The Quota

The Quota was a larp that ran in the UK in May 2018. (Yes, I’m now more than three years behind with this blog…)

From Avalon Larp Studios and in association with Broken Dreams Larp, The Quota was set in a near future in which the UK has broken up, and England has gone further along the path to right-wing dictatorship. Participants played characters who were would-be emigrants from England into Wales, being held in a detention centre on the border. Each was hoping to be approved as part of the (very small) quota of people who would be accepted into Wales to live. Those rejected would either be held at the centre indefinitely, or else sent back to a hostile England.

Refugee Council

The charity Refugee Council were involved with the project, and with the design process — ensuring that representation of the refugee experience was based on actual fact. And they received, as a donation, all profits from the running of the larp.

The Quota was a painstaking and serious attempt to convey understanding of the issues and experiences around refugees and economic migrants in today’s world, in larp form. As such, it laid itself open to charges of misery tourism, exploitation, trivialization, a misguided belief that it could convey the actual experience, and so on. The organizers dealt with these potential criticisms pre-emptively, making it clear in their materials what the larp was and wasn’t intended to be about.

The experience

The venue was a disused jail for young offenders, with no running water. So that was extremely atmospheric. We were sleeping in cells, walking down long bleak echoing corridors, and straining to hear announcements over the terrible PA system. And performing a variety of misconceived, pointless, and/or humiliating and unpleasant work tasks as part of the centre’s programme. Three days of this was quite enough for me, for sure.

We each chose a character archetype from a selection that had been created by the designers, and then built our character around this, with questions and help if needed from an allocated designer. We were also able to create our own relationships with other characters, etc. I chose The Survivor — a person who would do whatever it takes to survive, even if it means hurting other people. Someone who didn’t take sides — other than their own side.

In general the detainees were divided into refugees and economic migrants. Refugees were those with a fear of persecution in England, often because of their political activity, who had to leave for their own safety. Economic migrants (like my character Kris Satham) were people who just generally felt that England was going to hell and it was time to try to get out and go to a decent country.

The play experience was intense, gruelling (emotionally and psychologically — all the physical activity could be opted out of), demanding, and memorable. Rather than being purely unremitting suffering, it was possible to find moments of delight and of humour — and of course to steer one’s relationships to be antagonistic or supportive, etc. Safety was thoroughly thought through and well managed.

Here’s the design document, which talks through how the larp worked in some detail.

The impact

The Quota was, as far as I’m aware, the first UK longform larp that dealt with modern-day political and social issues in a serious way. Larp in the UK has a strong tradition of being primarily ‘for fun’: to run a larp here that not only promised not to be fun at all, but also actively set out to make people think about troubled and painful aspects of our current society, was a brave decision. In practice, a large proportion of the participants (and some of the designers) came from other countries — primarily the Nordic nations, where this kind of larping is much more familiar and long-established.

It certainly helped change the image of larp in the mainstream — this Guardian article could not realistically have discussed any previous UK longform larp, I don’t think.

But, saying that, there hasn’t been anything similarly overtly serious since. (For example, On Location, which I’m part of, is serious in intent, but it keeps its political themes fairly well hidden within a glamorous setting. And Midwinter, also from Avalon, has politics nearer the surface but still a gloss of a fun theme over the top.) Maybe post-pandemic we will see a bit more such activity.

More recent developments

There’s now a book about The Quota, which you can get hold of here. There’s also been a subsequent run in France (in French) — details here. (So, there is some advantage to writing these things up late…)

In the book there’s a load of excellent articles about different aspects of the design, the project, the experience, etc, which go into far more detail and have far more insight and power than what I can write here. If you’re interested, I recommend getting hold of it — the website suggests that they were planning a PDF, if you prefer that to a physical copy.

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