Over last weekend I attended Chimera
, the second annual Live-action roleplay convention in NZ. LARP is a form I've drifted away from in the past decade, but I have enough of an interest that travelling up to Auckland seemed worthwhile; and it did prove to be an interesting and valuable expedition.
However, some parts of the weekend caught my attention, especially because I returned from Auckland to land right in the thick of the NZ Diversity Forum
. I was, perhaps, primed to notice and consider diversity issues, and the games I participated in gave me much to think about on this subject. Here is some of that thinking. I will be trying to work this out as I type; it will probably take me a couple posts to get through it all.
I'll start with a fairly lengthy description before I get to reflection and analysis.
Colonization and indigeneity: Requiem
The first game on Saturday morning, and the second overall in the convention, was a "special episode" of an ongoing game of Requiem, the White Wolf Vampire live game. The ongoing game is set in contemporary NZ, and this session was a flashback to NZ in the early 1800s. Participants in the game were present for the birth of one of the game's important NPCs, and in principle at least the outcome of this game would echo forward to impact on the ongoing experience. I was very intrigued by this game once I saw that the premise was an early-colonial period where the player characters would be predominantly Maori. In a weekend where costume was widely encouraged, instructions for this game were to come wearing simple black clothing.
We turned up to the muster and character sheets were handed out, more or less at random, while the GMs advised us of some of the parameters of the game. As I looked around the participants I was extremely aware that we were a very white bunch of players, although with a fairly large percentage who weren't born in NZ. Notably, there weren't any brown faces in the bunch.
The players of Maori characters were divided into three (real-world) tribes: Ngati Toa
, Ngai Tahu
. It was explained that we were coming together to determine the fate of a woman who had fallen pregnant to the taniwha
who had destroyed her tribe. A taniwha is a type of creature in Maori mythology that has many aspects, most prominently as fearsome monster and as guardian spirit. Here, the fearsome monster aspect was invoked in a story of a community being killed leaving only this woman alive, and then taking her against her will as a mate and impregnating her with a spirit child.
At this point the GMs distributed small pendants to each member of the tribes. They were small, plastic tourist-style artefacts. The Ngapuhi and Ngati Toa characters were given small green plastic hei tiki, which is the classic piece of commodified Maori culture. The tribe to which I'd been assigned, Ngai Tahu, were given bone fishhooks (made of plastic of course). These, we were told, represented an element of backstory taken directly from real history, in which members of our tribe had tricked, killed, and eaten a chief of Ngati Toa. This was a reference to the events in 1828 at Kaiapoi Pa
, where Te Pehi Kupe
was killed and his bones made into fishhooks.
I was, I admit, quite pleased when I heard that one of the pendants had fallen and shattered, so I could go without wearing this marker; they did not entirely sit right with me, and I don't put anything around my neck lightly.
Then, the GMs produced pencils to mark the face and asked men and women to give themselves moko
, or facial tattoos. I was not comfortable about doing this. Ta moko is an important cultural signifier within Maori society, and it carries much importance. It was, to be blunt, a symbolic marker that I was not prepared to mess with. I left my face bare for the game. One person questioned me, but I just said I wasn't going to wear anything on my face, and that was accepted immediately.
As we made our way to the game venue a few other interesting aspects of the game became clear. First, more by accident than design, the players we had playing our three chiefs were all women. This was entirely ahistorical; even more notable was that the chiefs were all real. Thus in the reality of this game, Te Rauparaha of Ngati Toa
, one of the greatest warriors and military strategists in NZ history, was a woman.
Secondly, it became clear that the three tribes were primed in the game materials to disagree about the appropriate response to the woman's survival and pregnancy. Ngati Toa was primed to seek the death of both woman and child, in order to prevent some future catastrophe; Ngapuhi was primed to save both woman and child, to honour the taniwha and show mercy; Ngai Tahu was primed to save the woman but ensure the child died so it could not grow up to threaten the taniwha (and thus endanger the fundamental balance existing in the natural and mystical world).
