Just a Little Lovin' is a live action role-playing (larp) event designed by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo that explores the lives of people in alternative sexual and spiritual subcultures between 1982-1984 in Saratoga, New York during the initial onset of the AIDS crisis. Players enact the roles of individuals in a community mostly composed of LGBTQ+ people and cancer survivors. The characters are invited to a big gay 4th of July party in the early 1980s. Death arrives the morning after and the people in the scene have to face loss and fear of death. The party continues in the face of death and a party scene is transformed into a community.
The larp explores the themes of desire, fear of death, and friendship over the course of six days. These six days include workshopping, play, debriefing, and educational speeches from AIDS activists. The larp explores an important time in LGBTQ+ history, is run by LGBTQ+ writers/organizers, and is told through the eyes of many LGBTQ+ characters. Just a Little Lovin' is also a larp that features cis-gendered heterosexual characters who are dealing with fear of death, loss, and community in their own context.
The intent of this larp is explore LGBTQ+ history, create spaces to have LGBTQ+ experiences in larp, and to increase awareness of the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic and also of cancer through the lens of first-person identification with character, which helps players develop empathy for others. Similar to a film or play, the sensitive treatment of these serious topics in a larp can increase visibility, promote discussion, reinforce support networks, and inspire activism in participants. By stepping into the role of the characters, such potential increases, as players often report feeling strong feelings of catharsis and connection to the larp content.
In addition, this larp gives participants the opportunity to play on the more general human themes of desire, fear of death, and friendship. Through the lens of the character, the player can engage with these themes and potentially reflect upon their place in one's own life from a position of relative safety. As the designers Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo wrote in the Knutebook 2013 book:
The concept of the larp is a story about people in the gay community in the US in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic hit. Still, we wanted to make a game on issues and themes with contemporary relevance. AIDS, with its connotations of sex and death, has a strong potential for telling stories of universal themes that would genuinely touch the players; to further provide an experience from which our participants could react on questions of identity and 'how I want to live before I die.' [With] the development of the characters and the on-site workshops, we sought to create a dialectic between desire (symbolized by gay culture and alternative lifestyles) and the fear of death (symbolized by HIV and cancer). These two were in turn balanced by strong and multifaceted friendships. We also promised to ensure that the participants could feel safe enough to step outside their comfort zone, both as larpers and as human beings.
Originally run in Norway in 2011, Just a Little Lovin' has also been played in Sweden (2012), Denmark (2013, 2015), and France (2016). The 2017 Minnesota run will mark the first time JaLL will be played in the United States, although North American players have attended previous runs. To see the official website, click here.
Just a Little Lovin' is intended for players of any gender orientation or sexuality interested in exploring ramifications of the HIV epidemic in the gay, lesbian and alternative scenes in the 1980s. Just a Little Lovin' is a space for characters to experience physicality, dancing, performance, flirtation, and sexuality. Characters experience the vibrant and happy gay culture of the '80s with no fear of tomorrow. Then, the theme suddenly turns tragic in the face of death. Therefore, the larp also focuses on strong emotions, including the feelings around death and personal loss. In this regard, the larp is often experienced as quite celebratory, emphasizing the urge to cherish precious moments with loved ones in the face of tragedy.
Players should be open to engaging with the sensitive subject matters of HIV and cancer and strong emotional themes, including romance, sexuality, and grief. Consent and community care are core values of this larp that are built into the structure, mechanics, and debriefing. Potential players should be interested in engaging in physical play with others.
In contrast to many mainstream larps, the Nordic-style larp Just a Little Lovin' is not intended to be played solely for fun or entertainment. While elements of the larp, such as engaging in the party culture of the early '80s, can be considered fun, much of the content focuses on tragedy and catharsis.
This larp does not include any sort of resolution mechanics to officiate who wins or loses in a conflict. Instead, players can collaboratively negotiate how a conflict may unfold or decide to follow the course of role-playing that interaction more spontaneously. Collaboration and negotiation are at the heart of Just a Little Lovin'. In this regard, the larp is not a "game" in the sense that characters win or lose. Regardless of their character's eventual storyline, the intention is for players to experience the themes intensely. The larp is designed to encourage greater engagement and active involvement with HIV awareness and the rights of sexual and gender minorities after play.
