I was rearranging my room the other day. It’s gotten quite messy over the last year or so, and I finally reached a point where I wanted to completely overhaul the organization of my belongings. I started separating items, making lists, planning a purge of belongings I no longer needed. And along the way, inevitably, I ran across larp gear. So much larp gear.
For the sake of organization, I keep all the gear associated with each larp and character in a different bag, box, or pouch. One pouch for my Agents of SHIELD larp character, another for my Dystopia Rising props. A trunk under my bed keeps all my College of Wizardry souvenirs, while a rucksack in my closet holds my Doomsday mutant engineer’s stuff. Each one has a story to tell about a game that’s ongoing or gone by, chock full of memories, keepsakes, and gear. Tons of expensive, personally purchased gear.
If I had to tally up how much money I’ve spent personally on larping in the last few years, I’d probably sit down and have a good cry. Between larp costs, props, costuming, travel and accommodations, I’ve racked up quite a bill. Multiply that by ten years, and it’s a good thing I don’t do other expensive hobbies. Like, y’know, drink or something. Larp has a lot of costs one doesn’t inherently think about when you start out, but the price tag can creep up over time. And that plus the creeping price tags of some larps has set up a difficult dichotomy in my mind, a paradox of economic need for players versus organizers.
On one side, we have the price of games and the need for organizers to be paid for their work. On the other, we have creeping costs for larp that price out the less economically fortunate, and turn larp into a rich person’s game. In the age of expensive, big budget larps with large price tags, I’m conscious and concerned about a future where the average larper cannot afford to be a part of the community they love.
I don’t want larp to just be for the rich. But this issue is a lot more complicated than we think.
The economic factors behind running a larp are many. Even the most uncomplicated freeform game or even parlor larp, with lower material needs, can require money for location rentals, printing costs, and whatever minimal props or costumes are needed. No matter how much the final tally is for a game’s budget, that cost has to be made up. Funding for a game then can come from three places: an outside benefactor, the organizers, or the players. And while some communities do receive outside funding (for example some events in the Nordic larp scene or those funded as part of education initiatives in certain countries), largely the financial burden of a larp falls on either players or organizers. And here’s where the difficulty lies.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m of what we call the “Fuck You, Pay Me” school of creative production. I believe those who work in creative fields should be paid for their work, be it writing, art, music, theater, or larp. And not only should people be paid for their work, they should be paid a fair wage for the effort they put in. When producing a larp, not only should the budget of a game be reasonably paid for, but the production and organizing team put in countless hours of effort putting together the game. These equal a usually ignored part of a game’s budget, alongside line items like costumes, location fees, and the like. When all is calculated and told, depending on the needs of a game, the price tag can easily range from a few hundred dollars into the six figure range. Someone needs to pay for those costs.
And so organizers charge the players for games. And the price points can be high. But even if they’re not, even if they’re only twenty dollars a game, players often balk at the prices. I’ve seen it over the years. Hell, I’ve been that larper, checking out a game’s price tag and then looking woefully at my own bank account in defeat. I’ve run across three reasons why players look askance at a price for a game:
- The players believe the game should be free to play.
- The price tag is too high and they cannot afford it.
- The players believe the price tag is too high for what they’d receiving.
I’m not going to go into player expectations too much in this article. Needless to say, sometimes what people perceive as too much money for what they receive is a question of expectations not being set properly or people’s inability to adequately understand the price tags of events. It’s not realistic to imagine a game set in a castle for a weekend, for example, will only cost $50. Expectation versus reality is an issue of setting understandings between player and organizers. But I believe the issues about financial misunderstandings are more fundamental than this.
First, there is the insidious and surprisingly pervasive idea that larp should be free. This idea, I believe, originated in the hobby-games side of larp, where games were initially organized by friends for home play and conventions rather than as commercial enterprises. For a long time, larp design for money has been a controversial idea, with people challenging that larp organizers taking money for their work is wrong. This idea always boggled my mind. Players who are willing to buy a five dollar cup of Starbucks or go to see a movie for two hours in theaters for $12.50 a head would balk at paying $40 for an all-weekend event created by fellow members of their community. Larp has been a business for as long as there were boffer larps charging for weekend games in the forests, or convention owners have solicited larps to be run as program items at their for-profit events. The illusion that larp should be free is a pipe dream, a privileged mentality perpetuated either by a utopian art-for-arts-sake ideology or an unrealistic and exploitative concept rooted in player entitlement.
