Play and the Subculture of Larping: Gender, Motivations, and Self

Abstract: 

The purpose of this qualitative research inquiry was to explore the importance of adult play by examining the subculture of Live Action Role-Playing, also known as LARP, larp, or lrp. I conducted an opened ended analysis on gender, motivations and self of larpers. The literature on play focuses on children. In addition, the Protestant work ethic is very dominant in American culture, subordinating playfulness to working hard. Therefore play is marginalized as we enter adulthood. In my analysis I used grounded theory and Emerson, Fretz and Shaw’s (1995) analysis of qualitative data to analyze my findings. I have found that larp allowed participants to explore aspects of self in a safe environment, and thus, contributed to their growth—personally and socially. Implications for future research may include biological, psychological, and social benefits of larp and adult play.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    The sun beat down on us hard. Sweat trickled down my forehead and I blinked to keep it from stinging my eyes.  I was in a relaxed sideways stance, holding my sword steady. Here we were, novices facing off with barely enough experience to fill a thimble. We tapped our swords and backed away slowly, circling the other, looking for weaknesses; poised in the moment we were fearful of exposing any vulnerabilities. Lunging, my sword snaked through his upraised arm and connected to his left chest. It was a killing blow. Blood gushed from the wound, and yet we had no need for a medic. It wasn’t even a flesh wound, and likely wouldn’t bruise.  Had this been real I would have been horrified by the violence; instead I felt proud.

    Later, he inquired after my skill in swordplay. Although he had only a day’s more experience than I, two out of three times I was victorious. My response; “I’ve got brothers and sisters.” Not that I whale on them with fake swords, but the idea of play is more acceptable when you’re a child and by extension, an adult playing with a child. Being the elder sister of eight younger siblings who still have their feet firmly planted in the fertile grounds of imagination, I have a lot of experience in play.

    Like many adults who venture back to the world of play guided by the grasp of a child, I find that I enjoy the aimlessness of it, the rush and ability to accept one’s spontaneity without being self conscious. Thus I ask myself, why did I stop in the first place?

    There is an extensive field of literature on the study of play but the ages addressed in this literature tend to taper off around eleven (Cohen, 2006). Only recently has adult play come to the attention of scholars. I speculate that if play is important for children, why not adults? Therefore the purpose of this study was to explore adult play through the subculture of live action role-play, by focusing on gender, motivations and self.

    Context and Definitions

    Live action role-play. For the purpose of this paper I will refer to live action role-play as ‘larp’. What constitutes larp is contested, as Falk and Davenport (2004) mention, “It is not straightforward to define what live role-playing games are – there are likely as many definitions as there are games” (p. 128).

    Montola (2007) clustered tabletop (a role-playing game played upon a table), live action role-playing and online role-playing collectively. He deemed the following as elements that comprise a role-playing game:

    …an interactive process of defining and re-defining an imaginary game world, done by a group of participants according to a recognized structure of power.  One or more participants are players, who portray anthropomorphic characters that delimit the players power to define. (p.179)

    Mackay’s (2001) definition of role-playing games is:

    …an episodic and participatory story creation system that includes a set of quantified rules that assist a group of players and a gamemaster in determining how their fictional character’s spontaneous interactions are resolved. These performed interactions between the player’s and gamemaster’s characters take play during individual sessions that, together, form episodes or adventures in the lives of the fictional characters. (p. 4-5)

    Falk and Davenport (2004) define larp as:

    …a dramatic and narrative game form that takes place in a physical environment. It is a story-telling system in which players assume character roles that they portray in person, through action and interaction. The game world is an agreed upon environment located in both space and time, and governed by a set of rules – some of which must be formal and quantifiable. (p. 128)

    I define larp as an activity, performance, play in which people (with the aid of symbols e.g. costumes and adornments) embody characters in a co-creative story world governed by a system of rules with defined boundaries, and rule makers (more commonly referred to as gamemasters). My definition is an amalgam of Falk & Davenport (2004) and Mackay (2001).

    Evolution of larp. Larp has emerged out of the human need to stimulate and explore one’s creations. It was fashioned from the desire to bring to life tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The first fantasy tabletop role-playing game, D&D was inspired by both fantasy literature, particularly the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, and war games (Mackay, 2001). War games have existed since the 1800’s. Mackay (2001) explains that in 1811 a game called War Chess was modified by Herr von Reiswitz and his son, a Prussian artillery officer, to create a war strategy game which they utilized during the training of Prussian military officers. The officer would play as troops, and roll a dice to stimulate chance; the outcome of the battle would be determined by an overseer following a system of rules.

    In the 1960s and 1970’s players became interested in trying to understand the game from the perspective of a character, rather than armies (MacKay, 2001; Fine, 2002; William, Hendrink & Winkler, 2006). In 1968, David Wesely created a nonzero-sum game (a game where the success of the player does not depend on the failure of another) in which each player had a faction with different skills and goals (Mackay, 2001). To him it was a complete failure but Dave Arneson decided to expand upon the idea by incorporating the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, medieval war gaming, and allowing players to control individual characters. In 1971 he partnered up with Gary Gygax and after two years they printed Dungeons and Dragons, the “world’s first role-playing game” (Mackay, 2001, p. 15).

    Larp as a subculture. Larp is a subculture based on Fine and Kleinman’s (1979) definition. They state that a subculture must have these qualities: a network of communication in which information is conveyed, that said group must identify itself as a subculture and lastly, others outside of the group must consider them as a subculture.

    Literature on larp. An important part of this research was the literature on role-playing games, larp, self, gender and motivations. Many of the articles on larp were written by Nordic larpers and their discourse on their understandings of it. Nordic larp is a different subculture of larp; they are more progressive in their acceptance of larp and scholarly discussions than the United States.

    When I refer to Nordic larpers I am referring to groups that larp in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and “the autonomous regions of Åland, Greenland and the Ferrow Isles” (Fatland, 2005, p. 11). Their subculture of larping has surpassed the United States. They host an annual larp conference each year in Finland, Sweden, or Denmark.  It is a gathering of role-players with lectures, panels and workshops, “a goldmine for finding new ideas about gaming and game organizing, and for floating old ideas around ….It is about meeting interesting people and sharing your ideas and views with them – it is about having fun and finding inspiration” (Knutepunkt, 2009). Every year at the convention they publish a book including various essays about larp.

