Darkon is a LARP (live-action role-playing game) where normal people dress up in homemade armor and pretend to be inhabitants of a fantasy realm. They fight battles in parks and on soccer fields over pretend land in a pretend country that has its own pretend religions and pretend economy. It's meatspace Dungeons & Dragons, with people brandishing swords wrapped in foam and slamming each other around with padded shields. Founded in 1985, Darkon is one of America's oldest and largest LARPs, and the showdown between two kingdoms within it, Mordom and Laconia, was captured in the documentary Darkon, a movie so mighty it needed two directors (Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer). The film has its television premiere on the IFC Channel tonight at 9 p.m., where it joins the ranks of movies like Hoop Dreams and Murderball as one of the great documentary dissections of how Americans play.
In his apocalyptic nonfiction book Bowling Alone, Harvard-based political scientist Robert Putnam lays out in detail how, since the 1970s, American civic life has died like a sackful of puppies thrown onto a rush-hour freeway. He amassed a mountain of hard data showing that we're going on fewer church picnics, joining fewer bowling leagues, and taking fewer pies to our neighbors every year, and, as a result, community bonds are crumbling. We're not voting, we're not volunteering, we're not taking care of our kids; America has become a nation of demented shut-ins, dying all alone in houses full of moldering TV Guides and stray cats. One solution is to do what our parents nagged us to do on gorgeous summer days when we just wanted to sit around watching Family Feud: Turn off the TV, get out of the house, and go play with our friends.
This is what the Darkon players have been doing for years. There are tens of thousands of LARPers around the world, and in the United States, a national LARPing event like the massive Ragnarok meet held in Ohio can draw several thousand attendees. Darkon has 700 members, fielding up to 150 people at any given battle. "The documentary shows us at the height of our imperialistic pretensions," says Kenyon Wells of his country, Mordom. "We're dominating the world and reveling a bit in being the imperialistic bad guy. We hadn't lost a land fight, let alone a war, in 15 years." Mordom attracted the best new players, they had the deepest pockets, and they loved winning.
"Very few people are left who pre-date Mordom," says Skip Lipman, who leads his country of Laconia against Mordom in the documentary. "They helped create Darkon, which is one of the most successful and longest-running LARPs. They're arguably the greatest LARP nation there ever was." They are also depicted as being relentlessly evil. Starting as allies, Laconia turned on Mordom after an earlier campaign against another group of players known as the Dragonhood. "That really changed my mind about how they played the game," Lipman says. "The Dragonhood insulted the Mordomian gods, so Mordom destroyed everything they had. It was really tough on those guys. They never came back in the same strength as before. LARPing, like the real world, has a good-old-boy network, and Mordom was in control of the realm and of the game at that point."
Lipman, a shaggy extrovert and self-admitted "natural ham," became a househusband after being fired from the family business for punching his brother in the mouth. He's less of a king and more of a den father for Laconia, trying to get all of his citizens off the bench and onto the field, insisting that they play fair. Wells is blond and fair, built as solidly as a Viking, and has been playing for decades, morphing from a shy introvert into a powerful leader. "When I first got into this hobby, I was a teenager and it was an escape from the stresses and angst of high school," he says. "But over time Darkon helped me hone my leadership skills." His parents rave about its beneficial effects, and now Wells is a vice president at a large IT consulting company.
"When we originally started cooperating with the filmmakers, we were concerned with exposing this hobby—which is relatively dorky, all things considered—to the public," Wells says. Lipman adds: "There's still debate over whether the events that took place in the documentary are part of official Darkon history or was it all a dream scenario, because there's a feeling that the camera was a motivational factor. But I feel that they captured Darkon at its best."
The war between Mordom and Laconia teaches many valuable strategic lessons: Numbers and money will always carry the day; everyone wants to be on the winning team; the army that defends a large, plywood castle probably has a tactical advantage; and dark elves will most likely turn on you the second your back is turned, no matter how much money you pay them. But it's also about the serious business of play.
Play is as necessary to civic health as dreaming is to mental health, but playing makes Americans suspicious. We measure our worth by our jobs, but what happens when there are fewer and fewer meaningful jobs? Many of the Darkon players are trapped in the classic nerd conundrum: They don't find the corporate track fulfilling, and so they wind up working as Starbucks baristas and office administrators. At the same time, they're smart enough to know that being called a Starbucks "team member" is just a nicer way of being called a Starbucks slave. "Everything is gone," Andrew of Laconia says. "Everything that was once noble and good in this world is gone and it's been replaced by Wal-Mart. And McDonald's. And Burger King. Some people just want more. They're tired of working their ass off for material goods. You could just stay home and watch TV, or you could work for adventure, you know?"
So what happened in Darkon when the adventure was over and the moviemakers went home? It all depends on whom you ask. According to Wells, "Winning all the time was beginning to become a chore. Mordom dominated the game for two decades and every battle was becoming more and more stressful to us because we had to be perfect. So we decided to abandon our empire and focus on wandering the land." But according to Lipman, "Mordom spent more fighting this war than on any war in the past, there was internal strife, they had nothing more to gain and everything to lose and so, amazingly, like the Soviet Union, they folded. Also," he says, referring to a LARPer whose quest for his first girlfriend figures in the documentary, "Danny got laid. That's another really good thing that's come out of the movie."
But no matter how many people it helps to get laid, Americans will always be suspicious of adults playing a game of make-believe as gloriously and goofily unself-conscious as Darkon. Maybe if it used a ball or a racquet people could accept it but, as it is, Darkon makes outsiders cringe. So, why do these weird people in Maryland and Virginia keep playing it? "The game isn't an escape," Wells says. "It's a hobby and a sport. If other people had the guts to try it, they would love it."
Darkon players are social creatures by necessity—they can't play their game alone—and in a country where socializing is endangered, that's a sterling recommendation. But there's something else at work, too. In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Darkon is made up of hundreds of people who spend the majority of their lives pretending to be high-school students, soldiers back from Iraq, administrative assistants, waiters, project managers, probate lawyers, retail clerks, and textile buyers. But Darkon shows them for who they really are: warriors, princesses, magicians, kings and queens. They're hacking reality, creating a social system where the part of their lives that matters isn't the part that stresses over a PowerPoint presentation, but the part that charges into battle and does great things. They're careful about what they pretend to be, but to them, what they need to be careful about is pretending too hard that their jobs are all that they can be.
"Darkon is an enclosed social environment. It's its own little Lord of the Flies with subcultures and cults and religions," Lipman says. "It's an excellent microcosm of the world. But mostly, we do it because we like to run around and hit each other."