A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture

A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture

Consent culture in larp communities is a subject of great interest in the current discourse. While previous decades have witnessed roaring debates on the superiority of various rules systems, distribution of narrative control, or emphasis on specific themes, several larp communities have shifted their focus to discuss issues of emotional and physical safety. In the last several years, the annual Nordic larp conference has featured panels and workshops on safety. The Living Games Conference 2016 showcased a series of keynotes on Community Management, with presentations from organizers such as John Stavropoulos, Avonelle Wing, Maury Brown, and Johanna Koljonen. Several scholarly and popular articles have emerged on topics such as emotional bleed from player to character and vice versa; triggers and larp; how to calibrate play styles; steering play to maximize role-play potential; the importance of debriefing; post-larp depression/”blues”; and playing for empathy. Other recent panels have focused upon playing intense emotional content more safely; role-playing as potentially therapeutic; and crisis management in communities, including policy, deliberation, and decision making.

Of central interest in many of these discussions is the rise of consent-based play, where actions within larps must take place according to a collaborative agreement between players. This style of play has gained recent popularity in games such as College of Wizardry, New World Magischola, End of the Line, and Convention of Thorns, although earlier precedents certainly exist. For many participants, consent-based play provides greater degrees of trust between players, personal autonomy over one’s story, and collaboration in the larp community.[1]See for example Maury Brown, “Creating a Culture of Trust through Safety and Calibration Larp Mechanics,” Nordiclarp.org, last modified September 9, 2016.

wizards point their wands at each other

In consent-based resolution magic systems like College of Wizardry, the recipient decides the effect of a spell. Photo courtesy of Dziobak Larp Studios.

Controversy around Safety and Consent-Based Play

Participants in some larp communities express resistance and scrutiny in consent and safety discussions. In the past, any discussion of the social and psychological effects of role-playing was a taboo subject, as religious extremists groups and the mainstream media often portrayed the hobby as psychologically damaging. During the so-called Satanic Panic, many non-players worried that larpers would “lose touch with reality,” commit suicide, or become drawn to the occult.[2]Lizzie Stark, Leaving Mundania (Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2012). Thus, many role-players prefer to downplay any social or psychological effects, instead emphasizing the alibi of “it’s just a game” and “it’s what my character would do.” Additionally, role-players often claim that their communities are far healthier and more inclusive than mainstream society as a result of many participants feeling marginalized as “geeks” or “nerds” throughout life.[3]See for example, Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010).

Two vampire players looking at one another

In the Nordic vampire larp End of the Line, players use scripted consent negotiations before enacting intimacy. Photo courtesy of Participation Design Agency.

Meanwhile, academics have begun to study these effects in detail, investigating the ways in which role-playing impacts individual consciousness and community dynamics. For example, I have studied qualitatively the ways in which larp communities are negatively impacted by conflict and bleed, and am conducting a follow-up quantitative study with Michał Mochocki.[4]Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study, International Journal of Role-playing 4: 4-25. Diana Shippey Leonard has examined the sociology of larp groups, including their life cycles and the ways in which creative agendas lead to conflict according to Larp Census 2014 data.[5]Diana Leonard, “The Dynamic Life Cycle of Live Action Role-playing Communities,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: WyrdCon, 2013); Diana Leonard, “Conflict and Change: Testing a Life-Cycle-Derived Model of Larp Group Dynamics,” International Journal of Role-playing 6: 15-22.

Similarly, Brodie Atwater has examined the ways in which marginalized people in larp communities report feelings of exclusion and alienation due to their social identities. Gender, sexuality, and race are also at the forefront of the academic conversation, as people from marginalized groups do not always feel that their identities are respected or represented appropriately in role-playing communities. These conversations spill over into discussions on social media networks and are often the cause of much divisiveness when perspectives differ. Some players believe that sexism, racism, and homophobia no longer exist in contemporary society or are not problems in role-playing communities, whereas others cite personal experiences to the contrary. For example, members of some larp groups insist that plots should no longer feature sexual assault or rape in order to avoid triggering abuse survivors in the community, whereas other participants feel that such content is appropriate to the setting and, therefore, permissible.

