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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Seeing the elephant

Fantasy Live Role Playing Characters, Hardenstein 2014
Seeing the elephant

This article was originally published in Kill Screen Issue 8: Virtual Reality.

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A few times each year, Karl Rosenzweig, a baker from upstate New York, wakes up in the middle of the 19th century. Reveille is sounded at 6 a.m., and he eats a soldier’s breakfast cooked over a campfire. In the afternoon, Rosenzweig takes position a short distance from dozens, and sometimes hundreds of men, loads his Enfield 1853 rifle-musket, takes aim, and pulls the trigger. The clouds of black powder smoke that fill the air are real, but the battle is virtual. There are no actual bullets flying through the air, and at the end of the event, Rosenzweig and all the other soldiers, Union and Confederate, will get back in their cars and go home, no ground either gained or lost. They will hang up their uniforms, and prepare for the next reenactment, the next virtual skirmish.

A live-action virtual world may sound like an exotic thing, but if you’ve visited a historical site with actors engaged in period demonstrations or made a trip to Disney World, you’ve already been to one. Most of these worlds are created as performances to be viewed for entertainment or educational purposes, and while they might even offer opportunities for some form of audience participation, there’s almost always a clear line between the performer and the spectator.

Napoleonic LARPers
Napoleonic LARPers

There’s a subset of liveaction virtual worlds, however, including live action role-playing (LARP) and some historical reenacting in which the goal is to provide an experience for the participants rather than an outside group of spectators. These can require a great deal of preparation in the form of historical research, character creation, or building a set of period- or setting-appropriate costume and gear. Some reenactors will bring recreations of period newspapers to events or create letters that their characters might have received from home. Adrianne Grady is an entertainment business consultant who participates in a large number of LARPs of different styles and genres. Some LARPs, she says, “are similar to a zombie-themed apocalyptic paintball game, where you go through a mission or challenge, but also a storyline. There are LARPs based in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which are similar to a murder mystery dinner. How a LARP looks to the people playing will depend on how well the game story and mechanics are being run, and how invested each player is in their character and the events at hand.”

you’re really there, really being shot at, and guys are really dying around you.

Though fundamentally play, the experiences within a live–action virtual world can be incredibly intense. In one LARP, Kaza Marie Ayersman found herself having to hide in a cabin during an orc attack. Hearing the screams of the characters still outside, Ayersman’s character Espen hid with another player under a bunk bed as an orc burst through the door and killed everyone he could find.

After he killed the other characters, Ayersman says, “he came to a candle which was less than an arm’s length away from my face and blew it out. We didn’t move or speak for minutes. The orc stayed in that cabin with us, unaware of our existence for 15 minutes until a group of guards managed to break through and kill the orc. Though it was in a controlled environment where I was not in any real danger, it was a real moment for me.”

According to Rosenzweig, among reenactors there’s a name for the experience of getting lost in the world. “They call it ‘seeing the elephant,’” Rosenzweig says, “where you lose track of the fact that you’re in the 21st century and get caught up in the moment and feel like you’re really there, really being shot at, and guys are really dying around you.

We try to get as close to the real thing as you can get without firing a bullet or getting dysentery,” says Rosenzweig. And while safety is a primary concern at reenactments, there are risks even in a staged battle. “The weapons will do damage if you stand too close to them,” Rosenzweig says, “so you’re aware of the fact that you could get hurt. Somebody across from you could be new and not know that there’s a bullet in their gun when they fire.”

Civil War re-enactment
Civil War re-enactment

In practice, the contingency of a virtual world may have as much to do with its appeal as its intensity, and not all participants describe “losing themselves” in the virtual world as a desirable outcome. Dan Elkins, a student and ER technician from Sterling Heights, Michigan, participated in Civil War reenactments as a way to preserve and share the history of the people who fought and died on both sides. Elkins describes the battles as the least realistic part of the reenacting experience, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. “You wouldn’t immerse yourself to the point where you thought it was the 19th century. You don’t want it to be real, because war is horrible.”

Not all live-action virtual worlds, however, are built on identity-based roleplaying as a central element, and while the costumes, characters, and scenarios are all important, what really seems to be critical is the existence of a set of agreed-upon rules guiding behavior in the world. Who you are isn’t as important as what you do, and playing a role doesn’t always mean inhabiting a character.

You can always come home, and you can always go back.

Neil Stork-Brett is co-creator of The Hundred Swords, a Canberra-based “battle sports” group that creates medieval fantasy-themed events using foam and latex weapons. Participants each have a certain number of hit points, dictating how many blows they can receive before being removed from combat, and the emphasis is on live battlefield tactics and strategy, rather than inhabiting a specific character or storytelling. “We do provide a narrative arc for our games set in a fictional world,” Stork-Brett says, “but this is used as a game mechanic rather than a basis for ‘lore’ and character development.” While Hundred Swords participants do perform the roles of a medieval fantasy combatants, their appearance and behavior rather than their sense of an inhabited self is what creates the world.

In fact, while many live-action virtual world participants use similar imagery to describe their experiences—losing their selves in combat, losing track of what century they’re in, feeling an experience to be real, or having a sense of what a particular time really was like—it’s also clear that they never really lose awareness that they are inhabiting a virtual world. Entertainment consultant Adrianne Grady, for example, draws a bright line between her in-game and out-of-game worlds. “My LARP characters stay ingame because they’re part of it. Just like I don’t act like a character I played or created outside of a theater production after the performance is over.”

Live-action virtual worlds can provide a different, sometimes more active medium in which to participate in a virtual world, but they also preserve the ability of the participant to choose whether and how they wish to inhabit a virtual reality. You can always come home, and you can always go back. Most of us don’t get to determine the exact nature of our day-to-day realities, but in our virtual worlds, even the most committed visitor to the 19th century can take a break for a hamburger.

“In Gettysburg,” Karl Rosenzweig says, “a few of us were down there for 14days, and the first thing we did when the event was over was to drive to McDonalds because we’d been eating nothing but hard tack and salt pork. It’s nice to slip back into modern comforts as quickly as you can.”

Header image: RalfHuels (photographer), Anja Arenz, Chris Kunz, Dossmo, Niamh, Paolo Tratzky, Svenja Schoenmackers via Wikimedia

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