Larp as a tool for personality development
Based on Lars Wingård's exam in drama pedagogy, Oslo Polytechnic 2000.
What is larp?
Larp is short for live action role playing. It can be described as improvised theatre with no audience or a planned dramatic game with well developed rules. It is an adult form of playing. A Norwegian larp usually lasts for one to five days, and can have 15-150 participants. A larp can be defined as a meeting between people who through acting out their roles relates to each other in a predefined fiction. The purpose of larp is the participants' experience of the game . A person who is regularly participating in larps is called a larper. A person who is participating in a larp session, but not involed with its organising is called a player on that larp.
What is personality and personality development?
"Personality can be defined as the distinctive and characteristic patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour that define an individual's personal style of interacting with the physical and social environment".
So personality has to do with interaction. Personality development must focus on bringing the hidden structures in the interaction to the surface and develop them . It is in other words it is finding and working with parts of one's own behaviour that is not used in the daily life.
Method for collecting information
A problem with collecting information about larp is that it is never done any thorough research on larp or on larpers. Empirical data or statistics does not exist. Reliable, relevant literature is also scarce. Since I at the moment of writing have participated in and observed the Norwegian larp movement since 1992, I chose to rely on my own participating observation in this article. Unfortunately I have not taken notes during these years, so I must trust my own memory. Please note that some aspects of larp may differ between countries. Since I have an interest for psychology I also refer to psychological research.
A new world
In his article "Dramas rolle i et samfunn i hastig forandring" (The role of drama pedagogy in a quickly changing society), drama pedagogue Janek Szatkowski at Århus University in Denmark shows that the world is constantly changing, and that to young people today it is not relevant to ask "who am I", but rather "who can I become today?"
Because we live our lives in a growing number of institutions and contexts, we have a great need for quickly being able to find our place in new situations. Flexibility and adjustability becomes increasingly important. It is no longer enough to know yourself; you must know yourself in all possible situations. We need to be able to choose our behaviour according to different situations, and we need experience about how to affect the surroundings through our behaviour.
By testing out and getting practice in different kinds of behaviour, we expand our behaviour register; a set of possible behaviour that we know the consequences of. The broader the register is, the easier it is to choose behaviour relevant to a situation and to our own wishes.
A flexible self concept through larp
Everybody have an idea of themselves, who they are and how they wishes to be. The self-concept consists of all the ideas, perceptions and values that characterise "I" or "me"; it includes the awareness of "what am I" and "what can I do". This perceived self, in turn, influences both the person's perception of the world and his or her behaviour. For example, a woman who perceives herself as strong and competent perceives and acts upon the world quite differently from a woman who considers herself weak and ineffectual. The self-concept does not necessarily reflect reality: A person may be highly successful and respected but still view himself or herself as a failure. However, people want to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-image; experiences and feelings that are considered not consistent are threatening to the self-concept, and may be denied admittance to consciousness. Quite often, they will be denied, repressed and forgotten. The more areas of experience a person denies due to inconsistency with self-concept, the wider the gulf between the self and reality will be, and this gives potential for maladjustment. If the incongruence becomes too great, the result will be severe anxiety or other forms of emotional disturbance. The well-adjusted person, in contrast, has a self-concept that is consistent with thought, experience and behaviour; the self is not rigid, but flexible, and can change as it assimilates new experiences and ideas .
Many people claim that the best thing about larping is the opportunity to be another person . One has another name, one uses other kinds of clothing, and one often behaves differently than one normally does. Therefore, in-game behaviour and real-life self-concept is not compared so much, and one can allow oneself thoughts and feelings that in other situations would have been denied, as it is "only the character". It is then possible to discover and develop abilities one would otherwise not believed was there .
Because much that is normally unacceptable can be ascribed to the character, one can also allow oneself to test normally unacceptable behaviour and thoughts. In this way it is possible to find new possibilities in oneself and later integrate these into the self-concept if that is desired. When one learns through larping that the personality can be stretched and take new forms at will, it is good chances of developing a flexible self image and learning to see oneself as adjustable.
Please note that it is possible to participate in quite a lot of larps without developing the self-concept. There exists larpers who always chose to play characters whose behaviour is consistent with their own self concept . For personality development through larping it is important that the character's behavior is inconsistent with the player's self concept.
