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?

Epistemology and the study of games

Some of you might know, I recently attended a conference in Cornwall where I presented a joint paper with a friend and colleague based on her work on Cthulhu horror LARP. The conference was interdisciplinary, with a keynote speech from a renowned Medieval Historian and we both had a fabulous, if tiring, time. In the same panel as our own paper, there were two papers on horror themed computer games, and it was interesting to see how these were also being theorised. This post presents a bit of a rant about how these are studied but I also highlight some of the useful overlaps between the study of computer games and the study of LARP.

In the past I have dabbled in reading about studies of contemporary computer game RPGs and classic MUDs and MOOs (basically multiplayer text-based gaming). However, I often find the claims made about the player experience are based on little more than the imagination of the researcher. While this kind of thing might be fine for a games reviewer, I tend to feel that university researchers are obliged to do a bit more work than that, or at least be honest about the limits of what they are claiming. This is due to different opinions on, or confusion about, epistemology.

So, for non-philosophers, here’s the cheat sheet:

ontology = the study of what exists.

epistemology = the study of what we believe, or can know.

Questions about ontology, what exists, are usually for all practical purposes, simple. This campsite exists. My tent exists. The rain exists and if I don’t get my tent set up soon all my equipment exists and will get pretty wet! The problem comes in when we start talking about individual or collective experiences or symbols. For example, my hardware exists and is downloading the newest patch which will then allow me to get around the DRM and play the game I’ve purchased.  Well, the concept of ownership and digital media is a bit ropey at best, as peer-to-peer filesharing has highlighted. And is an experience a game if it feels dull and monotonous (regardless of whether it’s packaged in a shiny box)?   These debates start to cause problems for our certainties about what exists, because we cannot be certain in our epistemology – what we can know.

If you are having trouble following at this point – swallow the red pill. This illustrates the problem of ‘Descartes demon’; someone or something (like a demon, a cat, or a race of intelligent machines) could, unknown to us, be interfering with our perceptions of the world. And even if there is no interfering demon, this example implies that we cannot trust our own senses 100% of the time anyway. How we interpret what we see is based on our existing frameworks of knowledge and language built over time and experience. It is either really difficult or impossible to imagine our perceptions of reality outside of that experience. So the position most scholars of social science take on this is somewhere between ‘really difficult’ and impossible’.

If your position is ‘really difficult’, your solution to this problem of epistemology (which you have to come up with, otherwise what would be the point of research) is to find techniques to improve the likelihood that your study is an accurate study of what exists (such as running your experiment many times, or comparing your findings with multiple other scholars). If your position is ‘impossible’, then you basically accept that you can never know what exists, but only what you think exists, and you limit yourself to the study of that. Very few scholars are this far down the spectrum, but they might, for example, limit themselves to the study of ‘my experiences of gameplay’ rather than ‘gameplay’. You then have to address a further problem; is what you think the same as what everyone else thinks? This is the question of epistemology in social science, because it basically screams ‘am I doing anything useful?’  Again, it can be quite simple when we are looking at the uncomplicated things the world often seems to be.  Does that look like a wasp over there? Yes, it’s a wasp, I agree. Okay, based on our compared experiences/perceptions of the world, let’s stay away from it then!

But what about if you have never seen a wasp before? Or been stung by one? What if different people have different ways of seeing and interpreting the world based on their experience? Well that makes it difficult. And this is when both individuals are supposedly sharing ‘the same encounter’ with the wasp.

If you are studying a game, or any social experience, it is maybe okay to assume that most people will share some common cultural references or models. Ideas that seem ‘natural’ among a particular group, culture or society. However, it seems like a bit of a leap to suggest that the audience of gamers act like a sponge, absorbing the game experience as designed. We might instead agree that their individual experience will be specific to them as an individual. So studies of a game or social experience need to be based on information about that experience, collected by doing it, observing or questioning the people who do. And subsequently, what we can claim to ‘know’ about the game, needs to be acknowledged within those limits or compared across a broad range of gamers experience.

So, in my personal approach to epistemology, I have written about LARP based on my experiences and on those reported to me by other participants. I do not suggest that this resembles the definite or common experience of all LARPers. But there are (at least) two parts to a LARP game, and people have written a lot about this. There is the story, and the gameplay. There is what the organisers try to make happen, and have players experience, and then there is what they experience. Many different things influence both of these dimensions.

