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In the backwash of Europa

Europa was my first larp with a political content, but hopefully not the last one. Larp as an art form, is a very powerful tool for political criticism, and hopefully this way of implementing the form has just begun. The main questions at Europa; refugee reception, the nation state and the human machine are more urgent than ever now that Sweden enters the Schengen co-operation. Most people are well aware that human rights are violated in other parts of the world, but nevertheless most Swedes don't bother much about it. We truly believe that our country is slightly better than all the rest, and that we hold human rights in high esteem. Then it is the more painful to see the truth; that Europa is walling herself in for protection against the rest of the world, and that Sweden takes active part in this unfortunate mission. The humane refugee politics that Sweden earlier could boast of is soon nothing more than a fading memory from the past.

To play a refugee

Of course it is impossible to wholly put oneself in the shoes of a refugee, to really understand what it is like to flee from one's country and head towards the unknown. Neither had we experienced any real war traumas. But to just try to imagine how it would be increases one's understanding and empathy. Now, I know what it is like to not understand or be understood. I know how it is to try to function in a bureaucratic system that you don't understand. I have also learnt how easy it is to start sorting people in groups, instead of seeing the individuals. The Norwegians were just "the Norwegians", and not even now do I know exactly how many they were or what they all looked like. They were just "the others", who spoke and acted strange.

Ethical questions were always discussed among the Swedes. How much we should help each other and stick together. We soon chose a leader who immediately took the responsibility to be our spokesman, mostly for us Swedes, but in many cases for all us refugees. Many were astonished on how easily the majority fell into the scheme, that so many followed the rules even when they were absurd. I believe that it was mainly due to our strong leader who always told us what to do. It was so easy to just go with the flow, to do as told without questioning or resistance.

I played a survivor. Earlier traumas had made my character partly shut out the world for protection. This made her very vulnerable, since she did not defend herself openly. Instead she chose to hang on to a stronger person, a strategy that worked out extremely well in the end.

The low-key roleplaying

The participants on Europa had very similar ideas on how to larp. Everyone did his or her best to immerse deeply into their characters. Even when the playing was invisible on the surface it went on continuously underneath. A look or a discrete sob could mean more than the most well formulated line. As the organisers had wished, the playing was kept at a very unobstrusive level.

Sometimes peaks of intensity broke the quiet line when someone had a public breakdown and cried out their pain. This billowing in the dramatics was both good and bad. It was good to get a few peaks to contrast to the otherwise low-key playing, but it is always a risk of getting inflation in the level of playing. This also happened to a certain extent at Europa - and after three days, a public nervous breakdown was about the only way to get attention. But it was anyway much better than it usually is at a common larp. This is connected to the normal dramatic line of a play. It always starts fumbling and then escalates exponentially towards the moment when the players off know that the game will end. Everyone want to act out their characters as much as possible before full time, but at the same time, not show too much too early. Therefore the last day of a larp is usually filled out with a massive number of outings of characters. This can be altered, for example by forcing a climax to come earlier, but this usually demands some stimulation by the organisers to happen.

Prologue (kick-off) and epilogue

As of the form this was one of the best things with Europa. I've never myself been to a larp that used abstract prologues and epilogues, but I have heard it has been used before. It was very nice to try to find the character and the feeling for the play through abstract impulses. What didn't work though, was the forced interaction between half-made characters, and I had to avoid the people I played with during the kick-off at the later real game since the interaction we had had felt wrong and not like something I could build on during the real play. Even if we were told at the kick-off that we didn't need to use what happened there in the real game we never got the chance to talk about it and agree on something else before the game started.

The epilogue was a soft landing. The whole larp passed before my eyes accompanied by the melancholy violin music while we were waiting for everyone to gather in the big room. The scenes from the game started to fade away into a bundle that it was easy to free oneself from. It was nice to be able to have a moment of calmness before the usual hugging and talking broke loose. It was also great to have a discussion with everyone very shortly after the game ended. The most urgent things could be said then and then be followed up during the later de-rolling sessions in smaller groups. It can often be difficult to be the only one with bad experiences after a larp when everybody else seems to be so euphorically happy. Therefore it is important to make up fora with the explicit meaning of talking about such things, where everyone is questioned about what they thought was hard during the game. Then no one will have to feel alone with bad feelings or thoughts.

