Beauty in Larp

Beauty in Larp

Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.

Toni Morrison, 1970, The Bluest Eye

Where do we find beauty in larp? Can we make sense of the moments in larp where we, as players, have an aesthetic appreciation of the larp? Can we account for moments that are striking, that leave us breathless, that stay with us for the rest of our lives, that propel tears or joyous rapture? Can we develop theory to render at least some of the logic of those moments visible?

Larp is a specific form of expression that has similarities to performance, theatre, tabletop role-playing, sports, installation art, and to games, yet it is clearly distinct from all of these (Stenros 2010; Simkins 2015). Working out the aims, conventions, and methods of the form implies an aesthetic theory. In this article, we unpack what makes larp play beautiful. We wish to explicate the aesthetics of larp in a way that is recognizable for practitioners (i.e., players and designers) while also being potentially useful for people coming from different fields.

Aesthetics is a broad, even terrifying, term. It covers the subjective, emotional sensations we experience when encountering an object or environment, from pop music to a sunset viewed from the top of a forest ridge. It also pertains to a set of principles that may govern the production of aesthetic objects; an aesthetics of jazz, for instance, gives a general outline of what makes jazz jazz, and also what makes jazz beautiful. It is also a term for a field in philosophy relating to the nature of art, and so on. Indeed, Leonard Koren (2010) has identified ten different ways to understand the term, explaining why the ‘aesthetics’ is sometimes hard to grasp. In this article, we develop an aesthetic theory of larp that describes the ways in which we find larp beautiful, as well as the principles of design and play that make larp an object of aesthetic appreciation.

The beauty of larp has been discussed surprisingly little previously. Obviously the form of larp has received quite a bit of attention, particularly in the Knutepunkt community (e.g. Koljonen et al. 2019). However, while descriptions of design and play abound and there is a rich tradition of implicit standards of beauty couched in declarative accounts of how larps should be (i.e., manifestos), accounts of beauty and the aesthetics of larp are scarce (cf. Zagal & Deterding 2018, see also MacDonald 2012; Stenros 2013).

Two key limitations need to be noted here. This article approaches the beauty of larp from the point of view of the player. Beauty in larp is probably different if it were to be pivoted around the designer or an external audience. Second, although this article talks of beauty in larp in general terms, it is important to realize that it emerges in the context of Nordic and international larp, in a very specific artistic tradition, and is meant to make sense of that tradition.

Setting the Stage

Larp is embodied participatory drama. It unfolds in real-time, in physical surroundings, through the actions of participants bodily portraying characters. Larp can incorporate other forms of expression, and when it does include other art forms, they can be analysed with aesthetic tools developed for those specific expressions. For example, tools borrowed from theatre, music, visual arts, cinema, and the emerging field of aesthetics of games (e.g. De Koven 1978; Myers 2010; Kirkpatrick 2011) can fruitfully be leveraged to make sense of larps[1]There is no question, for instance, that a musical performance inside a larp will be evaluated and enjoyed by players on the basis of how we usually enjoy music. However, while it may be important that the music is good, the song might also be beautiful for reasons germane to the larp: perhaps the character is expressing a major change in their life; perhaps the song choice refers to things that are known to the players but not to the characters; or even, a “bad” performance of the song can create larp beauty if it is meaningful in a way that the players appreciate.. However, while we will draw from these other fields, the focus is on understanding what is beautiful in larp specifically.

To understand the form of larp one needs to consider how larp is created and appreciated — and how these two processes are tied together. The participant in a larp is present in two ways. They are both a character within the fiction, and a player participating in a larp. The participant has a sort of dual consciousness, seeing everything both as real (within the fiction) and as not-real (as in playing). The participant is both a character and a player, able to flip between the two modes, and able to see things in double. We can call this bisociation (Koestler 1964, 35).

The participant is both a player and a character, which creates interesting frictions because there is only one body to inhabit, and one set of experiences to encounter (Sandberg 2004). The participant experiences the events as a character who has agency within the fiction, but they can also appreciate the larp from a wider perspective as a player with meta-awareness, and can shape this structure as a player.

