The Absence of Disabled Bodies in Larp

The Absence of Disabled Bodies in Larp

The first time I remember encountering someone who was disabled in a larp was during my long-ago days of playing Changeling: the Dreaming. My fellow players and I were waiting for the game to begin and a new player arrived wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane. We were waiting outside the game space at the top of a staircase and were jostling one another quite a lot, so I became concerned by the person’s proximity to the edge of the stairs. I stood up from a bench and asked the person quietly if they’d like to sit down. “The stairs are very close behind you,” I said. The new player looked at me, puzzled. “I can see that,” they said. When I blinked at them in surprise, the player’s face lit up and they lifted their glasses to wink at me. “The costume works!” they said. “At least I’m believable. Gotta play up that flaw if I want the points.” The player in question wasn’t disabled at all. To quote the old saying, they just played one on TV. Or in this case, in a larp.

It would be years before I larped with someone who was visually impaired and became acutely aware of the difficulties they faced when interacting with larps due to their disability. Yet in those years, I met people with various physical and psychological differences who encountered challenges when larping due to a lack of accommodation for their disabilities. I was also acutely aware that, much like other forms of entertainment, larp was a rather ableist[1]Ableism: discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableism characterises persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled. space, erasing disabled players by creating obstacles for inclusion that kept them out. While conversations about inclusivity in regards to many forms of identity rose to the forefront of thought in the larp community, the issue of disability visibility seemed to remain one of the last unexplored countries.

For a long time I was a larper standing outside of the issue, looking in. Then the issue became far more personal. At the time of the writing of this article, I’ve been larping for eleven years. In that time I’ve gone from an able-bodied young woman with an invisible disability[2]Bipolar disorder. to a woman using a wheelchair to get around. This evolution has given me a different perception, perhaps, than most and opened my eyes to the pitfalls one can stumble into when designing larps: namely the exclusion of the disabled due to lack of consideration for accommodation. As a heavily physical-based activity game and art form, larp requires players to inhabit their character roles with their bodies, experiencing the game space through their five senses and interacting with the environment and other players with their own bodies as their character’s avatar. Larps can be challenging to players physically and psychologically based on the creator’s design, even for those who are able-bodied. Imagine then the challenge presented to those who are disabled if the game is designed with only able-bodied players in mind as their prime customers and patrons.

If those who are differently abled are not taken into consideration during the very first stages of a larp’s creation, designers may inadvertently set up obstacles which block disabled players from engaging with the game. Furthermore, I’ll go so far as to posit another argument: by not taking disabled players into account and allowing them to be under-represented or misrepresented through play, then the game in question and whatever narrative it crafts becomes inherently ableist.

The Design Challenge

Larp design is a complex and ever-shifting ludic space, requiring consideration of many different factors. Designers engage in discussions of narrative construction, community building, environmental design, sociological and psychological interaction and game design when producing any larp, whether they’re aware they’re doing so or not. Larp design is a hybrid discipline, one part improvisational acting, one part theatre production, one part playwriting, and one part game design. Yet at its very heart, larp is an attempt to bring to life imagined worlds with characters being physically inhabited by the players.

No matter the complexity of the physical design, from the stripped-down aesthetics of black box theatre games to the blockbuster nordic games set in castles or the combat-intensive live “boffer” games set out in forests around the world, there is one basic design principle of larps: players move and interact with the game space with their own bodies. And in that single conceit, designers are presented with an obstacle in how to allow people of different abilities to interact with the physical aspects of their game. How they tackle that challenge then determines whether or not their game is accessible to a wider range of players.

It’s important at this juncture to address and acknowledge the difficulty of this particular design challenge. The term disabled is very broad and encompasses a myriad of people whose physical or psychological states put them outside of what society considers the healthy, able-bodied norm. Therefore, speaking about making accommodation for those who are differently abled in a larp means acknowledging that a creator will be designing towards an ever-moving target. The paradigms may need to shift when a new player with specific accommodation needs wants to participate in their games. However, the very first step in heading towards more accessibility in games is to start by acknowledging one base truth: larps are not just made for the able-bodied. Just because the design challenge is difficult does not mean it should not be tackled. If a game wants to truly call itself inclusive and welcome all kinds of players, disability inclusion must be part of the discussion right alongside discussions about the participation of all genders, sexualities, races, religions, classes, etc. To be truly intersectional and inclusive, ableism cannot be forgotten as a potential venue for discrimination through design.

