Platform for art and theory/fiction

This is an invi­ta­tion to conspire

Role Play in the Arts

The recent wave of role-play or game-themed exhibitions can easily be related to the perceived need to imagine other worlds. Less hopeful, games offer striking metaphors to describe the global network as an evolutionary game that demands submission to its unifying codes,[1] the rat race of free-market society,[2] or the art world itself as a rigged and uneven playing field.[3]

Role play’s connection to the digital realm is apparent and there would be a lot to say about artists’ critical engagement with and within digital and hard-coded worlds. This survey however will be limited to play that takes place in “Meatspace” and in which imagination can be found to generate the most expansive “virtual reality”.

As a form of interactive and “immersive fiction”,[4] Live Action Role Play (LARP) offers players embodied experiences in temporary realities. While the setting and conditions may be predefined, the narrative is improvised collectively and emerges through play. This aptness to test social dynamics and systems makes LARP a real-life laboratory for thought experiments and a tool for collaborative research.[5] Within the invisible and often blurry boundary of the “Magic Circle” that divides the game from the “real world”, players can experiment with different behaviors and conflicting viewpoints in a safe space. This is also the reason why NGOs like CRISP[6] employ role play as a tool to mediate and transform conflicts within post-war areas. While the simulated scenarios are developed with and based on the input of different local stakeholders, they are set in a fictional time and place to let players achieve some distance from their emotionally overcharged situation.

Improvisation can be a device to speak what is unspoken or otherwise remains unconscious. Therefore, throughout history, various practices may be seen as antecedents to the LARPing tradition ranging from the participatory performances such as the “Theater of the Oppressed”[7] developed by Augusto Boal as “rehearsals for revolution” back to the improvised plays of the Elizabethan pageantry and commedia dell’arte. Arguably even before that, various ritual and religious practices that involve the embodiment or channeling of spirits or the dead may be seen in a similar vein. Much like LARP itself, the practice continues to have blurry boundaries with adjacent practices such as contemporary improv theater and historical reenactment and effecting crossovers into fields of speculative design, debate, cognitive therapy, and BDSM.

LARP, more specifically, is said to have originated as an embodied version of TableTop Role-Playing Games (TTRPG), most famous of which, “Dungeons & Dragons” (D&D), emerged as a fantastical and therefore “harmless” version of its predecessor the war game (Kriegspiel), a training ground for lethal strategy.[8] Critically reflecting and diversifying themes, playstyles, and techniques, “progressive LARPing” communities such as the Nordic Scene, which have emerged since the 1980s within different contexts, can be seen as an important influence on the recent adoption of LARP as an artistic medium.[9] Some artists mentioned in this text have directly collaborated with progressive LARP designers or taken part in events such as the Nordic role-play conference Knutepunkt almost all rely on safety and consent mechanics as well as meta-techniques developed by these communities.[10]

Role play as an artistic strategy is nothing new, the way it is used as a participatory medium, however, is. Here it may make sense to distinguish it from other participatory practices[11] that, still often bearing an ethos of the avant-garde, may seek to play with the role of the audience but often have little consideration or techniques for guiding their empowered spectators into an actual space of agency. Role play, on the other hand, builds on the legacy of game design and knowledge gained through the community’s feedback systems and player-centered and iterative methods that enable a careful craft of various and specific agencies. This is especially true if the game designers give (up) control to their players in shaping the narrative and involve them in the character and world-building process instead of railroading them along predetermined storylines.

Breaking Time/Frames

Role-playing games tend to require a long preparation before and aftercare. The time of pre-workshop and debriefing might well exceed the duration of the actual play. Those fade-ins and outs of the game space provide the players with meta techniques and safety mechanisms. They may at times recall the ritualistic formula of an airplane safety instruction but are nevertheless a crucial part of the LARP as they mark the limits of the game space and therefore the emotional boundary that respects and protects the personal psychological space of the participant.

One critical element in the facilitation of role play is time. To enter and exit a state of play in a meaningful way takes time. To land in another world and let it unfurl takes time. To build backstories and relationships takes time. Whether explicit or implicit, LARP challenges the (attention) economy of the art world, whose infrastructures are geared to facilitate formats fitting into the frame of an opening night. Roleplaying could be said to reclaim social time.[12] And yet a question that emerges with durational interactive performance and play is that of accessibility. Who can afford to spend a whole day or even multiple away from their daily life and work?

Some artists explore LARP as ambient formats that are more integrated and interwoven with said daily life. Unrealism by Omsk Social Club ran over three different platforms and lasted 56 days. Employing a (changing) core player to live in a designated room that featured little more than a computer screen provided a way for the online players to tune in on their own time to chat with the (dis)embodied avatar Eastyn Agrippa. Real Game Play tasked the core players to collectively author a memoir that generated 58 unique NFTs, for each day of their life in “a paradise without ecology”.

Beyond breaking conventional timeframes, the centering of the player’s experience makes LARP difficult to document. While hardliners would insist that play should not be tainted by turning it into representation, there are LARPs deliberately designed to be played out in front of an audience or in which the process of filming is integrated into the narrative world. Living in the omnipresence of cameras filming our every step, we may also have become desensitized or seem to even derive a sense of purpose from their presence, as the voluntary self-mediation online suggests. The events of Secret Cinema seem to also profit from that, offering a paying public to step into a film set and play a role in the story world of a blockbuster like Blade Runner or Dirty Dancing. Their slogan: Escape reality.

