On a cold night in Norway, I pressed my back against a yellow wall, breathing shallow anxiety induced breaths. I had been patiently waiting and nervously planning coming to Oslo for months. I’ve never traveled solo internationally, and I was terrified.
These were my first moments of Knutepunkt, an academic conference that is based around larp theory and practice. Americans and Scandinavians tend to narrow their eyes across the water about larp, despite the fact that they have far more in common than is readily seen. We don’t talk that much across the sea, but we should. Both Americans and Scandinavians have something to bring to the table, and the misconceptions about play and style can bog down any serious discussion.
As a budding academic and larpwright, I needed to come to Knutepunkt to round out my research. Luckily, NYU, my current place of study, agreed.
I had one goal: Convince the larp scholars at Knutepunkt to give me all of their research. If I was ever going to finish my thesis, I needed them. All of them. Desperately. I wanted their 20 years of research on larp.
All I had to do was to enter Kampen Bydelshus, the community center that organizers were using for A Week in Oslo. Designed to be a fun time to get to know each other and the land, many activities are planned to allow folks to catch-up and bond.
But no bonding could happen if I didn’t go inside.
I went over all of the terrible things that could happen. The body I inhabit with its multiple marginalized identities mean every single day is a lesson about staying alive. Once you realize it, you can’t unsee it. James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” It’s true. Once you are conscious you see injustice in every brick and even the mortar. Even fantasy and escapism is tinged with the bitter taste of the hatred placed upon me. So, I hyperventilated then I took some deep breaths and went inside. I was determined to live my bravest life.
And I did.
Nordic Larpers and American Larpers give each other terrible raps. Nordic larps aren’t all elitists who are trying to take away rulebooks and boffers. Nordic Larp has boffer larps. They also have amazingly complex larps that explore intimacy, racism, sexism and investigate the past and future…just like Americans. There are a lot of ways to larp, and the Nords and Americans would do well to keep the conversation going.
I don’t know what I truly expected of Knutepunkt, but it wasn’t what I got.
I was nearly immediately accepted into a group of some of the most intelligent, kind and thoughtful people. Knutepunkt isn’t perfect, but it did create a community that was always striving to think about where it was going, and how it could be better. Not only that, every single person who heard me ask for materials gave them to me. Easily. Before I went to Knutepunkt I had two books, two academic journals, nordiclarp.org (which is BRILLIANT) and the strange suggestion of Claus Raasted’s blog from a professor. While entertaining, the blog really can’t be said to be quotable for my thesis.
In 48 hours I had been given all of the conference companion
books sent directly to my inbox, several papers, and copious books. When I went back to America, TSA questioned my suitcase, but I otherwise passed easily onward. I learned more in one week at Knutepunkt than I had learned in classes and larping. Between the excellent Nordic Larp talks by Maury Brown and Hanne Grasmo to the heavy scholarship and kindness of Jaime MacDonald and Jaako Stenros, I was always talking and learning.
Below are my 17 Take-Aways From Knutepunkt.
- Be Brave. Look, I spent the entirety of this conference low key filled with anxiety. In the beginning I worried everyone would think I was some weird American grad student who laughed too loud and made terrible jokes. Cause I am. Turns out, in addition to this, I was actually somewhat charming. This benevolence meant I was ready to
take risks like saying yes to a tour of Oslo where all the locations were based off the hit TV Series SKAM. I still haven’t seen SKAM, but I totally know all about Isak and Even and got to look at a Norwegian prison. After that, when some new friends decided that we weren’t ready for the night to end, we walked to a dive bar while the snow came down beautifully. If I had decided to not be brave, I probably wouldn’t have had one of the most enlightening moments of my entire time there. And really, that’s Knutepunkt. Brilliance when you least expect it.
- Everyone is an Expert and Everyone is a Newbie. Knutepunkt does its best to make the conference welcoming to newcomers, and even out the playing field. This means that for all of my academic begging, I held my own. The thing about Knutepunkt is that everyone is an expert at…something. That includes you. My experience, voice and ideas were valid. My American ideas and newness did not detract, and even added to the discussions we were all having. I may be new, but I carry with me 15 years in theater, play theory, history, child education, writing and art theory.Even though it was my first conference, I taught a play oriented workshop on how to elevate imaginary play using larp techniques. It’s something I’ve done for years. I felt really great.