While these debates will likely continue for years to come, many designers find their game spaces less accommodating than they would like and are working to develop strategies for more consensual play. Some role-playing groups have methods for players to opt-out of content that they find uncomfortable, such as safe words, whereas others discuss ways to make content more opt-in. For example, some larps feature trigger warnings, content advisories, or ingredients lists to warn players ahead of time about the sorts of themes they will likely encounter.[6]Organizers like Karin Edman advocate for such lists, also called Content Declarations. See for example “Content Declarations,” Nordic Larp Wiki, last modified October 8, 2015 and the Ingredients list for the Dystopia Rising network.

Other larps build consent-based play into the mechanics of the game. For example, in College of Wizardry and New World Magischola, the recipient of a spell determines its effect, not the rules or the initiator. Similarly, End of the Line, New World Magischola and Convention of Thorns have instituted a script for consent negotiations, in which organizers instruct players on how to calibrate with one another when enacting specific physical and verbal content around intimacy, violence, romance, bullying, and other sensitive topics.[7]For an example, see the consent mechanics from Convention of Thorns: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yTgK4ZKqg9H9opBKau7nKZC3y5jOqwlo7D4PWCKPB5s/edit?usp=sharing

Players in Convention of Thorns must negotiate intimate scenes off-game before engaging. Photo by Przemysław Jendroska for Dziobak Larp Studios.

Originally developed by Participation Design Agency, these consent negotiations require discussion of specific actions rather than generalities in order to ensure each player understands the agreement. Consent negotiations adjust to the comfort level of the person with the strongest boundaries rather than expecting them to become more flexible with their limits. For example, in a romance, if one player is comfortable kissing, while the other prefers only to verbally flirt, the negotiation would resolve with flirting as the agreement.

Another emerging aspect of consent-based play is the development of safety and calibration mechanics that allow players to communicate their levels of comfort during the larp. The Okay Check-In is a non-verbal signal for making sure a player is comfortable in a scene; it involves one participant flashing the Okay symbol to another, who can respond with thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or so-so hand gesture. This mechanic, originally developed in the Los Angeles area by Rob McDiarmid, Aaron Vanek, and Kirsten Hageleit, has seen significant recent adoption in New World Magischola, End of the Line, Hidden Parlor Austin, and the Dystopia Rising network. Another new mechanic is the Lookdown or “See No Evil” signal, developed by Trine Lise Lindahl and Johanna Koljonen. With Lookdown, a player shield their eyes with one hand in order to exit a scene at any time without explanation or request that others pretend their character is no longer present. With these tools, the emphasis is on the comfort and emotional safety of the player rather than the importance of the continuity of the scene. The common refrain for these mechanics is, “Players are more important than larps.” Koljonen’s Participation Safety blog features additional information on these tools and others.

Fairness, Immersion, Competition, and the Cult of Hardcore

Violence is prenegotiated ahead of time in Convention of Thorns. Photo by John-Paul Bichard for Dziobak Larp Studios.

While many players laud these innovations as affording them a greater level of comfort to explore sensitive content, common complaints against consent-based play emerge in larp communities. The first centers upon the traditional emphasis on rules in role-playing games, where any form of conflict – including many social interactions – are arbitrated by a rules system and an authority figure, such as an organizer or game master. Many players feel that such rules level the playing field by providing a non-arbitrary method by which a character can succeed in a scenario. These players may perceive the introduction of consent-based play as threatening to their preferred style, as it opens the door for individuals to “avoid consequences for actions” or act unfairly. In spite of these claims, as Planetfall designer and organizer Matthew Webb explains, “In three years of using emotional safety techniques, we’ve never had a complaint of dodging consequences though we explicitly say we will deal with that situation if it arises.” While any rule can be abused, including consent mechanics, few players actually manipulate consensual play to impose their will upon others or “cheat.” On the contrary, many players use consent negotiations in order to orchestrate playing to lose — where something dramatically terrible happens to their character — by planning the scene ahead of time through collaboration. John Wick advocates for this “friendly enemies” approach in his Houses of the Blooded setting.

