Live action role-playing is a curious phenomenon that sees people dress up as fictional characters and replicate their behaviour. LARPs can involve hundreds of people at a time: firing airsoft guns, improvising speeches and escaping the general mundanity of their existence. For five days a week one might be Joe or Jane Bloggs, stabbing at keys in the greyest office in Croydon, but on Saturday one can be a medieval knight, a vampire or a god.
Anyone who has spent time in discussions of politics, philosophy and culture will also be familiar with LARPing. Anemic young men and women with badges on their backpacks talk of revolution as if they could storm a birthday party, never mind the Winter Palace. Showy moderns imitate Georgian aristocrats in between references to video games and graphic novels. Cultural Protestants claim to be nihilists. And so on.
In aping the revolutionaries, intellectuals or bluebloods of other eras one not only signals one’s affiliations but escapes the trappings of our age. Impoverished education, immersement in mass media and general life in passive consumer societies has led many to feel irritation with their own triviality, as well as that of the times they experience, and imitation ennobles them.
It was always true. Jean-Jacques Rousseau acquired his “bizarre and romantic notions of human life” from reading Plutarch’s Lives…, the heroes of which he dreamed of emulating. Our educative institutions and communicative mediums enable mimicry on a greater scale, however, as one can maintain a pose more easily when isolated from the outside world, in common rooms and hunched before computer screens.
What of it? If we are compelled to speak of the frustrating, often morbid intricacies of human existence can we not at least have our fun? Our behaviour always exhibits an element of performance, that is true. If one engages in discourse and organisation for more than entertainment, though, one cannot wear one’s weltanschauung like a costume or one’s debate is no more real than a foam sword-fight in a park.
There are dangers to attempting to realise one’s self-construction and beliefs, however. In LARPing none but the most eccentric men and women would pretend to be the characters of their play, while ideological actors often fail to separate the actual and imitative sides of themselves. This can be dishonest, as people deliberately attempt to conceal features of their character and thought which they sustain yet wish to obscure, and promote virtues they would like to be seen to represent despite never intending to embody.
It can also be delusional, as men and women fool themselves into believing they are people they are not. All of us hope to better ourselves, of course, and it is right to aim for an improved version of oneself. Yet in LARPing one pretends to be someone so far beyond one’s actual self that one could never hope to change one’s person into theirs. Attempting to become one’s ideal self is to leap from the window while clad in fairy wings – and if one has influence, as is the goal of many, one might land on someone else before rolling across the pavement. If our imaginative and rational faculties do not cohere we introduce daydreams into the world in a manner that is embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst.