Representation and Social Capital: What the Larp Census reveals about Community

In 2014, the Larp Census was launched by Ryan Paddy and Aaron Vanek. It was a comprehensive survey designed to answer basic questions about the global larping community such as who is playing, what are they playing, and why are they playing it. From October 2014 to January 2015, the census collected 29,000+ responses in 17 languages across 123 countries/territories. Until the census, our understanding of the demographics and social dynamics within any community was limited to anecdotal evidence, personal observations, or the occasional random survey, confining us to making generalizations about said communities, their social dynamics, and their diversity or lack thereof.

As examples – in advocating for the development of larp as a diverse medium, Eirik Fatland and Lars Wingård (Fatland and Wingård 2014) argue for achieving greater diversity by recruiting across all levels of society, especially underserved communities, as a necessary change in the public perception of larp as “a young, slightly geeky, white middle-class activity”.

In contrast, Mark Diaz Truman, in his personal correspondence (as cited in Stark 2014), observing the forces of social capital at play, argues that “the hardest part for dominant groups to grapple with is the fact that homogenous groups tend to stay homogenous.” To understand this argument, let us first define the concept of social capital:

James Coleman (Coleman 1988) states that social capital is a form of capital consisting of some aspect of social structures or networks and facilitating the actions of persons or corporate actors within said social structure or network.It can take three forms: obligations and expectations, information flow, and social norms.

With this definition in hand, we can see the mechanisms that enable a group to maintain its homogeneity – be it by the equity of obligation or prescriptive cultural norms. As such, Lizzie Stark (Stark 2014) proposes a multi-faceted approach to diversity, addressing both the socioeconomic and social capital barriers imposed on marginalized communities, such as the need for enforceable safe spaces, the use of stipends, and involvement at all levels within your community.

Both of these examples offer differing solutions on broadening representation and increasing diversity within larp communities. Yet what does the census actually reveal about the existing representation and social capital within the larp community?

This article is a cohort study, grouping 3,297 out of 6,098 respondents from the US, in order to examine representational trends in the Larp Census.

With the current rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity within the global larp community, the questions we seek to answer about the current US larp scene are:

In short, which benchmarks define a community as being more representative?

By analyzing the trends in these cohorts, we answer the question of “Who is playing”, allowing us to examine the differences on “Why they play” and reveal the barriers to participation within said community.

To address these questions, I will establish the definition of our baseline population, including exclusions. I will follow-up by addressing the first two questions via insights and analysis of the underlying demographics (age, gender, and ethnicity). Later, these base cohorts will be refined to approximate socio-economic status and address relevant questions raised. Lastly, I will examine questions about the underlying structures of social capital that these cohorts present.

In order to define our baseline population, let me explain the responses excluded at the time of the analysis:

Once, our baseline population was defined, an exploratory data analysis was performed in order to create a cohort model, identifying questions with a high degree of correlation.

In order to differentiate cohorts within the aggregate, we must first understand the “default”, the dominant group with the fewest barriers to participation, within the cohort population.

In the aggregate – the gender ratio is 60.9% male to 39.1% female. 92.0% identify as white and 8% identify as people of color. Hispanic or Latino respondents make up 4.1% of the overall population.

By age, 61.9% of the cohort population is between of 20 and 34 years of age.

Further, in terms of style of play – campaign play dominates the cohorts at 79.9% of all respondents, with standalone play at 42.4% and convention play at 30.4%. For rulesets, live combat encompasses 76.2% of all respondents; simulated combat represents a distant second at 37.2%. For roles, 74.3% of all respondents identified as cast/crew.

Therefore, within our cohort population – the “default” is a white male, between the ages of 20 and 34, who participates as cast/crew in live combat fantasy campaigns, where many costumes and props are used.

Understanding this “default” is only part of the story. We are still left with the questions of which cohorts are more inclusive by gender and by ethnicity.

Using age groups as a differentiator in our cohorts, we see that:

In terms of gender inclusivity, Millennials are the closest to achieving gender diversity and parity and being representative of the general population for their age group. Yet in terms of ethnic and racial diversity, while each generation within the US larp community is increasingly more inclusive of people of color, the “default” is still overwhelmingly white.

To achieve a better understanding of the socioeconomic status of respondents, we refined our cohorts by analyzing two questions asked in the Larp Census:

From those questions, we derived an approximation to socioeconomic status via “average event duration (in days)” by “average travel distance (in miles)”.

Applying these cohorts to our existing demographic cohorts (age, gender, and ethnicity), questions can be benchmarked to identify nuanced patterns based on gender, age, ethnicity (white/people of color), and socioeconomic status.

This cohort model correlates the respondent’s progressive expenditures of personal resources and subsequent investment in an event. This model confirms the notions of political economy previously described by Evan Torner (Torner 2013) – in short, the more time spent either at an event or in traveling to an event is directly related to the attendee’s labor-power liquidity.