In discussions of computer gaming, there is the same acknowledgement of the importance of the game narrative (studied by narratologists, sometimes referred to as the diegesis or diegetic frame), and the game design (studied by ludologists).

This is a simplification, but for the sake of this (long) post let’s keep things simple. Narratologists broadly claim there is no difference between games and storytelling, and therefore no meaningful distinction between oral epics,  printed novels or point and click adventures. They argue these can all be studied using theories traditionally applied to narrative. Ludologists argue that the ‘story’ part of the game is just the icing on the cake, and what ought to be the focus of study is the rules and mechanisms of the game.

It seems that both of these approaches focus on the game itself as a real thing that exists. Or at least, the focus is on the created narrative as a cultural product, or the set of rules as an algorithmic product with multiple possible operations. I am perfectly happy with studies looking at this, but where I get twitchy is when either side starts to make claims about how players experience the narrative/ludic elements without a clear statement that outlines how the problem of epistemology has been overcome here. This requires some sort of claim about what we can know about players (by being one, observing one or asking one). But the interesting thing is, the relationship between game and player is not a simple one of design and receipt (and most scholars of games do acknowledge this). No game is thrown out into the world on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis of meaning or interpretation.

So let’s go back to LARPers again. There has been a bit of debate among LARPers about how a game operates, rules, story, and the difference between ‘Roleplayers’ and ‘Powergamers/players’. It raises its head in discussions around Player versus Player elements of games most frequently. And in such discussions there is a lot of awareness that the people who write or design the games are players too, and players switch between their focus on story and on gameplay. There’s even a sort of complex cool creative  doublethink between being your character among your enemies and being a LARPer hanging out among your friends.

So in this blog post I have included multiple hyperlinks to demonstrate the cultural codes and references I am thinking of when I use some of the terms here. But I’d like any readers to comment on whether they think that simply by adding these connections I am restricting or enhancing your diversity of (narrative or ludic) experience in reading this post.


tl:dr IMHO studies of games should look at what the players actually experience, not just the story or gameplay design. Studies of computer games distinguish between ‘plot’ and ‘game mechanics’ just like big debates in LARP do, but they could learn a few things from LARP.

Trying something new

So, this bank holiday weekend was spent in gruelling cold conditions attempting to represent a character from a gloriously sunny coastal port town on the edge of a great Mediterranean-esque plain of farms and vineyards. Needless to say, I grumbled both as my character and as myself. The return to the comforts of unfrozen pipes and hot food more or less on demand have been a reminder that however much I enjoy ‘playing at’ being in the dark ages, I’d rather live with first world comforts. It puts in perspective those at risk from fuel poverty and homelessness in today’s world.

So I suppose I should make this clear, this weekend was not ‘research’ and I do not have the permission of participants to report on it as such, so this post will be confined to my own experiences of a new LARP community and system. For those in the LARP community, it will be quite obvious which events I am referring to and there are already a number of detailed first-person accounts of this event online and easy to find.

So, the weekend was one of the coldest on record for this time of year, and some of my close friends at the event left early, unable to face the hardship of numb and painful extremities caused by freezing and below-freezing temperatures any longer. Having packed every single insulating rug and duvet in my possession and supplied with as much hot coffee as I could buy, I managed to last until the bitter end. My long-suffering partner diligently heated the ice to hot water each night so we could defrost our poor feet, and I think we were probably as well prepared as it was possible to be. Nonetheless, the cold did detract from my ability to keep to the game. The fact that the cold was escapable, that we could have given up and gone home, made it very hard to ignore.

Aside from the bodily challenges, showing up to a new game, with new people to interact with is always difficult. Explaining away unfamiliarity with the customs and practices of the countrymen (fellow players) camped alongside is a hurdle to be added to the many one might experience when trying a new game. In this instance, the game itself is new, so it wasn’t possible to rely on the community of existing knowledgeable players to cue you to what is and is not standard practice, no matter how much of the setting you might have read in advance.

