Against design published in the larp anthology Liminal Encounters

Solmukohta book cover 2024. Liminal encounters.

The annual Nordic live action role-play conference Knutpunkt/Solmukohta usually comes with an anthology on different aspects of larp. This year’s title was LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic-inspired Larp and it was edited by Kaisa Kangas and her team. There are many good contributions to this year’s book. I can specifically recommend “The Manifesto of Playing to Live Elsewise” by Maiju Tarpila and “Readdressing Larp as Commodity: How Do We Define Value When the Customer Is Always Right?” by Usva Seregina. Both these text dig deeper in the relation between larp and consumer capitalism.

I had the pleasure to co-write a text and present it at the conference together with Andrea Nordwall.

Andrea Nordwall & GAbriel Widing on stage.
Nordwall & Widing. Photo by Joc Koljonen

Against Design

Larp in general, and Nordic style larp in particular, is often claimed to be an artistic practice, a frontier of participatory arts. However, discourse on larp by larp organizers, larp participants and game studies researchers has, in recent years, started to frame larp making primarily as a design practice. By that logic larps are now designed by larp designers using larp-specific participatory interaction design methods. Discussions on these design methods have become the mainstay of larp conferences such as Knutpunkt/Solmukohta. Let’s discuss what this hegemony of design thinking does to our practice.

The overall project of design thinking is constructive. Design has lowered the thresholds of participation as well as enabled and structured larp organizing. In the best case, larp designers evaluate best practices and share methods. Although every step in this direction seems like a small success of self-understanding and self-improvement, we argue that the long-term consequences do not necessarily benefit larp as a culture nor as an artistic form. The current hegemony of larp as design does the groundwork for an ongoing reification and commodification of larp. Design transforms larp participants into larp consumers.

New larp projects are now pitched to participants with methods catering to various larp audiences (or rather intended target groups). Post-mortems of past projects serve the function of user experience (UX) evaluation examples to optimize the design of future projects. The design methods are reevaluated based on past successes in relation to informally segmented target groups (such as fantasy-chillout, dystopian-play-to-lose, or post-apocalypse-over-the-top larp consumers), combining setting with interaction style to form specific and recurring audiences. These target groups can then be matched to tried and tested larp design methods to successfully form an iterative and recursive feed-forward UX loop. In practice, this leads to repeating ideas and design elements that have proven to be successful, at the expense of new innovation.

In their marketing, larps can “attach” themselves to commercially successful and well-known IPs and franchises to pitch projects with similar names, using brand recognition to drive participance, forming a secondary volunteer-run streaming service experience. The success of this strategy indicates an environment where even the overall set and setting for a larp is purposefully used as a design method to drive interest in and communicate intended participation. Adopting commercially successful mass media culture is the optimal strategy for producing predictable participance.

There was a time when mass media enviously glanced at the rich culture and engagement surrounding Nordic larp. By now, the roles are reversed. When larp designers take turns riding on various commercial successes in mass media, larp becomes a cecum of Hollywood film and streaming culture. Such an approach would be highly unusual in artistic fields, where originality merits artistic value.

We argue that larp as a form is being restricted by its own success as a participatory design practice and that innovation in larp is over (other than sporadic and local). We see several reasons why larp as design practice hampers larp innovation.

Firstly, design thinking avoids conflict at all costs to deliver a product. Any kind of conflict or disagreement is considered a failed interaction design. But culture can be nurtured by conflict, and we would argue that Nordic larp developed through cultural and subcultural clashes, not through consensus-based “everything is okay as long as you know what you want” design thinking. Bring back dialectics; it’s not smooth, but it’s also not harmful.

We are concerned that larp as a field at this point is emulating some of the worst aspects of experience design commodity culture: start-up ambitions among organizers (including burn-out syndrome) and reification of participants’ social interactions: social interaction becomes a “product” that is delivered by the larp through strategic employment of larp design methods.

The idea of clarity of purpose that design brings makes larp a “readerly” practice – a practice where interpretation (and interaction) is “prepared” for the participant, rather than a “writerly” or artistic-oriented practice, open for the plurality of interpretation (and potential conflict). Clarity of interpretation is optimal for designing and delivering predictable and serviceable interaction for a defined target group. This results in predictable and shallow cultural practices and artifacts.

Remember, there are many ways to make larps. Norwegians use the word lage, a verb that could be utilized for larp making as well as for cooking a soup. Larps can be written, created, organized, dreamt up, or they can be born from artistic practice. We want to encourage a plurality of ways of creating larp.

