Let’s Play with Fire! Using Risk and its Power for Personal Transformation

Let’s Play with Fire! Using Risk and its Power for Personal Transformation

Immersive experience designers have been inspired by Ida Benedetto’s 2017 design reference work Patterns of Transformation (Benedetto 2017). The multi-part essay is the result of Benedetto’s personal involvement creating transgressive events such as The Night Heron (Sextant Works, 2013) coupled with her research on sex parties, wilderness survival treks, and unconventional funerals. She discovered similarities within all of these endeavors, and suggests these patterns catalyze personal transformation. She states in her introduction:

In previous eras, social gatherings and ritual experiences were the domain of religious institutions, cultural organizations, or the state. Now, they increasingly fall within the realm of design as it expands to address challenges of human emotion and connection. Experience design offers a possible solution to our very human craving for connection and meaning in the face of increased isolation and diminishing social cooperation.

Benedetto, 2017

Undergoing a risky experience can be personally rewarding on a fundamental level far beyond an amusing narrative or fostering a friendship. For experience designers, there may be no higher calling than the possibility of healing humanity through one self-improved person at a time. Oftentimes government and business interests regulate our interactions with the world and other people. It may befall the artists and craftspeople who, through unpredictable experiences such as larp, break the artificial restrictions continuously plastered over us and allow our spirit to breathe again. But transformative experiences are both delicate and wild, easy to ruin and inherently uncontrollable. Like fire that can devastate a city or fuel a moonshot, risk is a powerful instrument that should not be bound and buried in the creative tool box. We hope this essay will cultivate a respect for risk and reveal the possibilities for healthy individual growth through intentionally risky adventures.

What is Risk?

All of life is risk. Living without taking risks is not really living. That would be half-living, under a spiritual anesthesia. This high-security society that is developing sees in risk a declared enemy, but in doing so, allows a sort of gangrene to develop. The idea that we can achieve zero risk is not only collectively harmful, but also toxic for individuals.

Anne Dufourmantelle interview in Le Monde

According to Benedetto, “risk is any threat to one’s current state that offers the potential to destabilize the way things are. Higher order risks can include financial, political, and legal risks. Primal risks threaten our emotional, social, or physical well-being.” (Benedetto, 2017). We will concentrate on the primal risks.

An emotional risk jeopardizes one’s sense of self, a deeply-held belief, motivation, confidence, or one’s composure. Harm to your emotional state can lead to depression, anger, or compulsive thinking. It can leave psychological scars that can impact a person’s quality of life. The concept of bleed is a strong indicator of emotional changes, but change is not inherently negative. Benedetto suggests that facing risks can strengthen “one’s emotional range and resilience.” (Benedetto, 2017). Like physical exercise, we can use designed experiences to toughen our “ego muscles” through stressful exertion.

Benedetto’s explanation of a social risk is “a threat to one’s standing with a group. A social risk could damage one’s image, sever one’s connections with others, or bruise one’s sense of self-worth. Confronting social risks can give someone new tools for creating and maintaining connections with others.” (Benedetto, 2017).

A social risk can for example mean being judged and found guilty of something by peers. In larp, this can come from role-playing a character close to your real self. You can potentially reveal truths about yourself to others who may not accept them, resulting in ostracization and, thanks to social media and whisper networks, banishment from other events. Playing a villainous character may also be a social risk, even if that character was pre-generated. People might mistake the player for the character, and be negatively biased against the player. This risk increases if you play the same character or type of character repeatedly. You may also be judged for the actions your character takes, as others may ascribe “poor” choices to the player. Social risk often appears in larp communities that create and enforce a code of conduct. The energy and impetus that causes the community to form is also the energy that creates a social risk of exile from the group. When someone causes harm to another—intentionally or not—they may be banned from the community. Benedetto researched a sex party curated by The Dirty Gentleman (TDG), or Mr. Gentleman, containing high social risk. This excerpt may sound familiar to campaign larpers:

When it comes to sexually permissive events, the risk is not only in being hurt but in doing the hurting. Enacting harmful behavior creates the social risk of shame and ostracization. “There is a term for deciding certain people are good or bad which is ‘Voting People off the Island’,” says Mr. Gentleman. “The idea is that you can be in this world until you do something wrong, and then you are dangerous and bad and need to go away.” The severity of a ‘Voting People Off the Island’ model is exactly what The Dirty Gentleman is designed to counter. The gathering focuses on social etiquette so that behaviors, rather than the individual participants, are the focus of potential improvement.