Thankfully, larp designers have the opportunity when creating new larps to approach each game as a blank slate, utilising that mindfulness about inclusivity to create spaces capable of accommodating disability needs. They only need to choose to do so from the beginning.

Larping in Czocha Castle for College of Wizardry 1 as a wheelchair-using player. (Photo by: Christina Molbech)

Larping in Czocha Castle for College of Wizardry 1 as a wheelchair-using player. (Photo by: Christina Molbech)

The Cornerstones of Disability: Considerate Design

There are many areas a designer ought to consider from the beginning if they wish their games to be more accessible. They include:

  1. The role of the disabled in the game’s world building and narrative
  2. The question of how disabled and abled characters will be played, by whom, and how they are portrayed
  3. Physical design of your game space and its availability for accessibility and/or disability accommodation
  4. Consideration for equal treatment out-of-character within your player community.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations, I believe they cover a range of basic areas a designer might consider to broaden those able to access their games. Let’s break them down and look at their unique challenges.

The Role of the Disabled in the Game’s World Building and Narrative

While this might seem like a simple idea, it is often difficult to recognise where narratives skew towards ableism, perhaps even without meaning to do so. For example, most post-apocalyptic narratives make it clear that those who are disabled would have a difficult time surviving in a world without basic social services and modern technology. Those narratives can default to erasing disabled persons without much of a thought in pursuit of “authenticity to genre.” That same argument is often used when representing those with disabilities in historical games, or medieval fantasy games, as the idea of someone with disabilities succeeding, thriving, or even achieving positions of power challenges the idea that games set in historical periods must be (needlessly) appropriate to every inch of perceived historical correctness.

Games which choose to marginalise the roles the disabled have in the visible narrative then set the tone for how those characters who are differently abled will be treated, and can even translate into how players who are differently abled feel welcome within a space. Additionally, erasing disabled characters due to “magical cures” such as biotechnology, advanced medical science, and sorcery in a game’s narrative also signals that your setting assumes everyone who is disabled should be “cured,” signalling a need to erase disabled stories from that setting and your game. Examples of such settings are cyberpunk futures where technology can cure disabilities, magical settings like College of Wizardry (Nielsen, Dembinski and Raasted et al., 2014-) and New World Magischola (Brown and Morrow et al., 2016) where magic can cure nearly every ailment or injury.

How Disabled and Abled Characters Will Be Played, by Whom and How They Are Portrayed

As mentioned in the story at the very beginning of this article, able-bodied players may opt to play disabled characters in a game. Some larps even incentivise such play by offering mechanical advantages for including a disability in the character. One example of this is White Wolf’s games like Vampire: the Masquerade (Rein-Hagen, 1991), whose system allows disabilities, both physical and psychological, to be taken as flaws on a character sheet. Ostensibly this design choice was meant to motivate people to create more nuanced and interesting characters for the game by representing a world inhabited not only by able-bodied people and monsters but also the disabled. Most of the time, however, I saw it used as a cheap and easy way to gain additional points to buy up mechanically advantageous things on a character’s sheet, since for every point of flaws you took, you received freebie points to spend elsewhere. This process of mechanising a disability in exchange for positive rewards elsewhere provides a problematic view of being rewarded for taking on the “burden” of playing someone disabled, labelling a disability a flaw with all its associated negative connotations.

Similarly, by including disabilities as a mechanical flaw or as an in-character effect gained during play, there is a greater chance a player may be presented with a disability they’ll try to or be required to play without understanding the best way to do so. Games that use mental illness as part of their punitive mechanics will afflict players with “insanity” such as in the Cthulhu Live (McLaughlin, 1997) system, or else give people a derangement as the results of play such as in the Dystopia Rising (Pucci, 2009-) system, without giving them much context or preparation for role-playing what amounts to a psychological disability. Without time to research and understand the illness they’re being asked to portray, players may default to naturally offensive and harmful stereotypes, making the play space a hostile place for people who actually have those disabilities. The opposite side of this question includes whether or not disabled players will be able to play non-disabled characters. In games which rely on more “what you see is what you get” or 360 degree immersion play, organisers often require players to do whatever it is their character would do, including all physical activities. Allowing disabled players to play non-disabled characters, essentially asking others to ignore their adaptive devices during play, is a form of making accommodation during a larp, bending the rules of the full immersion for the sake of making all roles in the game accessible.

