Last night I gave a keynote speech at Nordic Larp Talks in Oslo, Norway, on “Nordic Larp”. You can find a video of the presentation from the NLT site, but I decided to publish my script here as well. I may go back and add clarifications and point out further reading later, or I may not.
What Does “Nordic Larp” Mean?
What is a “Nordic Larp”? What does “Nordic Larp” mean? What do we mean by that expression?
The question used to be academic or trivial. Five years ago no one cared about what counted as a “Nordic Larp”. That has changed. Now the term has brand value. It is worth something — and thus there is something at play in determining what it means.
If you brand something “Nordic Larp” you might get cool indie cred in the US. Or by advertising something as Nordic Larp you might get players who want to try something a little different.
For us in the Nordic scene, for a long while we could use the expression US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964) used to define pornography, “I know it when I see it”. However, not even we can agree on it anymore, and this kind of a definition just angers people who are coming from the outside trying to understand what it is that we find so awesome.
Of course, there have been numerous attempts at defining Nordic Larp, but not only are they in conflict with each other, I feel that they do not get at the core of the issue and are ultimately unsatisfactory. Some of them hang on geography, stuff coming from the Nordic countries, others concentrate on Knutepunkt, and some relate to the form or content.
Nordic larp is not a thing. You cannot take it in your hand and see exactly how it functions and what it is comprised of. Nor is it a recipe; you cannot simply follow instructions: one piece immersion, two helpings of government funding, a splash of touching, mixed in a WYSIWYG environment! It is not a category where by looking at the content you know what it is (like vampire larp) or by looking at the production environment (like indie RPGs).
If someone comes up with an absolute rule for Nordic Larps, you can be sure that someone else will design a larp that will violate that command – just to show that it can be done.
Thus the problem becomes that there is no objective way to determine what Nordic Larps are. All definitions are political. They place something at the centre and something at the periphery. Something is left out.
That is obviously true of this presentation as well. Today I will do my best to give an answer, or maybe a meta answer, but certainly not the answer. I fully expect to be criticized, ridiculed, and maybe even airlocked the moment this presentation ends.
For no one owns Nordic Larp. Not the game organizers, larpwrights, designers. Not the journalists and experts. Not the academics or researchers. Not the event organizers or popularizers. Not the web service providers or editors in chief. Not the people who are doing their darnest to export Nordic Larp, nor the people who are working to import it. Not even the players.
We all own Nordic Larp. There simply is no central bureau of Nordic larp. And if there was, I can promise you that splinter groups would surface faster than you can say “fucking fascist trying to limit my imagination, to copyright my reality hacking tools, to steal my status and funding, and to take away my fun and misery”.
Indeed, when I announced on Facebook that I would try to provide an answer to this question, it tool exactly 18 minutes for someone to say that the whole endeavor is wrong, misleading and idiotic.
And that is a good thing. We are a creative bunch that is not looking for an end product, but the next cool thing that will inappropriately fondle our souls in just the right way.
The term “Nordic Larp” is not the best possible to describe these larps. The term was debated for a long while, and others were floated, like arthaus larps, art larp, experimental larps, Nordic style larps, Scandinavian style, Knutepunkt larps, freeform larp and so on.
Terms like indrama or interactive improvisational theatre were floated. However, the only one that stuck was Nordic Larp.
I feel I share a bit of the responsibility for that due to the book we published under that name. We held on to the word larp – and it is a lowercase word for us like laser or radar and no longer an acronym – even if in many places it is seen as a childish activity or even a derogatory word. Instead of changing the word we have been fighting to change its perception in the public eye – and we have been quite successful here in the Nordics.
In a way the Nordics have been the centre for the larper pride movement – and here the stigma relating to the word is all but gone.
The word Nordic, on the other hand, has always been used in two, conflicting ways.
It has been used as a term to refer to larps coming from the Nordic countries. But it has also been used to differentiate the international scene from the national traditions. So Nordic Larp as opposed to, as different from Danish Larp or Finnish Larp.
The first usage, “Nordic for larps from the Nordic countries” is more common in Norway and perhaps Sweden, where the difference between the national scene and the Nordic scene is not as strict.
Whereas “Nordic as different from domestic larps” has been more common in Finland and Denmark, where the larps can be very different on the different sides of the fence, or almost identical, just having different brands burned on them.
