All the World's a LARP

In defense of LARPing as the inescapable modern condition.

LARPing has become a common term of dismissal, abuse, or jovial teasing across online discourse. In case you haven't come across it before, it stands for Live Action Role Playing. In its original use, it invokes people enacting fantasy scenarios in costumes with plastic swords, tin foil armor, and complicated (but not problematic) headdresses. In its more stabby usage, it implies that the LARPer is adopting specific ideas, aesthetics, or practices inauthentically, that they are wearing their ideological costume to gain attention or not wearing it quite right. 

I want to make the case that LARPing is inescapable. To whatever degree you wish to construct a life that deviates by any amount from the one emergent from your direct cultural substrate - which for most is hardly a continuation of a grand heritage - you will have to get there through no small amount of LARPing. 

Our current culture is a LARP generator because the spaces left for "authentic" cultural transmission have been progressively gutted by the pincer movement of a growing state and ever-more-refined market.

The most significant part of cultural transmission had the purpose of keeping you alive, both in a physical sense and a social sense. This is knowledge that has now been supplanted by the skillful work of Walmart, Google, Pfizer, Ford, the government, and their suppliers. If you're not Amish or someone raised in a bunker, your identity is probably not derived from a continuing tradition, but from a patchwork of radio jingles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and whatever else was on MTV in 2006.

Embedded in his spectrum of chosen identities, floating through the memetic and mimetic marinade of modernity, the liberated subject of the current order is a LARPer by default. 

A lot of LARPing that gets the side-eye consists of what I'd call "the voluntary reintroduction of friction.” It involves making things harder and turning away from easy things, be it through physical activity, nutrition, working with your hands, or adopting religious practices or rituals.

A lot of these things sound like bizarre, anachronistic things to do and attract incredulity. Why would you not just buy yogurt? Who has time to do that? Things with non-obvious benefits seem LARPier than most. But these are the things that add layers of commitment and skin-in-the-game to life. They may present as trivial choices or excessive quirks, but they add up. 

Our challenge is to test old, invent new, and implement effective constraints in a world powered by its ability to tear them down in its iterative pursuit of commoditized comfort. And yes, this means most often picking from an improvised, à la carte menu of constraint. The wholesale importation of the past as a proof of authenticity is neither possible nor sane. 

My grandfather got his first pair of soled shoes at the age of seven, and even then, he only wore them on Sundays. He was well versed in a traditional lifestyle and was responsible for a small subsistence farm and younger siblings from the second he remembered having a glimmer of consciousness. He was also devastated to leave his farm during collectivization, and he missed his horses until the day he died - but he didn't miss the hardship, because when he became a miner, he got a whole new set of constraints. He didn't feel the need to teach that hardship to my mother, who had her own assortment of issues to navigate during communism. Needless to say, I won't be raising my child without shoes or in some faux-totalitarian Truman show. We will be engaging in copious LARPing, though. 

I believe we should take LARPing as a given. You either LARP with gusto or you LARP involuntarily. A low-friction existence is more often than not a low-stakes existence, and to many, that is starting to become less and less appealing. Fail forward by LARPing backward. 


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