Race in Larp Checklist: What to think about

danerys

This post is the second in my series on Race in Larp. It builds on my first post, which sets out some of the dilemmas around race for game designers.

To quickly recap, in my last post I raised the point that all narratives are born into a larger cultural context that we don’t get to choose. And so, even if your larp isn’t dealing with race as a direct topic of the storyline, how you design it necessarily takes a slant toward race, just as say, it takes an angle on gender, or assumes certain things about social class. You can’t get out of dealing with race in your scenario–the only thing you can do is make a conscious choice about how you are dealing with it.

So, since we’re all making choices about race in games all the time, I’d like to set out a by-no-means exhaustive list of things a larp designer should consider and think-through before creating a game.

I’ve assembled this list after attending panels and talking with gamers of color on my own local scene, as well as from some great posts I’ve listed at the bottom of this entry.

Does the media tell diverse narratives about this group? (i.e. are there common stereotypes?)

 The less diverse the narratives told about a group, the more important it is to treat those stories with extra tender care. If the media only presents Koreans as super-smart computer programmers, then maybe aim a little higher and present a fuller range of experience. When you tell a story, you become part of the cultural narrative, and you can choose to reinforce the stereotype or undermine it. I’d suggest undermining it.

Are the characters of color being used as props for a white person’s story? Does the larp use them as props to give white people epiphanies?

Sure, in any narrative not all characters are equally fleshed out–some are three dimensional and some are two-dimensional, but on the few occasions when people of color are represented in a narrative, they are often relegated to supporting cast.

Part of being progressive when it comes to race in your game means helping undo larger cultural narratives. Give characters of color agency and make them full realized characters.  Movies and novels so often do not do characters of color this service. (For example, see the photo from Game of Thrones that heads this post.)

Does the portrayal of characters from other culture treat them as individuals rather than members of a large group that is assumed to be monolithic?

 In other words, don’t make a larp about “Native Americans,” as that groups them into a single whole, rather than acknowledging that there are 566 federally recognized tribal governments with their own distinct cultures. Respect the variety and individuality of groups that have been traditionally marginalized. If you think all Native Americans are the same, then that probably means you haven’t bothered to do the most cursory level of research.

Characters with unspecified traits usually default to the dominant class.

Give out a character named “Bill” and it’s likely players will assume he’s a straight white dude unless the character sheet says otherwise. Sometimes this isn’t a problem–it can be complicated for white people to play people of color even in a game without skewing toward racist portrayals. But it also confines the narrative to stories about white people, and that white-washes reality in its own particular way.

Diversity is important–not just in terms of the players in a scenario, but also in terms of the characters. You can play with this using different strategies:

  • Make characters of different nationalities, but don’t make that element a big deal in the narrative. This communicates that diversity is normal.
  • Make characters of different nationalities and focus the narrative on the experience of that difference. This can give players a little empathetic look at what it means to deal with racial discrimination. But it only works if you give players the tools to reach beyond stereotype.
  • Make characters ambiguous but leave room for players to choose to play characters of different races rather than forcing a white narrative on them. This is a nice way to be inclusive of players from a variety of backgrounds. If you give me the name Alan, I might assume I’m white. If you give me the letter A and let me make up my character name, I could choose to play Amruta.

Have the organizers done research to understand the specific situation of this group?

If I’m going to write a short story about larp, I damn well better have talked to some larpers. If you’re going to write a larp about Indian immigrants to the US, at least read up on that online. Even better: talk to some Indian immigrants to the US about their experiences. Do you understand the cultural context of what you’re doing? 

Have organizers communicated this research to the players?

Background research does you no good if you don’t communicate your knowledge to the players. We all have prejudices that may be invisible to us. Help me overcome mine by giving me nuance about the experience of others so that I don’t play this character super-offensively.

Treat sacred cultural elements with respect.

If I put on a military hat to go to a larp and someone tells me that actually, it’s the hat used by WWII veterans who have earned a purple heart and it carries some of that significance, I might think twice about wearing it because I don’t want to pollute its symbolic value.

Do the research to know which cultural elements may be sacred.

Think four or five times before you take something that is considered sacred and put it in your game. If you are borrowing something sacred, at least try to treat it with respect. Think about how irritated you get when a journalist misuses the word “larp” or “boffer.” Now imagine that someone is doing that with something ten times more important to your self identity.

Would you feel comfortable showing a cultural portrayal to someone from the culture in question?

If not, that’s a good sign that you should probably go back to the drawing board.

Work with the culture(s) in question if at all possible.

Dominant cultures have a tradition of silencing non-dominant cultures, not just by refusing to tell their stories, but also on a structural level, by denying opportunities to people of color to tell their own stories. If you can, encourage members of marginalized groups to tell their own stories–ask them to be part of your organizing committee and listen to them.

At a minimum, try to talk with them as part of your due diligence to ensure that you are not simply pillaging cultural artifacts without providing a respectful context.

Also: having more people of color as players, organizers and writers is good for the community. Do what you can to recruit them and make them feel welcome. Welcome critique and criticism.

And remember a few general principles:

  • Culture, including larp, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Put “native-style” headdresses on white fashion models, and regardless of your intention you are invoking the historical context of how native peoples have been treated, which includes having their cultural pillaged for its prettiest most “meaningful” artifacts while the people themselves have been dismissed and ignored. Strive to know the cultural context around what you are taking.

  • Intent isn’t magic. I might not have intended to rear-end your car, but now your bumper has a dent in it. Despite good intent, mistakes happen, and while good intent makes an apology better-received, it doesn’t undo the injury. If you make a mistake, strive to understand it, issue a sincere apology, and move on. It’s likely that you’ll make mistakes, but unfortunately, this is one of the main ways to learn.

  • Take risks, fail, and learn. You won’t get it perfect, and neither will everyone else. Strive for a play culture in which it’s OK to make mistakes and learn for them. If we can’t talk about this stuff, we’ll never get better at it.
  • Dominant cultures are used to taking what they want from other cultures. If you are a member of a dominant culture, this can be invisible to you at times–I know I can be oblivious to this. Make some effort to interrogate yourself on this.

  • Do not raise up that which you cannot put down. In other words: don’t let your larp raise questions it is not prepared to answer if you can possibly avoid it. If the game is not prepared to handle racist stereotypes, do not introduce them into your game. If your game is not set up to handle the aftermath of say, a white person showing up in a stereotypical Native American outfit–if the game itself is not about addressing the complexities and hurt around racial masquerade, then leave that off the table.

  • Of course, in the US, at least, speech is free. These rules do not constrain what it is possible for you to say.  By law you’re entitled to say what you want, but the rest of us are also entitled to judge you by your speech, and your speech has context that you can’t choose. 

Did I miss some stuff that’s good to think about? Of course I did! Can any one reductive checklist possibly make a larp non-racist? Of course not! Post more suggestions, comments, and commentary below.

Some great reads on cultural appropriation over on Racialicious and elsewhere:

Cultural Appropriation: Homage or Insult?
The Problematics of the Fake Harlem Shake
Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation
Cultural Appropriation Is a Bigger Problem Than Miley Cyrus
4 Ways to Push Back Privilege

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Race in Larp: Some Initial Musings

I’ve noticed that there’s this one thing that everyone wants to get right in a larp. Organizers and designers want to get it right so much—and the complementary fear of getting it wrong is so strong—that it seems that organizers rarely try to address it at all.

I’m talking about the thorny topics of race, race relations, and cultural appropriation. These issues crop up often in my gaming circles in the US and abroad, and yet remain confined to private discussions on social media because participants fear Internet blowback. With this series, I’m hoping to help open up some public space for discussion. I don’t have all the answers; I’m learning too, and I expect to get some things wrong in the process.

In this post, I’ll lay out some of the more obvious issues around the portrayal of real-life (as opposed to fantasy) race in larp. In follow-up posts, I’ll examine related topics in depth and aspire to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race in gaming.

 Why should we make larps about race?

 Let’s get the obvious out of the way: race is a big topic that affects all of our lives, whether by privileging us (statistically, for example, I’ll likely earn more than women and some men of color doing the same job) or oppressing us (some of my friends, for example, have told me how the racism they experience on a daily basis materially harms their well-being). In other words: race powerfully shapes our lives, and as such it’s a worthy topic of inquiry for a medium like larp.

