Most of us think of tabletop RPGs and live-action role play (LARP) as amusing ways to geek out over a long weekend with friends, but there are some serious gamers out there who think these games can actually be a force for social change. And one of them, a newly appointed Norwegian minister, might just have the clout to do something about it.
Heikki Holmas, the 39-year-old gamer geek who just became Norway's minister of international development, has been role-playing since he discovered the single-player gamebook The Forest of Doom at age 15. From there he moved on to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and even won Norway's D&D championship back in 1989. He also helped found RegnCon, an RPG convention held annually in the Norwegian city of Bergen, and ran the event from 1992 to 1993.
Holmas has also moved on to participating in LARPs, including one set in World War II-era Norway that had a particular impact on his view of society.
"It was an incredible staging of 1942," he said. "We had people dressed like German soldiers, driving around in amphibious vehicles. It was totally ... it was an amazing LARP. I've never before or since felt such a total feeling of isolation in society. Isolation, and the despair that grabs you when you realized that your German masters didn't give a s--t."
Thanks to experiences like that, Holmas now believes that RPGs and LARPs have serious potential for political and social education.
"RPGs can be extremely relevant in putting people in situations they're unfamiliar with," he said. "Save the Children have their refugee games. I have friends in Bergen who've run human-rights RPGs. But you have to be professional. You create real emotions when you play role-playing games, real emotions that stick."
It's those kind of "real emotions" that make Holmas think that RPGs and LARPs, when used in the right way, can have a serious social impact.
"That's kind of the slightly scary aspect of role-playing games, which has to be considered. At the same time, it's what makes it possible for RPGs to change the world," he said. "LARP can change the world, because it lets people understand that humans under pressure may act differently than in the normal life, when you're safe."