Performing the Real: An Essay

Part 1 of Lizzie Stark’s essay introduced us to the world of larping. Here, she explores larping’s most vital element: the alibi and what it means to be in character.

Larp presents an alibi for interaction, an excuse that shocks participants out of everyday life and allows them to behave and connect with each other differently. Alibi is the convenient excuse we use to justify behavior that is out of the norm. Danish larpwrights Bjarke Pedersen and Jonas Trier Knudsen popularized the term “alibi” in its larp context. Larp is not possible without alibi, but alibi is present in many other social contexts, and permits special behavior in those situations as well.

One of the simplest and most effective forms of alibi is a physical mask. A mask takes away a person’s natural identity and substitutes another (ghost, Freddy Kruger, Mexican wrestling star) in its place. It causes others to respond differently and playfully to the masked person. And the masked person, in turn, responds accord to these new rules of identity. It’s implicitly understood that I’m not my regular self (but still, expressing some facet of my regular self) when I wear my luchador mask. When I threaten my husband by bellowing “clean the kitchen or suffer the consequences,” he will not take me seriously . . . though he may pretend so in the moment.

Alibis can . . . enable people to step out of their socially proscribed roles and engage in out of the norm behavior.

Alcohol and Halloween are familiar alibis. It’s understood that drunken confessions of love may fade when the speaker sobers up. During Halloween, people dress up in unusual costumes—many of them provocative and sexual—and mischief often results. The morning-after Halloween stories that I’ve heard mix the alibis of costume and booze: “I was so drunk, and you have to understand, it was Halloween and I was dressed up like Captain America, so of course I . . . .” ( . . . went home with Wonder Woman, picked a fight with Iron Man, stole an American flag, etc. etc.). Alibis can put people in a different frame of mind that is marked out from the mundane world of regular life, and enable people to step out of their socially proscribed roles and engage in out of the norm behavior.

The structure of a game or larp can also provide an alibi by changing the expectations around social behavior. Consider a larp that requires a villain, say, a twisted serial murderer. In real life, being a serial murderer is not acceptable—it’s a deeply criminal act, punishable by life in prison, or in some states, death. Even in a larp, players might look askance at someone who said, “yes, me. I want to play the serial killer.” But if the larp instructions call for the facilitator to assign roles to players, or for the players to draw roles out of a hat, and X ends up the murderer, then the responsibility is removed from X. Rather, the facilitator of the larp, or the structure of the larp itself has given X an alibi to take on the role of serial killer for the good of the group. It’s not creepy for them to play the serial murderer, because after all, it’s not like they chose it.

All larp provides an alibi for players to behave differently than they normally would. Someone raving about their desire to sue a particular ghost would either be committed or given their own reality TV show. But it would be perfectly normal behavior if you were playing Jason Morningstar’s ridiculous party larp Ghost Court. And it is through the alibi of larp that participants gain emotional access to their characters. Because I am embodying a character and relating that character to myself, I am allowed to take that character’s concerns seriously. Although it is inherently ridiculous to pretend to be a poltergeist suing for my right to haunt your kitchen, while I am in character, I can make a serious argument about why I should be allowed to stay, even if, seen from the frame of regular life, that justification might also be funny and absurd.

Alibi helps move participants into a liminal space where their identities are loosened and new types of actions and points of view are possible.

Alibi helps people move out of the head-space of their regular lives and into another aspect of themselves. It helps larp participants transition from doctors, waiters, and academics into new roles as cyborgs, magicians, and World War II refugees. And yet, the transformation is never fully completed. The shells of those original identities remain within the player who is portraying the character. (A player who genuinely believed they were now a real-life serial murderer or a cylon rather than simply playing one, would be unhinged and represent a serious risk to the safety of their co-players—in nearly a decade of larping, I have yet to encounter players who couldn’t separate reality from fiction in their minds). In this way, alibi helps move participants into a liminal space where their identities are loosened and new types of actions and points of view are possible. That between-ness allows players to try new things and form deep bonds with one another. It’s where the magic of larp resides.

(Image credit: A scene from the larp End of the Line, produced by Bjarke Pedersen’s Odyssé. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen via Flickr.)

About Lizzie Stark

Lizzie Stark is the author of Pandora’s DNA, which explores the history and science of the so-called ‘breast cancer genes, and  Leaving Mundania, which investigates the subculture of live action roleplay, or LARP. Her journalism and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Daily Beast, io9, Fusion, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

PLAY is an escape from conformity.