In 2014, I conducted a survey about attitudes towards photography and video in larp. I got nearly 500 responses from many different countries, and while I would love to publish the full results here, they’re a bit long for the scope of this KP book. The numbers are available at ars-amandi.se instead, and they’re really quite interesting, so I suggest you take a look if you’re organising or photographing any time soon. What I will do here is outline some of the different arguments and thought processes concerning the way we play and the way we document.
Images and the Nature of Larp
For good, bad, or ugly, we’ve all been photographed in larps. Someone has managed to catch that moment where your costume looked brilliant and you’re screaming at someone, and damned if you don’t look like a movie star. As organizers, we’ve also probably felt the crushing stupidity of not having recorded anything at a larp, and about three months later finding out that nobody cares about our larp if there aren’t pics.
We take images, share images, store images, publish images, broadcast images, and print images, in both still and moving form. So we should talk about images in larp.
Particularly in larp, because as it happens, larps are semi-private (and sometimes transgressive) events. One feature of larp that allows us to play some very interesting things is that the larp is a contained and (ideally) safe space, both physically and temporally.
Our collective understanding seems to be that transgressive play is at times fun and desired, so we make it possible through a space that is contingent – it only exists here and now, and in the context of a game. You might even wonder whether larp is safe so it can include transgression, or if larp became transgressive because it was “safe”.
The contingency of a larp is an important feature for many kinds of play, but also for many kinds of people.
What one player considers transgressive may be less remarkable to another player, and this may simply be a matter of life experience or taste, but can also relate to one’s situation in real life. A schoolteacher may want to play a murderer; a politician might want to play a coked-up rock star; a person in a committed relationship may want to play a fantasy romance; a judge might want to play a slave owner. Larp can offer some freedom of expression and play not only for transgressive or illegal acts, but it offers this to people whose real world lives impose restrictions on what they’re publicly allowed to consider “fun”.
We like to ask “what if” our world had different norms – for violence, sexuality, social structure, or pretty much anything else we can imagine. I, for one, am an artist and frankly can be photographed doing pretty much anything and it will only help me.
But I have seen people do things in larps that, if taken out of context, would ruin their career. I have seen people standing next to other players who were doing things that, if photographed, could ruin that person’s career. A third of the survey respondents reported that some in-game photos could cause trouble for them.
(Speaking of standing next to someone, one of the reasons why Facebook’s own facial recognition software is more accurate than the CIA’s is because Facebook knows who you know, and recognizes who you’re likely to be standing next to.
Just a fun fact for anyone who thinks that not tagging people by name on Facebook is sufficient to protect anonymity.)
Larp, as we have been doing it, is not a public performance; everyone present is complicit in the course of action and has both interest and agency in where the story goes. When you sign up, you might have a ballpark idea of what you’d like to do and what kind of activities you’ll indulge in, but I think most players would agree that if you knew beforehand exactly what was going to happen, there would be no point to larping at all.
Combine this with larp’s famous alibi for indulging in things we can’t do in real life, and this makes most players likely to do or say things that they can’t vet beforehand, and which might not be palatable if taken out of context – in part because the whole point of the larp was to create a context that would not be possible or morally defensible to live out in our real lives. This makes organizers responsible for at least some degree of privacy.
It’s not exactly a completely private event, either: we trust others – some of them near strangers – with our play. We work towards building this trust in person. And yet, we trust people who are potentially hostile with our images. Images do a great deal of violence to the safeness of a larp. They bring something from within the frame of the larp, outside that frame. They are objects that expand the agreed safe space in a way that is not predictable.
They have the potential to expand it very far geographically as well as temporally, and they very quickly collapse the context. They take a private-ish event and bring it into public consumption.
One recent example of this is the Czech larp Hell on Wheels, the first few runs of which included players who darkened their skin to play characters of African descent. This was largely unremarkable until photographs reached the larp community in the United States, where putting dark makeup on white skin to play a black person is inescapably racist and very offensive indeed.
The ensuing conversation saw accusations of racism towards the Czechs, imperialism toward the Americans, and rather a lot of publicity for the larp in a way that the Czech organisers likely never even considered.
Was the dialogue useful? Hard to say. On one hand, it often takes an outsider to an in-group to point out where your blind spots are. On the other, can the piece be condemned on the strength of its images alone, without hearing how the topic was handled in-game? Expect this issue to show up again:
72% of respondents said they’re okay with photos of themselves playing a different social group, class, or culture.
The Public Image of Larp
It’s curious that photographs from a larp get taken out of context so quickly – it almost seems as though people are waiting to find something. But perhaps that’s human nature. A photograph of the larp only recalls the event for someone who was actually there; for anyone else, the context stands only on the weight of what is visible in the picture.
The public does not (yet) understand larpers to be like actors. If Brad Pitt plays a Nazi, we all understand that Brad Pitt is a very cool guy for playing such a hardcore character; in interviews he can even discuss the humanity and interestingness of that role, and we will still understand Brad Pitt to be a pretty cool guy. However, Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi to go to a costume party is apparently a problem, because for some reason the public feels that it sends an ambiguous message as to how he feels about Nazis; after all, he dressed up as one for fun.
Larpers seem to fall somewhat more on the Prince Harry side at the moment. If you are photographed playing a person dying of AIDS, or wearing black-face, the photograph does not in itself convey any information as to whether this photograph was cultural production (i.e. art) or “fun”, and the overwhelming impression seems to be that you will give off an air of endorsement. And then there’s the Daily Mail (see below):
Ironically, headlines like this one are exactly why photographs and videos from larps are also needed. The popular view of larps (sorry, ‘LARPS’), which to this day retains the hint of Satanism it’s enjoyed since the 1980s, is one in which a bunch of well-meaning but sadly broken people get together in the woods and push each other psychologically until they can’t tell what’s real anymore.
