Debriefing After Role-playing Games
Debriefing is a somewhat controversial topic in role-playing communities today. While some individuals feel that games should remain distinct from the mundane world and debriefing is an unnecessary complication, many role-players have grown concerned about difficulties in the process of transitioning between intense game experiences back to mundane life.Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner, “Post-Larp Depression,” Analog Game Studies 1, no. 1. As part of our Nordiclarp.org series on emotional safety and conflict resolution in role-playing communities, this article analyzes the various formats, benefits, and drawbacks of post-game debriefing after a role-playing experience. Though debriefing is most often discussed in larp circles,Eirik Fatland, “Debriefing Intense Larps 101,” last modified July 23, 2013, The Larpwright, http://larpwright.efatland.com/?p=384; Peter Munthe-Kaas, “Post-Larp,” last modified October 23, 2013, Munthe-Kaas.dk/blog, http://munthe-kaas.dk/blog/?tag=post-larp; Tobias Bindslet and Pernille Schultz, “De-Fucking,” Playground Magazine 2, 2011, 30-33; Lizzie Stark, “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief,” last modified December 1, 2013, Lizzie Stark.com, http://leavingmundania.com/2013/12/01/run-post-larp-debrief/. the process can also be useful in tabletop role-playing.
Ritualized Post-game Activities
Several scholars have noted that the role-playing experience is similar to a ritualSeveral scholars have noted that the role-playing experience is similar or identical to a ritual, in which participants engage in a liminal experience.For a few examples, see Christopher I. Lehrich, “Ritual Discourse in Role-playing Games,” last modified October 1, 2005, The Forge, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/ritual_discourse_in_RPGs.html; J. Tuomas Harviainen, “Information, Immersion, Identity: The Interplay of Multiple Selves During Live-Action Role-Play,” Journal of Interactive Drama: A Multi-Discipline Peer-Reviewed Journal of Scenario-Based Theatre-Style Interactive Drama 1, no. 2 (October 2006): 11; Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Functions of Role-playing Games, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010, pp. 15, 48-53; J. Tuomas Harviainen and Andreas Lieberoth,“The Similarity of Social Information Processes in Games and Rituals: Magical Interfaces,” Simulation & Gaming (April 10, 2011): 528-549. Liminality describes an in-between, amorphous, and ephemeral space where the social rules of reality are changed and new roles are inhabited for the purposes of the ritual. Drawing upon Arnold van Gennep’s and Victor Turner’s theories, role-playing scholars note the ways in which just as in religious or other social rituals, role-players experience a preparation, liminal, and return phase.
In the preparation phase, individuals engage in various activities to transform themselves physically and emotionally for the ritual. In the case of larp, for example, preparation might include creating a backstory, assigning points to a character sheet, crafting a costume, memorizing game rules, or building character ties with other participants. Recent larp practitioners have advocated for workshopping as another powerful tool during the preparation phase,Jesper Bruun, “Pre-larp Workshops as Learning Situations – Matching Intentions with Outcome,” in Think Larp: Academic Writings from KP2011, edited by Thomas Duus Henriksen, Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle (Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet, 2011), 194-215; The Workshop Handbook, last modified July 29, 2005, http://workshophandbook.wordpress.com/. in which players have the opportunity to build trust with other participants, develop their character backstories through scenes, and try out mechanics or techniques that may come up in the game.
Similarly, role-playing groups have several informal activities for the return phase of the ritual that have emerged in various communities as needed. Examples of solitary post-game activities include in-character and out-of-character journaling, which players may choose to share with others as game memories or keep private. Immersion into other games, narratives, or work activities can also help people switch gears to another mental and emotional framework. Many post-game activities are more social in nature, such as dinners or parties, often called afters. In recent years, post-game social activities often take place on the Internet, as players post on social media sites such as Facebook, Google+, blogs, and forums about their experiences and connect with other participants. We can consider these emergent activities forms of informal debriefing.