This larp emphasizes sexuality in many forms, relationships, grief, and friendships. A common phrase associated with style of larp is "playing to lose," in the sense that one's character may experience the breakup of a relationship, the fear of death, the loss of dear friends, and the fragmentation of the community as the result of the disease. In this sense, "losing" refers to exploring emotions that people might normally wish to avoid in play spaces in order to achieve greater empathy, self-awareness, and understanding of important issues. Thus, this larp does not feature any sort of competition in the traditional sense of the word.
This larp is designed in the Nordic style, meaning that the emphasis of play is on immersion into character, collaborative storytelling, and artistic themes. As with many Nordic larps, Just a Little Lovin' focuses upon a socially realistic setting rather than exploring these themes through the lens of a genre like fantasy or post-apocalyptic horror. Examples of Nordic larps based on serious realistic settings include Kapo, about a prison camp, and Halat Hisar, about an occupied country, etc. While many Nordic larps feature socially realistic settings such as these, some players may be familiar with larps such as College of Wizardy, New World Magischola, or End of the Line, which are set in more fantastic genres. Similarly, players may be familiar with Nordic or American freeform larps, which often have similar goals, but less costuming, set, and physical requirements. Regardless of the setting, the emphasis in Nordic larp is shared experience, collaboration, empathy, and reflection.
The 2017 Minnesota run of Just a Little Lovin' is organized by the original Norwegian designers and several North American designers, almost all of whom identify as LGBTQ+ and many of whom have played or run this larp before. The designers and lead organizers are volunteers who are not seeking to make a profit from this run of Just A Little Lovin'. They are supported by a much larger group of local and international volunteers, without whom this production of the larp would be impossible.
The player will be assigned a new character and the organizers will help them reintegrate into existing social dynamic. Alternately, they may take a break from play as needed.
No. This setting focuses on a particular feeling of the time period of transition between the late '70s and early '80s, but does not attempt to replicate actual events or people. The larp is based on many historical sources, but also on works of fiction such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. Here are some reading materials if you are interested in the history of HIV/AIDS as it hit the New York scene in the early 1980s. Certain characters are inspired by real figures. Others are built on specific types from those circulating in the sub-culture at the time. It should be emphasized that all characters are fictional and no character is attempting to recreate a specific historical persona. Painstaking attention was paid to avoid characters becoming clichés, stereotypes, or insensitive expressions of people living at the time.
Yes, sexuality is portrayed with the use of representational mechanics, consent negotiations, and relationship discussions out-of-character. Anyone can opt-in or opt-out of sensual scenes at any time. While characters choose the degree to which they engage with sex, sexuality is a major theme that is interwoven throughout all of the characters and permeates strongly throughout the larp. Real life sex acts are not a part of this larp.
For more information about the structure and mechanics of the larp, see the following article: Sarah Lynne Bowman, Love, Sex, Death, and Liminality: Ritual in Just a Little Lovin'
The characters of this larp are mostly fictional, although elements of their stories are inspired by first-hand accounts. While many of these accounts are by white, gay men, we recognize that the disease had intersectional concerns that should be addressed. We are reevaluating the characters for this run by looking for opportunities to include the voices of people of color, trans, non-binary, and other marginalized minorities. We would appreciate recommendations for additional accounts from this period -- especially from profoundly marginalized communities -- if readers have suggestions.
We want this larp to be accessible to people of all genders. While the original Just a Little Lovin' does feature trans characters, the United States organizing team is working with the authors to make the larp fully inclusive of multiple gender identities in a respectful manner. As with racial inclusion, the organizers are consulting designers, players, and trans folks outside the gaming community for input. We plan to revise the larp after gathering more information and processing this feedback.
The larp does feature a few straight characters, although all characters are involved in alternative sexuality subcultures in some way and have the opportunity to experience a spectrum of sexual identities and expressions throughout play. HIV/AIDS does not just affect LGBTQ+ communities, but all communities. In Just a Little Lovin', the design helps demonstrate the spread of the disease between various sexual partners regardless of sexuality, including heterosexual characters.
