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ON ROLE PLAY



The recent wave of Role Play or Game related exhibitions might be closely related to the increased concern for science fiction and other worlds. Furthermore, the Game offers a striking metaphor to describe the rat race of free-market society (GAMER THEORY - McKenzie Wark - 2007), our condition in the global network as an evolutionary game that demands submission to its unifying codes (Escaping the Network - Anna Longo - 2020) or even to the art world itself as a (rigged) game. (Talk: Hito Steyerl's Why Games? Can an Art Professional Think? - 2016 - GAMESCENES). But beyond being a thematic trend, I want to explore Role Play as a process based format that centers agency of its participants.

Role Play's connection to the digital realm is apparent and there would be a lot to say about artists' critical engagement with and within virtual worlds (eg. Doireann O'Malley: Virtual Tendencies) but I will limit this survey to play that takes place in ‘Meatspace’ in which imagination alone can be found to generate the most expansive virtual reality.

In his essay Dungeoneering - 2019 - Schemas of Uncertainty, the artist and RPG designer Tom Kemp sketches the origins of Life Action Role Play (LARP) as an embodied version of TableTop Role Playing Games (TTRPG) most famous of which Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) emerged as fantastical and therefore ‘harmless’ version of its predecessor the war game (Kriegspiel), a training ground for lethal strategy. The text also explores RPG games in relation to medievalism; the conceptual architecture of the dungeon and its influence on early developments of computer programming.

Throughout history various practices may be seen as antecedents to the LARPing tradition ranging from participatory performances such as the Theater of the Oppressed back to the improvised plays of the Elizabethan pageantry and commedia dell’arte. Arguably even before that, various ritual and religious practices that involve the embodiment or chanelling of spirits or the dead may be seen in a similar vein. Much in the nature of LARP itself, the practice continues to have blurry boundaries with adjacent practices such as contemporary improv theater and historical reenactment and effecting crossovers into fields of speculative design, debate, conflict resolution, cognitive therapy, and also BDSM.

Minding the extractivist tendencies within the arts to absorb and monetize on other subcultures and  discourses, it feels reasonable to make mention of the different Role Play formats and communities that have emerged since the 80ies within different contexts. Here Elvia Wilk has produced insightful writings on the emergence of progressive LARPing such as the Nordic scene which I would see as an important influence on the recent adaption of Role Play not as mere content but as an artistic medium and critical tool. (More Than A Game - 2017 - Frieze) Artists like Omsk Social Club or Susan Ploetz rely strongly on safety and meta-techniques developed by these communities. Here is another text by Elvia Wilk that focuses on the consent mechanics within LARP (Ask Before You Bite - e-flux [video]) Likewise there is some interest from the side of LARPing communities in the documenting techniques of the arts. (Documenting Larp as an Art of Experience / Larp Documentation in a Fine Art Context) These spillovers are incidental and at large the distance between respective fields is maintained. Still one can find many parallels in theoretical, critical, and aesthetic concerns. (eg. International Journal of Role-Playing or Knutepunkt Archives

While the improvisational ‘theater games’ developed by Viola Spolin in the 50ies have shaped my relation to performance already from an early age, my first encounter with LARP as an artistic medium was at the Research Center for Proxy Politics (RCPP), a program of lectures, workshops, and talks that ran from 2014 to 2017 in Hito Steyerl’s lens-based class in which LARP was employed to gain insights into the mechanics of a blockchain’s incentives system, the art market or elect a future plan for a plastic island in the arctic.

It was here that I was introduced to the potential of the medium to approach complex sociopolitical themes in an engaging way, literally. As a form of interactive and immersive fiction LARP offers players embodied experiences in temporary realities. While the setting and conditions may be predefined, the narrative is improvised collectively and emerges through play. This aptness to testing social dynamics and systems make LARP a real-life laboratory for thought experiments and employable both as a research tool as delineated in the book Borrowing Positions: Role-Playing Design & Architecture - Trojan Horse.

Within the invisible boundary of the ‘Magic Circle’, that divides the game from the ‘real world’, players can experiment with different behaviors and conflicting viewpoints in a safe space. This is also the reason why NGOs like CRISP develop simulation games with role-play elements for conflict management purposes.

The DAOWO Sessions: Artworld Prototypes curated by Ruth Catlow, Penny Rafferty and Ben Vickers utilize LARP to reimagine the future of arts with blockchain. Be it the speculative musings on the extinction of blockchain technology like the long duration LARP Economic Orangery 2021 that explores the circulation of value in the Belarusian cultural sphere and the inner logic of collectivity; or the mad dreams of crypto billionaires that are tasked to configure a speculative society upon the Seasteading frontier as in What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? - speculative fiction appears to lend itself to the critique of speculative finance that returns from its short trips into the future with bulging bags hijacking the revenues from potential future sales in precocious accumulation.

