Why is LARPer an Insult?
Anglo culture in the early 21st century makes it hard to use good curses and insults. Our middle and high culture is strongly against insulting anyone for their parentage, body shape, disabilities, religion, private life, and other natural human things. But one of the insults which almost everyone feels comfortable throwing around is LARPer. If third-parties object, it is to dispute whether the object of the insult is really a LARPer, not to ask whether being a LARPer is a bad thing. Ten years ago when I was spending time with more types of geeks, I noticed that people whose hobbies have a lot in common with LARP, such as the historical fencers in black or the Society for Creative Anachronism, wanted you to know that LARP was totally different from what they do. People from socialists to the hard right agree that being a LARPer is bad. This week I would like to talk about what people object to, and some of the things which the insult misses.
You get a lesson in anonymous racists LARPing at being marginalized …A Chinese makerspace person in 2022  (bolding my own)
(The UK prime minister at the time is) a second-rate Donald Trump cosplayer with a posh accent and a penchant for quoting half-remembered classical Greek poetry (badly).A Scottish novelist in 2020 
(Texting software) Slack allows, in the most extreme cases, for a full performance of work — the clocking in, the ambient noise, the watercooler discussions, the instant availability and accordant impression of responsiveness — without the accomplishment (of) anything external. Email is extremely effective for people who LARP through their jobs. Slack is even better.2015 article in a web magazine 
A lot of due diligence is LARPing (such as the due diligence which let the Ontario Pension Corp invest CAD 95m in a cryptocurrency scam in the Bahamas) … It is truly disturbing to me the degree to which a project which theoretically suggests “Give me a bunch of numbers which are extremely difficult to fake and then I will check your math and woe betide you if you attempted to fake them” is, in practice, “Are you correct class?”An American finance and software analyst, 14 December 2022 
The basic criticism of LARPers seems to be that they pretend to be or do something prestigious without doing the work. The stereotypes are the clumsy, cautious, out-of-shape person who wants to be respected as a great adventurer, and the reenactor who wants to be obeyed because he bought a colonel’s uniform. But LARP clothing and equipment is sometimes light, cheap, and made without much skill. As I explained in my series on the problems with identity, if anyone can identify as something, then nobody else has to treat them differently because of it. “If Alexander wishes to be a god, let him be a god” was a cutting dis for this reason. L. Sprague de Camp noticed the problem when people with weird and wonderful ideas want to call them science, but wilt when the first round of questions comes in:
For, if one claims the dignity of the mantle of science, one must expect to be judged by its criteria, just as the Amerind who claimed the status of warrior by braiding his scalp in a scalp-lock accepted the risk that another brave would take up both the implied challenge and the scalp that went with it.L. Sprague de Camp, Lost Continents (1970, first edition 1954) p. 77
Police who posture with black rifles and armoured vehicles and tell the world they are a thin blue line of sheepdogs protecting the sheep, but refuse to engage when faced with one man with a gun, inspire universal revulsion because they want the status of warriors without paying the price. Nobody respects a phony or a pompous pretender. Retired corrections officer with shower thoughts Rory Miller came away from the SCA with the couplet “The Dream is damned and Dreamer too / if Dreaming’s all that Dreamers do” (“the dream” is a term with meaning in the SCA, especially to people who put a bit too much of their hearts into it, but SCAdians could explain it better than I can).
There is another way of looking at LARPs though. Anglo culture today offers people endless opportunities to sit at home and passively watch and listen to beautiful things created by others. Going out into the world and doing something creative with other people is a choice and a choice which faces powerful headwinds. No giant corporation gets richer because people are smacking each other with plastic lightsabres or strolling around an old mansion playing Georgian gentry (just like no random penguin collects a tithe when people post their Battlestar Galactica fanfic on Archive of our Own). And while most LARPs are not the most physically demanding thing you can do with other people, there is always something harder than what you do. I’m sure that there are Olympic gold medalists who tell themselves that in another year the competition was harder or the weather was worse or the winner had an even nastier pre-existing injury. Old Geoffrey de Charny was a tough guy, and he took the position that all knightly activities are good and honourable, even if some (such as fighting in war for your king) brought more honour than others (such as jousting). He knew that many gentlemen would never do the things which he saw as most honourable, but they still contributed to a culture which would lead others to go farther and they were still better than people who did not do any knightly activities. In the battle between “consume content for corporations” and “go out and make things and do things with people” LARPers are on the side I want to be on.
