By Lizzie Stark
Chicago Review. 258 pp. Paperback, $16.95
High-school bullies got this one right: “Dungeons & Dragons” isn’t cool. Neither is “Magic: The Gathering,” Civil War reenactment or any other live-action, role-playing game (aka “larp”) that encourages adults to dress up in medieval costumes or Confederate uniforms and “kill” one another with foam swords or blank-firing rifles. Whether such games are fun, however, is a different question.
“I came into this book with a simple idea about larp, that people used it to compensate for something lacking in their everyday lives,” Lizzie Stark, a Daily Beast contributor, writes in “Leaving Mundania,” a study of larping. (“Mundania” is what larpers call the real world — the one where they can’t pretend to be knights but have to pay rent, alimony or child support.) “What I discovered was a rich, complex hobby, just beginning to enter mainstream imagination in the United States.”
Stark dives head-first into a singular subculture that she says “speaks to my failed theater aspirations in high school.” She uncovers the roots of larping in Mardi Gras, improv comedy and Elizabeth I’s theatrical royal pageants. She invents “Verva Malone,” a private eye from the 1920s, and attends gaming conventions in character. And she challenges the larp stereotype — “a white male between the ages of fourteen and forty-five, either comically skinny or egregiously fat, an inveterate mouth breather with bad skin who never leaves his parents’ basement” — by profiling African American and female larpers as well as one who’s a police officer. Although the details of the games she plays will prove snoozeworthy for the uninitiated, the freshness of Stark’s look at a much-maligned pastime makes it more difficult to dismiss.
“Putting on or playing in a larp takes up a stupid amount of time and energy, although with the right playmates, it can be exhilarating,” she writes. “During this book I learned to embrace my own weird.”