The tv show Supernatural is pretty popular in my theater LARPing community. I personally have only seen a random handful of episodes, but I can see why people like it. A few of the Supernatural characters were PCs at To Be Continued. Notably, the head of the School for Juvenile Delinquents is Bobby Singer (Supernatural‘s level headed redneck sort who helps out and mentors the main characters), so one of the episodes I chose to watch was focused on him. I like Bobby Singer a lot. But bear in mind as you read this review that I’m really not familiar with the world of Supernatural, so if you have a different take on these episodes, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
I recently watched two episodes focused on LARP. The first was season 5, episode 9, “The Real Ghostbusters” and the second was season 8, episode 11 “LARP and the Real Girl“. (The latter, by the way, is a play on the title of a movie called Lars and the Real Girl, which stars Ryan Gosling as a introverted guy who deludes himself into treating a sex doll as a real life girlfriend. I’m not going to get in the obvious potential commentary the title has on LARPing. Rather, I’m going to give the creators the benefit of the doubt and say they didn’t really take the content of the movie into consideration, just the sound of the title.)
To sum up the plot of “The Real Ghostbusters,” Sam and Dean show up at a convention dedicated to a book series about them (all the fans assume it’s fiction.) The convention features a LARP, but real ghosts show up, and predictably, there’s some confusion as to what is part of the LARP and what is real. Sam and Dean get the real ghosts with the help of two LARPers.
The plot of “LARP and the Real Girl” involves Sam and Dean investigating the murder of two guys who both happen to play a LARP called Moondoor. They check out the LARP for more information, and are guided around by a girl named Charlie, who I assume is a recurring character. She’s the queen of one of the in-game nations. It turns out one of the LARPers has found a way to use real magic and has summoned a fairy to kill competitors in the LARP.
First off, kudos to the Supernatural writers for depicting multiple forms of LARP. I think LARP in the media generally boils down to “people in Ren Faire garb fighting with foam weapons.” Not only does Supernatural show both theater and a live action LARP, but the former is also a non-medieval fantasy, demonstrating that LARPs can vary in genre, just like any other medium.
Arguably, the activity shown in “The Real Ghostbusters” could be considered more of a themed treasure hunt than a LARP… but the definition of LARP isn’t set in stone. It’s not the most misleading portrayal of LARPing out there. But it comes off more like a tourist event or one of those murder mysteries you can hire for parties, especially when an NPC (a maid who has seen a ghost) drops character to beckon everyone closer to listen while she describes “a terrifying tale… of terror!”
While there are several moments mocking how nerdy the LARPers are (a girl mentions that Dean is unlike the other LARPers in that he doesn’t seem “scared of women”), two LARPers do ultimately pull through and banish a real ghost, demonstrating perseverance and bravery. The episode ends with a moment where the two LARPers describe their boring jobs and say that their lives suck, which gets my hackles up — so sick of the stereotype that LARPers’ lives must suck! — but when they reveal that they’re lovers who met in a chatroom, for me, it actually had the effect of demonstrating that they’re just two totally normal people. Some online searching tells me that this was likely intended as commentary on the tendency of fans to see homoerotic subtext between the two main characters (who are brothers, by the way.)
“LARP and the Real Girl” displays a fairly reasonable simulation of a live action combat LARP. The set dressing is unusually high quality. Charlie (played by Felicia Day), as a queen in the LARP, sleeps in a tent with an interior that looks more like an expensive hotel room. Granted, I hear this kind of thing does exist at SCA events like Pennsic, and maybe some European LARPs have sets like this? I don’t know. It ‘s unlike any LARP I’ve played, but this isn’t a complaint- displaying the LARPing with high quality set dressing and costuming is a nice change from emphasizing absurd and/or low quality trappings to make the hobby seem more ridiculous (as in that dreadful episode of Good Luck Charlie that I reviewed a while back.)
The episode sort of went back and forth between showing LARPing as looking cool and slick and fun (as in the battle where Charlie is revealed, though I have to say, the shot of her pulling off her helmet and revealing herself as a girl was painfully cliche) and awkward and geeky. It’s not entirely unrealistic — LARP isn’t always slick, there’s always going to be quick moments of dropping out of character, but the way it’s portrayed emphasizes its awkwardness. Mostly for the laughs, which I can understand, I just wish the laughs weren’t at the expense of LARPers. To the show’s credit, this is quickly followed up by one of the LARPers cleverly pointing out that Sam and Dean’s FBI badges are fake (they typically get away with posing as FBI agents), instead of just making them all seem like bumbling idiots.
I still feel obliged to point out that both episodes portrayed LARPers as not being able to properly communicate about their hobby. One LARPer, while being questioned in a police station, doesn’t think to clarify descriptions of in-game facts right off (played for humor so that the main characters can be amusingly confused), and another snottily describes himself as an “interactive literaturist”.
Actually, that last bit spoke to me. I know it was intended to mock the hobby (the message being, what’s he getting so uppity about, whatever you call it, it’s still silly,) but while I’ve never insisted on the more academic sounding label, I have put “raffle coordinator for an interactive literature convention” on a resume.
Interestingly, I think LARP has its own set of tropes, both within the medium itself, but also in other media that use LARP as a theme or topic. The “LARPers describing to non-LARPers the content of their LARP without first explaining that it’s a LARP, to comical effect” is one such trope, and “some element of the LARP turns out to be real!” is another.
Ultimately, while some of the humor of both episodes was at the expense of LARPers, it was a more even handed portrayal of the hobby than I usually see.
A couple of parting thoughts for analyzing LARP in the media. What percentage of characters on tv are more attractive than average? Pretty high, right? Even background people tend to be attractive. What percentage of LARPers in tv shows and movies tend to be more attractive than average? When a tv show or movie depicts a hobby — say, a sport — what percentage of the shots are shown making the hobby look slick? Do you see a lot of missed shots or baskets when basketball is on tv? What percentage of shots of LARPers look slick? What percentage looks awkward?