Obviously the division of the participant into two roles is not real in the sense that these two personas would be somehow fully distinct and separate (Järvelä 2019). Instead, the role-play agreement — that the player and the character are to be treated as separate entities — is a social contract, one that gives alibi to act in ways that conflict with the participant’s story of self (Sihvonen 1997). This social contract obviously has limits; there are acts one cannot get away with as a player, even if done in character.

The main audience in larp is the player/character participant. However, the participant is also the main performer in a larp — for that audience. The performer and the spectator are also brought together in one body, and thus in larp we talk of the first-person audience (Sandberg 2004). In order to see and witness these works, one must participate. A significant part of the work is internal. The thoughts and feelings of a character, from doubts and schemes to joy and surprise, are only accessible from the first-person point of view (Montola 2012). The private landscapes conjured by a participant’s imagination are very much part of the experience, even if never shared.

Furthermore, first person is not just a metaphor for personal experience, but a concrete description. The participant will, very literally, only see what their character sees, experience only those scenes where they are present, in body. The participant is the lens through which the work unfolds.

This first person audience differs from, say, theatre, art, and music, where the division between the artist/performer and the audience/appreciator has traditionally been clear. Here we cannot make such a separation. Even someone at a larp who is watching a scene is not an “audience”. They are actively listening; their physical and social presence is meaningful to the other players, and at any moment their watching may turn into doing.

In considering beauty in larp, we find it useful to separate the question into two categories: first, the beautiful things that others have done and can be appreciated and, second, the beautiful things that we do (or participate in doing) ourselves that we ourselves can appreciate.

Beautiful to See

American artist Brody Condon has formulated a way of appreciating larp from the outside. He has noted that larp is a “generative engine” that creates an interesting visual surface (Condon 2010). While Condon works with this visual surface in a sophisticated way, we can see more straightforward examples in larp photographs and videos that try to capture the visual beauty of the scene. While it is possible to look at a larp as one looks at a painting, as a surface, while playing, this is not something that players commonly report, even though players can spend dozens of painstaking hours preparing costumes and props to contribute to this visual surface. It seems that this surface becomes most visible to people who do not participate in the play of the larp. Anyone can access it when it is mediated with a camera (see Torner 2011).

It is perhaps worth noting that the visual surface is part of what has sometimes made larp an object of derision or ridicule. From the outside, the props may look less authentic than what we have come to expect from films, just as the dialogue may sound stiff compared to what we expect from plays, and the narrative may appear completely disorganised when compared with what we expect from novels. It is important to acknowledge that larp is not trying to imitate these forms — the failure of larp to be like a play is not an aesthetic failure.

In expressive forms where there is a clear division between the artist and the audience, we often marvel at performative excellence. The artist has spent thousands of hours becoming excellent at something, and now this skill is on display. We find this in larp as well.

We can talk about performative excellence in larp, when someone portrays their character perfectly with exquisite body language and pitch perfect accent, or when someone has the perfect costume and carries it in the most fitting fashion, or when the scenography of the larp location is a perfect fit with fully functioning props. “Perfect” here means some kind of a combination of “appropriate”, “pleasing”, “fulfils all the requirements of the imagination” and “supports play”. We can appreciate the skill that goes into such performances and creations, and we can gaze on in appreciation when faced with such displays. Sometimes performative excellence is created in the moment; sometimes we see a truly beautiful artefact or encounter another kind of residue of a creation that took place before the larp.

The third source of external beauty in larp is rooted in their structure. Larps are rule-bound. Like games, they are constituted through the enacting of the rules the designers have created and curated (Suits 1978). Shared rules provide the necessary foundation for playing together. They also provide a framework for moments of delight to emerge, just as the rules of football provide the framework for astonishing feats of athleticism that were never specifically called for; yet they are made possible by the framework.