Further, this was the first time I have purposefully played a character who avoids combat. Because of the cold and reports of poor ground in the combat area I also did not volunteer to engage in combat as a monster role, which I usually thoroughly enjoy. This left me in a strange position to discover those aspects of the game with which I could engage and contribute. Several of our group did join me in discovering various ways to keep warm that superficially engaged with the ethos of the group as a performance oriented culture. That is to say, we indulged in some silly dancing that mostly involved prancing about or jumping up and down to keep warm. But this glossed over the reality that we were too cold to take the game seriously.

Nonetheless, we did go out and do business. I negotiated on behalf of the group and got involved in the politics around business and trade. I went to meetings as a ‘priest’ and discussed the merits of business practices as moral or immoral (though this began to uncomfortably sound like university work). The politics around priests trying to influence business was something I really enjoyed actually, and I think if the cold had been less biting this part of the game could have really taken much more of my attention, as well as the role of ceremonies. The little phys-reps and metal coins seemingly more at home in a one-shot environment really made it feel like there was an urgent need to trade and swap things.

However, the cold and the site difficulties did make it feel like I was a visitor to someone else’s game, many organisers seemed preoccupied with other troubles and so left new people like myself to explore with little advice to guide them. The number of familiar faces, also strangers to this new game meant it was not wholly unwelcoming, but there was not the same feeling of community achievement in this ‘shared fantasy’, only a sense of a shared struggle.  However, it has definitely thrown elements into the game which I never expected in a ‘fest’ scale event, so I think I will visit it again in the future.

A more coherent follow-up post may appear when I have recovered more of my wits from the elements.

Introduction to LARP

This is a post to try to describe what LARP is, aimed at the ‘uninitiated’. First of all, the acronym stands for “live action role play”. It is often alternatively described as “cross country pantomime”, “interactive drama”, or my personal favourite; “running around in dress up while hitting people with sticks”. Importantly, LARP is a leisure activity just like football or golf, with particular rules and codes of practice, jargon and governing bodies. It is a game without clear win conditions, the objective is usually simply to continue playing (avoiding character death), and enjoying the experience.   There is a theatrical element to it, as the rules and regulations can only go so far – much is down to individual performance. There is also a (directed or undirected) narrative element to it, and just as golfers will talk about their game, roleplayers will talk about their character’s adventures. LARP is an international hobby, particularly common in Europe, the UK and the USA, though there are significant cultural differences. In the UK and USA in particular, it is much maligned as a “geeky” or “nerdy” activity, a game for spotty immacture boys and unattractive girls, or people with personality problems and social inadequacies.

Scale of LARP:

LARP is an activity which is very different depending upon the scale at which it is run. You can run a small scale larp with only four or five players which will be fairly intensive, run over a short space of time (say an evening), and tailored around the interactions of those characters. Most mystical horror LARPs (such as those drawing on the theme of HP Lovecraft’s tales, referred to as Cthulhu LARP), run at this scale, with a maximum of around 20 players.  At the opposite extreme is ‘fest’ LARP. These run on a comparable scale to a small music festival, complete with the dangers of outdoor life, portaloos and at the mercy of the British summer. I have previously been at a ‘fest’ LARP which had over 7,000 participants which could at times be overwhelming, especially in a line battle where the confusion between friend and foe was an experience to remember. It’s not in many hobbies you can find yourself behind enemy lines, going through your own miniature version of “Saving Private Ryan” while covered in green facepaint and attempting to avoid gentlemen wearing kilts “authentically”. These are a completely different type of game to the small scale events, and are often focussed on long term ongoing participation (players continuing to participate in sequential events), character development and competitive elements of play. These may include “capture the flag” or ‘battle’ type elements. Due to the scale of these events, it is possible for players to take the game at their own pace, to ‘drop out’ for a few hours, or to maintain whatever level of intensity they are comfortable with. Players are likely to have minimal contact with organisers and have more autonomy.

