Social Justice in Larp: A practical approach

My first two posts in this series–about larp as a potential tool of social activism and how the real-world element of larp fits into social justice–are really geared toward saying, “it’s complicated.” It’s so complicated, in fact, that there’s no magic wand you can wave to make things perfect. In most cases, I think larp designers often feel that they must choose between several alternatives with unattractive elements, and here I am going to talk specifically about ethnicity:

  • Erasure–that is, the practice of not including ethnicity in the larp design at all. In practice, this means the players often default to what they see as the norm–in other words, it’s easy to  end up with all white characters all of the time, thus erasing people of color from the fiction much in the same way they’ve been erased from, for example, many historical narratives.
  • Misrepresentation/harmful appropriation–that is, the practice of taking cool stuff from other cultures and knowingly or unknowingly using it to create a picture of that culture that is false and might reinforce oppression. Misrepresentation can drive people of color away from your game, for example, by marking it as a space in which they might be mistreated. Cultural remixing is the stuff of all art, but art also happens in a historical context. Taking cool stuff from other cultures, stripping it of context, and remixing it into your own work can be hurtful. It echoes the colonial practice of going to a place, plundering its (natural, human, cultural) resources and leaving the place depleted.
  • Self-representation–You’re representing yourself and your own culture and your own take on that. But if you’re part of a normative group, constant self-representation could lead back to erasure.

When you run a larp, you are essentially curating a community. That means you have the power to help set the standard of behavior and inclusion. Inclusion is not always a good thing. As I’ve written elsewhere, making space safe for people of color probably means making it unsafe for racists and setting standards that discourage racist behavior. You can choose what is more important to you: not offending the people who want to make homophobic comments, or being more inclusive toward gay people. But probably, you won’t be able to make any decisions without shutting some people out. Who you shut out is largely your community and your choice.

Perfection is not the standard; trying hard, making mistakes, and learning from them is.

There is no one larp that will be able to do representation 100% right. Heck, there is no culture on earth right now that has figured this stuff out completely, and to demand perfection of our larp designers and players (or our writers, moviemakers, actors etc.) sets an impossibly high standard.

This is not to say that we should not try to do better–we should! But we should understand the limitations of what we are doing and that there is no readily apparent choice that cannot be criticized. Using a variety of techniques is probably a good idea, as most techniques have some positive points, as well as some drawbacks. Designers should deploy them wisely, as intentional choices, rather than accidental defaults, and embrace thoughtful discussion and critique of these choices as an opportunity to learn.

We must change our culture of criticism.

We’ve got two interlocking problems with our culture of criticism: we’re giving too much of the wrong criticism, and we’re not taking enough of the right criticism.

Our culture of criticism has to acknowledge that there is no magic bullet for dealing with issues of representation and race/class/gender etc. It must assume that creators, unless proven otherwise, are operating in good faith and with positive intentions. Otherwise, we end up in liberal dogpile territory, competing to see who can criticize the most harshly and be the most offended, using issues of social justice to score community status points, and in the process, terrifying would-be creators who want to make stuff but are afraid that they will be publicly pilloried.

The liberal dogpile is bad, not merely because it produces a culture of fear that has a chilling effect on creation, but also because it creates too much critical noise. If the community is attacking every part of my design and using that to tell me that I am a horrible person, as a creator, it’s hard for me to sort through the critique, and it’s hard for me to want to sort through the critique.

On the other hand, sometimes people royally screw up stuff around race/class/gender. Often, this isn’t because they are bad people, or because they are racist/sexist/homophobic, but rarther, as A.A. George put it, due to “enormous and unexamined privilege.”

Mark Diaz-Truman explores this from a slightly different angle–that our ability to understand others as creators has “epistemic limits.” In other words, our positions within social systems can limit our ability to know things. It’s hard for me to cross boundaries to understand what it is like to be a gay Asian-American man, for example. As he put it, for these reasons:

“I think we should be generous to dominant creators because it’s likely that they are missing data they need to accurately judge the issues at play. But when they are given that data, we should ask how they handle the input. It seems completely fair to ask the conversation to start with reasonable, charitable discourse… but also to insist that creators ACTUALLY LISTEN instead of cloaking themselves in their limits.”

In summation: every approach is going to have strengths and weaknesses. It’s important for critics to give creators the benefit of the doubt, and it’s important for creators to listen carefully, especially to non-dominant groups.

