By Martin Nielsen
With a few exceptions, all larps take place in a set culture. This can be either a fictional culture or a culture based on the real world. For the previous larps where I have been part of the organizer team, we have made an effort to define the culture together with the players through a pre-larp workshop. This includes facilitating that the players calibrate their understanding of the culture. Earlier this month, I facilitated a workshop on this subject based on the larps Tinget (2011), Till Death Do Us Part (2012) and Huntsville (2013) at the Swedish larp conference Prolog. This blogpost is based on that workshop.
I will go through different strategies for communicating cultural understanding and present some suggestions on how to use a workshop to calibrate cultural understanding. I will also present some arguments for why I believe traditional means of communication has a lower potential than a workshop in order to calibrate cultural understanding.
What is culture?
Most larps centre on one or a few groups of people. Each group has its own organizational or tribal culture. This is defined as «Shared mental assumptions that guides interpretation and action by defining appropriate behaviour for various situations» (Ravasi and Schultz 2006), or informally “how it works here”.
Depending on the larp, it is possible to “zoom in” on the organizational/tribal culture. For example, Till Death Do Us Part is about Palestinian and Scandinavian culture, and it is an important part of the larp how these cultures are portrayed. But it is also about families who each have their own “tribal culture”. Similarly, in a larp about a company there will be one overall organizational culture, but also a more specific culture in sub-groups in the company (e.g. among the graphical designers).
There are several good reasons to make an effort to promote the players’ understanding of the culture before the larp starts:
– Players feel safe that they are not playing “wrong”, in particular in the early part of the larp.
– Misunderstandings can be resolved before the larp starts.
– The players will have a stronger ownership over the culture.
– If the larp takes part in a cultural setting where some players, but not all, have played before, there will be more equal opportunities to take part in the larp.
Cultural understanding can be achieved through playing the larp. My view is however, that it is much better to prepare beforehand. Not only because it’s unrealistic for characters who have lived or worked together for a long time having to tip-finger the culture in the early stage of the larp. Due to the lack of opportunities to adjust the culture underway, it is also much more likely that a larp that calibrate the culture after starting playing ends up with a stereotypical culture or a culture that is limiting the opportunities for play, and were the tools for adjusting it underway are very limited.
Establishing and calibrating
I will try to introduce the term “calibrating”. What I mean by this is that all participants adjust their interpretation of a phenomenon, so that all participants have more or less the same interpretation. By establishing I mean creating something from scratch. It’s hard to draw an absolute border between establishing culture and calibrating culture in a workshop, but that’s not the point. My point is that even for larps where the organizers wants to have maximum control over how the culture is established, there will still be need for the participants to calibrate their understanding.
An example: The organizers have described the culture as “everyone shares whatever food they’ve got. This happens with dignity, and one is expected to show gratefulness towards the ones who share with you”. This is a description of a cultural norm that can be interpreted in many ways. Even on the condition that the players have read the instruction and do everything they can to fulfill it, it is likely that many players will be insecure on how to actually do it the first time they are to share food. If the interpretation is calibrated beforehand, it will promote better play in the larp and give more equal opportunities to adjust the understanding to something that is playable and works well for everyone.
How to communicate cultural understanding to the players
When the organizers are communicating the culture they want in a larp, they have several channels at hand. Some common channels include:
– Writing a text they want the players to read
– Base the culture on an existing (real or fictional) culture that the players know (e.g. Battlestar Galactica or ancient Rome).
– Tell the players fragments and leave to them to improvise the rest (e.g. “everyone respects the elderly”)
– Assume the culture to be a function of the characters
– Give special instructions to some players and let them lead the way
Workshops are frequently used to build trust in the player group, teach certain skills (e.g. a dance or how to stage a fight) and exercising game mechanics (e.g. how to initiate a flashback). Some larps also establish characters and culture through a workshop, something which usually also includes a fair deal of calibration. I still believe that more larps, in particular larps where the organizers have the lion’s share of establishing the culture, should pay more attention to letting the players calibrate the culture through a workshop.
“High resolution larping” (Nordgren 2008) means that the players are enabled to communicate through small nuances in the characters behavior. High resolution communication requires a fine understanding of the relations and cultural framework. My point of view is that the cultural understanding required for high resolution larping cannot be achieved by words alone.
One of the things I have been doing when not larping, is training for leaders in various youth NGOs and student communities. Throughout the years, I have been speaking for several hundred of them about organizational culture. And I have yet to meet someone who is able to give an accurate description of the culture in the organization they come from. This is not because they are bad at describing, but because of the complexity of the phenomenon, even when not taking into account that all members of the organization will have different interpretations of the culture. I believe that we who are familiar with larp are very fortunate, because we have at hand a tool that is better than anything else at communicating cultural understanding. And we should use the larp tool more actively in workshops to improve – the larps.
