Intercon P Part V: What is LARP?

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The discussion on strategies for getting into LARP at PreCon was followed by a discussion titled, “What is a LARP (All of the Fuzzy Gray Zone Stuff)”.

I volunteered for this discussion because it combines two of my passions, LARPing (of course) and linguistics. I’ve always thought of LARP as a rather nebulous concept — even though it made it into the dictionary not too long ago, there doesn’t seem to be a solid, universal idea of where its boundaries are. What counts as a LARP? What doesn’t?

My intent for this discussion was to approach the topic from a descriptivist position, not a prescriptivist position. (Meaning, we want to describe our observations on the usage of the word LARP, not decide what we’d like it to mean or how we’d like it to be used.) Language is defined by its common use, and we’re trying to determine what it means when the average person who uses the word LARP on a fairly regular basis in casual contexts means when they use it.

Because LARPing is still a fairly obscure hobby, the definition is particularly susceptible to a lack of standardization. Different communities around the world all have their own ideas of what is and isn’t a LARP, so the word has different definitions depending on the local dialect. Which is to say, if you think the answer to the question “what is LARP” is different from what I think, we can both be right — maybe we’re just speaking two different (though likely related) dialects.

I am a big fan of formal dictionaries, and when people start getting into philosophical discussions about what some abstract word means, I always reach for the dictionary first. And LARP has (relatively recently) made it into the dictionary. But the entry for LARP at dictionary.com reads:

noun

1. a type of role-playing game in which each participant assumes a particular character and acts out various scenarios at events which last for a predetermined time

verb

2. (intransitive) to participate in such an event

And, to be honest, I don’t love this definition. It includes the phrase “role-playing game,” which in turn includes the words “adventure” and “fantasy” in its definitions, and a LARP need not be an adventure nor need it be of the fantasy genre, “various scenarios” sounds to me like it can’t be a single scenario, and while most LARPs do last for a predetermined amount of time, I’ve never really thought of it as an inherent part of the concept; I can easily imagine a LARP that lasts indefinitely.

We can approach the question of “what is a LARP?” from two directions. One, we can ask ourselves, when we hear the word “LARP,” what information has been conveyed to us? What images or concepts does it conjure in our heads? If someone says, “I went to a LARP this weekend,” what possible things, or categories of things, could that sentence be describing, and what are we certain it is not describing?

This is the more difficult approach, I think. If we were trying to create an entry for a dictionary, we’d be scouring all kinds of written and spoken content, and trying to figure out what things people were referring to when they used the word “LARP.”

Or, we can try the reverse approach, which is to take a list of various activities or events that often come up when people discuss the range and limits of LARPing, and the decide if the label LARP applies to them or not. Then we can look at our lists of “LARP” and “not LARP” (and the inevitable list of “kinda maybe is maybe isn’t” that wind up in the middle) and try to analyze what they do and don’t have in common with one another, and sort of back into a definition that way.

(And no matter which way you approach it, there’s always the risk of running into the No True Scotsman problem.)

During this process, we can try to use the origin of the word as a guide. While it’s true that the history/origin of the word does not inform its modern usage in a completely literal or even very direct way, etymology can still offer very strong clues as to a word’s meaning. So analyzing the origin of the word (live action role play… what does live mean? Does it have to be live? What does action mean? Does it have to have action? What does role mean? Does it have to have roles? What does play mean? Does it have to be play? Or what does role-play mean, does it have to have role-play?) can offer both jumping off points and a guide if we become stymied.

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discussion notes scribbled at PreCon

We only had three people at this discussion, which doesn’t provide many data points, but we tried the exercise anyway. Under the list of things that we did feel should be labeled LARP, we had Model UN, murder mystery dinners (although murder mystery dinners take many forms, some of which we felt qualified as LARP, others didn’t), and training exercises (such as ones use by the military or in medicine, though I personally think they’re usually more ARG-like than LARP-like). Things that we didn’t feel were LARPs included ARGs, undercover police work, improv, the SCA (in the past, asking both SCAdians and non-SCAdians whether or not the SCA is a LARP in other contexts has gotten me a variety of different answers, including “yes,” “no,” “sorta,” “it is for some people,” and “some of the activities we do in the SCA are very LARP-like.”) Things that wound up in the “sorta, maybe, sometimes?” category in the middle included bedroom roleplay, and freeform. (It’s important to note that the word “freeform” means very different things to different communities — here, we were referring to a category of games that are often described as falling somewhere between LARP and tabletop RPG.)

And here I must add that sometimes people assume some kind of value judgement is implied by the label of LARP or lack thereof. But something having the label or LARP, not a LARP, or LARP-like doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than something else — just different. I put The Road Not Taken in the middle category because I think it’s more like an improv exercise, which isn’t to say it isn’t a valuable or entertaining activity, I’m just not sure it’s technically a LARP (though it certainly runs at LARP events.)

Based on these lists, we started hypothesize what elements everything in the LARP category had in common that informed its LARP status, and what elements (or lack thereof) the non-LARPs had that precluded them from being labeled LARPs.

