week where feedback and criticism could wait.
When this week had passed, a document was published with our the organizers’ design thoughts, containing thoughts on what had gone wrong and what could be improved, along with a feedback form for the players. We felt that this approach helped players focus on areas that we had not already reflected over.
The feedback form received answers from roughly half of the participants. The most widespread reaction which was echoed by nearly every feedback form, was that the participants had experienced a sense of leaving their own social gender behind. No longer did they feel the internal or external pressure to act their gender.
Despite of this, several individuals noted that actual behavioral patterns still conformed to those they had been taught all their lives. It is not surprising that players did not adapt entirely new patterns of behavior simply from two days gametime and a day of workshop.
However, it is noteworthy that the expectations to behave in the same ways were perceived as lacking. It was more out of comfort and habit that the players acted out their off-game gender identity, rather than a feeling of pressure or expectation.
Another common point of feedback was that the elements had felt like castes, rather than gender. There had been a lack of sexualization or the tension that exists between genders attracted to each other and they had felt like ‘roles’ in society, rather than something natural you were born to.
Many felt that a workshop for translating typically gendered behavior, like flirting, sex and attractive stereotypes, into the Livsgäld world, would have been a boon to the larp. That was, according to the players, the most difficult part of the setting.
The biggest lesson we learned was to trust in the setting and the characters to provide the content. An element was introduced early on that was meant to be kept low-key: the three foreign spirits. However, their occult nature and mystery quickly spiraled it up to the top and it became a major plot. Many players reacted as if they had to solve it, rather than use it as background material. Had we informed everyone about the element beforehand and kept its function transparent, we feel that it would have filled its function more properly.
We are glad that we created Livsgäld and in many ways, it felt like a success. However, it also felt like a game that explored relatively unknown territories and in doing that, left a lot of room for improvement.
Everything points to the fact that Livsgäld changed the way people thought about gender, if only for a little while. In this, we hope that Livsgäld can be an inspiration to others and that we will see more games exploring similar themes.
As a closing statement, here are some thoughts from one of the participants, taken from their blog post about the larp:
It was scary, in a way, to see how effectively we changed our way of thinking and behaving over a mere weekend. It showed me how easy it is to create oppression on completely arbitrary grounds, and how real those feelings provoked can be even though you know it’s just play-pretend. But most of all it gave me hope. If we could change our way of thinking and behaving so easily over such a short period of time I have no doubts about that it can be done on a much larger scale. All it takes is that most of us play along.Player
Credits: Kajsa Seinegård (main organizer), Simon Lindman Svensson (co-organizer), Carl Nordblom (co-organizer) and Jennie Nyberg (co-organizer)
Date: October 30 November 2, 2014
Location: Primus Vicus medieval village, outside Halmstad, Sweden
Length: 60 hours in-game, 16 hours pre-game workshop
Participation Fee: €70 standard fee, €50 for low income participants and €90 for high income participants
This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014 which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.
Cover photo: The water-gendered: soft, emotional leaders (Post-game, Frida Selvén). Other photos by Frida Selvén.