Imagining a Zero Carbon Future: Environmental Impact of Player Travel as a Design Choice

Imagining a Zero Carbon Future: Environmental Impact of Player Travel as a Design Choice

Perhaps this conversation has been had before, perhaps it’s an elephant in the room. Since seeing a gaping hole in articles addressing environmental sustainability on, I want to bring this topic into awareness to specifically address one topic, potentially a convenient and uncomfortable blindspot of the larp community: aviation emissions in international larp. 

Climate breakdown is the most prevalent and urgent threat to life on the planet. In another year of record breaking extreme weather events — heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires — the atmospheric effects of global warming are tangible across the globe, and show no sign of slowing. The worst of it, floods in Pakistan practically submerging the country, killing thousands and displacing millions. Heatwaves in Europe created droughts so bad that ancestral carvings below a safe water level were revealed on the banks of the River Elbe in Czechia, complete with the inscription “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep). The World Health Organisation reports that climate change is responsible for 150,000 deaths per year and that figure is set to double by 2030.

There is some hope. Nothing is inevitable and it still remains possible to keep the rise of global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees, as is the goal of the Paris Agreement, the international treaty agreed at the COP Summit in 2015. A transition to a decarbonised economy is essential, and the demands set out by a Green New Deal fight for environmental justice propose critical intervention on a local and international scale, at the same time as tackling widespread inequality across the globe. Alongside halting fossil fuel production in favour of carbon-free energy sources; transferring skilled labour to transport infrastructure; zero-carbon housing and environmental reconstruction projects; and sequestration of utilities into collective ownership; the area in which I wish to highlight is a sustainable model of how we reorganise our time to move away from production and consumption, towards a more fulfilling existence including more time for leisure activities. The Green New Deal puts forward the case that a collectively owned future allows more time spent with access to nature, sport, artistic activities, and play

Photo of airplane window overlooking clouds at sunset

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash.

Playful Futures

In a decarbonised future, jobs and activity in these fields is plentiful. In combination with the prospect of an ageing population, the focus for decarbonisation must shift away from a production economy to one organised around care and leisure. Zero-carbon cultural activity is integral to the survival of the planet and investment in its wider sense — education, funding, jobs, infrastructure, time — has to be escalated on a mass scale. Playful activity sits at the core of this, the very essence of play in its most rudimentary form is a zero carbon activity, borne of the imagination. In comparison to other forms of culture such as film, the average production releases 500 tonnes of CO² emissions into the atmosphere, play is a future-proof and sustainable activity. 

Larp (live action role-play) occupies a unique cultural space where its activity is collectively generated by players. This sets it aside from the industrial production and consumption of the film industry (notice how these words are highly compatible), and to an extent visual arts and theatre. The way that larp activity liberates culture from passive consumption because of its active player agency is the reason that I fell in love with larp. Its adjacency to DIY cultural forms is incredibly exciting for me, designers and players collaborating to create a meaningful experience through their shared imagination. As a designer, you can start with an empty page. Of course, it’s useful to have setting, characters, prompts, and techniques for players to fill in that page, but in theory, you can start with incredibly little as the play is co-designed and improvised by players. And those players have the capacity to feel as if they are on a spaceship or Wild West saloon bar by tapping into their collective imagination. They do not need specialist skills to play, everything needed in order to understand and play the larp is communicated and learned in a short amount of time. At its core, the most basic description of chamber larp is people in physical or digital space using their imaginations to create, and immerse themselves in, fictional worlds. This doesn’t come at the expense of cultural relevance, but quite the opposite: through its collective storytelling we are able to experience a deeper contemplation of the questions society asks us, today and tomorrow.

