‘It’s all wizards and elves, right? Dungeons & Dragons stuff?’ Such is the general response when you mention larp, or live-action role-play — the peculiarly Scandi pastime that conjures up images of people dressed up in the forest play-fighting with sticks. Well, they wouldn’t be completely wrong. It’s a weird world and with the help of artists it’s becoming even weirder.
In the past few years, larp has become more visible in mainstream culture. And in Britain, it has noticeably begun to infiltrate the art world, becoming popular among artists interested in the potential of play.
Major institutions such as Tate, the V&A and Serpentine Galleries have worked with artists who view larp as a solution to the longstanding issues of how to make ‘participatory’ art actually participatory. Artists such as Adam James and Hamish MacPherson in their instruction-less, non-verbal larp 🌳✋🔦 , drop players into a black box full of strange objects, where everything is worked out through touch, sound and sight alone.
Others like Brody Condon, Ed Fornieles and Jon Rafman are influenced by larp as a form of simulation; in the larp Level Five Condon recreated the mass self-improvement seminars that swept America in the 1970s. In January, London will host the second edition of The Smoke, an annual international larp festival. But what exactly is larp, and where does it come from?
Like Dungeons & Dragons but IRL, larp is a role-playing game in which a group of participants assume characters within a fictional setting authored by a larpwriter or gamemaster. Within the parameters devised by the larpwriter and set out in a ‘larp script’, the players perform the actions of their characters and co-create a fiction without a predetermined plot or outcome.
A larp isn’t scripted in any traditional sense, and instead relies heavily on player improvisation, facilitated by the gamemaster. In this way, larp is different from immersive theatre, in which actors can never affect the outcome of the play. There is no audience. And players — ranging from a handful to several thousand — actively participate, with games lasting from a few hours to more than a week. They can take place indoors or outdoors, in a site-specific context, such as a forest or castle, on a specially constructed set or in a blank-canvas space like an office or hall. As an amateur pastime, larps are generally not profitable and larpwriters rarely make money from their work. And the culture’s self-organised spirit and open-source ethos means that larps can be played and replayed a limitless number of times with different participants in varying locations, each with a potentially different outcome.
The myriad histories of larp make it difficult to pinpont an origin. In its simplest form it can be seen as being similar to child’s play. In its organised form, larp can be traced back to 1980s Scandinavia. A broad range of Nordic influences — a long history of self-organised youth clubs and societies, including historical re-enactment and Tolkien societies, community-theatre practices and the traditions of scouting and girl guiding — has contributed to its development. Larp then went global in the 1970s with the invention of American tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.
The Nordic larp community organises itself around Knutepunkt, a convention that has taken place annually since 1997. Attracting larpers from all over the world, it offers an opportunity to discuss developments in the field and to play-test new larps. In 2016, under the Finnish name ‘Solmukohta’, it took place on a ship as it sailed from Stockholm to Helsinki.
But what are larps actually about? They are most commonly associated with genre fiction, particularly fantasy and adventure themes that offer participants the opportunity to escape from their everyday lives through dressing up and inhabiting magical narrative worlds. Though fantasy larp represents some of the earliest examples of the form and remains a current theme in larp culture, Nordic larp deals with an incredibly diverse range of ideas, in part thanks to the scene’s drive to experiment continually with new forms of design and its application to challenging subject matter.
Jaako Stenros and Markus Montola’s book Nordic Larp was the first publication to document a selection of significant larps over the past 15 years, illustrating the enormous range and creativity. Inside:outside was the first to be specifically framed as an ‘art larp’, going against the majority of role-players at the time who viewed larp primarily as a form of entertainment. The abstract four-hour game was designed against the backdrop of increasingly popular reality TV shows in America that were beginning to be imported into the Nordic countries, and was influenced by the writings of Kafka, Beckett and Orwell. Against stylised aesthetics — a white cube, white overalls and an oppressive ambient soundscape — participants became prisoners in a dystopian cell, forced to reckon with their own ethics and morality by responding to questioning from ‘the Judge’.
Another is PanoptiCorp, a dark satire about our media-saturated post-industrial society set in a new media office in the early Noughties. This larp had its own dictionary called CorpDic, with words such as CorpFil, NexSec and CreaProd. Then there was the highly experimental Luminescence, in which participants were invited to play in their underwear in two rooms where the floor was covered in 10cm of flour. Larps such as these have set the scene for current experimentation with the form by artists, but time will tell if the mainstream art discourse catches up.