srijeda, 27. ožujka 2013.

Odyssey Works - cjelodnevni čudesni performans samo za tebe

Odyssey Works

Ako aplicirate, umjetnička skupina Odyssey Works saznat će sve o vama i specijalno za vas napraviti cjelodnevni peformans, pretvoriti vam život u "film" - zbunit će vas, zapanjiti, možda i oteti. Kao u mekšoj verziji filma Igra. Videogames Adventure Services i Extreme Kidnapping također smišljaju “reality adventures” za svoje mušterije.
Granice između stvarnosti i performansa mut i LARP - live action roleplaying.

Odyssey Works

An Audience of One

Imagine waking up to discover yourself immersed in a performance that is all about you. You're the main character in the performance. It lasts all day, surrounding you with extraordinary experiences that take place in your home, at your workplace, and all over the city where you live. The other actors are your friends and family and an eclectic group of artists, most of whom you've never even met. This is Odyssey Works.
If this is happening to you it is because, six months earlier, you chose to fill out one of our questionnaires. The questionnaire, thorough and intensive as it is, is just the beginning of our research; we watch the films you like, speak to your friends and family, visit your home and your workplace. We get to know you as well as possible and then we commission artists to craft a series of experiences designed to be the most profound artistic moments you've ever lived. Books are written, scores are composed, films made, installations installed, theatrical moments created - whatever the group determines would be most affecting.
The results are transformative, traversing the boundary between reality and performance. Each piece represents a remarkable collaboration among artists who are innovators in their own fields, both in the US and abroad, and each coalesces into a completely unique and unrepeatable production that leaves none involved unchanged.

Odyssey Works

Isolation and Amazement

Documents from The Map is Not the Territory Isolation and Amazement offers insight into the contemporary art practice of Odyssey Works, a group that probes the relationship between audience and artist by making deeply affective work for an audience of one. This book documents and traces the experience of the participant with photos, drawings and writings from the 2012 production The Map is Not the Territory. The book provides an intimate cross-section of the Odyssey, highlighting both the ephemeral and material aspects of the production. The participant's own perspective alongside reflections by the artists involved offer rare insight into the theoretical and personal aspects of the work.

Edited by Ayden L.M. Grout and published by Samsara Press

A Waking Dream Made Just for You


OAKLAND, Calif. — IT all looked so normal: a dozen diners chatting over coffee and hash browns at an outdoor cafe near the waterfront here on an August morning. The cook flipped eggs, a dog sniffed for scraps, and the young woman in the black sweater suspected nothing of the spies and confederates sprinkled throughout. They’d been studying her life for four months and were finally preparing to pull it through the looking glass they’d constructed. Within 36 hours there would be confusion, euphoria, tears, even an abduction.
It was all in the service of art. For more than a decade a loose-knit, multidisciplinary collective called Odyssey Works has been quietly inverting art’s longstanding arrangement with its audience. Rather than a single artist creating for a general population, it directs many artists at a deeply researched population of one. The intricate creations that converge in the group members’ weekend-long performances — sound installations, films, performance art and more — exist only for their chosen subject, whom they’ve come to know very well. Then it all vanishes. The idea is a beautiful inefficiency: a tiny but infinitely more affected audience.
“The goal is to find the deepest possible effect of art and the full breadth of emotional experience in the world,” said Abraham Burickson, the kindly and ruminative co-founder and director of Odyssey Works. “We get to know them so well, we don’t have to use guesswork to find how to make that happen. We’re ‘Amazon recommends,’ for art.”
The beneficiary of all this activity that weekend was Laura Espino, 26, a volunteer coordinator originally from Argentina. Having heard about the group from a friend, she’d filled out a monstrously elaborate application to be its next audience. She was chosen from roughly 100 applicants, asked to leave a certain weekend open and to do no further research. Already it had begun to research her.
In Ms. Espino the group had found a guarded personality. In that guardedness Mr. Burickson saw something to be mined.
“She holds her cards close to her chest,” he said. “There’s a crafting of stories she does, in part to make people around her feel comfortable. The ways she uses narrative in her life felt significant. So we wanted to be the ones controlling the narrative, and ultimately eroding it.”
Over time six members infiltrated her life in various guises to get to know her and plant seeds for the artistic themes they’d be exploring. The process was meticulous; the creative, emotional and logistical challenges of site-specific art, you might suspect, pale against those of audience-specific art.
On the eve of their recent performance, group members convened for one last logistical review. When, exactly, would Ms. Espino arrive at the Best Buy? From which direction would she approach the bookstore? A handful of group members sat around a kitchen table, each with a 26-page packet of diagrams, schedules, maps and detailed instructions for the coming weekend. Ms. Espino would, seemingly by chance, find herself in a series of subtle but increasingly disorienting scenes, each of which had to unfold naturally and plausibly; narrative themes sprinkled in faintly at first would recur and build. The task at hand was not just to ensure that they braided just so, but also to cloak every movement and interaction in apparent serendipity. An Odyssey Works production doesn’t scream “art” so much as whisper it into the subconscious retroactively.
The artistic material generated in the preceding months was as tailored as it was vast. Having identified Ms. Espino’s interest in Argentine literature, Mr. Burickson and several others composed an entire novel, ostensibly written by the author Alberto Gerchunoff many decades ago and overlooked by history. They had the paper professionally aged at a lab in New York, then found a way of getting it into her hands. (Reviews were written and Wikipedia entries adjusted as needed, for realism’s sake.) Another artist infiltrated Ms. Espino’s life in the character of Gerchunoff’s granddaughter.
Writing was only part of the literary undertaking. The novel was to be erased too. A confederate sneaked into Ms. Espino’s bag and replaced her book with a copy that was mysteriously missing some text. Later this copy was swapped for an even sparser version, as though the story had simply decomposed — a thematic echo of her own protective stories breaking down.
Ms. Espino would be “abducted” on Saturday. That night she would take a bath under an intricate, weblike speaker installation chiming noises distilled from the narrative strands of the weekend. Then she’d be blindfolded and driven 90 minutes north to a secluded spot in the Sebastopol hills. A tent and dinner would await, then a ride back the next day for the final scene.
In previous projects an audience member was buried in sand, another left overnight in a field of butterflies. In New York a subject awoke to a talk show composed just for him, delivered via a clock radio that had been smuggled into his bedroom.
Mr. Burickson, 37, a poet, professor and former architect, concedes the obvious drama of these scenes. But they always serve a larger and more nuanced aim, he said. He spent years searching for a way to amplify art’s transformative power, to have it affect people more deeply. In 2001 he and Matthew Purdon, the other founder, were hiking when they had something of an entrepreneurial epiphany: Art’s limits are rooted not in the product but in the beholder — specifically the number of beholders. With an audience of one the artists could tailor their work to a specific emotional and intellectual landscape.
“Think about love poems, which are based on knowing their audience intimately: what her references are, what her vocabulary is, how long her attention span is, etc.,” he said. “Why couldn’t we approach art that way?”
Like the Curies sampling their own radium, Mr. Purdon submitted himself to what would become the first performance in the fall of 2001. There have been 13 performances since — mostly in San Francisco but also in New York, all free to audiences and paid for mostly by grants and donations. (Members and conspirators are unpaid.) The next project is likely to be in New York this summer; a call for applications will go up on the Web site.)
The performance and video artist Mike Smith first learned about Odyssey Works a few years back. “I was very intrigued,” he said. “You could look at it like performance art, and it drew to an extent from theater too. And yet it’s for one person.”
The writer and artist Ted Purves, author of “What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art,” called the group “a little street situationist, with elements of a rave, and a little flash mob.”
Odyssey Works tends to invite all manner of glancing comparisons: artists like Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic and Aaron Landsman; the interactive Punchdrunk play “Sleep No More”; the notion of relational aesthetics; and the largely European trend of performing theater for one person at a time. The Michael Douglas film “The Game” invariably gets invoked too. Still, it’s Videogames Adventure Services that comes up the most. That group puts its quarry through extreme situations, generally involving kidnapping. Mr. Burickson sees their high-octane stunts as generic adventures for high-dollar customers, more akin to live movies than art.
Nell Waters, a member of Odyssey Works, said one former audience member reported that he reflects every day on the 2003 performance that intersected with his life.
“People always end up asking, ‘Why can’t we be like this with each other all the time?’ ” Ms. Waters said. “Having these long-lasting moments of wonder — the closest thing I can think of is living during the Renaissance.”
Given the group’s emotional impact, one might conclude that it’s walking some razor’s edge between art and therapy. Mr. Burickson is quick to disabuse that. “We’re not trying to fix people,” he said.
Back in the Bay Area, the scenes were ratcheting up. After her night in Sebastopol Ms. Espino ended up at a speakeasy-type space in the Mission District of San Francisco. Waiting for her at a table was her mother, who’d been brought in for this final scene.
When she spotted her mother, an already apparent unsteadiness in Ms. Espino doubled. They talked, and gradually their conversation became engulfed in a cacophony of odd noises. All 40 or so patrons were plants, prepped to generate certain thematically appropriate sounds at the right time. A discordant crescendo rose, and Mr. Burickson eventually ended things with a heartfelt send-off. Ms. Espino left visibly shaken, some mix of euphoric and overwhelmed. Over the following week she barely socialized, she said — too much to process. The next Saturday she reconvened with Odyssey Works for a debriefing and subsequently sat down with a reporter to sift through all that had happened. She still seemed rattled by how deeply the group had come to grasp and tweak the themes of her life, from family to exile to home.
“I was expecting a performance: theater, puppets, papier-mâché. Instead I was deep in a Ray Bradbury story, neither surreal nor real,” she said. “It was impossible not to be deeply moved. They’d removed things from my life, rearranged them and then put them in front of me.”

If Your Life Were a Movie

Brock Enright rents a studio in an old Catholic school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a former classroom that is hard to navigate without stepping on a drawing or kicking a sculpture, but he makes much of his art beyond his studio’s walls — in bars, fast-food joints, Chinatown shopping plazas, rooftops and other locations throughout Manhattan. One evening not long ago, I joined him at the Sixth Ward, a bar on the Lower East Side, to watch him work on a new piece.