Think about larp as a culture. It has been said that design is “the opposite of tradition.” Then maybe it’s time to value some of our subcultural traditions, the mutual knowledge of gathering and making stories come alive through our community. Here, we have to understand the limits of design thinking. For example, one of the key features of Nordic larp is trust. We have developed trust in our subculture by nurturing it for many years and events, to the point where we can say trust is part of our tradition. This makes some scenarios possible that would otherwise not be possible. However, you can not replace the tradition of trust by design. The harder you try, the further you fall when something goes wrong.

We argue that larp should not be reduced to a streamlined, well-designed experience product, but rather nurture an aesthetic field, an artistic form in dialogue with the participants as well as the culture at large. The reason larp fails to claim a culturally relevant position is because the primary focus on design optimization reduces our capacity to form an aesthetic or artistic field in dialogue with the wider culture. As an artistic form, larp makers should look for autonomy and integrity in our practice.

Stop using experience product delivery as the primary factor when evaluating larp projects. Instead, focus on how it innovates the form and how it can reshape culture by doing so. The latter is not necessarily realized through “good design”, but through good art.

Know that there is a difference between feedback and critique. We know how to give and get the former, not the latter. When engaging in society, larp will become criticized for how it, as a participatory form, approaches important issues. Be ready for, welcome, and enable criticism, not just on how well participatory methods worked out or whether the experience delivered quality time, but on how the form of larp itself can interpret and address cultural issues relevant to society in a wider context. Instead of targeting cultural and societal matters, larp has become a recursive product design improvement loop that is increasingly optimized for a decreasingly creative field.
If we consider larp-making as an artistic creation process, it does not necessarily involve problem-solving or a user-centered approach. Larps can happen through community building, collaborative creation, or even serendipity.

Author bios

Andrea Nordwall is a long-time larper, with a background in art and theatre and a Master’s degree in interaction design. She produced the first commercially available blackbox larp Force Majeure with Gabriel Widing in 2001 and co-authored Deltagarkultur in 2009 with the now defunct participatory art collective Interacting Arts.

Gabriel Widing is an artist and game designer, interested in performance, play and participation. His recent works includes the mobile based scenarios Ekstasis made with Nyxxx as well as Mobilized and Inferno Speeddate made with Nea Landin. At the moment he is working on a performance based on medieval mystic Hadewijch’s poem Love’s Seven Names in collaboration with Áron Birtalan.

On tour in Finland

Photo: Tanwa Srisong, Luckan

I’ve been on a ten day tour in Finland with Nyxxx and the show Hör så tyst det är, directed by me and Ebba Petrén. The tour was organized by Assitej Finland through the Bravo!-festival and I’m happy we have been able to show the work in Swedish as well as Finnish. This is the second time we go to Finland on tour, last time Kulturcentrum Hanaholmen invited us to do the old best-seller Din inre röst for Swedish speaking kids. It’s always a pleasure to travel across the pond to our neighbor in the east and it will not be long until I go back again for the Nordic larp festival Solmukohta that is hosted in Tampere this year.

Grant received from The Church of Sweden

Uppsala domkyrka, December 4th 2023

We (Gabriel Widing & Áron Birtalan) are excited to announce that our project 𝑳𝒐𝒗𝒆’𝒔 𝑺𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒏 𝑵𝒂𝒎𝒆𝒔 is one of the awardees for The Church of Sweden’s cultural prize in 2023. The award consists of a grant that will help us in the initial stage of the project, studying, rehearsing, wayward dreaming.

⛓️ ✨ 🪨 🔥 🌱 ⛲ 🌀

We plan to make Love’s Seven Names a participatory piece that guides audiences through a series of collective contemplations, inspired by the poem of the same name*, by the 13th-century Beguine mystic Hadewijch. Part erotic lovesong, part theological treatise, 7 Names is a dazzling piece of poetry, whose secretive language can be seen as both a manyfold encounter with the mystical bodies of God, and as a clandestine manual for spiritual techniques that mix more accepted forms of piety with some seriously daring stuff, bordering on magical practices.

By the 1300s, the Church’s attitude towards Beguine women’s communities and their ‘DIY Catholicism’ became more and more hostile. Communities were closed, and women were forced to give up their way of life for fear of punishment. A fellow Beguine, the French Marguerite Porete was sentenced to die for refusing to renounce her book and mystical manual, The Mirror of Simple Souls.

