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LARPing for Social Good: The Power of Live Action Role Play

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Fantasy entertainment once considered only for children has evolved into a social tool for diversity. LARPing inspires empathy and understanding for gender identity and oppression issues.

When Anna Anthropy created Dys4ia (2012), an autobiographical game about her experience taking hormone replacements as a trans woman, she sought to give players insight into her unique perspective. Anthropy knew that shared experiences can raise people’s awareness and even inspire compassion for diversity. The power of empathizing with others could ultimately lead to kinder behavior and a better place for society as whole.

In today’s videogames and virtual reality adventures, players have fun while learning new things that can help them change the world for the better. Live action role playing (or LARPing) is proving to be one of the most visceral tools for inspiring social good acts.

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A more analog approach than typical computer or console games, LARPing brings people together in the real world to act out characters by dressing up in costumes and improvising stories.

Though usually used in a fantasy context, social activists are using LARPs to foster empathy among adults, who act out scenarios of real world injustices in order to spotlight emotions and complexities inherent in social or culture clashes.

Here are a few examples of LARPs that put players on the front lines of the social issues like racial discrimination, gender identity, oppression and more.

Finding Oneself through Play

The Wayfinder Experience summer camp that empowers people with foam swords, capes and many other tokens of traditional fantasy role play. The summer camp has built a tight-knit community that reflects the real-world impact these LARPing experiences have on participants.

While most LARPs are actually played by adults, The Wayfinder Experience also aims to provide a safe space for adolescents interested in exploring their identity. These games are especially helpful for The Wayfinder Experience’s queer community, for whom self-discovery can be a painful, frightening process, according to Corinne McDonald, co-owner of The Wayfinder Experience.

ONE OF THE MOST VISCERAL TOOLS FOR INSPIRING SOCIAL GOOD ACTS

“LARPing allows you to play with ideas of masculinity and femininity in ways that aren’t necessarily traditional,” McDonald said.

She said someone who has questions about sexuality might find the vocabulary or courage to ask those questions out loud in a LARP. This is similar to how many trangender teens find solace through virtual role-playing games like World of Warcraft (2005). Instead of killing boars, this LARP empowers kids to learn through interactive storytelling.

McDonald hopes that The Wayfinder Experience is where a person’s identity can be determined from the inside out.

Role-Playing Prejudice

Described as a “performative empathy experience,” &maybetheywontkillyou is a LARP that deals with tough, real-word situations. Creator Akira Thompson describes it as putting players in the role of someone who “may be judged based on their appearance or income.”

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Drawn in part from Thompson’s own experiences as an African American, &maybetheywontkillyou takes players on a simple walk between home and a local convenience store.

Leveraging his own experiences and storylines from the lives of friends and family, Thompson depicts the danger of doing even the most mundane task as a black person in America.

Conceived shortly after a grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown in 2014, &maybetheywontkillyou’s most dramatic moments can sometimes be pulled directly from headlines.

Placing players in the shoes of an oppressed minority proved challenging for Thompson, but he believes that role-playing is a powerful way for people to understand what it’s like to experience racial discrimination.

Reading news articles or watching a documentary won’t illicit the same profound feelings, Thompson said. “I haven’t seen anything else that has really put people in [racially discriminatory] situations in the same way [as his LARP].”

A POWERFUL WAY FOR PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO EXPERIENCE RACIAL DISCRIMINATION

Understanding Injustice Through Play

In writing the LARP called The Tribunal, Nordic writer J. Tuomas Harviainen sought to replace the ogre army of traditional role-playing games with a fiercer foe: totalitarianism. Drawing inspiration from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Harviainen created archetypal characters that players can easily identify with and embody.

“I wanted to make a game about totalitarianism without pointing any fingers directly,” said Harviainen. “That inspired me to do a game about people being collaborators in their own oppression. I wanted to make a game that makes people think [afterward about] how easy it is to make decisions based on fear, comfort and ambition.”

The premise is simple: Two soldiers, private Magpie and corporal Badger, have been accused of stealing bread, a serious crime in a military unit already on the razor’s edge of starving. If they’re found guilty, they’ll be shot. Everyone knows they’re probably innocent, but that doesn’t matter if most of the officers are either corrupt or afraid.

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LARP image via Flickr.

It’s theoretically possible to save Magpie and Badger if enough people testify on their behalf. Doing so puts players at great risk, and many choose not to stand up for their fellow comrades.

Since its debut in 2010, the online LARPing community has flocked to The Tribunal, which is now translated into multiple languages and played around the world. Non-governmental organizations in Belarus—a country repressed for decades by an autocratic president—have used the game in their work with young people.

Harviainen’s work, like that of Thompson and The Wayfinder Experience, taps into the power of role-playing games to demonstrate systemic injustices on a human level. By getting players to embody prejudice, the makers of these LARPs aim to raise understanding and empathy through shared experiences.

Far from a fantasy game, LARPing encourages players to challenge the status quo and champion positive changes in the real world.

Header image via Flickr.