The two rules

As far as I know none of the two rules "off-game relax" or "off-game stop" were used during the game. Even so, it was good to know that they were there when the playing touched the border to the uncomfortable. We dared go further than we would normally have since we knew we had an emergency break that could be pulled anytime. In Sweden it has been regarded as ridiculous to have such rules, but I think that we Swedes have much to learn and gain here. The rules of Europa let the players who really wanted to play hardcore do that, while those who didn't want that didn't have to.

The role developers

This was an extremely good idea, and it would have been even better had it worked as planned. The role developers were meant to act as a network of persons that could deliver the organisers' visions to the participants and also act as co-ordinators between players. They were also meant to guide the participants in their own role development. However, this didn't work very well, and as I understood it, it was mainly due to bad leadership from the organisers. Furthermore, the persons who were the developers were selected by their own interest shown, rather than that the organisers picked people they thought suitable. Since the developers didn't have to perform any creative work, the most important qualities were sense of plight and order to get the work done. I don't say that those who got the positions in the end weren't suitable, but the selection method didn't guarantee that they were, and therefore a fragile structure was created which didn't work by itself when the leadership failed. Obstinate participants also contributed to make it harder for the developers. Even so, I believe in the model, and I hope it will be used again. Making up characters for a larp is a creative process that demands more than one person to exchange ideas between, nevertheless if it is the player or a larpwright who is responsible for writing the final material.

Europa as a dogma larp

I am not an expert on all the aspects of the Dogma manifesto, but a few things were pretty obvious. Europa had no classical main plot, even if the reception centre and its personnel run some sort of main story. I would rather choose to call it a framework, but the border is not so clear. I really liked the absence of a main plot. It was also nice to know that there was no hidden agenda of intrigues. Most of the characters didn't have any relations from the beginning, but since almost everyone started from the same position it was all well. No one knew the others and no one had been at the centre before. The dramatic web had no periphery and I appreciated that.

What had been nice though, had been some common pictures of the war. I think this collides somewhat with rule number one, but I don't know how much it admits. The hardest part of the playing was to try to have been through a war trauma. We are so blunted after having seen a never-ending stream of war pictures pass by on the TV news, that it is hard to really feel them. It would probably have been stronger using other media, like stories, smells or picture shows like at the kick-off. At the latter it felt a little bit too late, I would have needed at least a couple of days to think through what I saw, to be able to really use it. The trailer was good though and I used the pictures from there when I tried to visualise the war.

Afterwards

Now a couple of weeks have passed since the game ended and the memories are starting to fade away. But the strongest scenes feel clearer now and I remember exactly a few glowing moments that have been stuck in the memory, for example the scene by the sea when one of the Norwegian women tried to drown herself. The few persons who were there, only Swedes, immediately went into the water without hesitation. As I was the last one to get off my clothes, I didn't go in, when everyone else already had done so. Instead my withdrawn character had to steer up the whole situation and make sure everyone got dry clothes on again and were taken up to the centre. That's how I would want to act in a real situation of the same kind, to fully see what has to be done and then make it happen without hesitation. I really believe that strong larp situations prepare you mentally for similar situations in real life. You practise on distancing yourself from what is happening, and try to see the whole from the outside.

I also had a very strong interview with the Orsinians. Max spent the whole time making me uneasy at the same time as Tanya and Anna asked questions, more and more uncomfortable all the time. I don't think I have ever been so close to my feelings during larping before. This happened quite early on, which was nice, because then I got a very clear picture of what had happened to my character before I came to the centre. I had experienced it in my head while telling the Orsinians. I also wrote the story down in a letter to my Swedish boyfriend afterwards, which the Orsinians had promised me they would send. I don't know exactly, but I think I started to cry more or less spontaneously about ten times during the game. Normally I cry quite easily, but during Europa it was extreme. The low blood sugar level combined with the depressed mood was a very good ground for immersion into the darker feelings.

I brought very few items. Just some underwear, a toothbrush, a notebook and some photos of my fictive boyfriend. I used the pictures together with a memorised poem that I mumbled for myself to immerse into my character. I usually use these kind of methods when I larp, but they have never worked as well as during Europa. It was like all stored bad feelings from earlier crashed relationships came up to the surface when I tried to imagine what it was like to have lost the one that my character loved.

Furthermore I remember a lot of more diffuse feelings such as the happiness of biting into a piece of freshly baked bread, when I had been starving for several days, or to finally get the chance to shower after more than a week with no washing at all. You survive with very little, and learn to appreciate the small things. Europa has in several very obvious ways increased my self-knowledge.

Susanne Gräslund


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