It’s not easy to be a larper with disabilities. A couple weekends ago, US designer Shoshana Kessock and I put our heads together and workshopped the issue.
What we need, Shoshana said, are some work-arounds. In the same way that sticking a ramp onto a door with stairs makes a building more accessible to people in wheelchairs, so too could we seek a meta-technique or other method that might be added to games to make them more accessible to players with disabilities. And while I’m not sure we found the much-vaunted wheelchair ramp for larp, we at least came up with some possibilities. I want to share them, and some of our thinking around these issues below.
Larp Is Physical
Larp presents some unique challenges for inclusion. Since I do not have a disability, I can’t speak to the lived experience of players with disabilities (and please, team, correct me in the comments if I’m getting it wrong), but I imagine the issue as follows.
In a tabletop game, the fiction that the players create is wholly independent of the physical location where you play the game. Sure, we’re sitting in a basement, but our minds can do anything they want. I can become a fire-breathing dragon skimming the skies of Middle Earth if I tell you I am.
In larp, the expectation is different. Larp typically involves some degree of physical embodiment of a character. At the high-production end, larpers often aim for a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) aesthetic. So this throne room actually looks like a throne room, and my royal crown is made of real gold, and my character can only jump as high as as I can in real life. In a WYSIWYG game, players with disabilities must either play characters with disabilities–and larpwrights haven’t done a good job of writing very many of those–or they can risk breaking the immersion of their scene partners by describing themselves, or they can limit their characters by, for example, finding an in-game reason for their character to remain seated.
WYSIWYG is one extreme of larp design–most games don’t demand that level of realism–but I think it gets at the idea that at core larp is on some level bound by the physical realities around us. As actors in a larp, our bodies are the instruments that we play upon, and though we can make some alterations to them with costuming and character sheets, to a certain extent our own abilities, both social and physical, limit us.
We are not completely limited, though–we can imagine being vampires, throwing fire spells, and that in real life I am lord of the land and not a mere peon. So surely, imagining that I am a tall man instead of a short woman, or that a larper in a wheelchair can run isn’t a bridge too far.
Larp makes inclusion tricky because it sits partway in the real, physical realm, and partway in the realm of our imaginations. And of course, different games combine the real and the fictional in different proportions.
We Looked at Players With Mobility Issues
Different disabilities are different. This might sound tautological, but it’s important. Designing games to be accessible to players who are legally blind is a different task than designing larps accessible to players with say, a social disability. Since we only had an hour, we decided to focus on making more accessible to players with mobility issues.
Some Obvious Solutions
Since the world is big and people and their needs are complex, it’s unlikely that any one technique is going to work for everyone all the time. So it’s probably wise to develop a toolbox of techniques for the sampling.
Let’s get some of the more obvious solutions out of the way:
- Put characters with disabilities into larp. People with disabilities exist in the real world, and so it makes sense that they’d exist in the fiction too. If you are committed to a WYSIWYG setting, writing characters with disabilities into the game makes sense and seems like it would increase inclusion. Write interesting stories for them. On the other hand, this can go into problematic territory. Just as I don’t always want to play a damsel in distress, people with disabilities may not always want to play characters with disabilities. But sometimes they might! Ask first.
- Cast wisely. In cases where you can cast in advance, it’s possible to socially engineer the situation appropriately. If Jenny can’t walk around to a lot of places, then as an organizer, maybe I can cast her so that the action comes to her. Maybe I make her the spy-master, which ensures that others seek her out and involve her in the action of the game. Everyone wins.
- Change the physical bar for everyone. If Bill cannot walk, maybe we simply write a game that does not require walking from anyone. It could take place in a support group, maybe a support group for young mothers… Lots of possibility here. Restriction is often the mother of invention.
- Ask first. First, last, and always: if you know you have a person with disabilities coming to your game, talk to them and see what would help them. Sometimes, inclusivity can be as simple as making an announcement about how to treat someone (do not even play shove me because that will screw up my knee) before the game begins. But that’s not what everyone wants or needs. Ask first!
For the most part, these are design and facilitation suggestions–they are techniques a facilitator could use to help include players with disabilities, or ways a designer could create a game that is more inclusive. But they aren’t so much what Shoshana and I set out to uncover, which was a method that could be added to existing games to make them more accessible to people with mobility issues.
So here’s our best shot at a meta-technique:
You know how in many video games, you play an avatar of yourself–a little person on the screen? This is the live action version of that. One player is responsible for the voice of the character, and the other player is responsible for the physicality. They work together in the scene to generate the total character. We think it might work best in a freeform game.
Our thinking was that the player with mobility issues could control the voice, and a player without mobility issues would control the body.
This is a variation on a technique that is already in use in many freeform games called shadow play. Usually, in shadow play, one player is not visible in the scene but can affect the characters in a scene. If I am playing a shadow, I can make Susie feel sad by pushing down on her shoulders to make them more slumped. I can hype her up by sprinkling my fingers up and down her shoulders and pushing on the middle of her back so her chest puffs out.
The Avatar is simply the opposite of this. And it’s always possible that we’ve reinvented a wheel used someone else. The million dollar question is: does it work as a wheelchair ramp? We don’t know, because we haven’t tried it out yet! If you do, please let us know how it goes.
And stay tuned–Shoshana is hard at work designing a freeform game about using surrogates to have babies that will employ the method.
Our list of techniques for inclusivity is definitely incomplete–we didn’t touch on venue access, for example, for lack of time. If you’ve got better ideas, comments, etc. please post them in the comments. For more on accessibility in gaming, check out Elsa S. Henry in Blind Lady Versus.
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We tend to do four hour theater style larps that are prewritten — but we can still do tweaking for any given person, if we send out and receive casting questionnaires early. In one sf larp, we had a player in a wheelchair.
Me: Dang — the best cast for her is someone it makes no sense to say is in a wheelchair.
Josh: You’re completely wrong — here’s why she’s in that wheelchair.
Five minutes later:
Me: That’s…. brilliant.
Some weeks later after the ever so slightly modified sheet is sent out (it really only took a paragraph):
Player: Wow — you mean, I’m actually in the wheelchair in character? That’s great!
Sometimes, it’s a lot simpler.
Player: So, I’m pregnant. Can we just say my character is, too?
Us: Don’t see why not. (checks) Yep, totally fine.