    Literature Review

    My research questions focused on construction of self, gender roles, and motivations in adult play. In this section I address the pertinent literature in each of these areas beginning with the current literature on play.

    Play

    Although there is an extensive amount of literature about the personal, emotional, social, educational, and cultural benefits of play for children, (Blatner & Blatner, 1997) the literature on adult play is lacking. Is this deficiency in literature attributed to the western beliefs we hold about play? Many scholars (Pierce & Artemesia, 2009; Blatner & Blatner; 1997) have attributed our attitude towards play to the puritan beliefs that we hold. Even the American values are build on the foundation that all you need is hard work to achieve your dreams. Vygotsky states:

    We play in order to compensate for needs or desires that we are currently prevented from fulfilling in the real world. We therefore create a fantasy (which can be carried out as play), in which we fulfill the given need. If we lack the ability to achieving status in the real world, we can compensate for the frustration this lack creates by playing that we achieve status… Play is often viewed as an experimental approach to learning, but it is relevant to notice that learning might be a beneficial effect, but not the motivation for the participant. (as cited by Henriksen, 2005, p. 107-108)

    As Vygotsky suggests, we all need play, even as adults.  Caine and Caine (1991) and Hart (1983) (as cited in MacKeracher, 2004) state on current brain theory “suggest that human brain is intensely aggressive and is designed to allow for learning throughout life” (p. 7). Play is just another way to learn.

    Yarnal, Chick and Kerstetter (2008) cite the work of Huizinga describing the characteristics of play which I will highlight here: play creates culture by fostering creativity; it serves social and cultural functions. Play is irrational, and voluntary. There is no material gain; it is not a duty but self controlled and grants escape from obligation. Play is social; it cannot be forced and allows for experimentation. There are rules dependent on order and it occurs in protected spaces that may involve risk and dangers to players and audience.

    Larp is play. The types of play that it employs are body/movement play, object play, social play, imaginative and pretend play, storytelling-narrative play and creative play. The body/movement play of larping was established when players took the tabletop role-playing games into the physical realm. Many larps involve some kind of object, whether it be boffers (PVC pipes wrapped in foam) to symbolize swords, or a bag of bird seeds to symbolize a spell. Larp is not an independent activity, at the least there must be two people interacting with each other. In larp, the use of creativity and imagination in the world are encouraged, as well as the creation of one’s character. Many larpers become storytellers of their own right, but not only are they telling a story they are creating one with their fellow players.

    Construction of Self

    A crucial aspect of larp and play is role-playing. Larpers create characters in a world filled with fantasy, different from the world that we must all abide by. In this world they become characters that they may or may not identify with. How do they process this other self, if it is in fact a self? How defined are the boundaries between these worlds, and the boundaries between the person, persona and player?

    We all find ourselves as players located at the liminal margins between the people we believe we are and the personas we play in various situated social encounters—between what we believe we are and what we aspire to become—between what we believe of ourselves and what we believe others believe of us. (Waskul, 2006, p. 36)

    We “construct” ourselves in the roles we play whether they are part of the “game” or in real life.  As Goffman (1959) points out within our day to day interactions each interaction is a performance in which we convey the person we want them to perceive. The interplay of interactions with others, whether in everyday life or in the game, are fertile territory for examining constructions of self. In order to clarify which self I am referring to in my discussion of larp I will use the formulations of Waskul (2006) and Fine (2002) who both distinguish between the persona/character, player and person. The person is the “I” that inhabits the mundane or real world. This is the individual we believe ourselves to be. The player is the aspect of the person who understands the rules of the game. The persona is the character or characters they play in the fantasy world. I will be using these references throughout my study to describe these types of the roles that one plays in game. In game is role-playing jargon for in the game, and out of game is when players are dealing with the real world activities or knowledge.

    We are continuously playing roles: the sister, the student, the teacher, the friend. What makes us believe that we are limited to playing only one role; can we shed certain roles or are they underlying continuous layers of ever present self? Role-players understand that being a troll or an inherently evil being is only a persona; similar to roles such as tennis player, or teacher, but these personas are more developed because within these characters they have their own values, belief system and goals.  Larping is just an extension of the perceptions that we want others to see us as, but even with the freedom to create one’s persona there are expectations that are incorporated with it.

    Persona/Character Types. This demonstrates that although players are aware of the roles they don they rarely mistake those roles as their self, if it is in fact not the self they identify with. So what types of characters do people usually play? Bowman (2010) has found nine major types of roles. She describes them not based on the “archetypal essence of the persona and more on the player’s feelings of ‘sameness’ between their primary identity and the character concept” (p. 155).

    The types are: Doppelganger Self, the Devoid Self, the Augmented Self, the Fragmented Self, the Repressed Self, the Idealized Self, the Oppositional Self, the Experimental Self and the Taboo Self. The Doppelganger Self is a persona that is very similar to their self identity. New players tend to play this type of persona, as they are still learning the world. More experienced role-players prefer to challenge themselves and believe the performance of playing one’s self is “amateurish”. In addition, many players may infuse their personas with personality traits they relate to, in order to make it more seem realistic or enjoyable.

    The Devoid Self is, as Bowman explains most eloquently is “the Doppelganger Minussome essential quality” (p. 166). This could be a physical, emotional, or environmental attribute, such as blindness, lack of empathy, or having their personas grow up in more austere conditions. The Augmented Self is best thought of as “the Doppelganger Plussome other key quality” (p. 167). Examples of this would be infinite material wealth, a superpower or immortality.

    In the Fragmented Self, the player takes one fragment of their personality and amplifies it; e.g. a player’s sense of humor, sexuality, or aggressiveness. At times these fragments may be a part of the self that needs to be expressed. It may encourage the player to uncover aspects that they don’t identify with to proficiently play their character. The Repressed Self personifies a muffled characteristic of the player’s personality. Bowman defines this as liberation of the inner child inside of us, allowing us to manifest the desire to make others laugh.