Then someone dies, and it’s the plot of a blockbuster movie.
There will always be a misrepresented “popular view” for those who are outsiders of any activity, just as there is one for contemporary art (“My six year old could’ve painted that”) or sport (“Team sports are just a sublimation of the war impulse”). All of these are created by a combination of images and ignorance. Larp could benefit from having more images in the public – good images, attached to positive advocacy.
Interestingly, Cosmic Joke’s teaser and 18 min. documentary about College of Wizardry (2014) seemed to attract the “right” kind of press: admiration for a job well done, cool costumes and setting, and respect for the sheer crazy guts to put 120-200 people (depending on which article you read) in a castle for 2-5 days (depending on which article you read) to play as Harry Potter/in Hogwarts/in the Potterverse/in the Polandverse (depending on which article you read).
It appears to be the first single larp to get global media attention – and what’s more, positive media attention. The trailer and teaser combined had over one million hits on YouTube, among them Warner Brothers execs who had a few words to say about intellectual property – but that’s another essay entirely.
It should be noted that even the “wtf-type” attention garnered by the documentation of Panopticorp (2013) also caught the eye of people internationally who were interested in running the game; so clearly larpers know how to read between the lines of the Daily Mail. It seems that video documentation in particular is useful for getting media attention, and media attention is, we assume, good for the larp scene. It is certainly helpful for getting venues, financing, and interest for one’s next big project.
What to Record, When, Why, and How
It’s quite clear that players love photographs of themselves and their friends; particularly in the 48-or-so hours directly after a larp, players cry out for the visual proof that tells them yes, they were really there and they looked beautiful with all that snot running all over their faces after all their friends died and they had a desolate epiphany about their own existence. Most of us are guilty as charged here.
No organizer I spoke to would dream of letting a larp go un-photographed. For grant money, for pitches, for clout, for academic research, for being able to contribute to the ongoing creation of the Nordic larp canon, evidence is simply essential. It’s participation.
Video is a bit more fraught. Most respondents are okay with or enthusiastic about video so long as they know beforehand that it’s going to be there. My biggest beef here is that video crews and larpers aren’t used to each other – the boom operator will put a mic in the middle of a scene, and half of the larpers will shut up because it suddenly feels like filming a TV show and they don’t want to mess it up, or they’ll move out of the shot because they don’t want to be on camera. Video crews can literally alter the plot this way.
But either way, larp documentation is here to stay. So I’ll finish up with a little bit of advocacy and again invite you to check out the survey.
Should I Have In-game Photographs?
Yes, in general. People love them. If you want to be a bit sensitive and avoid affecting play, only photograph public scenes – or have your photographers playing characters, so we can interact with them, pose for them, or tell them to go away.
Should I Have Off-game Photographs?
Even better. A surprising number of people (67%) reported they were willing to recreate scenes afterwards for the purposes of photography. I would love to see an organizer design for this – it’s opt-in, and to anyone who wasn’t there, it’s not likely to make a lick of difference. Also, players are often quite happy with one or two decent character portraits.
When Should My Photo and Video Plans Be Communicated to the Players?
Before sign-up. A quarter of respondents reported they’d been photographed in-game without knowing there would be cameras present. The same amount agreed that we need photography policies as part of the sign-up process.
How Many Photographs Do I Need for Documentation?
I think there’s such a thing as too many photographs. If you want to make a film, go make a film. If you want to make a larp, for goodness’ sake leave players alone and let them play.
Should My Photographers and Video Crew Be In- or Off-game?
Respondents slightly favor in-game, by a factor of about 20%.
Can I Photograph Sensitive Scenes?
Ask your players. Maybe agree that interrogations or sex scenes won’t be photographed. Don’t assume everyone has the same common sense. Players (60%) reported their immersion gets really interrupted by the presence of a camera in a tough scene.
Is It the Player’s Responsibility to Tell a Photographer to Go Away?
Tricky. Some players will not want to go off-game to do this. Some will be playing characters of low agency, and this can affect the agency they take as a player.
Can I Use Hidden Video Cameras or Gopro’s to Be Less Intrusive?
Merlin’s Beard, no. Unless you’ve communicated it to your players and they either know where the cameras are, or they are totally okay with playing with hidden cameras, don’t do this. Always allow players to review hidden camera footage.
Can I Post to Instagram During Run-time?
No. Unless it’s part of your design, no no no.
Do Players Really Need to Vet Pictures Before They’re Published?
It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s their face you’re using, and you might not know what’s okay for them. It’s polite to do so.
But I Want to Do a Larp Where Photography Is Part of the Meta/rules/world!
Of course! Most players (78%) would love to play something where photography works as a game mechanic.
Photos and videos have the power to delight us, make our larps better, improve the scene and help us convince outsiders to take us seriously. Because of the nature of what we sometimes do together, photos and videos – and even just the act of taking them – have the power to violate the trust we place in each other. Larp is not a public performance – 69% of you agreed with this statement. It’s up to us to find ways to keep our hobby dangerous while we show it to the world.
- Sharp, Aaron. (2013, October 19). It’s not exactly Trivial Pursuit. The Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2467492/PanoptiCorprole-playing-craze-Denmark-players-50-hours-straight-pretending-coke-snortingadvertising-executives.html
- College of Wizardry (2014). Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted, Dracan Dembinski et al. Played in Czocha, Poland.
- Hell on Wheels (2013). Filip Appl et al. Played in Czech Republic.
- Panopticorp (2003). Irene Tanke, Norway. Documentation from the 2013 re-run, produced by Claus Raasted/Rollespilsfabrikken in Denmark.
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 Inside Hamlet (Denmark, 2015) by Petter Karlsson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Retrieved from Facebook.