Politics and the LARP Closet

There’s an article that has been making small waves in the online LARP communities. An attorney and former Sheriff’s deputy named Jake Rush is running in the Republican primary for congress, and he’s recently been identified as a LARPer in an article in Saint Petersblog.

You can read the article here, and you can read an article Business Insider wrote on his response here. (The Business Insider article includes his full statement.)

The title of the Saint Petersburg article speaks volumes. “The bizarre double life of conservative congressional hopeful Jake Rush”. I wouldn’t claim that LARPing cannot be technically referred to as “bizarre,” but there are a million other adjectives that they could have used to express how unusual the hobby is (such as “unusual”), and they’ve picked one with a negative connotation. Choosing to describe LARPing as leading a “double life” is also extremely biased phrasing — it implies deceit. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as leading a double life. Rush doesn’t seem to feel he’s living a double life, either.

From there it doesn’t get much better. It emphasizes Mind’s Eye Theater’s potential for “adult themes” and compares Rush and his characters to Jekyll and Hyde. It also claims that he appears in “utterly childish” and “truly unsettling pictures” which, supposedly, conflicts with the idea of someone in favor of “law and order.” The article focuses on disturbing images from LARP events, and shares a definition of a “succubus” just in case any readers aren’t clear on how sex and violence figure in.

The article also pulls a quote from one of his online LARP posts, a quote that is, admittedly, fairly extreme in terms of its violent, sexual threats and insults. (Entirely out of context, of course.) And it ends on a particularly absurd note, asking if a vote for him would be a vote for Rush, or one of his characters.

It’s almost laughable. I have to wonder if the writer is still stuck in the 1980s, when Satanic Panic was still a concern and not yet a joke. When the press goes this far to try and make irrelevant hobbies seem like a character defect in a candidate, one has to wonder if they weren’t capable of finding any real flaws to report on. Certainly, the responses I’ve seen on social media have been mostly along the lines of “this is absurd; the reporter clearly doesn’t understand role playing.” I think the most apt comparison I’ve read involved asking if it seemed reasonable to try to damage Schwarzenegger’s political career by describing his role in Terminator. (Is a vote for Schwarzenegger a vote for a killer robot?)

I rather liked Rush’s response, in which he reasonably points out that this is just another expression of his creativity, much like playing Jesus and George Washington in theatrical performances. (Roles surely many voters can get on board with?) He avoids using the term LARP, but frankly, I don’t blame him. And he accompanies the statement with a cute picture of him and his wife in Flash costumes on Halloween. (Just in case you don’t know: Flash is a comic book superhero.) Power to him for rejecting the idea that fun costuming is “utterly childish”.

Among the few LARPers who seemed to express any amount of support for the article, I noticed a trend. A rare few focused on Rush’s politics, saying they don’t mind seeing him torn down because of his stances on various hot button ussue. (This doesn’t surprise me — in my communities, LARPers tend to skew heavily liberal. Maybe this is different outside of New England. Maybe not.)

My response to this is that it’s fine to hate Rush’s politics, but that shouldn’t stop us from vocally objecting to people trying to use LARPs to tear someone down. I’m sure Rush has plenty of genuinely objectionable traits to focus on (such as an anti-gay marriage position). And we should remember: if these kind of tactics are used against a liberal politician, it would be hypocritical to say one shouldn’t use LARPing to damage their reputation if we’re ok with LARPing being used to damage a conservative’s reputation.

The other rare reaction I noticed, which strikes me as somewhat more reasonable, was that people found Rush’s character’s language highly offensive. It includes but isn’t limited to sexual violence, and some believe this is never acceptable content for a LARP.

Personally, while I find some of the quotes the original article shared to be extremely off-putting, I’m not on board with this take. I don’t know the content or tone of his LARP, the context of the quote, or how such things are treated by the Mind’s Eye groups Rush associated with. I don’t know if he properly warned other LARPers were about the possibility of this sort of thing coming up in game. And I am not one to say dark or offensive content should never be acceptable in LARP. If a LARPer personally does not want to engage with such topics in LARP, that’s their prerogative, but I don’t think banning this content should be a universal rule of LARPing. More importantly, I don’t think it’s fair for a blog or news article to take a single extreme quote out of context without knowing or explaining to readers how typical or atypical it is for the LARP.

The only aspect of the article I felt might a fair criticism of Rush was a single picture of him aiming a shotgun at a dog. As anyone familiar with gun safety will tell you, one should never aim a gun at something one is not ready to shoot, regardless of the circumstances or if you know if it is loaded or not. If this photo is real, it’s fair to say that it’s awful for Rush to either neglect gun safety or be ready to shoot a dog. However, the article does not describe any research into this image (or any other.) If it’s actually from a LARP, I would say it’s highly likely that it is not a real gun. Alternatively, the image could easily have been photo-shopped to create a prop or add flavor to online content. That it might be a photo of Rush aiming a real gun at a real dog strikes me as unlikely.

