The below is the rough text of a talk on Nordic methods for larping love, delivered at the indie video game design collective Babycastles‘ 2012 Valentine’s Day event, as well as at Gen Con 2012. Most of the talk is based on Emma Wieslander’s essay “Rules of Engagement” from the 2004 Solmukohta book Beyond Role and Play (pdf), my interview with her, and some games I played on my first trip to Denmark in 2011
Introduction – Why should we larp love?
Typically, in the states, (I’m going to be generalizing here) we use larp to tell epic adventures set against a genre-literature style of background. We tell high-fantasy tales of bravery and derring-do, we tell stories about backstabbing vampires, and we tell stories about the demon Cthulhu rising to consume us all. We do not the quiet moments where relationships start to fall apart. We play battles, not sex. And if we do play love, it’s often incidental — two characters falling in love on the battlefield — not an intentional theme of the larp.
In comparison, if you look at an older story-telling medium, like say, the novel, you’ll find a wider range of stories. Sure, we’ve still got awesome tales of saving the world from giant robots with cunning and death-rays, but there are also tons of novels that take place in the real world, that tell stories about love. In fact, love is one of the great themes of art in general and the novel in particular. Sometimes it manifests in escapist ways — as in romance novels — but there is a ton of literary fiction about love, relationships, and adultery.
And if larp is really a simulation of the real world, if it has high-art aims, which I think it does, I think it’s important that no theme be off limits, if a game organizer wants to address it sensitively.
You might think about violence and lust as two intense peaks in human emotion, (as Wieslander does) and I think it’s important to be able to play both of those.
So why should we play love?
- It represents the real world that we live in
- Widens the number of playable plotlines
- And provides for an intense experience, because love is as intense as violence.
And I think that Swedish larp organizer Emma Wieslander, creator of the Ars Amandi mechanic said it best, “I believe that we need stories of hope, of choosing life over money, stories that go beyond the mainstream dualistic, black and white i.e. the stories that make us strangers to each other and to the world. Creating situations, or even whole societies, where only feelings of hate, anger and aggression are expected to surface scares me. Also that it’s so normalized tells you something about the vast need of promoting all the other aspects. Love, romance and sex are some of them. I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked. I also believe that these stories deserve to be told in their own right and not just as background info, motivating the violence.”
Why We Don’t Play Love
Why don’t we play love in the US? I think there are a couple reasons: it’s messy, and we don’t have many mechanics to render it.
- For starters, love feels more risky to play than violence. We live in a civilized world. In real life, few of us will ever swing a sword or, to quote Johnny Cash, “kill a man just to watch him die.” But love is something almost all of us will experience – even if it’s unrequited. Love is a universal experience, which makes it a powerful thing to play, but also a scary thing to play because emotions are hard to leave behind. If you slay me at the game, we can still ride home in the car together afterwards, because the physical act of violence is over and done. (though the emotion of anger might remain) But if I fall in love with you during a game, what happens if I’m unable to turn off those emotions?
- Playing love feels risky because of its potential for bleed. “Bleed” is a technical term from the Nordic larp scene (explain bleed in — when your real life emotions affect your character actions — and bleed out — when your character emotions affect your real life emotions) I’ve noticed that US larpers are nervous about bleed; we think of bleed as something to be avoided since it can cause shouting fights and quitting and revenge larps. And yet, this must not be universally true, because the Nordic gamers seem able to handle that. And I’ll talk about some of the ways the Nordic art larpers manage those emotions in a minute.
- Our fear of bleed also has to do with litigiousness – we come from a culture of lawsuits, and so many games have an explicit or implied no touching rule. When I asked American GMs about this in a non-scientific survey, they said it was there to prevent “he said she said” situations and to help them cover their butts from a legal standpoint.
- The other reason we don’t play love in the US is lack of mechanics. If you give players boffer swords, they’ll expect to fight. If you give them lockpick skills, they’ll expect to pick locks. And if you give them the means to play love, they’ll fall in love.
How the Nordicans deal with potential issues
Here’s how the Nordic larpers — explain use of term — manage some of the potential emotional flare ups:
- One mitigating factor is that in Scandinavia, larps with love themes tend to be one-shots (designed to run only once) not eternal campaigns, which have installments every month. That immediately dials down emotional risk. It limits emotional affairs temporally — they have a defined endpoint.
- They mitigate the emotional risk of playing love by creating a safe space in which to talk about emotionally charged games via the workshop and the debrief, which bookend many larps in the Nordic countries.
- The Workshop: A workshop is a meeting between players and organizers that occurs before a larp. Sometimes it lasts only an hour or two, sometimes it requires multiple meetings across several weeks. Workshops have a whole bunch of functions – they are an opportunity for organizers to teach mechanics and communicate expectations for the game, and an opportunity for players to get to know each other. Sometimes workshops include acting exercises to help people develop their characters and to develop the network of relationships within a given larp. Sometimes workshops include crash courses in feminist theory or WWII history or other material that might be relevant to the upcoming game.
- Most of all, though, workshops establish the community of players and create a safe space in which players can communicate what their own physical and emotional boundaries are. It goes a long way to circumventing miscommunications between players. During workshops, players may also plan romantic entanglements; these discussions help everyone get on the same page in terms of expectations.