Nordic larps tend to have bespoke rules, meaning that the rules are written (curated, combined, created) specifically for that work (Koljonen 2019). By contrast, in other larp traditions there are tendencies to create general rules that can always be used, or to attempt to take into consideration any and all possibilities. In the Nordic tradition, the rules tend to be light; a minimal amount of rules is preferred in order to create the foundation for a shared experience with a specific topic, theme or situation, with enough of a safety net. Simplicity of rules is regarded as elegant[2]To avoid the notion that simple rules are superior rules, it is worth pointing out that the lighter the explicit rules, the greater reliance there is on unspoken rules, herd competence, and shared values. Extremely light rules may simply mean that players are only playing with people who are very familiar to them..

This is the part of the beauty of games that can be attributed to the designer — or in the case of larps, the larpwrights. They create the rules and the structure of larps. Rules here include the actual dos and don’ts (that usually are inherited from tradition), but more importantly the replacement techniques and metatechniques, as well as the interaction codes that are used in play, and the overall structure of the larp. There are different ways to create the structure, from character and character network design to timed events and thematic acts. The minutiae of the design that larpwrights do is not the focus here; the important thing is that this larp design can be beautiful in and of itself. It is possible to appreciate elegant design when reading the rules, while playing, or when hearing someone talk about a larp. Indeed, a great deal of larp talk revolves around design, and it produces the same kinds of appreciative “oohs” and “aahs” one would expect to hear from rocket scientists working to get a new model off the ground. “Did you hear how they solved the hierarchy issue in the last iteration? It’s genius.”

Of course, since this is an area of design, there are competing design ideals that value things differently. For example, some find high resolution interaction (Nordgren 2008) to be beautiful, enabling nuanced play indecipherable to an observer, while others may favour a 360° illusion and a WYSIWYG aesthetic (Koljonen 2007). Naturally, fashion is also a component here.

The rules must be explicit to the participants. Everyone needs to know them in order to participate in constituting the fictional world into being. (The structure of the larp can also be transparent, although it is more common that it is only revealed to the players as the larp unfolds.) As participants interpret written rules in different ways, it is common to have a shared workshop amongst the participants before the runtime of a larp begins to test out rules and interaction codes. This helps get participants on the same page before play starts, and minimizes play-style conflicts.

Sometimes designers, especially when they are coming from outside larp, want to hide the rules. Artists more accustomed to, say, theatre or film can regard explicit rules as ugly and inelegant, preferring to communicate the rules within the fiction. This is usually a mistake (MacDonald 2019). In comparison to larp, film and theatre have intuitive seamless interfaces. This means that we know how to read them, mostly because we are encultured to understand them. Even experimental pieces tend to contain keys to unlock their meaning. You are supposed to be able to understand a film or a play just by watching it. The director of a film usually does not appear before the screening to explain what a film is about, or how the colour red symbolizes desire in this particular piece. Despite, obviously, a whole paratextual industry of marketing, reviews, and behind-the-scenes featurettes, mainstream films, plays, and books are supposed to stand on their own. In culturally established forms of expression where there is a division between the audience and the work, there is a strong hesitancy to give explicit guidelines or rules.

However, when the work is created through doing things together, the rules of conduct must be haggled out in advance, settling the language of the work. When everyone knows the rules going in, it is possible to engage in subtle play knowing that all participants understand, even if it would be completely incomprehensible for an external audience. This very structure is what separates larp from free play. Anything communicated within the fiction is subject to interpretation. To take an example from another co-created form with rules, if a jazz band is playing Ain’t Misbehavin’ and the tenor sax solo starts to riff on Mary Had a Little Lamb, the band interprets the nursery rhyme within the musical frame of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Nobody in the band thinks that everyone is supposed to switch songs, or even genres.

If we were to approach larp as a designed object or a procedural artefact, we could conclude our analysis here. However, as we are interested in larp as played, performed, and co-created, we need to go further. Most often, when larpers speak of beautiful larp moments, they are not talking about the design or the setting. Instead, they say that something beautiful happened to them and to their character, or that someone did something beautiful.

