Foam Swords and Plastic Bullets: A Look at Airsoft and LARPing
A few times a year I will get together with some friends of mine and we will go to the local airsoft field to play. It’s a large wooded area with several buildings, some three stories high, strewn about. These games can last for anywhere one hour to all day events. It’s a lot of fun gearing up and running and gunning through the woods.
This weekend I attended an 8-hour airsoft milsim (military simulation) game. As I was looking at all of the people gearing up around the parking lot/staging area, I began to ponder the similarities and differences between airsoft and LARPing, which stands for Live Action Role Play.
LARPing, in the most general sense, has been around for ages. Remember playing Cowboys and Indians? Power Rangers? How about pretending to be a Jedi when you were a kid… (or adult)? Those could all be considered LARPing in a loose interpretation. It’s hard to pinpoint when organized LARPing began to form. The first recorded LARPing group is Dagorhir, which began in 1977.
Bryan Wiese, the creator of Dagorhir, watched the movie Robin and Marion while he was reading the Lord of the Rings, and decided he wanted something that captured the spirit of adventure that comes from wielding a sword. After running advertisements on the local radio-station and connecting with like-minded individuals, Bryan became “Aratar Anfinhir the Stormbringer,” and LARPing began to take off in the United States.
Several of these groups use rules similar to those found in the tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Dagorhir does not allow “magic,” while other groups do depending on the setting. LARPing participants attempt to physically portray characters in a fictional setting. The LARPers often improvise their characters speech and movements, dress in era-appropriate garb, and wield era-appropriate weapons, typically made of foam (so the battles do not end like a scene from the movie Gladiator).
A lot of stereotypes exist when discussing LARPers. Surprisingly, one of the more accurate (and probably most mainstream) depictions of LARPers is found in the movie Role Models. Obviously there were some exaggerated characters in the film. The King (Ken Jeong, you probably remember him as the naked guy that jumped out of the trunk in Hangover) never breaks character, even when eating at the Burger Hole with his cronies, and is over-the-top at all times.
Now let’s take a look at airsoft. Airsoft games are very similar to paintball matches, with the main difference being the realism of the guns. Airsoft guns originated in Japan and slowly spread to China, Europe, and the United States. They shoot 6mm plastic pellets, and usually fire between 300-500 FPS (feet per second) depending on the rules of the field.
These guns often emulate real firearms and have similar, customizable accessories. Suppressors, lasers, holographic sights, ACOG’s, freaking grenade launchers, anything that you’ve seen in real life or in Call of Duty is available. They even have Airsoft Claymores. The weapons are highly customizable, and that’s part of the fun. The military even uses airsoft guns for CQB (close-quarter battle) training.
Probably the biggest similarity between the two is the game day dress. LARPers try to dress in period appropriate clothes. Dagorhir even has specific rules stating what you can and cannot wear to keep the sense of realism. Sorry man, your t-shirt with that witty joke on it is not going to fly.
Most airsoft players dress in military garb, and like the weaponry, it is highly customizable. Some emulate specific military units, be it SEALs, Rangers, or Marines, while others look like the Predator, minus the wrist mounted nuclear device. There are several companies that sell military style gear for relatively cheap. You can get all sorts of vests, camo patterns, patches, pockets, helmets, pouches, hats, radios, headsets, holsters, boots, kneepads, or face protectors on the cheap, and these can be assembled in an almost infinite number of ways. Like in LARPing some of the people look awesome, and some of them look like idiots.
I think the biggest difference between the two is kind of people they attract. LARPing definitely attracts a slightly more awkward group of people. Airsoft milsim’s attract those people too, and this group probably makes up one third of the crowd. The other two thirds are either prior military/law enforcement, or people who are relatively in shape and enjoy playing military without the actual threat of dying, and it can be hilarious seeing them all interact. Some of the kids come out there and expect to be able to play like they do in Call of Duty, and they get lit up. It’s hilarious.
At the game this weekend there was a group of kids that looked like the creepy guy that you were always kind of wary of in high school, with their black clothes and scraggly beards (one of the them had a hatchet in a holster on his leg), and right next to them was a Vietnam War veteran in warpaint and a Duck Dynasty beard. It was glorious.
LARPing and airsoft have a lot in common. They both have historical reenactments, there is an airsoft game called Operation Irene, which based on the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, as well as WWII era games. They both wear period specific clothing and do simulated battle. Logistically, they are just about the same. Ultimately, the biggest difference between the two is the stigma attached. LARPers are automatically looked down on by society, while airsoft is a more socially acceptable.
As much as it pains me to say it… the milsim I participated in this weekend is almost identical to LARPing, they just have better nicknames (see: Aratar Anfinhir the Stormbringer).