When I played the larp Beginning, I had the experience of being born as a blind creature in an unknown world. I felt myself to be full of hope and innocent idealism, while with my ‘adult’ head I knew what dreadful disappointments were in store … I was very moved and cried for several minutes.
I found the experience cathartic and not at all disturbing – it was genuinely therapeutic. I thought it would be interesting to sketch out some therapeutic techniques that are similar to larp.
This is the most obvious parallel. It’s a technique that involves creating a little dramatic performance that illustrates a key crisis in a person’s life, or a conflict within them. Usually several people are involved, to play Mum, Dad, and other characters involved in what happened to me when I was five; or alternatively they might represent “Strong Me”, “Weak Me”, “Fear” and so on.
According to the British Psychodrama Association, “Any person in therapeutic care may benefit from psychodrama, provided that there is an ability and willingness for presentation of self-shown by stepping onto the stage area.” And that sounds rather like larp.
This is a very remarkable technique in which the characters or forces in an individual’s life are embodied by a group of people. The therapist then asks the people playing the characters how they feel, and adjusts the constellation accordingly. The aim is to identify energetic problems in each individual’s family system and to remedy. It can be quite spooky – like a cross between group therapy and a seance.
A constellation is more static than psychodrama, like a diorama, but it also allows more freedom to the participants. Once I take on the role of ‘Grandad’, I might find myself feeling hungry or cold or claustrophobic, as I become a node of energy within the constellation.
A technique devised by Carl Jung that involves an intentional waking dream, Active Imagination could be described as a one-man larp. In his book on this subject, the Jungian Robert A. Johnson describes the case of an American man who would daily spend an hour or more in his study, engaging in an imaginative medieval fantasy quest, complete with usurped kings, wicked uncles, imprisoned queens, and so on.
Dungeons & Dragons was lonely in the 1970s.
This technique comes from the Gestalt tradition, and it involves the use of at least one additional chair. The client sits in a different chair to embody an aspect of self, such as “Mr Responsible” and in another to be “Wild Thing”.
This also comes from Gestalt, and is an improvisational dance process that moves through five fundamental rhythms that are supposed to represent all of the main rhythms of life – flow, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness.
So, what’s different about larp?
Quite evidently, a larp is a game that is played, and that process can be more or less therapeutic for the players. Many larpers would resist the idea of comparing larp to therapy, and I have a lot of sympathy with that. It could make things a lot less enjoyable.
Rather than arguing for larp as an explicitly therapeutic form, I would be more interested in the idea that play is inherently therapeutic. The famous child psychologist DW Winnicott said,
Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.
(Playing and Reality p 51)
There are certain definite advantages to larp over therapy. In a larp, I might find myself replaying something from my early life, or I might choose to do so, but since I play a character this gives me some privacy and protection. I am the only person that really knows how ‘close to home’ I’m playing with my character.