When I was in middle school, my brother swiped the wire hangers from my closet. They went missing from the rest of the house too. Every night after calculus homework, he worked away at one gorgeous, obsessive task: knocking together suit after suit of chain mail armor.

One night the hammering stopped and he made a rare appearance. Could our mom sew him a tabard with a cowl? She could and she did. With that under his arm, he and two friends made their way to a nearby avocado grove. I wasn’t allowed to follow, but I’d guess they suited up, bashed at each other with swords, and said things in British accents. Today you might call that Larp, short for “live-action role-play,” a term widely used to describe hours spent in a fantasy world. Back then you called it weird.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED Illustration: Eddie Guy

Weird didn’t faze my brother. Being a closeted gay kid, I envied his attitude. While I spent my teenage years dodging bullies, he found a way to mentally ditch them entirely.

I didn’t think about his chain mail gambit until two years ago. It was that first brutal, boring pandemic winter. Almost everyone I knew was ready to drop not only their jobs and apartments but—if possible—reality itself. The Larp scene had exploded in the decades since my brother’s DIY adventures, as I discovered one night while doomscrolling. Without much trouble, you could have a high-end experience of whacking some poor guy dressed as an orc. But that swords and wizards stuff had never been my exact flavor of geek.

I caught wind of a different scene, though—that of Nordic Larps. These underground games, played mostly in northern Europe, took players on thinky head trips. You could spend several days in The Secret History, the 1992 novel about murderous kids at a small New England college. Or hang out in an alternate reality where women held all the social power, or attend a Fourth of July barbecue at a Polish reimagining of an Ohio trailer park. I was already traveling to Denmark for a family trip in the fall of 2021. As luck would have it, one of the buzziest Nordic Larps coming out of the pandemic—called The Future Is Straight—would take place not more than an hour away.

The team behind the game—Karete Jacobsen Meland, Tor Kjetil Edland, and Anna Emilie Groth—were veteran designers. The website was sleek. I booked my ticket on an impulse, and my character sheets arrived a few months later. They contained four pages of backstory on a teenager named “Ferret,” the guy I would play, including his relationships with other players in the game and the world we would inhabit.

When the time came, I packed some T-shirts and a pair of jeans. No need for chain mail; where I was going, they told the men to dress in blue and the women in red. I flew to Denmark and made my way to a retreat center deep in the woods. For four days, I would go by a different name, make some new friends, and very possibly get my psyche ripped up by the roots.

“Hello,” says Andreas, holding out a handwritten poem. “I believe I am to be your lover?” He seems nice—broad-shouldered, shy smile. The 23-year-old is an ex-cop, working part-time as a firefighter a few hours away.

We’re on the Djursland peninsula of Jutland. The retreat center is surrounded on three sides by old-growth forest and, beyond that, the Kattegat Sea. The fourth side gives out onto rye fields and the occasional farmhouse copied right from a tin of butter cookies. The buildings are owned by a Copenhagen teachers union, but for this week the walls are plastered with images of bland straight couples. Soon it will go by its Larp name, the Centre for Action. A flag hoisted over the quad reads, “Helping you become natural.”

We’re going to pretend this is a gay conversion therapy camp. Conversion camps are places that pressure young queer people into denying their sexuality, and years of work have gone into making this place feel authentic. But as I’ve just discovered, a lot of the setup in a Larp falls to players. The game starts in 20 minutes, and I’m realizing I’m nowhere near ready.

Andreas is here to help me flesh out my relationship with his character, North. North is a poet, I’ve had a rough home life, and our characters have shared a first, stolen kiss. Beyond that information in the character sheets, I haven’t thought up any details to help make Ferret come alive. I tell Andreas what I’ve read, which is that Ferret is overeager and hopes the therapy will work. But the way Andreas talks about North, it’s clear he’s gone much deeper. Not only did he pen the love poems, he also brought a slick blue sweater that he’d knitted himself.

