There Is No Nordic Larp – And Yet We All Know What It Means

There Is No Nordic Larp – And Yet We All Know What It Means

“Nordic larp is like porn. I know it when I see it.”[1]Adaptation of a quote by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964)

Ten years ago, when first attending the Knutpunkt conference in Norway, I was humbled by stories about Hamlet, 1942 and other great games. Here, there were people actually stretching the definition of what “larp” means. It was an awesome, mind blowing experience for sure. There were a lot of talks about the larps that were influenced by the KP tradition and vice versa. There was no good term for these games, so usually the rather cumbersome “games in the KP/SK tradition” was used.

When in 2010, Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola published the book Nordic Larp documenting 30 larps belonging to this tradition, they effectively coined the term. It had been used before, but never with such a brand recognition. Still, there was no clear definition what “Nordic larp” actually means. In discussions, one of the main points is if the term is meant geographically or not. The Nordic Larp Wiki greets its visitors with the following words:

“Nordic-style larp, or Nordic Larp, is a term used to describe a tradition of larp game design that emerged in the Nordic countries.”

So far, so good. Is it a geographical description then? “Nordic” seems to imply this and the Nordic Larp Wiki certainly defines it this way:

“Nordic-style larp is traditionally different from larp in other parts of the world[…]”[2]http://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Nordic_Larp

In 2012, Juhana Pettersson writes in States of Play (already subtitled as “Nordic Larp around the world”):

“Nordic Larp is not the same as the larps played in the Nordic countries. Indeed, most Nordic larps are not part of the Nordic Larp design movement. This leads to the bizarre situation where the Nordic Larp movement can enter into dialogue with Finnish larp the same way it can be in dialogue with Russian larp.

“Nowadays, the truly new stuff comes from all those Italians, Germans and Americans who have taken some of the ideas of Nordic Larp and made them part of their own artistic practice. Thankfully, instead of just assimilating stuff from us, they’re sending ideas back, becoming the new creative frontier of Nordic Larp.”

So the definition from the Wiki is not very useful since there are:

  • Larps in this tradition which are not from Nordic countries;
  • Larps in Nordic countries not belonging to this tradition.

So why is it still called Nordic? What’s so Nordic about Nordic larp? Maybe it is the origin of the movement. In his Nordic Larp Talk 2013, Jaakko Stenros tries to define “a” Nordic larp this way:

“A larp that is influenced by the Nordic larp tradition or contributes to the ongoing Nordic larp discourse. This definition may seem disappointing, or even like a cop-out.”[3]‘What does Nordic Larp mean?’, Jaakko Stenros, Nordic Larp Talks 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL_qvBaxV5k

Not only a cop-out, but also recursive. Thus it is not very helpful if we want to get closer to the actual meaning of the term. Furthermore he continues:

“Nordic larp is not a set of instructions. It is not even a coherent design philosophy. It is a movement.”

Well, well – it’s also not a coherent design philosophy. At least that definition empowers anybody to define their own style as Nordic. And where is the nodal point of this movement? It is, in fact, the Nodal Point conference – Knudepunkt/ Knutepunkt/Knutpunkt/Solmukohta.

Next, there is Jaakko Stenros’ version of a brand definition for the “Nordic larp tradition”:

“A tradition that views larp as a valid form of expression, worthy of debate, analysis and continuous experimentation, which emerged around the Knutepunkt convention.”

We are back to the KP/SK tradition. Not much Nordic left here though, because this tradition (r)evolves around the conferences and for at least ten years they have certainly not been entirely Nordic (in geographical terms) anymore and not the creative frontier (according to Juhana Pettersson above). Somehow we are getting nowhere.

Let’s try a different approach. The book The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp[4]The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, 2014, Edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back was written to give a sort of “kickstart” into the Nordic larp tradition, collecting important articles from the now 20+ books published around the Knudepunkt conference. It describes Nordic larp this way:

“The Nordic larp community differs from larp culture in other places. […] And yes, that’s right, there are other kinds of larps played in Scandinavia; the Nordic larp community is a specific and by now reasonably well-defined subset.”

So, first sentence: kind of geographic. Let’s imagine the movement is what the author implies as a “place”, because the last sentence of the paragraph is clear about the term being non-geographic. Let’s try to define the term in other ways. Also from the above paragraph:

“It spends more time telling stories that emphasize naturalistic emotion, it emphasizes collective, rather than competitive storytelling, and it takes its stories fairly seriously much of the time […]”

Jaakko Stenros’ Nordic Larp Talk also mentions some of these characteristics:

“It typically values thematic coherence, continuous illusion, action and immersion, while keeping the larp co-creative and its production noncommercial. Workshops and debriefs are common.”

These are characteristics which undoubtedly are part of the tradition we are talking about. The Nordic Larp Wiki supports this approach as well:

“[…]Here are a few examples of aims and ideals that are typical for this unique gaming scene:”

If we accept the Nordic Larp wiki as a PR instrument, this is certainly cool, but as a reference about what Nordic larp actually means, this is maybe slightly too much self-adulation. Let’s have a closer look at these characteristics and ideals:

“Immersion. Nordic larpers want to feel like they are “really there”. This includes creating a truly convincing illusion of physically being in a medieval village/on a spaceship/WWII bunker, playing a character that is very close to your own physical appearance, as well as focusing on getting under the character’s skin to ‘feel their feelings’. Dreaming in character at night is seen by some nordic larpers as a sign of an appropriate level of immersion.”

