Exploring nonhuman perspectives in live-action role-play

Rafael Bienia

Maastricht University, Maastricht, Limburg, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—In this personal essay, the author, sometimes in the voice of a live-action role-play (LARP) sword, discusses the nature of LARP materials, arguing that the costume or elements of the costume (such as a sword) are actually nonhuman actors.

[0.2] Keywords—Actor–network theory; Game material; Role-playing game

Bienia, Rafael. 2015. "Exploring Nonhuman Perspectives in Live-Action Role-Play." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Call me Sword. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, this account must show. I am a sword, yes. Imagine an object of 80 centimeters length, 300 grams of weight. That object includes other parts that have one job: they stick together to give me my recognizable shape. There is the silver blade with one sharp edge. There, the guard in the form of a black flame. When your eyes move farther along, you see that the guard is glued to the grip and the pommel. Both are of a different material, brown leather.

[1.2] Come closer! Then you can see that the color on the blade is not entirely silver. It is dirty. Mud and a red substance sticks to me. You can imagine that after eight years, I have a long history as a toy or game material. Now you might wonder: Is it not dangerous to use a sword for playing? It is! And for this reason, my job is not to be a sword but to pretend to be a sword. Instead of metal, the larger part of my body is made of foam. The soft stuff prevents injuries when I hit a player. I will speak more about my life later. First, I feel the need for some clarification, as some of my readers might be irritated. I think that you are more familiar with a human author than with a talking sword. Let him speak.

[1.3] This essay results from my research on materials in role-playing games, among them live-action role-play (LARP). LARP is a type of role-playing game, a genre of games that is popular for titles such as Dungeons & Dragons (TSR, 1974) and World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004). In World of Warcraft, computers run and represent the fictional world in a virtual environment, but in LARP, people behave as if they were their fictional characters. While people play World of Warcraft in the virtual world, LARP takes place in the real world (note 1). LARPers use costumes and other requisites—for example, swords—that correspond with their characters' clothing. Harviainen considers this correspondence as one core of LARP: LARP is a "type of pretence play in which body language and other nonverbal cues correspond to those of the characters during play" (2012, 11). The goal of this type of pretend play is to create the suspension of disbelief for oneself and for other participants during a game session. The genres of LARP differ in the same way as do literary genres, with fantasy LARP as the most common choice.

[1.4] The idea to write this essay is rooted in an irritation. Before I began my research, I thought: People play with materials—materials do not play with people. It is the players who use costumes. It is the players who pretend play. Pretend play is a practice that requires a conscious player, not a nonconscious game material, or so it seems. When my research project reached its final stage, I doubted this assumption. I wondered if I could understand LARP from the perspective of nonhumans such as game materials, in this example a sword. Although an anthropocentric point of view helps to understand the details of LARP regarding conscious phenomena (Harviainen 2012; Montola 2012; Stenros 2013), it does not tell much about the actions of nonhumans. Thus, the irritation leads to a pair of questions that are central to this essay: How can we understand the role of materials? What can we tell about the role of materials in LARP?

2. The role of materials in LARP

[2.1] The answer to the first question provides the necessary shift in perspective that I need to answer the second question. To answer the first question and to achieve this shift, I need a methodology that moves me to such a perspective. I try to achieve this change in perspective by combining three methodological strands: actor–network theory, storytelling, and fabrication.

[2.2] The first is actor–network theory (ANT), a theoretical approach within science, technology, and society studies, associated with the work of Callon (1986), Latour (1987, 2005), Law (1987), and Law and Hassard (1999) (note 2). ANT draws attention to the ways in which heterogeneous networks are created and held together. The single parts of a network are actors, which can be either human or nonhuman. The core of ANT is to "follow the actor" as Callon advises. With this method, the researcher focuses on processes during which actors change their individual actions with the goal of forming a network. Thus, the player and the sword are both actors that form the network LARP. It is the conscious decision of the researcher to choose one actor and describe the processes in the formation of a network. In the case of this text, it is the actor sword that I follow.

[2.3] The second method branches off to an experimental side of ANT. It results in an account that uses the perspective of a material by lending it a voice (Latour, 1996). While Latour exercises this approach to a limited extent (122-123), Tsing (2014) shows the benefit of an account that lends a voice to a nonhuman actor in her text on a mushroom spore, as it offers a multispecies research position. Letting the spore speak demonstrates that different species show different relations. This essay adapts Tsing's example from species in biology to materials in games. Instead of the spore, I let the sword speak in order to see new relations. Thus, it is possible to avoid an anthropocentric perspective. I use the tool of storytelling in the fashion of Tsing to lend a voice to the nonlinguistic actor sword.

