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Interview: Aaron Vanek, Executive Director of Seekers Unlimited and LARPer Extraordinaire

 

Aaron Vanek is the talented role-playing force behind the educational organization Seekers Unlimited. He and his organization seek to teach children outside of the realm of standardized tests and lesson packets. Vanek took a few moments to let Victoria from the Geek Girl Project ask him questions about Seekers Unlimited and the value of role-playing for teaching children.

GGP: For those readers at home that don’t know, what is LARP?

Aaron Vanek: LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing, and that’s about as much as you can get any two LARPers to agree to. To me LARP means play-pretend activities, and the range of activities is very wide. I consider all of the following to be LARPs: children playing house with a few friends and many stuffed animals, cops and robbers in the backyard, mock trials, model United Nations, military simulation training, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and of course, World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons-influenced games.

I wrote an essay—with awesome illustrations by Jennifer Albright—called “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing” that, hopefully, explains it a little more. It’s available as a free PDF here.

GGP: How do you feel about about the portrayal of LARPing in popular media? (Case in point, the movie Role Models with Paul Rudd.)

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Aaron Vanek: Well, I have a few issues. Some of it is the media’s fault, but LARPers aren’t completely innocent either.

First of all, people—LARPers included—too often mistake content for form. Not all LARPs are medieval fantasy campaigns at a camp with foam swords and rubber elf ears. Those events are to LARP like superheroes are to comic books: the most popular, the most colorful, the loudest, but certainly not the complete representation of sequential art.

Second, it is very difficult to understand live action role playing without experiencing it firsthand. Context is king. The infamous “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” YouTube meme starring Brandon Boucher is shown devoid of context. Sure, as an unattached observer it’s risible. But imagine if you were Brandon and a giant lumbered toward you out of the forest, your friends ineffectually swatting it with swords, and you have just a few mana points left to throw some spells before getting  fragged. To those involved it could have been a very intense scene. LARPs are different from theater or movies because the characters aren’t role-playing for the benefit of a passive audience, they’re performing for themselves and the other characters. If you’re not involved it won’t make sense and have little resonance.

Third, and this is the prevailing view of most LARPers, is that live action role-playing is a hobby. Which is fine, but there is a diminished connotation to that word—that it’s not serious or should be taken seriously. Yet many LARPers spend countless hours and thousands of dollars on their “hobby,” and have had profound life changes because of it—usually for the better. To an outsider it might seem like LARPers are immature obsessive basement-dwellers who can’t face reality and instead escape into a fantasy realm every weekend. Not that there aren’t a few people like that, but the mainstream media focuses way too much on freaks being freaky instead of the insanely hard working, talented folks making their own meaningful entertainment. I think that scares the mainstream media, too: the idea of people entertaining themselves without any mega-corporate influence. But if LARPers don’t take what they do seriously, why should the popular media?

Anyway, I think Adrianne Grady, the technical adviser on LARPing for Role-Models did a great job of helping turn what could have been a hit job on LARPers (“Look! Nerds being nerdy!”) into something ultimately endearing.

GGP: How long have you been LARPing and in what realms/genres?

Aaron Vanek: I’ve probably been LARPing for about 25 years, especially if you include my months running simple D&D-like LARP adventures with sticks for swords. I co-designed and ran my first structured LARP in 1990.

I play all types of LARPs, or try to, from fantasy boffer campaigns to experimental Nordic style LARPs. I’ve role-played as Rasputin, Harry Houdini, Aleister Crowley, Ryu from Street Fighter, Spider Jerusalem from the graphic novel Transmetropolitan, an old Chinese communist, a Nazi poker player, a saloon owner and barkeep in Deadwood, a vampire movie mogul, Simon Tam from Firefly, Waldorf the muppet, and a starship commander, to name a few.

Most of the time I participate in what is categorized as single-shot theater-style LARPs. That means the LARP takes place once over a few hours or a few days, and combat is representational, meaning we draw cards or throw rock-paper-scissors instead of hitting each other with a foam weapon. But I enjoy the fantasy campaigns as well, I just don’t have the opportunity to participate as often as I’d like. Instead I gravitate towards an intense compact LARP production instead of a long epic. I liken it to a preference for movie-style LARPs instead of television drama series-style LARPs.

GGP: What is the difference between edu-LARP and regular LARPing?

Aaron Vanek: The only difference is that an edu-LARP is specifically designed to teach a lesson first and foremost. Regular LARPing is usually designed to be entertaining first and foremost. Edu-LARPs can be fun, and regular LARPs can teach, but those aren’t their prime directives.

GGP: When did you start your organization?

Aaron Vanek: We ran our first edu-LARP, Star Seekers, in spring 2011. Based on that, we formed the company and incorporated at the end of the year. We just received our 501(c)(3) public charity status a few weeks ago.

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GGP: I’ve read that you were a tutor before. How do you feel it influenced you in starting Seekers Unlimited?

Aaron Vanek: I tutored privately for about five years. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was always felt like I was fighting the traditional system of education: homework packets, excessive Scantron testing, heavy reliance on grades compartmentalized by subject more than retention, connection, and application of information. I did my best to make learning fun and exciting and relevant to the student, but that was just one kid a day, maybe two. I really wanted to reach a wider, a much wider, population. Learning can be so much fun, especially if it’s important to the student and they are motivated to learn it. I certainly learned a lot with one-on-one tutoring, and I’m trying to upscale that process.