Indeed, one could easily spend one of these talks just debating the differences between the four countries and how the word “Nordic” obfuscates the very real differences between the four national and the many regional cultures. And that is a discussion we should take, but in this context I will move on in order not to bore the more international audience.
But to sum up, Nordic larp has historically been both an umbrella for four national traditions, and also a term for a specific international alternative tradition.
Today, however, it is not enough to define Nordic Larp in opposition to Norwegian Larp or Danish Larp. Today we need to also define it in comparison to American Larp, to German Larp, to theatre style or to boffer larp, to freeform and jeepform, because we have attracted international attention. It is not just the Nordic people, or Nords as the non-Vikings sometimes call us, who are into these kinds of experiences.
But even that is not enough. We also need to delimit Nordic Larp in comparison to participatory theatre, to performance art, to transmedia projects and ARGs, to amusement park design, to educational games and economic simulations, to site-specific art, to Happening, to Experimance and to many other things.
Why is this relevant? Because what we do is relevant in some way for all of them. Because ten years ago we read books on invisible theatre, went to improv workshops and played freeform scenarios from Fastaval.
We went anywhere we felt could to learn stuff about participatory experiences, stole their best ideas and adapted them and integrated them into our tradition, to Nordic Larp. Today we still do that, but the migration of influences now works in two directions. Role-players around the world are paying attention to what we do – if only to disagree with us.
We get artists who hire our best designers to help them build their pieces. We get funded to help build civil society in oppressive areas. We get amusement park research and development people coming over to our larps to see what they can learn from us. We work with teachers and other educators wanting to adapt larp for the classroom. We get invited to give lectures about transmedia experiences. We get theatre directors who want make their performances co-creative and not just participatory. The list goes on.
So, a lot of people need an answer to the question: What does “Nordic Larp” mean?
Currently I think that “Nordic larp” is most practical to be viewed as a tradition. The works that have influenced people who go to Knutepunkt conference, the works discussed at Knutepunkt, and the works inspired by the discourses around Knutepunkt would probably sit at the core of this tradition.
Instead of looking at Nordic Larp as geography-based or as having a uniform style, I think it makes more sense to approach it as a social phenomenon, and as an ongoing discourse.
To get a grip on the tradition one needs to consider the key works, the migration of influences, the social structure, the social situations in which the works emerge, and the people involved.
Yes, most Nordic larps are played in the Nordic countries, but not all. Not all larps played in the Nordic countries are “Nordic larp style larps”. And yes, there are some features that are common in the tradition, and production related similarities also exist. However, building a strict definition of the Nordic larp based on these features would be difficult even if no new Nordic larps were ever to be created…
… and downright impossible with a living tradition.
This definition may seem circular, but it is not. It is not a historical definition, but one that only works when there is already a thing called “Nordic Larp Discourse”.
There is a self-congratulatory element to the definition, one that can be and has been interpreted as elitist. It is built on the fact that there is already a social construct of Nordic Larp, with relevant works, theories, discussions and people. There is already a tradition. I’ll come back to that.
This definition, by the way, is what Bjarke Pedersen appropriated from the art world, what Markus Montola refined and I then stole and fine-tuned.
This is also a pretty strict definition. It means that in order to qualify, a work needs to reflect an awareness of a tradition and somehow contribute to it. But it also means that in order to qualify as a Nordic Larp the work needs to be discussed. There needs to be people talking and writing about the work.
Strictly speaking you then cannot advertise a larp as a Nordic Larp, nor can you say right away after a larp has concluded if it was a Nordic one. Because the definition work — or canonization — takes place after the fact. Only after some time has passed can we see if it has contribute to the discourse?
This obviously makes the strict definition a little impractical. Thus we also need a loose definition of Nordic Larp: A larp that is influenced by the Nordic Larp tradition or contributes to the ongoing Nordic larp discourse.
This means that any work building on the tradition and wanting to be in dialogue with the tradition qualifies. A much larger portion of larps fit this bill. Also, this allows for works that were created disconnected from the tradition to be appropriated to it.
This definition may seem disappointing, or even like a cop out. It does not arm you with analytical tools that you could use, disconnected from larp practice, to identify a Nordic Larp.
