On the Commodification of Larp

On the Commodification of Larp

This article explores the development of larp as an activity and a community in the face of a growing tendency of contemporary culture to become commodified. Through presenting the wider cultural setting of consumer culture and its impact on larp, the article proposes a variety of characteristics and developments that have lead to the commodification of larp. The author investigates the positive and negative influences of commodification on larp and questions whether this is a direction we wish to be taking as a community.

In recent years, we have witnessed a definitive growth of the larp community and a growth in recognition of larp in wider culture as a legitimized activity. As larp begins to be more present in society, the wider culture also penetrates the social structures of larp as a community and an activity, one of the central outcomes of which is the commodification of larp. In this article, I discuss how larp is becoming commodified, what that means, and what the repercussions of this development are for specific events as well as the community at large.

To begin discussing the commodification of larp, it is first important to define commodification. Commodification is the process by which an object, a behaviour, an interaction, or really just about anything becomes a commodity that we consume in the role of a consumer. Consumption is often mistakenly equated with buying or with accumulating material possessions, but the purchase of goods is only a small element of consumption, with the desires, values, and experiences that we interact with via an act of consumption taking a more important role. Consumption is an act of establishing one’s self, one’s agency, and one’s place in the world through a process of making choices and evaluating alternatives. It is at its core a relationship to the world: a power structure, in which the consumer appropriates the commodity. In this setup, commodification can be seen as the process of objectifying something with the aim of appropriating it. Such consumption-oriented logic largely penetrates contemporary Western society, forming what is often called consumer culture. The power structures of consumer culture emerge in previously non-commercial settings, such as citizenship, public services, local communities, and interpersonal relationships (following Slater 1997; Baudrillard 1998; Bauman 2001; Cohen 2003). I believe that such consumption-oriented logic is also seeping into larp.

Larp has largely managed to ideologically exist on the outskirts of consumer culture, mainly due to its previously marginalized and almost hidden nature from the perspective of mainstream culture. Perhaps because of small budgets and a lack of existing blueprints for organization, larp has always been a very communal activity, in which everyone has been required to pitch in and thus literally create events together. This includes both the content of the larp itself as well as many of the practicalities surrounding event organisation. As larpers often stress, no one has a “lead part” in larp, but it is rather working together and supporting one another that is the main attraction of the activity. This allows for an extremely egalitarian power structure, as individuals co-create the performance together and thus share power, responsibility, and benefits.

A commodified larp sees a change in the relationship between a larper and a larp, where the larper becomes a consumer that appropriates the larp as a commodity. The power structure shifts significantly, as larpers now relinquish their power to co-create in return for social legitimization, wider accessibility, growth, and development of larp as an activity. This is not a power structure that is necessarily consciously taken on, but one that is enacted through changed responsibilities and focus of engagement. In practice, commodification emerges through how we approach a larp, how we engage in its performance, and what we expect from the event as well as its participants and organizers.

a treasure chest with many coins

How is Larp Becoming a Commodity?

I propose that there are a number of factors that have contributed to the commodification of larp. Firstly, I believe that media coverage as well as a wider acknowledgement of larp as an activity aids its commodification. In acceptance by the wider culture, we have inadvertently begun to be a more intertwined part of it. We naturally begin to take on forms of consumer culture, as this is what we have all been acculturated into. Media coverage is by no means a bad thing: it has helped larp gain a better standing in wider society, allowed for novel funding and collaboration opportunities, and eased access into the community. At the same time, however, media coverage helps to objectify larp (as I will elaborate below) and bring in a wide array of actors from outside the community, most often with profit-making aims. For instance, we now see larp-like events organized by companies run by individuals with little knowledge of larp. The most prominent example of this is Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the designers of which have taken on elements of larp to create interactive theme park experiences.

Secondly, larp has seen a growth in interest toward it, which contributes greatly to the commodification of larp, as a growing demand requires us to reconfigure how events are organized and pushes us toward professionalization. If an event is geared toward hundreds of people rather than dozens, commodification becomes an issue of handling practicalities. Instead of communal cooking, it becomes more logical to hire catering; instead of having everyone clean up together, it is easier to pay a cleaning company; etc. Bigger larps also become more ambitious in terms of providing a more realistic experience, engaging detailed propping, make-up, lighting, machinery, and space construction to name a few. As Harviainen (2013) has explored in detail, any larp event requires management, even if it is not often acknowledged as such. Yet bigger larps require acknowledged professional organization for them to work.