Character sheets gave the backstory on Ferret and the world he would inhabit.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

Andreas grew up immersed in Larp, as did many Danes of his generation. He went to Østerskov Efterskole, the first government-sponsored school in the world where Larping is central to just about every class. Most of his experience was in traditional Larp, filled with elves, quests, and combat with blunted weapons—“boffers.” Fantasy and boffer play is what nearly everyone imagines when they think of Larp.

But in the 1990s, an offshoot of that kind of play took root in Finland and Scandinavia. Some Nordic players began to wonder why they couldn’t abandon the long shadow of Dungeons & Dragons and hop into worlds by, say, Ingmar Bergman or Lars von Trier. Freewheeling experiments in genre followed. One defining Finnish Larp from 1998, Ground Zero, was set in the thick of the Cold War and unfolded in a basement mocked up to look like an Oklahoma bomb shelter. No elaborate costumes. No weapons except the nuclear warheads falling outside. The game, which cost about $200 to produce, let players experience the end of the world.

The Nordic Larp scene began to quietly germinate, favoring games with collaborative storytelling around intense human experiences: a tiny Norwegian village under German occupation, a failing hippie commune in the 1970s. The scene attracted new players, among them academics and those with an itch for unusual experiences. The events also brought distinct challenges, including the possibility of real emotional harm. To work out issues of how to keep players safe and push the limits of the form, the community gathers at Knutepunkt, an annual meeting that is as much hardcore game jam as academic conference.

Nordic Larp now has decades of history, but seems to barely register outside its close-knit circles. Even Andreas, raised on boffer play, only recently got into it. He tells me he’s a little nervous about playing our love affair “because I’ve never done a romantic Larp.” I’m nervous, too, because he appears as straight as a gastropub.

We’re called into the starting event. The assembly hall has the pine beams and calm brightness I always associate with Scandinavian public buildings. About 30 “rehabbers” stand around awkwardly, all dressed in red or blue, before taking seats. In front stand the five people who prepared for weeks to be camp leaders. One of the creators, Groth, gives a brief pep talk, then someone plays a James Blake ballad. As soon as the music ends, the big reality switch is supposed to flip.

I’ve braced myself, but it feels like nothing. An earnest guy in a sad brown jacket steps up. “Just … a few announcements before lunch, people. Today marks your fourth week at the camp, and some of you show genuine promise in fighting your sickness.” The camp director’s speech is unremarkable, except for the fact that seconds ago this person was a Helsinki-based stand-up comedian, full of an impish joy that is now gone.

Conversion therapy camps are probably banal in real life too. That doesn’t diminish the harm they do, a fact not one of us is blind to. The World Medical Association, a body representing the national physician groups of more than 100 countries, has called them “a serious threat to … health and human life.” The camps lead to a sixfold increase in rates of depression and eight times the rate of suicide in the people who go through them.

Despite that, all of us have somehow made the choice to shell out $295 for a ticket, meals inclusive, to be here.

“Man, she gives me the creeps.” That’s Hawk, one of my roommates. We’ve finished our first “classes” and are walking back across the quad. Our last lecture laid out the argument against homosexuality based on science, or at least what passed for science around the 1960s. The ideas should have been laughable, but they got such a persuasive, intellectual glow-up that I half worried the script might fall into the wrong hands.

The lecture mostly crawled around our minds, though, because of the woman who delivered it. Ms. Walker, the staff psychologist, gave off an aura of genuine menace. She had a way of punctuating cold analysis with notes of disarming affection. Only a few hours into the game, everyone already feared her approach, with her polyester suit and her black, side-parted bob stiff as a military helmet.

“It’s like Walker wants to crack open your brain and look inside,” Hawk says.

“I’m grateful for her information! Don’t we all want to live healthy lives?” This comes out of my mouth, and I am instantly mortified.

Playacting is no joke, and I am discovering how terrible I am at it. Conversations are the worst—I do and don’t want to look into a person’s face, because if they’re as uncertain as I am, the whole boat of reality teeters. I stare at the ground. “Walker is leading my therapy group,” I say. That’s where I’m headed next.