Benedetto, 2017

A physical risk is harm to one’s body. In the most extreme case, this results in death. Taking physical risks is common in mainstream activities such as skydiving, bungee-jumping, and most sports. Boffer larps feature physical risk and utilize many rules to mitigate it, e.g., no head or groin shots, maximum bow draw weight, weapon checks, etc. Benedetto writes “Confronting physical risk can reframe one’s sense of vulnerability in day-to-day life and change our relationship to the constructed environments we inhabit every day.” (Benedetto, 2017)

It must be acknowledged that Benedetto stresses that any risk should be roughly equal between the participants, especially social risk. Reacting to a recent Vanity Fair article about Silicon Valley sex parties that enable stereotypical heterosexual male fantasies, she opines “If all participants do not need to risk rejection equally, and those least empowered to leverage their personal boundaries are those most likely to suffer consequences outside the party, you have a recipe for coercion and abuse.” (Benedetto, 2018). Further inquiry into the effects of imbalanced risk among participants is needed. For our purposes, we assume that any risk is generally the same for all involved, possibly including the designers and organizers.

Each of these three types of risk can be actual or imagined, and this is not a duality but a spectrum. Our subjective perception can deceive participants into thinking risk

  • exists when it does not or is minimal, e.g., afraid of embarrassing oneself with “poor” role-playing among a group of supportive larpers.
  • is greater than it actually is, e.g., touching another person on the shoulder without their consent.
  • is less than it actually is, e.g., shooting an old padded arrow from a bow with 30-pound weight at 28” draw at a person when they aren’t looking (LARP Haven Facebook group query, based on over 60 responses, 2018).
  • does not exist when it does, e.g., getting food poisoning from a novice food preparer, or being unaware of the presence of bees and whether or not you are allergic to their sting.

Unknown actual risks are the most perilous, and discovering the risk after the fact can be exhilarating or traumatic; the danger was unnoticed, survived by someone unprepared for the challenge.

It is critical that experience designers understand the difference between actual and imagined or mis-perceived risk. This difference is particular to each participant as well—someone with an acute nut allergy has a greater actual risk in eating unidentified foods compared to someone who does not. Following a recommended transparency of expectation (Torner, 2013) the designers have a moral and possibly even legal obligation to inform the participants about the experience before undertaking it, whether it involves illegal trespassing, like Benedetto’s The Night Heron, or violence, like the Blackout Experience (Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, 2009). Both events were up front in their marketing; The Night Heron was an intimate experience in a building’s empty water tower (without authorization to be there), and Blackout involves a single participant going through a series of scenes where they are grabbed, shoved, and choked by the actors (NPCs). Keeping actual risk hidden from participants means the designers are taking on their own undue risk, which may not be the purpose of the activity.

There is considerable opportunity, however, in playing off the perceptions or misperceptions of the participants. Benedetto describes risk perception as “Relying on our unconscious to steer us away from risks makes life manageable, as long as we can trust our unconscious to properly identify the risks. Occasionally waking up from our unconscious steering can put us back in touch with something enriching and transformative.” (Benedetto, 2017). Competition, for example, is an easy method of suggesting risk—the characters might lose the battle and die—while controlling the actual amount of danger faced by adjusting the power level of the opponents. In a controlled, specific manner, duplicity can be quite effective in setting up the conditions for a transformation. More about deception is in the tips section.

What is Transformation?

Risk is a kairos, in the Greek sense of the decisive moment. And what it determines is not only the future, but also the past, behind our horizon of waiting, in which it reveals an unsuspected reserve of freedom.

