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Calibration of cultural understanding

23 Apr

Purpose

Promote a common understanding of the cultural norms in the society where the larp is set and uncovering cultural preconceptions the players bring with them.

Requirements

The group is ideally 10-40 players. With small groups, you don’t use observers. With very large groups, the discussions can be broken down in groups and someone speaks on behalf of the group.

This exercise should be used after there is some common understanding on which culture the larp takes place in. It doesn’t matter if that culture is established by the organizers, by building on an existing culture or by a collaborative workshop process.

This exercise involves playing for fellow participants that are not playing at the same time. Some larpers may be uncomfortable with that and they should be allowed to opt-out. Introduce cut and break rules for this exercise, at least if the scenes can be very intense and/or physical.

Instructions

Explain the concept of culture for the players. Culture is the common understanding of norms, “how things work here”. It is stable, and will generally not change during a larp unless there is an “external shock”.

Explain that we will play test scenes to calibrate the cultural understanding in terms of:

–          Everyday life (e.g. children playing, meal)

–          Rites (e.g. member leaving the group/death, festival)

–          Taboos (e.g. violence, person of authority crying)

If you have limited time, skip some of them. Divide players into groups. If the culture consists of several sub-groups, for example different departments within a company or the horsemen, swordsmen and the archers in an army, divide the groups like that and start by defining each group’s subculture. After some scenes in each subgroup, do a scene that includes several subgroups at once.

Give each group one scene each to prepare (i.e. portray a family sharing food). It doesn’t need to involve all the players, or some players can have secondary roles (i.e. bystanders at a proposal). If not all players have something to do, the rest can either join the observers, or you can do a variation where they can “tag in” or be directors. It can be useful to also give a way to end the scene (i.e. the scene ends when someone leaves the room).The players play temporary characters used for this scene only. If you spend a lot of time on this exercise, the players can be given the opportunity to suggest scenes too, but let the first scenes be pre-defined by the organizers.

When the players have had a few minutes to discuss let them play the scene when the rest of the groups observes.

Encourage the observers to take notice of small details in the culture, and to observe both “the exotic” and “the obvious”. This is important to increase the awareness of how easily we reproduce stereotypes and our own culture. “The exotic” is things that are clearly making the culture different from stereotypes or our own culture. “The obvious” is the opposite, it can be for example shaking hands when people meet, the distance between people when they talk or gender roles as we know them in our own society. Be aware that if the players cultural background is diverse, you can expect the cultural differences to bleed into the workshop in the sense that what’s “the exotic” to some is “the obvious” to others.

After the scene is over, ask the observers to describe what they saw, both “the obvious” and “the exotic” cultural norms. Take notes on a blackboard or flip-over if possible. It is OK if different people have observed contradicting norms. When the observers are finished, ask the people playing the scene if they have anything to add. Then, open a discussion of whether or not we are satisfied or not with the norms. Criteria for assessing the norms can be:

–          Is the culture in line with the vision for this larp?

–          Is the culture playable for all players?

–          Is the culture sustainable over (sufficient) time?

–          Is there anything we can do to increase playability?

–          Are changes required due to off-game concerns, such as player safety

The organizers can take part in this discussion along with the players. If the players and organizers agree that major changes would make a better larp, the scene should be replayed by the same group or another group and another discussion can follow. Of course, time will limit how many reruns you can do, but the more scenes that are played the better will the calibration of the culture be.

Ending

If there are disagreements, it is important that the organizers make sure that a conclusion is reached before the end of the workshop. This can be done in many ways, a compromise will usually be the best, but other mechanisms can be a vote or the organizers making a decision.

When the culture to some extent is calibrated, divide into groups of common background and use the same method for playing scenes from the past. The purpose is to calibrate the understanding of the relations. Since the cultural understanding is already established it will be easier for the players to isolate the relation patterns.

Varieties

When merging many subcultures, you can do a large scene where all players take part and are both players and observers.

If there are more players in a group than necessary in a scene, you can allow remaining players to tag-in and change the scene under way by tapping one of the players on the shoulder, or be directors. Directors can sometimes feel the pressure to do stuff even when the scene works well already, and they should be encouraged not to intervene too much.

Let the players use the characters they will play in the larp for these test scenes. This has the advantage of saving time by calibrating relations at the same time, but it makes the exercise less focused, and it can be harder to identify which actions are determined by cultural norms and which are determined by relations. This drawback has minor importance if the larp is only about one group of people, which makes this variety useful for small, short larps.

A more extensive variant of the same exercise is playing a small test-larp, for example for one hour. This must not be confused with a prologue where what happens enters the minds of the characters as their background. Nothing that happened in the test-larp, is part of the characters history when the real larp begins, it is just a way to try out understanding ofculture, relations and characters and then adjust and calibrate before the real larp starts.

Thanks to Sigve Indregard, Øyvind Kvanmo Sund and in particular Grete Sofie Bulterud Strand for co-development of this method.