Take the LARP

LARPing 101I learned a new word last week—well, actually an acronym that through increased use has become a full-fledged noun: LARP. It’s been around for quite awhile, but I hadn’t come across it until I saw a headline in the local paper. I liked the sound the word made in my mind, so I read the story.

LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing, and it refers to an imaginative live action game with a storyline determined by a game master. The players, usually in costume, take on character roles and pursue a goal or goals in a fantasy world, often vaguely medieval along the lines of Games of Thrones. They stay in character and use the physical world around them as the stand-in for their imaginary one. There are strict rules laid out, and the actions the players take determine whether they succeed or fail. The stakes are high, in that failure usually means “dying.”

I was struck by two things as I read the story: the age of the players—mid-teens, and the invention of a new word—LARPing—to describe what I’ve always just thought of as “playing.” In our neighborhood there were epic battles won and lost, sometimes in costume, in imaginary worlds that we created in backyards and empty lots, on riverbanks and wooded acres. We sometimes brandished sticks for swords and cardboard shields, occasionally had costumes made from discarded clothing and old bedsheets, and always had strict rules of play, typically pre-determined by the alpha kid in our group who we did not realize at the time was actually our game master. In that way, we were LARPing without knowing it.

But the players in our games were almost always under 12. The participants in the article that brought LARPing to my attention were teenagers. Thus I was inclined to doubt their maturity and dismiss LARPing as a silly time waster for the socially undeveloped. Because that’s how I roll. Judge first, think later. If there were any justice in this world, I’d be sporting a “J” for judgmental on my chest.

Fortunately, I did rethink things following a discussion of LARPing with several people, and a bit more reading on the subject. I began to consider that the desire for imaginative play among young adults—and some much older—might be rooted in an unconscious desire to escape from a world where we often feel we have no control over the events around us. Perhaps as teens on the brink of adulthood, or adults on the brink of insanity, our inner child comes to the fore and urges us to retreat to a place where we are the captains of our fate, the masters of our destiny. Then again, maybe it’s not retreating at all. It takes creativity, not just determination, to solve real world problems. Imaginary play can be a way to hone the gift of creative thinking.

And what is writing fiction but a variation on LARPing? Creating a world, developing a storyline, populating it with characters and functioning as the game master. So far I haven’t started dressing up like my lead character Leah Nash (though I do have a pair of pajamas strikingly similar to hers) but I have a website with maps of her imaginary town and coming soon is a drawing of her new apartment on the site. If that’s not a bit of a retreat into childhood games, I don’t know what is.

There are as many variations on LARPing as there are people who enjoy the pursuit—Jane Austen LARPs, Harry Potter LARPs, Mad Men LARPs, and I even saw reference to a Law&Order LARP—now that’s one I could get behind. I don’t see myself leaving the happiness of my corner of the couch to roam outside dressed like Elizabeth Bennett or Lenny Briscoe, but I’ve come to think it’s a fine thing, for those who do.

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct. ~Carl Jung



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  1. Barbara Hunter

    All our years as sisters, and I’m still learning from you.

  2. Dian Frayser

    Good blog. LARP away my friend. I guess we all have been larping for some time and just hadn’t put a name to it. Always enjoy your blogs. Keep them coming.

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