138. Road Trip larp, Part Eleven: Moral aspects

/This is the eleventh part of the series on the Road Trip larp project. If you want to start from the first post, it is #116.

One of the more problematic forms of larp is incrowd larping. By that, I mean larps using the real world as a stage, and not a sharply defined area where there are no “outsiders”. Most larps do their very best to hide themselves from inquisitive eyes, and even those that don’t (because they take place in public parks, for example), usually do what they can to make non-larpers aware of what’s going on. It’s even big enough to have its own definition discussions. I’ve heard the terms “pervasive larp” and “city larp” used, but where I come from, “incrowd larp” was the word we used.

One thing is going out into the woods with your twenty orc buddies, but luckily most Sunday forest strollers who stumble upon you will guess that you’re doing something unusual, instead of believing that they’ve found a real orc village. Especially because real orc villages aren’t that common.

Incrowd larp, however, blurs that line. During an incrowd larp, participants may try to hide from non-larpers, but they’ll usually do their best to stay in character even when non-aware eyes are watching. A trio of vampires hanging out on a crowded street near the city center may be smart enough to not do any blood rituals in plain sight, but they still try to blend in (like the vampires would do if they were real).

This sort of larp leads to all sorts of moral conundrums. Is it ok to pretend to be someone else? How far is it fair to “take the game”? What are the boundaries for interacting with other people when pretending to be someone else? Is there even such a thing as “character”, when we get down to it?

In other words, incrowd larp is the Pandora’s box of larping, and there’s a reason many stay away from it. For many years I rarely ventured into the realm of incrowd, except sparingly. I’ve once been part of a vampire hunter cult at a vampire (incrowd) larp, where our cover was as a religious sect from a small, provincial town. We had flyers, a booth near a public plaza and several players from our group had conversations with unsuspecting bystanders, who they tried to recruit for the sect.

It was called “The Savior Church” and while we ended up getting murdered by the Albanian mafia (in the larp, not in reality), it was quite fun to try out while it lasted. That was back in 2002, though, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about incrowd since then.

Fast forward to Road Trip. Here, we weren’t going to be vampires trying to hide amongst mortals. We were going to be a rock band on tour, and if we were doing any hiding, it was of the metaphorical kind. We’d not just be playing in places where outsiders were present — we’d be actively playing with them without telling them that we weren’t who we seemed to be.

Naturally, that raised a LOT of ethical questions. Both before, during and after. Our organiser trio (Jeff, Ashley and I) had a ton of discussions on what was ok and what wasn’t, and before we started the larp, we gave the participants some clear guidelines on how to interact with “reality”.

One of the reasons we did Road Trip was to get more answers to some of these questions of ethics and morality. We mostly came away with more questions, and not a lot of hard and fast answers. We did learn quite a bit, though, and this series follows a Ten Lessons Learned format. But the questions are much more interesting than the answers (which are deeply personal).

So instead, it’s time for Ten Questions Asked About The Moral Aspects Of Road Trip.

