Larping has been described as an extreme social sport. Players often get the most from games they devote time to and when they expose themselves as characters to situations that are both pleasant and distressing and attempt to immerse themselves in the experiences. Players are expected, or expect themselves, to put quite an effort into the larp. These expectations can include cognitive demands (such as ability to memorize background materials and switching one’s attention between relevant information during the game), emotional demands (for example, immersion into the character and how the character feels about the transpiring events), physical demands (including preparing props or doing physical feats in the game), and social demands (getting to know new people and adapting one’s behavior to new social setting). These expectations may cause stress for the players.
Players may also stress about whether the larp is organized in an effective and practical manner, about catering and sleeping arrangements, and even about whether they will feel lonely before, during, or after the game, among other practical and personal issues. Often larp related stress is centralized around the larp event and isn’t expected to be prolonged.
Not all stress is harmful. Potentially stress-generating events, or stressors, can even be positive life events (such as a wedding or a graduation cere-ceremony). Stress generated by positive life events is often labeled positive stress and typically has little long-term effects on well-being (e.g., Lin et al., 2013).
Richard Lazarus (e.g. Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), suggests negative stress occurs when a person appraises an event as a negative or dangerous (versus positive or irrelevant). In Lazarus’ model, stress is a resource issue; if task demands exceed the available resources, a person may become stressed. A person’s response to stress varies based on both their specific coping strategies (adaptive, i.e., constructive versus maladaptive, i.e., harmful) and how their individual characteristics predispose them to stress or, how resilient they are to adversity.
Aspects of Larp-Related Stress
Larping is a recreational activity, and larps are positive life events. However, larps can be more demanding than the player expects, and thus create stress. To assess how larps generate stress, we conducted a comprehensive online survey amongst Finnish larpers, to which we received more than a hundred responses. We investigated how stressful larpers consider different situations that can occur either before, during, or after the game, and assessed what types of coping mechanisms larpers use to alleviate that stress. Respondents also answered questions about relevant background information that might protect from or alleviate stress (like relationship status, personality and wellbeing, predisposition to anxiety etc.). Finally, we examined the symptoms larpers generally experience from larp-related stress.
Preliminary analysis of our data shows eight distinct categories of larp-related stressors (see Figure 1). The category explaining most of the variance in the data was feelings of failure. This means stress generated by larper’s own feeling of not performing to the expectations either before, during, or after the game. For example, not coming up with a good enough backstory, forgetting relevant information during the game, or making mistakes in scenes during the game. Feelings of failure seems to be associated with other stressor categories: sexist and discriminatory themes in the game, feelings of bleed or post-low, and disappointment with the game or character. These four areas represent stress generated by internal experiences of the events or themes in the larp. We found four other distinct categories: events related to design and practicalities of the larp, loneliness, demanding or distressing characteristics of the game, and harassment or worry for safety. These factors seemed less associated with other stressor categories than the first cluster of stressors.
In terms of experienced stress on a scale from 0 to 10, larping was perceived as quite stressful (mean 5.2), but larpers also found themselves recovering from this stress rapidly. Based on a preliminary analysis, stressor groups harassment or worry for safety, sexist and discriminatory themes in the game and feelings of bleed or post-low seemed to generate less stress on average than other stressors. We want to emphasize that these are averages and can be misleading: our data shows that while most players don’t experience harassment or worry for their safety in larps, a minority of players suffer a great deal of this type of stress. The players for whom harassment and insecurity is a large stressor are generally women or of non-binary genderWe expect minority-related stress applies to all marginalized groups, e.g. PoC players in a predominantly white environment. However, since our questionnaire only tracked the responders’ age and gender, we have no data for other demographic sources of minority stress.. This aside, gender does not seem to play a large role in terms of the causes or intensity of stress larpers experience. A comparison of averages suggests men may experience less larp-related stress than other genders, but our data was inconclusive. Youth seems to predict stress: younger larpers seemed to experience more stress over loneliness, which is understandable as older larpers are likelier to be established in the community and to be familiar with their co-players. Finally, larpers in relationships seemed to experience less larp-related stress than those not in a relationship.
Factors Predisposing Players to Stress
Five general background factors seemed to have the most impact on how much stress respondents reported: low self esteem, predisposition to anxiety, stress related to other aspects of life, poor experienced quality of life, and emotional instability.
Low self-esteem is associated with stress in many studies, although it is not always evident whether experienced stress or coping failures reduces self-esteem or vice versa. Low self-esteem may predispose people toward low self-efficacy and make it harder to use constructive coping mechanisms. Predisposition to anxiety can color a person’s perception of whether future events are likely to be positive or potentially threatening, which makes it more likely that they will experience related stress. Stress from other aspects of life may increase larp-related stress by reducing the available mental, physical, and emotional resources available to manage it. Poor quality of life is characterized by unhappiness related to some aspect of life: work, health, friendships and so forth. This unhappiness may increase stress experienced from other sources as it reduces the stress management resources available. Finally, emotional instabilityFor emotional instability and other personality personality factors, we used the 50-item questionnaire from the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP – https://ipip.ori.org/ and Goldberg, L. R., Johnson, J. A., Eber, H. W., Hogan, R., Ashton, M. C., Cloninger, C. R., & Gough, H. C. (2006). The International Personality Item Pool and the future of public-domain personality measures. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 84-96. ) is characterized by frequency of changes in mood and the frequency of feelings worry and concern. This may either make larpers more sensitive to stress or also reduce the available resources for dealing with stress.
