This article is based on a presentation I made at the Nordic larp conference Knutpunkt 2018 in Lund, Sweden. It is based on my own experiences as well as conversations with larp crushed people.
There must be more to it. That’s what I’ve always thought.
Larpers generally agree that what happens in-game stays in-game. This idea is known as an alibi — as described by e.g. Markus Montola (2010). Just because your larp character is a sadistic tyrant does not mean that you are. The same goes for relationships: Your sister is not your actual sister, your friend is not your actual friend, and your lover is not your actual lover.
But then there’s the larp crush. It sounds like a little blip on your romantic radar — something you laugh at and quickly shrug off. But as it turns out, that is often a misconception. In the words of a young lady who approached me after my talk at Knutpunkt: “It’s called larp crush because your heart is crushed afterwards.”
Defining the Larp Crush
What is a larp crush? If you are not sure whether you have had one, you can rest assured: You have not. It is not the kind of experience that goes unnoticed.
A larp crush is a condition where you and your character get your wires crossed, so to speak.
It is a close relative to larp bleed, which Sarah Lynne Bowman (2015) defines as “moments where […] real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill over into [the players’] characters’ and vice versa.”
However, larp crushes are known to be potentially more intense than pretty much any other experience of bleed.
In order to examine the larp crush, I have been looking into how actors deal with the equivalent of bleed. According to professor of media psychology Dr. Elly A. Konijn, actors rarely get confused about their identity (Konijn 2000). In my experience, the same goes for role-players. However, they do get affected by their character’s emotions and behaviour. Just like actor Jim Carrey was affected by portraying Andy Kaufman in the biopic Man on the Moon, so do role-players get affected by their character’s emotions.
This is my definition of a larp crush:
- A larp crush is a variant of bleed, which means that you are having trouble separating your real world emotions from your character’s.
- You know that you have a larp crush when you feel an inexplicable desire to spend time staring into another person’s eyes for unreasonable amounts of time.
- It is only a larp crush if you felt no prior attraction to the person in question. You might have thought they looked nice, but you didn’t see them in a romantic light. If you did, it’s not a larp crush — it is a regular crush!
- It is only a larp crush if it was triggered by your in-game relationship. Finding out at an afterparty that you really like each other is not a larp crush — it is a regular crush.
Immersion into Character
In Nordic larp as well as in most Hollywood films, realism is by far the most prevalent genre. This means that being able to reproduce realistic emotions is considered “good role-playing.”
Our approach is much like that of actor and theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s work.
Early Stanislawski method acting claims that the actor should give themselves up, and become one with the role. Furthermore, you should use emotional recall to create believability.
Recalling genuine emotions not only creates the expression of those emotions; it also makes you relive them. Because of the potential danger of this method, Stanislawski later distanced himself from it. However, it was too late: Hollywood had already embraced it. Some of the most famous actors, from Dustin Hoffman to Heath Ledger, used this method.
When larping, so do I.
Becoming emotional or being moved by a performance appears to be one of the most important criteria an audience uses to judge the impact of a performance. The same is the case for participants larping in the Nordic style (Bowman 2017).
Unless we get emotionally involved, we do not get the catharsis feeling that the ancient Greeks used to describe the feeling of being emotionally purged — of having gone through a great ordeal, and coming out on the other side.
As a side note: For some larpers, emotional identification with the character never happens. However, many people are able to create an emotional bond with their character some of the time, although not always. Because Nordic larpers often see character immersion as an indicator of success, larp without immersion into character is often considered a failure and a disappointment.
Actors agree that the ticket to an emotional bond with your character is preparation. You must know all about your character — where she comes from, her status, her character, her habits, her life goals or lack thereof. You must know enough that you are able to build “an inner model,” or as psychologists describe it, a theory of mind.
Larp crushes feel like falling in love. They consist of a mixture of obsession and compulsion. You are constantly thinking about the object of desire, and you can’t help but interpret everything he or she says or does and what that means for your relationship.
While doing research for this article, I stumbled on the term limerence. It was coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in 1979. It is an often involuntary state in which you are emotionally attached to another person to the point of obsession. Although it involves physical attraction, it goes much further than just the wish to have sex. You might call it an extreme version of romantic love. As Tennov (1979) describes, “Limerence is first and foremost a condition of cognitive obsession.”
According to Tennov, never experiencing limerence is just as natural a state as experiencing it. However, people who have never gone through limerence are prone to think it is a myth. It is not, but it is a bit of a unicorn that some people go their entire life without ever seeing. Larping is excellent at inducing this state.
The limerent person — that is, the person experiencing a full-on crush — becomes extremely attentive to little signals, such as body language, wording, or actions.