We believe so. For some players who identify as heterosexual, sexuality may feel more like a continuum than a definitive boundary. Just a Little Lovin' can offer these individuals the opportunity to express different aspects of themselves. Even players who still identify as heterosexual after the larp often express that the experience is a transportative journey. We also hope to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis as a recent catastrophe that is important for the history of this country. As mentioned above, many straight players become more ardent allies after playing the larp and some engage in activism as a direct result as a result of increased empathy through identification.
For some perspectives on the larp from heterosexual players, see the following articles:
It is important to us that this larp be accessible to people of all races and ethnicities. The United States organizing team -- with input from several other POC designers -- is working with the authors to revise the larp in order to make it fully inclusive of people of color. We are consulting with several game designers, players, and larpers of color about the issue of how to sensitively portray race in Just a Little Lovin' in a way that is welcoming to players who are POC.
Currently, we do not plan to have the explicit racism of the early 1980s play a strong role in this larp. Our goal is to create a space for community support in times of crisis. So, while characters of color certainly would have experienced racism in their lives outside of the larp, the characters within the larp will likely be more accepting than the general public.
Class background is established for most of the characters. The larp features financially and politically powerful individuals, middle class people, and working class characters. Class dynamics often affects how the larp plays out, particularly in terms of characters with less means seeking help from those with resources during the crisis, as the larp focuses on the community helping one another through times of tragedy.
No real drugs or alcohol are allowed during the larp. However, simulated drug use and non-alcoholic drinks are part of the setting, as drug use was an important part of some of the subcultures represented and have had an important impact on the spread of AIDS. Alcohol, cocaine, and IV drug use are specifically mentioned in some character descriptions. Only a small number of characters have drug or alcohol use listed as a central part of their character, so those who do not want to participate in this aspect of play are not required to do so. However, completely avoiding encountering simulated alcohol and drug use by other characters during the larp is not possible.
We understand that the idea of this larp might sound problematic, especially to people with personal lived experience with the AIDS tragedy. We also understand that players with no personal connection to the AIDS crisis have the luxury to return to their lives, whereas people who suffer from this painful era of history cannot. Our intentions with this larp are to help inspire empathy, education, and activism around these issues and to treat them with the seriousness they deserve. We believe that larp is a form of art, just as film, painting, sculpture, and other works and that embodying characters can create a personal connection to this subject matter. For some past players, that personal connection was already present, but for others, the larp creates a sense of relevancy and immediacy to a difficult topic.
When sensitively written or performed, works of art can produce in participants strong feelings of catharsis, identification with characters, emotional connection to the material, and empathy. Artists have produced several excellent books, movies, and plays on the topic of AIDS, including Sarah Schulmann's People in Trouble, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Jonathan Larson's Rent. Just a Little Lovin' is an elegiac tribute to the people who lived through the crisis and the strength of their community. It represents a narrative by and about LGBTQ+ folks that can stand in contrast to the straight, co-opted narratives that are offered in mass media (see Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America by Sarah Schulman). As with recent documentaries such as We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, the larp is a form of memory work around this time period. Similarly, contemporary museums seek ways of permitting visitors to memorably interact with the past. At the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, identification cards are used to personalize the past and let visitors emotionally engage with it.
With Just a Little Lovin', the organizers create affordances for such engagement with the early 1980s: scenery, soundtracks, characters, safety mechanics, etc. All this design work is done with the end goal of eliciting empathy, just like many other art-forms and interactive media: empathy between players, as some have been directly impacted by the AIDS crisis, and empathy for those still suffering in the larger world. That empathy is intended to drive humans to change their behaviors and take a stand against previously unperceived injustices and silences.
Researchers have demonstrated how first-person identification with character and narrative -- also called perspective taking -- can shape the beliefs and behavior of the participants, as they can better empathize with the subject matter (see Libby & Kaufman 2012). Just as a powerful performance by an actor can inspire emotional connections to otherwise difficult subject matter on film and stage, embodiment of characters in an intentionally-designed larp can produce an even more intensive level of involvement for participants. Larp can improve both empathy and self-awareness in participants by creating a form of aesthetic distancing, where the player experiences their own subjectivity and that of their character's at the same time. Immersing themselves in a fictional character promotes a sense of agency: the sense of being able to act within the setting rather than passively experience it, as one would a movie. This agency adds an extra dimension of connection to the material, allowing dynamic exploration of an era in time rather than static learning.
