Thursday, May 3, 2012

LARP and Journalism

by Zoe

Lizzie Stark of has made the foray into LARPing; her new book, Leaving Mundania was just released. I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but my copy is ordered, and hopefully shipping soon. I just discovered Stark's blog, and I'm interested. All this being said, my anthropologist alarm is beeping. My concerns are below, but I encourage everyone else to voice their reactions as well. (Also, please forgive the plunge into anthropological method and theory. I work with what I've got.)

Lizzie Stark, and please correct me if I'm wrong, has LARPed for 18 months. In that time period, she has conducted some fantastic journalism, interviewed intelligent people, and participated in really interesting events. However, 18 months seems like a really short turn around for LARP. Having LARPed now for about 3 years (in Accelerant), I still, as an academic and a player, wouldn't feel comfortable writing an article on it. Why? I'm only just now starting to get a grasp on what makes LARP tick. That's taken three years of PCing, NPCing, staffing, blogging, and researching LARP. Stark is maybe just a different academic than I am, but I can't help but wonder if she's gone for breadth rather than depth. (In fairness, she spent 3 years on the book. That's standardish fieldwork time, I spose.)

My second issue... Stark seems to advocate expanding the definition of LARP to a broader range of activities. She puts "larp" in historical perspective, and categorizes a wide array of activities under the umbrella category of "larp." (I'm all for putting LARP in historical perspective, though I don't know that I'd categorize those activities as directly comparable to modern day LARPing. We run into the same problem with archaeology and comparative ethnography-- historical comparisons can trivialize the individuality of the extant community.) I'm undecided on whether or not this is a good idea. LARPers are part of a stigmatized community. While expanding the definition of LARP to a wider range of activities may make LARPing more palatable to a popular audience, it also risks sacrificing the integrity and nuances of individual LARP games. For instance, Accelerant and NERO, while both LARPs, are wildly different from one another in system, character motivation, and experience. How different then is an Accelerant LARP from some of the examples that Stark presents? Does it do justice to the individual games and players to lump them into an umbrella category? Again, I haven't read her book, so I don't know just how large her definition is. This is mostly gleaned from her blog and interviews. But I'm interested. And really curious about Nordic larps.

My third issue... and Chris Wilkins helped me articulate this: LARP is about LARPers. One of my biggest problems with writing about LARP academically is that it is a fully immersive experience that, in many ways, is meta-cultural. It is best represented by the people who LARP themselves (hence this blog). I get that journalism is all about representing others, but I'm a collaborative anthropologist. Not a journalist. I just have this feeling that she is an outsider looking in. I'm reading over her blog now, I feel like she has some really interesting questions and points, but is still kind of just scratching on the surface of LARP.

This is a cursory look at Stark's work, and I'm interested in learning more about her methods. As an anthropologist, I'm immediately concerned that she hasn't spent enough time in game. I also explained my larger concerns about extending the word "LARP" to a broader definition. Once I read the book, which I'm excited to do, I'll have a better feel, but these are my, admittedly, knee-jerk reactions. I do, however, need to wholeheartedly commend Stark on being respectful of LARPing as a whole-- she's definitely doing her part, from what I can do, to challenge many of the preconceptions about LARPing. And for that I really congratulate and thank her. I don't think Stark intends for her book to be comprehensive nor definitive. I have some concerns, but, if nothing else, it's a good starting point for future writers.

I hope to get the LARPcast fellows and a few other people involved in a roundtable discussion of the book. If you're interested, please let me know.


