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Game Changer Illustration by Jonathan Boam.

Game Changer

Live action role-play, or larp, immerses adults in a vivid fantasyland. Can it save the world, too?

FOLLOWING A BLINDING FLASH of light, forty-odd adults throw themselves to the ground. Seconds ago they were insurance brokers, project managers and teachers, here at a Boy Scouts reserve in Acton, Ontario. Now, they’ve transformed into warrior orcs, halflings and dwarves, splayed out like discarded toys in a child’s playroom. Even those who remain human are more powerful: they’re psychic, or versed in magic, sword combat or alchemy. A nebulous voice addresses them: “You’ve been teleported away from home, to a house on an island suspended in the sky.”

An elf girl whips into the room, panting and gasping. She’s got frying-pan eyes, they’re open so wide. “Circe, Shorty! I need your help,” she shrieks. Circe, a slight woman in a red crinoline, leaps up. A feathery red hood forms a mane around her shaved scalp, and, along her forehead, five almond-sized diamonds glare in a V-shape. She’s followed by her husband, Shorty, a bumbling lumberjack. In one hand, he holds an oversized saw; in the other, a three-foot-tall axe. Together, they form the Green Guardians, a band of animal-whisperers.

The couple darts after the elf and almost everyone follows, a frantic parade of beards and horns, robes and bodices. They spill downstairs into a dim room. Against the back wall, a girl with a delicate marionette face sits whimpering on a throne of stuffed animals. She’s gripping a doll with a gaping hole in its chest. It’s immediately obvious who gutted the thing: in the corner sits a full-grown male lion, all gnashing teeth and claws.

In the group’s imagination, it’s a horrifying scene. In real life, not so much. The girl’s marionette visage is poorly drawn with face paint, and the lion is played by a woman in fur pants. A fist-sized hole in her mask reveals a grimacing human mouth. “Rrrr,” she drones. There’s sweat on her upper lip. Even Shorty’s weapons, for all their size, couldn’t possibly do harm: they’re made of foam and duct tape. But none of that matters to the Green Guardians.

The group quickly takes command. While Circe comforts the girl, Shorty lulls the lion into placidity in his Scottish accent. Within ten minutes, the situation’s diffused. That’s the way the role-play world works: the rewards are high and the stakes low. It’s the reason Shorty and Circe like it here. Unlike in the real world, despair is short-lived, heroism comes easy and, almost always, everyone can be saved.

Live action role-play, or larp for short, is make-believe on uppers for adults. Groups typically meet monthly to act out story lines predetermined by organizers, and participants role-play self-constructed identities, improvising through the trials set out for them. Each larp group is different—there are medieval larps, zombie larps and Wild-West-themed larps. Events have no standard length, some lasting hours, others entire weekends. The activity is most popular among those aged eighteen to twenty-five, but many larpers continue into their thirties and forties.

Larp groups exist in most major North American cities, as well as in places like Europe, Australia and South Africa. In Scandinavian countries, “art larps”—complex role-play games that address controversial topics like race, sexuality or class inequality—are prominent. These larps explore specific mindsets, experiences or emotions, some darker and more brutal than others. Norway’s Minister of International Development, Heikki Holmås, has even claimed that, in the case of more progressive games, “larp can change the world.”

MODERN LARP developed in the 1970s and 1980s, when renewed interest in The Lord of the Rings and tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons fed the rise of genre fiction and fandom. According to Lizzie Stark, author of Leaving Mundania, Dagorhir, a Maryland-based medieval fantasy game, is partially responsible for inspiring modern larp across America. Dagorhir was created in 1977 by Brian Wiese, a medieval lore–obsessed college kid who organized fantasy battles on a friend’s farm. Players came armed with weapons made of wood, foam and tape. Each time they met, they attracted larger crowds, and eventually an American documentary TV show ran a segment on Dagorhir, which aired nationwide. Soon, other groups emerged, each with different rules and goals.

Today, larp attracts the same gaggle of geeks, like Star Happy Spider and Ben Happy Badger, Circe and Shorty’s real-life counterparts. Everything about the couple, including their legally changed names, reflects their fantastical interests: “Badger” and “Spider” were chosen to symbolize their love of stories (both creatures are known as storytellers in myths). “And we chose ‘Happy’,” Spider says, “because we make each other happy.”

The two have been married both in and out of larp for three years. Badger and Spider spend about five to ten hours a week on the game—frequenting online forums, building stories and making props. When asked what they do when they’re not larping or working at the video-production company they operate from their home in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, the couple falls silent. Spider furrows her brow. “Um,” she says, “sometimes we play other games.”

Magical capabilities aside, Spider and Badger differ little from their alter egos. Their in-game “protect the animals” credo exists in real life: once, for instance, they cared for an injured pigeon, keeping it overnight on a heating pad. “Life in the game feels like an exaggeration of the goals you have in the real world,” Badger says.

Spider agrees. “We accomplish a lot in real life, but in game it’s inflated.”

The amount of time Spider and Badger spend on larp, combined with the fact that their characters are so similar to their real selves, has made their larp life integral to their out-of-game relationship. Badger especially is thankful for his wife’s interest. In the past, he wasn’t so lucky.

“His last girlfriend really wasn’t for him,” Spider says.