For a while now the arts and critical discourse has been struggling with the creeping realization that the task of innovation and even the vocabulary of revolution has been taken from them by forms of capitalist and technological acceleration. Like a grotesque act of exorcism, strategies of hyper affirmation visualize the future like a burning glass on present conditions. The first World Assembly of Goldman $nax entitled “All is fair in dreams and finance” invited the audience to embody the mutation of the undead corpse of late capitalism in a night of financial terr0r. ÖRJÄT induced participants with the transhumanist mindset of martian settlers that travel back in time to hold trade negotiation around earth remaining resources on the brink of environmental collapse. And yet the mad fictions are based on a reality that has become arguably stranger than fiction.

Accordingly the Vampire LARP Parliament of Shadows was held in the actual European Parliament in Brussels and revolved around an actual piece of EU legislation called ETIAS, The European Travel Information and Authorisation System. It featured real MEPs that listened to role playing lobbyists that folded High level EU politics into the fictional universe of the World of Darkness.

But beyond Role switching and Power play the real power of these scenarios lies in the play itself. Skillful game design confronts players with paradoxes and ambiguities, forcing them to make difficult decisions and involves them in negotiations that challenges them to take on and defend positions different from their own.

More than often simplistic ideals get broken down in play as group dynamics begin to take a life of their own and reveal the chaotic and less idealistic but ultimately very real side of human nature. And in this rather educative than aspirational manner the unequal distribution of resources that was supposed to be redistributed through the Hackathon The Communes hosted by Black Swan at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, remained after 32hours of play still unequal. As a member of the CULT that was the initially best equipped of the 4 communes, modeled around different modes of exchange and organizational structure, it was confronting to observe how easily my personal convictions were overridden by the neoliberal logic of my prescribed character. A dynamic that was complexified or possibly fueled by the fact that the resources to be distributed in play were in fact actual institutional infrastructural resources and the players actual cultural practitioners.

But also when no real life resources are at play, it is striking that when put to test players often fall into old patterns and even reproduce the stereotypes they might try to escape. This does not imply that Role Play as a medium is ineffective. In fact it is a learning process for players and designers alike. This is also why the debrief session that happens after play is by many LARP designers seen as the most important part of the Player’s Journey.

Against the current crisis of imagination, also diagnosed as ‘depressive ontology’ (The impossibility to envision a future that is different than the past), practices of Collective Worlding may open ourselves to other forms of knowing, reconnect us to our sensual and social bodies and reform epistemic foundations for new forms of cohabitation.

There are many conceptions of what the activity of worlding entails. It encompasses anything from the invention of fantastic cosmologies, utopias or futures you can believe in to the formation of new reality systems and the active construction of viable systemic alternatives. 

While these activities are of fundamentally different nature I will benefit from their descriptive likeness to speak of them sometimes interchangeably so that the fictional may slip into reality in passing and vice versa. Most importantly I view Worlding as a metaphysical and collective activity that acknowledges difference and considers consequences of softening boundaries between epistemology and ontology.

In this regard a world is a specific frame of reference that defines how we perceive and relate to base reality. Ian Cheng l in his 2018 publication, Emissaries Guide to Worlding frames worlds as artificial and yet living entities that require care. They need us to believe in them to protect us from the overwhelming complexity of raw sensual data.

These conditions that sustain a world, also naturalize its construction, perpetuating a law-like structure that demands submission of its inhabitants. And while it may trick us by weaving the fabric around us with invisible thread, this tight knit cocoon must unravel eventually as all worlds come to an end. because they can no longer absorb internal paradoxes and frictions: Either because the ‘model’ becomes outdated (new knowledge is produced) or because the conditions it produces are rejected as inhospitable.

Let us follow Federico Campagna and Denise Ferreira da Silva in the assumption that Western Modernity faces a similar fate. Dissolving the illusion of a ‘common world’, that appears already co-opted by satisfying hegemonial claims for (its) order, let us take the underlying theory of multiple worlds as a point of departure for exercises in Collective Worlding after the End of ‘the World’.

