Eleanor Saitta: So the first question that Ellen asked me when she asked me to give this talk was why am I coming to Norway? Because it’s a long way. It’s about…I think 1,600 pounds of CO2 from where my apartment is. And I mean obviously I came out here because of Nordic larp. But why and what is that specific thing that I see in the world?
So, I lived in Seattle for seven years and I moved out of there just before I ended up in the larp world. And when I left Seattle I got rid of my D&D books and other stuff because I like you know, I’m kind of bored with this stuff. All of this role-playing stuff, nobody wants to tell real stories. It’s just a bunch of bullshit about killing orcs and like… You know, it’s great entertainment but I want to go do things in the world. And I’m tired at the medium that I can’t seem to find a way to express and interact with around doing the things that I want to do in the world.
And then I met Andy Nordgren at a hacker conference in Berlin. And she started telling about this crazy thing, these larpers. And that kinda blew my mind and I sat down and read all the books, and then I showed up here because I had to see if this thing actually was what I’d been sold. And it turns out it was.
So I think of larp in a couple different ways. And one of the ways that I think of it is as storytelling for the network age. This is storytelling in the first-person present tense plural, and it is not very often that humanity comes up with a new tense in which to tell stories. That’s actually kind of a big deal. And we can talk about oh, psychodrama, these predecessors and whatever but there is something about the thing that we do with larp, and specifically the thing that we do with Nordic larp, which is interesting and different in ways that are pretty meaningful.
So why does this matter? A friend of mine Quinn Norton—who’s somebody you may have heard of; she’s a journalist and writes about the Internet among other things—likes to talk about the invisible city. So, starting somewhere in the 1840s or so in the West, people started moving into the cities for real. And it took about 140 years for urbanization to kind of take place to the point that it has. And that was for about a billion people, maybe a bit more, to move into urban cores. And it took us a long time to figure out how to live with each other.
How many of you have sat down next to somebody in a cafe who was talking about their sex life and not listened because you had other shit to do? Yeah. That was not a thing that we knew how to do. It’s called civic inattention. And it was a thing that we have to collectively learn as…basically as a species. Because we were living in places where if we didn’t do that no one would get anything done.
So for another example, in New York in the 1870s and 1880s, if you wanted to move a heavy load around you attached a horse to it. And they had a lot of heavy loads to move around. Which meant they had a lot of horses. You know what horses do, all day? Shit. So they had about sixty thousand tons a day of horseshit to get out of New York. You know how you do that? More horses. This was the Manure Crisis. This was actually like—it was a public health nightmare. And also it made the city really unpleasant to live in. I don’t know how many of you’ve been to New York in August. It gets really really hot and it stays hot. And imagine that with just tons of horseshit on the sidewalks and the street and everywhere, and on your boots and…yeah.
And so when they came up with the car, they were like, “Man, this is amazing.” They didn’t think about like, “Hey, this is gonna destroy the world,” and you know, it’s going to end human civilization and these things are going to kill hundreds of thousands of people a year. No, they were like, “Oh my god. We don’t have tons of horseshit on the road.”
So, now— I don’t actually have it my pocket, it’s over there. I have the entire sum of all human knowledge kind of sitting in my pocket. And we forget that like hey, I can talk to everyone I know in the world instantly. And how many of you get in arguments about facts? But like actually get in arguments about facts in a bar and they don’t end by somebody just going and looking up the fact and being like oh, actually these are the battles mentioned in you know, some Russian novel, and here’s what actually happened in them?
You know how long it would take like thirty years ago if you wanted to finish that argument? You’d go to the library the next day and photocopy a bunch of shit. And then three days later you’d go to their offices like thump, “I was right, bitch.” Now you can literally do that so quickly you forget that you’re even doing a thing. Because you just call up the sum of all human knowledge.
Quinn talks about this as moving to the invisible city. In the past twenty years, 2.5 billion people have moved to the same city. And we have no fucking clue how to live together. You know, we have giant piles of steaming horseshit sitting in our pockets. And in the middle of our living room. And it’s terrible.
So, stories are politics. And a lot of learning how to live together is a political act. This is reasonably personal right now. On Wednesday I blocked 50 thousand Nazis on Twitter. It was kind of annoying. I found out that this breaks the mobile web interface. It’s…yeah.
