According to Lizzie Stark, author of a new book on the history of Live-action Roleplay (LARP), Leaving Mundania, the history of LARP dates back far beyond the era of Tolkein-esque fantasy to the Romans and Elizabethans:
Queen Elizabeth I presided over some serious, and seriously expensive, larplike entertainments. Cirque du Soleil has nothing on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who threw the queen an awesome and ostentatious entertainment when she visited him at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. It cost him at least £17,000, which at that time was roughly enough money to field an army of 1,000 for a year. Amid a busy schedule of hunting, bear-bating, joust-watching, acrobatic shows, and plays, Elizabeth repeatedly encountered figures from myth who popped out of the shrubbery to poetically praise her and to ask for her assistance. For example, while returning from hunting one day, the queen passed over a pool close to the castle. A guy dressed as the sea-god Triton swam up to beseech Her Majesty on behalf of the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, who was being threatened by the evil “Sir Bruce.” After the queen cowed the enemy with the majesty of her aura, the Lady of the Lake glided across the water on a movable island to thank the queen. Later, the mythical musician Arion appeared out of a 20-foot-long mechanical dolphin with a six-piece band hidden inside—the boat was made up so that its oars appeared to be fins.
That’s a whole lot of money for the pleasure of the few! Of course, things have changed: modern interpratations of LARP are wide-reaching and include fantasy and historical re-enactment settings, as well as more politically-based work such as System Danmarc, which functioned both as a space for play and a living-commentary on homelesness and cultural hierarchies.
So why do we LARP? It can serve as a means of escape from reality, a way to engage with historical or contemporary issues, and as a tool for learning. Stark posits that “larp’s roots lie in ancient desires and modern invention.” This is also true of games, both analog and digital, which tap into core human desires for play and exploration. As culture changes and history barrels forward, so will our needs for play and for LARP.