As a training ground for imaginative flexibility, I want to explore how Role Play can foster simultaneous stories and colliding worlds through the creation and negotiation of a shared gamespace. To revise a world means to look at it repeatedly in a new light. Worlding is also the unmaking of the world: it requires us to rethink our relation to the environment and our own role within it. This is where worlding in its metaphysical sense of the word comes in handy. Instead of trying to fix a broken system we can change a world by reconfiguring its frame of reference.

But how to think of frameworks for an unrealized world?

Here an easy answer seems to be to entirely erase the unwanted elements from the world and literally start from scratch. This explains the frequency of post-apocalyptic scenarios and science fiction narratives that involve the population of supposedly ‘uninhabited’ planets. Those stories are easily subjected to the suspicion of being escapist and simplistic in eradicating the problems instead of dealing with them or even reproducing colonial logic.

The ubiquity of imperial tropes within Role Playing Cultures can be related back to their origins as a war technology, but this would downplay the existing racist and sexist tendencies within the game space. A reason for the artists to be present. Rather than preaching to the choir in self applauding circles of critical theory, their role in dealing with this legacy as well as the danger of reproducing colonial logic of games is required and welcome here. Tabletop gaming's most prestigious trophy is in fact the burned last copy of theThe Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game which results in the fictional character Diana Jones as a name patron for the Award.

A growing scene of Black Voices in the RPG Community discuss, analyze and critique identity and cultural representation in games, and create extensions (Harlem Unbound) or additional game mechanics (Class Modifier Module for DnD 5e) for existing Role Plays that enable a more accurate representation in historic fiction, imagine otherworlds untethered by racial violence (Mother Lands) and apply LARP as a practical tool to decolonize the body and investigate the trauma it holds. (Wyrding the self) Here Role Play becomes a form of “disidentification” from and active recoding of assigned social roles. Such Role Playing of Role Play obviously also lends itself for the probing and deconstructing of assigned and assumed gender roles.

Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism is a collection of small Table Top Role Plays on contemporary feminist issues. Boys Space designed by THE AGENCY deals with the connections between patriarchal masculinity and right-wing thinking, letting visitors take on the role of “Male Characters'' that meet their “Empathy Partners” and come across the confessions from other users on and offline. In this vein here is a Conversation with Ed Fornieles on his latest project Cel, the crisis of masculinity and the concept of Critical Empathy, a concept that emphasizes the limitations and complications of empathy from reflexive perspectives. It does not only refer to the process of imaging another person’s point of view or emotional state, but also to an awareness of the limitations and complications of empathy.

Works such as Doireann O’Malleys Prototypes-ii or Deep Time Trans by Teo Ala-Ruona employ LARP to explore embodied experiences of a genderless future or non-binary nature of prehistory. In the lecture and conversation on Early Transition as LARPing McKenzie Wark discusses how being a trans woman at times feels like role-playing through the gaze of others, and how forms of metaphorical bleed can avoid literal bleeding. She opens up a conversation with Omsk Social Club around role-play as strategies for subversion and survival; pushing the boundaries of subjectivity and the self through play and raving as a post-political form of expression.

Their first public large-scale piece was “PLAY RAVE” in 2017 featuring 400 Live identities constructed from looking at and speaking to four different generations of crews, promoters, DJs, producers, dancers, and cult figures in Zurich that had put on illegal raves in the city-the earliest in the 1980s. In an Interview with !Mediengruppe Bitnik explains how Rave Culture has informed their practice as a space of collective euphoria, trauma, illusion and immersion to an alternative world where people could be someone else or maybe finally themselves.

We are given a name at birth with the expectation that we will grow into a singular identity that might be labeled as such. Yet, we are inhabited by multiple often conflicting voices that express different forms of assigned or chosen belonging. It is the multitude of those voices that in fact makes up our individuality. The partial silencing of such voices to conform with simplified visions or instrumentalization of identity is a form of internalized violence Role Play offers a way to let these voices speak out.

Coming back to Patricia's question: But how to think of frameworks for an unrealized world?

Instead of starting from scratch or zooming in from a planetary level to the subjectivities that experience the world, Trakals begins the practice of worlding with the subject, and more so with its affects of alienation that separate it from its ontological home world. The split demarcates a place of radical alterity to the world, from which to construct alternative worlds. Magical Materialism: The World Factory is a collective world-building writing workshop, that takes its cues from psychoanalysis and a post-socialist perspective of Andrey Platonov's concept of the „literature factory“

Draconis Lacrimae: Escape From The Guts of The Dragon by Federico Vladimir Strate Pezdirc & Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld is a game that invites players to encounter otherness as an accomplice and welcome the alterity we have in us through fundamental archetypes of fiction. Auto-fiction serves here as a tool to resist predefined categorizations of identity, as a technique of transformation and orientation in a world saturated with categories.