“You poor guy!” This comment comes from a group of women sitting nearby. Sleeping arrangements and most classes are sex-segregated, a curious approach to fighting same-sex attraction but, like most of the game, pulled from the organizers’ research. The women’s class, one of them tells us, involved reading lesbian pornography. “When something was exciting,” she says, “we had to stick our finger with a tack.”

I slink off to my therapy session. When I arrive, Walker waves her eight students to a couple of well-worn sofas. She sits in a cane chair and, one by one, leads students through a hypnotic riff on psychoanalysis. Deep into the hour she starts grilling River, a young woman, pushing her to remember the “iceberg” of damage that made her a lesbian. River is stubborn, but her voice grows noticeably smaller and more frail as the interrogation wears on and every phrase gets turned over in dung-beetle claws for its sapphic overtones.

Karin Tidbeck, who played Walker, brought both menace and warmth to the role.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

Walker’s spell on players is so complete that I forget for a moment that we’re playing a game. I break away and look at the other couch. Andreas is there, now all North. We make eye contact and smile. The psychologist’s attention snaps our way like a searchlight.

“Ferret, now your progress,” she says. I squirm. Walker asks, “Have you felt same-sex attraction today?”

In my ludicrous teacher’s pet voice, I have Ferret say, “This camp has been very helpful. I am optimistic your methods will help me become 100 percent straight!”

Ever since the start of the Larp, my words have felt wrong, and these are no different. I seem dopey, even to me. What had been so enthralling about the therapy, I realize, was that the other players hardly seemed to be acting at all. They opened themselves to Walker, and the distance between them and their characters went gauze-thin. Now, as my hammy words hang in the air, a silence stretches out. The black helmet of Walker’s bob doesn’t move. People shift in their seats. Without breaking eye contact, she asks the room: “Does anyone believe a word he is saying?”

“I don’t believe him,” River says, a betrayal I didn’t expect. “He is faking. Faking everything.” Nods ripple around the group.

I feel as if I’ve somehow broken the game. Genuine panic rises and I feel my outsider status acutely, flashing back to my poor choice of an in-flight movie, Midsommar—a horror story about Americans who mess with the locals in rural Scandinavia and pay in blood.

Walker sighs. “We need a firm intervention.” She drags out a stool, and I’m told to sit on it. The other players stare me down, and I begin to sweat uncomfortably. “All of you, tell Ferret your honest thoughts—and hold nothing back.” The Larpers don’t need much coaxing: Ferret, you’re too loud. You’re a fake. The pile-on feels like a Maoist struggle session. You’re not fooling any of us, they say. Walker eggs on the ones who hold back. I’m suddenly unsure whether they’re calling out my character, or me. You’re wearing a mask. That phrase keeps coming up. Drop the mask. We cannot help you until you’re honest with us.

The class ends, and the other students file out. I gather up my notebook, my head a mix of self-loathing and confusion. It’s a weird callout: Drop the mask. Who on earth would drop their mask in a place like this?

Walker says she’ll keep an eye on me, and I respond in a voice I don’t second-guess at all. For the first time, I feel like Ferret.

As I emerge it’s already dark, almost lights-out. From under the eaves of the dorm I see North/Andreas. He waves me over. Together we sneak off campus, and he leads me through thickets of dense scrub and overgrown ivy. “She let you have it today,” he says over his shoulder.

“You let me have it too.” I was annoyed he hadn’t defended me.

“Maybe I’ll let you have it,” he says, and I can hear the smirk. Ferret’s a virgin, but I can’t bring myself to blush. The path continues on through beech trees ringed by stinging nettles. Bright red mushrooms dot the forest floor, coy and dangerous. At last Andreas leads us into a small clearing.

When he’s sure we can’t be seen, he hangs up his flashlight on a rowan tree and turns to me. We both know something will happen, but I wait for him to take the lead. He gives a little speech, rehearsed but very sweet. His words freeze in the early autumn air. He takes one of my hands in his.

