Building Larp Communities: Social Engineering for Good

Last weekend I had the honor of delivering one of the keynotes at the Living Games Conference, the US’s first academic larp conference. The whole experience was a blast, and I wanted to post some of my notes for whoever wants them.

I started out by talking a bit about American Freeform. I’ve covered that elsewhere, and you can read more about it in my Pocket Guide to American Freeform, an ebook monograph, which should be out at major online retailers later this month. Then I got into some of the stuff I’ve learned about building larp communities from being part of this emerging one.

Some general thoughts on gaming community

Some issues around community include, how to introduce new things to existing communities,  how to capture people not currently into gaming and get them into larp, and how to be intentional about the community you are creating. One of the things I love about gaming in general and larp in particular, is that it’s a social hack: even if the experience sucks, it bonds you together.

When we design games, the rules and guidelines structure a social interaction. In the same way, we can use rules and guidelines to structure community interaction–we can do social engineering for good.

When we talk about larp community, we talk about it on three levels. One is on the micro-level–how does one create a sense of shared community in this game right now? Two are on the macro-level–how does one create community on the city or national level, and how does one create intra-scene community between cities or countries?

There are many ways to create community on a game level–most of them have to do with helping participants feel safe enough to take the risks roleplay requires, and helping them get to know one another before and after game. I’ve covered these topics in depth elsewhere, in posts on workshops, debriefs, facilitating, and safety techniques .

When it comes to creating community among local scenes, I think the main tactic is facilitating cultural exchange–go to other places and try stuff, try to get people from other places to come to your scene and try stuff. Hold events like Living Games! Try to find ways to get funding so people who might not otherwise be able to go can go. The internet is also a great place for cultural exchange–read about other people’s scenes, and interact with them a bit on forums like Story-Games or on G+ or Facebook. By the way: some of the more exciting discussion among indie designers is taking place on G+. If you can’t find it, plus me, and I’ll try to help you. On Facebook you might look to groups like LarpHaven, I <3 Freeform, and North American and Nordic Larp Exchange among many others.

Most of the rest of this post will focus on techniques for building a local scene, though of course many of the tactics are applicable in other contexts as well..

What does a functional community look like?

Before we build a scene, we have to figure out what the blueprint looks like. Here’s my picture of what a healthy community looks like:

  • Inclusive.
  • Deals with conflict well/Low Drama
  • Deals with criticism/critique well and open minded.
  • Open to new things.
  • Robust/many people writing and organizing; doesn’t rely on one person or group.

I’ll go through each of these below, sharing tips and tricks I’ve learned from practice, and also by picking the brain of various organizers in the US and Nordic countries. The latter group of organizers have been active in creating most sorts of community, often across national borders. There are lots of principles and practices we can borrow–some of this stuff may be controversial, but there are tactics here that can work.


So what does inclusivity look like? Of course, we often think about it on the level of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But there’s also a social inclusivity, and that means making everyone feel valued.