Beautiful to Do

There are three different ‘larps’ we can talk about: the larp as designed, the larp as played, and the larp as remembered (Stenros 2013). The first is the larp as created by the designers. This includes the rules, the characters, pre-scripted events, spatial design, sound design, time design, possible metalarp rules, and other such design information. This ‘larp as designed’ can be published as a larp script. Also, if the ‘same’ larp is staged a number of times, this is (more or less) what remains the same. The larp as designed is largely covered in the previous section.

The larp as played is what happened during the runtime of a larp. This is where the players bring the design to life through improvisation guided by the rules and characters. Larp as played is, of course, ephemeral. The moment a larp is complete, it ceases to exist (Koljonen 2008). It cannot be revisited or replayed, and each participant can only ever experience from their own point of view.

The third larp, larp as remembered, emerges after the larp. As participants talk about the larp afterwards, find out about what happened to other participants and hear their interpretations, a reading of the larp starts to emerge. Usually some kind of hegemonic view of the larp emerges, though that can never be too specific. Still, enough people might agree on what the larp “was about”. This larp as remembered is shaped by analysis, documentation, reflection, photographs, and even interpretation by people who did not play the larp. Participants with more social capital may have a stronger influence of how a larp is remembered. Even so, dissenting voices on how a larp is remembered are common, and are equally part of the larp as remembered.

Considering larps as beautiful to do, from the point of view of the participants, we concentrate on the larp as played. The rules, the designed structure, and the material reality provide a shared ground for the participants stepping into the fiction of the larp. However, it is the emergent play of the participants (including the larp organizers) that constitute the larp as played.

But what does that mean in practice? Players talk about being part of the fictional world, about immersing into the world, the character, and the situation; of creating a satisfactory story, and of sublime moments of bliss. These memorable moments rise out of the design of the larpwrights, but also from other players, the environment, or even the weather; and might exist in juxtaposition to whatever else is going on in their lives outside the larp. These are moments of synchronicity and perfect happenstance. We might try to label these moments apophenia (Dansey 2008) or pronoia (McGonigal 2006), but players often talk about “larp magic”. Let us try to pick apart a little bit more what emergent co-creation includes and how it can lead to larp magic.

Consider an example of two characters in a multiple-day larp, who do not have any pre-written relationships or interests. The players never speak to each other in the workshops. On the first day of the larp, their characters happen to both be queueing at the bar; one tells a joke and the other laughs. They introduce themselves to each other and think nothing more of it. On the second day, they find each other at the bar again, and this time end up having an unexpectedly candid conversation. On the third day, they react to a crisis together, side-by-side, and realise that they were always meant to be friends and allies. The offhand joke told on the first day becomes one of the most meaningful moments for them both. Their stories are now inseparable.

Larp is socio-dramatic play (see Burghardt 2005), in which everyone pretends to be their character. Sometimes people attempt to not only act and look like their character, but to actually think and feel as the character. This ideal we call immersion, immersing into a character. Other players have a more instrumental attitude towards their character — even if the character is, basically, their body. However, it is not enough to pretend that you are your character. You need to pretend that everyone else is their character as well. This gives rise to inter-immersion (Pohjola 2004), the collective experience that ideally arises from pretending together. You do not play just your characters, but everyone’s. We cannot have prisoners without jailors; no kings without subjects.

Larping is fundamentally a social endeavour, done together with others. Doing things together is hardwired in humans. It is fundamentally different to do things together than to do things side-by-side. Social play is different from parallel play (there are a lot of terms for this in game studies, see Stenros 2015 for a discussion). Furthermore, liveness is an important part of doing things together. In this kind of mutual creation, each participant has agency. An ensemble is revelling in togetherness. Participants see each other and are seen by others. The validation of one’s performance, identity, and actions is important.