This liquidity correlates proportionally to event expectations about event size, venue, or production values/quality.

In asking “How many people participated in the larp events that you attended in the last 12 months”, we typically see that members of Cohort A attend smaller events (11 to 20 or 21 to 50 attendees) while members of Cohort C attend larger events (51 to 100 attendees or higher) with members of Cohort B, falling between Cohorts A and C, attending events with a sizes ranging from of 21 to 50 and 51 to 100 attendees.

For production values/quality, while all cohorts participated in events where “Many costumes, props and sets were used, however not all of them were of excellent quality”, members of Cohort A typically participated in events where “A few simple props, costumes, or sets were used” as well. One notable observation about Millennials in Cohort C is that they are increasingly attending larger events with better production values.

Regarding venue, we see correlations between cohorts and age groups. Typically, members in all cohorts play in events held in public parks. For all ages, gender, and ethnicities – members of Cohort A participates in events at hotels, while members of Cohorts B & C are often at youth camps. Further, Millennials are more likely to attend events held in private homes or and at schools/universities while women (all ages) are more likely to attend events in private homes.

As our proxy for socioeconomic status elucidates the obvious barriers to participation within larp, these observations can be explained in context to social capital.

For our purposes, we will look at these barriers through two forms of social capital: information channels and social norms within a community – social norms can facilitate action A, but constrain action B (Coleman 1988). This behavior can be beneficial in some ways, but may be detrimental or restrictive in others. Here we find, that women across cohorts (age and ethnicity) engage their social capital by participating in events within private homes in order to innovate and challenge the “default”. This trend becomes more pronounced when examining motivations for play – women (across most cohorts (age, socioeconomic, or ethnicity)) are more likely to be motivated by larps that are self-reflective (“teach me about myself”), emotionally open (“participating in dramatic moments in which characters are very emotional”), emotionally intimate (“enjoy private, personal interactions with just a few, other characters”) or involve image (“creating costuming or props”) in contrast to motivations for play among men, which orient toward advancement within their respective game.

Analyzing the motivations of people of color, we find that respondents strongly identify with the “overcome challenges” motivator, ranking it no lower than 6th (across all cohorts), when compared to their respective white peers in age, gender, or socioeconomic status. While there is an affinity with this motivator in some cohorts, this motivator highlights the difference of playing as a “default” versus playing as an “other”.

Both trends highlight how social norms can constrain action and inhibit social capital, as both women and people of color are more likely to participate as a cast/crew when compared to the white male peers within a cohort.

Additionally, one of the paradoxes to this enforcement of social norms is the increased tendency of using racially charged language in acknowledging one’s ethnicity. For Generation X, this represented 4.1% of the male population and 3.8% of the female population. For Millennials, this represented 5.8% of the male population and 4.9% of the female population. In both age cohorts, there is no definitive answer as it crosses socioeconomic status and the type of events attended. We can only speculate as to whether this is pushback to the increasing diversity in the US larp community or the underlying socioeconomic challenges affecting respondents within those age cohorts.

As for Millennials and their choice of venues, we can view their increased tendencies to participate in events at schools/universities or private homes as both reinforcing information channels and establishing a social network of trust within their cohorts, particularly when two of the strongest motivators for participation in a larp is “Creating a good story” and “spend time with friends”.

Additionally, we can see this reinforcement of information channels when re-examining the question of the types of events that an individual attended within the last 12 months. Members of Cohort A are more likely to cross between event types, such as Campaigns and Conventions, while members of Cohorts B and C are significantly more likely to play a specific event type only. These trends may be a reflection of the proportion of personal resources and social capital expended to participate in these events or that these communities are a closed social structure, for which the participant is a member. In essence, members of Cohorts B and C are strongly influenced by who they know in terms of what they choose to play.

If we are to draw conclusions, it would be this: while the US larp community is becoming increasingly diverse by virtue of generational demographics – this diversity can be enhanced by moving away from the “default” and addressing issues of recruitment, access to social capital, and the inequities of socioeconomic status. Universally, we all are all drawn to good stories told with friends and characters that we can personally identify with (whether that is overcoming challenges or being emotionally open or achieving success), be it at a freeform convention in a hotel, a weekend-long Nordic larp at a youth camp, or in a live combat fantasy campaign in a public park.


This article was initially published in Larp Realia – Analysis, Design, and Discussions of Nordic Larp which was edited by Kaisa Kangas, Mika Loponen and Jukka Särkijärvi, published by Ropecon and released as part of documentation for the Solmukohta 2016 conference.

Cover photo: Larpers gather at ending ceremony of Knudepunkt 2014, photo by Johannes Axner.