Culture, Community, and Layers of Reality: Playing Allegiance

Culture, Community, and Layers of Reality: Playing Allegiance

The larp Allegiance ended at a statue in a small park commemorating the end of the Second World War. We played diplomats and their support staff from different countries in 1970, listening to the Norwegian Foreign Minister’s speech about war and peace.

The minister talked about her own experiences in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Norway. She quoted the Norwegian king Håkon the Seventh: “Higher even than peace, we place the right of self-determination.”

The reactions in the crowd to the speech came from all the different histories and emotions our characters had. But they also sprang from the reality we live in as players. The themes of war and peace feel immediate in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which had impacted the lives of many players concretely and all players at least indirectly.

At the end of the speech, the minister’s words were not of the glory of victory but the necessity of rebuilding all that was lost.

Diplomats socializing at the American Party. Photo by Martin Østlie Lindelien (cropped).

Allegiance was a pervasive larp (Montola, Stenros, and Waern 2009) about the Cold War and the diplomacy needed to stave off nuclear Armageddon. Spies, betrayals, defections, and diplomats trying to carve space for themselves and maybe even for their countries. It was played in the streets of Skien in Norway and included over a dozen locations open to play over the weekend.

I played the military attaché at the Finnish embassy, a war veteran scarred for life in the Winter War and the Continuation War. Much of my larp was about old friends, relationships, and meeting people I used to know in new circumstances.

The larp’s core question was made plain in its name: Allegiance. During play, our characters had to interrogate who or what they were really loyal to. Country, ideology, personal self-interest? In the beginning of the larp my character seemed quite straightforward: He was a patriot loyal to his country, trying his best to keep it out of another war.

As play progressed, I found myself with other loyalties too. Helping old friends even when they were technically on the side of the enemy. Concocting secret plans to extend Project Gladio to Finland in direct contravention to Finnish government policy.

Community

The production model for Allegiance placed a heavy emphasis on community. Each country represented in the larp had a designer of its own recruited from that country’s larp community. This country designer created the characters and play design for their embassy. The country designers worked together on connections and events that happened between the embassies and in the wider fiction of the larp.

Thus, my character had close connections to people from the Swedish and East German embassies and the Norwegian foreign ministry. My main social context was the Finnish embassy, designed by Maria Pettersson.

Ida Foss and Martin Nielsen were the project leads of the larp but their role was more that of a producer, facilitator, shepherd who guides the collective efforts of the country designers and makes it possible for their work to be realized in the larp.

This design approach was very much in tune with the larp’s wider political and social vision, which emphasized coming together across national boundaries to forge a path towards a better world. The players whose characters staffed the Soviet embassy came from Belarus, Ukraine, and in a few cases, Russia. Some of them experienced significant difficulties in making their way to Norway for the larp due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increasingly repressive regimes in power in some of these countries, as well as the stringent travel bans and border closures enacted by almost all of the European countries sharing a border with Russia.

Much of the simple pleasures of the larp had to do with cultural exchange and discovery. In a pervasive larp spread across a number of venues it’s always fun to discover new places. The first night, there was a party hosted by the American embassy, with hot dogs. The venue was a real bar, a place you might have used in real life for a party for diplomats.

One of the larp’s design ideas was the use of Moments. They were pre-planned scenes between characters reminiscent of fateplay (Fatland 2000). The important difference here is that the Moment is defined as a scene with a starting point. It was up to us as players to take it somewhere interesting. One of my Moments was with an East German embassy official who I’d recognized from the war. We met at the Finnish sauna boat and talked about the war and how different our lives had become.

The second night, we took an antique, 70’s era bus to a mansion outside town where the East German embassy was holding a reception. In the pacing of the larp, this was the time when we resolved dangling plotlines and extended earlier prompts into something with more depth and meaning. We also discovered an actual secret door in the mansion’s library, not part of the larp’s design at all.

Bus with the word Pizzaria on it and two people in vintage clothing inside

The larp featured an antique, period-appropriate bus. Photo by Kai Simon Fredriksen.

Language

I’m from Finland. Finnish is my native language. I’m writing this in English, a language I learned in school and from the media. Almost all international larp in Europe happens in English and because of this, the majority of my larp experience in the international context has been in a foreign language.

International larps and related events such as the Knutpunkt conference have a social convention where everything should be in English so that the events are accessible to all. This of course assumes that everyone can speak English.

Allegiance made the extremely unusual choice of having a different design around language and nationality. The larp was made so that as a player, if you wanted to play in the embassy of a specific country, you needed to speak the language and have relevant cultural experience and understanding. To play in the Finnish embassy, you needed to speak Finnish and grasp Finnish cultural references.

