47. Why I’m doing a larp project in the United Arab Emirates

photo credit: Herwig Kopp

I’m currently in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East. The reason for that is the Legends of Arabia larp project. In a nutshell, it’s a month of larps run at Yas Waterworld, and has been developed in cooperation with the water park. On select nights, we run larps for up to 500 people, with a story that’s based on an Emirati legend that also is the “backstory” of the water park itself.

From the beginning, it’s been a co-creation with Paul Bulencea, an expert in gamification in tourism, and now also something of a name in the world of larp tourism. Together with Paul and the core team from Yas Waterworld (which includes people from Australia, Lebanon and the Emirates), I have taken this project from a loose idea to a larp that is happening right now.

The larp explained

It’s a family-focused entertainment larp, with the central story about five tribes going to war and finding peace bearing enough of a symbolic resemblance to the origins of the UAE that many participants comment on this. It’s fast, action-packed and simple, and draws on our many years of experience of designing larps for Danes. Calling it a Nordic larp would be a bit of a weird statement, but some of the team have strong ties to the Nordic community. Including me. ;-)

When we came here, it was pretty clear that our marketing efforts at explaining larp to the general public had been somewhat less than 100% successful. For each of the fives runs we’ve had so far, there have been plenty of people who thought they were going to see a show. Some even felt tricked into “being on stage”. But after the first moments of confusion, almost everyone has dived into it with an enthusiasm I admire.

Rich, poor, young, old, local, foreign, male, female, shy, outspoken — they’ve all found something in it they liked (for many the swords are a gateway to fun!), and they’ve had an excellent time. 9.3/10, according to the surveys we’ve done so far, and this seems to match post-larp conversations nicely. We’ve had people from every country imaginable, and have mixed them up as a matter of course. We even got to try out working through impromptu translators, as we had a group of ~70 Russians playing — many of whom spoke not a word of English.

Still, they loved it.

Positive response all over

To round off this part of the text, suffice to say that we’ve managed to take a varied and diverse group of people and make them part of something they didn’t understand — and end up having them thank us for the experience. These are people who started out with no clue what larp was, and now have a clear idea that larp is a lot of fun. For some it’s been more than just fun, and the amount of endearing and moving stories of empowerment, understanding and connection we’ve heard has been pretty astonishing.

“I feel it let’s me express myself more”, an employee from Yas Waterworld said after we’d done the first test run, just for the people here in the park. That made it to the trailer, which also features words on active vs passive experiences, nice words about families and a lot of wonderful footage.

Larp is powerful and many of us know it. What I wasn’t sure of (but really hoped to be true) was that it is possible to bring it to anyone, even though you may have just a short time, crazy language barriers and an impressively diverse group of participants. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable.

I want this to matter to the many, not just the few

And this is (possibly) just the beginning. Bringing larp to the far corners of the Earth (which, since I live in Denmark, means everywhere BUT Denmark, and also quite a large part OF Denmark) is one of my stated life missions. I believe strongly in the transformative power of larp, and I want it to become something in line with theater and movies. Yeah, ambitious as hell.

This means that many of my larp projects have some sort of mass appeal to them. I’m mostly famous these days for doing the blockbuster larp College of Wizardry. In the two years since it started, CoW has had 1500 participants, many of them returning players making the actual number of people who have experienced it smaller than 1500. But it’s still quite a bit more than the 2013 larp Panopticorp, which I ran with one its original creators (the sagely Eirik Fatland) for under 30 participants.

I want larp to go places, and I want to do it on a big scale. We’re sitting on a gold mine of empowerment, fun, playfulness, reflection, intensity, and … the list goes on. I’ve been spreading the larp gospel since 1995, and professionally since 2002. To me, this isn’t just a fun hobby (though I am totally ok with the fact that for some this is exactly what it is). It’s quite a bit more than that. But enough rambling.

What does all this have to do with the UAE?

The United Arab Emirates held its 45th anniversary less than two weeks ago. The region was for many (MANY) years one of traders, pearl divers and the occasional pirate, and in the late 19th century fell solidly into the British sphere of influence. I’m not going to go too deep into the history of the region — partly because I don’t claim to understand it myself — but suffice to say that after the First World War, things looked pretty grim, and when oil was found, things took a wild turn.

The first oil wells came into being in the 50’s, and there’s an amazing BBC documentary about the first president of the UAE (Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan) from sometime in the late 50’s (or maybe early 60's). The oil changed everything, and trying to understand the UAE without taking the oil into account is not a smart move.

