Excluding the very brief segment of the Combat/Conflict or Narrative? panel I caught, the Ars Amandi workshop, run by Lizzie Stark (author of Leaving Mundania) was the last event I attended at Intercon M’s Pre-Con.
Ars Amandi (meaning “art of love”) is “a Nordic mechanic for simulating romance or sex in larp” created by Emma Wieslander. It involves players touching one another’s hands, arms, whatever is within the permissible zone, to communicate emotions. The workshop has run at past Pre-Con, and I heard it was a very interesting experience, so I made sure to catch it this year.
The workshop opened with Lizzie giving a brief talk about what Ars Amandi is and how it came to be. I know panels are designed to be interactive dialogs, but I really appreciated the fact that Lizzie brought something she prepared in advance to read. (I thought a few panels might have benefited from a bit more prep work like this.) The content of her introduction can be found on her blog. Definitely worth a read, but I will summarize it with the points I found most interesting and informative below.
- 3 reasons to include love and sex in LARPs: it represents the real world that we live in, it widens the number of playable plotlines, it provides for an intense experience, because love is as intense as violence.
- A line quoted from Ars Amandi creator Emma Wieslander, “I think it’s quite sad that many players should have a greater expectancy of their character getting killed than fucked.”
- Why love (and sex) get downplayed in LARP: it feels riskier, since love is something we experience in real life and could potentially cause bleed (character emotions and player emotions affecting one another), but violence is something we typically don’t experience in real life. In the US, we fear litigation (we’re afraid of what might happen if we allow touching in LARPs) and we lack the mechanics for love in LARPs (especially the physical action side of it.)
- Some Nordic techniques for managing potential issues: workshops before LARPs, debriefs after LARPs, use of safewords (“go” to indicate you’re ok with more intensity, “break” to indicate you don’t want the intensity to go any higher, and “cut” to indicate you’d like to stop and back off.)
- Some other methods that have been used: WYSIWIG (“what you see is what you get”) meaning whatever the players do, the characters do, dry humping to replicate sex, talking through sex- i.e. the player describes the character’s actions, symbolic methods (massages, feeding one another fruit, brushing one another’s hair, dancing the tango.)
- – Ars Amandi was created so that players could have a mechanic that doesn’t pre-script active or passive roles in sex, it’s gender neutral, it maintains a certain level of comfort for the players because there are limited permitted touch zones, and it’s pretty flexible in that it can represent different kinds of physical interaction, whether it’s tender or rough or nervous or confident or passionate or passionless. It represents the intimacy of the act without being too uncomfortable for players.
One reason I was particularly interested to see what this mechanic would be like is because every time I’ve encountered sex in a theater LARP, it’s been somewhat awkward. Particularly because it was mechanically significant whether or not the characters had engaged in sex, but there were never directions for how to indicate it was taking place. In one LARP, there was a mechanical benefit for the object of my character’s affections to have sex. (And it had a mechanical effect on my character, too, though I didn’t know it at the time.) The GMs told us we could use a corner of the room to represent his bedroom (which was, out of game, in full view of the rest of the LARP.) So we went over to the corner, made romantic small talk, then looked at one another awkwardly and said something like… “so… I guess… we’re doing it now?” We laughed about it and made some awkward humorous gestures for a few seconds… it very much broke immersion, though the other LARPer was a good sport about it.
A similar thing happened when I played Slash! (You can read a description of my experience in that LARP here.) Slash! is a comical LARP mocking bad erotic fan fiction. The characters are all taken from popular fandoms (Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and while there are some puzzles to solve and such, the primary mechanic is basically to have as much silly sex as possible, and each encounter raises your sexual prowess score. (Slash! falls into my group of LARPs that I actively avoid describing when someone who has never heard of LARPing wants to know what it’s like.) The first encounter I had as Lt. Uhura (with Draco Malfoy, I believe) involved a lot of terrible innuendo, followed by an awkward silence, followed by “so… did we just… uh? … Yeah, ok.”
A third LARP involved opening a contingency envelope when my character had sex with another (essentially… we were aliens so it’s hard know precisely what happened.) While it was slightly awkward the moment before, when we both held up our envelopes and opened them, it was fairly clear what we were doing in-character. We sort of hid out of sight for a couple minutes, then disheveled our clothing a bit — we mis-buttoned his top and I took a few jewels out of my hair and stuck them in his. That was probably the smoothest version I’ve experienced to date.
I think it would have been a lot smoother if we didn’t need to step out of character to agree on what had happened. I know some LARPs include some sort of symbolic physical action (one LARP has players exchanging colored beads, for example). Ars Amandi offers the potential to do that and also have the action that represents sex be somewhat intimate but not too uncomfortable. Technically, as it was created, it doesn’t have to represent sex — it can represent any form of affection, (such as love between a mother and daughter) though if it isn’t use explicitly as sex, that takes awake the advantage I was looking for. Namely, the ability for both players to know exactly what happened without having to explicitly say it out of character. I think if I ever used Ars Amandi as a mechanic in a LARP, I might say, “in this LARP, it implies sex.”
After the talk, we had a short break, then came back for the workshop itself. Lizzie opened by telling us that when two women tried Ars Amandi, it sometimes became very light, almost silly, and when two men tried it, it often almost became not unlike a mild wrestling match. I know that this workshop typically runs at generic geek conventions, but Intercon is all LARP and the attendees all LARPers, and I suspected that those who were willing to try out Ars Amandi were among the open-minded of our community. I didn’t think that was likely to happen in our workshop. And as far as I saw, I was right.