People who are worried that others will look down on them for something they do often find something similar which they do not do and loudly disrespect it. They hope to push the stigma off on to those others, but I don’t think that works very well. People inside a community know of all kinds of variants and factions, but I think all kinds of playing with swords or dressing up in strange clothing look pretty much the same to outsiders. Insulting people who do something very similar to what you do makes it hard to recruit them, and it does not impress people who dislike you all. And American sex workers have noticed that when waitresses with a skimpy uniform disrespect strippers, and strippers disrespect strippers who sleep with clients, and strippers who sleep with clients disrespect escorts, it just makes it harder for all those people to work together to fight the stigma and oppression which they all face. If you do any geeky activity, its in your interest for more people to be comfortable doing it!
So the people who use “LARPer” as an insult are getting at something, but there are many good things about LARPs. I wish I had a good short name for people who want an honour without the work which leads up to it which didn’t insult random creative geeks. Can my gentle readers suggest any other names for this?
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(scheduled 25 July 2022)
Edit 2022-10-26: added three examples of insults
I’m not convinced that the use of “LARPer” as an insult is always insulting to LARPers. Say someone writes an autobiography bragging about his life as a crime-fighting policeman, and then a reviewer finds evidence that the book is full of lies and calls it, derisively, “a work of fiction”. This doesn’t imply any derision towards actual works of fiction or their authors. Rather, the reason it works as an insult is that the writer is selling the book as non-fiction but has written it out of his imagination, as if it were fiction.
Similarly, in your example of police who like to talk themselves up and pose in uniform and play with guns but who wilt at danger, I don’t think calling them LARPers depends on associating them with any negative stereotypes about actual LARPers. The point is that they’ve taken serious, important jobs in the real world and are approaching them as if it were all a game of pretend.
Of course there are some negative stereotypes about LARPers, and some uses of “LARPer” as an insult probably depend on those. But I think in the use I’ve described, it’s just a helpful metaphor: calling someone a LARPer means he’s acting like a LARPer, and the reason that’s insulting is just that one shouldn’t act like a LARPer if one isn’t actually LARPing.
If you want an alternative, “play-actor” might work. More generally, someone who wants an honour without the work that leads up to it can just be called a “poseur”, but I don’t think that carries all the same meaning as “LARPer” or “play-actor”. If you call the cowardly police “LARPers”, you’re implying that as well as looking for honour and recognition they enjoyed acting out the role of police.
Hi Graham, thanks for the perspective! It is hard to figure out subtext in writing and Internet posts. I agree that its really egregious when someone takes up an important position but refuses to fill the function that position was created for (like an executive who refuses to make decisions, or a firefighter who refuses to go anywhere near a burning building). If someone has an inflated idea of their own importance, that is possibly a character flaw, but does not affect anyone else, but if work needs to be done and the person responsible refuses to do it, or even blocks anyone else from doing it, that affects other people.
SCA folks mostly know they just have a hobby, but they often get touchy when you call them LARPers. And I think that might get into more “my hobby is harder than your hobby” and “my hobby is pretty nerdy but it is not as nerdy as your hobby.” (The better argument is that the SCA got started in the late 1960s in California, and tabletop roleplaying got started in the midwest in the 1970s, so LARP and SCAing are kind of ‘convergent evolution’ within the space of geeky activities).
An intermediate case would be Old Media columnists and talking heads. Very many of them are pretending to be experts while refusing to learn anything except what opinions their subculture wants them to have and making up argument-shaped words to justify those opinions. But the reason they don’t know anything about what they talk about is that their audience does not stand to gain or lose anything significant from having accurate opinions about COVID policy in Japan or the civil war in Ethiopia or the economic crisis in Sri Lanka or whatever. So is speaking confidently to large audiences about a topic you don’t know and won’t learn a personal character flaw or an attack on the common good?
Many people like that sometimes have the ear of people with power, and evil counselors are hated for reasons. In Canada, the Trudeau staffer who was so disrespectful of boundaries that three or four cabinet ministers had to resign writes an opinion piece now and then.
