August 2012

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich


An Interview with Lizzie Stark

Before I read journalist Lizzie Stark's first book, Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games, my idea of the hobby of LARP, or live action role-playing, went something like this: a bunch of teenagers, mostly boys, with nothing better to do on a weekend went into the woods and whacked themselves silly with pieces of foam duct-taped together into swords. They played orcs, or vampires, or rulers of warring kingdoms. The play was creative, certainly, but there was something, well, dorky about the whole thing.

Think of Stark, then, as the badass maiden riding fiercely into this forest of prejudice, ready to win over the skeptical townspeople (readers).

And win them over she has. Though Stark and I went to grad school together, I didn't meet her until we shared the stage at a Boston literary event. There, I listened to Stark read a particularly lively passage from the book. At a crucial pause in the dialogue, she reached up to tuck her black hair back -- revealing a pointy elf ear, to the crowd's delight.

Her writing style is similarly sly -- and similarly charming. For a book about LARP, or "larp" (Stark makes the point that true acceptance of the hobby would turn its name into a noun, not an acronym), Leaving Mundania has received attention in the unlikeliest of mainstream media outlets. Perhaps because no matter what your feelings about larp at the start, by the end you're in the middle of a game with her, rooting for her and her friends to survive the wrath of Cthulhu. These in-the-moment passages in the book are fun to read, but even more striking is Stark's exploration of the widespread reach of larp: American military trainees engaging in battle simulations, for example, or epidemiologists role-playing the spread of disease. The more nuanced applications of larp have turned the hobby into a national art form in the Scandinavian countries, where players of some types of larp forego orcs to role-play real-life situations, creating fantasy that's arguably artistically and personally riskier than lands with even fire-breathing dragons.

There was much to talk about, then, when Stark and I recently traded emails. 


I love the title of your book, Leaving Mundania, which is based on larpers' terminology for non-larpers -- "mundanes" or "mundies." In the book, larpers seem to think that mundanes adhere to mundane social rules. But it struck me that the rules created for larp games can be almost stunningly mundane. Some conflict resolution practices can break games for fifteen minutes or more of bureaucracy, and you describe rulebooks of multiple volumes. And all of this is voluntary, created from scratch! What's the relationship between social rule avoidance, and craving elaborate rule structures? 

I'm not precisely sure, but folks on my local larp scene have noted that having lots of rules for social interaction can make people more comfortable, because they don't have to guess at the rules of engagement. Of course, there's still some unwritten social stuff -- I had to figure out whether it was okay to improvise some facts about what happened to my character while she was out of town, so rules don't substitute for social engagement, so much as provide guidelines. Socially savvy players typically achieve higher status in larp, regardless of their character's skills, but the community seems to have an extra level of compassion and understanding for folks who do struggle socially.

Another way to put it is that rules and social contact aren't at odds. Rather, it is the rules that create the social interaction in a game. If a designer creates a game with lots of rules for how combat happens, characters will do battle. If the game has rules for falling in love, characters will fall in love. Games with tons and tons of rules create intended interactions -- if there are rules for pickpocketing, folks will steal from each other -- and unintended interactions out of game -- if I don't know how all the skills work, we might have to step out of game to clear that up.

You talk in the book about how having fewer rules in a game can lead to increased "bleed," the larper term for when out-of-game emotions enter the game space, and vice versa. Some of the artier forms of Scandinavian larp -- which can explore heavy themes like AIDS, fear of death, mental illness, love and loss of love, and the like -- are designed to evoke bleed, whereas American games, which tend to be more fantastic, seem designed to avoid it. I was fascinated by the idea that violence might dominate in American games because it's easier to leave behind after a game. Almost none of us, you point out, will ever run a sword through someone in real life. Whereas role-playing love is potentially a lot messier. What do you make of this difference?

I don't think that fewer rules necessarily lead to bleed. I think fewer rules lead to less discussion about the rules, which might help players immerse into game. Larp -- even American larp -- always creates some bleed. In recognizing bleed as a separate entity, though, Nordic designers have found ways to emphasize and manage it. Part of what allows them to do this is their cultural context -- far less litigious than the US scene -- and what I think of as their larp academy, composed of academics, designers, and folks interested in larp as art. The coalescence of this scene, arguably created by the availability of public funding and the high cultural value of art, helps generate aesthetic concepts such as bleed, and once the concepts have been recognized, the scene can design toward or away from them. In addition to the creation of an art larp academy, other differences in game culture account for the difference between US and Nordic larp. In the US, we have a strong tradition of campaign games. I think it's difficult to create a meaningful arc in campaign games; it's impossible to live "happily ever after" because the game never ends and so there's always another day to fight. In shorter games, it's easier to create an emotionally intense experience with a beginning, middle, and end. Shorter games also open people up to experiences they might not want to explore in a campaign. Playing a romantic relationship in a campaign game for months or years seems way more dangerous to my actual relationship than playing romance over the course of a weekend.

