Civic LARPing

What’s going on here?

There’s a literal explanation, sure. A few weeks back, a ransomware attack forced a US pipeline company to shut down a major fuel artery supplying the US East Coast. So a good number of gas stations through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas saw their gas dry up for several days. And people down there stocked up on gas wherever they could get it.

But that doesn’t really answer the question, “What’s going on here?”

From r/AskReddit:

My neighbour sells old 55 gallon oil drums … he filled 4 of them with gas, now he has 4 of them full of gas and the supply was never even interrupted around here. He has admitted that he panicked a bit and now doesn’t know what to do with 200 gallons of gas.

-Tell him he better put fuel stabilizer in or else he’s going to be stuck with barrels of gas that are unusable

One of my neighbours on the My Neighbours app asked me for help moving a plastic barrel he filled with gas, I didn’t respond but that post showed up again because of the activity on the post. Man couldn’t find help so he did the sensible thing and rolled the barrel off his truck, the top popped off and he spilled a bunch of gas on his lawn.

-That’s … a huge fine. It can ruin the ground water, soil, and potentially your drinking water.

One of my deadbeat neighbours decided that they were going to buy 2 250 gallon pump tanks and weld them to the bed of their old ass t100. They then proceeded to fill them up at the local Costco. They they decided it would be a smart idea to put a sign on their truck with outrageous price gouging level prices and post up in a parking lot in a fairly bad area of town. He was held up in a matter of minutes. Truck and gas stolen. This was in Southern California… where there is ABSOLUTELY ZERO risk of a gas shortage.

The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but this does seem like a distinctly and reproducibly contemporary phenomenon: people filling trash bags with gasoline with this renewed zeal for life, as if they’ve found this incredible clarity and purpose in this moment: This is my challenge. I’m supposed to do something here. I have to act. One darker version of this is Gamergating, when online crusaders throw themselves into a “cause” of harassing someone off the internet, with this all-in zeal like they’ve found their life’s calling. Or, on a lighter note, the reply-guys defending their Meme Stocks and cryptocurrencies at a hysterical level of rhetoric:

We have a word for this. It’s called LARPing.

LARPing stands for “Live Action Role Playing”. It describes a broad category of gameplay where people physically play out scenarios, like fantasy battles or quests, with agreed-upon rules of gameplay inside of also agreed-upon theatric boundaries. If you’ve ever seen groups dressed in medieval or fantasy costume fighting with foam weapons, all clearly having fun but also taking it very seriously, that’s LARPing.

LARPing is postmodern by nature. It’s different from passively watching a movie, and equally different from actively playing soccer. Nor is it quite the same as something like Civil War reenactment, which aim to highlight and recreate history rather than play a game, or win something. (Unless you’re Cartman.) As far as comparisons go, LARPing is much closer to Pro Wrestling. It’s about creating dramatic narrative around a play-challenge, and then acting out that challenge with total commitment, for the benefit of an audience. There are real stakes involved – you get tired and bruised, and there is a real-ness to it that requires actual consequences. Like, a few barrels of gasoline on your lawn, for instance.

External audiences are important. Every summer in Montreal, near where I used to live, there’s a spontaneous get-together that takes place on Sundays called Tam Tams, which attracts a few thousand people on nice days. Most of them sit on the hill smoking weed and watch a large drum circle, but up behind them in the woods there’s always a group of LARPers, fighting with foam swords and axes – clearly playing for one another, but also certainly aware of the larger crowd, which acknowledges their gameplay and makes it more real.

There are three key elements that must be present. There needs to be a prompt; to get everyone aware of the game. There needs to be participation: how individual people pick out a specific slice of the prompt, or a specific variant, that they can act out. And there needs to be witnessing: is there an audience, ideally larger than the participants, whose acknowledgement of the gameplay effectively “renders” the performance as authentic and complete. It’s all distinctly postmodern.

And you can understand why this is so compelling: the act of taking on this challenge (“This is the moment where I get to be a hero; by harassing this journalist in front of my other online friends”) gives the participant a dramatic role to play. They get to step into a character role, and make that hero’s journey for themselves and for their audience. The more ridiculous, costly, or distasteful the challenge, the more compelling the story, and so, the more significant your character role is.

If you can give people that, then you have what is scarce. You are powerful. The way you do this, of course, is by world-building. Once you understand the basic rules and dynamics of LARPing, then if you’re able to 1) present challenges for others and 2) maintain a broader audience that witnesses it all, then you have all the ingredients necessary for power.

I wrote about this idea in my essay on World Building last month. The art of building compelling worlds is: can you create a world that other people can step into, explore, and find challenges for themselves inside it? That’s the critical part. Give people the starting material to go LARPing; they won’t disappoint you.

When I wrote the world building pieces, I got a lot of great feedback and comments (thank you all), but only one person I talked to actually clued in to the flip side of the argument: which is, “Being a World Builder means being a Dungeon Master.” The reason you are building a world is so that other people can role play in it. If it doesn’t look at least a little bit embarrassing, you’re not doing it right.

Someone like Roaring Kitty in the $GME story is a perfect example of someone who built a local world (his Twitch stream), inside a bigger world (Robinhood day traders), with challenges that gave participants a dramatic story arc, should they choose to take it on (options trading + reddit commiseration). There are two layers of participants: a large number of people watching (the audience), and a smaller, central group of people doing the actual trading (the LARPers).

