Over the past few days, prompted by a bunch of discussion on social media, I’ve been thinking a lot about larp and social justice, and how the two go together. And then I had a great chat with Finnish games researcher Jaakko Stenros, followed by some good discussion and ongoing influence from the wonderful team (Whitney Beltrán, A.A. George, Mark Diaz-Truman) over at Gaming As Other that raised some points I found interesting. I’ll admit that my analysis is probably neither original nor sophisticated, but I hope there is something useful in it nonetheless. This post is part 1 in a series of three.
So here’s the thing: larp seems like a great venue for addressing questions of social justice. The reason is that engaging in play and being from a non-dominant group both produce a sort of double-consciousness.
The idea that race/class/gender create double consciousness and so does play is not new. But I think they provide the basis for a how activists often talk about activism on the Internet, so I wanted to take a step back and explain a little bit about the history of these theories for those who are just joining us
Play Produces Double-Consciousness
Stenros gives us the background on play in his article, “Behind Games: Playful mindsets and transformative practices,” from The Gameful World (2014). He shows us how roleplaying games and play in general produce a sort of double consciousness in their players, and we can link this to a basic activist attitude.
The quick-and-dirty summary of his point: a larp exists in a bubble set apart from the real world in which we act “as if.” I act “as if” I am an orc. In doing so, I see multiple frames at the same time. I see other players as themselves, and also as elves and hobbits, for example. When another player walks up to me and asks me a question, I interpret it as my orc, and I also interpret it as a player in a social situation. What sort of play opportunity is this other person offering me? How can I enhance the game for both of us?
When you larp, you have to think of multiple contexts at the same time.
So that’s how play creates a double-consciousness.
Race, Class, and Gender Can Create Double-Consciousness
Let’s go back a century or so to the post-slavery US, when writer and activist W.E.B. Dubois coined his famous “double consciousness” theory of African-American consciousness in the US in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. He uses the metaphor in several ways, but for our purposes, the most relevant one here is the theory of internalized oppression. Essentially, he’s saying that African Americans see themselves through two lenses–their own culture, and the dominant white culture.
Tracing the development of this scholarship is a bit beyond the scope of the post, but I believe that Dubois laid some of the groundwork for what would later become “standpoint theory.” It’s more complicated than this, but for our purposes the most salient point is the idea that folks from groups with lower status have special knowledge of groups with higher status because they have had to struggle more. For example, since the norm of beauty in US culture is white and straight-haired, black women might have special knowledge of hair, as society pressures them to straighten and relax it to conform the beauty standard.
So people from groups with less status, have a double consciousness–they understand the dominant culture, since we are all compelled to understand the dominant culture–and they also understand themselves in relation to that. Their difference from what is considered the “default” provides them with an extra frame of knowledge. In other words, I know a few things about how my culture values men, because I am not a man and am considered of lesser value.
This is also where the concept of “privilege” comes from. So since I’m a straight-haired white lady in a culture that values straight white-lady hair, I have privilege. I don’t have to know anything about chemical relaxers or straighteners. I don’t even have to be aware of the fact that the beauty standard is straight-haired.
Let’s Get Activisty
Larp creates double-consciousness, and so does having an identity outside the “default.” To me, this suggests some possibilities for activism.
I do not mean to suggest that these experiences–of playing a larp and of being non-normative–are the same. They are emphatically and profoundly different. For example, larps start and end, and I can take off my orc costume at the end of the game and resume being me. In real life, my Indian-American friend can’t stop being Indian (nor would he want to), and he can’t stop other people from treating him differently because of his skin color. He is forced to reckon with that space every single day, whether he feels like it or not. A larp might make one able to empathize and imagine with a certain experience, but that is not a substitute for the experience itself.
Still, it seems probable that we could use (or perhaps, already have used) the temporary double-consciousness that play produces to create empathy between dominant and non-dominant groups. For example, this sort of play could give straight people a taste of what it means to be gay, or it could give players of color a temporary respite from their cultural context of oppression. Maybe we could even try to imagine ourselves out of this binary situation where people are dominant in some aspects and non-dominant in others. There are doubtless many more usages that have not crossed my mind.
But of course it’s not just as simple as “go off solve racism/sexism/classism with larp,” is it? After all, what fun is a problem with a simple, easy solution?
As Stenros put it in a note to me, “The problem/promise of larp is that it is not just listening to another’s experience and reflecting, but has an active component. This can be used in great and disguisting ways.”
We’ll look at the relationship between the real world and the larp world and how that makes things complicated in my next post.
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