Knutepunkt is a playful space.
It is a summer camp, a student club, and a rock
festival. It is a place where like-minded people gather to think outside the box, to meet new people, to fool around. When newcomers describe Knutepunkt as a magical experience, it is this playfulness they are talking about.
We must acknowledge that Knutepunkt is play. Wacky room parties, crazy rituals and weird traditions are not incidental side effects, but expressions of the playful core. That is what the provocative talks, in-your-face rants and offensive jokes are about, and yes, even the flirting, singing and drinking. We wield play to express creativity and to build community.
The playful nights of Knutepunkt are filled with rituals, parties and performances. Yet the days are playful as well, though perhaps not as playful as they once were. The whole idea of taking larp seriously once was almost a big, shared act of pretend play. Gathering in a room to discuss and develop larp theory was a playful act. That play has now become serious and dignified, yet Knutepunkt is still filled with brilliant, funny and creative people sharing their insights, experimental larps, and wondrous workshops.
The less frivolous daytime of Knutepunkt makes it tempting to look at other serious conferences for experiences and guidelines on how to run the community, but to do so would be to misunderstand the event. Play is the soul of Knutepunkt.
It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. At Knutepunkt we certainly talk about larp, but it is very valuable that we play about larp as well.
Traditionally, in Western culture, adults are not supposed to play. And adults are certainly are not supposed to spend five days having fun and being creative with their friends. Play binds us together. Play is why people stick with Knutepunkt even when they retire from larping – you do not need to play larps to play Knutepunkt.
The taboo of serious, adult play is half of the reason why bars and room parties are a big part of the Knutepunkt culture: Alcohol is like a mask or a character; it serves not only as a social lubricant, also as an alibi for adult play.
As a community, we know that play is not necessarily safe. We have discussed the psychological and social impact of play for years, we do not need to be told that play can hurt, damage and destroy.
Our community has traditionally glorified dangerous and provocative play. We have celebrated the sinful Hamlet, the offensive Panopticorp, and the thrill-seeking Delirium as landmark achievements. We cheer the creators of intense larps, whether that intensity is created through physical, social or psychological manipulation. Hunt of extremes shows itself in the convention as well, where we flirt with transgression. We have not only tolerated, but encouraged play on the boundary.
The paradox is this: In order to be playful, we need to feel safe. Yet play is not safe in itself. How do we protect the safe space from the play it enables?
An Expanding Community
Knutepunkt has its own culture and traditions that have evolved over the years. It is a place where you are allowed, even expected, to be a little out of control. We have chosen to believe that you can play on the edge, since everyone knows that you are smart, tolerant and egalitarian. While often true, that belief is clearly problematic: If we want to provide marginalized groups with a feeling of safety, they need to be explicitly welcomed.
Gender equality has been an active Knutepunkt project for over a decade. The feeling has been that sensitive issues may be joked about, but if a line is crossed, that behaviour will be socially condemned. And usually it has been the behaviour that has been condemned, not the individual. There is a history of assuming the best of people, as stupid stuff sometimes gets done with good intentions.
But the community is constantly changing. We like to believe that Knutepunkt is a world apart, situated within a magic circle of its own. But it is not: We are happy to welcome new people all the time.
This year, 91 out of the 308 participants were newcomers. People came from some 22 countries. How do we explain our inside jokes to new participants, whether they are Nordic first-timers, Mediterranean larp pilgrims, or professionals of theatre and transmedia? How do we explain that we are not “really” making fun of gays, or women, or Danes, or teetotalers, or monogamists? How do we ensure each year, that all participants, new and old, feel welcome, respected, and most of all, feel safe enough to play?
Now the event is reported in real time on the web, and many talks are filmed. A remark that was funny in its original context may seem completely unacceptable when it is disconnected and reframed. As context collapses, fear of reframing makes people less inclined to play.
For many of us it is a point of pride to defy bounds of propriety. Many of us are radical, queer and kinky. Few would be offended by nudity, free love or gender bending. Since adult play is forbidden in our culture, even to larp is to defy a taboo.
Defiance of taboos inevitably generates tension, even conflict. A convention about playful expression cannot make it a principle to guarantee protection from being offended. If we wanted to guarantee respect towards everyone’s physical boundaries, we would need to adopt the American rule of no touching. As a community, we have been unwilling to make that sacrifice.
Yet we must protect each other from harm. To what extent do we protect the freedom to transgress? To what extent do we protect safety of people – especially the safety of minorities and newcomers – from transgression and fear? Control and fear both lead to insecurity that stifles creative play.
Knutepunkt is not alone in learning to process this tension; our cousins at Fastaval are struggling with similar challenges.
Addressing the danger of play with precise rules is a tempting solution. Yet writing down strict rules is problematic. One key problem is that the question “Is this okay?” is replaced by “Is this against the rules?” We do not want to start gaming our own system, we want to live our values. We do not want a situation where someone does offensive things just to point out that the rules do actually allow it.
Even our values are amorphous. What are values good for if they need to be written down instead of lived? Coming up with a loose value statement for a community this diverse is difficult. What would be the process? Who would draft such rules? Who would have a say in the matter?
We suggest self-regulation as the first stage of conflict management. The eloquent policy of Knutepunkt 2006 was “Do what you will, but do it responsibly”. A part of the self-regulation is taking corrective action as soon as needed – if you upset someone, talk it out.
In a system of self-regulation, every now and then someone steps over a line. In most cases, it is due to error, ignorance, or cultural differences. We suggest peer pressure as the second stage of conflict management. The idea is that whenever you see play go too far, you should take the responsible person aside and voice your opinion. An offender having ten such discussions learns much more than an offender who is ejected from the event. Peer review is a constant process: An anonymous note posted on a wall can easily be removed by anyone.
Sometimes a misstep is too bad to be kept on a peer level. A very public transgression may be impossible to contain. A repeat offender may be beyond the reach of peer pressure. In such rare cases, the community must act.
We suggest community control as the third stage of conflict management. Involve a few level-headed community members to mediate the conflict and have them bring the two parties together to talk about the transgression.
This community of play is built on trust. Trust, that all of us can play together without harming each other, respecting each and every other participant – yet trusting that we may sometimes fail. In order to push boundaries and think new thoughts we need to be able to trust in each other’s intentions, and we need to be able to count on forgiveness in case of an error. Without that trust we, as a community, will fail.
A radical community like ours is never free of tension. That element of danger is a price we pay for doing new things in new ways. To preserve our playful and safe community, we must actively confront violations in ways that do not stifle the freedom of play.
Photographs on the left by Johannes Axner and on the right by Eleanor Saitta.