Readdressing Larp as Commodity: How Do We Define Value When the Customer Is Always Right?

Readdressing Larp as Commodity: How Do We Define Value When the Customer Is Always Right?

At the end of 2019, I wrote an article on the commodification of larp (Seregina 2020), suggesting that larp has become a commodity and analysing the activity from a commodification point of view. The topic felt timely and sparked a lot of interesting and important discussions. In this article, I return to the topic of larp as a commodity, taking a look at it in a context that is defined by numerous crises. We are at a point in time where financial resources are becoming scarce for many, while a need for communal activities is high.

Before delving any deeper, it is central to note that the development of larp into a commodity is, in many ways, a logical development within contemporary society, a society which largely functions around consumption-oriented logic. This forms what is commonly referred to as consumer culture (see Slater 1997; Baudrillard 1998; Bauman 2001; Cohen 2003). Hence, the commodification of larp, in itself as a development, is neither good nor bad. It merely follows the development that has become commonplace within contemporary society. In fact, commodification comes with many positive aspects. 

For example, a commodified larp becomes more accepted and legitimised in wider society, as it takes on familiar legal and financial forms, as well as clearer producer and consumer roles. Thus, in reflecting structures common in society and taking on a financial element, larp becomes a more ‘acceptable,’ ‘worthwhile’ use of one’s time. Commodified larps also gain more streamlined production processes, as elements become optimised and repeatable. Hence, creation and production of larp can become easier and faster (for more on this, see Seregina 2020). However, it is important to be aware of what these developments do to larp as a practice in its entirety, as the positives do not come without the negatives (no matter how hard we try).

The terms consumer and commodity can often feel cold and removed, and hence larpers often do not want to think about their beloved hobby as part of the market economy. However, ignoring the fact does not address any of the issues that the development of larp into a more commodified form brings with it, and may potentially even make them worse. While I do not believe commodification in itself is bad, I do believe that it can result in negative outcomes for our community if left unchecked. Hence, I would like to re-address the topic of larp as a commodity and reflect on what it means for larpers to become consumers. 

Co-Creation of a Commodity

What exactly does larp as a commodity mean? Commodification is often incorrectly equated with paying money for something, as well as with passively interacting with something. However, it is more about the form of and attitude toward a thing (Campbell 1987; Slater 1997): larp becomes a commodity, as it becomes a resource within the exchange economy. In other words, it becomes valued not for what it is, but for what capital (whatever form this may take) it provides in exchange for people engaging in it. This capital is aimed at fulfilling a want or need, and can be financial, but also cultural or social capital, such as status or experience. The latter would be more common in the context of larp.

Following the above, co-creation or active participation does not exclude something being a commodity. Commodification rather becomes an issue of what participants (or now consumers) expect from the activity, and what their attitude toward it is. In fact, many traditional commodities are becoming co-created or gamified, as it has been shown that an actively interacting consumer is more engaged and thus more invested (for example, Oli Mould (2018) talks about the commodification of creativity overall). In that sense, larp fits perfectly into how contemporary markets are progressing.

As I explain in my 2020 article, larp has developed into a commodity via various characteristics and circumstances, including increased media coverage, rising growth and demand, as well as inclusion of elements from the market economy (such as catering, cleaning services, etc.). The latter ties into the idea of us ‘buying back’ our leisure time in order to use our time and resources more efficiently (following Frayne 2015). In essence, many convenience commodities, such as microwave meals or cleaning services, allow us to free up the time we would normally use to engage in their creation (such as cooking or cleaning). While ‘buying back’ time allows organisers and participants of larps to focus more on the larp itself instead of all the chores that come with it, it also means that we engage less materially with the practicalities of the event, thus tying larp into consumerist norms. In other words, as we ‘make’ less of the larp ourselves and together, it becomes created for us and thus removed from us as a commodity functioning through forms and structures of consumer culture. 

Another important aspect of how larp becomes a commodity is rooted in how we talk about it. The past years have seen us change a lot of terminology and description of larp toward a more commodified and consumerist logic. Society in general is extremely performative, in that social meanings exist merely because we have decided to collectively give them these meanings, repeating the same meanings over and over (following Austin 1962, Turner 1987). Coming from this logic, things have meaning and status and value because we actively give them that meaning and status and value. For example, something is posh or stylish only because we have collectively decided that these things are posh or stylish. Hence, when we call  larp participants “customers” or when we call sign-ups to larp “ticket purchases”, we further instill the essence of consumerism onto larp through wording it as such.  

