“War?” a man in Ba Sing Se’s Lower Ring asks. “What war? The Earth Kingdom has been at peace for hundreds of years - you’ve clearly been guzzling too much cactus juice.”

There’s a saying on r/LakeLaogai - “There is no war within the walls.” This is a mantra created by the secret agents of the Dai Li and parroted by the caretakers brainwashed into believing it, and it’s a mantra that over 76,000 people are supposed to abide by in their virtual rendition of Ba Sing Se on Reddit. To put that figure into perspective, this role-playing Avatar subreddit has a larger population than entire countries like Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Greenland. Essentially, you're about 0.0003% more likely to meet an Avatar roleplayer than someone from Greenland - not the biggest margin, but it says a lot.

LakeLaogai looks the part, too. It recently saw the grand opening of the Lotus Spa, a place for people in the Middle Ring to feel as if they’re part of Upper Ring high society. Xhin Yi is unveiling his new restaurant, The Roast Duck, at 4pm tomorrow - all meals are 25 percent off on opening night and come with fresh tea provided by Mushi and Lee from The Jasmine Dragon. Ba Sing Se Fire Department Director of Emergency Services Aoi has also announced that loads of incompetents were recently terminated, meaning that he’s on the lookout for new blood - what’s more, applications are open to non-benders. There’s a Ba Sing Se mafia, conspiracies about poisoned cabbages, and, occasionally, people who claim that a war is on its way to Ba Sing Se. Liars!

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Avatar: The Last Airbender is universally acclaimed as one of the best television series around town - it’s currently sitting pretty in 11th place on IMDb’s list of the top 250 TV shows of all time. Given its global ubiquity on account of that, it’s easy to believe that various role-playing communities have sprouted all over the globe, packed with people who want to explore the world of Avatar in more detail. What I didn’t expect to find on LakeLaogai, however, was a fully-realized society where people pretend to be ordinary citizens of Ba Sing Se prior to it being invaded by the Fire Nation in ATLA. This subreddit has over 76,000 people, but they’re not playing out fantasies of being the greatest waterbender who ever lived - they’re posting about their favourite Earth Kingdom musical and how much they love Mushi’s tea shop, The Jasmine Dragon.

“Reddit recommended it to me out of the blue,” a Redditor who goes by the handle IamCat16892 tells me. This is something echoed by around ten of the people I spoke to - most participants randomly stumbled upon LakeLaogai because it was listed as a related community on r/atla, or came across posts where people mentioned it in response to more conventional Avatar discourse.

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IamCat is still relatively new to the sub. Fortunately for them, the citizens of virtual Ba Sing Se are pretty welcoming - provided you’re not going to spread slanderous lies about a fake war, of course. One person even set up an introductions initiative shortly after the sub started to pick up newfound steam a couple of weeks ago. Spotting their chance to make waves in Ba Sing Se, IamCat wrote:

“Nice to meet you, Xhin Yi! My name is Rhi and I live in the Lower Ring. I just arrived in Ba Sing Se last week after my village was destroyed. I’m currently looking for a job, so if anyone knows a place that’s hiring, hmu! And I’ve never been to the Jasmine Dragon, is it any good?”

“I don’t role-play very often, and LakeLaogai is the only role-playing group I’m part of,” IamCa tells me. “I dotn’t really know how to describe it, but I think there’s something so simple and fun about putting yourself in a fictional world that you love, with a bunch of like-minded people, and just living a peaceful existence in a fake city where you can basically do anything.”

Another role-player, OwenDub1, tells me that LakeLaogai has given him some much-needed laughs during lockdown. Owen grew up on The Last Airbender and was completely taken aback by Korra - to this day, he rewatches both series at least once a year.

“I think people are so fond of ATLA and there have been so many memes based on the joke that it's just a good laugh,” Owen explains. “Makes you feel like you can keep the show running for a while.” Interestingly, Owen posted for the first time in over a year two weeks ago, sharing a photo of some “fine tea” from Iroh’s Jasmine Dragon. His last post before that? A picture of Joo Dee stating that there is no war within the walls. Over the course of a year, it seems as if he’s become a model citizen in Ba Sing Se - who cares about the outside world when you can take photos of exceptional tea?

“I felt like joining [LakeLaogai] because I just wanted a place to kind of play an RP without it being some $20 Steam game or shitty Roblox game,” Your_InsideMan tells me. “I feel like the community is not bad in any way, but they tend to downvote bomb the 'There is a war in Ba Sing Se' people.” Viewing this indoctrinated demographic in full whack now, it’s easy to see why people were so sceptical of Aang and co. when they tried to warn them about the Fire Nation - it’s fascinating how external communities can provide crucial context for the fiction they’re based on.