To cut a long story short, what was 50 years ago a couple of very small states entering the modern world at a super-rapid pace, now contains thriving multi-ethnic metropolises. Where there was desert, there are now skyscrapers, and where I’m sitting right now — the Park Inn Hotel on Yas Island, the entertainment Island of Abu Dhabi — there used to be just sand and rocks. Not 50 years ago, but 15. One reason I know this was because a guy I had lunch with (who is now 30 and has lived in the Emirates since he was a teenager), told us that none of it was there when he came.

To call it a country in transition is a gross understatement

This means many things. One thing it means is that there are people here, who are absurdly wealthy. Not just “Oh, I’ve got money, and own a Ferrari.”, but more like “I could probably BUY Ferrari, if they wanted to sell.”. Seriously rich. And it’s not that long ago, that the UAE was a tribal society, which means that some of the things I am used to as a Dane are not how things work here.

Democracy, open elections, political parties. No.

Freedom of the press, entrenched civil rights. No.

A royal family that has actual political power. Yes.

Religious laws that are clear and unequivocal. Yes.

To me this feels alien and foreign. But then again, Denmark has been a nation since who-knows-when (the Danish flag itself is from 1219, for crying out loud), and our period of absolute monarchy stretched from 1660–1849, where it was replaced by democracy. Or at least some form of it!

That’s long ago. And while there’s no clear “better” about industrial economies compared to agrarian/fishing economies, it’s still pretty clear that even in the 1660–1849 period life in Denmark was very different from life in Abu Dhabi. Life in 1660 IN Denmark was very different from life in 1849 in Denmark. In the UAE, 1660 and 1849 were a lot more alike, even though they were of course in no way the same.

A mind boggling perspective

Life in Denmark is different now from what it was in the 1980’s, when I was a kid. We didn’t have internet or smartphones, and a lot of things were different on a society level. But while the house I grew up in was built in 1979 (the year I was also born), the apartment building I now live in is from 1918. And it’s not considered particularly old. It’s just a building.

In the UAE, that’s not the case. For an Emirati who I’ve gotten to know during this project and am proud to call a friend, the country of his childhood is not the country he lives in today. He’s my age, and has seen impossible changes happen within his lifetime. I can’t even begin to imagine how that must feel.

The reason I talk about this is because if there’s one thing that’s hard, it’s understanding this place. In many ways, it’s unique. It’s also a place of contradictions and controversies, and of struggles and “s-word”. It’s a country with 15% natives and 85% foreigners. Coming from Denmark, where integration is a hotly debated topic, I find that incredible. In Denmark, we have less than 10% non-Danes, and it’s an open, political sore, that’s festering and has been for years and years.

Here, it’s 85%

Some come from Western countries, and are primarily educated, resourceful and important. Some come from the Arabic world or India, and have positions of power and privilege. Most come from dirt poor areas (like Bangladesh) and went here to find a better life with security, money and work that wasn’t available back home.

Some were tricked into paying huge sums to come here, and poor migrant workers stuck in work camps under saddening conditions is a very real thing. Some have come willingly and are in love with the ultra-capitalist mirage that exists here in the desert. Some work here even though they realise it’s a country of grey nuances.

I’m one of those.

When we started the Legends of Arabia project, we knew that working in the UAE — with a large, commercial UAE partner — was not going to happen without criticism being levelled at us. Some would call us greedy capitalists, here to exploit the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Some would say that we were in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. Some would rage. Of course, we also knew that there were plenty who would applaud what we were doing. But not everyone would like how we went about this.

We want this to be big

So far, efforts to bring larp to the Middle East (done in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon amongst other places) have been labours of love, done by hardworking larpers who have bridged cultures and found allies and friends in the locals, who have then become larpers. These projects have been amazing and powerful, but have been more on the grassroots level than on the large scale level.

With Legends of Arabia, we were going to do something different. We were going to work with a large commercial partner, that has government support (a little bit like a library in Denmark has government support — so it wasn’t exactly working directly with the foreign ministry, but still!), and we were going to aim high.

We wanted thousands of participants, nationwide media attention and to make a splash. Maybe that splash would be big enough to function as a stepping stone to opening up the Middle East to larping. In our dream scenario, businesses would start wanting larps for training, schools would want them for education and the prototype project at Yas Waterworld would only be Phase One in a larger scheme. We still don’t know how big the splash will be, or where it will take us (and larp in the UAE). We’ll see.

And this leads me to some of the things I find intensely interesting.