Inversely, many artists turn to LARP initially as a filmmaking technique. Doireann O’Malley’s film series Prototypes takes the viewer into a dream-like otherworld that follows a group of protagonists in the process of unraveling and rebuilding of self in a world void of binary paradigms. LARP is employed as an improvisation technique to create a fictional frame within which they can perform another version of themselves.

If the play itself is left to the players, artists find different ways to tie down the ephemeral nature of their works into tangible and potentially marketable artifacts. This can be in the form of artworks produced in-game like the role-playing game The Innocents by Tom K Kemp, which tells a story about a collective of artists on a year-long residency ending with a hypothetical group exhibition realized as a printed digital render. Others produce a set that in the aftermath of the LARP can still function as an exhibition or produce video and sound works that support the game as lore, like in the collective world-building journey Sisters of The Wind by Juliette Lizotte, which presents her longstanding research on witches in a story woven through seven videos that can be experienced as a role-play session or an audiovisual performance.

Another strategy is to publish writing produced after, during, or before the game. As mentioned, artists like Omsk Social Club have experimented with commissioning writers to play and produce a written account of their character’s perspective to offer access to the game world beyond play. At au JUS, a collectively run space both facilitating and programming role plays in Brussels, artist have begun a collection of scores and game scripts that they write to make their games playable by others, similar to the way that improvised performance is annotated. Indeed, role play can join a longstanding conversation on how performative works can be archived in ways that are adequate to the format.[13] Not only the preservation but also the experience of role-play-related works within institutional spaces requires new models for exhibition making. With Protozones at Shedhalle, Zürich, Thea Reifler and Phila Bergmann create rhythms of high and low intensity and a program that supports and underscores process-based scenarios.

There are also examples in which LARP is explored as a method of mediation of more traditional artworks. Work Building, a traveling exhibition developed by the curatorial research association art-werk, links role-playing games and contemporary art exhibitions, allowing visitors to step into the shoes of another character through the works. The exhibition and the game explore the gap between collective utility and financial remuneration of work and invite us to collectively reflect on the conditions in which we work to produce goods and knowledge.

LARPing communities do show some interest in the documentation techniques of the arts;[14] however, minding the extractivist tendencies within the arts to absorb and monetize on other subcultures and discourses, there also exists understandable skepticism of the role-playing community towards the adaption of role play in the art world. In his text “Play is Political”, Johan Soderberg argues that roleplay’s amateurism challenges notions of artistic authorship, emphasizing collective creation and distinguishing it from commodified leisure characterized by the separation of professionals and spectators. Drawing parallels to the hacker community and the way both value and the playful means of “unalienated” labor have been extracted and appropriated by market interests, he raises concerns about role-play’s social spirit “deteriorating into a contractual relationship, as ‘Play becomes work’.”

Rehearsing Resistance

It does seem that play as a mere idle pastime belongs to the past. Even before “playbour” swept the workplace as a managerial strategy and a gamification hype rapidly turned almost all aspects of our lives, from education to dating, into points and scores, the competitive logic of capitalism has come to slowly shape the games we play and vice versa. Games are partly a great metaphor because our social lives are increasingly and deliberately designed to resemble them. The games we play are ideological, they provide rehearsals for life within a given social, political, or economic structure.[15] In that sense, it is not only the content of a game that tells a story but also its mechanics.

But games can likewise be used to rehearse inadaptation to a given economy or functions as testing grounds for systemic alternatives. DAOWO Sessions: Artworld Prototypes,[16]curated by Ruth Catlow, Penny Rafferty, and Ben Vickers, utilize LARP to reimagine the future of arts with blockchain. Be it the speculative musings on the extinction of blockchain technology, like the long-duration LARP Economic Orangery 2021 that explores the circulation of value in the Belarusian cultural sphere and the inner logic of collectivity, or the mad dreams of crypto billionaires that are tasked to configure a speculative society upon the seasteading frontier as in What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)?, speculative fiction appears to lend itself to the critique of speculative finance that returns from its short trips into the future with bulging bags, hijacking the revenues from potential future sales in precocious accumulation.

For a while now, the arts and critical discourse have been struggling with the creeping realization that the task of innovation and even the vocabulary of revolution have been taken from them by forms of capitalist and technological acceleration.[17] Like a grotesque act of exorcism, strategies of hyper-affirmation visualize the future like a burning glass onto present conditions. Nevertheless, this form of neoliberal burlesque does not indulge in cynicism but remains ambiguously hopeful. In their first World Assembly entitled All is fair in dreams and finance,[18] the positive trolling collective Goldman $nax, a self-proclaimed mutation of the undead corpse of late capitalism, invited the audience into “a night of financial (t)error” to reappear as a service provider for trading tactics that has minted several NFTs under the codename openParC, aiming to collectively buy the property close to the Spree, which is allegedly about to be sold to the highest bidder by the government of Brandenburg. Through Real Game Play, a speculative group of activists gathering under the name Leak Ventures provoked a public discussion in their discord channel on the project, claiming to have seized collective ownership of Tesla’s Gigafactory site and turned the area into “the most monumental piece of crypto-backed land art the world has ever seen”.

Beyond role-switching and power play, the real power of these scenarios lies in the play itself. Skillful game design confronts players with paradoxes and ambiguities, forcing them to make difficult decisions and involving them in negotiations that challenge them to defend positions different from their own. More than often, simplistic ideals get broken down in play as group dynamics begin to take a life of their own. It is striking that when put to test, players often fall into old patterns and even reproduce the stereotypes they might try to escape. This does not imply that role play as a medium is ineffective. It is a learning process for players and designers alike. To see a mirror held up to one’s unconscious murky patterning can be a revelatory experience that prompts further reflections after play. This is also why the debrief session that happens after play is by many LARP designers seen as the most important part of the player’s journey.