A possible hindrance for personal growth is the fact that larpers usually don't consciously decide to reflect over how to take the character into one's own life. Development may happen anyway because when the game is over and the role is put aside, one has an unique possibility to see oneself from outside. When you start to behave normally again, reflection can occur spotaously; "ah, so this is how I am. My character was entirely different."
The importance of role experimentation
Most developmental psychologists believe that adolescence should be a period of "role experimentation" in which a young person can explore alternative behaviours, interests, and ideologies. Many beliefs, roles, and ways of behaving may be "tried on," modified or discarded in an attempt to shape an integrated concept of the self. (Hilgard, 1996:106)
A larp may be the best suited place to perform this kind of experimentation. If one tries out really extreme roles in reality, this may have big consequences. A larp can be seen as simulated reality in which it is possible to try out different roles without facing lifetime consequences. Larpers often are in the age where they according to developmental psychology are doing role experiments .
Learned emotional reactions; affect
When a child is punished by a parent for engaging in some forbidden activity, the punishment elicits the physiologic reactions we associate with guilt and anxiety. Subsequently, the child's behaviour may itself elicit those same responses; he or she will feel guilty when engaging in the forbidden behaviour. This is called operant conditioned learning . If what you learned through conditioned learning repeatedly is incorrect, the effect of the conditioned learning will disappear .
Many people were as kids punished for making noise, display anger, show interest for erotica etc. Because one feels guilty doing the things that led to punishment in childhood, it is normal to avoid the forbidden behaviour. Large parts of the behaviour register may stay unexplored through a whole life. Though one can also feel guilty engaging in forbidden behaviour during a larp, it is easy to motivate oneself to do things one normally evades ("I know that I should not show it when I am angry, but this is just a game. My character does this, I don't"). When forbidden behaviour repeatedly lead to no punishment, the connection between the behaviour and guilt will gradually vanish. In sum one can therefore say that it is possible to liberate oneself from irrational conscience-problems and anxiety in real life through larping.
For society it could be fortunate that the people for example have emotional blocks against lying. But adjustable people have questioned, examined and worked out themselves what is right and wrong. People who are controlled by rules they have accepted without question are less able to cope with major changes . It may also be seen as rather cynical to argue for controlling society with the population's neurosis.
Society's norms limits us
When a person in a group finds himself being in minority on some issue, he is likely to conform, and adjusts his opinions to fit in. We use other people as models to decide how to behave . In a group we censor ourselves, and ideas, thoughts and impulses that do not correspond with the group's are seldom expressed. They become secret dreams, or we deny them and adjust our self concept. Therefore our behaviour is restricted by society in the same way as by the self concept.
When you are at a larp, your surroundings expect something else from you than in real life. It is expected that every player lives out his role, not reducing himself only to one in the crowd.
Because the norms changes from larp to larp, and because each player's position in society changes from larp to larp, the expectations a player face is generally new for every larp.
The player may therefore become more conscious about different societies and different cultures having different norms. Through experiencing other types of cultures from inside, it is possible to see one's own culture and therefore oneself from outside. The fish does not know that he is in the water before he has been on land.
Through training in interaction with different environments in different ways, the larper will learn to quickly adjust to new situations and get the ability to modify any situation to his own needs.
From larp to larp, the same type of behaviour produce different response. This may demonstrate how the norms of his society, which ever that may be, is not holy and eternal, and that big groups can be wrong. This may again make the player trust himself even when his opinions contradicts those of the group.
The most important tool for developing behaviour is to get response from other people. Through interaction with others, one learns about the consequences of different types of behaviour. When one discovers that one type of behaviour produces fortunate results, this behaviour is developed further. The same behaviour produces different results in different situations. Therefore different behaviour will develop for different situations. To see the difference between contexts and act accordingly is called discrimination .
A person who always experience the same type of situations will develop a behaviour that fits only that context. He will not develop the ability to discriminate, and will not be able to cope with a major change.
A person who participate at many larps will experience the consequences of many different types of behaviour. Therefore he will acquire a large behaviour register, and can more easy affect the surroundings according to his own wishes.
