LARP Debate: Art or Sport?

A short while back I was chatting with a fellow LARPer and they referred to the LARP hobby as a sport and it got me thinking, is LARPing a form of art or a type of sport? I briefly touched on the sport-like aspects of the hobby within a short paper(PDF) I wrote in 2006 for some British LARPing friends who wanted to know more about the state of the hobby over here in the States. I feel that this question could use some clarification and exploration beyond what was covered in that paper.

I think it’s best to start with defining both art and sport so as to gain a consistent understanding of both words. The Random House Dictionary provides as the initial definition of art and sport the following:

Art – 1. The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. “Art.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 20 Jun. 2009. < >.

Sport – 1. An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc. “Sport.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 20 Jun. 2009. < >.

Within the LARPing hobby I feel there are two distinct forms of LARP with one of those forms having two key sub-forms (pulling heavily from the aforementioned paper):

Theater – This style does not utilize any form of live-combat mechanics and instead use an alternate resolution system for combat and conflict resolution such as rolling a die or drawing a card from a deck for the randomizer then adding that number into whatever skill or ability is used to determine success or failure or comparing skills or stats from character sheets/cards.

Live combat – These LARPs use mock weapons as a part of their conflict resolution and outside of this conflict resolution tend to be more of a if-you-can-do-it-you-can-do-it form of game. If you can pick the lock you’ve picked the lock, if you can sneak by the orc, you’ve snuck by the orc, and etc. Within the live-combat category there are two sub-forms: Role-play and battle game.

From the above I feel it can be clearly said that theater style LARPs fall straight into the art category. The key crux of the debate then falls upon the live-combat variants: role-play and battle game. As I see it, role-play oriented live-combat LARPs fall into the art category and battle-game oriented LARPs into the sport category. Why?

Role-play oriented LARPs (I’ll refer to as LRP for Live Role-Play) I feel is a form of improvisational theater and thus a form of art. They put the focus on plot and character development within a story and less on just combat. LRPs try to keep the focus on the story and only involve combat when needed because the story warrants it. This doesn’t mean that an entire event that happens to be combat heavy isn’t a LRP, but that the combat is there because of story and plot, not because that’s the extent of the event without other reasons.

Battle games (BGs for short) put the focus on the combat, don’t have much in they way of ongoing plot and character development isn’t based on story. This isn’t to say that the combat doesn’t have a goal in mind, but that the event as a whole is to engage in fighting with little to no role-play whatsoever. In short they take miniature war gaming (Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40K for examples) and make that a live-action event. Given the definitions above, BGs fall right under the definition of being a type of sport as they also tend to be highly competitive in nature.

In my opinion BGs aren’t a true form of LARP, even if they are lumped in with the LARP hobby. LRP and BGs may have some common ties; however I feel that they have become unique enough in their own rights that they have become separate forms: One art and the other sport and should be viewed and treated as such. Now I can hear some arguments, particularly from the BG crowd of “But they take on the role of a character and isn’t that role-play?” No, and yet there are aspects where ‘yes’ is applicable. Role-play is an art and art is not a core focus of the activity, the fight/battle is. Even though BGs aren’t an art, a person may learn an art because of it such as sewing garb, tooling and working with leather and such. It’s just that BGs them self aren’t an art. Bottom line, BGs are played to win. In LRP there isn’t a winner or rather every one is a winner that participated because story and plot was progressed.

Why is it important to understand this and understand which camp a particular group or game falls into?

Knowing which form is predominant in the game you play will help you as a player better understand the kind of game you should be aiming for. If a game is LRP, expect heavy role play and immersion within the game setting. If a game is a BG, expect combat to be the key, if not only thing that occurs when the group meets up.

From a game designer’s standpoint, defining which aspect forms the core of your game will help you better design it and play it and place expectations within the rule system for qualities you want the game to carry. This will help you define the type of people you want your game to attract and the overall atmosphere of the game.

What is your opinion on this debate? What do you see as an art or sport or both?

Next week’s article will be on what reading material should be on a LARP designer’s bookshelf/reading list. As always I love to hear feedback and suggestions for further articles. Feel free to leave a comment here at (see the link below for this article’s forum thread), write Amber at webmaster [at] mortalisrpg [dot] com or visit the Mortalis Games site to see what else has been shared or leave a comment there.

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