Photographs by Jeff Mermelstein
Just after 6 p.m., Enright entered, wearing a black hoodie, dirty black jeans and battered canvas sneakers. “I’m excited about tonight,” he said.
Since 2002, a year after graduating from Columbia’s M.F.A. program, Enright has operated Videogames Adventure Services, a company that constructs “reality adventures” for paying clients. If you’re a V.A.S. customer, Enright and his team will stage an adventure — peopled with actors, riddled with mysteries, arranged into multiple acts — designed specially for you. Clients are predominantly thrill-seekers (“Some people jump out of planes, some people do this,” Enright says), and if you don’t know precisely what you want out of your game, Enright will probe, infer and decide. The adventure invades your life and transforms it, for a time, into a work of art.
The night’s events marked an early chapter in one such game, orchestrated for a 31-year-old art dealer named Cristina and centered on Cristina’s interactions with two characters of Enright’s devising: an online dater named Alan, played by Enright’s friend Alan Siegler, and a bumbling ventriloquist named Mitch, played by another longtime pal, Bryant MacMillan. There was a supporting cast of characters, each with a set of directives. Enright had two goals: to plant the seeds for several plotlines that could be developed as Cristina’s adventure progressed and, as he put it, to turn her mind into a “whirlwind.”
Members of Enright’s team trickled in. Most, like Enright, who is 34, were in their early 30s. Leaning over a communal plate of buffalo wings, Enright explained the knotty scenario he’d devised. “Alan is pretending to be a client of ours tonight,” he said. As part of her game, “the real client” — Cristina — “thinks that she’s working for us, playing a character in Alan’s game. Meanwhile, she’ll actually be caught up in the beginning of her own game. I’ll be deploying each of you from here.” The setup was tricky to follow, but Enright told his players not to worry. “Just go with the flow. Whatever happens, just be your character in the space that you’re in.”
Enright left to meet Cristina at a nearby restaurant and give her instructions. He told her to look for Alan, whom she’d “met” online, gather information about him and — here was the MacGuffin — “make sure the doll stays with its owner.” What that directive meant, he promised, would become clear. At 9, she joined Siegler at 200 Orchard, a bar across the street from the Sixth Ward. Siegler played his part: a shy nerd with a habit of trailing off midthought. He announced that he was writing a book about the unreliability of perception — something about the gap between math and reality. Cristina smiled and told him the book sounded fascinating.
The bar’s television was tuned to the N.B.A. Finals. If Cristina had scrutinized those around her, she might have noticed that several of the people watching basketball were in fact surreptitiously watching her. I was one of them, and Enright was another, his hood pulled up. “Look how she’s leaning in to him, the way she’s laughing,” Enright said. “She totally buys it.”
About two hours into Alan’s and Cristina’s “date,” MacMillan, playing the sad-sack ventriloquist, interrupted them. His hair was slicked back, and his pants were jacked up preposterously high by suspenders. “I’m Mitch and this is Match,” he said, introducing the dummy perched on his forearm. “We’re about to do a show back there.” Cristina and Alan followed him into the backroom (crowded with V.A.S. players and curious barflies) and found stools up front. Enright sat against the back wall. Cristina knew that a journalist was observing her game but didn’t know my face, so I sat beside her.
Mitch was a nervous, inept ventriloquist. His lips moved visibly, and the dummy’s “voice” was almost unintelligible as he mumbled a meandering story about stealing a Dodge Caravan. Enright buried his head in his arms, silently convulsing with laughter, but otherwise the act met with scattered, uncomfortable tittering. Cristina watched with a bewildered smile. Was this some high-concept cringe comedy or an honest-to-goodness bomb? As the act wore on, Mitch grew increasingly frustrated and, in a sudden angry flourish, threw down his dummy and stormed out.
Cristina slid off her stool — this was, no doubt, the doll Enright told her about. Excusing herself, she retrieved Match and went in search of his owner. She scanned the bathroom line and the bar, then popped outside to check the sidewalk. Mitch had vanished. Cristina seemed mystified but delighted not to know exactly what was going on. When I approached Enright, who lingered in the backroom, he was wiping tears from his eyes. He clapped his hands. “That was great!”
Enright describes Videogames Adventure Services as a “company as sculpture” — an artistic undertaking that doubles as a fee-charging, tax-paying business. V.A.S. has no fixed headquarters, and Enright has never advertised, relying on word of mouth and a Web site, The adventure-building proc­ess has several stages. First, a prospective client is invited to a “meet and greet.” Next, a series of “clinical” interviews help map out what Enright calls the client’s “game intent.” The client pays a “design fee” of around $2,000, which goes toward the game’s total cost. Enright and his team hash out a narrative, subject to alteration, and “no zones” like work and home. The client signs a contract indemnifying V.A.S. of, among other things, injury and death. “We’ve never been sued,” Enright told me. Finally, a “sign in” moment, captured on film, is scheduled to signal that the game has begun.
V.A.S. has its roots in Enright’s adolescence in Virginia Beach, Va., when he and his friends, MacMillan among them, created a game called Dog — God spelled backward. Dog’s centerpiece was an extreme version of hooky: the gang would bind one of their own and force him to play Nintendo all day; bathroom breaks were allowed only in your pants. “It was mean,” Enright recalled. “But not mean. We’d made a pact.”
Enright’s grandfather John, a retired Navy man, described his adolescent grandson as a “Jackass”-style provocateur. “He’d take a video camera and burst in on his aunt while she was on the toilet,” John Enright told me, adding that Brock looped her shrieking protestations into a short film. “He wasn’t a bad kid. He was just interested in pushing people and seeing their reactions.”
Enright’s interest in stretching boundaries has always informed his art-making. As an undergraduate at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art, he struck upon the idea of kidnappings for hire and, at a friend’s request, broke into the apartment she shared with her girlfriend, bound them and threw them into a van. Another time, he urinated into a classroom corner, cleaned the urine up with his T-shirt and then put the T-shirt back on. “I pissed a lot of people off,” he says, pun quite likely intended. His work grew no more conventional when he entered the studio program at Columbia. He continued his commissioned kidnappings, tried to teach a snake Simon Says and set about unlearning the alphabet. “Z was actually X, A was actually C; it really screwed me up,” Enright recalled in April, when we met for the first time at a SoHo hotel. “I don’t know if it was work or not, but I was living, playing, investigating things.”
Enright, who shares a rental in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his girlfriend, Kirsten Deirup, a painter, and their 2-year-old son, Torben, compares his artistic approach to “a storm churning up wreckage.” This disarray extends from the holes in his underwear to unfinished sentences. Once, retrieving footage of past games for me, he produced a shopping bag full of recordable DVDs, some uncased and unlabeled. “I’m organized in my own way,” he assured me as he rummaged.
“It’s often hard to know what Brock’s trying to communicate, because he’ll operate on seven different platforms at once,” Perry Rubenstein, his former gallerist, told me. (Rubenstein dropped Enright in 2008, citing “significant disagreements”; Enright joined a smaller gallery then but is currently without American representation.)
Enright’s provocations often suggest a prankish institutional critique. His adviser at Columbia, the sculptor Jon Kessler, told me about a scandal that ensued when, in Enright’s final year, he announced he’d been operating under the direction of two Fluxus artists he met in Baltimore named Mr. and Mrs. Claus and that, as Kessler put it, “everything he made at Columbia was actually their work.” Some professors wanted to expel Enright (who insisted to me that the dubious-sounding Fluxus duo were real), but Kessler thought the stunt was brilliant, invented or not. “He’d Andy Kaufmanized the entire process of two years of grad school.”
In 2001, Enright met Felix Paus, a Norwegian-born Harvard graduate, who suggested that, together, they structure Enright’s kidnappings project as a business. The following year, V.A.S. began offering abductions at $1,500 a pop, with Enright handling the creative side and Paus overseeing money and logistics. The press caught wind of V.A.S. in 2002, when Enright displayed a “victim,” bound and gagged in a van, outside a Williamsburg gallery. Enright appeared on Fox News and “The View,” where a charmed Joy Behar joked about letting Enright kidnap her.
Over time, V.A.S. outgrew abductions — “kidnappings are one-note, cookie-cutter,” Enright says — and expanded to a staff of about seven. A broader network of players, set builders, writers and others receive a little cash for their help or pitch in for fun. Explaining V.A.S.’s pricing, Paus told me, “Probably the lowest we’d do a full adventure for is $5,000 to $10,000.” The more involved a game is, the higher the cost. Cristina’s budget was around $60,000; Enright told me she came from money. (Rattled by a family death, Cristina paused her game indefinitely.) V.A.S. clients are offered video souvenirs of their adventures; if clients agree, Enright displays these and other mementos in his gallery shows.
In blurring reality and fiction, spectator and performer, high art and commerce, therapy and mass entertainment, V.A.S. offers a pleasurable paranoia familiar from movies like “The Game,” “The Matrix” or “Inception,” which titillate us with the idea that life is an artificial construct controlled by an unseen force. (Enright says that he liked “The Game,” a 1997 film about a company that sells a similar brand of reality adventures, but that he didn’t get the idea for V.A.S. from it.) Peeling back the layers of Enright’s constructs can be addictive fun. A former V.A.S. client named David, who paid under $5,000 for a superhero-style fantasy, told me that after his game — during which he was forced through a labyrinth of puzzles and endurance tests and charged with the welfare of a female client (a V.A.S. plant) — “the comedown hit me immediately. Everything had been so heightened. The next day I had to go back to work, and it was tough. I got very depressed.”
Enright is not above employing Hollywood tropes: chases, romantic rivalries, plot reversals, high-wire stunts. Sometimes Enright gives these elements a Lynchian nudge into the uncanny, as with Cristina and the disappearing ventriloquist, but he often plays them for straight thrills. He told me about a husband and wife who turned to V.A.S. to reignite their romance. Chased by unseen assailants —were they players? were they real? did it matter? — through dark upstate woods, they had to run toward blinding floodlights to escape.
But Enright’s adventures are also filled with art-historical allusions. During his game, David became convinced that a car was following him. The car was not planted by V.A.S. but became a real part of the game’s psychological space. Enright calls details like that car his ready-mades. V.A.S. also brings to mind the “relational aesthetics” school, in which an artwork is composed of an ephemeral set of social interactions. “A lot of artists say, ‘If just one person sees my work, it’s worth it,’ ” Enright says. “But I literally make works that only one person will ever experience.” His belief in the disruptive powers of his own excrement (he has defecated on himself during at least two adventures to rattle a client) recalls the darkly confrontational spirit of ’70s and ’80s performance art.
For all his raking up of clients’ emotional detritus — longings, regrets, traumas, grudges — Enright stresses that V.A.S. is ultimately uplifting. “Games are a way to understand life,” he told me. “Hopefully this helps you with your life — or, I mean, just creates more of a heightened awareness of things. If you’re jaded, get out of it, you know?” He said he designed one of his favorite adventures five years ago for a client named Margo, who works in theater. It spanned two continents and the better part of a year. “We changed her life,” he said.
I met Margo for breakfast. A 38-year-old “former Goth,” she told me she asked Enright to take her to “a dark place.” Early in her game, several men befriended her at a bar. One guy, Zach Cregger, a former roommate of Enright’s who supposedly represented a rogue faction of V.A.S. trying to oust Enright, would call her late at night, screaming at her to get somewhere impossibly fast — if she failed, Enright would be tortured. This scenario was meant to evoke Margo’s fraught relationship with her father, whom she described to V.A.S. as emotionally and verbally abusive. A few months later, V.A.S. put Margo on a plane to Germany, where (unknown to her) the National Theater in Weimar had hired Enright to co-direct a production of Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 play “Die Räuber” (“The Robbers”). Margo was hauled blindfolded onto the stage and, before a packed preview audience, made the victim in a simulated rape. “I was pretty sure I was in a theater,” she told me, “but I wasn’t completely sure.”
The events in Weimar represent the sort of ontological mess Enright loves to make — disparate narratives overlapping, reality and performance entangling hopelessly on a single stage. I asked Margo what she got out of her involvement with V.A.S., for which she paid $7,000. “I’m not sure,” she replied. “My relationships with men haven’t gotten much better.” Part of her simply enjoyed being the center of attention. It was often a brutal experience, she admitted, but “it was my experience.”
Manufacturing those experiences takes legwork. Enright’s adventure prep includes rehearsals, location scouting and personnel wrangling. V.A.S. frequently enlists bartenders, doormen, bellboys, waitresses and cabbies in games — people a client is unlikely to think are in on the ruse. There are even policemen (MacMillan, a bartender, has befriended several) who will throw clients and players into squad cars to sell an illusion.
During rehearsals, Enright directs his cast, telling them how to stand or how to handle a ventriloquist’s dummy. If a game involves a fight, Enright blocks it. At his studio one night, I watched MacMillan strike Enright. It looked and sounded hard but apparently caused minimal pain. “Open palmed and staccato,” Enright said. “That gives me time to brace myself.”
There were moments when it felt as if Enright was gaming me. Once, as we walked in Manhattan, he told me: “Imagine you’re in a game. Think how the world changes. Is that guy in the doorway really checking his cellphone or keeping tabs on us?” Enright’s phone would ring, and he’d conduct coded conversations with players. “Go. Copy. Move to Location 2 and lock exterior.” While we waited for a traffic light, a brunette drew up, gave us an odd look and walked toward an apartment building. “She’s with us,” Enright said.
Later, on my ride home, after a day afloat in Enright’s world, I became convinced that someone was following me. I jotted down the hack numbers of the three cabs behind mine and grew alarmed as 6M62 trailed us from Gramercy Park to within a block of my home in Brooklyn. The next day I told Enright about my “tail,” expecting him to laugh at my paranoid fantasizing. Instead he said, “So he knows where you live now?”
Where Enright’s fabrications begin and end is impossible to tell. In “Good Times Will Never Be the Same,” a documentary made by Jody Lee Lipes, a friend of Enright’s, Enright and Deirup drive cross-country to Deirup’s family home in Mendocino, Calif., where Enright plans to make art. In one scene, Enright, naked except for white body paint, repeatedly asks Deirup’s visibly uncomfortable brother to share his wineglass. In the next scene, we hear Enright sobbing, crushed that Deirup’s family doesn’t seem to get him. “I’m performing in it,” he told me, “but you can’t tell when.”
If all goes according to plan, Enright may soon gain a bigger (and perhaps more receptive) audience: he and Paus have been shopping a V.A.S. reality show to cable networks. (A deal seemed imminent at Syfy last year, but it fizzled; in December, Enright told me that two other networks were interested.) One day, Enright showed me a binder of elaborate, multicolored grids representing V.A.S. narratives. He explained one of them. A black line indicated a gamer’s choices; red indicated anger; green indicated events involving money. The grids were diamond-shaped: a point of entry at bottom, a point of exit up top and an expanding and contracting latticework in between.
“The trick in every game,” Enright told me, tapping the top of one grid, “is finding your way out of here.”