Maybe the temporary realities created within such works of interactive fiction can be seen like the Temporary Autonomous Zones described by the anarchist writer and poet Hakim Bey as strategies of releasing one's own mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it.

Examples that engage in such almost ritualistic manifestation may be Furtherfield’s We were made for this // 2050 Fugitive Planning a LARP that introduced players to the Hologram’s viral healthcare system to enact their survival and thriving through multiple emergencies and crises; or NOVA a LARP designed by Ana de Almeida and Alicja Rogalska is a piece of political fiction in which we collectively dream and narrate a world free of patriarchal and other forms of oppression. In his essay THE CRITICAL ESCAPE artist and LARP designer Áron Birtalan insists that Role Play as survival mechanism is not purely fictional as he recalls his upbringing in the Kingdom of Pipecland, a secret world that existed between 1938 and 1978 in rural Hungary and an attempt to create an ideal society as a resistance to and ‘critical escape’ from the facist regime.

Today Aaron creates Role Plays that emphasis on subjective worlds and character-creation like his non-verbal LARP DIM that takes place in a darkened and undefined abstract space where participants meet as Forms and Shadows and communicate mainly through their own unique body language, guided through exercises in attention, breathing and movement. Somatic LARPs like Xenosomatics by Susan Ploetz build a vocabulary of skills (hyperobservation, ideokinesis, hyperempathy, interfacing) to fundamentally reinvent and extend the way we use and relate to our own and each other's bodies.

Imagining scenarios in an emotionally neutral place can change our attitude to that place in reality. the more immersed people tend to get into 'becoming' a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves People make their own brains, Imagine if they knew that and they could construct and entertain a relation with their brain as the image of a world to come.

Role Play arguably may support the transformation of the brain’s plasticity into mental “freedom.” In a possibly similar fashion the activity of Role Play caters to participants with forms of neurological variation as some of the otherwise limiting constraints of social interaction can be temporarily suspended or recoded.

In his thesis Play-Between artist and Game designer Francis Patrick Brady explores play as a method for traversing the differences “in between” subjectivities: between the engaged and the estranged, the included and the excluded, the immersive and the discursive, the transparent and the opaque. ‘Bleed’ is a term used in LARP (Live Action Role Play) to describe the gray zone between fiction and reality, where the border between player and character dissolves. The works that interest me are committed to showing the fragility of that boundary and to understanding collective dynamics in the construction of fiction and reality. How can we open ourselves towards different ways of knowing as well as the implied not knowing? Can we perceive and reconstruct an interwovenness between multiple perspectives and modes of being?

To conspire means to breathe together. This statement was made by Simon Asencio, who heard it from Eleanor Ivory Weber, who saw it on an Andy Warhol poster. I think “Conspire” also means “to let each other breathe.”



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Role Play as strategy is of course not a new phenomenon in the arts the way it is used as a participatory medium however is. Here it might be valuable to make a distinction to other participatory practices. (Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship)

I would say that the initial invitation into the work is generally more inclusive from the start. Often there is a long preparation before and after care. The time of pre-workshop and debrief might well exceed the duration of the actual play. Even though the safety mechanisms may in many ways recall the ritualistic formula of an airplane safety instruction it is a crucial part of the LARP as it marks the lines of the playing field and therefore the emotional boundary that respects and protects the personal psychological space of the participant.

While there are some instances in which LARPs are designed to be played out in front of an audience or recorded through video or other means, hardliners would insist that the defining feature of LARP is its experiential and deeply personal nature making it somewhat impossible to document. Arguably the instances in which LARP is recorded (Level Five - 2010 - Brody Condon), the focus of the work noticeably shifts from experience to representation. If the experience is left to the player, artists tend to find other ways to tie down the ephemeral nature of their works into tangible and potentially collectible artifacts. This can be in the form of artworks produced in-game (The Innocents - Tom K Kemp), video installation and sound pieces that support the game as lore (Sisters of The Wind - jujulove), or as a collection of scores and game scripts similar to the way that improvised performance is annotated (Deep Listening - Pauline Oliveros) Indeed Role Play can join a longstanding conversation on how performative and immaterial works can possibly be archived in ways that are adequate to the format (Collecting the Ephemeral) Not only the preservation but also the of sharing and experiencing of process-based art within institutional spaces requires new conceptual and practical principles such as the programming of Shedhalle by Thea Reifler and Philipp Bergmann