Mad About The Yankee

An essay on the US run of the game Mad About the Boy, concentrating on the differences between US and Nordic larp culture as presented by this game run and as they may impact the larger Nordic larp scene.  Written for the 2013 Knutepunkt book Crossing Physical Borders.  The full version of the book is available online here.

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The Americans stumble into the ruins of Queen Sonja's court

In October of 2012, the Norwegian game Mad About the Boy (MAtB) was run in New Haven, Connecticut.  This game can claim being the first Nordic larp run in the US, not to diminish Brody Condon's work with Level Five and similar pieces in an art context.  Based on feedback from players, MAtB represented a great leap in emotional depth and complexity and a giant shift in cultural context.

To recap for those unfamiliar with the game from its original runs in 2010, MAtB is about women surviving in a world where all men have died, set “three years from tomorrow.”.  The women have come together from separate households and communities in trios to apply to the government for the sperm in the remaining sperm banks, to decide who among them should become a mother, to decide what family configurations should look like, and, implicitly, to decide what being a mother means now.  The game is intended to explore sexuality, power, and relationships between women, separate from men.

I played Lisa, the oldest of a trio of artist characters in the game, who was not eligible to be a birth mother herself for reason of age.  Lisa had the most tenuous reasons to want a child of all the characters; her trio was there to make a child into a movie — the last, greatest piece of art the world would see.

As the first Nordic game in the US, MAtB has much to tell us about both the American and Nordic larp scenes, and what games that want to make the leap must take into account.  Like this run of the game, I live halfway between worlds — I grew up in the US with immigrant parents who never quite settled and live mostly in Europe now.  I'm also a woman of trans experience who's never considered having kids of her own.

The game ran twice in Norway, once with all-female players (except the last man) and once mixed (playing the same characters).  Afterwards, the organizers found the emphasis on relationships between women was stronger when the entire cast had lived female experience.  In the US run, all players (again except the last man) were women, but the game emphasized the backstory, framing narrative, and individual character actions, and had notably more violence.

As is standard in more philosophical Nordic games, the backstory existed mostly to motivate exploration of women's relationships, provide a platform for play, and give players enough to relate to so they could immerse in their characters.  Details were considered largely unimportant except where they were established as real by play or contributed to the collective story, and could be changed or invented by players as needed.

During online preparation for the US run and in pre-game workshops, the organizers emphasized the notion of playing to lose and for dramatic effect and talked about co-creating the story.  In the Nordic runs (especially the all-women run), the first act of the game centered on the process of characters becoming a collective to make decisions in the second act.  In the US runs, this didn't happen.  While the characters formed functional work relationships and separate family units became group identities, these group identities were what interacted, a dozen separate teams.  During the first act, most player engagement was spent networking — trading putative favors, weaving details irrelevant to the nature of the world inside the room.  By contrast, in the Nordic runs, the players spent more time building a shared story.

This primacy of the collective story above individual stories is the most distinct difference between the Nordic and US runs of MAtB.  Much (but not all) of the US larp tradition has come from a lower-middle class and escapist background — players with just enough money to have time to play but not enough agency in the world to not need the escape, as described in Lizzie Stark's We Hold These Rules to be Self-Evident: Larp as a Metaphor for American Identity in States of Play.  American games usually run as “pure” competitions, divorced from player skill and on a nominally fair playing field.  Game balance means ensuring equality of starting point.  “Playing to lose” is foreign, as gaming is seen, in part, as a chance to exercise agency in the world one otherwise doesn't have.  Here, authorial access to backstory must be policed because it represents unequal agency in the world's structure.  By contrast, in a Nordic game, emphasis is likely to be on equality of outcome, ensuring players have equally interesting experiences.  How much agency each character takes is less relevant, to the point that higher status characters often have less effective agency as their actions could prevent the collective story from functioning as all parties intend.

The nature of collectivity in each country may have been the core difference between the runs, but the logistics of staging likely shifted the outcomes too.  As the US scene is more fragmented, most players didn't know each other before the game and definitely didn't have a history of playing games like this together.  Due to logistical and cost considerations, both the workshops and first act of the game were cut short.  This is likely to be a continual issue in running Nordic games in the US.  Relatively long (three or four day) Nordic games with workshops set weeks prior to the game are hard when most of a game's player base is flying cross-country and when vacation time is rare and expensive for players.  In the US, most larps (excepting those on holiday weekends) run Saturday morning or Friday night through Sunday evening with no in-person preparation, a box we squeezed MAtB into.  The limited time meant characters had less time to become a community.