I’d also suggest that when criticizing a technique, critics look at what the creator was trying to do, and criticize it on how well it succeeded or failed. In other words, if I said, “Q is kind of problematic,” and the larp creator said, “I chose to do Q instead of Z because I wanted to emphasize X aspect of the problem.” Then that opens some fruitful ground for discussion. We can argue about whether it did X successfully or not, and whether the tactic used to highlight X had drawbacks that overcame its advantages. 

Some tactics to try

I want to give a sense of what I mean when I say that there’s no magic bullet. So here are a few tactics along with their benefits and possible weaknesses. I’d love to develop a big wide toolbox of these sorts of approaches, and I know others are doing some interesting work in this territory, notably the Indie+ Gaming As Other panelists, who are working primarily with tabletop design. On a personal level, I’m at the beginning of my learning on this topic, so hopefully people will post more resources and suggestions in the comments.

Do not mention the character’s ethnicity/name in game materials

Benefit: allows players to choose what ethnicity they wish to play, which also means that players of color, if they wish, can choose to play their own ethnicity. Make me play “Alan,” and I’ll probably assume he’s white and male. Tell me to play “A” and I can choose to play “Amruta.”

Weakness: Often, when characteristics such as ethnicity are not mentioned, players simply default to whatever their cultural touchstone is. In many cultures, this is white, straight, cis, etc. Also, when ethnicity is not specified, it implies that ethnicity has no impact on a character’s life.

Suggestion: As Stenros points out, “if it is left open, then the rules should explicate that the player gets to choose. This makes players clearly aware of their options.”

Totally mention the character’s ethnicity in game materials…

Benefit: Puts a diversity of characters into a game, and forces someone to embody them as a real person for a few hours.

Weakness: The idea of playing race wrong scares some players. If insufficient information is included, it’s possible a player could default to a totally stereotypical portrayal. What counts as “sufficient” material probably depends on the player base.

Suggestion: In the absence of clear direction, most players will default to what they know, and what may be most familiar is stereotype. So help them know more than the stereotype by including a paragraph or so in the game materials. Bonus if it includes play suggestions. Also, it’s probably a good idea to think about how you will visually render this (see below).

…and make interesting plots about racism.

Benefit: Could combat erasure and raise awareness of struggles that people of color face. 

Weakness: If you don’t do your research, you might really screw it up. Also feeds the idea that including characters of color in a larp make the larp “about racism.” Could be construed as misery tourism.

 …and make interesting plots that have nothing to do with racism

 Benefit: Makes the point that it is totally normal to be a person of color, and that it doesn’t affect the experience of being a pulp archeologist that much.

Weakness: Could be construed as ignoring the effects of discrimination, and ignoring the effects of prejudice can also be a denial of lived experience.

Suggestion: Stenros writes, “Make conscious design choices. Explicate those choices. Stand by them, but also be willing to re-examine them when faced with criticism.” 

Use symbolic costuming to denote characters of different ethnicities.

Benefit: Can be a useful way to denote visually who is in what group, if such a thing is relevant to the game. 

Weakness: Can raise questions and trigger feelings about racial masquerade, which probably depends to some extent on which symbolic clothing you are using. Also isn’t totally WYSIWYG, but in this case, I think that’s a good thing.

Suggestion: Costuming–a pin or scarf or more distinctive style of dress, or a simple out-of-game name tag with ethnicity written on it–can help people visually differentiate ethnicities, if that element is important to your larp. Because racial masquerade has been historically extremely problematic, I strongly suggest that you do not let players use skin-darkening makeup.

Use made-up ethnicities

 Benefit: Can help avoid some issues of cultural appropriation, if you aren’t just creating new ethnicities by drawing from a grab bag of racial stereotypes. Some players might feel more comfortable portraying a fictional ethnicity as it removes some issues of misrepresentation.

Drawback: The game might not hit as hard with fictional ethnicities. Also, just slapping a new label on old racial tropes isn’t enough, and it’s possible that in the absence of a clear vision for a new ethnicity, players might just grab for a low-hanging stereotype.

Suggestion: Fictional ethnicities are not disconnected from the real world. Just because the desert aliens in Star Wars aren’t called Arab doesn’t mean that they’re not a racist stereotype.

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. Hungry for even more posts on social justice in gaming? This series is part of a larger one on this blog.

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One thought on “Social Justice in Larp: A practical approach

  1. Very nice approaches, especially what with being flexible and pragmatic in the pursuit of worthy goals.

    Currently I’m working on a game featuring oppression as a theme, in which the players, at the start of the game, get to decide between them which kinds of oppression to grapple with and which kinds to avoid in the sense of “in this fantasy, it’s not a problem”.