Friday, 14 November 2014

Livsgäld: The best LARP I ever went to

My goodness, things have been insanely busy of late. But I guess that's par for the course when it comes to my life. One of the things I've been stressing about is preparations for a LARP which took place last weekend. This sewing clothes-activity isn't something I much enjoy or have any skills whatsoever in. But it had to be done, and I had so been looking forward to this particular LARP that I endeavoured to fight down all the anxiety that the preparations generated.

I have been writing about my issues with gender and sexism in roleplaying before (in Swedish). Basically the thing is that I'm so utterly fed up with sexism and gender segregation in real life that I think it would be nice to explore worlds where things are different. Why not try, while we're at it using our imaginations? I mean, if we can pretend to be cyborg-elf-pirates from outer space, then how much harder can it be to imagine being of a different gender than the one you were born with (or are perceived as belonging to by others based on your physical sex)? Or a world where no sexism, gender-segregation, or even the concept of gender exists?

It has long been a dream of mine to get to play through an entire LARP without having to define the sex of my character. To get to simulate a world where physical sex is about as relevant as the blood-type of the character (i.e. irrelevant in all situations but very specific medical ones). Where your identity and how you're treated and seen by others is entirely unaffected by it. 

Oh, I've been to several games where the organisers have claimed the setting to be equal and free from sexism when I've raised the issue beforehand. But once the game has begun I have never before actually experienced that to be the case. I believe it is because it hasn't been actively problematised (or sometimes even mentioned) by neither the GM's nor the players. Then it's perfectly understandable that the players fall into the patterns of the real world. Most people don't even think about it in terms of sexism or segregation, because we're so used to that this is the way the world is supposed to be. But we do not live in an equal society, so it would take conscious effort to simulate equality.

This LARP that I went to last weekend made a huge effort to do just that. It's called Livsgäld (translates loosely to life-debt. if you're in close enough proximity of Sweden you should check it out, it will quite possibly be run again!). The society that the LARP focuses on is a small village of altogether around forty people. In this culture your social role isn't based upon your physical sex at all. Instead there is another arbitrary attribute which dictates how you're expected to be and behave, namely at what time of day you were born. Depending on your hour of birth you are then for the rest of your life considered to belong to one of four elements: water, earth, air and fire.

The ones born during the evening are waterborn. They are considered to be soft, emotional, collective-minded and practical. They always have the well of the people in mind and tend to focus on the present. Therefore they take on roles as psychologists and mediators. They have the attributes that the people have had most use of in their time of need, and therefore they have the highest status and are considered to be natural leaders.

The ones born during the day are earthborn. They are considered to be hard, intellectual, collective-minded and practical. Crafting and farming are considered to be natural talents of theirs, and they are therefore appointed roles as decision-makers concerning practical matters in the village. Because of this useful practicality and pragmatism they are held in almost as high esteem as the waterborn.

The ones born during the night are airborn. They are considered to be soft, intellectual, individualistic and theoretical. Their diplomatic ways, sense of order and logical thinking make them suitable priests, writers, cleaners and thinkers. They are held in reasonably high esteem within the village, but not as high as the water- and earthborn because of their potentially dangerous individual streak.

Finally, the ones born during the morning are fireborn. They are considered to be hard, emotional, individualistic and theoretical. Their intense, passionate and sometimes egotistical ways make them suitable for tasks such as hunting and manual labour which requires strength but not patience and precision. They harbour all the traits which are considered dangerous by a people whose survival has depended on carefulness and discretion, and are therefore ranking lowest in status and are often looked down upon.

Of course not everyone fits perfectly into these expectations, just like not everyone conforms in every way to the gender roles of our society. But they're still seen as fundamentally defining; physical realities that inescapably will influence you. And because everyone believes in the self-evidence of these stereotypes, they also become real.

I played an old fireborn person. A rather grumpy character with a sarcastic sense of humour. Generally unpopular and looked down upon by the other elders, but well-liked among the other fireborn. Rather proud and emotionally high-strung, self-centered but protective of the young. At first I was intimidated by playing a character so different from myself, but as it turned out it was closer to home than I could possibly have imagined.

The clothes of Naorch, my character.

It was a mighty experience, and I learned a lot from it, too. To belong to the element at the bottom of the hierarchy and experience that oppression in ways both similar to and different from the ones I'm used to as a perceived woman. To be reprimanded and guilt-tripped for taking up too much space or belittled for showing my emotions too strongly. The fear of being considered a bad role-model for the younger fireborns, and at the same time the fear of not being welcomed as one of them if I suppressed my fiery personality traits too much. 