If we take the example of the allies who met at the bar, we can tease out an important point: both players are open to larp magic, and the experience deepens when both players know the experience was magical for the other[3]We call this the friendship is magic principle. This is when the to and fro of inter-immersion leads to beauty, where one knows that the other is also experiencing the magical moment in a way that feels like synchronicity and telepathy.. There is a template for high-pitched, breathless postlarp conversations recounting these moments that goes roughly: “And then your character did this… and my character had no idea, but then I did this… and then you did that… and then we both did this…”, etc. It’s interesting that we capture, confirm, and re-live the moments that were important to us with the people who were also there.

The creation of an aesthetic object out of the act of doing things together is not just from game studies; it’s also performance art. Those unfamiliar with performance art (now sometimes called Live Art) often find it confusing that “anything can be performance art” and that it often does not look good, like art traditionally is expected to. But performance art very frequently uses the same elements for its canvas that larp does: behaviours, bodies, rituals, social norms, interactions, or time-based processes. It sometimes creates a trace or residue, but this is distinct from the ephemeral performance itself. It is making art out of what we do as humans; when we encounter it, we reflect on how things are done, by whom, and why. Performance art shares with larp an inseparable connection to the social world, but also to the process of reflecting on how we create this world socially[4]See Nicolas Bourriaud’s (1998) Relational Aesthetics as a basis for situating art in relationships rather than in artistic objects..

Inter-immersion is what transports us to the fictional world. It is not just that one steps into a carefully constructed fantastic setting, but that one is seen as part of it and recognized as having agency. This is how a new social reality is created. It does not matter if a larp is full-on escapist fantasy or a critical exploration of sociological alternatives, the alternate reality is still constructed in the same way. Of course, this inter-immersion and new social reality is also supported by the physical location, props, and scenography, but mostly it is about the new world being played into being.

This is why larp is so often about community. As a form, larp lends itself particularly well to the study of networked interpersonal relationships. While larp is pretence, the relationships and interactions feel real, for they are real — even if they are fictional.

Consider an example of a character who undergoes a coming-of-age ceremony within a larp. The ceremony contains ritualistic elements that are made up for the larp, and the whole concept of becoming an adult is different in this society. One comes of age, say, at 50. The player has only been in this “society” for 30 hours, but when the ritual comes, it is devastatingly emotional for both character and player. He is touched by the care his society takes in him, feels apprehension at his new social role, and feels personal ownership of the ritual objects and texts. He reflects on these social processes in his real life and what they have meant to him.

In larp we are transported to another meaning, but we are there in our bodies. Larp is embodied. The play is in the body, and the body is, fully, in play. This is not just a linguistic point, but a concrete and physical thing. Larp design consciously addresses the body: sleep deprivation, discomfort or luxury, dance as communication, sensual and sexual play. Often, this means using sensations, exertion, or discomforts that cannot be ignored: the body is in the foreground when players need to march 25 kilometers in the wintry countryside as soldiers. But even a larp with players seated around a dinner table is equally embodied.

Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) describes the body as “our general medium for having a world.” His writings in phenomenology (the field of philosophy investigating things as we experience them) have been invaluable to analysis of contemporary dance, particularly as dance spilled over from conventional stages and created choreography from natural movement of human crowds, everyday movements, and social interactions. He describes the social world as not an object or sum of objects, but “as a permanent field or dimension of existence.” In larp we create experiences that are emergent, inter-immersive, and embodied; it would be remiss to leave phenomenology out of an aesthetics of larp when we essentially use “being-in-the-world” as a designable surface.

The things that happen to our characters also happen to us. Yes, simulation does take place, but our bodies are moving and being moved, touching and being touched. This is, of course, also connected to the liveness. The experience is immediate. Even if larp is heightened and artificial, our bodies often do not distinguish between the artificially-induced and ‘the real’ — it’s all real. Larp pushes our buttons with bodily experiences: surprise, arousal, freshness, exploration, and neophilia. There is also the physical exhaustion of repetition, and embodied learning. Doing things for real, even when ‘the real’ is fictional, is a powerful aesthetic. When larpers speak of having had a beautiful larp, often they are talking about having had a meaningful sense of physical and mental engagement, presence, and authenticity.