Éloge du risque, Anne Dufourmantelle

Benedetto defines transformation as:

A transformation is a fundamental change. The change can be big or small, but what makes it transformational is how close the change is to what makes someone who they are. Not all transformations are equal, and not all transformations come about in the same way. Transformation is hard if not impossible to measure because most measurements track the effects of the transformation, not the transformation itself. Sometimes whatever is worth measuring about the transformation isn’t evident until the transformation is well under way.

Benedetto, 2017

The main criteria for transformation is that it is personal. It is an interior redecorating of your psyche. Although any immersive, interactive experience can change your social circle, hobbies, discretionary income or vacation destination, those are not part of personal transformation. A personal transformation converts the human being through the process of the human doing. It can shatter parts of the previous self, and reconstruction takes time. Benedetto reminds us:

If the experience is successful in delivering transformative potential, the participant cannot fully wrap their mind around what has happened; they cannot satisfactorily tame the splendor of the experience with serious judgment about what happened to them. Leaving an experience in a state of disoriented awe allows for the participant to reorder their world view and sense of self in order to make meaning out of what they went through. Transformation is an unraveling, followed by a slow and sometimes prolonged stitching back together.

Benedetto, 2017

Benedetto describes three ways that we can be transformed via a designed experience: acute, repetitive, and dramatic.

Acute transformation is produced by a change that is imposed on someone without warning, against their will, or otherwise beyond their control. In this case, the purpose of the experience is to help the participants adjust to the change that has happened in their world and get past the shock of the change. Not transforming would mean being stuck as the world leaves them behind, often to their detriment.

Benedetto, 2017

Avant-garde funeral directors specialize in acute transformation because they design a ceremony unique to the aggrieved. Acute transformational larps are a minority of larps—possibly, too, of designed experiences in general. This is because of the time and care necessary to create something meaningful for a specific audience who already encountered something overpowering. Other people, especially strangers, may not understand or want to participate in something so personal to one or a few. Nevertheless, experiences have been designed as a reaction to an unexpected event, and it may be the creator who seeks transformation themselves. Siobahn O’Loughlin’s Broken Bone Bathtub (2015) is “an immersive theatre project taking place inside a bathtub, in an actual home. After a serious bike accident [the acute catalyst], a young woman musters up the courage to ask for help, and shares her story, exploring themes of trauma, suffering, human generosity, vulnerability, and connection. The audience takes on the role of Siobhan’s close friends; not only in listening but sharing in their experiences, and assisting the cast-clad artist in the actual ritual of taking a bath.” In this 2018 Knutpunkt Companion, larpwright Shoshanna Kessock describes her larp scenario, Keeping the Candles Lit, which became tied to an acute experience, the loss of her mother. Even as the creator, this fabricated experience (scenario) provided Kessock with a lifeboat to weather an unexpected tragedy. (Kessock, 2018)

Repetitive transformation happens through repeat exposure to something over a series of experiences. The shift in the participant may be gradual or sudden but it comes about through habituating an experience that incrementally moves the transformation forward.

Benedetto, 2017

Benedetto refers to The Dirty Gentleman’s quarterly escapades as an example of repetitive transformation. For larps, clearly, these are our episodic events. There are many examples of people who have changed, often for the better, through recurring larp campaigns; enough that we assume this is prima facie.

Benedetto defines the third type of transformation:

Dramatic transformation happens at the end of a dramatic arc that has built the participants up to a change. A dramatic transformation happens as a result of an intense and concentrated experience. While dramatic arcs are often associated with fiction, they can happen in experiences of a profound confrontation with reality, too.

Benedetto, 2017

The likeliest larp candidate for this type of change is a weekend-long, one-shot event. Yet designed experiences can reach profound intensity within hours or even minutes, depending on the design and the participants. For example, Tobias Wrigstad’s formidable and transgressive larp Gang Rape (2008), which uses the fiat system wherein consenting participants (the rapists) verbally describe the physical act of rape to the victim, who verbally describes the emotions the rapist is feeling, lasts 45-90 minutes. By putting players in a highly-relevant, high-stakes, high-risk and pre-defined arc, it reduces the opportunity to escape from the serious subject matter of sexual assault, creating opportunity for dramatic transformation.