We can see a clear strive toward professionalization of larp through an influx of high-budget, high-production value larps, which have ironically been given a commodified name of “blockbuster larps.” These are often either directly based on or at least heavily borrow from popular media franchises, such as Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, X-men, or Hunger Games (on blockbuster larp, see Fatland and Montola 2015). In line with the common misconception of consumption as purchasing, it is important to stress that the commodification of larp does not go directly hand in hand with the professionalisation of larp. Hence, I do not believe that blockbuster larps are the cause of commodification so much as they are a symptom of the commodification already taking place. Nevertheless, the growing presence of blockbuster larps clearly supports further commodification of larp. Such larps take place in bigger and fancier venues, with large groups of staff and/or volunteers that take care of cleaning, catering, decorating, and propping. Consequently, the expectations for customer service rise, with larp slowly becoming more of a service rather than a communal experience. The large scale of production also raises standards and expectations for larp, as well as sets certain “procedures” for events, thus further objectifying the practice by solidifying the form larp should take.

As larps become more and more professionally organized, the role of a participant diminishes in terms of any practicalities surrounding an event. It may seem silly to say that larp becomes commodified because we are less involved in doing chores, but such lack of physical engagement leads to less time forming bonds among participants and with the space that we interact in together. Similar issues can be seen in wider consumer culture, where we increasingly “buy back” our leisure time through convenience commodities such a microwave meals or cleaning services. We become seemingly free from chores, but we also lose touch with the materiality of our world and our ability to engage in it practically, as we no longer know how to create or fix many of the things that surround us (Frayne 2015).

a pocket watch, treasure chest and many coins

The attitude of diminished responsibility easily transfers from the practicalities surrounding larp organization to activities involving the content of the larp. For instance, while previously larps would assume for you to obtain your own costume, there is now a growing possibility to rent or buy ready costumes from organizers. Of course, organizer-provided costuming can in itself become a communal endeavour or help alleviate stress about high standards for props, yet such ”add-on services” do make it easy to just show up to the event without preparing much, without talking to other larpers, without taking the time to read up on larp materials. In the same way that we buy back our free time from practicalities, we seem to buy back our time from preparation for larp, making more “efficient use” of our resources.

Many new participants may also not be fully aware of what they are signing up to and what they are expected of at events. This results in situations where more experienced larpers feel as if they are providing entertainment for those who only engage passively. This seems to be especially common for larps based on popular media franchises, as they attract fans wishing to purchase an experience of their favourite fantasy world. Of course, it is completely okay for newcomers to need an introduction to the practices of a new activity they are engaging in and it is the role of any community to mentor its new members, but this can become an overwhelming task when expectations clash violently.

Thirdly, we are objectifying larp more and more, which makes it easier for larp to be commodified. The most obvious examples include things like “fan products,” such as t-shirts or patches that are now visibly present at larp events. The marketing of larps is also taking on new levels, with larps often having trailers, distributed print ads, as well as planned and timed social media communication plans (e.g., every week new information about a larp is revealed). On a wider level, larp also becomes the focus of various social media channels, such as video blogs, with individuals gaining the possibility to experience larp though photos and videos without actually being there.

We can also see objectification in how our language is changing in regards to larp. For instance, larpers will now talk about “buying a ticket” to a larp rather than “signing up” to a larp. Larpers will also refer to events fulfilling intended experiences or expectations, as if they were purchasing a service. Language both reflects and influences our mindset and attitudes, pointing to the shifting nature of our relationship to larp.

More subtle forms of objectification can be seen in the documentation of larp. It is now extremely common for larps to be photographed or even filmed. One of the defining aspects of larp has always been its ephemeral nature: it only exists while it is being performed, with its meaning emerging in the interaction among participants (Auslander 2008). In documenting these fleeting performances as much as we do, we begin to condense and fragment the live performance, freezing it in time to concretize its meaning. Larp now gains an objective truth to its experience, which can be revisited at one’s convenience. Documentation is further used for marketing purposes to sell tickets to larps, as well as to secure funding and expensive venues for future events. Such objectification can easily slip into repeatability of experience or even its mass production, which may cause us to lose creative and lively aspects of larp.