I believe in larp as a tool for change

Spreading larp is for me not just a way to do interesting work. Most of my time is spent doing spectacular larps at Polish castles for an international larp audience, and I can tell you that THAT is fulfilling as *”€”#. Helping stage memorable experiences that way and have strangers leave our events as communities, is powerful and moving every single time.

Still, I believe that this project is potentially more important than what we’re doing in Poland. Because if larp becomes mainstream in the UAE (and maybe even in other places in the region), that means something. Not just because it would mean new larp communities and more cross-border larping, but also because it would mean something to those who larp, but don’t consider themselves larpers.

The following phrase is originally from 2008, but just as true today.

“Two of the biggest problems facing society today are intolerance and fanaticism. Intolerance is the lack of acceptance of other people’s stories, and fanaticism is the belief that your story is the only true one. Larp teaches people to deconstruct the stories of others and to create your own stories.”

Fanaticism and intolerance exist everywhere, and if we — as larpers — can help combat that (and I believe we can), then we should try to do so. And for me, one way of doing that is to help to bring larp to places where it matters. I am proud of my friends who have helped give birth to larp in the Arab world (there’s even an awesome book by that title!), and I want to do what I can to help grow it. Here, I have that chance.

But isn’t it wrong to support the UAE?

I have learned a lot from coming here, and I’ve learned even more from working here. I’ve been frustrated and I’ve been struck by absurdity on many occasions, but I’ve also been impressed by the spirit and the humanity that I’ve encountered here. The people I work with are generous, kind and respectful to each other. Across nationalities. Across social hierarchies. Across cultural boundaries. If we were anything as good as that at accepting each other in Denmark, we would be in a different place politically right now.

I’m not blind to the fact that the UAE has issues. It’s hard to fathom what exactly is going on and how much of the information available (from all sources, not just UAE ones) is doctored, slanted or skewed. It’s not exactly a place that advertises its own failures, and going from tribal society to ultra-modern wonder world in a few generations is not something that happens smoothly or easily.

I also understand better why it’s a place of (to me) insane bureaucracy and exhausting rules. Everything has to be signed for, countersigned and approved, and even the most absurd procedures are (sometimes) followed, since safe is MUCH better than sorry here. “Use your common sense” works pretty well, when we all agree on what common sense means. But the difference between a poor woman from a rural area in the Philippines and an investment banker from London “using their common sense” might be pretty significant. As an example of that, our contract includes some pretty clear instructions on what we can and can’t do with our workers. I can’t share those due to NDA, but they’re more thorough than anything I’ve encountered before.

I’m well aware of my white privilege and know full well that I might be writing a completely different text if I was a debt-ridden Bangledeshi who’d been lured here with false (and expensive) promises, and now toiled away in the heat on a construction site. I’ve read about Saadiyat Island and other places, and I’ve talked to people here who acknowledge that it’s not exactly paradise yet.

I won’t change a thing by staying away

I also know that I have no doubt in my heart, that even if this was as deplorable a regime as some people believe it to be (and I don’t believe that it is), I would still make a bigger difference by being here than by sitting at home in my sofa and silently boycotting a nation that was — and would be — completely and utterly unaware of my existence.

If I was the CEO of Coca Cola, and believed the UAE to be hell on Earth, a boycott and refusal to cooperate might make a difference. As the owner of a 16-person larp company in Europe, I can assure you that me refusing to do a project here would mean absolutely nothing. Being here, I can be part of making a difference, and if the stars are right, maybe that will mean something down the road. It’s already meant something to some people already.

And that was even IF I believed the UAE to be the worst place on the planet.

I don’t.

It’s a complex place going through complex times

I believe that it’s a country in ultra-rapid transition, and while it certainly has its dark sides and its horrors (as does even the happy-paradise of Denmark), it’s a country that’s experimenting with things that are unthinkable elsewhere. Who knows where it will be in 10 years, let alone 50? And who knows what will come out of the seeds we sow here?

Finally, if any of you believe that we can keep larp from being a thing in the UAE, I question not just your feeling of omnipotence, but also your reason. We can no more keep larp from spreading than we can decree that this or that government or organisation may not use music or theatre or film. We can’t keep larp out of anyone’s hands. What we can do is do our best to make larp be a tool for empowerment, tolerance and acceptance.

And we don’t do that by not picking up the glove, when it lands at our feet.

So for those of you — and I know my personal network counts some — who think that I’m making the world a worse place by being here, and doing a larp project in this place, I’m going to say to you loudly and unequivocally:

I disagree. Me being here does not make the world worse. It might even make it better.

If that means we can no longer see eye-to-eye, then so be it.