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The Pretenders: Grown-Up LARPers Redefine Playtime

Aaron Schrank |
February 18, 2012 | 3:58 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter


 Aaron Schrank)
Aaron Schrank)
After lacing up his combat boots and swapping his Motörhead T-shirt for a long black overcoat, Aaron Vanek moves to the mirror. He pulls his grizzled brown hair back in a ponytail and admires the goatee he’s been growing for weeks. His wife, Kirsten Hageleit, who is busy crafting counterfeit badges in the living room, wants it shaved off tomorrow. The pair is prepping to spend their Saturday night the same way they’ve spent many Saturday nights over the past 20 years: pretending to be people they’re not.

They are passionate members of Los Angeles’s broadening LARP community. LARP, or live-action role-play, is a general label affixed to any game where players assume roles in a make-believe setting and physically perform their characters’ actions. The most common and familiar LARPs in the U.S. feature foam weapon combat in fantasy adventure settings a la “The Lord of The Rings” or “World of Warcraft,” but a swarm of genres and subgenres exist even among the several hundred self-identified LARPers in Southern California. 

Vanek and Hageleit gravitate towards experimental theater-style games, which emphasize player interaction. Armed with a fondness for LARP’s form, regardless of genre, these seasoned LARPers see it less as a game or hobby and more as an adaptable, fulfilling medium of expression. They regularly design and run LARPs of their own and are founding members of Live Game Labs.

“I enjoy the artistic communal storytelling aspect of it, of creating a story together— with friends and with strangers—that is not just set by someone else and then passively enjoyed,” Vanek said. “We can make the story we want, the one we’ll enjoy.”

They didn’t create their LARP-as-art philosophy overnight. LARP has been a central part of Vanek and Hageleit’s relationship since day one. Sipping cocktails in their snug Venice bungalow, they recalled their first encounter at a UCLA science fiction club where they were paired up to play related roles in their first LARP.

“It was this great geek pick-up line. ‘Can I get your phone number and we can talk about our characters?’” Vanek said, smiling. “And I called her and we started talking about our characters, but that was kind of the setup, because I found out she was writing science fiction stories and I was into science fiction.” 

They’ve been together—and LARPing—ever since. 

When he’s not someone else, Vanek, 40, is a confident, fast-talking fantasy fan who, like many LARPers, migrated to it from the “Dungeons & Dragons” table. He boasts a patchwork career as a writer and filmmaker. Hageleit, 41, works designing iPad apps for a luxury lifestyle magazine. These days, much of their collective creative energy goes into coming up with new ideas for LARPs. Together, they’ve crafted elaborate LARP experiences like “Limbo!” set in a tiki bar in Hell and “Rock Band Murder Mystery,” where participants played a musical group tackling the question: “Who killed rock and roll?” They’ve adapted LARPs from popular stories like the Harry Potter series and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.”

While LARP has been around since the 1970s, it’s occupied a low rung on the hierarchy of geek culture, attracting jeers from the rest of the comic book crowd. It’s become more organized and visible in recent years. Wyrd Con, the largest west coast LARP convention, will hold its third annual event in Costa Mesa this summer. Wyrd Con organizer Lisa Schaefer said the event has been growing steadily each year. 

Vanek and Hageleit embrace a broad view of live-action role-play that includes many orthodox activities, from kids playing tea party or cops and robbers to military training simulations and Model UN clubs. They’re hoping others adopt this broader view, and the activity gains more mainstream appreciation. Hageleit sees promise in the entertainment industry.   

“With video games, people are getting used to narrating their own stories rather than having one force-fed to them,” she said. “Movies, too, are becoming more immersive. We like the idea of having control over our entertainment. People realize ‘I don’t want to watch a movie about a hero. I want to be the hero.’”

On Super Bowl Saturday, Vanek and Hageleit walked from their home, past bars and restaurants, to a financial services office where a science fiction-themed LARP called Starship Valkyrie meets. He spent his evening as the ship’s headstrong commander and she, a member of its crew. If passersby were to loiter outside the office’s storefront window that night, they’d have seen dozens of men and women working frantically at Styrofoam switchboards and faintly heard jargon-soaked deliberations about lasers, shields and Praezorian mind control. 

Players came from many backgrounds, some with little or no LARP experience. Matthew Klein is an improv actor LARPing for the first time.

“Quite honestly, it’s good practice at getting into a character and playing it through,” Klein said. “And it’s fun.”

One week after his performance as the starship commander, Vanek drove down to Huntington Beach to check out a LARP called AOKP—a combat-style group that started at Whittier College. With medieval dress and duct-tape reinforced foam swords, 20 or so men and women marched through a sprawling park, acting out carefully choreographed scenes. Vanek was the tourist of the bunch, not yet a full-fledged member of the group. He played smaller roles throughout the day, showcasing his swordsmanship and flair for dramatic death scenes.

“I brought some extras for anyone else who’s playing an undead,” he announced, passing out torn, red-stained T-shirts and blood capsules he’d brought from home to a cluster of players preparing for a combat scene.  

There are no standardized rules for live-action role-play. Each LARP clique around the world has its own system of doing things, more or less. Vanek and Hageleit attend conventions and scour social media to get a better idea how people are LARPing and apply the best game mechanics to their own events.

“We’re reading and learning and sharing ideas,” Hageleit said. “All of it is sort of getting composted in our household and it becomes, “What can we turn this into? What can we grow out of this pile?’”

Despite the time and energy put into LARP, it’s not something that earns Vanek or Hageleit a paycheck. Those who do make money in LARP do so hawking costumes and props, Vanek says.

“I wish people could really make a living making LARPs,” he said. “There are a few people that are maybe scraping by.”

One of those people “scraping by” is Starship Valkyrie designer Christian Brown. He runs a few games per month and each of his 20 or so players pay a $25 fee.

“I need twice as many players as I have,” Brown said. “I need to run twice as many events as I do before I could even approach a living.”

One concept these industrious LARPers are working on is using LARP for education. Vanek and Brown started an organization called Seekers Unlimited, raised funds through Kickstarter and tested their curriculum in a Chatsworth charter school, teaching math and science to sixth-graders. They’ve filed for status as a nonprofit corporation and plan to move forward when funding allows. 

Vanek and Hageleit’s main goal is to make LARP more popular, by pushing its limits as a medium and getting more people involved.

“Anyone could enjoy LARPing,” Vanek insists. “When we’re children we play pretend but we sort of lose that aspect of imagination—of thinking ‘what could we be?’ People say that’s only for children, but it’s for anyone. All you need is a little bit of imagination.” 



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