International and Local Inequality

Not all larp looks like this. Categorisation of role-play activity is a network of interlinked forms and design methods, but for the purposes of this article, I want to highlight the distinction between international long form larp and local chamber larp. These are intricately linked; without the international connections of events such as Knutepunkt and Larpwriter Summer School, many local scenes could not have flourished in the same way. Many local communities contain an international diaspora and chamber larp festivals programme international designs, arguably very important for the upkeep of local scenes. But nevertheless, I will try to draw an imaginary line in the sand between: long form larp — usually higher production values, with international participants, a relatively high financial cost to participate, lasting for multiple days — and chamber larp — usually DIY production values, with local participants, low cost, lasting a number of hours. 

Firstly I want to clarify, this is not an attack on designers or players who enjoy long form larp. This is an attempt to advocate for forms of larp practice and design which should be celebrated and elevated for a zero carbon future. It feels necessary to highlight my feeling of incongruence between what I consider to be a highly environmentally sustainable practice and how this fits within a wider landscape of the international larp community. 

Photo of person on top of a building looking up at a plane above

Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash.

Designing Sustainably for Climate Justice

I would imagine that on some conscious level, sustainability of larp design is an aspect of organising that is considered by most if not all designers. In a community with a progressive culture of compassion for those playing, the emotional and physical safety of players is usually a built-in priority throughout all stages of a larp. It is present in design, pre-game communication, workshopping, in-game safety techniques, and post-game briefing. In comparison, sustainability appears absent from design. I am not quite suggesting that sustainability requires parity by articulating design choices throughout; however, it needs a more careful consideration if larp can make a claim (or I can on its behalf) to have future-proof and sustainable credentials. 

It is very difficult to analyse the whole larp landscape without empirical data so it should be made clear this is an anecdotal perspective. We can look at data for comparable art forms and the comparison to global visual arts activity is a useful one; however it has to be acknowledged in terms of scale, larp is a much smaller community. The estimated greenhouse gas emissions of global visual arts is 70 million tonnes; for context this fits into a global list divided by country between Romania and Morocco. This figure of 70 Mt of emissions falls dramatically to 18 Mt if visitor travel is removed. According to these figures, visitor travel accounts for 74% of total emissions from visual arts globally. This is a very sizable proportion of the sector. I understand that larp is comparably tiny compared to the proliferation of visual arts, and without having data to analyse, it’s an analysis based upon anecdotal evidence. For what it’s worth, here’s my hot take: in the case of larp events, the ratio of carbon emissions from travel is likely to be much higher.

From my own experience of facilitating sustainability activity for an arts organisation producing international work, land travel was sometimes not feasible; the delivery of the project required aeroplane travel for an artist and a producer. In these instances, aviation emissions tended to dominate the carbon footprint of the project, merely for 2 return flights. In the case of larp, even though there isn’t an audience per se, as players have an active role in the co-design and its “performance,” they are integral to the larp design and it really matters how they travel. 

In larp design, I feel there is a blindspot to carbon emissions from international travel. This article isn’t a flygskam hex; players can make their own choices about travelling to events and it’s likely that many choose an international larp event as their way of taking a foreign holiday or seeing close friends. For larp designers, this is as much of a design choice as your setting and characters. Multi-day larps designed with higher production budgets and higher costs to play are very often designed for an international set of participants attending so have a disproportionately high environmental cost, in comparison to chamber larp events with local participants. If the number of players is up to 100, 50 of them taking international flights is not an unreasonable figure to estimate, generating 18.9 tons of carbon emissions from plane travel alone. This is around the same as 75,000 public transport journeys of 7km each. As designers we have agency to choose our venues or locations, the length and structure of the larp, and who attends. The last point is a salient one; if there aren’t local participants for the larp then the audience becomes an international one, consciously or unconsciously, in the design process. (I’m writing this from Oslo, where I moved nearly 2 years ago; chamber larp hasn’t really recovered from the shadow of the Coronavirus hiatus, a collective effort to nurture new players and designers only seems to be emerging now). Likewise if the price to play is one that only engages experienced players then I can’t see how new local players are able to access, nor new designers to flourish. This creates exclusions because of lack of affordability and divides potential players on the basis of class and race, something I believe the larp community wishes to avoid. 