The bulk of the content of these forms of sharing involves war stories, in which participants narrativize events from game as their character experienced them.Stark, “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief.” War stories often have a humorous or excited tone regardless of the subject matter of the story, as the process of retelling is often experienced as exhilarating. During war stories, players do connect with their characters by reliving their experiences, but they also are able to create a form of distance by telling the story in a humorous or otherwise distanced way. This distance is quite healthy for the psyche by allowing for reframing. Reframing is a way for the psyche to make sense of the amorphous, confusing, and ephemeral experiences that transpire within the liminality of role-playing by creating a linear, controlled narrative of that gets committed to memory with each retelling. War stories also work to reinforce social ties between others who were part of the experience as they are allowed to hear events from the perspective of others.
Ultimately, war stories are most pleasurable for the players telling the stories; their experiences are validated when others listen and retelling allows them to relive the intensity of both high and low moments in the game in a positive framework. However, war stories rarely allow players to express some of the deeper emotional content that they experienced in the game. The format of the war story focuses on “awesome” experiences and emphasizes a sort of exhilaration in the retelling. If a player is experiencing a negative response to the game, the war story format is generally not compatible with a more serious expression of sharing, which might feel like a “buzzkill” to other gamers.
Recent discussions in experimental groups such as the Nordic larp and freeform communities about emotional safety in role-playingJohanna Koljonen, Peter Munthe-Kaas, Bjarke Pedersen, and Jaakko Stenros, “The Great Player Safety Controversy,” Panel at Solmukohta 2012, Nurmijärvi, Finland, April 13, 2012; Johanna Koljonen, “The Second Great Player Safety Controversy,” Presentation at Knutepunkt 2013, Haraldvangen, Norway, April 19, 2013; Johanna Koljonen, “Safety in Larp,” Presentation at the Larpwriter Summer School 2013, Vilnius, Lithuania, last modified Aug. 1, 2013, YouTube, Fantasiforbundet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qho9O_EMG34; Johanna Koljonen, “Emotional and Physical Safety in Larp – Larpwriter Summer School 2014,” Presentation at the Larpwriter Summer School 2014, Vilnius, Lithuania, last modified Aug. 3, 2014, YouTube, Fantasiforbundet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-cPmM2bDcU. emphasize the need for these deeper, serious forms of sharing, especially in powerful games where physical and emotional limits are tested. Such forms of testing can produce the experience of bleed – where a player’s emotions, thoughts, relationships, and physical states bleed over into the character and visa versa – which can often produce lasting emotional impacts after the game.Markus Montola, “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing,” Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players, 2010; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Bleed: How Emotions Affect Role-playing Experiences,” Nordic Larp Talks Oslo, 2013; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study,” International Journal of Role-Playing 4, 2013: 17-18. For example, if one’s character dies or the life of a loved one is threatened in game, a player may experience those emotions of fear and grief after the game is over. Similarly, if a character has a negative interaction in the game such as a physical or social attack, they may experience confusing feelings of anger or frustration toward both the character and the player in question.
The alibi of the game allows players to distance themselves from any events that take place in-character and in-gameWhile the informal debriefing strategies described above may create space for people to express these feelings and contextualize them, players may feel uncomfortable sharing, especially if the play culture does not encourage such types of discussion. Some communities strongly emphasize the difference between player and character, which role-playing theorists call alibi.Markus Montola and Jussi Holopainen, “First Person Audience and Painful Role-playing,” in Immersive Gameplay, edited by Evan Torner and William J. White (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012). The alibi of the game allows players to distance themselves from any events that take place in-character and in-game. Classic statements reinforcing alibi include: “It wasn’t me, it’s what my character would have done,” “It’s just a game,” and “You can’t separate fantasy from reality.” While alibi does exist in that role-players are distinct from their characters, statements such as these are often used to minimize or invalidate the experiences of others in distress. If someone wishes to express their feelings in a culture where such statements are common, they are often seen as “taking the game too far,” “having no life,” or needing to “walk it off.”