The story of the Beguines ties into a long history of bodies and practices marginalised, silenced and killed by the religious powers that be. In the voices persecuting Beguines, one hears echoes of orthodox Christianity waging wars upon Gnostic and Cathar heresies in the centuries before Hadewijch; as well as the horrors of the witch trials at the hands of both Catholic and Protestant patriarchies in the centuries following. Collaborating on this project with a mainline church body presents a challenge that we are both yet to live through, and at once feel an urgency to take on. We thank the Church of Sweden for trusting us as autonomous artists, opening a dialogue without expecting anyone to ‘clean things up’. Looking forward to what next year brings.

In conversation with Lundahl & Seitl at IAC

Christer Lundahl, Martina Seitl, Gabriel Widing
Christer Lundahl, Martina Seitl, Gabriel Widing

Inter Arts Center “a platform for artistic research and experimentation” are very into games and play these days. Me and Nea Landin performed Mobilized there at Immersive days #3: Agents in Play. In the aftermaths i had the pleasure of giving a short improvised talk and enter a dialogue with Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl.


The Abyss Between Our Hands – with Áron Birtalan

The Abyss Between Our Hands

On October 20th we will host a seminar and a reading night, exploring technologies of intimacy in artistic practice and mystical theology. Artistic practice and mysticism have both been ways where the unknowable and the unreliable can be touched, felt, communed with. They denote a space where the lines between affective, sensual and intellectual collapse, a space for new kinds of understandings, confusions, joys, troubles. This whole-day event that goes from noon to the morning after brings guided sessions, discussions, music, readings from a 13th-century mystic and communal sleeping hopes to unfold the possibilities for a new theology of touch, informed by mysticism, philosophy and participatory practice. We hope you will join us in reaching out to touch the unknowable and unreliable parts not just of the world, but of ourselves.    

14:00–17:00 – PhD Seminar of Áron Birtalan   This PhD seminar explores technologies of intimacy and permeability and the possibility of a theology of touch. The research unfolds under the influence of three women mystics from the 13-14th century: the beguines Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg and the heretic Marguerite Porete. Focusing on how language, attention and sensation are mobilised through their writings, these historical texts are put to dialogue with current voices in expanded choreography, participatory and relational practices, New Materialist philosophy and contemporary radical theology. Grounding the research in praxis, the work hopes to create space for movements in which virtual and enfleshed bodies contaminate one another, becoming compost for living-dying languages, technologies and epistemologies in art and theology.   The program for the afternoon includes a guided experience, a response from theologian and philosopher Simone Kotva, and an open conversation with the audience. The seminar is a part of artist Áron Birtalan’s PhD research project in artistic practice at Stockholm University of the Arts’ Department of Dance. Read more about the research here.   The PhD-seminar is free to attend but you need to signup via Stockholm University of the Arts.    

20:00–08:00 – Reading Night – Hadewijch   This special event invites you to spend the night at Hägerstensåsens Medborgarhus, reading, listening, falling asleep to the writings of the 13th- century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Brabant.   Hadewijch was a Beguine, who were women in the Middle Ages living in small religious communities without being members of the Church, like nuns. Her writings, which include poems, songs, visions, letters and prose speak with a voice that cuts through the fabric of time, into the hidden depths of one’s heart. Hadewijch’s mysticism weaves together her devotion to her life as a Beguine, with the lovesick lovesongs of the troubadours, and with dazzlingly dark metaphysics that would make any contemporary philosopher blush. To her, encountering the divine rests within the mystical abyss of love – if one dares to take the leap.   This is an overnight event, where we read until the morning. Your ticket includes dinner and a small breakfast. We will spend the night in the main hall of the building and you can choose to sleep, listen or even help us read. You will be asked to bring your own sleeping gear, and we have a few beds available for guests with mobility needs or travelling in from far. For booking a bed, contact Maren Wolf:   To participate in the overnight part please book your tickets here. Each ticket includes dinner and breakfast.

For more info about the event read this.    

Artistic Team: Áron Birtalan, Gabriel Widing, Maren Wolf

Seminar Opponent: Simone Kotva (University of Oslo, University of Cambridge)

PhD Supervisors: John-Paul Zaccarini (Stockholm University of the Arts), Erin Manning (Concordia University)

Overnight music: Extracts of the XIV, Sonja Tofik gleemaiden, Macumbista

Support from: Stockholm University of the Arts, Hägerstensåsens Medborgarhus  

Áron Birtalan is an artist, musician and student of theology, whose work explores languages of pleasure and anguish between angel, creature and computer. Simone Kotva is a philosopher of religion working at the intersection of theology, critical theory and earth ethics. Maren Wolf is a designer and artist working with participatory experiences, rituals and playfulness. Gabriel Widing is an artist and game designer, interested in performance, play and participation. Sonja Tofik is a composer and musician based in Stockholm. Her blend of samples, drones, field recordings, feedback and vocals creates a dark and emotional sonic sphere. Extracts of the XIV are ecstasy by song, ecstasy by repetition – perpetual peaks, uplifted and otherworldly. In the place where eternity stands right-angled towards time, XTC sings the XIV century. Macumbista is a little boy that lives in DH’s mouth.  