Example of a pre-larp workshop exercise to calibrate cultural understanding
The three larps I mentioned above all use test-scenes to calibrate the player’s cultural understanding. The test-scenes can be roughly divided into three categories:
– Everyday life (e.g. children playing, meal)
– Rites (e.g. member leaving the group/death, festival)
– Taboos (e.g. violence, person of authority crying)
The method is simple: The players are divided into groups that get to prepare one test-scene each. The organizers should give a task to each group to help them getting started (e.g. portray a family sharing food). It is possible to use the characters from the larp to calibrate the relations as well as the culture here, but using other, temporary characters can cultivate a stronger cultural focus. After a few minutes of discussion on how to play the scenes, start playing the scenes.
The other participants observe while one group plays their scene. Encourage the observers to take notice of small details in the culture, and to observe both “the exotic” and “the obvious”. This is important to increase the awareness of how we easily reproduce stereotypes and our own culture, both in a workshop and in the larp itself if we have to improvise the cultural understanding as we play. “The exotic” is what clearly makes the culture different from stereotypes or our own culture. “The obvious” is cultural norms we take for granted, it can be for example shaking hands when people meet, men doing physical work and women caring for children or the distance people keep between them when they talk.
After the scene is over, ask the observers to describe what cultural norms they saw, both “the obvious” and “the exotic”. Take notes on a blackboard or flip-over if possible. It is OK if different people have observed contradicting norms. When the observers are finished, ask the people playing the scene if they have anything to add. Then, open a discussion of whether or not we are satisfied or not with the norms. Criteria for assessing the norms can be:
– Is the culture in line with the vision for this larp?
– Is the culture playable for all players?
– Is the culture sustainable over (sufficient) time?
– Is there anything we can do to increase playability?
– (Are changes required due to off-game concerns, such as player safety?)
The organizers can take part in this discussion along with the players. If the players and organizers agree that major changes would make a better larp, the scene should be replayed by the same group or another group and another discussion can follow. Of course, time will limit how many scenes you can have, but the more scenes that are played the better will the calibration of the culture be.
At Till Death Do Us Part, we also did a more extensive variant of the same exercise, by playing a small test-larp for about an hour. This must not be confused with a prologue where what happens enters the minds of the characters as their background. Nothing that happens in the test-larp, is part of the characters’ history when the real larp begins, it is just a way to try out understanding of culture, relations and characters and then adjust and calibrate before the real larp starts.
Other approaches to promote cultural understanding
Culture is usually understood as something you learn by taking part in it, and by following the example of others. I believe this is no different in a larp compared to the real world. My point of view is that written information has a low potential for furthering cultural understanding, even if we don’t take into account how time consuming it can be and that some players sometimes don’t read all the information.
Even for concrete, physical things, it can be very difficult to describe accurately how something looks. Here are some paintings of elephants made by medieval artists who had never seen an elephant, just read descriptions of elephants.
Today, we have professional artists whose job is to make drawings of wanted criminals based on descriptions. Even these professionals, who are specialized in this subject and who can do it after two-way communication with witnesses, cannot make the drawings look exactly like the real people. But describing a cultural norm is many times as complex as describing a physical appearance.
Some larps are based on TV-series or movies. This can be helpful to kick-start the players’ cultural understanding, but it still doesn’t give the players the culture “under their skin” and able to play out high resolution drama.
My view is that the workshop format has qualities that the other ways of conveying cultural understanding cannot match. It is not only more efficient in terms of the ratio of invested time / achieved cultural understanding. It also heightens the ceiling for how much cultural understanding the players can carry when they enter the larp.
Many parts of a larp are subject to individual interpretation. Let’s say your character is described as stubborn. You will have large freedom in interpreting how to play out this, and since (usually) only one player plays one character, it is not a problem if different players would interpret the description differently. But for some parts of the larp it is important that the players (at one single run) have a common understanding. This is particularly true for relations and culture, which are the frameworks for the interaction between the characters. While absolute coherency in the interpretation cannot be achieved, a thorough workshop can get the players rather close to this.
Just as a text will be interpreted individually by the different players, will the workshop. Different players calibrating the culture for the same larp at different runs will of course end up with different understandings even though the workshop is the same. But at a single run of larp, the players will ha a calibrated common understanding. This is because the method is participatory and because its form resembles the form of the larp itself.
That the process is participatory means everyone takes part, actively, at the same time. That the form resembles the form of the larp means the participants will use the same patterns of interpretation in the workshop as they will use in the larp. If we want high-resolution roleplaying in the larp, it is necessary to use high-resolution methods of communication when preparing the players. This is the case regardless of whether the culture is established from scratch by the players or it is prepared in detail by the organizers and only the calibration is left to the players. Larp is a powerful tool for learning and understanding, in particular when combined with discussions. Therefore, we should more often use larp itself, combined with discussions, as the tool when the purpose is learning and understanding to how to play a larp.