National culture also plays a role. We have a culture of litigiousness, so it makes sense that we'd prefer clear physical boundaries as opposed to murkier emotional ones. I think that attractive nuisance tort and the everyman's right to roam typify this difference. We have attractive nuisance tort -- if your kid breaks his ankle kicking over the sandcastle I've made on the public beach, you can sue me. In the Nordic countries, they have the everyman's right to roam -- I can camp, picnic, swim, and pick berries on your property so long as I stay a respectful distance away from your house. Implicitly, Americans worry a lot about lawsuits, while in the Nordic countries, citizens are trusted not to do anything stupid. I think that this implied trust makes taking emotional risks easier.

And there's probably some argument to be made about our Puritan roots. Larp is an artifact of our culture, just the way movies are. And certainly, you see more movies about violence than sex.

Do you think Americans will ever play as heavy larps as the Nordic art community does?

No. I think US larp will continue to grow in intensity, and probably the quality of its intensity will end up different from that of Nordic larp, considering that our two cultures are so different. But I have a hard time imagining that we'll ever host a game such as KAPO, a recent Danish larp about living in a prison camp for accused terrorists, and about the abuse and dehumanization that goes on in such places. That said, there is a growing sense that some roleplayers crave a different experience -- they want games that will reliably punch them in the gut with emotional intensity. Some of the greatest innovation in the States is coming out of the indie tabletop roleplaying scene, which is aware of the Nordic tradition of art larps and of shorter, freeform games. The arty American larpers and the arty American tabletop designers are beginning to talk to each other and hatch plans. And of course, the US is not totally bereft of arty traditions -- on the East Coast there are the Intercon conventions, which focus on one-shot larps, and I just returned from Wyrd Con on the West Coast, which also includes some art larp.

Why has larp has become so popular in Nordic countries? 

I'm not precisely sure. I suspect it has something to do with the availability of public funding, and with the cultural esteem these countries hold for public art, and the belief that art should be for everyone. A Danish designer once told me he could get $2,000-$10,000 in public funding for a game "without breaking a sweat." In addition, these countries have a strong tradition of secular youth groups, and a lower barrier to larp organization than in other places. The everyman's right to roam means that organizers often don't have to pay for game space, and the lack of cultural litigiousness means that organizers don't need to incorporate or buy liability insurance. That, combined with the availability of public funding, makes larp organization simpler than it is in the US. 

Elsewhere, you've talked about the National Endowment for the Arts' recent decision to fund digital games, a move that recognizes games as an art form in America. I've noticed increasing discussion of games like Portal as storytelling forms in mainstream publications like The New York Times. What's needed to take larp to this next step?

US larp needs an artistic academy, widespread kids' larp, and perhaps educational larp to take their hobbies to the next level. I think it'll be hard to get funding from places like the NEA until there is a robust arty community supporting the assertion that larp is a living, relevant art. I also think that the creation of an arty community might help dispel some of the stigma around all forms of the activity by giving it more cultural capital. In creating an academy, I think it would be wise for larpers to collaborate with other folks creating similar experiences. I see a lot of media converging around larp or larp-like activities. You have interactive theatrical productions like Sleep No More, alternate reality games tied into movies with larpy live happenings as components, and zombie and steampunk culture gaining traction.

At the same time, I think US larpers ought to reach out to kids, to ensure the future of the hobby. The Nordic larp community has done a great job of attracting the next generation of larp designers by running games for kids. I think educational larp, or edu-larp, is part of the next step toward mainstream recognition and public funding. In Denmark the school Østerskov Efterskole teaches through roleplay, and there are groups specializing in edu-larp in other Nordic countries as well. In the US, this movement is just beginning. On the West Coast, the group Seekers Unlimited has started developing such programs.

The book made me crave a larp archive, a place where I could go to look up and experience in some way some of the really creative larps you reference. The Nordic Larp Wiki exists, but its short summaries seem to do little to capture anything of a game beyond its premise. What would such an archive look like? How could you capture the appeal of an art form that relies on immersion? 

Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, editors of Nordic Larp, faced just this dilemma. The book, recently nominated for a Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, is a must-read for anyone interested in art larp in general or the Nordic scene in particular. It chronicles some of the most important and influential larps of the last fifteen years. Each chapter covers a single game and combines photography with an essay written by a player or organizer.

