This is Kon-Tiki, a raft on which Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. He did it to show that South Americans could have set­tled Polynesia. This is maybe the most famous exam­ple of exper­i­men­tal archae­ol­o­gy, a field which attempts to test archae­o­log­i­cal hypothe­ses, often try­ing to repli­cate ancient tech­niques. In exper­i­men­tal archae­ol­o­gy, we could for instance try to make the kind of shoes that our hunter-gatherer ances­tors might have had, and test how long they last in use. 

But what if we are inter­est­ed in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kinds of ques­tions? Like, did they have rules for whom you’re allowed to have sex with? How did they raise their kids? We could always look at exist­ing hunter-gatherer cul­tures and guess that the cul­ture might have been sim­i­lar. But could we attempt to test our hypothe­ses, someway?

A group of eight people in primitive-looking clothing and decoration

Photo: Xin Li

This is KoiKoi, a larp about a hunter-gatherer peo­ple called be Ankoi. Their cul­ture con­tained var­i­ous cos­tumes adapt­ed from real-world hunter-gatherer tribes. For instance, they had three gen­ders, and a wom­an’s broth­er was seen as the father of her children.

The game was not set in a def­i­nite his­tor­i­cal time or place. However, it was not fan­ta­sy. There were no ele­ments that would have been impos­si­ble in the real world. The focus was on the cul­ture. In KoiKoi, you could try for your­self how it is to live with­out laws, insti­tu­tions, or for­mal hier­ar­chies. Or with­out read­ing or writ­ing. It felt like a play­ful ana­logue of exper­i­men­tal archae­ol­o­gy, so I bap­tized the genre exper­i­men­tal anthropology.” 

The game mate­ri­als, an audio book and its tran­script were in the form of a first-person sto­ry where an Ankoi explains the cus­toms and beliefs. I inter­pret­ed them as record­ings and field notes made by an anthro­pol­o­gist study­ing the Ankoi. 

Another exam­ple is Brudpris, a game about patri­ar­chal hon­or cul­ture. It was about a Nordic peo­ple called Mofolket. They believed that there is a dan­ger­ous life force in women. To con­trol it, men had to con­trol every aspect of a wom­an’s life. If she would show signs of being out of con­trol, they would pun­ish her. If the man did­n’t suc­ceed in doing this, he would lose honor.

The game mate­r­i­al con­tained extracts from a fic­ti­tious anthro­po­log­i­cal study, and some of the char­ac­ters actu­al­ly were anthro­pol­o­gists who were doing research on Mofolket. And in fact, in both KoiKoi and Brudpris, some of the orga­niz­ers had anthro­po­log­i­cal education.

But can we real­ly learn about oth­er cul­tures through larp? Making a pair of shoes can tell us about ancient tech­niques. However, try­ing a social cus­tom for a cou­ple of days is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from being social­ized to it from your child­hood. When we play a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, we build its image based on our own cul­tur­al pre­con­cep­tions. In the end, it main­ly teach­es us how we see an oth­er cul­ture, not how it is to actu­al­ly live inside that culture.

And actu­al­ly, even very sim­ple things such as phys­i­cal com­fort can depend on cul­ture. When I was liv­ing in Japan, I once went to a store to look for a soft pil­low. And I asked the store­keep­er, an old lady, about it. It was a very tra­di­tion­al kind of store. And she actu­al­ly thought I was using the wrong Japanese word, that I was mean­ing actu­al­ly some­thing else than soft. Because who would like to have a soft pil­low, anyway? 

So, play­ing in a game like KoiKoi does­n’t real­ly give us much real insight into the cul­tures of the real-world hunter-gatherers, espe­cial­ly not those that lived thou­sands of years ago. And Brudpris does not help us under­stand real-world hon­or soci­eties. There is only one way to real­ly under­stand dif­fer­ent cul­tures. You go there, and you live with the peo­ple, and as the late anthro­pol­o­gist Clifford Geertz quot­ed, You try to find your feet.”

A man and woman sit together, helping each other apply body makeup

Photo: Xin Li

So, is it mean­ing­ful after all to talk about exper­i­men­tal anthro­pol­o­gy? Can larp teach us about cul­ture? I’d say yes. Because anthro­pol­o­gy is much more than learn­ing about oth­er cul­tures. It gives us some­thing that is per­haps even more valu­able, reflec­tion on our own cul­ture. It makes us see our own norms and cul­tur­al assump­tions in a new light. And this I believe can be achieved in larp. After KoiKoi, it’s quite clear to me that there’s lit­tle dif­fer­ence between the con­tem­po­rary cus­tom of apply­ing lip­stick and that of Ankoi body paint­ing. Thank you. 

Further Reference

Overview blog post for the 2015 Nordic Larp Talks, and for this presentation

The orig­i­nal event list­ings for KoiKoi and Brudpris.

Brudpris page at the Nordic larp wiki.

Experimental anthro­pol­o­gy at KoiKoi, by Kaisa Kangas.