    The Idealized Self is “a persona that possesses qualities the player wishes he or she had” (p. 172). The Oppositional Self is when people play characters that are completely opposite from their selves. Although the Oppositional Self may be abhorrent to the player, they can also be patterns of the behavior that the player may not associate with normally. Bowman notes that this “aids players in better understanding both themselves and people with whom they would not normally relate” (p. 174). The Experimental Self is created when the player construct a character as an experiment. “These personas may exist as bizarre concepts, highlight interesting themes in the game, or may present difficult role-playing challenges. Some of my respondents detailed characters toward whom they seemed not to have an emotional attachment or affiliation, but who made the game itself more exciting or interesting” (p. 175). Because larp provides a safe space, players are able to explore controversial topics. The Taboo Self is when players are able to explore taboo subjects such as incest, cannibalism, murder, rape, abuse and trangenderism.

    Gender Roles

    Although larp constructs a fantasy world in which one can choose one’s own identity; how much impact does the real world intrude on the choices one makes, especially in regards to gender? With an understanding that gender roles are socially and culturally constructed, I wanted to examine the gender roles of male and female larpers.

    Gender is a vast and contested construct with many definitions, but I will be using Connell’s (2002) definition of gender, “gender is the structure of social relations that centers on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices (governed by this structure) that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes” (p. 10).   Simply put, it is how society deals with our bodies and the ramifications of those actions in our lives, and future. Correll, Thébaud and Benard (2007) explain how we learn sex roles:

    Gender is a product of socialization: through reinforcement, children learn either the male or female ‘role,’ internalize it as identify, and then enact the behaviors and traits associated with that role as they carry out their adult activities. In this way, gender becomes a mostly stable and durable aspect of who people are. (p. 2)

    The framework that I will use in defining gender is a cognitive approach. Wharton (2005) explained it best as “how people internalize gender meanings from the outside world and then use those meanings to construct an identity consistent with them” (p. 33).

    In tabletop role-playing games and online role-playing games, it is not uncommon for males to adopt female personas. Bowman (2010) states:

    …some role-players enjoy gender-swapping as a release from the social demands placed upon them in terms of courtship. For men, playing a female character can provide a release from the social pressure to inhabit the role of masculine aggressor. For women, playing male characters can offer an opportunity to behave more dominantly with fewer social repercussions. (p. 64)

    Is there a difference when there’s less distance between persona and person, such as the nature of the physical embodiment of larp? This will be examined later in the analysis.

    Motivations

    What motivates people to dress up in costumes, go out to a park on an insanely hot day and proceed to thump the heck of out each other?  When I told a larper that I was interested in examining this aspect of things, he said that most people would likely respond, “because it’s fun!” But are there other underlying reasons?

    Fine (2002) has theorized that there are four themes as to why people play role-playing games. They are: “the educational components of gaming; gaming as an escape from social pressure; games as aids in increasing one’s sense of personal control and efficacy; and games as aids in dealing with people” (p. 53).

    Fine found that players learn the history, and structure of time periods—such as the middle ages, technology and economics of space travel. Arguably this knowledge may not be realistic but, “the players discuss such things as the weight of plate armor, the social structure of the Catholic Church in twelfth century France, or the effects of atmospheric pressure on rocket design” (p. 54).

    Many players find that gaming allows them to “release from the constraints of self and release from the restrictions on behavior” (p. 55). This means they can choose to not be their self for a day and pretend to be someone who may do something that they otherwise would not do, without the norm of social ramifications. Although some role-players enjoy playing different characters, there are others who enjoy playing themselves in game. For the latter, Fine (2002) notices it is harder for them to differentiate themselves from the quips, or actions towards their character. For example, during Fine’s session of D&D there was a role-player who played himself in game and felt remorse and guilt at stabbing a NPC in the groin. A NPC stands for Non Playable Character, a character that the gamemaster/dungeonmaster (godlike narrator) has produced to interact with the PC, the Player Character, e.g. those that are playing the game. Although the role-player stabbed the NPC, his choice in the location of the wound was determined by a random roll of the dice.

    The aspect of escapism translated to how the players interacted with each other. Fine illustrates this distance in his quote.

    As a new gamer I was struck by how little I learned about the private lives of others-even others to whom I felt close. One didn’t talk about occupations, marital status, residence, or ethnic heritage. In some cases it was months before I learned a player’s surname. Others confirmed this observation and suggested that it represented a need to establish a distance from one’s real self. (p. 55)

    In describing these facets of escape Fine (2002) believes there is an implicit principle that gamers are barraged in their day to day lives with restrictions, lack of control, and expectations. To deal with these stresses gaming provides “not only an escape from worldly pressures, but a feeling of control or efficacy over an environment—even if it is a fantasy environment….This engrossment expands the opportunities of the self” (p. 57).

    Fine (2002) expresses that gamers are often uncertain of the confidence of their social skills. In addition, they may feel alienated from others and thus have the need to establish a community. Gaming provides this community and brings together people who have the same interests or personalities.

    In Henriksen’s (2005) discussion of motivations, he lists three motivational categories for larping: entertainment, developmental, and therapeutic. Under the category of entertainment, people larp for amusement or play. He qualifies amusement as “a brief break-away from unspecified factors in everyday life” (p. 113). Henriksen uses Vygotsky’s (1978) definition of play, “an essayistic attempt to compensate for frustration produced by perceived inadequacy” (p. 114).

    The developmental skills that might motivate a larper include both learning something new and improving social skills. Therapy as motivation has two subcategories; they are: compensatory hiding and specific treatment. Henriksen makes a distinction between the urge to play and the urge to achieve a better mental health; this is caused by pathological conditions. In compensatory hiding, “this motivation derives from the need for the mentally ill to establish a normal usable peers, without sticking out too much” (p. 114). Specific treatment refers to participants “need to work with a specific topic within a mental illness, but to do so outside of the health system” (p. 114).

    Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework guiding this inquiry is Erik Erikson’s identity theory (1980) from the fifth stage of his psychosocial stages of development. He theorizes that people confront crises in each stage of their lives and that if successfully conquered one would be able to move on to the next stage; if not, they will continuously struggle with that stage. “Ego identity refers to a strength that the ego has in terms of a capacity to master and maintain a stable identity across situations and through time” (Côté & Levine, 2002, 94). The ego is strengthened by positive social interaction with significant others and social institutions.

    I am positing that for the ego strengthening that develops in interaction with others to take place, it does not matter whether the interactions are “real” or fantasy. In this, my thinking is influenced by Bowman (2010) who says “often, the characters work to serve a certain function for role-players, be it psychological exploration, boundary transgression, or simple stress relief.” (p. 155) Even though these roles may serve a certain function there is an underlying fear that others may not be able to distinguish the border between the game world and the real world. Blatner and Blatner mention the common misconceptions of play; they are: “play is not realistic, and therefore somehow an avoidance of life. Indulgence in fantasy play can lead to mental illness. Make-believe is inauthentic and phony” (1997, p. 108). Stromberg agrees:

    the claim that users of entertainment cannot distinguish fantasy from reality is overstated. Although I have no doubt this may occur among certain individuals from time to time, I am extremely skeptical that this is an adequate description of what happens when most entertainment users play. The fact that most role-players, and most people who engage other sorts of entertainment, can flawlessly negotiate the real world while they are playing suggest that the ‘confusion’ position is both wrong and oversimplified. Even in cases where temporary confusion occurs… they are easily correct, and the primacy of the everyday world is never threatened. (p. 59-60)

    In sum, the body of work that served as the theoretical framework for this research was Erik Erikson and Bowman’s work on identity and influenced by Blatner and Blatner as well as Stromberg’s work on the perceptions of play.

    Methodology

    Participants

    The participants of this study included larpers from the Dallas/Fort Worth area (DFW or “the Metroplex”), and the states of Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin. There were nine women and seven males, varying from ages 19 to 46. They ranged from a year to thirty years in the length of time they had been larping. The organizations that my participants mentioned were Loon Rampant (LR), Magic Horizons (MH), New Larp (NL), Realms, New England Role-playing Organization International (NERO), Amtgard, Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), High Fantasy Society (HFS), International Fantasy Gaming Society (IFGS) and a Dallas area Requiem vampire larp. The majority of my respondents were from SCA, Vampire larp, IFGS, NERO and Amtgard.

    Recruitment

    Within the Vampire larp, I contacted a storyteller (very much like the gamemaster) who served as a gatekeeper to the vampire larp community and had invited me to one of their events, and in which I recruited a few participants. A friend on a networking website gave me the contact information of another friend on the east coast who was a larper. He answered many questions and forwarded my questionnaires to other larpers in that area. I emailed SCA, NERO, and Amtgard because they had events during the two weeks of July I was collecting information. I introduced myself and my research study and asked if I could be present for their activities. I recruited people from those events attended. IFGS was not having an event within the time I had allotted for the collection of information, thus I emailed them. I was referred to the person who maintained the mailing list, and he emailed out my questionnaires. Some people were on the mailing list but had moved to Minnesota or Wisconsin; nevertheless they expressed interest in participating in the research.

    Procedure

    In the process of my research I used three methods of data collection to better integrate my research. This allowed me to cross reference the information I received with my own findings. The three methods I used were: semi structured interviews or questionnaires containing the same questions, participant observations, and literature research.

    Semi-Structured Interviews/Questionnaires

    Berg (2009) states, “traditionally, the term survey refers to both interviews and pencil-and-paper questionnaires” (p. 109). He further cites Cannell & Kahn (1968):

    …typically the choice to use an interviewing technique rather than a survey questionnaire technique is based on the selected procedure’s ability to provide maximum opportunity for complete and accurate communication of ideas between the researcher and the respondent. (p. 109)

    I chose both semi-structured interviews and questionnaires because I wanted to reach a large population of larpers; I feared that I would not be able to interview enough participants or that they would not be willing to talk. Each participant was given the choice to conduct a phone interview (or face to face interview-transportation permitted) or to do a questionnaire based on their convenience and level of comfort.

    Berg (2009) outlines a method of creating questions. The researcher must establish the nature and the objectives of the research; this presents the researcher with a starting point in the development of a schedule of questions. Berg cites Selltiz et al. (1959), Spradley (1979), Patton (2002) and Polit and Hungler (1995) on their suggestions of an outline, a list of broad categories that may be relevant to the study. This further refines the general format of the schedule of questions. Finally, the researcher creates questions relevant to each category.

    I followed Berg’s (2009) instructions in the formation of my questions; focusing on gender, construction of self and motivations. As I learned more and more about larping and its rules, the different variations-such as the creation of more than one character-I changed my questions and wordings accordingly at the approval of my mentor and advisor. In addition, I had a few larpers look over the survey to see if they would be confusing or would raise other unforeseen questions. See Figure 1 for questions.

    Semi-structured interviews were conducted over the phone and recorded for later transcription. The interviews included thirteen questions and lasted thirty minutes to an hour. Semi-structured interviews that could not be conducted were sent out via email as questionnaires.

    Participant Observation

    Emerson Fretz and Shaw (1995) state that:

    …in participating as fully and humanly as possible in another way of life, the ethnographer learns what is required to become a member of that world, to experience events, and meanings in ways that approximate members’ experiences. (p. 2)

    Berg (2009) explains:

    The etic dimension of the research…operates in the understandings and latent meanings uncovered by the research in the course of the study. But these meanings and understandings are outside of the insider’s (emic) general perceptions. Instead, these etic understandings are the products of interpretations of meanings, theoretical and analytic explanations and understandings of symbols as mediated through the researcher (an outsider). (p. 192)

    Emic is the anthropological term for the perspective of an insider or native of their culture, which contrasts with etic, an outsider perspective of the culture (Berg, 2009). Thus in this study I sought to understand the subculture of larping through participant observations. In the month of July, I observed three Amtgard events-one of which was a kingdom gathering (other Amtgard groups in the area attended), the others were fighter practices, where people come to learn how to use their weapons and possibly play a game. I attended a SCA fighters practice, and SCA’s King’s Round Table (an organizational meeting that took place every six months), and a vampire larp in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. In my second Amtgard event I took part in their fighter’s practice and was given some training on how to fight with a boffer.

