Games are remarkable media for trial and experimentation. They constitute a possibility space for social action governed by explicitly artificial systems of rules, as well as incentives and obstacles for interaction. These interactional capabilities are married to a fictional setting that can draw from reality or be wildly speculative. Live-action role-playing games (larps) are a special kind of hybrid form of expression considered historically evolved from tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), but which have since incorporated elements of drama, visual arts, theater, and rituals. Continuous negotiations about the systems of rules, their social implications, and their interaction options are typical to the groups of larpers — particularly as some larp traditions have moved towards hybrid forms combining games with performance. Many of these traditions also set up their larps with a focus on community: these larps are created by the community, for the community.
One such tradition is Nordic larp. While larping in the Nordic countries has a longer history, this tradition started to emerge in the latter half of the 1990s, drawing on the many larp cultures of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.1 The Nordic larp tradition has since become internationally recognized.2 It foregrounds bespoke design, co-creative practices, collaborative instead of competitive play styles, and a serious approach towards the form of expression.3
In principle, the Nordic larp tradition and the international larp styles it has influenced have a fairly welcoming attitude towards queer themes, characters, players, and play. Queer topics, such as specific historical events, have been explored in this tradition, as have queer futures, alternative histories, and everyday fantasies. A queer-friendly practice in this tradition, for example, involves creating at least some of the characters in a gender-neutral fashion, leaving the choice of the character’s gender to the player. Similarly, even if the gender of a character is specified, it need not have any relation to the gender of the player.
Generally speaking, queer players want to be included in larps in the same way as anyone else – but not in a way that erases their histories, identities, and lived experiences.4 It has often been the case that larp organizers demonstrate queer inclusivity by making tokenistic gestures towards queer characters, or expecting queer players to bring in all the queer elements themselves. What often follows, however, is a clash of interests in queer representation and play mechanics. While it is evident that negotiations between individual preferences and communal expectations are bound to take place in the creation and playthrough of Nordic larps, there are several ways of relieving this tension.
In this article, “queer” is a lens through which we focus on rather practical questions relating to LGBTQ+ identity and community in Nordic larp. Specifically speaking, we are studying how game characters come to be, how community dynamics are created and maintained in larp, and what kind of work larp activities entail. We conceptualize the co-construction of larp on the part of the players as affective labor. Even though we are not looking into the contribution of emotion work to capital, or commercial production,5 we think that this kind of work in larps needs to be taken seriously as labor – as players’ continuous, embodied, and affective contributions towards the success of the game event.6 Our understanding of the term affective labor relies on Hardt and Negri’s7 original conceptualization as the production and manipulation of affect for human contact, ideally resulting in shared feelings of being at ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, etc. Affective labor is work that we do as embodied, functioning social beings in a given context, helping others feel good in our presence. We realize that “affective labor” has been discussed in many contexts at length, but as this is not a theoretical article, we need to keep our theoretical musings at bay in this instance.
Our focus is the investigation of affective labor carried out by queer people in the context of larps. As especially Nordic larps are co-creative – the players rarely see themselves as just players, let alone “customers” – the question becomes what kind of labor or work they do while preparing for a larp or during play. In larp, queer players have to make sure that the queer themes, characters, and narratives they are devising fit the original larp script and the conception of larp organizers. The gender of players and characters is a question that often pops up in these negotiations, as well as questions of relationship options. Furthermore, there is significant affective labor performed by queer players to make sure that non-queer players are not too uncomfortable in implicitly or explicitly fictional or non-fictional queer situations and interactions.
We study these questions pertaining to identity, community, and affective labor through data collected from a specialized Facebook group, the members of which are identified both as queer and as interested in live-action role-playing. We use the comments and discussion threads posted on this Facebook group as our main research material. This article is part of a larger inquiry into understanding queer role-play, queer role-players, and queer role-playing games, regardless of whether their role-play is digital or non-digital. We have studied representations of queer identities in TRPG source books,8 the cues role-playing games offer for queer play and how they are interpreted by players,9 queer role-play as transgression.10 and queer romances in role-playing games.11 The current article aims to provide us with an understanding of the state of queer play in Nordic larp through an online player survey.
