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Interview: Mike Pohjola

Do you remember our recent interview with Kaza Marie and Avegost? That larp was changed when they adopted the Turku Manifesto, one of the provocative, but highly influential texts written by Mike Pohjola, written as a response to Dogma 99, another manifesto of a different style. Mike is a Finnish larper, poet, playwright, screenwriter, author, politician, activist, role-playing game designer, entrepreneur, and - as he describes himself in a comic - a godless, pacifist European liberal.

And Avegost is not the only one. Plenty of larps - in Nordic larp scene and worldwide - became influenced by Mike's work, directly or indirectly. In this interview, I have asked Mike about few of the things he's doing, about Finnish larp scene, and some of his views. Read on...

1. Thank you for your time! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a Finnish novelist, playwright and game designer. I’ve played tabletop RPGs for over twenty years, and larped for over fifteen. I’ve designed dozens of larps, published three tabletops, written two novels, made some theatre plays and short films. Many people would best know me as the author of the Turku Manifesto.

I’m also the founder of a Swedish media company that focuses on interactive crossmedia stories. Through them I’ve won some international awards and collaborated with tv gurus like Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Avengers) and Tim Kring (Heroes, Touch).

2. How and when did you start larping? What did Finnish larp scene look like back then?

I started larping in 1995, it being a natural result of my interest in roleplaying, theatre and writing. Most of the Finnish larps were still semi-medieval fantasy games with boffer swords. Somehow very soon after I started, people started experimenting with cyberpunk, horror, historical, and other genres. And Vampire the Masquerade became quite popular in some places, though I never really got into it. Experiments with content were soon followed by experiments with form.

The larp scene was a melting pot of different creative people from different backgrounds, and the concept of art larps arose quite quickly. I think I attended my first so called “Polish art larps” in 1996, and help write them and designed my own the year after that. Curiously, Poland has no such tradition that I’m aware of. The name probably came from Polish arthouse cinema.

3. When did you run your first larp? What was it about?

I ran my first larp in January 1996, half a year after I’d started larping. It was a small fantasy larp set in a frozen forest with everyone carrying a boffer sword. To make it something new and exciting, we decided to make it into a Stone Age fantasy larp instead of a medieval one. In reality, it was more or less the same as any other low-fantasy larp out there. One might wonder how they could have swords in the Stone Age, but we figured there’s a tribe of mountain-dwelling dwarves somewhere that provide the characters with weapons. The idea of having a fantasy larp without swords still seemed far off.

4. What would you say would be the key difference between Nordic larp, and fantasy larp in forms most commonly played around the world?

I guess it’s seeing larp as a form of expression that can be used in ways as varied as any art.
In his preface to the latest Knutepunkt journal States of Play, Juhana Pettersson comments that the Nordic Larp tradition and the larps played in different Nordic countries are not the same. One can run a game in the Nordic Larp tradition in Italy or Russia, and one can run a game in Finland that’s not particularly a part of that tradition. Right now it actually seems that many of the most interesting experiments in Nordic Larp take place outside of the Nordic countries, which means that the tradition is alive and well and evolving.
So you still have traditional fantasy larps in Finland, as well, but many people who start with those, eventually try other forms of larp, as well.

5. In 2000. you wrote The Manifesto of the Turku School, and the related Larper's Vow of Chastity. Do you feel these works are still relevant in current larp environments, in Finland and worldwide?

In Finland it was controversial at first, but relatively soon most of the ideas became very mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that they’re almost conservative now. Today, most Finnish larps, including typical fantasy larps, are very focused on character immersion, have little to no rule mechanics, have pre-written individual characters for all the participants, and even though there might be armed characters, the focus is hardly ever on fighting. This is certainly not the sole effect of the Turku Manifesto, but rather the result of a local tradition that was well in place before it. But when I started larping, one key trait of a character description still was how many Hit Points they have, not necessarily their personality, background or world-view.