Sex in a Larp isn’t real. In this Larp, they taught us a meta-technique, a progression of movements to stand in for sex. Andreas places his fingers in mine, then after a minute we move our hands slowly up the sensitive skin of each other’s forearms. When the moment feels right, we’re supposed to pivot around and stand back-to-back, spine pressed to spine. In the workshop it had seemed hokey, but here, under a moon that’s nearly full, my heart stupidly beats. Through his ribs, I can feel that maybe it’s the same for Andreas.

The first time I fell in love, it was with a guy a lot like North: handsome, a poet, full of himself. In the closet, any little beam of light feels like a supernova. I remember the months of agony broken by a kind word or a handshake that lingered for a sordid second.

The final phase of the meta-technique has players face one another. To represent the fireworks, they exchange phrases, saying things they want and things they fear, making the moment “lovely and sad,” according to the workshop. We don’t get that far, because North breaks away.

That’s enough, he tells me. Stop.

I stop. After Walker’s grilling, the closeness of another person had been a real comfort, but now I pull my jacket around me. North is a torrent of words. I’m seeing a girl, he says. You and I, we experimented a little. It’s as far as things will go. No hard feelings. Never again.

Ferret would have been pulverized with guilt and shame, this I know. I’m both in this place and witnessing my own first time, in the parking lot of a train station with a guy I never saw again. It’s a marvel, I think, that queer teens survive their fumblings at romance in places that reject them.

In a minute I’m alone again, watching the beam from North’s flashlight bounce back toward the campus. I stay in the forest. Then I do the mental equivalent of pulling on my clothes and head back to my room, where the lights are already out.

It’s a sleepless night, in part because Denmark is a hyper-caffeinated place. My brain won’t settle. I replay the episodes in therapy and in the forest, alternating between thinking about my game and Ferret’s life. My heart, out of nowhere, is unbearably heavy. Around 3 am I get up and grab my phone from the “off-game” cubbyhole to write an email.

A few hours later, we’re all out on the soccer pitch, getting a posture lesson. A cute blond guy, maybe 30 in real life, is having the swish scolded out of him. People laugh. For the liberal Danes, who decriminalized gay sex in the 1930s and recognized same-sex unions before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this entire setup probably feels ridiculous. Technically, therapy like this is legal in Denmark—a topic of debate and one reason the Larp received a regional government grant.

A counselor taps my shoulder and says Walker has planned a special private lesson. I follow him to her office, a dark cave off the central auditorium. On the couch are a man and a woman that I recognize. The game has a few actors on standby to play a mother and a father as needed. The woman wears a floral dress, and the man has a rumpled mustache and a corduroy jacket.

Walker brings me in with a brisk nod of the head. “We won’t get anywhere in your recovery until we’ve sorted out your home life, will we Ferret?” Ferret had arrived at camp covered in bruises from his father, the sheets said. The actor looks at me with a stony expression, and Walker has me sit down next to him. She starts her Freudian patter about developmental stages. The actor-parents bristle, insisting they did nothing to deserve an unnatural son. It’s strange to have them all performing for me, this open wound of a moment lived by so many kids. I find that when the father actor barks, I flinch. Toward the end, he claps a hand on my shoulder. A rage bubbles up in me. I don’t know what to do with it.

Two participants played as parents, who stepped into campers’ stories as needed.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

Walker releases me and I head outside to the next exercise. The camp director is under the flagpole, addressing a group of men, the sun dancing on his bald spot. “You’re all afraid of manliness,” he says. “You’re afraid of your own testosterone. Today we fix that.”

We’re told to face off with a partner. Mine is Stefan, an affable Dane who came to the Larp with his wife. Stefan’s character is Pine, who fell in love with another lineman at his factory, and Stefan/Pine smiles at me now through the beginnings of a full Viking beard.

“Now! Threaten your partner’s personal space,” the director says, walking up and down the rows. He stops to watch us. “Get up close. A normal man would feel his testosterone rise up in such a situation. OK, now when you feel something in your chest, give your partner a little manly shove.”

Pine pushes me playfully. I throw him to the dirt and keep pounding on his chest with both fists until a pair of rehabbers pull me off of him.