I’ve been running larps for nearly eight years now, and due to my own creation choices have nearly always run games paid for out of my own pocket. Either they’ve been games set in other people’s intellectual properties or else run at conventions, both instances where I cannot charge for events. Instead, I often work in exchange for free venue space as an exchange. Either way, I’ve spent thousands of dollars a year on things like costumes, art supplies, set pieces, printing, and travel/lodging. That’s without calculating in labor hours for me and my staff. And believe me when I say, the idea that me and mine shouldn’t get paid for our work sets my teeth on edge. Organizers have no communal responsibility to dig deep into their own pockets to fund every game. A person shouldn’t have to go into hock to see their larp become a reality.
Yet I’m also conscious of the financial burden games can place on perspective players. The larp community is made up of people from every corner of humanity: or at least, it could be. Instead, realistically, the community tends to skew towards certain demographics racially, educationally, and especially financially. You need to have at least a little disposable income to larp and the free time to get out of work for games. This is a privileged position, as there are people who simply cannot afford disposable income or cannot take time off for fear of coming up short on rent if they do. Simply put, the basic economic needs of even the cheapest larps can price out the poor. And when the price tag for a game rises, the economic gap between what’s needed to attend and a player’s budget widens.
By the time you look at the price tag for the most expensive, big-budget weekend games, the cost is prohibitive for even financially solvent larpers. A thousand dollar price tag can be as restrictive to a middle-income larper as a twenty dollar larp cover charge can be to the most poor. But to that poor larper, a thousand dollar big budget game is a pipe dream so far out of reach as to be laughable.
Since I began larping, I have ascended the ladder of economic solvency, going from dirt-poor college student, lamenting the cost of a simple $20 theater larp on a single Saturday to a gainfully employed adult trying to maneuver her budget so she can attend multiple big-budget games a year. And I find the call to be part of the community, to play different games and experience all the larp community has to offer is the siren song that keeps the economic cost (and sometimes mental, emotional and physical cost too) worth it for me. Yet I look back at my own life, at the struggling college me, and think about what she’d think about me flying across the world to go to a wizarding school in a Polish castle for a weekend larp. I think she’d laugh. I think she might even think I’d gone a little too far.
Now as I prep for those big budget games, I watch friends of mine in less financially solvent circumstances sigh in defeat and resign themselves to never seeing the expensive games their wealthier friends sign on for so easily. And the economic disparity can create resentment, frustration and depression.
Yet I look towards what these games are providing, the costs for running and organizing, and realize that simply to say “the cost is too damn high” is over-simplifying the problem and shaming organizers for providing intricate, beautiful products to our community. It isn’t the fault of organizers that events cost money to create. That’s capitalism. And we’re not going to solve economic differences in society ourselves. But we can come up with ways to help, in our own ways, in our own community.
So what’s the answer? If placing the financial burden on the organizers is unfair and the economic burden on players to remain a part of their beloved community is a difficulty too, what is the correct answer? The solutions, like any when dealing with economic disparity and classicism, are not simple.
First, I posit a few things:
- We must accept that organizers deserve and ought to be paid for their work. Organizers should not have to shoulder the burden for their games alone and should be provided with whatever support is possible by institutions, event coordinators and show runners (like conventions), and their own player communities to cover cost of games. Organizers provide entertainment for their community, and should be compensated for their costs and their effort.
- We must acknowledge the right and the need for different kinds of games out there, even as we recognize that means some of those games will be expensive and even out of the price range of some of our community. We must acknowledge that while we cannot solve the financial gap between members of our community, we can help alleviate that gap by our actions and our compassion for others.
- We must recognize our community is made up of economically diverse people with different financial capabilities. If we want to continue to maintain diversity within our community, we must create opportunities for those less economically fortunate to stay involved in larp events despite their sometimes inability to pay requisite costs.
- We must stay conscious of how we provide those economic opportunities, lest they exploit the less privileged in favor of organizers.
- We must maintain a diversity of types of larps in our community, so as to promote a breadth of financial options for those who want to play. While some larpers will not be able to afford the most expensive games, we can make sure we support less expensive games in our community as options. We should not expect less wealthy larpers to -only- play those games, lest we start segregating our community into economic stratification.
- We must watch the language we use when talking about what materials a person must have when attending games. “Costumes are required for larps” might be a fun conversation we bat around on social media, but while having high costume requirements might help improve immersion or make larp documentation look prettier, it also puts a financial burden on less wealthy players. Not having costumes considered up to standard is an easy way to shame the less wealthy and price them out of attending games with affordable tickets.
