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3. Using larp to simulate futures and pasts

Larp is a fascinating form of expression. We can use it to gain insight into the past. We can use it as a form of extremely powerful escapism that lets our fantasy worlds come alive. We can use it to learn about ourselves. We can also use it to simulate the future.

I recently heard a talk by Rory Sutherland, who’s one of my heroes, in which he mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor about the Elephant and the Rider. Haidt compares a human being to an elephant (roughly equivalent to the subconscious) with a rider on top (the conscious mind). The elephant makes most of the decisions, and the rider spends a lot of energy explaining those decisions.

Sutherland jokingly refers to it this way:

“Our consciousness think it’s the oval office of our brain, when in reality it’s the press office.”

One of his excellent points about design is that we spend a lot of the time listening to the rider (who he also calls “a bit of a bullshitter”) instead of observing the elephant (who can’t talk, but just trumpets a bit).

Simulating the future is extremely hard. We can create models and reduce the world to numbers, and that makes it possible to extrapolate future numbers from our already existing numbers. If we’re comfortable with those numbers, or at least with the way we’ve gotten them, we call that a simulation of the future. This is how we calculate unemployment in 2030, population growth in 2050 and changes to the Big Mac index in two years.

This can be very useful. Sometimes, of course, it’s utter hogwash (a word I really don’t use often enough!) and even the predictions of world-famous expert turn out to be completely wrong. But it’s mostly useful when talking about numbers. It’s not so good when talking about the reality that those numbers represent — especially the reality of emotions and sensations.

Ironically, the emotions and sensations belong in the elephant category. We can learn how to identify our emotions and talk about them, but ultimately there’s a huge difference between our reasoning about why we do things, and what we actually do when push comes to shove.

On a personal level, I experienced this first hand when we did the first College of Wizardry larp in Poland. The tickets cost 180€, which is about half of what a CoW ticket costs as of this writing. The reason was simple. We were all volunteers, we did fundraiser larps in Denmark to help bring in money, and we also lost quite a bit on doing the project.

Still, in Polish larp communities, there was an uproar. It was too expensive. No Polish larper could afford it. We were evil exploiters. In Polish online forums, our Polish team members were attacked from many sides. The rage was real. We ended up having just one Polish player, a university Professor who teaches Game Design courses and who felt it was worth the expense.

Then after the larp, when College of Wizardry gained world-wide fame and a vast majority of the players of the original run started talking about what an amazing experience they’d had, things changed a bit. For the third CoW, we set aside 13 signup spots specifically for Polish players, since we really wanted to give them a chance to play if they wanted it.

Those places filled up in no time, even though the price was now 280€. At later runs, the price has been raised even further (as we’ve tried to make it more sustainable and have gone a bit overboard with our ambitions). The price for CoW9 and CoW10, which are the next in the series, is 375€.

We’ve had Polish players at every larp since CoW3. This is not to diminish the fact that 375€ is a lot of money in Poland. It is! But it’s also clear that when we were told that 180€ was “impossibly expensive”, it wasn’t true. The rider might have believed it, but the elephant didn’t really care, in the end.

When companies launch products, they often use focus groups. Bringing in people to test out the product and to talk about it, while being observers by a team of developers, can be very useful. It’s also a completely artificial environment, and everyone knows it. There’s a huge difference in the conversation between a focus group for a new Playstation, and the conversation of a group of friends who gather for the first time around one that’s just been bought by one of them.

Still, focus groups are a nice way of testing out products. But how about things that are not necessarily products? How do we test what will happen if we introduce a universal basic income? How do we test what would happen, if men got a small electric shock every time they interrupted women? And how do we do it in an environment that doesn’t scream “testing grounds”?

Larp is one solution. We routinely construct worlds and situations, where the world is altered. I’ve once run a larp for Finnish children set in 3000 AD, where the brains of males had changed, so that they could only speak in one-syllable words. The boys playing those males forgot a lot of the time, but it was still a fun experiment. Needless to say, the girls loved it.

We (as a community) have experimented with power hierarchies and gender roles. We’ve experimented with language and physicality. We’ve made orcs democratic as a way of teaching children how to vote, and we’ve made villagers shit in communal shithouses sitting on wooden bars facing each other. It’s not like we’re afraid of trying out new stuff!

Doing a larp to simulate the future is by no means as good as testing out a theory in reality. Having teenagers play refugees, as is done by the Scandinavian “På Flugt” (“On the run”) events, doesn’t give a realistic picture of how they would behave as actual refugees. But it helps.

Well, yeah. The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, has been using roleplaying to train its soldiers since 2004. One might argue that this isn’t true roleplaying, since the soldiers don’t play characters. Everyone else does, though, and as a young American G.I Joe this kind of training is invaluable.

Standing in the middle of a street, arguing with the locals over a car blocking traffic, while suddenly being ambushed by armed militia fighters, sounds scary as heck, even though they’re not using real bullets. Not having been there, I can’t speak with personal authority on this, but luckily others have squashed any kind of doubt that this sort of thing helps.

A good example of something relatively simple, but major, that was learned at Fort Irwin, had to do with water. Soldiers needed a lot more of it than was expected, and while this was probably among the more easily fixable problems, I’m sure some ground troops in the field were very happy that this had been discovered during training simulations.

