Thursday, November 19, 2015

Great Pretenders

One Sunday evening recently, I went to a stranger’s apartment for my first ‘larp’ (live‑action role-play). I was ushered into the living room, where I found three makeshift tents, reminiscent of forts I used to make as a child. Other props – trail snacks, water bottles, hiking gear – littered the floor. It was a little like arriving at a four-year-old’s playdate. I wasn’t sure my make‑believe skills were what they used to be. For the next few hours in that room in Oakland, California, I and five other brave souls would become immersed in The Climb, a game that had us imagine summiting a Himalayan peak 6,900 metres above the Tarphel Valley of Bhutan.

Six nametags lay on the floor. After much hesitation, I picked ‘Mercer: an internet zillionaire’. I’ve spent much time satirising the tech start-up scene, so this character wasn’t too much of a stretch. Profile sheets told us about our driving motivations and relationships with the other summiteers. Mercer had a crush on a character called Sweet, and had also funded the climbing expedition. All right then. One of my fellow climbers turned on the stereo, and an MP3 of snow-storm sound effects started to play.

The game was designed so that only two of the six players would be able to summit. Part of the drama would be selecting those two players. But the point of the exercise wasn’t to ‘win’ and be the one to summit. The point was to be present to the dynamics of the experience. We weren’t going to play The Climb. We were going to live it.

Larp had caught my attention as an interesting subculture. No longer just a medium for nerds running around in the woods with swords, it was increasingly billed as a vehicle for deep emotional exploration and cultural experimentation. In addition to the traditional Viking, vampire and zombie scenarios, larps have been designed around serious themes – refugee crisis, gender, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, imprisonment. As someone who cares deeply about social change and personal transformation, that was exciting to me. Larps were said to let players experience particular emotions, to step into each other’s perspective, possibly even explore artistic and political visions for new forms of society. (...)

When the Belgian artist and scientist Angelo Vermeulen became the crew commander of HI-SEAS, a Mars mission simulation that had six pretend astronauts live for four months in a dome on a barren lava field in Hawaii, he was effectively engaged in a larp. During the mission, Vermeulen experimented with food production, leadership style (the crew rotated its leaders), and exercise regimes. NASA funded the research as a way of exploring future space‑colony design.

But why stop there? What if we had used role-playing games to model different approaches to banking and finance after the financial crisis? Or experiment with the use of crypto-currencies? What if we used pop-up temporary realities to explore the redistribution of resources or alternatives to the welfare state? At a time of growing alienation, larps can help us explore communitarian possibilities. Not ready to open your relationship, but interested in dabbling in non-monogamy? Try larping.

by Alexa Clay, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Peter Steffen/dpa/Corbis