Research Background, Material, and Methodology
Both larp and queer game studies are emerging topics in the field of game studies. Interest in larp has been slowly rising for the last fifteen years. It originates in para-academic work on larp theory, design, and documentation done by expert hobbyists,12 many of whom have also contributed to emerging larp studies in academia proper.13 Studies of larp have focused on, among other things, emotional bleed between players and characters,14 materiality of larp,15 and building a wider shared foundation for role-playing games,16 Queer game studies has similarly risen from the margins of game studies into a rapidly developing focus area in the last few years.17 Thus far, queer game studies has mostly focused on digital games, much of it stemming from a media studies background. Our approach in this article is slightly different. Here, we are interested in larp as non-digital play, and in understanding players’ experiences through interviews.18 As stated, existing work on queerness and larp so far draws from a para-academic tradition.19
In Nordic larp and the international scene it has influenced, there are numerous larps that include queer themes and characters. These include Mellan himmel och hav (a queer-feminist futuristic fantasy inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, staged in 2003),20 Cabaret (a musical larp about the closing of the last queer cabaret in the 1930s Berlin, played in 2014 and 2017),21 Mad about the Boy (an alternative world without the y chromosome, played in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2019),22 and also larps that are queer in a more low-key fashion such as College of Wizardry23 and The Forbidden History.24
In order to get into the queer play experience of Nordic larps, we needed to find a way to ask the players directly. For this purpose, we decided to set up a Facebook group where we would invite people willing to discuss these themes with us. The purpose of the group was to help us conduct a study on queer larpers and their experiences as well as on play with queer themes and characters. To our knowledge, this kind of gathering of data is a fairly new idea, and we were eager to see how it would work out. On April 19, 2018, a Facebook group called Queer Larp Studies (Group for Research Discussion) was created, and through advertisements on a few specialized FB groups our research group quickly gained 78 members, including us two researchers who acted as admins. By not specifying or delimiting what “queer” meant, we invited anyone who felt that the label fit them to join. Our sample of respondents is thus self-selected in this study.
We clearly stated in the invitation to the group and the group’s description that our intention was to collect material for research on queer role-playing games, larps in particular, in order to write a conference paper for QGCon 2018 in Montreal, and then continue working with the material. In the description of the group, we wrote: “Everything that is posted in this group as well as the demographic information collected when people joined the group may be used as data in research. The data will only be used for research purposes and it is treated as anonymous when it leaves this group.” The data was also discussed at the DiGRA 2019 pre-conference workshop on analog games in Kyoto, Japan. This article is the third instance of using that data, and the first publication.
The Facebook group was thus created only for the objective of gathering research material, and all of the members of the group were aware of this intention. The tools Facebook offers for groups are not an optimal fit for running a confidential group such as this. Setting up the group required trust on the part of the participants, as joining the research group necessitated that the members become Facebook friends with one of the researchers.25 Although the process was unorthodox, no one declined to join. Group members were informed that they could opt out at any time during the collection. One participant left the group during the process and their data was removed from the corpus. Participants were asked to give contextual demographic data, how they self-identify, their nationality, and age, but they could also opt out of giving specific data, or any of the contextualizing data.
The majority of the respondents who reported their nationality hailed from the Nordic countries, with some voices from the rest of Europe and a sizable group coming from North America. The youngest respondent to give their age was eighteen, the oldest in their early 50s. The average age was just below 34. The respondents’ gender self-identifications are quite varied; roughly a fifth of the people who provided us with a self-identification did not specify their gender. More than a third identified as women, with a little less than a third identifying as men, and an eighth of the respondents identifying as non-binary. These are simplifications, as some respondents identified with more than one category, or used terminology that does not unproblematically match ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘non-binary’. In this article, we have chosen to label the quotes from the corpus with just the self-identification information. While age and nationality certainly would be interesting contextual information, matched together with self-identification they would pose a real threat to anonymity in some cases.
The first entries were posted in the group in the beginning of May 2018. The cut-off date for the discussion and forum posts – September 10, 2018 – was set at the launch, and the group members were informed that at that date all the discussions and information in the group were going to be saved, anonymized, and archived for future research. Until that time, participants were freely able to post, edit, and delete comments. During the five-month period we asked the group nine questions, each of which attracted 11–48 comments.26 For example, here are the questions from week 2 and week 4:
Have larps and larping had an impact on your identity and/or self-identification? Have you actively used larps as a place of exploration?
