This cartoon made the rounds a while back, but I still strongly identify with its sentiment:


The convergence of all media into one or two devices has had untold effects on the human relationship to information, and certainly has probably had effects on our brains as well.

Philosopher Glenn McLaren proposes in an article in the latest Cosmos and History that the virtual reality of the Internet has made us “hunter and gatherers” in a forest of information, rather than independent, critical and deep thinkers.

As someone grappling with something akin to Internet addiction (okay, let’s just say I am addicted), it spoke quite a bit to my own experience.

After about 2009, I began to lose the ability to apply my attention to any long task when the Internet or other social media were available. On any big project, it has become an absolute necessity to shut off my connectivity to get any work done. Whole days have been lost to aimless wandering of forums, reading of digital newspapers, blogs, and the like. Though I’m a film scholar, I probably spend the least time on YouTube of anybody, preferring instead the back catalog of Film Philosophy or The Forge for my reading to distract me from all the pressing projects on which I need to focus. Nevertheless, pressing issues and deadlines do not impact my consciousness as they used to, convincing me the web has some kind of narcotic effect.

McLaren goes further to state that this shortening of the attention span and the sudden total equivalency of information has had noticeable political consequences, i.e. a certain docility and conformity as subjects no longer need to construct radically individual, deeply conceived opinions of anything to continue to spread their impact on the world.

How do I unchange my mind, so I reach a pre-2009 level of focus, attention and memory, themselves perhaps the most critical items necessary for my political consciousness?

As I move toward the summer, one of my most productive working periods, I caution myself against spending too many time trawling the Internet for novelty, and will consign myself to my stack of books and films I haven’t consumed while my brain drifted through the Internet’s networked isles.

Here’s acknowledgement of the irony that I feel compelled to blog about this topic, and encouragement for anyone to take the same occasional intense hiatuses I do. For intellectual survival, you understand.

Remember, above all else, that tomorrow is International Workers’ Day.

Unless you’re a big property owning industrialist, tomorrow is meant for you.

May Day now will always remind of the big party in Kreuzberg and the scuffles in Berlin while I was there in 2010.

It will also recall the fact that, despite calls for the youth to make war against the old, the enemy still remains the oldest of all: capitalism.

I will spend my May Day watching German films and contemplating their labor relations, not out of pretentiousness or facetiousness, but because it’s the end of the semester and it’s also my job.

Those of you who have work, may God bless your good fortune and grant you the strength to fight for the appreciation you deserve.

Those of you without work, may you pour out onto the streets to show the world you exist and deserve a living wage.

We all do. Every generation does.

The Herzog Swoon

April 24, 2012

Today, Werner Herzog spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, later at Amherst College.

Here he is, explaining how he gingerly treated the Treadwell material used for shooting Grizzly Man.

Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with enraptured students and faculty, trying in vain to capture their vertiginous experience of seeing him in words/images. After all, he’s at the very least that German director about whom someone made so many viral videos. Celebrity cults have the tendency of rubbing me the wrong way though, so consider this blog post a measured response to the enthusiasm.

I attended because I am a German film specialist, and was pleasantly surprised that the talk at UMass was much better than the conversation he had at Amherst College back in 2006, when the privileged male students there thought they could “beat” him in rhetoric about fiction/reality in his films. (BTW: They lost.)

Topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:

• How fairly he deals with his subjects, particularly those who are borderline personalities (Treadwell, Kinski)
Into the Abyss as an American Gothic
• His romantic sensibility about the emergence of filmic moments
• His ruthless pragmatism regarding a tight editing schedule (“within 2 weeks” is his motto) and a low shooting ratio
• Virgil’s Georgics and the importance of thick description
• His own personal, evil style of acting
• How most people don’t survive in the film industry unless they can find a fast-paced rhythm to events/timelines/finances as he has
• How he doesn’t like art, nor the term “artist,” but rather surrounds himself with maps
• How students should “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read” (Incidentally, he sounded like a liberal arts college professor at this point.)
• How aerobics, yoga, art installations, and an excess of pain relief are all abominations with which society should reckon

In essence, Herzog shares the quality with Slavoj Zizek that he is one of the rare crowd-pleasers who can cater to students’ desire for “profound messages” and professors’ desire for academically grounded wit with equal aplomb. At the same time, however, one also notices that – beyond the hype for the man and his films – he has made his career as a filmmaker by keeping both his feet firmly planted on the ground (except in White Diamond, of course). Over and over again, he reiterated crude existential truisms: shoot your next damn film, don’t agonize over anything, meet your deadlines, if your footage is good – it’ll fit together, and so forth. This is advice that even his ideological arch-enemy Mike Figgis could not deny, and constituted almost the same thing that DEFA director Jürgen Böttcher communicated to us in the fall.

