Playing the Stories of Others

Playing the Stories of Others

Larps that treat social issues often aim to create empathy for real people who live in circumstances different from ours by putting us in their shoes. One example is provided by games where players from privileged backgrounds take on the roles of characters from a marginalised group, or experience situations where they are in a marginalised position.

In the Norwegian larp Europa (Fatland and Tanke et al., 2001), the Nordic countries mirrored the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Nordic players spent a week as asylum seekers in a reception centre in a fictitious Balkan country. Another Norwegian larp, Just a Little Lovin’ (Edland and Grasmo, 2011), treats the spreading of HIV in the New York gay community in the 1980’s. Various runs of the game gave many players an idea on what it is to be HIV positive and raised consciousness about queer issues. Killed in the Name of Honor (Samad, Kharroub and Samamreh, 2013), organised by three Palestinian women, was set in a matriarchal culture where young men could face a honour killing if they didn’t adhere to the sexual mores of the community. In the Palestinian-Finnish larp Halat hisar (AbdulKarim, Arouri and Kangas et al., 2013 & 2016), we created an alternative reality where Finland lived under an apartheid regime and occupation similar to real world Palestine (see e.g. Kangas, 2014a and Pettersson, 2014a).

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

While Killed in the Name of Honor reversed gender roles, Halat hisar turned geopolitical power relations upside down. In the game world, Northern Europe was a conflict zone full of dictatorships, and Arab countries were rich and influential. Finnish players became oppressed people living under occupation, and Palestinians portrayed privileged foreigners. Such a role reversal is in a sense a form of cultural exchange, and it makes for illuminating post-game reflections, which I will discuss in more detail later.

However, the stories we live in larp are filtered through our real-life selves. In the end, our unconscious reactions and interpretations of events are based on real-life experience. We have been socialised to certain roles and positions of which we are not even fully aware. Therefore it’s difficult to consciously set them aside.

A good example is Mad About the Boy (Edland, Raaum and Lindahl, 2010), a game designed for women. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious disease has killed all men. The characters belong to three-woman family units hoping to get selected into a government-run artificial insemination program. The applicants go through the last stage of the process at a secret forest location where three government officials, a politician, a physician, and a psychologist, observe and evaluate their behaviour.

In 2015, a Swedish team made a male version of the game, It’s a Man’s World (Gissén, 2015). It preserved most of the original scenario while switching the genders. Thus, there were, for example, artificial wombs instead of an insemination program. The game became completely different from the original. According to Sandqvist (2016), male players found the basic setting uninteresting: a situation where you are under surveillance and the only way to succeed is to be as perfect as possible. The female players of Mad About the Boy, however, found it easier to relate to such a situation because they had real-life experiences of being under pressure in a patriarchal society.

Although larp is an excellent vehicle for creating strong emotions, it cannot replicate other people’s experiences. Halat hisar doesn’t teach a Nordic person how it really feels to live under occupation. However, role reversal can shed light on unexplored aspects of ourselves, power structures and our roles in them. In this article, I discuss this based on my experience of having been one of the organisers of Halat hisar in both runs of the game.

Contextualisation

Games where people from privileged groups play those who are in a marginalised position rightfully raise concerns of being disrespectful. One concern is that such games, especially if emotionally strong, could create a false sense of sharing the experience of marginalised people. One way to avoid this is to properly contextualise the game. When the contextualisation happens in dialogue with the group whose stories are played out in the game, it can spark fruitful reflection.

The German organisation Waldritter e.V. runs refugee-themed educational larps with the aim of preventing racism and creating a culture of acceptance. The games end with a moderated discussion. A Syrian refugee took part in one game, sharing his personal story of the journey to Germany (Steinbach, 2016). In the debrief of the 2015 Denmark run of Just a Little Lovin’, HIV, AIDS, and cancer, important topics of the game, were contextualised. Each run of the game has had queer participants, and the 2015 Denmark run also had a cancer survivor.

Mohamad Rabah designed the debrief for the 2016 run of Halat hisar to include dialogue between international and Palestinian participants. First, the players went through exercises that aimed to detach them from the game experience, such as guided meditation and the like. After that, there was a facilitated discussion in small groups with a Palestinian in each group. The Finnish and international players could ask the Palestinians about their real life experiences and thus put the game events into context. We had a rule that you could ask anything but the discussion would stay in the debrief group—you would not share its contents with outsiders.

Several participants found this eye opening. A Finnish journalist who participated in the 2016 run wrote in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat:

When the game ended, there was a debriefing. As one part of it we were divided into small groups, each of which had a Palestinian player as a part of the group. We could ask them about the game and the reality of Palestine.

I was naive and thought that the game, as most fiction, was built on exaggerated real-life events.

The truth in Palestine, however, is worse than the game. In the protests at Birzeit University have seen much more than one student casualty.

The worst thing was the realisation that after the larp the Palestinian players had to return to their everyday lives, where the game and it’s happenings were a reality.