A person's hands over a plant growing out of coins

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, commodification is driven by our own wish to be recognized and legitimized as a community and as an activity, which demands taking on power structures of consumer culture. This is especially visible in how we are organizing and communicating about larp. Larp is clearly becoming legally and financially much more organized, with various companies emerging that either organize larp events or help cater to them on some level. The foundation of companies has been explained by a need to get “ahead of the game,” which is completely understandable. With larp becoming more commonplace, many larpers rightfully fear that people outside the community will come in to create and take over a commercialized larp field. And we do see this happening, as I noted above. It is, however, unclear what it is that we fear they will steal from us. Money? Potential “customers?” The “brand name” of larp? Moreover, are we merely responding to an “outsider threat” or are we actually building larp into an activity geared toward efficiency and profit-making?

In line with the above, there is a clear drive to make larp something to live on. Many individuals are striving to create jobs out of larp, with the formation of companies being the first clear step in that direction. While this is a noble idea, in practice we must face the issue of transformation of power structures and the nature of interaction within the larp community once certain individuals begin to profit from larp. This brings us back to the cultural context that larp exists as part of. In our society, work is seen as the ultimate form of status and legitimization, which leads to a setting, in which activities and individuals performing those activities are not seen as valid before they are made productive and profitable (Frayne 2015; Mould 2018). As a result, many fields that are not originally commercialized see a clear development towards “careerization” of practices, that is, the creation of careers out of non-work activities. This allows for legitimization, but comes with a multitude of psychological and community disrupting issues (see e.g., Seregina and Weijo 2017). When larp becomes a job, the power structure between organizer and player shifts from shared responsibility for creating to one of exchange of an objectified and potentially repeatable experience.

Larp always has and always will involve a lot of labor. As Jones, Koulu, and Torner (2016) describe, this involves a variety of activities, such as emotional labor, labor aimed at fulfilling self-actualization off-game or in-game, and labor aimed at fulfilling physiological and safety needs. It is important to stress that labor is not the same thing as work. Work is a formalised type of labor, which is done for a producer in exchange for capital and the result of which is a commodity that can be exchanged for capital by consumers. Labor, however, can exist outside of a work setting and its power structures. Hence, in making larp work, we transform the nature and power structures around the labor done as part of it.

Jones, Koulu and Torner (2016) further note how problematic the organisation, distribution, and acknowledgement of labor is in larp, as many tasks go unnoticed while others require very specific skills or resources. Building on this, in professionalizing larp, duties previously open to any member of the community may become limited to professionals of that specific field. Moreover, as skilled workers become booked for professional projects, they may not have time or energy for other projects, heavily skewing the ability to organize larp to those with more economic and social capital. Who will be able to do labor (both in-game and off-game) in larp in the future if larp continues to be commodified and professionalized?

Bucket of coins

The Impact of Commodification

If larp is indeed becoming commodified, what kind of impact does that have on the activity and on our community? To begin with the positive impact, a commodified larp becomes much more widely accessible and approachable. More people are able to access information about events, and it becomes easier for new larpers as well as larpers with various accessibility needs to engage in the activity. Moreover, larp becomes much more recognized and legitimized by the wider culture, giving larpers much more social capital in terms of what they spend their time, money, and energy on, as well as allowing the activity to be taken seriously in wider society. Larp as commodity further allows us the individualistic freedom that comes with consumer choice: we become absolute sovereigns in deciding what we want to gain out of the experience and how. This allows for steering and personalizing experiences to be in line with our desires.

Commodification goes hand in hand with raised standards and expectations, as well as formalization of structures and organizational practices. Standardized, formalized practices allow for safer, predictable spaces of interaction for participants, both in terms of how to act themselves and what kind of behaviour to expect from others. The result is larp with better protection from harassment and less stress about preparation and/or expectations. At the same time, in building on existing blueprints for creating and managing experiences, organizers gain better tools for designing larp and engaging in more ambitious projects.

Reflecting the above, consumption was intended to be an avenue for individual freedom and equality, as all parts of culture now become supposedly accessible to all regardless of class or status (Slater 1997; Cohen 2003). In reality, in its focus on liberal freedom, consumption is inherently individualistic and classist, leading to alienation, collapse of communality, and growing differences between layers of society. Following this, a commodified larp becomes chained by the limitations of consumer culture. Such larp involves focus on personal experience and personal gain, which leads to a lack of attachment or perceived responsibility, with individuals merely drifting from fancy to fancy. In the long run, this can lead to the collapse of a sense of connection and communality, as larpers begin feeling alienated in their focus on their own experiences. With no obligations to others, larp slowly turns into just one of the many consumer experiences that can be purchased and consumed at one’s leisure. A community can still be born in such a setting, but it becomes a subculture of consumption (Schouten and McAlexander 1995) or a brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001), where connections are built through our link to the same commodity rather than through our direct relationships to one another.

person with wrench moving a large gear

Power house mechanic working on steam pump by Lewis Hine, public domain.

