Have you ever looked back at your life and thought about how awful it feels knowing you were a perpetrator or victim of something harmful, whether systemic or one-on-one? That’s the thing about trauma: sometimes you might forget about it, but then someone says something, and you remember.
That’s what happened to me recently when a member of the New Jersey LARP community posted about systemic predatory behavior in just one of the many New Jersey LARPs.
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. As I began posting my own questions and experiences, I heard from others with similar sorrows and guilts.
TRIGGER WARNING AND CONTENT WARNING: This post includes descriptions of and references to slavery portrayal, sexual assault, emotional abuse, patriarchal abuse, suicide, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, anecdotes about people you may know, and more.
As a person cognizant of intersectionality (which in itself has an evolving definition), I’m aware that I am often at risk of being both a victim and a perpetrator of systemic inequality. (That’s just a given as a disabled cis het white overweight aging unmarried woman.) At times, I’ve been both the enactor and the receiver of harm, like that time when the game I was helping to staff thought it would be cool to run a slave market. (I didn’t stop it, but I was also portraying a character “for sale.”)
The LARP Slave Market
What’s it like being sold in a slave market in a LARP?
Well, first of all, when most of the “buyers” are men and you’re a woman, it’s like a sick beauty pageant. How they seek to use you is all about how they (out of game) perceive you. Even though I was older than most of the players and below average on the attractiveness scale, I was married at the time, which meant that I “belonged” to a man who could beat these guys up, so it wasn’t too bad for me.
It was bizarre to see good friends in the audience. One of them was playing a paladin-like character who would try to outbid all others so he could simply free the characters he was buying. But it was still pretty gross.
There was a controversial bidding war over one young women as two men, out of game, were interested in her.
The real shame crept in not when I was processing my feelings about how it felt for me to portray a slave, but when I turned my head to the left and I saw Black skin.
“It’s fine though,” said the white guy, when I raised a concern. “[The Black person in question] is cool with it, I’m sure. We’re good.”
And you know what? Maybe they were, because the me that was standing there then was complicit, especially with a man telling me why it was okay. But I can tell you that this person would never play someone auctioned in a slave market now.
This was my experience, but in private conversations with DOZENS of others, I realized my experience wasn’t unique. And when multiple games have multiple cultures or “races” that actively participate in slavery as a hallmark of culture, this is going to happen.
When Your Value is Based on Age… and Weight
In game and out of game relationships are tricky at boffer campaign larps, especially since the campaigns are ongoing. So you might be dating or married to one person (or multiple people if you are ethically non-monogamous), but in an in game relationship in which you and the other player are not dating in real life.
I didn’t want to cause an issue there, and by the time I was former staff, I opted to have my character show interest (with one temporary exception planned out of game with a friend) in an NPC who was almost entirely offscreen who happened to not return her affection (but did appreciate her devotion to their kingdom). This had a lot of other ramifications for my character and me, but I’m mentioning to show that while my character was bubbly and somewhat flirty, she was so obsessively interested in an NPC king that it was pretty clear she wasn’t promiscuous.
It didn’t really matter though, because *I* made the mistake of turning 30.
*I* made the mistake of gaining 25 pounds (which, by the way, men who larp often do, but don’t get ‘punished’ for it in game). And that’s why it was apparently okay for people to make “in game” jokes about me, call me a “cougar,” and more. My character was interested in someone thousands of years older than she was. Clearly, these jabs were excuses, and the only thing that stopped them were men. Women were largely respected if they were desired or attractive or sleeping with a man who had in or out of game power.
The Queen Bee Situation
This sets up the “queen bee” situation, a classic way that patriarchal structures and subcultures remove agency for non-men. If all your value is assigned to your relationships with men, then you have no control over your own value: unless you cut down another non-man.
Obviously, this benefits the patriarchy.
I don’t think most of us (including men) realized these unhealthy and toxic power structures were in play, but they were. There was a fantasy going on in this fantasy larp, but it was a male power fantasy with little space for others.
We could have done better, and I think a lot of us at these LARPs fell into the belief that having a matriarchy present in the game somewhere made the rest of this acceptable.
And…The Kitchen Hierarchy
Who works in kitchens for no pay? Mostly non-men, of course. One consistent thing I’ve seen in most games in New Jersey is this: you want to know who is in charge? Look at the kitchen and see how she treats the other women.
