I Larped as a Monero Developer and It Ended in Tears
03.06.2019

I’m in an Airbnb apartment in Athens, Greece. I have just introduced myself as Ruby Lipton, a fictional Monero developer, for the first time. He’s my live action role-playing game (LARP) character for the next three days.

I’m here in the city of the Parthenon for Cryptorave #9, a dance party-cum-LARP game. The happening is organized by Omsk Social Club, an artist collective that produces “slow-cooked, real-time community events in which people can explore their identity for a night,” and !MedienGruppe Bitnik, a London group made up of “contemporary artists working on and with the internet.”

To participate in Cryptorave, you need to mine Monero, a privacy coin. Normally it takes 11 hours to mine enough to reveal the location of the party, your rave identity, and to get a QR-coded ticket. But, fortunately for me, I am special. As one of eight core players at Cryptorave #9—who are staying in character for the whole weekend—I’m able to skip this part of the process and keep my computer from bursting into flames.

Despite its name, Cryptorave doesn’t share much with contemporary crypto culture, with its increasing focus on startups and business. A MedienGruppe Bitnik spokesperson, who wishes to remain anonymous, says larping is about as far from Silicon Valley as it’s possible to be. MG comes from an older world than bitcoin and is more in line with the Dadaists, Fluxus, and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a famous British art collective active in the 1990s, this person says.

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When we arrive at the Airbnb on Marathonos Street, the core-eight are split between two floors. The second and third floor of the building are decorated with identical kitsch Greek ceramics. The balcony faces an empty lot full of shattered pieces of a toilet and torn blue tarps stuck between rubble. The apartment is luxury compared to the rest of the neighborhood.

We are all given Android phones, with personalized apps, and told to give up our normal devices. As Ruby, my character, is privacy and fitness obsessed, I find Protonmail, a Monero wallet, and a sleep-tracking service on mine. A rush of angst sweeps over me as I realize how odd it is to pretend to be someone else for three days. I feel like a character from the crypto equivalent of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, where the main character, a cynical investment banker played by Michael Douglas, ends up buried alive in a cemetery in Mexico.

Crypto and larping are natural companions for a weekend rave, though. Both are concerned with identity and propelled, to a certain extent, by the suspension of disbelief. I believe that thousands of computers all over the world give a line of code monetary value, and, the people at Cryptorave somehow believe I am actually equipped to contribute code to Monero.

When Omsk invited me for this full immersion experience, I quickly signed the release form and confirmed my EasyJet itinerary to Athens. Outside my usual attire, I added a black medical-style face-mask which, for some reason, seemed appropriate for a cypherpunk masquerade. On the three-hour flight from Berlin, I boned up on my new identity. Ruby Lipton, I am told, is adventurous, good-natured, naive, and obsessed with all things soylent, body-hacking, and data-tracking. I study the protocol on which Monero is built (CryptoNote). I research the drama around Monero’s hard fork from Bytecoin, and the mysterious history of CryptoNote’s creator, Monero’s own Satoshi, Nicolas Van Saberhagen. I arrive at nuanced conclusions, trying to balance belief and skepticism so I can speak to all possibilities.

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To make things more intriguing, my character has a back-story. An undercover cop has been asking Ruby for information on black hat hackers who are supposed to be at the rave. I’m told I will be rewarded handsomely if I can dig up a few names and clues. I even have a live Gmail address for special agent Phillip David Childs, should I choose to collaborate.

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My fellow larpers at Marathonos 32 are Winter Bludman, Avery Bernard, and Tatum Spard (their names for the weekend), all real students at a local art school. Quinn Skyler has come from Barcelona where he is studying philosophy, while Delta Hooks is doing an art degree in London. Monroe Ripps says she had been following the LARP scene for sometime and was hoping to maybe start her own node out of Berlin. Dorien Ascaso, a free-spirited Linux developer, says she’s taking a break from programming to delve deeper into the world of fashion.

Some of them had already participated in Omsk games, so I interrogate them about the following day’s immersion workshop. All I’ve known about this up to now is the confusing blurb on the Omsk website: something about “identity building routines” and “bleed strategies.”

Salem, a member of Omsk, leads the workshop, which takes place in a big sand-colored building in the city center. After waiting a long time in the lobby, Salem eventually tells us to take off our shoes and enter the next room.

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“Welcome to Cryptorave. We are so glad you will be playing with us,” she says. “The focus of the workshop will a bit different than traditional character building activities. We believe that a lot more can be done physically to draw out personas. Before we get started, I’m going to read through what Omsk does. Feel free to close your eyes or look up at some of the photos from past events.”