Standardization of larp brings many advantages, but it also causes larp to become objectified and thus easily repeatable. In other words, larp runs the risk of becoming a service that can be replicated on an assembly line, thus losing much of its improvisational, creative, and lively nature. Similar developments have taken place in many creative fields, such as design of public space and academic research. Mould (2018) describes how creativity as a practice in general has become commodified and commercialized in today’s culture, with only specific, capitalised forms of creativity being valid. In becoming formalized, larp becomes easy and efficient, but may also lose many of its creative aspects.

Professionalization of larp and the resultant raising costs associated with larp further encourage growing class differences among larpers, with certain high-profile larps becoming inaccessible to those without economic means. While at this time there are larps requiring different economic investments (with many larps being low-cost or even free), it is important to acknowledge that the inaccessibility of certain parts of larp as an activity strongly shifts the egalitarian power structures within the larp community. In effect, some larp becomes upper class and other larp becomes lower class. While sponsor tickets do exist and are a noble cause, they further mark us as participants of a different nature and a different class. Such tickets are also often of little help to larpers with less economic means, as inaccessibility does not always rely on the cost of the larp itself, but is also associated with such things as travel, planning of the care of dependants, or time taken off work. Yet the sponsorship itself may come along with praise, freebies, or sometimes even guaranteed spots and preferred characters, further raising the status of sponsors.

In light of growing interest toward larp, the activity may also develop into a scarce commodity and hence become more coveted, objectified, and high-class. Scarcity is a central tool of commodification (Slater 1997), as it makes commodities more desirable and thus fuels our need to consume, often making something feel in short supply within a fragmenting context of abundance. If some larps become accessible only to the few because of economic and social difference and the number of potential participants for each event grows disproportionately to the available spots, we face the increasing problem of how to choose participants fairly. The rejection and disappointment associated with not getting into events can break communality and create different classes based on social capital among larpers. Algayres (2019) shows that differences in social capital influence how we interact within larp and the extent to which we can influence the direction that a larp takes. Hence, by enforcing structures that strengthen class differences, we further a context in which individuals cannot engage on equal terms.

We witness a continued drive for growth in larp, which is another clear symptom of consumer culture. A culture focused on commodification involves an incessant drive to grow and develop, yet for no other purpose than growth itself (Slater 1997; Baudrillard 1998). We are driven by desire for more, for something new, for something different, and this desire is never satiated (Campbell 1987). Reflecting this, we see a push toward making bigger larps, more expensive larps, more ambitious larps. And while there is nothing wrong with exploring and developing the creative boundaries of the activity, I sometimes wonder what the end goal of this growth is? Are we just caught in a capitalist frenzy for development?

Lastly, commodification may lead to the exploitation of labor, especially in contexts where individuals involved in creating larp come in with a mixture of commodified and non-commodified perspectives toward larp. Making use of a background of communal event creation, many profit-oriented larp events only succeed through the labor of unpaid (and often overworked) volunteers. These volunteers are only paid in social capital or “exposure,” just like those working in already heavily commercialized creative industries (Mould 2018). Jones, Koulu and Torner (2016) propose that larp organizers need to rethink what is defined and proposed as work, what kinds of skills are necessary to organize or engage in larp, as well as who can be asked to do labor and to what extent within larp. As larp grows, we will see more and more instances of complex power structures around labor and possible exploitation of labor. Hence, we need to be aware of and reflect on how we will develop as a community and an activity.

stacks of coins getting progressively taller

Questioning Linear Development

As I near the end of my article, I want to stress that the aim has not been to moralize or to spell out a better or worse form of larping. Consumption is beyond any moralization: it is in itself merely a form that a power structure can take. Commodification of larp further emerges as normal linear development of an activity within consumer culture and one that feels logical, as this is the way anything progresses in our world today.

Commodification is structural, but it is also an internalized power structure and a logic via which we interact with objects, people, spaces, and the world. Whether or not a larp becomes a commodity is thus a matter of balance of structure and individual attitude toward larp and other larpers. As a result, I do not think it is possible to fully steer toward a commodified or non-commodified type of experience either as an organizer or a participant. Yet I believe we have a responsibility to be aware of how we potentially help along the process of commodification, whether we are for or against it.

