September 11, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

First there was the Great War (1914-18), then the Great Depression (1929-1933/37/40), then the Great Recession (2007-9). The Great LARP began in 2020 and hopefully will fade with the year. But it could also transform into something much more dangerous and become the equivalent of the Phoney War phase of World War II (September 1939 – May 1940).

To LARP is to perform in live action role play, so larping or LARPing is live action role playing and of course a LARP is a Live Action Role-Playing game. LARPs vary in size, length, and intensity, with child’s play at the small, short, and fun end of the spectrum and war games at the large, long, and deadly serious end.

While larping, actors, aka larpers, improvise actions and speech consistent with the characters or roles they have chosen or been assigned by a gamemaster. Nothing is scripted, so action or play is not stopped or redone if a larper stumbles. Rules can be very specific and strict, as in Dungeons and Dragons LARPs, or virtually non-existent, as in theatrical improv LARPing.

LARPs have even been used in economics research to determine how numerous people interact in realistically complex environments in the netherworld between natural and laboratory experiments. And many teachers and professors run LARPs in class, or at least did before the Covid crisis.

I first started to think about the crisis as a LARP on a lark while musing about the abandoned masks that I kept seeing. On one level, such scenes are just an example of people not valuing things given to them very much. I haven’t seen many “good” masks strewn about, just the cheap giveaways like the one pictured below. That makes easy economic sense too, as does the fact that Good Samaritans are less eager to pick up other people’s trash than they were back in February. 

But only when Ben Powell reminded me of this famous R-rated George Carlin clip did the LARP hypothesis hit me between the eyes. Americans, Carlin said, were willing to “trade away a little of their freedom for the feeling, for the illusion of security.” The government can, ahem, do with you as it will, “as long as you put up with it, as long as you put up with it.”

And put up with it we have, to a degree that might even have surprised Carlin, who died in 2008 from heart disease (not from polio — just watch the clip). How? Most of us appear to be playing roles rather than contemplating the enormity of what our governments have done to us on the slimmest pretext. 

Some of the main characters that I have encountered on my travels (6,455 automobile miles logged since 31 May) include:

Stinky Body Part: These roles are played by the Nancy Pelosis and Neil Fergusons of the world, the hypocrites bound for the Eighth Circle of Hell if Dante got it right in The Inferno. Also included in this group are politicians who implemented morally and factually wrong policies who instead of apologizing for their deadly mistakes write paeans about themselves.

Karen: These players turn in other players who don’t follow the social distancing rules set by the Stinky Body Parts. No infraction, no matter how trivial, escapes her wrath.

Never Masker: These players never social distance or wear masks, even in situations where a prudent person would calculate that the benefits exceed the costs. And they make sure you know it.

Always Masker: These players always wear a mask, even in situations, like riding alone in an automobile cruising, windows up, at 75 MPH on an desolate interstate, where a prudent person would calculate that the costs exceed the benefits. And they make sure you know it.

Miss(ter) Lackadaisical: These players cover their mouths, or their noses, but never both simultaneously, with any old rag. If challenged by a Karen, they use it as an opportunity to loudly spray their pathetic life histories at anyone dumb enough to stick around for the shower.

Loophole Miner: These players find and exploit every mask mandate loophole they can. If maskless drinking is allowed, for instance, they will be the ones with the 64 oz fountain drink at the ready. They also began showing up at protests once it became clear that local authorities exempted those activities as well.

Social Media Mavens: These players mostly cower at home while telling everyone else on Twitter and Facebook they are wrong about everything, launching into ad hominem attacks against anyone who dares to question them.

Sheeples: These players repeat mantras like “flatten the curve,” “we’re all in this together,” and “follow the science” ad nauseum. Most cannot explain the scientific method much less discern credible from junk science.

Eggheads: These players are smarter than sheeples but in the end prove that they, too, are incapable of independent thought. They just get their misguided ideas from the New York Times or The Atlantic instead of Facebook or Instagram.

Curious Bobs: These creepers hang out in the background, observing others so they can caricature them later. Yes, that would be me.

Americans role playing Covid alone would constitute the greatest LARP in history, much bigger than even the moon landings (joking, probably), but until recently, even the “mostly peaceful” protesters and counter protesters also appeared to be engaging in a LARP, a big budget one where the larpers received leave to burn some of the sets. 

The pinnacle of the protest LARP was probably the video of the rich St. Louis couple defending their castle from marching protesters by waving guns around in distinctly theatrical ways. Seattle’s CHOP/CHAZ was certainly a close second, though. When you have thought to yourself while listening to fascist anti-fascists and racist anti-racists and thought,”This can’t possibly be real,” you, too, have sensed the LARPiness of the year.

But, alas, the events of 2020 were always real. Almost 1.9 million Americans have died since 1 February this year, 109 percent of the number expected. Some 175,000 of those deaths “involved” Covid, which essentially sped the demise of the oldest and sickest among us. The rest of the excess death stems from deferred medical care, deaths of despair, and outright suicide

Even more distressingly, 2020 is getting even deadlier. Violence, even murder, has increased of late, portending a potential shift from civil war games to actual civil war. And of course our civil liberties and what little fiscal and monetary discipline the federal government had left also died in 2020, for reals. Maybe Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln larpers will save us, but I doubt it.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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