Not only is this definition of immersion mixing in 360° for good measure, the sentence about the “truly convincing illusion of physically being [there]” is also not very Nordic (at least from my personal experience) even though some games are now trying to do exactly that. The second part talking more about actual immersion could be considered very Nordic, if you like.

“Collaboration. Nordic-style larp is about creating an exciting and emotionally affecting story together, not measuring your strength. There is no winning, and many players intentionally let their characters fail in their objectives to create more interesting stories.”

This might actually be one of the better indicators for a “Nordic larp”, but then, there’s plenty of examples from other game traditions where this is used as well – but maybe not the other way around. Maybe it is required, but not sufficient?

“Artistic vision. Many Nordic games are intended as more than entertainment – they make artistic or even political statements. The goal in these games is to affect the players long term, to perhaps change the way they see themselves or how they act in society.”

Artistic vision is hard to define, as is a political statement, but there’s certainly a divide between pure “entertainment” and “serious” games. But then, aren’t the ones without a political statement artistic in their own unique way? And what about the Nordic games which are not intended as more than entertainment?

There’s certainly a lot of elements which are considered part of this tradition, but are they unique? Is “bleed”, “immersion”, “alibi” really Nordic? Are pre-game workshops, 360°, black box and debriefings? Furthermore, what is often described as “Nordic larp”, evolves with every game and every discussion about this tradition. Fifteen years ago, no game would use bleed or alibi or 360° in their descriptions (since the terms didn’t really exist) and even mechanisms, but still they were and are considered part of this tradition.

One could argue the way Merleau-Ponty does and say that while many of these are often present, none needs to be to make it a Nordic larp. The question cannot be solved this way.

Furthermore, when we used black-box-style mechanisms in 2000-2003 in the Insomnia series of games in Germany, were they “Nordic”? Did the workshops, debriefings, game acts and use of “cut”, “brems” and “escalate” mechanisms for The Living Dead (2010) make it “Nordic”?

There’s a simple answer: no. But the reason for that is not that they were not played in the Nordic countries or organized by people from there. The simple reason is that they did not add to the discourse, in one case because we hadn’t heard about KP yet, in the other case because we didn’t bother to do so.

This needs to change. I don’t think it actually matters where ideas were first tried out and who made it popular, but we need to tell people what we do and show it to them in a meaningful way if we want to be part of the movement.

“In the end, while we may rage and debate whether Nordic larp actually isn’t all that special, reality is that it is. And let’s use that for our advantage instead of trying to nitpick.”[5]Claus Raasted, January 14 2015 in a private conversation on Facebook
– Claus Raasted

Conclusion

I truly believe there is something special about the kind of games we create. I also do think that creating a term like “Nordic Larp” was a masterstroke of Knudepunkt/ Knutepunkt/Knutpunkt/Solmukohta propaganda.

And this is what I’m going to do[6]And maybe edit that page in the Nordic Larp Wiki and remove that ridiculous geographic reference.: Nordic larp. No matter where I am or where I come from. It’s where I’ve been heading all my larping life and I don’t really care how we call it as long as we know what it means. I believe we do.

Because if we can’t agree upon what Nordic larp means, others will form their own slightly worrying conclusions:

“Meanwhile, in Europe, some people were already making a living from LARPing and stretching its art in interesting directions. Claus Raasted [sic], for example, fused parlor roleplay with very serious topics, such as acting out couples’ therapy to pretend to grieve for a dead child. The genre spread through the region and became known as Nordic LARP.”[7]Olivia Simone, tabletmag.com, Sep 2 2014 getting more facts wrong than right in this “definition” of the term.

Nobody really can tell you what Nordic larp actually is, but who cares as long as Claus Raasted is the godfather of Nordic LARP?

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: Participants at Knutpunkt 2014, by Johannes Axner.

References   [ + ]

1. Adaptation of a quote by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964)
2. http://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Nordic_Larp
3. ‘What does Nordic Larp mean?’, Jaakko Stenros, Nordic Larp Talks 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL_qvBaxV5k
4. The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, 2014, Edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back
5. Claus Raasted, January 14 2015 in a private conversation on Facebook
6. And maybe edit that page in the Nordic Larp Wiki and remove that ridiculous geographic reference.
7. Olivia Simone, tabletmag.com, Sep 2 2014 getting more facts wrong than right in this “definition” of the term.
  • Herwig Kopp

    Let me try to clarify Stefans provocative title through another juridical citation from Italy (in reference to the famous judge Potter quote on porn): Salvatore Cuffaro, formerly an Italian politician, former President of Sicily, who has served an almost 5-year jail sentence for aiding the Mafia and also Marcello Dell’Utri, a convicted mafia criminal and a former Italian politician senior advisor to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are said to have stated: “Non esiste la mafia. / The mafia does not exist.” As being part of the Nordic Larp scene for years, its conferences, publications and organising LARPs himself in the Nordic Larp style, there is no way Stefan can talk himself out of the tradition he helped to form and grow. Through adding to and stepping into the discourse started and formed in Scandinavia, through helping building a brand and tradition he became part of a movement. Created as a common denominator in development which helped and helps pushing the borders of what (Nordic) Larp can be this may as well mean to expand from its geographical roots to other (non-Nordic) countries, The concept “Nordic Larp” helps talking about Nordic Larp, which this article also contributes to. Therefore his affirmation put into denial may be read as as such, that there IS Nordic Larp – confirmed through even disclosing a godfather he is working with as part of the same confession. Read it as a tribute, not as a critique! 😉 http://aforismi.meglio.it/aforisma.htm?id=a891

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