When you think about signing up for a larp, how important is queer content to you? Is there something specific you look for, or some “red flags“ that give you pause? Can you give examples of organizers welcoming/not welcoming queer characters or themes?
In total, 173 comments and 78 subcomments were posted in answer to our questions, and there were no questions left unanswered. Many of our questions elicited a vivid discussion with multiple branching question-answer paths and commentaries. From this rich set of data we have concentrated on three themes in this article: larp as a site for identity play and exploration, friction in the community around queerness, and the labor related to being queer in a larp community.
Queer Players, Queer Larps
On the basis of the analysis of our Facebook data, it is easy to draw some basic conclusions on the topic. Our first finding is obvious: queer larpers exist. There are numerous people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, gender queer, trans, asexual, non-binary, homoelastic, agender, pansexual, gender fluid, et cetera — playing and designing larps. They have also been around for a long while, probably from the emergence of larps, even if queer themes have not always been addressed in role-playing games. Secondly, queer larps exist as well. Some larps are designed specifically to address queer issues, themes, or lived experiences, or even aim for queer play mechanics in their creation. It is also increasingly common for larps that are not specifically about queer experiences to incorporate some queer content (cues for queer play), or signal that diverse genders and sexualities are welcome.
A turning point for queer larps in the Nordic tradition has been Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo’s Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), originally staged in 2011 in Norway. Since then the larp has been re-staged at least once annually in various countries. This larp about the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on a New York LGBTQ community in the mid-1980s comes up in our data more often than any other. It is easy to find testimonials online to the larp’s power,27 and many of our respondents cite it as a key work in establishing a larp space where being queer is the norm, and providing a place to engage with queer history and queer imagination:
Being able to own and participate in a facsimile of important queer history, as a gay man, not having to deal with “being trans” as I did, was insanely liberating. Having played twice, I’ve also explored different types of gay masculinity through it. (queer gay man with trans background)
Today, while fully queer larps are still rare, there are ample opportunities to play queer characters, to play with queer themes, and to participate in larps where queer players feel included. While there are also plenty of examples of the opposite, queer spaces and queer-inclusive spaces in larp exist. Examples of queer play abound in the Nordic/International tradition, but also in other larp traditions such as Vampire the Masquerade,28 historical larps, fest systems, and fantasy larps, especially Harry Potter-inspired larps such as College of Wizardry. Much has changed over the years, and it seems that most respondents have seen improvement in both quantity of queer themes and characters included, and the quality of the work. One example is that queer characters in larps are no longer as stereotypical as they were when they were first introduced. One informant recalls:
In the beginning of my hobby (in the first half of the 2000’s and later), non-straight characters were a rare occurrence in my experience/circles, and even after I started to see them, they were very often very one-sided caricatures (e.g. “truck lesbian”, and the character literally had her own hauling company). (pansexual (cis) woman)
Many respondents report that larp has been a site of self-exploration and discovery. Larp is pretend play, where it is possible to try out different social roles – and have those roles reflected back. This is theoretically discussed as inter-immersion 29: Each player does not just pretend to be their fictional character, but all participating players pretend that everyone else is the character they are portraying. Portrayals in larp are seen, validated, and reflected back by other players. This is essentially why larp cannot be studied using individual performances as a starting point. Larp is deeply a communal cultural form:
It was the first time I was able to play gay or queer and male and to have that identity reflected back at me, which in turn was a catalyst in my real life transition. (gay trans man)
But JaLL helped me realise that I actually am not a man at all but a woman. It was a great queer life experience. (female)
Yes, my two first ‘real’ queer characters was a gay man and dragqueen at JaLL [character name removed] and I played the dragking/transman [character name and name of larp removed] – those were kind of eyeopening to me about gender, sexuality etc. (pansexual non-binary person)
The first (specifically) same sex romance I played, many years ago, was especially powerful, and was a major help in recognizing that I am bi/pan romantic. I had never actually considered not being straight, but that situation helped me see that it didn’t really matter to me. (nonbinary, ace)
However, while many informants credit larp as an important site for exploration and discovery, there were also those who felt that the accepting playful space that larp can provide hindered their self-discovery outside of larp:
I actually feel that larping somewhat postponed my discovery of my gender identity. During my teenage years, I played mostly in circles that allowed and encouraged crossplay, which, I believe, contributed to the fact that I never developed any substantial gender dysphoria. Only many years after my transition have I felt the desire to consciously explore gender via larp. (gay trans man)
This underlines the friction between larp as a liminal space where exploration and change are possible, and as a liminoid space, where we play at change and escape the mundane, without pressure to change.30 Larps are social spaces that are simultaneously real and fictional. We can change ourselves in them – or just play at the transformation. There is a tension between these two experiences of larp spaces, just as there is a tension between the larp space and the quotidian life around it.