Content and Accessibility The seminar and the after-event both feature sensitive sound fields and (optional) participatory exercises in attention and sensation. The venue is fully accessible. The seminar touches on topics of religion, grief, ideas about the afterlife, sensuality, contamination, erotics, and the limits of consensual relationships.  

With support from ABF Stockholm

MOBILIZED: An essay pretending to be a game

Mobilized is a participatory performance exploring the power and potential of the smart phone. Rather than asking you to turn it off when entering the theatre, we ask you to keep it ready for use. Your phone will be the portal that takes you and other audience members into the constructed reality of the piece. The format is based on simple instructions and choices that appear on your screen through text, images and sound. The instructions shape different situations and collective movements. The piece is 45 min long and will be performed in English.


Made by: Nea Landin & Gabriel Widing

Sound design: Scott Cazan

Supported by: The Swedish Arts Grants Committee, DansPlats Skog, Site Sweden, Inter Arts Center, Nyxxx

2024 TOUR

  • SITE Festival, TBA
  • Riksteatern, TBA

2023 TOUR

Inferno speed date

Hands and mouths
Visuals from Inferno Speed date

Together with Nea Landin I have designed and coded a speed date web app. It was commissioned for Kulturnatten (Museums’ night) at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern. Inspiration came from Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the protagonist wander through the different circles in Hell. The participant start off by choosing what deadly sin they are under the influence of. That will assign them to a crew of sinners with the same “weakness” in common. After that they will go on four random dates and reassemble with their group a few times in between.

The gate to hell
. . .abandon all hope, you who enter here.

At Kulturhuset Stadsteatern

At Kulturhuset we run the speed date four times in an evening for 20-30 participants per showing. The dating is not just about romantic interest. It might as well be about meeting new people. We got some valuable feedback and look forward to develop the design. Photos below by Joakim Rindå.

Speed date in action
The makers of the speed date
Gabriel & Nea

If you are interested in a speed date, get in touch! It would work well as conference opener or at a festival.

The envious dog
The app follows the medieval iconography, where every sin is represented by an animal. Envy is represented by a dog.

Datenight på domens dag (Kulturnatten, Kulturhuset)

Bild från prototyp

På Kulturnatten, 22 april, 2023 blir det ny-designad, ny-kodad speeddate på Kulturhuset i Stockholm

Kom med på en infernalisk speed-date och lär känna nya vänner, älskare och småjävlar. Din mobil (detta djävulens påfund) kommer att leda dig och de andra förtappade själarna på plats genom en serie rykande möten och situationer. Speed-daten är skapad och leds av koreografen Nea Landin och regissören Gabriel Widing.

  • 19:00, 20:00, 22:00 och 23:00, Panorama
Bild: Erica Jacobson

Mer information om hur du bokar din gratisbiljett kommer inom kort. Först till kvarn! Platserna är begränsade.

Barpianist:  Panayot ”Pancho” Mihaylov

THE IMAGINING BODY: Freestanding course at SKH

Applications are open for a freestanding 7.5p course at Uniarts/SKH that I will put together and teach together with Áron Birtalan. It’s the first time I have the opportunity to create an entire course from scratch on university level and I think these five weeks will be great. If you are active in any performative context consider applying and join us.

Photo: Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, YGRG14X: reading with the single hand, 2018. Video still. Courtesy of the Artists.

The course offers you a practical and theoretical intro to the relationships between Imagination, Embodiment, and Interface Technologies in artistic practices. You will be invited to partake in an experimental environment under influence of sci-fi, mystical visions and esoteric magic.

How does imagination shape us and the things we create? Can imagination belong to anyone at all? Is imagination limited to images? How does imagination influence us as bodies? How can imagination become a body? How does the body imagine?

In this course we will look at how these questions are explored in science fiction, media studies, religion and magical practices: From visionary medieval mystics to XX. century ritual cinema, and to techno-queer spells for the end of the Anthropocene. We will bring their ways of working into the studio to see how they can shape artistic practice and thought. Special attention is given to how “technologies of imagination” influence bodily experience in both creator and audience.

This course is open to participants from all artistic disciplines and interests. We encourage you to be open to making, discussing and experiencing art in ways that may seem unusual at first.

Our approach is hands-on and theoretical at once. We believe that on-the-floor engagement and critical thought do not exclude each other, but unfold from one another.