Raasted is careful to point out that the edgiest larp is not the norm. Larping became a national phenomenon in Denmark only after Hollywood brought Tolkien to the big screen.
“Instead of playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, all of sudden kids were playing orcs and elves in the backyard,” says Raasted. “And then they found that there was this whole community out there doing this, saying here’s your foam sword, here’s your elf ears. And it might not look as good as the movies, but at least you’re in it.”
The emotion-based larp, the political larp, where you rape prisoners or try to envision life as a Nazi conscript, are not widely appreciated, even in Denmark. “There are a lot of people who think this is emotional masturbation with no reason,” says Raasted. “Just as there are people who would rather see a Hollywood blockbuster than an arthouse movie.” To this day, he says that 90% to 95% of larp in the country is straightforward Tolkien-inspired fantasy.
Larp is not a game, in his mind. It’s a special kind of theater: intimate, improvised, interactive.
Even in the minority, there is something beguiling about the boldness of the ideas behind complex Nordic larp. For artist Brody Condon, a friend of mine who was the first person I heard about larp from, that means stripping away most of the historical trappings, the costumes and other visuals of larp, and concentrating on the “engine” underneath.
Larp is not a game, in his mind. It’s a special kind of theater: intimate, improvised, interactive. He has been using larp techniques in his own works for years. In 2010 there was LevelFive, in which he meticulously recreated the kind of intense, emotional group encounter sessions—something along the lines of EST—that were popular in the 1970’s, and then brought in players to take roles in the sessions. “It’s like larp. I make the world, I make the guidelines for their character, and they show up,” he says. “They eat, shit and sleep in character. And they start to build narratives based on their stories, with each other.”
I tell him that LARP could totally invade the culture, change the way Americans think about entertainment, theater, gaming, whatever.
For a recent performance and video commissioned by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT., Condon flew Danish larper Bjarke Pedersen and seven others, including one of the designers of Kapo, to the U.S. for a five-day larp staged in an abandoned water mill on a working farm in upstate Wassaic, NY. The scenario: a futuristic commune of what he calls “psychedelic puritans”, living on a space station of sorts. They work the farm during the day, and hold evening therapy sessions like LevelFive did. The whole experience was turned into a sort of ethnographic film for the museum.
Condon says that larp is useful for helping museums and galleries engage audiences in a time of diminished revenue. I tell him it seems like it could totally invade the culture, change the way Americans think about entertainment, theater, gaming, whatever. I am not kidding; I actually think this. Condon says that people just getting into larp often have the same reaction, but that gets dimmed in stages.
“When you first hear about it, you think, man, this is going to change the world,” he says. “Then you actually go see one and realize, whoa, this is awkward and messy. But it still has potential. You just need to find your place in it.”
He can make money mixing larp and high art for museums. Ericsson can make money by doing it for Swedish television. Stark can make money writing a book about it. But without real, stable revenue—not necessarily a bonanza like what video game culture generates, but something as humble as the D&D manuals that have kept the company TSR in business for decades—larp won’t be able to survive, he says.
Knutepunkt: 200 really smartass nerds getting drunk and fucking, and being really excited about what they’re doing, sharing their ideas.
That would be a shame. The evolving ideas are so vivid. For example, Condon calls the annual meetup of Scandinavian larp designers known as Knutepunkt (Norwegian for ‘meeting point’) the “best conference I’ve ever been to… two hundred really smartass nerds getting drunk and fucking, and being really excited about what they’re doing, sharing their ideas.”
The focus of Knutepunkt moves as the larp world moves: a few years ago, a major obsession was bleed, and how to get the most bleed out of your larps. Bleed, at its heart, is about immersion. How do you pull players so deeply into a scenario that they forget themselves, their jobs, their wives, their mores, and enter someone else’s skin? Entertainment like movies and books can only wound you so deeply. Larp can truly move minds.
That’s what bleed is, but it takes both powerful game design and a powerful openness from the players to truly reach it. At Knutepunkt more recently, as the push for bleed was perhaps a little too successful, safety—how to do all this and still keep players from emotional and physical harm—was the main topic of conversation.