Maybe It’s Us: Larp Safety and Larper’s Munchausen Syndrome

UPDATE: You can read more context and clarifications about the below here.

The great debate about “larp safety” crops up about four times per year on my social media feeds, as it recently has, jogging loose some thoughts I’ve been holding on to for a while.

Today I want to talk about two related phenomena, what I’ve come to think of as the “adult” rule–“we are all adults and responsible for our own well-being,” and Larper’s Munchausen Syndrome.

Just Joining the Conversation Now?

This post relates to a broader debate about larp safety–do safety rules work? why don’t safety rules work better? safety techniques don’t work for me, so maybe we shouldn’t have them, etc. I don’t have the space to rehash it here, but if want to catch up:

Blaming the Technique, and Never the People

I’m pro-safety tools. I think every game should include some tools for helping people opt in and out of game, as Joc’s talk linked above suggests.

All safety techniques are limited. The world is wide, people are varied, and sometimes the same person can be quite different during different days or even times of day. At best, a safety technique gives you a graceful way to leave a situation you don’t want to be in within a game, for example, by saying “cut.”

I also think the safety debate in my community ends up being driven by personal experiences. “I didn’t feel safe in using a cut word, therefore we should come up with a new thing to use,” or “Safety tool X didn’t work for me, and therefore it is useless.” Dissatisfaction should be the lifeblood of innovation, yes, and of course we should continue experimenting with new tools.

However, I’ve also seen people have a bad time in a larp, not tell anyone, and then blame the safety techniques. Heck, I’ve done it myself on occasion. That’s not a failure of safety techniques, that’s a failure of personal responsibility.

As the saying goes, “a poor carpenter blames their tools.” In other words: maybe the problem isn’t the tools. Maybe it’s us.

Larper’s Munchausen Syndrome

Munchausen syndrome is a real illness in which people feign physical sickness in order to get attention from medical professionals. Sometimes they are unaware that they are doing this.

What I’m calling “Larper’s Munchausen Syndrome” (LMS) is a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek way of naming a dynamic I see playing out within larp communities. It’s the desire to show that you were “so devastated” by a particular game or event in order to receive quality one-on-one time from some other person or community. It’s the equivalent of walking up to someone you kind of know and saying, “I’m feeling so sad,” and then staring meaningfully at them until they ask you why.

Sufferers of LMS use up a valuable community resource: the emotional labor of other people.

Diagnosing LMS is a fine, very delicate line to walk, as it can be really difficult to know whether someone is in genuine need of help and support, or whether they are being a bit histrionic. It’s one thing to spend emotional labor on someone who really needs it–we could, and should do this for one another. But it’s another thing to spend emotional labor on crocodile tears, or to comfort someone who is triggered by bees because they chose to go to a larp called “Beelarp: The Bee-ening. With extra bees.”

LMS is also contagious. How many of us could ‘fess up to being a bit histrionic in our communities on occasion? I know I’ve done it. What eventually sent me over the edge was feeling I had done so much emotional labor for others as an organizer, and wanting others to do emotional labor for me.

LMS turns us into emotional piles of goo, competing with one another to be the most hurt, the most mind-blown by a game, to get the most attention from our peers as a result. It’s a destructive dynamic.

But We’re All Adults

In my opinion, the antidote to LMS is a community of individual responsibility. The rule “We are all adults and are responsible for our own well-being” covers a lot.

For example, we know that many larpers don’t bow out of scenes because saying “cut” and stopping play is socially awkward. One solution is to work and workshop community norms to reduce that social awkwardness. And that’s important. At the same time, humans are pack animals and on some level it will probably always feel bad to leave, the same way it feels terrible to leave a dinner party early. It feels bad to stay, and it feels bad to go. No safety technique is going to change that. (Designer Shoshana Kessock underscored this in her talk about “responsible space” in larp.)

We should cultivate individual responsibility as much as we do community and shared sensitivity to the boundaries of others. Safety techniques are tools, but we are the ones who will implement them. Taking responsibility for ourselves and owning our decisions will reduce LMS, and LMS by proxy, making the community more pleasant. It will also increase larp safety, because we will be relying on people to know and enforce their own limits, rather on a set of one-size fits all tools.

