Badass Larp Talk #32: That Old Ivory Tower
So let me put forward something of a controversial premise: The best chance larp has to keep evolving as an artform, as a medium, will not be catering to existing larpers but continuing to find an audience of people who do not consider themselves larpers when they encounter it.
I’m not saying that those of us already in the field can’t innovate. Of course we can. If you don’t believe me, play some Golden Cobras, go to a festival, read your trade pubs. There are plenty of cool ideas, and the past decade or so has seen some tremendous leaps we should be proud of, collectively.
But I’m an academic by vocation too, and that means I recognize a closed intellectual loop when I see one. And let me tell you, my friends and neighbors of this imaginary neighborhood, there are Signs of that particular affliction all around us if you but know how to spot them. We don’t have a true ivory tower of larp, at least not yet, but between you and me there’s a big ol’ pile of white-washed brick and a lot of mortar mixed already.
One reason academics get a bad rap with other people, after all, is because they can fall into the habit of talking exclusively to other academics, until their world shrinks to that little circuit. Once you’re inside a loop like that, it can be all to easy to forget that you’re only communicating with a small slice of the population, and mistake discussions you have with each other for Great Big Theory Talks that encompass an entire field when it’s actually just a handful of experts trading opinions.
With that in mind, here’s the associated uncomfortable truth: The vast majority of larpers do not attend academic larp conferences or read academic larp publications, nor are they likely to do so in any significant numbers in the future. So if you’re only aiming your ideas at that audience, you’re not reaching roughly 99% of the larp population. You may wish this wasn’t so – I know I do, at times – but it’s the plain truth, and an important one to remember if you want to balance the theoretical and practical experiences of larp.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying people shouldn’t study larp in an academic sense, or even that it’s a bad idea for experts to have conversations with each other that aren’t open to the general public. Like I said, I’m an academic – I recognize the value of study and debate. It’s healthy for a field, but only if balanced with the realization that it does not speak for the field entire. You have to come up for air sometimes, is what I’m saying. To paraphrase my boy Hume, now and then you need to put aside the philosophy and play pool with your friends. 🙂
This is where I get concerned with the state of larp, a bit. We’ve reached the point where we’ve got people really studying the field and digging into theory, not to mention designers pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do (or should do). WHICH IS COOL. But we also have to take care that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only the intellectual and avant garde aspects of the medium matter. They do, they absolutely do, but they are still only pieces of the whole, and not especially large pieces either.
Which brings me back to the original point. One thing I’ve said for a while now is that larp is still small as mediums go mostly because we larpers keep it that way, and I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. We spend an awful lot of time preaching to the choir, as it were, and while I understand the importance of satisfying the audience you’ve got, sometimes it feels like any large moves to bring the medium to a wider audience are greeted with eye-rolling derision. Things like “that’s not real larp” or “non-larpers take too much effort to teach” or “anything commercial can’t be True Larp” or “if it has [insert highly subjective requirement] then it’s not technically a larp” or a dozen other such nitpicky and dismissive utterances.
I know, I know. You don’t do that. You’re probably right about that, too. Most of us aren’t those people. But they are out there, and they can be awful loud. If you don’t believe me, try going to a larp community space and publicly suggesting that it’s OK to run a larp as a honest to goodness business instead of a passion project, or that interactive theater could offer a bridge to bringing larp to more people, or praise a depiction of larp on film, or simply declare that you’re starting a brand new game of any type. Chances are pretty good you’ll have some folks only too happy to tell you how wrong you are for liking or wanting any of those things.
People like that can’t truly stop progress, but they can sure as hell make it a lot more annoying. And more importantly, they can drive people away, when we always benefit from more places at the table. Larp, like love, is not a pie. Fun is not zero sum, and art sure as hell isn’t either. The more people who experience larp, and the more ways they experience it, the better and stronger all larp becomes. We shouldn’t ignore a deeper study of it, but we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking that’s the only part worth discussing, and we definitely shouldn’t stop looking at ways to fit more people into this medium. It’s bigger on the inside, I promise.
In the end, it’s important to remember that there is no one thing called larp. Larp is a lot of moving pieces. It’s players and designers, it’s game runners and event staff, it’s campaigns and chronicles and and conventions and one-shots, it’s parlor and boffer and freeform and playground and blockbuster and therapeutic and a dozen other styles and subsets. It’s that game you can’t stop playing and that game you can’t stand, it’s rulebooks you can fit in a text message and rulebooks you could derail a train with, it’s name tag elves and six hours of orc makeup, and so much more.
The only thing larp shouldn’t be is just for us,
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!