Multiple shopping carts stacked together

Photo by Pixabay, Pexels

The Customer is Always Right

If an activity becomes approached as a commodity, its user naturally takes on a consumer or customer role. This is a role that we are extremely accustomed to in today’s society, as we are acculturated into it within consumer culture, and take it on in many contexts (such as service and shopping situations, but also governance, education, and culture). Hence, we slip into the role of a consumer very easily, without necessarily recognising it as such.

The consumer role comes with its own preset modes of interaction with the service provider (in this case, the larp organiser), other service users (other larp participants), and the product itself (the larp). A consumer is driven by their wants and needs, and fulfills these by consuming products (Campbell 1987). While attending a larp may have a multitude of underlying goals (which I will not go into here), we could roughly sum these up as the want to have a good experience (whatever that is classified as). However, the consumer is only driven by their own needs and wants. This does not mean consumers become passive or exclusionary: as I mention above, a consumption experience can be very interactive and co-created. However, the end-goal of such an experience will always be one’s own experience, with other participants becoming a part of the background or potentially even seen as service providers along with the larp organiser. The co-creation will thus not be on equal terms, but rather as a consumer and producer, with the former holding a lot of power over the latter in terms of expectations and demands. 

At the same time, the consumer relinquishes any responsibility over the product (following Slater 1997; Ritzer 2001; Cohen 2003). The product is created by the service provider, and hence its value is created during its production. However, the complex issue with larp is that its production and consumption are, in many ways, overlapping processes that cannot be distinguished or disentangled. We create larp as we consume it; forever an ephemeral process. As I noted in my 2020 article, in the long run, this loosening of responsibility may lead to collapse of communal larping as everyone merely focuses on their own experiences.

In itself the consumer role is in no way problematic, as long as it does not undermine the organiser and the other players. However, one big issue I see arising is what happens when someone has a bad time. Obviously, if it’s a safety concern or another similar matter, these need to be dealt with properly by the organiser. But what happens when someone does not have an experience that has lived up to their expectations? Or they don’t feel they’ve got their money’s worth? From a commodification point of view, the organiser should be fully responsible for the consumer having a good time, yet this is not necessarily feasible in the way larp is set up now. I address this further below.

Moreover, who will be seen as the producer? A larp organiser naturally falls into this role, even as they may not have as much power in it as a producer would traditionally. But what about the crew and the volunteers? And potentially even more active players participating alongside? This set-up may result in some players falling into the role of a service provider without actually having anything to do with the organisation of the larp, skewing power relations in dangerous ways among participants.

Pressure to Professionalise

Multiple stacked shopping carts

Photo by Albin Biju.

There has been a strong push to organise larp more professionally and to view larp organisation as work (not to be confused with labour). This is, once again, a very logical development in contemporary consumption-oriented society, in which work is the ultimate form of status and legitimisation. No matter whether we like it or not, work is how we largely define our identities and our value within contemporary capitalist society (Frayne 2015; Mould 2018). Consequently, many fields such as larp that are initially not commercialised see a movement toward ‘careerisation’ of their practices (Seregina and Weijo 2017). When something becomes work, it also becomes more productive and profitable, and hence a more legitimate use of time. Simultaneously, the product of this activity also becomes more legitimised and a valuable use of one’s resources in the eyes of others. It is important to talk about professionalisation of an activity in the context of its commodification because consumption and work are two sides of the same coin, with one pushing the other. 

Professionalisation can be seen in a few main ways within larp. Firstly, many directly want to turn larp-organising into a job. Secondly, professionalisation emerges in higher production value and use of support services. This includes a higher level of scenery, lighting, catering, and costuming, among other things. Lastly, larp is more and more often documented and merchandised. A lot of events are photographed and sometimes even filmed, and we also see a rise in possibilities of buying add-on products like t-shirts that advertise the event and/or can be used in-game. Such elements solidify what is otherwise an ephemeral performance, making it more of a produced material entity.

The result of professionalisation can be higher-value events, which can create amazing experiences for participants and organisers alike. The processes involved in it can further help make larp organisation easier, putting it into an easily and conveniently reproducible form. 