Kidnapped (Just Kidding!)

Why on earth would someone pay hundreds of dollars to fly halfway across the country for the pleasure of being abducted by thugs, handcuffed in a basement for hours, and forced to pee into a Gatorade bottle? GQ made Drew Magary go find out. (Sorry, Drew)

There was a moment when it felt real. I wish I could tell you the exact time, but I was stuck in a frigid basement and they had taken my watch, along with everything else I was carrying when they grabbed me. I think it was around 3 a.m., but I'm only guessing. It felt like someone had torn open the minutes between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. and stuffed ten more hours inside. I was not on regular time. I was on Being Kidnapped time, which lasts far longer. Call it 3 (b)a.m.
I was duct-taped to a chair in three separate places: at my ankles, my thighs, and my chest. There were two henchmen flanking me. Romeo, on my right, was a black guy in a ski mask and no shirt. His torso was larded with tattoos and tiny pockets of baby fat, as if he'd never picked up anything heavier than five pounds. To my left was a white dude named Cody, who sounded like every grown man named Cody.
In front of me was a table piled with assorted instruments of torture—a blowtorch, a drill, a stun gun—plus two glaring floodlights. Romeo had removed my blindfold temporarily so that I might have the privilege of staring directly into those floodlights. Behind the floodlights was nothing but darkness, and a voice.
"So, Drew," I heard a man say, "I think it's time that we stopped bothering to make you comfortable."
Romeo slapped me hard across the face, much harder than I had been slapped all night. Then he shocked me with a stun gun. Then Cody doused me with cold water, which was the worst part by far. When you get hit with a stun gun, it lasts a second. When someone throws cold water on you, it makes you miserable for hours. I hadn't thought about cold water before this. I had thought about guns and billy clubs and knives. It never occurred to me how desperately I would want to stay dry. Now I would have gladly taken another jolt from the stun gun in exchange for a fresh T-shirt.
"I know this was originally meant to be a fake kidnapping," the voice said.
That's right.
"And I know that you guys did your homework on me, and that you know I went to prison for a while."
I do know that.
"But there are other things about me that you don't know, Drew. And the reason you don't know them is because you never asked."
Oh shit.
That was the moment it felt real. That was the moment I was paying for.
I. Planning
I had to fly all the way to Detroit to get kidnapped. Extreme Kidnapping is a company operated by Adam Thick, an entrepreneur and convicted counterfeiter from Oakland County, Michigan. Thick founded Extreme Kidnapping in 2002 after being inspired by the old David Fincher movie The Game. (SPOILER: It was all a game!) For $500, Adam and his crew will abduct you at gunpoint and hold you hostage for four hours. A thousand bucks gets you ten hours, along with a bit of customized sadism. GQ was curious to see what $1,500 would buy me.
If it strikes you as obscene that people would pay to be kidnapped at a time when it happens routinely to other people for real, the fact is that we live in an age when a normal life simply isn't enough for many Americans. If you watch enough movies and TV (as I do), you end up yearning for a life that is more cinematic than blissful. Experiences are the newest, hottest luxury items. I looked at it like I was paying for a memory implant, Total Recall-style. But the one thing that didn't make sense to me was how Adam could pull off the trick of making a kidnapping feel real when his client knows it's not.
As with any pricey upscale service, you have many choices for your Extreme Kidnapping. You can even select your kidnapper. Adam offered me the standard goons, or I could choose a team of Elite Girls—sexy girl kidnappers who wear stripper platforms and microskirts. I declined the Elite Girl squad because (a) I'm married, (b) getting kidnapped by sexy ladies isn't exactly realistic, and (c) I'm not an idiot. Clients probably hire the Elite Girls thinking it would be awesome, only to find out that the girl kidnappers are ten times more sadistic.
I was also offered a torture menu (see right), from which I made my selections with little rhyme or reason. I should have had a torture sommelier there to guide me. I told Adam it was okay to "explore" waterboarding, but I said no to being hit with a stun gun. I have no idea why I found one more acceptable than the other
We also discussed the use of a safe word. Adam noted that some clients forgo a safe word so that they won't be tempted to use it. I gave him a safe word anyway, because—as the old saying goes—it's better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it while a hungry barracuda feasts upon your exposed scrotum. Also, choosing a safe word is even more fun than choosing a name for your fantasy football team. I went with fidelio.
Finally, we needed a proper backstory—an explanation as to why I was being pretend-kidnapped, and what exactly my pretend kidnappers wanted from me. Extreme Kidnapping suggests a few time-tested story lines. You can be a secret agent. You can be a scion to a massive corn-oil fortune. I chose "mistaken identity," in which I am mistaken for another, far richer Drew Magary, my own personal Big Magarybowski.
As Adam and I went over the particulars of my kidnapping, I found my Stockholm syndrome kicking in ahead of time. Adam was a candid, gregarious fellow over e-mail. He even forwarded me an article he wrote for Sex Appeal Magazine about the particulars of his counterfeiting scheme. (Along with a partner, Adam printed over $360,000 in phony $20 bills and was convicted in 2006.) I was ready for them to come and get me.
II. Abduction
I checked into a $55-a-night dump located right off of Dixie Highway in the northern Detroit suburbs. It's the kind of place a car salesman moves into after his wife has kicked him out of the house. The bedspread looked like it was covered with generations of old cum. They couldn't kidnap me fast enough.

The only commonality between this photo and GQ's fake
kidnapping: the blindfold.