But Nordic Larp is not a set of instructions. It is not even a coherent design philosophy, though that is a fairly common claim online. It is a movement.
The Nordic Brand
Okay. The problem with this definition is that it does not work as a brand statement. It does not advertise our excellence, not communicate our key values to people who are interested in Nordic Larp. What could we say to them? What is “Nordic Larp” like?
The challenge is identifying how Nordic Larp is unique, if it indeed is.
It is easier to say how Nordic Larp is different from some other tradition, say the UK fest larps or the American indie scene. Similarly we can point out the difference between Nordic Larp and participatory theatre or the classic experiments of social psychology. But these differences are often relative and relational.
I’ll go though some claims about Nordic Larp.
Looking at our history, the works we have appropriated, a 360 degree illusion is a strong design ideal. The idea is that what you see is what you get, there is as little as possible symbolic props, and you can work with the environment.
Persistent role-playing is also key. You are not your character. And you do not go out of character while the larp is on.
Then there are physicality and indexical action. Among other things these mean that we don’t have “no touching” rules. Amorous and antagonistic encounters, and everything in between, are played as is – at least up to a point.
However, it is easy to find exceptions to each of these four ideals – especially when you consider the short convention larps that have been strongly influenced by the Fastaval scene, freeform and jeepform.
What makes this particularly important, is that these small, easy-to-set-up larps – though perhaps not at the core of our tradition – are the larps that most easily travel and ones that people who are trying out Nordic Larp outside the Nordics most probably encounter.
Another feature often associated with Nordic Larps is immersion, i.e. pretending to believe that you are your character. But immersion is internal to the player. No one can say if you are acting or simulating or immersing. And Nordic Larp hardly holds a monopoly on immersion. Also, there are approximately a gazillion definitions of immersion. So let’s not make a key selling point out of something we cannot agree upon.
Co-creation and inter-immersion are key as well. With these words I attempt to grasp at the idea that Nordic Larps are collaborative. The participants do not follow a script or just choose from predetermined alternatives. Indeed they not only play their own characters, but support the play of others.
Nordic larping is not about winning, but about creating something meaningful together. In order for there to be a king, subjects are also needed. To have prisoners, we also need guards.
We play together and we often play to lose. We indulge in tragedies and open the larp design so that secrets leak out.
Yet there are also larps which are, at least to some extent, about winning. And there are heavily railroaded larps as well.
Often there is thematic coherence. Nordic Larps tend to be about something, be it love, the war in Afganistan or the loss of humanity. Usually the ideal is to craft the larp in a way that makes the theme relevant for all participants.
As a side note to larp content: I want to stress the relationship between Nordic Larp and the genre of fantasy. At times Nordic Larp and fantasy are seen as opposing each other.
I disagree with that. I think fantasy games are absolutely a part of our history, our discussion, and Nordic Larp. Nordic Larp is not anti-fantasy.
However, because there is such a strong historical connection between fantasy and role-playing games, it creates, in many role-playing traditions an atmosphere of what I call fantasy entitlement.
In Nordic Larp fantasy does not enjoy a special place. It is not at the core of Nordic Larp. It is just one more genre, one more expression of Nordic Larp, just like prison larps or cancer larps or queer larps. This does not mean that Nordic Larp is anti-fantasy, but it does strip away the special-ness of fantasy – and that is sometimes perceived as being critical of fantasy.
Often Nordic Larps have minimal game mechanics and few rules – at least in comparison to the thick manuals associated with Mind’s Eye Theatre and many fantasy campaigns. Yet blackboxing, meta techniques and such are common.
Instead of official rule books Nordic Larps involve a lot of written game materials. But the ideal is that there is less material rather than more. In addition to these there are often all kinds of pre-larp meetings where diegetic social worlds are co-created. The umbrella term for these is workshop. Nordic larps sometimes even use complicated systems to lead the players out of the larp, in the form of highly planned debriefs.
But not all larps use workshops or debriefs, sometimes you just get a pdf in email and after the larp ends head out to a party.
Looking at the production side of Nordic Larps, there are again some commonalities. Nordic Larps tend to be uncommercial.
Larps are not run as businesses, and larpwrights and organizers rarely get paid for their time. This means that there is less of a customer-service-provider relationship between the two parties than in some cultures.