    Data Analysis

    I used Emerson, Fretz and Shaw’s (1995) analysis of qualitative information to analyze my data. The process starts with the ethnographer reading and concurrently identifying as well as refining earlier insights by close intensive reflection and analysis of their fieldnotes. The ethnographer then starts analytically coding fieldnotes, a line-by-line categorization of specific notes. There are two different phases of this, open coding and focused coding.

    In open coding the ethnographer reads fieldnotes line-by-line to identify and formulate any and all ideas, themes, or issues they suggest, no matter how varied and disparate. In focused coding the fieldworker subjects fieldnotes to fine-grained, line-by-line analysis on the basis of topics that have been identified as of particular interest. (p. 143)

    While the ethnographer is coding they are discovering themes, ideas, insights and connections in their data; these are then written down as memos. In the early stages they are initial memos but later they become more focused, and then become integrative memos. “They relate or integrate what were previously separate pieces of data and analytic points. These integrative memos seek to clarify and line analytic themes and categories” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, 1995, p. 143). This method is based on Glaser & Strauss’ (1967) grounded theory of analysis, allowing the information to emerge from the data rather than imposing, or verifying analytical propositions.

    Findings

    Much of my analysis coincides with the literature review. Many of Bowman’s (2010) persona-person types were in accordance with my analysis on persona and person relationships. Many people felt that their personas influenced them in some form; others imply that the existence of self is always present in the persona. Some people may even go as far as to adopt their personas in real life situations, leading to the fear of blurring boundaries between reality and fantasy. In regards to gender roles, I mention the impact of recruitment and how this may affect the demographics of larping communities. Gender interactions are at times determined by gender roles, e.g. more respect for women in leadership positions. Gender roles and types are also discussed. Motivations for larping were at an individual and organizational level. The most prevalent reason for larping was the social aspect; after which are, in no order: escapism, fun, fantasy, community building etc. In the following sections I will present these findings in more detail starting with play, self construction, gender roles, and motivations.

    Play

    Many of the characteristics of play as discussed in Yarnal, Chick and Kerstetter (2008), who cited the work of Huizinga, were prevalent in my participant observations of larping groups. It was a social and cultural experience for the players that offered no general material gain, self controlled, and granted escape from obligation. It had rules-mainly for the safety of the players, but nevertheless still involved bodily danger. These elements are present and intertwined with each category of my findings since larp is adult play.

    In the lull of the larp, I am held hostage by the words of the players as they explain to me their views on gender, the structure of their organization, and the nomadic nature of people. One of the players leaves to go do something.

    Joe: Hey! At least you get to do things, I gotta sit here.

    Frank:  You can do whatever you want to do.

    Joe: Yeah, but I don’t want to go out and randomly murder people because that’s all I want to do.

    Tim: so Joe…who said that he’s not the fight-kill-guzzle-glurp

    Frank: He really is, he enjoys making other people suffer because they’re not real people ‘cause he gets to let go of that aggression…in a safe friendly environment! [Emphasis added]. (Fieldnotes, July 2010)

    A common theme in my findings was how individuals felt safe, both physically and emotionally, to explore interests, characteristics and values which ultimately had a positive impact on them. Through their interests they learned about themselves, history and ultimately reaffirmed their values. As Stromberg (2009) put it, “what we experience as fun is a fundamental cultural process through which we discover and renew our commitments to the values and symbols that make us human” (p. 14).

    The most important rules in larp were safety rules, as one participant put it, “you can suck all you want, so long as you’re not dangerous doing it” (Field notes, July 2010). In most physical larps participants had to sign or have release forms either on file or at each event; in addition to a strict guideline for creation of weapons used e.g. foam-covered, some kind of metal on joints. In SCA, they used rattans, solid bamboo sticks, thus they had to calibrate each fighter before they could begin. Calibrating involved checking the armor of each person to make sure that they were working correctly. For example people in full armor would be struck on the helmet to check that it fit perfectly.

    Construction of Self

    In my survey I asked how and why people created certain personas, the relationship between their main personas and their self, and any elements that they may identify with in their persona. This section is separated into four divisions; motivations for the creation of their characters, the impact of persona on self, and the types of persona created compared to the real self. Lastly I discuss the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy of self.

    Why did I want to play that?

    Interviewee: I didn’t know what I was doing so I just grabbed a staff and tried to remember the spells. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    As the above quote illustrates, some people created their personas because they lacked time and knowledge but there are other aspects that shape the creation of their characters. At times they were inspired by their personal interests; such as the books they read, the archetypes they stumble across, and their enjoyment of mob movies. Occasionally the creator makes a character that would be fun to play to see how others would react. Others created characters because they wanted a challenge.

    Interviewee: There are role-players and there are good role-players.  A role-player plays him/herself, but they are the same characters in different trappings every time they play something ‘different’.  A good role-player stays within the bounds he has set for his character persona and they seem literally like a different character every time they play.  Playing limited intelligence is very difficult, for example, when you can see the answer your friends are puzzling over, but you are the stupid brawny half-ogre fighter.  A good role-player sits and drools and a role-player finds a way to tell the others the answer.  I think it an important note that both good and bad role-players are fun to play with.  It is a lesson in accepting others, just like the real world. (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010)

    This is assuming that the person is more experienced. Many larpers had discussed this and said that they heard it was common for people to play themselves. This confirms Bowman’s (2010) discussion of the Doppelganger self and how beginners tend to play themselves, rather than the more experienced players who play different personas.

