Larp’s Physicality Raises Social Justice Questions

This is part 2 of a post on larp’s potential as an activist tool. You can read part 1, about why larp might be a good tool, here.

So we’re going to solve the world’s problems with larp. But we’ve got to watch out for a few things, and most of these are bound up in the relationship between the larp world and the real world. Let’s explore that a little, shall we?

Larp as WYSIWYG Activity

For starters, on some level, larp is grounded in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) attitude. I physically embody my character. The real world stands in for the environment of the game, and game masters often go to great lengths to dress their sets to make them look as real as possible. These things are important to larp–I think if you strip away all the physical embodiment from larp, then you end up with a tabletop game. But I don’t just want to describe what my orc is doing, dammit, I want to dress up like an orc and sleep in a tent or even better, a yurt, and when we fight I want to physically brawl with you using safe weapons.

But in larp, we always make compromises. We choose when to deploy the WYSIWYG aesthetic. Like maybe we don’t use real knives, but instead substitute foam ones.

Maybe we dress up like orcs but don’t emphasize gender, or do magic spells with dice, or whatever. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. So it’s good to think about what we are choosing to make WYSIWYG and what we aren’t.

Larp Depends on What Players Know About the Real World

Then there is a subtle way in which the real world affects larp–each player brings their own perception of reality to larp. It would be impossible for a larp designer to explain each and every element of the game world. (And it’d be hella boring to read.) At some point, we let the player’s cultural knowledge fill in.

For example, I don’t need the game designer to tell me that my character can move from place to place, or that hot dogs exist in this 1970s game–I assume it won’t break the game to move or to reference hotdogs. Larp is co-creation. The designers offer an enticingly incomplete story, and the players play by filling it in, in the same way that a marble column can evoke the whole temple in the imagination of a tourist.

Part of what that means is that when you design larp, you are creating a structure where people with many different opinions of the real world co-create it with you. To some extent, the game is created by the players, and you can’t be ultimately responsible for everything they do.

The wonderful and terrible thing about the world is that every person has a different experience, and we fill in our characters based on this experience. It’s wonderful because human variety is fascinating and can bring characters to life in many different ways. It’s terrible because sometimes those ways can be unintentionally racist, sexist, and homophobic.

I think it does suggest some strategies for dealing with narratives about non-dominant experiences. If the player pool for my all-lady larp is 30 dudes, then I should probably give them at least some information about what it is like to be a woman in the game world. If I’m writing a game about Czech immigrants to Thailand for Americans, then I better include some information about Czech immigrants, Thailand, and the relationships between the two–otherwise, we’ll just end up with whatever three facts are in the player’s mind.

It goes the other way too. Game designers trade on this all the time when they write, for example, games about straight monogamous relationships. They don’t have to explain what a straight monogamous relationship looks like because it is drilled into people from birth–we can all access it as a concept, and we’re familiar with the tropes, trials and tribulations of such a thing, which opens up nuanced (or not so nuanced) play.

Some Issues Raised by Larp’s Relationship to the Real World

To recap the above: larp interfaces with the real world in at least two ways–it has some aspect of WYSIWYG to it, thus overlapping with the actual world, and it also relies on the tropes all players carry with them as part of the cultural ether. And unfortunately, this shared cultural ether is itself infected with racism, seixsm, ableism, etc., so it’s no suprise that might come out in game.

First, let’s look at some of the issues raised by the physicality of larp.

This goes back to some stuff I talked about in the first post in this series, namely the idea that non-dominant groups have special knowledge of dominant groups. As a middle class white woman, I don’t need to know how to avoid attracting a cop’s attention on the street, for example. I’d really like to have some inkling of what it is like to be a trans man or a hispanic woman, although I don’t have the special knowledge–the lived experience, and the double consciousness the role requires. That creates an inherent problem.

