I have recently been a player at The Quota, which was a dystopian dark future roleplaying event, set in a chronologically very close future and in an utterly believable world.
The background setting was that following Brexit, the UK became more fascist and right wing and eventually Scotland and Wales voted for devolution. They had most of the UK’s water, which they were restricting and selling back to England at a profit. They also developed more permissive political climate and in conjunction with the economic situation were seen as more attractive and therefore suffered mass immigration. Eventually they closed their borders and only a small quota of applicants were accepted every quarter.
Those who were trying to apply had to present themselves at a detention centre in order to have their application processed. Detainees could also end up there after run-ins with the authorities or the fascist Albion League. Some were fleeing for their lives, some just looking for a better future.
Many of my friends, even larpers, cannot understand why anyone would want to play such an event and it certainly falls into ‘the other sort of fun’ category. I was interested in exploring the theme (whilst in no way trying to diminish the experience of those who have to do this for real). I’m also planning to spend several months of the next year in a different country, so the theme of being foreign and fitting in is regularly on my mind.
European (especially Nordic) roleplaying events often take on much darker themes than British events. Ours tend to be fantasy, with a vaguely historical theme, much like Game of Thrones, although there are now many different themes and backgrounds including sci-fi, horror and cine-drama.
Events in Nordic countries have included those set concentration camps and the voyage of The Demeter, Dracula’s ship (where all the characters die during the event). To my knowledge this was the first weekend LRP event in the UK to deal with such serious themes (although there have been shorter freeform events which have explored the refugee crisis, one in preparation for this event, and others exploring themes such as the AIDS epidemic).
I was very grateful that the organisers had worked with The Refugee Council of Great Britain to ensure that this event was accurate and sensitive to actual conditions. Any profit from the event is going towards this very worthwhile charity.
The players were those in the detention centre, whether political activists, refugees or economic migrants. I chose to play the later as I have often wondered why it seems to be unacceptable to many people for someone to want to move and make a better life for themselves and their families. The characters ranged from very normal people to extremely broken and challenging individuals.
The site was a decommissioned military prison near Melton Mowbray, which is now used as a paintball site. It is surrounded by huge wire fences, with double rows of barbed wire at the top and looks incredibly intimidating.
The facilities in the prison were minimal. There was no running water. There were no toilets. There were no kitchen facilities. The drinking water was in a 1000 litre plastic container outside; where everyone filled up their water bottles. There were 4 porta-loos outside, which was a long walk in the rain at night.
The kitchen was 2 large slow cookers from which the pots had to be taken outside to be washed at the water cube. Those of us on kitchen duty filled 5 litre containers for cooking and the tea urn. The food was deliberately poor; edible but flavourless bean based dishes, soups and cabbage stew, to ensure people were full and had protein, but there was no joy in these meals.
The cells were tiny rooms, either individual or twin bedded, with a wooden bunk and a non functioning toilet, which was filled with (thankfully dry) rubbish. The surfaces were covered with grime and mould. It was grim. There were no showers (although we could go at 7.30am with the guards to a local gym to have showers, which were clean and hot).
However, I was struck by how quickly all of this became normal. It seemed perfectly reasonable to carry the pans down to the water supply to wash them up. As the workgroups cleaned the prison, it even became more bearable. It seems the human mind is very quick to accept new levels of normality and accept things that would previously have been (and probably should be) unacceptable.
I played Archan Enfys Morgan, an economic migrant from the north of England, with a Welsh Grandfather (which although it would be enough to get her into the national rugby squad was not enough to give her citizenship of the country). She was a school cook, with an abusive ex husband and daughters of 7 and 5, who just wanted to be given a fair chance to make a better life for herself and her girls. Her dream was to be able to go to university and study to become a nurse. She was part of the economic underclass, who couldn’t afford to study past 16, a lifelong labour voter who had believed the words written on the bus and voted for Brexit (this final thing was the part of the brief I had the hardest time dealing with). She could see no possibility of her life becoming better if she stayed in her current conditions.
She was just a normal person who ended up in a bad situation (something I had been keen to explore from the outset). She had a reasonable knowledge of things welsh, which came out during the game. I reasoned that with a Welsh grandfather living in England, he was probably keen to pass on his culture and she’d been on holiday to Wales to stay with relatives as a child (as those were cheap holidays). I also figured that as one of the relatively few UK players and one of even fewer living in Wales, someone should provide some context. I even managed to string together a few phrases of welsh and help people with pronunciation.
