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.

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