And over the past couple years, I lost two countries I was planning on using, to stories. How many people here…kek, Pepe the Frog, meme magic? Are these things…? It’s really fascinating, though, right? All of these people took our core understanding that like hey, reality is a social construction… And they actually got it—they got it for real. And then they turned it into a weapon for fascism that’s destroying superpowers. That’s…terrifying but also kinda cool? Like, I mean…shit works, yo. Now we have to figure out what we’re going to do about it and how we’re going to respond. Because we don’t have much time and we should maybe figure that out.
So, there was a question recently on [BFF?] about whether or not Nordic larp was inherently political. And the conversation went all over the place. And I recently went back and read through some of the threads. And I think that Nordic Larp—capital N, capital L—is inherently political, not because of our stories. The stories, like Eirik said a couple years ago in a Nordic Larp Talk, I don’t know if Nordic larp matters but Nordic like design definitely matters.
And Nordic larp organizing is incredibly political. Not in the sense of like oh, how are we going to accomodate the vegans this week, and what genders are allowed in this larp? But there are four pillars, right? Nordic larp believes very strongly in equality of outcome. We work very hard to make sure that everyone playing the game has some kind of equal share in the outcome. If you run a game and the king has an amazing game and the peons have a boring game, it’s a shitty larp. Or rather, it’s a shitty Nordic larp. Unless it was about the design experience of the peons having a shitty experience, but that’s not what we’re talking about. You know. If they’re bored, that’s a different thing, unless you’re playing with the aesthetics of bor— Whatever, you know what I mean.
But we work on that for real, right. You go to an American larp, and it’s kind of considered reasonable— Has been in the past, certainly, considered reasonable that you know, you show up there and you’re a newbie and the first thing you’re going to do is spend a year or two kind of grinding through playing some low-level character. And you’re going to have a really bad time. But that’s like you’re paying your dues. And then you get to do the cool shit later. And it turns out that’s a terrible design idea and that’s why we don’t do it. But that is a political choice. It’s a very profound political choice.
We believe in cocreation. And this is part and parcel of that same thing. We believe that everyone who shows up at a larp has a stake in creating that larp in some way, and that their creations are meaningful in the world.
We believe in empathy and agency as core design aesthetics. We believe in ensuring that if you are playing a character and you have no empathy for the other characters, something has gone wrong in the design process because you’re not emotionally engaged with the structure and the fiction in the world. And you know, that might be an issue of player choice but whatever—something has gone wrong. That is also one of our core pillars of organizing and design. And we believe that empathy always needs to come with agency or it’s a shitty larp.
And we also believe in a culture of reflection, right. This thing? that we’re doing right now is not normal in fetish community, right? Having this kind of deep reflection is relatively unusual. And that is also a political choice and a political statement.
So, a lot of different politics can use some of our tools. The meme magic guys can go take the social construction of reality and do things with it. But the rest of it, that framework, those four pillars, you can’t just repurpose for fascist propaganda. Because fascist propaganda that believes in equality of outcome and agency and empathy…isn’t fascist propaganda anymore, in a fundamental way, because the organizing structure has carried that worldview with it.
And even if you try to use our tools with their organizing culture to build these things, larp teaches you how to see through the propaganda. Not always in the moment, right. The tools of propaganda work, the tools of brainwashing work, We are sacks of meat walking around and the things that work on sacks of meat work on us. But, that moment of reflection, it gives you a chance to see these things and recover. The learning doesn’t happen during the game, the learning happens afterward as you think about it.
One of the things which is also interesting is that this set of tools… How many people here have heard an Overton window? So, an Overton window is the set of things that are politically sayable in public. And so one of the things that the right has done for ages is they have people who go out and say, “I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to rape children on the sidewalk.” And then somebody else comes along and says, “No no, he’s crazy. However, we’re gonna ban abortion.” And then all of a sudden that person looks way less crazy because he’s not raping children on the sidewalk. And this is a tactic that has been used very successfully to shift debate and discourse since Goldwater in the US, and it’s spread pretty much everywhere—I’m sorry.