I think larp is a very good playground for having discussions about race for a couple reasons:

  •  The space of the game is an alternate reality where things have less serious consequences.  When we talk about these charged topics in real life, things get serious really fast. But in larps, it’s OK to make bad decisions and screw up—sometimes this can lead to a more interesting storyline (playing to lose). My point is that the stakes are typically lower in a game. And lowering the stakes and giving people latitude to screw up and learn from their mistakes around race seems like a good idea.
  •  Larp creates empathy. This is another way of agreeing with what Finnish academic Dr. Markus Montola calls the “first person audience” of larp. In larp, you live the story of another person for your own edification. In doing so, you empathize with another person. I think larp is a great tool for building connections. In terms of race, perhaps it could help people with privilege understand oppression that is largely invisible to them by dint of their status. Is this viewpoint inherently problematic because it prioritizes the understanding of the already-privileged? Yes.
  • Stories matter. The narratives we experience—whether in written, visual, or enacted form—help shape our view of the world. Historically, in the US and elsewhere in the world, certain narratives have been silenced. You only need to turn on your television to see that most of the people portrayed are skinny upper/middle class white heteronormative people. This silencing denies the lived experience of people who don’t fit the mold. To see the media around you reflect your narrative is a powerful thing. For example, for me, watching sarcastic feminists on 30 Rock makes me feel “normal” or at least not so weird and alone in the world. To include diversity in one’s narrative—whatever the format—helps broaden the definition of “normal.”

Why do so few people make games about real-life issues of racism?

For starters, no one wants to be racist. I see two reasons for this:

  • Racism oppresses people for arbitrary reasons (skin color) and arbitrary oppression is bad.
  • “Racist” is now shorthand—in my circle, at least—for “bad ignorant person.” So part of why people don’t want to be racist is that they don’t want to be labeled as horrible people.

But being “not racist” isn’t easy, because all of us have been raised in cultures with racist power structures that tend to perpetuate themselves–if you don’t work against them, then the status quo lives on. The more privileged we are, the harder it is to see the small insidious ways that racism affects others’ lives. I wasn’t aware that asking to touch a black person’s hair is an offensive micro-aggression, for example, until I became friends with a black woman who wore her hair naturally in college. She complained about people constantly invading her space to touch her hair without permission. If we hadn’t been close (or if I hadn’t done some basic reading about it on the Internet), I could have been one of those white people: well-intentioned, thinking I’m giving a compliment—it’s so soft!—but really calling out deviation from the cultural norm of straight European hair, and disrespecting her right to decide who gets to be in her personal space.

Because what is and isn’t racist can be non-obvious—especially to people from the dominant class—to include race in one’s larp is to open oneself up to charges of racism. I am convinced this is inevitable because the issues are so complex. One person’s “edgy” is another person’s “oppressive and hurtful.”

There is no one tidy answer to the super-complex questions around racism and representation. If there were, we’d all be doing that thing. It’s complex, and there are many elements to take into account. To me, I think the most important thing is to try to conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with your internal moral compass. And hopefully your internal moral compass tells you to do things like “not strengthen racist narratives used to oppress others.”

 What is problematic about making larps about race?

Pretty much the same stuff that’s problematic about any narrative: narratives don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re borne into a cultural context that already exists. And you can’t determine the cultural context—all you can do is try to be aware of it and how it interfaces with your work.

Let’s explore this a bit with an imaginary example.

Let’s say I want to make a larp about the Arapaho. This is problematic for two reasons: I’m white, and thus live a life full of white privilege in which the struggles of the Arapaho people are rendered largely invisible to me, unless I go out of my way to learn about them. This means that unless I do a considerable amount of research, I’m likely to misrepresent this experience in a larp. In misrepresenting this experience, I would make myself part of a longer racist tradition in which white people make assumptions about the life experiences of people of color. In all likelihood, the very fact that I am making assumptions may be invisible to me. If I misrepresent the Arapaho, I may be strengthening a racist narrative. We can take the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an extreme example; a white guy said that before the civil rights movement, black people “were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Just in case you were wondering, the period in which “no one was singing the blues” was the period in which the blues were invented. Also, black people were being beaten and killed at random by mobs.

I really liked what Jarune Uwujaren said about cultural appropriation over on EveryDayFeminism–that when you tread on someone else’s cultural territory, you are a guest. And just as you’d behave politely when sleeping at my house, so too should you be polite when engaging with another culture. This means not stealing the coolest stuff and divorcing it from the cultural context that produced it.

Even if I “get it right” or get close enough to getting it right, preferably by consulting with the community I am narrativizing and involving them at every possible stage, you have the players, who will approach this larp with their own experiences of race, and who may interpret the materials in such a way as to render them racist.

If most of my players are white, it’s also complicated for them to portray Arapaho—not just because they might not have a point of comparison to do it justice, but also because of cultural context. Historically, white people playing people of color has not ended well. The act of such a portrayal is inherently problematic, raising questions of authenticity and who has the right to define a narrative. Consider how angry larpers get when reading newspaper articles about larp! We fight all the time about who counts as a “larp expert” and bemoan films like Role Models that present views of the hobby we don’t find personally authentic. And that is just for the hobby we’ve chosen, not something as personal as race or cultural identity. One way around this, may be to engage with issues of racism by using a proxy mechanism, and letting something stand-in for race, like say whether a player’s earlobes are detached or not, or as in the case of the famous 1970s experiment with school children, and later with college students,  their eye color.

If one of larp’s chief strengths is that it creates empathy, it is also possible for empathy to go too far. I have experienced this in a different way through my autobiographical game about the breast cancer genes, The Curse.  Sometimes, players and organizers have insinuated that this scenario has a “right” and “wrong” conclusion—usually people who think there is a right answer think it means the removal of breasts and ovaries in both women characters, who should ideally decide not to have biological children. As a woman living with this condition, I vehemently disagree with this assessment—I think there is only “right for you” and “not right for you.” Still, that some participants feel that they have “figured it out” is notable, particularly given that I wrote the game, and I’m making a different choice for myself. I envision that the same thing could be true of games about race. You can’t truly mimic racism in a game, because a player can leave the game at any time, but it is impossible for people of color to opt out of the system that oppresses them. Playing a scenario can give you a window into another person’s experience, but it does not make you an expert.

Is there any way out of dealing with race in a larp?

No. Even if your larp doesn’t deal directly with issues of race, you still have to deal with racial representation because your narrative doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

At Fastaval 2013, a Danish designer concerned about racism asked me whether he could work around the problem by writing characters with no race. On one hand, writing characters without a specified race—like writing characters without a specific gender—seems at first like it might be a viable solution. After all, if I just say, “you are a hospital administrator,” a player could choose to portray a hispanic hospital administrator if desired. And perhaps the hospital administrator’s race isn’t important to the narrative at all, or perhaps this is a game about office relations, and we’re missing a chance to learn about micro-aggressions. However, because whiteness is the norm in US and Danish culture, and because white people are the predominant participants in the world of roleplaying, this effectively means that characters default to white. Because if they were Arapaho, you’d tell me in the character sheet, right?

Writing games where the characters all default to white creates a world in which white stories are the only ones being told, a problematic venture. On the other hand, writing games with characters from a wide range of backgrounds–especially when portrayed by white people–opens you to charges of racism and “getting it right.”

Basically, there’s no way out of engaging with race on some level in whatever roleplaying game you’re creating—your main avenue of control is in making a mindful choice.

A Note About This Series

I don’t have all the answers or all the analysis; my viewpoints are continually developing. I invite you to respectfully explore this material in the comments. I also invite suggestions for future posts on this topic. I’m interested in trying to develop a set of best practices for dealing with this material in larp (and already have a few ideas), exploring issues of cultural appropriation—what happens when you combine elements from cultures that are not your own, and the issues raised therein—as well as related issues like dealing with racist source material .