I cannot claim that I’d understand what they had to go through. But when I read the news about Palestinians suffering, the human tragedy behind them seems a bit more real.Jussi Ahlroth, 2016

Another Finnish player said that Halat hisar didn’t allow her to understand how it feels to be oppressed, but it did make her realise what it means to be privileged. A Finn can choose whether to take part in the struggle against the occupation of Palestine, but a Palestinian cannot. The larp caused her to reflect on how privilege can be problematic even when combined with good intentions. She said this motivated her to use her privilege to make space for others instead of taking it for herself.

The Normal and the Abnormal

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

In international mainstream media, stories about Palestinians are often told from the point of view of foreign journalists or Israelis. Even when the coverage is sympathetic to Palestinians, it does not often let Palestinians narrate their own stories, portraying Palestinians only as victims, as if that was the sum of their existence.

While this can build empathy for Palestinians, it also makes Palestinians into objects instead of subjects—”others”, rather than us. We begin to expect that someone who is part of us tells the Palestinian story, as if Palestinians couldn’t do it themselves. This affects our attitudes toward Palestinians, and makes us less interested in their personal experiences. One of the goals of Halat hisar is to break this illusion by bringing Palestinians and internationals to play together. After all, in the minds of larpers, others don’t larp.

However, based on post-game reflections and feedback, Palestinian players themselves also received new insights from the game. In the role reversal of Halat hisar, Palestinians play characters from the rich and democratic Arab League (compared to the EU in the game materials)—journalists, activists, human right workers, etc. Because the game events are close to home, some Palestinian players have found it hard to stay in character (Musleh, 2015). On the other hand, portraying foreign journalists and other internationals allows them to channel their own experiences into useful game material (Pettersson 2014b, Hamouri 2015). Some Palestinian players have also seen their own situation in a new light through the game. One of them described his experience in the 2013 run:

Sometimes when you’re living in a unique situation, you stop perceiving things that are happening around you and to you as abnormal, you become part of a social blend that is neither natural nor normal. But when you step outside and watch your life as a third party, that is when you’re shocked by the reality that you have been part of most of your life.Zeid Khalil, 2014, http://nordicrpg.fi/life_under_occupation.pdf

Oppression is not just about laws and practices nor the physical violence used to enforce them, but also about everyday social dynamics. There are the roles of the oppressed and the oppressors and—certainly in the case of Palestine—various outsider roles. In this hierarchy, those who are oppressed have less power and privileges. When you have lived your whole life in a situation of oppression, things like restrictions of movement, humiliating checkpoint searches and condescending behaviour from foreigners may feel normal.

In the game, the privileged background of Finnish players created a social environment with dynamics different from those of real-world Palestine. After all, a feeling of normalcy is hard to establish in larps, and no amount of workshopping can equal a lifetime of socialisation. To Finnish players, the game events are unexpected and shocking, and their in-game behaviour occasionally reflects this. For example, a player could be induced to radically change their character’s opinions after encountering violence by soldiers, even though it would be routine for the character. In a sense, the players react in a normal way to abnormal situations.

The fact that Finnish characters sometimes behave differently than the Palestinian players would do provides fruitful material for the post-game discussion. A Palestinian player from the 2013 run even found the experience empowering:

For example before this larp, I would have not cut any conversation or expressed any anger in my real life while discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a foreigner, even if I felt insulted. In the larp I was playing a role of a foreigner and by default I was insulting a Finnish student by trying to “own” her suffering when discussing the Finnish-Uralian conflict. The character I was talking to in that moment screamed at me and cut the conversation. In reflecting on this incident in my real life, I always have the choice to continue speaking with some annoying foreigner, but I have never chosen not to speak with them. This incident made me re-think about a space of choice in deciding with whom to discuss this PalestinianIsraeli conflict with from the people I meet in my life.Majd Hamouri, 2015

To the Finnish player, this kind of appropriation wasn’t a routine part of life. She instinctively recognised its abnormality and felt entitled to stand up against it. However, it’s not unusual for internationals visiting Palestine to put themselves in the centre and concentrate on how painful it is for them to see what is happening without considering how Palestinians perceive their statements.

A Militarised Society

Like any cultural exchange, a larp where you switch places with others makes you see yourself, your own culture and your own society in a different way. To me as an organiser of Halat hisar, one of the illuminating things has been the military action in the game.

Before the game, some of the Palestinian participants were worried that the soldiers wouldn’t be portrayed realistically enough. After all, our soldier extras were Finns who don’t live every day under military occupation. Moreover, our extras had never been to Palestine to witness the behaviour of Israeli soldiers. Before the first run of Halat hisar, I was also a bit concerned about this.

However, you don’t learn to act like a soldier by watching soldiers, but through practice. In the end, portraying a soldier comes down to things like posture, movement, and certain kind of efficiency. Military training has the same basics everywhere. In Finland, there is no shortage of people who have undergone it.

Most of our soldier extras came from a group of airsoft military simulation enthusiasts. They did not have previous larp experience but all of them had completed military service, and some had been on UN peacekeeping missions. If anything, they were sometimes too professional, considering that most Israeli soldiers serving on the Occupied West Bank are teenage conscripts. We also had a few experienced larpers playing soldiers to add some of the petty oppression and humiliation emblematic of military occupation.