When larps are designed with a specific educational aim -- in this case, to raise awareness around AIDS and LGBTQ+ rights -- it has the potential not only to alter the viewpoints of the players, but also to promote activism in the larger community. Just a Little Lovin' has produced in many previous participants activism, writing, shared experiences, and awareness-raising around HIV/AIDS, as well as the long-term celebration of the lives of so many human beings who passed in their prime. After the 2012 Swedish run, for example, Johanna Koljonen convinced Swedish National Radio to fund a multi-part documentary on the arrival of AIDS in Sweden: The War Generation, The Lazarus Year, The Invisible Children, Inger Forsgren - HIV Saved My Life, and HIV - Threat or Disability (see press releases here and here). In many other instances, the larp prompted participants who had a direct personal connection to this period, series of events, and/or HIV/AIDS to come forth and discuss their stories in public. After the debrief, the larp ends with several speeches from AIDS activists and cancer survivors in order to contextualize the material and help provide transfer of knowledge, an essential process in educational larp. Previous players of this larp have created documentaries about AIDS on major media networks and helped develop their local Pride scenes in their home countries to include hundreds of larpers and self-professed "geeks" who would not normally attend. Players from previous runs consistently share resources with the Just a Little Lovin' community about the AIDS crisis even years after playing. In short, this larp's impact has far-reaching effects.
For more information about how larp and narrative can produce empathy, encourage self-awareness, educate, and inspire activism, we suggest the following resources (alphabetical):
The co-authors Hanne Grasmo and Tor Kjetil Edland are queer, as are the ground team: Jon Cole, Evan Torner, Kat Jones, and Heather Silsbee. Grasmo, Edland, and Cole have all worked in the areas of HIV counseling, and Jones is a sexualities expert with a certificate in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies.
Edland writes, "I have written Just a Little Lovin' together with Hanne Hank Grasmo. Both of us are queer people having lived through and being activist[s] during the time period when there were no antiretroviral medicines and when getting an HIV positive diagnosis felt like a death sentence. There was a lot of prejudice and a lot of resistance to the call of the necessity of talking frankly and honestly about sex as the right response to the epidemic. Luckily, when antiretroviral combination therapy arrived in the late 90s, they fundamentally changed the life prospects of people living with HIV.
When we made the larp, the epidemic that devastated the queer community in the '80s and '90s had receded from the public consciousness. Where were the official memorials honouring that a significant part of the population had been living through wartime, fighting this epidemic, supporting friends and strangers, watching their loved ones waste away or fighting to survive AIDS themselves?
For us Just a Little Lovin' is our way as two larp designers to create an interactive experience connecting the participants to that story, honoring its importance and also exploring how these stories resonate into your own life today. We believe that this larp has a design that makes this type of reflection possible."
Therefore, while the AIDS Quilt and pieces at museums such as the GLBT Memorial Society provide physical works of art to commemorate those who have passed, larp offers a more experiential medium in which players can connect through embodiment, which encourages the development of empathy.
Many LGBTQ+ players have expressed strong support at the educational aspects of Just a Little Lovin', particularly since the HIV epidemic is still very much an issue. Several players have been relieved to be able to play LGBTQ+ in a larp where that is the default, rather than other larp experiences where content by and for heterosexual people is the default. For an excellent example of this response, see Erik Winther Paisley, Play the Gay Away – Confessions of a Queer Larper.
Alternately, some LGBTQ+ people have found the subject matter of the larp too difficult and immediately relevant to their lived experiences -- either in the past or currently -- to want to play. This reaction is completely understandable. Not every larp or piece of media will be enriching for every person.
