“A battle cry fills Clark Park.”
“WHAT’S THE GREATEST HONOR?” shouts one man, holding a pair of black foam daggers.
“DYING WELL!” replies a group of sixty soldiers.
They split into two teams and retreat to opposite ends of the park. Each of them holds a long white foam sword. Some have shields and axes and bows and arrows. After counting down from five, they charge. The teams meet in the middle of the park, exchanging blows to the arms and the chest. When they’re hit, they moan and throw themselves to the ground. Their knees are brown and their faces are red within minutes. They are all fighting in the neighborhood’s most intense game of capture the flag.
The man behind this weekly Saturday live action role-playing (LARP) game is a 30-year-old named Aaron Hoffer-Perkins. Everyone calls him Shaggy. He shows up at the park around 1 p.m. with a garbage bag of swords slung over his shoulder. A pink bandana keeps a messy head of hair out of his eyes. He hands out the swords, which he makes at home. Many are brown and bent from being dragged on the ground.
Shaggy originally hosted the game through an organization called the Wayfinder Experience and now runs an offshoot called Epic Adventurez. They hold three games a week in different parts of the city and run summer camps for kids every year.
Along with Nika Zeitlin, another Epic Adventurez staff member, Shaggy lines everyone up before the first round. Nika has been playing for seven years. He started when he was 12.
“I just like knowing I’m around a bunch of people like me doing goofy things in a public park,” he says.
The fact that the park is public is one of the reasons Nika and Shaggy have to address the group.
“It is the most beautiful day of the decade!” says Nika. The park is full, as a result. “So for the love of God, and all that is holy, do not attack anyone else in the park!”
The players weave around picnic blankets and anyone who gets in their way on the paths throughout the park. They have a large audience. Bystanders can’t help but watch. It’s not that the action is spectacular — they just want to figure out exactly what’s going on.
The game started as a dare. Nine years ago, Shaggy’s friend Jamie challenged him to organize a capture the flag game behind the Philadelphia Art Museum. The two of them made swords and put up a few fliers. Ten people showed up the first time, running around on the stairs and in the grass. When each game began to draw twenty or more people, Shaggy needed to find a bigger space. Clark Park, located at 43rd and Baltimore, was a perfect fit.
“At the Art Museum, kids would see us and say, ‘I want to do that!’ and then they’d have to go into the museum,” Shaggy says. “Now, parents have a place where their kids can run around while they pick up fresh veggies at the farmers market.”
The staff of Epic Adventurez teaches kids a unique mix of improvisation techniques, sword fighting maneuvers and Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. All are aspects that transform capture the flag from a simple team competition into LARPing. It began in the late ‘70s as an offshoot of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. In those games, you create characters and take them through a journey by rolling dice. But these adventures still took place in your home, and you only got into character through an accent or a funny hat. So players took the games outside their basements and kitchen tables, and in the decades since, LARPing has evolved to mean acting as a character out in the real world. Some people act out mystery stories as Victorian characters. Others re-enact their favorite anime movies at comic book conventions. Some games have set rules. Others are more freeform. It’s a broad term that covers lots of make believe, but Epic Adventurez downplays its use when it comes to capture the flag.
“Its hard to say, ‘Yo, come LARP’ to some of your more straight-laced friends,” says Shaggy. “They’re scared of karaoke — why would they put on a tunic and run around the woods?”
Most of the kids who become involved in their programs and come to capture the flag are teenagers. Ari and Jason Heitler-Klevans, 15-year-old identical twins, play every week. Not only do they have the same brown curly hair and pale skin, but on this Saturday, they’re also wearing the same boots, jeans, Earth Day Festival t-shirts and black sweaters tied around their waists. When they LARP, they collectively go by the name “Arson.”
They started playing when a friend brought them one Saturday.
“We got killed so many times,” says Ari.
Now they bring friends of their own, like Michael Weinhardt, a tall high school student with dyed red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“They told me there were swords,” says Michael, as if he couldn’t imagine any response but tagging along.
