Photo by Judit Klein, Flickr.
Photo by Judit Klein, Flickr.

“I am fulfilling my destiny!” These are the words I heard billowing from a field to my left, as I thumped down a running path in Central Park. Startled, I looked towards the source of the voice; my eyes met a massive, sandstone obelisk, referred to as “Cleopatra’s Needle” by some, and “Central Park’s Dick” by others. Before the obelisk was a crowd of individuals playfully swatting each other with foam weaponry. Each was dressed in a composite of all existing combat apparel—Viking helmets with samurai robes, and medieval gowns with fairy wings.

Eager for an opportunity to stop jogging, I planted myself against a nearby tree and watched the battle play out from a safe distance. Between sword swings, players triumphantly traded cliché battle axioms. They elongated their vowels, and periodically threw out grunts and playful war cries. When a player was struck by a weapon, they would collapse to the ground with varying degrees of dramatization, unfazed by the loosened dirt below them. From my vantage point, all appeared to be mayhem.

The only sense of order came from a tall, bearded man with a bulky plastic staff. He yelled rules at the players, such as “you can’t just pick up a sword if it’s on fire.” “If you are going to enchant something, please step away from Nirvana before doing so.” At one point, he raised his cumbersome staff, and boomed across the lawn: “For the last time, Sergio, the yellow ropes are walls. And can you walk through walls? No. You cannot walk through walls!”

As the battle progressed, I noticed that I was not the only confused onlooker; an audience of tourists and joggers came and went, smiling at each other in shared amusement. Some stayed for just a few spars, while others sat and watched entire battles play out. Occasionally, an amateur photographer would daintily orbit around the battle, and add a soundtrack of shutter clicks, which sounded violent in contrast to the lighthearted foam sword whacking. All the while, the combatants didn’t seem to notice the crowds that they were drawing.

As I sat there longer, my amusement became curiosity. I slowly approached a tree where a few participants were sitting, and rehearsed in my head what I would ask them. I soon found myself in front of a girl in a red, medieval uniform. As I began to gather the words in my head, she blurted out,

“Do you have an antidote to the wizard’s curse?” Three young boys sitting around her began to giggle. She turned to them and smiled, pleased with herself. As she turned back towards me, I noticed that she had pointy rubber tips attached to her ears.

I stood there with a blank stare. “What is this?” I asked, more bluntly than I intended.

“This is a quest to defend Cleopatra’s Needle. This is the purgatory tree,” she said, and looked up at the giant maple tree we were sitting under. “We’re here because we’ve been cursed by the wizard.”

I politely smiled. I laughed a little. “Oh,” I responded uneasily. I then realized that my laughter was possibly inappropriate. She reached into a satchel around her waist and pulled out a small business card. “Here’s our information! You should totally check it out!” She beamed at me, momentarily abandoning her medieval persona. The card, against a backdrop of a clipart wheat field, read “Shire of the Empire’s Grove, Amtgard–LARP Group” and gave the group’s contact information.

The girl introduced herself as “Lady Laura,” and explained to me that, rain or shine, the group met every Sunday on the field by Cleopatra’s Needle. To join, one needed only to choose a fantasy “race” (e.g. an elf), a role (warrior, monk or wizard) and team. Each participant develops up a character to embody, creates an elaborate personal back-story, and brings homemade costumes and weapons. Experienced participants could be promoted to higher ranks, which entitle them to more “lives.” She said that she had initially come across the group via a “meet-up” website, under the “fantasy” section.

She invited me to join the next battle. I thanked her for the offer but insisted that I wasn’t dressed for the part, what with my sweat-stained gray “Vermont” t-shirt and muddy New Balance sneakers. However, when one of the much younger players began to beg me to play, I reluctantly agreed to give the sword swatting a try. I found it impossible to say no to a twelve-year-old boy in a samurai costume.

As soon as I reached out for a foam sword, the bearded referee galloped over to me with an Amtgard Inc. ‘Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement,’ which asked me to give up my rights to sue them.

After I signed the form, Lady Laura brought me a foam sword and introduced me to an overweight man named Chris, who was missing a few teeth. He was wearing a giant, sweat-stained t-shirt, fastened around his waist with a weathered, black ribbon. He vaguely reminded me of a camp counselor I used to have, who owned a pit-bull and bragged to campers about his antique gun collection. Chris explained the battle rules to me: If someone whacks your limb, you can no longer use that limb. If you’re whacked anywhere else, you lose a life.

“You can’t hit people in the head, but the crotch is fair game” Chris clarified. “The best way to figure out technique is to watch him.” He pointed to a young man who was wearing goggles and studded leather cuffs on his wrists. “That’s Sergio. He’s a talent.”

The twelve-year-old samurai overheard us and added, “Word, that dude move a sword easy.”

