The F&F Manifesto: Fail better, forgive better

I want a larp culture of failure and forgiveness.

As a game designer, I need the freedom to experiment with wacky, absurd, or edgy ideas, and that also means I need the freedom to fail. I want to fail often because failure and constructive criticism is part of how you become a better designer. Most particularly, I’d like to fail often on sensitive topics like race, religion, class and gender.

As Bertold Brecht put it, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Making more larps about these important topics will generate discussion and perhaps produce players who are more compassionate. Perhaps it will allow us to try out solutions to thorny problems or to investigate the complexities of a conflict.

I, like most other humans, am a well-intentioned but flawed person, constrained by my own identity. I’m a product of a system that is on some level racist, sexist, classist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic. Despite my best efforts and what I’d like to believe about myself (that I am an enlightened, hyper-individual, compassionate ubermenschette), it’s likely I carry some of those beliefs with me, and by extension, it’s likely my design will carry them too.

I deserve to be called on my bullshit, and so do my designs. But I also deserve to be called out with compassion, and constructive feedback. Making larps (or writing books, or composing music) is actually pretty difficult and time consuming. As an act of creation it should be met with constructive criticism, and not hostility.

I want a culture in which I can fail, be criticized, receive the feedback with grace, and do better next time. I want the stigma against failure to be lower, in hopes it will spur more people to create more awesome things, and to learn in the process.

Right now, many of the gaming communities I participate in are mired in a culture of fear–fear of internet shit-storms and public humiliation, fear that one wrong word will send the PC police to your door, and filled with just anger about issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia that do exist–to different extents in different scenes–within the gaming community. We also have the phenomenon of the liberal dogpile, where people compete to show how enlightened they are by finding new and exotic things wrong with a particular larp design.

On one hand, there is legitimate and constructive criticism buried in that mire, criticism that deserves to be heard. On the other hand, the mode of delivery is profoundly alienating to many larp creators. In the past year I have heard perhaps ten designers tell me that this toxic atmosphere has scared them away from making games about sensitive issues.

There has to be a better way. A way for constructive criticism to be heard, and a way to allow creators to fail–even at the important stuff–and come out energized on the other side, and ready to make new and even better larps. I want to be able to have my larps and criticize them too. I want many people to feel excited to make games about race, class and gender. But in order to make that happen, we must change how we give and receive criticism, and in order to do that, I think we must agree on some basic principles.

These issues are super effing difficult; failure is inevitable.

Look, if I could end racism, poverty, and gender issues by making a great larp that dealt with them perfectly, you bet your sweet ass I’d be all up on that. But let’s keep in mind that James Baldwin, Gloria Steinem, Eli Wiesel, and Beyonce haven’t been able to “get it right.” Neither have the governments of any country, who have been working on this stuff for centuries.

There is no magic technique that will render gender, race, class, etc. in such a way that some element of it cannot be problematized. In other words: rendering race/class/gender “perfectly,” in a larp is impossible. You are doomed to fall short of the standard of perfection–this isn’t a bug, it’s a design feature. Accept it. Work with it.

Fail interestingly and often

The solution to one technique having some flaws is not to bitch about it endlessly on the internet. It is to make fifty new techniques that fall short in new and interesting ways.

For example, let’s say I write a game in which none of the characters have specified ethnicities. On one hand, this could make the game more accessible on the player level–might make some people of color feel more free to play what they like. On the other hand, if most of your players are white, chances are decent that you’ll end up with a completely white universe, which constitutes erasure. Using this technique isn’t a problem–it has some strengths offset by some weaknesses. But it would be a problem if EVERY LARP used that technique.

Likewise, making a game where the characters have specified ethnicities has benefits and drawbacks. Benefit: gets rid of the erasure problem Drawback: You might not render these characters clearly if you aren’t familiar with their cultural backgrounds. You also might end up with players nervous about going for it–you could end up with racist portrayals of the characters.

The solution is not to avoid race in larp entirely. The solution is to fit the method you use to your goals.  And for us as a large community to aim for diversity of technique and subject matter. Good criticism should be able to explore the complexity of these techniques–it should assess how well the techniques fit the theme of the game, and it should be able to explore the complexity that most techniques have strong points as well as weak ones.

Support failure.

If we want people to make games about tough subjects, we can’t go around making them feel like terrible people for trying something and failing. Criticism must be compassionate as well as constructive.  If Susie runs a larp on gender that doesn’t get the plight of trans women exactly right, she shouldn’t be condemned as a horrible insensitive person trying to set back trans rights, rather, she should be applauded for trying something outside of her comfort zone that focuses on an underrepresented group. (cough cough) The feedback she gets should separate the work of larp from her as a person, and should focus on specific elements of the design. “I like that you focused on the experiences of trans women, but that technique you used to represent gender has some flaws that you might think about changing,” is more helpful than “I find it extremely problematic when cis people think they understand trans people.”

We’re all creators here, and imagining ourselves into other people’s shoes is what we do. It’s the essence of roleplay. It’s also messy, fraught, and complicated, but let’s deal with the mess rather than condemning the basic premise of the hobby we all share.

Gonad-up and take criticism

Making a piece of art and putting it in a public arena–or roleplaying a character, for that matter–is an act of self-confidence and an act of exposure. Your work (and possibly you) will be criticized and analyzed. This is part of the job. This is the job. This is also why most people want to make art–to show something of themselves to the world.

When you create a game, you put yourself into the public sphere. Criticism can be painful, and you don’t have to listen to all of it, but you should listen to at least some of it. Particularly if it’s around your rendering of a sensitive topic.