Constructive and Harmful Coping
Even if players are similarly predisposed to stress, they subconsciously or deliberately use different approaches, or coping mechanisms, to ameliorate the effects of stress. Using a battery of questionsCoping was assessed using COPE-inventory; http://www.midss.org/content/cope-inventory (Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283.) we assessed respondents’ stress coping approaches and compared them to the reported stress symptoms.
These harmful behaviours were associated with reporting more stress-related symptoms:
- denial (not acknowledging the feelings of stress)
- avoidance (not confronting the feelings of stress)
- substance use
- externalization (blaming others)
- paralyzation (to avoid or to be incapable of taking an action related to stress)
In contrast, these constructive behaviors were not associated with reporting more symptoms:
- planning or taking action to alleviate stress
- recognizing mistakes made and attempting to remedy them
Generally, constructive coping strategies require more resources, while harmful ones avoid confronting the feelings of stress. As expected, our data suggests harmful strategies are more common among larpers who reported more life stress, poor self-esteem, or a predisposition to anxiety. In short, larpers with fewer resources to spare use harmful coping strategies, unintentionally increasing the experienced stress even further.
Tips for Players
How to Recognize Larp-Related Stress
Recognizing stress is paramount for coping with it. Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and current psychological state allows you to plan your activities effectively.
Larp-related stress manifests much like stress from other sources. According to our data (Figure 2) there are four interconnected symptom categories: depression, anxiety, physical symptoms (such as loss of appetite, fatigue), and sleep disturbances. Another symptom category, tiredness and social avoidance, seems to be separate from the other four.
Keeping a diary of stress symptoms, eating habits or sleep rhythms and looking for changes can be a useful tool for identifying how stress affects you: looking back, you can learn evaluating when you’ve felt most or least stressed, and what was going on. Monitoring your body sensations and anxiety levels before and during the game can help you manage your stress levels, reduce symptoms, and calm your nervous system by e.g. doing breathing and mindfulness exercises. It is also worth noticing how you interpret stress related sensations — as positive excitement or as negative and overwhelming symptoms?
How to Cope with Larp-Related Stress
For most players, larps are moderately stressful but the stress is not long-lasting. For players predisposed to larp-related stress, the impact may be more significant and prolonged. If this is you, recognizing the stressors affecting you the most can let you plan coping strategies more effectively.
Almost 80 respondents described in their own words how they actively dealt with stress. Coping strategies could be roughly divided into planning ahead, reducing stress-related symptoms, controlling the source of stress, dealing with the emotion itself, and compensating for lost energy levels afterwards. Using these strategies in advance, during the game and after may help you cope with stress.
The most common strategies were social coping approaches — talking to other larpers, friends, family, and organizers to ponder, analyze, and rant about the experience. Talking things over can help reframing a stressful situation and put it into perspective. Respondents talked about seeking support or advice from others on specific issues. However, social coping can also mean socializing with others to take one’s mind off of the stressful experience. Social support structures can give players the resources they need to be able to use more constructive coping strategies, which require them to confront the causes of stress, and make plans for using mental resources to cope with it.
Players also reported using a wide range of internal strategies for dealing with feeling of stress. They could e.g. analyze and ponder the situation by themselves, write about their experiences, try to tolerate and accept the emotion, change their focus to something else, try to think positively, or lower their expectations. During the game players also dealt with stress by regulating their energy levels, emotion intensity, and focus by, e.g., taking scheduled breaks and carefully picking the content they wanted to focus on. Players also found that sleep and rest, as well as eating and drinking enough during the game, improved their coping ability. Some reported planning for upcoming stress or choosing games carefully based on things like game themes and design, to reduce the possibility of excessive stress. Some players also planned for stressful, taxing, and demanding larps and scheduled themselves post-larp time for recuperating physically and mentally. They took days off after games to do pleasurable, low-stress things: watch Netflix, sleep, do self care, and generally recharge. If you are planning to play a larp you expect to be stressful, plan ahead for recovery too!
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer publishing company.
Lin, N., Dean, A., & Ensel, W. M. (Eds.). (2013). Social support, life events, and depression. Academic Press.
|↑1||We expect minority-related stress applies to all marginalized groups, e.g. PoC players in a predominantly white environment. However, since our questionnaire only tracked the responders’ age and gender, we have no data for other demographic sources of minority stress.|
|↑2||For emotional instability and other personality personality factors, we used the 50-item questionnaire from the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP – https://ipip.ori.org/ and Goldberg, L. R., Johnson, J. A., Eber, H. W., Hogan, R., Ashton, M. C., Cloninger, C. R., & Gough, H. C. (2006). The International Personality Item Pool and the future of public-domain personality measures. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 84-96.|
|↑3||Coping was assessed using COPE-inventory; http://www.midss.org/content/cope-inventory (Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283.|