In this rather educative than aspirational manner, the asymmetrical distribution of resources[19] that was supposed to be redistributed through the hackathon The Communes, hosted by Black Swan at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, remained unequal after 32 hours of play. As a member of the CULT, which was initially the best equipped of the four communes, modeled around different modes of exchange[20] and organizational structure, it was confronting to observe how easily my convictions were overridden by the neoliberal logic of my prescribed character. A dynamic that was complexified or possibly fueled by the fact that the resources were actual institutional infrastructural resources to be distributed in play by actual cultural practitioners.

The irony that permeates these mad fictions testifies less to the attitude of the artists but rather to the fact that they are based on a reality that has become arguably stranger than fiction. Accordingly, the Vampire LARP Parliament of Shadows[21] was held in the actual European Parliament in Brussels and revolved around an actual piece of EU legislation called ETIAS, the “European Travel Information and Authorisation System”. It featured real MEPs who listened to role-playing lobbyists, folding high-level EU politics into the fictional universe of the World of Darkness.

The resurgence of medieval tropes within the arts has partly been attributed to a sense that indeed we are returning to neo-feudal “dark ages”​.[22] Apocalypse narratives permeate the media with ever-new or also not-so-new versions of world endings, populated with the abducted zombies[23] or the recasting of the same old hero myth with a female cast that still fails to break with the exclusive logic of its narration. Captivated in the self-perpetuating scripts (now even automated), a dying world is navel-gazing, entranced with its fall from grace.

I will hardly surprise you by naming the crisis of social imagination as the problem of our time. In a well-rehearsed formula, let me repeat three common refrains that you may have read in many opening statements before announcing some sort of art as a cure: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”[24], “There is no alternative”[25], “We have lost the plot”[26]. This inability to imagine a future that is different than the past, also diagnosed as “depressive ontology”,[27] appears to be a symptom of our alienation due to the total subsumption of our sociability into capitalist reproduction, a disappointment in the failed projects of social reorganization that have marked the 19th century that has deteriorated our capacity to dream to a weak slither of hope. But “in order to do politics today, we must dream”.[28]

For the cinematic participatory performance Under the Cover the Waves, Jack Hogan and Trakal explore a dream enactment methodology for the camera that underscores the sociality of dreams. Tracing their underlying motivation for the work, Jack refers to a transformative experience meeting the Zapatistas, an indigenous rebel movement of Mexico that has established their own government, maintaining a culture of resistance in “acting as if they were already free”.

Prefigurative Politics

While the threat of an uninhabitable planet still manifests to some mostly as uncomfortable sensations of guilt that can be sucked up with the symbolic bamboo straw or repurposed noodle, to others, perpetual apocalypses present a state of being or threat thereof, and many of the techniques and tactics that are traced in this text are owed to their legacy and necessity for “otherworlding”.

Here the easy answer seems to radically erase unwanted elements from the world and start from scratch. This explains the frequency of post-apocalyptic scenarios and science fiction narratives that involve the population of supposedly “uninhabited” planets. Those stories are easily subjected to the suspicion of being escapist and simplistic in eradicating the problems instead of dealing with them or even reproducing colonial logic that deliberately dismisses existing ecologies as empty or wild and in need of (re)structuring.

The ubiquity of imperial tropes within traditional role-playing cultures can be related to their origins as war technology, but this would downplay the existing racist and sexist tendencies within the game space. But critical voices are welcome and more needed here than preaching to the choir in the echo chambers of the arts. Tabletop gaming’s most prestigious trophy is the burned last copy of The Adventures of Indiana Jones role-playing game, resulting in the fictional character Diana Jones as a name patron for the award.[29] A growing scene of PoC voices in the RPG Community discuss, analyze, and critique identity and cultural representation in games, create extensions[30] or additional game mechanics[31] for existing role-playing games that enable a more accurate representation in historical fiction or imagine otherworlds untethered by racial violence.[32] To not only deal with the explicit colonial legacy but also the risk of reproducing the implicit imperial logic inherent to many games mechanics demands a deep tissue treatment of our world’s epistemic foundations. Exercises in collective worlding may open us to other forms of knowing, reconnect us to our sensual and social bodies, and enable us to (re)cognize difference as desirable.[33]

There are many conceptions of what the activity of worlding[34] entails. It encompasses anything from the invention of fantastic cosmologies, utopias, or futures you can believe in[35] to the formation of new reality systems and the active construction of viable systemic alternatives.[36] While these activities are fundamentally different, we may benefit from their descriptive likeness and speak of them sometimes interchangeably so that the fictional may slip into reality in passing and vice versa. Metaphysical worlding is a collective activity that considers the consequences of softening boundaries between epistemology and ontology. Worlding is also the unmaking of the world: it requires us to rethink our relation to the environment and our own role within it.

In this regard, a world is a specific frame of reference that defines how we perceive and relate to base reality. Ian Cheng in his 2018 publication Emissaries Guide to Worlding frames worlds as artificial and yet living entities that require care. They need us to believe in them to protect us from the overwhelming complexity of raw sensual data. These conditions that sustain a world also naturalize its construction, perpetuating a law-like structure that demands submission of its inhabitants. While it may trick us by weaving the fabric around us with invisible thread, this tight-knit cocoon must unravel eventually as all worlds come to an end. As Patricia Reed states in her essay “The End of a World and its Pedagogies”, either because the “model” becomes outdated or because the conditions it produces are rejected as inhospitable.

