Should LARP be not-for-profit?

If there is one oft-cited rule that almost all LARP organisers face it is this: LARP does not make money. In fact, scraping together the cash to ensure you have enough funds to run a future event, keep the group website registered and online, or to pay for prop storage when that convenient friend’s garage becomes unavailable is the constant worry of anyone trying to keep a LARPing group together.

There is evidence to the contrary (of course!). The professional ‘LARPwrights’ of Nordic LARP, the large festival systems that at least make enough money to pay their employees, the adept entrepreneurs who transform LARP into a training activity or even the savvy LARPers who run the same game twice to save on props.

But here’s the interesting question; is there something about LARP that would be ‘lost’ if events were run on a for-profit basis?

Price

A lot of controversy surrounds the issue of pricing of LARP events. Prices range dramatically from small scale events charging as little as £20 for a one-day or evening event, to ‘fest’ events weekend tickets at £75 or highly customised unique events costing around £200. A comparison with other leisure activities is interesting. An evening ticket to a London theatre might cost around £50-90, all-day entry to a theme park attraction costs around £45, a 3-day ticket for a music festival (less prestigious than Glastonbury) might cost around £200 and a weekend in a period hotel (without meals) might set you back £400. These activities are not strictly comparable with a LARP event; they are a more formal industry, aimed at a ‘mass market’ of consumers rather than a segment of hobbyists. Nonetheless, these are industries aimed at generating a profit, and a shift towards this practice in LARP would likely involve a shift towards higher pricing. With this in mind, comparing prices with the recent Harry Potter inspired LARPs (1) (2) highlights a ticket price of around £300.

EDIT – for more information on price and cost for high-price events, see Crooked House’s account here.

Organization

Comparing current UK LARP events with these higher priced LARP events elsewhere, events such as the Battlestar Galactica LARP show that the design and running of such events continue to rely heavily on the input of dedicated volunteers and experienced LARPers. The repetition of such events allows for economies of scale in the production and delivery of events of a similar nature, if not identical in all their features. To an extent this already occurs in many LARP events, as the reuse of set dressing or monster costumes, particularly in festival LARP, both allows for the ‘production’ of a consistent world as well as a decrease in the premium associated with new and unique settings and events. Yet a strong profit motive encourages a drive towards such efficiencies, and particularly repetition. This can be seen in events such as 2.8 hours later, similar zombie run events or locked room puzzles such as Breakout Manchester.

Style

These repeating zombie or puzzle events are arguably, not LARP. Yet they are a simplified form of the same type of activity. A key feature that they seem to share is a simplified game setting and style. This is LARP crossed with The Crystal Maze; solve the puzzle, beat the physical challenge, wear a silly outfit but win the game. The setting is a generic one that does not require a high level of engagement or preparation; it relies on tropes well established in popular culture. A shift towards this sort of event is not necessary to a profit orientation, but it is a result of pressures for efficiency. Running an effective game requires careful time management, and inexperienced players cannot be relied upon to do their homework in advance. In order to maintain control over the game experience (and produce something that might get people to bring their friends back for another go), keying in to a style setting already well established in popular consciousness is efficient. In this, it is perhaps easy to see such approaches in events such as the Harry Potter inspired LARP. JK Rowling’s books and the subsequent movies have accompanied a generation of young people, and even those who have not read the originals have some awareness of the setting. LARP has always mimicked fictional genres from books, movies and videogames, but generally these are further developed to produce rich and varied narrative worlds. While such worlds are of interest to LARPers because they allow for a wide range of possible action, they are not efficient or necessary to a functional (though more limited) game. Pursuit of a more substantial profit motive is therefore likely to promote more ‘effective’ event styles over richer event worlds, though this would not necessarily extend to associated requirements for set dressing and props, as these are by some a measure of immersion ‘quality’.

Community

An important element in the shift in style is also a shift in the types of people participating in LARP. Numbers of players at large UK events have been declining as the diversity of available regional games has increased. In business terms, these games are competing for a limited customer base. The rational response is to attempt to reach a wider market segment, to make games more ‘accessible’. Yet this is one reason why the pricing of LARP events is controversial. LARPers make up a community of hobbyists who wish to continue to participate even though rising prices and declining wages may mean they struggle to do so. Free monster spaces and volunteering options allow some to continue to be involved, but a shift towards higher pricing can result in some players becoming excluded. In addition, making more accessible games that deliver an ‘effective’ experience may ‘dilute’ the community in an attempt to provide a game experience for the mass market which is not the rich experience LARPers look for. This is not to suggest that LARP games should be designed for an insular few. This is already the case; LARP is not a mainstream hobby. There is a difference, however, between making the community more accessible, and making an individual game more accessible. Changes to the price, parameters and style of the game may come at a cost to the community.

Spectators…

LARP is not currently a spectator sport. While historical reenactment may have appeal to crowds, particularly in the case of scripted battles, this is not something which applies quite as well to LARP. Such concepts are not outlandish, however. Scurvy Scum (aka Bandits, Brigands & Buccaneers) attempted to operate a hybrid type of event including public displays and entertainments as much as the main game event with the ambition of bringing together a mixture of hobbyist fees and public tickets to make a profitable business of sorts. Sadly this had mixed results and the website, at least, has disappeared. But you never know, the role of the spectator as a possible subsidy for the hobby may be explored again…

Profit: good or bad?

It has not been my intention to present for-profit LARP as either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, but to explore and consider the possible changes and consequences. LARP currently seems to be expanding its boundaries, and in many ways delivering activities to both the community and to the public that are both interesting and enjoyable. Attempts to bring together different hobbies and interests in a way that is self-sustaining, such as the attempt made by Scurvy Scum, are interesting. Events with more mass market appeal also raise the profile of the hobby and help to present LARP activities in a beneficial light. Yet there is also a danger in the quest for profitability, that LARP events become the poor spin-off, rather than the blockbuster experience.

Comments welcome.

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