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.