So you want to be Harry Potter, or Aragorn, or Frodo, or Kirk or Picard, or a barbarian. Or some mash-up — say, a steampunked brigand Robin Hood character who pilots a dirigible while stealing from the rich and giving the poor. Or a dwarf who’s in love with a werewolf. Or name your universe.
However one describes this hobby/art form/performance — part Dungeons & Dragons game gone native, part walk-through choose-your-own adventure, part real-life video game with padded battle-axes and swords, part improv theater in the woods — LARP is experiencing a cultural surge.
Why? As Huey Lewis once sung, it’s hip to be square. We all feel more comfortable in our geekiness. But also this: Perhaps gamers are tiring of getting their fantasy fixes via screens. Because LARP requires being there — in the flesh. You can’t phone or Skype in a LARP. Folks get their DIY geek on, crafting their own capes and slapping on their own make-up. If the game master says it’s OK to play a French zombie-elf with a penchant for cheese, you run wild and do it. In the real world. You have to be real while you are being, er, fake. Like in novels, sometimes you have to make stuff up to tell the truth.
Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games (Chicago Review Press), a new book by journalist Lizzie Stark, gets to the heart of these questions.
Stark not only did her homework, she got an A+. She’s not reporting from the safety of her office, but from the boffer-swinging trenches of LARPing action. (Boffers are those foam weapons used for simulated, in-game combat.) She dons her costume to infiltrate the ranks of several LARP groups, from a wild west world called Deadlands to a medieval-themed game called Knight Realms to the U.S. military, which uses immersive role-playing as a training tool. She even travels to Denmark to check out the super-charged Nordic LARP scene. (You thought American LARPers were dedicated? Think again.) She also delves into LARP’s history and origins. The book is full of insightful and expertly written commentary by someone who knows of which she speaks.
Author Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has contributed to the Daily Beast and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is founder and editor of the literary journal Fringe and holds an MS in new media journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Edison, New Jersey. (Full disclosure: I read an advance copy of Leaving Mundania, and submitted a blurb for the book’s back cover.)
I had a chance to check in with Stark during the early part of her book tour, before her life got too nutty. She talked about negative stereotpyes against LARPers, how kids can get involved in LARPing, where LARP is headed in the future and LARP’s “secret super-power.” And pickles.
[Note: Want to see Stark in person? Here are some upcoming events where you can hear the author read from her book: May 12: Modern Myths, Northampton, MA; May 15: Corner Bookstore, Manhattan; May 16: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA; May 30: WORD, Brooklyn, NY. For more info on events and to read more about Leaving Mundania, visit Lizzie Stark.]
Gilsdorf: Tell us why you wrote the book.
Stark: Participatory culture has always fascinated me, and it doesn’t get more participatory than LARP. I wanted to peel back the curtain on this hidden subculture and find out what made the LARPers tick.
Gilsdorf: How did you get into LARPing?
Stark: I’d never gamed before I started reporting for the book — in fact, I had an aversion to games — so I entered the world of LARP as an outsider. I spent my first few games observing other people before realizing that this was a terrible way to figure out what’s fascinating about a participatory hobby. So I threw myself into LARP, playing in a medieval fantasy game for 18 months, trying out different convention LARPs, and even running a Cthulhu Live game myself.
Gilsdorf: Did you consider yourself a geek before you started to LARP? What was the nature of your geekery?
Stark: I absolutely consider myself a geek, then and now. Growing up, I geeked out to origami, folk tales, and string games. My adult geekery involves writing, cookery, and Xena. I wrote my masters thesis on pickles — not the vinegar kind (vinegar kills!) — but good old fashioned delicious pro-biotic fermented pickles. Fermented foods are a little bit like LARP — each locality has a different (airborne microbial) culture that makes pickles or LARP different and special.
Gilsdorf: When talking to kids and teens about my book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I get a lot of questions about how to get involved in LARPing. What advice would you give?
Stark: Joining a LARP group is like dating; you have to find a party you’re compatible with. Think about the sorts of movies and books you like, and try to find a LARP group doing something similar. It might take a few tries before you find the right fit. For starting resources, I’d recommend Shade’s LARP List, which has links to many regional games. And gaming conventions, or other subculture conventions are a great place to meet LARPers and quickly experiment with a variety of games.