That is to say: don’t look to Werner Herzog for a message or even an inspiration. Look to your own subjective experiences and your pathos-filled reading of the world. Look to the subjectivity found in his films, and take a stand for or against or alongside it. This is a man whose oeuvre you must watch anyway, and his apparently enchanting presence should encourage you to look at more of his films. But Herzog knows no more secrets behind his films than you do. The viewer really is the missing link in his world.

Wild Blue Yonder is mostly long-winded crap with a few brilliant moments in a space capsule.
Woyzeck was made in such a short amount of time (8 days) that its spontaneity captures the fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play.
Stroszek remains his best work and will never be trumped by any of his other documentary-informed features.
Heart of Glass has inspired me in terms of larp and game design.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams hinges on his voiceover and our meta-level interpretations thereof.
Cobra Verde begins as a narrative about plantations and slavery, and ends as a musical.
Nosferatu shows us how small vampires can be in our big world.
Grizzly Man has something to do about Humans and Nature. I think it’s about Humans and Cameras.

…and so forth.
Watch his material.
Have an opinion.
If your opinion’s strong enough, make a piece of art in response that expresses it.
Or at least express it over coffee with friends.

Today’s event was called A Conversation with Werner Herzog. In my mind, Herzog exists only in conversation.

For more information about the director as well as interpretive aids, I suggest Brad Prager’s book or recent edited companion. If you read German, try Chris Wahl’s Lektionen in Herzog.

Watch the movies, but also read, read, read, read, read, read…

Role-playing games have been covered unfavorably in the media for most of their 38 years of existence.

See Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Tosh.0 Meets Larp

I mean, even Ethan Gilsdorf and Patton Oswalt as self-proclaimed gamer geeks are awfully self-deprecating when talking about live-action and tabletop role-playing games.

We in the RPG hobby have what you might call an image problem.

Enter journalist Lizzie Stark.

She’s young, bright and holds advanced degrees from Tufts, Emerson and Columbia.

Rather than making loads of assumptions about role-playing as a hobby, she instead intensively researched and interviewed various larp groups around the United States and (later) in Europe to create a complex portrait of the individuals involved.

For example, here’s Lizzie reading about how 9/11 had a direct impact on New York larpers.

This form of dignified presentation matters, especially when it’s coming from neither the camps of fandom nor the halls of the cynical media machines.

Now she’s got a whole non-fiction book full of this kind of material.

Image problem provisionally solved.

Finally, one of the most maligned of contemporary art forms – live action role-playing – gets the high-powered, literary treatment it deserves.

I’m buying my copy at my friendly local gaming store Modern Myths when Lizzie comes to give a book talk on May 12th.

The question is: where and when are you getting YOUR copy?

 

To the End of April

April 21, 2012

Great to see so many people enjoyed my RPIG/Solmukohta report (at least relative to my usual traffic).

I take this as a cue to resume blogging for a while, with somewhat shorter entries.

This semester I have presented on 3 diverse topics at 3 very different academic conferences. According to my CV, they were:

• “Adventures in Stagnation: Gottfried Kolditz’s Unfilmed DEFA Project Zimtpiraten (1984)” At: Northeast Modern Language Association Conference 2012. Rochester, NY, March 15-18, 2012.

• “DEFA and the Third World: A Taxonomy of Transnationalisms” At: Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2012. Boston, MA, March 21-25, 2012.

• “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat.” At: Role-Playing in Games Seminar. Tampere, Finland, April 10-11, 2012.

So, East German pirates, transnational film theory as applied to East German films regarding the Third World, and how tabletop role-playing combat frames time and bodies. I’ll leave all that to the reader for digestion.

Writing projects dominating the rest of my schedule until the end of April include:

1. My final dissertation chapter: Dyer on DEFA: White Labor Power in East German Musicals

…in which I argue for a critical race theory that can address the appropriations made by sorta-well-meaning East German musicals — particularly Revue um Mitternacht (1962, above) and Meine Frau macht Musik (1958). Some use blackface, exoticized revue sequences and the juxtaposition of free jazz as an East German progressive phenomenon (really?) vs. the oppressive big band revue music of the evil capitalists of yesteryear. A confusing hodge-podge to unpack to say the least. Oh, and I use Richard Dyer’s theories a lot.

2. The finished article on DEFA made-for-TV pirate films that I presented in embryonic form at NeMLA. It’s about DEFA’s willingness to adopt new genres and ideologically suspect material in order to compete for increasingly scarce East German TV eyeballs. Gojko Mitic makes one swarthy pirate.

3. A co-authored article with my advisor Barton Byg on film education in Germany: Divided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. We are presenting this work in Hong Kong in May and I am otherwise plowing through catalogs of student films, statements and charters inaugurating film schools and other items to get a sense of how German film education fits into larger pictures of German education across the Bundesländer.