6. If you were writing the Turku Manifesto now, would you do it otherwise?

I’ve written accompanying texts over the years, so I don’t really feel a need to revise the old Manifesto. Obviously, my thinking has grown and even changed in some ways over the past thirteen years, but I still stand firmly behind many of the key concepts.
I guess it would be good to define the terms a bit closer. I chose to use the word “eläytyminen” because “immersion” was already so convoluted with each country and group and tradition having their own definition for it. Are you immersing in a character, in a world, in a story, in the moment? Does immersion mean having completely authentic props and clothes, or actually being able to imagine all that in an abstract environment? Even though eläytyminen would refer to character immersion, I think people have taken it to mean a fairly large selection of concepts over the years.

7. For you, what is immersion?

In my article Autonomous Identities (2004) I define it like this: “Immersion is the player assuming the identity of the character by pretending to believe her identity only consists of the diegetic roles.”
It’s a semi-scientific way of describing that you in a way, become somebody else.
You are not influenced by your own emotions or ideologies or history, but by those of your character. The more you do this, and the more your environment and the other players help you with it, the deeper into character you can get.
People have different ways of achieving and enhancing character immersion. For some, it’s important for the game location to look and feel perfect. I’m not one of those people, but I can respect that need. For me, it usually doesn’t disturb my immersion if a car that’s parked near the edge of the historical game location. But if I have to play an emotional scene where I constantly have to look at the car, it will become more and more difficult to ignore it.
One thing that I think will usually break character immersion is really strong and surprising genre elements that are done just for the kicks of doing genre. They may lead into story immersion or fooling around with a fun genre, but they typically take you away from the character. For example, if you’re playing in a historical game, and suddenly come across references to the Cthulhu Mythos, your reaction will probably not be in-character (“Hmm, what are these strange names?”) but out-of-character (“Cool! It’s a horror game!”). There are ways of doing this well, and it’s quite possible to immerse in your character in any genre, but stuff that says more to the player than to the character is always a danger to character immersion. (It’s somewhat similar to another player making an out-of-game pop culture reference in the game.)

8. What does the Finnish larp scene look now? Approximately, how many larpers are in Finland now? Which game styles are most popular in Finland?

By a rough estimate we have thousands of larpers, some active, others dormant.
There are many fantasy larps that are focused on character interaction. Typically they’re one-shots or short campaigns. There are few if any on-going campaigns without predefined ends. These kinds of larps might be in the majority. The latest trend in fantasy larps seems to be Russian mythology and history with boyars, rusalka, Baba Yaga, bogatyr, and the like. I played a fantasy Rasputin in one such game.
A subgroup of these fantasy larps are Harry Potter themed larps that have been incredibly popular during the hay day of the books and the movies. There were dozens of Harry Potter larps a year. Now the trend seems to be subsiding a bit, but it’s definitely still alive.
Another big trend is historical larps where extra care is taken to recreating an actual historical milieu. In these games props and clothes should also be very specific.
We also have quite a lot of city games that blend modern concerns with occult themes like vampires and witches have been quite popular for the past ten years or so. In these games characters can interact with ordinary citizens, hang around in bars and restaurants, and utilize the actual city as much as possible. Some locations are propped to be characters’ homes, business and such.
On top of that, we have horror, cyberpunk, sci-fi, Moomin, and whatever genre you can think of.
Then there is what I’d call the Nordic larps, which are typically more artistically motivated, and might share elements with e.g. experimental theatre. These are sometimes staged for art festivals and museums, sometimes just like all the other larps.

9. Which are the biggest larps in Finland? How long do they usually last?

A typical Finnish larp lasts from eight to thirty hours, with city games usually lasting a bit longer. Typical games have 30-80 players. We have none of those five-day five-thousand player battle larps that Germany and the UK are known for.