Following the analogy of an ego gymnasium, acute transformation is like physical therapy after an injury, repetitive transformation would be daily jogging, and dramatic transformation would be a short but intense training regimen before a race or triathlon. Akin to what physical exercise can do for your body, so designed experiences can do for your soul.

ExperienceRisk TypeRisk VeracityStructureTransformation
Just a Little Lovin’EmotionalActual, depending on history with subjectExploratoryAcute
Vampire: The Masquerade (campaign)SocialvariablevariableRepetitive
Legion: A Siberian StoryPhysicalActualProgressiveDramatic

Examples of different larps and their risk/transformative categories.

Why Design a Risky Experience?

In an interview with Kathryn Yu for the No Proscenium podcast #130, Benedetto states that “transformation requires risk. And real risk. And that it’s only in having the supportive structure of an experience, especially if it involves other people that you can go through it with, that you can even approach [a] risk that is too chaotic and too threatening to deal with outside the context of that experience. But by confronting that risk, some part of you reconfigures itself or becomes more alive.” (Nelson-Yu, 2017)

This may be overstating the case. Transformation, at least an intentional transformation, i.e., change consciously desired by the individual, is possible without risk, real or imagined. Overcoming alcohol or nicotine addiction, for example, carries less risk, in most cases, than maintaining your dependence. However, Patterns of Transformation presents a strong case for using risk to make personal transformation easier. Her quote suggests that it is a shared experience that an intentional personal transformation requires, not necessarily a risky one—though that helps.

The power of designed experiences, and larps especially, is their ability to create a space for the mind, body, and emotional self to work out in a controlled manner. Experience designers are like weight trainers and spotters for our spirit. They are there to help us better our ability to operate in a tumultuous era, and, consequently, better the world for everyone. This is a noble endeavor. Benedetto calls this “human enrichment.” (Benedetto, 2017)

It is also probable that the designer will benefit from creating these experiences for others, either physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. They, too, take a risk in the act of creation.

Why Play a potentially Transformative Experience?

Benedetto says “A lot of the transformation I looked at, where the transformation’s desirable in some way, is because we have been estranged from something, somehow […] I think the transformation gets you back in touch with something that you’ve been estranged [from], and that changes your relationship to the world in your everyday life. That can be super enriching.” (Nelson-Yu, 2017)

An intense designed experience can create the psychological state known as “flow,” coined in 1975 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It refers to a mental point in which a person undertakes a challenge that they understand and lies within their skill competency. When someone reaches this state, they become fully immersed and focused on the experience, losing their sense of space and time. It is innately enjoyable and yields long-lasting and positive after effects. He writes “the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990)

Designed experiences just outside one’s comfort or skill level, too, are the basis for Lev Vygotsky’s (1896-1934) zone of proximal development and scaffolding pedagogy. By presenting a risk that seems insurmountable, yet including the tools or people in the experience that helps the individual complete the task fosters deep cognitive and emotional learning.

According to one of the first attendees of the Blackout Experience, Allison F., “it was almost like they were tailoring every scene towards some type of issue to trigger somebody.” (personal interview, 2018) Going through Blackout by yourself, a participant can expect to experience abuse, torture, and sexual assault—depending on your perspective.

Yet Russell E., also a repeat attendee, explains how repetitive visits affected him:

Since Blackout is a show that adapts to each audience members’ emotional response, the shows became more intense each time I went. In my opinion, the creators and cast were able to recognize patrons who were “getting it” and sometimes altered a scene’s pacing or content to personalize the event and make it even more affecting… I often found myself contemplating my own emotional responses in real life to scenarios explored within Blackout scenes. It seemed to me I was discovering more compassion and more strength within myself than I had previously realized. By exploring heavy, troubling scenarios within an intense theatrical presentation, I found myself approaching everyday turmoil from a stronger foundation…I became [a] stronger person as a result of this exploration.