Many interesting questions buzzing about me on my laptop, and so little time until the end of the semester to answer them. Here’s to a successful end-of-April push!

This enormous blog post is dedicated to my entire trip to Finland via Stockholm from April 6-April 17, 2012. The post functions as a therapeutic information dump of the major threads from my journey. It interweaves academic, personal, theoretical and actual details of my trip. Don’t expect great truths, but do expect my impressions and subjective biases!

For the sake of reader convenience and sanity, I have at least organized it into several distinct sections:

Trip There

RPIG – Tampere

Nordic Larp Talks – Helsinki

Solmukohta – Kiljavanranta

Return Trip

Final Remarks

Note: Compare these with reports about the events by Rafael Bienia, Jukka Särkijärvi, Matthijs Holter, Annika Waern, and Lizzie Stark.

Enjoy!

Trip There

On Easter Sunday, I ate my last homemade meal for a while and Kat then drove me to the Hartford airport so I could embark on my journey. Kissing her goodbye was hard. This whole trip had wound up a bittersweet plan to some degree, for Kat wanted to come with me and be a part of it all, but her presentation at another (very interesting) conference prevented her from doing so. I had a lot riding on this trip in terms of personal finance, time and energy investments, so my expectations remained high. This lengthy post gives evidence to the effect that those expectations were met.

The flight took me to Newark, also known as Hell on Earth for Vegetarians (where I ate a yogurt), and then to Stockholm, or Purgatory.

Hours of Sleep Caught on the Plane: 2

Stockholm Arlanda airport has, for reasons central to the Swedish tourist economy, consigned travelers to 8-12 hour layovers so one can convert one’s wealth into kroner and spend it on Swedish goods/services. The airport itself bears many architectural similarities to Düsseldorf Airport, my usual point of entry to Germany. Planes land on the tarmac, and passengers are whisked by bus over to the terminal, which is peppered with the usual overpriced cafés and duty free shops. The airport’s main feature is the SkyCity (see above), a mall that opens up like an IKEA beachfront over the tarmac. One can sit (or sleep) in the comfy chairs and enjoy the sun, or plug in one’s laptop and work on one’s dissertation. Due to the Swedish conspiracy to get tourists to spend money on their soil, I was given a 12-hour layover to Tampere. I chose to use this time to work off my jet lag in the airport’s plethora of non-spaces; after all, I did have to give a presentation on Tuesday morning, and my dissertation chapter is due at the end of this semester. The work done during this airport stay would be the last real work I would manage to complete for the next 6 days.

Finally, Stockholm relinquished me and I wound up on the snowy streets of Tampere, Finland with its imposing statues of men holding fish and the like. There, I met up with my first trip roommates – Nathan Hook and Sarah Lynne Bowman – at the Omena Hotel. “Omena” means “apple” in Finnish, but what it really ought to mean is “labyrinthine network of doors,” because that’s what the staffless hotel offers you. One enters a number on a keypad 4 times at different airlock style entrances in order to prevent anyone from having ready access to your room (including you) as well as anyone from being actually hired to serve you as a consumer. It was completely sci-fi, but in a weird, no-frills, retro sorta way. My arrival at the Omena delivered the wonderful news that Metropolis, a larp based on Fritz Lang’s eponymous 1927 film, had received a Nomination for Best Technical Innovation at the Danish role-playing convention Fastaval. Fastaval, the Danish convention which I reviewed here and Lizzie reviewed here, is one of the best forums for role-playing in the world and an extremely competitive environment for larp scenario writers. It was truly an honor to receive a plaque with the scenario’s achievement written out in full. Nathan and Sarah, as well as Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Emily Care Boss, and Epidiah Ravachol, had all taken part in its splendor this year, a fact that I thoroughly envied. Despite my total lack of sleep, we stayed up discussing Fastaval and rehearsing/critiquing our academic presentations for the morning. We knew that in Europe, especially in Finland, it would be a tough academic seminar. But no anxiety took hold: the moment my head eventually hit the pillow, I had gone into desperate sleep mode.

Hours of Sleep: 5.5

RPIG Tampere

The Role-playing in Games Seminar (RPIG) constituted the academic portion of my trip.

A group of far-flung scholars assembled in a room off Pinni A at the University of Tampere and game studies rock star Frans Mäyrä (Finland) gave us the opening welcome. Since the seminar was intended to thoroughly interrogate working papers on role-playing-related topics, it functioned under a unique presentation structure. Panelists submitted working papers to the entire group ahead of time for all to read. These 5,000 word-max. essays were then interpreted in light of a panelist’s 10-minute presentation to the gathered crowd of 50 people. Finally, the two commentators J. Tuomas Harviainen (Finland) and Torill Mortensen (Sweden / Denmark) provided feedback before turning the discussion over to the group for 20 minutes. This meant that no paper was spared a thorough critique, and panelists had to nevertheless pare their main point down to its base elements in order to remain on-time.

