Larp: the Colonist

Larp: the Colonist

The fact that there is a separate term for larp shows that it is quite a peculiar type of role-playing. It has its own history, culture, and audience. At their origins, the terms LRP, LARP, and larp already denoted an agglomeration of radically different games with some RPG “DNA” in them (Arjoranta 2010, 10). As the praxis of larps evolved and expanded, the term became increasingly diluted.

As a consequence, the term larp is often used in larp circles as an all-encompassing category that includes every kind of embodied role-playing (Hyltoft 2010; Kot 2012; Bowman 2014). It is weird because, before the late 70s, the basic assumption of any role-playing activity was that it was (at least partially) embodied. The popularity of tabletop and computer role-playing games changed this assumption. A need arose for specific terms for the “live” or “live-action” versions. Originally, larp was a specific thing, but it soon became a blanket term: and, for some, a synonym for the general phenomenon of (embodied) role-playing.

This usage sometimes extends in time and space to include activities that have never considered themselves as larps. Drama in Education, process drama, sociodrama, simulation gaming, improv theater games, and some other traditions all include elements of embodied role-playing. Larpers, larp theorists, and even larp academics recurrently label these activities as larp or larping.

Each one of these activities has a longer history and older social institutions than larp, which emerged in the late ‘80s (Harviainen & al. 2018). Although larp as a term is younger than them, it is not necessarily more marginal. None of the aforementioned fields are truly mainstream right now, neither in academic research nor in daily practice. Similar to larp, their meaning and content are often obscure to outsiders. 

Labeling things as larp might originate from the fact that it is easy to separate the role-playing activity from its game framing (Harviainen 2011, 185). The former is a “behavioral-psychological mode of engagement” (Deterding 2016, 104), a way of doing things that can be experienced and identified in non-larp activities. J. Tuomas Harviainen (2011, 176) attempted to capture this phenomenon with his famous criteria of “larping”:

  • “Role-playing in which a character, not just a social role, is played.
  • The activity takes place in a fictional reality shared with others. Breaking that fictional reality is seen as a breach in the play itself.
  • The physical presence of at least some of the players as their characters.”

In this sense, “larping” happens at most larp events, while it can also exist at non-larp events (Harviainen cites re-enactment, bibliodrama, and other activities). It is unfortunate that instead of choosing a neutral name for this universal behavior, we call it larping. This use of language subtly undermines identity: “Sure, your events are not larps. But you are still larping.”

As we identify more and more activities as larps, and create a new category for “those larps that are not aware that they are larps,” we are imposing our language and terminology on these independently established fields. History shows that this could lead to the suppression, undermining, and erasure of their origin, tradition, and identity. And this is not just an unconscious bias, it is a decade-old open agenda, called larpification: “Call it larp and others will follow” (Raasted 2012).

Larp as a super-umbrella term has caused confusion and mental harm. At least to me, a role-player with multiple backgrounds in the above-mentioned activities. Larpers often behave like embodied personality-playing had been an uninhabited virgin soil discovered first by them. I find it profoundly unjust that they trample over other traditions while attempting to emancipate the meaning of larp in the public discourse. This is why I always find myself on the defensive at larp theory events, if I dare to speak: which is frustrating. 

While I do not suggest that changing our insider language usage is the most pressing issue in the process of furthering equity, diversity, and inclusion, I propose that cross-activity umbrella terms should be as neutral and analytic as possible to minimize linguistic and cultural oppression. Simply speaking, we should not use larp or larping to describe things outside of our domain.

It’s good that the larp scene is constantly pushing its own boundaries, but it should not try to do so by conquering or colonizing its neighbors.


Sebastian Deterding (2016): Make-Believe in Gameful and Playful Design. In Digital Make-Believe: Human-Computer Interaction edited by Phil Turner and J. Tuomas Harviainen, 101–124. Springer.

Claus Raasted (2012): Larpification. Nordic Larp Talks, Helsinki. Accessed: 08.13.2023

Jonne Arjoranta (2011): Defining Role-Playing Games as Language-Games. International Journal of Role-playing, 3–17.

J. Tuomas Harviainen (2011): The Larping that is not Larp. In Think Larp. Academic Writings from KP2011, edited by Thomas Duus Henriksen. Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle, 172–193. Rollespilsakademiet.

J. Tuomas, Harviainen, Rafael Bienia, Simon Brind, Michael Hitchens, Yaraslau I. Kot, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, David W. Simkins, Jaakko Stenros and Ian Sturrock (2018): Live-action Role-playing Games. In Role-playing Game Studies. A Transmedia Approach, edited by José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, 87–106. Routledge.

Malik Hyltoft (2010): Four Reasons Why Edu-larp Works. In LARP – Einblicke – Aufsatzsammlungzum MittelPunkt 2010, edited by Karsten Dombrowski. Zauberfeder.

Sarah Lynne Bowman (2014): Educational Live Action Role-playing Games: A Secondary Literature Review. The Wyrd Con Companion Book 3: 112–131.

Yaraslau I. Kot (2012): Educational Larp – Topics for Consideration. In The Wyrd Con Companion Book, edited by Aaron Vanek and Sarah Lynne Bowman, 118–27. 

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

Hartyándi, Mátyás. 2024. “Larp: the Colonist.” 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 Breizh Clichés on Pexels.

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Mátyás Hartyándi is a mental health specialist and organization development consultant. He researches human resource development and role-play-based experiential learning methods at the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. He is a member of the Hungarian Psychodrama Association, and the International Simulation and Gaming Association. He published the first Hungarian academic paper on analog role-playing games and their application.