This is a game report from the LARP “Just A Little Lovin’ 2012”. The game was set in the 80s, and is about how AIDS hit the gay community in New York during that time period. It is a relationship drama about three themes: desire, friendship, and the fear of death.
The game was designed for about 60 players. It was played in English and it attracted players from 9 countries 1. The game took place in Sweden, and was written by Norwegian writers and set up in Sweden by Swedish organizers. 2 It the second run of Just a Little Lovin’, it was played for the first time last year in Norway.
The game managed to not only attract experienced LARPers, but also HIV activists, HIV-positive people, LGBT activists, and cultural workers from all over the world. As well as two embedded journalists. Many of them had no, or very little, contact with LARPs before the game. The diverse backgrounds of the players created a creative mix of participants. Both the experienced players and the first time LARPers were fantastic.
The story starts in 1982, when people had just heard of the first cases of some mysterious illness killing gay men. The game takes place at a small conference place in upstate New York, which the influential Mr. T has rented to host his big 4th of July party. (In reality it was a small conference place outside Stockholm.)
The characters in the game all belonged to one of two social circles Mr. T invited. Either the characters came from the vibrant gay community or from a group of cancer survivors that had sworn to live life to the fullest. The gay community that is soon going to face death and disease for the first time, and the cancer survivors who have already been through it once, created an interesting dynamic between how the two groups deal with the arrival of AIDS.
The event was five days long, with one day in the beginning for workshops and preparations, three days of the actual game play, and one day of debriefing, after-partying and cleaning up.
The game itself was split into three acts spanning three years of game time. Every act was Mr T’s 4th of July party that year. The acts started in the afternoon with arriving to the party, partying in the evening and for the most of the night, and then ending with the hung over breakfast the next day. After brakefast there was the Lottery of Death, and a funeral scene which is discussed later in the article.
Each act and year was dominated by one of the game’s main themes of desire, fear of death and friendship as the AIDS epidemic progressed.
1982 – Desire
During the first act, AIDS was virtually unknown. Just a rumor of someone who died in some weird “gay cancer” that no one really took seriously. The party this year was just about partying, hooking up, having fun, and pursing one’s desires.
1983 – The fear of death
During the second act, AIDS had become known and feared. Some characters had died, others had fallen ill, but no one knew how the disease was spread. Did you get it from shaking hands with a gay person? Going to the same toilet? Having sex? Paranoia and fear were present as an undercurrent throughout the party.
1984 – Friendship
During the third act, the HIV virus had been discovered, people knew how the virus was transmitted, and the first tests to see if you where carrying the virus had become available. 3 Yet, there was no treatment or cure available at this point. Many characters had already died, many knew or suspected they were affected by the virus. The play this act was about how important friendships become in a time of need.
Meta-scenes are scene played “outside” the normal flow of the game. They can be added to play to give more depth and feeling to the story. They don’t have to be “real”. Some meta-scenes are symbolic scenes, like monologues, playing out internal struggled or dreams. Other scenes are more real, like flashbacks and memories of earlier events. Some meta-scene are things that hasn’t happened yet, scenes of what might come to be. A meta-scene can be whatever you want it to be.
Lottery of Death
After breakfast each morning, there were two big meta-scenes for all the players. They symbolized what happened during the year between the parties. The first scene was The Lottery of Death. All the players gathered and Lottery-attendants-of-death arrived. Each character then wrote their name on one or more lottery tickets, up to the maximum of five, depending on how much at risk their characters were. Then the lottery started, the ones that had their name called out left the room, to die or to be infected. Leaving the rest of the players behind. The mechanic really created a feeling of how horrible and unfair death is. Each time there was a lot of crying.
After the lottery, we walked up to the conference place’s small chapel, where the characters that were to die lay in open coffins for a short, but intense, funeral scene. The funeral played represented all the funerals our characters would have to go to that year. I remember something that was said during the workshops. Some of the people that been there in the 80s had been to so many funerals during those years that they didn’t even remember who’s funeral they where going to after a while. They all just flowed together. Most of them were the deaths of young people, the same ages as we participants. To be at the funerals really drove home the feeling of loss. After the funeral, the act ended.
Black box scenes
During each act you could play meta-scenes in the games black box area. It was an area set aside so that anyone that wanted could play meta-scenes away the rest of the party. You invited whoever you wanted into the meta-scene by handing them a black feather, and then if they accepted, you headed over to the black box area. There you agreed what sort of scene you wanted to play and played it out.
Between each act we had a few hours of out of character work. Debriefings, workshops, and preparations before the next act and next year’s party started in the afternoon. Death and disease are serious themes, but the debriefings and workshops really helped to keep the game experience positive.
During the debriefings we talked about what felt hard but also what felt great. There was a lot positive play in each act as well about the joys of life and the love of friends, family and lovers. It was in contrast to that, that the lottery and funeral became tragic.
During the games we had safewords we could use, both for practical safety and to feel emotionally safe. “Brake” could be used to tone down any scene someone felt uncomfortable with. “Cut” could be used to pause the scene and for everyone to immediately go out of character if someone needed it.
Naturally gay men made up a large portion of the characters, and this meant that many of the female players were given male characters. Everyone knew about this when they signed up, and you could indicate what sort of character you wanted to play. In game it worked really well, since everyone knew that the characters were male, even if the players were female, and could play accordingly.
The pre-written characters also included a number of drag queens. So many of the male players were expected to cross-play in character. We even had a female player who was given a male character who was a drag queen, which is sort of double cross-play.