The cost of the challenge and the size of the stakes matter a lot. One of the biggest “innovations” in this wave of day trading, compared to the 90s, is that call options are a superior LARPing format to straight stock buying and selling. Going deeper out-of-the-money with your calls set up a better dramatic challenge for you to display to an audience; regardless of whether it pays out or not. The deeper out of the money you go, the cheaper the options get and the better the narrative gets. Put simply, options aren’t a superior way to make money in the stock market – but they’re definitely a superior way to entertain an audience.

This is not a newly discovered setup; it’s how performing works. It’s the same as when you go see a show, where the band leader gets on stage and shouts to the crowd on the dance floor, “Are you ready to do this challenge?” (Yeah!) “I can’t hear you – I said, are you ready to do this challenge?” (Yeah!!) “All right let’s DANCE!” And then the band plays, and a smaller, very dense crowd dances on the floor while a larger, more dispersed audience watches them from the back of the bar, witnessing the challenge at hand and the heroes on the dance floor playing it out. You’ll see that same dynamic on any Twitch stream, online forum, or social network, in the eerily consistent ratio of posters to lurkers you get in almost any social format.

So if this setup is so reproducible, and is something humans slip into so naturally, why does “civic LARPing”, so to speak, feel so contemporary? The easy answer, which I’ve seen said so many ways, is “the internet did this.” But the internet did not do this singlehandedly. The internet restored something that was already there; just temporarily buried for a generation or two.

The first half of that thesis – that we temporarily buried civic participation for a generation – is told in the well-known book, Bowling Alone. Bowling Alone was a 1995 essay by Robert Putnam, extended into a book 5 years later, exhaustively chronicling the broad decline of civic participation and social capital in America. Putnam goes through slice after slice of civic life – from neighbourhoods to news to politics – showing how a variety of forces, but especially television, transformed America in a single generation from a highly participatory society into a more solitary, consumptive one.

With politics, as an example, Putnam emphasizes that Americans didn’t become less political across the board. Party registration and donations remained as high as ever. But they became less participatory with their political contribution in nearly every sense:

How can we reconcile these two conflicting pictures – organizational health, as seen from the parties, and organizational decay, as seen from the voters’ side? One clue to this paradox is the ratio of voters who say they have been contacted by a party in the latest campaign to voters who say they have worked for a party in that same campaign. The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed an accelerating trend towards more and more voter contacts but fewer and fewer party workers. By 1996 this ratio was 2.5 times greater than the equivalent in 1968.

At first blush one might admire this growing “productivity” in this flourishing industry. Each “worker” seems to be producing more and more “contacts”. In reality, however, this trend is evidence of the professionalization and commercialization of politics in America. The “contacts” that voters report are, in fact, less and less likely to be a visit from a neighbourhood party worker and more and more likely to be an anonymous call from a paid phone bank.

Putnam’s theory, which I completely buy, is that “mass consumption” in its various forms – not only TV but, in our political example, national party phone banking and national cable news agendas – throws out of whack the ratio of “What narratives are you exposed to” versus “what narratives are you able to express, as yourself.” TV brought everything to us, but didn’t give us any way to reach an audience back – so civic participation, in every form, feels less significant as an accomplishment. And no one likes to feel as though they’re striving over something relatively meaningless.

Bowling Alone’s thesis, then, is essentially: “American Civic World-building has stopped.”

And then it ends with, “We’ll see about this whole internet thing.”

What the internet did, more than anything else, is it gave people audiences again. Or to be more precise, it gave people audiences that feel important. So when you do something for that audience – like you write a funny tweet that goes viral, or you hit a jackpot on some call option and get to show it off on /wsb, or for whatever reason you get your 15 minutes of fame – you get to be a meaningful character. And you’re aware that you’re performing as this character, of course. You are playing a role.

So in this new “personal broadcast” era of the internet; which is exemplified most obviously by Twitch but applies just as well to any social forum, LARPing becomes the most powerful form of content. The curse of the modern day internet is that everyone gets to be Johnny Knoxville, and everybody knows it. (Jackass was the first truly internet-native TV show, even though it wasn’t really on the internet at all.)

When we look back at the strange, strange events of January 6th – when a bunch of dressed up MAGA LARPers (there really is no other way to describe it) broke into the US Capitol – this is clearly what’s going on. The most surreal yet explanatory images from that day, undoubtedly, was all of the footage of the rioters livestreaming each other. This was not a riot; in any traditional sense. They did destroy property, they did threaten and intimidate; people died. But it wasn’t really a riot; it was Live Multiplayer Jackass. (Longtime newsletter subscribers / Dancoland citizens may note this is not the first time I have described something as “Multiplayer Jackass”; see this post on WSB from a year ago.)

So I’ll leave you with this idea: if the primary way you get things done in an online world is by world-building (which I do believe is true), then it also holds that the primary content of our online world will increasingly be various forms of Civic LARPing – gas hoarding, Gamergate, $GME to the moon – and the real world reactions that necessarily follow. Some of these practices (Gamergate, the Maga movement, victim roleplaying) are definitively bad, and they’re a regrettable consequence of online life. But they’re also a way to create new things, and open new doors.

If you want to actually follow my advice and go world build worlds, you need to wholeheartedly embrace the idea that you are asking people to come LARP with you. And it will look embarrassing. That means you’re doing it right.

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