  • Introduce yourself to new people and introduce new people to old ones and to each other.
  • Make space safe. Safe space always raises the question “safe for whom,” and that necessarily excludes some people. If we want to make a safe space for people of color, then we might want to exclude racists. Or at least provide an avenue to help them change their views.
  • Be sensitive to concerns that you might not share—i.e. if you are straight and a person who is gay says they don’t feel welcomed or included in a certain way, listen to them.
  • Be sensitive to issues of social space. Some people take up more social space than others–just as you would in a larp or other game, try to sense where the spotlight is and do things to support that. If Sally really needs to tell an anecdote about this book she read or else she will feel crushed, try to turn the conversation around to that. If Thompson has had the floor for a long time, try to switch the spotlight to someone else.
  • Invite people from groups that are not represented. Some people don’t take social space unless it is offered to them. I found this when organizing Mad About the Boy–a lot of women, for example, didn’t feel comfortable volunteering themselves for the game. All it took was two emails to reassure a new player that we would be welcoming and supportive, and that I really did want her there if she decided she was up for it. This will probably works for other groups who are underrepresented in gaming circles.
  • Deal with people who are not socially savvy or who break the social contract. This is one of the hard parts of being part of a community, and there are several tactics I know of. You can:
    • Quietly exclude that person—sometimes exclusion is necessary. If people are irrevocably breaking the social contract by being predators, for example, then you’ll want to exclude them.
    • Pass people around. This is an implicit agreement among a community that to be part of that community means including folks who are slightly problematic–maybe they are dull to talk to, or just don’t have great social antennae, but you want them to be part of your scene because they add to the milieu and because you want your scene to be a friendly scene. Basically, you can include problematic people by working together. Sally talks to him for twenty minutes at the post-larp party and then hands him off to Ellen who does her shift and hands him to Pedro.
    • Positive social engineering. If you are in a position to create things–and in a functional community, many people will have this agency–help Frank learn that he does X too much by putting him in a position where he can learn. Give him a mentor, or cast him into a role on the organizing team or in the game where he doesn’t get to do X too much. Talking to people directly is hard, but it can help too.
  • The open chair rule. I learned this one from the kids at the Nordic convention Knutepunkt. When you run an event, make it a rule that any group that’s chatting have an open chair nearby–this signifies that anyone can come and join in the conversation. When a new person comes, help them get a new chair! This also puts that idea of openness and inclusivity into everyone’s minds, which makes people more accepting in other, non-sitting situations.
  • Remember: Stuff happens. Even in the best communities, people disagree and have their feelings hurt. This is a normal part of being human. Remember, too, that there is a difference between offense and hurt. Offense is when something you don’t agree with happens, and hurt is what happens when your ability to be part of an event or scene is hampered. Offense is something we all risk every time we leave the house. Hurt is what we want to avoid, and hurt brings up conflict. So let’s talk about conflict.

Deals with drama/conflict well

Conflict is part of life, so we might as well get better at it. Being able to resolve disagreements is a relationship and community skill, and it’s possible to improve at this through practice. Part of dealing with conflict and drama well is trying to head it off at the pass, so that we are only having conflict when it’s really essential, so if possible, we’ll want to try to set up a community that doesn’t facilitate drama.

  • Address things directly. I learned this one from the Knutepunkt kids. Basically, everyone in a community has the responsibility to do this, because it short-circuits drama and trash talking. If you complain about someone at Knutepunkt, the first response is generally, “Well, have you talked to them about it yet?” There is social pressure to talk to people who have upset you directly rather than letting bad feelings fester. Even if the situation doesn’t resolve in one’s own favor, there’s a feeling that the air has been cleared. It also short-circuits missed connections. If I really pissed off Joe, but he doesn’t tell me, I might have no idea that I have done so, so I will keep on doing it. If you have a disagreement with someone, at least have the decency to try to work it out with them.
  • Mediators. If you truly cannot approach someome to work it out–if you are too nervous or emotions are too high, then ask a neutral party to help facilitate that conversation.
  • Don’t ask your friends to take sides. This can make things get into an us vs them situation pretty fast–if they agree with you based on the facts of the situation, great, but friendship doesn’t obligate them to support you if they feel otherwise.
  • Don’t participate in standoffs from the sidelines. If Dorothy and Francis  break up and then say they can’t be at the same larp together, don’t let them pressure you into inviting one or not the other. Everyone is adults, and you like them both. Invite both of them to your larp and let them make the decision about whether or not they can handle being in the same room.

Deals with Criticism/Critique well.

In a game community, we don’t just have the social conflict of big personalities colliding, we have aesthetic disagreements as well. You’ll experience my art, and it’ll make you have opinions about what I did well and poorly. Any aesthetic community needs to deal with this stuff, and in my opinion, it’s one thing that gaming communities often have some trouble with. This is the game design side of handling conflict well.

