We talk so often about player safety, and so seldom about organizer safety.
As an organizer, I don’t feel safe. In organizing larps, I’ve experienced far more vitriolic reactions than I have in any aspect of my career as an author or journalist.
I can barely talk about organizing the US run of Mad About the Boy because I spent the next six months as a target of social media rage. I can barely talk about it now. It makes me feel shaky and breathless, with a desperate fluttery feeling–my flight or fight response activating. I rarely discuss it publicly; I am afraid of reigniting that rage.
For writing this blog, running blog posts, and being vocal about my love of Nordic games, I’ve been called, in varying combinations, a status-conscious gatekeeper elitist bent on the destruction of all other forms of larp. I am introverted and am easily overwhelmed by too many new people. But if I don’t embody an extroversion I find exhausting and deleterious at events, I fear whispers that I am a snobby asshole with an opinion of herself that is too high. Self-care can come at a high price.
I’ve had men’s rights activists, feminists, racists, and social justice-y types yell at me about games on the internet. Occasionally, three or more of those groups will be angry about the same game. Sometimes, it’s one or two people who didn’t have a good time at an event shifting the whole narrative about it. Sometimes, I genuinely fucked up, but malice and forethought is attributed to my mistake. People with a problem only rarely decide to talk it out with me directly.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with the roleplaying community. When things are going well, it’s beautiful–the world needs more collaborative art projects. When things go badly, it takes a steep toll on my mental health. This community dynamic has a chilling effect.
There have been moments of apology too–truces and heartfelt emails. But this feeling–that I don’t know what will set which corner off, and that I could be subject to abuse at any time and place, possibly abuse that will just continue indefinitely on the internet, has has taken a real toll. If we let unlimited internet rage be the price of entry to organizing larps, we will lose existing organizers to fatigue, and we will have trouble enticing the new generation.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. My organizer friends whisper about this atmosphere in corners, but never talk publicly about it, for fear of backlash.
I do think the ability to render critique is necessary to any robust arty community. Critique makes games better, makes the community more inclusive, and for many people, is part of the fun of experiencing art. But giving and receiving it is a skill.
The Player-Organizer Contract
I believe organizers bear more responsibility for an event than participants do. They need to take questions of group safety, inclusion, and adequate toilets/food seriously. But they are also a large group of underpaid people doing high levels of very difficult work. And they deserve to have their welfare as human beings ensured as well.
One problem is that the social contract between players and organizers is poorly defined. As an organizer, I am responsible for fostering some group community, taking reasonable safety precautions, and exposing people to a good story. Am I also responsible for meals? Broken legs? Ejecting people who aren’t bad people, per se, but who aren’t socially savvy? Ending rape culture? Racism? Homophobia and transphobia? Is it reasonable to expect a larp event to be able to take on all of that?
The progressive in me says that we must try, and that we must constantly strive to improve, even though we are ultimately destined to fail on some level. The pragmatist in me reminds me that, though we try, we are destined to fail. One event on its own cannot possibly overturn millennia of various forms of oppression. (Several thousand events, each striving in its own way, on the other hand, might).
Sometimes problems arise that I am not equipped to deal with. Organizers wear many hats. They manage finances, secure contracts, write characters, invite participants, and so on. At times, we are also expected to be psychiatrists, community organizers, and judges, well, it’s no wonder so many of us end up overwhelmed. At best, as an organizer, I have the power to model community and eject people. I can give you a bandage or a friendly ear. At worst, I am overwhelmed with making sure there will be character sheets and food, and can’t keep up with much else.
Whether you are one organizer, or a whole team, there are human limits to bandwidth.
Given the implicit limits of being an organizer–that is to say, being a fallible, and sometimes weak human being–hearing your failures put forth in harsh language bounced and re-shared all over public forums without so much as a head’s up can be shredding.
Towards a Better Contract
I don’t have the solution. But I would like to open a discussion about the player-organizer dynamic for the sake of both parties.
For players, we have developed a safety toolbox that is used to help people opt in and out of games according to their own limits, though of course, this is a work in progress. But as organizers, once you’re in, you’re in, and we have few tools for enforcing boundaries.
As another organizer once told me that while wearing an organizer hat, they do things they would never do as a player. If someone shows up to the blackbox wanting to play a sexually violent scene from their back story, and you’re the only one around, you get in there and participate because you would do anything to make the player experience better.
This probably makes for some great play experiences, but also disturbs me with the lack of our regard for organizer boundaries of sanity.
Maybe making the player-organizer contract more clear is simply a matter of asking organizers to state outright what they can and can’t provide. Maybe this means developing some herd competence when it comes to critique. Maybe you all will have some other brilliant ideas in the comments section.
A Toolbox of Organizer Safety
Just as we’ve made safety tools for use by players, we need to develop some to protect organizers. Here are a few ideas, spurred by my own experiences, as well as some online discussions in various larp fora. I’ve collected them into a bill of rights. They are a starting point for discussion, not a mandate or a complete list of techniques that will work in all times and places. The numbered sections give a few examples of how to put each larger right into practice.