Read More
I texted Adam my room number and the color and make of my car (red Ford Fusion) and told him I was going to go take a walk to get something to eat. All I got back in response was an ominous k. After dinner, I texted Adam again, this time to tell him I was going to a bar nearby called the Lion's Den. Again: k. I eased the Fusion into the back of the lot—away from prying eyes—and when I turned around, I saw a grubby red SUV idling beside a row of parked cars. But then it peeled away. I walked next door to Pearle Vision and texted Adam.
I'm standing behind the Pearle Vision now! I thought the red SUV might be you!
No answer. I texted again.
I guess I'll go into the Lion's Den?
This is too much talking, he texted back. Do what you want.
I got my drink. The moment I got back to my car, the red SUV returned, and two men jumped out carrying what were obviously, even to a rube like me, fake Smith & Wessons. This was it! I couldn't have been more excited. I felt like someone was driving up to tell me I won a sweepstakes. That good vibe went away in a matter of seconds.
"Get in the fucking car," one of them shouted. This was Romeo.
They pushed me into the car and slapped a pair of cuffs on me. Then they blindfolded me with something that looked like one of those sleepy masks you wear on a flight overseas. I felt a fake Smith & Wesson dig into my side.
"Don't you fucking move."
But I did move. They hadn't put on my seat belt, which I found irresponsible. So I reached for it and got a smack in the head.
"The fuck are you doing?" Romeo asked.
Putting on my seat belt.
"I said don't fucking move."
But I really should wear a seat belt.
"Man, get your fucking head down."
He took my head and jammed it into his lap, presumably so that the cops wouldn't see a blindfolded, handcuffed man in the back of an SUV. I picked up my feet and rested them on the backseat, so now I looked like a toddler sleeping in his mommy's lap on the way home from the airport. I could feel my head dripping sweat into Romeo's crotch. I wanted to apologize, but I was actually kind of comfortable.
We drove for thirty minutes and then pulled into EK's hideaway. Romeo dragged me out the door and hurried me down a flight of stairs and into a dank, filthy, unfinished basement. Romeo jammed his forearm into my throat to keep me from moving while Cody duct-taped me to a chair. "We'll be back," Adam said. Then I heard footsteps going back up. This was my home for the next thirteen hours.
III. Captivity
The Eurythmics were the worst part. Extreme Kidnapping employed many psychological tactics on me, the most effective of which was being forced to listen to music all night, in particular a stretch during which "Sweet Dreams" played at least twenty times in a row. After the first ten times, I began to hear through the song, until it became more like a drone, like a yogi chanting a mantra—a really, really annoying mantra.
Between songs, I could hear all kinds of alarming sounds upstairs: a barking dog, huge amounts of liquid sloshing around. They were preparing me for things. Very bad things. A good kidnapper, apparently, must also be a good Foley artist.
Time became elastic. The kidnappers had duct-taped my thighs together, and my testicles were mashed between them, unable to breathe for what felt like hours, so I opened my fly and gingerly pulled out my cock and balls for a little while.
Oh, sweet freedom.
I had three bottles to piss in, but only my Gatorade bottle had a wide mouth, so I spent a great deal of the evening pouring piss from one bottle into another to make sure my master bathroom had enough space. I failed to accomplish this perfectly, so I ended up with piss on my shorts. And on the floor. Lots of piss everywhere.
Eventually, I heard footsteps growing louder. Then I could feel a person near me. Then I could hear breathing. Then I could see someone through the bottom slit on my blindfold. Romeo. He said nothing. Just stood there. Waiting for torture is its own form of torture.
I heard the hiss of the blowtorch. Someone else in the room—Cody—grabbed my cuffed hands and began prying loose one of my fingers. I could feel the heat from the torch and became momentarily alarmed. Even though this all still felt fake, I tend to recoil from blowtorches.
"Gimme your finger."
He let go and I yanked my hands back. They ripped the tape off my bare skin and led me to a filthy, half-inflated air mattress. They gave me a sip of water, duct-taped my mouth shut, and chained my right leg to a weight bench. Then they left.
More hours passed, and I found myself missing my kidnappers. At least when they were around, things happened. The story advanced. I desperately wished I had brought a friend along, someone I could turn to and say "This sucks" every few minutes.
Finally my kidnappers came back down and led me back to the chair. Romeo ripped off my eye mask and I got hit with the floodlights. Adam sat behind them. This is when my fake kidnapping turned into the world's lamest improv class.
"Do you know why you're here, Drew?"
"We know you have money, Drew. You have bearer bonds. You have gold Krugerrands."
You must have me confused with, like, another Drew Magary with lots of money.
"So what you're saying is that there's another Drew Magary with lots of money?"
YES! Totally.
"And we kidnapped the wrong guy?"
"Well, look, Drew," Adam said. "We gotta do something with you. So here's an idea: My friend Percy runs a kind of...I guess you could call it a sex-slave operation. Like a glory hole. You ever heard of a glory hole?"
That one was enough to make me break character. I began laughing out loud.
Oh, you bastard.
"Would you be all right if we took you to Percy?" he asked.
I guess.
"That's not very convincing."
Dude, no one agrees to work a glory hole enthusiastically.

Always stuff a body in a trunk headfirst. It's much easier
on the back.

"That's true."
Everything was unfolding along a clear pattern, until Adam decided to break the pattern.
IV. Twist
"There are other things about me that you don't know, Drew. And the reason you don't know them is because you never asked. See, last week I was pulled over with a firearm in my car. That violated my probation, and I gotta report back to prison next week to serve four and a half years of a five-year sentence."
At some point, in order for the illusion to work, the script has to break down. The kidnapper has to acknowledge that the kidnapping is fake and then create the impression that the fake kidnapping has somehow gone awry. All it takes is a tiny seed of doubt. I had asked to not be stun-gunned—a small break in the rules. And I was suddenly not fully confident that I knew Adam's entire criminal history. It also dawned on me that, outside of my captors, no one on earth knew where I was. I quietly began to freak out. Control was slipping from me, just a bit, and the doubt began to creep in with surprising ease. I considered blurting out the safe word, but I didn't, because I was terrified that nothing would happen.
"So you're gonna call your boss at GQ," Adam said. He handed me a slip of paper with an account number and a routing number on it. "And you're gonna tell him to drop $100,000 into that account with that routing number. Are we clear?"
I looked down at the account number. It was nine digits long.
Aren't bank-account numbers eight digits long? I think they're eight digits long. Yes, they definitely are.
And just like that, the moment was over. I was safe, back in the Land of Make-Believe. I was also crazy impressed with my own detective work. [Editor's note: Uh, actually, Sherlock, account numbers are often nine or even ten digits. But carry on.] All I had to do was get through the rest of the night and put up with any remaining bullshit they had in mind. Adam forced me to leave a message for my editor asking for the money, but I was so tired and cranky that I had to record it three times to make it intelligible.
Later on, after I got back to the airport, my editor told me I did a poor job "selling" my ransom message. Well, excuse me, Lee fucking Strasberg.
V. Release
Early the next morning, my three kidnappers put me, still cuffed and blindfolded, back in the red SUV. We drove to a nearby bank, where Romeo got out to "withdraw" the ransom money. When he came back to the SUV, he screamed out, "We got the money!" and everyone made a nice pretend show of pulling off the kidnapping. They even lifted my blindfold to show me the cash: a stack of hundreds that were clearly fake. There was something oddly innocent about the whole thing. I felt like a little kid playing with his friends. But fourteen hours of playtime was plenty. They drove me back to the motel and kicked me out of the SUV. Cody pulled off my blindfold.
"Get the fuck out of here."
Inside my room, there was a white envelope on the table by the window. I tore it open and found a note inside:
Dear Drew,
Congratulations, you survived an Extreme Kidnapping! Enjoy your life!
The Kidnappers
On my way back to the airport, I thought about my night in captivity. And then I thought about an old friend of mine, a high school classmate named Jeff Schilling, who was held hostage in the Philippines by an Islamist separatist group named Abu Sayyaf. Jeff was rescued in April 2001, after seven months in their camp. When I got home, I sent him an e-mail. This is part of what he wrote back:
My gut reactions are: (1) it's a callous waste of money; and (2) you'll never have anything close to the "authentic" experience. While I was extremely fortunate to escape, far too many people are not so lucky. After I escaped, another group of individuals, including three Americans, was kidnapped in the Philippines by the same group of terrorists. The FBI called me up and asked if I would be willing to speak with one of the families. The terrorist had claimed they beheaded one of the American hostages. I told the family that until there was confirmation their loved one had in fact been killed, they should presume he was alive. [But] of the three Americans, only one returned home alive....
At the end of my kidnapping, I got a customer-satisfaction survey. Jeff Schilling had seven months of genuine terror. I had one moment of vague fear. One moment was enough. One moment was plenty.
Drew Magary is a GQ correspondent and a staff writer for Deadspin.


This Is a Game: A (very) Brief History of Larp 

Epic Empires via virginsuicide photography Flickr

"Larp can change the world."
So claimed Heikki Holmås, Norway's newly-appointed Minister for International Development back in March,  and I couldn't help but take notice. Three months previous, I was out researching an article on the Collapsonomics movement when the conversation turned to the new direction in which larp players from the Nordic nations were taking the form.
Larp — which you may have encountered already as LARP, acronym of "live action roleplaying", now noun'd down into lower case by regular use — has been around long enough for its public image to settle into an established stereotype, namely nerds dressing up as knights and orcs and hitting each other with rubber swords at the weekend. Like all clichés, it's rooted in truth: a lot of larp is exactly like that — and as such, I'd argue, no more worthy of mockery than paintballing, its over-macho cousin.
But there was, I heard, another type of larp: a larp whose potential as a tool for political and social change inspired Holmås to evangelise about it; a larp that could not only give players an insight into the lived experience of, for instance, homelessness, refugeeism or gender disparity, but which might also suggest changes to the way society deals with people in those situations; a larp that could 'game out' better ways of responding to a Haiti-scale natural disaster, or help the two sides of an interminable religiopolitical stalemate to walk a few yards in the shoes of their opponents.
I scribbled some notes, went home and started digging.
A brief history of larp
Larp's roots run deeper than Dungeons & Dragons.
In her book Leaving Mundania, Lizzie Stark traces the development of larp from its origins, the nascent form of what Bruce Sterling likes to call the military-entertainment complex: immersive historical pageants thrown by medieval royalty, often at immense expense; prototypical wargames for training the officers of the European enlightenment; contemporary historical re-enactment groups, some simply restaging the great battles of the past, or — in the case of the Society for Creative Anachronism — doing what they call 'living history', where old skills and ways of life are revived as part performance, part play, all wrapped up in authentic period costumes.
Wargaming systems of a more realist (or at least mimetic) type were a popular pastime for well-to-do Victorian folk, but it took a man named Dave Wesley form Minneapolis-St. Paul, frustrated with the way that the wargames he played in would break down into arguments over the implementation of the rules, to investigate the theory of games with an aim to developing non-zero-sum scenarios. The first run of Braunstein, a Napoleonic battle rendered with miniature soldiers on a tabletop landscape, ended in intrigue and chaos, with Wesley feeling he'd failed. "His players disagreed, and begged him to run another session," says Stark, so he did.
Braunstein attracted others, including one Dave Arneson, who'd go on to combine his wargaming jones with his Lord Of The Rings obsession to build a new set of rules, developed in collaboration with a thirty-something insurance underwriter named Gary Gygax; the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the ur-RPG, hit shelves in 1974.
Leaving the tabletop
COLD LARP'N - LONDON via jaredeberhardt Flickr
Larp was less born than seeded, however. Says Stark, "there is no single 'mother larp' that started the craze; instead it rose up like some grassroots political campaign, with people in different areas of the United States and elsewhere spontaneously deciding to hit their friends with padded sticks in backyards." 
There's a possible Patient Zero in the imaginary planet of Atzor, an early proto-larp described in a Life article in 1941 which at the time of writing boasted ten 'lands' or countries wherein conflicts were decided with tabletop wargames of vast and involving complexity. But it's Brian Wiese's 'Hobbit War' of 1977 that represents the likely apotheosis of 'boffer' larp, familiar from the pop-cultural stereotype: Ren Fair rejects, running around in the woods with padded weapons.
Tolkienian secondary-world fantasy is no longer the only aesthetic in town, however: dystopian near-futures (with varying levels of cyberpunkiness pumped into the main mix), slipstreamish alternate histories and Moorcockian multiverses also abound. 
The degree of determinism to the gameplay varies wildly, as do the player goals: from get-the-loot-and-kill-the-baddies to more abstract or intangible accomplishments, such as acquiring secret knowledge or building a network of spies. This movement away from both the tabletop and the rubber weapon was amplified by the huge popularity of White Wolf Publishing's Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying system and its expansions, which stripped tabletop play down to raw simplicity while (re)introducing the critters-of-the-night tropes which now dominate the nebulous 'urban fantasy' fiction genre, and may well have played a large part in priming its audience. (The White Wolf gameworld was also an early staging ground for another of network culture's oddest performative/theatrical subcultures, the furries, who found in it a safe space to explore their supposed 'species dysphoria'.)
Modern larps might be played in person in the interstitial corridors of a gaming or sci-fi convention, or online via bulletin boards and forums, or both. Games may be mere hours long, or even shorter, like the bite-sized quarter-hour 'roleplaying poems'; some games may persist for years.
What they hold in common is their escapist intent: larp is supposed to be fun, a holiday from more mundane concerns, entertainment.
It's just a game.
Nordic Larp
"Many Nordic larps seem to be about trying out a certain mindset or exploring an emotion, rather than saving a town from orcs or finding enough loot to buy a sweet magic item." — Lizzie Stark
Some time close to the culture-warping strange attractor of the Millennium, however, larp underwent a development fork.
The first Knutepunkt conference of 1997, held in Oslo, was an early step in the formation of the Nordic larp identity. As the conference hopped from nation to Nordic nation on a yearly basis (each time relocalising its name into the language of the host country), it brought together game designers and players interested in transcending mere entertainment, in raising larp to the level of art. 
First played in 1998, Ground Zero has a good claim to ur-game status, and is a great example of the 'un-fun' ideas that Nordic larp plays with: its players sat in a room standing in for an Ohio nuclear shelter circa the Cuban Missile Crisis, listening to mocked-up radio reports of a blossoming bout of Mutually Assured Destruction, then spent the rest of the game having their characters come to terms with the annihilation of the world outside. Far from being an outlier, the deep emotional implications of Ground Zero are indicative of the psychological spaces that Nordic larp would go on to explore.
For the sake of simplicity, I'll be following Stark's lead and using 'Nordic larp' to refer specifically to the avant-garde school of gameplay rather than the geographically-defined set of players. As Stark is careful to point out, larp in the Nordic countries is not a monolith so much as a collection of localised scenes, and the Knudepunkt circuit — despite its greater visibility to outsiders — is a marginal part of the greater whole.
Marginal it may be, but Nordic larp is a teeming ecosystem of styles and approaches which, again, mirrors the confusion of subgenres and styles to be found in the contemporary genre fiction scene.
For instance, medieval-esque fantasy isn't completely off the menu. Paralleling the recent rehabilitation of epic fantasy fiction, some Nordic scenesters are returning to the massively-multiplayer orcs-in-the-woods format with historio-mythical accuracy on their minds: Täällä Kirjokannen alla sought to give Tolkienian cliché the boot, and provide all the rompy fun of a trad boffer game with an authentic backdrop based on Finnish mythology. Indeed, the examination of national identity seems to be a popular project for Nordic larp as it spreads southward into Europe; in Poland, a game called Dzikie Pola began in the early Noughties, overlaying the lives of its players with an alternate reality in which they were noblemen from the Sarmatian Period.
Another obsession shared by Nordic larp with contemporary science fiction — and, not coincidentally, with pop culture in general — is the near-future or alt-history dystopia. Some of these games are huge productions, with days of gameplay following weeks of planning and set-construction; System Danmarc, for instance, took over a city-centre park, surrounding it with fences and filling it with shipping-container housing for the stratified underclass factions of its player-characters.