There was the super awkward time when someone who isn’t a leader was put in charge because well, that’s what happens when you date staff. Oof. That didn’t go well. I just…stayed quiet and did dishes.
But then there’s the idea that you show up to the game, and you’re a woman, and there’s work to be done, so of course you are going to be working in the kitchen. And at my home game, since I held a mainly out of game staff role (marketing), I also worked in the kitchen because they didn’t know what else they could do with someone who wasn’t a great fighter.
Kitchen dynamics are complex, but it’s like being in another era at a fantasy larp. That’s where the pecking order gets established, and the only way you can do it is by offering free labor.
One time my back hurt so much after handwashing over 350 pieces of dishware after a meal, and I hadn’t even eaten yet, because “staff eats last.” Bending over after a major car accident injury, I learned 11 years later, further damaged my back extensively.
The Medical Stuff: I Should Have Walked Away, Especially When I Was Limping
The first game I missed was because of my car accident. I had a fractured collarbone which healed up, but no one really believed me or cared after a while, that the pain was so bad. For a while, I started lifting weights and boxes so I could contribute at the game, since my marketing efforts outside of game weren’t enough to fulfill the staff obligation. I had to be worthy at game.
Now, I had another friend who had been in an accident with serious medical consequences. She left staff and the game for various reasons, which may have included the medical. And while people were sympathetic, they didn’t understand what it meant when she posted a literal bucket full of medications she had to take, her struggles with the insurance company. No one able-bodied understands what it’s like to be disabled because they aren’t disabled (yet).
But I’d been in a car accident, and I understood.
“I don’t understand why she did it,” the community said, after she killed herself.
I was crying because I missed my friend. And the funeral was about her, not me. But I couldn’t help but think: “How could she not, considering what happened?”
And so I tried to fake it, when I went back to the larp. But I ended up making it worse, to fit in with everyone else’s idea of what “strong” looked like.
And 11 years later, the doctor showed me the MRI, and where the damage was done at a vertebra called C7, and that it wasn’t being overweight that caused it (in fact, the injury contributed to being overweight). It was there. It was real. The damage I’d felt was there.
And yet I couldn’t help but think about the time when I limped on the battlefield, adrenaline leaving my body and the pain returning…when someone made a sex joke about why I was limping. That’s New Jersey LARP culture for you.
Now I sit here, post pain injection more than a decade later, mourning those wasted years.
“Yeah, he was like 40, and we started dating as soon as I turned 18.”
You might think this is one person’s story, or even your own, and maybe it is–but the sad truth is that I have heard similar stories from over sixteen non-men in the New Jersey LARP community alone.
It’s legal, isn’t it? Yeah. That doesn’t make it right, especially when the entire larp community supports it, the non-man ends up with a broken heart when the dude uses her or them for sex, then moves on to someone else. It’s because according to the rules that these LARPs perpetuate, many women are unfortunately disposable.
Lots of men will deny this one.
Maybe ask them how they felt about an underage Emma Watson though.
It’s pretty sick.
The Private Pressure and the Cool Kids
If you’re a geek, you probably know it, even if you have all the other privileges in the world: it sucks being bullied; being the one in the social group who’s only included because of who they’re with. There was one guy in a staff group I was in. He was openly bisexual and younger than most, and we called him “the omega” and blamed him for bailing on projects. Gee, I wonder why he didn’t want to do them?
I felt bad for him, but to ally with him and help him out would make me seem less confident and able, and if you’re playing by the rules of the patriarchy and doing your best to be “elite nerds,” you can’t do that without sacrificing your privilege. So I didn’t. Meanwhile same people who were making fun of this person were pressuring women into threesomes with other women. Because that’s not gay, that’s just doing something nice for your boyfriend.
While I was fortunate to avoid some of the more awful peer pressure, it happened and I saw it. Since I didn’t have a really close group of friends to that degree before, I thought it was normal…but I was really in the wrong group for me.
The Racist We Let Stay
I have an upcoming book with a whole chapter about this guy. He went around and said weird things like “babydicks” a lot and he thought because his mom left his family, that all women were slime. He also happened to be Irish American, like me, and one of our in game cultures were based on a mishmash of primarily Irish and Scottish mythologies.