10. What about the most influential ones?

If I understand the question correctly, you’re asking about influential big on-going larp campaigns that have been running for years and years, and recruit new players to the hobby, with players playing the same character all the time. There are none.
Practically all games are either one-shots of limited campaigns. The Finnish tradition of having pre-written characters for each player and writing meticulous updates back and forth between games in a campaign, pretty much makes big larp campaigns impossible.
Influential Finnish one-shot larps include the big cyberpunk larp Wanderer and its few sequels, the famous art larp Ground Zero set in an Oklahoma bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the “flour larp” Luminescence and the fantasy larp Dragonbane that attracted players from around the world. (Although the latter was actually played in Sweden.)
The country is wide and sparsely populated, so there’s not just one larp scene where everybody knows everybody else. There’s probably lots of important games in the north and the east, for example, that I’ve never even heard about.


11. Where do you think Finnish larp - and Nordic larp in general - is going next?

Let’s not count Finnish larp as a subgroup of Nordic larp. Rather, Nordic larp is an independent tradition that’s in interaction with Finnish larp.
Finnish larp keeps being influenced by Nordic larp, movies, books, and so forth. For the past few years there’s been more and more talk about starting Danish style children’s larps and using larp in education. Those might become big trends.
I’m also hoping to have some influence on the future generations of roleplayers with Myrskyn sankarit (“The Heroes of Storm”), a beginner-friendly fantasy RPG that I’m publishing next summer. It will be sold in book stores and department stores, so I hope it’ll reach a number of new people.

12. In August 2011. you ran a larp called Täällä Kirjokannen alla (Here Under the Bright Dome of Heaven) - a "folk fantasy" larp. Can you tell us something about it, and something about folk fantasy?

Täällä Kirjokannen alla was my attempt at using all the methods and tricks I’ve learded with art larps, and books and films and game theory, and whatnot, and making a kick-ass fantasy larp where people with swords in hand have adventures in the forest. The aim was to recreate the spirit and the sense of wonder of those first larps we played in, but doing it really well.
The first time you encounter an elf in a larp, it feels wondrous and exotic. But when you encounter your tenth elf, it doesn’t really feel like anything anymore. So I also needed to create a unique fantasy world where people might find some things they recognize, but that would also be completely new and innovative in term of fantay larp.
In this case, I chose to explore Finnishness. The different groups and races were based on concepts and stereotypes in Finnish history, pop culture, mythology, and just common Finnish character traits. For example, one archetype of a Finn is a drunken farmer who never speaks a word, and is sort of proud of having the worst fields and not being one of those fancy lords who’re always on his case, and then they end up killing themselves. So that taken to extremes became one group. Another one was these magical communists who believed in equality and singing hearty songs, and who were very prosperous because the remnants of the magic mill Sampo from Finnish folklore had washed up on their shore.
So folk fantasy means replacing Tolkien’s English or Anglo-Saxon stereotypes and myths with those of your own heritage. And obviously, you could use this technique to make a fantasy world based on hiphop or homosexuality or environmentalism, or whatever you want.

13. What, would you say, made it unique and different from typical fantasy larps?

Link to States of Play where there's an article about this.

14. Which were, for you, most influential larps you took part in and why?

They would probably be what later came to be called Nordic art larps.
Ground Zero (1998) was a 24 hours full immersion experience of being in a bomb shelter when the nukes go off. I even dreamed in-character.
The Swedish Hamlet (2003) was a great experiment in form. The game lasted for three days, and was divided into three acts, corresponding to the three final acts of Shakespeare’s five-act play. There would be four-hour breaks between acts so people could actually go out into town to eat, change their clothes, and so on. Each act had a different theme (debauchery, intrigue, despair, I think), and even different rules mechanics. In the first act, any physical conflict leads to comic bumbling and minor bruises. In the second act, it’s possible to assassinate somebody, but it requires willful effort. In the last one, even the slightes mistake leads to tragic deaths happening all around.
Third really influential one would be Europa (2001) in Norway. We played the inmates of a refugee camp for five days. No drama, no nothing. Except for the beginning, where through theatrical exercices we quickly fast-forwarded being first harrassed in our own country, then smuggled out, then reaching fictional Orsinia in Eastern Europe, then being interrogated and checked, and then taken on a bus to the refugee camp. That’s where the actual game slowly started. The rest was just the day-to-day routine of being in a refugee camp. Breakfast, language lessons, lunch, cleaning duty, dinner, exercise, sleep. Breakfast, interrogation, lunch, singing, dinner, random room checks, sleep. And of course the refugees from the different countries didn’t get along too well, but everyone rather tried to subdue the drama than increase it.
There’s a dozen other games I could mention, but I hope this gives an idea on what I like to play.

