The Character, the Player and Their Shared Body

The article is written by Gabriel Widing & Tova Gerge, published in Role, Play, Art, edited by Thorbiörn Fritzon and Tobias Wrigstad,  in conjunction with the 10th Knutpunkt Convention in Sweden, 2006.

What happens to our bodies when we give them to characters and place them in new environments and situations? Where do these memories go? The aim of this essay is to write a genealogy of muscles and organs; to try out visions and conflicting thoughts concerning the body in play.

INTRODUCTION

Live role-players put their bodies at the disposal of the destinies of the characters. Thereby, their bodies are also at the disposal of the aims of the organisers. New experiences are imprinted onto the organism of the participant, and new desires and aversions are born out of these experiences: the brain is pulling in one direction, the stomach just wants to quit, the heart is rushing. As the motivation for playing lies in the body, so do reactions in the game.

Our starting point is that each player has interests in his or her character—sexual desires, social awards, psychological challenges, need for confirmation, etc. Yet the choice of character is often disguised by false neutrality. A characters choice directed by personal interest, seems somehow dirty and suspicious. “I can play anything” is a common expression when it comes to picking a character. It is shameful to want, shameful to choose.

Within each player culture, there is a norm for what thoughts and variations are acceptable. This norm might be good in terms of controlling and moderating our behaviour. The tradition of some interests, for example “psychological challenges”, being more legitimate than others means that, in practise, a controversial choice of character will only be welcome if the player has a billion brilliant intellectual reasons to explain it with. The success rate in passing this social test is entirely individual,which is why we wish to describe these interests on a structural level rather than an individual.

If we can identify which desires one might be gratifying by entering a live role-play, we can also produce scenarios that are fulfilling specific needs or interests. In other words: scenarios and characters that make the greatest possible impact on their participants, and vice versa.

STORIES OF BODIES

Live role-playing has for some years explored the physical limitations of the participant. Fatland’s and Tanke’s Europa and Panopticorp as well as Wieslander’s and Björk’s Mellan himmel och hav [Between heaven and sea] are examples of scenarios that transgressed physical borders, hence reorganising the body of the participant. Through these examples, we want to show how game mechanics with a real physical effect on the participants can be used to manipulate/change standpoints and living patterns in a very concrete way. Live role-playing is a powerful tool, but despite some radical pretensions, the questions of how and why we use it are still surrounded by silence— especially in the case of so-called apolitical events. Yet, even the sweetest weekend entertainment in the local fantasy world operates on the same physical level as the following examples.

PHYSICAL POLITICS OF EUROPA

Many of the European wars have been preceded and rendered possible by strong nationalistic movements. Europa focused on what would have happened if the Nordic countries and their ethnic groups would have ended up in a conflict similar to the one which occurred on the Balkan countries in the 90’s. During the preparation and pre-games of the scenario, national identities were heavily emphasised. The players were encouraged to feel strongly for their homelands. They sang national hymns and made up positively charged memories connected to places and their native language. At the same time prejudice about the characteristics of the other nationalities was enhanced.

Europa began with the escape from the characters’ homelands to a peaceful fictive Balkan where they spent four days at a refugee centre. These were days of numb chill, humiliating health examinations and meticulously observed meal times, that could, ultimately be more than two hours postponed. Here, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns were forced together into small spaces. All constructed prejudice in the became real asthe majority chose to trust only their own countrymen, pushing the others away. The half week at the centre was just a representation of the months and years real-life that refugees spend waiting for an answer from the migration board. But four days was enough to connect language, politics and bodily memories to each other. The players are remembered of their experiences in the fictive refugee centre every single time a press item about increasing waiting times or upcoming deportations appears in the news paper. The purpose of the game—to direct attention to a Europe where even “legal” refugees are sometimes treated like animals, and where the alternative (escape from the bureaucracy live sans-papier) hardly offers any stability or liberty of movement— found its way in through the very skins of the participants. Exposing themselves to a violence that was consented on beforehand, a direct identification was created between the players and their characters, an affinity rather than feeling of compassion. This affinity was enforced with the tools of fiction.

Europa also worked to create an aversion towards the organisation of societies as nations. It demonstrated with all possible clarity that everyone that does not fit into the picture of “the people” is in a tricky situation where conflict becomes ethnicised. This aversion was coded into the body through experience—an anxiety rising in the stomach when national flags are hoisted or when acquaintances start to talk of feeling pride for their nationality. The politics ended up in the players back-bones.

EROGENITY DISLOCATED

Mellan himmel och hav [Between heaven and sea] deconstructed sexuality and gender during several preparatory workshops. Individual expression was consciously disguised behind turbans and wide clothing. Hands and arms were recoded into erogenous zones; sexually neutral parts of the body became the only allowed tools for intimate interaction. The players were trained to look at what all people had in common and to find a beauty in every single person through concentrating on bodily aspects less occupied by media images then tits and ass. When a hand touches another hand it does not matter how it looks; when gazes meet, faces blur.