Additionally, one of the participants who was not playing a Maori character approached us in the Ngai Tahu iwi and said that his whakapapa was Ngai Tahu, so more power to us. Following this I made it my business to speak to my fellow members of Ngai Tahu. I can't remember exactly what I said, but my main point was that we should stand strong. We were representing real people, and we owed it to them to represent them well. (I was thinking, as I said this, of one of the experiences I'd had at a marae, where a Maori friend lightly chastised me for being reticent and deferential; these behaviours were polite in my cultural background but they made me look out of place and unworthy of respect within a Maori cultural context.) My short comments were happily accepted by those around me, and in fact sparked a discussion over how we would present ourselves in the face of our rivals and enemies in the other tribal groupings.
My assigned character was a "storyteller", who was an advisor to the chief and secretly a member of a supernatural caste.
The game itself
The game began. One GM took the role of a tohunga (a cultural role with elements of wise advisor, cultural expert, shaman and priest) and began the game by announcing the beginning of a meeting to decide the fate of the pregnant woman. He also introduced the other trio of players, all white men who were in fact providing the neutral ground on which the meeting took place. These were, again, all historical figures: James Busby
, sent by Britain to mediate disputes between the Maori and the increasing numbers of European visitors; Samuel Marsden
, the first missionary to NZ; and Captain John Stewart
, who in real history would go on to help Te Rauparaha avenge the Ngati Toa defeat at Kaiapoi and capture Ngai Tahu chief Te Maiharanui. Te Maiharanui was another character in the game, played as noted earlier by a woman. I should also note here that the player of Samuel Marsden was the Maori player who had approached us earlier.
It was obvious that all participants were sincere in their efforts to honour the Maori they represented. Everyone was trying very hard to stand strong, and to engage in some level of cultural immersion.
The theme of colonization was extremely strong in the game. It was virtually unmentioned in the pregame materials and discussion, but the events of the game foregrounded it by sitting three figures from colonial days at the table. Additionally, it became apparent that the colonisation of New Zealand was intended to be at issue in the game, primarily through the trade in firearms which was a point of action for several characters and which, historically, had a huge impact on NZ history by empowering some iwi over others.
Even accounting for these in-game prompts, however, my impression was that the colonial theme was irresistible in play on all sides. A great deal of time was spent by Maori players arguing forcefully that their world view was not for sale and would not be abandoned, and that trade with the European visitors would end poorly. Direct arguments with the European players were frequent. Often these took the form where the European player would explain the benefits of engaging with them, and the Maori player would vigorously refute those benefits.
There was another curious note: a number of times Maori players asked the Europeans to explain the meaning of some of their terminology. This was an interesting ploy as far as it went, but it would have been particularly nice if the device had been used to show how the two worldviews were different; instead, it seemed in practice to simply indicate that the Maori questioner was ignorant and needed to have a term explained to them.
Discussion of the ostensible purpose of the gathering, the fate of the woman and her unborn child, did not proceed very far. Essentially the three tribes presented their expectations, and when it was apparent there was no obvious way to resolve the difference, discussion stalled. The three chiefs met with the woman and tohunga in private and continued discussion, while outside the others devised arguments as to why their approach to the problem was the best one. However, these were not founded on a shared metaphysic and so did not carry much argumentative weight. Meanwhile, the European characters tried to win us over to trade, Christianity, and the benefits of engagement.
This was the way the first half of the game went. The second half began when an omen of death was seen in the meeting house (a piwakawaka, or fantail; if the small bird enters a house it is taken as a sign that someone in the house will soon die - this customary interpretation is widely known even among pakeha New Zealanders). Soon after, some players began to push their hidden agendas, and the scale of the conflict escalated swiftly into a large battle with substantial supernatural activity. Throughout this, I had my character sit crosslegged, watching but not participating. (One of the other players noted this with amused approval, saying it was very Parihaka
of me, which I thought was an excellent comment to make!)
After the main pieces of action had been resolved, we came together and the GMs discussed with us what had happened, what hidden information there had been, what was based on real history and what was invented, and where this would impact on the events in their ongoing Requiem game. And then the game was ended.Next: why this game was great, and why it bothered me