My opinions don’t come out of a vacuum—they come out of my cultural context as an American, countless conversations I’ve had with friends, and exposure as a student to various elements of race theory, intersectionality, and feminist theory. I’d guess that pretty much nothing here is original or ground-breaking—but at this point, I can’t disentangle the myriad influences by name–it’s all a mass of interlocking opinions. Suggestions for reading welcome.

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Organizer Fatigue: Larp’s canary in the coal mine

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

Photo: Diriye Amey. Some rights reserved.

It’s a common story. A certain person loves larp so much that they involve themselves in every aspect of putting a larp on; they organize, run, and write larps, sometimes filling all three roles for the same game (especially in certain American circles); they support the community by playing in many games; they do support for the larps of their friends, cooking food, organizing props, and cleaning up after. Maybe they even run a convention.

At some point they break—maybe they realize they haven’t made time for their families in a few years, maybe they are tired of player negativity, maybe they are simply exhausted by all this running around. And so, they quit, at least temporarily.

My friends, this is organizer fatigue, it’s that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when someone asks you to write an article or come rig that last set of lights for the black box, or just show up at all. It’s when you organize a larp and think, “thank god I don’t have to do that again for six more months, or maybe ever.” It’s when you read that last G+ comment that says you’re fascist and love oppressing people who aren’t in your social circle, and you think, “why am I putting myself through this hate? I could be reading a book.”

Organizer fatigue spans scenes and countries. When I asked my social media stream about the topic, the response surprised me. I heard from organizers on the California, New England, and Mid Atlantic scenes, as well as from organizers in England, Norway, Sweden, and Finland–about ten in total. I heard from people who worked on boffer campaigns, theater style games, and on Nordic larp. Almost no one wanted their names in this post, for fear it would drive away players and prove embarrassing. Clearly, I’d hit on a nerve.

Unsurprisingly, organizers from different scenes had different ideas about what caused fatigue, but at core, most of the causes boil down to community dynamics. I began to suspect that a high rate of organizer fatigue might be the canary in the coal mine for larp communities, signifying underlying problems.

So let’s explore the causes, the effects, and the cures.

Causes of Organizer Fatigue

Cause: too many responsibilities, too few people to bear them.

On the New England theater scene, it’s common for the designer, organizer, set designer, stage manager, and producer to be the same person or the same group of two to three people, which means that “organizing a larp is a lot more work than it looks like from the player side,” according to one seasoned designer, let’s call them A, who pointed out that in addition to design, organizers handle things as diverse as booking a venue, juggling props, occasionally flaky co-GMs, in addition to managing set-up, breakdown, and food and sometimes insurance and safety checks as well as casting and design. “All of that is invisible to the player,” they said.

That all this responsibility can fall on one person is exhausting. As organizer A put it:

“I’m tired. Tired of scrambling to find last minute replacement players when I should be focused on creating the game. Tired of having to do runtime checks to make sure that people aren’t being left out and that vital information is being shared. Tired of designing a 60 player game and then, upon writing the characters, discovering that I really have 50 characters and ten half-characters. Tired of not being able to talk about this in public for fear of people saying that I’m blaming the players for my problems or that I hate my player base. I don’t. I love my player base; they are creative and dramatic and bring things I’ve written to life in ways I could never have imagined. They are wonderful. But running a larp is so, so frustrating. And the reward is immense and also infinitesimal at the same time.”

Cause: Negativity from the community; creative exhaustion.

In England, I heard from Graham Walmsley, one of the few people who said he’d be cool with appearing by name in this piece. Graham organized a series of one-shot larps in 2002 or so, but then burned out and began working on tabletop games.

The immediate reason he stopped making larps “was that I started getting less positive reactions from my games. But also, the games started to feel like work. Before, I’d been doing silly things I enjoyed (a Paranoia/Cthulhu crossover larp, a big stupid werewolf thing); now, I was starting to think about mechanics and what worked and what didn’t. I was less creative, less fully of silly ideas. (To this day, I value being silly in games.)”

Many organizers told me that player and community negativity played a role in their own fatigue. And in some ways having too few organizers can fuel negativity. If a handful of people feel pressure to churn out games for the community, then they can end up focusing on quantity over quality–creative exhaustion can lead to worse games that garner more negativity.

Cause: Players don’t care about my game, only about their status within the scene.

Organizer B, also from the New England scene, has felt fatigue when the scene takes them “back to the pointless scenester politics of high school, rather than to the creative space of the larp medium.” Basically, B doesn’t like it when people only show up to a larp if a scene celebrity will be there as a player or organizer, and cut out if the celeb doesn’t make an appearance. In other words, B gets tired when scene politics trump the creative effort of players and organizers.

Cause: Good friends can end up enemies if the organizing group doesn’t work right.

When I spoke to Norwegian and Swedish organizers, their burnout was more about the inner politics of the game team. One Swedish organizer cited “conflicts within the organizer group” as part of why they ended up fatigued. A Norwegian organizer told me, “the essence of it was that our team of organizers was really dysfunctional. We were four organizers with very different work styles, and we never really figured out how to deal with that. Also, there was some sex intrigues within the organizers’ team.”

Sex intrigues: making things more complicated and drama-filled since…um…35,000 BCE.

Cause: Real life interferes.

And then, of course, many people spoke to me about real-life interfering with larp. Organizing an event and dealing with school, breakups, marriages, babies, job changes, and so on made making larps more difficult. More frustrating, I suspect, is the way other members of the community or organizing team don’t always respect these real life priorities.

Effects of Organizer Fatigue 

Organizer fatigue has its good points and its bad points. Here’s my fast take on both.

Organizer fatigue is good.

When prominent people retire from a scene temporarily, it can make room for new organizers to do stuff, sort of like how after a forest fire, a whole bunch of new trees and shrubbery have room to grow. Organizer fatigue can make room for new designers and organizers to hone their skills.

Organizer fatigue is bad.

When experienced people get alienated from a scene, their institutional knowledge is lost, and that’s not good for larp as a hobby. New organizers can learn a lot from experienced organizers and don’t have to re-figure out how to run a workshop, for example, or how to mitigate level inflation in campaigns.

Also, if a community isn’t very functional, organizer fatigue can kill it. If only three people are running games on your scene—a sign of a scene in trouble, I think—then when they retire, there may not be any more games and the scene dies.

Cures for Organizer Fatigue

While the cures for fatigue for any one designer will likely include bed rest and a judicious application of whiskey, I think that a high rate of organizer fatigue is simply the symptom of a bigger problem, namely of a community that has some dysfunctional elements. With that in mind, let’s go back through the list of causes and think about how to eliminate them.

Putting too much weight on one or two people

As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” In a healthy community, people help each other out, and responsibilities are distributed so no one person reaches the breaking point.

I think social engineering is the main way to remedy this cause. Rather than organize something all by yourself, enlist friends and new folks. Creating roles with minor responsibility can help teach new organizers about the process of designing and running a larp. Consider separating the roles of design, logistics, producing, game mastering, and scenography, if appropriate.

By the same token, we’ve got to get away from this martyr mentality—organizers should value their own well-being and ask for help when things get hard. But starting out with a team rather than trying to do it all themselves–unless you’re working on a very small game–is probably a good start.

Recruiting and supporting new organizers is essential to a healthy community. Organizer A came from a scene that didn’t support new GMs and had a norm of harsh criticism of newbies. As A put it, thanks to organizer fatigue “What the local community has lost is the local community. […] One of the things that larp communities NEED to do is grow their player base and also grow their organizer base. The Boston community is doing a very good job of supporting its players and organizers and constantly looking for new ones. They are a growing and healthy community. The DC community actively campaigned against growing the player base and didn’t try to create or support new GM teams. Now the big teams are all in retirement or they run things up in Boston. We have no local larp scene any more.”

A robust, healthy community has many designers and organizers who support each other. When many people are running cool things, everyone wins, and in running fewer things, organizers are more able to focus on quality over quantity, thus avoiding creative fatigue.

Negativity from the community

Feedback, both good and bad, helps designers grow, so long as it is constructive. Constructive feedback comes from a place of love and wanting to help make the game even better.