    Sometimes, the importance of one’s name may be the only defining difference between the self and the persona. My participant’s names were tied to their personal history or lineage, and their personal values. For example,

    Interviewee: My key to picking a name was that it was not common and that it sounded feminine….Why I wanted my name to sound feminine was because I joined the society to learn how to sword fight and become a knight.  I wanted a feminine name so that when they put Sir in front of it [Sir denotes that you are a knight] I would still sound like I had a girl’s name. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    There are other personal values that shape the creation of personas besides honor, one of them mentioned:

    Interviewee: Really, I play myself as a kid, it helps keep me young and reminds me to just have fun and be a good person both of which are easy to forget sometimes. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    Finally, people may be inspired to play certain personas for exploration or personal growth, as one of my participants said “larping was a new and different way to use the traits that I value in adult life.” (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010).

    What did my persona do to me? I wanted to examine the permeability of borders between the self and persona; two of the questions that I asked to do so were,does the persona have an impact on the person? And what aspects of your persona do you identify with?

    There were a majority of people who identified with their characters. The aspects that they felt their character and their self possessed were attitudes, perspectives, interests or values. There was a sizable amount of people who employed their characters as a tool to explore themselves, their values, morals, shortcoming, weaknesses, and skills.

    Some participants flipped the question and responded that it was the other way; the person is going to influence the persona no matter what.  There were two respondents who believed that the persona does not have an impact on the person.

    Interviewer: Do the personas that people play influence the players who play them?

    Interviewee: I don’t know that this happens to any great extent – people don’t stay in the personas for that long.  Although, I am always a little uncomfortable with people who play evil characters, as if I’m afraid that either some of the character might rub off on them, or that the character actually represents some part of their own personality. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    The interviewee seems to imply that it may influence the player if they stay in character for a longer length of time. One participant told me that she was teased by her workers after weekend events, due to her lingering gypsy accent. Another implication of the above quote is the apprehension expressed by a player blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, which I will discuss later.

    An interesting element that I came across was the mental and social struggles of some of the participants. A participant had expressed that people larp to deal with their problems; this participant in particular had PTSD along with social anxiety and how being a part of something allows her to act a certain way without feeling like they were judging her. Another participant had Asperger’s Syndrome, while another one was bipolar. J. L. Moreno had created psychodrama to allow his mentally ill patients to enact roles or problems they struggled with. This coincides with Henriksen’s (2005) therapeutic motivations for larping.

    PvP: Persona versus Person. In the process of my open code approach, these types of personas emerged from the data. This finding was based on the questions Can you describe the relationship between your main persona and yourself? What aspects do you think influenced the creation of your persona? Are there reason(s) why you play this persona? These types of personas are based on the relationship between the persona and the person.  They overlap and are at times, not distinctly bound to one category. They are Persona-Person Similarities, Persona-Person Detraction, Persona-Person Contrast, Persona-Person Extensions, Persona-Person Exaggerations, and Persona-Personal Exploration.

    In the persona-person similarities I included a range of people who identified with characters to a certain degree; whether it was similar aspects or the same person but in different clothing. Although one of my participants made it clear that, “you can’t role-play something you are incapable of” (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010) in his case he was referring to his inability to play a patient persona. Another participant said, “instead of me putting on a mask, like most larpers do, I take mine off” (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010), suggesting that larp provides a safe space for her to be herself as opposed to the real world where she does not feel as safe.

    The persona-person detraction is very similar to Bowman’s Devoid Self; the player is playing themselves but without certain aspects. An example of this is, “myself without any difficulties with stress, anxiety, and other such real life problems” (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010). One of my participants described their persona as “he’s a persona of myself, if I had had a horrible, horrible upbringing” (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010). The latter example is very similar to the environment detraction Bowman mentioned in her book.

    Person-persona contrasts are when players play characters that are completely opposite of them. A female larper was the leader of a nation in game whereas in real life she was not interested in any type of leadership aspirations. Persona-person extensions are when people practice aspects about themselves that they have already, or would like to have. A larper talked about how her persona has “developed into sort of a fulfillment of the way I would like to be if confronted with adventures – loyal, courageous, very capable” (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010).

    Persona-person exaggerations were similar to the persona-persona similarities except that they took an aspect of themselves and exaggerated it, or distorted it in some way.

    Interviewer: Are there some aspects of your persona that you identify with?

    Interviewee: I can’t help it, I trust people too much. This gets my character killed a lot. Oh and kidnapped. My character has what I call a “Daphne Complex” (based off Scooby Doo). I am often a damsel in distress, partly because as a healer other players will go through a lot to get me and my spells back. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    Lastly is the persona-person exploration, choosing characters that would allow people to explore certain aspects of themselves and how others would react to them. For instance the larper who was playing the real self that nobody knew, or the role-player who was a male but played a female and dressed up to fit the role.

    The separation of reality and fantasy. Many scholars (Bowman 2010; Fine 2002) have discussed larping as a hobby and not a game. The distinction they and other role-players place between these two words hinge on the amount of time spent on each activity. A game is something that will take at the most two to three hours to play. A hobby is time consuming. I have found that in the Dallas Fort Worth area there are events going on every week. Usually with Amtgard, and NERO fighter practices they start around noon to 2pm and go until the story ends, or when it gets dark. SCA fighter practices starts in the early evening. The vampire larp I attended started at 8:30 and went until 2am. In addition to fighter practices, there were weeklong events usually lasting for three days and two nights, starting on Friday and ending on Sunday. There are also conventions for larp groups. SCA in particular has Pennsic, a two week long event.

    In the Dallas Fort Worth Area there is always something to do. Amtgard in the area has events going on from Saturday through Monday, although at different locations. Vampire larps happen every weekend and a SCA-er said that he and his baroness attend at least 2-3 events per month. In addition people cross over to other events-a person could play in Amtgard but also be in a vampire larp, or a NERO participant could also be in SCA.

    With this abundance of events one could go to during the week, it’s not hard to leave the real world behind. Many participants had talked about others who have done so.

    Interviewer: Do the personas that people play influence the players who play them?

