Modern Sensibilties

Something I’ve noticed about historical/period LARPs, more often in theater LARPs than boffer LARPs. Some such LARPs like to ignore the darker aspects of the settings’ cultures- racism, sexism, etc. but many LARPs like to leave in a watered down version (and a rare few really try to go for authenticity.) The LARPs with the watered down version often contain a plot or two that involve the given prejudice, but it rarely seems to work out, and I think it’s because LARPers have difficulty setting aside their modern sensibilities of equality.

I’m going to focus mostly on this issue as it relates to sexism, for two reasons. One, I think it’s the most common form of prejudice addressed in the LARPs I’ve played in (homophobia might be in second place). I think people are more comfortable involving issues of sexism than other forms of prejudice. Possibly because around half of the LARPers in my LARPing community are female; meanwhile, the community is predominantly white. (And now that I think about it, there’s a sizable population of queer LARPers, which might explain why homophobia is also a relatively common issue in LARPing.) The other reason is that it’s one I have a lot more personal experience with- I’ve played plenty of females in sexist cultures, but very few other forms of marginalized populations. But I suspect that what I’ve noticed about how sexism plays out in LARPs probably applies to other forms of prejudice, as well.

I think one of the classic examples of how modern sensibilities affect plots and characters that involve sexism is seen in the Bid for Power types of plots. The Bid for Power plot takes many forms- people try to become the next leader, such as by marshaling armies for support or winning an election. Generally, each of the contenders has some set of advantages and disadvantages, balanced against the advantages and disadvantages of the others. In non-modern settings, one (sometimes more, but usually one) of the contenders is female. And that’s meant to be her drawback.

The problem is, it’s not actually a drawback to the average LARPer. In our modern, Western lives, we don’t actually have a problem with a female mayor or CEO or monarch, even if the notion should be absurd in a medieval or Victorian (or whatever era) setting. Which shifts the balance in her favor. (Sometimes GMs/writers intend to make some goals easier for some characters than others, but I find the Bid for Power plots are generally intended to be evenly balanced among the contending characters.)

The conversation often goes something like this.

Character supporting female contender: “we should elect the female contender to power!”

Other character, trying to play true to the setting: “But a woman can’t have power!”

Character supporting female contender: “Give me one good reason why not? The other contenders are known to be corrupt/have no experience/is a known drug user/have whatever other drawbacks they might have.”

Other character: “I can’t think of a reason. You’ve convinced me.”

I think players are particularly prone to this when their character is an otherwise good guy, because we associate Sexism with Evil. If you’re cast as a generally nice guy in a Victorian setting, with no explicit reason to treat women as lesser beings, and suddenly someone wants you to give a female the equal chance to deserve, you might be inclined to just do it, even if perfectly nice guys in the actual Victorian era weren’t able to go against the pervasive sexist culture they grew up with.

On the one hand, this kind of seems like a great thing. Isn’t it great that the notion of equality between the sexes is so deeply ingrained in the average LARPer’s mind that we have trouble acting against it, even when our characters should be sexist by default? (I’m not saying there isn’t sexism in the LARPing community; just that we have trends in our behavior on a surface level. Ever heard of “Girl Armor” in boffer LARPing?)

Well, it’s not really all that great. I love playing in period LARPs, and I like the watered-down version of problematic cultures. I particularly love playing female characters who dress as a male in order to bypass cultural sexism, which is a trope that isn’t really plausible in settings that are too egalitarian minded. In order to make this aspect of the character interesting, there’s gotta be some compelling reason why she has to do it, and why she has to keep it a secret. Nothing’s worse in a LARP than having nobody care about your big secret.

I find writers/GMs tend to deal with it by adding a few token characters whose histories specifically play up the sexist aspect. This doesn’t always work. It’s hard to generalize when all I have to go on is a handful of anecdotal evidence (though I guess that’s all the majority of us who discuss LARP theory ever do) but two examples come to mind. (No LARP names to avoid spoilers.) In one, there was a character dressed as a male to gain entrance to an exclusive organization, of which two other members were present. One specifically was sort of on the fence (though had strong evidence that letting women join would be a good thing) and the other was specifically very against women joining. In both runs, it wasn’t enough to provide proper challenge to the female character. My speculation is that there are two likely reasons. One, that there were other pressing matters of grave danger that seemed more important, and two, sexism wasn’t enough of a compelling motivation.

And notably, the player playing the woman was somewhat disappointed. I’m not alone in enjoying playing characters who face sexism.

However, sometimes it does work. And yes, it’s possible one can chalk this up to, “well, it depends on the players”- and it’s impossible to predict, anyway. I’d rather analyze the differences and try to guess what the important factors are. I think back to another LARP, where my character hid her gender while working for someone sexist. I think in that case, it helped that the character wasn’t just sexist because he thought less of women; rather it was a backwards code of honor that compelled him to keep women from danger. There were still other pressing matters, but maybe the motivation to behave in a sexist manner was more compelling.

Another angle, which as far as I can remember, I haven’t seen put into practice, comes from a conversation I had about this very topic last weekend. Maybe sexism would work better if the source was the other women in the LARP, instead of only coming from the men.  (Think older women in a Victorian family, who want the younger generation of girls to behave properly and marry well.) It’s probably easier to roleplay being influenced by a misogynistic culture for a female LARPer than a male LARPer, who might feel guilty or uncomfortable. (I know I’ve felt weird about the idea of roleplaying racism when the subject of racism wasn’t a fantasy race, like elves.) Maybe it would come off less hostile and antagonistic if it came from people subject to the very same cultural forces.

Another successful instance of sexism came up in yet another LARP where I was cast as a girl dressed as a boy- but there was no external source of sexism. It was just sort of pervasive and understood in the culture (and reflected in the mechanics, which involved honor and dishonor)… and internalized. But there was no other character who was standing in her way… just the mechanics of the LARP and her own understanding of culture. I guess having something written into the objective rules bypasses our modern sensibilities.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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