We started out by making two circles, and inner one facing out and an outer one facing in, and we partnered up, each inner circle person with an outer circle person. Lizzie played some instrumental music, which I think was very smart of her- we didn’t talk during the exercises, and a deafening silence would likely have been awkward. When we began, the upper boundary was the wrist (in other words, only our hands were touching.) The first few times we tried Ars Amandi, we did it with closed eyes, and each pair had an active person and a passive person. We alternated which partner was which- first, the inner circle was passive and the outer circle active, then the inner circle active and the outer circle passive, and so on. The active person was instructed merely to explore their partners hands. We did this for a few minutes, and then we’d stop, the outer circle would rotate, and we’d start again with new partners.
After a few turns, Lizzie switched things up. Instead of active and passive, each partner could be as active or passive as they wanted. At some point, we expanded the zone of permissible touch the elbows. We also opened our eyes at some point. We tried a few different moods and themes- for example, we tried using Ars Amandi to express urgency, and to act as two people sharing their first kiss, as two people flirting in a bar, and as a couple in a marriage of 40 years. At some point, between exercises, we closed our eyes and voted on whether or not to expand the allowed zone of touch again. I think we must have gotten a mix of yeas and nays, because we decided up to half way up the upper arm would be the new allowed zone of touch. (I abstained.) Ars Amandi as it was created includes the whole arm, shoulders, across the sternum, neck, and upper back. (This workshops never went that far.) We were also encouraged to alter our breathing as we felt comfortable.
After the exercises, we sat around in a circle and shared some impressions. I had a few thoughts I considered sharing, but found myself feeling too self-conscious to speak up.
I liked the way the workshop eased people into things- starting with eyes closed, hands only, and one person passive, one person active made it a lot easier. Even though we were stroking one another’s palms and fingers, it was possible to engage in the activity in a fairly clinical fashion so long as our eyes remained closed. Which I did, at first, because that made me feel less self-conscious. I recall, the first time I took an active role, my mental process was very analytical. I was trying to keep my hand movements reasonably affectionate (and that right there tells you I was thinking too hard about it at first,) but internally I was thinking “ok, well, this person isn’t wearing a ring, and they have fairly short nails…” And when I was passive, I was thinking a lot about my own hands, and what my partners might be concluding about them. I was terribly embarrassed by my rough skin (my hands get very dry in the winter, and I was really wishing I’d had the time to put on hand lotion). I also wear a little silver band on my left ring finger (when I’m not in costume, that is), which has on many occasion lead people to either assume or ask if I’m married. I supposed my Ars Amandi partners might draw the same conclusion.
When we expanded the touch zone up to the elbows, I became very aware of the fact that I was one of the only participants who was wearing long sleeves. I don’t know if I actually thought they would add an extra layer of distance between me and my partners. I think it added an extra variable- maybe other people were wondering if this one person didn’t want the skin of her arms to be touched? and some people touched my arms underneath the sleeves, which could easily be translated as more intimate than touching another person’s arms without sleeves. So in a certain way, with Ars Amandi, sleeves could be extra boundaries, or they could provide more opportunities for ways to express intimacy.
Adding eye contact made a huge difference. When we opened our eyes, I found myself having to consciously tell myself not to look at just my partner’s hands and mine. It was impossible for it to still feel at all clinical with open eyes; direct eye contact made it much more personal and intimate. Being able to see meant the focus was less on what it felt like to touch and be touched, and more on the actual person I was interacting with.
When we tried out different emotions and scenarios, I found Ars Amandi to be remarkably flexible and expressive. Each of the suggestions (urgency, first kiss, flirting in a bar, and a 40 year marriage) seemed straightforward, but as we were actually incorporating them into our actions, I realized that we might be interpreting the suggestion differently, and that it showed in how we were behaving. For example, did “first kiss” mean for whatever characters we might be representing, as a couple? Or first kiss for both of us, ever? Did flirting in a bar mean we’d already expressed interest in one another and now were enjoying one another’s company, or that we were still attempting to pick one another up in a bar? Eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and manner of breath all factored in to the interpretations as much as hand movements did.
For most of the various exercises, people stood with their feet stationary, facing one another, though towards the end we were told that we could move around one another if we chose. The only partner who moved their feet with me was my partner for the very last exercise, in which we were trying to convey the relationship of 40 year marriage. He had been to multiple Ars Amandi workshops in the past. I suspect he was probably more comfortable with it than anyone else participating, though Lizzie did say that us Interconners took to Ars Amandi relatively well.
I think this last exercise was also the one where I had my biggest failure in communication. I was attempting to convey a question with non-verbal cues- “after 40 years, do you still find me attractive?” When we briefly discussed the exercise afterwards, I was under the impression I hadn’t quite succeeded in transmitting the question, though we did both read comfort, trust, and stability in one another.
I could definitely see incorporating Ars Amandi into a theater LARP- it was abstract enough to make it comfortable for strangers to engage in, but also affectionate and intimate enough to reflect the emotions between characters. And it was versatile enough to allow players to express their characters’ thoughts and state of mind. And with a bit of tweaking, could be used to convey in-game information about a situation without requiring players to step out of character and clarify whether or not their characters had sex.
The big thing that I see as a potential hindrance to using Ars Amandi more in the local theater community is that, as Lizzie said, it probably requires a fairly substantial workshop before a LARP to ensure that players will be able to feel comfortable using it. The various techniques the workshop employed that helped familiarize me with it- starting with eyes closed, one person passive and one active, starting with a very limited zone of touch, etc. took some time to be effective, and most theater LARPs run with a limited time budget. Adding around 45 minutes in order to make one mechanic plausible may not be well received. Maybe at some Dia de Los Sobres type event, with two theater LARPs running in one day, where an Ars Amandi workshop prepped people for both LARPs, it could work. It’s definitely worth experimenting with.
And I think that concludes my series of Intercon Post-Con reports.