    Interviewee: Absolutely yes, they do…people who larp usually have something wrong with their real lives, which makes them want to live vicariously through their character(s). This sense of importance and belonging while they are in character makes a good number of larpers…stay in character as often as possible. They live, eat, and breathe the game. Sometimes, I’ve actually seen them stay in character (while using their legal names) in real life, and that helps them. Mostly though, these sorts of people are so focused on the game that their lives continue spiraling downward, until they either give up and stop trying in real life, or give up the game once they realize that it’s just a game. Most often it’s the former though. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    In addition to the desire to retain and carry over the experience larpers receive in game to real life; staying in character beyond the space of the larp, attributes such as taking things too seriously, seem to be another warning sign as to the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. When I refer to taking things too seriously, it is applied to the person/player’s anger towards the actions others may take against their character. This happens often when people play themselves (Fine, 2002).

    Gender Roles

    Gender in general is a vast field of study to explore, much less in the larping subculture. Some offhand topics concerning gender and larp are the expectations of gender roles, gender interactions, differences in gender play, people playing different genders than their sex. My research focused on gender roles, how people were introduced to larp-which influence the demographics, and gender interactions.

    Although the gaming culture is still dominated by males it is evident that females play as well. In the Nordic larping scene some of the ratios of men to women are equal or there are more females than men. According to Fatland (2005)

    Sweden and Norway has about 40% women, 60% men, Denmark significantly fewer women, and that male larpers recently became a threatened minority in Finnish larp. Gender amongst organisers and that Norway has many more female organisers and leaders than the other countries, and that most larp theorists are guys. (p. 16)

    In the larps I have attended I’ve noticed there are more females in the role-playing larps than the boffer larps, to which many participants agree that this is the norm. At the fighter practices of Amtgard and SCA, which are more physical larps, I have noticed that women prefer to watch rather than to join in.

    When I first spoke about the motivations for joining a larp, a few male and female larpers told me that the women were usually introduced into the larping scene via their significant others; they said this was the most common introduction for female larpers.  Although this opinion was expressed by many, I only found only one occasion where the player was introduced by her fiancé.

    Interviewer: Is there a difference between the way male larpers and female larpers are treated regardless of the sex/gender of their persona?

    Interviewee: Not with older players. New player though… Too many girls come then sit around looking bored. When I ask them what they are doing they tend to sigh and say they came with “insert boy’s name here”, but he went off questing so she is just sitting around. Most people won’t even bother approaching these women because she isn’t there to actually play and will probably never be back to another event, because she was bored or broke up with “inserted name.” I think if more people actively approached them and taught them a spell or how to swing a sword that they would come back again even without Mr. So-and-so. If new guy wanders in looking lost he is far more likely to find someone who will scoop him up, teach him to play, and loan him weapons and armor. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    This was evident even in my own experience when my male friend and I attended our first larp, he was scooped up by the other males. The second time I had to ask if someone would teach me to fight.

    A dominant theme I found in my research is that women are allowed to be anything they want to be. Although in SCA, to remain historically correct some females played males. There were also females playing a female who pretended to be a male, as there have been documented historical accounts about women running away to fight.

    Although women can play any character, many chose not to play warrior roles. They tend to play what I call supportive roles because they’re not in the thick of fighting; they are standing back throwing seed bags, casting magic, or healing others. The more frequent roles played by women are mages or other magic users such as healers. Additional roles include seductress, with personality influenced or skill traits (e.g. thief or assassin). Those who choose to play warriors are well respected by both genders.

    “We’re getting more and more kick-butt females who can out do some of the best male fighters and they are given a wide berth” (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010). A larper explained that perhaps it was because most females did not feel capable: “I have met some female characters who do (avoid combat) – this typically represents a physical difference, when the player does not enjoy combat because they don’t feel as capable as the male players” (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010). Generally, women in leadership positions are especially respected, though that’s not to say they aren’t usually.

    Another treatment that females may receive is more leniency. Bowman (2010) even mentions one of her interviewees’ awareness of a clear bias-less bigger monsters were thrown her way. My participants called this the “gamer girl”, where the female is able to get away with more than the males. Although, females have more leniency there also is the assumption that they don’t know the rules.  Thus you have males trying to teach a female while the female feels like she’s being insulted because it’s assumed she didn’t bother to learn the regulations. Also in comparison to males, females tend to be more honest of their ignorance of customs.

    Women can be who they want to be but do males have the same freedom? One of my participants said “men play men and women play women” (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010). In other types of role-play games (e.g. tabletop, online) males often don female characters. Perhaps the very nature of being face to face restricts the sense of anonymity. In addition, the larping subculture is very accepting of others; but yet there still exists underlying male roles and behaviors concurrent with the dominate culture. “And men usually don’t do dress up as women, and that has much more to do with the modern thing where it’s much more acceptable for women to be bisexual or gay than it is for a guy to be that way” (Personal interview, male larper, July 2010).

    Males mostly play combat roles, magic roles, and specific skill set roles such as thief. One of my participants who was a female stated:

    Men tend to play min-maxed characters. Min-maxing is a gamer term meaning that instead of creating a well rounded character, the character was created to do one thing really, REALLY well, to the utter detriment of their other stats and abilities. This can be fighting, or investigating. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    Motivations

    I feared that in asking others why they larped, the most superficial answer would be “because it’s fun”. Although fun was an important element to motivate people to play, it wasn’t the only factor. There were social factors, fantasy, escapism, safety for exploration, emotional reasons, and to build a sense of community. I also found that in addition to individual motivations there were organizational motivations as well.

    Larp provides an environment where people are safe to explore aspects that they would otherwise lack the opportunity to do so. As earlier mentioned about Henriksen (2005) who cited Vygotsky (1978) as to why we play; to rephrase, we play because we lack something in our lives and play allows us to fill that void.

    Interviewee: I love the people…..As for selfish reasons? I feel epic. Not every time, but enough. I was just part of a team that defeated an evil monster, or was chatting with gods, or bending the rules of reality! (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    Bloom (2010) states “Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real” (n.p) he questions why we might spend so much time participating in this realm of fantasy when we could instead be doing something in the real world. Bloom then theorizes:

    …the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. This is a powerful idea, one that I think is basically—though not entirely—right. (n.p.)

    Thus by enacting a battle with an evil monster and succeeding in slaying it, this pretend play inspired this epic feeling. Her body did not question the validity of the experience and treated it as an actual event by sending all the necessary hormones to deal with it, e.g. adrenaline, endorphin, serotonin and dopamine.

    The main reason people enjoy larping is its social nature. A few participants had mentioned the range of people who can be found larping. Name an occupation and they would be able to find a larper, be it a doctor, teacher, mailman or even those who are unemployed. Fine (2002) MacKay (2001) and Bowman (2010) mentioned in their books how this was common in their observations. In addition, Fine (2002) stated there was a distinct boundary that separated the game world from the real world for the players to the extent that he didn’t know their real names, or what they did as a living, even when he considered them good friends. He said this was how the players were able to maintain the manner of escapism. In my observations and conversations there were some people who socialized outside of larping and some who didn’t-although one of my participants said this was rare.

    Besides emotional and social motivations, people larp for fun and to fulfill their fantasies—instead of a student—they can be that hero slaying dragons and jumping over tall buildings. They can go on adventures playing out the books they read as children. Larp allows them to express their creative side by crafting a character, making up a story or a puzzle for others to solve, sewing costumes, making props and acting. It allows them to explore a new world, or escape this world, perhaps even look into a previous interest such as medieval history.

    Interviewee: Once a Realmsie came down with cancer. An event was held in her honor where enough blood was donated that her family did not need to pay a dime for her blood transfusions. (Personal interview, female larper, July 2010)

    Lastly it provides a sense of community, coming together and helping others through hard times, by material, monetary contributions, or as noted above-other contributions.

    In addition to personal motivations, organizations have purposes. They are: to build a community, provide a social environment, to be a service, or non-profit organization, family friendly, encourage people to become physical, teaching others-through re-enactment, and for fun.

    Discussion

    The purpose of this research was to explore play through larp by examining self construction, gender roles, and motivations. Given that larp is adult play I wanted to examine how aspects of play could help adults in their day-to-day lives and illustrate that play help adults learn, and hone skills; whether it was role-playing, social skills, or leadership. Play can also serve to reinforce belief systems and encourage a sense of community.

    Larp allows people to explore or expand upon certain perceptions related to their self. People are allowed to express things that would not be acceptable in the real world such as aggression. It reinforces their beliefs or values by challenging people to play against those values and beliefs, such as an apathetic persona. Larp bolsters virtues as strength, courage, and loyalty. It establishes sets of skills, such as leadership, social skills, public speaking etc. This safe exploration allows people to expand upon skills; establish them, and become proficient by the continuous practice of role playing.

    Anyone can play any role, however, women tend to play more supportive roles and men tend to play warrior roles. Women who play warrior or leadership roles are well respected. This allows women to explore aspects of gender roles that might otherwise not be supported in the dominant culture and free males to practice roles that are encouraged and would otherwise not be given the opportunity to explore in real life. By creating a safe environment it allows people to explore gender roles or characteristics they are not able to in the real world.

    People play because it’s fun. But fun is not the only incentive for individuals, and even organizations have their own motivations. Although it may have been the initial attraction of fun that we play, there are other side effects such as learning or creating a social community of people. As children play to learn about the world around them, adults play to sharpen their skills in dealing with the mechanics of real life.

    Limitations

    The limitations to this study were the length of time for observation, the lack of rapport, the focus of events attended; most of which were fighter practices. In the process of this study there was a time constraint of five weeks; two of them were spent gathering data by attending events and conducting semi-structured interviews. The activities in which I attended were fighter practices, semi-events/modules which included a short game that involved fighting, a formal organization gathering that consisted of workshops, meetings, in addition to trainings and finally, a vampire larp at a residential home. Since I had such a short time, I was not able to develop a solid rapport with the majority of the larp population. My presence at times influenced, disrupted or impacted the reactions of participants; at a few events the players would have to stop and explain to me what was taking place.

    Future Implications

    Larping has a very important and beneficial aspect; role-playing, a term which incidentally was coined by J. L. Moreno (Biddle, 1979). Along with that point, there is one other component that features just as much, and that is psychodrama. Psychodrama is a type of therapy in which the participants use role play to explore or deal with a problem in a professionally guided simulation. In addition to that, there are many other educational, psychological, and social benefits to role playing. Bowman (2010, 2007) discusses the military use of role-playing in trying to minimize conflict by training soldiers to train for potentialities. Henriksen (2005) states in his essay that one of the motivations for larping was for therapy; expressing, however, that this was not normally suggested by psychologists, or a psychiatrist.

    I have discussed adult play through the exploration of larp; I hope that this will encourage future discourses and further research about the benefits of larping. In addition, I hope that this will further push the advancement of research about adult play and its benefits. I hope these findings about the benefits of larp and play will be further explored and designed to help others in conventional ways, such as therapy-and to encourage others to think about everyday occurrences and the creative ways in which we could utilize them.

    References

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    Figure 1: List of Questions in Semi-structured Interviews

    Questions

    1. What is your age?
    2. What is your sex?
    3. How were you introduced to larp?
    4. Have you been to any events?
      1. If yes, can you walk me through an actual event (not fighter’s practice) What are the women doing? What are the men doing
      2. If no, would you attend an event? Why or why not?
    5. How long have you been larping?
      1. Why do you keep larping?
      2. If it was only a one-time event, would you want to do so again? Why? Why not?
    6. In your own words, what is your organization/groups purpose?
    7. Can you describe the relationship between your main persona and yourself?
      1. What aspects do you think influenced the creation of your persona? Are there reason(s) why you play this persona?
    8. Do the personas that people play influence the players who play them? How so?
    9. Are their some aspects of your persona that you identify with?
    10. In your opinion, what characters do men usually play?
    11. In your opinion, what characters do women usually play?
    12. Is there a difference between the way male larpers and female larpers are treated regardless of the sex/gender of their persona?
    13. Can I contact you for additional information?