The participants were suddenly thrown into situations where they had physical contact with people they would normally, for one reason or another, never touch. As a consequence, very many of the participants were smitten with a poly-sexual analysis of human relations—and they took it into practise, because they had experienced that these ideas functioned. A big number of break-ups, amorous adventures, and attempts to establish new norms followed among the players. Heterosexuality and monogamy were undermined among the participants to the benefit of polygamy and a general questioning of gender.

The common experience contradicting many of the unspoken “truths” of this society, created a strong feeling of connection, belonging and insight between the participants—probably something quite like what is felt by people with a new found identity within a cult. A part of this phenomenon was that the ex-participants identified themselves as a homogeneous group; an “ensemble”. Individuals outside the group were sometimes considered as social threats that needed to be checked or approved. The identity trips were many and wobbly, and three years later the consequences of this scenario are as obvious as ever, even if the sectarianism is fading.

SURVEILLANCE AND PRECARITY

Panopticorp was a scenario taking place in the glamorised advertising business. The players took on roles that had reached the top in public relations, design, copy-writing and lobby-ism. They were all hired by a company—Panopticorp—which had taken the toyotic production model to its extreme.

As the globalisation of economy progresses, toyotism is to an even greater extent replacing the classic fordistic production model. Toyotism is distinguished by new forms of internal organisation and teams of multi-functional workers with a relatively high level of local influence. Management by objectives replaces strictly hierarchic directives. Repression is disguised behind internal competition between work-teams and individual workers, relating to each other in a shifting system of clients and providers. Permanent employment and fixed wages are replaced by a situation where the payment is related to the profit of the company and the threat of being fired is constantly present. Rankings and transparent structures lure workers to top performance, ideally to the degree where performance and identity merge.

The Panopticorp narrative hit right at the core of the restless identities of the 00’s, and created a social structure that forced the participants into hectic competition. This included the value of being an effective worker as well as being an object of sexual attraction. To optimise the possibilities of topping the rankings of the day, everyone did everything within the walls of the office; ate, slept, fucked, entertained themselves and worked out. Everything became a part of the job. In a few hours, the participants were transformed from lazy slacker youngsters to super sharp workaholics. Constant sexual confirmation and shots of adrenalin from heavy deadline surfing kept them awake through the nights. They were working like dogs—but for what?

The name Panopticorp refers to Jeremy Bentham’s idea about creating humanistic prisons in accordance to a “panoptic” model. Michel Foucault have written philosophical theories concerning the concept. The architecture of the prisons made it potentially possible for the supervisors to look into any given cell at any given time. Since the prisoners are aware that they might be watched, they internalise the gaze of the supervisor. In the ideal case, the supervisor is no longer needed; the prisoner does the supervising himself. At Panopticorp the panopticon model was decentralised; the players were surveying each other to the point that they were surveying themselves.
The constantly watching gazes forced a cynicism into the fictive company’s fictive marketing campaigns, a cynicism that few players thought themselves capable of—no strategy too extreme, no cows too holy. As a consequence, the motives behind “real” advertising became highly suspicious to the participants. When the players, unlike the ordinary advertiser, could move outside the mechanics of the office after a couple of days, they experience frustration about how much creative energy had disappeared for no good. It was obvious that anyone who wished could be a young, hot body in the service of new capitalism. Left in the muscles was a feeling that this hot body had been submitted to the production of value, and the understanding that the real world lacks loopholes out of similar structures.

SACRIFICE TO THE UNKNOWN

Maybe the examples above could be viewed as a sign of a growing solemnity in our movement when it comes to the physical. Or, it could be viewed as an expression of an increasing contempt of the body; a feeling that the body belongs atop some kind of sacrificial altar, political or private. With terms such as “hard-core” a kind of competitive mentality concerning physical limitations has been established in the larp scene. Starvation and cold are talked about with a twinkle in the eye; an almost military attitude.

This element of self-induced punishment is of course not unique to the role-playing world. To begin with, there is the picture of the suffering artist or Christ figure that has been transmitted into our subculture, where it works as a measurement of dedication and performance. Another aspect is the sado-masochism (in a wider sense than just as a sexual practice) that permeates great parts of interaction in our time, both human versus human and human versus society. The context of role-playing employs positions of submission and superiority, but it is hardly a case of a consentional act between lovers. since the play is never allowed to give any impact on reality through making the powers of nature and unknowing co-players our executioners, we remove from our own lives the interaction with, and escape from, the complications of sexuality and the analysis of power structures. The playing demands secrets as well as energy and keeps them within its frames. The role becomes a hole for the body to disappear into.

In the same spirit we choose characters that in a (sexual) fantasy can seem glamorous, but that in our social reality, historical as well as contemporary, are more problematic. Prostitution and slavery are among the themes that—often under the presumption of seriously examining the conditions under which individuals in these domains are living—become a projection surface for the players more or less explicit wishes for an unlimited sexuality, free from responsibility. Questions that could be relevant to reflect upon include : What consequences do these fantasies have for our understanding of physical practises such as trafficing? How is our understanding of the events that have led to today’s interaction between poor and rich parts of the world influenced? What follows from the commodification of human relationships? What do these recurrent themes tell us about how gender is perceived?