[2.4] The third method is fabrication as an ethnographic method. Markham introduces fabrication as one "practical method of data representation in contexts in which privacy protection is unstable…involving creative, bricolage-style transfiguration of original data into composite accounts or representational interactions" (2012, 334). The basic idea is to write accounts based on empirical data, but represented in a transformed way. Because the word fabrication has the connotation of invention, I want to stress here that I use the word in the sense of manufacturing an imagination. Thus, the imagined account of the sword is based on manufacturing of firsthand data. During my research between 2010 and 2014, I selected qualitative data during 10 LARPs in Germany. The selection follows the method of participant observation and semistructured interviews as outlined by Silverman (2013).

[2.5] For this essay, I use field notes from the LARP Epic Empires 2010 on the LARP location Utopion in Bexbach, Germany. Additionally, I use the transcript of an interview with one player for this text, Oliver Fischer. We have participated together in several LARPs on several locations, including the Utopion location. The interview questions centered on his history as a player, his understanding of role-playing, and how he used materials. Fischer told me that he has played different types of role-playing games since his schooldays. Getting together with other people was one element that Fischer liked about this genre of games.

[2.6] I combined field observations with the interview transcripts for the fabrication. In the footnotes, I provide a selection of these data samples. The result is the following fabricated account of one exemplary sword in LARP.

[2.7] With the combination of the three methods, I answer the first question. The understanding of the role of materials in LARP is rooted in a fabricated account that is based on the premise of nonhuman ability to act. The next step is to make this perspective fruitful and to tell more about the role of materials in LARP. And this brings me back to the sword.

3. The toy sword speaks

[3.1] Hi, it is the sword again, yes, the toy sword. I have promised to tell you something about my life. Follow me!

[3.2] My body consists of smaller parts; call them actors. Inside of me, the core consists of a glass fiber kernel to provide stability to the whole. The kernel is glued to the blade and the grip. The blade consists of foam with a colored latex covering. The silver color aims to more believably represent metal. The grip is glued to several layers of brown leather strips. Every part of me is soft. If you hit someone with me, the worst result may be a blue mark. It is similar to being hit by a thrown football.

[3.3] Now you know my secret: I role-play myself. I am a toy sword that role-plays a metal sword. I role-play well, because my appearance of a silver weapon is convincing. In LARP, it is important to be convincing; otherwise you are not taken seriously as part of the illusion of a living fantasy world that we all want to create (note 3). As I am convincing enough, people behave as if I were sharp. They cry when I hit them, and they do not touch the sharp edge of the foam blade. Moreover, I am true to my real self: I am a safety weapon, a toy. I am not here to kill; I am here to entertain. In being true to myself and in making people react as if I were dangerous, I think I fulfill my job well as a role player.

[3.4] As I said before, together with the human, we role-play a fictional character. The character can be a knight, a wizard, or a rogue. It does not matter as long as it fits the chosen genre of LARP. In our case it is fantasy, so we role-play a knight. Usually people think that LARP characters happen in the imagination of the players, but that is just half of the story. As the blade, grip, and foam are parts of me, I am one part of the whole costume. I have many friends, such as the tabard, the gambeson, the linen pair of trousers, the shoes, and many more. Together, we represent the character and make this imagined fictional character visible and tangible for everyone and everything else. As a costume collective, the sword, tabard, and the other actors act as a unified network. This network aims to fulfill further jobs in LARP.

[3.5] One job that I have already spoken about is to represent the fictional character in the material world. We form a complete costume because a complete costume works best in representing the character (note 4). As we role-play a knight, my job as a sword is to provide the weapon. The gambeson provides the armor. The linen trousers and leather shoes make the costume complete because they are necessary to the role. We cannot play convincingly if the shoes are sneakers and the trousers a pair of jeans (note 5).

[3.6] Another job is to help other players and characters to recognize roughly what character we play at a distance (note 6). For example, imagine that you see someone standing on a hill. By the costume—including metal armor, weapons, and player behavior—you can recognize the role of another knight. If the player had only a tunic, it would be difficult to believe in his character. A tunic alone does not convince us of him role-playing a knight, because knights should have armor made of metal to protect them in combat.

[3.7] Moreover, you distinguish your character from others with a similar costume. While there are two knights on the field—one played by us, one by the others on the hill—other characters can distinguish us, because we do not have a metal armor in our network. That is of immense help for other players to approach us and categorize our network as one distinct character (note 7).

[3.8] However, when we costume parts have agreed upon the unity of a costume network, it does not mean that this unity stays forever. The actors that make up the costume network demand some action from the human. As a LARP sword, I demand from the player some care. One reason is obviously that I as a sword am an important part of the knight costume. When you think about a knight, you think about a sword. When you think about a sword, you think about a knight. You see? When I break or the human forgets me at home, the character can become less convincing because the costume is missing one essential part (note 8).

[3.9] As fantasy LARP is usually played outside, it might rain during play. People usually don't mind, and most of us costume parts are fine with some water, but I demand extra care when it is constantly raining. Because of the latex coating, the player has to keep me out of most of the rain, has to rub me dry, and has to keep me dry when he sleeps; otherwise the latex might begin to react with the rain water. Some call the chemical reaction between latex and water latex cancer, because it destroys the whole latex coating. It is like an illness! And I become infectious, too! If I touch one of my fellow swords, latex cancer can destroy them. Therefore, I demand good care!