  1. This is similar to how I felt when I read Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf. He does a couple chapters on LARPing both in a smaller game setting and when he goes to Pennsic. However, I felt like he was an outsider looking in.
    Looking at LARP from a journalistic standpoint, to me, is a lot like if you were trying to look at film objectively. I feel like a lot of times the point is missed. "So a bunch of people dress up in costumes and hit each other with foam swords in the woods?" seems a lot like "So they print a bunch of colors and shapes on this brown film and then run light through it?" Maybe it's just my love for story telling, but LARP is a lot bigger than the sum of the people preforming it. LARP is a story telling medium with some really unique properties because the story is for the people actively involved in telling it rather than an audience. Maybe that's enough to classify it as something different but I don't think it is. While I think LARP has come to a stage in its public opinion where it is looked at as "Look guys, these aren't weirdos at all; they are totally normal people doing this weird thing", it's still being shown as a weird thing. I'm sure that's up from where it was (and I'll be the first to admit that before I agreed to play I was a pretty terrible offender of this. I judged and I judged hard. I regret it terribly now.) but until it moves on to be seen as a valid medium for story telling I think we are always going to get a little off treatment.
    The silver lining to that is that all this takes is time. Look at video games, they aren't quite to a point where the media doesn't treat them like something only kids play but as more and more adults are enjoying games (or really, more and more people who enjoy games are becoming adults) that perception is becoming increasingly dated.Comics are another good example, they are right on the precipice of that transformation as even the superhero kids comics seem to be able to spark just about everyone to take notice. As more and more layers of "geek culture" become main stream we'll just keep digging. And as more and more people who are not afraid or turned away by this kind of stuff grow up and become the adults who decide what gets made, published, or shown these sorts of sentiments will shift. It just takes time.

  2. So as an outsider looking in by definition... I found it doesn't take long before you start feeling pulled in :) but you notice aaaaaall these things along the way. Not sure how to describe it, but it just makes you want to investigate, analyze, and document. Least it did for me anyway. Heck and I wasn't even planning on it originally, my pesky leather journal was supposed to be a prop, now it's almost full!

    In terms of expanding the umbrella, I don't mind it so much. For me with other hobbies, I was glad when "gaming" started to broaden. Are my board game nights anything like my D&D nights? Is my girls D&D game, with its heavy role playing and story-focused fun, the same as my standard "hack and slash" nights with the guys? Is an MMO anything like angry birds. I'm going to say a big NO on ALL those fronts. But people still lump tons of that stuff into one, and all it did was make it easier for me to chat with people about it and relate to others who don't get as deep into it as I do. "Do you play games?" "I play words with friends" "Oh well that's cool! I play a game too. It's a big computer game though" "Oh really? That's neat". Years ago those conversations went "Do you play games?" "Ew, no I have a life!" *crickets*

    The bigger part for me in any type of "article" writing is - are the people / topic etc being represented fairly and without painting them in a demeaning or belittling light? That's the make or break for me. I don't want to read something that's making fun of someone's interests or being accusatory towards people who don't share the same view point.

  3. Hi Zoe! Very thought provoking! I responded here:

    Thanks for prompting me to get off my ass and actually post to nerology. :) -Dan

  4. I'm definitely interested in reading the book. I suspect it won't be everything I want it to be, but on the other hand, her scholarship seems like it's generally moving more toward the kind of discussion I want to see than away, so yay? Like you, way curious to hear more about the Nordic larp scene.

    As we discussed elsewhere, the definitional issues are kind of a hazard. Kind of like the "Portugese and Spanish are languages, but less mutually-intelligible forms of Chinese are dialects" thing. Yes, there is some justification for the way various groups identify, but it's mostly socio-political, and you literally can't come up with a content-based definition that maps to the say groups self-identify. Not that socio-political stuff doesn't matter, but I don't mind academics questioning the basis on which we categorize things a bit for the purpose of driving a discussion. A debate over whether or not SCA is or is not larp-like would likely enflame some tempers, but reveal interesting similarities and differences.

  5. I'm not really sure what you mean when you say she's only scratching the surface. Can you say a little more about that? Are there specific aspects you think she's treating superficially?

    1. I can't elaborate on much of this right now, as I've yet to read the book-- this is biased and paranoid conjecture which may or may not be true. I've looked at her blog, some interviews, and a trailer, and I have a general feeling of uneasiness about Stark's depth of research. I can't really confirm it yet, though, because I have yet to read the book. At this point, from what I understand (and I could be wrong), Stark has PC'd one game for about 18 months, done a bunch of research on the subject over the past 3 years, and worked collaboratively with people from various LARP scenes. This is a good base for research, but, from what I can tell, it seems like she hasn't really intensively looked at the framework of a LARP community. I'm not convinced she's covered all, or even very many, angles of LARPing: from PC to plotstaff to NPC to the politics of a game franchise as a whole. I was actually talking with a very seasoned LARPer this weekend who similarly mentioned, "I don't understand how someone who's been PCing for about a year and a half could really write a book about LARP."

