Nordic larp can be psychologically intense — “games” have been set in refugee camps, prisons, post-nuclear-winter bomb shelters, and deal with topics from homelessness to AIDS to rape. Some games encourage bleed, the intermingling of character and player emotion, which can be both volatile and rewarding. Organizers like to push boundaries and often turn to dark material to create the intense emotional experience that some players crave.
When I tell Americans about Nordic larp, their first response is, “That’s messed up. That’s not a game, it’s therapy. Do people get PTSD from games?” And at Solmukohta this year, I heard a ton of discussion about psychological safety in these games. The community seems pretty self-aware, and cognizant that their impulse to play with dark topics is, perhaps, a bit twisted and potentially dangerous. As a lit-mag editor, I’d argue that trauma is a legitimate topic for art, provided that it’s handled sensitively.
At Solmukohta this year, I attended a fascinating panel on “The Great Player Safety Debate” designed to suss out safety quandaries and brainstorm on how to mitigate them. Journalist/author/larper Johanna Koljonen hosted the panel, which included game researcher Jaakko Stenros, and larpwrights Peter Munthe-Kaas and Bjarke Pedersen.
The Culture Around Roleplay
Some of the discussion revolved around the Nordic culture of roleplay. The discussion started on a hopeful note — for all the harm it might do, it’s clear that larp, even super-intense larp, doesn’t break most people. And that’s definitely a good thing. Other points that came up:
- In the past few years, the need for psychological safety has changed due to the rise of bleed as a concept; organizers are now designing games for bleed. Bleed destroys the roleplay contract — the implicit agreement among players whereby they pretend not to judge each other by their characters, and vice versa — by intermingling what’s in and out of game.
- There’s a cult of hardcore-ness; players who push their own boundaries gain status. This has transformed boundary-pushing into a competitive game with social rewards, and potentially dangerous consequences. Social pressure to be cool and hardcore can prevent players from using the safety measures available.
- Tools designed to help players manage their own risk can urge players to go further than they would ordinarily. When more safeguards become available, organizers and players simply push themselves further. This discussion reminded me, very explicitly, of this Freakonomics podcast on the dangers of safety.
The panel discussed the pros and cons of many of the current safety tools employed in larps.
- Pre-game workshops. They allow players to get comfortable with one another, introduce the games’ themes and mechanics. As one panelist put it, “Workshops work, but we don’t know why.” Another panelist posited that during workshops, “We rehearse […] We try out the extremes of the game.” However, through rehearsal, larpers often discover that they can go further during the game, when there’s not a game master there to modulate the impact. However, like the larps themselves, workshops can be experimental and boundary-pushing; though they enhance safety, they may not be safe themselves. Pre-game workshops may work both because they ritualize the start of the game and because they help create…
- Off-game relationships. The consensus is that these definitely help, possibly because they make the boundaries between game and real life clear — if you know that guy yelling at you is really a mild-mannered accountant in real life, that helps mitigate bleed. Larp is about trust, so it can be easier to play with people you know.
- Cut and brake words (safewords), words that player can use to get out of a scene or regulate its intensity. In practice, these words are rarely used, perhaps due to the social pressure to be hardcore and not to disrupt the experience of co-players. There’s also the sense (as laid out in one of the convention’s beginning rants) that once a player says “cut,” the damage has already done and it’s already too late. The consensus seemed to be that these words are broken tools. Because they aren’t used in practice, they create a false sense of safety. In fact, the existence of the words urges players to push themselves further by suggesting that personal boundaries will be tested. (I wondered: If people have trouble using cut words due to social pressure, why not just make their use mandatory for each player once per game or whatever?)
- Off-game rooms. They’re great if people actually use them — there’s that hardcore social pressure rearing its head again — and so experienced players should encourage noobs to head in to them when needed.
- De-f***ing buddies. Before the game, players are assigned partners to whom they must talk both before and after the game is over. These work because talking can help people assimilate and understand their larp experiences. Buddies also overcome the problem that the people who are most damaged are the least likely to talk.
- Impartial listeners. Talking to uninvolved friends, or impartial researchers after a game helps, possibly because active listening affirms the experience of the player.
- Debrief. A structured post-larp talk among participants and organizers can help people return to reality after a game. There was consensus that the meaning of the game is really created during the post-game discussion. Our brains can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality — this is one of the awesome things about larp — but that we are good at putting these things in boxes after the fact. So, the most important part of the debrief is when players agree that they didn’t damage each other — saying it makes it true in some important sense. In other words, the debrief helps players fit the reality of the game into the old reality of their lives.
Safety and Informed Consent
Stenros floated an interesting definition of safety toward the end of the panel, that it means, “not risking more than we are willing to risk.” This explanation led into a discussion between panelists and audience about informed consent, and what that means in larp, and whose responsibility it is. One panelist mentioned a core problem with intense larps, namely, “If we tell people it’ll be dangerous, they won’t believe us.” Many of these games only run once, so there’s an experimental element to them, where not even the organizers know what will happen — how is it possible for players to give informed consent if it’s unclear what they’re getting into?
Some members of the audience agitated for player responsibility. One compared first-time larpers to virgins. Sex, like Nordic larp, is an intense experience, and yet virgins are able to negotiate this successfully and take responsibility for their actions. Another audience member countered with, “but we don’t toss virgins into an S&M dungeon on their first time out.”
There was some consensus that there needs to be more communication around who is responsible for risk and safety.
During the lively audience discussion at the end of the panel, the topic turned to responsibility for cutting a scene. Apparently, the onus is often on the in-game victim of abuse to cut the scene when it becomes too much, a pro-active move that may be difficult to execute for someone who is feeling badgered. Players perpetrating abuse should also feel free to cut and should cut more often — even though they are in in-game positions of power, they are also susceptible to psychological harm. Maybe there should be continual check-in, someone proposed, a sort of call and response that perpetrators and victims could exchange in game to make sure everyone is on the same page, a sort of code for “Are you ok?” “Yes.”
For a different take on this topic, check out this thread on the Knutepunkt forum.
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I am trying to institute just that mechanic, the check-in code. My idea is to use the hand signal for “OK” (touching index finger to thumb in a circle, other fingers up) over your heart. You “throw” this up quickly, and in character, to say that you are OK, or to others to see if they are OK. In other words, if you are crying your heart out and I show this to you, you need to respond with the same. This can be done quickly, and, I think, won’t break immersion. However, if someone is tied up, it could get tricky (and if they’re also gagged…). Kirsten and I are going to use this mechanic between us, because there was a larp where she ran by me crying, and I had no idea what happened, so I broke character to check in on her. She was fine, it was RP. If she could have flashed the signal as she ran by, that would have been perfect for me because I could continue in character without worrying about her.
Also, Did Bjarke talk about the “hands raised” technique from Level Five? It has degrees, so the higher your hands are, the more intense it’s getting (and you don’t like it). So hands at your face means “ease down a bit” to the other players.
I don’t think it would be helpful to DEMAND that people use a cut in every larp. I personally haven’t found the emotional need for it, though I could see a physical need (falling and twisting an ankle, say). Instead, I think the best thing to do is a thorough pre-larp workshop, maybe even one where the players talk about their most intense larp experience, and if it was too much, just enough, or not enough for them.
Finally, in the latest Starship Valkyrie campaign larp, the GM (Christian), made a point in the debrief to remind everyone that we were talking about our characters, not ourselves. So he said “This person didn’t shove a gun in your face, that character shoved a gun into your character’s face.” We all knew that, but still, it was a good thing to point out.
Thanks for all the notes, Lizzie. My recap just keeps growing. I’m only at AWIF now.
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