“Yeah,” Badger agrees. “She wasn’t a gamer.”

“Is that a deal breaker?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Badger says. “And if any geek says it’s not, they’re lying.”

Sean Cohen, a nine-year larp veteran, would object. Also from Toronto, Cohen belongs to the same larp group as Badger and Spider. He says kids and family will eventually end his larping career. “There will be a time when we hang up the cape,” he says. The auto and property insurance agent values the sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing jobs through to completion in-game. It’s something he rarely experiences in his career. “I go to work day in and day out, and I’m just another guy on the phone,” he says. “I’m just another agent with a badge number that works on a file.”

In-game, though, his dwarf character, Dougan, is a blacksmith with the highest skill level. Players come to him to mend armour, weapons and tools. He knows that letting go of that feeling will be difficult, but ultimately, doesn’t fear that quitting larp will hurt his self-esteem. “There’ll be withdrawal. I may have to phase out gradually,” he says. “But when family becomes the focus of my life, I can see it replacing that sense of purpose.”

While Badger, Spider and Cohen are intrigued by the sense of accomplishment larp can foster, others use role-play to experiment with racier themes. Sex is often integral to the games’ plots, and, although in-game relationships aren’t literally consummated, larpers are rarely discreet about fictional exploits. While visiting Epoch, the larp group Spider and Badger belong to, in Acton, my character, Luna, walks into a room that is empty save for a horned man and woman sitting on a table, face to face. In real life they’re not even touching, but in game they are rocking each other’s worlds.

“Yes,” they wail.

“Ooh, baby!”

“That’s the stuff!”

They don’t stop when they notice me. “You’ve come to see two fauns get it on!” the man roars.

I back away. “Oh dear, sorry, I didn’t mean to...”

But they just keep going.

LARP ISN’T ALL FUN AND GAMES. Fictional societies are far from utopian: power hierarchies keep female characters or those from “lower classes” from moving up in some larp worlds, and “racial” tensions run high. Often, though, members don’t question these structures, since they’re played out in the context of fantasy.

In Denmark, where larp is taken so seriously that groups receive government funding, some clubs deliberately create dystopias. Art larps, also known as “progressive larps,” aim to make participants feel genuine emotions, like anger, loss or fear, in a process they call “bleed.”

In 2011, veteran Danish larpers launched Kapo, a three-day game named after the Jewish prisoners who were forced to become Nazi enforcers in concentration camps. It worked like a modified Stanford prison experiment, with scripted cast members playing guards, and larpers playing prisoners. Participants were separated from loved ones and thrown into prisons, where they were yelled at and sometimes “slapped” by guards. Members role-played gang rapes, represented through touching forearms. Anders Berner, a Kapo organizer, says the goal was to explore fear and brutality. They succeeded. “We had people come in saying they’d never hurt anyone,” he says. “By the end they’d be dragging people through dirty water by the hair.”

Claus Raasted, another participant, says art larps allow players to explore extreme emotions in a safe space. He characterizes Kapo as anti-violence because it exposed the brutality people are capable of. For him, larp is a form of expression. “This is our art,” he says. “I could also write a poem or a song, but I just prefer role-play games.”

Not all art larps are equally brutal. Some, like Just a Little Lovin’, aim to be socially progressive. JALL was staged in Norway in 2011 and in Sweden in 2012. The plot centered around New York during the AIDS crisis, with participants role-playing members of the gay community and their loved ones. Organizers hoped to counter the heteronormative plots common in larp. They also sought to combat the concept of gay and lesbian people as “Others,” by fostering universal emotions like desire, friendship and fear of death. As with Kapo, players reacted strongly, sometimes screaming and sobbing during “deaths.” One player noted online, “I still can’t decide if it’s madness, emotional vampirism, or the most awesome thing I have ever participated in.”

The emotional intensity of art larps often inhibits players from separating real life from the game, at least initially. “There’s an emotional hangover,” author Lizzie Stark says. “People can take weeks to debrief.” Stark recently staged a few art larps in the United States, and, while she doesn’t think progressive larp will ever eclipse standard fantasy games in popularity, she’s noticed a growing interest in North America. “We’re reaching a critical mass now, where we have enough people on board to launch larger-scale games,” she says. “Hopefully as more people learn about it, [art] larp will continue to develop here as well.”

ON THE EPOCH EVENT’S SECOND DAY, the larpers mill around lazily. They’re tired—most stayed up until 3 am advancing plot. But Shorty and Circe are ready to leave this floating island. Shorty devises a plan to jump off the edge of the planet. If he gets home safe, everyone else can follow. He and Circe charge across a field to the forest, some curious fey in tow. As they wind along the path, smoke from a nearby scouts’ fire drifts over. “The mist,” Shorty says. “It’s getting thicker.”

They stop 50 feet into the woods. In real life, they’re standing on a four-foot embankment, but in-game it’s a sharp, jagged cliff. Below them, clouds churn ominously, obscuring whatever lies underneath. Circe decides she won’t let Shorty go alone. This may be a one- way trip, and she’s not prepared to lose him. Before they jump, Shorty turns to us. “We’re people of action. We’ll get this done. Don’t worry,” he says. They wrap their arms around each other and plunge off the edge of the Earth.