Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sign of the Apocalypse #52: The world of LARPing

By Michael J.W. Stickings

We all have our fantasies, even our fantasy worlds, worlds that allow us to be true to ourselves, for good or bad, or neither. Put another way, we all have dreams, dreams about ourselves, ideal images of ourselves, self-constructs. Society requires one to be many things, to wear many masks, to play many roles, some fulfilling, some not, or not so much, but even the happiest person, even the most self-aware, finding happiness in genuine self-awareness, in knowing oneself, cannot but fall short of the ideal. (Even Socrates must have had his doubts and disappointments, and, yes, his fantasies.) And this is especially true, I think, in our age of the deification of the self, an age in which the self is celebrated, in which freedom reigns, in which individuals, in our more progressive societies, are able to "find" themselves in so many different ways, an age in which choice is supreme, an age in which choices can be made, and are made, for the greater glorification of the self.

Okay, enough of that.

My point is that freedom and choice do not necessarily make for happiness, and many people today are living lives that seem, in one way or another, meaningless, which is to say, devoid of meaning, even pointless. You get up, you commute, you sit in a cubicle, your boss yells at you, you play office politics, you count the seconds, you drink, you narcotize yourself. You're stuck in a crappy job, a dead-end career, a broken family. You're in debt, massive debt, and you worry about retirement, if you sober up enough to think about anything at all.

Yup, it's pretty bleak out there, and wherever you are right now.

Quite probably, it's pretty bleak in your soul, too.

So go ahead and fantasize. Go find yourself.

Just don't hurt anyone.


Which brings me to this: LARPing.

Do you know what that stands for? I didn't, and I'd never even heard about it before I read this review of a documentary on LARPing by Grady Hendrix at Slate.

So what does it stand for? Well, here you go:

Darkon is a LARP (live-action role-playing game) where normal people dress up in homemade armor and pretend to be inhabitants of a fantasy realm. They fight battles in parks and on soccer fields over pretend land in a pretend country that has its own pretend religions and pretend economy. It's meatspace Dungeons & Dragons, with people brandishing swords wrapped in foam and slamming each other around with padded shields. Founded in 1985, Darkon is one of America's oldest and largest LARPs, and the showdown between two kingdoms within it, Mordom and Laconia, was captured in the documentary Darkon, a movie so mighty it needed two directors (Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer). The film... joins the ranks of movies like Hoop Dreams and Murderball as one of the great documentary dissections of how Americans play.

Got that? It's live-action fantasy. And it's pretty serious:

There are tens of thousands of LARPers around the world, and in the United States, a national LARPing event like the massive Ragnarok meet held in Ohio can draw several thousand attendees. Darkon has 700 members, fielding up to 150 people at any given battle.

For more... well, just read the article. The whole thing -- the whole phenomenon of LARPing -- is odd. It's hard to believe people actually do this, and get so into it. (Check out the entry at Wikipedia, too.)

But is it odd? Look, I have my fantasies, too. I won't get into them here, sorry, but I am an avid fantasy sports enthusiast. Every Sunday during the NFL season I'm not just obsessing about the Steelers but also following closely how the real life players on my fantasy team(s) are doing. Brees and Hasselbeck, LT and Marshawn, Holt and Gonzales -- my mood rises and falls based on how well they do, or how poorly. And all this in front of the computer screen, and on TV, flipping around from game to game to see "my" players. At least the LARPers do their thing outside. At least their thing is physical. At least they're connecting with each other -- well, connecting as characters who may or may not be their true selves, or, rather, shadows of their true selves, of their personal ideals. (Okay, fantasy sports isn't my only thing, but you get my point -- I hope.)


There's no way I can give LARPing a free ride here. It is -- both in itself and its stunning popularity -- a Sign of the Apocalypse, a sign that all is not well with the world today.

I understand its appeal and I understand the motivations that lead people to it -- at least I think I do. Other fantasy worlds make sense, why not this one?

But the role-playing component of this... hobby, if I may call it that... the gravitas with which the participants throw themselves into it... It's an outlet, and maybe a relatively healthy one, I don't know... but it's awfully bizarre.

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  • Wonderful post, Michael. LARPing makes more sense to me than some of the stuff that comes out of White House press conferences these days.

    By Blogger Carol Gee, at 6:10 AM  

  • I'm an old grouch and maybe this role playing thing is no more harmless than golf, but it makes me uneasy too. A bit of fantasy may be what makes us human, but there may be a difference between pretending for a few seconds on an entrance ramp that you're at LeMans or being one of those Civil War re-enactors and being involved in a whole fantasy world. That seems to go just a bit beyond the realm of recreation into the land of Bonkers.

    Admittedly we have a lot worth escaping from these days, but this sort of thing has something to do with the frustration and hopelessness that many people feel. It may be a sign that they've given up. That's not a good thing in a democracy.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 9:10 AM  

  • I'm amazed, in this day and age, that DHS hasn't busted this game.

    By Blogger Carl, at 4:55 PM  

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