  1. How do you deal with something so complex? It’s really not that simple, unless you choose to make it so. It’s of course easy to say “Incrowd is BAD, and you should never do it”, and in that case it’s simple. But the moment you move past that, it starts getting complex — VERY complex. It felt like every simple answer led to more questions and to “Oh, shit, I hadn’t considered that…” moments. Is it smarter to just keep it simple, or is it better to try to embrace complexity, even though it’s a grey zone?
  2. Isn’t it just lying through your teeth?. I went up to strangers and introduced myself as Rick Stevenson, music video producer. That’s lying. Undeniably untrue. When I talked about my high school years in Seattle, I was making up stories. But while I didn’t attend high school in Seattle, but I did live there from ’84 — ’87. Does that change anything? Did it matter that while we were definitely a fake rock band on tour, we were also an actual rock band on tour. Would it have made a difference with a “real” band?
  3. Where did the character end and the person begin? I ended up drawing on myself a lot. Rick Stevenson’s horrible joke about the bear and the hunter is also Claus’ horrible joke (though I tell it with less glee). Rick’s instagram profile might have been full of #poetryoflife pictures, but as my mother pointed out: “But it’s you who was able to see that poetry, even if it was in character.” When Rick argued philosophy and used Claus’ arguments, was that deep and meaningful or shallow and wrong?
  4. Is it ok to change your identity? The first time I shook hands with a non-larper as Rick, I felt like shit. Soon, I got into it, and started being comfortable with interacting with strangers as him. I’m pretty sure that if I changed my name and shed my past, I could become Rick Stevenson and live out the rest of my life as him without having too hard a time looking myself in the mirror. But can I just decide to become Rick Stevenson? And if I can’t, how is that different from other people who change their identity? And if I can do it for life, is it ok to do it for a week?
  5. What’s in a name and a persona? When I meet strangers, I choose how to present myself. Here I took that one step further, and used a fake name and fake stories. Is that ok? And if it isn’t, why not? Do I owe everyone to tell the truth? If not the full truth, then how much is it ok to omit? Was being Rick Stevenson much different from saying “Sorry, I’ve got a girlfriend” as a way of gently refusing an offer of intimacy? Why?
  6. Did it matter that the band was a fake band? They played real concerts on real instruments for real crowds. They sang real songs, practiced for real and worried for real about doing well. They had real feelings, smiled real smiles and had real fun. Their names were different and the band had only been in existence for a week when we ended in Santa Monica, but did that really matter that much? It was a real band on a real tour, right?
  7. What happens if we go back as ourselves? If Rick Stevenson walks into that bar in Amarillo, Texas and introduces himself as Claus, will Thomas (our host from that evening) break out in a huge grin and say “Wow!” when told the story, or will he become hostile? Will he start doubting the rest of his reality? Or did he see through us all along, and just played us while we were playing him? What about Caleb, who starred in our music video as a tambourine player? Did we cheat him or give him an unforgettable experience that only becomes less cool with truth?
  8. Is it ok to lie to strangers? This was a core question for Road Trip. Many of my less privilege friends lie on a regular basis, due to society being terrible at accepting their truths. Is lying about your name worse than lying about sexuality or gender identity? Is it worse than lying about what you believe in or who you vote for? Is it worse than lying about why you don’t want to go to a party you friend is hosting or why you “sadly can’t be there to help him move to his new apartment”? Is lying lying or is there nuance? And if there’s nuance, how do we deal with it?
  9. Is it about technicalities or is it just slippery slopes? Let’s say I have a complete interaction with a stranger, without ever mentioning my name or telling a lie, but while still very much playing the character of Rick. Is that ok? How is it different from me having the same interaction with someone while being Claus? And if the important different is which name I use, why does a name that’s easily forgotten matter so much?
  10. At the end of the day, who gets to decide what’s ok? Who do I ask for permission to pretend to be someone else for a week? Who do I ask for forgiveness? Who gave them that authority? Who am I harming by entering someone’s life as Rick instead of Claus? Who am I benefitting? Does this experience make me a better human being or a worse one? Can someone put their stamp of approval on an experience such as Road Trip, and if so, what grants them that power? And if no one can, can someone put their stamp of DISapproval on it instead, and who grants them THAT power?

It’s been several months since Road Trip, and while I am extremely glad that I went on that journey, I’m also still not sure if I feel that it was morally dubious or not. On the other hand, there’s not a shadow of doubt in my mind that most of us who took part had powerful and meaningful experiences.

Road Trip has also made me question social reality a lot more, and it’s not like I was into unquestioning acceptance beforehand. We knew that it would be controversial to some when we created it, but we’re still very much glad that we did. Will this be the first in a wave of a new type of incrowd larp, or will it become a casebook study of how NOT to do things?

I don’t know. I know that I’m looking forward to the second run, which will happen next year. Maybe we’ll get some answers then.

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If you want to get into contact, you can find me at clausraasted.dk.

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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