Indeed, the permissiveness and encouragement of self-exploration is not limited to the fictional larp space, but can also be found in the larp community and subculture. Some respondents felt that it was specifically the community of larpers that had helped their exploration and discovery:
Larps and larp communities let me be fully, publicly bisexual and poly in a way that the [work] life does not find acceptable. (bisexual man)
I feel that the group of larpers I spent my teenage years with had a major impact on my identity, purely because that was the first place I found a lot of (openly) queers in, and it was a safe enough place to be openly queer for me, too. (pansexual cis woman)
It is difficult to say whether the community around larp is any more encouraging or welcoming to queer people than some other hobby community. While larp, as a form, has structures that are easily leveraged for self-exploration, and some of the social design does leak out of the fiction and into the community around it, it would be questionable to claim that larp communities would somehow inherently be very inclusive:
But I think a young person[’s] understanding of their gender identify and sexuality is always shaped by the communities they hang out in and hobbies they engage in. (bisexual cis woman)
Even so, since larp explicates some of the social norms that remain implicit in everyday life, larp can help us understand not just ourselves, but the other people around us in quotidian life, too. Larpers carry implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality with themselves from their everyday contexts into the larp space. Precisely the unexamined assumptions that are most “natural” or “obvious” can make heterosexism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and other normativities inherent in them obvious in practice:
These experiences were not only helpful in my own identity exploration, it was also very educational about the biases and prejudices of the people around me. Biases that they probably don’t recognize, and were only so obvious to me because they were so common. (nonbinary, ace)
Larping has been a (narrow and murky) window for coming to terms [with the idea] that some people actually have a gender identity. It’s still really weird to me, and it takes more bending my brain than playing nonhumans, or humans living in totally different society does, so usually I just go “agender who grew up in society with these expectations of gender roles” [rather] than try to force myself to make that extra twist. I guess it larping really brought to focus how agender I am. (agender)
Larps and larp communities are important sites for queer larpers to explore themselves and their histories; they are playful sites where the stakes are not as high as in everyday life. This play can be the goal in and of itself, or larps can be used consciously for exploration and transformation.
Challenges in Larp for Queer People
Activism, public discussion and negotiations, conscious design, and rising awareness of larp spaces have made them more welcoming and inclusive of queer people. Yet numerous problems remain. In this section, we concentrate on larp-specific issues, and non-larp-related homophobia, transphobia, and other prejudices are not covered here. Players (and characters) are sometimes misgendered, and there is a constitutive assumption that everyone is heterosexual, but these issues are not particular to larp. However, when the reasoning behind a homophobic or transphobic decision relates to a larp – for example, when design choices are defended due to “historical accuracy” – it is pertinent to the discussion at hand. This analysis demonstrates the complexity and difficulty of the issues of individual identity and identity politics in the context of queer larp.
Sometimes larp reveals people’s unspoken assumptions in vivid fashion. It is easier to make dismissive and generalizing statements about characters than about players. For example, the idea that queerness is just about sexual practices is a common assumption, yet it is seldom voiced in a face-to-face situation. However, people who have repeatedly asked to play queer characters have been asked, “why their characters are always about sex” (bisexual woman). Our informants report that bisexuality and pansexuality have been interpreted as automatically hypersexual:31
When the sexuality was not limited towards one gender in my characters (usually due to my wishes), it was most often stated as “anything goes” instead of, e.g. bisexual or pansexual. With this I mean, that these characters were often described more as hypersexual, “got to get it on with anything that moves and don’t care about the gender”, a common misconception and prejudice about bisexual people around that time. Since I faced that prejudice in my own life as well, I did not particularly enjoy playing these characters, and I still don’t like to play very flirty characters. (pansexual cis woman)
A foundational challenge for many of our respondents has been the lack of “representation” of queer characters in larps. Here, the concept of “representation” is used with quotation marks to emphasize that characters in a larp are not performed for the players-as-audience; rather, the players actively participate in the creation and portrayal of the characters. Players enact the characters during the runtime of a larp, and although the larpscript sets the frame for the enactment of characters, they are also co-developed with other players during play.