I’ve been called into the custodian’s office. The three creators of The Future Is Straight are here, dressed in brown overalls. They’re playing as janitors and, frankly, that doesn’t seem like a bad take on a lot of what they have to do once a game is on. Nordic Larps can involve elaborate preparation—this one has been in the works since 2017. Once people are playing, though, scenes can unfold behind closed doors or in the dark forest. The creators can watch some of it, but often they’re on the hook for more thankless tasks, such as fixing a broken prop or unplugging a toilet. Sometimes it’s a player who makes a mess, or is one.

I enter a small, bright set of rooms filled with markers and easel pads. Tor Kjetil Edland waves me to a tiny school desk. He has a gentle, puckish face that wouldn’t be out of place on a Christmas mantle. Edland’s day job is with FRI, Norway’s main LGBTQ+ group, and he spends a lot of time in Africa, where same-sex behavior is still criminalized in 32 countries. FRI works with priests and pastors there to curb the spread of antigay rhetoric.

In Nordic Larp, Edland is an elder statesman. Just a Little Lovin’, which he cowrote, is one of the most performed Nordic Larps to date and one of the few to cross the Atlantic. Its players take on roles within the gay community of New York City, before and after the arrival of AIDS.

“Have you thought about my request?” I say nervously. It feels strange to be outside the game and speaking as myself. I worry about how my late-night email may have landed. I try my best not to sound dramatic or deranged.

“What you ask is possible, of course,” Edland says mildly. He sits back and crosses his legs, jumpsuit bunching up at the waist. “First, may I ask, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” I say, “I’m fine.” The other two organizers, Anna Emilie Groth and Karete Jacobsen Meland, a clinical psychologist, had done extensive work on the safety nets for mental health. If a moment felt too raw, you could de-escalate with a handful of signs and safe words. An off-game room has sweets, warm tea, and a full-time safety volunteer. I hadn’t gone there yet. After the humiliations of the first night, I discovered that my foot was firmly on the accelerator. The more awful this reality was, the more it pulled me in, as if Ferret’s whole tragedy were a hot bath, almost unbearable at first and then impossible to leave.

During a game, the creators—Tor Kjetil Edland, Anna Emilie Groth, and Karete Jacobsen Meland—dress as janitors.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

“Of course, you are in your rights to … kill yourself. For Ferret to kill himself,” Edland says levelly. “And we quite agree with you, suicide is sadly an outcome for many who experience these camps.” Ferret’s death had been my email request. I’d agonized that my choice felt melodramatic, especially for a first-time player. But the outcome felt as true to me as a mathematical equation. To the degree that I connected with Ferret, his pain and frustration were big enough to eclipse the world.

I offered to do the whole thing quietly. I’d slip out after curfew that night. I’d grab an Airbnb in the nearby town of Ebeltoft for the last half-day. In the game world Ferret would, I guess, fill his pockets with rocks and walk into the North Sea.

“If I may speak as a Larp designer,” Edland says gently, glancing at Groth and Meland. “Your action will affect all other stories. Even if you disappear quietly, players cannot possibly ignore it, and it becomes a focus of the game.” In his defense, these games are lacework. Movie writers have to create only one plot, but a Nordic Larp may have 30 or 40 independent lines of action, all of them growing more complex as the players inhabit them.

We sit in silence. The sun is behind Edland, and I think this must be what it’s like to be among the gods, the ones who bend time and space. “What if we hold off on Ferret’s death for one additional night?” he suggests. “We can agree that he passes away after the Larp, in the evening hours of the day we finish. When we are back in our own clothes.”

I say OK. Relieved to have 24 more hours to think over my choice, I walk back out into it.

Other rehabbers see me as I exit the building, and the looks aren’t friendly. They whisper about the guy who decked Pine. If the original, suck-up version of Ferret was unpopular, “real” Ferret isn’t a hit either. But something feels different now, as if the others are playing with me and not around me.

A player named Konstanty lopes across the quad. He’s playing November, Ferret’s best friend. Konstanty is a small-framed Polish guy with soulful, dark eyes, and both of us have had a somber game. I wonder whether it’s because our countries have uncomfortable echoes here. In August 2020, Poland’s Catholic church proposed clinics to help queer people regain their “natural” sexuality, and a few months later a federal appeals court in the US held that states can’t ban the existing camps for minors. Friends of mine had been through such places, and I wonder whether friends of Konstanty had too.

