Warning! Culture geek level is pretty high in this post. I’ve probably made mistakes and omissions, but this is a tricky subject to pin down. Please feel free to correct and add to this. Discussions are the lifeblood of a blog.
It is a rehash of a point I made two years ago on my danish roleplaying blog, which had some specific references that made it quite the touchy subject. But none of that now, this is just some observations that I have about larp and how it fits in contemporary culture.
It’s bloody hard to define postmodernism, without first defining modernism and a ton of historical perspectives. But here’s my dictionary, with a rather nice definition:
a late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”
Typical features include a deliberate mixing of different artistic styles and media, the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, and often the incorporation of images relating to the consumerism and mass communication of late 20th-century postindustrial society.
Postmodernism shows us a world without grand narratives or black and white understanding. It is in it’s nature fragmentary, incomplete and incompatible. It is at the same time a rebellion against modernism and a cycling back into it, themes carry over and new postmodern theories become the target of deconstruction themselves.
It states that there is no great truths to be found underneath, everything is just layer upon layer of human understandings. The deeper we dig, the more we just find ourselves. It might seem a bit depressing, but it is also empowering of the individual and gives new avenues of change.
As postmodernism rejects the notion of universal truths and objective experience and declares that everything has to be subjective. There’s nothing to be found outside of the individual and her sense of the world.
You can’t experience a larp except as a subjective participant. You have no way of experiencing the entirety of a game, as the experiental output happens simulatenously to all participants. It’s leaves you with just your own limited sense of the thing.
There’s a movement in culture that continuously lessens the distance between artist and audience, catalyzed by the internet and social media. Instead of the author creating a work in a vacuum before handing the completed work to the consumers, there’s now an ongoing dialogue between the two sides. Indeed in a lot of culture, the participants move between consumer and creator all the time.
Larps do not exist without the consumers taking part of it. You can’t have a larp without players contributing to it, except as a thought experiment. Likewise, you cannot consume larp without becoming part of the creative contributions to it.
Fragmentary, remixed and unexpected
A big element in postmodern is the breaking up of big coherent pictures into fragments that then become recombined in new and surprising ways.
Larp is all about fragments, every game exists as a fragment of a larger figment, every player’s experience is a fragment of the whole. We use and remix elements from popular culture and our own community, to make our games. And the games will always contain unexpected twist and occurences that become part of the whole, as the players take the game into their own hands.
A big theme in postmodernity is looking at things as social constructions. How things we experience as natural or obvious are actually an expression of the culture we inhabit, our understanding is always culturally determined.
Roleplaying is all about shaping cultures, every game has some sort of cultural scaffolding that holds it up. And we play with them, tweak them, use them, break them. It’s an awesome laboratory to see how we can create new social orders and which parts of them are so ingrained we can’t even get rid of them while being orks.
Experments of form
Postmodern art doesn’t just explore inside the box, it takes the box apart and sees if it is really the only possible container or if it might become something other than that. And there’s no limits to how much you can deviate from the traditional, all rules are meant to be broken. It’s the exploration itself that becomes the goal, rather than the resulting work.
Larp has a strong tradition of taking itself apart and looking at it’s own entrails. We consistently try to remove every essential bit to see if we still have larp and break all the rules we set for ourselves. We move forward not only by adding new content to larps, but also by altering the forms we play by.
A new thing identified on the postmodern scene is that culture has stopped following a linear timeline. As an example: Istead of music building directly on the previous generation, musicians now base themselves on any era of music instead. You have all sorts of anachronistic communities and events, such as steampunk and burlesque.
Larp has always stolen from the past, for settings, stories and characters. We combine cultural elements from the medieval times with modern concepts in our fantasy games and play science fiction with baroque societies.
A strong trend is also to discard the purely physical location as a factor, just as with time. Coca Cola is a universal phenomenon and we follow japanese cultural trends.
Nordic Larp just made the leap out of meatspace and into the post-geographic, by becoming a style in many countries, rather than just the four original ones. We accumulate according to interests and subcultures across geographical boundaries. While larp still takes place in a localized setting, the trend is for participants to come from quite far away to participate in games that interest them. And the setting of the game will probably not have much more than surface relations to the actual place it happens in.
Larp simply would not work without these elements, it wouldn’t have been able to grow without the premise of the postmodern. While there are and have been many things akin to larp, which conform to older models, they could not be larp, as they lack the fundamental nature of postmodernism.
Something else that is interesting to me, is that while a lot of other similar cultural trends have sprung up following the opportunities of web 2.0, larp has had many of these qualities from the start. We have as many others been catalyzed by social media and become able to connect across a larger and larger area, but the core concepts of larp are the same. And we don’t just do our thing across the internet, larp is a meatspace thing. And technology is still very far from removing that factor.
Larp is postmodern and I love it for it.