Since they began playing two years ago, Ari, Jason and Michael have become involved with the theater program at school. They perform in musicals and plays, and it shows in the park. They die some of the most violent, over-the-top deaths of anyone playing.
An hour into the game, Ari catches an enemy across the park and rushes over to him. When the other kid notices, he runs at Ari, sword outstretched. They meet by a tree in the middle and hit each other in the stomach like two jousters. His opponent drops to the ground, but Ari makes a show out of it. He dies well, miming guts falling out from his torso and convulsing before finally closing his eyes and lying flat on the ground.
The games last 15 to 20 minutes, and participants seem to be interested in just about every aspect besides actually capturing the flag. If someone dies, he or she lies on the ground for a minute, then walks back to base holding his or her sword in the air. Usually people are so focused on the sword fighting that eventually, out of nowhere one person runs and steals the flag. Then the game resets.
At the start of the second game, one teenager with a wispy mustache screams through a mouthful of braces, “No retreat! No surrender! No mercy!”
Around three o’clock, two kids walk by Shaggy, who’s standing and watching in the middle of the park.
“Break time, Shaggy?”
“Shhh! Don’t say that word!”
They run off past a man in his twenties with a custom-made giant hammer. He has paired off with a small girl in pink sweatpants who is literally half his size. He whacks her arm and she falls to the ground, flailing and screaming and dropping her sword. Minutes later a boy no older than nine, holding a shield that protects everything from his belt to the top of his head, falls and scrapes his knee. A few of his teammates and opponents form a circle around him to see if he’s okay.
“When you’re out there screaming, ‘My arm got chopped off!’ there needs to be a safe word people can ask in case they’re worried you’re actually hurt,” says Shaggy. “So you say ‘reality check’ just to be sure.”
The boy’s dad comes over, brushes off his shirt and wipes his cheek. “You okay?” he asks. “Yeah,” says the boy, “but I think I need my axe.”
The players range from kids around eight to adults in their thirties, but no one seems to be concerned about big guys sneaking up behind little kids and whacking them across the back.
Rosemary Eikov’s 14 year-old son Daniel has been playing in the game for over three years, but she doesn’t worry about him getting hurt.
“I like that he’s playing with older kids,” she says. “It makes for a more robust game, and I think children should play across age groups.”
She sits on a bench in the park, reading a book, occasionally asking Daniel if he needs something to drink. A nurse practitioner at the Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia, Rosemary encourages her clients to come out and play.
“We moved to the suburbs and I like [my kids] to play here with kids of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, so they don’t only know rich suburban kids. I want them to enjoy the city.”
What Rosemary wants for her son is exactly Shaggy’s goal. He preaches again and again that the game “builds community through play” and he loves when local people walking by decide to join in.
“We believe that play brings people together,” he says. “People get to experience a community that’s larger than their age group. And when you’re really playing with someone, you’re playing with their spirit and their heart. You’re not in it for anything except the experience of being with someone else.”
Right now, Shaggy does freelance makeup work for music videos, photo shoots and places like the Eastern State Penitentiary, but he is hoping to land a job with the city’s Parks Department. Until then, he’ll continue running the capture the flag games and the summer camps.
“It’s challenging at times,” he says, “but I think I’m really involved in important work here.”
The last game of the day is wrapping up at 4:00 p.m. This time, everyone is playing a variation on capture the flag in which two teams try to protect flags, but a third group of zombies wants to turn both teams into the undead. Instead of using weapons, they just tag players with a jerky pawing motion.
Many of the players are into swords and sorcery, but they’re crazy for zombies. At least three wear zombie-themed shirts and during down time, the topic of conversation usually comes around to the undead. Everyone erupts when Shaggy announces the switch to the zombie version of capture the flag.
A few minutes into the game, a group of ten stands in a tight circle around the flag holder, each one of them poised with a sword. A few of their opponents, ready to stage an attack, creep in from the left. As the group inches away from them, they’re overtaken by a pack of zombies rushing in from the right. The zombies swing their arms at the swordsmen. All of them fall to the ground. They stay on the ground in a pile for the required minute. Then, all together, they reanimate, screaming, “BRAAAINS!” and run off to feast on the living.
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