Well, sometimes fake experts get away with it because their falsehoods don’t do much harm, and sometimes they get away with it just because their audiences can’t detect the falsehoods, however much harm they do. It might not be too important for Canadians to know about COVID policy in Japan, but wrong opinions about COVID risk in Canada can put you in hospital, especially if they’re combined with wrong opinions about vaccines. I think being a fake expert is an attack on the common good even if your topic isn’t too important. If nothing else, it gets your audience in the habit of listening to fake experts, and they’re not likely to shed the habit every time something important comes along.
I wouldn’t describe most fake experts as “LARPers”, though, and I think one of the merits of the insulting metaphorical use of “LARPer” is that it has a precise shade of meaning that excludes the average TV windbag. The windbag might be playing the part of an expert, but on average he’ll be doing so mainly for money and fame. Since literal LARPing is generally a hobby, I think a metaphorical “LARPer” has to be playing a part for the enjoyment of playing the part, not just be misrepresenting himself for gain. So an amateur windbag who acts like an expert at parties is LARPing as an expert, but the professional probably isn’t.
I think most of the insulting uses of “LARPer” I’ve seen online match up with my idea of how it works as a metaphor. The SCA snobbery thing is interesting — I hadn’t known about it before I read your post. Anyway, it sounds like a separate phenomenon from the metaphorical use of “LARPer”.
This article mentions prejudice against LARPers in Scandinavia although two of their four examples are 20th century and American and one of the others is a comedy https://nordiclarp.org/2015/03/02/bleed-the-spillover-between-player-and-character/
An interesting post Sean. How much do you think this “LARPer as insult” is common outside North America (you having been European based in the past)? I think it is much more common in the UK to encounter re-enactors – you see them at historical sites in small numbers, at wargames shows, at large “musters” but I’m unaware whether they use this insult or not. There does seem to be a division between the living history types and the lets have a bit of fun playing Vikings types. Also, North America has Renfairs, which seem from outside a cross between LARP and cosplay conventions – how do they fit?
I have heard that “reenactor” often implies battle reenactor in the UK, and that there can be prejudice against them (battle reenactors in the UK sometimes get paid, so I’m told that some of them are the kind of people who have trouble holding a steady job). I can think of one person in the UK saying that Boris Johnson is “cosplaying a politician” (but that is on social media, and social media culture is very Americanized). Those are some excellent questions and I will keep thinking about where I hear “LARPer” or “cosplayer” used to mean “someone who talks the talk but does not walk the walk.” I heard it face to face in Canada and the US.
Edit: I can think of another Brit who called BoJo a cosplayer in 2020, but from his behaviour on the open web I suspect he hangs out on twitter and takes it seriously.
Germany and Austria have the Ritterfeste which are something like American ren fairs.
I think you are right that re-enactor does usually conjure up the more massed battle weekend warrior types (no insult to these – I was one once). These days, though, it is common to find at least an element of living history associated with re-enactments. The last one I attended was pre-Covid but it included a “Viking encampment” which was as important to proceedings as the fighting bit.
I’m not sure what the general public think of these – people take their kids to see the Vikings or whatever and seem happy with it as entertainment and pick up a bit of history in the “camp” and maybe buy historical bits and pieces from associated craft stalls.
People in geeky communities often tell themselves that they face prejudice, when actually that prejudice was not mainstream since last century. I wish I could remember the example among the geeky communities which I used to follow, maybe “Geek Social Fallacies” talks about how unscrupulous people use it to silence dissent or justify inappropriate behaviour (“we have to stick together”).
I think Tod the cutler (and experimenter with arrows versus armour) said that he got started in social reenacting in the UK, where people would have feasts and things like that. He started out by making a knife so he would have something right to eat with.
Its also hard because I dropped out of contact with the kind of people who like to insult slightly different people over the past ten years. And the COVID pandemic further reduced the variety of people I talk to. So I have an idea how Old Media people and Social Media people use these terms, and I remember that SCA folks and the fencers in Canada and the USA wanted to distance themselves from LARPers ten years ago, but I have less access to how ordinary people in Canada or Austria use these terms today.