Two things are related to this. Nordic Larps tend to be one shots. Even continuous chronicles usually announce and plan just one larp at a time; there is no business incentive to keep a campaign going on every month.
The other thing is one of the most perplexing things about Nordic larp production in some parts of the world: it is possible to get public funding for organizing a larp in the Nordic countries. Yes, this is true, you might get money that, for example, targets youth activities or arts and culture funds, but it is in no way automatic. Most Nordic Larps are produced with no public funding.
The one thing I feel relatively secure in identifying as a feature of Nordic Larp is its taking of larping seriously. In the tradition of Nordic Larp, larp is seen as a valid form of expression, one capable of prompting strong emotions and one that can be used to tackle any subject matter.
This is what people refer to when they toss around words like elitist, artistic, avant garde, pretentious, ambitious, experimental and committed. The activity is taken seriously even when it is being used for entertainment.
How to boil all this down to an understandable sales pitch? A brand statement? A bulletpoint take-away?
This is the brand statement that I came up with: Nordic Larp is A tradition that views larp as a valid form of expression, worthy of debate, analysis and continuous experimentation, which emerged around the Knutepunkt convention. It typically values thematic coherence, continuous illusion, action and immersion, while keeping the larp co-creative and its production uncommercial. Workshops and debriefs are common.
As you can see it does not exactly roll off the tongue, but I do feel that it is fairly accurate. At least in 2013.
Then what makes it so special, then? What sets Nordic Larps apart from other larps and other traditions that sometimes do very similar things? Let’s see.
To some extent there is no such thing as “Nordic Larp”. The whole concept is a fiction, a story some of us tell ourselves to tie together things that do not actually relate to each other.
Call it social construction, call it reality hacking, call it chaos magic, call it: our history.
We may have chosen certain key larps from the 1990s as “our history”, but these larps have very little to do with each other. Even the larps that get branded as “Nordic Larp” today may have nothing in common with each other, at least nothing that clearly separates these larps from a thousand others played around the world.
Except that we have socially constructed a tradition out of them. In essence, we in the Nordic community, Knutepunkt community design, organize and play larps, we talk about larps, and this influences future larps.
We discuss, analyze and critique larps – and document those discussions.
It is not enough that you design and organize a cool game. That is obviously the foundation, but it is not enough. You also need to discuss it with other people in the tradition – and if you want your contribution to last, you also need to document it in a way that makes the larp and its insight accessible to people who were not there.
Larps are ephemera. The moment they end they cease to be. Without discussion and documentation they fade away.
How many times have you discovered a fantastic larp image gallery on the web, filled with gorgeous shots from a reality you really wish you had been able to inhabit? At least I have. Many times.
And how often do you find an accessible description of that larp in any language, let alone in one that you can understand? In my experience, rarely.
This is one of the key things that sets Nordic Larp apart. We have not only put up fabulous larps and continuously worked to hone our craft, but we try to communicate what we have learned to others.
So, in order to make it in the tradition, you need a piece and someone to talk about that piece. And thus emerges a discourse.
And you need to be aware of this history. It is a history you are in dialogue with. When a new piece is created, it is understood in relation to the tradition.
Nordic Larp is a movement and a tradition, comparable, at least in its structure, to movements such as Situationists, or traditions like site-specific art.
So, which Nordic games do you need to know in order to participate in the conversation? Today there are pieces, larp works that you need to be aware of, but there is no master list. Some larps are more important than others, for the tradition, but there is no canon (not even the Nordic Larp book), there are canons.
Anyone can make their own, and – this is important – argue why her canon is the best one. Everyone who chooses to participate has a voice. The discourse is open to new voices.
But this is not a case of “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”.
No. Every opinion is not as valid.
But every considered opinion, one that you can argue for and are willing to defend in public, is valid and enters the discourse.
The relevance of different works changes over time. As long as the tradition stays alive the debate goes on.
On top of this debate, as part of the debate we have built the theories, the magazines, the websites, and the books. And, again, though we might be able to agree on some key texts, no single person can delimit which texts are relevant.
Finally there are the people. Sometimes the difference between a Nordic larp and something else is the people who organize it – or the people who play it.
It is not fair, but the network position of people who have been active in the tradition for a long while does make a difference.