As a rather young person I though I wouldn't be able to relate to this last thing, but it went straight to my heart in terms of familiarity. That's exactly what it's like to be perceived as a woman. It is often the case that to be accepted as belonging to a female-dominated group you have to be able to show that you can behave like a female; bringing forth those traits that are otherwise looked down upon or seen as destructive by the patriarchal society in general. And then when you find yourself in a male-dominated group you're expected to behave as manly as possible in order to gain any respect at all. And not only for yourself! If you're the only perceived female in a group of men you suddenly become a representative for your entire gender. Then you must do your best to suppress all those womanly traits or risk having the respect for all women ever lost on your account.

It is a heavy burden to bear! That became very clear for me during the LARP, where having my character constantly trying to balance these two ways of being in order to overall lose as little respect as possible induced quite a palpable anxiety. It wasn't until after the LARP during the debrief that I realised that this was what was actually going on, and that I am very often facing the same situations with the same kind of pressures in real life. No wonder identity crises are induced by constantly having to play this double-charade. No wonder I can hardly ever relax and just be myself when what I am is so heavily influenced by social pressures from all kinds of directions that I'm not sure what's really left underneath all the expectations.

Livsgäld was an emotional experience for me, to say the least. Apart from the angst generated by the above mentioned status- and elemental role-based play there were also things going on that provoked many thoughts and feelings within my character and ultimately also me. There were moments of friendship and love, of worry for the future of the village, of desperation and fear in the face of the prospect of death, of stories and rituals, of humour and mischief, of failure and shame, and also pride and success.

I cried and I laughed, and I thought. Most of the time I didn't even have to remind myself to stay in character. I really became Naorch, and it was also mightily interesting to see how people around me was seeing and treating me accordingly. So be it that I only saw the game from my character's point of view, but I'd hazard to say that we actually managed to realistically simulate a different society there for a weekend. The GM's had us do a lot of preparatory things to get into the swing of things. We spent an entire day just workshopping behaviours and theoreticising about the elemental roles and the general structure of the society, and the elements also had clothes of very distinct colour and shape in order to aid the mind in categorising according to an unfamiliar system. We even endeavoured to use gender-neutral language to as high a degree as we could muster (e.g. using they instead of he or she, or referring to the elements instead).

I was cautiously hopeful of how well we would manage in the end. Based on previous experiences I tried keeping my expectations down somewhat, but I couldn't help thinking that with all this effort put in by both the GM's and the players, it just might work this time. And in the end it actually astonished me how well it worked. Sure, it happened that people slipped up and said he or she when referring to others, but there was never made a big deal about it. And overall the elemental roles became so profound in our minds that the genders of the players or the characters didn't seem to matter up to the point that I stopped reflecting on it. I still don't know what the physical sex of my character is, and it feels like it actually doesn't matter in any way whatsoever. That's enough for me to be happy and to have had a LARPing dream come true.

But this game gave me so much more than that. It was mightily interesting to see how easily we could change our way of thinking. Not just individually, but on a collective, societal level (albeit a tiny society). The elemental roles really became fundamental and self-evident, up to the point that I found myself thinking in terms of them for days after the LARP had ended. That's a pretty staggering realisation, that my thoughts did this automatically even though I knew it was a make-believe construction. No wonder we're so firmly rooted in the gender roles of our society! We can't help believing in them even after we become aware that they are mostly just a social construction. This game gave me the insight that we might need to substitute something else for those roles. That if we are to succeed in creating an equal society we need to actively imagine that things can be different, and consciously focus on equality as a concept rather than just try to avoid the differences and injustices in the hope that this will make them go away.

Unfortunately this is the much more difficult way, because it requires constant mental dedication on an individual level before it can be accomplished by a whole society to collectively change its way of thinking. In real life I think we have to work by consciously spreading ideas from individuals to groups, because unlike at LARPs we have no way of taking everybody aside and agree beforehand on how we want the world order to be (if you know of a way to do this non-violently, though, please let me know!).

It was scary, in a way, to see how effectively we changed our way of thinking and behaving over a mere weekend. It showed me how easy it is to create oppression on completely arbitrary grounds, and how real those feelings provoked can be even though you know it's just play-pretend. But most of all it gave me hope. If we could change our way of thinking and behaving so easily over such a short period of time I have no doubts about that it can be done on a much larger scale. All it takes is that most of us play along.

So let's stop playing along with these make-believe sexist structures of today and together imagine a world of gender equality, eh?

Love and inspiration,

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