15. Could you write a few sentences about other larps you've written (which you particularly like)?

Then there’s some games of my own that I’m quite proud of such as inside:outside and Luminescence. I talk more about them in my article School of Flour, but here’s some snippets.

With inside:outside (2001-2003) Eirik Fatland and I wanted to make a larp like nothing that existed before, something like Kafka’s The Process, or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was about an abstract prison where a bunch of normal people are forced to face dilemmas. Are you willing to choose one of your cellmates to die, as the price for your freedom?
The dialogue between the Norwegian Fatland and myself forced us to think outside of our separate boxes, each idea needing to be justified independently of tradition. It only lasted for four to eight hours, but we run it about ten times in conventions and art galleries in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

With Juhana Pettersson I designed the “flour larp” Luminescence (2004), which was produced by Mikko Pervilä.
It was a bunch of people in their underwear in a room full of flour. Absurd monologues are playing in the background. The theme was physicality. Despite the surrealistic setting, the content was fairly realistic.
The characters were terminally ill cancer patients entering experimental group therapy. In the end the flour that was everywhere became lots of strange metaphors for cancer.
Juhana Pettersson describes the players’ experiences with flour: ”[The players] really went to town with the flour, having flourfights, burrowing into it, pouring it onto each other, stuffing it into their mouths and underwear. The players reported that the flour was very versatile as a medium for nonverbal communication and as a tool for all kinds of symbolism. The people stuffing it into their underpants had prostrate cancer. Perhaps the most poetic thing we heard was from a guy who had been lying down in the flour for a long time. When he got up, the shape of his body was still visible in the flour. He touched it and could feel the body heat dissipating the same time as his touch destroyed the fragile image itself.”

I’d also recommend the excellent coffee table book Nordic Larp where all of these games are dealt with in further detail.


16. How do you promote larps in Finland?

We have a larp calendar, but nowadays it’s mostly through social media: Facebook, and forums.

17. How is larp accepted by non-larpers in Finland?

Extremely well. Our biggest daily newspaper frequently has cultural articles on important or interesting larps, tv shows sometimes refer to larping, there was a teenage drama series about larpers, some youth novels revolve around larping, and so on. No problem whatsoever.
In the 90s there were a few crazy people claiming larp to be a façade for recruiting satan worshippers and such, but I’ve not heard those claims in fifteen years. And actually, I make fun of them in my autobiographical novel Son of Man (2011).

18. Which larps are you most looking forward to?

The Swedish Battlestar Galactica seems really interesting. It’s designed by many of the people behind Hamlet, who I was also involved with in creating the award-winning transmedia dramas. It’s called The Monitor Celestra, and they’re going to have an English-language run of it, as well.

19. In your opinion, what would be the most important thing that would make a good larp?

I can’t think of any one thing. It’s a combination of good ideas, good game design, good writing, good casting, good players, good location, good props, good logistics, good food and good luck. Any one or two of those things can be missing, and it can still be a good larp. But sometimes missing just one can turn a great larp into a bad one.

20. Do you participate in non-Nordic larps? With other larp scenes developing, have you taken any inspiration from non-Nordic larps?

I’ve played in a few games in the US and Germany, and ran larps in conventions in Italy and Poland, but right now for me, the clearest form of cultural influence comes through articles. People from, say, the Czech Republic travel to Knutepunkt, read our journals, decide to try it out for themselves, and then the combination of Nordic Larp and their local tradition creates something completely new and brilliant. Then if they write about that in these same journals, we can learn about it, and make better games over here.

21. Would you ever participate in a Croatian larp or on a larp conference?



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