Even so, many informants report that playing non-straight characters did not even occur to them for years, as there were no obvious cues for queer play in their larp community:32
It did take me quite some time to realize I did not have to ration and play straight characters to give other players variation in what I played. […] I guess I just thought you had to represent as heterosexual at any historical [and] fantasy games. (bisexual woman)
I played larp about 5 years, before I realised I could play with whatever sexuality I wanted. Everyone around me played straight characters (Even other queers). It was like the norm was, that you were straight because that was the most common. One day I realised that me, as a gay, playing straight everytime was like a straight playing gay everytime. (gay man)
On the basis of our research material, the idea of larps including queer characters and queer themes was not obvious even to queer players. And even after queer characters were seen as a possibility, some informants reported that they felt the need to play straight characters to balance the queer characters they played. This shows that even if a larp community was welcoming to queer players, it did not automatically mean that the fictional worlds would be inclusive as well.
The Nordic larp traditions have struggled with how to include queer characters and themes. This has not been so much a question of “representation”, but of opportunities for actionable inter-immersion (meaningful play), and respectful and knowledgeable incorporation of queer themes, plots, and characters. At its worst, it has meant that although queer characters exist in the fictional world, they are not accounted for in the backstory of the world and have few play opportunities:
[…] many times the fact that the character might be something else than cishet just “happens to be there” without any playable content. (pansexual cis woman)
The incorporation of queer characters and themes is a complex issue with no clear design solution. However, it is possible to identify and discuss certain design choices. First, let us examine a situation we could call the only gay in the village: larps with designer-created characters that include a single queer character. This is often done to diversify the character set, adding “representation”. However, incorporating a single queer character will likely only cut the player off from many social plots in the game, and thus isolate the character. A solitary queer character does not act as an engine of romantic or interpersonal drama.
Sometimes the inclusion of a single queer character in larp develops into the queer question plot. The issue of homophobia, transphobia, or some other queer-related theme is incorporated into the larp script, and the theme is introduced into play by including a queer character. This does bring in a queer theme, but in practice it is usually reduced to a diegetic debate about whether queer people are fully human or not:
Queerness is my life, so playing queer themes as a game plot actually sounds kind of tiring. For example, I don’t want it to be a plot for other people that my character is gay or in the closet. […]
I think what I really wish is that queer themes could sometimes be as “normal” as non-queer themes. I’m tired of having to justify my existence outside of games, so if I have to do that ingame as well I don’t think I’m gonna enjoy it.
And I don’t mean that I don’t want my character to make game for others. I have had great queer drama as well, but it has been more personal, rather than political. Basically, I don’t want my characters’ queerness to be a debate for others, but I don’t mind queer relationships generating personal drama, like breakups, toxic relationships etc. I want queer characters to be treated as normal characters, not just as plot driving machines (pansexual, queer)
When I apply, I usually tell the organizers that I don’t want queer contact with anyone who couldn’t take it seriously – anyone who can only tell compelling, whole stories about straight relationships, or to whom a queer narrative is always either a comedy or a tragedy and nothing else. (non-binary, bisexual trans man)
A third design strategy that has been influential in Nordic larp has been gender-neutral character writing. This means that if the gender of the character is not absolutely key for a character concept, the character is written in a way that does not specify gender at all. This has numerous benefits. It is easy to adjust the genders of the characters depending on what genders the players who sign up for a larp want to play. It also ensures that leadership positions do not default to male characters, while care positions fall to female characters. As characters also come with relationships (such as marriages), this is also seen as a way to easily include same-sex relationships, as due to casting, some relationships end up being heterosexual while others are homosexual. It is important to note that these characters are not about gayness, for instance, since they are gay organically, through casting.