Being limerent is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the doors open, and you step out of Kansas and into Oz. It is like an awakening. You are high on energy, and everything is doubly intense.
According to scientists, an MRI brain scan of a person in love looks a lot like the brain of a person under the influence of cocaine (Fisher, Aron, Brown 2018). Over the years, it has in fact been debated whether being in love should be classified as a mental disorder (Tennov 1979). There is no doubt that limerence is a very powerful physical condition as well as a state of mind. Also, while you are going through it, you have as little power over the chemical reactions that are going on in your brain as if you were on drugs.
Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states. (Tennov 1979)
Larp crushes make you feel alive. Everything is coated in meaning. For better or worse, whether you are drowning in misery or over the moon with joy, you are incredibly tuned into the world around you.
We all have a generalized longing for union with the beautiful and the excellent. Limerence is a pure manifestation of that longing.
Are Larp Crushes “Real?”
The answer I have currently arrived at is: Yes and no.
Larp crushes are definitely real experiences of being in love. Larp crushes are real in the sense that the barrier between you and your character’s emotions are eroded to the point where you really, truly are going through limerence.
However, larp crushes are “created” because you deliberately place yourself in a situation where you are balancing between hope and uncertainty. Placing yourself in a state where you are constantly balancing hope and uncertainty feeds the limerence. That is what is referred to as The Bungee Method in Charles Bo Nielsen’s (2017) article “Playing in Love,” which is intended as a guide to playing romantic relationships in Nordic larps.
Often, when you experience a larp crush, you have no idea about the person behind the character. But actually, that lack of knowledge does not set larp crushes apart from other kinds of crushes: There is no need to know the person who becomes the object of limerence. People often describe falling in love at first sight.
According to Tennov, the best way of getting rid of limerence is if it is revealed that the limerent object is highly undesirable. However, since most people are decent enough, this approach is not very reliable.
Tennov estimates that the average limerent reaction lasts approximately from 18 months to 3 years. However, a few may last a lifetime, while others might wear off more quickly. There seems to be a connection between exposure and duration.
There are three efficient ways of getting rid of limerence:
- Consummation: you get together and have a relationship. (No, sex is not enough)!
- Starvation: you never see this person again.
- Transference: you somehow manage to transfer your feelings to a third person.
Staying in touch is most certainly not the way to go, if you want to get rid of unwanted feelings. However, Tennov believes that the person who is at the receiving end has an ethical obligation to help diminish the pain that the limerent person is undergoing.
Also, if the limerence is not reciprocated, the suffocating attention from the limerent person can be an unpleasant experience, which needs to be dealt with. What both parties need is a very clear statement from the object of limerence (the person whom the limerent person is in love with) that they are not interested. Otherwise the limerent person will continue to nurse the embers of hope.
Can you Make Your Body Fall in Love?
According to Konijn, there is only slight evidence that performing specific physical exercises, such as staring into each other’s eyes, will make you fall in love (Konijn 2000). However, separating the character’s feelings from your own is a different story.
Konijn explains how it is rare that even method actors become affected by a character’s emotions while actually acting. It is during rehearsal and while preparing for the character that they wind up being affected. However, larpers are in a different situation — our performance is significantly more immersive, if not for any other reason, then because we do not have to remember lines, and we are not standing on a stage.
Scientists Arthur Aron et al. (1997) wanted to find out if intimacy between strangers can be accelerated by carrying out “self-disclosing” and relationship-building tasks. The tasks would gradually escalate in intensity. Indeed, self-disclosure turns out to be linked to establishing intimacy and feeling close. The conclusion was that under the right conditions, and with the right pairings, intimacy can be accelerated.
In my experience, larping has a similar effect: Having lived through strong emotions together, you feel intimate afterwards. However, while I don’t doubt the sincerity of the feelings, the idea that you truly get to know a stranger on a deep level after spending a few days together, I find dubious at best.
The emotional “shortcut” to feeling intimate with strangers that larp provides is perhaps best considered a stepping stone to get to know each other. You may have opened the door, but the actual relationship building comes after — and needs to be done, so that you do not wind up in a relationship with someone with whom you are not compatible.
Still, larp crushes are not that different from falling in love at first sight. While most people are most likely to be nice, you may be falling in love with someone with whom you cannot connect long-term.
Have I Fallen for a Real Person, or for a Fictional Character?
You have fallen for a fictional character. However, there is nothing new about this. People do it all the time, when they fall in love with Mr. Darcy, John Snow, or Lara Croft. Just because the object of your desire is fiction, your feelings are not.