  • Remember that it is really really hard to make things, and that criticism is the easiest art—everyone has an opinion and it is easy to tear people down. Complaining and trashing people is easy, offering positive solutions is hard, and nothing makes creators never want to make anything again more than feeling personally attacked.
  • Critique and constructive criticism come from a place of love. This means giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to stuff they didn’t get right, and offering suggestions and tactics to help them be better. Make thoughtful critique that offers suggestions as well as tearing games down.
  • Try to separate the works from their creators. People are not the same as their artistic creations. If I make a game with a provocative premise, that doesn’t mean that I hold that premise, necessarily, but rather that I am interested in exploring some issues around it. By the same token, separating art object from artist makes the critique easier to hear. Of course, as creators we are all invested in our work, but if we are discussing a problem with scene five of my freeform game, make it about that rather than the fact that I am a failure as a designer.
  • If you have to vent about something, do it privately. Real discussion can only start once the venting is at least partially purged.
  • If you have a serious problem with someone else’s design, a public forum is often not the best one. If we all hate Marcella’s design and complain loudly on the internet, chances are good that she’ll feel singled out and publicly humiliated. That’s a crappy way to get her to change her behavior.  On the other hand, if she has to have a private conversation with each and every one of us about the same three things, and it’s delivered with love and support, that is way harder to ignore.
  • After an event, you can channel critique by offering avenues for feedback. If you don’t give me a venue, then I’m going to make angry posts on social media. If you do give me a venue, then there’s at least a fighting chance that I’ll use the form, which short-circuits internet drama.
  • Responding to negative criticism about your own designs on the internet is almost always a bad choice. It almost always ends in you looking petty and people hating you more.
  • Take critique with grace. Write it down, put it away, and come back to it when you have some distance on the process
  • You have the power to facilitate this within your own communities. Don’t give extra attention to internet threads that are excessively negative. Try to head negativity off at the pass by reminding people that the act of creation is substantial. Reach out to creators who might be hurt to support them. You can also use some of the tactics in the above sections to help mediate this. Does Bob always hate on Jane’s designs, but never make anything of his own? Try to get him to walk in her shoes by making something. Or just tell him that you think he’s poisoning the well and that it’s bringing down the community.
  • Remember: In a functional community, people can make mistakes and learn from them without too much embarrassment. Mistakes are part of learning. Make it easy to make mistakes, and easier to learn from them.

Robust, many people organizing different things

  • A living community doesn’t depend on one person or on one hierarchy to survive. If Alex organized all the larp events in North America, he’d quickly get tired and burn out, and then the secene would be gone! A vibrant community has many spaces where cool stuff is happening. 
  • Provide opportunities for people to learn how to do it. For the most part, no one walks in off the street and says, “I want to organize a larp.” They need to be mentored. Provide people with opportunities to learn—co-facilitation opportunities, talks.
  • Ask new people to run and design games. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just ask someone to run or design something–doing so gives them confidence, and lets them know that the community supports them. It’s good to ask people who have never done this stuff–in a scene based around organizing events, organizing gives you status, so asking people to organize things and then supporting them is a good way to ensure that the status gets shared around.
  • Saying nice things is contagious. The cool people are the ones who make others feel good about their work and their place in the community. I want to be part of a community where Hubert says nice things about our new player Franklin and tells everyone that Eloise has this one really good safety technique. Give out status to others–this can help them feel confident enough to run stuff.
  • Organize with many different overlapping groups. This undermines the idea that there is one true way or one true community. It’s also a great way to help new designers or organizers make a name for themselves. When a high-status person, or a person with a lot of experience, organizes with someone who is less well known, some of that status rubs off. In addition, an experienced person can mentor the less experienced and show them tips and tricks of the trade.
  • Support other people’s ventures. Go to your friends’ games, help send appropriate players their way, offer to do the less sexy but still-necessary stuff for them like gathering props, even if you aren’t majorly involved in the creative work.
  • Remember: when there is more cool stuff happening, YOU WIN. Sometimes we get invested in our scene status or in being the one unique person who can do X. Fight that feeling!

Open to new things.

It can be difficult to introduce something new into an entrenched community with its own traditions. This is often perceived as threatening. But exposure to new stuff can make the stuff you’re already doing better, both by forcing you to consider whether you’re operating on dogma or whether the way you’re trying stuff really does work well. It can also prompt new combinations of game techniques, leading to aesthetic innovation, and that’s awesome. Here are some things you can do to get people to be open to new styles of game.