I think many larp communities have trouble giving constructive feedback. In my mind, constructive feedback is stuff delivered directly and often privately (in just the player group or in an email) to the organizers and written in a tone that conveys respect for the game and the effort of the designer. It’s not passive-aggressive whining on social media, often from people who have not even attended the game.

The culture of feedback affects whether organizers and designers want to continue organizing and designing—and it often has broader ripples. A culture of negativity and hating on games and their organizers can have a chilling effect on newbies who are thinking of writing their own games. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “I was going to design a game about X, but then I saw how organizer Q got treated, and I don’t want to be in their shoes.” This always makes me very sad.

Even if you hated a game, remember that it is often dear to the organizers, who spent hundreds of hours creating something, typically for no other reason than the satisfaction of entertaining other people. Critique it like you’d critique your sister’s parenting style: with careful words and a loving motivation.

When you play a game, give constructive feedback; if you organize a game, take a breath and accept constructive feedback. Don’t feed the culture of negativity.

I think that some of the negativity that arises around game critique in the US comes from our idea that everything is a customer/business relationship. In larp, that’s mostly not true–it’s a community effort on the part of the designers and the players. As players, we think we can demand things because we paid an entry fee to help our GM cover props, as organizers, we feel like we have a responsibility to please everyone. Neither is true! You can disrupt these expectations by building community through things like pre-game workshops.

I also like a rule of politeness I heard many Danish larpers obey for big multi-day events: don’t criticize a game until you’re off the game premises. I think that’s a nice way of respecting the effort of the game creators.

Scene status dynamics can make things suck and take focus away from the game.

Not sure I have a cure for this one, y’all. Small scene politics can be the pits, and certainly the issue is thorny. But as community members, we all have some sway over the atmosphere in our groups. Show up to games that interest you—and if there aren’t games that interest you, make games that do, and be patient. At core, larp is a do-ocracy—if you make effort as a player or organizer, people will respect you and show up to your events, but it takes some time.

Don’t give status to people who suck.

Most of all, be supportive of each other—collaborate on projects together, show up to other games, and generally be the kind, decent people I know you are.

Organizing a game can make you hate your friends.

Instructions on how to make a functional organizing group is beyond the scope of this post. But I have a couple quick suggestions, culled from my experiences organizing over the past few years and from discussions with other organizers.

For starters, your friends are not necessarily the best people to make a game with. Maybe pick some people you respect and want to get to know better instead. You can think of it a little as a professional interaction—it’s far better to turn down your bestie Bob, who is a great guy but can’t show up to a meeting on time to save his life—and to align yourself with Susie, who is a little type A for your tastes but who you know will have all of the props in their places at go time. Sure, Bob’s feelings might be a bit hurt, but not as hurt as they’ll be two hours before the game when you scream at him because he forgot to assemble that giant pile of foam rocks for the climactic scene. If you end up hating Susie, well, no biggie, but if you end up liking her you’ve gained a new friend.

Try to avoid people who thrive on drama and blow tiny things up into big issues, and people who always need to have their way.

Other things that can help are having meetings, sizing your staff to the size of the game, fitting your expectations to the scope of your budget and site, and divvying up responsibilities clearly at the outset.

Real life interferes.

No cure for this one—real life does interfere and it always will. Being there for my niece’s birth is way more important than some game. But if you have a robust community, it’s not such a problem. Sure, I’m down for the count, but Eloise can fill in for me in a pinch!

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How to Plan a Basic Pre-Larp Workshop

Ah, the pre-larp workshop! It’s the linchpin of many a larp I’ve enjoyed. The pre-larp workshop is a place where participants get to know each other, learn about the game, and develop their characters, so that instead of spending the first hour of a game warming up, you can be right there in your alter-ego’s skin.

It is great for attracting newbies–if they want to, they can leave after trying out the workshop–but in my experience they mostly don’t, because the workshop has reassured them that they’re going to do fine and the group will support them.

Plus, workshops are FUN!

I think the technique is also murderously opaque to people who haven’t been to a pre-larp workshop before. I’m no expert–I’ve run a couple pre-game workshops, largely designed by other people, and written one of my own. But I’ve noticed that most well-designed workshops have a few things in common, and take a particular angle toward the game.

So here’s what I know about what I believe is one of the most steal-able techniques from the Nordic larp scene.

What workshops do

Workshops have many functions. The largest, macro-function, I think, is to develop the players into a community, a collective that will be able to make good scenes for one another. Underneath that, workshops also teach about the techniques of the game and underscore its themes, communicate the play-style, and help players develop their characters and the relationships among the characters.

There are three basic ways to communicate with your players: through lecturing to them, through short exercises in big or small groups, and through demonstrations.

Most importantly, though, each element in the workshop is trying to do something particular, and fits the game’s scope, design, themes, and player base.

How to design a basic workshop

Below, I’ve listed the seven potential parts of pre-larp workshops, as I see them. You’ll probably want to mix and match some of these according to what you are trying to do in the larp, and how much time you have. Few workshops contain all of these. At a minimum, I’d include the practical stuff, the safety talk, and an icebreaker.

You also might put these together in a slightly different order. It can be good to mention the safety stuff more than once, for example, or to practice it if your group is unfamiliar. People have limited attention spans, so you might want to organize the workshop so that they’re not just listening to you talk for an hour–break it up with some exercises or small group work.

A note on workshop length and organizer jobs:

Many of the pre-larp workshops I’ve attended last as long as the game itself. Two hours of workshop, two and a half hours of game, and half an hour of debrief is a usual ratio. I’ve also been to great games that had a half-hour of workshop/prep and three or four hours of play. Some of the bigger Nordic larps have several days of workshop and then, the following weekend, several days of play. Experiment with the ratio and see what you like best. I find that for a 4-6 hour slot, about an hour and a half or two hours of workshop is more than sufficient–any more than that and it’ll seem to drag.

It’s a very good idea to make a list of the exercises you plan for a workshop, and about the amount of time you’d like them to last for.

As organizers, your job may be to design the workshop, or simply to run it as written. Either way, you’ll probably be talking a fair amount, so it can be good for voices and collaboration to spread that out among a few organizers. Other important jobs include watching the clock like a hawk, answering questions, and trying out some of the exercises ahead of time so that you can explain them properly.

1. Practical stuff

Helping the rest of the workshop run smoothly.

  • Awkward mingling
  • How to get quiet
  • Timeline
  • Pee breaks

If you have time, let people mingle awkwardly for half an hour or so before the workshop starts. Eventually, they’ll start introducing themselves to each other; a little hangout time before the game can help bond the group. This can also be a good time to distribute character sheets or other materials needed during the larp or workshop.

If you have a large group, it’s good to start out by teaching your players how to get quiet. When the organizer raises a hand, you raise your hand and get quiet too.

You’ll want to include some practical stuff at the beginning of the workshop. Usually, it’s a good idea to give people a timeline of how the rest of the day is going to go. Something like “we’ll be workshopping for about two hours, and then we’ll have a half hour break, and then we’ll play for about two hours followed by a short debrief and cleanup.”

You should also remember to leave breaks for people to drink water, pee, have a smoke, etc. If it’s a long workshop, you might need to break for food. I have forgotten this before, and let me tell you, players who need to pee badly do not workshop well.

Leave time for questions. People will have them.

2. Safety rules

Helping people look out for each other, making players feel comfortable leaving their comfort zone if they so choose.

  • cut and brake
  • physical violence and triggering topics
  • site-specifics like that loose floorboard

Always leave time to at least explain (and maybe try out) safety rules. The basic safety rules for larps are “brake” and “cut.” If a player says “brake,” this means their co-players will maintain, but not intensify a scene, and give that player a chance to play themselves out of the situation. If a player says “cut” all play around them stops until the player who called “cut” is made comfortable again. If the player who called “cut” wants to talk about it, fine, but do not push them, as the reason why they cut may be quite personal. Players also have a responsibility to cut on behalf of other players, if someone seems like they are in trouble, or if there is an accidental physical injury, for example. Do you want people to find you if someone cuts? If so, tell them now.

