Larp as Magical Practice: Finding the Power-From-Within

Larp as Magical Practice: Finding the Power-From-Within

And so the personal is political: the forces that shape our individual lives are the same forces that shape our collective life as a culture. — Starhawk[1]Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1997, p. 28).

We larpers are a weird bunch: we make up stories, create costumes, research tiny historical details or read boring philosophical essays just to be able to play a character that feels right, for a few hours. We try our best to step into another person’s shoes, sometimes coming home with a similar pair to wear in our everyday life. How odd; but how precious.

Indeed, I will argue that larp has the potential to make meaningful change, by helping us expand our imagination and empowerment.

When writing this paper, I first wanted to – as goes the saying – tell you about my character. It was a story of overcoming personal limitations, expanding the alibi, and finding support and acceptance from my co-players. But I’m sure you’ve heard the story: or, better yet, lived it.

Instead, I want to tell you about the mental structures that lie beneath this. The way our brain got wired to meet the requirements of a society based on status inequality, isolation, and a belief in individual responsibility – radical free will, as opposed to the existence of social and material determinism and disparity of chances. I want to tell you about how larp can help us change these structures, dig out the roots of alienation, and find our second breath to create different mental and cultural structures. I want to tell you about magic.

According to witch philosopher Starhawk, magic is about achieving a shift of consciousness: take a step outside of our previous (ordinary) way of looking at things, and manage a truly different vision of the world and ourselves. Rings a bell?

In this essay, I will explain how Starhawk’s vision of magic allows us to gain a different perspective on what happens through larp and what can be achieved. Jonaya Kemper’s work on emancipation[2]Jonaya Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” Nordiclarp.org, June 21, 2017 will be instrumental to show how magic plays out, and to gain a deeper understanding of the world-changing potential of larping.

Magic at Play

Starhawk is an ecofeminism activist, philosopher and Neopagan witch. She uses magic to change the world, in a practical sense. Let’s see how it works.

According to her, magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.[3]Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1997, p. 13). Magic takes its roots in a paradox: “Consciousness shapes reality. Reality shapes consciousness.[4]Ibid. Our mental structures, beliefs, intellectual and spiritual patterns, states of mind… and the things outside ourselves – the culture, places, people, myths… – are interdependent. We are both a product of the world that surrounds us and producing it in turn. Because we exist within reality, our actions influence it; but we also derive most of our “consciousness”, our awareness of the things within and without our mind, from the preexisting reality.

Magic is finding the path to change our own consciousness. It can be done through very practical things, such as activism, or more esoteric ones, such as mindfulness. Whichever path you take, one single truth remains: magic is about finding what Starhawk calls the power-from-within: the power that derives from what we ourselves can do and achieve, as opposed to power-over.

Power-over is power derived from hierarchy, constraint, or imposing on people by force, manipulation, or persuasion. Laws (secular or religious) rely on power-over: the threat of enforcement causes people to abide, not ultimately because they think it’s the right thing to do (though they may come to believe it), but because they are (symbolically or physically) coerced to do so. On the contrary, power-from-within is not about making people do stuff, nor is it about acting the way people want us to: it is about our own agency and capability.

Once you find your power-from-within and manage the shift, Starhawk is positive that you will act on it. Shift your consciousness and the world around you will change, because you’ll make choices to induce change – helping reality itself evolve to a different balance.

Now back to larp: I’ll argue that a successful larp is one in which we achieve that shift of consciousness. And that it is, in fact, the greatest thing larp can hope to achieve.

person in black clothes in room with art on the walls

Caprice, a character I’d wanted to tell you about. She’s dressed in black shorts, suspenders and unbuttoned hoodie, her breasts flattened with black tape. She wears red lipstick and strange, scar-like make-up. Red words figuring scarifications can be seen on her thighs. She’s talking passionately to an unseen crowd in a room with white walls on which hang black-and-white pictures of well-dressed artists. Larp: OSIRIS, 2019. Photo by Lille Clairence.

 

Othering Oneself

The alibi is often at the core of the social contract in larp. It can be defined as “The things that enable a person to (role-)play and to do things they would never do in everyday life while in character.”[5]“Glossary,” in Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences (2019). It says: “By entering the game, we pledge to separate the character’s speeches and actions from the player’s.”

Without that insurance, we can’t play roles, because we can’t step out of our ordinary selves.

