Foreword : this article was originally written in French and intented to present the main features of the game to the french-speaking audience, as well as highlighting what were, in my opinion, the incentive behind painful roleplaying. Some aspects of this article should therefore be read keeping this cultural bias in mind.
The second run of the international Larp “Last Will” took place in Stockholm from the 2nd to the 4th of January 2015. This Larp displays modern slaves in a gladiator stable from a not-so-distant dystopian future. This article shall address two prominent features of this game : physical play, and the purpose of painful roleplaying and violence, through the experience of a fighter role, heavily exposed to these issues.
Physical play and immersion
Last Will’s main themes are oppression and loss of control, which means that some of the constraints that are applied to the character need to be experienced in a physical way. The immersion works on both levels, physically and mentally, emphasizing the way the environment influences their psyche and mentality. Therefore, the physical dimension, however safe and calibrated, is paramount to the Larping experience.
Enduring the oppression
The communication around the game is extremely clear, especially where the themes of slavery and dehumanization are concerned. The environment in the game is construed so that the pressure is physically experienced and feels real. Sensory deprivation (the venue is completely kept in the dark, and the clocks are tampered with), sleep interruption and deprivation, forced workout sessions, control over feeding times and rations (made bland and unappealing) are used as psychological devices to create the physical constraint. Punishments are delivered under the public eye, slaves are renegociated, sold and disposed of according to the will of the owners, and characters are made to witness the sufferings of those close to them.
Fighters get an additional degree of exposure, as they are a focus of attention, and at the time often have the lesser control over their own existence. These roles have more physical interactions, from training sessions, physiotherapy, and a controlled and dictated sexuality. The actual fights happen off-game, and their issue is decided by the player according to what’s best for the story (according a narrativist approach), but the winning fighter isn’t the better for it, quite the opposite, with their being even more pressured by the system. With the fighters always overexposed and the – spectacular – visuals of their wounds, the economy and exploitation of pain and suffering is obvious and always brought to mind.
This is a heavily debated subject in our own [French] Larping community : should sexual intercourse be represented, and if so, how, and how do you keep it safe?
The first answer is simple: dealing with sexuality is a necessity if the background and narration in the game justifies if. In the context of Last Will, exploitation and alienation tends to turn sex into a trading goods and a commodity that is controlled and negociated. And yet, even this harsh and brutal environment gives leeway for actual, heartfelt love stories.
In this instance, the use of Ars Amandi seems the obvious choice. It enables the roleplaying of sexuality under a wide range of emotions, from sheer brutality to actual tenderness. The main asset of this technique is to involve the player physically and mentally while remaining safe, strictly confined to the hand-arms-shoulders zone. Furthermore, the involvement of the players can be limited: they can choose to opt-out of the workshop, and some characters may not experience sexuality at all. Lastly, safewords exist to interrupt a scene at any moment, should that be needed.
Play acting characters being affected in their own intimacy is never trivial, play acting upon intimacy and violence can become very heavy and emotionally draining. However, the execution here has always been transparent in the communication, respectful and safe in the delivery, which should always be kept in mind while dealing with these subjects.
Purpose and issues of the painful roleplaying
Any game that, like Last Will, is set in a harsh and potentially violent environment is always questioned, whether it be on the general approach or the physical and mental risks involved.
Roleplaying the extreme violence or heavy issues
As always, the answer to these concerns lies in communication and safety. As far as the organization is concerned, the extreme environment and situations in-game backs a political message: a reflection on modern slavery, that is part of the design of the game and that is discussed among players after the game’s ending. Communication is very explicit on these aspects, telling beforehand the level of pressure or discomfort that one should expect. Roles with more physical plays – suche as fighters or pleasers – are made explicit at registration, and players have to justify their request for these roles, as well as telling the degree of physical play they wish to experience.
Playing these constraints in a safe way is a logical consequence. Workshops are very important to understand the oppression and be prepared to roleplay them. Players have the means to communicate all the time on the constraints and violence they can endure. They are invited to do so before the game, or during its process (via calibrated times within the game or through the black box) We can also mention again the safeword, or more simply the fact that a player can leave the game for a safe zone at any time. Therefore nothing is actually imposed to the player, except for the fact that the contract of the game implies that they may at least witness some of the displayed violence.
Thus we can see how an extremely violent and oppressive environment can be implemented for the characters, while, for the players, it will make for a hard experience, but always made as safe as possible
Why so serious?
If the purpose of the painful roleplaying can be obvious from the organization point of view, such games always raise the question of purposefulness. Why would one inflict such harrowing conditions and extremely violent scenes upon themselves? Is that even still a game, so might say?
Last Will is a game that cannot be understood in the single scope of fun or entertainment, which is what gaming is considered to be in our culture. We need to consider this as an approach where Larp is actually a performative art (which the political message obviously shows)
As such, Larp can be analyzed from the paradox of the painful experiment in fiction. No one wants to endure suffering, we strive to avoid it, yet through culture we can appreciate painful situations, search for them even, and feel better for it. This paradox can be explained through a variety of motivations:
– the hedonistic. The pleasure derived from the experience is more important than the pain, which can be justified to highlight the positive elements of the story, or necessary as a trial to reach a happy ending.
– the intellectual development. A challenging premise, a way to test your own experience, to do something different as a relief from boredom or a way to explore new possibilities and get a new insight on life, are incentives for some.
– the psychological factor. It is often demonstrated that we can acquire actual experience and knowledge from fictional situations. By putting ourselves in danger through the safe prism of art, we can step out of our own comfort zone for self-development and improvement gain.
These justifications are by no means exhaustive and can occur simultaneously. They are also, most often, an unconscious process and can complement an even wider range of players’ motivations for partaking in a game. However, they can all explain why a painful Larping process can be transcended in a rich, fulfilling experience. Generally speaking, these Larping experiences can be considered as an elaborate form of Catharsis, through which we can live through these experiences and process them to the point of feeling better for it.
In this instance, the themes of Last Will and its players’ perceptions belong to this kind of experience. Within the game, the horror is ever present and the contrast with what few moments of beauty and humanity can remain is all the more striking. After the game, the approach of Last Will has you question yourself, the human condition, the value of the human being and how we create social connections, and thus it becomes a very deep experience, intellectually as well as humanly.
Last Will has raised concerns linked to the material conditions, physical play and painful roleplaying it creates. Many people would not enjoy such a game, and that is absolutely legitimate, considering that in the vast diversity of gaming culture anyone can, and should, find whatever suits them better. However, for its purpose and gameplay, Last Will has proven to be a well-crafted, intelligent and sensitive Larp, which has created a considerable emotional impact in its participants, creating for them a purposeful, enriching experience on every aspect.
Association: Ursula (Sweden)
Organisers: Frida Gamero, Sofia Stenler, Annica Strand
Pictures: Ylva Bergman (http://phooty.tumblr.com/), Lisa H. Ekbom, Johan Röklander