So as to keep track of these rolling arguments and the intense discussions afterward, I wound up Tweeting about the whole two days under the hashtag #rpig. It provided a secondary, sometimes humorous discussion to supplement the main discussion.

On to the first day of panels:

• Marjukka Lampo (Finland) – An Ecological Approach to Gaming Processes in Larps

A paper conducted as a kind of acting exercise, Lampo proposes a framework of micro-interactions that add up to an ecological picture of a larp. Phenomenology of human interaction in game studies is always good when done well, as here. Lampo also published with me in the Think Larp academic book last year, so I know her theatrical angle on larp performance well.

• Jaakko Stenros (Finland) – Between Game Facilitation & Performance: Interactive Actors and NPCs in Larps

Stenros essentially argues for a typology of NPCs (Prop, Interactor, Proactor, Gamemaster), as well as for the point that NPCs are also essentially players as well – his evidence are the games Conspiracy for Good and Sanningen om Marikka. Inter-immersion as a social practice becomes more important for the role-playing experience than donning a role. I posited an economic distinction in the case of the U.S.: NPCs don’t pay (or as much) as PCs do.

Me, presenting at RPIG - Photo by Rafael Bienia

• Evan Torner (USA) (me, in case you were wondering) – Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop RPG Combat

A thought experiment and discourse analysis leveled against an old foe of mine – the procedural time thievery involved with rolling to hit and damage in fights. I received useful feedback on how to reduce my book-level argument to article length. Ambition is part of my game; also, animated PowerPoint slides.

• Nathan Hook (UK) – Social Psychology Ethnographic Study of “Immersion” among Larpers.

Hook found the annoying word that never goes away – “immersion” – turning up among participants of a study that did not use the term as an explicit variable, and wondered if there was some inductive definition of the term to be gleaned. Harviainen pointed out that his participants were too well-schooled in role-playing theory to begin with…

• Laura Flöter (Germany) – The Avatar’s Life of Its Own

Flöter used art and aesthetic theory to explore the “life” conferred onto an avatar or role after a player has made one (as in: the avatar can now make autonomous decisions). It may have contributed the nice German word “Eigenleben” to game studies discourse.

• Sarah Lynne Bowman (USA) – Social Conflict and Bleed in Role-playing Communities

Bowman constructed a typology of all the ways that diegetic politics among characters can affect out-of-game relations and vice versa. The resultant schisms from such “bleed” often have cascading, larger effects on larp cultures in the USA. Basically, we have to get over issues of emotional overinvestment in the hobby and in the characters.

• Angelina Ilieva (Bulgaria) – Cultural Labor, Memory and Concepts in Larp Discourses

Ilieva follows up on her previous socio-linguistic cultural studies work to analyze the role Bulgarian folk fantasy plays in constructing the fiction role-players work to produce. I’m interested to read more.

• Rafael Bienia (Germany / Netherlands) – Role-players Creating Networks

Another ambitious piece, Bienia’s project proposal seeks to apply actor-network theory to the spread of certain role-playing processes. Focusing on just larp, tabletop or MMORPG may strip this otherwise massive undertaking into an accessible dissertation.

• David Jara (Germany / Chile) – Framing Strategies in RPGs

The paratext piece. Jara brilliantly demonstrates how artwork, sidebars and other paratexts frame key expectations about RPG texts. We just have to place this research in dialog with Forge theory, which looks at the game rules and design against tests of systemic and stylistic coherence, and we’ve got an important argument here.

Following the seminar on Day One were two other events for me. One was an unintentionally intense discussion between Karl Bergström (Sweden) and Pekko Koskinen (Finland), Lauri Lukka (Finland), Michal Mochocki (Poland) and myself about neoliberal principles governing our economy. Bergström (who later apologized for “trolling me,” as well as generously gave me a copy of his dissertation) wondered why a merit-based, survival-of-the-fittest economy was problematic, whereas the rest of us likened finance to a broken game system gone wild that steals money from most people. Many of my out-of-seminar conversations, come to think of it, turned toward advanced political thought about hte U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. The second event was an Open House at the Game Research Lab in the University of Tampere. There, we saw all their console systems and collection of other video game paraphernelia. Meanwhile, I spent substantial effort proselytizing about the U.S. independent role-playing game scene to Josef (Czech Republic) and Richard (UK). We wound up in a bar afterward, where I got into two different discussions about the U.S. scene – one with Carl David Habbe, and another with Jiituomas, Anastasia Seregina, Nathan and many others. I seem to recall using lewd metaphors to describe certain aspects…

Hours of Sleep: 6.5

Day 2 of the panels:

• Alexey Fedoseev (Russia) – RPGs as Educational Technology

A look at activity theory in keeping students engaged with complex topics through larp. Fedoseev showed us some example history lessons played out in costume, and traced his tradition back to educational philsophers like Lev Vygotsky and his heirs.

