• Pearls – How to explore and question norms through cultural play

    by  • August 26, 2013 • Design & Art, Essays • 1 Comment

    Gaming can be a way to question and explore different sorts of norms in playful ways. Sometimes this happens deliberately and sometimes almost by accident. Sometimes very small details in the fiction can have great affects on the game. One larp campaign I play in called ”Det Enda Landet” (The One Land) had this wonderful little detail that turned a lot of norms about sex upside down.

    The clan of seafarers had a small custom: every time they had sex with a new partner, they gave each other a pearl. The pearls were worn openly, as necklaces, bracelets or as hair decorations. This was a tiny cultural detail, but one that made a huge difference. That one little cultural quirk made the character’s whole sexual history something public, rather than private, and was something people often took great pride in. As well as making sexuality an open discussion, debate and the cause of much joking, it also made it public and shame free.

    This was during a larp campaign. So all players playing Seafarers had to decide and consider their character’s sexual history: How many pearls would your character wear during the game? Five? Twenty? None? Hundreds?

    During the game we saw all sort of variants: Life-long lovers that only wore one single, beautiful pearl each. Young sailors that were embarrassed and nervous about having too few pearls, and were desperately trying to get more. Old captains that wore row upon rows of hundreds of pearls, after having done eeeeeeevrything at one time or another.

    This was further helped along because the seafarers were written as a gender-neutral culture. Neither the social expectations they faced nor their role in society was dictated by gender. Gender was a non-issue. This removed a lot of the other norms we have about sex as well: that men should be sexually aggressive, that women should be sexually submissive, or that having a lot of sexual partners is a merit in a man and a flaw in a women. All this becomes irrelevant in a culture that don’t care about gender.

    This culture was so much fun to watch in play. The seafarers pickup lines very straightforward at times. Often the were along the line of: “Hey. I got a nice pearl here. Do you want it?”

    Those small pearls made sexuality very present in the game, even if it was a mainstream fantasy game where sex acts between characters weren’t played out in any way. Sex was implied and always happened off screen or between larps. However, sexuality and sex as a concept was always present in interactions with the seafarers in a very open way. They flirted, talked and joked about it.

    The conversation around sex was funny and creative as well. Discussions arose around why some pearls were shiny, why other pearls were huge or small, why some pearls were cheap and some pearls golden. Would screwing the dark lord in the spiky armor give you a spiky pearl, or not? And always:  various attempt to get more pearls.

    To play in a fictive culture of total sexual openness, with no slut shaming and where people were openly proud about having a lots of sex or all different forms of of sex was fun, liberating and made us as players question and examine the sexual norms we have in our own cultures today.

    The in-game culture of sexual openness also helped a lot in the larp club’s effort to be more LGBT inclusive. If you were relaxed about sexuality and sexual diversity in-game, it made it easier to be so off-game.

    One small detail like a pearl had a huge, and awesome affect on gameplay and sexual norms, without pushing anyone’s boundaries, or at least not beyond having to listen to some really cheesy pickup lines.

    Larps and role-playing games are social spaces where you can question and explore norms. Even a small detail like a pearl can give you a lot of opportunities to do so.



    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.

    One Response to Pearls – How to explore and question norms through cultural play

    1. avatar
      August 26, 2013 at 23:11

      Very clever, nice way to structure a society’s attitude toward sex. Glad it worked so well in game.

      Thumb up Thumb down +1
    Comments are closed.