“I feel other roleplay groups are strange or prone to trollers,” InsideMan continues. “This one feels less so. I don't know why other people would do it but I did it because it felt like a good way to pass time and I wanted a way to look at some good minor story writing. I DM a D&D game and I wanted some of the writing to feel a bit more realistic.

“It has helped with the writing, specifically giving me minor complaints and issues that I could use to help low-level characters and introduce new ones to mechanics such as different DCs for checks. One example I used was a person's cat getting lost at a local zoo. They ran perception and investigation to find it, but getting it was an issue as it was stuck in a lion's cage and they couldn't kill the lion, so they used acrobatics to slip in and steal the cat out.”

Just one look at InsideMan’s post history is enough to convey the full spectrum of LakeLaogai - seven months ago, they were looking for a job in Ba Sing Se. It seems they must have found one, and a decently well-paid one at that - their most recent post is seeking advice for the best guard animal in the Lower Ring.

Another Redditor, muffinsarefood, tells me they joined r/LakeLaogai because - just like everyone else - The Last Airbender and Korra are series close to their heart. They also reckon being able to create a custom character to actively role-play in a fictional world is a great means of obtaining escapism, which is particularly prominent now.

“[It’s an] amazing community to be part of during lockdown,” muffins says. “It makes me happy to know there are people who want to escape reality along with you. There’s [even] a Discord that goes along with the sub.” While muffins hasn’t made any new pals in Ba Sing Se yet, they seem pretty confident that they’ll strike up a few friendships via the Discord server. I reckon they will, too - they recently made a whole account just to join in on the fun and have already wished someone who got stabbed in the spleen a speedy recovery. It’s a pretty city, but Ba Sing Se can be pretty brutal.

Ottersintuxedos (amazing name) makes an interesting point in that Ba Sing Se, despite being one of the most famous locations in Avatar, wasn’t actually featured in a whole lot of episodes. Despite this, it has immensely deep lore, which makes it the perfect location for a role-playing community - we know loads about it, but haven’t seen a whole lot of action transpire there.

“Within that there are such iconic and memorable dynamics that people can pick up roles pretty easily,” Otters says. “I think the episode Tales of Ba Sing Se in particular does a lot of the heavy lifting.

“I’d also say something about [the fact that] Ba Sing Se itself has this insular quality that makes it perfect for this kind of roleplaying Reddit, because it’s closed off from the world. I guess the repeatable joke is seeing things from only your perspective when everyone knows the context of the war and the greater brainwashing secret police thing plot going on.”

Otters truly has been brainwashed, too - despite hearing about a potential war, they’re much more focused on the fact that “some asshole burnt out [their] candles.”

“Hi I’m the guy who works the Firelight Fountain,” Otters writes in the post. “We’ve been down on wax recently so we’ve only been lighting it on weekdays until we get more, this way more people can see the fountain. Well some kids - I have no idea how - must have climbed the poles and lit EVERY SINGLE WICK. City management is climbing down my ass for wasting the wax. That shit burned out all night. Folks around complaining about not being able to sleep. I’m telling ya!”

But not everyone is this obsessed with candle wax. Another user called iTeoti had already cut their teeth on other role-playing subs prior to joining LakeLaogai, particularly ones based on the Danganronpa series, and joined primarily for the in-jokes and niche references that give this virtual space the appearance of reality.

“It’s certainly a nice community to pass some time with,” iTeoti says. “There’s basically never been any drama because almost everyone agrees on the rules and what to do. The only drama I remember happening is when people got in an argument about others missing the point of the sub and referencing real-life events using memes (I personally think they shouldn’t have been referencing real-life events, but that’s neither here nor there). The point is it’s a super fun community for ATLA fans and almost always chill.

“I think the big difference in this is the very closed-off, established setting. It’s a different kind of allure than most roleplaying groups because instead of really exploring an unfamiliar land, everyone is giving life to this one specific city. It’s a lot like r/havewemet, but Ba Sing Se is even more established about what goes on in the city, which makes filling in the little details all that bit more fun. Everyone is just on the same wavelength, which makes things very easy.” My favourite post by iTeoti is one they published shortly after joining, asking why everybody keeps talking about Lake Loud Guy. Brilliant.

LakeLaogai is an amazing community. At 76,000 people strong, it functions like a well-oiled machine on a daily basis, with all kinds of intertextuality between posts helping the illusion that it’s a real city. Despite how amazing the community is, though, there are still people trying to claim that there’s a war going on. Listen, you’re in Ba Sing Se now. There is no war within the walls. Hold on… is that lightning I see?

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