Posted by: Stenros | April 29, 2009

How Can Larp Change the World?

Larp scenery from 1943. Photo by Erik Aarebrot, quoted from Larp, Universe and Everything.

Larp scenery from 1943. Photo by Erik Aarebrot, quoted from Larp, Universe and Everything.

The most interesting session I attended in Knutepunkt 09 was about a game called 1943. This was a game set in the Belarusian countryside during the second world war, designed to question the official truth about the country’s history. It featured Soviet partisans, Polish partisans, German soldiers and locals, and was largely based on interviews conducted with people who had lived through that time.

None of this would be that special in the Nordic countries. In fact these kinds of games are, if not common, than at least frequent enough to be a genre to themselves. What makes 1943 exceptional is that Belarus, where the game was organized, is an autocratic dictatorship. Amnesty International’s report from 2008 is pretty bleak:

The clampdown on civil society by the government continued. Any form of public activity not sanctioned by the state, including religious worship, was liable to prosecution and rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly were disregarded. Opposition activists were given long prison sentences for the peaceful expression of their views, or activists were harassed and prosecuted under the administrative code for lesser offences and fined or detained for short periods. Human rights and opposition organizations faced considerable difficulties in registering and activists were prosecuted for acting in the name of unregistered organizations. Belarus remained the only country in Europe still executing prisoners.

The project started in Knudepunkt 2007 in Copenhagen, where the keynote series running through the event was How Can Larp Change the World? I remember being quite skeptical about the project back then, but I was humbled by what the team (which I’m not going to name) has achieved in two years. There is an article on the project from the point of view of the Norwegian partners in the Knutebook Larp, Universe and Everything.

Though that report is interesting, the presentation at Knutepunkt was eyeopening. Not only is the secret police in Belarus still actually called KGB, they harassed a number of players of the game before the game. The problems with authorities started quite early in the project when seminars on fairly regular topics like history and performance were held. The harassment resulted in many of the players (and some game masters) pulling out of the game. They were afraid of losing their jobs or getting kicked out of the university. The game was played last fall, but some people connected with the game are still being visited by the KGB – including some who pulled out of the game.

"Liquidate the bandits. If you know anything, inform the German authorities." From 1943. Photo by Erik Aarebrot, quoted from Larp, Universe and Everything.

"Liquidate the bandits. If you know anything, inform the German authorities." From 1943. Photo by Erik Aarebrot, quoted from Larp, Universe and Everything.

The organizers also decided to shift the game after the 2008 parliamentary elections as the game would feature people dressed up as soldiers with weapons in the forest. That could have been interpreted by the authorities as revolutionary.

One of the Norwegians who was involved in the project and played in the game summed up that during the game she was afraid on three levels: as a character she was terrified of the diegetic Nazis, as a player she was afraid that KGB would hurt the players, and as a person sitting in the pitch black forest she was frightened of the wild boars that live in that area.

An interesting footnote is that in Belarus only licensed people are allowed to wear WW2 uniforms. The local reenactment people (as a registered history club) had that permission. They played German soldiers in the game.

Aims of the game included presenting a more nuanced, and hopefully a more honest, view of Belarusian history, and inspiring civil courage through the example of ordinary Belarusians during the second world war. As discussed in the article, this turned out to be very difficult. In Belarusian official history the Germans are evil and the Red partisans are good and the Polish partisans are rarely mentioned. The players, though instructed to break these stereotypes, had a hard time doing so in the midst of the game.

Many chose to participate in the game knowing that it could be costly to them. It is difficult to say what kind of an effect the game had on the players. As a game 1943 was a success and there is now a small but growing larp subculture aching for more games like this. If games can be used to foster agency in the players, they may become empowered in their daily life as well.

From a purely theoretical point of view this game is also interesting. It underlines the fact that play can be interpreted as very transgressive and that it can have very serious consequences. In the eyes of the society the magic circle of play is based on a social contract, but establishing that contract is only possible in a free society.


Responses

  1. Interesting! Larp would probably spread faster and avoid official interference if it was set in a completely fictional world. Would it be less or more empowering playing elven partisans?

  2. I’d say a lot more. Especially because it’s easier to run rampant in plain sight.

  3. People who run repressive regimes may not share any of our basic values but that doesn’t mean they’re idiots. Censors and every other kind of mind police out there are, of course, highly aware of allegory and metaphor. So it probably wouldn’t be less dangerous, except on some practical levels – these players, for instance, had to face that pictures of in-game Nazi insignia could be published as off-game “proof” that participating NGOs are secretly fascist.

    But entirely fictional settings do have the twin benefits of the writers/organizers being able to emphasize some aspects of a situation over others, maybe enabling a deeper focus on them; and second of the player perhaps allowing himself deeper immersion into culturally dangerous behaviors in a fictional environment… Maybe that translates into “more empowering” – although bravery in the face of something that isn’t very scary is probably less empowering, no?

    Overall, I agree with Mike though. I think there is a kind of extra protection in genre fiction, which always has certain requirements – Costa-Gavras’ Z has to be about truth and power because it is a thriller, and Starship Troopers has to be about humanity, since there are aliens in it. Although god knows how far “it’s not politics, it’s genre” flies as a defense in the real world.


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