Let us follow Denise Ferreira da Silva[37] in the assumption that “Western Modernity” faces a similar fate. Dissolving the illusion of a “common world”, that appears already co-opted by satisfying hegemonic claims for (its) order, let us then take the underlying theory of multiple worlds as a point of departure for worlds “made in common” “After the End of the World”[38]

How then to think of frameworks for an unrealized world?[39] Patricia stresses that learning inadaptation to a given frame of reference begins with the realization of its incompleteness or irrelevance. Likewise, the artist Mattin proposes to amplify and therefore collectivize the alienation under contemporary capitalism. His participatory performance and concept of “Social Dissonance”[40] employ an improvisation score that plays the audience as “an instrument” shifting the emphasis from sonic to social noise. The participatory performance prompts conscious attention to the perpetual experience of cognitive dissonance in which our words no longer align or seem to run contrary to our purported values. It is precisely the recognition of the gap between theory and practice that according to Patricia enables us to risk playful ramifications in a space between the probable and the possible.

Instead of starting from scratch or the abstract level of a world map—a common feature of TTRPG’s legacy to sovereign strategizing—Trakal begins the practice of worlding with the subject, and more so with effects of alienation that separate it from its ontological home world. The split demarcates a place of radical alterity to the world, from which to construct alternative worlds. “Magical Materialism: The World Factory”[41] is a collective world-building writing workshop that takes cues from psychoanalysis and a post-socialist perspective of Andrey Platonov’s concept of the “literature factory”. Each player can choose one thing that sustains them in their life, to then subtract it from the world. The world is created from a lack. Trakal also performs another trick: after all players have noted down events that have shaped them up to this point, this exact timeline is mirrored into a speculative future and the players relive and remake a shared history.

In this way, critical worlding tends to search for viable futures in the past, playing with myths of linear progress and a winner’s narration of history. The Peace and Freedom Youth Forum (PFF), a Palestinian organization focused on community-building in Ramallah, first introduced the concept of LARP to Palestine in 2001. Rather than a return to an accepted common history, as we might see in historical reenactments, the Palestinians use LARP to reclaim an erased heritage. The Jericho LARP, set in a distant past, allowed participants to create their own narration and enact another shared local history.

In a text on the use of LARP for urban resistance movements, Lietje Bauwens raises concerns of appropriating the resistance strategies that emerge within specific local contexts. She nevertheless draws a parallel between anti-colonial fights and those that battle with gentrification, situating it in a wider class struggle against repression and displacement. Here she points to the continuous development and projection of new visions of the future onto existing, and often neglected, realities as one of the most violent mechanisms within urban development and arguably also if it comes to building speculative future worlds. Her film project WTC A Love Story, a collaboration with Wouter De Raeve, stages a debate of the different stakeholders in “The Little Manhattan” project in Brussels that had already displaced a large group of the population in the 1970s and continues to meet with the resistance of its current residents that feel left out in the plans for its redevelopment. In the filmmaking process, LARP methods are used to create a more direct political representation and the strengthening of the local community around a shared history, and the capacity to defend it.

In his essay “THE CRITICAL ESCAPE”, artist and LARP designer Áron Birtalan insists that Role Play as a survival mechanism is not purely fictional as he recalls his upbringing in the Kingdom of Pipecland, a secret world that existed between 1938 and 1978 in rural Hungary and an attempt to create an ideal society as a resistance to and “critical escape” from the fascist regime.

“Prefigurative politics”[42] involves a struggle in and against capitalism and an experiment to bring about a new society “in the shell of the old” by developing counterhegemonic institutions and modes of interaction that embody the desired transformation. “Prefigurative Play”[43] is a form of participatory practice that employs techniques of role play and collective worlding to create sensuous simulations of social speculation. Neither is intended as an alternative to strategic political action but rather as a supplement that revives and grows a social fabric and imagination that has become reduced into dominant routes and routines of relation.

Placebos in Play

Placebos describe the often disregarded ability of the body to heal itself. As a byproduct of pharmacological research, the documentation of the placebo effect also provides scientific proof of the impact that imagination has on our bodies. If placebo works based on the trust one has in a given medicine, can the trust in the placebo itself be leveraged as an effective cure? Would short-circuiting imagination in this way allow the believer to activate their body’s ability to “heal” itself? And could this metaphor also apply to a social body?[44]

In her article “Wyrding the Self”,[45] Jonaya Kemper reflects on LARP as a tool to release the body from internalized oppression and bias by taking on roles other than those that society may commonly prescribe to it. Her writing is a call, especially to those who do not fall into the mythical norm.[46] She explains that although both center and margin call to be released from their oppressive relation, only the marginalized may have the (will) power to release it.[47] She offers a method of extensive pre- and post-play preparation and reflection in which players identify themes they want to work on and consciously steer for dealing with them in-game. She calls this navigational play. This process is supported through the collection of ephemera and journaling. Here role play becomes a form of “disidentification”[48] from, and an active recoding of, assigned social roles.

