Praying at the shrine of Loo

aka no I won’t pee in a bush.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers (all five, six of you?). I’ve not been blogging recently because I have been writing up my previous blog post about monsters for an academic conference in Manchester. I am also working on another academic paper at the moment and it seems that all the writing juice has just been squeezed out of me. On second thoughts, bad metaphor there considering the subtitle. But I’ve been inspired to go back to this post by recent comments around gender and sexism in LARP. This post considers how far it is acceptable to go in LARP events when trying to promote immersion in the game. As a player, referee and organiser this is something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Specifically regarding bathroom breaks.

Now I’ll come back to bathroom breaks in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about sexism in LARP. Now I think that sexism in LARP is not as big a problem as it might sometimes seem, or as is sometimes reported. Many men and women play and enjoy LARP, and if there are fewer women who play outdoor fantasy LARP compared to men, well I think that says more about our social norms around gender and the limitations of campsites than anything else. In my experience of players who have no family commitments, and where events are predominantly situated indoors such as in Cthulhu LARP, there is no clear gender divide in participation. Now what is interesting in settings such as Cthulhu LARP is that as a historically situated game, players often have a lot of fun acting out and challenging the gender norms of the time in a crisis situation. I expect that in games inspired by Jane Austen’s novels players experience the same. However, in playing these games we create a hybrid gender-reality of sorts; a space where despite the conventions of the setting, the values and attitudes of the ‘real world’ we live in tend to come through.

So when addressing issues of gender inequality in LARP, we have to think about how the genre presents gender stereotypes, and how our contemporary society presents gender stereotypes. The game presents a creative space where norms can be challenged and overturned. And lets face it, sometimes its fun to play the damsel in distress, to be the dumb blonde who might cause everyone else in the game to be captured and eaten because they are forced to either abandon the lady (and look like a cowardly character), or otherwise break with the norms of the game genre by allowing the ‘mere girl’ to be the sacrificial hero. So these roles have a sort of power to them which can still be exercised – it just might be quite risky to the character to do so. The fact of LARP is that it is transient, and unlikely to offer an ongoing solution to gender inequality. What tends to get people upset seems to be when the inequalities of the ‘real world’ are brought into the game as if to a ‘natural’ habitat, or when players struggle to accept the differring inequalities presented by the LARP setting.

So to look at a similar example; one of the things our contemporary society has a lot of etiquette around is bathroom breaks. Or, to be more specific, going for a pee. As a woman, I’m not entirely up to speed on gentlemen’s etiquette regarding relieving yourself, but certainly in the fantasy genre, a bush would usually do. Also, considering what I have heard about which urinal men choose to use, I presume if you came across someone else using the bushes, you would have to move a few bushes further down. Stabbing someone with your sword and using their bush may be all very well in the Conan canon, but it just wouldn’t be right in a contemporary LARP. You’d get pee on your sword, for starters. So in the vague in-between space that is part game and part something else, we’ve made a compromise. Ladies, it is said, often go to the bathroom in pairs. But in fantasy novels and movies, they never seem to go at all. It just isn’t ladylike. Bathing, on the other hand, is very ladylike, and there are often many frissons experienced by the characters in books and legends over the challenges of preserving modesty. Now, these genre specific tropes don’t fit very well with contemporary needs. First of all, however immersive and appropriate to the setting and character it might be, I will not pee in a bush. My costume is difficult enough to manage in a portaloo. Secondly, I won’t be bathing in a stream either. Not with Britain’s weather conditions, anyway. Sadly, I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime’s hardship on the tundra my character might have. Luckily, most of the women I know who LARP broadly take the same view, and don’t take such ideas seriously.

Unfortunately, solutions to these particular difficulties often require resolution out of character, in another area or by temporarily dropping out of the game. The maintenance of the game illusion, however, requires that these interruptions be kept to a minimum. They are directly in conflict with the pursuit of immersion.

Bathroom breaks can therefore become quite serious business. One incident which happened some years ago involved a large group of ladies in the playing area stranded some way away from the toilet block. At this point they would have to travel in character across hostile enemy territory or drop out of game in full view of the other players. A sudden feeling of piety saved the day, as the ladies agreed that it was of utmost importance they pay their respects to a noted ancestor revered nearby. This ancestor was named ‘Loo’. In consequence, a large number of characters headed off together across this no-mans land, and in doing so married the demands of immersion with everyday etiquette.

So where does this address issues of sexism and inequality? Fundamentally there are several motifs common to the ‘romance’ of horror and fantasy genres which conflict with contemporary ideologies. For example, family and caste honour which claims ownership of special privileges is not compatible with freedom of individual expression and reward according to merit. Women were traditionally considered property under this feudal perspective, and even in fantasy it presents problems.