Physical Design of Your Game Space and It’s Availability for Accessibility and/or Disability Accommodation

This aspect of designing towards inclusivity involves the design of the actual space and materials to make a game accessible for all, and it is perhaps one of the most difficult and controversial topics when dealing with disability advocacy in larp. Unless you are talking about black box or theatre style games, larps rely heavily on environmental design or utilising already created appropriate venues to host their games so as to create immersion for players. However, often when seeking out genre, theme or mood appropriate venues, designers don’t realise or even ignore the fundamental accessibility issues a venue might have. When choosing the beautiful Czocha Castle as the setting for the blockbuster College of Wizardry games, the organisers discovered a glorious location full of secret passages, lush forests, and amazing rooms ready to become classrooms in a magical school. What the castle did not have, however, was basic disability access, a fact which did not escape me upon my attendance. This limited my interactions with the game, keeping me from attending classes held in the perilously high astronomy tower or down in the steps into the murky dungeon.

Even games that try their hardest to provide accommodation can end up falling short, such as in the case of the 2016 New World Magischola games in the United States. While the game was hosted by a presumably ADA[3]Physical accomodations and accessibility as described in the Americans with Disability Act of 1990. accessible campus in the University of Richmond, the game locations were scattered so far across the campus itself that those who were disabled found it difficult to interact with game events going on at far flung locations, especially at night. Other games which are designed for gruelling conditions as part of the experience, like the Swedish Hinterland (Nyman, Utbult and Stormark et al., 2015), are additionally problematic in that they present physical challenges meant to test even the hardiest of able bodied players and therefore exclude disabled players almost by design, in favour of supporting the taxing gameplay part of the experience. This important obstacle to accessibility ought to be weighed against a location’s appropriateness for play, if the designers want to see their game available for all comers to play.

The Consideration for Equal Treatment Out-of-character Within Your Player Community

This last element is less of a physical design challenge or game mechanic design question, but rather requires game creators to take a closer look at how those who are differently abled are considered within the community. It’s no secret that the disabled face discrimination from the general world. Even well-intentioned people can express demeaning and belittling treatment of the disabled, unsure of how to engage with their differences and needs for accommodation despite the best of intentions. The disabled are often seen as less capable or even worthy of doing things people take for granted, such as opening up businesses, holding positions of leadership, or even having stable relationships and raising children.

When a player who is differently abled is part of a larp community, an organiser must consider whether that player is facing similar discriminatory treatment from fellow players. While it is not an organiser’s job necessarily to police their community, the tacit social contract of a larp as a communal storytelling experience requires players to feel welcome and heard so they can participate wholeheartedly in safety and trust. Should a player be treated differently based on their disability, the responsibility falls on the organisers to address the situation, as would be the case with any instances of discrimination affecting their community.

These cornerstones of thoughtful accessibility design are best deployed from the beginning of a game’s creation, as the accommodations they may require become more difficult when trying to retroactively fit them in after the entire game has been put together. Indeed, tackling accessibility issues only after discovering a disabled player wants to attend requires far more work as a designer must scramble to find a way to shoehorn those accommodations into a space that might not have that capability. While the intention to find accommodation later is noble, it is often not the most e cient and may end with frustrated designers and players both, should the attempts towards accommodation after-the-fact fail. Designers should also be mindful to check back to these design considerations throughout the process and even during gameplay to make sure they are still in place and functional.

Staff and players of Time Travelers After Hours, a Phoenix Outlaw freeform larp, DexCon 2016. (Photo by: Nicolas Hornyak)

Staff and players of Time Travelers After Hours, a Phoenix Outlaw freeform larp, DexCon 2016. (Photo by: Nicolas Hornyak)

The False Dichotomy of “Going Elsewhere”

Considering accessibility accommodations as an afterthought also often ends up with designers simply acknowledging their design cannot support those with disabilities, leading to my least favourite theory regarding the including of disabled persons in larp: the separate yet equal argument. In response to discussing accessibility in games, I’ve often heard people simply shrug and say “not every game is for every person.” They say not everyone likes every game, or is suited to every game, and therefore those disabled players who cannot be included due to lack of accommodation can simply go to another game or seek another role in the game if that will allow for better accessibility. This argument contests that this problem happens even to able-bodied people who must choose based on their tastes what games to attend. This is a false dichotomy.

Able bodied larpers who choose either to attend or not attend a game based on its content or any other myriad of factors are not physically barred from doing so. They are not kept out by virtue of a space not being capable of physically allowing them entrance. The important word to factor in here is choice. Those players are choosing not to go to a game based on their tastes and preferences, opting out because they have an option at all. If a game is not physically accessible to disabled players for one reason or another, designers have taken away a player’s agency to opt in or out and instead set up obstacles to act as gatekeepers that bar players from even making that choice.

