Princes Park shouts ‘Excelsior’
Friday evenings are such a good time to have a walk in the park. The sunset, the silence, the empty path almost dark and full of autumn leaves; a guy with a helmet, sitting on…
Wait a minute. A guy with a helmet? I take a couple of steps back and I look at the young man, who seems very busy looking up something on the phone, while holding in the other hand a golden helmet. “There’s a fight today! I just… I just can’t find it on the maps,” he answers, when I ask what the helmet is for. Fortunately, another urban knight appears on the path. He comes regularly to Princes Park to join the weekly fights organized by Swordcraft, thus he knows where to go. It seems the way to the battle field has been found.
At the Southern Pavilion in Princes Park, every Friday night, a really strange crowd gathers at 6.30 in the afternoon: warriors with tunics and plastic swords hanging from their leather belts, of every age and belonging to different cultures. For a couple of hours, they will all be fighting side by side.
I was not in Melbourne anymore, but somewhere in the Middle Ages.
Indeed, once signed up, the players enter into the world of Althea: an imaginary land with its own geography and history. The map and the story of Althea is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings: a world populated not only by humans, but also orcs, elves and creatures with magic powers. Chris B., who guided me and the lost knight, is a passionate player. He found the fantastic world of Althea two years ago. “I had just moved into a new house at that time… one day I saw my neighbor loading in the boot of his car a sword and an armor,” Chris laughs. “I thought, hey, that’s crazy, let me check out what this is all about.”
Swordcraft, as defined on www.swordcraft.com.au, is a Medieval Live Action Battle Game which belongs to LARP games: Live Action Role Play. The players are required to take seriously the medieval setting of Althea: clothes should be as realistic as possible, and also the weapons. Links such as www.calimacil.com and www.epicarmoury.com , sell weapons’ reproductions and accurate reconstructions of medieval customs for the most demanding players. Several referees are present at every meeting to make sure formal rules are respected. “They won’t be too strict though, they are here to check that every player has a peaceful and safe conduct, more than their costume,” says Chris. “People must come to have fun, improve and train, not to hurt each other.”
Nonetheless, the new players are warned: Swordcraft is an active game, and more realistic then it seems, thus they should be prepared to receive several knocks. Indeed, Swordcraft is not a ‘school yard’ kind of fighting, but a physical challenge that requires, if one wants to last more than 10 minutes in the game, a certain training. Moreover, Swordcraft encourages to use fighting techniques that were used in the Middle Ages, and it offers a range of courses to learn how to fight not only with swords, but also with arcs, axes and other weapons.
“Darling, you look like a statue.” A tall long haired man is looking at me. He is probably right: I am at the side of the battle pitch, still immobilized by the surprise of seeing so many people bouncing around with their shiny armors and elves’ ears and arrows ready to be shot. I was walking along Princes Park and I ended up in Narnia. Some of the warriors, in the meantime, are taking a break on the grass. They seem relaxed. “For one night a week, they forget their job, their duties, their deadlines and just enjoy the thrill of the battle, sweat a fair bit and meet new people,” says Phillis, one of the Swordcraft’s funders. “It is also a great effort to develop your imagination.”
Indeed, Dan Ladgin, video game entertainment expert, claimed that LARP stimulates both imagination and body: our memory storage receives active impulses, our brain is pushed to create and immerge ourselves in the atmosphere of the game. Moreover, “ LARP makes people actually meet each other in the reality instead of keep them in a virtual world. And people can gain real skills.”
Skills are of the greatest importance in bigger events, such as the Autumn Quest or the Earthcore (www.earthcore.com.au/arts/swordcraft). These are festivals built around fighting competence that end with a big final battle where players can show what they learned. Dan Ladgin underlined there is also a strong sense of community, proved by the peaceful atmosphere people say they breathe during these festivals.
“Do you want to join?” asks me the tall man. “Sure,” I say. He smiles, “We will find you a tunic of your size.”
As soon as I wear my tunic – definitely not of my size- I suddenly become visible for all the other players. I still do not have the faintest idea of what I am supposed to do, and who I have to fight. Apparently, there are many groups and many enemies in the land of Althea: from the kingdom of Aris come the groups of the Black Rose and of the Black Corsairs; from the Middlemark come the groups of the Guardian of the Dawn and the Boar Clan; from that part of the reign called Borderlands, the Blades of the North and the Bandits of the Black Talon. Amongst them, many others. It seems that the long haired tall man is going to be the captain I will fight and die for.
During the battle I come across a red haired heroine with a crown of leaves on her head and what I deduced to be raven’s wings on her back. We were both hiding behind a bush, in hope of taking the enemies by surprise. Her name is Lady Night. “I am just Lady Night during the fights.” She started to take her son to the training courses provided by Swordcraft. “But he’s not ready for the battle pitch.” Her husband was in the enemy group.
It didn’t take too long until I was dead; apparently I am not a brilliant fighter. The referees are also supposed to check that players who receive more than three or four ‘bad injuries’ during the battle leave the game and do not cheat. Everybody is covered in sweat and more and more players come off the battle field, defeated by a more valorous warrior, and enjoy what actually is a very interesting show to watch. “Let your fantasy free,” said a man to his thirteen year old son. That’s probably the main point of Swordcraft and LARP.
I also saw something else: contact. Contact between people. Johann Hari, in The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, he says:
“The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before”
The whole concept of the internet and social platforms, as well as video games, is of connecting people despite distance, cultural barriers, different languages. But this has a price: instead of being a mere device for discovery and communication, it is also a means for isolation and laziness towards the world. Online video games and social platforms make people play together, but they are not really together: each of the players is in the dark of a room, separated from the others.
It could totally be out of grub for many skeptical people, and I in the first place cannot say to feel completely comfortable with tight leather costumes, cloths and decorated swords, but, as they say down here, who cares? It’s just for some fun.