• Michal Mochocki (Poland) – How Edu-Larps Work for Subject-Matter Knowledge

My summary: we need a larp textbook to teach with. I agree.

• Eliane Bettochi, Carlos Klimick, Rian Oliviera Rezende (Brazil) – Incorporeal Project

The presentation concerned a joint design project that let Brazilian students design their own role-playing game books. Absolutely in dialog with the indie publishing movement in the states. We should be getting project cooperations (I’m looking at you, Cary Collett).

• Lars Konzack (Denmark) – How RPGs Are Presented in Public Libraries

Konzack looked at collections of tabletop RPGs in Danish libraries, as well as his Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk model of interpreting RPG presentation. Still wandering what one had to do with the other…

• Ashley Brown (UK / US) – Threesomes, Waterfalls and Healing Spells

Brown’s interpretation of kinky MMORPG erotic play (which tends to happen near waterfalls and sometimes involves sadomasochistic play requiring healing potions) gave us many more insights into how today’s cybersex is conducted. This was by and large the most entertaining paper.

• Richard Gough (UK) – Information Acquisition for the RPG

Gough looked at information acquisition and knowledge management schemas in use during role-playing activities, with many charts and models showing how it works. Suddenly the medium seems more complicated than I could imagine.

• Petri Lankoski (Finland / Sweden) – Role-playing in Single Player Video Games

After a seminar that complicated concepts behind RPGs, we suddenly found Lankoski’s method to be somewhat reductive, with “role-playing” as just one experimental variable among many, causing doubt and controversy among the seminar participants about what data could be gleaned from the study.

Overall, there were several patterns that emerged. The professors were more heavily critiqued than the graduate students, and major questions about methodology, discipline and framework for looking at RPGs were raised. Yet the sheer quality and quantity of questions raised was promising. I feel as though we’re on the cusp of a rapidly expanding scholar base and interest on a global level in diverse role-playing scenes from around the world. Everyone talked of an experience akin to having their brain detonated by the seminar, so I can only say it was its own kind of success.

Nordic Larp Talks – Helsinki

Five of us – Nathan, Sarah, Carl David, Jiituomas and I – piled into Jiituomas’ admittedly smallish vehicle on a 2-hour road trip to Helsinki. This prompted the surreal experience of conversing about my Metropolis larp as well as new directions in role-playing scholarship while balancing my suitcase over my legs so that they would not be crushed by the weight of my clothes. Our motley crew pulled in next to Karl Ludvig Engel’s famous cathedral in downtown Helsinki and then walked down past the train station in Helsinki to PRKL, a bar named with 4 consonants that form a dirty Finnish word when the vowels are pronounced. The basement of this heavy-metal bar would be the site of the Nordic Larp Talks, TED-style talks delivered about concepts and trends in larp by smart people. Knowing full well I would view them later online, I used the opportunity to mingle with Jaakko and his psychologist partner, Carl David, and especially Anastasia, who is studying games in relation to her business degree. Once all the Americans had assembled in the basement of the bar – Sarah Bowman and Harrison Greene, Emily Care Boss and Epidiah Ravachol, Jason Morningstar and Autumn Winters, John H. Kim, Aaron Vanek, Lizzie Stark, Ashley Brown and myself – I suddenly got this tingly feeling, like we were part of this deep-rooted community that crossed oceans, ideologies, and national boundaries. In a basement surrounded by broken Jaegermeister bottles and death-metal logos, everyone could geek out knowledgeably about RPGs. Emily, Eppy, Lizzie and I were to room at Markus Montola’s place afterwards and we kept making as if we were going to leave (we were tired). But instead, we kept finding ourselves either meeting people or getting more drinks or… you get the idea. Rather than exhausted, we all felt giddy and as if we were at some kind of alumni sleepover.

Well, it certainly wasn’t all bells and roses at this point. The dark underbelly of the whole experience had become apparent by Wednesday: disease. See, Fastaval in Denmark the prior weekend was also a lot of late nights, people in tight sleeping quarters (i.e. a school gym floor), semi-bad food and worse hygiene. The so-called “Fasta-Flu” was born in this cozy environment and, with indifferent malice, ripped its way through the ranks of Danes, Finns and Americans alike. Then about 50 of them indelicately transported it through their coughing and sneezing over to Finland so as to spread it in similar conditions. That night in Helsinki, I sensed the rumbling thunderclouds of the storm of plague to come, which would directly affect the Solmukohta experience of many (Lizzie, Eppy, Jason and Harrison, to name a few).