Life in the detention centre was an eye opener for Archan. She was was used to not having very much, but having family and friends around who looked out for you. Suddenly she was in this strange place where virtually everyone was intimidating, odd, broken or confrontational. She didn’t encounter or get offered any drugs, contraband or political shenanigans. She only happened across violence once and immediately walked away, as she didn’t feel that she was able to stop it. She had such a fear of authority she didn’t interact with any of the staff unless forced to. Other people had it much worse, but she just kept her head down and tried to work towards the goal of getting out of there and into Wales.
She once stood up to protect Zoe. Zoe was a young detainee who had made some mistakes, and got in with the wrong crowd, but also had a particular skill for telling the truth at exactly the wrong time. Zoe reminded her of her daughters and made her feel very protective. It was a revelation to me how much she was prepared to sacrifice for someone she had only just met, but that does appear to be true to human nature.
So what did we do all day? Well, I was surprised by was how boring it all was. This is in no way a complaint against the game or the organisers; the environment was and should be boring. Obviously we sat around and talked, but there were very few distractions. We couldn’t go outside the compound. Conflicts broke out about tiny things as people were pushed together all the time. Sweets, biscuits, alcohol and phones were contraband, so there were few pleasant ways of passing the time.
The recreation room had: a welsh Scrabble set, with no board; a welsh colouring book, but only a single black biro; a kids book in welsh about the red dragon, a guide to north Wales in Welsh and the program of the 2013 Eisteddfod. Oh, there was a complete set of Welsh monopoly, but no one ever played with that, preferring to build towers out of the Scrabble tiles instead. The walls were decorated with tourist leaflets to all the wonderful things we might see in Wales if we got there; unlikely for most of the inmates.
The main realisation of the event was that everything was unfair for these people. The classes that they received in welsh culture and language were badly resourced and poorly taught. The interviews they had with the immigration service concentrated on the reasons that they shouldn’t be allowed into Wales, not any positives they could add.
In Archan’s case, wanting to take her daughters into the Wales counted against her as that would be three more people gaining entry , not just one, rather than being positive that she wanted to bring her family and build a life for them all. The postcards she had from relatives in Wales supporting her application were dismissed as mementoes. Medical staff used their own prejudices against prisoners.
The rugby lesson, which was one of the most enjoyable periods in the centre (along with the singing lesson, where we learned and sang Men of Harlech) was made more poignant by discovering that the talented and enthusiastic coach was leaving and the classes were to be taken over by a trainee with no sporting ability, enthusiasm or aptitude.
Within the prison, prisoners were rewarded for telling on other prisoners. In some cases, reporting another’s misdeeds was the only way that you could erase your own from the record. The prison gang received both subtle and overt support from the authorities as a way of keeping order within the prison.
Unfortunately, I believe that these things are likely to happen in real life situations similar to this, not just make believe ones. There were some sweet volunteers doing their best for the inmates, but the situation was biased against them.
Several situations brought this home to me in particular. The first was when a director from the National Theatre of Wales came to audition detainees for Under Milk Wood. He told them that he was casting the play and there would be five parts, which would obviously guarantee entry into Wales for those who won them. A golden ticket out of that place. The prospective actors were given a copy of the play to read overnight (a welcome point of interest and I must admit a trigger for me to finally read this famous Welsh play) and the next day auditions were held.
Notes were given to unsuccessful candidates, which culminated in them being asked to leave the room, until only two prospective actors were left. They were then told, in patronising terms, that they’d really done very well, but had not achieved the standard expected, so no one from the centre would be joining the cast. This was crushing for Lexi and Archan, who had maybe, slightly, begun to hope.
The most dispiriting thing was the Welsh citizenship test. It was based on the UK citizenship test, but obviously with a welsh slant. The questions ranged from the utterly obvious (or at least I hope so)…
to the slightly ridiculous
to the very niche, but reasonable…
Some of them, in common with the UK citizenship test were just bad questions.
The whole test was just unfair; in common with the whole process. In order to make everything harder, the cover page was in Welsh. Welsh language questions that the detainees had never been taught to answer and could only guess at. They were told that we had thirty minutes to answer the test. I went through it using my usual exam strategy, where I quickly answered all the questions that I was sure of and then went back to the others. Just as well, because after only eighteen minutes we were told to return our pens and hand our papers in!