Formal Debriefing as an Alternate Strategy
A formal debrief is integrated into the game as part of the experienceAs a result of these issues, individuals in communities such the Nordic larp and American freeform traditionsLizzie Stark, et al., “How to Debrief a Freeform Game,” last modified on July 15, 2012, Lizziestark.com, http://lizziestark.com/tag/freeform-debrief/ have started implementing formal debriefing into their games. A formal debrief – as opposed to an optional afters — is often integrated into the game as part of the experience and is sometimes complemented by a pre-game workshop session. This practice was adopted from theatre, educational games, and military exercises; though the learning connotation is not emphasized as strongly in the leisure activity of role-playing, formal debriefs can certainly encourage an atmosphere of learning from one’s experiences within the game. In a formal debrief, participants take turns sharing their experiences from the game in a serious tone, focusing on deeply emotional moments, both positive and negative. Ideally, each player is given the opportunity to have equal sharing time in a formal debrief and no one person should dominate the conversation. Thus, a moderator is often necessary to maintain the debriefing format. This moderator need not be one of the game organizers, who are often overwhelmed with other logistics, but should have at least some experience leading group exercises.
Formal debriefs are often confused with other formalized post-game activities that have emerged in some communities. Examples include game wraps after one-shot games, in which each player explains what secrets their character kept from others and their true motivations,Fair Escape, “Game Wraps,” last modified August 1, 2012, Fair Escape: LARPing Thoughts from a LARPer Fair, http://fairescape.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/game-wraps/. or MVP Awards, in which each player nominates another for enhancing their experience in a significant way. Alternately, players may critique game design or implementation in such formal settings, providing feedback to organizers. Again, while these activities are technically formalized, they often do not allow space for individuals to share troubling emotions and usually resemble war stories more than formal debriefs. Games that feature “lighter” content or greater degrees of fantasy are sometimes considered safer emotionally and assumed to not need a debrief. However, in some instances, these sorts of games take people by surprise in terms of the depth of their emotional responses, particularly if they experienced a trigger to some past emotional trauma unrelated to the game.Shoshana Kessock, “Ethical Content Management and the Gaming Social Contract,” in The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con, 2013), 102-111; Maury Elizabeth Brown, “Pulling the Trigger on Player Agency: How Psychological Intrusions in Larps Affect Game Play,” in The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con, 2014). In press for December publication.
No one formula exists for the length, content, or number of participants in formal debriefs. Based on personal experience, an optional two-hour debrief after a three-day campaign game in groups of 3-6 has proven beneficial, although we also eat dinner during this time period, which serves the purpose of afters as well. During these debriefs, we first ask players to share the most profound emotional experiences they had in-game for one or two rounds, then ask participants to share their happiest moment for one round in order to end on a positive note. Alternately, two Larps from the Factory instructional videos detail a 2-3 minute debrief one-on-one followed by a thirty second debrief to the group, in which all players must limit their discussion to a succinct statement.Larps from the Factory, “Debrief: Make a Round, ‘Runda’ – Part01,” last modified Oct. 25, 2013, YouTube, EidZemVideo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K11k5toOScA&index=8&list=PL5ZRxNgrfrSEx6sRyJLeiFv1TvWjVmMPC.
Other games, such as the U.S. run of the Norwegian game Mad About the Boy, featured a multi-tiered debrief, in which individuals shared one-on-one, in small groups, in larger groups, and then as a big group over the course of a couple of hours.Lizzie Stark, “Mad About the Debrief,” last modified October 22, 2012, Leaving Mundania: Inside the World of Larp, http://leavingmundania.com/2012/10/22/mad-about-the-debrief/. After this debrief, compulsive sharing took place over the group mailing list for at least a week, which was compiled in a documentation book.Sarah Lynne Bowman, ed., The Book of Mad About the Boy (2012 U.S. Run): Documenting a Larp About Gender, Motherhood, and Values (Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespils Akademiet, 2013). Mad About the Boy also featured de-roleing buddies: groups of three players who exchanged email addresses and made themselves available for serious discussion in the future.