Furthermore, larp is most beautiful when we are present not just in body, but in mind. Larpers talk about authenticity, generosity, and being present in the moment as being beautiful. These are all affirmations of existence — they say “I am here right now.” We can call that presence[5]Theatre director Herbert Blau (1982) has written eloquently about presence. His words resonate with the larp experience: “With mortality as a base, Presence is fragile, subject to change (and chance), yet persisting through that. Breath blood nerves brains, the metabolism of perception.”. Being sensitive to the emotions around you, understanding the exact situation, creating the right character response, feeling the emotion.

Sometimes we see this as overcoming personal boundaries, being able to do something in larp one would not do outside it. Being vulnerable and open reduces the distance between the participant and the character they embody.

The idea of fully being in the present with all sense modalities is certainly part of doing something beautiful. However, even the term ‘beautiful to do’ is not without its problems — it is not necessary to do anything. Larpers talk about beautiful boredom. Those are moments when one is just chilling in the fictional world; present, and in character, but not doing anything. One is simply present and content, hanging out in the moment. Here it is important to note that beautiful boredom requires agency. If there is nothing to do, or if the agency of a participant is strictly limited, then the boredom is not pleasurable, meaningful, or beautiful.

However, being present in the moment is a bit more complicated than first might look, since the participant is present both as a player and a character. Everything is simultaneously real and not real, fictional and not fictional, authentic and representational. Playing larp is always reflexive, building on dual consciousness and bisociation. This is what enables larp to move beyond game-like goals such as winning, and significantly opens up the design space and aesthetic realm available for exploration. The player can win even if the character loses. This is not failure, but tragedy. This is a key difference between traditional games and role-playing games. Larpers call this friction between the character failing while the player has a meaningful experience positive negative experience (Hopeametsä 2008). Sometimes this is also called, tongue in cheek, Type 2 Fun. When players use terms like Type 2 Fun, it usually signifies that something has not been pleasurable, but it has been beautiful.

However, reflexivity also means that while the participant chooses to treat the fiction as real, they are also alienated from it, since they know that it is not real. Back in the mid-1990s, the ideal was to stay fully within the fiction from start to finish. While this kind of continuous illusion is still important, over the years the Nordic design ideals have drifted and now bisociation is recognized as an important part of the larp form as something to be played with (e.g. Pettersson 2006; Westerling & Hultman 2019)[6]Today, there is a valorization of the continuity of the experience, even if the in character continuity is disrupted.. Nordic larp is Brechtian in the sense that the estrangement effect is built in due to this space for reflection between fiction and non-fiction (see also Levin 2020). This has created the space for metatechniques to design in the space between the player and the character. We also talk about playing close to home: creating a character that is very similar to the player to make the events in the larp feel more immediate. The term bleed is used to discuss how the emotions of the character travel (or bleed) into the player, or vice versa. Notice that bleed is not necessarily a negative experience, but something participants crave. They play in order to feel something (and then to reflect on those feelings, once they have some distance). It is also possible to consciously use larps as reflective tools, and play towards emancipatory bleed (Kemper 2020).

There is one further duality in larp: the participant is both the performer, and the director/ writer. The participant is living in the moment, being and performing, but also able to plan and steer playing in a way that makes sense in a larger context. This is another source of beauty in larp: narrative or structural excellence produced by meta-awareness. This means that the playing creates a satisfactory story (the term ‘story’ is used loosely here). We might see narrative forms like seeding and call back, closure, and fugue structure. This requires being in and out of the larp at the same time, experiencing it first hand, but also looking at it from a distance as a thing that will be a whole.

