Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Is Everyone In a Surcoat and Floppy Hat?

Recently, I got an e-mail from a college student doing a final project for one of her classes on LARP (and can I just say how much glee it fills me with to know that LARP is finally getting the academic attention it deserves?). She wanted to conduct an e-mail interview with me, and I was delighted to help. Her focus is on the medieval recreation aspect of LARP, and one of the questions she asked me was why I thought most fantasy LARPs were focused on medieval re-creation.

I think it's an interesting question, and I decided to also blog about it here. In my opinion, there are several factors which go into making the medieval European setting one of the more popular (at least in terms of fantasy or non-World of Darkness games). 

To begin with, our Anglophone culture is dominated by the descendants of medieval Europeans. We choose medieval LARPs because we connect with them culturally. Even if certain players are not necessarily of European descent, the meta-cultures in which LARP is active (i.e., United States, Canada and Europe) are dominated by white Europeans. Thinking about the LARPers I have gamed with, very few of them are minorities, and fewer actively identify with a minority culture. Despite living in an area with significant Asian and Hispanic populations, very few Asians and even fewer Hispanics play in the LARPs I attend. Not to say they aren't there - just that they are under-represented in terms of numbers.

Schools in countries where LARP is active emphasize European history. Even when other regions are touched on, most of the time they are shown in relation to Europe (i.e., the Middle East becomes important during the Crusades, Asia and Africa become important during the Age of Exploration and subsequent period of colonialism, etc). I won't discuss whether or not that's a bad thing here, that's not the purpose of this blog. My point is, as a result of this curriculum, there is created a group of people who have a very firm grasp on medieval history and culture. And so when a game designer starts designing a game, likelier than not he or she will write a culture with armored knights wearing cuirasses and wielding broadswords, kilted warriors with claymores and a dominant religion which teaches the values of mercy and self-sacrifice. Not only is that easier for the game designer, but the designer may reliably expect the player base to understand these concepts and archetypes without having to explain them in-depth.

By way of example: If I decided to run a game set in or inspired by the Mayan Empire, Old Kingdom China or the Mongol Horde, not only I would I as a designer have to do much more research, I would also have to instruct my player base in the cultural and mythological tropes of the setting (such as by explaining the social structure of the Mayans or how the ancient Chinese bureaucracy worked). My players would then have to take the time to learn these things, and likely also assemble an entirely different costume and kit - I know I don't have a kimono or scimitar in my closet, and only a few of my costume patterns are anything other than European derivations.

And then, because I am a socially conscious game designer who doesn't want to alienate my players, I would have to carefully evaluate my LARP for unintentional racism, inappropriate stereotyping or cultural mis-appropriation (something made even more important because, as I said above, the majority of my player base is white; and so a game set in the Mayan Empire, being played by a bunch of white people in a city with a significant Hispanic population, has a very real possibility of offending people I've no intention of offending).

With all that in mind, medieval European LARPs are just easier.

Apart from all of that... most LARPers are nerds. I know, shocking, right? As a result, fantasy LARPs have been heavily influenced by fantasy literature, which in itself has been heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and his Euro-flavored fantasy. In the minds of many fans, 'fantasy' nearly automatically means 'medieval Europe analogue with flashy magic.' And so when a game designer wants to write a fantasy game, what gets written is a medieval Europe analogue with flashy magic.

From a practical level, the props are easy. Replicating medieval technology - such as swords and chainmail - with modern tech is extremely easy. Finding medieval costuming or patterns is also extremely easy, and modding clothes to fit that style is also fairly simple.

Let's ignore fantasy as a genre completely. The LARPs I have played in, run or heard of which are not fantasy are: steampunk, science fiction, Call of Cthulhu and urban horror/fantasy (the White Wolf spread of games). For the World of Darkness games, by and large, costuming is easy - especially since most of the supernatural groups have commandments to disguise themselves and blend in with mortal society. So normal clothes are perfectly acceptable. And White Wolf games resolve combat through either dice or rock-paper-scissors, with weapons props expressly prohibited by the rules. I did once play in a zombie apocalypse LARP set ten minutes into the future, but costuming was pretty easy, as were props (torn clothes and NERF guns). Most Call of Cthulhu LARPs are either modern or 1920s era - so the costuming is still fairly easy to come by.

Steampunk and science fiction, however, demand a more complex array of costuming and props. Steampunk is an entire fashion aesthetic unto itself, and I do not know many players who would want to arrive at a steampunk LARP feeling under-dressed. Science fiction (other than perhaps a cyberpunk LARP) also demands a high level of costume achievement. I ran a Babylon 5 game once, and costuming was difficult enough - fortunately, two of my players had cosplayed Centauri before and Psi-Cops can get away with a suit and black gloves. But imagine if someone wanted to run a Star Trek or Star Wars inspired LARP? You're basically expecting everyone in your player base to come up with an entirely new, genre-appropriate costume.

I do want to toss out a huge nod, though, to the Polish Fallout LARP. Their costumes and weapon props are nothing short of amazing. It makes me wish for an abandoned bunker of my own to play in; and I wish the local LARPs, regardless of genre, were half so dedicated.

I believe if LARPs started up in Asia, South America or the Middle East, the players there would be far more interested in exploring their own cultural past and create their own LARPs in a setting influenced by the Ottoman Empire or Moghul Empire or similar. I, for one, would love to see more long-running games take on other cultures than just medieval European or modern West. And I think it would also be amazing to see more science fiction or post-apocalyptic games spring up, something to get us away from a fantasy medieval setting.

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