Another common complaint against consent negotiations and safety/calibration mechanics is that they negatively impact immersion. Immersion itself is a widely-debated term, with many schools of thought emerging regarding what experiences the concept actually describes.[8]For recent theories on immersion, see Sarah Lynne Bowman and Anne Standiford, “Enhancing Healthcare Simulations and Beyond: Immersion Theory and Practice” International Journal of Role-playing 6: 12-19. For the purposes of this article, immersion will refer to the sense of feeling highly engaged in the narrative, world, or character of a game. Since checking for consent requires brief off-game negotiations, some players protest this practice as “breaking their immersion.” However, immersion is best viewed as a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. A brief check-in may lessen someone’s immersion, but will rarely impede their ability to re-engage. Similarly, discrete off-game consent negotiations that are designed to run smoothly tend to proceed quickly, often without other players noticing. As opposed to disrupting the intensity of play, brief consent discussions can allow larpers to feel more comfortable playing deeply with one another, taking chances they might normally avoid because they established a greater sense of trust.

satirical comic about the okay check-in breaking immersion

Satirical comic about some American boffer larpers’ reactions to the Okay Check-In system. Copyright by Paul Scofield.

Some proponents of competitive play, such as Matthew Webb, suggest that competition brings out the best in people when conducted in a fair manner. Through competition, players are challenged to greater levels of achievement and agency, potentially training social skills in the meantime. Competition also provides motivation for many players, as the system, mechanics, or scenario encourages achievement through challenge and the desire to win.[9]Matthew Webb, “Let’s Fight – In Defense of Competitive Play, Part 1,Nordiclarp.org, February 2, 2017.

These potential benefits make strong arguments in favor of competitive play in certain contexts. For example, students in edu-larp scenarios may find competition inherently motivating, especially in classroom environments where achievement is already encouraged through grades and social status. For players living in what sometimes feels like an unfair world, knowing the rules in a larp space and learning how to succeed in a clear manner are deeply rewarding.

However, in order for one person to succeed, other components of the larp environment must fail, whether they are the scenario objectives, organizer-generated antagonists such as non-player characters (NPCs), or other players within the game. The latter two styles of play are often called player vs. environment (PvE) and player vs. player (PvP) respectively, although some prefer the term “character” here to distinguish between on- and off-game antagonism. Such a loss is not always perceived as negative; indeed, playing to lose can often feel fun for larpers. Also, losses in the short term can provide learning experiences for winning in the future.

On the other hand, if a player in a larp has invested a significant amount of time and energy into their character and another person socially humiliates or physically harms that character without consent, the experience can feel unbalanced, unfair, and alienating.  Therefore, while competitive play holds risks that some may find acceptable, these risks can be ameliorated in large part by consent negotiations. Indeed, consent discussions can often enhance antagonistic play, as both parties feel that they have opted-in to the experience. Thus, cooperative competition is also possible as a middle ground approach.

In End of the Line, the recipient decides how to react if a vampire enacts a Discipline. Photo by Participation Design Agency.

Finally, a potential problem in role-playing groups of all sorts is the cult of hardcore. Whether in a competitive or collaborative play environment, the cult of hardcore refers to the group imposing a certain degree of emotional intensity or mature content onto its members. In a competitive larp group focusing on interpersonal politics and backstabbing, the cult of hardcore often manifests as pressure to engage in socially antagonistic play. Such antagonism sometimes results in simulated violence or emotional hazing. Even players who attempt to opt out of the political part of such larps may be subject to aggressive play such as economic warfare, the arbitrary use of political power, or forced interactions through role-play.