Many of these games involve a simple sort of imaginative play: one may be pretending to be another person, but that person is recognisably human, and interacts with a recognisably human imaginary world in familiar ways, despite the shifted context in which their actions take place. But not all Nordic larps bear such a clear resemblance to the mainstream forms of the game, or indeed such a mimetic resemblance to consensus reality. The Nordic methodology — which often includes a preliminary 'workshop' wherein the players are prepared for the game, perhaps with a discussion of history or politics pertinent to the larp in question, and a 'debriefing' that seeks to integrate the game experience and cushion the come-down of returning to reality — allows for set-ups and scenarios that reframe the human experience in dramatically powerful contexts.
Designed by the Nordic scene's uber-academic Emma Wieslander, Mellan himmel och hav ("Between Heaven and Sea", 2004) ambitiously concretised elements of feminist theory in order to explore disparity and gender roles. On joining the game, Stark explains, players were no longer male or female, but "morning people and evening people. Evening people wore red and yellow, concerned themselves with philosophy and decision making, and served as the objects of the sexual gaze. Morning people wore blue and green, served as the sexual initiators, and were resp for practical arrangements and implementing the decisions of the evening people. In-game, marriage was not between two people, but among four — two morning and two evening people, who mated for life."
Other larps have attempted to bridge the divide with experimental and participatory theatre, or explore situations originally presented in literature — there was a larp based on de Sade's 120 Days In Sodom, for instance. Even the mechanics of play are not sacred, with a considerable degree of experimentation into ways of abstracting character interactions which might be dangerous.
Nordic larp, then, is not easily encapsulated, though there are underlying commonalities. One thing that becomes clear early on is the doctrine of subjectivity: due to the nature of the larp experience, it is impossible to report on what a game was like from any perspective other than one's own. As such, post-game papers and reports tend to focus on design and theory rather than assessments of success or failure, or attempts to reproduce the narrative on the page; as Dave Wesley discovered with the earliest runs of Braunstein, a game might be a complete flop in the eyes of its designers while the players are having the time of their lives.
This was the experience of the gamewrights behind Valokaari, a near-future war scenario; they failed to engineer the expectations of the players — failed to assert the genre and tropes of the game before it began, if you like — and lost control of the narrative as they'd planned it. The players had a blast, however, and with the breezy insight that seems typical to Nordic gamewrights, this was viewed as a valuable lesson rather than a waste of time:
"[E]nvision you are running an Ally McBeal larp and then realize your players have chosen to play it like Law & Order. The subject matter of 'law' remains, but emphasis is very different," explains J. Tuomas Harviainen in an essay about the game Valokaari for the anthology States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World.
Larp as Art
It seems to me that almost all artforms undergo an developmental curve which starts in pure entertainment and/or escapism before arching upward (or downward, depending on one's position relative to the axes) as the canon, loaming beneath its own accreted density, becomes an ecosystem able to support theorists, metacritical practices and experimental methodologies.
A similar curve is reiterated in microcosm within art genres: witness, for example, the slow development of science fiction from pulpy romps for Competent Men to its current status, that of a genre with its own canon, critical vocabulary and — perhaps most importantly — its own vanguards of theory and praxis.
It is important to note, however, that the pulpy end of the genre has not only survived but remained largely dominant in terms of sales, and also indirectly supports the avant-garde by providing an economic base for the industry: as regrettable as the posthumous eking out of Robert Jordan's bloated Wheel Of Time series may seem to those of us who have read widely enough to recognise it as derivative, its gangbuster sales figures allow Tor to continue taking chances on new or lesser-known writers, some of whom may be pushing the form to new places.
Although that economic connection doesn't pertain (or so I assume), the development of 'literary' and avant-garde praxis and theory within science fiction and fantasy provides a useful analogy for the development of Nordic larp. 
The academics, artists and players of the Nordic scene refer to more generic games as 'mainstream' larp, reserving the 'Nordic' soubriquet for their own experiments with the form. Implicit here is the claim that their Nordic larp is capital-letter Art, while the other stuff — as Capote is alleged to have said of Kerouac's work — is "just typing". 
(One might compare and contrast this reframing with sf's snooty dismissal of mimetic fiction as 'mainstream' or 'mundane'... and, indeed, with the sf avant-garde's dismissal of the popular mass of push-button tropes and cliches which lurks beneath the bell-curve as 'skiffy' or 'pulp'.)
Pulp vs. lit
"The Nordic scene is proof that fun is not a necessary or essential component of larp, proof that the hobby can sustain high-art aspirations." —Lizzie Stark
In the course of her investigations, Stark has played a variety of larps, from big-business Stateside boffers like Knight Realms to mind-bending art-school Nordic oddities. I was curious to know whether the characters she'd played were persistent, lingering in the mind long after the game was done, or whether it was more of an episodic shrugging on and off of character-as-costume, something more like the experience of a bit-part actor.
For Stark, larp is predominantly "a mode of personal discovery, a way of investigating my own psyche; the character I play is an internal manifestation of my own personality". This ties in with the  literary outlook of her own academic background, perhaps; what Stark enjoys about larp is that hard-to-define "art experience", the kick of inner enlightenment she recalls first encountering while reading Woolf's The Waves: "it was like [Woolf] was explaining things about me to myself".
Not everyone plays this way, though. Boffer players tend toward a 'compartmentalised' approach to character, wherein the disconnect between the player's identity and the character's is more pronounced. In Leaving Mundania, Stark discusses a handful of larpers who deliberately step into personalities very different to their own when playing. For some, this is perhaps for the thrill of being able to commit illicit acts in a space where the consequences of those acts won't cause any real harm, much like a computerised war sim; still others seem to use their characters as a safe space in which to come to terms with traumatic experiences from their real lives, to walk in the shoes of others for a little while.
Given Stark's background, her metaphor — that boffer is to Nordic larp what genre fiction is to literature — makes a certain rough'n'ready sense. But the distinction is a little invidious: 'literature' is a moving target, after all, and there is a spectrum of literariness within almost every genre of any maturity.
Hence I'd modify Stark's terminology by swapping out 'genre' for 'pulp'; the latter, I feel, more fairly captures the exuberant disregard for high-art values and favouring of escapism and fun which characterise both boffer larp and popular/populist genre fiction, and makes of larp's various forms a contiguous spectrum rather than a binary split.
The highly influential larp Mellan himmel och hav, for instance, has all the hallmarks of science fiction's more literary aspirations — unsurprising, given it drew on the works of Ursula K Le Guin, who is many things, but no writer of pulp. The commercially successful Stateside boffer campaign Knight Realms, by contrast, is pure pulp adventure: a cosplay theme park that convenes periodically to embody the generic Extruded Fantasy Product familiar from Terry Brooks's interminable Shannara franchise.
We can turn to literary criticism for a yet more useful analogy. E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel was a core text of the modernist literary project, and while much of what it proclaimed as duty is now questioned as dogma, it contains some distinctions that remain useful. The one that applies here is the 'flat character'/'rounded character' dichotomy: flat characters are predominantly defined by a single trait, which makes them "memorable, predictable and pure" [Koch 2003, p95], while round characters have a "want or need that makes them capable of change" [ibid, p96]. 
The flat character is a staple of the sitcom, the episodic serial: "[s]ince they are incapable of change, flat characters can go on and on and on, having an endless sequence of adventures." [ibid, p95] The round character is, at least in part, one of the concepts hiding behind the shibboleth of literature; their changes of nature as they progress through the story are what critics mean when they talk about 'character-driven' fiction.
Forster's dichotomy is often framed as a value judgement (round = literature = Nordic = good; flat = genre = boffer = bad), but that judgement inheres more within the critical canon than Forster's original formulation. If we think of flatness and roundness as different narrative strategies, the split becomes complementary instead of antagonistic: flat characters are ideal to escape into, avatars for enjoyable fictional journeys wherein the exterior is privileged and foregrounded; rounded characters, by contrast, focus the narrative on the interior, forcing the reader to engage with events at a more personal level, privileging philosophy and contemplation over escapism and fun.
Despite favouring the elitist aesthetic a literature over the rompy fun of pulp, I don't believe either is inherently better than the other; they are too different to bear the weight of that comparison, as are their larp equivalents
But in the next instalment, I'll argue that Nordic larp has a socially disruptive potential that makes it the more interesting end of the scene, while marking it as both an artform native to contemporary network culture and a new experimental praxis in narrative theory...
Gloriana via darkismus
It is tempting to view the wildly different natures of Stateside boffer larp – the rubber-swords-in-the-woods fantasy romps – and the Nordic art-house scene in terms of sociopolitics, not least because the majority of people I've spoken to on the topic have made the point before me, in some cases quite bluntly. Eleanor Saitta, a security consultant who's been a participant in the Nordic scene for some years, suggests that the demands of the Nordic school of gameplay — the willing surrender of an element of your consciousness to a collective experience, rather than simply playing a 'flat character' from off the peg — is "maybe a little too socialist in character for your average American".