He was a great guy at game. He helped people move. He lifted furniture. He liked appearing chivalrous. He was fun to have around when he was at game, anyway.
But then he started being insistent that we of the Irish diaspora had ancestors who suffered, so Black people should stop complaining about slavery. He forwarded the myth that Irish slaves were real and basically subscribed to the centuries-old idea that the struggles of the Irish and of Black Americans were completely comparable (a falsehood which is also a disservice to the history and heritage of all).
I fought him at every angle. And yet, he was still an integral part of the game, closely involved with the plots of players of color…could he be that bad?
I defriended the All Lives Matter misogynist after I left the game, but…he was there.
We all let him stay. Why?
So there were people like this…
LARPing in the woods…
In an area you have to drive through miles of “Trump Country” to get to…
And we couldn’t figure out how to fix our diversity problem.
Sexual Assault in Public: That Guy Who Grabbed My Boobs in Front of Everyone
So there was this guy, and I’d always gotten along with him. After a few years he left the New Jersey LARP to go work on himself; he took up a new hobby and got “a smokin’ hot fiancee.” He was a LARP friend, meaning we mostly kept in touch regarding games, but when he finally came back years later, it was a surprise for me.
I was in game, but I didn’t even care whose character knew who. It was my friend! He was back! I opened my arms, in the middle of battle, to signal a consensual hug.
He ran towards me and at the last minute, stuck his hands right over my corseted breasts.
What. The Fuck.
Did he think that was okay because he’d gone off and done “better” things? Because my close guy friend wasn’t there, and he wouldn’t have let that happen? I don’t know. But what a jerk. I was shocked, and he just went on like normal; my eyes were wide behind my mask (the kind that covers just the upper half, the kind we wore in pre-COVID times).
Then he said something about how good I looked in the corset.
So I was… ugly, old, and an unfuckable cougar, but at the same time looking great in the corset, my body the amusement of some dude? That’s this LARP community for you.
This was in battle. In front of everyone. But people were busy or pretended not to see.
Sometimes when I say I haven’t really been sexually assaulted, I wonder. Because I mean… I guess I have been, but it was in front of everyone, and I was ugly, so was it really assault?
Forced LARP Monogamy: There Shall Be No Other LARPS But Mine!!!
Look, I’m really damn monogamous by nature. I’ve tried NOT being that way, and it doesn’t work, because that’s just how I’m built in a way that goes beyond social and cultural programming. But I have to say, forced monogamy, or a society without choices, is pretty awful. When you combine that with toxic masculinity and a subculture that reinforces it, what do you get?
“You can’t be staff on my LARP and play at a competitor’s LARP. This is a business.”
I’d thought back to Starbucks. Starbucks didn’t fire me if I got coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. They just offered better coffee and wages and benefits than Dunkin’ Donuts, so even though sometimes I visited Dunkin,’ it’s not like I wanted to work there.
But this business…it was treated like a relationship. It was a macrocosm of the abusive relationship I was in, in some ways (more so and less so in other ways). But a big thing was that staff members weren’t allowed to play other LARPs.
So I was tasked with marketing a LARP, meeting more LARPers, but not actually going to LARPs. This fear-based “no other LARP but mine” mentality was hardly limited to one game, and the game that I staffed was not the only one to have this policy for their staff. (Some, I later learned, even had this policy in place for players.)
This is because much of the New Jersey LARP community operated on decades of grudges and splits and spite LARPs: when someone gets mad, ragequits, and makes their own LARP. (Spoiler alert: it’s usually one of the many white dudes with anger problems, which sets a standard for a really terrible LARP culture. And most of them, whether they’re personally kind and generous or not, are in professions like IT, law, and law enforcement. The kind of jobs you need to have to afford to cultivate a community, whether you do it in a toxic way or not.)
Some of these communities have evolved over time. One allows kids and is a pretty decent place to go, but there are many, many stories of abuse emanating from that community because it’s simply not possible (and maybe not even legal or possible) for LARPs to manage how adults interact with each other, especially when they aren’t on the game site.
If you have to go, look for games in which the older founders willingly relinquish control to the new guard and beware the ones that are keen to stay in control.
