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The Game is On: Live Action Role-Playing Today

January 10, 2018

In 2006 I completed my dissertation[i] which studied individual’s experience of personality and identity through playing a sustained, self-generated character in the venue of Live Action Role-Playing (LARP).

About 6 months after my work was complete, I left the LARP community. At the time, there didn’t seem to be much academic interest in this topic, though from time to time I was asked to consult with other practicing professionals whom had clients who were into role-playing games. My goals were to help these practitioners understand some of the basic dynamics and how to ask about (and potentially understand) this delicate facet of role-playing experience.

Then about two years ago, I got a request out of the blue from someone looking for a copy of my dissertation. I gladly obliged, as this was the first real interest anyone had shown from an academic standpoint. As it turns out, there had been lots of academic work going on about role-playing games and LARP during the decade I had not been active. A community had blossomed that I had not been previously aware of.

This led me to revisit my own work and streamline my findings into a 15-minute presentation that I presented at the Living Games Conference in 2016 along with three other esteemed panelists. The following year, that streamlined article appeared in the International Journal of Role-Playing. In 2017, that same work was translated into Portuguese as there was interest in it from a Brazilian online publication.

I felt myself drawn back into studying LARP, which naturally required me to rejoin the community. So much work has been done in looking at the psychosocial aspects of adopting an alter-ego (“character”), and how real life and the character life can intermingle, which is described as “bleed.”

This notion of “bleed” was embedded in my dissertation research, where my participants had been explicit about the effects of the character on their real lives over time (known as “bleed out”) as well as how their real lives might affect their character’s choices (“bleed in”). Naturally, there can be positive as well as negative aspects of bleed. LARP, being a social game, can be unsurprisingly vulnerable to interpersonal bleed on both sides of the spectrum.

It was a wonderful surprise when I first returned to LARP that the Storyteller spent time talking a bit about bleed as well as consent issues. I had somehow landed in a community of people who understood what I had spent so much time on, and they had no idea that I had written my dissertation on a phenomenological aspect of LARP.

Six months later, I have developed a few friends and the conversations and exchange of ideas continue to excite me. In the coming months, I plan on collaborating with a colleague from Wayne State University to further study bleed in a qualitative manner.

Bleed was only a small portion of my findings in my dissertation (I had called it the “stream of embodiment”). This upcoming research will look for qualitative descriptions about individuals specific experiences with bleed in an attempt to gain a richer understanding of this psychosocial phenomenon. I’m also excited because this type of academic inquiry invariably treads into ideas about consciousness, identity and personality.

As a more modern Sherlock Holmes might say, the game is on.

[i] Blackstock, R. (2006). Persona ex machina: How is consciously embodied persona experienced through Live Action Role Play [LARP] (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Center for Humanistic Studies, Farmington Hills, MI.

Ryan Blackstock, PsyDRyan Blackstock, PsyD, is a Core Faculty Member in the Master’s program at MSP.