Trying to tell stories in Nordic larps pulls authors towards the left edge of their Overton window. It pulls authors towards more inclusive storytelling, just by the structure of the organizing that we’re trying to do, and the design principles. So it’s kind of interesting as an art form and as a storytelling form that larp has a real conception of design as separate from the artistic structure. Like there’s an understanding that the artistic moment and the design of the artistic moment are somewhat more distinguished, and somewhat more formally distinguished than they are in a lot of artistic mediums.
The most profound thing that I have gotten from this community, and this is actually why I will keep coming back, is that you have all taught me how to see social systems, in a really deep way. I’ve been a systems person from when I was fairly small and kind of have looked at the world through that lens for a long time. And I’d seen yeah okay, origins of like, psychology and AI and social framing theory and these things. And then I came out here and I saw oh, actually this isn’t theory, this is an applied science. We can go do this stuff. And even if we’re only doing it in art, it still works. And it works actually a bit more deeply than we think, in some cases.
Eirik, again, said in his larp talk this past week about there’s this thing, there’s this little thing that we all think is super important here. And we can’t quite figure out what it is. And for me I think that thing is cultural engineering. Which is a really disturbing-sounding word. I haven’t found a better phrase for it yet. But it’s basically the idea that like, we have a toolkit here. We have to a toolkit that’s partially expressed in the organizing, partially expressed in the design, partially expressed in the structure of how we think and how we see. And that toolkit works and it can work outside fiction. Or it can work on the border. It can work on things that slide back and forth. And we don’t have to be too honest or too careful about what we call art and we call practical. We can be a little hypocritical there.
Trying to teach that toolkit is really hard, it turns out. And that’s I think one of the reasons why I’m still here, other than the art and the storytelling and the family I have here, is that I don’t know how to teach that thing yet, or the core of it without being like, “Okay guys, I know this is sort of weird, and we’re in the office and we’ve been talking about like our engineering culture and what we need to do about like fixing our pull requests system. So now we’re gonna play a bunch of larps. And then we’re going to talk about how to make engineering better.” Yeah. It’s a hard sell. I think I’m going to end up doing it at work anyway.
One of the things which is really interesting, though— So when I talked with my CTO at some point about cultural engineering and like, “Hey, we have this culture debt problem that we haven’t been paying back into it.” And he was like, “Oh, that’s bullshit. We can’t do cultural engineering—it’s impossible. It’s all about incentive structures.”
Yes, and. And that is I think one of the things that we have learned with a lot of the political games that we’ve tried to make, is that you cannot build a new social script if the incentive structures aren’t lined up already. That is the prerequisite. And I think that this is the problem that we have on Facebook. All of the incentive structures on Facebook are designed to get us angry so that we will generate more ad views and keep coming back. And this is fantastically useless for trying to have measured and reasons conversations. But we’re not going to be able to fix that unless we find a way to change the incentive structure underneath it.
So, as this is an anniversary conference I think a little bit of looking back is obligatory. I’ve heard a few people say the phrase that you know, Nordic larp is growing up, right. We’re kind of growing up and we’re…we’re 20 now, you know. We’re moving out of the parents’ house. Got a job maybe, something. We’re actually making money doing this shit.
Nordic larp is not becoming something new. Something entirely different is happening. Again, looking back in one of those comment threads, someone (and I should’ve made a note of who) said, “Actually I think Nordic larp is over.” Nordic larp ended ehh…2013, 2014, something like that. We are now something else. We don’t know what this other thing is. But we are dealing with scale, and we are dealing with money, and we are dealing with international companies and professionalization and the art world—oh god, the art world—and a lot of these things. And we don’t know how to deal with them very well yet.
So as noted larp theorist Benjamin Franklin once said, ladies and gentlemen, “A larp community, if you can keep it.” There are four things that we need to do to keep this larp community. We need to fix our broken stairs. Our broken stairs cost us far more than we can think. We need to figure out how to not just bring people into the scene, which we’re getting pretty good at, but bring them into the tradition and the family. And really bring them in so they understand the culture in a deep way. We need to hold each other accountable, right. We need to say to those people who are going out and there’s companies and doing shit we don’t agree with, “Hey, that thing you did. That was maybe not cool, let’s talk about it.” And we also need to embrace hypocrisy and go build things with those people anyway, and go play. Thank you.