At the same time, professionalisation of larp in many ways presents the activity as a commodity to those planning to attend. This means that (mostly indirectly) participants are getting the message that they should be approaching the event as a commodity, altering their expectations and attitude toward it. If larp organisation is presented as a for-profit job and larp takes on easily reproducible, mass produced characteristics, we cannot expect participants not to approach the event as something with which they have customer expectations and consumer rights. As a result, it becomes natural for the participant to focus only on their own experience and demand that the experience matches what was promised, cementing larp’s place as an element of market exchange within a capitalist system.

Professionalisation further requires streamlining and standardisation of activities, repeatability of events (or elements of events), as well as higher larp ticket costs in order to become economically viable. The first characteristics are central for pushing down costs for the organiser in order to attempt to make a profit, but run the risk of changing the nature of larp as quite ephemeral, interpersonal events. The latter is necessary to be able to pay organisers and crew for labour that is now their work. In reality, however, organisers and crew are rarely paid a wage, especially a fair one, often because of budgeting reasons. Hence, even for-profit larps largely rely on volunteers or low-pay workers, which, in turn, creates ample possibilities for misuse of labour (as well as potential legal issues with taxation and labour laws), once again skewing power relations within the community.

When organising a larp, it is important to reflect on how the event itself as well as the forms of production that it has involved impact larp as a community. The professionalisation of specific larp events reflects on the community as a whole, raising standards and expectations for all future events. This growth and expectations that come with it puts an immense amount of pressure onto larp organisers to provide events up to par, potentially creating organiser stress and burnout (something discussed a lot previously; see e.g., Lindve 2019, Pettersson 2022). 

The Value of a Larp

In the above described context, monetary value becomes extremely complicated and potentially problematic. To begin with, higher cost of a larp easily becomes interpreted as the event providing a ‘better experience’ to the larper. In a consumer culture context, higher cost is generally associated with higher value and higher demand in our society. Moreover, limited access to larp in general makes the activity a scarce commodity, immediately making it intrinsically more valuable. This results in higher expectations on personal experience: participants feel that they are investing more financial capital and hence are entitled to reap more social and cultural capital from it. 

The issue for larp specifically in this setup is that the organiser, in the long run, has limited capacity in making sure the player’s experience is of high value, as I’ve already noted. A good larp experience can depend on a large number of ever-changing elements, including but not limited to personal investment, engagement, and preparations; other participants and their contribution; weather, terrain, the venue, and associated travel. In a professionalised set-up, the service provider becomes responsible for all of this despite having little control over many elements that feed into a good experience. 

Moreover, because larpers as consumers relinquish much of their responsibility over the event, they are more likely to focus on their own experience rather than aid others’. Hence, the inherent value that we gain from larp in some ways can be seen to actually go down in a commodified form because a good experience in larp largely relies on the interaction among and support of other larpers. In focusing solely on our own experiences, we expect more, but also give less. Other larpers easily become seen as a part of the commodity we are consuming, while organisers as well as any crew, volunteers, and NPCs will become seen as service providers.

Financial Inaccessibility

A single shopping cart in shadows

Photo by Evgeni Lazarev.

With raised costs of larping, a big issue that arises is financial inaccessibility. This is an extremely difficult subject, especially in light of everything else discussed, such as fair labour, and thus easily becomes the elephant in the room. Moreover, we, in many ways, have little control over rising costs, as overall rise in cost of living undoubtedly has its effects on larp organisation as well, reflecting in the prices of venues and catering to name a few things. Yet because any inaccessibility is viewed as bad, we seem to steer away from this conversation as a community. 

It is important to stress that a costlier larp should not in any way be seen as bad. Most of the time, the attendance costs are merely covering any investment organisers have put in, which is only fair to ask for. However, if someone’s choice of whether or not to attend a larp is mainly or even solely dependent on the costs associated with that larp, that is, indeed, textbook financial inaccessibility. And we should not ignore that.

Many support systems already exist for financial inaccessibility, such as discounted and tiered tickets or payment in installments. These are definitely helpful and make larp more accessible to those with lower means. However, costly larps will remain costly (and most likely become even costlier); oftentimes even discounted tickets remain inaccessible. Sadly, there is little we can do about high costs, as I already noted. What we can do and what we need to do is be able to discuss these issues.