Personal interview, 2018

Allison shares the same sentiment: “…it’s extremely empowering for me to know that I still have that survival instinct or, for lack of better terms, I have it in me to survive…” (personal interview, 2018)

It is important to note that transformative experiences are not for everyone, and not at every point in their lives. Benedetto says “Constantly being in transformation [makes] you lose sense of who you are, and it’s hard to establish things or gain momentum.” (Nelson-Yu, 2017) Although there should be a larp or designed experience for everyone, not every larp is for everyone, nor should they be. Not everyone always wants or needs to undergo a risky interactive or immersive experience. It is also true that not everyone always wants or needs to participate in a safety-stuffed event.

It is beneficial, every once in a while, to reconnect with our estranged passions, to transform through a risky, designed experience.

Guidelines for Designing Risky and Transformative Experiences

Here are some tips on managing risk in a designed experience to create favorable conditions for personal transformation. Ida Benedetto outlined the first seven design steps in Patterns of Transformation. Due to space considerations, they are not reprinted here in full. It is strongly recommended you read these in detail on the Patterns website. We have included some examples from larping that we felt matched Benedetto’s terms and ideas. Following are our additional thoughts and ideas on the topic.

For our purposes, a “designed experience” is any kind of planned real-world experience involving participant interactivity and engagement—things like alternate reality games (ARGs), immersive theater, escape rooms, extreme haunts and, of course, larps. Note that all three of the experiences Benedetto researched do not have a fictional component, i.e., at the sex party, funeral, or survival adventure you are YOU, really doing that real action in the real world. Yet the patterns Benedetto identified can also be applied to experiences that rely on fiction and role-playing.

Before the experience (planning):

  1. Identify the Risk – “Drill deep and get as specific as possible about the risk facing the people you are designing for.”(Benedetto, 2017)
  2. Distill what is worthwhile in the Risk – “Be mindful of cultural mores, life stages, and personal agendas (yours and theirs) when taking this step.” (Benedetto, 2017)
  3. Commit to an Experience Structure (see below, with larp equivalent terms)
    1. Exploratory – freeform, sandbox, undefined goals
    2. Progressive – linear, railroad, pre-defined goals
    3. Cyclical – repetitive scenes, rituals, or actions, like boffer combat in battle larps (Benedetto, 2017)

During the experience (runtime):

  1. Construct the Magic Circle (two types) – The “Magic Circle” is a concept inspired by Johan Huizinga’s (1872-1945) book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) and popularized by Katie Salen and Ryan Zimmerman in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003). A magic circle is a shared space and time mutually created by participants where things and people bounded by that time and space are not necessarily what they really are; it a sacred liminal space where play, and change, can happen. Benedetto describes two types:
    1. Conditioned – this type of Magic Circle includes the majority of larps where we learn rules, character backgrounds, etc. The Magic Circle comes into being due to our willing imposition of belief, e.g., a birdseed-filled packet is really a lightning bolt. (Benedetto, 2017)
    2. Embraced – “A Magic Circle is embraced when it is drawn around an existing reality that is too overwhelming to engage without the supportive structure of a designed experience. The magic circle helps participants embrace a reality they otherwise avoid or are estranged from.” (Benedetto, 2017). This type of Magic Circle, although rare, appears in response larps that address a difficult concept such as GR (2008), Active Shooter (Tim Hutchings, 2014), or A Mother’s Heart (Christina Christensen & Eirik Fatland, 2010). Here, a slight fiction (the larp, the Magic Circle) is imposed over a troubling reality. Embraced magic circles can also occasionally appear in immersive theater, flash mobs, 1960s Happenings, and Benedetto’s primary example, bespoke funeral ceremonies. Dublin2 (JP Kaljonen, Johanna Raekallio & Haidi Montola, 2011), a pervasive larp reaction to EU’s asylum seekers policy, was held in one of Helsinki’s main plazas where real people sometimes interacted with the participants. Interestingly, an embraced Magic Circle coupled with an acute transformation is largely unexplored territory for experience designers, or at least larp designers. Imagine designing a bespoke larp for someone who was recently laid off that directly addresses that issue using few fictional elements.
  2. Hold the space for transformation – Organizers need to respectfully maintain the liminal space to allow the time for transformation, recognize when more time is needed, when it is time to close, and when something is going wrong and it needs to close.
  3. Close the Magic Circle – There are many examples of rituals and symbolic actions from larps that represent the closing of the Magic Circle. In some respects, a debrief after a larp can be considered part of this closing. Running debriefs the same day as the end of the larp should accept, though, that if it was a transformational experience, participants might be confused and shaken, their sense of self, tattered. They might not have the words or ability to join or participate in the meeting.

