Live Action Role Playing (LARP) most commonly referred to as the noun ‘Larp’ is a diverse medium anchored in the performing arts and gaming cultures. The practice involves physically embodying a character within a crafted environment for a determined time-period, after having agreed with fellow players on a set of rules and background stories. Games can be made for as few as two players to as many as hundreds and span from a handful of hours to a few days, or even multiple games spread like chapters over months.

The most well-known larps tend to borrow their environments from literature and film meaning their diversity in genre (science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror…) mirror that of the literary and cinematographic mediums. The most popular genres materialise worlds inspired by Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ where wizard, monsters and elves battle it out in forests, labelling larp as an adventure for geeks with a desire to rub shoulders with the extraordinary.

 

Rites of passage

Larping has its roots in various historical interactive theatre practices and rituals. In his essay Play to Love (2004), Martin Ericsson delves into performance studies and anthropology on a quest to link roleplaying to ritual behaviour found in religious rites, social dramas (a divorce) and tribal celebrations.
He refers to the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep (1909) providing a framework to think of live action role playing games as rites of passage. Gennep compares society to “a kind of house divided into rooms and corridors.” When an individual changes room he leaves a group to enter another. In this context, a rite of passage is a process of social change involving ceremony, performance or carnival divided into three stages : separation, transition and incorporation.

The first phase of separation includes the use of symbolic behaviour to demarcate the sacred time and space within which the ritual will take place. In larp this corresponds to the entire phase of preparation for a game. The players create their character’s personality traits and looks, the characteristics of the world in which they will evolve and agree on the rules necessary to uphold the temporary existence of that world. Ericsson compares these preparations to the adorning of masks and robes common to many rituals across cultures.

Then, Gennep refers to transition as a state of limbo which bears few points of reference to the previous or following status. This would be analogous to the game itself as players like the ritual subjects are transported “into the realms of human imagination” and experiences “ordeals, myths, maskings, mumming, the presentation of sacred icons to novices, secret languages, food and behavioural taboos, the absence of tribal law and custom, and where the bizarre becomes the normal, and where through the loosening of connections between elements customarily bound together in certain combinations, their scrambling and recombining in monstrous, fantastic, unnatural shapes, the novices are induced to think, and think hard, about cultural experiences they had hitherto taken for granted.” Turner (1982).

Finally, incorporation designates the re-entering of the individual in society with a new status, for example a graduation. For this phase, Ericsson refers to Turner by emphasising that the true payoff of the transition phase in larp is not individual transformation through experimenting with new attitudes and social relationships but rather that of the group, who bonded during the experience, now capable of effecting social change.

 

Live action role playing is seen to have gained notoriety simultaneously across the globe, predominantly in regions who saw the emergence of table top roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. In its present form, it is widely cited to have appeared between the 1970s and the 1990s although, there are similar performance practices dating back a few centuries including la Commedia dell’arte, theatrical pageants or carnivals. However, if viewed through the lens of the rite of passage, the origins of larp may reside in the early human tribal rituals. ■

LARPs are deeply rooted in childhood make-believe games and costume parties but can also be linked to Commedia dell’arte, improvisational theatre, psychodrama, military simulations, and historical re-enactment groups.