Such literal “role play” obviously also lends itself to the probing and deconstructing of assigned and assumed gender roles. Works such as Boys Space[49] by THE AGENCY deal with the connections between patriarchal masculinity and right-wing thinking, letting visitors take on the role of “male characters” that meet their “empathy partners” and come across the confessions from other users on- and offline. In a similar vein, Ed Fornielies responds to the crisis of patriarchal masculinity with his project Cel, an immersive role play that lets participants act out the story of an alt-right group who have formed an IRL group in which to enact their online ideologies. In an interview on the work,[50] Fornieles proposes “critical empathy” as a strategy for opening a discourse allowing men to rebuild their identity rather than pushing them away and thereby further to the right. In other terms, “critical empathy” does not only refer to the process of imaging another person’s point of view or emotional state, but also to an awareness of the limitations and complications of empathy.[51] Assuming that we can feel another person’s feelings by assuming their role is presumptuous. “If you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing.”[52]

Draconis Lacrimae: Escape From The Guts of The Dragon[53] by Federico Vladimir Strate Pezdirc and Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld is a game that invites players to encounter otherness as an accomplice and welcome the alterity we have in us through fundamental archetypes of fiction. Auto-fiction serves here as a tool to resist predefined categorizations of identity, as a technique of transformation and orientation in a world saturated with categories. Doireann O’Malley’s Prototypes mentioned earlier also addresses the way psychoanalysis has confined its patients to traditional models of gender and offers alternative forms of subjectivity. Deep Time Trans[54] by Teo Ala-Ruona employs LARP to explore embodied experiences of a genderless future or non-binary nature of prehistory.

In the lecture and conversation on “Early Transition as LARPing”,[55] McKenzie Wark discusses how being a trans woman at times feels like role-playing through the gaze of others, and how forms of metaphorical bleed can avoid literal bleeding. She opens up a conversation with Omsk Social Club around role-play as a strategy for subversion and survival; pushing the boundaries of subjectivity and the self through play and raving as a post-political form of expression. Their first public large-scale piece was PLAY RAVE in 2017, featuring 400 live identities constructed from looking at and speaking to four different generations of crews, promoters, DJs, producers, dancers, and cult figures in Zurich that had put on illegal raves in the city—the earliest in the 1980s. Rave culture has informed Omsk practice as a space of collective euphoria and trauma, illusion and immersion in an alternative world where people could be someone else or maybe finally themselves.[56]

We are given a name at birth with the expectation that we will grow into a singular identity that might be labeled as such. Yet, we are inhabited by multiple, often conflicting voices that express different forms of assigned or chosen belonging. It is the multitude of those voices that makes us singular. The partial silencing of such voices to conform to simplified visions or instrumentalization of identity is a form of internalized violence.[57] Role play offers a way to let these voices speak out. The possibility to transform the way we relate to ourselves makes role play a commonly used technique in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and related practices.

Although artists and LARPers are not medical professionals and do not claim to be, in times and places where medical care is not sufficiently available or affordable, these self-organized practices can be seen as providing at least some kind of support. This is addressed directly by Furtherfield’s online LARP We were made for this // 2050 Fugitive Planning,[58] introducing players to “the Hologram”, a viral system for peer2peer monitoring and diagnostics based on physical, psychological, and social health. Developed for the Social Solidarity Clinic in Thessaloniki during the height of the financial crisis in Greece, it was spread by a group of US artists in reaction to their under-attended public health and projected 30 years into the future in which players envisioned themselves as the most powerful and well-supported version of themselves amongst collapsing human and environmental systems.

NOVA Future thoughts on surviving together[59] is a LARP written by Ana de Almeida and Alicja Rogalska and directed to queer and feminist initiatives. The game sets out with the sharing of problems and strategies that participants experience in their activist work to then move into a speculative realm that is free of patriarchal oppression and the suffocation it presents. Players collectively create organizations, the threats and opportunities that they will face during play, and define previously unknown and unnamed feelings to address them.

Searching for different ways of knowing as well as the implied not knowing also releases the regiment of the visual as a frame of reference and language as a means of communication. Áron Birtalan creates role plays that emphasize subjective worlds and character creation, like his non-verbal LARP DIM[60] which takes place in a darkened and undefined abstract space where participants meet as Forms and Shadows and communicate mainly through their own unique body language, guided through exercises in attention, breathing, and movement. Somatic LARPs like Xenosomatics[61] by Susan Ploetz build a vocabulary of skills (hyperobservation, ideokinesis, hyperempathy, interfacing) to fundamentally reinvent and extend the way we use and relate to our own and each other’s bodies.

Conspire for Collision

Imagining scenarios in an emotionally neutral place can change our attitude toward that place in reality.[62] The more immersed people tend to get into “becoming” a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves.[63] Writing about the brain’s plasticity (and partially quoting Marx), Catherine Malabou writes: “People make their own brains. Imagine if they knew that and they could construct and entertain a relation with their brain as the image of a world to come.”[64]

Surely there is a danger in fooling oneself that one could change the world simply by reconfiguring its frame of reference. This ideology is critically addressed in Brody Condon’s role play Level 5.[65] It presents an “experiential essay” on the rise of the self-help industry and the dissemination of psychoanalysis throughout American popular culture. It is a simulation of a Werner Erhard self-actualization workshop that turned into a participatory game.[66] It deals with subjectivity transformation processes of the 1970s that considered the individual responsible for their trauma and proposed that freedom was attained through changing the state of mind rather than the material conditions that constrain it.