- Afterward, there is often a debrief, the bookend to the larp experience. In the US we do this informally – it’s the post-game trip to the diner where players kvetch over what went down at the weekend’s game. For Nordicans, the debrief is more formal; it’s a structured session of talking about what was problematic or what might have been problematic. Depending on how big the larp was, organizers split players into smaller groups and everyone takes a moment to talk about their experience. It’s a time for players to talk to one another and say, “hey, I felt really vulnerable when your character said mine was childish” and to clear the air. The more intense the game the longer the debrief required.
- Because the emotion of love is so powerful, I think that the workshop and the debrief are an important part of roleplaying love – they allow the risk of playing strong emotions to be mitigated and understood. It takes time to create a safe space for players in which they feel comfortable exploring these emotions.
- Use of Safewords. Some games make use of safewords to help players feel in control of the intensity of their game experience. These can be introduced and practiced during the workshop. There are three types of safewords, go, break, and cut words. So if Bob is really yelling at me and I’m getting freaked out and don’t like it, I can say, cut and walk away. Or if Janell is nervous about seducing me I can say to her “go,” if I’m comfortable with her coming on harder. Or if Pete is seducing me and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable I can say, “break” meaning “this level of intensity is fine but please don’t rachet it up.” Even if the safewords aren’t used, their mere existence communicates to players that a game may be emotionally intense and push boundaries, and that is supposed to help players prepare.
- Mechanics are also important for reducing our fears about bleed; they introduce rules and limits for what constitutes acceptable behavior, which can help mitigate misunderstandings.
In Emma Wieslander’s 2004 essay “Rules of Engagement” – she lists out all the different types of mechanics the Nordic larpers have tried, and gives us a bit of background on why Nordic game organizers introduce mechanics to start with — which is a bit different from the way we do it here.
She says that organizers introduce mechanics when they want the character to experience something, but not the player. Violence is a perfect example; my character wants to stab a goblin, but obviously, I don’t want to use real steel to kill whoever is playing the goblin; I want the goblin and her player to experience the phenomenon of character death differently, so I introduce a mechanic, like a padded weapon, or a dice throw, etc. We want the character to experience injury or death, not the player.
Amorous roleplay is not different – it can be emotionally risky; it can feel physically risky and so we want to introduce mechanics so that the players and characters experience the phenomenon of love or sex differently from players; this is part of what creates the wall between player and character, which can increase emotional safety.
Here are some mechanics for love that have been tried:
- WYSIWYG. The Scandinavians have a tradition of mechanics-lite larps, where WYSIWYG is the rule. And this includes sex. The WYSIWYG has some advantages – preserves immersion, helps you stay in the moment, easy to remember because there’s nothing to remember. 120 Days of Sodom …Not a great option because – what about people in relationships? What about minors? What if my character falls in love with a sweaty barbarian that I’m not attracted to in real life? What about secret pedophiles?
- Dry humping. It’s like sex with your clothes on. But still, it’s getting up in people’s personal spaces. I’ve heard of this technique used in some medieval games. But it seems impossible in the litigious US – too much potential for it to go awry. Like wysiwyg, there’s the risk of somewone doing something rotten, like bullying another person into contact, or taking physical advantage of a situation; there’s the risk of players feeling physically violated. It’s not a great system because there aren’t any rules setting boundaries for the players.
- Talking through sex. “Oh baby, oh baby. I take off your shirt and tangle my fingers in your chest hair.” It works to connote intimacy, but it also seems to take players out of the moment because we’ve all got to giggle about it. There’s none of the physical sensation of intimacy. Ideally, a sexy mechanic would feel sexy, just as a good mechanic for violence – like boffers – can feel aggressive, right?
- Symbolic methods, where one action stands in for the action of lovemaking. The Scandinavians have come up with a bunch of these. For example, feeding another character a piece of fruit can be unexpectedly sexy. Or giving a massage. Sidenote: I’ve heard that in Russia, characters in love brush one another’s hair. The mechanics I’ve just mentioned preserve the sensuousness of a physical relationship, but aren’t very flexible – how intense can a back massage really be? How many ways are there to brush someone else’s hair? Another problem with these mechanics is that they reinforces traditional ideas of sex, where one partner is passive and the other active, and by extension, our gender stereotypes, where women are supposed to be passive and men are supposed to be active.
So that’s kind of the background for the rest of the talk. I’m going to look in more depth at two methods of playing love, which are symbolic or representative: tango dancing and ars amandi.
In 2011 I played in a larp called In Fair Verona while on a reporting jag in Denmark. The game featured tango dancing as a way of representing relationships –including love and hate — between people. The point of the game was for each of our characters to find love. The game itself was set in the Little Italy ghetto of NYC in the 1920s, and was divided into three acts. Each act consisted of a specific number of tango dances, which played one after the other.
