Jonne Arjoranta & Sonja Pöllänen – What can we learn from political larp?

Kuvat: Tuomas Puikkonen

Halat hisar was a live action role-playing game (larp) organized in Finland in 2016. Halat hisar was written by three Finnish and four Palestinian larp writers. It combined the current Palestinian political situation with the Finnish cultural context by portraying a fictional occupied Finland, where most of Finland was controlled by a fictional Ugric people.

Larping is an activity where a group of people embody characters in an imaginary setting. They do this by dressing up, talking, moving, and making decisions as their character during play. Larp differs from theatre because it is not performed for an audience.

Feeling hopeless: there was nothing to appeal to in order to right the wrongs we experienced.

The larp was organized as a one-day workshop and two days of play. It had around 50 mostly Finnish-speaking participants, with participants from multiple countries, including Palestine. The participants played students, faculty members, reporters, human rights’ workers, and other people trapped on a fictional University of Helsinki campus when a military-mandated curfew begun.

Over the two days of play, the campus became a site of political struggle. In practice, this was the student union elections that happened during the curfew, but the elections were symbolic for the larger political issues at stake. Should the students support the largest political party collaborating with the occupiers, or the militant opposition? The opinions were polarised even further after the soldiers started arresting and violently interrogating people within the curfew area and one of the students was shot during a demonstration against the military violence.

The experience of being powerless in the face of sudden military violence is not something that most players coming from privileged positions encounter in their everyday lives, so coming face to face with those situations was a chance for the participants to evaluate their reactions to injustice. For example, one player wrote about their experience:

Feeling hopeless: there was nothing to appeal to in order to right the wrongs we experienced. When the characters called an ambulance to help a wounded character, the soldiers held up the ambulance so long that the person who had been wounded had already died. There was no help from the outside world. My character, part of the university staff, couldn’t even help her own students.

Kuvat: Tuomas Puikkonen

The experience seemed to resonate with many of the players. According to a player survey, two-thirds of the players read news about Palestine and Israel in a different light after Halat hisar. Over half of the players reported that participation in Halat hisar influenced their political opinions. These statistics should be read with caution, as this is a self-selected group of participants that wanted to engage with these topics.

We want to emphasize that we do not argue that participating in Halat hisar would have given the participants access to the experience of being a Palestinian living in an occupied country. However, larps can be a tool for learning about different situations and cultures – and about oneself.

Want to learn more? Read:

Pöllänen S and Arjoranta J (2021) ‘Whose were those feelings?’ Affect and likenessing in Halat hisar live action role-playing game. International Journal of Cultural Studies.