I first came across live action role-playing—or LARPing—at university. On the odd occasion I was up before 8AM, it wasn't unusual to spot a cluster of people wearing medieval dress and waiting for a taxi to take them into the countryside. I had no idea what the hell was going on, until a friend of mine revealed that she sometimes gave it a go, and sat up one night shyly explaining it to me.
In the last decade, it's no longer the occasional group. With regular events up and down the country ranging from dystopian Mad Max-style battles to medieval Arthurian sieges, LARPing has become one of the fastest growing hobbies in the UK. It's a hobby that's often wrongly associated with socially awkward males running around in badly made cloaks, but it is also—slowly—becoming a real platform for gender equality.
"I've seen female warriors, generals in gleaming plate armour, leading a charge into a line of enemies, screaming bloody murder at the top of their lungs. I've seen one woman with a dagger take down an entire phalanx of armed bastards. I've seen women kill gods, bring down heroes, doom the world, save the world," says Katie Logan, the creator of the online community Ladies Who LARP.
LARPing itself is a lot more diverse that you'd imagine, but follows the same broad structures: Creators will devise worlds or systems that can be both low-key (a few mates) or large-scale (thousands) and are either tightly plotted or loose and improvised.
Some are heavily reliant on a referee or Games Master leading players through the plot, while others are more weighted towards combat—which can encompass anything from full-scale wars with latex weaponry and strict rules on how many 'hits' a player can take before they go down, to 'magical' battles where spells and incantations can be used to heal and faux-maim.
But LARPing's innate meritocratic structure means that a man or woman's rise to the top has nothing to do with gender. It's to do with talent, experience, knowledge, and ability. People can choose their characters, pick skills, and decide whether or not to 'monster' (playing the bit parts, strangers, and dead bodies that players encounter to keep the plot moving) or fully immerse themselves in play.
"'I've seen female soldiers, leaders, magicians, priests, assassins, villains, monsters, with such rich and complicated characters that you just don't get that anywhere else," Logan says. "The sheer quantity and diversity of the female characters I get to take part in the stories of, and see them unfold—honestly, movies and TV shows that can't even pass the Bechdel test seem piss-poor in comparison."
Natalie, 27, who lives in London and works in finance, is now the lead warrior in her LARPing faction after a character she has been playing for years—a knight—recently won a fighting competition. "I'm the champion and often told, 'You're the best fighter we've got,' so I'm always in the front line. Because I've been given that position, I get listened to a lot more."
She says that the gender split in terms of combat is roughly 70-30, and that this is a huge improvement from when she started. "There's been a massive swing towards equality... The gender split across an event is getting better all the time. There used to be very few women playing when I started about six years ago—but there's no difference between the roles men can do and the roles women can do."
"It's a lot more split in terms of what people prefer to do, rather than what's between their legs," says Samantha, 25, from Durham. Samantha hasn't been doing it for long and started at a 'crewing' or 'monstering' level, describing the experience as immersive theatre with a bit of improv and a whole load of fake deaths thrown in.
"There's something really great about scaring the shit out of people," she adds. "Especially guys. I've played a dead body, with the players poking at me, and then reanimated on them. One guy nearly fell out the tent."
Hannah, 27, who works a day job as an architect in London also 'monsters', and gets involved with the combat side of things—preferring to act as a sniper circling the battleground and picking off opponents, rather than hacking away with latex arsenal.
"When you're fighting, you're fighting. You're not thinking about gender, or who is doing what—you're just focused on your game," she says. "There's technically no limit to what you can do in a game, because you pick certain skills your character has at the start, so you can keep evolving."
There is, of course, the odd moment where old fashioned sexism can invade a LARPing session—but they're usually isolated, and something organizers and fellow players are eager to stamp out. "I've had guys who are new to the game fight the people in front of me, rather than their own opponents, because they don't realize I can wipe the floor with them," Natalie laughs. "About 30 percent of the high ranking positions within a given system tend to be female, and most of the males involved will also have your back if something happens."
"The 'women can't fight' thing is such a well known sexist assumption that anyone can look out for it and call bullshit when they see it occurring," says Katie. "The harder, more insidious instances of sexism are the kind of thing women also experience in real life—being talked over in, presenting ideas which are rejected but then accepted two minutes later when presented by a male character... I feel like there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, but it feels like things are improving in LARP—even if they're not improving fast enough for my taste."
She remembers a girl who found the gendered comments in one game so pervasive that she left. She was playing a duellist and was sick of guys assuming she couldn't fight, refusing to duel her as a result, and even accusing her of cheating when she did beat them.
These occasions are often used as examples to hold up to game organizers and other players and are used by game creators themselves to directly challenge stereotypes within their plots and storylines.
"There was also one plot line recently [a lot of the games are written, or steered in particular ways with plot] where a mixed group of people were on a quest without their leader," remembers Natalie. "Someone was briefed to play the leader of these people, and the organizers had picked a girl who was very good at LARP fighting. She walked in, and one of the guys in the group started flirting with her until she revealed who she was and he went white. They'd expected a man, and he'd shown his leader absolutely no respect."
Everyone I spoke to was also quick to point out how inclusive the community is. If you're a guy and you want to dress up as a female, you can. If you're a girl wanting to play a male role, that is equally accepted. "There are people who are transgender, genderfluid, people who just fancy experimenting with traditional masculine or feminine character stereotypes," adds Katie. "LARP is one of the better communities I've seen for allowing people to experiment with gender performance and gender roles."
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Themes within a game that might make people uncomfortable—torture, rape, and other triggering topics—are fiercely debated on forums and message boards. Real effort is made to ensure that everyone feels comfortable while allowing a particular narrative to pan out realistically. A 'lines and veils' practice is often put into place, where players can outline their boundaries and subjects that they would prefer not to get involved with before they start play.
While it's a freeing and inclusive hobby, it's of course not immune to ridicule. But who decided that play stops the moment you've got a checking account and a nine to five? When my flatmate said she occasionally went into the woods with a sword, I sort of laughed. Now I wish I could go back in time and high five my mate; she was having way more fun than me, sat in my bed watching reruns of Colombo all day.