By day, Bartosz Bruski works in computer forensics, but in his down time, the 29-year-old unwinds by heading to a trailer park outside Warsaw, where he directs a group of around 60 Polish people who pretend to be ordinary Americans – people from Ohio, to be exact.
You might think LARPing (short for live action role play) basically means a bunch of people dressed in medieval outfits, recreating historical battles. Instead, Bartek and his fellow LARP enthusiasts turn a peaceful holiday resort in a Polish forest into an American trailer park, with dozens of participants who stay in character with their assigned family, living at their assigned trailer home for 28 hours at a time.
When Bruski’s 4th of July LARP crew went viral at the end of May, the internet – mainly Americans – were baffled to see a reenactment of something so mundane. “This is disinformation. OP literally just googled images of actual Ohioans, posted them, and made up a story of Polish LARPers,” one impressed fan tweeted. “As an Ohio-born guy myself? Not bad,” another said. “Extra points for the Browns jersey.”
VICE met Bartek at a Warsaw bistro to find out more about what exactly LARPing as an American involves. This interview was conducted in Polish and translated into English.
VICE: Let’s begin with the basics. How would you explain what LARP is to someone who’s never heard of it?
Bartosz Bruski: It’s a role-playing game in which the participants take on the role of a character within a closed imaginary world. During the course of the game, under rules that they agree upon in advance, they tell a story together.
Why did you decide to do a LARP based in Ohio?
It started about five years ago, together with a bunch of friends. We decided to do a LARP. Inspired by Stranger Things and X-Files – we wanted to recreate a small town in the United States where strange things happen and because of that, men in black arrive. We visited various resorts in Poland, looking for one that would perfectly reflect the small town on the edge of the great gloomy forest.
We found a resort in Łódź province, near [the city of] Tomaszów Mazowiecki. One of us – I don't remember anymore to whom this glory falls – said it wasn't the place we were looking for, but if we redesigned it a bit it would look like an American trailer park. At the next project meeting we didn't talk about Stranger Things and X-Files, but we talked about American trailer parks. That's how it started.
How did you do the research?
When it comes to production, that is the look of the game, the costumes and the scenery, we worked mainly on the Internet and how we imagined the scene when we type “4th of July” into Google. But apart from nice fireworks and costumes, it also has a 700 page plot for characters and the whole scenario. This is where we have often worked with sources like, Hillbilly Elegy, Nomadland, and Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri]. And from books – for example, I read These Truths: A History of the United States, a great book which gives a different perspective on this country.
We grew up with a vision of the States as if it’s the land of milk and honey… Then when you grow up and information is shared more, it turns out that it's not so nice in the States. We came up with [the idea of this] “broken American dream”, and this was the motif for the project.
So who’s actually part of your crew?
Six of us have put a lot of work into this game – that is me, Pawel and Ewa, who were most responsible for design; Kuba and Ania who dealt with production aspects, mainly production of scenery and props; and Meg, who worked on making this place a gastronomic and social centre of life. We also have a whole team of scriptwriters and a few people who wrote for us different characters because we created over 700 pages of script.
We come to the game location beforehand to set it all up and turn the resort into our trailer park. During the game [about a dozen people] are responsible for technical issues, moving, preparing the scenery, events, props, setting off fireworks, erecting the tables; [all] playing various roles of supporting characters. It’s really the work of a whole staff of people. I can safely say that it reached about 200 participants [across all LARPing events], but with the work of several dozen people who have been in this project from the very beginning for almost five years.
Have you seen the reaction from Americans on the internet?
It's funny because the biggest storm [online] broke out the day before we started preparing for the third round. We were already very involved in the production of the next game and setting up the scenery, so we didn't have much time to write back to people or manage what was happening on the Internet. But that just gave us the energy to produce the next project.
What comments stuck with you?
Americans very often pay attention to the same things… They keep saying that there aren’t enough old cars, not enough trash, that the BBQs are too small, and that the people are too clean, too slim and too pretty – their words, not mine. They also draw attention to the lack of racial diversity. There were also a few people who wanted to send us parcels from the States, such as the legendary red cups, to make it even more faithful.
It's cool that people are interested in it. People very often guess what is in the pictures... For example, they see a character who looks like a sort of itinerant preacher in the middle of a sermon. That was easy. But there's a picture where there's a guy in some sort of American shirt and dark glasses and they write that it's a detective on the trail of a drug trafficking gang that runs trailers like in Breaking Bad. Let's just say they weren't far from the truth.
So you include more problematic aspects of life in America, like cooking meth [as Breaking Bad does]?
Yes, we have both universal themes, like poverty and unemployment, as well as themes that are very specific to the US – like the horrendous cost of health insurance or the problems caused by universal access to weapons. So our game also deals with crime and we have a drug creation motif like in Breaking Bad.
How do Polish people react to LARPing?
They very often associate it with fantasy games in various fantasy worlds where people dress up as fantasy characters and play in a field somewhere. It's a branch of our hobby that's very easy to trivialise or turn into a joke about dressed up people who run around in the woods.
I can compare it to cinema, it’s a very universal medium – there may not be one film for everyone but there is a film for everyone. I think the same could be said about LARPs – it's a very universal hobby. There is no LARP for everyone, but there is a LARP for everyone, regardless of cultural baggage, age or other conditions. We all LARP when we are children, pretending to be policemen, thieves or playing house – it's just that we grow out of it and we don't nurture that desire to role-play as adults.