In recent years, we — the Nordic/International progressive role-playing scene, both tabletop and larpI’ve been in on the tabletop/freeform side of things for many years; on the larp side, I got going with a splash with Just a Little Lovin’ in 2015. The otherwise admirable and magnificent Just a Little Lovin’ probably did a lot of messing with my head, but I was thoroughly softened up long before then.– have produced games that can bring out powerful emotions in the players, and empower the players to engage with powerful emotions. This process has significantly extended the artistic reach of the role-playing medium, and also given a lot of people (myself among them) some great experiences. In this context, some design and cultural elements have been developed to help handle difficult topics and emotions. Of particular importance has been the widespread acceptance of the notion that it’s actually alright to feel a lot of feelings and not be too tough or hard to shed a tear or ten. Bleed is here to stay, and it’s OK to be concerned with the comfort and safety of yourself and your fellow players.
This is excellent! I’ve been a part of this movement as it regards play, design, and culture. Although I’m not personally inclined to weep over role-playing games, I’m happy with my part in all this. In those of my own games that deal with difficult subjects, I’ve included a debriefing: one containing the line that it’s OK to feel a lot of powerful or strange things, and it’s also OK to feel nothing much at all.
The New Norm
Last year, I discovered a surprising dark side to this new, accepting culture around strong feelings about role-playing games. Even though it’s a pretty standard disclaimer that it’s OK to not bleed all over the place, not just in my games, but in most games that come with debriefing instructions attached, somehow strong and care/space-requiring emotions have become not just normal (fine!) but also normative.NORMAL = within the range of commonly occurring phenomena in a given category and commonly accepted as such. NORMATIVE = in accordance with social norms determining what is socially acceptable. It’s the norm for how you do demanding and artistically ambitious role-play; it’s how you demonstrate that you’re a good role-player. If you don’t feel all of the feelings, passionately, you’re not quite alright.
It’s a subtle thing, and certainly not the result of conspiracies and subversion, just the cumulative effect of a lot of usually enthusiastic conversations about earth-shaking, personally transformative experiences that have made the tears flow.
It was rather by accident that I found out that there’s a problem that might be a bit larger than just me. Some time last year, after having witnessed (mostly online but also off) exchanges between people who had had earth-shaking experiences – even a year later, that one song brought tears to their eyes – I found that I was actually downright worried about how little I felt. As in, I seriously entertained the notion that I might be on the outskirts of some sort of personality disorder. And it’s not quite the first time that role-playing games and role-playing culture have had me wondering why I was reacting off — and below — the norm. Anyway, I struggled a bit with it, and after a couple of uncomfortable months, I arrived at the conclusion that the rest of my life doesn’t support the theory that I’m under-endowed with emotions and the capacity for authentic human relations. Probably.
At some point, I opened up and told my friend Anne Vinkel about my concerns. Her reaction was powerful and telling:
“Oh God, I thought it was just me!”
Then, I started considering whether there might be more at stake here than just my own discomfort: if we might have a cultural problem on our hands. When people are wondering whether they have real psychopathology (that they don’t), simply because the standards of this role-playing subculture for what “we” feel around games has become so extreme, it’s not great.
I know several role-players with real, honest-to-goodness personality disorders. They’re fine people that I care about both in and out of role-playing games. This is in no way a criticism or rejection of them. But neither Anne nor myself are in their situation! Diagnoses are a thing to approach soberly.
Shame! Blame! Disgrace!
So whose fault is this? At whom should we point the finger of condemnation? When I put it like this, the observant reader might suspect that I’m about to say ”no one” and this is 98% true. This is a question of culture, and as is usually the case with such things, the responsibility is vague and diffuse. If, during the following, you feel personally accused, please dial down the feeling by 98%.
It started out with a desire to explore challenging subjects through roleplaying without falling into The Cult of Hardcore, which was quite prominent back in the early and middle 2000s. The standard was that WE as Good Roleplayers were too cool to bellyache over the Very Edgy games that we played. The revolt against The Cult of Hardcore that the role-playing culture around safety mechanics, debriefings, etc. represents was sorely needed.
In connection with debriefings — and war stories in a wider sense — the conversation focused on the extreme experiences that made safety mechanics and debriefings relevant. It’s natural enough to talk more about those players with issues — players in active need of inclusion — than about those who are just fine. But, as is the case in any (sub-)culture, it became a matter of prestige. Culture works like that; even in the most self-consciously egalitarian culture, there will be actions, objects, and stories that attract more positive attention than others. In this case, the tales of earth-shaking, transformative experiences became prestigious. There’s nothing weird about this; it’s a logical consequence of the inclusion and centering of the extreme emotions that had previously been marginalized. And on a very basic level, “I wept like I’d been whipped and I’m a new person now” is just a better story than “I had slightly moist eyes at one point in the second act, and I have some interesting things about sibling relationships to reflect on.” If both stories are tellable, the former is more likely to be told, shared, and remembered.
