I’ve been hired by the Danish initiative C:ntact to revamp an edu-larp (educational live action role-playing game, in case you don’t know the abbreviation) that I created last autumn. The larp, ‘Solens Folk’, teaches school children awareness about discriminatory behaviour.
C:ntact is an initiative which has been created by theatre director Henrik Hartmann. He is also in charge of Copenhagen-based theatre Betty Nansen Teatret, which is why up until now, acting and performing has been C:ntact’s focus. The purpose of the initiative is to bridge people by using creative means such as story telling, rap, and acting. Several young people who have started out as volunteers in their projects are now studying to become actors. Some of the projects are classic plays, such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but with school children playing the parts of the star-crossed lovers. Others, such as their rap competition, taps into street culture.
It also deserves mentioning that C:ntact’s usual ‘audience’ are ghetto schools and children from, shall we say challenged, areas of Copenhagen.
With Solens Folk, C:ntact is trying out a lot of new things. First of all, it’s the initiative’s first venture into role-playing and larping. Secondly, the project I am now working on is on a National scale, and requires us to work with children from many different regions of Denmark.
The first four instances of Solens Folk were held in October/November 2013. In many ways, it was a success, as the game did exactly what we wanted: It rocked the boat. The feedback from the teachers has been extremely positive: It made the pupils change their behaviour - they became less discriminatory. However, I still feel it could be even better, and since C:ntact agrees, we are going to be re-vamping the game for a new season.
Solens Folk plays out in a post apocalyptic setting, in a new future after a third world war has ended. Life as we know it is ruined. Commodities such as food, electricity, and medical aid are hard to come by. Life is tough. Humanity’s only chance of survival is to keep the peace. There must be no more war, or the last few remnants of our race will be wiped out.
Every once a year, the people gather in the temple - the ruins of an old theatre which still stands. Here they make human blood sacrifices to the ruthless, mushroom-shaped Sun God.
In order to keep humanity in check, the priests of the Sun God have made a system. When the tribes meet at the temple, it is to negotiate a ranking order. The tribes at the top of the hierarchy are entitled to better jobs and more luxury than the rest. The tribes at the bottom are treated as the scum of the Earth. However, hope keeps them alive: The hope that next year, they will be voted a top ranking tribe.
Unfortunately the system is broken. The tribes at the top of the hierarchy keep getting re-elected, and the tribes at the bottom have developed a victim mentality that they are having trouble breaking away from. In reality, the hierarchy has become a rigid classification system which keeps poor people in check, and distributes wealth unevenly.
When I originally developed the game, I was instructed to make it as mean as possible. Henrik’s idea was to show the pupils what it feels like to be discriminated, and thus help them develop enough empathy to not behave discriminatorily towards each other. A kind of scare tactics, one might say.
My first job was to define what it means to discriminate. I did some research which showed me that the boundaries between bullying and discrimination are blurred. If somebody takes your lunch money every day, it’s bullying. But if said somebody takes your lunch money because he dislikes you for being a member of a minority, it’s discrimination. However, discrimination is not always towards minorities. An awful lot of discrimination against women is going on, and we’re not a minority.
I quickly understood that what Henrik was going for is what we in larping-terms would call ‘bleed’. Bleed is when the events that happen to your character affects you so much that it will influence how you behave outside the larp. The easiest way to achieve this is to allow the players to project as much as possible into the character. In a game about discrimination, you could cast the overweight children as overweight, and make the others discriminate them for that reason. Or you could do the same with blacks or homosexuals or women. However, doing that would most likely make most people balk. This is why I decided to create a context which removed the players further from reality, and build the post apocalyptic setting. Here they were to discriminate against each other for being members of a certain tribe, instead of something more 'real'. that would give the players the opportunity to experience the mechanics of discrimination, but without having to put themselves on the line as much.
However, in order to also retain some realism, I gave the players an extra assignment: They had to choose three chores from a list of common ways of discriminating. The list was assembled from things I have seen pupils do to each other at school, and also from suggestions from their teachers. It looked like this:
1.Pretend not to hear someone who is talking directly at you
2. Call someone a derogatory name. Choose between one of these: Fatso, whore, paki, nigger, gay
3. Tell a discriminating joke. If nobody laughs: Tell them they are too sensitive, it’s just a joke
4. Tell people that you will not be led by a female person, as women can’t lead
5. Comment on the way someone looks in a negative way
6. Ask about things that are very personal while others are listening in
7. Threaten someone physically
8. Tell someone that if she doesn’t do as you want, you will make sure that no-one speaks to her again
It was not surprising to me that this task was extremely difficult for the players. It was quite simply too close to home. However, it was also one of the most fruitful assignments, as the players became aware that some of the things that they themselves might have done could be classified as bullying or discriminatory behaviour. As one boy said: ‘I often call my friend gay. He doesn’t mind’. Since his friend was there, we asked him if it was true that he didn’t mind. It wasn’t.
After the game, we used discussions and a form of forum theatre (check Forum Theatre out here if you don’t know it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forum_theatre) to reflect on what the players had experienced. One thing became very clear: The players who had been in the top of the hierarchy were much more willing to talk, whereas the players who had formed the bottom actually seemed ashamed of having been discriminated against! During just 6 hours of play, the social structure which had been imposed had affected them to such a degree that they felt what their characters felt.
All in all, the game did exactly what it should. The players learned a lesson. However, something bothers me: While the pupils learned to recognise discrimination, they did not learn how to break out of it. Considering that most of the schools they came from could be termed as underpriviledged, this was something that I consider a failing.
Also, I noticed that although they had certainly learned something, the experience had not been pleasurable at all. There was no sense of catharsis. In fact, some of the pupils found the larp so uncomfortable, that they chose to stay home on the second day, which was a pity, as this is when a plot to overthrow the priests is introduced.
My chore for the next version of the game is to make it more empowering.
My idea at the moment is to keep the setting, but to introduce a character workshop before the game begins, where the players construct their own character. My assumption is that if I can make the layer of fiction a little thicker, it might make the experience more enjoyable. Also, I am going to introduce the thought of having a rebellion much earlier on.
Maybe I also need a sort of positive list to counter the negative one, which instructs you on how to break free from discriminatory behaviour.
One thing that bothers me is the realisation that change happens much more easily if it comes from the top layers of society than from the bottom. However, the oppressors have little interest in changing the system, as change would jeopardise their own standard of living. A lot like in real life.
I wind up asking myself: What would be realistic? How can I show the pupils how to take action - in such a way that they will be able to bring that knowledge with them into reality?
I've got quite a big chore in front of me!