[3.10] As I said before, I do something and people react. My human takes care of me; otherwise the latex will peel off, the sword as a network breaks into pieces, and a broken sword will make role-playing difficult for us all. Other people also react to my actions, for example, when I hit them. I do not say that in order to understand LARP, my action is more important than the human action. My point is that game materials matter in LARP as a changing network of processes between heterogeneous actors.

4. Actors that become one

[4.1] After this account, what can I tell about the role of materials in LARP? The example of a toy sword tells the story of actors that become one, actors such as the blade, the guard, and the grip. Together they become one sword that serves as a part, an actor, for the whole costume, another network. Then, in relation to other costumes, the costume becomes another actor in the whole network of a LARP. Following the actor in this process makes other relations visible when one looks from the perspective of a nonhuman actor. The sword is an actor that follows orders, such as when it is swung by a player, and it gives orders, such as when it demands attention because of damaging water.

[4.2] Although a fabricated account that uses such a perspective moves from the human center, it cannot avoid that center. One reason is that I as the researcher am a human actor. Another reason is that this very text is a written account. It is a translation from something that I describe with language. In the end, I as a human need tools, such as a written account. However limited this method might be, I hope to have achieved some irritation that shifts the perspective in the reader. Using this perspective reveals some different ways in which materials matter. I think that it might not be as interesting how materials matter in general and into what categories different materials can be distinguished. The point is that the researcher is able to grasp the actions of materials when they form networks because these actions contribute to the understanding of LARP as a phenomenon that is neither human or nonhuman alone nor both human and nonhuman. ANT offers the theoretical background to take a perspective beyond preconceptualized boundaries, because "follow the actor" focuses on processes instead of on categories. This symmetrical perspective reveals new processes, new because they are beyond a human/nonhuman boundary, new because they offer a new direction for further studies of role-playing games, be they LARP, tabletop role-playing games (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons), or computer role-playing games (e.g., World of Warcraft). Without such an understanding, the sword would have remained silent and processes would have remained hidden, for example, the corroding effect of rain on latex.

[4.3] To conclude, studying LARP while following a nonhuman perspective allows new insights for the study of games. LARP as a network is not a static, central object of study. LARP is a moving network of actors that make and break relations during play. Observing these relational processes in the moment of transformation, the researcher becomes aware that the action of role-playing games is spread among different actors. Role-playing works then beyond the simple division of active players and passive materials. When new actors emerge, such as swords, costumes, rain, characters, and locations, new actions can be studied. LARPers play with swords, and swords play with LARPers, right?

4. Acknowledgments

This work is part of the research program Narrative Fan Practices which is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). I thank my supervisors Sally Wyatt and Karin Wenz for the guidance, encouragement, and advice that they have provided throughout my dissertation project. I also thank Anna Harris for encouraging my experimenting approach by hinting at Tsing's talkative spores. Finally, I thank the MUSTS summer harvest attendants for their feedback and above all Julia Quartz for her in-depth comments on an earlier version of this text.

5. Notes

1. I hesitate to make a distinction between a real world and a fantasy world for ontological reasons. For the sake of an introduction to LARP, I use this common categorization.

2. A pure actor–network analysis avoids explaining terms, concepts, and theories in advance. However, taking into consideration the context of this essay, I felt the need to introduce at least some aspects of the methods on which this account of a sword is based.

3. "Live-action role-playing is based also on how much one is able to take the other seriously. It becomes more difficult to take someone seriously if the costume is not convincing" (Oliver Fischer, pers. comm.). Here the network perspective is fruitful. It is the player who suspends his disbelief about the toy sword and treats it as if it was a real sword, but it is also the toy sword that acts: it demands the suspension of disbelief, it plays the role of a sword, and so on.

4. "Maybe it is simply, that one can say that with [an iconic part of the costume such as a sword for a knight] the costume is complete and it is always easier to represent a role with a complete costume than with half of the costume" (Oliver Fischer, pers. comm.).

5. Sneakers and jeans are a no-go for German LARPers today. The aim is to have a complete costume, and some LARPers add more and more fitting parts, such as socks, underwear, and pairs of glasses.

6. "And for me it is important that at some distance I recognize roughly what the character is, in order to be able to approach the character. When I do not recognize it, it becomes more difficult" (Oliver Fischer, pers. comm.).

7. "Other characters, other people recognize you much easier, remember very much easier what character you are, because you wear a costume. You distinguish yourself from others with the costume. Players or characters who see you for the first time, categorize you because of the costume. That is of immense help for other players to approach you and categorize you" (Oliver Fischer, pers. comm.).

8. "And there are always certain parts of the costume that make one say: this is part of the character. When I put them on, I am this character, or I play this character" (Oliver Fischer, pers. comm.).

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