Indeed, with its growing catalogue of worthy (if occasionally blunt-edged and sensational) experiments in experiential dystopia, the Nordic school of play looks to be, at a very abstract level, an explicitly political project that leans leftward, interested in reflecting reality with a view to interrogating the truth of the human condition, and perhaps to improving it with the knowledge brought back.
Boffer larp, at the other end of the spectrum, looks like pure escapism - about as political as dressing up with your neighbourhood gang on Halloween. But Stark suggests I'm looking for boffer's politics in the wrong place: it's not in the game's content so much as its structure. In her paper "We Hold These Rules To Be Self-Evident: larp as metaphor for American identity" [States of Play, 171], she advances the theory that the original tabletopper RPGs (and the boffer fantasies that are their direct descendants) can be read as The American Dream in ludic form, "an idealized vision of the archetypal immigrant's journey in which no one is left behind and everyone inexorably rises in stature. Boffer larp does more than reflect American values; national values structure the game."
Boffer larp's reliance on large casts playing in large outdoor spaces means that money matters start raising their heads early on, and there's an argument to be made that this — plus the legendary litigiousness of the United States — is inimical to the more arty or experimental forms of larp. Once your monthly game has become a business, there are bottom lines to meet... and regular customers to keep happy. A set-up like Knight Realms won't play a 'world-ender' plotline; why risk killing the golden goose if it's still laying?
Hence the episodic nature of such campaigns: each instalment comes loaded with threat and jeopardy, but the game-world is 'rebooted' between episodes, returned to a stable state ahead of the next disruptive narrative. As with an series of cookie-cutter fantasy novels, there's always another volume, full of locations and characters you already know, and experiences for which you have some sort of precedent — not to mention the expectation of enjoyable escape from reality.
Boffer larp, then, like pulpy fantasy fiction, could be considered a project that neutralises the threat of Otherness by familiarising certain limited examples of Otherness within a fictional space whose intrinsic Otherness is sufficiently familiar. As an imaginative act, it demands a number of layers of separation between the player's true identity and their played character: you are playing not only someone who isn't you, but you're playing a someone who you could never be, among people you could never meet, in a world that is explicitly not the one in which your true identity resides.
The Nordic style, by comparison, delights in keeping the layers of separation as few and thin as is possible: characters that are a warping or expansion of the player's own personality, played in a world that (with varying degrees of abstraction or symbolic reduction) reflects the one within which it is nested.
Or, to put it another way: trad larp takes an individualist approach, wherein the players — equalised/normalised, at least in theory, by the complex rules and stats surrounding character generation and interaction — must make their own mark on a imaginary world that was designed specifically for them to make a mark upon. Nordic play, by comparison, is interested in character as changed and influenced by the game's narrative.


"The very first thing you need to do once you start playing this game is to choose your highest hope. If you have one, choose a better one. If you can't, don't play. In this game, you are supposed to create a new moral standard, and the choice is part of the gameplay. If you start with an old highest hope, how can you expect to have a new morality and new idea of what is good?" — Ari-Pekka Lappi ["Playing 'Thus Spake Zarathustra,'" States of Play]
The quote above is taken from an essay entitled "Playing 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'". Lappi's choice of the seminal philosophical text on walking away from mainstream morality is telling, set as it is amongst accounts of games which, to a greater or lesser degree of abstraction, attempt temporary walkings-away of exactly the type that Nietzsche was interested in. Consider Emma Wieslander's Mellan himmel och hav , which simultaneously critiques gender essentialism while immersing its players in feminist theory, making them experience a different spectrum of gender as something more than a gedankenexperiment, and System DanMarc, the cryptofascist urban dystopia; these are not outliers.
Other recent or in-progress games include Kapo, set in a prison run by its own inmates; Dublin2, another dystopia, based on EU immigration policy; Valve, a persistent campaign in the Helsinki region wherein shadowy conspirators literally kidnap other players, bundling them into vans pulled up on the hard shoulder. In 2011, a game called Just a Little Lovin', exploring the impact of AIDS on the New York gay scene of the early Eighties, came in for a public drubbing in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, albeit a tame one by US or UK tabloid standards.
If the tragedy of AIDS is not shocking enough, then the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin-ness of Gang Rape is guaranteed to get both ends of the left-right spectrum in a panic. Part critique of rape culture, part experiment in ludic mechanics, its designer openly declares "don't play this game unless you're in a good place mentally, and really think you are up for it. It is not meant to be fun to play."  [emphasis mine]
Society conditions us to view play of any sort as inherently childish, and Nordic larp challenges that assumption by literally, playing around with the biggest and most serious questions of all. There's something deeply — and, to some, disturbingly — postmodern about Nordic larp's more ambitious games. The entire scene, the philosophy, is saturated with the recognition of the subjectivity of experience and identity, but this is seen neither as boon or bane: it's just the default political assumption of its predominantly young demographic. Hence Nordic larp looks to me both leftist and utopian, but it's a young individualist sort of leftism, informed by Marx but not kneeling at his feet: a network-native take on identity fluidity which, perhaps, could only have emerged in small stable nation-states with a strong social security system.

Saga Preview via ranh

Larp presents a toolkit for exploring that postmodern morality landscape, as well as tools for building bridges and dismantling the roadblocks encountered therein. The Norwegian larp organisation Fantasiforbundet has been working with the Peace & Freedom Youth Forum in Ramallah, Palestine, in the hope that they might not only bring a new form of imaginative play and entertainment to young Palestinians living under the shadow of conflict and oppression, but perhaps also to show how pretending to be someone else can bring an understanding of their experience and outlook which may have been lacking before. Perhaps this is what Holmas meant when he spoke of larp "changing the world"; I share his hope, if not yet his optimism.

Boffer larps, by comparison, seem to fail at modelling our more insidious social ills in a useful way. Of the long-running Knight Realms, which features the usual fantasyland panoply of humanoid sub-races, Stark reports that "[i]n-game racism also produces liberal-minded anxiety. Although racism is written into the game, the concept that all men, dwarfs and gypsies were created equal is hard to shed. [...] In other words, few players practise the racism dictated by the rules maybe because tolerance is so ingrained in players out-of-game, maybe because racist assumptions — even imaginary ones — create real-life discomfort." [Stark, 132]

The phenomenon is intriguing, but I find myself wondering if Stark isn't wearing rose-tinted lenses here; couldn't the failure to 'play' the game's racism be rooted in the players' recognition of the mutual privilege they share outside the game? Does racism — remnant of our tribalist instincts that it is — perhaps feel wrong when directed at someone who you know, at some level, to actually be one of your own?
I make no solid claims, here, because I don't feel I can defend them using only secondary sources. But Stark's discussion of the more workaday sexual disparity in Knight Realms offers a supporting riff:
"... despite the game's strong female population, few women have achieved titled in-game power. In the course of the game's thirteen year history, there have only been a small handful of female knights - six out of about forty — and only two women have been appointed ladies of the land, out of about twenty-five appointed lords, though five women have married into noble titles in-game."
There's little sign of liberal hand-wringing over that particular manifestation of privilege... if people are unwilling to play world-appropriate racism in Knight Realms, why isn't there a similar hesitation over world-appropriate sexism? After all, feudal states aren't exactly known for their enthusiastic enfranchisement of women, while our understanding of racism in similar settings is more limited.
Perhaps it's partly down to the American liberal psyche, which has internalised the existence and wrongness of racism, but which still struggles to see the ubiquitous influence of kyriarchy in the social fabric. Perhaps it's partly because, in the case of the gender disparity in Knight Realms, the physical trigger of the character's otherness — her femininity — is likely to be explicit in the physicality of the player. By contrast, you wouldn't get the same triggers for racist responses from the non-baseline-human characters in Knight Realms because, beneath the layer of make-believe, they still look just like One Of Your Lot.
Or perhaps these issues don't crop up in boffer larp because that's not what people play it for. In this, it lies close to its roots in American re-enactment groups. "The intent of re-enactment," explains a former Sergeant 1st Class of the US Army, who uses larp and re-enactment as 'safe zones' in which he can explore his post-PTSD outlook on the world, "is not to offend but to entertain, enlighten and educate." [Stark, 151] Elsewhere, another re-enactor mentions his group's refusal to perform Nazi salutes or fly swastika banners, despite the otherwise obsessive attention to detail of the hobby. Some things, apparently, are just a step too far.
But perhaps not so for the Nordic school.

The scene that documents itself

"When larping, we are given the chance to test out things we cannot or should not do outside of the safe frames of the game. If I had been in a situation similar to this in real life, I would have fought these feelings with my ethics, my intellect and my ideals. But because it was a game, I could let these emotions and impulses show me what kind of a person I hope never ever to become.
And that knowledge, and the process by which it was gained, was a hell of a high." [Elin Nilsen, States Of Play, 11]

Neonhämärä via darkismus
Nordic larp is both a godsend and a curse to a writer; there's enough source material to drown in. The peripatetic Knutepunkt conference has been producing books that collect the best papers of the year into one place, and many of them are freely available as PDFs; in the last few years, videos of the paper presentations have been appearing on YouTube. There is, naturally, a wiki . There's enough primary material floating around to form at least a dozen doctoral theses, and that's before you even start looking at interdisciplinary intersections.