Hours of Sleep: 9

Solmukohta – Kiljavanranta

There is a way to capture the spirit of Solmukohta in a single description. On Friday night, Emma Wieslander stands before a hall packed full of some of the greatest minds in game and larp design in the world. The topic of her lecture? “Gender for Dummies.” In cool, methodical fashion, Wieslander explained the sub-categories of sex, gender & sexuality, writing down key concepts such as “intersexed” with a big green marker. The rapt audience, a mixture of well-dressed and slovenly dressed European geeks, are not only taking notes, but they’re responding to the points she raises as they come up. And they’re doing this while knocking back glasses of beer and port wine in the lecture hall all the while.

Welcome to Solmukohta/Knutepunkt/Knudepunkt/Knutpunkt, an annual combination of global larp convention, drinking party, pop academic convocation, alumni reunion and adult sleepover. Like it or not, its ideas have technically shifted larp practices around the world, and its extensive transnational communities are so tightly knit that its members wager considerable time and money in order to find their way back to the convention’s (many) embraces.

So our journey as a group continued. Many from the RPIG seminar were also to take part in Solmukohta, and all the larpers bound for the convention boarded packed buses outside Kiasma, the Helsinki art museum. Story Gamers from our forum – including Raffaele Manzo (Italy) and Alex Fradera (UK) – all found the rest of us and we reached critical mass as we boarded the buses. Heck, I only stopped talking about indie tabletop games when Autumn Winters – bless her soul – asked me about East German cinema. 45 minutes of me jawing her ear off later, we found ourselves in the remote sport lodge/school of Kiljavanranta. Located on a semi-frozen lake out in the Finnish wilderness, the boarding school came with classrooms, auditorium, gymnasium, sauna, pool, cafeteria and bar. There was also free Wi-Fi “available” in the lobby, but I employ quotation marks due to the bandwidth required by the sheer load of iPads, smartphones and laptops that overwhelmed any chance of the Internet being a useful tool for some of us. This really would be a retreat! Hotel rooms were dorm style and held 3 souls apiece. Part of the suspense factor behind our arrival at the hotel meant finding out who were to be our roommates for the week. Fortunately, I was rooming with Jason and Autumn, whose awesomeness could be presupposed. Everyone geared up for the opening ceremonies in the middle of endless chatter and reunion hugs.

Day 1:

Opening ceremonies commenced, and they were short and sweet. There’s a panic number that the organizers might not answer after midnight. Condoms and painkillers are free at the info desk for those who would need them. And then suddenly they were over and we were all handed characters for the “Solmukohta Plague,” the first larp of the convention. One appreciates the irony of the horde zombie larp’s title. People began to run for the doors, the starting zombies stumbling after them. Our characters were simple, but at least persisted after we were inevitably turned into zombies – caring humans would become caring zombies, leader humans would become leader zombies and so forth. I was eaten by Oliver in the Bleed Lounge after we humans had ineffectively barricaded it with chairs and tables. Then I wandered around groaning until we were shot to death by the con organizers in a dramatic display of fiat. And so it began…

Note: When I say the word “chat” in the below descriptions, it means I remember it being a long discussion. There were many more short discussions than I can list here. I guess you’ll have to ask me about them.

• Nordic Larp 101 – Reps from each of the Nordic countries presented the state of the scene in their respective country. Fact: every larp scene is aging and coping with the avant-garde/mainstream divide. Sweden’s post-apocalyptic scene is on the rise, next to its long Vampire tradition. Norway has a lot of money for youth larp, but those usually have to be fantasy larps. Also nobody north of Trondheim does larp for any reason. Finland uses primarily pre-defined characters, and larp is a mostly female activity. They’re trying experiments with the “new weird” genre fiction (a la China Miéville). Denmark usualy sees people write their own character in pre-game workshops and has a very diverse scene otherwise. Somewhat informative overall, though nowhere near as informative as…

• The Hour of the Rant – Hosted by Claus Raasted, the Nordic larp rockstar. Here’s the gist of all the rants, which were delivered to a packed auditorium.

-J. Tuomas Harviainen – “Read more academic work and write more games based on it!”

-Andras Perna (sp?) – “Build your own damn national larp organizations!”

-Alex from Germany – “Nudity improves larps!”

-Jason Morningstar – “Play more damn games!”

-Johanna McDonald – “Players should be allowed to say ‘cut’ in an intense scene!”

-Osher El-Netanany – “Grow the fucking up, Knutepunkt!” (Note that Osher’s contribution lasted something like 5x longer than anyone else’s, and contained PowerPoints full of photos of poo)

-Annika Waern – “Larps have to question social norms, not reinforce them!”

-Jørn Slemdal –“5 best things about larp: drinking, fighting, burning, shouting, frightening people… and fucking, which falls under drinking!”

-Frederik Berg Østergaard – “Safe words won’t prevent damage that’s already been done!”

-Emma Wieslander – “Cultivate more trust so men can play women and homosexuals, etc.”

-Lizzie Stark – “Write a damn rule book already!”

