I’m one of the biggest nerds you’ll ever meet. I could make many claims to prove that epic statement, but the most convincing one is probably the story about how I got into fantasy role playing games. I’m not taking about computer role playing games, oh no… I’m talking about sitting around a table with a sheet of paper in front of you, with a bunch of other nerds, listening to the “dungeon master” tell a story of how your group of characters just met up in a tavern. Every now and then, you roll a couple of die to determine if you successufully slayed the dragon or found the secret trapdoor. That type of thing.
As I said…nerd.
I started messing around with role playing games when I was 11, thanks to an older kid in my neighboorhood. He was already 17, working on his second attempt at finishing 11th grade, more than a little bit overweight and had a definite problem with body odor. He also literally lived in his parents’ basement. Really—he did. I can vividly remember his mother’s charming habit of yelling at everybody instead of speaking.
Strangely, none of that put me off; on the contrary, I couldn’t believe my good luck. A cool older guy like this was willing to hang out with a small kid like me. This was life changing stuff.
He introduced me to a German offshot of AD&D and I instantly knew this was the best thing ever. A game where you could be anyone you wanted? A game that allowed you to develop your various skills with weapons, magic, and survival? An open-ended world that you got to explore as you wished? It might be hard to comprehend this, but at the time I was blown away. Every element of the game spoke to me, I felt like I had discovered treasure. From the very first moment, I realized this was how I wanted to spend my free time.
Which is what I did, for the next several years. The deeper I got into my new found passion, the more I experimented with all the different options the fantasy scene had to offer. I started to explore all the different gaming systems and genres that were available at the time. I started to play with new groups of people, and to meet better gamers. I travelled to conventions, and even started to develop my own fantasy gaming system. I was deep inside the rabbit hole of pen & paper role playing.
But then it got even better.
I was playing AD&D second edition with my latest favorite group of gamers, when I first heard about this new thing, LARP (Live Action Role Playing).
You can probably guess where this story is going…
Instead of sitting around a table and IMAGINING you are a thief, a wizard, or a priest, you take it to the next level by actually ENACTING your role. Really, truly BEING your character!
Easier said than done, actually.
First, you need to get a costume that fits the character you want to embody in the game. So naturally, you take a sewing class in order to learn how to make your own costume. Even at the young age of 16, that made me doubt my own sexual orientation a little bit. But I can tell you, the older ladies at the sewing class were very happy to have me there! With all their adoring help, my costume turned out splendidly.
Next, you need to pick out an event and figure out how to get there – also no easy task, as the legal driving age in Germany is 18. So you end up in the car of some fellow fantasy nerd / part time hippie for a 4 hour drive to someplace far, far, far away. During the journey to that abandoned castle in some random forest, your new strange stranger-friend tells you all about his political orientation and how you should join at the next anti-facism protest he is organizing.
Then…finally….at last…there is the game itself! Imagine hundreds of crazy people in heavy chain mail, intricate leather armour or sometimes just sporting body paint, camping in a forest for 3 days, slaying mean looking orcs all day, getting drunk at the tavern together at night, listening to the songs of the local bard. That is LARP.
If this all sounds crazy to you, it is. But at the time, this was my personal version of heaven on earth. It wasn’t just the fun of playing the game that captivated me. It was also that I had finally found a tribe: a group of people I called my own. These fellow adventurers didn’t care about what “normal” people thought was important, instead they indulged in running free and chasing their own dreams. Almost every single person I met at those LARP conventions were wild and free dreamers, and it almost overwhelmed me with excitement. Normally I had such a hard time finding just a few fellow maniacs to connect with.
I did the LARP thing for quite a few years but for various reasons I eventually lost contact with it. I moved to a different city in Germany to start college, and initially that kept me pretty busy. On top of that, I now had a girlfriend I wanted to spend time with – if that surprises you after all I just told you, I don’t blame you… So I failed to connect to the local scene of LARP players after my move to college. Then I moved on to the States, where they had hardly heard of the game yet – especially in Central Ohio.
But I never forgot about my happy LARP years, and could never completely shake the thought I should start up again. But things kept getting in the way, as they always do.
Until one day, I decided it was now or never. If I kept putting it off for “good” reasons, I would never find my way back to LARP again. I knew this would be a mistake I would always regret. So I called up two old gaming buddies of mine and arranged to go to two conventions in the summer. The first was a smaller event with only 250 players, the second was a mega event, with over 5000 players, all staying in a full blown out medieval city.
And how the game had changed!
