After horror, reclaiming power through games


A UK LARP gamer gets ready. Photo by Flickr user Bifford the Youngest.

Denmark: Land of Vikings, Beowulf, Niels Bohr, Mærsk ships, GSM phones, and … live-action role-playing?

In a land of 5.5 million people, roughly 100,000 LARP in some fashion, according to a recent article from TIME writer Nathan Thornburgh. As he points out, that’s bigger than the population of Indiana — and a higher per-capita role-playing rate than many other countries in the world. In his piece, Thornburgh examines why the Danes are so into LARPing — and the kinds of games they play.

To some extent, they explore the typical tropes: Lord of the Rings, for instance, is immensely popular. No surprises there. But Danes are also into much darker forms of role-playing: pretending to live in a prison camp for 48 hours, or unspooling what would have happened in Russia if the Nazis had won World War II. It’s not just adults playing, either; plenty of kids participate. Thornburgh speculates:

Larp might be a sensible diversion for restless minds in Denmark, which was recently named the happiest country on earth. Reality is simply more pleasant in Denmark than in many other places, so perhaps escapism means digging for more complicated, intense human interactions.

I’m not sure how much truth there is in this, which is to say, I don’t have enough data to compare. I know other LARPing groups go to some pretty dark places. For example, growing up, I knew people who played “Vampire: The Masquerade,” which got very twisted, personal, and psychological at certain points. And that didn’t come from kids who had trauma-free lives, either. It was a way for them to turn everyday horrors into something they could co-create and master.

Reading Thornburgh’s piece got me thinking about one of Denmark’s neighbors, Norway, which is still reeling from a mass shooting one year ago. Is there some way that role-playing could hasten Oslo’s healing? Would such pastimes only reopen barely healed wounds? Or would it depend on the type of game?

That thought brings me to a commentary that ran in the Baltimore Sun in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings, arguing (once again) that our media is too violent. Douglas MacKinnon writes:

After the tragedy in Aurora, I spoke with some teenage boys of friends of mine. Each and every one admitted to playing violent video games. Some on a daily basis for hours at a time. When I asked them how many “bad guys” they kill in these games (often times in the most gruesome and graphically visual ways imaginable), one of the boys said, “Oh, over the course of a year, I kill thousands of bad guys.”

There are more than 100 million “gamers” in our county. It stands to reason that if as a demographic, they are virtually slaughtering hundreds of millions of “bad guys,” then some may become desensitized to killing actual human beings and some may be pushed over the edge. In fact, the maniac in Norway who murdered tens of children admitted he used violent video games to practice his targeting.

His argument: especially in light of Aurora and Oslo, kids need to scale back their use of violent media. This, despite the fact that kids are killing “bad guys.” If we want to be black-and-white about it, Holmes and Breivik were “bad guys.” Yes, they’re real “bad guys,” and the guys in the video games are fictional. So is the killing. Most kids are well aware of the difference. It’s adults who seem to have the problem.

I’ll say it plainly:

Anyone in a real mass-shooting situation, or anyone close to such a situation, would feel frightened, horrified, powerless.

So how do you think killing some “bad guys” afterward might make them feel?

Powerless?

Probably not. We need to give kids — particularly kids suffering through horror — opportunities to reclaim feelings of agency. Role-playing games and video games provide ample opportunities.

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