We can appreciate and get pleasure from moments of larp magic, from playing a world into being together, playing out interesting social dynamics, from physical pleasure of embodied play, from a sense of being present, generous towards, and vulnerable with others, and from the meta-awareness that we are creating something satisfying, either for our character’s arc, or the fictional world as a whole. We can also find pleasure in our ability to steer in a larp by acknowledging our dual consciousness and playing with it. Of course, the question we have not answered is why we find these things beautiful. Those answers may take us deep into psychology, physiology, and anthropology, and they are likely to remain as slippery as similar enquiries about dancing and architecture. But to develop an aesthetic theory of larp, we must first be descriptive, not causal. We can say ”larpers say they find this beautiful” without knowing why.

On Dualism and Failure

In this article, we have divided the beauty in larp into the seeing and doing. This division is practical when we consider whether “this is beautiful” or “that is beautiful”. Are we looking for beauty that exists without our participation beyond witnessing it, or beauty that exists only when we are integrated into it?

If we take the binary to its extremes, we can still find beauty. For example, when considering performative excellence, we see sometimes the appreciation of a performance or other pre-created piece takes us out of the work. If a participant is performing their character perfectly, but it feels like acting and not larping, it puts us in a different position. It moves us from co-creator to viewer. The player-participants, at least temporarily, are not part of the thing they are appreciating. This is just beautiful to see, this is ‘that’.

On the other hand, when we are very deeply engrossed in the larp, we may find ourselves in a state where we are only lightly conscious of the fact that this activity is framed as fictional; our emotions and thoughts feel like there is no distinction between the self and character. In such moments, we do not reflect and have no meta-awareness of other players’ experiences. This, and it is ‘this’, is just beautiful to do.

However, this dualism is purely an analytical distinction. It is a model we have constructed to understand larp; it is not the reality of larping. None of the analytical dichotomies we have used are ‘real’, but attempts at mapping the terrain of actual larp experience. A speech by a queen in a larp might be performed beautifully, but is also touching, meaningful, and so rooted in the social moment, that it is beautiful as something we are doing together. After all, the queen is a queen, because we are playing that she is — we are playing a world into being. And we are aware, in the moment, that there is a beauty to playing this world into being together with others, right now. This comes close to what Levin (2020) discussed as metareflection, and it is the space where most beauty occurs in larp.

Finally, one way to look for beauty is to consider its opposite. When is there an absence of beauty? When are larps ugly? It is not beautiful when we are aware that we have no agency. It is not beautiful when we do not connect with our co-players. It is not beautiful when the physical setting does not support play. It is awful to be cold and hungry unless we are meant to be cold and hungry. It is not beautiful when we are lonely in a larp. It is ugly when we feel disconnected from our own character, and that speaking and acting is “work” all the time. It is not beautiful when we are emotionally disengaged. There is no beauty when we physically cannot take part. It is not beautiful when the world played into being is disjointed, disappointing, or never shows up at all. It is not beautiful if we have a good time but our co-players do not.

These are our failure modes, our ugly spots. But they are also sites to invite beauty to appear. Risk is important as it implies commitment; vulnerability is beautiful because it contains the possibility of rejection; presence is beautiful because it defies absence, refusal, and death.


Larp is both beautiful to see and beautiful to do. Participants can appreciate the performative excellence of individual performances and other skilful exhibitions, there is a visual surface that can be enthralling regardless of the context, and certainly there is the intricate work in crafting the rule-bound bespoke design. These elements we can appreciate from afar, as an audience, whether we are also participants, or even just someone going through larp documentation, be it design documents (larp-as-designed), photographs, video, written reflections, or costumes (larp-as-remembered).

The larp as played, for the participants, has three additional ways to encounter beauty. In larp, the participants mutually play a world into being by improvising within the rules and structures given by the design, partaking in emergent co-creation through play and inter-immersion. Furthermore, participants engage in vulnerable and generous play while being mindful, embodied, and present. Yet they also remain reflexive about the conceit of larp and strive for structural and narrative excellence.


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Graeme Kirkpatrick (2011): Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. Manchester University Press.

Arthur Koestler (1964): The Act of Creation. Hutchinson& co.