But I am also Jon Snow. I knew nothing. That meant I got to learn from some of the best thinkers from around the globe. Which brings me to the next takeaway.
- Listen, Boo-Boo. I spent more time listening than talking. I was always trying to hear the conversations around me. As such, I listened deeply and was corrected and nourished by some brilliant folks. When someone corrected me on what I said or did, I listened. I always listened, even when it was embarrassing. I listened and did my best to respond positively. “How can I be better?” “Can you help me understand this concept?” “How can we work together?” Do your best to listen and learn from those all around you.
- Women Are The Business. Lizzie Stark, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Eleanor Saitta, Maury Brown, and Shoshana Kessock are all amazing people you should know if you love Larp. Same thing goes for Elin Nielsen, Karin Edman, and Hanne Grasmo . Women are the business in Larp, and I was always reminded whenever I went to a panel. Editors, academics, larpwrights and powerhouses. If you want to be inspired, look into the work they’re doing. It’s worth it. I love their articles and ideas, and you can see a lot of them on Nordiclarp.org.
- Social Capital is Real. Look, we all know social capital exists. Some people are charming. Some people have been in the scene forever. Either way, sometimes you may find yourself with social capital. Somehow, I rolled a 20 on my charm score and ended up with more social capital than I’ve had in my entire life. It is okay to accept the social capital you are graciously given. I struggled with it as an empathetic person, and tried to pretend it wasn’t there. However, I realized that it is my job to take that social capital and put it to good use. Whatever I have gained I must repay to others near me and behind me. I am grateful to all of those who spent time with me and helped my little match fire grow into a massive bonfire.
- Knutepunkt is a Serious Academic Conference. It really is. The programs are filled with everything from deep insightful works on designing for inclusivity, to ways in which we can look at the data from larp exit surveys. You will find yourself talking about aesthetics, art history, therapy, sociology, group dynamics… Knutepunkt has a wealth of programming for you to take advantage of, and some seriously brilliant people to present it to you.
- It is Also a Place Filled with Play. For every heavy workshop, there may be a dance party. For every Key Note, there’s a new friend asking if you want to play a board game or share some chocolate. Knutepunkt is not without its fun. In fact, you kind of have to prepare yourself for it. Socializing is a key point here, and there’s plethora of ways to do it.
- The Law of N+1 is always useful. In college, my friends had a law called N+1. It meant that wherever we were there was always room for one more at the table. At Knutepunkt, there’s an empty chair rule. Every talking group has room for one more person. It’s a great way to welcome new and old friends alike. Just sit down at an empty chair. You’ll be fine.
- We need more documentation. Maybe its the visual ethnographer in me, but we just don’t have enough documentation. The Nordics have far more than we do, and if we re going to start chipping away at larp stigma in the States, people need to see that larping is not strange. We need every larp to start taking pictures and chronicling their stories. Trust me, your character and your game is interesting. How are we supposed to learn if we don’t have documentation? How can we share? Get someone to take photos and write up some basic things about your games. We need it.
- Cultural Consultants. I’m going to say this, and folks are going to be upset. Ya’ll need cultural consultants. Especially in countries that doesn’t have a long history of balancing various cultures. What is a cultural consultant? It’s the person who tells you the intricacies of cultures and religions you have zero clue about. It’s the person who tells you Blackface is wrong, even when you think that someone is “doing it right”. It’s the person who looks at your larp, and gently suggests ways in which you can avoid being super insensitive when you don’t mean to. When in doubt, hire a cultural consultant. I’m available.
- Try New Things. People are going to ask you to try things from their home country. They may ask you out to a museum. You may get invited along to a larp. You may be able to chit chat with someone you think is just the bees knees. Go. It could be weird, but you will probably make some friends.