So what about ‘progressive’ LARP which incorporates equality into the very fabric of the setting? Well this too presents a struggle where players try to make sure their performance ‘fits’. Perhaps we could all pee on the same bush? I confess, personally I’d find that difficult. But then, perhaps there is still something of the message being put across in such LARP, as there is in presenting Shakespeare in contemporary costume. Although the purists hate it, it brings accessibility to the archaic language. Sometimes the medium and the message have to compromise. So feminist LARP utopia is some way off as yet.

Advertisements

Death (in LARP)

It may seem strange to non-LARPers that the death of a character in a game can be extremely emotionally affecting. As an entertainment, a friend of mine once ran a one-evening horror LARP two nights in a row, one evening attended by regular LARPers, and another evening by interested work colleagues. The event was in some respects inspired by the murder mystery genre, and there came a point when the players discovered a body hidden in an attic. The LARPers responded with extreme performances of distaste and shock, while the non-LARPers made some indicative remarks over how unfortunate it was and quickly set to ghoulishly examining the body for clues. When some of their own party were in turn murdered, the distinction between the two groups’ behaviour remained evident.

In such a short timespan, it is hardly to be expected that either group would develop a genuinely strong connection to their character. Equally, the non-LARPer contingent in this case were less involved in the initial development of their character’s history and background. Furthermore, these characters were played for no more than an evening. In fantasy LARP, however, some players perform the same characters for over a decade. Even more than actors in a long running West End/ Broadway production, these performers become closely entwined with their performed alter ego. The ‘part’ is written by them, for them. They costume the character, develop their history, respond independently to life events. And if actors feel a sense of loss at the end of a long run of performances, LARPers too may have an emotional response to an end where the character can no longer be played.

There are of course in-character responses to death which are separate to the out- of-character response to the loss of a character. As I am considering character death generally I am not going to discuss the IC responses, although they are varied and interesting in their own right, particularly in the relation IC responses have to OC responses (see previous post on Immersion versus PvP). Last week I attended an academic workshop on death and loss which made me realise there might be correlations between the tangible experiences of losing a character, and how it could compare (albeit in a ‘thin’ way) to the loss of a loved one.

What comprises ‘death’ in LARP?

In the majority of different LARP systems there is an established mechanism for ‘death’. Under particular circumstances, the character enters a liminal condition which requires intervention from other players to preserve their ‘life’. The character may have limited or no participation in this process (for example, they may be ‘unconscious’ or they may be able to demand help). Without this intervention, the character will ‘die’ and the player loses all claim or control of that narrative and performance (there are some few exceptions, as when the organisers might find it useful to transform the ‘dead’ character into a threatening zombie or guardian spirit, but the discretion lies with the organisers and no longer wholly with the player).

Fear of death

While characters may have a particular attitude to death appropriate to the culture and setting of the game, players are likely to have a healthy reserve about the death of their character from the offset. On a basic level, to die is for the game to end, to ‘lose’ in some form. If the player is competing on systemic advancement of the character with other players, death eliminates all acquired advantages. If the player’s intent is to engage in the game on a narrative basis, then the narrative is completed or cut short dependant upon the circumstances of the death. All developed ties to other characters cannot continue with the player in a new identity, even if they re-enter the same game, therefore there is something of a ‘social death’ experience. Finally, costume and props which may represent significant investment of time and money can also become unusable or have limited applicability in the next role.

Each of these aspects is something that a player may justifiably ‘fear’; yet does this constitute a fear of ‘death’ or is that instead a matter of a transfer of emotion from performed to embodied self? This touches upon a difficult area. While the Scandinavian model of LARP may encourage the pursuit of ‘bleed’ and emotional transfer between player and character, this is not widely held to be the case in Britain. Instead, the performance of emotion is applauded, but any inability to maintain the distinction between self and character is an infringement of a fundamentally cherished principle of the game.

Recalling several near-death and death experiences of my own in LARP, one aspect which does seem to strike home is the narrative aspect regarding being ‘ready’ for death. I have experienced some deaths which I felt were ‘good’ in that they fit with the narrative I was attempting to portray, and others which were troubling in the sense that they were unexpected, or followed periods of uncertainty. In every case I have felt a little upset, often proportional to the length of time I invested in the character; however I do not expect that my experiences reflect those of everyone. I may discuss these instances further in relation to social connections and the role of momentos in a later post.