Johanna Koljonen (2007): Eye-Witness to the Illusion: An Essay on the Implausibility of the 360 ̊ Role-Playing. In Donnis,J.,Gade,M.&Thorup,L.(eds.): Lifelike. Projektgruppen KP07.

Johanna Koljonen (2008): The Dragon Was the Least of It: Dragonbane and Larp as Ephemera and Ruin. In Markus Montola & Jaakko Stenros (eds.): Playground Worlds. Ropecon.

Johanna Koljonen (2019): An Introduction to Bespoke Larp Design. In Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen (Eds.): Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen (Eds.) (2019): Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Leonard Koren (2010): Which ”Aesthetics” Do You Mean? Ten Definitions. Imperfect Publishing.

Hilda Levin (2020): Metareflection. What Do We Do When We Play?

James Lórien MacDonald (2012): From Performing Arts to Larp. Presentation at Nordic Larp talks 2012.

James Lórien MacDonald (2019): Collaborating with Theatre and Other Arts. In Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen (Eds.): Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Jane McGonigal (2006). The puppet master problem: Design for real-world, mission based gaming. Games and Storytelling lecture series, Jan 24th, 2006, University of Art and Design Helsinki

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945): Phenomenology of Perception. Translation Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Markus Montola (2012): On the Edge of the Magic Circle. Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Tampere.

David Myers (2010): Play Redux. The Form of Computer Games. University of Michigan Press.

Andie Nordgren (2008): High Resolution Larping: Enabling Sublety at Totem and Beyond. In Markus Montola & Jaakko Stenros (eds.): Playground Worlds. Ropecon.

Juhana Pettersson (2006): The Art of Experience. In Thorbiörn Fritzon & Tobias Wrigstad (Eds.): Role, Play, Art: Collected Experiences of Role-Playing. Föreningen Knutpunkt.

Mike Pohjola (2004): Autonomous Identities. Immersion as a Tool for Exploring, Empowering and Emancipating Identities, in Montola, Markus & Stenros, Jaakko (eds.): Beyond Role and Play. Ropecon.

Christopher Sandberg (2004): Genesi. Larp Art, Basic Theories. In Montola, Markus & Stenros, Jaakko (eds): Beyond Role and Play. Ropecon.

References   [ + ]

1.There is no question, for instance, that a musical performance inside a larp will be evaluated and enjoyed by players on the basis of how we usually enjoy music. However, while it may be important that the music is good, the song might also be beautiful for reasons germane to the larp: perhaps the character is expressing a major change in their life; perhaps the song choice refers to things that are known to the players but not to the characters; or even, a “bad” performance of the song can create larp beauty if it is meaningful in a way that the players appreciate.
2.To avoid the notion that simple rules are superior rules, it is worth pointing out that the lighter the explicit rules, the greater reliance there is on unspoken rules, herd competence, and shared values. Extremely light rules may simply mean that players are only playing with people who are very familiar to them.
3.We call this the friendship is magic principle. This is when the to and fro of inter-immersion leads to beauty, where one knows that the other is also experiencing the magical moment in a way that feels like synchronicity and telepathy.
4.See Nicolas Bourriaud’s (1998) Relational Aesthetics as a basis for situating art in relationships rather than in artistic objects.
5.Theatre director Herbert Blau (1982) has written eloquently about presence. His words resonate with the larp experience: “With mortality as a base, Presence is fragile, subject to change (and chance), yet persisting through that. Breath blood nerves brains, the metabolism of perception.”
6.Today, there is a valorization of the continuity of the experience, even if the in character continuity is disrupted.


Jaakko Stenros
Jaakko Stenros (b. 1976) is a game scholar working at Tampere University. He has published nine books and numerous articles, has co-create a few larps, and has curated exhibitions at the Finnish Museum of Games.
James Lórien Macdonald
James Lórien MacDonald (b.1977) is a Finnish-Canadian stand-up comedian and performance artist. He has been working on crossovers between larp, theatre, and performance for over a decade.
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