I think it’s important to emphasize to the players that playing a game is not more important than their personal well-being, and that you’d much rather they cut then continue to play if they are in a bad place. Depending on the topics your game covers and how familiar your player base is with playing with these themes, this chat might include discussion of the difference between good-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries to make you grow–and bad-uncomfortable–pushing boundaries in a way that is not productive or is actively harmful. Talking about potentially problematic content ahead of time is generally a good idea.

You can read more about cut and brake from Norwegian designer Eirik Fatland. You can also see a video demonstration/explanation of “cut” and “brake” here.

You might also have safety rules related to physical violence if that is included in the game.You might want to discuss triggering topics that may come up during the game to make sure players are aware of them.

Perhaps you have an off-game area for people who need a break. If so, show it off!

Your site might have safety issues, like that one patch of rocks on site that everyone will trip over in the dark, or bears. Always warn people about bears.

3. Ice-breakers/Group bonding

Getting the players to trust each other, so they’ll feel comfortable looking silly later.

  • say names
  • do something silly

I think ice-breakers are important. You might go around the circle and have everyone say their names and how they came to be here, for example. This can also help you identify how many new larpers you have, which can help you pitch the rest of your talk accordingly. For small games of twelve or fewer players, the name thing is absolutely essential, because otherwise it seems weird that you haven’t done it.

A short physical exercise gets people used to doing odd things in front of strangers, and bonds the group in doing something silly together. For big games, I usually do a couple, for smaller games, one is enough. If you are going to have physical contact in this larp–if people will be playing out romantic or familial relationships, for example, this is a good opportunity to break the touch barrier. Have your players shake hands with everyone else in the room, for example, in 60 seconds, 30 seconds, and 15 seconds. Or have each person, in a continuous train, shake hands with the circle and introduce themselves.

There are loads of ice-breakers out there. For example, here’s a bus stop exercise, or a theater machine. Or penguins and pelicans. Penguins waddle in tiny steps with arms by their sides. Pelicans take big marching steps and flap their wings. They also eat penguin brains. When a pelican touches a penguin on the head, the penguin transforms into a pelican. Play until there are no more penguins.

Another of my favorites is a game called “switch.” Make the same number of slips of paper as people, divided into three or four categories, like Ninjas, Cowboys, Robots, Zombies, etc. Hand them out to the players and have them run around swapping papers with each other while saying “switch switch switch switch.” Clap your hands, have them open the papers and act like whatever is on the slip. Like groups have to find each other. You can do this a few times.

A few rounds of the hokey-pokey, or “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” works too. And of course, these are only a few ideas. You could do trust falls! Or that absurd party game where people do a relay race passing donuts on straws! Feel free to make up your own.

4. Explaining the Game

Help the players understand what’s about to happen.

  • game themes
  • game structure
  • play style
  • walk-through of game space
  • explanation of game mechanics

It’s essential to let the players know about the first three items above so that they all play together, that is, so they all play the same story. If I think this is a realistic tragedy and Sue thinks it’s a farce, that’s a problem. So explain what the game is about, both in a plot sense–“this is a murder-mystery drama set in 1920s England among the elite” and in a thematic sense, “this larp is about regret and the choices we wished we’d made.” You should describe the larp’s structure, including how it begins and ends.

All of this influences play style, but it’s good to talk about that explicitly too. How should I pace my character arc? Should players be trying to get ahead in the game? Or is this larp more suited to playing to lose, that is, to playing flawed people who will probably fail? Is this a farce where I should be playing big and hilarious, or a quiet relationship drama with a more realistic bent?

It’s often wise to remind players that when in doubt, they should make good scenes for other people.

You’ll also want to let the players know about the layout of the game space–if it’s very large, you should walk them around to the different areas. And finally, you may want to explain/demonstrate any game mechanics, if you are not workshopping them later.

5. Underscoring the themes of the game

Getting players understand the themes of the game and its relevance to their own lives.

  • explaining the themes of the game
  • have players talk about their own experience
  • put them in the right mindset

Not all larps use workshop activities to develop the themes of the game, but many games do. If this game is about bullying or relationship foibles, or alcoholism, or birthdays or bad sex etc., you can ask players to bring some of their own experiences into the game.

One way to do this is to have an open conversation, mediated by an organizer, during which the players talk about this stuff briefly. You can “make a round,” that is, ask each player to talk in turn, or do it more informally. Usually, though, if these players are creating something all together, it’s important that everyone talk. Sometimes, if you make a round it can be helpful to give players the option of lying, so long as they do not say they are lying. If people don’t have experience with X, sometimes it can be helpful to talk about X as an absence rather than a presence.

A less chatty version of this can be to write a guided meditation that the players think through as themselves, not their characters. If the game is about high school, as in Play the Cards, ask players to imagine a typical high school day. Sometimes people respond strongly to guided meditation–it can be helpful to tell folks that if things get too intense, they can open their eyes and sit up if they need to. Or you can give them the option of doing this in character as well.

Other ways to reinforce the themes of the game might be to give the players some pre-game reading, or to ask them to come up with and play short scenes from their experiences with the topic at hand.

Again: there are lots of ways to do this, and what you do/whether you do this at all will all depend on the game.

6. Develop the characters

Help the players learn about their characters, and about their place in the overall social structure within this larp.

  • work the characters mentally
  • work the characters physically
  • work with factions
  • work with relationships
  • work with the larger group

I won’t cover character/faction creation or casting here; though it is possible to create characters through workshopping, I haven’t done much of that and I think how you do it depends heavily on other elements of the game design, making general advice tricky. For exercises related to character/faction creation–or for additional exercises related to workshops in general–I heartily recommend the Workshop Handbook blog.

Working with characters

You can help your players deepen their characters by getting them to talk with one another. One useful technique is the “hot seat” technique, where you split players into small groups, say 2-3, and they present their characters to one another. One person sits in the “hot seat.” The others fire simple and complex questions at them “what is your favorite color?” “How is your relationship with your father?” and the hot-seat character answers for a pre-determined period of time (1-3 minutes). You could ask players to come up with three adjectives describing their character, and ask them to present those in small groups, or to draw a picture of their character, or imagine an important scene from their characters’ pasts and present those in small groups.

On a physical level, if you have time, you can workshop how this character moves. Ask players to walk around the room as themselves, for example, then to shift the body part that leads their motion to different locations in the body (the pelvis, the shoulders, the head, etc.), and then to find what their character leads with. You can ask them to practice making lots of eye contact, and little eye contact, and then to do so as their character. If someone in your group is familiar with theater workshops, that is an easy way to get ideas.

My favorite exercise comes from a workshop I attended run by folks from the Court of Moravia at Knutepunkt 2013. Ask players to start out walking as their character slightly, then do a crescendo from 1 to 10, where they increase the characterization as they walk accordingly. By 10, they’ll be wildly exaggerating their walk, so when you ask the players to dial it back to a 5 or a 7, that’s about how their character might move during the larp.

In-game questionnaires can also work, if the game is suitable.

Working with factions

Many games organize the players into affinity groups or “factions.” Maybe it’s groups of friends, maybe it’s business interests, or maybe it’s people who all play tennis on Sunday. If you have factions, you can split players up accordingly, and ask them to figure out what the faction does normally, or who rules the roost or thinks they do, how they know each other, where they hang out, and so on. This has the added advantage of getting the players familiar with faces they will need to know in game. If you like, you can also use this opportunity to help people learn character names.

Working with relationships

If characters have pre-written relationships to other characters, it’s a good idea to give those pairs or groups a few minutes to chat and talk about what those relationships are like and how they might play them. Encourage people to talk about their comfort zones here too, especially when working with romantic relationships. If everyone in the game is in a romantic relationship, you might want to workshop this more formally, with some specific exercises.

If players don’t have pre-written relationships in their character sheets, you can also have them mingle around the room, yell stop, and gather in groups of two to gain a negative relationship. Then let the players figure out why that relationship is negative. You can do the same for positive relationships or other sorts of relationships–lots of possibilities here.

In a smaller group, you can also use a relationship building tool like the Ball of Yarn. The first player takes the loose end of the ball, and throws it to someone else in the circle and states a relationship, like “we’re sisters.” The person who catches it, if they wish, can further define it (“I was mommy’s favorite and you’ve always been jealous of that”) or simply pass it to another person. This makes it really clear who is not looped in. Don’t do a round two until everyone has at least one relationship, and watch the time–this game is pretty fun and people often want to play for a long time. At the end, go around the circle and have each person repeat their relationships to set them in your mind.

