In the past few years I’ve become involved in live-action role-playing (usually known by the acronym LARP, or “LARPing”): a cross between long-form improv theatre and tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. This hobby is often maligned, partially because it looks very strange to those not involved (especially on video), and partially because of its association with the kind of intelligent but socially awkward “geeky” subcultures that develop around Star Trek, comic books, collectible card games, Japanese animation and the like. But as I’ve been a part of those subcultures all my life, this is hardly a barrier to my participation. (I hope you didn’t expect that someone who blogs about Sanskrit philosophical texts was one of the popular kids in high school.)
LARPing for me is genuinely a hobby. It’s not an avocation, a “neither career nor hobby” passion like I intend this blog to be; it’s just for fun. Still, lately I’ve been noticing its philosophical implications, largely because of a splendid game I play called Seven Virtues. The obvious inspiration (or at least analogy) for Seven Virtues is the Harry Potter series, as it’s set in a school, training heroes to fight beings of evil and destruction. But in this fantasy world, what makes the heroes powerful and able to fight their evil foes is their devotion to virtue, to becoming better people. Their goodness has direct effects on the supernatural physical world, and there are plausible reasons within the game’s cosmology why it does so (and one of the characters’ tasks is to find out how). To Plato or Augustine it seemed obvious that truth and goodness were the same thing; in a modern world that explains life by evolution and not divine design it is much harder to step into their worldview, but it’s much easier to do so in such a fantasy world. The game’s premise is bait for philosophers, especially those like me who could be classified as virtue ethicists. And it’s made me think a bit more about the philosophical implications of LARPing more generally.
I did a little bit of theatre in high school, but LARPing is by far the closest I’ve come to method acting. For that reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about David Haberman’s Acting as a Way of Salvation, a study of the sixteenth-century Indian thinker Rūpa Gosvāmi. Rūpa Gosvāmi urges his followers to become closer to the god Krishna through dramatic play – acting out the life of Krishna in their own lives, sometimes taking a vow never to leave the area of Vraj (where Krishna was supposedly born). To help make sense of Rūpa Gosvāmi and his followers, Haberman’s book turns to the works of Russian philosopher-director Constantin Stanislavski, the father of method acting. For Stanislavski, the true actor fuses his identity with that of his characters, cheering “Live your part!”: “It may not last long but while it does last you will be incapable of distinguishing between yourself and the person you are portraying.” And according to Haberman, this is exactly what Rūpa and his followers aim to achieve: by acting like the characters in Krishna’s life, they hope in some sense to become the characters in Krishna’s life.
Now most LARPers, myself included, are not great actors or method actors; we don’t get the kind of change in identity that Stanislavski advocates. But that is in some sense the ideal that LARPs increasingly aim for, especially the “Accelerant” games I play in. As I understand it, the first LARPs simulated fighting with rock-paper-scissors (if you win at rock-paper-scissors you win the fight); whereas in the Accelerant games, people build foam weapons to simulate actually hitting each other. In older games, a staff member would explain to players the things that their characters saw, like a gamemaster in Dungeons & Dragons; in Accelerant games, staff produce low-budget costumes and special effects to simulate actually seeing it. (Games almost always take place at private camps in secluded rural areas so that curious strangers do not happen to wander in.) And because the game typically lasts a whole weekend, one effectively eats and sleeps in character. During that weekend one tries to become the character one plays, to fully live the part.
The question I wonder about is: is this a good and virtuous thing for our real-life selves, to live a part? For Rūpa Gosvāmi the answer would have been easy: by acting out Krishna’s life one is entering into his divine perfection, so of course it makes one better to do so. But LARPers, like Stanislavski’s method actors, are acting for entertainment and pleasure, whether their own or that of an audience. Perhaps more importantly, unlike the Gosvāmi devotees, the character that one plays is usually not an ideal, but a flawed human (or humanlike) being with imperfections and vices that one does not have oneself – perhaps even a true villain. Might the process of merging one’s identity with such a person not make oneself worse? Such a troubling problem is brought to mind by the Muharram passion plays, in which Shi’a Muslims reenact the lives of the martyrs Hasan and Husayn, as Rūpa’s devotees reenact Krishna’s. In a class session on the subject, Ali Asani noted that at Muharram the actors playing the bad guys, the ones who killed Hasan and Husayn, are paid very highly because they are in danger of being mobbed to death by others caught up in the emotions of the drama. One can see reasons why Plato might have banished the playwrights from his ideal state – they took people’s focus away from the things that are truly good.
In Seven Virtues, my character does act in ways that I might think wrong. He has a strict quasi-Kantian moral code that I do not share, and indeed find troubling. And yet by living inside his head I can see what is admirable about his worldview, remind myself why it appeals to many people: the unflinching honesty and moral courage that it allows. I can appreciate someone very different from myself, in a way more personal and immediate than watching such a person as a character onscreen or in a novel. The same might even be true of getting inside the head of a genuine villain, as troubling as it might be. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Der Untergang (The Downfall) attracted controversy because it portrayed Adolf Hitler as genuinely human, in a way that could arouse some modest sympathy with him. (The film’s impact may have been lessened somewhat by the strange and often hilarious parody videos made of its final scene, but that’s not something the director could have imagined.) But it seems to me that this too is a good thing. Everyone has some potentially admirable qualities, even Hitler or Pol Pot; without such qualities, the wicked world leaders could not have attained the following they did. And it seems to me that an understanding of those admirable qualities, while potentially quite dangerous, is nevertheless a good thing.