Ignorant of the rules – avoiding death

One of the most controversial issues in LARP surrounds the administrative process of death and its associated loopholes. In one large well known LARP system, characters are marked as dead by cutting the player’s laminated card in half with scissors. This can only be done by a referee. In other systems players must self-declare as dead, a type of altruistic suicide which preserves the integrity of the rules system. In the minority of games I have experienced, the referees or game organisers take whole responsibility for the character’s lifespan, and will inform the player of their status accordingly. Each and every system of this type works on a basic set of principles (the rules system), and upon trust among the players and the organisers. However, there are instances where that trust is infringed or broken, through ignorance or arrogance. I confess to making mistakes of ignorance myself, although I was lucky enough to have a referee on hand at the time to correct me. My short term memory is particularly poor and I have a tendency to miss things in the heat of the moment. However, when players specifically set out to ‘cheat’ death, this suggests that it is indeed something to fear. That such circumstances do exist lends some support to the idea that perhaps death in LARP does have some significance for players that is more than the sum of its inconveniences listed above.

Finally, the distinctive scenario of a game populated by LARPers and one populated by non-LARPers demonstrated one distinctive difference. Those who were not used to playing this sort of game, in concentrating on the puzzle solving element, were inclined to ‘forget’ their responses to wounds and the death of other characters after a few moments. They focussed on ensuring the solution was found to the outlandish scenario they found themselves in. The LARPers familiar with the format instead seemed to revel in the emotive responses which frustrated their overall aims, struggling on despite their ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ limitations. I do not know which group had more fun.

Comments welcome as always.

LARP Precedents & Antecedents (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Chapter 3)

Unfortunately I missed last week’s regular update due to our two-day research retreat in the peak district. The windswept moors, however, and the rocky crags did give me some pause for thought on the geography of LARP. There are some areas which look fabulous as settings on the big screen which simply do not work as event venues, either for reasons of comfort or of safety. However, the geography of a place also has significant implications for staging events which is not always necessarily helpful.

Queen Elizabeth a LARPer, eh?

Well not really, in Lizzie Stark’s book, Elizabeth I was immensely entertained by theatrical pageants which required her participation as monarch. She was hardly playing a character, she was ‘playing’ Queen, which, incidentally, she was…

However, the point that links LARP with pageantry, improvised theatre, war simulation games and the like is an important one. LARP has a lengthy history that differs in the UK from the US, and sources differ as to whether it emerged in Europe simultaneously, or subsequently to the US. Certainly most persistent LARP games in the UK trace their emergence to “Treasure Trap” of the 1980s, which was a predominantly freeform game that made use of a local heritage site, sadly not the class of venue often available to LARP groups. In contemporary LARP, numerous country houses, nature parks and scout camps still play host to games up and down the country, as do many university campuses.

If the theatrical characters envisioned by a community ideology (in the case of pageants) or a playwright are too constrained to be comparable to LARP, and the intellectual rigour of war games is too regulated, a comparison can at least be drawn by reference to the use of space and venues to create the immersive experience so particular to the hobby. The Tudor and Elizabethan antics often emphasise the ludic reinterpretation of space to create chaotic revelry in the order of the Royal Court, and events of heroic and fantastical stature in the countryside (assisted as often as not by a crew of theatrical performers, puppeteers and staged effects). This element is shared by contemporary LARP and art installations alike, although one attracts more social status than the other.

As LARPers arrive in period homes or scout camps across the country, they often disrupt the everyday goings on and expectations of the inhabitants. They do not fit the genteel middle class tourist stereotype, their costumes provoke attention and their aims at reinterpreting lawns as rolling grasslands, dining rooms as construction areas for outlandish beasts and tranquil parks as fields of battle resemble the disruption Queen Elizabeth’s touring court may have caused as it descended upon a rural idyll. Scout groups and those who maintain period houses are sometimes thrown out of their depth by individuals who instead of demanding TV and phone facilities, ask if they can build a fire in the portico or drape lights from the hedges. Public liability insurance is only offerred by a small number of firms, for while injury in service of entertainment to Queen Elizabeth may have brought honour on a family, a dog-walker slipping in treacle placed to represent eldritch gloop is more likely to make claims for any subsequent accident.

In summary, while it is valuable and interesting to identify the links between LARP and similar historical activities, it is important to recognise that one of the features of LARP lies in a very inward-facing community, carefully trying to limit the accidental incursion of their world into that of passers-by. Compare this to the inclusive agenda of the historical pageantry and even of modern day contemporary art, which aims to affect others, LARP is focussing on affecting ourselves.

All examples drawn from personal experience. The usual disclaimers regarding my personal point of view apply.