It’s that distinction that created the need for laws around the world protecting the rights of disabled people to interact with society on all levels in an equal matter to those who are able bodied. Ability-based discrimination has been a historically contentious topic, as those who are disabled either visibly or invisibly have fought for recognition as equal members of society all over the world. In the United States for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), which expanded on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include anti-discrimination protections for the disabled, was not put into place until 1990. The ADA as it is known not only protects the disabled against discrimination but requires employers “to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes requirements on public accommodations.” This included provisions that businesses and public spaces would be required to make their facilities and events accessible to those with disabilities.

The ADA later provided the inspiration for countries around the world to adopt similar protections. Since 2000, 181 countries have signed disability protections into law, while in 2006 the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, 2006) was adopted by the United Nations and ratified by 157 countries, offering additional protections for 650 million people with disabilities worldwide (Shapiro, 2015). By requiring businesses, venues, and locations to create accommodations for those who are disabled by law, the governments of those countries with equal rights laws recognise that physical design of spaces and events can be discriminatory if they aren’t accessible and require organisers to take that into consideration by law.

Yet certain activities have remained segregated, especially recreational activities which require physical activity such as sports, dance, and theatre. The separate-yet-equal idea has remained the cornerstone of this segregation, allowing for the creation of dance companies, sports events, and theatre troupes for example made up of only disabled persons participating and competing with and against one another. The notion goes that if an activity is based on physical interaction as the primary mode of engagement, and a disabled person is differently equipped to engage with that activity, rather than providing accommodation, a separate space should be provided for them to interact. While the concept of larps only for the disabled may intrigue from an artistic perspective, if only to see what might be created by people with those unique life experiences, it cannot be the hallmark of the entire larp world. To say that “maybe this game just isn’t for you” to a potential disabled player when facing the need for accommodation is based on the same principle and passes the buck away from that designer’s game to some other, theoretical game out there which may better have access.

In short, “not for you” as a response is an excuse and misses the point entirely. The player in question doesn’t want to go somewhere else. They want to attend that game and be a part of their chosen community, and should be freely allowed to, given all other things being equal between them and an able-bodied player. The disabled person should not have to find another game, shuffled along, because considerations haven’t been made to keep a space from being discriminatory. As the laws of so many countries point out, the need to consider accommodation falls on the shoulders of designers and organisers, not the disabled person. And if only the designers had done so at the beginning, perhaps those uncomfortable and potentially discriminatory conversations might not have had to happen at all.

A Two-way Conversation

Of course, it seems easy to say all of this on paper. I acknowledge as of the writing of this article that figuring out the ways to balance aesthetic and artistic choices in larps and accessibility is a difficult design problem. Nor is there anyone out to impose mandates that each game must be accessible in all ways, barring what is required by law in the larp’s home country. And while it might be an intriguing mental exercise to go down the “freedom of creation” versus inclusivity accommodation mode of thinking, that conversation has been tread in regards to intersectional inclusivity ad nauseum. It is an understood right of creators to make artistic choices for their games, and should they choose not to build towards inclusivity, that is their right. However, when a game designer chooses to consider accessibility for the differently abled, especially from the beginning, they are signalling to their player base that they consider their space a welcoming one for people of all kinds, even if it makes them a little more work to design around obstacles. Designing towards accessibility is a signpost that a larp creator considers the health and well-being of their players as important as well, and can create a deeper bond of trust between organisers and players in regards to game safety.

The final piece to the design challenge regarding accessibility, however, is communication. As mentioned above, though the term disabled indicates the need for accommodation to assist the individual with accessing a space or event, each disabled person’s needs might be specialised. Not every wheelchair user needs the same level of accommodation, nor do all those with specific psychological needs require the same response. While designers may create spaces for accommodation in the game, it is often necessary for those who are disabled to speak up and request additional accommodation or else adjustments to what is in place to suit their specific needs. While it can be difficult to self-advocate for one’s needs, it is imperative to have a process in place before or at a larp for these conversations to take place. Should someone feel uncomfortable stating their need for accommodation, an advocate such as a friend or fellow larper might be a good ally to seek out to help communicate with the organisers. This process can be as simple as organisers making it overtly clear they are open to having these discussions, or for a larger game to have a particular staff member acting as accessibility liaison. Each process can be tailored to the size, length and scope of the game in question, but all serve to make the process of creating these accommodations smoother and less contentious.