Although this character writing technique has merit and some of our informants felt that it is a great way to incorporate same-sex relationships organically, it was not seen as exclusively positive in our data. Some of our informants regarded the normalization of queer relationships as trivializing, even as erasure of the queer experience. Each relationship is written as if it were a heterosexual relationship, and it is assumed that queer relationships are no different. In fact, any specificities of relationship types are erased, and all relationships are imagined to be fundamentally the same. Similarly, some of our informants also reported that there are larps in which every character is written not just as gender-neutral but also bisexual. Yet, if everyone is queer, no one is.
Red flag: “everyone is gender neutral” “everyone is bisexual”. (bisexual woman)
I hate it when “every character is bisexual”, it feels like bi erasure to me. I react negatively if “gender doesn’t have any significance “, then it usually does. (genderqueer bisexual woman)
A fourth design strategy, connected to the neutrality approach, is to completely erase homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia from the fictional world. This is something that can be done with larp: it is possible to constitute rules and social norms that forbid expressions of phobia while larping. This is likewise a contested strategy. Some of our informants considered the removal of transphobia, homophobia, and sexism from the fictional world as useful, since this allowed them to concentrate on other things in play. By erasing these societally oppressive structures they could gain access to play that would otherwise be overshadowed. Furthermore, play that touches on topics of intolerance can be demanding and tough for players, and certainly requires trust amongst them. A participant in such a larp would need to trust that the diegetic prejudices negotiated in the game, for example, are not an expression of out-of-larp biases.
I think it’s really hard to play on intolerance and prejudice unless it’s very clearly welcomed or workshopped on how to do that to make it feel more accepted and natural. (pansexual agender)
The erasure of phobias is an example of the evolving schism between real-world experiences and the composition of fictional, made-up worlds. This schism can be thought of as a fruitful starting point for probing cultural displeasures, or as a tension that dissociates the participants and brings them further apart. For instance, there is an important difference between homophobia aimed at players, and homophobia aimed at characters in an environment where the players feel safe that they as their “real selves” are not under attack. Many of our informants felt that not only can these two be separated, they must be separated. In this regard, while the experience of queerphobia in everyday life is naturally not tolerable, the negotiation of queerphobia in larps may actually be helpful and needed:
In [name of larp removed] I played a cis gay teenage boy. I was disappointed as a player to find that themes of homophobia were forbidden, as I had been hoping to explore that theme in a way that I never got to as a teenager myself. I felt like queerness was erased from this larp. (gay trans man)
Red flags: “We don’t want any homophobia in this game” (lesbian woman)
I do not enjoy utopias, where any and every form of discrimination is just erased & swept under a carpet without any reason. (pansexual cis woman)
Many of our respondents pointed out that the removal of diegetic, in-larp queerphobia practically corresponded to the erasure of queerness. So much of the queer lived-experience and culture is tied to dealing with oppression that if all of that is removed, very little recognizable remains. A trivial example is that “coming out” loses its meaning, if there is no risk involved.
Queer Affective Labor in Larp
Larp is a co-creative cultural form, and Nordic larps are specifically amenable to players’ input. While larp designers and organizers do, on average, more work for the larp than players, all participants contribute towards the final work before, during, and after the playthrough. Everyone who participates puts in effort, and these activities follow rules set by the designers and the community, and, during play, the work done by other players.33 This aspect of larps makes them co-constructed. In this section, we focus on the work done by players for the larp community that we call affective labor.
