What does it mean to share or feel another's embodied experience? Experience designer Lizzie Stark explores this idea through an anthropotechnic of “live action role-play” (larp) – a gaming format that allows one to improvise different roles in various scenarios as a means to better understand the situation of others and themselves.
Here’s the beauty of larp as a technology: it lets you quickly prototype worlds and relationships, and gives participants a first-person perspective. In the past few years, I’ve been a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a deaf Nicaraguan child, the democratically elected dictator-for-life of a fractious space colony, a death metal poet, and the embodied drive of creative destruction. Perhaps “I’ve been” isn’t exactly the right phrase here—we can only be ourselves, really—but when I played these characters in various larps—picture an improvised play performed without a script—I certainly identified with their hopes, dreams, and struggles. It felt real, even though it wasn’t.
A larp cannot give me complete understanding of say, death metal poetics, being deaf, or surviving an AIDS epidemic, but the roles I played gave me a more nuanced understanding and deeper level of empathy for my fellow humans. Larps do this by tapping into each player’s fundamental personal essence and funneling it into a slightly different format. Larp empowers players to reach outside themselves to play different roles. By seeing myself through multiple lenses, I’ve learned more about who I am. At the same time, in order to play parts different from myself, I have had to recognize some similarity to myself in a character—seeing that fundamental humanity enables me to take on that role. I’m not a gay man living through the AIDS crisis, but like most of us, I fear disease and death. I’m not a deaf child living in isolation, but I want to communicate and connect with other humans. I’m not a dictator-for-life, but at times, I’m self-interested and even narcissistic.
The word “larp” originated as an acronym for “live action role-play. Think of a larp like an improvised play performed without an audience. Participants meet up, assume characters, and play out the choices of those characters over time. As a storytelling medium, larp is incredibly diverse—discussing the “typical larp” is a little like trying to define the typical novel or film. There are nanolarps that last for fifteen minutes, and maximal larps in which participants stay in character for days, even weeks. Some larps require only a nondescript classroom and your ordinary clothing, while others might involve renting out a castle and designing a perfect period costume.
At core, larping is a participatory form of entertainment that takes place in real time and space, unmediated by a screen. There is no audience, only yourself and your co-players. Participants take on characters in an agreed upon time and setting, and use techniques—often called mechanics—to help further the story. Mechanics can do many jobs. Sometimes they represent things that would be cumbersome, unsafe, uncomfortable, or impossible to do in a larp—magic spells, torture, sex, violence—and sometimes they are narrative tools of convenience that allow players to skip forward or backward in time or deliver internal monologues. The game designer fits the mechanics to the format and narrative. The players bring their imaginations to the table, co-creating the reality, and pushing the action of the game accordingly.
If anything, larp design is a hacker’s toolbox. Larpwrights hack reality to get players out of the roles they play in real life. They hack social interactions to create deep community bonds very quickly, bonds that can cut across race, class, gender, and national borders. These tools work by changing up the architecture of identity and physical space. Every good larp designer knows: put fewer chairs in a room than people, so that the players are forced to move around and talk to each other; write characters with flaws because flaws are interesting; give every player the chance to be the hero of their own story.
Larp designers learn and prototype quickly. As legendary Norwegian larpwright Eirik Fatland put it in a speech at the Knutpunkt Conference in 2014, larp designers “make temporary realities.” As he put it, “Nobody else does this. No other branch of knowledge or practice can build a religion, test out for five days how it feels to be a believer, how belief affects action, and then use that experience to build another religion next year.”
Larp is a real-life laboratory for the thought experiments that philosophers are so fond of. Larpers have imagined themselves into worlds without language, worlds with four genders and no genders, where bisexual promiscuity is the norm, and where patriarchal norms are rigorously enforced. Larp brings imagined realities to life.
Larp has a complex relationship to technology. Some productions use fancy technology as part of the larp, but the vast majority do not. Larp is profoundly analog. It requires traveling to a particular location and interacting with other human bodies, physically and verbally. As a pastime, it fulfills the deep-seated human need for community. And yet, in its own way it is also part of the technosphere. It is a reaction to the ubiquity of glass screens, and the ways these isolate us from one another. It is also its own technology. It uses social engineering tools that can be appropriated, hacked, and applied to other spaces, including office dynamics, museum exhibits, theater, education, and all forms of event design. Because it rapidly prototypes different realities, it is also a useful tool for examining how humans and machines interact or how they might fit together in the future. A few ideas for play accompany this piece. They are just a starting point. The more such realities we try on, the better we’ll be able to know how to steer the uncertain ship of the present into waters that don’t end in dystopia.
