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Why young people are turning to online live-action roleplay

Digital larping has become an increasingly popular form of escapism for millennials and Generation Z.

“FOUND IT!!! Time to experiment!” reads the text of a recipe "hack" shared on Facebook. The image shows a grid of cake-mix boxes, accompanied by a suggestion to replace the necessary eggs, oil, and water each each one with a simple can of soda. The replies are a mess of misspellings, capital letters, emojis and accusations of "sin". “THIS IS BLASPEHMY PLEASE DELETE,,,” reads one; “we do not d5ronk SUGAR in my house hold” reads another. The most popular comment reads: “WOULD NEED TWO 2 EXTRA INSULIN INJECTIONS,, TO EAT THAT HA HA,,,!.”

This bizarre exhange is not just surreal but unreal. The posts are not sincere messages at all, but a running joke in which young people roleplay as middle-aged people in a Facebook group called “A group where we all pretend to be boomers”.

This group has exploded in popularity over the last month, now boasting almost a quarter of a million members. Its members, who are mostly from the millennial and "Z" generations (born in the 1980s, '90s and '00s) write posts lampooning the way in which the baby-boomer generation (born in the 1940s, '50s and '60s) post on the platform – sharing stories about their imaginary children, posting random capitalisation and misspellings, poorly designed or inappropriate graphics memes, GIFs, and posting Ed Balls “meant to search it and accidentally posted it”-esque comments.

Nor is this group a rarity of online roleplay. It is part of a wider online trend in which young people are using the internet to pretend to be someone else.

As Brad Esposito wrote for Pedestrian.TV in a profile of the boomer group, “pretend-to-be” groups are an increasingly visible genre of page on Facebook. Groups such as “A group where we all pretend to be Influencers”, “a group where we pretend to be men mansplaining facts to women”, and “a group where we all pretend to be in middle school” have sprung up in the last month alone, each with thousands of members posting every day.

Real-time, live-action roleplay has long been popular – but traditionally, it has taken place offlline. Live-action roleplay – known as “larping” – is a type of in-person game-playing in which multiple people play characters from the same narrative and act out scenes in a physical, offline space. But digital live-action roleplaying happens away from the physical reality, online, and with far more ease; the internet itself is a disguise that allows people to take on other characters, without the costumes, travel and physical exertion required by traditional larping.

The ability to share different versions of ourselves is arguably one of the fundamental attracions of the internet. Some of the most popular online games of the Nineties and Noughties, including Second Life and The Sims, were based on a foundation of digital larping, and early chat communities gave people the chance to exaggerate the best parts of their real personalities or to create entirely new personas (known as “catfish” accounts). But then social media took over, user accounts became more identifiable, and the game for most people became making their real lives seem as glamorous as possible.

In recent years, however, digital larping has experienced a renaissance as young people use social media to make explicitly fake profiles as a way to flex their creativity. As Atlantic writer Taylor Lorenz argued when speaking to MEL Magazine about the appeal of the boomer Facebook group, “it’s letting people express themselves through this roleplaying game that’s happening in real time and with thousands of other Facebook users.”

On Twitter, it's possible to larp entirely alone. And it's on Twitter that the language of digital larping has emerged, from popular accounts – often seen as parody – that have tens of thousands, if not millions, of followers. Accounts such as the “shitposter” @dril have over a million followers, parodying the weird, clumsy messages middle-aged men post on the platform. @dril’s bizarre, yet eerily familiar language has been likened to tweets from Donald Trump, as Intelligencer observed in 2016: “Dril’s arrival on the national scene several years ago spouting incoherent, libidinous, authoritarian comment-spam presaged — and, arguably, predicted — Trump’s success as a presidential candidate. It’s hard to think of a potential vice-president who would align so closely with Trump on core issues of national security, patriotism, and soda.”

Some larpers go further back than their parents' generation, however. Henry Tudor, @KngHnryVIII, has just under 75K Twitter followers and tweets as Henry VIII. For the last nine years, the account has posted almost daily and barely ever breaks character, posting individual messages but also replies and quote tweets in the imagined voice of the long-dead king.

“I started the Henry VIII account in 2010 really as a writing exercise,” Andy Demsky, the account's creator, tells me. “It took forever to reach 1,000 followers. But at some point I found the voice and had a sense of who this character was. I was followed by some actual historians, which was a shock, and names that really stunned me, like Margaret Atwood and Caitlin Moran.”

“Tweeting in this voice became genuinely fun,” he says. “I try to keep the account focused on Henry and his interests, concerns, and of course, inspirational thoughts.”

Another young person using social media to larp is Kate, who spoke to me in January about having an alt account called Carol – a white, middle-aged woman with a “live, laugh, love” outlook. Carol discovered her bisexuality later in life, and posts daily about her happiness in finding her true self in her 30s and 40s. But Kate, via Carol, also posts about mundane things, such as films, books, and tweets she likes, and fleshes out the character into an entirely believable person. Kate has played Carol for several years.

Kate told me that while Carol may have initially just been a place to escape, she now sees it as roleplay, “especially since my Twitter friends sometimes respond to her tweets.”

For Kate, Carol's persona appears to be almost therapeutic. “It can be fun to tweet as Carol, especially since this character is obviously at a very positive, stable place in her life,” she says. “In a way it’s an escapist fantasy of what I want for my own future as a young gay woman.”

But Kate also told me that she struggles with digital larping, because it feels so real. “I am grappling with the more catfish-y aspect of it, especially because I was catfished once by a good online friend. I’ve never contacted anyone as Carol outside of what’s on her public Twitter feed, but I think it’s still a grey area because a lot of strangers think she’s real.”

Meanwile, brands have no such scruples and actively pursue the illustion of authenticity larping provides, as a means to relate to young people. Brands such as Burger King, The Museum of English Rural Life and IHOP are just a handful of organisations that tweet as if they are simply a random person’s Twitter account and not a corporate PR platform. Most infamously – and perhaps the tipping point of the public actually enjoying them – was the Sunny D depression tweet, in which the account simply tweeted “I can’t do this anymore” and had other brands piling in, also pretending to be people, offering support.

But for most young people, larping's attraction is that it can offer a fresh and funny new perspective.

“People are longing for what the internet was originally made to be," Esposito wrote of the boomer group, concluding that "2019’s version of the internet has constraints they now have to play by if they’re going to be involved in the conversation,” and that “Facebook’s group feature is moving towards the forum culture we already had on the internet, years before Mark Zuckerberg even made it into Harvard.”

For millennials and Gen-Zers looking for an online escape, digital larping is, at least, a short-term solution. Whether they can create a purely harmonious, pre-social media internet, though, feels like an ambitious pipedream.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.