The World of LARPing
In the world of modern transmedia fiction, there are several different facets of a fictional world which an avid fan can delve into, whether it be books, games, movies, TV shows, etc.–but none take the concept of total immersion in a fictional world quite so far as “LARPers”. LARP is an acronym for Live Action Role Play, and for those who truly invest themselves in a fandom, LARP is not just a way to contribute to their fandom family, but it allows them to temporarily part from reality and actively participate in the fantasy world to which they’ve so fully dedicated themselves. To participate in Live Action Role Play, one acquires or makes the costume and equipment for their favorite character, whether it be a medieval mercenary, Aragorn, or even a Teletubby (hey, you never know), and then they congregate with other die hard fans to act out scenarios from their chosen fandoms while assuming the personality traits, appearance, and actions of their favorite character, thus taking the elements of the fictional world and its characters into their own hands. LARPing may seem rather outlandish to someone who has never heard of it, but many LARPers are people who appear to be fairly “normal” according to standard social conventions–that is, they hold down steady, sometimes even high-profile, jobs and don’t spend all their time reading Lord of the Rings fanfiction on the couch in their mother’s dark basement. LARPing is just another fascinating, yet curiously little known and under-documented, aspect of the fandom universe, and it’s a Big Deal.
Most tend to think of LARPing as merely a grown-up version of make-believe or escapism, but who’s to say these are bad things? According to Aeon Magazine columnist Damien Walter, it is human nature to escape the grimy reality of our lives, because “we hunger for an escape so complete it borders on oblivion: the total eradication of self and reality beneath a superimposed fantasy.” Complete immersion in a fantasy world is essentially a coping method that some people use to grapple with the grueling or otherwise monotonous grind of daily life. Additionally, PhD student and gaming expert, David Owen, claims that LARPing is actually healthy for this very reason, and that it’s “not very far from playing games in other aspects–tabletop, video games, board games, or whatnot, but the level of immersion is different.” LARPing definitely gives a new meaning to the concept of immersing oneself in a fictional world, and this grade of utter captivation is definitely what world-building expert J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind when he created his world of Middle Earth, complete with maps, races, languages, economies, and political structures–basically everything a fan needs to believe the world is real. And who’s to say that a fictional world that has been so extensively and painstakingly detailed isn’t real to those who completely pour themselves into it? One could (and many have, I’m sure) written essays, entire books on the various aspects of Middle Earth and its politics as if it were a place that actually existed. What Damien Walter considers to be so especially immersive about Tolkien’s world is that it is neither a metaphor nor allegory for any grandiose ideal or moral: it is, however, an all-inclusive and easily believable macrocosm that many fans wish to live in–and so they do, on the weekends.
In an attempt to understand and spread awareness of the LARP community, a Canadian investigative news program made a fascinating documentary on a specific LARPing community: Underworld LARP. Reporter Mike Drolet is accepted into the LARPing fold as the Underworld LARPers begin their “game” with up to 150 participants per month. After participating in the game himself, Drolet describes LARP as something similar to Dungeons and Dragons, “but instead of sitting around a table and rolling dice to decide your character’s fate–you are the character.” The group is self-described as having “a rich in-game history, mature player base and rules system and a very active community,” and many of the members view LARPing as a very fulfilling, invigorating part of their lives. Although this chapter of LARPers acts out a more general, medieval-style game rather than one scenes based on an actual work of fiction, the way in which they carry out their activities is similar to those who do, say, a LOTR LARP, and the interviews Drolet conducts with several of the participants explains the world of LARP in very interesting ways. Before the LARP ever begins, a team of “shapers” meticulously map out the events of the game. That is, they determine what the nefarious entity is doing, and what the Good Guys must do to stop them. Given these basic guidelines, and some safety regulations, it is then up to the players to behave in a way that is faithful to their character, and proceed with the overarching game plot. They must essentially create their own fictional universe in order to act out the plots necessary to make the game experience feel genuine. In the video, the plot involves a political faction taking a hostage in order to gain some kind of power over their adversaries. To set this up, countries, rulers, governments, and entire political structures must be created. Although they may not be quite as extensive as Tolkien, shapers are world builders nonetheless.
Knowing how extensive and complex the LARPing world can be, one might expect LARPers to devote their entire lives to living the fantasy, but in fact, one frequent Underworld LARPer is actually an expert on nuclear fusion during the week, and only his weekends are devoted to role-playing a mercenary, a character he has portrayed for years. In LARPing, he feels a kind of release from his normal, no doubt very stressful, duties because he can fully immerse himself in another world, one that harbors no “real world” consequences for his actions. This concept is another aspect that is fundamental to LARPing, and also to ARGs (Alternate Reality Games): the idea that when you are playing the game, you must behave as if it were truly a reality, or TINAG (This Is Not A Game). Of course, both those who play ARGs and LARPers alike know that they are engaging in fictional play, but the treatment of the game as a real situation makes it more engaging and adds a level of immersion that just cannot be found in other medias, such as books and television. David Ashby, co-owner and organizer of Underworld LARP, claims that “geek is chic. It’s really popular to be geeky and dorky now. Ten years ago if you were going to talk about somebody doing Live Action Role Playing, they’d probably get laughed at.” But in today’s world, where stories (or at least successful ones) seldom remain solely within their original media form, it is no wonder that LARPing has become such a popular means for fans to express their utter devotion to these fictive worlds.
[Featured image Zanthia. CC-BY-NC-SA]
[First image (Viinshar-daughters of the void) by Zanthia. CC-BY-NC-SA]
[Middle Earth map image by Colin Campbell. CC-BY-NC-ND]
[LARP battle image by bicolline.org. CC-BY-SA]