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23 thoughts on “Maybe It’s Us: Larp Safety and Larper’s Munchausen Syndrome

  1. I am saddened by this article’s use of the language of mental illness. On a personal level, I am someone who does have a mental illness – Avoidant Personality Disorder – which is pretty much the exact opposite of an attention seeking personality type. I’ve also recently had very negative experiences at a LARP and when I did speak up about them, I was dismissed as being over-sensitive and attention seeking when the truth was that it was terrifying for me to even voice the issues. I don’t think it was the author’s intent, but I do think this article discourages people with valid concerns about problematic behavior from requesting support from their community. It, even if unintentionally, encourages silence and acceptance of destructive and exclusionary behaviors in LARP. We ARE all adults. And adults should not be ashamed of pointing out when there is a problem or of asking for help.

    • I’m sorry you had that experience. I agree that adults should not be ashamed about asking for help.

      At the same time, I also think that it’s always hard to speak up. And sometimes, even if one does the hard thing and speaks up, we may not get what we want, because no one owes emotional labor to another person, unless it’s part of the social contract between you. (I.e if I promise a safer space and don’t deliver it, that’s on me). If the organization you’re speaking about doesn’t offer the emotional channels you need, maybe that’s not the best fit and it’s time to shop around for a new game.

      • Sorry, but I am going to have to point out how you are using the language of mental illness to describe people who bring up issues in games. I am someone who has been accused of this in both senses. When I was younger I was ill (physically) and when the physicians could not diagnose me, they began this line of inquiry “is he or his mother DOING something to make him sick.” It is really sad that this has also happened to me in the LARP community. When others were not bothered by content as I was, my speaking up on those matters was called out as attention seeking. That others could not understand led to them attempting to explain the situation as a failing of my mental state or character. The first half of this post is doing something very similar. “There may be something wrong with the people that speak up.” It not only makes use of the language of mental illness, it is also falling on one of the common misattribution of the particular illness being discussed. Also, “maybe that’s not the best fit and it’s time to shop around for a new game.” You would be surprised how often the “take your ball and go home” line is used, maybe you should be more careful with it.

        • I don’t think you are trying to read my post very charitably. My point is not that people who bring up issues are mentally ill, but rather that we should cultivate a positive culture of personal responsibility so that when people bring up issues, they are taken seriously, and not as if it’s a case of “the boy who cried wolf.”

          Re: “take your ball and go home,” that’s not what I said. In my own life, I’m a firm believer that if a relationship, situation, or community is not serving my emotional needs, and it seems prohibitively difficult to change it, that it’s OK to move along and find a new community, or to try to make a community that will serve my own emotional needs. All of which is another way of saying that communities that don’t help people in pain are bad communities. And I don’t want to participate in bad communities.

          • I am not being uncharitable, I am simply stating that perhaps there was a poor choice of language. I refer specifically to the problematic portion and explain the issue with it. I did not say that you were calling anyone mentally ill, I pointed out how both the mental illness you are referring to, and the analogy you use speak to a failing or defect in the people being spoken of. Cultivating personal responsibility is great, and you may notice that I did say, “he first half of this post.” because that was the only portion that I took exception with.

            As for the “take your ball and go home,” that is what a statement suggesting finding another game means. It is a much nicer and optional suggestion, rather than a statement. But it for one, assumes that there is a single game or place that is the problem. It also assumes that the person has not already done so, that they have not both found another space and are continuing to speak on the matter. There is not always another space and suggestions or implications that people should find a space that fits them rather than try and address what is making them feel unwlecome in their current space? Well, I hope how that idea is problematic is self-evident.

          • OK, you’ve made your feelings known. I don’t agree with your interpretation of my post or my words, but I also think we’ve probably gone as far as we reasonably can with this exchange, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  2. Thanks for the reply, but I wasn’t actually trying to imply that anyone is owed “emotional labor.” My point was, that it is demeaning and insulting to use the language of mental illness and counter-productive to any real conversation about safety in LARP.

