LARPing and Violent Extremism
By Reid Meloy, Ph.D., Molly Amman, J.D., and Phil Saragoza, M.D
Over the past half century, live action role play (LARP) has grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. It involves preplanned theater wherein participants portray characters in an imaginary environment and interact with one another in real time.
On the other hand, violent extremism supports or commits real, ideologically motivated violence to further political, social, or religious goals.1
This article will outline definitive ways to distinguish between LARP and criminal or malicious activity, which may be helpful to both law enforcement and prosecutors if suspects of targeted violence claim they were playacting.
Live Action Role Play
Most people engaged in LARP as children, pretending to be certain characters and moving into a fictional world with rules defining the actions within it. The stage was set, characters were assigned, and a story line was created.
LARPing as a cultural pastime has evolved into playing tabletop games, recreating historical events (e.g., military battles), or enacting futuristic fantasy. One can even attend dinner theater events during which diners LARP as characters in a mystery.
Individuals can engage in such activity informally or as part of an organized group. Presumably, the earliest formal LARP group was Dagorhir Battle Games, founded in the United States in 1977. Members of the group create fantasy battles with harmless weapons, such as foam swords.2 Another organization, the Society for Creative Anachronism, is an international, educational nonprofit devoted to researching and recreating the pre-17th century world and thereby enriching the lives of its participants.3
In the modern era, as extreme beliefs (e.g., anti-government or anti-law enforcement movements) and societal unrest have become increasingly widespread, some groups of like-minded individuals have organized into formalized self-styled militias or informal clubs. Meetings may entail impassioned rhetoric and rehearsal of tactical operations for the ultimate future apocalypse when citizens will overtake the government or institute their own community policing.
Such activity may stay within the space of fantasy and hobby — albeit with subject matter less mythical than knights slaying dragons and tactics less whimsical than clashing of swords — and may redefine the enemy in terms of political parties, police officers, the military, or the deep state.4 However, as recent events have demonstrated, some individuals conspire to commit real-world violence to advance their ideological goals rather than role play.
Violent and criminal actors, particularly those involved in a conspiracy, could potentially make false claims, explaining that they were merely LARPing and not intending to follow through with an attack. For example, after Kaleb Franks was arrested in October 2020 for plotting to abduct Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, he told the FBI he and his compatriots were only LARPing. Franks later pled guilty and testified that this was a lie.5
Dr. Meloy, a forensic psychologist and consultant for the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
Ms. Amman is a retired FBI supervisory special agent, certified threat manager, and private threat assessment management consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Dr. Saragoza is a forensic psychiatrist, adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and threat assessment consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Although the history of LARP as a legal defense is narrow, the authors share the concern that it may soon become commonplace. Early attempts at such a strategy have been made by a defendant acting alone6 or in loose cooperation with members of a fantasy group who knew each other only in the virtual world,7 claiming “artistic expression” to excuse threatening language.8
Table 1 outlines some of the most common distinctive characteristics between LARP and violent extremism or terrorism. They are likely observed in the subject’s behavior and verbalizations, independent of interviews or what is inferred from the overall discovery in a case. These behaviors offer critical opportunities for investigators to confidently determine whether an actor has engaged in innocent or malicious conduct.
Table 1. LARP v. Violent Extremism
The foremost distinction between LARPers and violent extremists is that genuine role players will not care whether others are watching. They may even embrace third-party observation, such as nonplayer characters or a general audience. After all, LARP is a performance.
Conversely, violent extremists or terrorists want secrecy. This desire may contribute to the sense of clandestine excitement that surrounds them and their preparation on a pathway to actual violence.9
LARP is always group-based and may range from a few individuals to hundreds of people participating in an event. In contrast, violent extremists act alone or organize into a small, autonomous cell motivated to carry out a targeted violence attack.
Game rules, scripts, and character sheets are often used in genuine LARP. There are also planned and visible “in-character” and “out-of-character” indicators.
Violent extremists will have none of these. Their only “character” is a soldier or warrior.
Relationship with Law Enforcement
Role players will not discuss law enforcement concerns on social media or provide guidance to each other if confronted by an officer. Also, they will have no demonstrated interest in criminal cases involving claims of LARP.
Among violent extremists, there may be online discussions about and guidance in using LARP as an excuse during encounters with law enforcement, and there will be research into prior charging documents for the viability of role play as a criminal defense.
To prepare for a violent attack, terrorists possess and practice real weapons and live ammunition. LARPers would have no need for such destructive instruments when preparing for their event.
The strategic outcome for role players is strictly pleasure and fun. They convene for theatrical enjoyment and a creative and safe experience.
For violent extremists or terrorists, the desired outcome is actual social or political change through violence, typically directed against an out-group (e.g., members of a particular religious affiliation, ethnicity/race, or sexual orientation) perceived as existentially threatening to the extremist’s identity. Extremism does not exist without identifying an out-group and taking hostile action against it.10
On a psychological level, LARPers temporarily enter a fictional world with characters who reside within it and are separate from day-to-day reality; there is no discomfort in distinguishing between the two.