I also really want to mention that Just a Little Lovin’ was trans-friendly both in writing and in practice. There were trans-characters among the pre-written characters. When signing up for the game, the gender question was a text box where you could write whatever you found fitting. The example answers given were: “Male, female, transgender etc “ showing that it wasn’t expected that everyone signing up would be cis-gendered or identify as male or female.
In addition, there were transgender players that felt comfortable being open about it during the event. I talked with one of the transgender players after the game, and he said that the reaction to him being open as transperson out of character was only met with positive reactions during the event. The player also felt that trans interests were addressed in the game in a good way.
An open atmosphere
It was not only trans persons that felt comfortable being open about gender and sexuality related stuff. The event atmosphere was very open, probably because anyone signing up for a LARP about the gay culture quite likely is sexually open minded. The game was about desire and different sexual subcultures were a part of the character concepts (swingers, non-monogamous co-housing, leather, S/M, etc). During the event we felt a need to talk about our own sexual orientation when we talked about how we experienced the game, and as the game progress we became more and more open about our self. The players opened up about all sorts of stuff and the environment was very accepting. Lot of the players were queer in some way, others were straight, monogamous and vanilla. It was okay to be open about it in either case.
As one of the LARPs themes was desire, to explore this it was necessary to be able to play sex and physical intimacy in some way, and to do it in “safe” and consensual way. The LARP had some dramatic techniques to do that, that needed to still be sort of sexy, but not too sexual.
Kissing was played by holding your heads close, and touching the sides other players face. The way you did it, clumsily, shyly, drunkenly or passionately was played out by how you touched the other players face. It was also okay during the game to really kiss if both players had communicated out of character that they were comfortable doing that.
As a precaution and as way to keep things in character, all real sex was banned during the game. So that everyone could feel safe and know they wouldn’t end up in a real sexual situation they didn’t want to be in.
Sexual scenes started with offering another player a pink feather. If they took the feather then they said yes to playing a sex scene. If they didn’t take it, the other player knew that they didn’t want to play a sex scene and didn’t push the scene in that direction. In character, that pink feather didn’t exist, it was just a silent way to check whether the player out of character wanted to play a sex scene or not.
If you did agree, you took the feather and you walked off a bit from the other players, talked out of character about what sort scene you wanted to do, agreed on how you were comfortable playing it and then you played the sex scene.
When you played sex you could touch the other player, as long as you kept your clothes on, and as long as you didn’t touch genital areas and the breasts. But Just a Little Lovin’ was about a sexually transmitted disease, spread by exchanging fluids and penetration. There was a need to represent that you were having penetrating sex, as opposed to just petting, and a difference between safe sex and unprotected sex.
Penetrative sex and any other type of sex that might transmit the virus was played out by touching and stroking and playing with a phallic prop. Phallic prop. (It’s okay to laugh or stare at the screen and think that Nordic Larpers are insane right now.)
To play safe-sex you used a condom on the phallus. This meant in the game it got pretty realistic, and it was easy to end up in situation where you were tempted to or forgot to use a condom, just like in real life. Because to use a condom you need to have one available, you must remember to put it on even on the heat of the moment, and you had to put it on even if it was embarrassing and kind of tricky to get on at times.
The phallus symbolized all genital sex, independent of the characters gender. Being in charge of the phallus simply represented being the active partner. The same rules applies to the phallus as all other kinds of touching. Touch it and interact with it, but keep you clothes on and stay away from everyone genital areas and breasts.
After each sex scene, the characters stepped apart, and held a monologue about what the character was thinking and feeling after the sex. After the monologues were done, you could also chose to have a talk out of character to debrief and discuss the scene.
How did it work
When we first tried the methods for playing sex and kissing during the workshops it felt both hilarious, silly, and terrifying at the same time. But during the game it worked really well. There was a lot of sexual tension between the characters, yet you could always say no to playing a sexual scene or you could chose to always play it in a way you were comfortable with. The methods felt safe and useful. And really fun to use as well.
The end of the game
At the end, after the last funeral, there was debriefing and more debriefing. Because we needed it. AIDS and the fear of death are heavy topics, and we needed to talk about it as ourselves, and talk about the experience to get some distance from it. Everyone even had a debrief buddy we were supposed to give a call to two weeks after the game.
After the debriefings, the HIV activist and the HIV-positive players held lectures on the state of AIDS and HIV in the world today, and one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers came by to interview the players and producers to make a story about the game.
Then we had a after party. For safety reasons, no alcohol was allowed during the game, all beer and drinks had to be alcohol free. But at the after party you were allowed to open a real beer or a real bottle of wine and relax. After all the tension in the game it felt really good to laugh, dance, talk and party, to let go of the character and become yourself again.
For me, this game was really powerful. I spent a few days as the butch dyke and cancer survivor Sam. The play I had about friendship, desire and the fear of death really moved me. And made me think. I laughed, I loved, and I cried during the game. I loved it.
I understand that Just a Little Lovin’ isn’t a game for everyone. Not everyone likes movies that make them cry, or relationship dramas, or movies about sexuality and desire. Same thing with games, and it is okay. No one will force you to watch movies that you don’t like, and no one forces you to play games you don’t like either.
If you found the review interesting, check out Just a Little Lovin’s homepage for more information about the scenario. I heard that the writers Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo are working on a manuscript for the game and will make it available so that the game could be run again in even more places. I really hope someone will do that. Because I had an amazing game and the scenario really deserves to be run again. The characters and relationships were well written and interesting, the meta techniques worked well, and the story developed beautifully, creating a very intense experience.
- Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, UK, France, USA LajvVerkstaden association. ↩
- This is not historically correct, not all the medical advances listed had happened in 1984. But to fit the format of the game, some of the medical advances that would appear later in the decade had been moved forward to be available in 1984. ↩