If Swarthmore College has ever seemed a little Hogwarts-y to you, you could have confirmed your perception last Monday night at Upper Tarble of Clothier Hall. That’s when the four Courts held the sorting ceremony for new students at Magischola Prep, an academy of wizardry and magic that held its first session at the College last week.
Although aspects of it will seem familiar to fans of Harry Potter and his education at Hogwarts, Magischola is a “new North American magical universe,” according to its creators. Magischola Academy is the LARP — Live Action Role Playing — iteration of a franchise that developers expect will include a novel, a board game and more. Lead organizer (and Professor of Magical Theory) Maury Brown said, “It’s a 24/7 immersive experience in classrooms and dorms that are staged and decorated, with professors and counselors in costume, playing wizards.”
Magischola students were 32 LARPers aged 11 to 17, who came from 12 states to immerse themselves for a week in the fantastic world of wizardry and magic at the academy, simultaneously played the characters who were the students. It’s kind of meta, but it is second nature to experienced LARPers like Claire McHarg of Rose Valley.
“You play characters,” Claire said. “My character at Magischola was from the South, and we had all different sorts of people, from all over the states, all backgrounds, both in and out of character. For a lot of teenagers being able to play other people is a really helpful way to figure out things about yourself; things you want to be better at.”
LARP is a growing phenomenon among adults and younger persons. It may seem like escapism, and there is a powerful lure to stepping out of a turbulent and pressurized “real world” and into a carefully curated set of scenarios in an intriguing, exotic setting. But LARP games are also a vector for real learning and self-discovery: “I got into LARPing because it was a way for me to express a lot of creativity,” Claire McHarg said. “And I keep going back to figure out things about myself.”
When not enrobed as Professor of Magic, Maury Brown worked as a marketer and taught at the secondary and college level for 20 years before founding LearnLarp, which presented Magischola. The debut was the result of a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $300,000. “We bring instructional design to game design, and focus on the power of storytelling to change people’s lives. Although there are other wizard school summer camps, they are day camps and are not immersive, with costumes and characters, and a story.”
The academic setting of Swarthmore College was essential to the intense (if whimsical) courses of study in subjects like alchemy and potions, charms and hexes, combat and casting, and magical theory and ethics of the arcane. Suites in Wharton Hall were transformed into the four common rooms for the four Courts of Morton, Williams, Hutchinson, and Bradford.
Next year, Maury Brown says, there will be room for 50 students. Claire McHarg expects to be one of them, “If Magischola is running for another summer, I’m going back. I want to keep LARPing for as long as I can. Being someone else for an extended period of time teaches you more than you would expect about yourself. I learn real life skills in communication and leadership that I bring out into the real world. I came into LARPing as a really shy kid … and I’ve gotten a lot better at talking to people because of the characters I’ve played, who needed to be good at that.”