LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism

New year, new LARP system.

Since some friends and I are involved in running events a lot of the time which often results in failing to get an opportunity to relax and play events, quite a few of us have decided to spend some time playing in a new system. Much of the holiday has therefore been spent discussing our plans for new characters, new costumes, how we will use the rules on character creation to generate appropriate skills for those characters, and how we want the group to ‘feel’.

Part of the difficulty surrounding these discussions has been focussed on the real-world cultural associations of the fantastical backgrounds presented by the new system. To date, most of my LARP experience has been in playing roles inspired by the 1920-50s English upper and middle classes, fantastical ‘others’ based on Celtic mythology, Welsh chambermaids, London jazz singers, and one instance of Celtic-sailor’s-daughter-raised-as-an-arabian-dancer (though no-one ever did comment on my pale skin-tone). In all of these experiences, although there have frequently been community discussions about ‘how Celtic are we?’ and ‘how Celtic were the Celts, actually?’ most of the group have been pretty comfortable that even though the fantasy setting mangles the myth in many ways, it is our own island heritage we have been toying with. In the new game world we intend to play, we will instead be adopting a culture which (although it has been very carefully designed) is predominantly inspired by Arabian, Persian and North African mythological traditions.

So is the step from fantastically-torturing-my-own-ethnic-heritage to fantastically-torturing-someone-else’s-ethnic-heritage such a big problem? And is it even genuinely someone else’s heritage if it’s a fantastical construct? There are several traditional rules in LARP, and notable for the associated forum community is rule 7: don’t take the piss. This rule invokes the collaborative nature of the game to stress that where the rules of the game leave some ambiguity, players should take care to embrace the ‘spirit’ of the game as conveyed by the organisers and the community as a whole. Such ‘spirit’ might be interpreted as a matter of culture, but in my experience of UK LARP it incorporates fair play, sensitivity to the contribution of other players (as well as organisers, crew or ‘monsters’) and an awareness of the limitations of the LARP form as a game which relies upon a combination of imagination, physical representations and embodied skills.

So the question which worries is to what extent ‘rule 7’ is compromised by adopting  practices or props which could be seen as racial or cultural stereotypes. In the development of their new game world, Profound Decisions‘ (PD) development team have made explicit attempts to steer around such tropes and encourage players to build on the fantastical element of the culture rather than relying upon stereotypical portrayals of ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ drawn from Britain’s colonial past. An example of this may well lie in PD’s banning of the fez as headgear, considering its associations with colonial recruitment to the armed forces and multiple different conflicts. Yet at the same time, the community of LARP in the UK is used to a relatively unrestrictive approach to game participation and part of the enjoyment of the game often lies in the ability to make references to cultural ‘memes’ (such as quotes from cult TV programs or other LARPs) within the game.

In the course of developing our group ethos and sensibilities to participate in the new game, many of these issues seem to come up again and again, often through material concerns regarding costume and props. Such material objects can be fundamental to the construction of a new fantastical world as I mentioned in my previous post. Our group, along with those designing the game, are facing a very similar dilemma. Creating a fantastical universe with no correlation to those experiences shared by participants outside of the game is likely to result in failure as regards ongoing participation, even if it is possible to maintain over a short time. Any LARP is therefore to an extent parasitical on the knowledge, experiences and cultural preferences of its players.

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