    • Why? I’m no stranger to mental issues in my friends, family, and own life, and it seems like an apt metaphor. Emphasis on the metaphor. Must using illness as a metaphor always be insulting to the ill?

      • It is demeaning and insulting because your metaphor implies that people who are speaking up for their own emotional needs are unreliable It is a metaphor which implies that these people are sick, over-exaggerating, over-sensitive, or just plain liars. And maybe, in rare cases, maybe that is true. But I do not believe that it is true of the majority of those who are looking to make this a safer hobby for themselves and others. Mental Illness is still heavily stigmatized in our society, and telling people that they are crazy is a sure-fire way to get them to back out of a conversation.

        So, I get that people need to take responsibility for their own safety. That’s a concept I don’t have a problem with at all. But I do think this article is an in-effective and, frankly, a little offensive, effort at getting that point across.

        • OK, you’ve made your feelings known. I don’t agree with your interpretation of my post, but I also think we’ve probably gone as far as we reasonably can with this exchange, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  3. Great read. The trend to (in absence of external moral panic) create our own moral panic (essentially claiming that we, as players are unable to separate fiction from fantasy, the most common and shallow external complaint against larp) by painting the contents of larp as distressing or potentially offensive. There are light and casual “no-flammable-themes” games as well as emotionally tough and sophisticated ones. The heavy ones have gotten rarer and rarer as the “larp hurts” fad has been in vogue. I hope this line of discussion makes for braver organizers and more self-reliant players. If anyone is genuinely emotionally crushed by powerful larp-experiences I would recommend them to seek out lighter games. Every form of expression is not for everyone. I want to break down and cry like a baby after a game, but I’m not gonna do it online and I don’t want to do it in a workshop. I treasure the emotional reactions to games just like I treasure ones I get from reading a novel or watching a movie. To future braveness!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Martin. I’d also say that I don’t think that organizers have _zero_ responsibility for the emotional well-being of their players. They do have a responsibility to give people opt-in and opt-out options, to try to create positive relationships between the players, etc. But there are limits to how much these things can do!

      But I do think the safety debate has been too colored by the idea of safety mechanics and organizer responsibility. It’s a bit like me thinking my apartment would be clean if only I bought the right storage equipment. Having the right equipment only goes so far–at the end of the day I have to make time to tidy.

  4. There is also an element of community responsibility. Even if it’s a game of hundreds of people, the shared space we all occupy needs to be safe in order for us to make the shift into character and explore these new identities. I agree that players should feel empowered to say “cut” if they need to, but that takes a level of self awareness not often found in humans. The other side of the coin (to me) is empathy for your fellow players. If we’re in a serious, charged scene, we should be aware of the possible impact we are having on the other players. Unless the specifics are negotiated in advance, we don’t really know to what level anot her player is willing or able to go, and like you said, they may not even know until after the fact.
    Just as there is shame associated with saying cut for your own safety, there seems to be some for saying cut for someone else. But it’s not unlike BDSM negotiation: it is better to have some of what you want, and stop early so that you can play again, than it is to push too much and ruin someone for who knows how long.

    I’m a bit rambly Cuz I’m posting on my phone, but my gist is that we are mutually responsible for the health of our community. If we don’t have a community, then there’s no game. And games need antagonists to be compelling and engaging. Maybe those antagonists need to be a bit more cognicent of their effect on others.

    • My thoughts on this are still evolving, and these thoughts have jogged some more of mine free.

      I do think that safety is the responsibility of everyone at a larp, and yes, of course we have a mutual responsibility to watch out for one another. Part of that is to treat emotional labor like the valuable resource that it is–to use it only when you need it.

      (I think your point about antagonists is interesting. It’s complicated to play an antagonist, and in some ways, it’s harder than playing a person who has been antagonized. It would feel safer to play an antagonist, I think, if you felt you could trust your victims to put on the brakes when needed. )

      But my bigger point here, I think, is that safety is everyone’s responsibility. Most of the safety debate I’ve witnessed has been about what organizers can do to make a safer environment, and yes, that’s important. Some of it is about community design, which is also important. But we talk so little about what we can do on the individual level, and I see people who are nodes of emotional energy being sucked dry by our existing safety culture.

