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Larp Census 2014 - interview with Aaron Vanek and Ryan Paddy

Earlier this month, Larp Census 2014 started. Back then I mentioned it in a post - now, two guys who started the project - Aaron Vanek from California, USA and Ryan Paddy from New Zealand - answer everything you wanted to know about the census (there's a bit more, covered in the FAQ) and also tell us a bit about themselves and their larp scenes.

If you haven't answered the census yet, you can do so here:


Click here to answer the census


1. Tell us about yourselves. Who are you? When did you start larping?


AV: (answered with a blurb) Aaron Vanek lives in Los Angeles and has been larping for nearly 30 years. He wrote and published an essay on the art of larp entitled “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing” that is available as a free PDF download here. He is a founding member of Live Game Labs and Founder of Seekers Unlimited, a non-profit company that makes educational larps. He edited the 2012 and 2013 Wyrd Con Companion Books with Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. More information at aaronvanek.com

RP: I started larping 25 years ago at 14 years of age after my brother tried it with a university roleplaying club. We called it "widegaming" and our settings were largely inspired by tabletop RPGs like D&D and Call of Cthulhu, although we also did some experimental stuff. I heard about some overseas games like The Gathering in the UK and knew about World of Darkness larps but it wasn't until around 1994 that I got on the internet and discovered the real depth and breadth of the international larp scene, which was inspiring. The Nordic larp movement in particular was an eye-opener in terms of redefining what larp could mean to people, how it could transcend "game". I've enjoyed watching international larp grow and flourish and encouraging larpers here in NZ to try new things.


2. Tell us a bit about your local larping scene. What makes it specific?


AV: In the Southern California region, we have about five or six different larp groups, and they don't mix well. People generally stick to their own group/campaign, and either try out the other larp (sometimes to poach players) or badmouths is to drive people away. It's fairly contentious out here. There are exceptions, though: some people play in other larps (not different styles of larps, of course, that would be insane), and occasionally even mention other larp groups. But for the most part, we're an archipelago of larp islands, with both trade and warfare between the tribes.

RP: New Zealand larp is the opposite of what Aaron says about the Southern California scene. Most larpers experiment with lots of different styles. We have popular larp conventions allowing people to try different approaches and genres over a single weekend. Our campaigns run for a few years then wrap up their stories, and then new people start running different campaigns. We have a national larp community and people often travel around the country to games. I helped found the New Zealand Live Action Role Playing Society (NZLARPS) which funds, supports and promotes all larp in NZ. Our production values have improved in leaps and bounds and we have some fairly large events, which in NZ means a couple of hundred people. So my local larp scene is pretty much everything I always hoped it would be.


3. Besides Larp Census, what other larping projects are you involved in?


AV: I am currently working on a large educational larp project with Gamedesk again. It's very cool, but I can't talk about it. I'm also trying to set up a Larp Factory here: once a month, we (so far it has only been me, unfortunately) run a larp from the Factory Book. Ideally, other people will run these, and then we start making our own in this formula. It's difficult, however. There's a lot of drama to navigate around.

And I still hope to one day run a weekend-long, fantasy genre, foam weapon combat larp based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories.

RP: I'm the National Marketing Officer for NZLARPS, so I do a lot of larp promotion activity here. I also import larp gear and sell it as Paddywhack Productions (www.paddywhack.co.nz). I write and run games too. Last year I coordinated 8 writers to create a 160 person larp set in medieval England just after the First Baron's War, with the aim of evoking the whole cultural milieu of that time.


4. How did you get an idea about starting larp census? What did starting such a project involve?


AV: Back at WyrdCon II, I was asked by Mark Mensch what needed to be done to help the larp community. I don't remember if I already had this answer in mind or if I just blurted it out, prophecy-style, but I said:

1. We need a global larp census.
2. We need a global larp calendar/map that can show all larps in an area, or types of larps over a certain weekend, or whatever. It must be user customizable, so someone can search for all Camarilla larps in a month in their state, or in a year in their city.
3. We need a larp archive or museum.

I started working on #1 and #2 myself. For the census, there was, at first, a small committee of larpers working on it, but the group disbanded because, again, of the contentious nature of larpers (or larpers in America, I don't know). However, I kept the thought of a census alive.

Ryan posted that question to the Larp Academia board, and I pounced on him. We began talking over email. Ryan had the drive and programming chops to pull this off.  We tried to get another group to host this website, but I rescinded the offer when I got worried about privacy issues and commercial use of the information. That group later put out a larp census (with my acquiescence), but it was, in my opinion, a flawed, not-fully-formed version of the original draft I sent them. Many of their mistakes were ones Ryan and I caught early on and removed from ours. It took much longer to get ours out, but, I think--I hope--it's much better. The numbers seem to indicate that it is. It took the other census a year to get jsut under 4,000 replies. We had that many in about two days.

Ryan and my work process was: getting the questions down first. We had many, many discussions and disagreements about what to ask and how to ask it. For example, the question about race/ethnicity was not in the early versions, but through talking to friends of mine, I wanted to get that data (I really did from the beginning). But it's a touch subject. We couldn't make it multiple choice, because there are thousands of different groups around the globe. Ultimately we settled on an open ended question with an opt-out. But that's an example of something we went over and over again.