The proposed potential to “decode” and “recode” our brain comes with different implications.[67] Anonymous online cult figure QAnon managed to recruit and railroad a large group of “researchers” through induced guided apophenia along a pleasurable path laid out with breadcrumbs in the form of small dopamine hits as the unknowing players were made to believe that they “discovered” new clues.[68] The participatory nature of games runs the risk of creating an illusion of agency. Surely, much art can be seen to hide its educative intentions and engrained worldview by making the viewer believe that they make their own conclusions while crafting a skillful path for thoughts to travel.[69]

This is not a call, however, to give up on agency altogether. It rather asks: How to listen? How to create enabling structures? And how to be response-able as an artist and as a participant? Here the notion of distance is useful. Both the distance that lies between the intention of the artist’s work and the attentive focus of its prosumer but also within the player’s self. Role Play offers a form of the double consciousness of being immersed and simultaneously observing one’s own actions and reactions. “Bleed” is a term used in LARP to describe the gray zone between fiction and reality, where the border between player and character dissolves.[70] In his thesis Play-Between,[71] artist and game designer Francis Patrick Brady explores play as a method for traversing the differences “in-between” subjectivities: between the engaged and the estranged, the included and the excluded, the transparent and the opaque. It also engages the gap that we perceive between thought and action between what we conceive as concepts and what is actualized. Role play as enacted theories move in that in-between, revealing the fragility of that boundary and the collective dynamics in the construction of fiction and reality.

The consensual realities created within such works of interactive fiction may appear like the “Temporary Autonomous Zones” described by the anarchist writer and poet Hakim Bey as strategies for releasing one’s mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it. The autonomy may be part of the fiction here and the freedom they provide is likely owed to their temporary nature. In any case, we may learn less from seamless simulations of consistent worlds than from their rupture.[72] Many LARPs are held in some secluded space to avoid encounters with non-players or rather non-believers that could challenge the momentary conspiracy to which players have devoted themselves. I favor games that center the experience of conflicting perspectives by incorporating the split into the narrative and featuring mechanisms[73] for the players to become liminal beings[74] that walk and communicate between worlds tracing their interwovenness but also the way they may condition or cancel one another.[75] In this vein, role play may provide a rehearsal for colliding worlds through the creation and negotiation of a shared game space.

To conspire means to breathe together. This statement was made by Simon Asencio, who heard it from Eleanor Ivory Weber, who saw it on an Andy Warhol poster. I think “conspire” also means “to let each other breathe”.

  • 1

    LONGO, Anna, “Escaping the Network”, in: Open Philosophy, 3(1), 2020.

  • 2

    WARK, McKenzie, Gamer Theory, 2007, https://futureofthebook.org/gamertheory2.0/.

  • 3

    STEYERL, Hito, “Why Games? Can an Art Professional Think?”, YouTube, 01/08/2016.

  • 4

    The term “immersion” suffers from its inflationary use, in many cases merely a marketing strategy, describing a diorama-like world, or as Chris Fite-Wassilak describes it in his e-flux essay “New Rules of Immersion Art” (2023), a spectacle that hopes to overwhelm and despite its promise to engage, ultimately renders the viewer passive. However, in the case of LARP which blends itself often humble but seamlessly into the real, it may in fact be fair use. (A similar inflation of the term “interactive” shall not be expanded here.

  • 5

    Borrowing Positions: Role-Playing Design & Architecture, Trojan Horse, 2019.

  • 6

  • 7

    “Theatre of the Oppressed” is a form of participatory theater developed in Brazil in the 1970s by Augusto Boal based on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed aiming to empower “spect-actors” to tell their own stories of oppression and rehearse resistance.

  • 8

    In his essay “Dungeoneering”, published in 2019 in Schemas of Uncertainty, artist and RPG designer Tom Kemp sketches the genesis of role play games in exploring their relation to medievalism, the conceptual architecture of the dungeon and its influence on early developments of computer programming.

  • 9

    WILK, Elvia, “More Than A Game”, in: Frieze, 191, 2017.

  • 10

    WILK, Elvia, “Ask Before You Bite”, in: e-flux, 103, 2019.

  • 11

    BISHOP, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, 2012.

  • 12

    SODERBERG, Johan, “Play is Political”, rpg.net, 2003.

  • 13

    Collecting the Ephemeral: Prerequisites and Possibilities for Making Performance Art Last, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts | School of Art and Design, https://blog.hslu.ch/collecting-the-ephemeral/.

  • 14

    Nordic Larp, “Larp Documentation in a Fine Art Context”, YouTube, 11/10/2021,

  • 15

    New Socialist, “Marxist Theories of Sport: Nation, Commerce and Pleasure”, New Socialist, 17/10/2010, https://newsocialist.org/marxist-theories-of-sport-nation-commerce-and-pleasure/.

  • 16

    The DAOWO Sessions: Artworld Prototypes, https://www.daowo.org/#the-daowo-sessions-artworld-prototypes.

  • 17

    LIJSTER, Thijs (ed.), The Future of the New: Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration, Antennae-Atrs in Society, 2018.

  • 18

    VOLKSBÜHNE AM ROSA-LUXWEMBURG-PLATZ, “Armen Avanessian & Enemies #48: Goldman $n”, YouTube, 10/04/2019.

  • 19

    In a similar manner, simulation games like The International Trade Game are designed to raise awareness about past and present conflicts and injustices, setting players up with one rules set but fundamentally unequal starting points.

  • 20

    Based on The Structure of World history: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange by Kojin Karatani (Duke University Press, 2014).

  • 21

    PETTERSSON, Juhana, “Lobbying for the Dead: Vampire larp at the European Parliament”, nordiclarp.org, 2018.

  • 22

    Me gustas pixelad is a festival hosted by La Casa Encendida in Madrid where the performing arts meet the world of computer screens, the internet, and video games. The sixth edition curated by Matías Daporta in 2022 focuses on the rise of the medieval on the Internet: from video game aesthetics to new superstitions and spiritualities evoked through the omnipotence of the new feudal lords of big tech.