Gilsdorf: While video games, D&D and other nerd fun is largely acceptable now, compared to 20 years ago, I feel LARP is still the most out-there of the gaming genres. Most gamers who play Mass Effect would probably never participate in a science fiction boffer LARP; they might deride it as dress-up silliness. A result, people often categorically discriminate against LARPing. If you were a parent or mentor to kids, how would you shield young LARPers from the negative stereotyping? How to they armor themselves? Or do you not think this is an issue?
Stark: I think that the social stigma against LARPing is silly — why don’t we treat dressed-up sports fans, or Halloween costuming in the same way? — but sadly, in the US it’s still part of the culture, and some gamers still have internalized shame about the hobby they enjoy. I think that the best weapon against stereotyping is self-confidence — rolling out one’s interest in LARPing without apology and in a way that doesn’t invite apology, explaining it clearly and concisely to people who haven’t heard of it before, and recognizing that people who are disrespectful of something you enjoy don’t make the best friends.
Gilsdorf: Did you LARP at all with kids, or was it mostly adults? I wonder if there are legal issues at some LARPs that kids and adults can’t be at the same event.
Stark: I have definitely LARPed with kids. Many parent-child groups play Knight Realms, the medieval fantasy game I attended in New Jersey for about 18 months. Kids have to be at least ten, and accompanied by an adult in order to attend. For safety reasons, the game requires kids under 14 to be “non-combat” meaning that they can’t wield or be struck with boffers — the padded weapons used to simulate live combat. Oftentimes, kids play healers, and by the time they hit 14 their characters are quite powerful and sought-after.
So in general, LARP is a kid-friendly activity, especially in Denmark, which has a large kid-LARP movement. In the U.S., organizers who run games with adult themes will simply include an age limit in their game materials; when in doubt, ask.
Gilsdorf: Did you ever see technology being used in LARP and if so how?
Stark: Oh, yes. Sometimes, it’s used on a meta-game level to ease logistics, for example, when game organizers communicate with one another/herd monsters using walkie-talkies. But technology also plays a role in many games. Sci-fi games might ask players to complete simple circuits in order to start up the space ship, for example. In the book, I cover a pandemic flu simulation that staffed online bulletin boards with off-site individuals to simulate a local community’s response to player decisions.
Gilsdorf: What was the biggest surprise about LARP you discovered while putting Leaving Mundania together?
Stark: Its secret super-power: LARP has the power to create meaningful, close-knit community among almost anyone. I saw this power manifest over and over again during the writing of my book.
Gilsdorf: At what point did the project cease becoming research and felt more like fun?
Stark: Probably when I started hauling homemade pickles to Knight Realms and selling them in game as my character; it was a lot of fun to watch people eat them.
Gilsdorf: Where is LARP headed in the future — any ideas?
Stark: Two ideas. I think LARP is headed toward recognition as an art form. The Nordic countries already have a robust arty-LARP scene that is increasingly influencing art-LARP and indie roleplaying scenes in the states. Plus, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] expanded its grant guidelines to make digital games eligible for funding last May, legitimizing games as an art form. Arty games are here to stay.
I think we’ll see more educational LARP in the states as well. The Nordic countries have already begun leveraging LARP’s power to keep kids interested and involved. For example, there’s a school for teens in Denmark called Østerskov Efterskole that teaches through roleplay, along with a handful of other edu-LARP groups. In the U.S., the Camp Half-Blood summer programs, based on the Rick Riordan novels, seem to have similar aims. And I know of more than a few U.S. LARPers who are interested in getting into the educational game.
Gilsdorf: Well, thanks for your time and congrats on the book. I hope it’s a big success.
Stark: Sure. Thanks for having me. LARP has something valuable to add to the cultural conversation. Everyone should try it at least once!
To read more about Leaving Mundania and Lizzie Stark, visit her website.
And be sure to check out more conversation with Lizzie Stark on this week’s GeekMom podcast.