Organizers have a right to some buffer time and space after a larp.
(1) Wait until you are off site to start game critique.
If I invited you to dinner, you wouldn’t talk about how terrible the food was until you left the house, right? Same thing goes for a game experience. These days, posting on social media is basically the same as talking about it too. Reading live-posted critique of your game while it is still running really sucks.
(2) Give the organizer at least half as much time as the event lasted to recover before you start posting critique.*
Running an event can be hugely emotional for organizers too. Most games have many moving parts that take up plenty of mental bandwidth. It’s easy to forget something. Many roleplaying events also operate on the basis of volunteer labor. Depending on how reliable your volunteers are, you might end the event more or less stressed.
It’s harder for an exhausted, stressed person to hear your critique. They need space to, for example, sleep for the first time in three days, or sit in a dark room away from people for an hour.
Games also affect the players strongly. Part of the reason we all love roleplaying is that it puts you in an altered state, and returning back to normal can take a little time. To quote Ron Burgundy, I often find that after a larp I’m in a “glass case of emotion”–it’s a delicious state of hysteria, but often not the best foundation to launch helpful critique from.
Organizers have a right to be treated with respect and dignity.
We’re human beings. Not monsters.
(1) Vent privately to friends. If you’re still mad, reach out to organizers directly.
We all need to vent sometimes, and that’s cool. Venting is about discharging that special rage, rather than trying to evoke change. So use your friends and close support networks to blow off steam.
If you’re still mad after the storm passes, reach out to organizers privately to at least give them a chance to resolve those emotions and to try to fix things. When you bypass these steps and vent publicly, you’re humiliating them, and that’s not a good basis for getting your concerns addressed, moving forward. Plus, if you don’t bother to reach out to them, how will you have a dialogue?
(2) Pause before posting public critique.
It feels good to write things in the heat of the moment, but sometimes those same things can be hurtful, not just to those written about, but to the community dynamic. Good critique is passionate, yes, but it’s not mean. In some ways, the audience of your critique is not just your friends and the game organizers, but all the potential organizers lurking on your feed. They won’t want to make stuff if there is a culture of meanness to organizers. Write all you want while you’re feeling strong, but wait until you’re calmer and read it over before posting.
(3) Use the compliment sandwich for critique.
This is a super basic creative writing workshop technique. Very few things in life are pure horror. Certainly, no one pours weeks of work into making a deliberately terrible larp or freeform experience.
So start with something nice, put your critique in the middle, and end with something nice. This helps the organizer hear your criticism because you are attributing good intention or motive to them.
In general, attribute best motives to the organizers until proven otherwise. This is the difference between asking someone “So why are you such a terrible person?” and “Hey, I noticed that you talked over Sue in workshop, did you mean to do that?”
(4) Be part of a bystander intervention movement.
When you see threads on social media that are devoted to tearing people down, intervene. Write a few nice things about the event, and remind others that the organizers probably had good intentions. Fight the impulse toward total negativity. Emailing the organizers a few kind words directly can also go a long way toward helping them feel OK as well.
Organizers have the right to have an identity separate from their work. And to get things wrong sometimes.
Sometimes, we make games with provocative premises to generate discussion. When making your critiques, do not assume that because the organizer designed a game with a provocative premise, that the organizer also holds those beliefs. No one thinks Agatha Christie was a murderer because she wrote about murders. Same thing goes for larp designers. As mentioned above, we’re bound to fail when we try to solve the world’s problems, and we’ll sometimes fail our own communities because we are fallible.
(1) Understand the scope of an organizer’s political power.
We live in a flawed world full of big and thorny problems, and if we knew how to solve them in games, then we’d know how to solve them in society. There’s classism, racism, sexism, and many other -isms out there. We should always strive to better address these issues, but it’s impossible to do a perfect job of addressing all of them in every game.
Organizers have a responsibility to engage with tough issues, and players have the right to critique those efforts, but I think all parties should go into these debates with the understanding that whatever we can do within a larp is likely to be fairly limited. It’s necessary, but often Sissyphean work.
(2) Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Larp is a generative process of failure. As Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried? Ever failed? Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Offer suggestions for improvement rather than perfection. Realize that following your suggestion might result in weeks more work for an organizer, so volunteer to help make it a reality if you possibly can. Want a scholarship fund at your game? Maybe you could help coordinate the crowd-funding campaign and manage the application process.
THE EMERGENCY BRAKE
Sometimes, etiquette must be cast aside. If there is abuse of any kind at a game, it is better to break all these rules than to let an abuser run free, a critically dangerous situation continue, or a person suffer serious harm.
I know you all will have better ideas than these. Please post them in the comments.
*Some Nordic larps use the terminology “week of stories”–participants can share stories of what happened in a larp to their character for a week, but wait to post critique until a week has passed. This has been criticized as dampening player ability to process/publish their experiences, as the urge to do so is often hottest right after a larp, and can be part of some debrief processes.
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