We had two workshops totaling 14 hours before the game, during which we learned how to tango, built characters for ourselves around props picked off a communal prop table, and during which we did a series of acting excercises to develop those characters and their relationship to their community. For example, during workshop, we each received a character dilemma, and during the first act we were supposed to dance with our negative relation, which would catapult us into that character dilemma. During the second act we were to explore the dilemma, and during the third act, we would either overcome our dilemmas and find love, or fail to change.
The only rule was that to refuse a dance was forbidden. Even if someone you hated asked you to dance, you had to dance out that hatred.
The tango mechanic really worked during the game as a proxy for love and other emotions, because you can tango close to someone, far away from them, rigidly or more softly – the physical mechanic of the tango was really flexible in terms of presenting character emotion, including amorous emotion.
Of course, the tango isn’t perfect – there’s a leader and a follower in each pairing, and for the purposes of the larp, these translated to male-female pairings. During a later run in Stockholm, the organizers made it more clear that this game was a game about heterosexuality, though they put no restriction on who could play what role. I thought it was interesting that they were having that discussion at all, because it’s not one I’d heard on the larp scene before.
So I think dance would be a method for romantic roleplaying to explore.
Lastly, there’s Ars Amandi. Emma Wieslander created Ars Amandi for the 2004 larp Mellan Himmel Och Hav, or “Between heaven and sea.” The larp was based on the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin and explored the idea of gender as a role, and the possibilities of polyamory. This world did not have men and women, but morning people and evening people. Evening people wore red and yellow, concerned themselves with philosophy and decision-making, and served as the objects of sexual gaze. Morning people wore blue and green, were responsible for practical arrangements and implementing the decisions of the evening people, served as the sexual initiators. The occasion for play was a marriage among four people – their families and supporting community coming together for the festivities. It was a tremendously influential larp on the Nordic scene.
Wieslander created the Ars Amandi mechanic for Between heaven and sea. And she had this to say about it. “I wanted to play on love, of all kinds, and had encountered a lot of players that said that it was impossible, or at least not ethical. That made me bounce. How can it be unethical to play out romance whilst mass murdering is ok? I realized that, in many cases, it came down to fear. Fear of falling in love, of being used by other players, or of having a muddled experience where it would just come too close. When I was exploring the possibilities I talked to an actor that said that he had once been in an improvisation where they used a form of circling each other, like a dance, to improvise lovemaking and where the touching of hands represented sex. This inspired me a great deal and I guess that was the spark I needed. I had tried some of the other methods and they didn’t quite do it for me. When I did the larp Between Heaven and Sea I had a perfect opportunity to try out out-of-this-world stuff. So I did.”
What she created is now called Ars Amandi. When I asked her to describe it, she said, “Basically it’s a method for doing things in a game in a way that makes the character experience them fully, enabling play and really going for the energy without the player ending up in messy situations. Much like the use of boffers enables players to rush into battle with fear and anger flaring because of the character’s fear of dying, but without the player having to worry.”
The mechanic allows players to touch permitted zones with permitted bodyparts. The permitted zone is the arms, up to the shoulders, across the sternum and upper back, and the neck, keeping it below the ears. The permitted bodyparts are hands, forearm, and neck.Touch can be light or firm, but most players say that the true magic happens in the eyes, between players. Breathing in a more sexual way can also dial the tension up.
Ars amandi has several advantages – one is that it doesn’t pre-script the active or passive role that one might play during sex. It’s gender neutral. It preserves and individual’s sense of space by restricting the zone of touch, and it’s a remarkably flexible technique that is capable of representing tender new love and hate sex with equal aplomb.
It can be used within the frame of the game (diagetically) or symbolically. In Between heaven and sea, for example, it was used within the frame of the game – instead of the primary erogenous zone of the human body being the genitals, it was the arms. Likewise, the method can be used symbolically, with two vampires, say, touching arms and declaring that it represents sex.
It’s also a useful technique for game organizers because it’s easy to scale back the zone of touch. For example, while running an Ars Amandi workshop for some stateside gamers, we decided that touch on the neck was too personal and intimate, and so we were able to take it off the table. It’d be possible to scale touch down just to the shoulders, or the elbows, or even to confine it to just the hands.
All of the participants felt surprised at how intense the mechanic felt — no one had been prepared for that — and everyone mentioned how exhausted they were after these two and a half hours. People were also surprised that the technique felt so “hot.” A couple folks said they’d be bringing it home to their significant others.
That said, I think it’s a mechanic that requires a workshop before the game, especially in the US where it’s not widely known, and where love isn’t widely played. During the workshop I ran, I noticed players finding ways to enforce their personal boundaries with their partners in non-verbal ways, and I think that a workshop is necessary to helping people listen to one another in that way.
Wieslander views her creation not as the endpoint when it comes to playing love, but as a jumping off point; we need lots of ways to play love. It’s just that hers is one of the first, it’s easy to learn, and it’s exportable.
Ars Amandi in some ways revolutionalized the Nordic scene, simply because it’s so adaptable to a variety of situations. Soon, fantasy players were bringing their technique, of their own accord, into more traditional campaign games. Fair warning: the technique has had explosive results — there are plenty of stories out there about people who jumped in or out of relationships after undergoing an intense relationship game. So playing love can change your life; I don’t think it’s something to do lightly. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all.