Sometimes the best way to be true to yourself is to (temporarily) be someone else.
Identity is a curious concept, because the idea of “the self” has never quite been ironed out, despite the myriads of experts and theories and philosophers.
You would think that today’s world produces more opportunity for real, heart-pounding experiences, which in turn build one’s sense of competence and ability, of social graces and attitudes, and even of societal boundaries and natural limitations. But this simply isn’t the case.
The world we live in is so artificial, in many ways, that the adrenaline and stress of daily life usually exists only in the mundanely unpleasant struggles of our desk jobs and family conflicts. In order to solve problems that we have created, masked or ignored, we find relief in environments and scenarios either created or preserved for our specific purposes.
We go hiking and camping, willingly separating ourselves from warm beds and cable television, just to renew that feeling that we have something in common with the natural world around us. We go skydiving for the thrill of potential danger. We run on treadmills and push ourselves at the gym, hoping to compensate for the hours spent sitting in cubicles despite being equipped with amazing, carbon-based bipedal bodies capable of great long-distance running capacity and strength. We go to therapists to talk about our problems, only to clam up when we return home to our loved ones.
For as long as people have been inventing new ways to entertain and distract from the toil of life, there have been complaints about the various methods of “escape” from life.
It used to be movies. Movies, in my mother’s day, were seen by the very conservative or the very religious as “unwholesome” at worst, and “a waste of time” at best. What a shock when it became commonplace to own a color television and go to the movies on a fairly regular basis.
Computers and video games were the next beasts of burden — or rather, the beasts we used to carry our burdens. When the weight of life got heavy, our devices incorporated levels to beat and ways to feel a little burst of accomplishment once in a while.
However, this need to supposedly opt out of reality is not some devilish attempt to negate duty and relationships. I might argue that it is rooted in our need for discovery of ourselves, each other, and of the world around us.
As children, we play games. We act out fights and love stories and even mirror the “boring” lives of adults. Then we grow up, and we’re expected to put that all behind us (unless, of course, you’re an actor or an artist). For many, it’s not easily done…and that’s becoming more accepted in the world of LARP: Live Action Role Play.
The LARP community is not worldwide, and not made up of the nerdy, socially-awkward stereotype we imagine. It allows the experiences of video game players and science fiction lovers to take shape in real time. In this way, it bridges that gap between reality and escape to produce something on the same level as any other act of adult or skill-oriented make believe, like pretending that weight lifting with gym equipment is using your body “naturally” or that camping and hiking gets you “away from it all.”
Weight lifting is, of course, unnatural when practiced with great discipline, and being in the wild outdoors usually means you’re still within a 10-mile radius of a showerhead and a cheap motel. Yet we don’t automatically discount the experience, because it builds something inside of us that is necessary for our wellbeing, whether physically or psychologically.
The same is true of LARPing and identity, say various players.
In 2014 Harrison Jacobs of Business Insider wrote an article about LARP participants that showcased members of Alliance, a LARP community based in Pennsylvania that sees people of all ages and backgrounds come together to participate in costume-wearing, sword-wielding, friend-finding entertainment.
Disproving the notion that these kinds of activities are for lonely geeks, many in attendance met their friends, partners or spouses at these events. And what’s more, they felt like they were being true to themselves. Yes, it was, as one regular Dungeons and Dragons player said, “a chance to play the game in real life,” but it also connected college students and working professionals, some of whom end up turning a quirky social activity into a lifelong hobby.
What’s the deeper draw?
Doubtless, it could just be fun. Feeling like everyone is just as zany and out of place as you are, especially in a group setting when you’re all weird together, could just melt all that self-consciousness into a new shade of normal for your psychological Crayola box.
More importantly, it may be that identity requires testing, and we just don’t have many sources of real “tests” in our modern society.
We have the usual coming of age experiences: our earliest romantic encounters, driving licenses, graduations, interviews, work promotions and serious partnerships, but we do not have much “fight” in our lives. Mainly, we have monotonous struggle. It’s almost painful how easy life can be sometimes in nations where even the poor live with relative access to food and kindness. We’re reminded how small and insignificant our victories really are on a daily basis.
It is no wonder we long for something glorious and rewarding, and maybe just a little challenging.
In my humble opinion, that may even be the root of many people’s need to endorse strange and unverifiable religious beliefs, to feed that spiritual need for magical concepts like karma, objective morality, the afterlife, soulmates and guaranteed intrinsic meaning behind the apparent futility often present.
If we all just donned capes, ran through fields, and drew swords (or lightsabers) together once in a while, maybe we could get more out of “real” life too.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.