Feelings and empathy
Because thoughts, feelings and actions at a larp does not need to coincide with the player's real self concept, one can try out thoughts and ideas that otherwise only causes disgust .
For example, one can really go into a fascist's world and experience the powers in a mass who cries slogans and does the Party sign . After such an experience, it is easier to understand how World War II could happen. One have learned something about the human nature and about the fascist within. Learning to understand these mechanisms, it is easier to understand the emotions of people who commits horrible deeds and accept that it could have been anyone. It is when one knows one's own dark sides that one can say anything about them. Only then can reliable attitudes be formed. "Attitudes based on direct experience predicts behaviour much better than do attitudes formed from just hearing or reading about an issue" . "We need to know us selves, our reactions and our strangeness. If we don't, we become strangers of ourselves" .
Damage from larp?
Larp criticists sometimes claims that players may lose their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality or develop mental illnesses like multiple personality. It is also said that people become more aggressive by larping, and that one can be manipulated into taking part in things one do not really want.
Losing concepts of reality
It is no problem for larpers to distinguish between the game and reality. In rare incidences it happens that players lose their self control and does things that he or she would not normally do. They for exmple use too much strength in a simulated fight. This does not happen because they lose the sense of reality, but because the situation carries them away. It is talk about adrenaline, nothing more. The results of such incidences are seldom worse than those you can see at almost any sport event.
One unfortunate thing that sometimes happen is that players bring negative relations between roles into the real world . This means that two persons that have played enemies at a larp sometimes start to dislike each other also after the game has ended. This is not because they have problems keeping track of fantasy and reality, but because this is how emotions work. A good de-brief with exercises can help players put the game behind them and open for reflection about what to bring into the real world and what to leave behind . Unfortunately, this almost never happens after a larp. But players who are aware of the problem often make sure to talk and laugh with their in-game enemies immediately after the game. This is also a very good way of solving the problem.
Larp and mental disorders
It have been suggested that larp could lead to multiple personality disorder. Psychologists say about multiple personality disorder: "Defence against traumatic childhood experiences form the basis for a hypothesis about how such disorders develop. The initial dissociation is assumed to occur in response to a traumatic event in childhood (usually between ages 4 and 6). The child copes with a painful problem by creating another personality to bear the brunt of the difficulty (Frischholz, 1985)" .
Larp is fantasy, not reality, and it does not last for more than a few days at a time. It is hard to imagine that a larp would really be traumatic enough to evoke multiple personality disorder or other mental disorders, although some situations in a way may feel realistic. Children between 4 and 6 years are seldom included in larps, and if they are, they are allways taken good care of.
It is important to notice that larp has personality developing effects, but it is not suited as therapy. There are some similarities between larps and certain aspects of the therapeutic technique psychodrama, but there are also important differences. Psychodramatists often uses small, controlled, improvised dramatic role situations that bear some resemblance to larps. These role situations are used as a tool to evoke in the patient negative emotions they connected to that situation. The role situation is then interrupted by the therapist, who starts to work with these emotions. Larps, on the other hand, are very uncontrollable events and there exists practically no pauses with conversations about what is happening on the emotional level. It is therefore very difficult to imagine that someone would ever be helped from re-experiencing their traumas in a game. It is, however easy to imagine how this could make things a lot worse. After a larp, it is normal to go through the larp technically (how did intrigues, dramaturgy, effects etc work), but almost never personally (what did I feel). The larping society has no professional therapists who helps players go through strong experiences. For all these reasons larp cannot be used as therapy, and one should not go to a larp if one has serious mental or emotional problems. If in doubt for example because of difficult feelings about sex, it is always possible to ask the organisers if sexuality is at all a theme on this particular larp.
Luckily, no one has yet tried larping as a therapeutic method, as far as I know.
Passing ethical or moral borders
In Norway we generally use the rule that if a larp cross the limits for what a player can take or want to participate in, the player has the right to say "CUT!", and thereby stopping the game. Research, however, indicates that human beings have a highly conforming nature, and that we even when facing serious problems conform with the group . At a larp, saying "CUT" is a very un-conforming thing to do. A person will try to avoid disagreement with the group, even when it the obviously best thing to do. We use other people as a model for our own behaviour, also when we wish to act differently from the group .