In line with a commodity point of view, a more expensive larp easily becomes viewed as better. Following this, those attending costlier, larger, better advertised, and thus ‘higher value’ larps can easily become seen as ‘better larpers,’ which creates problematic hierarchies and power structures within the community. Larps with higher production value also come with more hype, more discussion, and more coverage in media and social media, and thus, inadvertently, more social and cultural capital. Simply put, those who go to costlier larps and those who create costlier larps accrue more capital within the community (be it cultural, social, financial). Thus, while the fact that we pay more for larp does not directly make it a commodity, the fact that we reap more capital from costlier larps and use that capital within our community does.

At the same time, we see a certain subsection of larpers becoming priced out of the activity. More and more people are having to limit how many events they attend, or even stop going to larps entirely, due to financial reasons. We also see more and more of those from lower economic strata crewing and volunteering at events. While this is a great way to make an event financially accessible, if these roles are seen as service provider roles that attendees can demand from and take their frustrations out on, it will further skew power relations among larpers. Hence, financial inaccessibility runs the risk of creating wildly different ways people with different economic means can access larp, and they may be unable to access it at all.

Concluding Thoughts

Following my brief analysis of larp as a commodified activity, I’d like to wrap this article up with a few thoughts and suggestions. I want to begin by reiterating what I stressed in my 2020 article. Commodification in itself is not good or bad. However, we cannot reap its positive qualities without its negative characteristics, as many seem to try. Hence, we should question why we structure things the way we do – as larp organisers and as larp participants. As organisers, we should consider: what kinds of audiences do we reach, and what audiences will be able to access our larp? How are participants viewing the larp? How do they view their own role as part of the larp, and how do they view others attending the larp? What does commodification of larp bring to the event specifically? Is it valuable to you? And to the players attending, as well as the wider larp community? 

As participants, we should similarly reflect on our role within the event. How am I taking part in the larp? How am I taking into consideration the organisers? The crew? Other players? What do I want to get out of the experience, how am I obtaining that, and who do I think is responsible for that?

We should also reflect on why we are pushing for professionalisation and thus commodification of larp. What is the purpose of this? Is it to create better events? Is it to gain legitimisation within wider society? Is it to create jobs?

Two shopping carts, one with red details, and one with blue, side by side.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki.

In 2020, I noted a fear of fragmentation of our community. Today, I definitely see more economic, social, and cultural inequalities within larp, as well as a growing divide between high cultural capital and low cultural capital events. I think we need to push hard for giving value to different kinds of larp, independent of their cost and production value or ‘type’ of larp (be it so-called Nordic larp, boffer larp, international larp, or localised larp groups, among various other types). We are running the risk of creating a hierarchy of larps in terms of what are seen to be ‘better’ larps than others: something that, at this point, often coincides with the market and production value of the event. In other words, costlier larps are currently associated with being higher culture and thus better than lower culture, cheaper larps.

Along with this divide, we bring growing class differences and potential skewed power relations among those attending and those who are organising; among those attending different types of events; among those who are attending on different terms (be it different ticket types; as volunteers, crew, players). We are already a very white, very middle-class activity, but with the cost of living crisis we are becoming even more so. Hence, it is critical to be aware of, reflect on, and aim to address these issues in organising larp. What’s more, all of the discussed issues will further tie into the acculturation of new larpers. What kind of community are we welcoming them into, and what kinds of roles will they be learning to take on?

Reflecting on one’s roles and actions can be difficult, especially for topics of commodification, which come to us quite naturally and unintentionally, yet can feel alien and cold, with people tending to push away or disassociate from them. But denying these issues does not remove consumption as a central structuring force of contemporary society. Its ideology remains, reinforced by our own actions. The aim of the reflexive actions I am suggesting is not to judge anyone, but rather to get larpers to understand their own choices when engaging in larping. Perhaps the reflection will not change anything, perhaps it will only change things a little, and perhaps it will change someone’s approach entirely. But I believe that by being conscious and aware of what we are doing as well as how our actions affect the activity of larping and the larp community as a whole, we will create a more inclusive and communal entity. 



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

Seregina, Usva. 2024. “Readdressing Larp as Commodity: How Do We Define Value When the Customer Is Always Right?” 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: Photo by Sora Shimazaki.

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Usva Seregina is a trans non-binary visual and performance artist, art educator, as well as an interdisciplinary researcher with a background in consumer culture studies. Their artistic and academic practices currently focus on exploring lived experiences of immigration and queerness. Usva is interested in harnessing larp as a political and educational tool, which emerges as larp design that makes use of artistic approaches and academic research.