Challenging the Popularized Narrative of History

Challenging the Popularized Narrative of History

What is the popularized narrative of history?

There is no such thing as an objective narrative of history. The context of the present-day, the lens of hindsight, and the impossibility of knowing or understanding the true thoughts, feelings, and motivations of people in the past, all conspire against it. Furthermore, any presentation of history is necessarily selective, and necessarily imposes a frame around those historical facts that are included – a frame dictated by the writer’s perspective and agenda. However, it can still be the case that some narrative approaches are trying harder to be objective than others; and that some are more successful at it than others.

By default, unless you are trained as a historian, you will be receiving what we would like to call ‘the popularized narrative of history’. This is a mashup of what you typically learn at school, what you encounter in popular culture, and what you are told by those around you – both from their own experiences of recent history, and from the popularized learning process that they went through themselves. It may be that you were fortunate enough to have had an enlightened education, or to have grown up among people who had an informed view of history, or to have been trained to think critically about popular culture. But for most of us, this will not be the case. We will emerge into adulthood having imbibed a historical narrative that includes a range of stories about the history of our own community; about other peoples with which it has interacted; about the ancient world; and so on.

This popularized narrative, as well as not being accurate, is not neutral: it serves a social purpose. The object is to bind citizens together in a communal national story. It may favour incidents in history when ‘we were the good guys’ – it may avoid situations where the behaviour of our forebears was more difficult for our modern selves to accept. It may stereotype, and it may harmfully ‘other’ – treating groups of people as different from ‘us’, and so not deserving of the same consideration. For example, in the popularized narrative in colonial nations, colonized people are said to be primitive, barbaric, and inferior – justifying the historical colonization process as one of bringing civilization and enlightenment to them. In general, we can characterize the popularized narrative as a top-down oligarchic narrative, dictated in the interests of those in power – so that they might rule us more effectively by controlling our view of ‘us’, of our historical role, and of our present place on the world stage.

Through popular culture, a country’s popularized historical narrative may spread far outside its own borders. People from outside France understand the reign of Louis XIII through the lens of The Three Musketeers; people from outside the UK understand the Regency period through the lens of Jane Austen – or, more usually, from the host of films and TV shows based on or inspired by her work. And then, they (we) design larps about it.

Politics of larp

There is a traditional view that larping is just harmless fun – a form of entertainment, apolitical in nature, without responsibility towards its subjects. We believe that this is at best naive, at worst disingenuous: it works to undermine the unavoidably political nature of choices made within an ideologically-contested cultural sphere.

What we choose to larp about, and how we choose to present it, are inherently political. Each option taken serves to exclude other possibilities. Each decision represents a commitment to one set of values, and a denial of another.

If we design a larp set in the Regency period, what are we saying about gender roles? – about social class distinctions? – about racism? – about sexuality? – about slavery? The popularized narrative contains heavily-loaded answers to all of these questions. For example, it teaches that the UK’s relationship to slavery was a noble role of leading the world in abolishing the practice and in fighting to bring it to an end – ignoring the fact that during the Regency period, a large part of the country’s wealth, and that of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels, was derived from the ongoing exploitation and subjugation of enslaved people (see for example Ferguson 2003). We must not just accept these answers blindly.

Mindful historical larping

The narrative of the Regency era through Jane Austen and the TV show Bridgerton has spawned larps such as The Social Season (Germany, 2023) and Pride without Prejudice (UK, 2018). Both these larps represent a popularized version of the history of the Regency period for upper-class people. These versions of history ignore the reality of life for anyone who isn’t upper-class. In the world of the Bridgerton-style Regency era, money and success are symbols of status, not survival.

The fact that the wealth of many families was gained through enslaving people is a topic that also has no place in either of these larps, despite being a real-world historical factor. The two larps mentioned take a different approach to handling this. Pride without Prejudice is set in an alternative reality where people were not enslaved and where queerphobia didn’t exist. The Social Season design document (Dombrowski Event UG 2023) states that play on racism is not allowed and that “conversations about slave plantations in the New World or the lucrative human trafficking that you or your imaginary friends engage in are also undesirable.”

Fairweather Manor (Poland, 2015) is a larp inspired by the TV shows Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. It focuses on key themes of gender and class, in a similar way to the ways they have been depicted in these shows, and aims to “balance the atmosphere of a historical setting with a highly immersive and playable experience” (Fairweather Manor website 2023). The larp ignored the reality of the class division meaning that it would be unlikely that the servants and the upper class families they serve would be friends and confidants, as well as ignoring the impact of the British empire and the way it was celebrated during this time period.

This is not intended as a criticism of these larps: all of them state that they are representing a fictionalized account of history which is necessary for playability, and acknowledge the choices made about what to include and what to exclude.