Chris and I had a few “spars,” each of which I quickly lost. I was catastrophically horrible at the game: each time he would “cut off” my legs, and I’d have to continue to fight with my knees on the ground. I always “died” shortly afterwards. All the while, I had some difficulty putting away the uneasy feeling of being intently watched by pedestrians.

“You have to be more aggressive,” he told me. “Don’t look at the weapon, look at your target. Take a risk.” Chris continued to fight with full force. His sword occasionally struck me uncomfortably close to my mouth, on which I maintained a nervous smile.

If “taking a risk” meant potentially having my tooth chipped by a strange man in a makeshift peasant costume without being able to sue him, then I was not a risk-taker. I decided to surrender my sword and watch from the sidelines.

Against the purgatory tree I sat, my knees covered in dirt and scrapes. A German tourist approached me and asked, “What are you all doing?” I explained to him the rules of the game. I told him that I had nothing to do with it: like he, I was only a curious onlooker. He looked down at my dirt-coated legs, produced a judgmental sneer, and walked away. I had the horrifying realization that to him, I was just another participant, and not a bystander. In one fell swoop of a foam sword, I had become a part of the mayhem.

Before I left, I asked a few players about why they participated. Sergio “the talent,” noted that he came just because he just loved to whack people. Most of the others, however, said that they played because they needed an outlet for their fantasy.

“I like the idea of being someone else for a few hours a week,” a man with black and gold dreadlocks told me. “It helps me get fantasy stuff out of my system.”

I asked if there was a fourth wall (or “yellow rope” in their case). Did they intend their battle to be a performance, or was it purely for their own enjoyment? A redheaded woman with harem pants, fairy wings, and a corset told me that when she was playing, she didn’t even notice that people were watching. When they inhabited their invented personas, they completely forgot about who they were; it didn’t matter that they were in an open field behind the Met Museum, between the Great Lawn baseball fields and East Drive running path. They were in the secluded Grove of the Empire defending the Needle of Cleopatra.

As I spoke to them, no longer an observer, but something of a participant, I began to empathize with the battlers. While these individuals drew looks of bewilderment from onlookers, they were, of course, not alone in their quest to escape from reality. We all, children and adults alike, occasionally submerge ourselves in the imaginary.

“Playing pretend,” my friends and I would use costumes and dolls to temporarily step outside ourselves. Somewhere between the ages of eight and twelve, we inevitably begun to lose interest in animating Hot-Wheels and silicon limbs. We graduated to more controlled, fixed forms of animating our fantasies, such as playing Mario Cart or reading the Harry Potter series.

I continued playing with dolls for a year or two after all of my friend were moving on to these more “tween”-appropriate activities. Up until the age of thirteen, I would shut the door to my room and, in private, bring my dolls to life. Whenever I was interrupted, I would be mortified. At the very cusp of my teendom—when playing with dolls could be considered a symptom of mild dementia—I instead started to play The Sims. Inventing virtual characters and guiding them through their daily lives, I could make them eat, sleep, fall in love, get jobs. Through them, I could do everything a real person does, without leaving my beanbag-chair. It was a two-dimensional, socially acceptable form of playing with dolls.

My transition from dolls and dress-up to The Sims and Harry Potter—from the tangible to the computer screen and paperback—exemplifies our paradigmatic departure from hands-on fantasy. Instead of rousing our fantastical impulses with our bodies and voices, we allow ourselves to be satiated by books and video games. Explicit “role-play” fantasy now erupts in more passionate, less inhibited communities, such as at the annual Comicon convention, where people dress up as their favorite fictional characters. Other than these uncommon, elaborate conventions, this special sort of escapism is repressed, only occasionally emerging as role-play in bedrooms.

Consumed by pursuits of self actualization, a standard adult is expected to dismiss the need for an egress from reality. But with age, our need for escapism only increases. Humankind has evolved into obsolescence; we crave the same hunts and conquests as our animal predecessors. Without natural predators to ward off, we instead create synthetic terror with artificial “entertainments.” The “participatory” fantasy with which we are familiar falls under the guise of conventional pursuits. Included in this are most of the rides in Florida theme parks and virtually all of sports. Are these any different than dressing up like a warlock and yelling about “destiny” in the middle of Manhattan? These are all just distractions, designed to simulate the vestigial need for a struggle to survive.

I soon decided that it was time to leave the Empire’s Grove. I said my last goodbyes and began to jog away. From a distance, I looked back at Cleopatra’s Needle, which was now casting a chilling shadow down the center of the battle field. I knew that I would soon be laughing while describing this bizarre experience to my friends. But deep inside of me, past the re-appropriated bed sheet robes and farcical proclamations of ‘destiny,’ I saw a sieged Empire under the eerie glow of the Earth’s core.

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