Looking at You – Larp, Documentation and Being Watched

Looking at You – Larp, Documentation and Being Watched

So far, Nordic larp has produced two games that have become international news stories that all kinds of sites cannibalize and copy from each other: the Danish 2013 rerun of Panopticorp, and the Polish-Danish Harry Potter game College of Wizardry. In both cases, the attention was fueled by solid documentation and good video from the game.

In both cases, your private larp experience of co-creating and having fun with your friends suddenly had an audience literally in the millions. Even if only as a glimpse in a video on the website of the Daily Mail. If you don’t document games, they become forgotten ephemera that will live on only in the memories of the participants. If you do document and publish, private experiences can become public in increasingly impressive ways.

The documentary filmmakers Cosmic Joke were present at College of Wizardry. Participants reported after the game that the game was changed and people played differently because of the cameras. Video footage and good photos are essential for fueling mass media coverage, but they also influence the game as it is being played.

Secret Larp

Identlos was a Finnish larp held in Helsinki on the 26th of October, 2014. It was organized by Jamie MacDonald and Petri Leinonen. The larp was about identity in the modern surveillance society. One of my most interesting experiences as a player was leaving my cell phone home.

The last time I was without my cell phone was in the spring of 2013. It fell on the sidewalk and the screen cracked. The superfast, express repair took an hour. An hour I had to spend phone-less. The time before that was in 2009.

I was in North Korea for a week, and left my phone and other electronics in a strongbox at a hotel in Beijing.
I never forget my phone. I get jittery if I have to be without something to do for longer than three minutes. When I have my phone with me, I’m completely trackable to any surveillance entities or curious phone company employees who might be interested. The phone can be used to listen to me remotely. Its list of contacts is a straightforward run through of everyone I associate with.

Because of all this, going to Identlos was a no-brainer for me. It was a game about some of the most pressing issues of our time. It was also an interesting contribution to the discussion going on in the Nordic larp scene concerning documentation. Identlos wasn’t a secret game in the sense that it was hard to find out about it. It was advertised for potential players. Rather, all documentation during the event was forbidden. No photos, no video. Because of this, it’s secret in the sense that it’s hard for a person who wasn’t there to find out how it was. This is part of the design of the game.

Meta

In Identlos, most of the characters had escaped the surveillance networks of modern society, or wanted to do so. To do this, they had to leave behind most of the electronic niceties of the world we live in: social media, cell phones, massive media access.

During the larp, the characters in the organization called Identlos did not have their phones with them, or credit cards or similar items connected to a network. Because of this, the players had to do without as well. We had to pay cash if we wanted to go to the bar.

Despite the ban on documentation, apparently even radical anti-surveillance games are subject to the demands of the outside world. The game was held as part of the arts festival Mad House Helsinki. A photographer unconnected to the larp set up shop directly outside the main game area, separated from the action only by a curtain. We ran past him all the time, and many chose to participate in his portrait project, including myself. Considering the theme and the rules of Identlos, his presence seemed supremely ironic.

Technically, his presence wasn’t against the rules, since he wasn’t in the game area. To the best of my knowledge, the ban on photo documentation of in-game action held.

As a player, I couldn’t but help noticing that this also changes the power dynamics of how we talk about the game afterwards. Centrally-controlled photo policy and documentation is a useful tool for organizers who wish to influence the life their game has after it’s over. In the case of Identlos, no such tool exists. The only records are the words of the players and the impressions of the organizers.

On Display

Baltic Warriors: Helsinki was probably the opposite of Identlos when it comes to documentation and how exposed the players were to outside view. It was the first in a projected series of larps under the wider Baltic Warriors transmedia project. The principal design of the game was by Mike Pohjola. I did additional design and practical production.

The game was played in the center of Helsinki in an outdoor cafe area on the 30th of August, 2014 in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

The characters were politicians, lobbyists and activists talking about ecological issues related to the Baltic Sea, unaware of a zombie threat that would soon emerge.

The public could just walk into the game area. The game was documented in the photos of random passerby, by journalists we had invited, and by our own documentation team. In short, it was total documentation anarchy. A picture from our game could be anywhere, and we had little control over it.

In Baltic Warriors, this maximalist attitude towards documentation was mandated by the political nature of the project and the demands of making a game in this particular location with these particular partners. In future games, we will probably experiment with different kinds of photo and privacy policies, depending on the individual demands of each game.

Our lax attitude towards being in public was criticized by some players after the game, especially regarding the political speeches that characters made on stage. Since the setting was contemporary and the issues real, larp could easily be mistaken for reality. At least until the zombies attacked. Baltic Warriors: Helsinki demonstrated that privacy and control over documentation are deal-breakers for many players. I have heard from many people who were fascinated by the project, but decided not to participate in what was essentially a public performance.

