Two weeks ago, on Sunday 20th of September, we stepped into the fantasy world of office stock photos. Eleven people left behind this flawed world and instead inhabited a world of dynamic team work, joyous camaraderie, and the security of all things forever trending upwards. This was the larp Täydellinen ihminen (Eng. The Perfect Human), played in Helsinki.
Although I’ve played role-playing games since the late 1980s, larped since the mid-1990s, and studied role-playing games for almost a decade, I rarely actually design, create, or run role-playing games. Täydellinen ihminen is only the second larp where I have a role in the design. It seems to me that many game scholars have a wish, sometimes hidden, that they’d rather design than study kick-ass games. I am not like that. I love just studying, evaluating, documenting, contextualizing, and understanding the works of others. But sometimes there just is a concept or an idea too juicy to stay away from.
Juhana Pettersson’s idea for Täydellinen ihminen was like that. The aesthetic of stock photos is seductive. They are clean and joyous, sterile and muted, inclusive and optimistic. In his tabletop campaign Tuliunikko (Eng. Fireflower) Pettersson introduced an adversarial-to-the-protagonists (I’m hesiatant to say evil) corporation where all the workers were stock photo people. In one of the sessions we played a meeting as these antagonists – and it was a lot of fun. Time passed, and the campaign ended, but the fascination with stock photos did not wane. Indeed, I even used it as a basis for the look of the Game Research Lab Spring Seminar at one point. So, when Pettersson said last summer that he was planning to run a larp based on that concept, I had to climb onboard.
The idea was to create a simulacrum of the stock photo world, not a commentary on it or a critical examination thereof. This means that all subtext had to be banned. One of the key rules of the larp is that there is nothing hidden. Everything is as it looks. There is no hidden agenda, no double meaning, no sexual innuendo. There is just the surface meaning. To carry this into the design we also made the design completely transparent. We wanted to assure the players that there would not be any twist leaping at them at any point. The larp would be about the normalcy of office processes, not about change or growth.
A key element in a larp about surface is the documentation. Tuomas Puikkonen is currently the pre-eminent larp photographer in Finland. He has the ability to capture the feeling of larp like no other. He was brought into the project in the very beginning as this was not a larp where documentation is something that is added after the design is done, but something where it is integral to the vision. For example, the lighting is the play area was designed by Puikkonen with photography in mind.
The challenge in designing Täydellinen ihminen was how to create the feeling and action that would generate the right surface. We did not want the players to just pose for the pictures, but to experience and embody the bright and wonderful world of stock photos. In the design we settled on three elements. First, we used love bombing. All players were instructed to be not just supportive and encouraging to each other, but to absolutely love each other’s ideas, to create an environment where not only is everything awesome, but specifically you are awesome. Love bombing is used by cults to create a feeling of unity and belonging.
Second, from laughter yoga we borrowed the motto of “fake it, fake it, until you make it.” The idea is that if you pretend to laugh long enough, you’ll start to laugh for real. Our emotions are embodied and pretending to have an emotion will help that emotion to appear. So the players were instructed to pretend until it started to feel real. This is, of course, how larp in general operates, but in this instance it was explicitly discussed and practiced in the workshop.
Third, to help create trust fast, sexuality was banned from the larp. Täydellinen ihminen, as a larp, was a fairly short one, lasting only five hours from the start of the workshop to the end of the debrief. There was no time to spend a long while establishing the ensemble and slowly building trust – yet it was important the people be able to touch each other and stand very close to each other. Partly, because safe bodily contact helps foster positive emotions – and partly because people in stock photos, like in films, are always too close, very much in each other’s personal spaces. In order to be able to touch each other in encouragement and hug when celebrating a victory without reservation, all innuendo, creeping, flirting, suggesting was banned. Obviously all of these methods, and their reasoning, were explained at the workshop.
I’m not going to comment on how the larp succeeded or what the players thought about it. I have documented enough larps to know that the designers and organizers are neither a trustworthy source nor knowledgeable about what the larp felt like to play. But sitting on this side of the fence for a change, I realize how hard it is to keep mum. However, Puikkonen’s photos are available for everyone to see, so anyone can judge how well the larp succeeded in creating the surface of stock photos.
Täydellinen ihminen (The Perfect Human), design by Juhana Pettersson & Jaakko Stenros, photography by Tuomas Puikkonen, played on September 20th, 2015 in Helsinki, Finland for 5 hours by 7 players who each paid 20 Euros.