In both runs, the extras surprised the players by how soldier-like they were. This made me reflect on what a militarized society we Finns live in. In Finland, military service is mandatory for men, and voluntary for women.[1]It is possible for men to do a community service instead for reasons of conscience. However, a complete refusal will lead to a prison sentence of about six months. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to get exempt on the grounds of physical or mental health. As of 2013, almost 80 percent of Finnish males of at least 30 years of age had completed the military service. (Purokuru, 2013)

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

Palestinians, on the other hand, don’t have this systemic military training of half the population. Armed resistance to the occupation is secretive and selective in nature, not something everybody is expected to participate in. Thus, it probably doesn’t occur to the Palestinian participants that acting like a soldier comes naturally to many Finns.

This also reflects different attitudes in our societies about the idea of using violence to resist a hostile army. In Finland, it’s taken for granted that enemy soldiers crossing onto Finnish soil will be shot and killed. A person who questions this idea is not taken seriously in the political mainstream. Even when people advocate reducing military expenses or removing the mandatory service, they don’t promote non-violence in the face of an invasion.

In Palestine, the relation between violent and non-violent resistance to military occupation is a major topic of debate. For example, Mahmoud Abbas, the acting president of the Palestinian Authority, has repeatedly condemned all violent resistance, even though the armed wing of Fatah, his party, practices it. In addition, the leader of the Palestinian National Initiative party, Mustafa Barghouti, who won 19 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential election, actively promotes non-violent resistance. (Rassbach, 2012)

Moreover, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), the official representative of the Palestinian people, renounced violence when signing the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, although various Palestinian groups have kept using violence. For comparison, the ANC (African National Congress) never abandoned the principle of violent resistance, not even during the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa. It is also difficult to imagine such a statement from the Finnish government. But why should arguments for non-violence be more outlandish in Finland, living in peace, than in Palestine, which is under daily attacks?

Cultural Exchange

I have previously toyed with the idea of larp as experimental anthropology (Kangas, 2014b; 2015). A game that reverses the roles of players from two different cultural or social categories can also be seen as a playful attempt to study culture. In a sense, it is a form of cultural exchange. This aspect is heightened when the game has a contextualising debrief where participants from the two groups share their experiences.

Culture is often narrowly thought of as something connected to a geographical area, as in the statement, culture is different in Palestine and Finland. Usually, language plays an important role, too; for example, English-speaking countries seem like a connected cultural area, and language minorities within a country are perceived as having their own culture. However, there are cultural spheres inside a country or a language area, and they are sometimes determined by social positions. For example, we can speak of male culture or working class culture. These cultures frequently extend over the borders of national culture and connect people more strongly than it does—we may feel that we have more in common with people who share our educational background than with people who speak the same language.

In a sense, everybody played their own culture in Halat hisar. Although the political situation of Finland was modelled on Palestine, Finns didn’t try to replicate for example, the ways family relations work in Palestine. The culture in occupied Finland was based on real life Finnish culture, and Palestinian players created the culture of the rich and democratic Arab world. And yet, there were changes. The geopolitical power relations were altered; the roles of the global north and south switched. Arab characters were privileged, and under the occupation, Finns were deprived of their basic human rights.

One interesting aspect of the game was the interaction between characters from these two worlds. It was sometimes different from real-life communication between Palestinians and foreigners. This is no surprise, since the roles were reversed, and we unconsciously react based on the socio-cultural positions that we have grown used to.

Reflecting on this after the game can make us question our social roles and positions. It raises the question of to what extent our cultural and social patterns are determined by power politics. How would they change if we were put into a more or less fortunate position in the world than the one we are in right now? Killed in the Name of Honor did the same experiment by reversing gender roles. It would also be interesting to reverse class hierarchies this way in larp.

In my Nordic Larp Talk on experimental anthropology (Kangas, 2015), I argued that larp can’t really teach us how it is to live in e.g. a hunter-gatherer society, but it can give us valuable perspectives into our own culture. Similarly, playing the stories of others doesn’t make us feel the same way they do or give us the same experiences they have had. However, together with a proper post-game contextualisation, doing so can help us understand their situation better, and build solidarity. At the same time, playing out the stories of others can reveal something about ourselves and make us see our social environments and positions in a new light.

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

2013 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen)

Bibliography

This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

Cover photo: 2016 run of Halat hisar. (Play, Tuomas Puikkonen). Other photos by Tuomas Puikkonen.

References   [ + ]

1. It is possible for men to do a community service instead for reasons of conscience. However, a complete refusal will lead to a prison sentence of about six months. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to get exempt on the grounds of physical or mental health.

Authors

Kaisa Kangas
Kaisa Kangas has been making larps for more than 20 years. She was one of the main organisers and fiction lead for the first run of the Palestinian Finnish larp Halat hisar in 2013 and the main organiser of the second run in 2016. She has also been involved in e.g. designing and running educational larps at University of Arts Helsinki. She is an editor of the 2016 Solmubooks Larp Politics and Larp Realia. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies and a Ph.D. in mathematical logic.
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