This is how one world ends and another begins. The trunk opens. You take your boots, your leather cuirass and your gloves and don them. Your sword and your shield you carry. You close the trunk and lock the car. Slowly you forget that cars exist. You forget the shift you have to take at Starbucks in six hours, the electricity bill that needs paying and the gallon of milk you need to buy on the way home. You forget it all. You look down at the grass crunching underfoot and when you look up again you see a group of armored men relaxing by an old oak. They lean against their swords and idle. They wave in your direction to join them but there's a hitch. You are not the person they recognize. They are calling a name out that normally you wouldn't answer to, but today, here on this secluded field for a few sacred hours, you are no longer you. You are Gennep of Eltis, and you are just one of the many citizens of Niwrem who have come here seeking friendship, adventure and glory.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
To an outsider's perspective, Niwrem resembles nothing more than a mob of grown men and women running pell-mell with foam swords and shields. The stuff of fiction, or childishness, the observer might say to himself. And at some level this proves true. Niwrem, after all, is the product of these people's collective imagination. Their constructed world springs forth from the inhabitants' escapism and fantasies. Niwrem is a LARP, a live action role-playing game that can best be described as the ultimate immersive experience, a phenomenon of characterization and performance.
Acting does not fully explain the identity swap and role-play central to the game's experience. Granted, there's an element of theatricality to any event starring sea elves, swords and sorcery. Nevertheless, an important distinction must be made. "The real difference between LARPing and acting is that LARPing has no script and no audience, and a few rules to keep everything fair and fun," Tom Lawler, full-time Brown student and part-time LARPer, told the Independent. An actor strives to communicate the dramaturgy of a play or movie. In short, he uses his body as a medium to achieve this end. The LARPer's goal, on the other hand, is much less extroverted. While he might communicate with other players in the frame of the game, the main dialogue occurs within. The desires he wishes to fulfill are personal and he achieves them by turning his gaze inward, fashioning his own identity to answer the 64,000 dollar question: If you could be anybody, who would you be?
LARPs provide an open-ended answer to this query. The process of LARPing occurs like this: the entire world in which the LARP will exist is created. Everything, from the time period to the level of technology to the currency, must be decided upon, for a loophole or flaw in logic could ruin the entire experience for its players. In a game that relies on complete role immersion, anything that makes the LARPer hyperaware of the game he's playing must go. Once the game designers have their world in place, they must agree to a set of rules that will ensure the safety of its individuals. Often these terms include the use of foam weapons, or boffers, so that combat doesn't result in real injury and trauma. Finally, dates for events are agreed upon (they usually occur on weekends to allow workers and students to attend), and the LARP commences.
THE ROCK TROLL MADE ME DO IT
There's no question that everybody role-plays. Advice for the more unpleasant experiences in life goes something like this: Put a smile on your face, and just get through it. Obviously, if the fast food cashier told us how he really felt when we changed our order for the fourth time, he'd be out of a job. So, if common sense dictates that, rather than live them, people play the roles they don't want, why is it so strange to play the roles they desire?
The reason might be that some people don't believe LARPing to be any different from other types of gaming, such as Dungeons & Dragons, that have long been subjected to wedgies and scorn. Lawler goes one further: "I think that sadly the most likely answer is that LARPing is viewed as a more extreme version of other forms of roleplaying. I think it's the same social stigma [as playing D&D] that comes into play when one says I LARP on the weekends." What's more, it remains greatly misunderstood. A simple search on YouTube for relevant demonstrations of LARPing nets the results: "Lightning Bolt: Geeks playing live action RPG"s along with "larp sadness: larping makes people hate you." Needless to say, these videos do little to inform the viewer about why people LARP.
Fear not, though, an infinitely better primer exists. Directed by Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer, Darkon provides a compassionate, engrossing glimpse into the ins and outs of one LARPing club in the Baltimore area. The documentary presents a few reasons as to why people embrace a life of LARPing. The constant role-play offers a way to activate the mundane, anonymous existence of modern life. As one man confesses, "Everyday, most of the time, you don't get to be the hero."
LARPing also provides a way to overcome the ennui that a visually oversaturated culture fosters in its inhabitants. There's something distinctly immaterial and paradoxically identity-forming about a LARP. The presiding qualities consist of a sense for adventure, community and a fearlessness to lose one's self in a role. As Lawler puts it, "You really get a strong feeling of what your character's like, what he wants, how he feels. I feel like I don't fully understand what it means to be a particular character until I've LARPed as that character." Though he doesn't state it outright, one gets the sense that as Lawler acts out his in-game persona, he gains a better understanding of himself, or as one LARPer in Darkon puts it, "Keldar [the man's in-game persona] was who I wanted to be."
While this identity flux could be interpreted as a distortion of the normal order of things, some players consider it a proper redistribution of power and politics, that finally they will receive what they deserve. This line of thinking doesn't stray far from egalitarianism, and even basic socialist theory. In a way, LARPing does provide a sort of resistance to the (sub)urban sprawl, hyper-branding and cultural consumption that's expected of a capitalist society and its participants, especially in light of the dichotomy between labor and play, realism and fantasy, that defines the real world and that of the LARP.
In the LARP, these socioeconomic forces lose their autonomy. Without the usual symbols and hallmarks, without money, entitlement and social networks, the structures that place people and effectively rank them in society crumble. The LARP becomes then an ingenious thought experiment where people now have the freedom to choose for themselves who they will be and how they may pursue their lives, far from the invisible hands that otherwise move them.
Just like any other organized group, LARPs suffer from the same problems of representation that occur outside of the game. The central conflict of Darkon concerns the popularity contest that Keldar, an especially charismatic LARPer, has made of the otherwise democratic world. His rise and solidification of power suggest that though the battles might be imaginary, the forces that drive them--greed, jealousy and pride, to name a few--remain very real.
To say that LARPs hold a mirror up to the existing social fabric doesn't fully describe their scope. Certainly aspects of the real world creep into the game structure. Yet for the players, the LARP exists because they exist within it. LARPs affirm them in a way that running errands and treading traffic never could. There's something immensely satisfying in knowing that the world, even if it is an imaginary world, would not be the same without you. Such knowledge gets lost amid the alienation of capitalism-induced globalization. Sometimes people just need some chain mail and a Fireball enchantment to confirm their worth.
Gennep has gone. You have left him in the trunk with the sword and armor. You are back in your car and the wounds you have suffered, the blood you have just spilt, have disappeared. You adjust the rear-view mirror, which alights on a group of people, still armor-clad, laughing together. You have no idea what the joke is. You are driving back to the highway, and whatever they are talking about seems so far away. Suddenly, you remember the milk you're to get at the store. When you look back again, they've vanished.
MIGUEL MORALES B'10 parked his unicorn out back.