Work with the larger group

It can be helpful to work with all the characters at once. One favorite technique is status lines, where the characters make a line from highest to lowest. The lines you make will depend on the game, of course. For my new artists’ colony game, I make people line up by age, by who has been at the colony the longest, by actual level of fame, and  by self-perceived level of fame, and by how well they’re liked in the colony for example. The lines you choose should be relevant to the theme of your game.

Another idea comes from Play the Cards, a game about teenagers and status that is on my mind since I played it recently. During the workshop, we also made “constellations,” where everyone put their hand on the shoulder of the person they were secretly or openly in love with. This technique seems pretty adaptable.

And of course, there many more techniques out there, waiting to be discovered.

7. Practice mechanics or elements of play that might be hard or are particularly important

A lot of larp isn’t intuitive or goes against our intuitions to be nice low-key people. Help your larpers break out of their shell.

  • Try to figure out what will confuse your players ahead of time, or what is really important to get right during play. Then demo it for the group, or have them practice.

This requires knowing your player base a bit and trying to guess what might be hard for them. If you are using a monologue technique, and the players are all super familiar with monologue techniques–where a character delivers their interior thoughts for the players, but not the characters to hear, often set off by a fist-bump, or pinging a glass, or opening and then closing a monologue box in the air–you might not need to workshop it.

On the other hand, if you’re working with a group that has no idea what you’re talking about, it’d be a good idea to use a scene to demo it, and then to have them practice.

By the same token, most people like to be nice. But perfect characters make for a boring larp, so it can be a good idea to get people used to being jerks (if the game calls for people to be jerks). If this is a game about bullying, get your players to try (lightly!) bullying each other’s characters in sample scenes. Otherwise, you might have a great larp plot that never gets off the ground. This can also be a good way of encouraging people to play to lose, as they get some practice at screwing up.

Likewise, if there’s a particular dynamic that is essential to the game–status play or being able to yell really loudly or following the orders of the faction leader–then it may be helpful to do a few exercises that help players practice this dynamic.

Sample Workshop Schedules

A sample schedule for a game about unlikely friendships across football teams that I just imagined, might be:

– (Awkward mingling: 15 minutes)
– Organizers introduce themselves, timeline, and quiet (5 minutes)
– Brief explanation about game structure (5 minutes)
– Cut and break explanation (2 minutes)
– Players introduce themselves and hand-shaking game (5 minutes)
– Penguins and pelicans (5 minutes)
– Hot seat (10 minutes)
– Characters talk to people they’ve got relationships with (10 minutes)
– Work the teams: Name-game (7 minutes)
– Teams talk about how they met and status within the group  (12 minutes)
– Questions? (2 minutes)

– Pee break (7 minutes)

– Game lingo–sports lingo for larpers (3 minutes)
– Introduce “who’s got the ball” metatechnique (5 minutes)
– Practice “who’s got the ball” with partners (5 minutes)
– Repeat game structure and cut and brake (5 minutes)
– Last questions (2 minutes)
– Break before game (30 minutes)

See also: the workshop schedule in  Screwing the Crew by Elin Nilsen and Trine Lise Lindahl, or many of the workshops from Larps from the Factory.

Final thoughts and tips

A good workshop is fitted to the game design, its theme, and your players.

I’ve outlined the basic sorts of things you might think about above, but there is no hard-and-fast rule. Some games don’t need long workshops (or some would argue, any workshops at all), but I think most games can benefit from even a very short one–just something that lets me meet my co-players as people, talk to the people my character has relationships with, or make some new relationships if I need them, or get my worries on the table.

Unless you’re running a really intense multi-day thing, you probably won’t need all of the above. Select a few exercises based on what you most want to emphasize about the game, and what you think the players most need, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

Of course, there are many ways to run a pre-larp workshop. My ideas probably come from the handful of games I’ve played with them, and are thus somewhat limited. For more advice, see the Workshop Handbook blog, and the Larps from the Factory video section, which contains video demos of many exercises and techniques.

Got different ideas? Got questions? Post them in the comments.

New in Larp: June 25, 2013

The cast of Limbo poses with their eyeshades and tickets to the hereafter.

The cast of June’s Highland Park, NJ run of Tor Kjetil Edland’s Limbo poses with their eyeshades and tickets to the hereafter.

There’s been a whirlwind of activity over here at chez Stark, but I’ve still managed to cram in some larp-related activity. Since the last time I ran one of these, there’s been lots that’s new in larp. Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve been reading, running, and drooling with envy over:

Larp in the Middle East

Did you know that there’s larp happening in places like Lebanon and Palestine? Well, it’s on, my friends. And it’s got lots of Nordic support.

  • Piece on the first kids’ larp in Lebanon, from Fantasforbundet, a Norwegian larp group
  • The Palestine larp scene is heating up, thanks to local larp group Peace and Freedom Youth Forum (PFF):
    • Last fall, a dual project between the Nordicans and the Palestinians ran in Ramallah — ‘Til Death Do Us Part, a wedding game.
    • Some Finnish designers are collaborating with PFF on a two-part game called State of Siege, about living under a military regime. The first part runs in Helsinki on Nov 15-17, and is open to foreign-born but English-speaking participants. I’ve heard rumors that a second edition will run in Palestine next year.
    • I had the pleasure of meeting some folks from the PFF at Knutepunkt this year. Sounds like they’ve got a short larp going every few weeks, including the Superhero Dance Battle produced as part of this year’s Larpwriter Exchange Academy.

Talking and Writing About Larp

 

Actual Larps that Ran Or Will Run Soon

Re-runs of earlier games:

  • Panopticorp ran about a week ago in Copenhagen. It’s a larp about a cut-throat PR company doing business with morally questionable clients. The game was a re-run of an earlier Norwegian larp played about a decade ago. This time around, more than 40 larpers from at least six countries Skyped, emailed, called and walked-in to play the customers for the game’s 20+ players. I’ve heard whispers that if someone produces a script, there are organizers in at least three countries who’d be willing to run it again…
  • This weekend and next weekend, Mad About the Boy runs again in Sweden. One run is mixed-gender, the other is all-women.
  • In August, Just a Little Lovin’, about the summer AIDS came to NYC, will be re-run in Copenhagen.

New runs of new games:

My Corner of the World

  • Together with performance researcher Emma Leigh Waldron and RPG researcher Aaron Trammell, I helped run the Norwegian game Limbo, by Tor Kjetil Edland in Highland Park, NJ. We had about 25 players, including people completely new to gaming or to larp, seasoned US larpers, and a few folks who have played Nordic-style games before in the US. We did a two-hour workshop, inspired by Edland’s run of the same game at Knutepunkt this year. Our version took place in the parlor of a local church. On the same day, Limbo also ran in Croatia — you can read organizer Ivan Zalac’s play report here.
  • I’m helping edit a book of Norwegian larp scripts in English. Welcome to the Larpfactory Book Project. The project also includes a series of workshops in Norway on how to write larp scripts, as well as a website containing game materials and video demonstrations of various Nordic larp techniques. Join this Facebook group for updates on the project, including downloads when they become available. Or visit the project website!
  • Designers and US art larp veterans John Stavropoulos, Terry Romero, and Kira Scott have pledged to create a Monsterhearts larp system as a stretch goal if the Kickstarter for this game about teen monsters in love is funded. They’ll use a modified version of Ars Amandi to optionally represent the tabletop’s signature sex moves.

New Conventions and New Scenes

Dude. So much exciting stuff happening.

Whew. I know I missed something else awesome. What else did I miss?

Trampled By the Herd: Mimes and Larp Safety

This year’s Knutebooks — the books of larp theory put out each year by the pan-Nordic convention Knutebook — are out and available for free download here.

Edited by Karete Jacobsen Meland & Katrine Øverlie Svela, this year’s trio of tomes focuses on short articles written for the layman.