Larp is strictly a first-person you-had-to-be-there experience; it's impossible to capture the full magic on paper or film. In recent years, there's been an increasing trend toward documentation on the Nordic scene, with game organizers planning to release some record of what happened afterward. Often this takes the form of a short film, as with Delirium. Sometimes it means creating characters who can take photos diegetically (within the frame of the game) rather than introducing documentarians that record the experience from outside the narrative. Sometimes, these documentary essays appear in the Knutebooks, the downloadable academic essay collections that the Knutepunkt convention puts out each year. I really like reading first-person narratives about larp that try to get at the emotional core of the experience. They can't capture the entirety of the larp -- and no one experiences the entirety -- but they drill down into what it meant to be there; like good journalism, they access universality through one specific experience.

How did you deal with this challenge as a writer? 

A dirty little secret about larp: it's fun to play, but incredibly dull to watch. It's like watching someone else's dinner party. I learned this the hard way, spending the first year or so of my reporting examining the game from the outside and feeling unable to penetrate the narrative. So I started playing. By the time I started writing about larp, I felt like I had a handle on what was boring and I was (I hope) able to weed that out. As I wrote about my experiences in game, my goal was to show the reader why larp is a compelling hobby. For me, that meant narrating the most intense moments of emotion, and the subtle pathos that accumulates over time. I used scene to describe moments of high emotion, and narrative summary to communicate the pathos. And of course, the best thing about larp is the people, so I wanted to render them as colorfully and truthfully as I could.

Do you think the participation requirement has to do with the stigma behind larp? Either that joiners are uncool or that there's something about participants playing a role that makes some observers very nervous? 

I don't think the stigma has all that much to do with participation. Our culture does value participants -- even in the form of blog commenters -- and roleplay is also rewarded in plenty of contexts. An xkcd comic makes the point that all sports commentary is basically Dungeons & Dragons using people instead of dice. Is there really so much difference between playing fantasy football and creating a space-smuggling crew with your friends? Is the grown man dressed up in chain mail really more ridiculous than the football fan who has painted his chest in his team colors, or the dude who showed up to your Halloween party dressed like a keg? Maybe it's just me, but I think participating -- trying, making effort -- is way cooler than sitting on the sidelines and trying to look mysterious and disaffected while smoking a cigarette and criticizing. Talking is easy; doing is difficult, and therefore way cooler. 

So why does the stigma persist?

Two basic reasons: Thanks in part to the Satanic panic of the 1980s there's a fundamental misunderstanding of what roleplaying is. At core, I think it's really a way of creating a community of creativity. It's an outlet for the inventive impulses that our modern-day jobs don't feed. And since roleplaying in its modern iteration is relatively new, and because it involves identity-bending, I think it makes folks nervous. The mainstream regards larpers sort of like it used to regard actors centuries ago -- as threatening because they deviate from the perceived norm, as threatening because they take on personas and therefore might not know the difference between real life and fantasy. You heard it here first: larpers totally know the difference between fantasy and reality. Even when they're metaphorically bleeding. 

I'm sure I'm not the only reader who gave a silent cry of "me, too!" when you closed the book asking that anyone who knows where Nordic-style larping is happening in the US to let you know. Any progress on that since the book was written? Where can the orc-skittish but subtext-chasing reader go to get a taste of larp?

Plenty of places -- the art larp scene in the US is just beginning to coalesce, and I think the community will be running some intriguing art larp in the near future. There is a lot of innovation coming out of the US indie tabletop scene at the moment, and there are plenty of short Nordic freeform games -- shorter games that sit somewhere between tabletop and larp -- available for free on the Internet. I'd start with the tabletop game Fiasco, by Jason Morningstar, an American, in which three to five players create, essentially, a Coen brothers movie together. The game can be silly or serious, focuses on roleplay, and eases new players into the idea of roleplay. If pure Nordic scenarios are what you want, the website and contain a host of free scenarios in English from the Danish (and sometimes Swedish) freeform tradition. These games may be a bit tricky to run if you've never played a freeform game before, so be bold! No one's going to come and arrest you if you put your own spin on it or don't get the form exactly right. These games are great for new players because they require no costuming, set, or props and only take a few hours. Still, they can rouse pretty intense emotions, depending on the game, the group, and their mood. Some arty games are played at gaming conventions like DEXCON, Gen Con, and Wyrd Con, and local conventions -- especially those with an indie roleplaying presence -- are a great place to meet new people and try out games. I'm hoping to help stage a Nordic larp this fall on the East Coast. Email me if you're interested.

Finally, Lizzie, how has coming out as a professional larp journalist allowed you to -- in the terms you use in the book -- let your freak flag fly?

After playing so many other people in game and putting myself out there emotionally and physically -- in many a silly costume -- I feel comfortable in my own skin, more accepting of my own idiosyncrasies, more confident that I can handle myself in most situations, and comfortable with the community context larp has given me. After all, what could be scarier than putting on a costume for the first time and plunging into the world of larp?