Right now he looks mournful, like a cat hiding under the eaves from the rain. I call out and he comes over. On an impulse, I pull out a small polished stone I keep in the pocket of my pants. Have it, I say.

We chat as our characters, and I think what a redemption it is to have even one good friend. Anecdotes from real conversion camps also speak to friendships forged there. I’m probably wrong to drive Ferret off the cliff, I think. Pure overreaction. It’s nice to sit with him, enjoy the sun, have a full stomach. A lot of the players have been figuring out how to make a closeted life livable, negotiating the trade-offs queer people have made for centuries. You can survive anything if you put your mind to it.

“Shall we calibrate?” Konstanty asks. Uh-oh, magic phrase. In Nordic Larp, it means you break the reality for a few seconds to say something important—warn another player you’ll try to kiss them, for instance. I’d calibrated with Stefan before throwing the punch. Calibrating can also be used to map out what happens next in the plot, which is how Konstanty uses it now.

He outlines a twist we’d discussed, but I feel a little sad that it has to happen now. We take a few seconds to pull the trigger and then snap back in.

“Listen, Ferret, let me confess something. I’m in love with North, all right? That’s where I’ve been spending my time. That’s why you haven’t seen me. I’m sorry,” he says, and then pauses. “I think I have always loved him. Please try to understand. I suppose I’ve known that telling you would hurt you, it’s only …”

A love triangle from the character sheets now clicks into place. This time the fake violence doesn’t connect emotionally. From some distance I see little November writhing on the ground as Ferret kicks him in the stomach, his friend’s shiny black shoes kicking in the air. I hear myself saying, “I can give you bruises they can’t see.”

The moment made narrative sense, I guess—we can be at our worst with the people we love most. But for the first time today I feel out of contact with the “real” Ferret, which feels like a betrayal.

A burly lesbian student drags me by the ear back to my dorm room. Konstanty/November, a sweet and battered Saint Sebastian, is surrounded by a group of counselors and friends. Sitting alone on my bunk, I can see him through a window as he embarks on the last part of his story. So I get to mine.

I decide that if I do it, it’s going to be with the red mushrooms from the wood, which it turns out are toxic enough if no one comes looking for you. The sun goes down, and I take the short walk back into the scrubby beech forest.

The writer at his home in New York.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

It’s not even 7 in the morning and my pillow is soaked with tears and snot. I’m cocooned in a blanket, facing the wall. The roommates aren’t up yet, so I’m trying to keep quiet, but the bunk is squeaky and it’s shaking, so I’m sure they can hear me.

This crying jag had not been in the plan. After the fight with November and some other interactions last night, I’d decided to finish the game quietly. It wasn’t that I stopped playing, but my play had become mostly internal. Drop the mask, they had said. Well, it was dropped, and I’d hit a place where it was hard to figure out where I ended and Ferret began.

That identification with a made-up character, the emotional osmosis, turned out to have a name. Larpers call it bleed. While two days earlier Ferret was an idea, his personality had taken over my flesh, a kind of possession. A scientist can trick you into believing a rubber arm is your own, and you’ll feel someone lightly brushing its alien surface. It’s a neurological trick wrapped up in empathy and mirror neurons. Nordic Larp seemed to work in a similar way.

None of this should surprise anyone familiar with psychological experiments in role-play, including the Stanford Prison Experiment—a 1971 study in which college students pretended to be prison guards and, within a few days, turned into monsters. But understanding it intellectually was different from this: lying in a dorm room, bawling at the imminent death of someone who didn’t exist.

I snuffle as my roommates wake up and prepare for the morning assembly. Ferret tells them he’s sick. Hawk goes off-game for a second to make sure everything is OK, then eventually the roommates file out. I think to myself that I’m free to leave now, but I don’t.