In cooperative larp groups with scenarios based on serious themes, the pressure of the cult of hardcore is somewhat more insidious, in that players are often expected to push their own emotional limits in order to preserve the immersion of the rest of the group or keep the story moving. In both competitive and cooperative larps, players can feel coerced into accepting situations that make them feel uncomfortable. The logic of this playstyle is that if a player enters the social space of a larp, they are implicitly accepting the social contract of that space: anything that occurs within that environment is acceptable as long as it adheres to the rules and setting.

While the cult of hardcore style can produce high intensity, cathartic experiences for many players, it calibrates group play to correspond with the participant who has the more flexible boundaries. In other words, the player who is able to tolerate the most emotional or physical intensity becomes the baseline for the rest of the group, as they will likely play to their own limits. If other players experience discomfort or distress, the common response in hardcore play cultures is that the larp is “not for them.” This statement begs the question: who, then, are cult of hardcore larps for? In general, such larps are designed for people who a) do not often experience emotional distress, b) are willing to experience distress as a means of “toughening up,” or c) are unwilling to risk losing their social status or connections by expressing their distress. Thus, these environments are often problematic for people who are trauma survivors, neuro-atypical, from marginalized groups, or simply prefer lower intensity play.

New World Magischola students participate in an academic case study competition, trying to earn a job at a major corporation. Competitive play can co-exist with consent culture in larp. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

Consent-based play does not negate the possibility for high intensity play to exist within the larp space. If the lessons learned from the BDSM subculture are any indication, consent negotiations actually facilitate more intense brink play, as both parties can discuss limits and steer toward the desired experience. The cult of hardcore can ratchet up the intensity for one another without level-setting the larp for everyone else. Similarly, competition is entirely possible within consent-based spaces as long as limits are discussed between the parties involved. Thus, the notion that consensual play will eradicate intensity or competition is a false dichotomy.

More Accommodating Spaces

Diablerie scene from Convention of Thorns. Photo by John-Paul Bichard for Dziobak Larp Studios.

Ultimately, the goal of consent-based play is to make larp spaces more accommodating and enjoyable for participants. Instead of calibrating the group to the playstyle of the person with the most flexible boundaries, consent-based play allows people with multiple backgrounds and degrees of sensitivity to engage. For example, a veteran with PTSD triggers may have difficulty playing a larp with flashing lights and pyrotechnics. Organizers can make the space more accommodating by disclosing ahead of time that such effects will take place and by limiting them to a particular physical location where players can opt-in to that experience. Thus, organizers can pay careful attention to the scenography and design of the space in order to facilitate different levels of engagement.

Organizers can also disclose themes by providing content advisories, ingredients lists, or trigger warnings, making the specifics clear to participants ahead of time. Knowing that content will be present in a larp enables players to make informed decisions about their participation. For example, many people feel uncomfortable playing themes of sexual violence due to personal experience or object to designers using the theme as a plot device. However, when these themes are discussed respectfully beforehand with a clear understanding of how the larp will address them, players often feel more comfortable opting-in. Therefore, consent negotiations can engender greater trust within the community and enable more people to feel comfortable participating.

Finally, thinking about consent-based play as a spectrum rather than an on/off speech is likely to prove more fruitful. In other words, a group need not redesign their entire larp to include consent. Instituting calibration mechanics that seamlessly communicate comfort levels — such as safe words, the Okay Check-In, and the Lookdown signal — can help existing spaces feel more consensual for players. Brief off-game negotiations for sensitive scenes, pre-planning antagonistic interactions, and discussing physical boundaries can enhance trust in even competitive larp environments. Ultimately, as Troels Ken Pedersen has suggested, the techniques themselves do not increase feelings of safety, but the safety culture established within the community does.[10]Troels Ken Pedersen, “Your Larp’s Only as Safe as its Safety Culture,” Leaving Mundania, August 4, 2015. Workshopping and modeling these techniques help establish the safety culture by indicating that the group takes the emotional needs of the individual seriously. The more that players can learn to empathize with one another and adjust play according to one another’s needs, the more cohesive and strong a larp community can become.