Oh, the alibi is a flimsy thing: mundane elements such as performance anxiety, an unsafe environment, the difficulty to differentiate the player’s and the character’s emotions from an external viewpoint, or internalised bias (ours or our co-players’),[6]Kemper, Jonaya, Eleanor Saitta, and Johanna Koljonen. “Steering for Survival.” In What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta (2020). put it in jeopardy. It doesn’t always live up to the task: more often than not, perhaps, we leave a larp having not dared enough, under-played our character, or even held a grudge (or had a crush) on a player after in-character interactions. Still: the alibi, albeit imperfect, is the key ingredient that clearly distinguishes larp from other types of play (we need alibi in table-top RPG too, but the embodiment required by larp takes it one definite step further).

Whether it works or not, the alibi as a social contract sustains an effort to perceive friends as elves, strangers as companions, or oneself as an artist. It is an attempt at a shift of consciousness.

Of course, famously called willful suspension of disbelief, the attitude a reader adopts to engage with a piece of fiction (withdrawing judgement on the veracity or realness of events taking place within the fiction) covers some of the same ground, and has been used and expanded in relation to larp:[7]Schrier, Karen, Evan Torner, and Jessica Hammer. “Worldbuilding in Role-Playing Games.” In Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach (2018, p. 349-363). but then again, embodiment and player agency in larps take that dimension further, to a place more intimate and more active. In addition, the strong collective component of larp goes far beyond the individual attitude towards fiction: we can only sustain our mindset, our attitude towards the game, if the others play along. In larp, we need others to achieve what we mean to achieve: there can be no individual success or failure. It’s all co-creation and collaboration towards the same goal: to create a meaningful, engaging story, in which we can let ourselves be caught.

So, larp is a kind of magic. Using our will to participate in larp, we engage emotionally and meaningfully in a character and relationships. When we interact with people, or with the larp design, we create a space for this to happen. In that space, things and behaviours are redefined, reinterpreted. The most mundane of elements can convey vastly different things: in this, we make art. We create meaning. This wooden door is a gate to the underworld. This young woman is the old queen of an older kingdom. This person whom I never met is my long-lost love.

We say these things and we believe them. We make that shift of consciousness. Magic happens.

So what? Permeating the Real World

The most common association with magic in regard to play is that of pioneer game scholar Johan Huizinga: the magic circle. According to the Larp Design Glossary, the magic circle is a “[m]etaphor for the separate space of playing.”[8]“Glossary,” 2019. It marks the game space, both physical and virtual (mindspace, belief system, gameworld, etc.), as separate, as distinct from the paramount reality.[9]A term used by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, it designates what we call “reality,” our ordinary life and most commonly shared world, as opposed to “provinces of meaning,” which are like “pockets” of alternate reality (such as fiction, play or religion). Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1968).

Huizinga’s theory has been widely criticised, as the separation between play and reality is often impossible to trace (and their definitions elusive). According to Stenros,[10]Jaakko Stenros, “In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play,” in Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, (2014 the notion of a magic circle would actually be plural, expressing different “boundaries of play” – the player’s state of mind, the social contract, and the game space. Those boundaries remain porous: the magic circle can be endangered by external events, and the players are able to navigate between different “layers,” zooming in and out of character during larps.[11]Hilda Levin. “Metareflection,” in What Do We Do When We Play? (2020).

Despite this criticism, and following its redefinitions, the term “magic circle” remains widely used to designate the elements sheltering a game from reality, and vice versa. “Play” and “reality” must remain separate, and by entering the game, we cast a spell to make it so.

But if we are to believe Starhawk, Huizinga was wrong all along: magic is not what makes the game impermeable. It’s what makes it porous. Magic is that shift of consciousness, temporary perhaps but with long-lasting repercussions, that allows larp to influence the bigger, outer world.

Magic is the reason why so many larpers report they became more comfortable talking in public, or wearing “eccentric” clothes, or exploring gender fluidity. It’s the reason we created bonds so strong with people we spent barely a handful of days with, why we were sometimes able to create a community of trust out of diverse people. Magic is seen through all the things in larps that allowed us to grow.

But careful: magic is not guaranteed to happen. Sometimes, we become more comfortable with things through larp just because we’ve had the opportunity to practice, when we couldn’t otherwise try them out. We might not need a deep change in mindset to become more at-ease talking in public when it’s the fifth larp this year in which we’ve had to deliver an inspirational speech. It may just be a matter of habit, of practice. Similarly, learning to impersonate a character doesn’t mean they’ve shaken us to our core, mingling with our sense of identity, throwing us out in the world with new perspectives.

