Health

The escapism of online larping

Facebook groups that pretend-play

Facebook groups that pretend-play   | Photo Credit: Joseph Sathish

Online live action role-playing is a thing to do when you’re at home and bored, but are these pretend games healthy?

“Its 4 heckin AM which one of you in blasting Ariana Grande at this hour??” says one Facebook post. “Have slept with all your husbands come beat me,” says another. “Hey y’all just moved in!! Who’s the creepy dude who walks up and down the street everyday? I can’t tell if he’s a hippie or a hobo,” is yet another. These comments are part of a Facebook group centred around the idea of pretending that all its 70.6k members live in the same neighbourhood. In reality they could be from anywhere in the world.

There are other goups, where people pretend to be a colony of ants, where they post as middle-aged dads, birds, drug addicts, or farmers and cows, or even pretend to work at Chernobyl. In the time of physical distancing, larping is going online, grammar, punctuation, and reality be damned.

In the words of Urbandictionary.com, that fount of all things millennial and often off-mainstream culture, larping is “A live action role-playing game is...where the participants physically act out their characters' actions. The players pursue their characters' goals within a fictional setting represented by the real world, while interacting with one another in character.”

When played offline, it resembles cosplay in the use of costume and makeup, but is different in that people must get into character and act out scenarios. There are on-ground larping events: Bicolline in Canada -- a seven-day long medieval festival and Harry Potter larps around the world, for instance. There’s also a book called Larp by Boris Leist, which captures pictures of people who indulge in this role-play 2.0.

Larping booms in the COVID-19 lockdown

“Since the lockdown I’ve gotten twice as much content as well as 500 member requests a day,” says Adam Lee, who started a group where people can pretend they are soccer moms. Lee, who is a support professional in healthcare in the US, says he got the idea when on a graveyard shift, arguing with a woman on an online group about vaccines and abortion. To bring the conversation to an end, he pretended to be a soccer mom. On his group (with 22.1k members), the top countries that see participation are the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There are only 56 members from India.

Anthony Lauxier, a musician from Sweden, who is one of the admins of ‘A group where we speak gibberish and pretend to understand each other’ says his group grew from around 5k to 50k in the span of a month after the lockdown and is now at 140k members.

Online, there are communities with still higher memberships: A group where we all pretend to be boomers, for instance, has 290k members with as many as seven admins and seven moderators. Agas Ramirez, from Manila says this is the first group she joined. “Then a friend sent me a screenshot of the group where we all pretend to be ants and I remember thinking, ‘This is peak internet’.”

It’s a sign of how far people on the Internet can go in terms of creativity, imagination, connection, and a sense of losing inhibitions. But for Ramirez, it was also the sense of predictability. Calling the ant group “a brilliant idea”, she says, “...for the ants, the expected behaviour is already there. As an ant you're expected to work for the colony at all times, and so you automatically know you're supposed to bite or lift and it just makes sense. I think half the fun of the ant group is actually just being able to be part of the community without having to learn too many rules.” Perhaps a sense of control and predictability in a world that is far from predictable.

The lure of online larping

Rachna Subramanian, a psychotherapist based in Delhi says, “Our ability to share different versions of ourselves virtually is arguably one of the fundamental attractions of the Internet.” She says it can be “fun, uninhibited and therapeutic. It aids people with closeted issues, giving them a community that is non-judgemental, warm and welcoming of its members,” a safe space at a time when many may feel alone.

Ramirez, who lives on her own, says it has helped her through the lockdwn with its sense of communuty. “I have a fairly demanding job and my workload seems to have doubled since the lockdown began.” All her interactions have been purely online of late. “So being able to be silly online with a number of people who are playing along can take your mind off things. And they're funny, they really are.”

Tracing pretend-play back to our childhoods, psychotherapist Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, based in the US, says children indulge in all kinds of fantasy, whether in a group (playing chor-sipahi for instance), in twosomes (doctor-patient) or alone (imaginary friends). As we grow older, “pretend role play gets replaced by structured tangible play, like sports - based play. Imagination-based play is put on the back burner as it is not considered ‘appropriate’ play, fit for an adult,” she says.

The lockdown and the extra time it has given many, has resulted in several creative formats being either rediscovered (singing online, for instance) or newly explored. Online larping “provides that easily accessible and affordable outlet to unplug from the stress of the ‘real mundane’ world, at just the click of a key. It allows for social interaction as people enter their chosen fantasy world, escaping for a while, not alone, but in the company of others. It is akin to a mini vacation with likeminded people who get you and are willing to be, in what others might perceive, this bizarre adventure,” she says.

Ramirez says some people do think it’s odd – she has had comments on posts with some saying only mentally ill folks larp. “Online larping is just an extension of various kinds of interactive games we already play,” she says. Subramanian adds that in new age psychotherapy, digital games are gaining popularity as tools for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Dangerous liaisons?

There are some dangers of online larping that are obvious: spending too much time online, for one. Lauxier says it can get addictive. “It has happened to me several times and every time it happens, I have to take a break.” Another adverse effect of excessive virtual larping is if “the role play character traits could segue into real life, as the person may begin to mimic some actions even when not larping,” says Subramanian, adding that when real-life roles, responsibilities, and relationships begin to blur into the background, it is a problem.

It’s called bleed: “For many, the content and personality of their ‘online larp character is usually a reflection of their real life, including the hurt, anger, sadness or other unresolved issues. While this can prove to be cathartic play as they get to ‘act’ out their fears or emotions in this safe and temporary world, there is a risk that the pretend and real life character can intermingle,” says Balasundaram.

She says another problem is when groups advocate backward and discriminatory practices like those related to patriarchal misogynistic norms, racial, religious or caste based discrimination or homophobia.

When the world gets back to going outdoors without fear and making the trek to work, Ramirez doesn’t think she’ll be online so much with the groups. But as a pastime, she is all for it: “Any opportunity to bring people together is a great thing!” She’s also clear that “as long as you don't hurt anyone then keep ‘larping!”

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 9:03:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/larping-goes-online-with-pretend-play-facebook-groups/article31640621.ece

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