- Rituals Are Gorgeous, and They’re Not Just For Norwegians. At the beginning of Knutepunkt this year there was a ritual. Apparently Norway *cough* Vikings *cough* really enjoy rituals. At first, the chanting put me off, but then I realized…Americans have rituals as well. Ours usually don’t involve sacrificing a large totem to the Gods of Larp, but maybe that should tell us something?
- We Need to Talk to Each Other. One of the programs that draws people in is The Hour of the Rant. Presenters are given a short time to rant on any topic they chose, and this year, the Americans came out swinging…including me. I ranted about my need for research, but also our need to talk to each other. One the most repeated things I was asked was about larp in America. The truth is that there are a lot of ways to larp in America. America is HUGE. There is no “American” way to larp like there isn’t really a “Scandinavian” larp. Now, there are techniques and styles developed in Scandinavia and techniques and styles developed in America. There is Theater larp, Chamber larp, boffer larp, Larps from InterCon, Larp done in Polish Castles, Swedish Blackbox… We need to share and digest, without ego, the many forms of larp and larp scholarship. Only when we share resources and collaboration, can we claim larp is international. We need to make sure that everyone has access to this.
- We Need to Discuss Accessibility. Speaking of accessibility, we need to talk about that. Knutepunkt offers subsidized tickets and some European larps do as well. This is fantastic. It means I can actually afford to go. As larp gets bigger, so does the price tag. The cost factor for larp is huge, and when we wonder why we have less people of color, women, lgbtq and other marginalized folks participating, you can look right to that. Those groups get paid less on the whole, and so the idea that they will spend $500 on a weekend more than once a year is a bit…unreasonable. SO how do we get diversity and also make good experiences? I don’t know, yet. But you better believe I’ll be looking in to it.
- We Need to Discuss Race. I was thankfully, not the only person of color there. However, Knutepunkt did make me understand that we as a community need to have a chat about why there are so few PoC who larp. I have a few ideas, many of which are going into my thesis. However, I will say accessibility, inherent systemic racism and lack of larps that feel welcoming to PoC are all factors into why PoC don’t larp as much. In order to larp you need to be safe enough to pretend. You need to feel as if you are loved and wanted. Rules that designate certain cultures that resemble you as “slaves” are probably not going to attract PoC. The same goes for historic larps. There are a few larps I look at and go, “Will I be safe here?” We also need more PoC larpwrights who design larps from a PoC experience. We need to start playing, sharing and telling our own stories
- Larp As Liberation. Larp is not just for entertainment. Sure, some people may choose to engage in larp purely for escapist reasons. That is absolutely valid. However, larp can also be used as a tool to explore themes of racism, capitalism, sexism, war, death and politics. Knutepunkt had a wonderful contingent of Palestinian larpers who are creating games for education as well as entertainment. Just a Little Loving, a larp that deals with the AIDS crises was well represented (and gearing up for its first American run). These types of larps are just as necessary as our escapist larps, because they allow people to feel empathy. As a former preschool teacher with nearly a decade under her belt I can tell you that children learn empathy and roles through make believe. Adults can too.
- Be Yourself. I could not be anything other than myself. I’m loud, kind, empathetic, emotional and sometimes a handful. I’m also great at listening and fairly willing to be corrected. I came to Knutepunkt with nothing but open arms and and open heart…and I was accepted. There is no one in this world you need to be other than yourself. No person is more you, than you. Larping taught me that I’m a pretty great human being. Knutepunkt reaffirmed that. It’s a pretty powerful moment to look into a room a strangers and know that to them, your life matters.
And a bonus unexpected take away:
18. The Danes are the New Jerseyans of Scandinavia.Peanut Butter and Jelly, rugbrød and smoked salmon, Cuban rolls and butter, SKAM and my face… These are all great things that go together. As a proud Jersey Girl, myself and other Jersey folk noticed some ridiculous cultural similarities between us and Danes. Maybe it’s the brash personalities that cover up warm melty centers? Maybe it’s the sheer loudness? The inability to understand us after a few drinks? Who knows? Either way, Danes are definitely the Jerseyans of Scandinavia.