Regardless of your level of ability, there is an expectation that young people from poor backgrounds will fall into certain patterns in their lives. The dream of social mobility relies heavily on people’s ability to imagine being able to take the first step in that direction. Young people playing football against a wall in their council estate have aspirations towards playing for a major football club one day. If they have a hunger and a talent for the game, they find out everything they can about the process. They know all about talent scouts and training schedules and what level of ability is required in order to be considered to have a chance.
The same is true for music. Young musicians are encouraged to get their music out there and be heard. They know about A&R, talent scouts and recording studios. They know the names of the people who managed to make a name for themselves from a background of poverty and imagine themselves doing the same. It is clear that for some people it becomes possible to turn that dream into a reality. The ability to imagine it coming true fuels the desire to pursue it to its fruition. The overwhelming majority do not make it, but for the few who do, it started with a passion and a dream.
Every part of the larp process functions as a safe place to try out new experiences and see for ourselves how comfortable they can be. When we research a new role, we expose ourselves to new ideas and new concepts. We purchase and try on the clothes and paraphernalia associated with a new role, and get a chance to see how comfortable we are with the image that portrays. We get the opportunity to try out the mannerisms and activities that are associated with lifestyles that we would otherwise never get to see, and discover for ourselves if this is something that we can do.
Larping provides us with a first step on the road to pursuing our dreams. It extends the idea beyond wistful thinking and idle daydreams, and starts the process of turning ideas into a physical manifestation. We can experiment with new concepts and see how easily they come to us, and if it does not work out the way that we intended, larp enables us to brush off the old character and try on something new. Along the way, we can choose to keep the aspects of the characters that we enjoyed, while discarding those elements that are unhealthy or unappealing.
From the moment of casting, we are encouraged to open our mind to new possibilities and stretch ourselves. We look at roles that seem interesting and exciting and wonder what it would be like to live in those shoes for a few days. Larp gives us an alibi to explore areas of research that we may not ordinarily know where to begin to access. If you grow up in an environment where everyone is involved in the same line of work, or where many of the people you know do not work, it can be difficult to understand where to even begin finding out how to do something different.
Once the process of researching the role has begun, we also begin to see how well we look when we try to fit into that role. There is something wonderful about standing in a locked, run down bathroom with the sounds of shouting and construction just outside while trying on a tuxedo and black tie for a high class larp. When I did this I guarded that bag containing my tux with my life! It was mine, it fitted me and it fitted well. The last thing I needed was someone throwing up on it or running off with it.
What this meant was that when invited to places where tuxedos were worn, I already looked comfortable in it and I already fitted in. I don’t need to perform my poor background in real life, its truth is self-evident. When attending black tie dinners for charitable organisations, it was clear that I was already comfortable in those surroundings. This made it easier to help potential others feel comfortable when discussing the issues affecting my neighbourhood because I wasn’t tugging at my bow tie every three minutes like I was at the larp.
Perhaps more importantly, when I was at a Black Tie larp, other larpers who were no strangers to wearing tuxedos were more than willing to help me wear it properly. All of the things that would have social impact in a real world situation were managed and helped in a supportive and safe environment. Everyone wanted to help me play my role well, and I did what I could to reward them with a well played role. The larp environment proved to be a much more supportive environment than the reality of making an impression at a charity dinner.
When we take on a role it is far more than simply dressing up. By interacting with other people in character, we have an opportunity to experience what it feels like to live the day to day life of those characters. The small rituals and activities that are associated with different lifestyles become key parts of the characterisation and have a profound effect on how comfortable we feel performing them in other aspects of our life. We get to contextualise the activities and learn how to apply them in different situations.
While the technical skill of a character role is often abstractly represented, knowing when to apply those skills is not, and by having the opportunity to play these characters, we can become more confident in our ability to apply these skills in the right environment. Even if we do not play the character convincingly, we can at least appreciate whether or not we enjoy the activity itself. If it is something that we can do and that we enjoy doing, we can look into the prospect of incorporating it into our lives.
Practical experience and enjoyable memories of that experience give us the confidence to try new things and explore new possibilities. Even if we do not go on to explore in real life any of the characters that we have played, the activity of exploration through play is a transformative one in and of itself. We develop our ability to imagine ourselves in alternative situations and in doing so can become more open to alternative life choices. We no longer need to be defined by our family and immediate society and can choose which aspects of life we want to explore more fully.
Being able to imagine yourself in new situations lets you realise what parts of your life are in your hands to change, and gives you the confidence to change them. In addition to this, larp provides you with a safe space in which you can explore aspects of yourself that you wish to try on for size. This is not limited to occupations and class, but also to sexuality, gender expression, and how you engage with the world around you. Once you realise that you can change the way you engage with the world, you are one step away from being comfortable making the changes needed to transform your circumstances.
Cover photo: Photo by Hani Pirzadian on Unsplash. Photo has been cropped and filtered.
This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Ford, Kol. “Living the Dream: Larp as a Transformative Practice.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021.