As a Scot, living in Wales for the last 14 years, I sat this test, using all my local knowledge, but no internet help. I got 83%, but with a couple of lucky guesses. Out of interest, I then sat an online version of the UK citizenship test. As a well read, well educated person who was born in the UK and has lived here all my life, I got 79%. The pass mark is 75%, so if we were tested, I would have only just have been allowed to stay in my own country!
At the end of the game, four people made it into Wales and about six were refused asylum and sent back to England. The rest were left in limbo, stuck in the detention centre for at least three months, until the next quota harvest. My character was left at the centre, with a great sense of frustration and unfairness.
So why did I do it? And what did I get out of it?
I can understand people who say that they have no interest in this game and also those who say this is misery tourism , where voyeuristic kicks are obtained without actually suffering. However there are also those who have said, “I wouldn’t like to play this game, but I’m really glad it happened.”
I felt that this was a rare chance to stand in someone else’s shoes; perhaps not walk, but at least get a sense of their lives. It was also a way for me to actually, ‘check my privilege.’ At the moment, as a white, affluent, well educated westerner, living in Europe, it would be relatively easy for me to move to another country for a perceived better life. This may change in the near future. Who knows how easy it will be to travel or emigrate if Brexit happens, but at this turbulent time, I felt I should appreciate what I’ve got.
Appreciating what I have also extends to simple physical luxuries. These include running water, hot water, a bathroom within the house, a choice of tasty foods freely available, the ability to go where I want and spend my free time how I please. Those things, which are so easy to take for granted, are particularly appealing when they have not been available. I know there is a similar effect after a camping trip; I particularly enjoy cleaning my teeth under running water after three or four days in a field, but this was considerably more profound.
I think I understand a little more about the personal situation of refugees, although I would never say this is anything compared to what they have put up with. What I can do is empathise with them better. I was playing an imaginary person in a fiction situation, but the emotions I experienced are real and those will stay with me. That I feel, is a useful reminder for everyday life.
What did I do to prepare?
I read accounts of refugees and their experiences, both online and in books. I found Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini particularly useful. This is the autobiography of the Syrian refugee who arrived on the Greek coast by leaky rubber dingy, swimming with it part of the way, and then went on to swim in the Olympics. She was a normal, middle class girl from a nice part of Syrian, who suddenly found herself living in a country in the throes of a civil war.
I was also particularly affected by this article showing what refugees took with them on their travels. There is a lot of very poignant information out there if you look for it.
What was my luxury item?
The BBC radio programme, ‘Desert Island Discs’ allows you to take one luxury item with you. I did take some chocolate, but that was confiscated by the guards in the initial bag search, so my luxury item was two books (this would probably not be allowed by the presenter Kirsty Young, but she allows one book and one luxury item, so this was my luxury).
I was very pleased with this as one of my character choices. I chose The Grey King, by Susan Cooper and The Owl Service by Alan Garner; both books strongly associated with Wales and things I thought Archan would have read as a kid. The Grey King is a wonderful book, and very evocative of North Wales where it is set. I hadn’t read it for years, but it was the perfect relevant book to take me out of my situation and stoke Archan’s dreams of the future. The Owl Service was lent to Madison, another inmate who appeared to be as keen on books as Archan; a gift which was gratefully received.
How far were you prepared to go?
The LRP was set up with careful parameters of what could be discussed and played upon in public areas, eg there was no homophobia, sexism etc. Originally these had been excluded completely from the game, but players requested from the organisers that they wanted these to be themes in the game (i.e. to feel discriminated against because of those things, not to impose them on others). These themes could be explored in one-to-one interactions eg medical consultations, interviews with staff and black box scenes which were isolated scenes, either in a different location, or flashbacks or scenes which might take place in a character’s future.
These black box scenes seemed to be very powerful for those who experienced them. I did not; although on the journey home, I thought of several scenes from Archan’s past which would have been interesting to play through. If I were to play this LRP again, I would explore black box scenes for added depth of experience.
The organisers were very careful to document how far on tricky themes each player was prepared to go and obtain consent for this. As each character had a set of papers which were produced at each interview, it was very easy for NPCs to check on a scale of 1–5 how happy players were with different experiences, either physical or psychological. As such, it seemed like a very safe space in which to explore challenging themes. Just thinking about and ticking those boxes in pre-play was an interesting psychological test.
It is an experience I am very glad I challenged myself with. I shared it with a fantastic group of players and it was enabled by some innovative organisers and excellent crew. Many thanks to all of them.