In Europe, a lot of larpers care about historical accuracy, or so I’m told. The “360 degree” larpers want illusion so complete that one could mistake an “Old West town” for an Old West town, right down to the period undergarments. Even the medieval boffer larpers have costumes that look historical and are made of period-appropriate materials.
In contrast, American larpers just don’t care about historical accuracy that much; sure, they want the game world to be consistent and feel real, but (outside of reenactment) they’re not fanatical about it. We wear rayon, polyester, and sometimes tennis shoes to medieval larps. “Wench” costuming is prevalent, even though the whole corset-skirt-chemise combo doesn’t hail from a real historical period. It simply looks “medieval” in the most generic sense.
I can’t help but attribute this difference to the United States’ lack of ancient history — we’re newbies compared to the old world. For games set in worlds before 1500, we have no national barometer in a physical sense — abandoned castles, monoliths, etc — of what accuracy might look like. If you’re in Massachusetts, sure, there are old churches and buildings dating from the 1700s. If you’re in Topeka Kansas, the date is much more recent. We don’t feel our history; we don’t live alongside it the way Europe does.
Medieval larp is a way of creating and reclaiming a shared primordial past, a past of mythic heroism. Despite our country’s more modern origins, we’re preoccupied with medievalism, which perhaps grows out of our own lack of a medieval past. We’re obsessed with recreating it and living it. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game, the wildly popular World of Warcraft, and the stateside prevalence of medieval boffer larp and battle games. Sure, these games aren’t realistic — they contain stuff that never existed like elves and fireballs, but still, it constitutes an attempt to forge a connection to a past that has never existed for us.
To me, the larp worlds created in the U.S. remind me of Umberto Eco’s book Travels in Hyperreality, a loose collection of essays about Eco’s journeys through America’s simulacra. A simulacrum, according to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is a copy or simulation of something that never existed. So Disney World is a simulacrum — it’s not a recreation of something that actually exists in real life. Rather, it’s an imitation of Walt Disney’s fairy-tale fantasy made concrete. In the U.S., we don’t have concrete ancient history, but we do have simulacra.
Simulacra are part of the hyperreal — a fantasy made indistinguishable from reality — a fantasy or fiction that seems truer than what really is. For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disney world looks like a medieval castle, but it’s not a reproduction of any particular castle or medieval style of architecture — it simply looks “medieval.” Somehow, the feeling of “medievalness” has been concentrated, and eventually, this unreality takes the place of the historical medieval in our minds.
European larpers have a concrete historical standard by which to judge their costumes — they live alongside their history and can imitate it. On the other hand, Knight Realms players and other American larpers base their costumes on other simulacra — stuff they’ve seen in Lord of the Rings, stuff that seems medieval, that is evocative of the medieval. Historical accuracy is simply irrelevant.
In America, we don’t have myth; we have tall tales from the frontier. There’s Paul Bunyan, a giant logger with a huge pet blue ox, Babe, who dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. John Henry famously raced a steam drill and won only to die with his hammer in his hand. Who could forget Pecos Bill, raised by a pack of coyotes, who lassoed a tornado and rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande?
These tall tales concern men who are larger than life; they describe exceptional people who take extraordinary risks and accomplish super-human feats.
The set up of the medieval fantasy boffer larp Knight Realms echoes these tall tales. According to the Knight Realms website, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”
All of the player-characters at Knight Realms are considered better than the normal human, which is why they can dispatch many of the non player characters with aplomb. The irony is, of course, that when everyone is extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes normal. My priest may be awesome compared to the game world in general, but compared to others in town, she’s barely average. Because everyone else is also exceptional, it’s hard to stand out, which may create competition among players for the spotlight during a plot-point or other scene.
Perhaps our cultural tendency toward hyperbole, as evidenced through our national tall tales, explains why larps that aim at social realism are few and far between. We don’t play commoners with interesting emotional lives; we want to play characters of mythic, steel-driving stature.
Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? Or do larpers in other countries prefer to play larger-than-life characters too?