Next, we had noted larp scholars go over our questions for feedback. Ryan and I discussed their comments, revised as needed, and sent it back for more comments. I think we had at least two rounds of feedback. In the meantime, Ryan set up the website (which we paid for), and started the programming. His talent really shines on this, because I think ours looks and feels very professional.

After about a year of on and off work (both Ryan and I had other things to do, so it wasn't constant effort), we locked the questions in English and set about getting the translations. We managed to secure 14 languages, and sometimes the first translator was unable to complete the work, so I had to scramble to get another. Ryan imported the languages into the template site he set up, and the translator would go back and check it, make revisions, which Ryan very promptly enacted.

And the process isn't over: we had a few things to iron out and patch in the first week or so, and we are still now trying to market the census to as many people as possible. And once it is done, early net year, we'll have, hopefully, a massive amount of data to analyze and sort.

RP: I came at it from having been editing the English Wikipedia's article on larp and trying to find better sources for the global spread of the activity. Specifically I wanted to know whether we can describe larp as "popular" in that way that various other leisure and arts activities are.


5. There are other larp surveys and even censuses (such as the one by larping.org) elsewhere. What makes yours different?


AV: Our census is in 14 languages, protects your privacy, does not require your email, allows people to invite their friends to fill it out, and the results will be released to all via Creative Commons. It has also been vetted by people outside of us two. We really want to make this a global census available to all larpers around the world.

RP: We're operating on a completely different scale to any previous larp surveys in terms of number of responses, quality of questions and widest possible relevance to the global larp community.


6. Why should someone answer the census? What will be done with the results, apart from releasing them to public?


AV: The more responses we have, the better the data. Even if they only answer the first seven questions, the ones we really want, it's extremely useful to know where larpers are concentrated, where they should go, who they are, how long they've been larping. etc. Ideally, many or most larpers will realize they are part of a global community, and not an isolated, contentious, exclusive group.

We are inviting larp academics and researchers to help with the data analysis, and we'll be looking at publishing something somewhere. Ryan will have a better handle on that.

RP: I think larp is the most under-appreciated medium in the world. It has more immediacy than any other form of fiction, allowing you to be totally surrounded by the setting and part of it. Yet the media in most countries has no grasp of that. For them larp is a collection of stereotypes to be used as a punchline. That's why we need to research the scope and diversity of our scene ourselves, so that we can tell our own story accurately, to better understand our community, improve larp for larpers and explain it to others.

For example, a preliminary analyses of our data shows that 67% of larpers participated in a larp series (an ongoing larp) in the last 12 months. That means 33% of people who larped in the last 12 months only participated in stand-alone events. That's a significant portion of the community, and I think that's a style of larp that isn't generally celebrated or supported as well as it could be. Published stand-alone larps in particular are perfect for introducing new people to larp, because anyone can run them anywhere, they can often be run in only a few hours which isn't too big a commitment for a new larper, and they encourage larpers to try a variety of different genres and rules so they can decide for themselves what they prefer.

To take another example, there is a lot of speculation about the motivations people have for larping and roleplaying in general. But nobody has ever approached it the way a psychology researcher would, by conducting a large-scale attitude survey and doing a factor analysis on the results. We're doing that, so for the first time we'll be able to describe the various ways that people enjoy larp based on empirical research.


7. Which steps did you take to promote the census in non-English speaking larp scenes?


AV: We asked our translators to promote it, first. Ryan also sagely asked that the translators translate a phrase in their language promoting the census, which he also sent around. That way, people see it in their own language--at least on Facebook. In other words, we have a handful of supporters who are acting as our signal boosters.

RP: In addition to what Aaron has mentioned we are also seeking help from international larp groups in spreading the word, including societies and federations. We'd like the operators of such groups to notify all their membership about the census and encourage them to complete it, so that their local larp scene will be represented in the results. We also encourage all larpers and game companies out there to tell people about it, share our Facebook posts (facebook.com/LarpCensus) and retweet us (@LarpCensus) to help spread the word virally.


8. How long will the 2014 census remain open?


AV: We haven't set a firm deadline, because we want to get as many as possible, but we're both thinking it will be roughly around the end of this year.

We'll announce the closing date a few weeks prior to it actually closing.


9. You mentioned that you plan to re-do the census at some time in the future. Do you plan it to become a regular thing? How often do you plan on running it?


AV: Ideally, yes, we'd like to do this every seven years, and compare results. Most of the toughest work has already been done. We'll make some changes to the questions for the next time, maybe adding some or subtracting some, but the basics are there.


10. What impact do you believe this census will have?


AV: I hope larpers around the world will realize they are not alone, and that there are different larps, different styles of larps, different motivations to larp, different people larping, but that they all have the same drive: to have a worthwhile, satisfying live action role playing experience. I believe the census will help that.


11. Any final thoughts?


AV: Whatever Ryan says to adjust my answers is correct.

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