Could a person, like Johanna Koljonen, who has written about Nordic Larp more than most and has been one of its public advocates, individually lift a non-Nordic Larp into the tradition? Yet this is also a double edged sword. Could a designer, say, Peter Munthe-Kaas, who has already created key works organize a game that is not a Nordic Larp? Perhaps. The community decides.
Another way to look at the tradition is through history. We have many roots and inspirations that have helped us develop. Role-playing games in general, Dungeons & Dragons, Treasure Trap, Vampire: the Masquerade, historical re-enactment, folk theatre, scout-movement, other games, literature etc.
Yet the Swedish larp Trenne byar from 1994 is usually seen as the big bang of Nordic larp. This is again fictive, after-the-fact history construction.
The Nordic Larp Discourse was built in and around Knutepunkt between 1999-2004. That is when a real discussion, with shared terminology and understanding of the various national larp scenes started to emerge.
This is when the most influential manifestos were written. This is when the most fondly remembered larps were played. This is when the written tradition started.
The discussion was not only carried out in Knutepunkts obviously, but many others played parts: panclou, the knutebooks, Fëa Livia, Larppaaja, Laivforum, G-punkt, StraptS, Playground, Roolipelaaja….
Others have joined the discussion from Germany, Russia, Italy, France, US and elsewhere. We have been influenced by other role-playing cultures from the Forge to jeepform. We discovered game, play and role-play analysis and research.
We have watched reality television, and tried out improv, stolen stuff from theatre and performance, read up on philosophy and game design, dabbled in social psychology and art.
Sometimes older larps that have not been part of the discussion are appropriated and integrated into the tradition. Sometimes hyped up larps that get talked about a lot right after they have concluded, fade over the years and start drifting further from the centre of attention in the discourse. This, too, is similar to how arts discourses operate.
We have also recognized that our tradition can be a little hard to penetrate for an outsider. Not everyone can fly to the larps we organize or to Knutepunkt and not many people have the conviction to wade through all the Knutebooks and academic articles.
So we have tried to open the discussion with things like Nordic Larp Talks and the Nordic Larp book, articles, books, podcasts and websites targeting people who are not already in the know.
The Nordic Larp Discourse was created and still is centered around Knutepunkt. This is the annual event that brought together people from numerous countries and this is the nexus where much of the discussions have been had.
However, that does not mean that Knutepunkt is only about “Nordic Larp Discourse”. Not everyone goes there for the main discussion.
Also, it is hardly the only relevant hub for the discourse today. Other places such as Fastaval, Ropecon, Prolog, Odraz, Mittelpunkt, Larp Symposium and WyrdCon, to name a few, have joined the discussion.
Some of these are relevant because they attract the same people or discuss the same topic, some because they provide counterpoints and alternatives, some because they disseminate our larps and theories, or publish stuff that furthers the debate, and so on.
Yet there are also art festivals, academic conferences, educational symposiums, humanitarian workshops and others that linger at the edges of the discourse.
This discourse makes it possible for us to debate if The Monitor Celestra was, in fact, a “1990’s style larp” and a sequel to Hamlet? To ponder how Just a Little Lovin’ broke the queer mold of Nordic Larps. To ask what new, if anything, did Kapo bring to the table. To analyze how Perintö 1963 was incorporating insights from the German tradition. To talk about the pervasive years, or the bleed turn, or the manifesto boom. The tradition is the foundation and the reference point. It provides meaning and context.
So. The world is filled with awesome larps. What is a Nordic Larp? A Nordic Larp is
A larp that is influenced by the Nordic Larp tradition or contributes to the ongoing Nordic larp discourse.
We have designed, organized and played some of the coolest larps on the planet. We have picked them apart, analyzed them and tried to do better.
We have built a tradition of learning from our mistakes and from our successes and we have used that knowledge to develop understanding of larp – and to build more larps.
And we have conducted this discourse in public, in a way that makes it possible for a person who was not there to get a glimpse of what it was all about.
What sets Nordic Larp apart from other larp traditions is that we have not only taken our activity seriously, but we have actively tried to make the discourse about it accessible.
This open discourse is what drives us forward and attracts new people to the table.
Edit: Added images of the presentation situation. Photos by Johannes Axner.