• Playground Party – A celebration of the re-release of Playground magazine. Champagne and conversation with Karolina, a Mexican computer scientist who attended the Tampere seminar, about activism in gaming.

• Also…

… a long chat with Pixie, an organizer of Fastaval, about the future of the convention and potential scenarios to write for next year

… a long chat with Trine Lindahl and a Finnish larper whose name I’ve forgotten about the Larp Factory in Oslo and its larp-a-month design.

I was in bed by 3:30, up by 8:45.

Hours of Sleep: 5.25

Day 2

• Playing with Intent – Emily Care Boss and Matthijs Holter’s game draft provides a framework for using different freeform techniques to tell a collective story. Nine players larped a Nordic tragedy about a family that resorts to plundering the angsty family treasures to get an illegally donated heart for their dying daughter. Well, it doesn’t work out, so the daughter commits suicide in the family lake. An awe-inspiring and emotional run of the game with even skeptical players won over in the end.

• A Matter of Time – A silly parlor larp by Martina Ryssel about a time traveler convocation going horribly wrong. Martina’s scenario has so much German history that it may be worthy of a German Studies paper on my part….

• Gender for Dummies – See the intro of this section

• Kapo Documentary – Documentation of a prison-camp larp made in Denmark last year. Obviously the larp was more emotionally powerful than the documentation, which lacked focus beyond a few in-game shots and post-game interviews.

• Also…

… chat with Jaakko and Jiituomas about the quality of game scholarship at the Tampere seminar.

… chat with Charles from Fastaval who ran Metropolis twice on my behalf. He and I talked about the cultural translation problems of the game, especially the transposition of Nordic larp techniques into rules that then the Danes have to follow…

… several rounds of vodka with the Russians (without any side effects)

… chat with the Germans, especially Myriel, Carl David, Alex and Katherina about relationships and about German films.

In bed at 4:00, up at 8:45 — this night is what gave me a cold, btw.

Hours of Sleep: 4.75

Note: At this point, I should mention the few-holds-barred grabbing/touching/kissing among participants of Solmukohta, as the level of “comfort” here with each other surpasses both European as well as all gamer events I’ve ever been to. During the day, lots of hugging and grabbing. After midnight, rampant make-out sessions and people headed for dark corners. My objective as a married man sans spouse was always to not get caught in the crossfire…

Day 3:

• Beyond the GM – Emily Care Boss (presenting) and Jason Morningstar (present) gave an overview of GM-less tabletop systems, and then ran demos of Polaris, Microscope, and Fiasco, with which I helped. The article in the Solmukohta book is good enough that you should just read it.

• Trance Mask Workshop – Hoo boy. An exhausting workshop with Alex Fradera demonstrating the mask technique developed by the improv master Johnstone. Basically, you clear your mind of expectations, put on a mask with staring, creepy eyes and only the lower mouth showing, look in a mirror and then make a disturbing-yet-appropriate noise that then turns into the Urstoff of your character. I liked it so much that I did a demo for others later that evening and watched videos of other trance mask practitioners. My favorite was a slobbering rage mask that one of the workshop presenters (Juhanni) donned which made him essentially wreck the room.

• Trash – Anders Karls ran us through a 1-hour introspective larp in which we all played pieces of trash. The room was covered in trash bags, we had to put them on ourselves and then pretend we were things like banana peels and scratched CDs. My character was a piece of pocket fuzz, and I wound up sticking to the lonely glove. Not too serious, but not too silly either.

• Design Party – Everyone put on their fanciest get-up, and socialized like mad fiends. I talked with…

…Aaron about H.P. Lovecraft films.

…Raffaele about the Italian RPG publishing industry

…Erik Nesby and Alex Fradera about the state of the world

…Markus, Eibo and Emily about traditions at Solmukohta

…Bjarke Pedersen about Brody Condon and Level 5

…Eirik Fatland about his mid-level larp theory he’s developing

…and many more.

… plus dancing to much Daft Punk. Too much Daft Punk.

In bed: 3:45, up at 8:45

Hours of Sleep: 5

Day 4:

• Playing with Intent Redux: This time with Alex, Emily and Matthijs. We played out a scenario of sailors making bad deals with flying fish. Very productive discussions about what to do with the game poured out of us all. Heck, they could have a published game on their hands before they know it.
• … lunchtime chat with Annika Waern and John H. Kim, one on the use of fiction in video gameplay and the other about procedural deathspirals in combat.

And then most of us, sick and limping, said our inadequate goodbyes after such an amazing weekend and got on the buses to the airport or Helsinki respectively. I wound up going to Helsinki and lo! was suddenly staying at Markus’ place one more night with two charming Slovakians: Dominika Kovacova (who’s studying Scandinavian languages in Brno) and her mother Sava. Dominika took me on a substantial tour of downtown Helsinki before we then met up with the rest of the larpers in Cantina West for our final goodbyes. We then got back to the apartment so I could get some work done and call Kat.

