What is normal? Reflections on ‘Leaving Mundania’ Chapter 1 & 2

Having read Lizzie Stark’s book on the US LARP scene, I was reflecting on the many everyday aspects of the LARP community that are represented there which I have also encountered. The book describes the experience of attending LARP for the first time, the connection between LARP and pen and paper roleplay games (also known as tabletop), and the central role that participation in the LARP community beyond the game itself holds in the life histories of some people. There is also an implicit discussion around LARPers defining themselves against a “normal” stereotype which is not always accepted by the “normal” people they encounter.

In these descriptions, LARP is taken seriously, and Lizzie makes a point of highlighting the skills and benefits that participants take from the activity into their lives. She highlights the close bonds of the community that in many cases substitute for difficult or dysfunctional family relations. One of the defining features of being a LARPer, however, seems to be the expectation that the activity is never taken seriously by outsiders. Or, in rare cases, is taken far too seriously and considered some sort of obsession. I once read an introduction to a collection of short stories by a well known horror writer who highlighted how the word ‘hobby’ was used to cover any number of peculiar and irrational obsessions. In this light it is fairly easy to extend the curiosity about LARP to many well known and accepted hobbies.

In previous posts I have compared LARP to football, not only because that is a hobby I have particular difficulty understanding myself, but also because it has a strong cultural currency. When meeting football fans I find it difficult to appreciate their arguments about the rules, their fascination with the tactics and talent of individual footballers, or the aggressive camaraderie that accompanies wearing the same scarf as everyone else. Yet these activities are very similar to those engaged in by LARPers. The ‘cultural currency’ and associated stereotyping, however, is not one of machismo and belligerence (as often associated with football fans), but instead often portrayed as one of unattractive friendless ‘nerds’ with dubious social skills, self-image problems and ‘fringe’ attitudes to prevailing social structures and politics. Football fans, then, are ‘super’normal, while LARPers are associated with a not-quite-normal ‘sub’class. Like any stereotype, these are insulting generalisations that apply to few in the hobby (though I don’t doubt there is some truth in any stereotype for some individuals). However, an important core aspect of the LARP community for many is its high tolerance of diversity. As such, people are potentially more likely to be open about matters they might otherwise keep hidden from public knowledge.

In Lizzie’s book, there is an incident where LARPers in a public space suspend their activities while some non-LARPers pass through the area, while the LARPers shout “look out, normals”, a label which the individuals concerned mildly object to. By contrast, I thought about occassions when I have encountered football fans in the street, roving groups of ‘lads’ chanting and singing at anyone they encounter, with one at the back of the group quietly apologising for his friends’ behaviour. LARP, it seems, makes a point of excluding (protecting?) outsiders, while football fandom attempts to recruit them. Personally, friends have accused me in the past of being something of a LARP ‘evangelist’, attempting (like the football fans) to ‘convert’ people I meet to the practice of the hobby, and I wonder at the role this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘others’ plays in reinforcing the stereotypes mentioned above. Further, the strength of the definition of those in the LARP community as “not normal” seems to be foundational to the community in some way.

One possible answer might be that the attempts made by the community to present themselves as “not normal” is the equivalent to the apologetic friend of the football fans. LARPers, much like football fans, are often causing disruption of order in public spaces by appearing in strange costumes, making conversation on outlandish topics or shouting rule-based effects at one another. It is possible that by shouting “suspend play! Time-freeze! Normals!” LARPers attempt to convey the message to general passers-by; “yes, we are doing something strange, sorry for the disruption.”

An important aspect of the instance in ‘Leaving Mundania,’ however, was that the so-called normals responded in kind; “we are not normals!” which rather upsets the attempts by the LARPers to distinguish strict boundaries around their gameplay. In many UK LARPs I participate in, over teh past ten years there has been a decrease in the use of ‘normal’ as a label used to define the community against, with scenarios such as the one Lizzie described pausing with the use of phrases such as “people passing”, “public”, or “mind the path”. This seems to imply the possibility of a growing awareness that people coming across a LARP event may have ‘not-quite-normal’ tendencies of their own, and even might want to ask where to go to buy a costume and join in.

As always, comments welcome below.

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