On the wall behind Salem are projections of hip young ravers smoking cigarettes together with Instagram posts from previous Rubys, Quinns, and Monroes.

“The zombie mummy is the new vogue. It’s a status we all share regardless of class, race, gender and age,” Salem says. “Today the human body, complete with skin and organs is secured from total decay by extreme chemicals, climate, and depleting oxygen levels. Just like the Egyptian mummies were. Housed in their mystic skyscraping pyramids, wrapped up tightly in order to keep solid enough to represent the structure of the human being.”

She delves into the meaning of “bleeding in” and “bleeding out,” which is another way larpers talk about being “in and out” of gameplay. Omsk is staking its psychological playground in the space between us as ourselves and us as our characters. The three-and-a-half-hour workshop consists of breathing exercises, reiki, meditation, butoh, dancing like the possessed, and brief moments of bliss. Observers peering in on the hysterics and drone music might assume we were forming a new cult.

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We eventually find ourselves in a circle again, whereupon Salem unveils a ball of yarn. “We’re going to create memories with each other now,” she says. The ball is thrown to the larper sitting next to me: “Tim, do you remember the first time we met and you were so obsessed with bitcoin and you were trying to get me to buy some, but I didn’t know how?” Tim smiles and nods. “I’m so happy that we figured it out together.”

Tim throws the ball to Georgios, who throws it to Lileth, who throws it to Avery, and soon we are all connected by fictional tales of wild nights, shopping sprees, and tender fictional moments.

The rave revs up that night at a club called Romantso. When I get there, I connect with some of the other workshop participants. Thanos, a self-proclaimed anarchist, describes the event as a “spiritual reckoning.” Freda, Thanos’ colleague from a pirate radio project, says she’s been weeping that day, such is the intensity of the experience. The rest of the core players arrive at the end of the first DJ set.

Quinn is wearing a shirt with “Hegel is brain cancer” on it, and Tatum looks like he’s shaved a “T” into his hair. I can’t tell if they’re in character but chalk it up to bleeding.

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Projected on the main stage are visuals of what would happen if a planet fell into a black hole. Eight-foot speakers blast waves of techno at ravers twisting and grabbing one another as if to pull themselves deeper into a dervish trance. One of the DJs is wearing an ergonomically-fitted leather mask during his entire set. He looks like an undertaker.

I realize part way through the rave that the workshop was more a formal training to dance for eight hours than any kind of character building. I’m sweating nearly as much as the day before and comfortably banging into other bodies around me. Another DJ spends the majority of his set working through an intricate light and smoke show. The fog becomes so thick at times that I lose track of the hundreds of people surrounding me. Then an arm or a shoulder pushes through and the illusion momentarily dissolves. As far as raves go, this one checks all the boxes.

I’m here to gather info for my FBI handler, but my mission is proving fruitless. It’s hard to identify hackers in all this smoke. Besides, I’m unconvinced that sending an email to the cop (named Philip Davies) will help him much. It’s six in the morning. I’m suddenly very tired and decide to leave. I write to the agent and tell him never to contact me again. It feels good not to rat out my friends.

The next day at about 10 am, the core-eight are huddled masses on the corner couch in the apartment. Salem rings the bell. She looks fresh and energized from dancing the whole night and asks us if we are still in the game or not. “I think it would help if someone could just say that it’s over,” I say, wearily. No one disagrees and Salem asks us to close our eyes.

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“I want you to imagine all the things you saw and the people you met this weekend like photos in an album,” she says. “Look at the pictures, flip through the pages, and feel the weight of the book in your hands. Let the feelings from the weekend fill you again each time you refer to a different memory. Now close the book.”

After fifteen minutes of listening to Salem, we open our eyes and I realize how stressed out I’ve been lying to everyone for two days. Next to me, Delta begins crying.

We discuss our immediate reflections on the experience and find out that neither Tatum nor Quinn ever really felt in the game. Tatum says his character is too similar to who he is as a person. Quinn just seems unconvinced by the whole adventure. Salem has to catch a flight very soon from Athens and can’t stay long. She blows us all a kiss and runs down the stairs out to the street.

Suddenly I’m curious about this strange person. From the balcony, I ask her where she’s from.

“The U.K.,” she says.

“Where exactly?,” I follow up, wondering if it’s London, Scotland, or wherever.

She squints back up at me, surprised by the question, and repeats, “The U.K.”

I watch her walk quickly down the block, hail a taxi, and drive away forever.