That said, you'll want to do a proper search of the literature before you begin. The academic influence on larp is clear to see in its nomenclature, in its intense self-theorisation; indeed, the scene is already producing its own larp-focused PhDs. True to its network-culture demographic, however, the openness and conviviality of the Knutepunkt circuit stand in stark contrast to the more staid conferences of the liberal arts, resembling science fiction fandom conventions — an important nursery for larp of all types — far more than literary symposia; open discussion and dialogue are not just important to the scene, but central to it. It's as if the community itself is a collective author, a gestalt entity — an interesting counterpoint for an artform where authorship is inherently unstable and slippery.

All this would be of some note even if larp were just another branch of the plastic or narrative arts as we already know them. What’s fascinating about larp is its seeming potential: all art could be considered software which interacts with the localised cultural operating system running on the platform of our minds, but larp goes one step further, achieving its aesthetic affect by kludging, amending or outright rewriting that code — hacking it, in other words. If mainstream larps are the equivalent of the homebrew software BBSs of the Eighties, developing and sharing new games to play on their newly-accessible hardware, then perhaps the Nordic school are equivalent to the FOSS hacker hardliners, trying to see how completely they can PWN the machine. Pure diversion and escapism have been sidelined somewhat in favour of philosophical and ideological exploration. The language of theory is everywhere, including many scene-specific coinings and neologisms: 'narrative bleed' (not always as undesirable as it might sound, apparently); 'diegetic briefings'; 'fictional positioning'; 'formal transparency'. 'Metagaming'.

Nordic larp seems to be evaluated primarily in terms of its design (in which sheer scale or operational expense play roles minimised or inverted from those they play in the boffer mainstream), its theoretical daring or sociopolitical controversy, the level of affect induced in players, or a combination of all three. Fun is fine, of course, but out on the experimental edge it takes a back seat.
Like other artforms before it, larp has spawned its own little academy. Perhaps its techniques and rhetorics will spread, osmose into other disciplines, metastasise — become another conceptual toolkit through which we can observe, interrogate and manipulate the world, and ourselves-in-the-world.

Stockholm syndrome

"The rules-light nature of Nordic games keeps the illusion of the game world intact." [240, Stark]

Equinox via danielleblue
The growth years for tabletop RPGs saw more than a few morality scares based around the timeworn concerns of the baseline puritanical, and boffer larp stands ready as target for more of the same: the identification with and/or acting out of world-views that are false, deviant or outright Evil (where 'Evil', as always, refers to the morally untenable as defined by the moral majority). People imagining themselves to be something other than Americans — well, what more could you possibly want to be? There’s something fundamentally unAmerican about wanting to be anything other than American, after all (indeed, it's the contradiction under the weight of which the constructed American identity is currently collapsing)... and anyway, pretending to be someone else is kid’s stuff. Or maybe girlie-stuff. Certainly not man-stuff.

Stretch these imaginative exploits out all the way to Nordic levels of reconceptualising the self, though, and there’s something even more terrifying — not just to the mind of Middle America, but to hierarchists everywhere. Viewed from atop the ivory tower of governance and control, larp techniques start looking a fair bit like indoctrination or brainwashing tools — tools whose use should be regulated, if not outright banned. (The authorities, of course, may continue using them to defend Our Freedoms; Big Brother knows best.)
These tools are, like all technologies, neither good nor bad – but nor are they neutral, per Kranzberg . Even though a chisel isn't a weapon, it can cause harm when used carelessly, and I find myself wondering what sorts of accidents we might see when arrivistes start rummaging around in the larp toolbox just for the lulz. After all, Stark and others tell tales of real-world relationships destroyed (and created) by the shockwaves from in-game events, and of sexual orientations reassessed in the wake of the more ambitiously sociopolitical games.
Stark suggests that "intense larp gameplay creates an altered state of consciousness", and as I read game-design papers from the Knutepunkt circuit I kept hearing echoes bouncing back from Timothy Leary's psychedelic theories of "set and setting". Implicit in both is the idea that not only is the mind plastic, but that experimenting with that plasticity is something akin to a duty, a possibility for personal development that shouldn't be passed up by those brave enough to take the plunge and step outside of themselves; a willing step toward becoming one's own post-Nietzschean ubermensch, if you like. So we might say that the Nordic larp scene is pioneering the development of a new toolkit for meddling with identity and empathy; a non-invasive intervention methodology based on consensual manipulation of environmental triggers and narrative framing.
Stark remains confident that the risk of psychological splashback is pretty low, thanks in part to the design of the Nordic games, with their pre-game workshops, safe-words and debriefings, but thanks also to human nature:  "larp can't release something in you that isn't already there", she says, and mentions the Nordic scene's practice of selective ostracism, which is in part intended to keep risky or problematic players at arm's length from the hardcore stuff: people deemed 'unsuitable' are not encouraged to return, not embraced by the community.
My concerns linger, based on a rather bleak and cynical view of the sort of behaviours that, regrettably, are already there in most ordinary people, buried under layers of social protocol and the keeping-up-appearances of modern civilisation. I ask Stark what she thinks a disastrously failed larp might look like.
"We already have a great example of that, actually," she replies. "Have you heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment?"
"I'm not sure I felt this at the time, but in retrospect, I think my trip to Knudepunkt could be termed an elaborate larp built for one, a larp conducted in public without the knowledge of those around me, a pervasive game... " Stark, Leaving Mundania, p234

I'm left with the same feeling as Stark, without having yet so much as played a Nordic game or attended a conference: once you know what a larp can be, then everything starts to look like one.
Furthermore, there's a realisation that the psychological phenomena which larp explores and manipulates might just be the missing link between a whole bunch of artforms, technologies and philosophies. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the toolset in use, namely the human imagination, that lends it this interstitial quality: conceived in reductionist terms, Nordic larp is simply imagination-as-play.
Where does experimental theatre end, and consensual indoctrination into a covert ideology begin? Can a temporary intentional community, in and of itself, be a form of performance art? Can a performance art piece become a political movement instead of just a statement? These questions pivot on the fluid dualities of fiction and reality, of reader and subject, which can be upended with a flick of the wrist or a twist of the frame; if we assume altermodernism to have accepted and integrated (if not fully approved of) the ubiquitous ontological hollowness of the postmodern condition, then might Nordic larp be one of the first truly altermodernist forms, an experimental laboratory for the breeding of new metanarratives?
Maybe, maybe not. But Nordic larp's brisk defrocking of essentialist identity politics, and its repeated demonstrations that convincing and compelling constructs of allegiance and collective identity can be assembled with surprisingly minimal effort, mark it out as a meta form. If a larp is a group of people playing certain roles in a certain imagined context toward some sort of goal, then larp itself — Nordic larp, the school, the movement — is a larp of larps, a metalarp; a game of games.
Larp has more obvious and more commercial cousins, of course. Alternate reality games use the same immersive world-overlaid-upon-world techniques, but the narrative is hierarchical, goal-orientated, and — ideally, at least for their creators — bounded by clear arcs of story which are defined before the game even begins; cosplay is busily turning dressing up and acting out as fictional characters into an acceptable (and in some cases praiseworthy) pastime for those over the age of eight; MMOs like World Of Warcraft have made the essence of the boffer larp experience less exhausting, weather-proof and post-geographical — play when you like, for as long as you like, with fellow players from anywhere in the world.
And then there's Second Life, the notoriously not-a-game synthetic world, which is the closest thing to Nordic larp online: Second Life gives you the space to build your imagined world, and the power to reimagine yourself as anyone or anything, but what you do with that potential is entirely up to you.
(It is perhaps telling that Second Life — wallowing deep in the Trough Of Disillusionment now that the corporate Fortyniners have moved on — suffered terribly from would-be users not knowing what they were meant to do with it. If so, it may be equally telling that the communities that have survived and thrived there — the Wastelands, for instance, which is essentially an ongoing and pervasive post-apocalyptic larp community that meets exclusively in SL — are the ones that used the framework to build their own worlds, games and narratives within it.)
I've already compared genres — or rather the communities of discourse and canon-generation that take place within and around a generic label — to larp; genres are identities, after all, groupings of people as much as (if not more than) they are groupings of works or ideas. No contemporary discussion of identity and allegiance would be complete without a mention of Anonymous; as such, I'd offer that Anonymous is nigh indistinguishable from a persistent larp set in a territory that maps almost seamlessly to the world in which it is suspended. There's only one character you can play, and there's no GM to tell you how to play it. For Anonymoids, as for Second Lifers, code is law, as Lawrence Lessig put it: if it can be done, then you may do it.
But the counterculture has no monopoly on larpish behaviour. I'd also contend that the nigh-viral Six Sigma framework of manufacturing quality assurance took on very larp-like characteristics, especially as it trickled down — poorly understood and richly overhyped — to the very same small businesses that its progenitors were busily eviscerating in the mid- to late-Nineties. Imagine a larp designed to explore perfection and efficiency in the workplace, being played earnestly by a handful of converts among a workforce of disinterested and disenfranchised NPCs who haven't had so much as a sip of the kool-aid... Well, perhaps I'm being unfair, here, but Six Sigma looked to me like an RPG for middle management long before I knew what Nordic larp even was.