Purpose of LARP:

What is the purpose of football? I recall trying to explain the hobby to my father shortly after I had returned from a large-scale fest event, and after about two hours of conversation he simply said “sure, I understand how it works, but what’s the point?” – I admit I was flummoxed. I never understood why people would want to sit in front of the TV and watch grown men chase a ball around a field, but then I wasn’t knowledgable about the rules of the game. LARP is like anything else, a game, and an entertainment. However, an important truth is that it is not designed for an audience. The rules are difficult to absorb by observation alone, and part of the fun lies in introducing new material to the improvisation. Participants also have different parts of the game experience they might enjoy. There is the competitive element of combat, the puzzle solving aspect of plot engagement, the personal experience of immersion in escapist fantasy. There are also enjoyable aspects in the organising of the games, in the development of consistent narratives, the portrayal of interesting characters, and of seeing these creations ‘come to life’ in gameplay.
LARP supposedly also has benefits as a learning format, in therapy and in personal development. However, these are not the direct aims of the majority of the games discussed here, though they may occur as side-effects.

The experience of LARP:

(or, what it looks like to an outsider)

So what does LARP look like? Feel like? Sound like? The pictures above give you something of a glimpse into the aesthetic of fantasy games. The odour of grass and canvas, leather and suncream, underpinned by the sour tang of spilled beer and toilet chemicals make up the scent of fantasy larp. By contrast, the smell of dusty tweed, gravy, old books and extinguished candles sums up the scent of 1920s horror LARP. As a player the costume usually feels distinctly different to everyday clothing; you might feel the weight of leather pouches and scabbards hanging off a belt by your waist, the constriction of armour on your legs, or the unusual warmth of a tweed hunting cap. This feeling becomes the ‘feel’ of the character, affecting your movement and behaviour. To anyone looking at the hobby from afar (perhaps through binoculars) it looks something like a fancy dress party, but with people often wearing serious expressions. Someone might raise a ‘sword’ or a ‘firearm’, and suddenly what seems like a movie-style stand-off is ruined by a chorus of “normal”, “BANG”, “Triple!”, “Covering Fire!”, “Flaming!” and people running to and fro in high-visibility construction jackets. Each of these terms may have meaning in the rules of the game world (each has it’s own system of rules), but from the outside it does tend to seem plain silly. This is generally why LARPers are a little averse to an ‘audience’ of the general public. To the players however, these experiences may mean the difference between ‘life’ and ‘death’; the loss of a loved one, or the defeat of a great evil. And as for those people in high-vis vests, they are considered invisible by players, and some have been playing the game for so long they have even convinced themselves to ‘edit out’ seeing these caretakers of the game experience. However, if you have ever had building work going on, you know just how invisible a high-vis vest and hard hat can make the average individual.

What LARP is not:

As mentioned above, LARP tends to be much maligned, and there are numerous rumours about what the games are “really” about. They have even featured in some fundamentalist religious propaganda as satanic rituals. I hope I can reassure you that LARP is, in my experience, as harmless as theatre. However, the game has often been tarred as hiding other peculiarities.
LARP is Antisocial – This is a common claim in the UK, particularly among university sports clubs. LARP is, in fact, highly social. The majority of the game is dependent upon the ability to interact with others in highly innovatory ways in order to engage with the game world, further the plot and develop the character.
One possibility about how this rumour is perpetuated comes from the fact that LARPers tend to make a point of courteously ensuring their game does not confuse or interfere with the goings on of the general public, while in public space. Comparing this with the behaviour of your average sporting ngroup, who in some circumstances aggressively encourage people to participate, there is a distinct difference in approach.
LARP is Men Only – The claim that LARP is a masculine hobby does have some foundation in the UK, where participation in LARP has been male dominated in the past. However this has become less significant over the past 10 years and the gender split in participation tends to be more equal.
LARP is Sexual Play – Oh how many times I have to respond to this question. No, LARP is not about sex. Is football about sex? Or operatic theatre? This is not to say that there is no sex at LARP. There are plenty of adults participating in the game capable of making their own decisions. However, the point is that there is no more connection between LARP and sex than you are likely to find at any outdoor festival.
LARP is a kids thing – People of all ages participate in LARP. Notoriously, in one of the games I participate in, three generations of the same family play in the game. There is no requirement for players to be of a certain age or to be able-bodied in order to participate. There are some difficulties experienced by organisers which may mitigate against equal participation opportunities, but these are not inherent difficulties of the game format.

Have I missed something?

Please feel free to add questions in the comments…