So none of this is to say that creators of larps are acting immorally by using a popularized, or otherwise limited, view of history to create larps. We are always making choices when we decide what the main focus of a larp is, and with limited time and a limited number of participants we can’t hope to explore all aspects of a historical period. And even if attempted, it is likely that our own biases and lack of information would lead to some aspects being missed anyway.

Instead we need to make mindful choices about what to include, and about the statements we’re making with what we exclude. 

This is not an argument that all historical larps should be exercises in exploring historical oppression. It is totally fine to create an alternative history where racism, or queerphobia, doesn’t exist, in order to focus on another aspect of the experience (see also Holkar 2016). In fact, choices to include things (e.g. a strict gender binary, sexual violence) because they are deemed to be historically accurate should also be made meaningfully.

An important question to ask ourselves as designers is, if we are exploring a historical period that is portrayed in a specific way in the media and in general public understanding, are we leaning into that portrayal? If so, what has been omitted from that portrayal and should that be communicated to participants?

For example Unnatural Allures is “a fictionalized and heightened version of the late Victorian and Edwardian era” (Design Document, Kraut.tales 2023) and plays with eroticism and horror. The writers acknowledge the nationalism, colonialism, and orientalism of the period, and suggest that there will be some play around it, although it will be framed in a negative light; while stating that racism is not a theme of play. They also include suggested readings in the appendix of the design document for potential players who want to contextualize the period.

Just a Little Lovin’ (Norway, 2011), set in the 1980s, engages heavily with the time period. The themes of the larp are desire, in part represented through queer spaces and cultural movements of the time; and death, represented by the AIDS crisis and the social response to it. However, in the majority of runs of the larp, themes of racism – which was prevalent within and outside the queer community at the time the larp is set – were largely ignored, generally as a conscious design choice not to shift focus or add another axis of oppression. But in a run in the USA (2017), play on racism was included, as the designers then felt that it was essential not to erase the experiences of people of colour.


To state that all larps are political is not to state that all larps have to engage in difficult topics, to evoke negative emotions, or to be an exploration of the deeper injustices of society. However, we believe that there is a responsibility for designers to consider what they are including in, and omitting from, their larps; and what statements are being made by those decisions.

The popularized narrative of history will always be tempting to draw upon, because it is what is most accessible and familiar: it requires the least work on the part of the designer. But it brings a load of cultural baggage and assumptions that may be unwanted – and that, we feel, should be investigated and challenged.


Fairweather Manor website: Accessed 22nd September 2023

Niall Ferguson (2003): Why We Ruled the World. In The Times, May 1, 2003. News Corp UK & Ireland Limited. Available at ref. Sep 8, 2023.

Dombrowski Event UG (2023): Design Concept: The Social Season. Available at ref: Sep 9, 2023

Mo Holkar (2016): Larp and Prejudice: Expressing, Erasing, Exploring, and the Fun Tax. In Larp Realia – Analysis, Design, and Discussions of Nordic Larp, edited by Jukka Särkijärvi, Mika Loponen, and Kaisa Kangas. Solmukohta.

Kraut.tales (2023): Unnatural allures: Design Document. Available at ref. Sep 9, 2023


Fairweather Manor (2015): Poland. Agata Swistak, Agnieszka Linka Hawryluk-Boruta, Akinomaja Borysiewicz, Alexander Tukaj, Beata Ploch, Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted, Dracan Dembinski, Ida Pawłowicz, Janina Wicher, Krzysztof “Ciastek” Szczęch, Krzysztof “Iryt” Kraus, Maciek Nitka, Mikołaj Wicher, Nadina Wiórkiewicz, Szymon Boruta. Rollespilsfabrikken and Liveform.

Just a Little Lovin’ (2011): Norway. Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo.  

Just a Little Lovin’ (2017): USA. Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. Pink Dollars LLC.

Pride without Prejudice (2018): UK. Amy Mason and David Proctor.

The Social Season (2023): Germany. Dombrowski Event UG.

Unnatural Allures (2024): Germany. Alexandra Vogel, Florian Hofmann, Marina Machaeuer, Christian Schneider, Germany. kraut.tales

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Wood, Laura, and Mo Holkar. 2024. “Challenging the Popularized Narrative of History.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Image by Mollyroselee from Pixabay

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Mo Holkar is a British larp designer and organizer. He is part of the Larps on Location design collective, and was formerly an organizer of The Smoke and of The Game Kitchen. He is a member of the editorial board of
Laura Wood (she / they) is a British larper and larp designer. They are an organizer at Larps on Location. They have also designed several larps which have run in several countries throughout Europe including Here Comes a Candle, The Dreamers, and Inside. They love larp for its ability to explore relationships, ethics, and identity: and are currently interested in safety, consent, and community building.