The dominant culture is used to taking it what it wants, and in the US at least, the dominant culture has a history of puppetting non-dominant groups in art. For example, the “mammy” archetype in Hollywood. For years, white men wrote black women into movies as the hired nanny who loves to take care of white people’s children and knows her place. Or consider that Uncle Ben still appears on rice packages to let you know that cooking this quick rice is as easy as having a happy slave do it for you. Or consider the minstrel show, in which white people blacked their faces with shoe polish and pretended to be happy, singing African Americans? Often, when dominant groups tell the story of less dominant groups, they simply retell the narrative that they would like to hear, and in doing so, they erase the actual lived experience of those groups.

Even if you don’t feel personally or culturally responsible for the legacy of oppression in your country, one could think of this as being the next partner of someone who has been in an abusive relationship. For centuries, people of color, LGBT people, and other groups have been oppressed in horrible and widespread ways all over the globe. Sure, you may have good intentions, but you can also create situations that trigger and call back to that abuse–which is still continues today all over the globe. You might not give a guy with PTSD a surprise birthday party and announce it with cannons, right? So too, can you be considerate of other groups by partnering with members of that group, listening to them, and asking for consent, especially if you are working with items that hit at the core of a group’s identity.

In larp, questions of around these issues come into play around roles. Can I, as a white woman, play a hispanic woman without evoking the history of racist puppeting? Can I play this character appropriately without performing a stereotype, a stereotype I may reach for without even realizing it is a stereotype? I think, at least, that we must try if we want to have characters of color in our narratives.

Of course, larp is not like mass-media. If I end up playing a sassy latina stereotype, despite my intention to be realistic, at least I’m only subjecting a handful of people to it, as opposed to a film that thousands of people will see. But I might cause hurt to, for example, my latina co-player. And most people I know want to welcome her and want her to feel comfortable in our community.

These are not easy questions, and we have to negotiate around them as larp designers and larpers. In some ways, as Finnish games research Jaakko Stenros told me, it’s a question of intersectionality versus empathy that could lead to fuller understanding. By putting on the latina character, I might come to understand something about the struggles she faces, and the extent to which they do or don’t intersect with race [racialization]. But I also risk  getting it wrong–in fact, it is probably inevitable that I will get something about it wrong.

I want to be part of a community that incentivizes failure–we’re it’s OK to try your best and still not get it 100% right, and where low-stakes productive discussions around these topics are common, where daring to fail and get it wrong, and having tough discussions around these issues is part of business as usual.

When it comes to characters and race, both designers and players share the burden, and the dynamics of your cultural setting work silenting in the background. If a designer bases a character on Beyonce, it’s possible that role might end up in the hands of someone with un-examined prejudice and who defaults to the easiest knowledge at hand–who defaults to and thereby perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Chances are good, though, that most players will approach this role with at least a little knowledge of issues around race, and will try their best to portray this character accurately. If they are from a dominant group, there is still a really good chance they won’t get it right.

Although there are outliers–outrageously racist or awesomely nuanced performances–most players are going to be somewhere in the middle, doing well at some aspects and less well at others. As designer Mark Diaz-Truman explained to me, this isn’t really about being a “bad” player or a “good” player–this is about how difficult this work can be. Players who perform outrageously racist characterizations should be talked to, and then ejected if they do not swiftly change their ways, because tolerating racism makes space unwelcoming to players of color. For the vast majority who will perform somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, it should be cool to use these performances as starting points for discussion around these topics.

On the flip-side, I’ve heard horror stories from larpers of color about times when their co-players decided, without asking, to be in-game racist to them because it would make for dramatic play. This is not OK. For starters, it means that Jenny is assuming something about Vijay based on his skin color–that he must be interested in playing on racism. Some people of color are! Some of them get plenty in their real lives, thank you, and are pretty freaking tired of the whole topic. And more than that, it assumes that if Vijay is interested in playing on racism, of course he will want to endure racist comments. You wouldn’t expect a woman with a dead child to play the miscarrying mother in a game–you’d ask her first if she was interested in that or cool with it. You’d get her consent first, and ideally you’d want her to consent freely and not because of social pressure. Too often, issues around race are not treated similarly.