Interesting as Fort Irwin is, the story of Lars Andersen is an even better illustrations of the power of larp. For those of you who don’t know who Lars Andersen is, he’s the world’s fastest archer. Not just by a little, but by a lot. To put it bluntly, at the moment there’s no one who is even close to shooting as fast as he does with a bow and arrow. He’s also a history nerd, and likes to shake up the status quo when he gets the chance.

I met Lars in 2002, when I was hired at a Danish after-school institution that ran weekly larps for kids. We’d usually have between 50 and 100 kids larping each week, and we also built a lot of equipment along with the kids. Costumes, weapons, props, and so on were all constructed in our workshop.

At once point, we made bows and arrows and introduced a ranged combat element to the fighting. Some of the kids were good at it. Others were horrible. It was fun, though. At the time, Lars (who was around 40 at the time) hadn’t shot with a bow and arrow since he was a kid, and was no particular archery expert. He did get to shoot kids as part of his work, though, and that’s kind of neat.

Not long after we’d introduced bows to the kids, I managed to get Lars to go with me to a Danish larp campaign for adults. That started him off as a regular player there, and before too long he’d hooked up with an old friend, who was larping in the same campaign. The friend played an archer, and at some point Lars saw him at work during a battle with the elves. He describes it like this:

“I’d been killed off early, and was lying on the ground looking at the battle, and I saw Peter kill off one after the other using his bow — sneaking around the outskirts of the fighting and lending a hand where he could.”

After that day in the forest, Lars got himself a bow and some soft larp arrows, and joined Peter. The two of them edged each other on, and quickly got to be quite deadly. They also experimented with other weapons, and at one point Lars built a 10-shot repeater crossbow that had everyone salivating.

As his archery skills grew, Lars started reading books about historical archery and looking at old illustrations and paintings. He came across claims from historical texts that had been debunked by modern archery scholars; for example, the Indian chieftain Hiawatha was supposed to have been able to shoot ten arrows into the air before the first hit the ground.

This was obviously an exaggeration.

Except, it wasn’t, as Lars later proved, by shooting eleven arrows into the air before the first hit, in 2011. But that was still some time down the road at the point when he and Peter were shooting elves in the forest. They had some discoveries to make first.

One of the first things they figured out through their larping was that the back quiver, which is popular in movies, was more or less useless for an actual skirmish archer operating in a forest. Their arrows were constantly falling out and were impractical to draw.

Years later, when the first Hunger Games movie was made, the hero — Katniss Everdeen — used a back quiver. A fan who wanted to cosplay Katniss chose to glue her arrows inside the quiver so they wouldn’t fall out. Whether Jennifer Lawrence, the actor playing Katniss in the movies, had to have her arrows glued to the quiver, we don’t know, but it’s eminently possible that it was necessary during some scenes. It seems highly unlikely that real archers had arrows that were glued to the quiver, though.

Another interesting thing Lars learned by larping was that the immensely common tactic of an archery regiment drawing and firing at the same time (as seen in basically any movie which features archery) is nonsense. For a 2012 war larp, Lars and Peter allied themselves with a third friend and trained a regiment of archers in fast shooting. They then took them to the battlefield, where they fired volleys of arrows like in the movies.

They discovered that while it looked great, it made no sense at all. Not only is it incredibly exhausting to hold still while holding a bow drawn to its fullest and waiting for the other archers, it’s also a lot easier for enemies to block arrows coming in volleys than if they come flying individually. It makes sense for guns to fire that way, since a bullet can’t be dodged (unless you’re Neo from the Matrix) and it can more easily penetrate a shield. Additionally, once a gun is cocked and ready to shoot, it doesn’t require effort to keep it at that state of readiness. Keeping an arrow drawn does!

Lars has since gotten to the point where he can do truly amazing things with a bow and arrow — shooting incoming arrows with his own like the Indian demigod Arjuna, for example —and that is entirely due to his own dedication and skill. But what led him down that road was his first-hand experience with war archery through larp.

Sadly, I’m not the living god-emperor of anything, but if I was, I’d use larps to simulate some of the ideas I had on a small scale. Larps have the advantage of being incredibly scalable and of giving people alibis for doing things they’d normally avoid.

Say you want to learn something about codes of conduct at parties and sexual predators. It’s easy enough to gather 50 people for a party and tell them that the social rules of the party will be a bit different. It’s a bit harder to find out how that impacts sexual predators, since there hopefully won’t be any sexual predators present. And if there are, they sure as fuck won’t be up for a structured debriefing session afterwards talking about their thoughts!

With larp, we can play out that scenario. We can get some rough idea of how a night club works if you put up security cameras, put the sofas in dimly lit areas or introduce a buddy system. We can’t get anything like the data we’d get by testing it out in reality, but we can get a lot more interesting input than by simply doing a focus group. Especially if we provide people with characters and alibis that allow them to explore the darker aspects in a safe environment so everyone can learn from it.

This is just an example, of course.

The nice thing about larp is that like other forms of expression, the possibilities are endless. We just need to get better at making people aware that we can be useful to them. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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