“Violent and criminal actors … could potentially make false claims, explaining that they were merely LARPing and not intending to follow through with an attack.”
In contrast, violent extremists intend to alter the physical world through violence to fit their often rigid and simplistic ideological fantasy. They are determined to be heroes within their false narrative.
Role players do not search for information that supports their beliefs or ignores contradictory facts (i.e., confirmation bias.)11
Violent extremists will extensively engage in confirmation bias prior to the implementation of their plan. However, in this context, it becomes confirmation violence, or the use of targeted violence to impose social and political beliefs onto others and, therefore, change their behavior — in a grandiose sense, perhaps even the course of history.
A violent extremist’s mindset extends beyond simply identifying an existentially threatening out-group. They typically hold a personal grievance toward the out-group, and the target is real. These two characteristics are absent among LARPers, who have fantasy-based targets that exist only within the theatrical presentation and disappear once the event has concluded.
Finally, a person’s emotions reflect internal reality and can help distinguish between both types of actors.
A violent extremist’s mood will be dominated by dysphoric and angry states of mind, except for the moments of exhilaration when plotting and fantasizing about real violence. They will also strongly believe that the attack is justified given the imminent threat the out-group poses toward them and their cohorts. These beliefs may shade into a steady sense of persecution and paranoia that will not exist in the role player.
LARPers will have contrasting states of mind — largely hedonic moods, anticipated pleasure during the role play, no sense of imminent actual risk and persecutory thoughts, no need to justify their actions as defensive violence, and a collective fantasy of enjoying others rather than harming them.
Investigators who encounter a claim of LARP can take concrete steps to sort out truth from fiction by comparing their observations and evidence to table 1. Evidence may be obvious, such as documented purchases of bomb-making materials, or may require further investigation, such as probing and challenging motives during an interview (e.g., “If you were just LARPing, why did you need live explosives?”).
“[B]ehaviors offer critical opportunities for investigators to confidently determine whether an actor has engaged in innocent or malicious conduct.”
If investigators reasonably conclude behavior is criminal or malicious in nature and not LARP, they should collect or document three types of evidence, if available.
- Proof that a subject planned for or already engaged in real-world violence related to the case. At trial, defense counsel could argue that LARPers are performers and have no interest in actual violence.
- Direct contradiction of true LARPing behavior, such as a statement by a group member or leader that they were not playacting, or an instruction by a member or leader that conspirators should falsely claim they were LARPing if arrested. Presenting evidence of the crime without addressing role play might not be sufficient to win over a jury.
- Documentation that, despite reasonable investigative measures, there is no circumstantial evidence to confirm any true LARP activity (e.g., the absence of LARP-related websites in a subject’s browsing history). Sometimes, creating a report that something was not found can add value to the overall persuasiveness of a case.
If an investigator believes LARPing did occur, they should remember to handle any exculpatory evidence consistent with obligations pursuant to Brady v. Maryland.12
Live action role play is an old theatrical behavior and a new excuse. The concern that this label can be used as a defense for planning and preparing a targeted attack on a public official, democratic government, or anyone else is a real one. Leaderless cells may be particularly well-suited to claim they are no different from true role players who enjoy the benign recreation of history or fantasy.
To successfully manage these cases, investigators should consider whether it would be prudent to collect evidence to help sort out the truth.
“Live action role play is an old theatrical behavior and a new excuse.”
Dr. Meloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ms. Amman at email@example.com, and Dr. Saragoza at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 U.S. Department of Justice, Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned from Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., National Institute of Justice (Arlington, VA, 2015), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/249947.pdf.
2 “What is Dagorhir?” About, Dagorhir Battle Games Association, accessed June 26, 2022, https://dagorhir.com/wordpress/about/.
3 Society for Creative Anachronism, accessed June 8, 2022, https://www.sca.org.
4 “An alleged secret network of especially nonelected government officials and sometimes private entities (as in the financial services and defense industries) operating extralegally to influence and enact government policy.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “deep state,” accessed October 24, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deep%20state.
5 Ed White, “Man in Gov. Whitmer Kidnap Plot Says He Lied After Arrest,” Detroit News, March 25, 2022, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2022/03/25/man-gov-whitmer-kidnap-plot-says-he-lied-after-arrest/7172037001/.
6 United States v. Myers, 692 F.2d 823 (2nd Cir. 1982).
7 United States v. Valle, 807 F.3d 508 (2nd Cir. 2015).
8 Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. 723 (2015), 723-767, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/boundvolumes/575BV.pdf.
9 J. Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffmann, eds., International Handbook of Threat Assessment, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
10 J.M. Berger, Extremism, MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).
11 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
12 Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).