For some responses to the larp by queer players, see the following articles:
Tor Kjetil Edland, one of the designers of Just a Little Lovin', explains his background:
"I came of age as a young gay man in the late '80s. One of those years as a gay teenager in the '80s, I lived in the US. But it wasn't until the early '90s that I started engaging in the gay and lesbian movement internationally. I worked with HIV-prevention and support groups for people living with HIV at a time when antiretroviral life-saving therapy was still almost a decade into the future. I'm not an American and I was not part of the gay scene in New York in 1982. But I feel I have enough connection and tools for doing the research to be able to work with this material in a respectful way."
The team recognizes that the Nordic representations of experience encapsulated in the larp does not reflect the New York-specific actual experience of those who were there in this time and place. These representations are an artistic interpretation of these experiences, but one designed to express empathy and also awareness of the myriad of factors and emotions involved. No artwork can fully capture an experience but, done with sensitivity and care, it can mediate its related themes to a sympathetic audience. Any understanding someone might glean from this will necessarily be a mediation, but it also serves as a public-sphere discussion of something otherwise suppressed by mainstream media sources and artworks.
No organizer can ever be sure how a player will enact their character or conduct themselves at a larp. However, our goal is to establish an environment that fosters a deep level of respect for the subject matter and the lived experience of people who have suffered as the result of AIDS.
The introductory information and the resources shared with players on social media help set the seriousness of the tone for the larp. We recommend many articles about the facts of the time period, as well as suggested movies and music. The larp design features intensive workshopping before each of the three Acts of the larp, instructing people on how to play, helping players negotiate relationships, and providing education about AIDS at each point in history. After the larp, we have AIDS activists and cancer survivors give speeches in order to raise awareness. The educational elements of the larp are present throughout the design in order to remind players that these events exist as part of a larger context. Additionally, organizers are characters within the larp, allowing them to help shape the tone and direct play as needed. Our experience is that the people who self-select for this larp are interested in portraying their characters in a respectful and informed manner.
No. Just A Little Lovin' is an excellent larp and it will fail to adequately and accurately express the spirit of the gay community from New York City during the AIDS crisis because it is just one work of art. As a work, it cannot represent the whole of anything, least of all these complex issues of identity and history. It is a gay larp, not the gay larp.
The organizing team believes that Just A Little Lovin' is a beginning in the dialogue between the LGBTQIA+ community, HIV+ community, and larp community about this time period. This larp is one statement, one position on the setting material actively co-created by the designers, organizers, and players. We will all benefit if and when more people release creative work addressing this subject matter.
We suggest playing I Say a Little Prayer, Edland's freeform version, which is 5 hours long for 5+ players and one facilitator. This freeform scenario focuses primarily on relationships between gay men. Therefore, the scenario does not cover many of the other sub-cultures or identities represented in the larp, but is a good starting place for understanding the themes of the larp.
Please email email@example.com with any questions or concerns you have about the safety of the event. The core members of the Safety Committee -- Heather Silsbee, Sarah Lynne Bowman, and Maury Brown -- are the only people who can access these emails, and one of them will respond to you. No one besides these three people will have access to any sensitive information without your consent. You can read the Code of Conduct for JaLL here.
When the Safety Committee is notified of a possible safety concern, the members of the committee convene to discuss the information. Using the Code of Conduct as a guide, the committee will evaluate the information presented (including possibly speaking with all parties involved in the complaint while maintaining confidentiality), come to a decision about any further steps to take, notify the person who made the report about the decision, and notify the subject(s) of the complaint about any action taken that affects them. The committee's decision is reached by consensus and is final.
We will not publicly name individuals that the safety committee finds in violation of the Code of Conduct on social media or other open channels. However, we may choose to share basic information with other organizers in order to protect the safety of the overall larp community. We will not reveal the names of reporters in such discussions unless granted explicit permission and will speak only in generalities regarding the nature of the violation, using the language of the Code of Conduct.
However, if an individual found in violation of the Code of Conduct decides to speak openly about the decision on social media, we reserve the right to respond in an equally public manner as is our legal and ethical right. Our preference is to keep these matters discrete in order to respect the dignity of everyone involved and to cause as little harm to the community as possible.
Absolutely! We need volunteers and supporters in a variety of roles and welcome new perspectives. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your interest and we'll discuss how you can best help out.