GGP: What is Seekers Unlimited’s mission?

Aaron Vanek: Our mission statement is: fostering education by developing and producing live action role-playing (LARP) programs for classrooms. We use the oldest art form–play pretend–to create a unique and thoroughly engaging learning experience.

We want to provide a new tool for teachers to engage their classes and their own passion for teaching.

GGP: How does edu-LARP help children learn?

Aaron Vanek: You could make this question a PhD thesis project. The research on edu-LARP is scant at best, but it is growing. Before I started Seekers Unlimited I read a great essay called Four Reasons Why Edu-LARP Works by Malik Hyltoft, a Dane who co-founded Østerskov Efterskole, a boarding school in Denmark where the curriculum is entirely LARP-based. All of it.

The essay goes into much more detail, but the short version is:

  • Distraction: Edu-LARP works because it manages to distract the student from his daily life, thereby giving him a greater chance to concentrate on the subject at hand.
  • Motivation: Edu-LARP works because it places the students in situations where the motivation for doing schoolwork is very clear and understandable.
  • Activity: Edu-LARP works because it activates students in a school setting at an unusually high level.
  • Power: Edu-LARP works because it empowers the student, allowing her to make decisions and living with them.

In my limited experience, I’ve found that most—not all—students learn because they have a narrative attached to the knowledge. In a murder mystery, for example, they want to find out whodunit. To do that, they have to learn about chemistry, or biology, or maybe physics. Suddenly the lesson is important to them, it’s not an abstract factoid forced upon them by a teacher rambling out of a textbook written by clever folks three years ago in a city far far away. Oftentimes the motivation for learning becomes intrinsic: students learn because they want to do better in the LARP or want to enrich their own experience. I believe that if you had to use the quadratic formula to save your spaceship from destruction, chances are high that you’ll remember the formula for the rest of your life because of the emotional thrill attached to the experience.

I also noticed that in edu-LARPs learning is often cooperative: these aren’t about one student reading a book or listening to a lecture or playing an educational video game by themselves. They’re engaging with other students, challenging them, pushing them to learn more. Like with regular LARPs, if you just peeked into the classroom during an edu-LARP it might look chaotic—a bunch of kids making a lot of noise while wearing funny hats. Looking closer at each interaction between students, though, and you might notice snippets of knowledge exchanging hands.

Finally, I think the allowance of failure is important. In edu-LARPs the characters can fail but that doesn’t necessarily mean the student fails. The mask of role-playing allows students to explore and experiment in a safe environment, and that’s quite empowering and informative.

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GGP: Do you involve costumes?

Aaron Vanek: Costumes or props. We try to, but budget considerations are a limiting factor. For the Noir edu-LARP I gave each detective character a notepad and a pencil so they could take notes as they question witnesses. For The Great Phlogiston Debate I brought in cheap plastic champagne glasses and filled them with non-alcoholic cider. Sometimes just a little thing sells the setting.

For the Ancient Mesopotamia LARP my wife made a few dozen ponchos, keffiyehs, scarves and pouches for the priests, governors, astrologer and merchant roles. I noticed that some students bring or make their own costumes as well, which is great. Again, we don’t require them to do that, they just want to.

GGP: Currently most of your work seems to be located in LA county. Do you have plans to expand the reach of your organization past the borders of the City of Angels?

Aaron Vanek: Yes, we’d love to. We develop and run our edu-LARPs for schools in Los Angeles and then integrate the results of that beta test to improve a final lesson book that we want to make available to schools everywhere. I follow the classic tabletop role-playing game model: Seekers Unlimited designs, playtests, and publishes the module or scenario, the teacher is the GM, and the students are the players.

We’re hoping, too, to start a professional development program for teachers. This way they can learn to run edu-LARPs for their class and make their own.

We have a few rewards in our Kickstarter campaign where we can come to you to tailor-make a custom LARP for your school or organization.

GGP: You just received official status from the government as a Charity Organization. How does this help expand your reach?

Aaron Vanek: Our 501(c)(3) public charity designation means that we can apply for grants and accept donations, which we hope will allow us to bring edu-LARPs to more schools around the country and the world.

GGP: How would one become involved in working with your organization?

Aaron Vanek: We have a “Get Involved” page on our main website here: http://seekersunlimited.com/get-involved/

We’d love to hear from you! We’re a young but passionate company without much money. My wife said we’re like a punk rock group for education, so community support is crucial to us.

GGP: You have established a Kickstarter? What do you hope to do with the funds you are raising?

Aaron Vanek: We launched a Kickstarter campaign to help us finalize six middle school science edu-LARPs that we ran last semester at an L.A. charter school. This was the last semester where they were using the California Science Standards and curriculum, so our games used those guidelines. But now most of the country is switching to the new Federal Common Core Standards, so we have to realign the games to those parameters. Furthermore, we want to include artwork and notes on how to run these edu-LARPs so any teacher is comfortable with them. We’re also hoping to get enough funds to continue doing what we do for more subjects, more grade levels, more schools, more fun.

 

You can help support edu-LARPing by donating to the Seekers Unlimited Kickstarter at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/160286787/creating-educational-live-action-role-playing-game

or by volunteering on their website here: http://seekersunlimited.com/

 

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