Three tips for playing nanolarps like this:
Round 2: Instead of Consumer and Marketer, now you will be the Beloved and the Voices of Jealousy that exist in the head of their suspicious partner. The Beloved reads the email aloud, and the Voices of Jealousy debate the ways in which this email shows all the ways in which the Beloved has let them down. Continue until all have played the Beloved.
Round 3: Now you are Suspected Terrorist and National Security Agents. The Suspected Terrorist reads their email aloud. The Agents discuss the national security implications of this email, along with which part of the email seems most suspicious.
*If you selected an encrypted email, you win!
Using the methods below, choose a difficult word, one you think the others will not know. Do not share your word or its meaning with the others in the group.
If you have an internet connection on your phone:
Visit http://phrontistery.info/ihlstart.html and click on the letter that begins your first name to choose a word.
If you’re fresh out of internet: Use a paper dictionary or the tough word handout that follows this text.
In this game, you will play a group of best friends out for a cocktail for the first time in a long time. Choose one word from each of the following lists to develop your character:
A profession: carpenter, artist, scientist, business person, driver
A personality: thoughtful, brave, fun-loving, sarcastic, bitter
A relationship status: married, single, dating
A sexual orientation: straight, gay, bi, pansexual, asexual
How much ease do they feel with technology? A lot? A little?
Briefly introduce your characters to one another. Decide how they all know one another and why they are best friends.
You will play the scene out for drinks twice. Each scene will last exactly five minutes—set a timer. The first time, find a way to work your vocabulary word into the conversation. When you hear a word you don’t know the meaning of, try to figure it out from context and continue the conversation.
At the end of five minutes, choose new words and play the scene again. Set the timer. When you hear a word you don’t know the meaning of, whip out your phone and look it up.
Discuss your experience with your co-players. Did anything change?
Relax your body. Shake your head gently from side to side and relax your neck. Feel the heaviness of your arms and let go of the tension in them. Loosen your hips and feel your legs relax and become rubbery.
You are walking on an ordinary paved road in a large city. Around you, gleaming billboards sparkle. They are showcasing the ideal partner. Pause and look at one carefully. You see a gleaming image of yourself—the best possible version of you—in them. Notice how this best possible version is different from the self you are now. Notice how far you are from this version of yourself physically.
You have recently come into some money, so finally you will be able to change this.
Walk through the main square of the city and down a well-lit street to an enormous boutique, the one with a well-known purple sign. The store is large, well-lit, and full of other faceless people. This is a store where you can purchase mechanized implants. There is a section for veneers—teeth whiteners, poreless and gleaming skin, silvery hair styled to permanent perfection. You walk by the section for mechanized body parts—jaws that can open wider, motorized hands, tongues . . . and other parts that could go all night without getting tired.
Consider your options for a moment. Decide what you will add on to yourself to make you the very best version of you. Use the credit chip in your wrist to pay. The procedure won’t take too long.
An hour later you are walking down the street as your new self. Pay attention to how your body feels different now, even just in this moment as the air rushes past it. You walk by slender skyscrapers, feeling different among the new people of this city.
You are walking straight to see someone, to see your partner of many years. Picture their face and feel a moment of love or lust for them.
Open their front door. Move to them. Kiss them. Let things proceed until you are having a very good time. Notice how they are responding to your new part. Perhaps they are stroking or admiring it.
Notice how you feel about your new part, and whether you can feel the touch of their hands on your skin. Perhaps you are enjoying yourself immensely, or perhaps most of your pleasure comes from the pleasure your partner is taking in the new you.
And just as a wave of joy begins to sweep you away, something changes. It’s subtle at first, but the more you try to continue your tryst, the more difficult it becomes. It’s your new part. It has stopped working. How does your partner handle this? Notice the look in their eye, the feeling in your heart.
When you are ready, take a deep breath and open your eyes.
<pause for people to wake up>
If you have played with others, consider whether you’d like to share what you picked with one another.