My piece on larp safety and the social dynamics of large groups, called “Trampled by the Herd” is in the Crossing Habitual Borders (.pdf) volume. It combines a Freakonomics podcast on rules and mimes with some original reporting with clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Maria Schultheis, whom I asked to evaluate some safety techniques common to Nordic larp.

Readers here may also be interested in Eleanor Saitta’s piece “Mad About the Yankee” from the Crossing Physical Borders (.pdf) volume, which is a nice exploration of some of the issues — intra-national and otherwise — around the game.

How To Win Arguments On the Internet

Internet debate is a double-edged sword. It can help us undertand each other, but it can drive us apart, too.

In the past year, I’ve watched lots of internet arguments — some ugly, some not — unfold within the gaming community, most recently around issues of gender and inclusion in the aftermath of the Knutepunkt convention.

These debates have crystallized some thoughts on argumentation and tone. Forgive me for meandering a bit below: my core point here is that tone matters — sure, it doesn’t affect the content of your argument, but it does affect how that argument is perceived by your core audience, and therefore it affects your overall persuasiveness. This is my pragmatic world view — that if you want your argument to achieve maximum effectiveness, tone matters.

Yeah, “Tonal Arguments” Are Problematic.

I should point out that, yes, I am familiar with the inherent problems around tonal arguments. In a nutshell, the problem with tonal arguments is that when used abusively, they can derail the content of a debate and silence people who need to be heard. In other words, if I’m  just in from two weeks of exposure in the desert and I say, “I’m dying of thirst, fetch me a glass of water, jerk,” you might respond with “hey there spanky, you get more flies with honey. Say please!” you do have a point, but your point doesn’t actually negate the contents of my speech. I still really need a glass of water, like, now. The idea is that you should respond to the content of my speech, rather than the manner in which I’ve made it. And in general, I agree with this. But the tone of an argument also hits people on a gut emotional level, and that means it affects how likely your message is to penetrate your audience.

To reiterate: I agree that tonal arguments can be problematic, especially when they’re used like a weapon to deliberately derail productive conversation. I also acknowledge that sometimes, people — often people from non-dominant groups — just get tired of explaining stuff over and over again. If I had a flame thrower for every time I’ve had to argue about concepts that seem like feminism 101 to me, well, let’s just say there’d be a lot of crispy bodies scattered around the earth. I assume that trans people get tired of explaining trans issues, that people of color get tired of explaining racism, that larpers get tired of explaining larp, etc. etc. For me, at least, this fatigue causes the phenomenon of “ragesplaining” (it’s what mansplaining makes me want to do!). This is what happens when I feel like I have to explain X to a new group of people for the bazillionth time for me, although perhaps it’s only the first time for my audience.

I think all of this comes into play when talking about sensitive stuff on the web, or honestly, in person. And while tone doesn’t negate the contents of anyone’s speech, it makes a huge difference in how your message is received by others.

(Sidenote: Though the “basic” conversations can feel frustrating to have repeatedly, I think they’re some of the most important conversations to have, because they bring outsiders up to speed on what must sometimes seem like inside baseball. And usually, people who haven’t encountered basic concepts before simply haven’t thought about the issue very deeply yet, so it’s a good opportunity to spread some basic knowledge, and persuade these noobs over to your side.)

Pick a Tone Appropriate To Your Audience

Though there are lots of reasons to to engage in debate about sticky wickets like, say, gender or free speech, or whatever, I see four main reasons:

  • To rally the base that agrees with you
  • To change the mind(s) of the person(s) that you disagree with, but who are weighing in on the debate
  • To persuade people on the fence who may be listening, but not necessarily posting.
  • To give voice to people who may feel the same way you do, but who don’t feel comfortable speaking up.

All of these audiences are important. But to my mind, the middle two are the most important because they are the most likely to create real change by growing the base of people who agree with you. Persuading someone who is a fierce advocate of an opposing position has ripple effects as well — if I can change Darth Vader’s opinion on planet explosion, how many storm troopers will follow? My argumentative mantra is: every “enemy” is a potential ally.

To my mind, ragesplaining may feel really really good, but it pretty much only appeals to an audience that already agrees with you. I think it alienates fence-sitters, and it makes the people you disagree with feel attacked. It also takes focus away from the issues at hand and gets people’s pride involved.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

During and after Mad About the Boy, I had a lot of arguments about feminism with different sects of people. Early-on, this argumentation meant persuading some men in the community that it was OK to have a game and invite only women. Later, the game took a lot of heat around gender issues from a number of feminists. I don’t want to reopen what was a painful episode for people on many sides of the equation, but this discussion felt frustrating to me, and others on the organizing committee, in part because we consider ourselves feminists and felt we had many goals in common with our adversaries. However, from our perspective, the tenor of the arguments made it difficult for us to want to engage in debate. Plus, we’d used up much of our energy for debate before the game. For me, this felt like a wake-up moment, because I learned what it feels like to be told that you are not being politically correct/understanding enough, and so I feel like I have some empathy for both the critics and the criticized.

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

To me, the best arguments begin by giving your opponents every advantage — by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s why I think it works:

  • If you couch your opponent’s position in the strongest way possible, then your devastating critique is that much more damning. It doesn’t leave them the wiggle room of, “you misinterpreted me.”
  • As much as we like to think debate is abstract and about the issues, most of us identify strongly with the beliefs we hold and the activities we do. Attacking these can feel like an attack on a person’s identity. That gets pride involved, which makes it emotionally more difficult for the opposition to “give in” on points you might have otherwise persuaded them about. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt, generally includes assuming that:
    • most of us are normal human people who sometimes make flawed decisions
    • most of us don’t intend to hurt others, but sometimes do so inadvertently
    • most of us are thoughtful people who have tried to do their best

As the saying goes, “intent isn’t magic.” To borrow a metaphor from the Knutepunkt debate, even if I didn’t mean to kick you on the dance floor — even if my intent was good — your shin may still hurt, and perhaps you’ve got a bruise to contend with for a few weeks. No apology can fix that. But surely, “I don’t know if you noticed, but you kicked me rather hard, and I’d like to talk about the dance moves you try to bust,” is likely to get a better return than “you’re a horrible person. Why’d you kick me, jerk?” (By the same token, “I’m really sorry I kicked you, but this is the dance style I strongly prefer,” will get a better response than “Stop being so sensitive, it was just a little shove.”)

I don’t want to put the burden on the person who is already hurt to be extra understanding and extra nice and to overcome lots of natural rage. That isn’t fair. It sucks. It’s a nearly superhuman demand. I think people in the position of handling critique should also exercise their empathy, to understand that perhaps this isn’t the first time I’ve been kicked on the dance floor and that I’m having a compound reaction, to give me space to calm down, perhaps to help calm me down so we can have a productive discussion, and so on. Of course, that can be difficult as well. But as Lewis Carroll put it, we should all try six impossible things before breakfast, right?

I think this is particularly important to remember within debates about charged topics within the gaming community, in part because most people do gaming stuff on a hobby level, not for money, but because they want to create things for others. Hostile debate and not giving organizers the benefit of the doubt can produce a chilling effect on the community. After all, we want to encourage people to organize stuff because then there’s more cool stuff to go to — if the perceived social cost of organizing an event becomes too high, that’s going to discourage well-meaning people from participating, and I think that’s not good for the community in general.

Venting vs. Arguing

When I’m really mad, it’s hard to argue, because I can’t control my tone, which doesn’t effect my goal of bringing people around. It can alienate fence-sitters. It can make the opposition dig in its heels merely out of pride. For that matter, it can make me dig in my heels out of pride.

So before I argue, I vent privately to a small circle of trusted people I know won’t judge me for saying stuff that will be mean. And sometimes, I really need to say stuff that is mean, to get it out of my system. To calm down. Only then am I ready to argue, that is, to give my opponents the benefit of the doubt and try to win them over to my side.

I’m not anti-anger. Anger is important — it’s part of what drives us toward passionate and needed debate, but it’s possible to explain why you’re angry/hurt/etc without making the person you’re talking to angry as well.

TL;DR

I’m not concerned here with what’s fair or easy — the world is neither — but I’m concerned with what works. And in general, I think a kind tone, working hard to understand your opponents, and giving them the benefit of the doubt works. Sometimes that means dampening the natural urge to ragesplain things, even though that feels SO JUST AND GOOD.

