Ever since the god-awful documentary The Dungeon Masters, I’ve been wary of journalistic investigations of gamer culture, and I had serious reservations about Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. Even though I had no pony in this race — I’ve never LARPed before, and still have little intention to — I don’t like seeing others’ harmless hobbies held up for ridicule.
Mercifully, Stark’s examination of the LARP world does no such thing, nor does it commit the opposite annoyance of inflating a recreational activity into some grandiose human endeavor (though, in her description of the high-concept art gaming of the Nordic LARP scene, she does come close, but with good reason). Stark presents the LARP world with a careful, measured hand, varied in its scope from self-conscious silliness to serious art, and all the while maintaining the consciousness that LARPers are real people with genuine human complications.
Stark’s book is full of touchingly human character studies: Jeff, for example, a veteran of Afghanistan, whose real-life experiences of combat make the glamorized play-violence of some LARP increasingly hard to tolerate; Derrick, a black athlete and closeted gamer, who must keep his “geeky white” hobby a secret from friends and family; or Claire, a tall, attractive woman, whose in-character adultery trial becomes disturbingly close to real-life “slut shaming.” And if the latter is any indication, Stark doesn’t shy away from the problematic issues within LARP culture either, while being careful to reiterate that LARP communities share the same issues had by any large group composed of flawed, human individuals.
Leaving Mundania also investigates some interesting areas peripheral to LARPing, including the historical predecessors of LARP in renaissance Europe, the employment of LARP as training tool in the military and corporate worlds, and the parallel world of historical reenactment. But most interestingly to me (and, it seems to her), Stark investigates the international LARP scene with a trip to the Scandinavian LARP event Knudepunkt, in which live roleplaying meets critical theory and high-concept art. Here Stark describes a world in which people pen manifestos on gaming theory, throw around words like diegesis and ludology, and play not so much for escapist fun, but for catharsis and an experiential confrontation of the human condition.
Leaving Mundania is a slim but dense volume, only slightly more than 250 pages inclusive of endnotes, index, and a glossary of LARP terminology. If I had to make a complaint about the book, it’s that I wish it were longer, which for me, is a rare complaint indeed. At the same time, it becomes obvious upon reading the book that Stark invested a great deal of herself personally in the research, and one could hardly call her engagement of the subject matter superficial.