  • 23

    The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death by Sarah Juliet Lauro (Rutgers University Press, 2015) explains how the zombie entered US consciousness through the American occupation of Haiti, the site of an 18th-century slave rebellion that became a war for independence, thus making the figuration of living death inseparable from its resonances with both slavery and rebellion and marks its rebranding as another form of absorption, cultural conquest, and erasure.

  • 24

    In his essay “Future Cities”, Frederic Jameson conjures a fictional character in order to place his sentiment as if it was already in circulation. Something he may have picked up somewhere. Almost common knowledge, he quotes “someone” who once said the much-repeated refrain that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. Less quoted but no less evocative is what he adds: “We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”

  • 25

    TINA serves as a political slogan and program of the Conservative British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, asserting that capitalism stands as the sole feasible system.

  • 26

    In The Hardcore Continuum #1: Hardcore Rave, originally published as Technical Ecstasy in The Wire #105, November 1992, Simon Reynolds cites the Ardcors MCs chanting “We’ve lost the plot”, signalling an abolishment of narrative through an endless succession of apocalyptic NOWs.

  • 27

    FISHER, Mark, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zero Books, 2014.

  • 28

    Bernard Stiegler’s final words before his death, as he writes in The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism (2019).

  • 29

    The Diana Jones Award was founded in 2001. The burnt remains of the last unsold copy of “one of the least-loved and critically savaged games of all time” was seen an appropriate symbol for an award for excellence in gaming.

  • 30

    E.g. Harlem Unbound is an adaptation of Call of Cthulhu RPG set in the Harlem Renaissance and inverting Lovecraft’s standard view of minorities to put them in the role of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors as well as common inequalities.

  • 31

    E.g. Class Modifier Module for DnD was created to offer an alternative to the default DnD mechanics that make statistic changes based on races to come from classes instead. Authors flag that it is not seen as an improvement but a preference.

  • 32

    E.g. Mother Lands is a sci-fi odyssey RPG developed by a team of POC designers, set on another planet where new cultures evolved from the blending of human and alien technology over the centuries.

  • 33

    In the workshop “Erotic Sociability (For Webcam)”, Isabel Lewis introduces feminist sociologist Roslyn H. Bologh’s notion of “erotic sociability” as a form of interhuman sociality that makes difference desirable, presenting it as an alternative to the dominant 20th-century relational modes of competition, conflict, and coercion.

  • 34

    In his 2020 talk The End of the World(s), Federico Campagna stresses that there is no world. There is only the activity of “making world”, which he describes as aesthetic and axiomatic.

  • 35

    In his 2018 publication Emissaries Guide to Worlding, Ian Cheng describes worlding as creating futures you can believe in and outlines a path for making Worlds that can cross the threshold of imagination into aliveness.

  • 36

    In Building Dignified Worlds (2016), Gerta Roelvink examines how contemporary collectives are designing alternative economies.

  • 37

    LEEB, Susanne & STAKEMEIER, Kerstin, “An End to “this” World: Denise Ferreira da Silva interviewed by Susanne Leeb and Kerstin Stakemeier”, Texte zu Kunst, 10/04/2019, https://www.textezurkunst.de/en/articles/interview-ferreira-da-silva/.

  • 38

    SUN RA AND HIS INTERGALACTIC RESEARCH ARKESTRA, It’s After The End Of The World, MPS Records, 1970.

  • 39

    REED, Patricia, “The End of a World and its Pedagogies”, in: Making & Breaking, 2, 2021, https://makingandbreaking.org/article/the-end-of-a-world-and-its-pedagogies/.

  • 40

    With Social Dissonance, published with Urbanomic in 2022, Mattin provides a “handbook for practical transformation” and a theoretical reflection of a concrete experiment—an instructional score performed at documenta 14 in 2017.

  • 41

    TRAKAL, Magical Materialism: World Factory (Workshop), Blend&Bleed Symposium, 2021.

  • 42

    The term “prefiguration” originated in Christian theology relating passages of the Hebrew bible to the life of Jesus in the New Testament as a kind of prophecy. Events in time are interpreted as a figure of their future fulfillment. The term was later transported into the political realm by social theorist Carl Boggs. In the article “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers Control”, published in 1977 (in: Radical America, 11), he defines the term “prefigurative” as “the embodiment, within the ongoing political practice of a movement, of those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal”.

  • 43

    The term “prefigurative play” is a proposal to describe forms of play that rehearse inadaptation to dominant ways of life and prefigure possible alternatives. It is based on the understanding of prefigurative politics described by Paul Raekstad in his text Revolutionary practice and prefigurative politics” as a commitment to “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”. It refers to the materialist conception of experience developed by Cox and Nielsen: as “constituted by practical-tacit knowledge about social being garnered through social being” and Ernst Bloch’s idea of concrete utopia that “does not play around and get lost in an Empty-Possible but psychologically anticipates a Real-Possible” (The Principle of Hope).

  • 44

    Both biologically and metaphorically, the notion of healing as a resolution to be pursued or even attainable requires the perspective of an organism or organization that assumes and protects a stable identity. There is no simple cure for a “sick society” or a “broken mind”.

  • 45

    KEMPER, Jonaya, “Wyrding the Self”, nordiclarp.org, 18/05/2018, https://nordiclarp.org/2020/05/18/wyrding-the-self/.