The costumes were so top notch that you couldn’t tell the difference between their costumes and those in the Lord of the Ring Movies, and I’m not exaggerating. The creativity and attention to detail that went into them was breathtaking. But it didn’t stop there, oh no.
In the years I had been away from LARP, players had started to optimize not just their wardrobe, but every last piece of their in-game possessions. The tents they lived in were magnificent pieces of craftsmanship, authentic to the smallest detail. The dishes they used, the silverware, even their toiletries – everything was straight from a documentary on the Middle Ages from the History Channel. And don’t get me started on the locations! There were now LARP clubs OWNING historical castles, which they had been outfitting from the inside, including taverns, market stalls, bath houses and grave yards. In short: it was perfect.
And I hated it.
At first I couldn’t point the finger at it. What made me dislike the game that I had loved so much, for so long? What had changed? Maybe it was just the blind enthusiasm of youth fading away as I got older—and wiser? The people that I once thought were so awe-inspiring now just seemed to be rather nerdy….and socially inept. The friends I went with had grown older, less adventurous, and more set in their ways. I decided to just drop it and classify the whole thing as a nostalgic attempt to re-live a certain time in my life.
Which is all true, and I could just end my nerd avdenture tale here. But there was more to the whole experience and eventually it hit me: the life metaphor that is LARP had simply run its course.
Let me explain: what is so seductive about this game, at least for me, is that you can try out different paths, professions and skills without any real world consequences. For example, you gather experience points for your various quests and then invest them into strengthening your armour, or picking up a new magic spell. But the thing is: this doesn’t require any work, except for the “work” of playing the game. You don’t have to sit down and actually study that new spell of yours for six months. You also don’t have to learn how to forge chain mail for several years. You just play the game and agree with each other that you have now gained that new skillset, whatever it is.
This is SO different from real life, where every skill you choose to learn comes with a massive cost, either in time, money or effort, or any combination of these. Hence the unsexiness of real life in comparison to the gaming world.
However, it’s not just the ease of acquiring a new skillset – it is also the end to which that skillset is acquired too. At LARPs, everyone is aiming for greatness – you will meet dozens of knights in shining armour, vile villains, and great magicians. Rarely does anyone ever decide to play a scribe or a roadworker in one of these fantasy worlds – yet the real world is BURSTING with accountants and blue-collar employees.
In summary: What defines the game are the ease of skillset acquisition and the quest for greatness, both served to you on a platter. In the real world, however, both matters present major problems: how do you motivate yourself to master the complex and NOT settle for a boring, mind-numbing profession you hate?
It’s these exact two questions that I have been pondering over for the last few years and have started to write about recently. Having decided these are the most important questions in my life, I simply have no patience for the gaming world anymore. It is not the level of nerdyness that is so off-putting to me – it is the attempt to disguise these two central problems of modern life.
Escapism is simply not the answer. You shouldn’t compensate for your average boring life by running around in the woods, swinging foam swords at NPCs – it’s fun, but it offers no solution to the problem.
But just dismissing the game is not the whole story either… After all, what’s the alternative? A „normal“ life, i.e. suffering through your 9-5 existence until retirement finally redeems you? Putting skill acquisition off, because you can’t come up with the willpower? Welcome to everybody’s life.
Thanks, but no thanks.
So maybe the game CAN teach us something. Instead of just getting a regular job and giving up on learning the things that fascinate you – what if we actually approached that real world with a gamer’s mindset? You would stop framing the world as this grey place that is enforcing all these limits on you and rather turn it into your real-life playground – an open ended gaming environment with endless possibilities. And that’s exactly what it is!
Again, skill acquisition – if you can consciously develop your gaming character when it comes to fighting and magic and so forth, why not go about it in the same conscious and planned out way in the real world? In the same way, choose to develop only the skills that you truly want your character to have, in this „real world“ gaming world – and put the time and the effort in to level up. Conscious skill acquisition is not a central part of the game by accident – it really is at the heart of life. The game can point you this way.
The same gamer’s mindset applied to real life will prevent you from getting stuck with a job you hate. As a true gamer, never again would you settle for becoming an accountant – no, you are here to accomplish great things! You are here to become a hero in the story you are writing for yourself. This would mean putting money and the expectations of others second, and your self-actualization first, always. Because anything less than becoming a master magician is not going to cut it, so to speak.
Fantasy roleplaying games are just a metaphor for real life, one that can either lead you to closing your eyes to it or one that can encourage you to attack it with uncompromising vigour. I encourage you to do the latter: The game is here and now – start playing!