Hours of Sleep: 9

Return Trip

Markus and his fiancée Sanna, my wonderful hosts, met me the next day at a hippie establishment called Zucchini and then had coffee with me before I took a train to Tampere and a plane to Stockholm. I spent the night in a comfy airport chair in Stockholm this time, deciding against a hotel room on account of the price ($180) for one night. Apparently, the rest of the airport agreed with this. When I woke at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom, most of the chairs in the SkyCity had travelers’ bodies lying on them. I see no more fitting a portrait of today’s class divide than a half-empty hotel and hordes of tired travelers sleeping just outside its entrance.

Hours of Sleep: 4 (with many interruptions)

Before I reach my final remarks, the point about the sleep must be reiterated. Over the course of 9 days, I got about 51 hours of sleep, or about 5.66 hours per night. Though I survived the sleep deprivation quite well, the depressed immune systems were quite visible throughout the ranks of the Solmukohta attendees. Some of the Americans were taken out for days at a time. But the compelling intensity of every talk, every conversation, every game made many of us thirsty for more, regardless of our bodies’ feeble demands. It was a period of time no one wanted to see end, but which ended all the same, with a promise of Knutepunkt in Norway in 2013…

Final Remarks

My week in Finland proved, using Nietzsche’s formulations from The Birth of Tragedy, to be both Appolonian and Dionysian in character, an absolute indulgence that may have performed important work on both my academic and artistic souls. “Appolonian” in this context refers to the possession of robust, healthy, “rational” qualities, while “Dionysian” refers to the debauchery and art we engage in so as to provide fertilizing manure for the very introspection required to interrogate the society in which we live. Creative labor demands a cycle of feverish anxiety and even physical sickness in order for its practitioner to emerge once again into the ranks of the so-called “happy and healthy.” To forget this cycle is to slowly dismantle the apparatus of human creation. The twin conferences almost playfully churned through these creative cycles, spinning from high intellectual game theory debate to globalization ennui, from carefully conceived interdisciplinary lectures to vodka rounds with Russian role-players, from delicate cultural negotiations to in-game raw emotional manipulations. From theory to gameplay to drinking to camaraderie and back again, over and over again.

While in the alienating Stockholm Arlanda airport, I found in Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Radicant a deep longing for artistic nomadism and cultural translation to be the new guides for an emergent aesthetic of exodus. Specifically, he observes the torn shreds of universalist, progressive grand theories (i.e. modernism, postmodernism, Marxism, democracy) that given way to the construction of “archipelagos” (Bourriaud 185). These voluntary island groups – social networks, if you will – form the basis on which an altermodernity can develop. They create their own spheres of knowledge, customs and practices both in dialog with and against the grain of the sociocultural practices encouraged by globalizing megacorporations, the faceless tyrants of our era. As these corporations and their political lackeys lock away and proceed to otherwise waste the natural resources of the future, archipelagos of the coming generation such as Solmukohta may indeed prove at least the emotional and institutional proof that another world is possible, that resources could be allocated differently, that we could dream differently too. For there could be a place among the closely knit larp networks where new dreams can take shape.

Thank you to all you people who made my trip possible. There are too many.

MLA

January 3, 2012

Soon I will be boarding a plane for Seattle, and the 2012 meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Unlike Ulrike Ottinger’s film Ticket of No Return / Bildnis einer Trinkerin (pictured above), however, I will eventually return.

Those of you who know the academic job search will also know more or less what my MLA experience will be like: a professional conference where the interviews for tenure-track and (increasingly) non-tenure-track jobs take place.  Where the weight of individuals and institutions in the humanities is hefted, tested, critiqued and measured. As opposed to my regular haunts, the German Studies Association conference, Film and History, or the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, the MLA is supposed to be a fairly stiff-necked affair.  Faculty have confided in me about it being a kind of “meat market” or a “desperate” place.  One need only look at the various paltry statistics about employment in the academic humanities in this country since the 1970s to know this (and I have deliberately refrained from linking to said statistics, dear reader, to keep your optimism intact).

That being said, the only way out of the abyss is straight through it. That has been my dissertation solution and, as I seek new scholarly venues beyond my dissertation, a way out of the familiar.

2012 is a time for change, whether it stems from the movements of the masses or the movements within ourselves.

 

2012: Cryptic

January 2, 2012

Ever stared a year in the face?

Ever tried to manage your expectations about a year?

Ever attempted to come up with a coherent plan for a year, only to watch it crumble inexorably?

Though these are all yes/no questions, a year should not pose answers – only more questions.

Like this hazy Google Images search, if you will:

 

 

 

As with every year, I begin to blog again as my thoughts coalesce once more.

Short reviews of all that I consume shall soon commence again.