You Have to Write

Nowadays it’s not enough to play in a larp. You also have to write a 30.000 character essay about it, with original thoughts and profound reflection.

Halat hisar was a political game. As organizers, we wanted to use it to get media attention for issues in Palestine, in addition to creating a meaningful game experience. The political side of the project made documentation a no-brainer. While the game itself would be played in a secluded location away from the public, it would be photographed. There would be video. After the game, we published a documentation book and a short documentary film.

Our photographers Tuomas Puikkonen and Katri Lassila did excellent work documenting the game, but individual player experiences are essential for any true effort to understand what happened. That requires some effort on part of the players.

I spent a lot of time after Halat hisar hounding our players into writing about the game and appearing on camera talking about it. Because of its political content, Halat hisar might be an extreme case, but ordinary ambitious Nordic games have these demands too. As a participant, you have the artwork lodged inside your brain after the game is over. For history to know what happened, that experience has to be drilled out.

Of course, when the documentation effort is led by an organizer, like with Halat hisar, its content is also controlled by the organizers. As the person mainly responsible for the documentation, I tried to be honest, but all documentation entails choices of what to include and what to leave out.

Documentation always has an angle and a perspective: What to shoot during the game? Whom to ask to get something written material about it? What to include in edited versions of the material, such as books and films?

The Danish larp KAPO is an example of a game where the documentation was a player-led process. The documentation book published for the game was curated by a player, and though the organizers supplied photos and some words for it, they had no control over it.

This is a great thing to happen to a game, but personal experience suggests that normally, a documentation effort has to be led pretty aggressively for it to happen. The motivation to do this tends to default to the organizers.

So here’s the question: Is writing about your experience, appearing in photos and on video, part of the responsibility of playing in a game? Do you as the player have to accept the task of framing and expressing your inner processes for the consumption of a wider, non-playing audience?

Reach

In Identlos, I played a successful indie game designer apparently modeled after someone like Minecraft’s Markus Persson. I had escaped normal society because of the amount of hate among videogame fans. I lived in the secluded and small Identlos settlement, still making games but with a much smaller audience and less resources than before. I was happy with this.

In some ways, the difference between what my character had left behind and what he had now was similar to experiences from my own life. I have personally felt the difference by making television for mass audiences and making larp for a small scene.

Getting into character, I thought about how it would feel like to go from an audience of millions to an audience of hundreds. In some ways, the change would be small: You would still get your best feedback and comments from your friends. At the same time, it was hard to see how it wouldn’t be disappointing. Having a mass audience means you get to be part of the conversation on a wider level. You matter. Of course, making games for a limited audience means you still matter to those people. But scale is seductive.

Scale is a classic problem of larp design. Given the extremely personal nature of larp, how to scale it up? How to reach a mass audience? These questions are further complicated by issues of safety and privacy. In Identlos, my character had chosen safety over reaching a mass audience. He had limited his horizons because he didn’t want to live in a world with no privacy. It was an interesting dichotomy, because usually in modern political discourse safety is presented as the result of obliterating privacy. The larp argued the opposite, or at least complicated the issue.

Memory

Due to the lack of photos, Identlos only exists in the memory of its participants. Since there has not been any text-based documentation either, the story of what the game was is left to the underground of folklore in the player community.

When I started larping in the mid- Nineties, this was normal for all larps. There was very little documentation, even photos. Nowadays, it seems to me there’s photos from most larps, at least to some extent. What would have been normal in 1995 is experimental now that it was done by Identlos in 2014.

That’s a facile statement, of course, since Identlos’ choices were informed by a larger political and theoretical apparatus about issues of privacy. Still, the result can be the same: Identlos can join the legions of games that will not be remembered. Does it matter if it’s by design or not, if the end result is the same?

In terms of penetration into larp culture, my most influential game was probably Luminescence, which I organized with Mike Pohjola. I still see jokes about flour games in the most surprising places. It seems to me that the idea of the game, the “flour larp”, has become a meme of sorts, divorced from the original context. I suspect something similar happens when games like Panopticorp and College of Wizardry go through the distorting lens of global mass media.

With political games like Baltic Warriors and Halat hisar, the goal is to change the world. Documentation and publicity are necessary parts of the project. But Identlos is a political game too. It’s just that it prioritizes its art over its politics, and makes us ask the question:

Who are we larping for?

This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book 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: Player documenting at Halat hisar by Johannes Axner is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Authors

Juhana Pettersson
Juhana Pettersson is a novelist, TV producer, journalist and game designer based in Helsinki, Finland.
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