LARP as Social Science Lab

Last night, while looking through Facebook, a very good friend of mine, who will be the Sovereign of Aesthetics (SA) until she gives me a better name, posted an interesting article on “Nordic larp.” The premise of this particular game was that all of the characters were women in a world where, for some reason, all of the men have disappeared. It was apparently based on, very loosely, Y: The Last Man, though only the very basic idea seems to be used.

However, what’s really interesting about this, is that much of the goal of this particular larp is not to meet any specific win condition, but rather to explore the possibility of a world without men, and what would happen if one suddenly showed up. Over the two day gaming event, the first day was focused entirely on world building for the players and the second introduced this single male as a plot element. There are no character sheets or stats, the characters are given backstories and general personality traits and the players simply improv their way around the world they’re in by drawing on that information.

This is the kind of larp I prefer. I’ve been larping for well over a decade now and I’ve highly whittled down my play to only games of this type. Of course, until last night I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I call them immersion larps (iLarps) and we’ve always preferred RP-heavy rather than mechanics-heavy games.

But what was interesting, and SA brought it up as well as the author of the piece above, is that these types of games provide an opportunity to explore social situations that we might not otherwise experience. In this case, the introduction of a world with no men that has come up with a way to make that work sets up a great way to explore gender relations. With the very sudden disappearance of patriarchy (literally), what sort of system will rise in its place? Will the idea of oppression change, and if so, how? How does the elimination of sex affect other social factors like race or sexual orientation? I’ve been short-handing to the world being populated by only “women,” but in all truth that doesn’t take trans*men and gender non-binary people into account, so how would that effect the world?

And all of those questions are immediately available before we even introduce the last remaining biological male into the situation.

These types of games are a great way to engage in philosophical experimentation, forcing us to consider how single changes in our world can have wide-ranging effects. It also doesn’t distract from that by impelling us to consider what sorts of things we “can do” according to character sheets. We’re left with an experience that puts those questions in front of us and gives us no option than to confront them.

This type of larping can provide a laboratory for social experimentation. It requires a group of gamers who will take the world you’re playing in seriously, but with a dedicated troupe, you can explore almost any sort of situation by simply setting up the parameters in advance.

4 thoughts on “LARP as Social Science Lab

  1. That sounds like a fantastic larp.

    Another necessary element is trust. When you get into certain situations, there’s always the possibility of misstepping and hurting someone. To really explore meaty issues, you have to a) know that other people trust you enough to know that any offense is unintentional, and b) trust that if you do fuck up, someone will gently tell you. (And they in turn have to trust that you’ll listen.)

    I get nervous about such experiments, always worrying that I’ll appropriate someone else’s experience or cause discomfort, and I don’t want that. But that doesn’t mean such social experiments shouldn’t be done.

  2. I’ve recently seen conversation about this particular LARP setup spring to life in recent months. Ultimately I think LARP represents the possibilities of exploring ourselves in new ways so this LARP setting is a wonderful creation. I know that it has already stirred some discussion as to whether it not it’s appropriate because it’s gender biased. I say “OF COURSE it’s appropriate – because it forces the actors (and in my cases non actors) to approach a non-appropriate topic.”

    I will note however that I do not believe that games with a high mechanical degree take away from the ability to challenge and explore ourselves, they merely do so in different ways.

    • Entirely fair. I find mechanics distracting, but I also came from nearly a decade in an organization where far too many people substituted mechanical advantage for story development, so I admit my bias there. Certainly mechanics can add to story and character, but I prefer them being light or non-existent.

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