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‘International’ larp, nationality, and language

(This might not make much sense outside of the context of Allegiance, which I really need to write something here about. But anyway I wanted to capture these thoughts, originally shared on Facebook.)

One of the interesting (I think) things about Allegiance, the larp in Norway that I’ve recently been involved with, was brought out by one of the other designers when we were talking about it afterwards.

The decision had been taken, back at the start of the project, to cast each embassy with participants who were actually from that country (or who had lived there long enough, spoke the language fluently, etc, to be able to accurately simulate it).((Because of the pattern of signups, travel difficulties, having to replace late dropouts, etc, the policy wasn’t capable of being uniformly applied: and so some embassies ended up more mixed than others. And some embassies deliberately included characters who were not of that national origin, for plot and play reasons. But that doesn’t affect the arguments that I’m trying to make here.))

There was quite a bit of pushback against this, because it went against what I think is one of the unspoken guiding principles of international larping – that anyone from any country can play any character from any country, because we are all equal as people, where we are from is not important when we are larping together, etc. And this is a powerful and good statement about our personal and community values.

But, Allegiance made clear that actually, sometimes where we are from really is important. Because it contributes to what we bring to the larp and to the experience – our own, and that of others. It made a big difference that, for example, the Finnish embassy was staffed by Finnish players, who could speak Finnish together, who knew Finnish culture and history intimately, and who could both embed themselves in it and portray it outwardly. It would not have felt anything like the same if they had been a mix of international players talking in English all the time, and distinguished from the other embassies only by having a white-and-blue flag on the wall.

Allegiance was, among other things, about the weight of one’s nation upon one’s shoulders – its history, its present-day (ie. 1970) doings, and its future. So for example it really meant something, in the context of today’s post-imperial war in Ukraine, that the Soviet Union embassy was staffed by participants from Russia and from Ukraine, and from Belarus and other former-Soviet states.

Because the thing is that although in the larp world your country may not be important, in the real world it still is very much so. We don’t yet live in the post-borders utopia that our larp bubble, at its best, represents. And nor will we for some time to come, the way things are going. And it’s no bad thing to, every now and then, have a larp that leans into this.

(Note, of course I’m not saying that all larps should cast in this restrictive way. For 99% of them, it’s not going to be appropriate. But I do feel that, in the same general spirit of not-all-larps-have-to-be-for-all-people, it’s ok for there to be some larps that don’t say that anyone can play any character.)

(There were some very valuable and interesting responses to the Facebook post. Such as:

  • this decision not only excludes people from outside the named countries, it also excludes some from within them, eg. those who’ve grown up there subsequent to independence and may not speak the former imperial language;
  • my generalization about international larp having the attitude of ‘anyone can playing anyone from any country’ is not really true, when one considers eg. attitudes towards larping a different skin colour;
  • people from within the named countries might still have a very different personal experience to bring to the larp than the designers have considered, if they aren’t from its dominant culture/society/region/etc;
  • the usual international larp setup where everyone plays in English excludes anyone who doesn’t speak that language fluently – and even for those who do, they may feel severely restricted compared to those for whom it is a native language.)

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