Socio-dramatic play — role-playing together — requires nuanced collaboration. However, there are structural differences in what kind of labor is expected from different players. Our informants brought up how they needed to negotiate the inclusion of queer characters and themes into the visions of larp organizers. Questions of gender also require work (e.g. who gets to play characters of which genders, which genders are possible in the first place, what kind of gender information the organizers collect). Perhaps most importantly, queer players need to make sure that non-queer players are not too uncomfortable in implicitly or explicitly queer situations.34
Our informants had much to say about negotiating desire with non-queer people, whether they are playing a queer or non-queer relationship. Playing against one’s own orientation particularly feels like work, and since that is the norm, it is something that can be expected:
I think when I play straight characters in romantic or sexual relationships, it feels a bit like work for me (or like service in a way), because I’m just focused on giving the other player some interesting play. (gay trans man)
I find playing straight relationships exhausting. (cis gay man)
Non-binary and genderfluid characters are particularly interesting, as they seem to become either invisible in romantic situations, or they suddenly become clearly (mis)gendered:
So to women [my genderfluid character] was a they whether or not they felt attracted, to men [the character] became a her the moment they felt attraction. I think that hade to do with their attraction patterns out of game. (bisexual woman)
Sadly there are few games I’ve played with enby characters, so I don’t think I’ve come across a potential in game romance, but I think it would be similar to other character genders. (nonbinary, ace)
Transphobic co-players are a particular source of anxiety for many. Players often have strong ideas on what gender the players they are willing to play romantic scenes with in-character should be, how the genders of the player and the character should match, and transphobic ideas of who they recognize as being of a specific gender:35
Then again, with a straight woman I may get nervous if my character is supposed to be a very traditional straight cis man because I fear that I, as a queer trans man, don’t meet her expectations as a co-player – which is also a bit silly but probably rooted in cisnormativity, toxic masculinity and gender dysphoria. (non-binary bisexual trans man)
I have asked why the gender of the player is a part of the sign up form for no obvious reason and why the gender you want to play is not asked. I thought the organizers assumed that you want/can only play your own gender. I also asked why there are only two gender options, because I’m neither. (pansexual, agender)
However, I am always worried about everyone because of the facts of my trans body. (queer gay man with trans background)
Many informants expressed nervousness and felt that they had to shoulder much of the work in negotiating these situations. The informants largely also recognized that their transphobic co-players were not trying to be exclusionary but, as subjects of a cisnormative society, they had internalized values and patterns of reacting that can be hurtful or even damaging to trans players. A few connected this negotiation work directly to personal safety, but even the ones who did not express such fears recognized that they had to do much of the work. Furthermore, this work is largely invisible to the non-queer (or even all cis) players. Even so, there were also dissenting voices. One informant assumed the best of his co-players, while recognizing the complexity of the situation:
I’m also prone to just assume that people won’t have a problem with my sexuality or gender offgame. Usually they don’t, even if they are somewhat ‘phobic on an ideological level’. (gay trans man)
Some players felt that they should hide themselves from all diegetic amorous interactions:
I feel pressure to hide my own orientation and to be as asexual as possible and not flirt or talk about sex or romance in spaces where other people could accidentally hear. Even to cover up my body and not show décolletage as soon as I am outside my most close friend group. (bisexual woman)
Play touching upon sexual themes, negotiating desire, and engaging in amorous interactions in larp is never easy, whether one’s co-players are straight, queer, or something in between. Play and sexuality is a complex pairing: On the one hand, people want to play something that is meaningful and feels real enough for them (is recognizable and in line with their out-of-larp desires), yet sometimes it is easier to engage in explorations with people and situations that clearly are at odds with one’s out-of-larp persona (for instance because that may feel safer). As players have no obligation to disclose their full out-of-larp identities to each other, this can lead to messy social situations:
I remember, a long time ago, I played a lover to a girl once (in a harem-larp), I knew she was lesbian, but I didn’t dare to tell her I was bisexual, for some weird reason (I do not know why) I imagine she then not would like to play out our relationship that strong (as I would like), if she knew. (genderqueer bisexual woman)
Fellow queers are also sometimes perceived as gatekeepers in our research material. They are seen as conceiving of the queer community as more homogenous than it actually is and as setting out minimum requirements for being queer. This makes managing one’s own identity an important task even when in an in-crowd setting.
