Back in early May, American Dad! aired an episode featuring LARP, titled “The Nova-Centauris-burgh Board of Tourism Presents: American Dad“.
For context, American Dad! is one of Seth McFarland’s shows (along with the earliest and most famous one, Family Guy and its far less popular spin-off, The Cleveland Show.) The premise follows the pattern of McFarland’s other works — not unlike The Simpsons, they feature a comedic cartoon centering around the outlandish shenanigans of the Smith family, which consists of Stan, the ultra-right wing father, Francine, his occasionally down-to-earth, occasionally cloudcuckoolander wife, his liberal daughter Hailey, his nerdy son Steve, Roger, the outlandish alien who lives with them (and who, incidentally, loves to roleplay), and the goldfish, Claus (actually a German trapped in a goldfish body.)
“The Nova-Centauris-burgh Board of Tourism” features two main plotlines. One follows Stan, Hailey, Roger, and Claus attempting to create a knock-off SeaWorld in their own home and backyard. The other plotline follows Francine and Steve as he introduces her to LARPing.
The episode opens with Steve, the nerdy high schooler son, being picked on by a bully, who trips him and asks, “what’s the hurry, nerd?” Steve responds with an enthusiastic “this year’s moisture crop is in!” and dashes off. Right off the bat, we have a common trope in tons of fictional media featuring LARP — a LARPer responding to a non-LARPer’s questions about what’s going on with a description of something in-game, without context, much to the confusion of the non-LARPer.
This is the first of a slew of tropes and stereotypes of LARPing and LARPers, ones I’ve noticed from other instances of LARP in fictional media, from movies like Role Models to episodes of Supernatural and Good Luck, Charlie. (If you decide to watch the episode, why not make it a drinking game and take a shot for each trope and stereotype?)
As per a common theme in episodes of American Dad!, the other members of her family are taking advantage of Francine, overloading her with comically excessive chores from their shenanigans without expressing any appreciation for her. She’s introduced to Steve’s LARP when she goes to pick him up, where Steve is roleplaying as the mayor of a Mos Eisley-like colony, and Steve’s friends are playing the roles of a moisture farmer, a barman at a cantina, and the owner of a dry cleaner. Steve defines LARP for his mother:“LARPing is live action role-playing. We create characters and then act out their actions in a fictional setting. In our case, we’re space colonists.”
When Snot, the barman, explains to Francine that she can act out her fantasies through LARP, she acts out her fantasies of power and being appreciated by taking on the role of a princess.
Francine’s new in-game authority goes to her head (a LARPer taking the game too far — take a shot!) by banishing Steve and expanding her kingdom into the field where junior varsity football players are practicing. They burn the set dressing of the LARP in retaliation, and the football coach deflates Francine by telling her that she’s “a sad housewife who spends her days playing dress up, bossing around a bunch of geeks.”
Defeated, Francine returns to her household chores, where Steve uses an impromptu LARP scene to cheer her up, giving her the confidence to reclaim the sci-fi LARP they lost. They return to the football field and make a deal with the JV team — the JV team will support the fiction of the LARP’s imaginary setting (through minor costuming and in-game language,) and the LARPers provide them with the audience they they’ve always wanted.
With her newfound confidence from playing royalty in a LARP, Francine finds the courage to act as the queen of her own castle and demand her husband get rid of the shark in her kitchen.
I felt this episode contained a rather mixed message, both positive and negative — when it came to LARP. At times the writers’ unfamiliarity with LARP showed clearly, as it often does when LARP makes a cameo in a tv show, but there were also moments where the writers showed surprising insight into LARP.
Steve is portrayed as a comically extreme example of a nerd in every episode, so it didn’t surprise me to see stereotypes of LARPers as geeky, weird, pathetic, and awkward losers (and can make non-LARPers distinctly uncomfortable). This episode pulls no punches in this regard; in the opening sequence, we see the props for the “dilithium crystals” are actually dog turds, despite the fact (as we learn towards the end of the episode) that there are tons of pine cones lying around.
This is layered on top of another common trope used in fictional media featuring LARPing: the juxtaposition of how the LARPers envision things in-game against how they actually appear out of game (as illustrated by the various coupled images included in this post.) In this case, it serves to highlight the awkwardness of the LARPers and their hobby when costuming, props, and set dressing are revealed to be poorly constructed out of cardboard and various household items and clothing. Steve’s character’s elaborate headdress, for example, is obviously made out of a laundry detergent box. (Which isn’t to say there’s anything inherently wrong with LARPing on a shoestring budget; one could use this trope to highlight the power of the LARPers’ imagination and creativity, or, say, their dedication to making their LARP accessible to low income players.)
Another common negative idea of LARPing — LARPers aren’t just geeks, they’re the lowest in the geek hierarchy. Star Wars is a beloved franchise of all geeks, but these LARPers only like the least exciting parts and particularly eschew the scenes with combat. Steve says, “Heh, battles? We don’t have the stomach for the horrors of war. You see, we’re all fans of Star Wars, specifically the first act, where Luke was a space farmer.” Snot chimes in with, “the minute he left his homeworld to explore his destiny, I completely checked out. Um, hello? Know your audience, more farming please!”