As I outlined above, commodification of larp comes with both positive and negative aspects. However, the positive aspects of commodification tend to mask the negative impact that it brings along, with many proponents of commodification arguing that the benefits outweigh or can be taken on without the drawbacks of this development. But commodification is always a packaged deal. It is foolish to think that commodified larp can be reaped only for its positive values and that it will not influence the community at large. Commodification has a long history of crushing anything in its way through firing up endless desire and an incessant need for growth until the entirety of an activity is set up to work for its purposes.

What becomes important now is to become aware of the development that is happening and that we enable through our actions. One of the biggest issues that living in consumer culture has caused is the seeming impossibility to imagine any other form of existence. Yet in its roots at the margins of consumer culture, larp has the potential to provide emancipatory and utopian visions of alternatives (e.g., Kemper 2017; Bowman and Hugaas 2019; Hugaas and Bowman 2019). Let’s not squander that in hopes of being legitimized and normalized by a culture that will only use us up.

We must question what commodification does for and to our community, and we must be aware of and ready to accept all the repercussions that come with our decisions. I do not think it is feasible for our growing community to exist in consensus of what larp is and how it should be approached. As a result, we will most likely see an increased fragmentation of our community and our practice. Some will think commodification is the right direction for development, while others will combat it. At the same time, I do not believe it is possible to fully stop the commodification process, as the wider context of consumer culture will continue to push our community into that framework. Larp will continue to develop, but we can set the tone to this development.

coins in and outside of a heart-shaped container

What we need to do is to try to imagine what we intend to see as the goal for our need to commodify and grow. We need to question the linear development that consumer culture provides us and think about what kind of future we want to carve out for larp. What will engagement in larp look like as an organizer and as a participant? How will we treat each other and larp events? What kinds of responsibilities will we have to ourselves and to others? Moreover, what will accessibility look like? Will we exist among increasing economic, social, and cultural inequalities? Will we see a juxtaposition of upper class and lower class in larp? Who will be able to participate and how?

Furthermore, we must strive to understand why we want to develop larp into a certain direction and whether the outcomes of such a development are what we really want to end up with. Why do we strive for more social acceptance? Why do we aim for higher production value and better marketing? Why do we want more media coverage? Who will profit and what will it cost? As we begin to give up our power as co-creators of larp experiences, who are we giving power to? And how will they wield it?

References

Algayres, Muriel. 2019. “The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified October 29.

Auslander, Philip. 2008. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. The Consumer Society, London: Sage.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. 2019. “Transformative Role-Play: Design, Implementation, and Integration.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified December 10.

Bauman, Zygmund. 2001. ”Consuming Life.” Journal of Consumer Culture 1, no. 1: 9-29.

Campbell, Colin. 1987. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Cohen, Lizabeth. 2003. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York: Knopf.

Fatland, Eirik and Markus Montola. 2015. “The Blockbuster Formula – Brute Force Design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified May 6.

Frayne, David. 2015. The Refusal to Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work, London: Zed Books.

Harviainen, J. Tuomas. 2013. “Managerial Styles in Larps: Control Systems, Culture, and Charisma.” In Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek, 112-124. Los Angeles: Wyrd Con.

Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard, and Sarah Lynne Bowman. 2019. “The Butterfly Effect Manifesto.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified October 20.

Jones, Katherine Castiello, Sanna Koulu, and Evan Torner. 2016. “Playing at Work: Labor, Identity and Emotion in Larp.” In Solmukohta 2016: Larp Realia and Larp Politics, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Mika Loponen, and Jukka Särkijärvi, 125-134. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified June 21.

Mould, Oli. 2018. Against Creativity, London: Verso Books.

Muniz, Albert M. and Thomas C. O’Guinn. 2001. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27, no. 4: 412-432.

Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer Culture and Modernity, Oxford: Polity Press.

Schouten, John W., and James H. McAlexander. 1995. “Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers.” Journal of Consumer Research 22, no. 1: 43-61.

Seregina, Anastasia, and Henri A. Weijo. 2016. “Play at Any Cost: How Cosplayers Produce and Sustain their Ludic Communal Consumption Experiences.” Journal of Consumer Research 44, no. 1: 139-159.

Editor: Elina Gouliou

Photo selection: Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, All photos free use from Pixabay.

Authors

Usva Seregina
Usva Seregina (PhD) is a researcher and lecturer in consumer sociology, as well as a practicing visual and performance artist. Usva’s artistic and academic endeavours often overlap, with the main focus of their work being the exploration of the meaning and power structures of consumerism in contemporary culture. Usva is an avid proponent of larp as a political and educational tool, which emerges as larp design that makes use of academic and artistic practices.
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