Can two worlds bleed? How live action role-play affects your life

22 June 2022
LARPing has more intense effect than other entertainment

New research from the Business School has found people can experience traces of extraordinary events bleeding into their daily life. This is common for people who engage in live action role-playing games.

photo of the characters in Netflix TV show Stranger Things, they are all looking worried.

"Bleed" is not just limited to the main characters of Strangers Things. Photo: Netflix

In season four of Netflix series Stranger Things, alternate dimension ‘the Upside Down’ bleeds into the real world. Now new research by the University of Sydney and Monash University has found this is a common experience for people who engage in live action role-playing games.

Live action role-playing (or LARPing) involves playing a fictional character to complete goals with other characters in the real world. Participants can spend months preparing for the LARP, creating elaborate costumes and assuming their character’s persona online, before embarking on the weekend-long event to take on challenges and quests in person – often in an elaborately-designed venue.

New research has found that these immersive experiences may be difficult to come out of as participants experience a clash with their everyday lives – sometimes with life-altering consequences.

Tom van Laer's research as featured on ABC News

The study, published in the prestigious Journal of Consumer Research, found most participants experienced ‘bleed’; a term coined by people within the LARPing community to describe the traces their extraordinary experiences leave in their everyday lives.

For most, those traces are innocuous, such as continuing to wear elements of their character’s outfit and consuming related media in an effort to recapture the feeling of doing the LARP. But for some the experiences brought about intense emotional and personal realisations that led to long-term changes in their work and relationships.

“The LARP and my bleed set in motion some processes that led to me stepping out of harmful and abusive structures a year later, in my real life,” said Theresa*, 36.

“Because the topics of Conscience [the LARP] spoke to me on a very personal level and made me think about repeating stories versus breaking free, about the nature of freedom, about who I want to be.”

The findings have consequences for how LARP designers protect participants, but also how we think about the growing market for experience-based consumption including virtual reality, augmented reality and the metaverse.

Four levels of bleed

photo of Associate Professor Tom van Laer, smiling on a white background

Associate Professor Tom van Laer

Study authors, Associate Professor Tom van Laer from the University of Sydney and Dr Davide Orazi from Monash University, began their research with archival data from three different LARPs, followed by an ethnographic study at four LARPS where they collected 52 pages of field notes, 2,496 photographs, four hours of GoPro videos, 29 interviews, seven diaries and 2,936 screen captures.

What they found in follow-up interviews was a “very mixed bag” of reactions to the experience, according to co-author Tom van Laer, Associate Professor of Narratology, University of Sydney Business School.

“From breaking off relationships, to deciding to raise their children in a different way – or even falling in love with somebody in the LARP, which basically means falling in love with a character – our participants reported a wide range of responses,” said Associate Professor van Laer.

The researchers categorised the traces left by the LARPs into four trajectories:

  1. Absent: returning can cause little to no bleed when consumers do not sufficiently engage with the extraordinary frames and roles.
  2. Compensatory: the experience leaves a trace without creating tension; as these consumers become nostalgic for the extraordinary experience, they look to evoke the experience once more for example through novels, TV series and video games.
  3. Cathartic: the experience creates tension with daily life and one or more aspects of consumers’ everyday existence is called into question, and compensatory consumption alone is not enough to stop the intense bleed; consumers instead reflect on, report, and share the extraordinary experience to cope with bleed.
  4. Delayed: in few cases bleed is so intense it requires prolonged distancing from anything related to the extraordinary experience.

Why so serious?

photo of a woman in a green Medieval style dress with a bow and arrow

Immersive and extraordinary experiences are becoming super popular. Photo: Adobe

Associate Professor van Laer said their research demonstrated there are three main reasons LARPing leaves a stronger impact than heavy engagement with traditional media or tabletop gaming.

“When you watch TV, vision and sound are basically the only two senses that play a role. In a LARP there’s touch and smell and taste, so all your senses are there. It's not just in your head, it's everywhere, there’s no border from reality.

“LARPs also allow more freedom and agency than is possible with traditional media and tabletop games. Rather than the show runner, game designer or dungeon master ‘writing the book’, LARPs give consumers a lot of involvement in creating the story.

“And finally, you know you can stop a movie. If people get too scared, you stop it. You cannot stop the LARP because the social pressure to be there is the same as the social pressure of a meeting at work – you can’t just stop if you’re not liking it.”

Consequences for the metaverse

photo of a man dressed in warrior costume looking at his mobile phone

Two worlds bleed. People can find it difficult to return to the real world after being immersed in fantasy. Photo: Adobe

Associate Professor van Laer stresses that many of the impacts of LARPing are positive – people develop new skills, improve their confidence and tap into a well of agency and creativity that may benefit other areas of their lives.

But he also believes the rare but serious consequences have repercussions for how we design LARPs and other related experiences.

“Immersive and extraordinary experiences are becoming super popular since COVID. I mean, lock the whole world up for a couple of years and that's what we're craving for – but we're not used to that level of intensity.

“So there is a responsibility on the part of the designers to realise what they might be doing and the effects they might be having.”

Declaration: This study received no external funding. Top photo: Adobe 
*Name changed for privacy.

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