Still, more time wouldn't have allayed the basic suspicion with which most characters approached the government and each other.  This, combined with the shift in how backstory was used, meant many characters approached the government representatives as peers with whom they'd come to fight for a scarce resource.  Without a collective identity, we fell back on a romanticized notion of apocalypse as a reversion to the freedom of an imagined frontier.  Coming with the expectations of a Nordic game, this dynamic was surprising, but hard not to play into.  Organizers of Nordic games being translated to the US may find they need to recalibrate to account for greater friction in forming collective identities and less friction for more individualist play.

The individualist perspective may have been a defense mechanism for some players.  For all but a half-dozen players, this was the first game they'd played that asked them to take on this much emotional weight.  Playing the story as an adventure provided an escape valve, turning internal tension into adrenalin, and was also the perspective supported in the tradition most players were used to.  This isn't to say that some — or even many — players weren't heavily emotionally engaged with  play.

I was expecting a complicated relationship with the subject matter and my character.  As a woman of trans experience, playing a cisgendered character (whose internal and performed gender identity matches their medically assigned-at-birth sex) m eans simultaneously negating and validating things that are formative for me; likewise, separate from that identity, I've never considered being a mother.  Initially, I wasn't sure if this game was for me — I've considered and decided against other high-profile games (like Kapo) because they covered subjects too close to home.  This is standard in the Nordic tradition — not every game is for everyone.

In the US, there's a notion of accessibility — if you can afford to play and want to, you can.  The accessibility of MAtB came up after the game.

The narrative assumed, loosely, that the Event killed everyone with a Y-chromosome, including almost all trans women.  While chromosomal selection is epidemiologically implausible and does not represent the (lack of a simple) biological basis for sex, it's no more implausible than the basic premise.  The authors state that this was a significant but intentional simplification given the areas they wanted to explore.  A more complex notion of who lived would be no less contrived and would shift focus toward how gender is defined or sex constructed.  By using naïve categories, a more focused but still somewhat inclusive story could be told.  Playing with emotional depth requires picking one story, and that means excluding others.

I wasn't the only trans woman player, but all characters were cisgendered except for one trans man.  There was feedback after the US game — in part from trans members of the community — that this was transphobic.  I thought beforehand about whether I wanted to play in a world where I'd be dead and decided it didn't matter for me this time.

Exclusion comes with real costs when some stories are always selected, and it was unfortunate that the first game Nordic game to come to the US left players feeling outside.  The Nordic scene is homogenous, even compared with the society it grew from.  It's telling that in the fifteen plus years Nordic games have run, the larp Just a Little Lovin' was the first specifically gay larp — and this in a community with many respected gay members.  Even in that game, the racial dynamics of the New York gay scene were abbreviated at best.  I understand why; in part, they're complex even for New Yorkers and — as in MAtB — they weren't the focus.  In the interests of a stronger collective story, if your identity isn't important to the story, there often isn't room for it.  If you, the player, are left-handed, no one questions your character's left-handedness — it's hard for a player to change and rarely gets in the way.  If you as a player are queer and it's not a game about queer identities, you may be seen as hijacking the story if you don't normalize your character into a straight identity.

The stereotypical outcome for a Nordic game, especially a post-apocalyptic one, is “larp democracy” — the recapitulation of an idealized Scandinavian society.  As an outcome, this avoids the hard work of seeing where the cracks are in that society, of understanding how it breaks.  In the US, the equivalent stereotypical outcome may be a perfectly harmonious but multicultural market, where everyone gets along despite massive differences, lives side by side without tension, and starts out even.  In the second act when the last man showed up out of the woods, the other players acted to ensure that he like everyone had agency, to the point of forcing him against his will to make decisions and express preferences.

When he showed up, there was no larp democracy, but rather many different factions bidding with what they had, trying to see who could make a “solution” to the “problEm” stick.  The second act ended hours earlier than the organizers planned — it turns out that markets are faster than social democracies at making decisions if you're not worried about outcome equality.

As a player and theorist, I'm interested in larp as a political tool, not just as art.  From that perspective, this was a wakeup call about limits for politics in larps.  Much of the message of Nordic larp that I see as important is embedded in the organizational structure and the way games are run, in the act of telling a story as an equal and autonomous collective, and in the ability of deep embodied emotional play to help people understand a social structure.  All of these may not translate outside of the Nordic context as easily as it first seemed.

They say perspective is worth 40 points of IQ, and there's no perspective as useful for teaching as seeing what a story you thought you understood means somewhere else.  As happened within the Nordic context, with time and care we'll learn how to tell stories that cross borders.  Both sides will be richer for it.