One other note to bear in mind when considering disability conversations is the notion of trust and belief. It is important when an organiser is approached by someone asking for accommodation to show that they not only hear the person, but that they believe them. Since many disabilities, such as chronic illness, injury, or mental illness, are largely invisible disabilities, they are often questioned by people who cannot see an assistive device as evidence of a disability. Refrains like “you don’t look sick” or “can’t you just deal with it?” are typical. Requiring a disabled person to present evidence of their disability to receive accommodation is difficult and often embarrassing for the disabled person. For communication and trust to be fostered in a healthy environment, the disabled person must feel the organiser is receptive to their issues. Should an organiser feel they don’t have the perspective to understand the needs of their disabled players, seeking out resources from articles, organisations, or even disability advocates within the gaming community can help to create better dialogues going forward.

While individual conversations on the local larp level are the bedrock on which change will come, communication in regards to accessibility needs to be fostered on an even larger scale. Conversations regarding how to create better games, better mechanics, and better communities are sweeping across the larp world, spread by the Internet and fantastic convention and conference spaces. One of those conversations going forward in terms of inclusivity in gaming communities must include further discussion of accessibility for the disabled. Our communities are in a period of sharing for the betterment of all, learning from one another in an age of what larp designer and creator Josh Harrison has coined fourth wave larp design. It is imperative for our communities to continue these conversations so better tools and best practices discovered by individual games can be shared, improved upon, and reshaped through communal iteration.

It’s towards that spirit of communal iteration that I put forth the challenge to designers to come up with new mechanics for players with disabilities to use, new ideas for interaction in our games outside of the able-bodied norms. New mechanics, such as the Avatar mechanic brainstormed by myself and Lizzie Stark (2014), in which a player with mobility issues may have a surrogate step in during play to perform physical actions that player cannot, is an example of how two designers coming together can create a new mechanic for the game design toolbox. Collaboration will be the means by which more of these ideas become about in the future.

Additionally, iterating on already established norms will expand and improve institutions already in place. To that end, I am suggesting an amendment to the Mixing Desk of Larp (Andresen, Nielsen and Stenros et al., 2016), that oh-so useful tool spread from the Larpwriter Summer school and now used to create games across the world. While there are thirteen slots for faders, used to plan and illustrate the various decisions made during the planning process of a larp, the last one is left blank and marked “Your Fader Here.” This space is left for designers to include their own fader, something not covered among the twelve other ingredients the Mixing Desk suggests goes into designing a larp. While it would be convenient to say accessibility is a good option for including into the “Your Fader Here” spot, I would suggest something even stronger. For a game to truly tackle accessibility and make it as much of a priority for larps as the other ingredients so important to design, a fourteenth fader slot marked Accessibility should go up on the Mixing Desk alongside that write-in category. This would signal a tacit shift in thinking, enshrining the idea that accessibility is not and should not be a sometimes consideration if designers wish to see our community tackle ableism in our design spaces. By adjusting this already understood and widely used mechanic, we as a community would be indicating how important accessibility truly is for the larp world at large.

And make no mistake, it is an important part of the future of inclusivity in the larp world. Without considering accessibility for differently abled larpers, our community neglects a fundamental demographic and shuts out a plethora of voices who could contribute to making our storytelling communities even brighter. When a differently abled person cannot even attend an event, we lose vital voices whose presence could enhance and innovate, add and amplify the able-bodied community. All that is needed to make sure their voices can add to the collective artistic space is consideration for their needs at the forefront of design by the (mostly) ablebodied constituency of larp creators. Accessibility in design cannot be an afterthought but should live alongside questions of theme and player motivation as a reminder that larp is and should remain a space equally available for all as we go forward into designing the games of our future.

Bibliography

Ludography

This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.

References   [ + ]

1. Ableism: discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableism characterises persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled.
2. Bipolar disorder.
3. Physical accomodations and accessibility as described in the Americans with Disability Act of 1990.

Authors

Shoshana Kessock
Shoshana Kessock is a writer and game designer, co-founder of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and staff writer for the 7th Sea tabletop roleplaying line by John Wick Presents. She is the author of games like Dangers Untold, SERVICE, Keeping The Candles Lit, For Here Our Sister Lies, The Last Ten Minutes, Blood on the Trail, No Exit, and Welcome To ReaperCon, as well as contributing writer on several larp and tabletop RPG products. When she isn’t writing, publishing and organising games, she writes academic papers, fiction, comics, screenplays, and a fiction podcast, and speaks publicly about inclusivity in game spaces. She hails from Jersey City, NJ.
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