I feel I have [to] pay special attention to players and organizers who are queer because they can gatekeep or shame me. (bisexual woman)
I feel at present a reticence to call out non-queer organizers on this stuff, especially in light of the usual Not Queer Enough identity that bisexuals often find imposed upon them. Players are something different, for me. (bisexual man)
A non queer person could be anywhere from a very knowledgeable ally to bigotted. A queer person could be anywhere from being able to truly relate to my identities to presuming their brand of queer is right and bigotted towards other identity sets. (nonbinary, ace)
Finally, our informants felt that they have a responsibility towards the community to critique larp designers when they have (possibly unintentional) design choices that exclude queers. While most recognize that this kind of dialogue has improved the inclusivity of larp design, the work itself is tiresome and poorly valued. The ones who fight the fight rarely get any recognition for it:
I used to [engage with larp organizers to discuss problematic aspects in their public materials]. Oh I used to and quite publicly as well. For more larps than I can count. But I always felt sad and dirty after doing so. Like I had a boost of energy and feeling good after posting the critique and taking the risk, and then had a drop afterwards of second guessing myself. (bisexual woman)
I wrote to a larp about dance […]. The organizers required everyone to play their ooc-gender [out-of-character-gender], and men had to dance lead and women had to dance follow. I don’t know how they treated trans people. […] Then the organizers answered really clumsily and in a way that implied that they had no really good reason for this super cis heteronormative way of playing the game. Something like “but we want to explore the sensual dynamics of dance”, which has nothing to do with gender. They refused to even consider the possibility. (bisexual woman, relationship anarchist)
In addition to such feedback delivery and community management being undervalued work that hardly anyone appreciates, they have side effects, too. For instance, queer larpers are seen as an automatic resource to draw from with regards to queer issues:
I think perhaps I’m wary about going to a larp [addressing trans related topics without trans organizers] and ending up explaining my own life and doing emotional work for a couple dozen people who are just discovering this aspect of themselves (which, good for them, really, I just doubt I’d be able to go and not be thought of as a “resource”)[.] (gay trans man)
As many people pointed out in our material, acting as a “resource” for other people in a larp situation is demanding. The consensus seems to be that if any queer-related issues were to come up at a larp, known queer larpers would be expected to handle them. They are supposed to do affective labor for people struggling with queer and trans issues, educate and support non-queer designers on queer issues, and to be advocates and activists for these issues. While, again, this impetus is rooted in a positive recognition of queer people as experts in their own lives, they are not given the opportunity to decline this work.
Larps are a site of reflection, self-discovery, and exploration. They act as microcosms where alternatives are possible, but social and societal boundaries are also underlined. Specifically, queer themes support the ownership of often-neglected and misunderstood history and identity. However, queer larpers may struggle to see themselves reflected in larp worlds even if they participate in the creation of those worlds. Yet questions of representation are complex – for example, erasure of queerphobia removes key contextual elements of identities and real lived experiences. Finally, a co-creative form like larp requires work and community management from all participants, but queer players carry additional responsibilities. Our Facebook group set out to ask queer larpers how Nordic larps function from their point of view, how queer themes and characters are negotiated, and what kind of affective labor they do and are expected to perform for the community.
Affective labor has multiple meanings and theoretical trajectories, but here the concept has been used to illustrate the meaningful activity of the members of a community producing a sense of belonging, esteem, and worth. It does so through (for example) sharing information, communicating, maintaining connections between people, and coordinating efforts in community management.36 A large variety of these activities was brought up in our research material. Queer players referred to a number of inclusivity issues, such as the introduction of queer characters and themes into the vision created by larp organizers. Many felt that they had a responsibility in the community – to manage their own identity, to help others “represent” their identities in respectful ways, and to manoeuvre (possibly) queer interactions and situations in ways that would not make non-queer players too uncomfortable. Questions of gender also required constant work, as did performing non-interest in co-players, advocating for queer issues, and acting as a support resource that could be counted on without asking.
The making of this article has been partially supported by the Academy of Finland-funded Center of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (CoE-GameCult, 312395). Special thanks to James Lórien MacDonald.
Featured image is from the 2017 run of Cabaret, a three act Swedish musical larp with numerous performances by the participants. Photograph by Joel Höglund.
Jaakko Stenros, Ph.D. is a University Lecturer in Game Studies working at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at the Game Research Lab, Tampere University. He has has published nine books and over 50 articles and reports and has taught game studies and internet studies for over a decade. Stenros studies play and games, his research interests include norm-defying play, game jams, queer play, role-playing games, pervasive games, game rules, and playfulness. Stenros has also collaborated with artists and designers to create ludic experiences and has curated exhibitions at the Finnish Museum of Games. He lives in Helsinki, Finland.
Tanja Sihvonen, Ph.D. is a researcher specialising in digital media and games. She is interested in participatory culture, digital labour and the creative industries. She gained a PhD at the University of Turku, Finland, with a dissertation that was positioned at the intersection of Game Studies, Internet Studies and (Media) Cultural Studies. In her book Players Unleashed! Modding The Sims and the Culture of Gaming (Amsterdam University Press 2011) she focused on player activities and the cultural appropriation of computer games. She has also been studying social games and the transformations of the game industry. After spending many years in the Netherlands, she is currently working as Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Vaasa in Finland.