- We must be aware of the language we use when speaking about the games in our community, namely how we classify our ‘cooler’ games. Big budget does not necessarily mean cooler or better, nor should they be touted as the standard by which our community should be judged. To do so would be to set a price tag on the standard for entry into larp that prices out those unable to attend big budget games. Larp is not JUST big budget games, and they’re not the only game out there, nor even perhaps the best games out there. They might be the most visible in some cases, but we cannot allow that to become a standard by which all other games should be measured. We set that expectation, and larp truly does become a rich person’s game.
Here are some handy ways we can look towards creating some economic options in our community and keep from creeping into the ‘rich person’s game’ territory:
- Create economic opportunities in your more expensive games for those who don’t have the money for a ticket to attend. Do NOT make the only option for those folks volunteering their free labor. Create a set number of tickets to raffle off for less fortunate players. Do so anonymously so as not to embarrass the less wealthy. Set up funding options, where other players or sponsors can invest in getting tickets for those who cannot easily afford it.
- Support initiatives like the Larp Fund to provide scholarships and financial support for those who attend games. Pay it forward when you can, as they say. Organize where you can on a local scale for those kind of fundraising options. Consider the best way to allocate those funds and consider being as transparent as possible when doing so.
- Organize costume shares, swaps, and donations. Material costs of larps, especially those that require high costuming or props, can price out less economically solvent larpers. Create events where players can teach one another skills to create their own costumes and props. Encourage less judgmental language regarding material requirements at game to keep the culture of shame down.
- Provide equitable volunteer options for groups and individuals when attending your games. Consider how many hours you’ll be requiring them to help out in return for their attendance to an event. Balance out the costs of their attendance versus what you’ll require them to do and do not overuse the individual or group. Be clear what your expectations are for volunteers up front (i.e. the hours and responsibilities volunteers will need to fulfill, the reasons behind these expectations versus cost, etc). Do not treat volunteers as servants or shame them having to attend ‘free.’ They are not attending ‘free’ if they are working for you. Do not exploit groups using your venue for their event if you have some financial stake in their providing entertainment at your venue. Again, at that point, they are not attending free, they are working for you and deserve professional treatment and consideration.
- When creating events, especially those with higher price tags, provide clear expectations of what your costs are providing. Though transparency in finances might make people uncomfortable, it also provides players with a measure of understanding about why an event costs as much as it does. When creating the game, also consider where costs are going and perhaps consider cutting where possible to lower costs. Do not cut what is required. And budget where possible for the labor put in by staff members and organizers.
- Help promote games from other economic brackets. For those ‘cooler’ games out there, use social capital to raise visibility for less expensive games to showcase the diversity of games in our community. Do not perpetuate only expensive games as the standard for our community. Embrace diversity of product not only for the sake of the art form, but for the sake of financial availability for our player base.
- Encourage creation of games by those less financially solvent. Consider investing in less financially solvent games as a sponsor, the way larger organizations would provide arts grants, sponsorships or patronage for other kinds of art.
- For organizers, help teach larp design and organization skills to new designers, especially those from less financially solvent backgrounds, to perpetuate stories and creations from all corners of our community.
- For players, do not shame and disparage organizers, organizations and games for charging money for events. Do not expect organizers to work for free. Do not imply financial impropriety when you have no proof in an effort to embarrass larp professionals. If you have questions regarding why something costs what it does, ask. Do not automatically assume things are unfair because it is expensive. Capitalism might be unfair, but that is not the fault of an organizer. The questions of art as a free thing in the face of a capitalistic society are not going to get solved in our community, and is not the fault of organizers. Don’t demand free things. Work with organizers instead. Don’t be afraid to communicate your concerns about affording things. Sometimes they’ll be able to work with you. Expect sometimes the answer will be no.
- As individuals, provide and support less fortunate larpers where possible. Contribute to room-shares for events by paying for a larger share of the burden. Offer rides, loaner props and costumes, even perhaps pay for meals where you can. Perhaps become a larper ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister,’ helping a less fortunate larper be involved in the community. Set up opportunities for larpers around you to provide assistance in other ways to you and other players in exchange for that financial support so it is not charity. Do not turn it into a way to lord over others or extort them for more than you should. Do not shame those with less impressive outfits than yours. Encourage, do not disparage.
- Do not perpetuate the myth that larp is only for the wealthy. Do not shame those who are struggling to stay involved due to financial difficulty. Do not shame them with the false notion that leisure is only for the wealthy.
There are lots of other options and ideas for how to help others in larp. What are your suggestions? Only by brainstorming together as a community can we help keep larp from becoming a rich person’s gaming and art form.