This aversion to combat struck me as one of the weirder misunderstandings of LARP — while tons of LARPs do focus on the intricacies of bureaucracy, or daily life in strange settings, the most popular forms of LARPs focus, if not primarily, at least largely, on combat (some to the exclusion of all else), and I’ve yet to play in a Star Wars LARP that doesn’t feature lightsabers and blasters. Snot doubles down on the clueless LARPer stereotype; he doesn’t realize the LARPers are unusual for Star Wars fans. (Similarly, Steve expresses shock and disdain over his mother not knowing what LARP is when she first encounters it — more LARPers being clueless over the perspective of others.)
Related to this, we also run into the stereotype and misconception that geeks can’t be athletic. Steve is intimidated by the JV football players and can’t throw a football. I’ve commonly run into the notion that geek hobbies and athletics are mutually exclusive, but LARPing serves as an excellent example of why this isn’t true. (Best exercise I’ve had in weeks have been boffer combat practices.) And similarly, we briefly run into the notion that sexual experience and LARPing is mutually exclusive — Francine explains her lack of familiarity with LARP by referencing her sexual conquests in high school.
But for all of these negative stereotypes and misconceptions about LARPing, this episode has a few surprising insights, and some rather positive messages as well.
For one thing, the LARP is very unusual in its loose structure (for example, there doesn’t seem to be any staff, nobody seems to be writing plot or portraying NPCs, and there are no indications of any mechanics tracking character skills or mediating conflicts) which one can probably chalk up to the writers’ lack of research rather than their desire to represent more obscure forms of LARP. Yet play seems to run incredibly smoothly, with all of the players improvising easily and rolling with whatever situation pops up. (These players seem to have mastered the “yes and” technique.) This is an improvement over other instances I’ve found of LARP in fictional media, which like to portray awkward immersion breaking over rules arguments and confusion when players try to improvise.
This LARP only seems to have one rule. In response to Francine’s disbelief (“I just see a bunch of boxes in a dog park”), Steve says, “you’re breaking the number one rule of LARPing: never break the reality by questioning the LARP.” Pity this was presented as a universal constant of LARP and not simply a local rule. I guess Steve and his friends haven’t heard of meta-techniques.
Another surprisingly astute and positive message of this episode: a number of the characters start out laboring under the impression that play isn’t for adults (or young adults), a notion that is probably behind much of the disdain for LARPing. Francine seems initially put off by it, and after she embraces is, she has her encounter with the JV football coach who shames her for enjoying a game of make-believe. But this notion gets disproved through the course of the episode — not only does Francine come around to enjoying LARP, she makes peace with the coach by pointing out that many other, more socially acceptable hobbies of adults and young adults are actually forms of fantasy play that bear similarities to LARP. “Some kids dream they’re space colonists. And others, well, they dream about being on varsity football. We all want to be something we’re not. So a housewife gets to be a princess. And a JV coach gets to pretend anybody cares,” she says.
Even better, LARP proves therapeutic for Francine. In the beginning of the episode and in multiple other instances prior to her epiphany, Francine passively accepts her family’s mistreatment. “I never get to do anything I want around here,” Francine complains to an unsympathetic Roger. It’s realizing that she can act out her power fantasies and pretend to have whatever she wants that convinces her to try LARP. As Snot describes it to her, “that’s the beauty of LARPing… This is a place of dreams where no one tells you how to live your life but you.” Even though her power trip takes her too far, it doesn’t negate the benefits of LARPing.
The episode ends with Francine enjoying her newfound confidence, developed from playing royalty in a LARP, and finding the courage to act as the queen of her own castle and get rid of the shark in her kitchen. I’ve commonly heard such benefits of LARPing –developing confidence, addressing fears, exploring one’s emotions, etc. — lauded by LARPers. It’s much rarer in fiction that features LARPing when it’s written by non-LARPers, though some version of this commonly crops up in news pieces and documentaries about LARPs. Unfortunately, they tends to overemphasize or exclusively focus on the escapism aspect of LARP, which of course this episode touches on, too. Steve tells Francine during their impromptu scene that she has found “the true meaning of LARPing. Escaping from your life.” (Unfortunately, this positive message of LARP being a vehicle for empowerment is somewhat diluted by Steve’s comment on his own confidence boost, “it’s time for me to be a man, and reclaim my make believe village with the help of my mother!” which makes LARPing seem decidedly childish.)
One minor thing I noticed that made me smile — one of the LARPers appearing occasionally in the background is dressed in a costume distinctly reminiscent of Jayne from the sci-fi series Firefly. This amusingly taps into a pet peeve many LARPers have — players directly basing their characters on pre-existing famous characters in obvious ways.
“The Nova-Centauris-burgh Board of Tourism Presents: American Dad” is an interesting episode whether you like analyzing how LARP is portrayed just get a kick out of seeing LARP in mainstream media (or both, like me). It has some positive messages to balance out the usual mockery, and it makes extensive use of common LARP-in-the-media tropes while offering some surprising insights into LARP, despite the writers’ apparent lack of familiarity with the subject.
If you’ve seen the episode yourself, or decide to watch it after reading this post, let me know what you thought of it!