REPOD S3E2 – Pushing Boundaries Safely: Johanna Koljonen & Nordic Larp

In Season 3, episode 2, we chat with Johanna Koljonen, the co-founder of Participation Design Agency. She is an experience designer specializing in Nordic larp and an expert in designing for safe and enthusiastic participation. Johanna has helped create some incredibly compelling and intense Nordic larps, including Vampire the Masquerade, Inside Hamlet, and House of Craving.

Johanna puts careful thought into every aspect of her experiences, encapsulated in her concept that “everything is a designable surface.” Nordic larp encourages consent-based play, and Johanna discusses how to introduce systems that will allow participants to push boundaries safely. She gives concrete examples of how to encourage participation in very emotionally intense events, noting that “you have to feel safe to be brave.”

The way Johanna discusses immersive experiences was eye-opening and illuminating. If you design immersive theater, escape rooms, larps or immersive experiences of any kind, you will find this episode absolutely invaluable. David notes that meeting Johanna completely changed the way he thinks about experience design, and I think you’ll agree after listening to this episode.

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Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • David notes that Nordic Larp is, at its core, a collaboration between the creators and the players. [1:02]
  • David talks about first meeting Johanna and says it completely changed the way he thought about game and experience design. [2:30]
  • Johanna talks about expectation management and how “disappointment is a function of expectation.” [3:24]
  • Johanna talks about the concept of “everything is a designable surface” and how to create a physical and social environment to direct the participant’s actions. [8:34]
  • Johanna uses the example of a party to describe how designing a room for dancing vs. a room for conversation is a choice. [9:25]
  • Johanna talks about “alibis for interaction”—something that will give you permission to do something you wouldn’t normally do. [10:58]
  • Johanna talks about Nordic Larp, and how it’s different from “boffer” larp. [14:42]
  • Most larps in the US or continental Europe are constructed around a statistical simulation system that allows for things like combat. [16:06]
  • Johanna tells us that in the Nordics, most of larps are non-profit, and so they prefer creating one-shot events. [17:45]
  • Johanna discusses the concept of “playing to lose” and how they’ve recontextualized this concept for an American audience as “playing for story.” [23:17]
  • She explains that not all players will achieve their goals in a larp, and that the actual win condition for the collective “is that each and every one of us experienced a powerful narrative together and participated in creating it for each other.” [25:09]
  • Johanna also reframes the concept as “playing to lift,” lifting other people’s narratives and experiences. [27:16]
  • Peih-Gee compares this to playing an escape room with the goal of enjoying the narrative and set design vs. trying to get the fastest time. She also mentions the importance of giving a proper narrative conclusion even if the players lose an escape room. [28:00]
  • Johanna talks about the importance of respecting the magic circle that is created during an experience and offers suggestions for ways to exit it gently. [29:54]
  • Johanna discusses how players navigate consent-based play in Nordic Larp. [31:23]
  • Peih-Gee talks about consent-based play in Survivor, and how you are competing with each other but still governing yourself with a set of rules that might be different from usual social norms. [36:39]
  • Johanna tells us about Parliament of Shadows, a larp about politics set in the world of Vampire the Masquerade, which took place in a Parliament building, with memos prepared by actual Parliament staff. [40:50]
  • Johanna talks about an aesthetic debate in the Nordic Larp community over “beautiful boredom,” designing for those moments when nothing is happening or the things that are happening are boring. [46:30]
  • Johanna has often said “the opposite of design is tradition.” She talks about the value of both and the negotiations that take place between them. [48:23]
  • David notes that the conversation will cover some more intense interactions, including how Nordic Larp safely and responsibly deals with themes around sexual violence. [55:07] (If you don’t wish to listen, you can skip ahead to [1:16:36])
  • David reads a description from the Inside Hamlet larp experience outlining the physical parameters of the game, including intoxication, pretend violence, and simulated but realistic-looking sexual violence. [55:55]
  • Johanna walks us through the Inside Hamlet experience, telling us that it’s set in an alternate history in the 1930s during the last few months of the Mad King’s reign. [57:36]
  • She tells us that if there are conflicts between characters, the outcomes will be different depending on which act you are in, and that there are rules governing how much the violence can escalate. [1:00:54]
  • Johanna explains that because of the themes and nature of the source material, there is simulated violence and sex. There is a workshop on-site, with rules and systems for how to negotiate these types of interactions. [1:01:31]
  • Johanna describes the verbal escalation and de-escalation mechanic, involving the use of code words, private negotiations, and physical tap-outs. [1:03:17]
  • Johanna notes that the correct answer to someone stating a boundary is “thank you” because you have been given important information on how to lift someone else’s experience, and those firm boundaries are what enable these kinds of play. [1:05:15]
  • Johanna describes physical codes to de-escalate a scene or to remove your character entirely and also how to explain it through narrative. [1:05:39]
  • Peih-Gee describes physical props that communicate whether a player has opted out of physical contact in an experience. [1:08:17]
  • Johanna discusses the importance of properly setting expectations before an event and emphasizes the importance of being fluid in consent so the players can maximize their experience, while giving them tools to opt out. [1:09:01]
  • “You have to feel safe to be brave.” [1:10:40]
  • David talks about the importance of fluidity of consent in extreme experiences because these are meant to push boundaries in a safe environment. [1:11:00]
  • Johanna talks about why you would include scenes of sexual violence and torture in a larp. [1:11:52]
  • Johanna talks about having an “ingredient list,” which is a list of potential triggers for players. [1:14:47]
  • Johanna talks about the concept of “bleed,” when a player’s life spills over into their character or vice versa. [1:16:36]
  • Johanna reiterates the importance of the magic circle and how to create clear boundaries including musical and physical markers. [1:21:08]
  • Johanna talks about her current projects, the erotic horror larp House of Craving and The Wild Hunt. [1:22:14]
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode

About Johanna Koljonen

Johanna Koljonen (co-founder, Participation Design Agency) is an experience designer, theorist and strategic consultant, and an expert in designing for safe and enthusiastic participation. She lectures internationally on participatory storytelling and on the future of the audiovisual industries, and advises cultural institutions as well as public and private sector clients on participation and immersive experiences. An occasional writer of drama, comics, and digital games, she serves on the board of the Swedish Film Institute.

Her latest book is Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences (2019), for which she was lead editor. Her annual Nostradamus Report on the near future of the screen industries, commissioned by the Göteborg Film Festival, has an international following and is presented at the film markets in Cannes and Berlin every spring.

Her first career was in broadcasting, and she still hosts the occasional public service radio series. In 2011, she received the Swedish Grand Journalism Award in the Innovator category.

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