Flight emissions are a socially unequal source of emissions, a huge global disparity with the wealthiest taking a disproportionate amount of flights. Whilst aviation currently accounts for around 2.5-3% of global emissions, the proportion and total is set to increase as other sectors of the economy — electricity generation and transport — move towards renewable sources of energy. Unlike these sectors where existing solutions can be scaled up by urgent government action, the aviation industry does not currently have these technological solutions. Climate breakdown is disproportionately caused by emissions from the Global North, disproportionately affecting the Global South. The Global South is more vulnerable to extreme weather events as a direct result of historic colonial oppression leaving them with the least resources to cope with rising temperatures, sea levels, flooding, and drought. The compassion shown for human safety in larp design ought to extend to outside of those playing, by climate justice being ingrained in designs.  

I have considered how I access information about larps, primarily through social media which may play a factor in how my perspective is shaped. It may be that I mostly hear about larps on a large scale because those are the organisers shouting the loudest, with the biggest promotional reach. I am less likely to come across information about local chamber larp scenes, or groups of friends quietly organising through Whatsapp to meet and play in living rooms on the other side of the world; (please make my day and tell me about this)! Larp designs can be digitally sent and received by facilitators in another part of the world; it is one of the few artistic mediums where international travel is not required in order for the larp to be realised. 

Image of a plane surrounded by clouds

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash.

The Pyramid

There is a comparison I can make to my other playful love, football (*waits for Google Analytics to tell me half of all readers stop here*; please don’t, you’re almost done). In football, the elite leagues occupy the most media attention at the professionalised level of the game. Football as business has infected the game, players earning grossly inflated salaries and charging eye-watering entrance fees which has, at least in England, priced out the working class. However, the wider picture of the entire league structure, the football “pyramid,” named as such because the lower amateur leagues far outnumber higher, professional leagues. The lower leagues at the base of the pyramid are organised regionally, furthest from the top are organised with the closest geographical proximity. Below this, the number of games played informally in the park or on the school playing fields are even more numerous, and even though the difference in player skill and production values is notable, it’s the same game, enjoyed at its fullest by those participating. As an ecosystem, football as a comparison is not perfect, especially as financial resources are distributed incredibly unequally, but the football pyramid does provide an interesting model for redistributing a better balance between local and international.  

In a sustainable decarbonised future, the network of larp design has to take the shape of a pyramid with a greater proportion of larp activity organised at a local level. I’m not saying whether or not the elite international leagues ought to exist; this is at the discretion of the reader. Besides, larp is not a competition, it’s a supportive and inclusive community. In spite of this, perpetuation of larp design which is reliant on wide scale carbon emissions from aeroplane travel without larp infrastructure existing at a local level, makes it a fantasy to claim that the imagination is without a substantial cost to the environment. 

On a practical level, I would be interested to see evidence of designers working on sustainability of larp events in the future, sharing best practice, and continuing the discourse. To keep specific to the topic of flight emissions, this starts with data collection, as boring as it sounds. Knowing where participants are travelling from and most importantly, how they travelled, is fairly easy to implement with a travel survey as part of player sign-up or on-site. This shouldn’t create barriers along national borders for players travelling internationally, but rather, give a fuller picture of the carbon emissions for your larp event. By knowing this information, designers are able to see the environmental cost of the larp, identify gaps on local scenes if the event is mostly accessed by air travel, and adjust their designs and promotion accordingly. In this way the pyramidal structure does not become top heavy and avoid the danger of toppling over. A follow-up to this article could address some smaller scale sustainable design choices, however — serving vegan meals to players who have travelled thousands of kilometres to eat it — is like trying to put a fire out with a thimble. 

Cover photo: Ross Parmly on Unsplash. Image has been cropped.

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Alex Brown is a larp designer and 3-sided football player from England, living in Oslo. He is interested in situationist practices and is attracted to larp as a liberation from cultural spectatorship. Often designing around political and environmental themes, his chamber larp designs include; Lost and Found: Belongings That Belong, Transmigration of Souls, and It Could Be You.