Exchanges like Jenny and Vijay’s also relate larp’s relationship to the real world–ethnicity can be (but is not always) a visible trait, and people make assumptions based on that that have to do with the world we live in, rather than the world of the game.

But it is that tension–between the real world and the world of the game –between our characters and ourselves that makes larp so exciting to play and design.  The players bring themselves to the game, and in doing so, both game and player can be transformed.

In part 3 of this series, I’ll tackle how to begin finding and implementing solutions for some of these problems.

This series has been informed by discussions with the awesome Gaming as Other team (Whitney Beltrán, A.A. George, Mark Diaz-Truman), and Finnish researcher Jaakko Stenros.

This post is underwritten by my thoroughly wonderful Patrons. If you enjoyed it, consider joining the conflagration of awesome people supporting my blog over on Patreon.

4 thoughts on “Larp’s Physicality Raises Social Justice Questions

  1. Roleplaying games can do awesome stuff, including with social justice issues. One thing I’ve noticed though, is that there are often two conflicting agendas in play, when minority issues are on the table.

    One is minority folk who want a day off from the minority-specific ways in which their lives suck, and they want an alternate reality in which their personal problems aren’t problems.

    One is majority folk (and btw this has little to do with numbers) who earnestly want to grapple with these difficult issues, and explore them in play in ways that hurt noone. Being a straight white middle class dude, this is very often where I’m coming from.

    Each of these agendas is IMO completely legitimate, but they can easily get in each other’s way, even without whatever-ist asshats being -ist.

    To be sure, I’ve seen plenty of women being cool with playing (respectfully) rough in games dealing with stuff that sucks for women, but I’ve also seen plenty of women who just wanted to kick some uncomplicated butt without having to relate to sexism, or to dudes grappling with sexism.

    I have an idea for how to square this particular circle in a game I’m working on, but right now I’ll be here, on the edge of my seat, waiting for part 3.

    • Yeah, for me that has to do with consent/transparence. Like if this game is going to be about racism, then we need to be clear about that.

      But also, there is this whole pattern of behavior and norms that happen in games that aren’t explicitly about racism–and I want designers to know that a) that exists and b) that they can’t get out of addressing it so they should make a proactive decision about how to do it. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Social Justice in Larp: A practical approach - Leaving Mundania

  3. Hi Lizzie and Whitney,

    Brilliant piece 🙂 flipping awesome 🙂

    I’m a UK LARPer – and enjoyed immensely that you’ve taken on a topic that never gets discussed in LARP – and here in the UK, totally ignored. When I raised a voice about it on a Group on Facebook I was told that “racism doesn’t exist in Britain – oh, and Americans aren’t racist”. I got, effectively drowned out and shouted down.

    I wonder if you’d like to expand the issue a bit more? Since it deals with tolerance and prejudice, why not discuss ability as well? Abelism and the non-combatant issue is one of the biggest issues in LARP at the moment.

    I used to play a combat fest-sized LARP. Through no fault of my own (I was shield-based by a fat, chain-maile wearing bully, with no referee consequences) was knocked out of combat for the rest of the Event (2 days left) and was too afraid to go next Event (why should I if the refeeing is going to be so poor?)

    I found that as a non-combatant I had NOTHING to do. The options were so slim. I’ve been to many systems since then, looked a quite a few, and the all offered the same thing – be a healer. Even crafting an alchemy are side-lined in nearly every system and there’s little to no scholarly skills. Sure, I could do a modern-day chamber LARP – but I love fantasy, and miss the smell of woodsmoke and mead.

    Should a LARP cater to as much as range as possible? Or should LARPs (and/or LARPers) exclude some because “this isn’t the game for you”. Your thoughts would be appreciated 🙂