Based on the data points this discussion generated, we decided that LARP is a game, implying that something is not LARP if it had direct real world implications (as in, specifically, undercover police work.) The players must have at least a modicum of agency and/or decision making — even in a railroaded LARP, players can usually decide what exact words their characters speak (which is why scripted theater would not be a LARP.) A lack of story is why some improv acting is not LARP, and similarly player keeping in mind their character’s intentions and goals also distinguishes a LARP from improv acting exercises. Players need to be taking on some kind of role, not just acting as themselves (which is what differentiates ARG from LARP). Immersion and context are part of what differentiates LARP from tabletop and other forms of RP –a game which takes place entirely online is not a LARP unless the characters themselves are chatting online. In other words, the players in a LARP, at least to some extent, are acting out their characters’ actions, not simply describing them in words or text.  (This is, of course, only one of many valid uses of the term immersion.) Because it is interactive and cooperative, LARP has to involve two or more people, and it has to be consensual. In the case of undercover police work, the criminals the police are infiltrating are not LARPing because they’re not aware of it. Alternatively, if you and a friend are in a cafe, roleplaying as your LARP characters and ordering drinks as them, the barista isn’t LARPing because they aren’t aware of the LARP, even though the people they’re interacting with are engaged with LARPing.

Of course, there’s room for disagreement and exceptions and activities which both have and don’t have all of this. (The Izgon LARPs, for example, could at times be arguably both a LARP and an ARG.) Nothing is set in stone. Which is why I like to refer to LARP as a nebulous concept.

We didn’t always agree on which activity belonged in which category, and what exactly the elements were that informed those categories, and that was part of what made the discussion so engaging. It helped me articulate my assumptions about LARP, and challenged them in unexpected ways, though my personal definition of LARP didn’t change, I think its implications did.

(My definition, edited based on a suggestion in the comments: “LARP is a medium, an interactive and collaborative form of storytelling in which participants take on personas other than themselves and physically interact as those personas in a shared, imagined diegesis, under the guidance of a set of rules or mechanics governing those interactions.” Bear in mind that said set of rules can be the null set.)

If you’d like to try this exercise for yourself, here are a list of things to categorize, including the ones we discussed during PreCon, along with a few more that we didn’t. (And feel free to suggest a few of your own!)

  • ARG
  • model UN
  • murder mystery dinners
  • improv theater
  • undercover police work
  • bedroom roleplay
  • Choose Your Own Adventure books
  • medical and/or military training exercises
  • SCA
  • historical reenactment
  • Ren Faires
  • freeform (whatever this means to you!)
  • tabletop RPGs
  • zombie runs
  • interactive theater
  • MMORPGs
  • combat/battle sports
  • The Quest
  • Escape the Room games
  • The interactive card game at Disney World (Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom)
  • Whatever the hell the people in masks were doing in Eyes Wide Shut
  • Commedia dell’Arte
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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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9 Responses to Intercon P Part V: What is LARP?

  1. Steve says:

    I like your definition of larp, but I think I would add “physically” before “interacting” (so “physically interacting”) as otherwise it reads to me as if tabletop RPGs are included.

  2. Ryan Paddy says:

    I’ve run larps where people played a version of themselves, which I think is similar to what people do in ARGs.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Yeah, it seems like it should be a dichotomy, but actually, there’s a scale that can exist between playing yourself and playing another character.

      For example, I played a zombie-themed LARP (or ARG? it wasn’t explicitly billed as either) in which we received our character backgrounds that were only a paragraph or two describing our careers, our relationships with one or two other characters, and a few facts about the days leading up to the zombie outbreak. The rest of our histories (including our names) were described as our actual lives, with whatever minimal changes needed to make the paragraph or two we were given true. (So I played me, except a version of me that became a journalist and fell in love with my cameraman.)

      I think this falls somewhere in the middle of playing a role — not playing a role scale. I also have pretty minimal experiences with ARGs, but my understanding of them is that while they tend to follow certain trends very strongly, the technical difference between them and LARPs is whether or not you’re playing a character. But I know even less about the technicalities of ARG than I do the technicalities of LARP.

      • Ryan Paddy says:

        Yes, there always seems to be a scale.

        I think larp involves playing a character, but that character could be a fictionalised version of yourself. So I’m not sure about the “other than themselves” clause.

        I think ARGs don’t generally expect players will portray a character or even a fictionalised version of oneself, even though their staff often do. At least, no more than you play a business tycoon version of yourself when playing Monopoly.

        Of course, by specifying that you need to portray a character in a larp, many battle games are ruled out that call themselves larps but don’t really have characters. I think they don’t fit a generalised definition of larp like this, but on the other hand I’d be careful about excluding people who regard themselves as larpers.

        • Fair Escape says:

          I think if you use a definition for LARP that doesn’t necessitate playing a character other than oneself, that definition might include ARG as a subset of LARP, which probably doesn’t quite match up with local use of the word, but maybe it does in other communities.

          My impression of battle games is that they do have characters, though how much they’re fleshed out varies a lot from person to person. Some people seem to have full backstories in their mind, some people may not even have a name picked out. I recall in the episode of Wreckreation Nation one of the people at Dagorhir interviewed scoffed at LARP and insisted Dagorhir wasn’t a LARP (which struck me as a bit odd, considering he had a character who was raised by elves) but I also know many people who insist that it is. This is why I made a point to say, “saying something is or isn’t a LARP isn’t a value judgement” though some people will still take offense if they disagree with your labels. Then we start to get into what the implications of the label LARP are. I agree with you that it’s good to err on the side of inclusivity, all other things being equal.

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  4. Ivan Žalac says:

    I *really* like your definition. Would you mind if I quote it? 🙂

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