As I wait for my chest to quiet down, I try to puzzle out why this is all hitting me so hard. Maybe it’s because I’m the type of sap who tears up at commercials. Maybe it’s because I’m from a certain gay generation, and my ninth-grade history teacher called AIDS justice, and as early as my twenties I lost friends to what they now call deaths of despair. You can run from self-pity for only so long—here, mourn your blighted youth.

But I am not Ferret. Oddly I don’t quite know where I am at the moment. I feel like some kind of off-brand angel, looking down on the body of a different person. I can see Ferret curled in a fetal position and think: poor, poor kid. Out of nowhere I remember a bitter, tongue-in-cheek elegy written by A. E. Housman to another Victorian queer, a young naval cadet who took his life:

Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
’Twas best to take it to the grave.

I think of all the gay lives that ended in a day like Ferret’s. It’s shocking to think of it now, in a world so radically changed. In my fever dream, a million graves open—they join me, the lost boys across generations and continents, and bear witness. We were not alone. You are not alone. The tableau makes me sob but also, in its pure operatic excess, forces me to laugh at myself and head for the emotional exit.

I get up. I feel washed out. I decide to skip out on the camp entirely, walking along paved roads into the rural exurbs of Ebeltoft. The horses on the Djursland farms look at my blue uniform with suspicion. By the time I’m back on campus, just a few events are left to play out. I have my pocketful of red mushrooms; Ferret navigates his final day of life with dignity, and at noon the reality switch flips back. The Larp is over.

Gloria Gaynor is playing, then Madonna. The next song might be from Eurovision, because everyone but me goes wild. We’re dancing in a very dorky circle in the assembly hall. I’m the only one wearing a blue or red uniform, because that’s all I packed. Someone had thought to bring a disco ball.

I’m sharing a silly groove with Walker. The slicked-back bob is gone. The polyester suit is packed away, and now it’s pants and a shirt with a genderqueer pride pin. After a while the two of us duck over to the dining hall, where the group congregates around a few cases of Tuborg beer.

Walker’s transformation is dramatic. They are now Karin Tidbeck, an icon of Swedish science fiction who counts the late Ursula K. Le Guin as a fan. Their novel Amatka described a world constantly created and destroyed through language, and I can’t help but think how much that describes Nordic Larp. Tidbeck looks drained but happy, a beer in their hand.

I thank them, a scene that’s playing out all around the room. The etiquette of Nordic Larp asks that you honor your torturer, in part because bad characters are more likely to carry emotional burdens after a game. Konstanty comes up and thanks me, too, then heads off to drink with his brother, a literature student back in Wroclaw. I look for Andreas to thank him for breaking my heart, the moment that made Ferret come to life. But he’s gone off to kiss some girl.

The queer players are now easier to spot. I wonder to Tidbeck why the organizers didn’t make an effort to identify us before the game started. I couldn’t have been the only one who felt ripped apart—and wasn’t this our pain?

“It was an eye-opening experience, I imagine, no matter who you were,” Tidbeck says neutrally. Nordic Larp has a long history of wrestling with questions of appropriation. Its players went through countless experiments and annual discussions about it at Knutepunkt, and these are ongoing, in the same way that the topic of player safety can’t ever be fully put to rest. The current consensus on both problems is similar—organizers should be smart and sensitive, but not every Nordic Larp is for everyone. The responsibility ultimately sits with players: They should not sign up for a game that might offend or hurt them. “Besides,” Tidbeck continues, “to identify players as queer is forcing people to be one thing” when they might be using the Larp to work through their sexuality or gender identity.

Karin Tidbeck photographed at Pildammsparken in Malmo, Sweden.

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

“I don’t know how straight people could have connected to the sadness of this Larp,” I say.

“But this wasn’t a sad Larp!” Tidbeck says, surprised. Yes, misery Larps exist, they say, and that genre used to be all the rage. I learn that Stefan/Pine—the guy I decked—bonded with his wife at Kapo, a brutal 2011 Larp about an internment camp. There have been Larps about slave plantations and even one called Gang Rape. But The Future Is Straight wasn’t a misery Larp by any stretch, Tidbeck says.

