CARP: The College/ Academic Role-Playing Game

For those scratching their heads at the title, Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) is a game where the participants physically act out their characters’ actions–usually in wildly inappropriate costume. The players pursue goals within a fictional environment that conveniently parallels their actual environment while interacting with each other in character–usually wildly inappropriately. The outcome–or winner of the game–may be mediated by game rules, or determined by consensus among players.

I have never LARPed. I have friends who do and there are many strong markers for LARPing in my cultural DNA, but I could never bring myself to dress up and play an RPG outside the confines of a smokey basement or sweltering, coed apartment. I have, however, CARPed for the better part of the last three years and–as I am planning a career in academics–will most likely be CARPing well into my twilight years.

My most recent opportunity to put on my best costume, get into collegiate character, and act out academic scenarios was at U of C’s MAPH introductory barbecue. The Sunday afternoon affair had me running around the house to find just the right button-down Oxford (not white,–I don’t want to be this guy–not too loud,–I don’t want to be irreverent,–and not window-pane–it’s not slimming…), shine up my three-lace Oxfords (wait, I’m noticing a pattern), and preparing to smile (with teeth) anytime anyone even seems to glance in my direction.

I’m playing the part of an excited and confident grad student courting and wooing his new University sweetheart in hopes of securing a loving and fruitful relationship that will see him through the little tiffs of program evaluation and doctoral defense. With this lofty goal in mind, he works the crowd: shaking hands, engaging in small talk, and–of course–mentally cataloging anyone who might potentially share his interests and be able to help him in the future.

The whole farce is full of pathos when you spell it out: people putting brave faces over uncertain eyes and grinding out trivial conversation in the hope of securing social, intellectual, and professional connections that might be exploited in the future.  I’m sure some are genuinely happy and comfortable, but most display those little nervous ticks-brushing hair back, popping joints, pulling at hems and smoothing shoulders–that betray their plastic smiles and too-rehearsed witty repartee.  However, the grad students are not the only ones putting on a show.

The afternoon commences with a film screening of Hiroshima, mon Amour–a 1959 black & white, French New Wave film. Hiroshima tells a story that could either be the reenactment (with a Japanese adulterer) of the French protagonist’s earlier star-crossed love (with a German soldier) or another ill-fated love affair that merely runs a parallel course. The film includes all the hallmarks of a genuine high-brow cinema: long cuts, juxtaposition of disparate elements, lyrical/ repeated visual motifs and dialogue, and a run time of about half and hour longer than it needed to be. This half of the introductory gathering allows the University to demonstrate her erudite and fashionable ways–justifying her Monday morning depositing of tuition checks. “See” she says, “is my academic pedigree not pleasing? Is my learned countenance not worthy of your financial adoration? Bask in my favor and borrow my radiance!”

However, this is only our second meeting–I have yet to pay her bride’s price–and recognizing this, she changes tactics. After the film there are no panel discussions or insightful lectures–lest it seem the U of C isn’t a fun girl to take out on a Sunday night. Free alcohol beckons from the Classics Quad and the University strips out of her cotillion dress and puts on a pair of hip-hugging jeans to eat some barbecue. From above her too-tight gingham top she drawls “See, I’m not always so serious. I know how to have fun. I’m hip to what the kids these days are looking for. I have a soft side, see?” And the cohort breathes a collective sigh of relief and–remembering how foreign that foreign film was–thinks, “I was scared there for minute, but this is more comfortable. I can do this.”

The U of C turns away and smiles as she tests the stubby riding crop against her hip.

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