The CUT-rule is only needed when the situation is too intense. Other players are very concentrated on the fiction. When other people are very much into the situation, to break the game for them feels like a non-acceptable action, and cut is never used. You wait as long as you can.
Therefore it is not true that the cut-rule automatically give the players the protection they need to feel free to play their role safely. In other words: it may well be that a player participate against his or her will in something that is against his or her moral principles.
It is documented that factors such as use of costume, high level of emotional arousal, focus on external events and a close group unity can lead to reduced self-awareness. Reduced self awareness can lead to weakened restraints against impulsive behaviour, increased sensitivity to immediate cues and current emotional state, lessened ability to monitor and control own behaviour and lessened ability to plan rationally . Frequently, a larp contains many of the factors that reduces your self-awareness .
Therefore it is a possibility that a player may engage in behaviour that seem acceptable there and then, but regrets them later because they were highly non-compatible with the player's moral views.
A final solution to this problem probably do not exist, but it may help that each player decide beforehand exactly which situation should make him cut the game. Maybe larpers should generally discuss these questions more often. It is also possible for players to say cut if they can see that other players are too scared to do it .
A more recently invented rule may make it easier to set your own limits at a larp. If the larp is about to cross a player's limits, he or she can say "BREAK!". The game continues, but the other players must be considerate to the one who braked. Because breaking has smaller consequences than cutting, it may be easier to break than to cut.
Another effect of the break and cut rules is that they give the player the feeling of controlling the situation. And the more controllable a situation seems, the less likely it is perceived as stressful . When the situation is not so stressfull, it is less likely that it will give the player problems later.
Militarism and violence
Many people in the larping society are interested in weapons, war and military history. Many larpers have volunteered or plan to volunteer to some kind of military service in addition to what is required of them . Does this mean that larp lead to militarism and violence-glorification?
Weapons and violence is an ingredient in many larps. It is often socially accepted for characters in the game world to solve conflicts by violent means. Do this make larpers develop aggressive behaviour?
As mentioned earlier, human beings have the ability to discriminate, and to behave differently in different situations. We do not automatically bring learned behaviour from one situation to another if the situations do not resemble each other.
A fight at a larp is substantially different from a fight in reality. At a larp weapons are made of latex or other soft material, and they neither look like, feel like, sound like, smell like or work like real weapons. Fights without weapons are mostly about looking cool without causing real harm, which is completely different from engaging in a fight where someone wants to injure somebody else. You do not face physical danger in a larp-fight. Being attacked at a larp and in reality are two entirely different situations, and experience of one does not give you any knowledge about the other . Larpers are therefore not likely to generalise aggressive behaviour from fiction to real life.
In real life, not displaying aggressive behaviour is an established rule. Larpers know this rule to be valid in reality when they go to their first larp. Aggression learned through larping will therefore not become the general rule, it becomes the exception.
A general interest for military equipment may be a reason for some people to go to the army and to do larpig. Some larps offers good possibilities to cultivate an already existing interest for armours, banners, swords, guns and military history. Therefore it is possible that through being a part of certain larping societies, a military interest may be developed further. This, however, has more to do with the friends one chooses than with larping itself.
It is important to notice that in the larping society the number of pacifists is also large . This indicates that larping is not a sufficient factor to develop an interest for the army. It might, however, be that polarisation takes place because the recurring theme of war in larps makes the larper reflect more on the subject and form stronger opinions than others.
Larping can beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the development of a healthy, well adjusted personality. It may help larpers get a more flexible self concept and get rid of anxiety caused by affect. The larper has the possibility to develop through role experimentation and extended social learning in a safer way than others. In time, a larper may attain a higher level of empathy. Negative effects of larping are few. Quite clearly, however, this is an area in desperate need for more research.
-Buchholz, Ted (red): Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company 1996
-Fatland, Eirik and Wingård, Lars: "Dogma 99- a programme for the liberation of LARP",
internet, 1999. http://fate.laiv.org/dogme99/no/
-Hetland, Magnus Lie: "Hva er en god simulering?", internet, 1998. http://arcadia.laiv.org:8080/pekere/lrpkval.html
-Szatkowski, Janek: "Dramas rolle i et samfund i hastigt forandring".