  • Trojan horse model: if you want to convert an existing group to a style of play that is new to them, think about what game in the new mode would appeal to them. For example, if you want to take people off the street and get them into Nordic larp, a game like Tor Kjetil Edland’s Limbo, about people hanging out between life and death is a good pick, because it takes place at a party, and most people know how to be ordinary people at a party. On the other side of things, if you want to get indie gamers or Dungeons & Dragons players into Nordic larp, Håken Lid and Ole Peder Giæver’s The Hirelings is a good pick, because it’s about new characters on their first dungeon adventure and their post-dungeon therapy afterwards. It uses different techniques but has a comforting familiar story.
  • Throw spaghetti at the wall method: Basically, something is better than nothing, so try lots of stuff, be prepared for a lot of failure, and see what works. This model builds slowly at first. For example, when I first came to the Dreamation convention with jeepform games in 2012, only three of my four games (each with four players) ran. But I found two other people who liked this style of play. At the next convention, there were three enthusiastic people instead of one. We had enough manpower to run more games, and we discovered other people already into the same stuff we were. At the last Dreamation, my organizing group ran 60 hours of programming for more than 40 people.
  • Try new things, within reason. Expose yourself to new things. But you don’t have to expose yourself to everything. If Sally hates Dungeons & Dragons, she doesn’t have to keep playing games based on it, which would be a waste of time. But maybe she’d play a game like that if it used techniques from Nordic larp…
  • Don’t badmouth other games. Critique of a style or scenario is fair game, but hating on other groups  is not cool. The games I like may be the best games for me, but that doesn’t mean they are the best games full stop. In the words of Mo: fuck stratification. There are enough games for all of us to enjoy.

Did I miss some facets of this topic or tactics for achieving a functional community? Got wonders or community quandaries you’d like advice on? Hit up the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Building Larp Communities: Social Engineering for Good

  1. One thing to be careful about with “address things directly” is, that while there are many situations where people are operating in good faith and direct communication can help resolve things, the social expectation that you should talk to someone directly and give them a chance to defend themselves can be problematic in cases of harassment or abuse, where it can be emotionally difficult or traumatic for the subject of harassment to confront their harasser and it can be easy for some harassers to apologize or otherwise convince onlookers that the situation is resolved without actually changing their behavior. I think it’s important to remember that subjects of harassment don’t owe their harassers anything in particular.

  2. Very nice post. A couple of points.

    Recognition is really important. Some years ago I realized that the Danish con Fastaval is such a powerhouse because its real (and thriving) economy runs on recognition, not money. Sure, money is a necessary lubricant in a capitalist society, but money is not what Fastaval is about. Everybody helps with chores and organization, and everyone who helps get praise. Plus, there’s the whole formalized competition thing where all participants get glory, but those who work hard and excel get even more. All the recognition going around makes the sunday banquet a little drawn-out, but it’s so worth it, and also to some degree helps forestall organizer fatigue.

    Other thing: I think it is vital to distinguish between private interpersonal conflict (which can be a legitimate thing) and substantial strategic disagreements over the direction of the organization. The latter shouldn’t necessarily be handled quietly and without requiring bystanders to declare their opinion. Of course it is important to not turn disagreements into trench warfare.

    Aaand, these things we do mostly run as informal, ad-hoc, networking organizations where recruitment and accountability are, well, informal, ad-hoc and personal. Like, you know, probably most succesful smallish organizations have been as long as our species has existed as such. If we want our gaming societies to prosper, we need to realize that this is how they work, tagging on formal structures and systems as needed, while taking into account that really, small community politics are personal, for better and for worse. I have Thoughts on this, but they are not quite done fermenting.

  3. This is great practical advice, thanks!

    One thing I would add, I think, is the value of fostering a co-created public profile for your community. This might be by writing about game experiences, by publishing materials, by contributing thoughts and comments on the larger stage… or it could be a more formal organizational identity. It helps your own group cohere around a shared esprit, and makes it that much easier to spread your good practice.

    • Great additions, all.

      Re: harassment and direct talking. I agree that victims don’t owe their harassers anything. But sometimes harassers don’t understand that they are harassing, and if we’re giving people the benefit of the doubt, I think it behooves someone (not necessarily the victim) to go to that person and say, “hey, you screwed up, and here’s how.” Actually, it’d be great for the harasser to have to have that conversation, done very civilly, with like ten people. If they don’t change their ways, then they get excluded. Because this is also part of how privilege works: sometimes nice people do things that are hurtful without realizing it, and I think they ought to have a chance to change their ways.

      I love the idea of an economy of recognition, and also of Troels’ distinction between private interpersonal conflict and conflict over design or the direction of the organization, which seems more like it should be open to members of the community (though not necessarily the general public).

      I also love the idea of having a public community statement–part of being welcoming is letting people know what you’re about and how to contact you.

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