      That being said, it may not be a book about LARP. It may be an exploration into how to write about LARP academically, which is, at this point, much more productive.

      (Also, the title of the book "Leaving Mundania" really focuses on the escapist element of LARP (something with which I don't necessarily agree). I'll be interested to see how the book treats that-- to me, when scholars treat LARP as escapist, I often find it's indicative of a superficial interaction with the game.)

      All that being said, I may eat my words once I read the book. We'll see-- as Jyn (above) mentioned, I have a hunch it will really be exceptional in some parts, and disappointing in others.

    2. Having read the book myself, I would say that Stark has avoided most of these pitfalls. I agree that reducing LARP to escapism effaces the meaning of the whole thing, but that's not really the presentation that comes through. I think you'll find that most of the issues you mention are treated in the book.

      So anyway, clearly I'm a fan. Hopefully, you'll read the book and find that you are too!

  6. While I haven't read the book, I will say that I agree with anyone who wants to expand the LARP definition. I've always been of the belief that anything that meets the following critera could be considred a LARP.

    1. You go by another name
    2. There is a set of rules that everyone follows

    Now, there are ARGs that you use the same name, but normally you have a secret existence so I would say that counts. And the rules can be as simple as "don't break immersion" like reenactors do.

    And as far as lumping all LARPs together as a whole, I think that's the standard for early days of acceptance of any topic. Individual LARPs are simply too niche to get much of a following. I say grow the concept of LARP before focusing too much on specifics.

    And for the record, I hated Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Dude was not a strong writer and most of the time the topics took a sideline to Ethan being lonely and hoping for some kind of romantic connection. But that's just me.

    1. "And as far as lumping all LARPs together as a whole, I think that's the standard for early days of acceptance of any topic. Individual LARPs are simply too niche to get much of a following. I say grow the concept of LARP before focusing too much on specifics."

      That's a fair point. Thinking about it, I agree-- I think initial research on LARPing is going to need to involve a wider definition, and then, in a few years, we can start narrowing down on what individual communities mean and do.

    2. Also, I never read Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, because it seemed like a really egocentric book. And, from flipping through it, focused on the anti-social aspects of LARPing.

  7. Hi Zoe,

    First, I think you will be very pleasantly surprised by the book. :-) Whether or not, I'd love to read your review on it after it's come out. For us Europeans, it is not easy to always understand the nuances of American larp culture, and second opinion is always welcome. (Well, sure there's Darkon and Monster's Camp and whatnot, but insider opinions tend to be more interesting for fellow larpers.) Of course knowing that there's no such thing as "American larp culture".

    Second, we created a photography book Nordic Larp to share some of the most interesting games created over here. As a serious and academic larper, you are probably interested. See -- and if interested, you can get it from here: (momentarily down it would appear).

    Third, no need to put larp in quotes. Well, not if you follow the OED at least -- they recently added it, I think, also without caps.

    Best regards,

    - Markus

    1. Thanks so much! It's exciting to have people from the European scene. I'd love to get some conversation going between American versus European (and specifically Nordic) players. My understanding is that, 1) they're very different, and 2) Nordic players and staffers have done a much better job of presenting their games online and to a larger audience.

      Also, please don't judge us by _Darkon_ or _Monster Camp_. :-p

      In reference to larp, LARP, and "larp." I think it's an interesting conversation. I put LARP in quotes to specifically reference Lizzie Stark's use of the word. I'm interested in the conversation on larp vs. LARP, though. I tend to think "larp" looks more elegant than "LARP," but most of the American rulebooks I've read use "LARP" (all-caps). In the interest of respecting more experienced writers, I use "LARP," but I could be persuaded otherwise. :)

      Anyways, so glad you're reading, and I'd love for you to join in the conversation, and, if you have the time, submit something about your experiences. Getting an international perspective would be really interesting. The links are great, and I'm going to share them in a separate post.