All of it is very human, understandable, and largely even sympathetic. It still resulted in myself and Anne — and who knows how many others? — separately and secretly worrying and wondering if we were sociopaths, schizoid, or otherwise emotionally under-endowed. Which is not cool.
It’s not that I see the powerful emotions as in any way fake. This is worth saying and worth repeating. I believe that, in the vast majority of cases, they are authentic enough. However, they are in many cases also performative, not just as in players theatrically performing the feelings of their characters — with a bit of player spillover through bleed — but also between players, outside of games, but inside the subculture. Because the intensity of emotions is a source of authority, prestige, and bonding, all the nice social goods are out of reach if others can’t clearly perceive that you have the valuable emotions. And then it makes sense to make a good show out of the things you feel. Conspicuous emotion is a gainful social strategy in this context.
And the more people are performing their emotions loudly, the harder it is to gain recognition for quieter thoughts and feelings, and so we have a tendency towards inflation.
This is a tough one. I have no interest in bringing back the hardcore culture that the new, more sensitive culture has dethroned. Emotion- and safety-accepting role-playing culture has a WHOLE lot of babies that it would be bad to throw out with the bathwater. It’s great that we have created spaces of safety and recognition where we can be, as Moyra Turkington memorably put it to me in a private conversation, ”deliciously vulnerable,” and we should preserve this. But if we want to think up something to do anyway?
TALKING ABOUT IT. Both in public and in private. A bit of consciousness-raising can go a long way, and is precisely the point of this post.
DEBRIEFINGS ARE NOT ABOUT TRAUMA. While gathering pace for writing this post I had an excellent discussion with Sarah Lynne Bowman about what debriefings are and aren’t good for. A lot of people, myself included, have absorbed from the general conversation the idea that debriefings are about after-treatment of trauma, and this is not the case at all. What they do is reestablish normal social relations between players after the shakeup of the game, and create a space for recognizing feelings — not necessarily, indeed probably not, traumatic — for later reflection and digestion. If players have been actually traumatized, it is rather psychological first aid that’s called for, which is an entirely different beast that should be fielded as soon as the crisis is seen as such and absolutely should NOT wait until after the game. At any debriefing, it should be clear that debriefing =/= trauma treatment.
UPGRADING THE STANDARD DISCLAIMER. I and quite a lot of others have our standard disclaimer, typically fired off in connection with debriefings, that it’s OK to feel a lot of weird feelings, and it’s also OK to not feel that much. I’ve been saying that myself for years, and yet I let myself be quite viscerally convinced that it wasn’t the case. I’m thinking that it might be an idea to simply reverse the order so you start out by saying that it’s normal and OK if it’s not that wild, but if it’s wild, that’s cool too. Thus, the non-violent reactions are pulled back into the range of the normal, rather than remaining an afterthought. In situations where we’re on the outskirts of the sensitive culture — where it doesn’t define the standards — I’d use the traditional order instead. And I’d write this in my debriefing instructions!
MOVING UP THE STANDARD DISCLAIMER. Right before the debriefing is awfully late in the game to establish that the acceptable range of responses is quite wide. How about before the game proper starts?
TEMPERATE USE OF DANGER SIGNALS. Warnings about harsh subject matter is a fine idea, and ambushing people with bad stuff is not cool, but as I see it, we could show a little more restraint in communicating HOW traumatized players are ”supposed” to be by a given game. I suspect that strongly framing games as dangerous contributes to the inflation of conspicuous emotion. I also suspect that it doesn’t really contribute much to actual safety.
I’m aware that the above is not terribly impressive. So if you have ideas for what to do that aren’t too harsh on the babies in the bath, I’m all ears!
Cover photo: “Don’t Cry My Love” by Axel Naud on Flickr. Photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.
|↑1||I’ve been in on the tabletop/freeform side of things for many years; on the larp side, I got going with a splash with Just a Little Lovin’ in 2015. The otherwise admirable and magnificent Just a Little Lovin’ probably did a lot of messing with my head, but I was thoroughly softened up long before then.|
|↑2||NORMAL = within the range of commonly occurring phenomena in a given category and commonly accepted as such. NORMATIVE = in accordance with social norms determining what is socially acceptable.|