A shift of consciousness is something more profound than that. It’s not pretense, or shallow belief.

Magic is demanding that we dive deep and redefine our core beliefs. And that’s gonna take us some work.

Building Our Power

Larp is a dense, demanding hobby, which tends to generate a tightly-knit social fabric. As such, it can be a truly powerful tool for community building. But the “community” thus made is no stranger to power dynamics,[12]Axiel Cazeneuve, “The Paradox of Inclusivity,” In What Do We Do When We Play? (2020). status inequalities,[13]Muriel Algayres, “The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety,” Nordiclarp.org. Accessed March 28, 2020 and discriminations in access to games, hype, speech, etc.[14]Kemper, Eleanor, and Koljonen, 2020). These are all manifestations of internalized power-over – we have a hard time rejecting the script society hammered us with.

In her paper “Wyrding the Self,”[15]Jonaya Kemper, “Wyrding the Self,” In What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Jukka Särkijärvi, and Johanna Koljonen. Helsinki, Finland: Solmukohta, 2020. larp scholar and activist Jonaya Kemper brings into focus something many may find disturbing: that we’re all the oppressor and the oppressed. Even the most marginalized person in regard to society standards can still inflict power-over. Even the most privileged can be subjected to power.

Collective Liberation

“Wyrding,” Kemper explains, means to embrace being weird as opposed to being determined by society. “To be weird is to be outside of the normal aspects of society, yes, but to also collectively decide who you would like to be, not based on societal pressure.”[16]Ibid. The way I see it, wyrding is a way to increase our power-from-within: let go of social expectations and focus on what we can do and be.

If embracing weirdness is how we can achieve liberation, then larp sure is the place to do it. In fact, even if all larps do not make great magic, the habit of taking on different roles and perceiving others doing so is still an exercise at shifting consciousness at will.

Kemper’s now-famous concept of emancipatory bleed[17]Jonaya Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” Nordiclarp.org, June 21, 2017. has thrown light on how we can use larp to overcome our own internalized limitations. According to Kemper, “bleed” (the transfer of emotions between character and player)can be steered and used for emancipatory purposes by players who live with complex marginalizations.” Through careful calibration, players can navigate towards experiences they want to deal with or overcome in the safe environment larp provides (on the need to feel safe to larp.[18]Cf. Anneli Friedner, “The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larps,” Nordiclarp.org, October 7).

Kemper’s proposition may seem individualistic, as it emphasizes on the player’s own empowerment. Likewise, magic as essentially a state of mind could feel self-centered at first. But as Starhawk points out in the quote I chose as an introduction to this essay, “the forces that shape our individual lives are the same forces that shape our collective life as a culture.”[19]Starhawk, 1997, p. 28. In acting on the things that determine us, that make us that way, we also induce change on a broader level – albeit in an often imperceptible manner. The converse is also true: we can only change ourselves to the extent that we make the world to allow that change.

Indeed, Kemper writes, “If we want liberation, then we must also liberate those who oppress us because they’re oppressed just like us.”[20]Kemper, 2020, p. 212). There is nothing like individual liberation – the social and the personal are deeply intertwined. And both Kemper and Starhawk agree that communities are where shit is gonna happen.

All limitations considered, let us nonetheless posit that larp is magical practice. A collective endeavour to achieve a shift of consciousness, an art of changing the way we see the world and the critters in it. Such practice would have to liberate us, to make us freer from social norms, more eager to act against them. If, and only if we could shake off the same old power structure we’ve been bathing in from an early age.

To hell with power-over; it’s time to find our Power-From-Within.

Two people bathed in blue light, one behind the other with mouth close to their neck, while the other is blindfolded

Caprice (the author) and Claude Giger (Lille Clairence) singing “Les Tuileries” together. They learned and practiced the song two hours prior and are now performing at dinner in front of all the players. Giger holds blind-folded Caprice closely against his chest, a technique used by the players to keep Caprice’s player from shaking with stress and coordinate their breathing. The light is blue, dim. OSIRIS, 2019. Photo by the organizers.