“What were people supposed to get out of this?” I ask, completely spun around.

“Real camps are full of real people, and real people have all sorts of experiences. As for me, I got a lot of personal questions answered. Stepping into Walker’s pumps I learned quite firmly that I am not a woman and I am definitely not straight,” they say. “For others, I understand it was about finding a community, finding love. Hope in the face of adversity.”

I hadn’t seen this at all. I check in with others, who confirm it’s true. They all had scenes of discovering strength, finding friends, embracing identity—journeys that people brought to the Larp and others they discovered here.

I’m flung back to my insecurity from three days ago, the fear that I’d played the game all wrong. I see Edland across the room, laughing and bright-cheeked. The whole party, stretching long into the night, has the feeling of a celebration of life, a tight-knit community separated by the pandemic and rekindling its soul. I apologize to Edland for trying to kill myself in the middle of his game. “Nonsense,” he says, with a bright grin. “People kill themselves in Larps all the time.”

From top right to bottom left, Tor Kjetil Edland, Anna Emilie Groth, Karete Jacobsen Meland, and Karete's daughter Ida photographed in Edland's home in Oslo, Norway. 

Photograph: Justin J. Wee

Given the chance of a new identity, my brother chose knighthood and adventure. I chose to re-create the worst possible version of my adolescence. Why? The question nags at me as I ride back to Århus. I knew there was a second run of The Future Is Straight. I reach out to the person who played Ferret, hoping that the character’s path was somehow built-in and scientifically replicated. But no, Ferret 2 found friends, romance, a future.

One promising lead pops up in a Nordic Larp Facebook group. Anneli Friedner, a Nordic Larp designer and theorist, wrote an essay about “brave spaces,” borrowing a phrase coined in 2013 by a pair of US university administrators. In a safe space, all the thorns are removed and no one is supposed to get hurt. A brave space is different. The thorns stay, and that’s exactly why you walk there. That’s what a Larp can be.

You enter a brave space to learn “how to make mistakes and then correct them,” Friedner says. Maybe I headed right for the mistake I never dared to make. And suicide is a mistake—if you’re contemplating it, you should reach out now to 988 or to a mental health professional. In a game, though, a person could have the satisfaction of pulling the trigger without a bullet in the chamber. Still, why?

On my way out of Denmark I pick up six bags of black licorice, a national addiction. In almost any corner store you can find the good brand, sour and covered in salt, and when you put it on your tongue, it burns. The secret is that, after a minute, the sour feeling transforms into sweetness as if the wires cross in your mouth.

I try out a new theory on some of the players—that Nordic Larp is black licorice for the soul. By some neurological alchemy, all that sadness feels good. The Danes I talk to are lukewarm on that take, but a few point me to the concept of “type-two fun,” an idea with currency among both Larpers and people who do extreme sports. Type-one fun is enjoyable while it’s happening. Type two is awful at the time, but great afterward. Type three isn’t enjoyable at all. Somehow it’s still fun.

In a conversation months later, another Larper mentions that they’d choose a depressing game the way they’d go for a sad movie. That comment clicks, somehow. The parting gift from my queer mentor in college was his personal copy of Tragedy and Philosophy, a painfully smart book about the enduring human need to feel sad. My upbringing, and maybe the whole 20th century, wasn’t big on downer emotions. But for centuries we revered the places where we could touch misery: in the blues hall, in the opera house, in Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s no wonder that you set people free in a Larp and they go dark. Maybe what happened to me in that dorm room bunk was pure Aristotelian katharsis. It was awful and I came away lighter.

I remember to check in on my brother, now a brilliant chemist with a fabulous wife. I want to thank him too. I ask whether he still has his chain mail. In a way, he has become that knight, only now his quest is low-cost, carbon-derived solar cells and the orcs are grant committees. He sends me a picture—his chain mail is on display in his woodshop. I wonder how my time with Ferret might change me, and in what shape I’ll carry it on. For now, I’ve been eyeing sketches of red mushrooms and figuring out a place near my heart to put the tattoo.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue.Subscribe now.

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