This meant that the larp was primarily accessible to Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Danes and Germans as well as larpers from the U.S., the U.K., the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Players from these countries had an embassy they could easily play in. The U.S. and U.K. embassies ended up having more relaxed policies, especially because player drop outs led to new participants having to come in at short notice. In their case, language skills and some understanding of the culture was deemed enough.

Image of a person in vintage '70s clothing at a work desk

Maria Pettersson designed the Finnish embassy and played the secretary, a supporting role designed to facilitate the running of the larp. Photo by Juhana Pettersson.

All larps feature design choices that make the event more accessible to some players and less accessible to others. This was the case with Allegiance as well. It was obviously less accessible to the Spanish or the Greeks because they didn’t have a place in it. It was more accessible to players from its represented countries who didn’t speak perfect English because the design was much more forgiving in that sense than typical international larp.

During the larp, you played in the language that made most sense in the moment. At the Finnish embassy I spoke Finnish and at international meetings I spoke English. At an important meeting concerning the multilateral reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons, the Soviet ambassador spoke through a translator in a beautifully awkward and authentic way, obviously choreographed by the players involved to create a very specific cultural expression.

Personally, when I played in the Finnish embassy, I realized how rare and unusual it was for me to be able to play my own language and culture in an international larp. The fidelity of cultural representation was very high because everyone at the embassy was able to play with shared background and references.

Image of a cartoon in Finnish

A culturally specific reference from the Finnish embassy. Photo by Juhana Pettersson.

We had jokes about Ahti Karjalainen and a bottle of Puolustuslaitos-branded booze. We had period comic strips by Kari. I played a former politician from the Keskusta party whose family came from Savo and who was personal friends with Kekkonen. When we got a diplomatic note from the Soviet Union, all players had the deep cultural background needed to grasp the enormity of such an event.

My character was involved with the grassroots project of hiding weapons in farms and barns in case of a future Soviet invasion after Finland lost the Continuation War. They were to be used in guerrilla warfare. In real life, my family also has a connection to this same phenomenon.

Historically, Finland is famous for sauna diplomacy. To make it happen in the larp, we had a sauna boat where we could host meetings. It demonstrated the difference between two aspects of playing on your own culture. The internal play at the embassy ran on deeper cultural nuances while the internationally facing sauna diplomacy was simpler, made legible for foreign consumption but also fun because of the cultural exchange involved.

The use of English and the focus on cultural elements that can be shared between people from different countries are necessary elements of international larp and will remain so in the future. Still, I deeply appreciated the chance Allegiance gave me to play on my own background for once, and see the Czechs, the Swedes, the Danes and others doing the same.

As an international larp, Allegiance attempted to build bridges between player communities to an unusual degree. A typical international larp operates on a policy where anyone can join in as long as they speak fluent English. The doors are open. In Allegiance, the backgrounds of players were more limited. It was open to people from the former Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Finland, Germany, U.K. and the U.S. However, from many of those larp communities, the project actively sought to involve participants and designers to a much greater degree than international larps usually do

In this sense, Allegiance swapped a passive open doors policy for proactive bridge building.

A person at a desk in period clothing and glasses conversing with another person

The designer of the Czechoslovakian embassy Dominika Kovacova. The embassy designers played supporting roles as secretaries who could be relied on to transfer information reliably. Photo by Kai Simon Fredriksen.

Manufacturing Reality

Physical reality consists of the material world around us, the tables and walls, air and water. Our bodies and their biological function. Social reality encompasses all the fictions we’ve built for ourselves to organize our existence: money, government, corporations, titles, countries, borders.

When we organize a larp, we create a temporary alternative social reality and then live within it for a set period of time, with tools to take a break from it when needed.

Allegiance featured two parallel sets of meetings about important international agreements, NORDEK and MALART. The latter concerned reductions and limitations for nuclear weapons programs and I was involved in it in my capacity as a military attaché.

Sitting in the meetings, I felt like I was engaging with the construction of social reality on a double level. Playing a larp means I’m constantly manufacturing social reality with my co-players to keep the fiction consistent and playable. My character, as a diplomat, is participating in a painstaking process of creating social reality by the way of treaty negotiations which decide where nuclear weapons can be placed, who can have them and how the materials of their manufacture can be sold.

The social reality of larp is temporary and ceases to exist once the larp is over. The social reality of diplomatic negotiations has much broader consequences because we as a society have decided that the results of such negotiations are “real.” Nevertheless, they’re also made up and diplomats are the people who hammer out the specifics.

The way we ordinarily understand things, larp is fake and diplomacy is real. Yet there is something similar in the minutiae of how the processes are negotiated that emphasizes how our social reality is constructed. The social reality of diplomacy eventually becomes physical reality as nuclear missiles are dismantled or new bases capable of firing atomic warheads constructed.

A person in a suit seated and reading a document.

The Finnish Ambassador visiting the Danish embassy. Photo by Martin Østlie Lindelien.