Ethics of Larping

The way we ordinarily imagine magic has everything to do with speech acts, or what we call language performativity.[21]After linguist John Austin’s theory of speech acts, though he didn’t use that exact phrase himself. John Austin, How to Do Things with Words (1962). It designates occurrences when saying actually does something. The most common example of this is when a priest or a mayor pronounces two people wed: they don’t only say it, as you and I might, they effectively make it happen, through the power granted to them by whichever institution backs them up. In our imagination, we figure magic works like that: a great wizard called fire upon them, and fire came.

This is power-over. It’s why we laugh at magic, cause we don’t understand how it could really work. It’s not like we could really summon demons or receive healing magic from gods, right?

But true magic is about the power you have, not that which is granted or appropriated. It’s no gift, nor curse. It’s inner strength, capacity, determination to act. And so we must act in accordance to our words, not merely expect our words to have effect on their own.

I propose we apply what Starhawk calls the ethics of integrity to larp. In her words, “[i]ntegrity means consistency: we act in accordance with our thoughts, our images, our speeches.”[22]Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, 1997). It’s a basic principle that if we really do make the shift, if we manage to change consciousness at will, then our actions will follow.

Conversely, if we aim to take action – or inspire people to take action – through larp, we must wonder how we can try to reach the necessary shift of consciousness. In my master’s thesis,[23]Axiel Cazeneuve, Éthique et politique du jeu. Jeu de rôle grandeur nature et engagement politique en Finlande. Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, 2019). I argued that what makes larpers more inclined to supporting progressive politics is that larp is largely non-hierarchical, non-competitive, non-productive, and non-profit.[24]The ethnographic study was conducted in Finland, with back-up from “experimental” (inspired by Nordic larp, often using its toolbox) larp scenes in France, and cannot account for all larping cultures. However, I believe that where analogous conditions are met, the same conclusion can reasonably be drawn. These are not individual traits, but structural features. In my opinion, they’re essential to a socially powerful and ethical larp culture.

Larp is discordant. Disturbing. It disproves many of society’s strongly established beliefs: that adults can’t play. That play can’t be serious. That people only work for money. That people don’t typically cooperate, or collaborate without some kind of management or coercion.

The shape of larp, albeit imperfect, supports a whole different structure and a distinct mindset compared to the general society. And it is this structure that we must cherish and sustain, for it is that which can reach us and move us and lead us to achieve a shift of consciousness.

Through larping, we make social magic. It allows each of us to grow and change, and our discordant consciousnesses help change the world in turn.

Conclusion

Using Starhawk, this paper aimed at bridging magical practice and activism with larp, to show how art, politics, and personal liberation articulate. It follows Jonaya Kemper’s work, which focuses on what each of us can do to use larp for emancipation purposes, by offering a different reading grid – magic – on those phenomena and emphasizing on the importance of the collective in achieving liberation.

There is a lot larp can do: but saying this is not enough. We must be wary of this assumption. We can be tempted to assume a larp tackling difficult social issues, for example, will succeed in raising awareness or leading people to have different opinions: but how we do things is at least as important as what we do. As Eirik Fatland demonstrated in a keynote held at the State of the Larp conference,[25]Eirik Fatland, “Larp for Manipulation or Liberation,” Oslo, 2018 larps about specific, real-life issues have mostly no impact on the beliefs of the players, but can on the contrary reinforce stereotypes and preconceptions.

This focus on discourse, as opposed to structure, is a common flaw of progressive politics, especially among large political organisations such as parties or NGOs. They often make the mistake of believing in their own efficiency and effectiveness, regardless of the social and material reality they – and we, in spite of ourselves – exist in. So does larp, when it doesn’t examine its own structure with a critical enough eye.

Starhawk’s vision of magic provides us with an alternative framework, less concerned with discourse and more in touch with the material reality we live in – that which shapes us, and gets shaped in turn. As larpers, we learn to be flexible and to think differently about the world, both social and material: it’s a gift we can use and enhance to make true magic – change consciousness to take meaningful actions.

It’s only possible if we stay vigilant: the structure of the society we mean to change is pervasive. Resisting it is a constant struggle: but larp, like magic, might be just what we need to do so.

References

Algayres, Muriel. “The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety.” Nordic Larp, March 28, 2020.

Berger, Peter, and Thomas L Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor, 1967.

Cazeneuve, Axiel. “The Paradox of Inclusivity.” In What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta 2020, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Makkonen Mia, Männistö Pauliina, Serup Grove Anne, and Johanna Koljonen, 244–53. Helsinki: Solmukohta 2020, 2020.

