Heresy, LARP, Role-playing Games

Five reasons LARP needs to get over the Stanford Prison Experiment

Note: This article is meant to fuel skepticism and critical thinking in the LARP community. These things are healthy, though sometimes painful to face, and I do not expect this article to be taken as gospel. But it does contain some things that really need to be said about this often-cited experiment in the context of our hobby.

"Guards" work during the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Courtesy of Phil Zimbardo

In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment where 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as prisoners or guards in a fake prison underneath a building in Stanford University. According to the widely read recounting of events, dressed in their uniforms and given their fake authority, the guards adapted overwhelmingly to their role and exceeded Zimbardo’s expectations, and began a systematic campaign of authoritarian brutality with little coaxing. Shocked, Zimbardo stopped the experiment after only six days. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or SPE.

In essence, it was a live action role-playing scenario that got out of hand. And that is why when talking with some advocates of LARPing, it is hard to get through a discussion of ‘bleed’ without them bringing it up. Central to some LARP philosophy is that one can descend so far into an assumed role through immersion that one can almost lose track of reality, to feel and react as if you really were that person you are playing.

On the surface, the Stanford Prison Experiment confirms these beliefs quite well – normal every-day college students put in a fake prison with fake uniforms suddenly start acting like brutal prison guards with the proper stimuli and without much encouragement. Here, they say while pointing, serious academic proof that the phenomenon is real.

In fact, some critically acclaimed artistic LARPs have been little more than attempts to recreate the SPE in all its brutal glory. Why wouldn’t organizers want people to feel the ultimate immersion, and walk away with a life-changing, haunting experience?

One problem – the experiment was utter balderdash. Rubbish. Poppycock. And most of all, crappy science. And LARP scholarship and designers really need to get over it. The SPE wasn’t about ‘bleed’, and in fact, it was all about people just playing out characters without feeling anything was real. To turn it completely on its head, the SPE is the strongest evidence against the ‘immersionist’ outlook I have ever encountered. And it ought to make us very skeptical, or at the very least cautious, of self-ascribed success in immersionist LARPs.

Here’s why:

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