      This is why, as I mention in my post, it’s a fine, subtle distinction. We should absolutely help people who need help. But when our culture prioritizes that to a great extent, it makes “getting help” the most major way to get attention. And this encourages/incentivizes drama queen behavior, which depletes emotional resources unnecessarily. One solution is to spread the emotional labor around more equally–tough for a lot of reasons. Another is to try to de-incentivize drama queen behavior (what this post focuses on). The trick is how to do that while also still delivering care to the people who need it.

      • I agree with you.

        There is a prevalent safety culture in America, waring with the hypermasculine “suck it up” culture. It is a complicated and delicate thing. Ideally everyone playing will be emotionally stable, mature people with a good support network, capale of making decisions about their own emotional wellbeing, but that is simply not the case. There is likely not one silver bullet solution.

        What we can do though, is adress the symptoms while working on a cure. Become better players by encorporatong more empathy for you fellow players, and by cultivating an underatanding of your own state. Create safe spaces, accessible resources, etc. And probably most importantly, stop shaming people for saying cut.

        As an antagonist, I have said “fade to black” Instead of carrying out really distasteful scenes when I recognized mid scene that the “victim” players were getting really upset and had a history of the kind of violence we were portraying. But at the same time, larp can be really good therapy and provide great help for players. It is a supportive community where we are encouraged to explore ourselves. I have seen so many success stories in larp over the years.

        Thanks for the dialogue. It’s inspiring 🙂

        • Back at you. 🙂

          I wrote a piece for the Knutepunkt book in 2014 about safety and extreme games. I interviewed a psychologist who suggested that properly-run debriefs are great, but that one thing was missing from our safety practices: for people to think about what would be psychologically difficult, to think about situations that might cause them to cut, before a game started.

          That could be an additional way for folks to prepare themselves to use cut words. (I agree that destigmatizing cutting is important, but I think that even if we work hard at that, we’ll probably never get all the way there because of how social situations work).

  5. “LMS” is a cop-out, a dodge to avoid responsibility. It’s a simple blanket label for a variety of social issues, putting social misbehavior on the members to avoid addressing more serious issues, and gives predators an easy handle to blame the victim, or deflect blame, in a loose social structure… but the fact is, a structure is provided, and some people genuinely don’t feel safe (or you wouldn’t get repeat mentions of it), and the people providing the social structure need to take appropriate measures to ensure, without doubt, that any predatory behavior won’t be tolerated.

    I recently joined a hackerspace during such an upheaval… the original harassment policy boiled down to, basically, “don’t do anything your high school health ed teacher would disapprove of.” However, the vague wording and over-reliance on individuals to self-police and act like adults led to predators taking advantage of the wording to harass other members and then deflect blame. Currently, new wording for the harassment policy is underway, with the help of the ‘space’s legal representation. We also held an Ally Workshop and paid for members to attend.

    Harboring a loose social gathering puts a lot of the responsibility for the behavior of individuals on the individuals… but the fact is that we live in a time where any structured social gathering should include significant wording to the agreement that addresses both melodramatics (to assuage those who fear the strawman of LMS) and harassment/assault. “Don’t do it” isn’t enough, and a report system to monitor possible repeat occurrences, along with detailed stressing against retaliation for reporting, is wise. When in doubt, though, stressing the strawman is dangerous when possible predation is on the table. Putting the rumor mill aside, it’s always better to cast light on predators.

    • For the record: I don’t think “we’re all adults” should be the only safety valve used. As I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog over the course of several years, we need tools like cut/brake, workshops, a strong sense of community standards, and for larger, more formal gatherings, codes of conduct with procedures to back them up, etc. (see the two posts before these about social design at Living Games for more details, for example).

      BUT, none of these things works if people won’t take responsibility for themselves. The organizer is not the only person responsible for safety at a gathering–safety is everyone’s responsibility. And a community in which people own responsibility for their own actions is, in my opinion, a community that is safer for everyone, because it is a community with reserves of emotional labor ready to be deployed to help victims.

  6. Pingback: Basics of Opt-in, Opt-Out Design pt 4: Rage Quitting as a Measure of Your Expectation Management Skills – Safety in Larp