Limerence is very often built on fiction. When people talk about “falling in love at first sight,” what they fall for is obviously not a deep knowledge of each other’s character, but rather a fantasy of who they assume this person might be.
According to sexologist John Money, everyone carries a blueprint for our ideal partner. Love maps are fairly complex — they both have to do with fulfillment and upbringing. When you fall in love at first sight, what happens is that you find someone onto whom you are able to project your lovemap. Money (1986) continues, “That is to say, the person projects onto the partner an idealized and highly idiosyncratic image that diverges from the image of the partner as perceived by other people.”
Of course, that projection is in itself a fictitious character.
The question you need to ask yourself is not whether your feelings are real — of course they are — but rather: Do I want this? Depending on the degree of compulsion/obsession, a larp crush can disrupt your everyday life to a degree where it becomes destructive. Tennov (1979) explains, “Limerence for someone other than one’s spouse can cause major disruption to the family, and when frustrated, limerence may produce such severe distress as to be life threatening.”
However, limerence can also be a positive, transformative experience that helps you reevaluate your life in a constructive manner.
Controlling Your Larp Experience
According to psychology professors Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner (2012), there are three psychological skills that help an actor create a strong characterization: theory of mind, affective empathy, and emotion regulation.
Theory of mind is the ability to understand what others are thinking, feeling, believing, and desiring. Being able to see through someone’s actions and understanding their intentions is integral to creating a strong character, because those are the skills that character creation require. Some people have strong theory of mind, while others find it difficult. Reading fiction, and — of course — larping, trains this skill.
Affective empathy — as opposed to cognitive empathy — is the feeling you get in response to someone else’s emotion. It is sometimes referred to as “emotional contagion.” It could be sadness for someone’s grief, joy for someone’s happiness, etc. Being happy and shedding tears of joy at someone else’s wedding counts as affective empathy. Letting yourself be affected by your character’s emotions does too.
Finally, a good larper needs emotional regulation skills. You need to be able to decide whether you want to feel the emotions of your character or not, or to what extent. This is not just a skill for when you are larping; from an early age, we all learn to regulate our feelings, because sometimes it’s inappropriate or inconvenient to show them.
To be able to control your larping experience, you need emotional regulation skills. Being able to play a romantic relation without getting larp crushed — or the opposite, deliberately getting larp crushed — all comes down to this particular skill.
Tools for Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is currently not something that is emphasized in the Nordic larp vocabulary. Interestingly, though, in other larp scenes the idea of being fully immersed in your character is seen as stigmatizing.
This stigmatization is something that Tennov (1979) also describes in relation to limerence, stating, “Many societies have attempted to prevent love or, more often, to control it in some way.“
She even describes how Stendhal, a 19th century author who is often quoted for his philosophical thoughts on love and beauty, was embarrassed at the thought of being discovered as someone who could be taken over by feelings of passion. She ascribes this reaction to society generally being more inclined to reward rational behaviour than emotional.
While Nordic larp generally praises character immersion, larp crushes seem to be trivialized. The idea that we need tools for handling too much immersion does not seem to have taken root.
Larp crushes are not trivial fiction. They are real emotions, and they should be treated as such. With regard to finding the tools that will help us get better at creating the experiences we want, we still have far to go. Becoming aware of these emotional responses, and admitting their impact on us, is a first step.
Aron, Arthur, Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Valone, Renee J. Bator, et al. 1997. “The Experimental Generation of Emotional Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23, no. 4 (April): 363-377.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2015. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.” Nordiclarp.org, March 3.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2017. “Immersion into Larp: Theories of Embodied Narrative Experience.” First Person Scholar, March 4.
Fisher, Helen E., Arthur Aron, Lucy L. Brown. 2006. “Romantic Love: A Mammalian Brain System for Mate Choice.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 361, no. 1473 (December): 2173–2186.
Goldstein, Thalia R., and Ellen Winner. 2012. “Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind.” Journal of Cognition and Development 13, no 1: 19-37.
Konijn, Elly A. 2000. Acting Emotions, Shaping Emotions on Stage. Amsterdam, NL: Amsterdam University Press.
Money, John. 1986. Lovemaps: Clinical Concepts of Sexual/Erotic Health and Pathology, Paraphilia, and Gender Transposition in Childhood, Adolescence, and Maturity. New York: Irvington Publishers Inc.
Montola, Markus. 2010. “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing.” Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players, 2010.
Nielsen, Charles Bo. 2017. “Playing in Love.” In Once Upon a Nordic Time, edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand, 176-184. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt.
Tennov, Dorothy. 1979. Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. Lanham, Maryland: Scarborough House.
Cover photo: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1777) by Antonio Canova in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.