When things get heated, try to remember that the point of communication is to get ideas across, which means considering what your audience is able to hear.

American Jerkform: There’s No Negotiating with Bees

My friends, the jerkform revolution has begun. And it comes to you in the form of….

bees

Those of you not familiar with American Jerkform (catchphrase: “There’s no negotiating with bees.”*) may wish to read the original manifesto. Simply know that jerkform is for everyone and no one. It loves babies and alligators, sometimes together. And when the moon is full and the scent of jasmine fills the air, or when the bird is upon the wing and the sun beams with all the beatific perfection of Steve Buscemi, simply whisper its name onto the wind, and a swarm of bees will sweep down and render justice upon you.

Jerkform is not meant to be played, it’s meant to be smeared all over your body, like poisonous berries, or stared at intently until one of you spontaneously combusts. Seriously, do not attempt to play jerkform.

Here is a new collection of games written by about fifteen people, working singly or in groups.

 

LONDON BURNING by Sex and Bullets

Burn yourself with a cigarette. Tell the cigarette how it feels.

 

HAUNTED BY BEES: An American Jerkform/Beeffor LARP by Terry Romero

You’re trapped (as in actually locked into for a week) in a post-apocalyptic warehouse on the edge of town populated by hungry slow moving zombies and even hungrier freegans. Each team of two and a half people gets a 10 hour supply of extra spicy jerky and 5 hour energy drink.

You must defend your turf and loved ones and crap armed ONLY WITH BEES. Throw some actual f***ing bees! They can be real live bees, handfuls of dead bees, or a sock full of d4s.

  • If you’re hit with one bee you die.
  • Two bees, you die in real life.
  • Three bees, you die and come back as an emo ghost.
  • Eat all the bees, and you become the Beelzebub.

Last player standing marries Beelzebub, then breaks it off due to overwhelming guilt of being responsible for the death of thousands of bees.

There is no bleed in this game because you have chosen in real life the most dangerous game of all!

 

THE NORDIC LARP COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME by James Stuart

Each lovingly hand-painted card contains the image of a Nordic larpwright, a catch phrase, and a function (+3 bleed, +2 theory burn!, +5 historical accuracy). Gotta catch ‘em all!

 

THE RULE OF PHILOSOPHY CLASSES by Lizzie

Just like every party has a pooper, every philosophy class has an a**hole. Sometimes, it’s you. Deal with it.

 

FAT MAN SITTING DOWN by George

A game for 11 GMs, and a large ensemble of furniture.

The largest chair in the room — preferably a sofa if one is available — is the fat man. Arrange all the side tables and chairs in the room in a circle around the fat man. Tell everyone there is a fire extinguisher.

The GMs form a circle around the furniture and yell at it, forcing it to be meaner to the sofa. The game ends when a dining room chair breaks and sets the sofa on fire.

If anyone asks about the fire extinguisher, laugh maniacally.

 

FAT MAN DONUT by James Greenan and Sara W.

The largest member of your gaming circle is assigned the job of “driver.” He drives you an hour from home to a discreet artisanal donut shop in Brooklyn. There is no parking. Fat Man Donut must sit in the car while the rest of your party enjoys donuts from behind a plate glass window. Once donuts are consumed, Fat Man Donut is told how he feels by each donut-eating individual.

Actual play report: We’re now at the idling part of Fat Man Donut.  This game sucks, I wish there were more bees. — The Fat Man

 

WE MUST IMAGINE SISYPHUS HAPPY by Lizzie

Mention X. Try to convince Y you haven’t just insulted them. Pick up a bronze statue of Foucault and beat the opposition with it.

There are many play sets. Post them in the comments.

 

GAME THEORY THUNDERDOME by Sex and Bullets

Two game designers enter. One interpretation of GNS theory and/or the “magic circle” leaves. Flamethrowers.

 

MAGRITTE by Megan J.

Put some props on a table.

 

TALKING STICK by Sex and Bullets

Agree to use  a talking stick. But who gets it first? Whoever yells the loudest.

 

ANGSTY HANDF*** by Graham

You are attracted to various people. While you work out who you are in a relationship with, rub hands with them and pretend to have sex.

 

NOIR by Joanna Charambura

Sit in a dark room until one of you decides to switch the light on.

 

UNIVERSAL BLEED MECHANIC #2** by Sex and Bullets

Knives.

 MANIFEST THIS MOFO by Bryant Johnson

1: Walk into a room where people are larping; preferably something introspective or foreign. (Listen at the door; if you hear the word “bleed” and it isn’t preceded by the phrase “stabbed in the stomach with a scimitar” you’re probably in the right place.)

2: Kick over a table, or a chair, or someone with small fashionable glasses.

3: Yell “MANIFEST DESTINY!” as loudly as you can. (You may also help yourself to any drinks you spot.)

4: Repeat. (I find conventions work best for this.)

5: Skip any attempt at a debrief. You need to let that s*** simmer.

 

FORTHCOMING JERKFORM GAMES

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Prostitute by Sara W.
Catch Me if You Can: A child’s first story Christmas story with cannibalism by  Terry Romero

 

*We know this first-hand thanks to cohort A.A. George, who was once attacked by a swarm of bees, thus proving that there is no negotiating with bees — only screaming. Seriously. Buy M- George a beer sometime — a bee attack renders you in permanent need of sympathetic beers — and ask to hear the story. And the audio.

 

** We’ve recently learned that game designer JR Blackwell has previously designed a game that employs this mechanic.

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012

With a new year in the offing, I’m taking a look at the last one.

On a personal level, I had a busy year — Leaving Mundania came out; I traveled to conventions all over the US (and Scandinavia) on tour, I helped organize the Nordic larp Mad About the Boy in the US, tried my hand at writing freeform, and landed a second book deal.

On the blog, things cooked too — 53 blog posts! That means 53 days of scouring the internet for your comments, feverishly checking analytics, and obsessing over how many “likes” I logged on social media. Here is how the year fell out:

 

Top 5 Blog Posts By Viewership*

If Famous Writers Had Written Twilight

I snarked on Twilight, imagining what it’d be like if famous authors had penned the teen vampire novel. Technically, I wrote the post in 2011, but after io9.com reposted it in early 2012, it went viral, even landing a mention in the New York Times. 440,000 people read the thing on io9 and posted more than 300 comments. Even on my little site, the post exploded, logging about 40,000 pageviews and 251 comments.

Given the high traffic on this post, it’s no surprise that the much older How to Read Twilightlinked in the famous writers text, logged the second-highest page views of the year with around 9,000 pageviews.

 

Mad About the Boy Sign-Up

Coming in a distant second with nearly 3,000 page views is sign-up for the US-run of the Nordic larp Mad About the Boy.

 

Nordic Larp for Noobs

Clocking in at number 3 with 1,800 page views is this post, which tries to explain the deceptive term “Nordic larp” to a new audience.

 

American Jerkform: A Manifesto

With only six weeks of publication under its belt, the American Jerkform Manifesto (“There’s no negotiating with bees.”) scores a #4 slot with nearly 1,200 page views.

 

Mad About the Debrief

My initial take on how Mad About the Boy came out closes out the top five with 987 page views.

(* Though they logged mega-page views — more than 1,000 each! — I didn’t count How to Create a Fun Larp Character or How to Assemble a Larp Costume since they came out in 2011.)

 

Top Five Countries of Readership

After my native US readership, which dwarfs the competition, I’ve got readers in…

  1. United Kingdom
  2. Canada
  3. Australia
  4. Denmark
  5. Sweden

Happy New Year!

Mad About the Boy in Wyrd Con Book

The Wyrd Con Book, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek is out. The book is an anthology of essays about gaming and larp put out by California’s Wyrd Con convention. It’s available for free download here.

I’ve got an essay on Mad About the Boy, the Nordic larp I helped run this October in Connecticut, in it. But that’s not the only reason you should read it. It’s got fabulous pieces by the likes of Emily Care Boss, Jason Morningstar, J. Li, Evan Torner, and many more!