Cazeneuve, Axiel. “Éthique et politique du jeu. Jeu de rôle grandeur nature et engagement politique en Finlande.” Directed by Laurent Gabail. Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, 2019.

Fatland, Eirik. “Larp for Manipulation or Liberation.” Oslo, 2018.

Friedner, Anneli. “The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larps.” Nordic Larp, October 7, 2019.

Kemper, Jonaya. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordic Larp, June 2021, 2017.

Kemper, Jonaya, Saitta, Eleanor & Koljonen, Johanna. “Steering for Survival”. In What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta 2020., edited by Eleanor Saitta, Makkonen Mia, Männistö Pauliina, Serup Grove Anne, and Johanna Koljonen, 49-52. Helsinki: Solmukohta 2020, 2020.

Levin, Hilda. “Metareflection”. In What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta 2020., edited by Eleanor Saitta, Makkonen Mia, Männistö Pauliina, Serup Grove Anne, and Johanna Koljonen, 62-74. Helsinki: Solmukohta 2020, 2020.

Schrier, Karen, Torner, Evan & Hammer, Jessica. “Worldbuiling in Role-Playing Games.” In Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, edited by Zagal, José P. and Deterding, Sebastian, 349-363. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1997 (1982).

Stenros, Jaakko. “In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play.” Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, 2014.

Seregina, Usva. “On the Commodification of Larp.” Nordic Larp, December 17, 2019.


Cover photo: Caprice, a character that made me understand magic, at the larp OSIRIS in 2019. She’s standing blindfolded with loud music in her ears on a narrow wall in the cold February wind as part as an impromptu performance. She wears a long red cocktail dress laced at the back that reveals her bare tattooed back. She stands with her arms half-risen in a powerful pose. The background is a thickly clouded sky over a dry heath. Photo by Lille Clairence as Caprice’s partner, Claude Giger.

This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Cazeneuve, Axiel. “Larp as Magical Practice: Finding the Power-From-Within.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).

 

References

References
1Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1997, p. 28).
2Jonaya Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” Nordiclarp.org, June 21, 2017
3Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1997, p. 13).
4, 16Ibid.
5“Glossary,” in Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences (2019).
6Kemper, Jonaya, Eleanor Saitta, and Johanna Koljonen. “Steering for Survival.” In What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta (2020).
7Schrier, Karen, Evan Torner, and Jessica Hammer. “Worldbuilding in Role-Playing Games.” In Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach (2018, p. 349-363).
8“Glossary,” 2019.
9A term used by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, it designates what we call “reality,” our ordinary life and most commonly shared world, as opposed to “provinces of meaning,” which are like “pockets” of alternate reality (such as fiction, play or religion). Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1968).
10Jaakko Stenros, “In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play,” in Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, (2014
11Hilda Levin. “Metareflection,” in What Do We Do When We Play? (2020).
12Axiel Cazeneuve, “The Paradox of Inclusivity,” In What Do We Do When We Play? (2020).
13Muriel Algayres, “The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety,” Nordiclarp.org. Accessed March 28, 2020
14Kemper, Eleanor, and Koljonen, 2020).
15Jonaya Kemper, “Wyrding the Self,” In What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Jukka Särkijärvi, and Johanna Koljonen. Helsinki, Finland: Solmukohta, 2020.
17Jonaya Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” Nordiclarp.org, June 21, 2017.
18Cf. Anneli Friedner, “The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larps,” Nordiclarp.org, October 7).
19Starhawk, 1997, p. 28.
20Kemper, 2020, p. 212).
21After linguist John Austin’s theory of speech acts, though he didn’t use that exact phrase himself. John Austin, How to Do Things with Words (1962).
22Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics, 1997).
23Axiel Cazeneuve, Éthique et politique du jeu. Jeu de rôle grandeur nature et engagement politique en Finlande. Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, 2019).
24The ethnographic study was conducted in Finland, with back-up from “experimental” (inspired by Nordic larp, often using its toolbox) larp scenes in France, and cannot account for all larping cultures. However, I believe that where analogous conditions are met, the same conclusion can reasonably be drawn.
25Eirik Fatland, “Larp for Manipulation or Liberation,” Oslo, 2018

Authors

Axiel Cazeneuve (b. 1994) is a French anthropologist, larpwright, and queer activist. They create sex ed games and community resources and are a board member of several French larping organization, including the national federation.
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