The F&F Vow for Designers

  • I will make cool games about topics and social issues that matter.
  • I will fail. And I will fail loudly. I will accept criticism and, as the indie game people put it, I will ‘fail forward.’ I will let failure, and my acceptance of criticism propel me into the next project where I will do it better, clearer, or differently.
  • I will not respond to internet trolls and I will stop reading threads that upset me. My attitude toward critics will be: constructive criticism or GTFO. I will try to forgive people who criticize harshly or unjustly.
  • I will assume that critics are good, reasonable people who want to help me make my games better unless proven otherwise.
  • I will make reasonable efforts to research the setting and characters before I design a game, so that I do not inadvertently write something offensive.
  • Inasmuch as I can, I will try to make design choices about sensitive topics knowingly–I will choose who and how to offend, and not do so by accident or default.
  • I will step out of my comfort zone in my design on occasion.
  • If I screw up, I will forgive myself, dust myself off and try again.
  • If I need to vent, I will do it in a private setting.
  • If I am wrong, I will apologize. If I was publicly wrong, I will seriously consider apologizing publicly.

The F&F Vow for Larpers and Critics

  • I will acknowledge that creators are merely humans with thoughts and feelings and who might be reading my words. I will give creators the benefit of the doubt and I will assume that they are good, reasonable people unless proven otherwise.
  • I will wait a week after a long game (or at least an hour after a freeform game) before publicly posting criticism, to give myself time to process and reflect on the experience and manage any post-larp weirdness. (Per the Nordic scene)
  • I will acknowledge that the world’s problems are thorny and that there is no perfect solution to many game design issues: when I assess a game I will write about the benefits as well as the weaknesses, and I will try to provide a suggestion for making the larp even better if possible.
  • I will try to assess whether the methods used supported the core themes of the game, rather than assessing them in comparison to my vision of utopia.
  • I will include at least one positive thing in every review.
  • I will make sure that I correctly understood what happened in the game before posting a review, particularly if I did not attend the larp.
  • I will not mistake the larp for the creator, in the same way that I wouldn’t assume that a player portraying a criminal is also a criminal in real life.
  • If I need to vent, I will do it in a private setting.
  • I will forgive game creators for screwing up sometimes, and my criticism will come from a place of wanting them to make more games.
  • If I later realize I am wrong, I will apologize. If I was wrong publicly, I will seriously consider apologizing publicly.

Now let us all intone the sacred words of Samuel Beckett, to bind ourselves to these vows:

“Ever tried. Ever failed.
No matter. Try again.
Fail again. Fail better.”

Hat tip to George Locke for, among other advice, coining the term “liberal dogpile.”

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7 thoughts on “The F&F Manifesto: Fail better, forgive better

  1. And a few other points that have come up in various social media threads, that I thought worth repeating:

    The designer’s vow could also include these two points:

    – If I want to make an experience about a hierarchy I am privileged in, I will make a good faith effort to ask for help from someone who experiences that oppression. (In other words, if I want to make a game about the Indian-American experience, I’ll make a good faith effort to find an Indian-American and include them in the design process, or at least talk to them to make sure I have an accurate understanding of the experience.)

    -I will not mistake criticism of my game as personal criticism of me. (i.e. if someone says “the technique you used creates racist stereotypes,” I will try not to hear, “you are racist.”)

  2. “Liberal dogpile”. Nice phrase, for a phenomenon that needs to go away.

    On phrases like PC gone mad, thought police, free speech! and the like: While I generally manage to squash the urge to lace up those liberal jack boots and start stomping, few things are as sublimely effective as trotting out those notions in getting me to stay the bloody hell away from engaging positively in your games. This is not to say that you’re not allowed to defend yourself as a gamewright, but if you defend yourself with tribal markers, the conversation ends right there. And having that conversation could be really nice.

    Finally, I also kind of get how it’s not always easy to extend the benefit of the doubt. When you do, and the other person turns out to be a jackass, it wears you down. And that happens quite a bit for those who try to engage positively on problematic subjects in gaming.

  3. I hear you. I think the PC-police idea is frequently trotted out to excuse the desire to not-make a game, or because the creator is too scared of being called sexist/racist/etc. to touch the subject. Which is funny because the only thing worse than having someone on the internet call you sexist is probably living under sexist oppression. But as a creator, it also sucks.

    So I think giving the benefit of the doubt should be a two-way street. Creators should try to give critics the benefit of the doubt and vice versa. Jackasses ruin the party for everyone, so I think we should find a way to call them out on their jackassery and boot them from the community if they don’t mend their ways.

  4. Of course, now that I think about it there are people who consider any mention of racism or sexism to be “tribal” and a conversation-ender. On that note, it’s really important to do as you say and talk about what’s said and done, not about who is a racist or a sexist or whatever. Even though people often hear the former and perceive the latter.

    In the words of Jay Smooth:

    I piously hope the next time people want to call me out on PC gone mad, they make it about what I said and did, not about what a feminazi like me must obviously have been out to do.

    • Jay Smooth ftw!

      And yes, I think separating behavior from persona is the right way to go. I think it’s silly to make a mention of racism or sexism as a conversation ender. And certainly, that’s not what I’d like to do when I’m discussing the topics.

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  6. Very well said!
    It is somewhat depressing that such things need to be written explicitly… they should be taken for granted!

    I wonder if you read the “Post-progressive larping manifesto”, I found out about it the other day and it seems to me it has a similar approach… it argues for less “prescriptions” and more freedom to play and organize in larps