Cover photo: Students dance at the ball at New World Magischola Yuletide Escapade 1. Photo by Learn Larp LLC.

References   [ + ]

1. See for example Maury Brown, “Creating a Culture of Trust through Safety and Calibration Larp Mechanics,” Nordiclarp.org, last modified September 9, 2016.
2. Lizzie Stark, Leaving Mundania (Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2012).
3. See for example, Sarah Lynne Bowman, The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010).
4. Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study, International Journal of Role-playing 4: 4-25.
5. Diana Leonard, “The Dynamic Life Cycle of Live Action Role-playing Communities,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: WyrdCon, 2013); Diana Leonard, “Conflict and Change: Testing a Life-Cycle-Derived Model of Larp Group Dynamics,” International Journal of Role-playing 6: 15-22.
6. Organizers like Karin Edman advocate for such lists, also called Content Declarations. See for example “Content Declarations,” Nordic Larp Wiki, last modified October 8, 2015 and the Ingredients list for the Dystopia Rising network.
7. For an example, see the consent mechanics from Convention of Thorns: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yTgK4ZKqg9H9opBKau7nKZC3y5jOqwlo7D4PWCKPB5s/edit?usp=sharing
8. For recent theories on immersion, see Sarah Lynne Bowman and Anne Standiford, “Enhancing Healthcare Simulations and Beyond: Immersion Theory and Practice” International Journal of Role-playing 6: 12-19.
9. Matthew Webb, “Let’s Fight – In Defense of Competitive Play, Part 1,Nordiclarp.org, February 2, 2017.
10. Troels Ken Pedersen, “Your Larp’s Only as Safe as its Safety Culture,” Leaving Mundania, August 4, 2015.

Authors

Sarah Lynne Bowman
Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. is a role-playing studies scholar and adjunct professor in Humanities, English, and Communication. She is the author of The Functions of Role-playing Games and the editor of the Wyrd Con Companion Book.
  • Serenity

    What if everyone filled out a questionnaire of what they are happy with in advance, organizers group similar portfolios of interests/qualms for play and thus avoid this all in advance without breaking immersion?

    • Starsha Grace

      This would not work in the end in some situations, while it would give a
      good general idea for the group about levels, the particulars between
      two people are always different than a group.
      What if you’ve gone
      through a very, very intense scene already and what you thought you were
      alright with a half hour before, has changed because you’ve been shaken
      up (sometimes in a wonderful way, being vulnerable can be liberating)
      and what you were comfortable with before you no longer could handle on
      top of what you’ve experienced? It also works the opposite way, maybe
      you were nervous before and you had very rigid boundaries because you
      werent comfortable. In time, you’ve learned you’re ready for something
      deeper, but a general blanket idea is unmovable.
      You need to in many cases, adjust as necessary through the experiencing.
      Every
      negotiation, is a new negotiation. Even between two people who
      routinely play together. You really do get so fast at it after you’ve
      practiced, it can take only seconds. I find mechanics to stop, call for
      an ST, and roll chops is much, much more mood breaking.
      Your immersion is quite drastically increased when you feel safe, secure, and comfortable in trust with the people around you. It is… surprisingly different when you get that comfortable. I was capable of acts of vampirism that I would -never- have imagined myself doing, as a somewhat timid individual with new people.
      If we allow
      for such diversions and pauses in game for chops (often lengthly! Think
      combats…) then why would we not allow brief safety mechanisms for the
      health and benefit of our personal boundaries and safety? Once you’re stream lined with them, they help you get into the game much with much more dedication because it removes hesitation and guess work with social boundary codes.

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