From this viewpoint, politics is the process through which we decide the rules of the social reality in which we live. On a national and global level, the process of politics can lead to extremes such as war. Allegiance examined the international political processes created to produce the opposite result, peace.

Allegiance is a political larp beyond its subject matter. It happens in a specific political context, that of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the level of community, the vision behind Allegiance is that of transnational work towards peace and against authoritarianism. As borders are closed, refugees turned away, and visas rescinded, it seeks to present a vision of coming together against the dark forces of nationalism, hate, and war.

At the afterparty, I talked with a Belarusian player I’d shared a scene with. She said that all of her friends back home in Minsk had either emigrated or were in jail.

The Ghost of History

In 1970, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His The Gulag Archipelago is a powerful indictment of the Soviet prison system. The first major event I participated in during the larp was a reception held in honor of Solzhenitsyn’s award. The diplomats came together at an art gallery and there was tension in the air because the representatives from the East Bloc countries obviously didn’t much care for the Nobel Committee’s choice.

In real life, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded while the larp was running. The 2022 award went to the human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties. The choice of recipients from each of these countries symbolically emphasizes the necessity of civil society to come together across borders to fight against war and repression. When I saw the news during the larp, it felt like the reasoning of the real life Peace Prize and the larp’s creative agenda were perfectly aligned.

Photo of people in vintage suits with drinks in their hands at an event

The author of this article contemplating a speech in honor of the Nobel Prize for Literature of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Photo by Martin Østlie Lindelien.

For my character, the larp Allegiance ended in a classic scene from Cold War spy stories. I tried to help my East German friend defect to the West but in the last few minutes of the larp, during the speech, he got arrested. We’d made plans to meet in Tromsö but my character would wait alone for a friend who would never come.

The ending was appropriate. As the larp went on, I became worried things were going too well for me but this injected a necessary element of melancholy.

Just before we took a taxi to the airport the day before the larp, I was helping to print some of the papers and documents needed for the play at the Finnish embassy. I had printer trouble with no time to resolve it so I left the mess as it was and finished printing with a laptop.

On Sunday night after the larp when we came home, I turned on my computer. My printer came alive, spontaneously printing out a diplomatic note from the Soviet Union.

Three antique cars parked near trees

Period cars used by the East German embassy in an in-game photo. Photo by David Pusch.

Credits

Project Leads

Ida Foss and Martin Nielsen

Country Designers

Czechoslovakia: Dominika Kovacova
Denmark: Jesper Heebøll Arbjørn
East-Germany: Christian WS
Finland: Maria Pettersson
Norway: Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand
Soviet Union: Masha Karachun
Soviet Union: Alexander Karalevich
Soviet Union: Zhenja Karachun
Sweden: Anders Hultman
Sweden: Susanne Gräslund
U.K.: Mo Holkar
U.S.A.: Julia Woods

Other Designers

Martine Svanevik
Kari KD
Sanne Harder

Kitchen

Tor Kjetil Edland
Jørn Slemdal
Frida Sofie
Thomas Frederick Hozman Tollefsen

Backstage

Jahn Hermansen
Frida Lines
Salme Vanhanen
Ronja Lofstad

Red House And Retro House, Runtime and Designing Embassies

Adilya Rakhimova
Stine Mari Haugen

Rigging
Tatsiana Smaliak
Jorg Rødsjø
Katharina

Safety and Runtime

Freja Gyldenstrøm

Drivers

Olav Borge Bondal
Margo Raaum

Theme Song and Live Music at Villa Ekeli

Thomas Herlofsen

Theme Song Production

Olav Stahl

Photographers

Martin Østlie Lindelien
Kai Simon Fredriksen

ID Cards, Paper Props and Website Sound

Nina Tunge-Kvamme

Assistant, UD

Bjørn

Locations

Skien Bibliotek
Bakgaarden
Skien Kulturskole
Telemark Kunstsenter
Ibsenhuset
Skien Nanbudoklubb
Telemarkskanalen
Megafon
Kontorbygg AS
Torjerd Sofie Strand Moripen

Antique cars

Grenland Veteranvognklubb

Supporting Organizations

Ravn
Nordisk kulturfond – Globus
Fantasiforbundet
Norsk Kulturråd

References

Fatland, Eirik. 2000. “The Play of Fates (or: How to Make Rail-roading Legal).” Amor Fati. 

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. 2009. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Routledge.

Cover photo: During the day, diplomats attend meetings and craft policy. At night, the work continues at parties, such as the one hosted by the East German embassy. Photo by Kai Simon Fredriksen. Image has been cropped.

Authors

Juhana Pettersson (b. 1980) is a Finnish novelist and designer of larps and roleplaying games. His best known larps are End of the Line, Halat hisar, Luminescence, and Parliament of Shadows.
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