De-roleing strategies are helpful at the start of the debrief as a formal transitionOther de-roleing strategies include symbolically placing a personal item of the character’s into the center of the group; describing one quality that the player likes about the character and wants to keep with them; and admitting one quality that the player dislikes about the character and wishes to leave behind. These strategies are helpful at the start of the debrief as a formal transition. Additionally, players can make an effort to use third-person language to describe their character’s feelings and actions during the debrief,Stark, “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief.” which can create additional distance from the role and diffuse negative dynamics with others.
Players should also take care to avoid saying “you” when addressing other players, especially in an emotionally charged context. After all, alibi still exists, and the character performed the action, not the player. Some advocate for separating players in debriefing groups who have experienced emotionally-charged dynamics in games – such as victim and villain, or lovers experiencing a difficult quarrel — allowing individuals to feel free to express themselves without inhibition. Others suggest keeping the debriefing space open for all participants to hear, as such sharing might help people learn from one another’s perspectives and develop empathy. In this case, the multi-tiered option might be most beneficial, allowing players to share as little or as much as they like in small or large groups. Additionally, game organizers may also need a formal debrief with one another, which can help curtail issues of burn-out, feelings of under-appreciation, and exhaustion.
Critiques of Formal Debriefing and Possible Solutions
Formal debriefing is not without its detractorsFormal debriefing is not without its detractors. Some individuals dislike having others reframe their experience by feeling compelled to listen to another person’s sharing. Others prefer to process their feelings independently, reaching out to others when they feel ready. Others have felt that the formal debriefing process is too long, taking away from valuable game, cleaning, or travel time. Some feel that debriefing encourages a “culture of victimhood,” in which individual players’ negative emotions are disproportionally featured over the positive experiences they and other members of the group have had, which colors the whole experience. Some feel they do not need to debrief and others dislike feeling compelled to speak.
Such problems are not, in my view, reasons to discard the debriefing process completely. Much of these issues are resolvable through sufficient moderation. Players should be allowed to opt-out of formal debriefing, but also highly encouraged to participate as an important part of the ritual process. They should not feel compelled to speak; moderators should open space for individuals to share, but allow them to pass if necessary. Moderators can use a timer to make sure that each individual has enough time to share. They should remind players to “cut to the emotional chase” in terms of avoiding long war stories and addressing the core emotional components of the event.
Moderators should intercede if a debrief becomes too heated or accusatory, as debriefing should feel like a safe space for everyone to share. Encouraging third-person address for participants is a helpful strategy for reducing negative bleed, i.e. “My character felt scared when your character screamed at her” rather than “you yelled at me, which made me feel scared.” Ultimately, encouraging players to end debriefing with happy stories helps each individual remember why they enjoy playing the game. “Happy” stories may include stories with darker content, i.e. “It was so awesome when your character yelled at my character! I was laughing inside, but she was so scared!” However, ideally, “happy memories” might include moments of connection with other people, such as, “My character was so scared, but it felt so encouraging when Johnny’s character placed a hand on her shoulder in support.” Finally, formal debriefing should not be viewed not the only method to resolve emotional reactions after a game, as players can also process in informal debriefs, one-on-one, or in a solitary fashion.
Ultimately, the goal of any sort of post-game sharing — be it war stories, critiques of the game, or debriefing — is for players to feel heard. Often, groups can avoid long-standing grudges, loss of players from a community,Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities.” or post-larp depressionBowman and Torner, “Post Larp Depression.” if they simply provide space for others to share their feelings. Return to the mundane world can feel alienating after the intensity of experiences within a game. The other players who participated in that shared fiction are often the best and most qualified individuals to help one another transition. Formal debriefing establishes a play culture in which emotional experiences are considered valid and speaking about these moments is not only acceptable, but normative. The more debriefing is practiced in games, the less strange or undesirable serious sharing will seem to players unfamiliar with the process.