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.
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?
(scheduled 25 July 2022)