Honestly, overall, I feel this article hasn’t done any real damage to LARP. However, this is exactly the sort of thing that leads me to fully support LARPers who want to “stay in the LARPing closet”. The likelihood of someone’s professional life being negatively affected by mischaracterization and misunderstanding of LARP may or may not be very small, but it is real. And this is why I leave real names out of my blog posts unless someone explicitly asks me to do otherwise. I realize I might be depriving some people of credit, but I’d much rather receive an email that says, “hey, I don’t like that you talked about my LARP and didn’t credit me as a writer” (and change a post as per the person’s request) than receive an email that says, “I never gave you permission to share my name, and now a client has googled me and it damaged my career.” Information can always be given out; it can’t be retracted.

Saint Petersblog has since posted a follow up article. Other online reactions to the story include a BBC article, a post on Canadian Content, an article on the Gainsville Sun website, and a Washington Post article. (They mostly contain the same information.)

For what it’s worth, I posted a note on the Saint Petersblog objecting to their misrepresentation of LARP (and I may have used the phrase “shoddy journalism” in it) and it seems to have been deleted. Another LARPer on Facebook reported the same thing. This doesn’t speak  highly of Saint Petersblog journalistic integrity.

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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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8 Responses to Politics and the LARP Closet

  1. Stephen Kohler says:

    I seem to remember that around five years ago, there was a similar problem with a politician who did historical reenactment; specifically, he liked military reenactment, and one of his main “characters” (don’t know the terminology for military reenactment) was a WWII German soldier; a Nazi. Pictures of him in uniform existed and were published, and that was basically it for his political career.

    Really very sad; people can dress up like their favorite wrestlers and obsess over the modern male soap opera, can spend their (paid!) work time pouring over March Madness brackets and checking up on them, etc., etc., but can’t LARP; *that’s* too nerdy/awkward/not acceptable.

    *sigh*

    • Fair Escape says:

      I actually only just learned about this. A few people were posting links to similar occurrences in the discussions about Rich and the war reenactor came up. (I believe we’re talking about Richard Iott?) There was a sports figure who did cosplay or something, too.

      I’m of very mixed feelings about this. If I recall the book Confederates in the Attic correctly, reenactors always have trouble finding enough people who want to play the unpopular side. Civil War Reenactment is huge in the South, but they mostly want to portray the Confederate army. So battles where historically the South was grossly outnumbered by the North end up vice versa when reenacted. Somebody’s gotta step up to play the Nazi in a WWII reenactment, otherwise nobody gets to reenact anything.

      Oddly, that doesn’t seem to be how this guy defends himself — there are quotes in which he seems to be admiring the Germans’ military tactics. (Though after the Rush article, one has to be suspicious of possible shoddy, biased journalism with an agenda.) That none of the articles about Iott (that I’ve read) has dug up a single instance of Nazi admiration outside of the context of battle reenactment speaks volumes, I think.

      I do think there’s a huge difference in playing a vampire in a LARP (especially if you didn’t write the character) and choosing to portray a Nazi persona in an ongoing context as realistically as possible. Personally, the idea of playing a Nazi makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I have trouble understanding how some people could be less squicked out by it. But then, I’m kinda biased in this regard.

      • Stephen Kohler says:

        It seemed (at least, at the time) like at least as much of the media attention was focused on his choice of hobbies, although I admit that the Nazi wrinkle is…wrinkly? I get the whole “I want to re-enact history, WWII is history” bit, but there is a distinction between serving in the German army/navy/air force in WWII and being a Nazi. And I think you summed it up quite well; in a WWII reenactment, *someone’s* gotta step up.

        I understand how someone can be willing to play at least a German soldier in WWII era reenactment; my Great(+Great, I think?) Uncle was in the Kriegsmarine in WWII. I never met him, but my grandmother has pictures. I think he was captured and put in a POW camp in the South somewhere. He was, to the best of my knowledge, not a Nazi; just a German farmboy who fought for his country. There’s a big, BIG difference between wanting to represent that, and the horrific actions of the Nazis.

        • Fair Escape says:

          In some cases, it is important to distinguish between a Nazi (and there are a variety of Nazis — Oscar Schindler called himself a Nazi.) I think in terms of what I would be willing to play in a LARP, it’s a big distinction. (Probably? It has yet to come up for me.) I think in Iott’s case, it’s splitting hairs. (In part because nothing I read indicates that he sees a distinction… though, again, that could be the biased journalism in play.)

  2. Pickle says:

    There was similar hullabaloo in 2012 over a WoW-playing candidate for State Senate in Maine. The attack website is still up (http://www.colleensworld.com/) – here’s an interview the World of Warcraft fansite WoW Insider did with her: http://wow.joystiq.com/2012/10/09/interview-maine-senate-candidate-tells-why-gamer-shaming-bodes/

    (She won, by the way)

    • Fair Escape says:

      Video games are mainstream enough that it doesn’t surprise me that this didn’t significantly damage her odds. Sounds like her opponents were grasping at straws.

  3. Pingback: More LARP in the Media | FairEscape

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