Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Reluctant Geek - Have you heard the one about the Irish man, the Elf and the blogger? No, me neither.

It was Race Week in Cheltenham this week. Unless you’re a local, all this is liable to mean to you is horses, posh people and pictures of the Royals in fancy hats on the TV news. However, if you’re a Cheltonian, then those two innocent little words ‘Race Week’ are likely to strike fear into your heart. When you live in Cheltenham, Race Week means five hour traffic jams, witnessing public urination and a bunch of footloose and fancy-free drunkards rampaging through your home town for five days every year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against drunks per se. When they’re not on your doorstep being loud and obnoxious, they can even be mildly entertaining. Which brings me, not so neatly, to the topic of this week’s missive of geekery: It’s time to talk about LARP. Which is to say Live Action Role Playing. Or dressing up and pretending to be a knight/lady/troll/goblin to make things absolutely explicit.

If you were forced to go to Sunday School/Church as a child, you’ll recognize this as the point where I shoehorn in the fact that something utterly unrelated is somehow a little bit like Jesus... or in this case how a bunch of shouty, gambling Irish men in flat caps are a little bit like a bunch of nerds sat around a field in fancy dress. Best to just go with it...

Like the Cheltenham Races, LARP is a hobby with a bad reputation. Be honest, unless you’re a LARPer yourself, you’re imagining fat men with beards dressed up like Legolas from Lord Of The Rings right now. And honestly, those stereotypes do exist. For many people, LARP is the zenith of geekiness, the passtime you seek out if World of Warcraft and collectible action figures are just too cool for you. I mean honestly, plain old garden variety table top roleplaying is bad enough, but the idea that you would want to do this in a costume? Madness!

Except, actually, it isn’t that mad. If you’re a regular visitor here, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a fan of fancy dress. I’m also a bit of a fan of the "If you’re going to do something, then you may as well embrace it fully" philosophy. I hate Cheltenham Festival with a burning passion, but if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to attend then I’d be donning my flat cap and practicing my Irish accent with the best of them - it’s not casual racism if you’re doing it for fun! Equally, if I’m going to role play at all, then by choice I’m going to do it in an outfit, in the middle of a wood somewhere with a tavern and a fire and a bunch of people dressed up as ogres.

And as a hobby, LARP seems to attract people with a similar attitude. Far from a culture of life-limited, real world losers, the most visible string at LARP events I’ve been to is a hyper-masculine, testosterone-fueled hard-drinking one, where acceptable games involve throwing chairs at your friends and setting people on fire. This is largely done during the Out of Character portion of events, frequently in the wee small hours of the morning. It may not be particularly highbrow all the time, but it does imply a certain commitment to and passion for thrill seeking in the strangest of places.

Anyway, playing is good for you. Studies, apparently, say so. As adults it’s easy to be dismissive of activities like LARP as somehow the result of pathological Peter Pan complexes. But imaginative play is by no means only the domain of the under twelves and nor should it be. Creative, immersive escapism doesn’t mean you are dissatisfied with your real life. But it does mean that you have the intellectual resources to imagine different worlds and cultures and situations.

At any rate, given the choice between the race week pissheads and the ones in costume at LARP events, I’d choose the LARPers any day. They might be stapling each other to tables for a laugh the night before, but you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be saving the world the morning after...

This week Kate is looking out her drinking horn.

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