Taking LARP to and Talking LARP at Vassar College, April 26, 2017, 3-6 PM

I have the great fortune of being invited by friend and colleague Dorothy Kim to speak at Vassar College.  Dorothy’s ENGL 215 “Medieval Play” class features one third medieval drama, one third digital games, and one third live-action role-playing.  I will be doing a class visit, discussion, and presentation as well as running a short LARP event using my game Archaea.  One of Dorothy’s students wrote a reaction piece for the school newspaper about the class, “To LARP or not to LARP, When Academia Gets Odd,” saying,

I walked into Kenyon that fateful first day of classes pretty sure I knew what to expect. My mother is an English professor and specializes in English Drama, so I figured I already had my bases covered. But five minutes into the class, something went horribly awry. Looking back it doesn’t seem that bad, but in the moment it was as if my professor had told me that instead of Pre-Modern Drama we would be studying Beevis and Butthead will being slimed. (Slime: verb, meaning to drop green slime on someone unexpectedly, popularized by the TV Channel Nickelodeon)

In reality, my professor said, “Are you guys excited to LARP?!” For the uninformed peasants, LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing and was probably invented by Dungeons and Dragons players who tried coke for the first time. Basically what happens is a bunch of 30 year-old white men dress up as mystical creatures like Gandalf or Pinkie Pie from my Little Pony and run around in the middle of a field. Except in this context, it would be a bunch of faux-hipster college students running around in costumes and Doc Martens around Noyes Circle.

Tongue in cheek aside, I do hope that the class gets a lot out of my presentation and playing Archaea itself.  I video chatted with the class to help them get their characters set up and to answer any questions they had.  They seem a bit reticent, nervous, weirded out by having to run around outside.  Like students in my LARP classes, all it will take is for them to just start playing for the worries to melt away.  It happens every time.

My presentation, which will be more conversational than academic talk, is titled “Calling a Hold: Queering the Magic Circle of Fantasy Live-Action Role-Playing Games.”  The description reads:

The idea that games are inscribed by a magic circle of play is not new, beginning with philosopher Johan Huizinga describing in Homo Ludens the notion that play is distinct from everyday life, from work, from influences outside of the game.  He writes, “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.  It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity” (8).  For fantasy games, be they tabletop, digital, or live-action games, the magic circle is assumed and often staunchly defended against the “real” world.  This presentation challenges the fantasy of the magic circle to reveal the ways game systems, mechanics, worlds, and players never “fail to bring outside knowledge about games and gameplay into their gaming situations…There is no innocent gaming…Players also have real lives, with real commitments, expectations, hopes, and desires [that are] brought into the game world” (Consalvo 415).  In particular, given the performative, embodied, and interactive nature of live-action role-playing games or LARPs, how might we unpack the fantasy of fantasy’s magic circle, which often serves to reinforce, even obscure norms about race, gender, sexuality, class, and bodies?  If fantasy games are, as Gary Alan Fine argues, “constrained by the social expectations of players and of their world,” then how might we challenge larping’s normativities, and more importantly, use the affordances and limitations of LARP in order to imagine and articulate alternative, just, inclusive, even radical modes of play?  This presentation includes a workshop and actual play using the live-action role-playing game Archaea.

Many thanks to Dorothy Kim, to Vassar College, to the students of ENGL 215 for making this visit (and play) possible.

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