  • 46

    A concept Kemper borrows from Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class and Sex” (in: Campus Wars, Routledge, 1995).

  • 47

    Here Kemper quotes Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968).

  • 48

    MUÑOZ, José Esteban, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, https://some.claims/assets/Dis...

  • 49

  • 50

    Tank Magazine, “In Conversation with Ed Fornieles”, Tank Magazine, 2019, https://magazine.tank.tv/tank/2019/04/ed-fornieles#.

  • 51

    DESTIGTER, Todd, “Public Displays of Affection: Political Community through Critical Empathy”, in: Research in the Teaching of English, 33(3), 1999, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40171438.

  • 52

    Donna Haraway speaks about her dog here, but this can be as easily applied to other humans.

  • 53

    FEDERICO VLADIMIR, “Portfolio a.pass”, Vimeo, 2021.

  • 54

    ALA-RUONA, Teo, Deep Time Trans, Baltic Circle (Festival), Helsinki, 2021.

  • 55

    OMSK SOCIAL CLUB & WARK, McKenzie, Hotel Bardo & Early Transition as LARPing (Workshop), Blend&Bleed Symposium, 2021.

  • 56

    IMAMOVIC, Maisa, “Cryptorave: An Interview with Omsk Social Club + !Mediengruppe Bitnik”, Institute of Network Cultures, 11/11/2019, https://networkcultures.org/moneylab/2019/11/11/cryptorave-an-interview-with-omsk-social-club-mediengruppe-bitnik-by-maisa-imamovic/.

  • 57

    MAALOUR, Amin, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, B. Grasset, 1998.

  • 58

    The Hologram LARP, Furtherfield, 2021, https://www.furtherfield.org/the-hologram-larp/.

  • 59

    ALMEIDA, Ana de & ROGALSKA, Alicja, NOVA (LARP), Temporary Gallery, 01/02/2020, https://www.temporarygallery.org/en/11623-2/.

  • 60

    BIRTALAN, Áron, DIM – A Transformation Game, Stroom, 2017.

  • 61

    PLOETZ, Susan, Xenosomatics (LARP & workshops), 2020, https://susanploetz.com/Xenosomatics.

  • 62

    “Forming attitudes via neural activity supporting affective episodic simulations.” (Nature Communications, 2019)

  • 63

    “Identification with fictional characters is associated with greater self–other neural overlap.” (Oxford University Press, 2021)

  • 64

    MALABOU, Catherine, What Should We Do with Our Brains, Fordham University Press, 2008.

  • 65

    CONDON, Brody, Level 5, Berlin Biennale, 2016, https://bb9.berlinbiennale.de/participants/condon/.

  • 66

    With the support of the LARP designers Bjarke Pedersen and Tobias Wrigstad.

  • 67

    Already the brain-computer metaphor is reductive and harmful considering the impact it has on our self-understanding, and is reinscribed through notions such as predictive coding, neuro-linguistic programming, and social engineering.

  • 68

    BERKOWITZ, Reed, “A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon”, Medium, 30/09/2020, https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5.

  • 69

    CAMNITZER, Luis, “One Number Is Worth One Word”, e-flux podcast, 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/podcasts/407870/luis-camnitzer-on-one-number-is-worth-one-word.

  • 70

    MONTOLA, Markus, “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing”, in: Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic, 2010, http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/10343.56524.pdf.

  • 71

    BRADY, Francis Patrick, Play-Between, https://files.cargocollective.com/c68544/Play-Between_Francis-Patrick-Brady.pdf.

  • 72

    In Prophetic Culture (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), Federico Campagna considers trauma as a transgression of the boundaries we have drawn to demarcate our self and the world. According to him, it often occurs through acts of violence, but it can also happen through other events that cause a paradigmatic shift within us. This way, he sees trauma to transport valuable information across the thresholds of worlds.

  • 73

    The 3-day LARP ÖRJÄT by 0ct0p0s, Becket MWN and Bernard Vienat folded its 2810 fiction into a festival crowd of 2018 through the technology of “mind inducement”, a guided visualization that turned the players’ bodies into vessels receiving and carrying a future consciousness across temporal zones. While many LARPs deal with the old world through burnt archives, memory loss, or other kinds of oblivion, here the host’s memory was kept intact and could be accessed by the player.

  • 74

    FOOTNOTES 2045: Annotating the Futures of Arts Education was a conference set in 2045 through a role play hosted by School of Commons and 0ct0p0s in 2022. Its story centered the Footnotes as a space for trans-temporal exchange. From those margins emerged 0v0, the figure of a worldwalker, who could embody the online audience remotely and lend their voice to them.

  • 75

    In addressing the material affordances and related social differences that allow for a speculative world to become actualized, Steph Holl Trieu stated during the introduction speech at the Footnotes conference: “Every world, when it is fed, when it is nurtured with resources, means the slow death of another world.”

Carina Erdmann

lives between Berlin and Brussels. She works on the intersection of game design and performance, researching role play, and collective worlding as a method to enact critical thought and enable alternative agencies. She investigates improvisation, somatic scores, and dream sharing as communication technologies. With(in) changing context and collaborators, she develops adaptive game architectures that prompt players to (de)construct collective memories, (per)form plural perspectives, and social speculation. Her current research project Distant Bodies and Accomplices is supported by different (para)academic institutions, like LUCA School of Arts, School of Commons, and a.pass, and with the communities of au JUS, a project space collectively run through (role) play, in the dreamXchange discord group and on 0ct0p0s.net, a platform for prefigurative play.