Last but not least, larp bears more than a passing resemblance to a post-geographical evolution of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone: polders and pockets scooped briefly out of consensus reality, wherein the normal rules of behaviour are suspended or rewritten. The European soundsystem-rave circuit of the 1990s, the Burning Man festival in the States, squats and communes and refusenik pseudocommunities like Slab City... they all play with(in) the world in a larpish way, which is to say they find a place in which to make of it a stage, sweep it clean of association, and improvise their roles upon it, unbound by any rules other than those agreed to among the players.
Herein, then, lies the terrible beauty of larp's promise: you can play whatever rules you like, whenever you like, wherever you like.
All you have to do is define them.
Game theory: the ethics and mechanics of play
It turns out that the Nordic larp scene is more aware and engaged with its own intrinsic risks than I expected — not only the psychic-backlash potential of the immersion in otherness, but the subject matter too. Unsurprisingly, the Stamford Prison Experiment is a touchstone for both.
In his paper "The Golden Rule Of Larp" [States Of Play, p20], Simo Järvelä declares the eponymous ethic to be "things informed adults do consensually amongst themselves are acceptable" [emphasis in original], and the Knutepunkt books, which function as a rough'n'tumble annual academic journal, burgeon with ethical navelgazing — some serious, some playful — alongside deconstructions and rakings-over of old games, successful or otherwise; the scene is always looking to improve, enhance, expand the boundaries of what larp can do. Taking care of the players — taking care of each other — is a big motivator, an elevated sense of communal responsibility and mutual support that, again, reminds me very strongly of the the raves and warehouse-party scene of the Nineties here in the UK: the shared acknowledgement of risk, the shared thrill of an adventure outside of mainstream reality, are powerful bonding agents.
To an onlooker, the "amongst themselves" bit is the most interesting component of Järvelä's formulation, because within it can be found the seed of that ostracism, the very necessary outsiderdom of larp. Either a larp is played away from all other non-players or, as in the geographically or temporally larger 'persistent' games, among mundanes who are oblivious to the game's context. The scene is lucky in the former respect, as the Nordic countries retain their ancient 'right to roam' statutes, which frees up vast expanses of countryside for play without permission (and may well explain why all sorts of larp are so much more commonplace there by comparison to the States or the UK).
But when playing amongst non-players, the possibilities for problematic leakages between realities become clear. It's easy enough to restrict players from interacting with mundanes, but in a highly-charged and public scene — a chase through a shopping precinct, say, or a kidnapping — there's always the possibility of a bystander breaking through the fifth wall by accident, which could lead to all sorts of grief for all concerned. Järvelä candidly admits that this risk has yet to be fully quantified, let alone planned against — but his framing of the question (and its implicit plea for further discussion) is more like an earnest fanzine letter than a chin-stroking ethical polemic.
One suspects such developments will always be forced by events; in its newness, its enthusiastic experimentation and its occasionally narcissistic self-regard, Nordic larp looks destined to encounter any number of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. The only way to test the rules is to play the game.
This test-to-destruction approach, combined with Nordic larp's fascination with the deeper emotions, have led to the development of some fascinating game mechanics. Tabletop play still tends toward dicerolling, and there are a variety of approaches to boffer combat (including, in some cases, the requirement that an injured player method-act the effects of their imaginary injury as fully as possible); mainstream games less focussed on combat might use a combination of memorised statistics, cards drawn by chance or stone-paper-scissors hybrids to model interactions like an attempted theft or bluffing past a guard. But the Nordic scene adores abstraction, especially when modelling the affairs of the heart: Stark's account of playing In Fair Verona, for instance, a love-larp that required its players to interact via the medium of tango, is as strange as it is charming.
Emma Wieslander, author of the aforementioned Mellan himmel och hav and one of the scene's more prolific academics and theorists, is also the inventor of Ars Armandi, a larp game mechanic or system for the safe simulation of love and sex which underpinned her groundbreaking game. Ars Armandi essentially maps the entire body onto a limited area thereof — arms, shoulders, sternum, upper back, neck below the ears — where touching is permitted. It sounds like an actor's workshop exercise (which is exactly where Wieslander got the idea from), but it's still powerful stuff, and Ars Armandi's impact can be seen rippling through the last decade of Nordic larp, with articles and papers and workshops spreading the idea, challenging and refining and reapplying it.
The fame of Mellan himmel och hav is well-earned; not only does it still stand as a flagship experiment in political larp design and the deconstruction of gender, but it combined larp with other 'higher' arts - theatre, light art, music by contemporary composers. Most fascinating to me, however, is what happened after the game had finished.
The Way Out Is Through
"... none of these things seemed to have any meaning. Maybe these ideas I had about who I was weren't as important as I thought they were, and maybe I didn't need to be any of these things. But if so, how could I still be me? More than that, if these identities were something I could put on or take off at will, if all identity was fluid, how could anyone have an identity at all? [...] I was definitely in the middle of some sort of existential quandry." Stark, Leaving Mundania, p237

Mellan himmel och Hav left lingering marks on its players, and on its creator. After the game ended, a number of players were unwilling to return to the social structures of consensus reality, with its institutionalised loneliness, its crude gender binaries, its doctrines of consumption for consumption's own sake.
So they didn't return — or rather, they only returned halfway, carrying over the communalism of the game into reality. A handful of them crammed themselves into an apartment meant for a single occupant; the need for personal space had been exposed as a myth, a narrative seemingly designed to drain money (and, by extension, time and passion) from the individual in thralls to it. Living together meant they needed less income, which meant everyone could work less — much less. This left time to spare for the true work: the exploration of a new mode of living.
"I guess that, in regards to the lifestyle, it was the other way around for me," Wieslander tells me by email. "I have never felt comfortable with the heteronormative nuclear family, I guess; I find it a nuisance. Not only is the idea of autonomous individuals grouped together in too-small-to-be-functional groups scientifically unnatural to the human species, it also seems to me to be morally indefensible: it's a guilt-trap where most people are set up to automatically fail, but it also seems to be one of the cornerstones of gender-based discrimination
"So for me, making Mellan... was about taking that big 'what if?' and really trying it out. If gender roles are human constructs, we should be able to deconstruct and reconstruct at will — and as it turned out, we could! But as it's virtually impossible to deconstruct the gender binary without having a go at twosome partnering; that had to be part of the package, too.
"It turned out to be a greater epiphany to many of the participants than they'd thought. I guess there wasn't a conscious decision on anyone's part to take the game out of the box so much as the experiment having a great impact on people, on both participants and others.
"A few months later there was another game set in the Swedish green-wave seventies, playing a communal lifestyle with very much the same set of players. I think it was a reaction to the alienation many of the players felt in the 'normal' world, and a longing to go back to the community that we constructed in order to establish the high level of trust that was needed for the experiment to work."
It was a passing allusion to this very story that first piqued my interest in Nordic larp. What would it take, I wondered, what sort of depth of experience would you need to have in order to come back to reality and decide you were going to rewrite the role of your own life?
With hindsight, the connection is obvious, though it might not be so to someone who never rode the UK raves'n'festivals circuit of the Nineties. It's the Temporary Autonomous Zone effect, the euphoric sensation of having escaped without moving: having seceded, somehow, stepped sidewise out of a mainstream culture that marginalises or demonises you. I can recall any number of times when I was sat among a bug-eyed circle, with junkyard tablas tapping Morse over the top of industrial-strength techno just past the hedge or over the next hill, every breath held tight like a nervous dove at a peace rally as dawn starts to stain the edge of the sky, then loosed all at once in wordless triumph as the sun rises on a world that looks at once smaller and far bigger than it ever has before, and thinking it would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if we could live like this forever?
Wonderful might not be quite the word, of course — indeed, the outgoing Tory government of the time had set in motion the fait accompli annihilation of the travelling lifestyle, and was busy luring rave culture out of the black economy and into expensive (and, more mportantly, legal) nightclubs. But it's worth remembering that people still do this: they drop out, they join cults or movements (or bands), they live in squats or on the road or in nameless permaculture ghost-villages far from civilisation.
And what else have they done, then, if not swapped the societal software suite with which they'd been inculcated for one they've modified to their preferences? That the new software is based on a historical social paradigm or an entirely imagined one is irrelevant; the hardware will run any software that's coded well enough to compile. Design yourself a different life: draw a door in the air, and step through.
Of course, you'll run into friction whenever your new set of rules puts you in conflict with others — especially those who aren't playing the game, and who may well view your game as dangerous, treacherous, blasphemous or insane. And so you modify and tweak and hack, adjust the game so it fits into the cracks where the rules of the non-players don't penetrate so thoroughly. You go interstitial.
And you realise, in the process, that the non-players aren't non-players at all.
They're just playing a different game.
Larp, the Universe and Everything
The response of John Major's Tories to the flourishing of rave culture was one of horror and disgust, akin to finding one's serene ornamental arboretum infested with tribes of manic squirrels with boomboxes; much as a part of me would quite like to see secessionary sub-cultures gestated in larp and birthed into consensus reality, I suspect I've already seen the sort of reaction they will provoke from the players of the more popular game. (Nietzsche might have recognised it, too.)
But the world is fecund, full of interstices. Entropy sneaks into our software as well as our hardware, and the The Biggest Game is too big and complex for the gamesmasters to patch every bug right away. Gradual iteration would be the key, I guess: start with the small things, change slowly enough that the neighbours won't notice you any more than they notice the plane trees at the edge of the pavement adding sneaky inches of xylem and phloem. Think of it as an inversion of the boiled frog metaphor, where everyone else is the frog, warming up all unknowing on the outside of your jar... and before you know it, you've got the seed of something like the anarchic 'unlicensed sectors' of Delany's Triton.
You'll have to be careful, of course, to boil the frog very slowly indeed, lest the licentiousness and liberty of your polder be accused of succouring our epochal bugbear, terrorism. Second Life suffered a similar fate during its time atop the Peak of Heightened Expectations, back in late 2007; its unregulated sprawl of freeform simulation space looked — to those who look for such things, and who tend to find them wherever they look — like an infinite digital agar plate awaiting a sneeze of seditious sputum.
(The irony being, of course, that Second Life was a hotbed of terrorism, albeit a memetic and pop-cultural terrorism. Indeed, recalling the rampaging mobs of phallus-spawning faux-furry trickster avatars controlled by 4Chan and the SomethingAwful goonswarms — a few unprotected fucks further up the family tree from Anonymous — you might even argue that Second Life really was a training ground for one of the most successful international terrorist (dis)organisations of recent history.)
The fear of the refusenik Other validates the notion of culture-as-larp: to conceive of the threat presented to mainstream cultural stability by the potential of people to reprogram themselves or each other, one must make the tacit admission that 'stable mainstream culture' is not a natural state — nor a stable, nor even a mainstream one — but is itself an ideological construct, a pervasive larp into which most people in a given region have been indoctrinated by default.
Where authority sees horror, I see some little hope, like Holmas: might larp let us literally play our way to more equitable social structures? It might, at the very least, let us test out adjustments to the one we've got.
"[Knutepunkt] evoked in me the yearning to return to that terrifying and fascinating place where there were no boundaries or rules, where there was no self, where identity itself seemed impossible. I felt as though I had peeked over the precipice of human existence, and in that one moment I was terrifyingly, truly alive." Stark, Leaving Mundania, p241

It occurred to me at a very late stage in the drafting of this essay that I've been blind to the most obvious comparison for the larp experience, namely the experience of being a child: the period in your life when starting an open-ended larplike game is as simple as saying to a friend "I'm Metatron, you're Starscream," and running away. (The trigger for this particular epiphany was novelist Tim Pratt, whose tweets about his toddler son are a wonderful window into a mindstate I barely remember.)
So I've perhaps put the cart before the horse, here: Nordic larp isn't building a new toolkit for mindhacking so much as it is exploring an old forgotten mindstate we all once shared, rediscovering the completely immersive and freeform nature of play as experienced in childhood, and retooling it for an adult context. Childhood is when we assimilate the protocols of society; it's the pre-game workshop for the larp that is our lives.
So how about larp as a sort of software transhumanism? An ongoing project to transcend the limitations of the human, but not by hacking the body, nor even the brain, but the mind? Exploiting the recently-revealed plasticity of our thought patterns and social engrams; rooting and rebooting yourself into the imagination-theatre of childhood, then holding down F8 so you can fiddle around with the BIOS, install a different OS, tweak the power management settings...
It's a sweeping metaphor, I'll grant you, and only time will tell whether Nordic larp will make any measurable difference to human civilisation as a whole, even as it makes a huge difference to the individual lives it touches. But I maintain that larp's implicit lesson is true: canonical consensus reality is, in effect, a roleplaying game that we're all playing, and so involved in that we've forgotten that the rules are all our own creation.
So: who do you want to be today?

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