We Had a Nazi Analogue (The Story of Most New Jersey LARPs)
You know what makes a great villain, especially for American players? One who restricts movement, creates passports and travel bans, and targets certain in game “races!” There isn’t enough of that in real life, apparently…or maybe we saw fascism rising again…and for whatever reason, it made it into game.
I’m not necessarily opposed to LARPing the defeat of fascism, which is typically the idea of these story arcs; what I have a problem with is how good it feels to play the bad guy. And when you’re playing that character and the focus becomes NPCs vs. PCs in an out of game way, that’s a hell of a way to mix a message.
I’ve been doing call-ins since 2016. Eventually I stopped caring about not being heard, or being thought of that snooty person that went to Nordic-inspired games and came back with fancy safety tools that no one wanted to use. Because you know what? Safety culture IS better, and you don’t need to have an expensive, fully immersive environment to use it. It can be blackbox; it can be one on one over the computer, but it improves the safety situation (but does not fix problems or prevent them entirely).
So you know what? Now it’s time for a call out.
And when it came to wanting to stick to what I observed, and not coming close to mentioning others’ stories, I realized… over the years, multiple people from multiple games in New Jersey have relayed the same stories to me, over and over again. None of this is unique to one LARP and all of this is endemic to the New Jersey LARP community.
Resources for South Jersey LARP Community Participants, Game Organizers, and Survivors
The good news is that so many people out there, from many angles of this issue, are trying to do better and/or to deal with the trauma they are enduring and/or have been complicit in. If that sounds like you, please consider these resources:
- RAINN: The largest organization against sexual violence in the United States.
- LARPing in Color: An organization (currently crowdfunding at the time of this publication) providing consultants to help you create safer and more inclusive larps – with a mission to help game organizers find funding to hire said consultants.
- Hive Fund: Anti-racism resources for white people.
- Emotional Labor Club: A Facebook Group where you CAN ask for emotional labor from people with different marginalizations than you. Please also provide emotional labor when you can.
- [The second edit made to this blog post as of 4/29, 12:29 AM ET: I have removed a recommended game after learning new information. I try my best to provide reputable resources here, but before attending a larp, please do your own research. Make sure they have codes of conduct and procedures for complaint; take a look at their online interactions before you join, go with a friend when possible, use your best judgment, and stay safe.]
I have admitted, in this piece, to being a bystander and promoter of events that perpetuated a significant amount of harm to myself and others in the name of fun. That was wrong. I know better. I’m trying to do better, and I’ve been encouraged to by many others who have been harmed. If you also did some not so great stuff in the past, I ask you to please do the same.
I apologize for being part of this toxic community, and from the moment I saw a better way to do things, I have been trying to implement change, listen to feedback, and employ and evolve my own designs.
Notes about this piece:
- I am not looking to trash any single game, or any of the many New Jersey LARPs I attended while I lived in the region. My experiences at individual games are apparently reflective of MANY games in the region. What I am looking to do is speak to my own experience and observations, and emphasize that I have since learned how common, if not universal, this behavior seems to STILL be in New Jersey LARP communities. That’s why I’m sharing these experiences, which are rather tame compared to what others have endured, revealing this information publicly and privately.
- You may notice that I’m using gifs of a lot of white people. That’s not out of a disregard for Black, Indigenous, Mixed Race People of Color (BIMPOC). This is because I have been asked to avoid digital blackface and I would like to honor that request.
- Especially when you’ve been part of the problem, it’s a jerk move to bring something up without solutions. Please see the resources section.
- If you found this content helpful, educational, or insightful, please share it. If you are able, please consider a one-time donation to my ko-fi. The emotional labor that it took to create and compile this piece is nothing compared to what some of the survivors of these communities have gone through, but it still wasn’t easy and I would appreciate compensation for my work if you are able to give it. Thank you.
- [The first edit made to this blog post as of 4/29, 12:29 AM ET: I did not name individuals or larps in this post for two reasons: 1) I’m a fan of not being sued; 2) Exactly what happened: a lot of people are assuming I’m speaking about games I’ve never even been to, which basically proves my point: this is a problem endemic to this larp culture. 2a) This has been shared all around the world, and while it exists in this specific larp culture, these are obviously problems to discuss and address everywhere.]