The “LARP”: Accurate description? Derogatory slam? Or both?

The history of “policy-style” arguments being used in LD debate is longer than most of your life spans. When I began debating — when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and George H.W. Bush was president — anyone who spoke at faster than conversational speed was openly accused of “debating policy.” (Yes, not only were we slow, but we had bad grammar.) But speak quickly they did, and it wasn’t long before not only fast talking, but impact calculi and “counter plans” became common in the activity. By the time I graduated from Apple Valley High School in 1993, students were as likely to be arguing nuclear war scenarios as they were to be nattering on about “Locke’s Second Treatise.”

At some point, I’m not sure when, a tipping point arrived such that the combination of policy-oriented techniques utilized by some LD debaters became sufficiently totalizing of their approach to the activity that someone asserted that these debaters were actually doing policy debate. I know that in 2007, Valley ran a Congo specific AC at TOC (and so did Scarsdale, as I recall), and this was structured (as nearly as we could tell) like a policy case. At the time, we thought it was both unique and “keen.”

What I’m curious about now, though, is when this practice became a defining characteristic of an overall approach to LD debate, and, specifically, when it became a divisive one. At some point, someone coined the term “LARP” to refer to this approach to debate. For those few of you who may not know, “LARP” is an acronym for “Live Action Role Playing.” In the real world (that is, the non-debate world), LARPers are people who dress up in medieval costumes and have sword fights, and pretend to smite each other with spells, and such. In other words, they’re playing role playing games (and what debater hasn’t enjoyed a few hundred hours of that?) only they’re doing it “live.”

The term LARP, applied to policy-style debaters, implies that they’re “pretending” to debate in a policy style. The less-than-flattering implication can be read a number of ways:

• These people don’t really know anything about policy debate, they’re just pretending they do, and boy, do they look silly!

• LD debate structure – in terms of time limits, time skew, overall speech length, cross-ex and prep time, etc. – does not lend itself to the thorough development and critique of policy positions, thus the best LDers can do is to “pretend” at policy debate.

Obviously, the second interpretation is kinder, but I don’t know if it’s more accurate. What I’m wondering is, what does it mean for the activity as a whole that such a concept exists?

For those who don’t like the LARP, would you rather have a debate community in which everyone read Korsgard every round? Is there a way to engage in ends-based impact debate that doesn’t suffer from some of the drawbacks associated with LARPing? And, what are those drawbacks? Which “policy-esque” aspects of this approach to people object to?

For those who prefer policy oriented debate, what aspect of it do you think is preferable to “value” debate? How do you feel about people calling you a “LARPer” — is it a point of pride, or do you consider it an insult?

Leave answers in the comments section. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

  • Rebar Niemi

    so yes, ari and steven are totally right – but LARPing in and of itself is not bad debate, bad strat, or uninteresting. in fact i love policy options debates that are good. they almost never happen in LD.

  • Rebar Niemi

    i think that the reason “LARP” is derogatory is because the majority of LD plans that are run are either ridiculously stupid bastardizations of policy arguments that quality-wise don’t belong in either activity, or because plan focus/roleplaying is used as an easy way out by many affs and negs (don’t know what to say to the 1AC? run 7 min of must run a plan!)

  • anyone who is anyone knows OHSODEF FT invented the LD LARP when he was caught with a crossbow in the park in 2004. 

  • Anonymous

    I guess I intended the term “LARP” (when I coined it) to implicate the policy styled LDers as role playing policy debaters, not role playing policy makers (though, as the others have pointed out, there is an obvious way of seeing policy debaters as explicitly engaged in the latter form of role playing).  That said, I don’t think the LARP is all bad – what I took exception to was more the attempt by some to insist that LD should be a form of one on one policy, and that other approaches to the activity were somehow illicit.  And notice – even if one were reluctant to LARP, that doesn’t close off ends based debate.  One could, as was common in earlier times, debate about the general utilitarian advantages/disadvantages of affirming/negating.

  • +1 adler: conventional policy debaters are also LARPers. 

    unlike 2009-10, i only witnessed a handful of *pure* LARP debates last year, and i find that regrettable. the term LARP was probably a response to larger problems with transferring elements of policy debate, specifically plan-based affs, over to LD. in that respect, the LARP certainly carries a negative disposition.

  • Anonymous


    I actually read the term LARP in a way other than the two you posit, although it’s certainly possible I’m in the minority. To me, the LARP designation doesn’t indicate that an LDer is role-playing as a policy debater, but rather role-playing as a policy-maker. Similarly, most straight-up debaters in policy (as opposed to K or framework teams) would also be LARPing in my view because they’re playing as the government and simulating its decisions. To me, then, the term is not derisive or connotative about the quality of LD policy-esque debates, but just indicates that a certain perspective is being taken on evaluating the resolution (namely, how the government ought act under its assessments).