The given reaction to looking at larp this way, is that always politicise experiences is a fucking killjoy—and furthermore a way to create a distance between mind and body. The consequences of a scenario that changes the position of the body obviously has different long-term effects depending on the values held by the participants. We can, to a certain extent, choose how to deal with our physical experience. We can work on our memories and make them fit personal views and patterns.

Even so, we are playing with powerful tools, tools that reorganise our identities with an impact equal to that of real life. We have the power to change ourselves. Who do we wish to become?

It is easy to end up in the same character, again and again. There are plenty of explanations as to why this is so: wishes, re-enactment of psychological trauma, the self recreates itself, the players defining each others as subjects. This understanding rarely result in any lasting change, even if it can suggest possible measures. If one does not manage to change the position of one’s body, one’s possibilities will not change either. But if one does indeed succeed to make the body do something it has never done before, this will always bring on multitude effects, for better or for worse.

THE WILL TO WORDS

In the field of live-action role-play, new books, net forums and articles such as this one, have an increasing tendency to attempt to verbalise the experiences of playing. We meet before the scenarios to develop our characters and afterwards to describe the events that took place. We cut in the middle of the story, step out of the character and the playing area to discuss what is going on. Considering that we generally have the intention to return to everyday life sooner or later, this is probably necessary; to keep our ordinary identities and protect ourselves from dissolving.

But constantly describing brings on other consequences as well. The dominant interpretations are always that of the the individuals with the strongest social position. The values of our age seep in with the talking, and override physical experiences. As deviation is mapped out verbally, it is rendered harmless. Norms and relationships are re-confirmed, wounds are healed„ but not always cleaned. The mouth says hallelujah to describe the experience while the foot sweeps it under the carpet, to make life proceed as if nothing has changed. Even if one aims to make the norm visible, and demands a self-conscious verbalisation of why players wish to enter certain relationships, it is hard or maybe impossible not to exchange old norms for new or invisible replacements.

Role-players have often been categorised in accordance with their style of playing; gamist, immersionist, dramatist. These categories most likely correspond to our need to be seen and framed as individuals with a certain belonging to a group—but do they correspond to our desires?

SHUT UP AND PLAY

Role-playing has, despite its potential as a tool for building new, alternative realities, a tendency to primarily, in a more or less conscious way, reflect and comment on the contemporary. We would like to finish this associative text about the role of the body in role-playing by formulating some post-utopian lines of flight and loopholes; an attempt to engage the body in the building of a counter-experience, or an experience that is allowed to leak.

Our best proposition at the moment is the silent game, which we develop below in some different versions. Our hope is of course that you will make these sketches your own.

In the silence there is room for a multitude which speech lacks. The physical movements that speech reduces and frames, become audible in the silent body. The individual gets a chance to handle his or her inner processes without having them reviewed by a collective that, no matter whether it wishes to or not, assesses validity according to a very arbitrary scale. In silence, the story of the collective, the common body that the players have created, is left a little more in peace from the social positioning that breaks up and ranks the narratives.

  • Play 1—Hunters, hiders Similar to following the fox; one group of people, or one person, leaves a place, and the others are to follow a few hours later and try to find the traces. This is probably easiest to play in a forest, since the chance to feel a smell, read a footprint or hear a small sound is bigger in a calmer environment, but it could probably be done in urban areas too.
  • Play 2—Contact improvisation A form of dance—spontaneous movement with a group or another person. The people move together while maintaining a connection through exploration of weight, touch and timing. Through contact improvisation our bodies find new approaches to each other.
  • Play 3—Mask The covered face has ananonymising effect and changes how we relate to the body. The head becomes heavier, the breathing is different, and no previous identity can be recognised. The mask strikes a non-human and mythic nerve; it has a trance to it, and it mutilates the face, which is usually the place where we read and project feelings. Masks make other kinds of stories happen.
  • Play 4—Nakedness The stripped body is not neutral; we can never undress culture, but some symbols will fall, traces of class and social positions fade. Normally, we only look at naked bodies in the shower or in bed; to put them in a novel context creates an alien surface. The skin without its extensions becomes a new skin.
  • Play 5—Reduction How dependent are we on our senses? Can we develop new skills by temporarily taking one away? If we blind ourselves, what do we hear? If we mute ourselves, what do we see? If we walk backwards, what happens to our conception of speed?

If we just shut up and play, our bodies will still betray us. Role-playing consists of the torrents of feelings and impulses that pass through our muscles in the situations where we put ourselves. The silent game and the silent parts of scenarios can not so easily be described in terms of politics etc, but it is what we have experienced with our bodies, that is following us out into the ordinary world. It is these physical memories that have the potential to influence and change how we act as continuous identities.

BODY AT RISK

A world of desires is a difficult world; a world where one risks loosing, colliding and changing in an extent that is not only frightening but also dangerous. With the body as a destination, we are torn out of context. Reality blows the frames of the subculture. If we search for silences, if we search for desires, we risk our lives; and not just our pretended lives. Things are turned upside down for ever more.

Acknowledgements The authors wishes to thank Kristi Schmidt, Malin Neuman and “The 33”.

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