Get Lit Off the Page:  Those LARP People Are Way Out in Front
  Up Late    September 20, 2017     Eric Larkin


We hate getting to the end of a book we like. Either we don’t want it to end, or we don’t want to be reminded that it was all only in our heads. Good stories and good characters are like french fries; we always want more than will fit in the bag. Some folks actually do something about this terrible situation. These book junkies extend the stories and characters in a variety of ways, and it’s actually the most natural thing in the world: as we know, work that is truly great transcends its original form. The Get Lit Off the Page series explores ways people extend literature into other forms.


If you have never wanted to become a character in a favorite book, then you are lying. We have all wanted that.

LARPers get it done.

But LARPing in the US started like that kid who tripped and fell in front of the whole class on the first day of school; it was tough to live down that first impression. Having finally moved beyond the image of bad accents and floppy swords, it’s become a bit more mainstream as an art/game form used in everything from therapy to education – not to mention in various styles of entertainment – but we’ve a long way to go to catch up to Europe.  [Look at this insane Hamlet experience.]


Just like with Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy LARPing owes a huge debt to Tolkien, obviously. However, there’s nothing about LARPing that necessitates sword and sorcery stories. Dr. Evan Torner, in his short talk “Larp as Adaptation”, identifies 3 ways of adapting literature role-playing – and none of them have anything to do with genre.


The first is “re-skinning”. He uses Harry Potter as an example, where, for usage rights purposes, doing a one-for-one adaptation could be problematic. So, the game could be called “College of Wizardry”, but use none of the specifics of the source material. Everyone knows what you’re going for and the kind of world that it is. It’s Potter-esque, but you won’t get sued by dementors. 


The second is called “hybrid”, which takes well-known characters or story elements and combines them in a new way. As Dr. Torner says, it’s an approach that “explores themes across works”. For instance, you could see what happens when Sherlock Holmes teams up with Hercule Poirot. Or do Lord of the Flies with girls instead of boys – as they are doing now, in a film.


“Strict” describes playing through a story exactly as it happens in a book. This is a form that Torner believes is not used enough. As a literature and film professor, he describes playing through a Sense and Sensibility LARP as Colonel Brandon and afterwards feeling completely sympathetic with the character.


That right there is a strong indication of the value of this kind of experience, similar to the way roleplaying is used in couples therapy, for example. It can be useful in ways besides building empathy, though. In fact, the Ghost Town Alive roleplay experience at Knott’s Berry Farm, according to Ken Parks (one of the designer/directors of the show), has played a part in “unlocking” a number of kids who are on the spectrum. (He doesn’t go into much detail – and he’s not a doctor, as far as I know – but he talks about it in this episode of The Seasonpass Podcast [the house favorite], right around minute 39.) Think about being intentional with the selection of source material – using specific books, stories, characters – and the possibilities for healing, developing empathy, and so on, seems endless.


For the latest in Calico news, just pick up the Gazette over at the printer’s, just past the funnel cake shop. And vote Wheeler for sheriff — those Mayfields are a bad lot.


LARPing from books could have a deep effect on a student’s education. Imagine what it would be like for a class to inhabit the world of Orwell’s 1984. Just take one aspect: ever tried speaking in newspeak? I once tried to write a blog post using newspeak, and it was extremely difficult to express any opinion or abstract thought. Maybe a better writer could manage it, but I couldn’t get more than a sentence or two, and even that sounded like ad copy. I can’t think of a better way to give young people a visceral sense of what speech and thought control would be like.


Mads Lunau is a Danish educator and founder of Østerskov Efterskole, which is a (sort of) summer/boarding school that uses LARP. He had noticed at some point in his past as a serious gamer that young people would devour reams of background and information in order to play a game. He then developed the idea of using role-playing to allow students to live through the history and literature they were studying. As he told Mike Pearl at Vice, it was “LARPing their way through the dusty old material from their textbooks.” He’s able to go deeper with efterskole, since it is a traditionally more free-form part of the Danish education system, but smaller scale programs are existent in the U.S.  


Pretty great way to study history.   photo Mattias Kabel

You don’t have to be a professional actor to role-play, obviously. If you want to see what it’s like to be your favorite characters in your favorite books – just do it.

… as long as it’s not a clown in a Stephen King novel.

The trouble with all such endeavors is finding Like-Mindeds who are up for a romp. But if your circle of friends is cool enough and book-nerdy enough, y’all can certainly muddy your way through something halfway decent. And next time, it’ll work better. That’s part of how we learn: by actually doing things, not only reading about them. That’s why you gotta say: those LARP people are way out in front.


More Get Lit Off the Page looms on the horizon. Check out the second post, on LA’s own Shipwrecked Comedy and their Edgar Allan Poe Dinner Party web series.



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