After the experience:

  1. Check in – This should happen days or even weeks after the event, and this is where the effects of the transformation can be identified, after the individual has had time to process the experience.

From a larp design perspective, we propose the following additions to Benedetto’s seven design steps. We believe these techniques, some for designers, some for participants, heighten the transformative potential of an experience.

Identify the type of transformation desired “The first step with figuring out your strategy for care is to identify what the nature of the transformation is. How are you going to about it? That helps you construct the Magic Circle, that helps you figure out what the experience structure is.” (Nelson-Yu, 2017). Besides identifying the risk, decide if the conditions for transformation should be acute, dramatic or repetitive. A typical dramatic larp is a one-shot, and repetitive usually indicates an ongoing event. Consider flipping those so a campaign leads to one final intense conclusion, and a one-shot repeats the same action or scene in its limited time.

Once the risk is identified (tip #1) and the worthwhile part of risk determined (tip #2), minimize or eliminate all other risks. If you design towards a dramatic transformation through emotional risk, ensure that participants are shielded from social and physical risks. These other elements can detract from the power of transformational risk.

Promote ideal conditions and encourage participants to transform themselves (tip #5), but do not force players into a transformational state, nor dictate to them what their new “self” should be. The more emphasis a designer imposes on participants to become or behave a certain way, the more the experience resembles a cult. The movie and book Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, novel, 1996, David Fincher, director, movie, 1999) is a fictive example of how physical risk presented as a transformative experience is deliberately used as a vehicle for creating an anarchist army. Organizers should only extrinsically set the conditions for transformation to occur; the actual act of transformation must be intrinsically activated.

When marketing the experience, do not claim that it is or will be transformational. Let others do that for you with testimonials. It is hubris to think that your daring design will work every time for everyone. If you label it transformational in your marketing, someone may go in demanding that, and become upset if the experience fails to deliver. But do let people know about the risk (see point below on deception).

Establish trust. “Trust is a prerequisite for enabling transformation.” (Benedetto, 2017). Constructing trust between participants, designers and facilitators is rightfully difficult. Once you have it and a community surrounds the experience, the bonds are often hard to break (Douglas, 2016). Additionally, greater trust facilitates the use of greater risk in the experience—though not necessarily greater transformative potential. To achieve the trust of participants before an experience has run, use different levels of transparency. For example, if participants sign waivers, have a “spoiler” and a “no spoiler” version for them to choose to read and sign. The spoiler waiver would include detailed descriptions of the risk, such as “you will unexpectedly have a cloth hood thrown over your head.” The no spoiler version would only mention physical contact, darkness, helplessness.

If you have designed previous experiences, mention those. Be honest about the use of risk in the experience, but not necessarily exactly what the risk is, for some people are attracted to chancy, mysterious events. If there is some kind of independent group that can vouch for your experience (Southern California has a nascent organization called LEIA: League of Experiential & Immersive Artists that may do just this), contact them and let them know about your production; perhaps applying a seal of approval. This may be unwise if it’s a government entity; would The Night Heron have been as profound an experience if everyone had permission to be in the water tower? Benedetto suggests it would not. Conversely, funeral directors, even avant-garde ones, cannot legally operate without license. This is where your previous decisions about the worthwhile risk and transformative type are relevant—is it worth being an underground, unlawful experience, or would the imprimatur of officiality allow attendees easy access into and a lengthy stay within the Magic Circle?

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), an informal collective that created a number of legendary larps, made a point to let all participants know that nothing the organizers asked the players to do the designers had not done themselves. In his Master’s thesis, J. Michael Bestul describes The Mistress of Nyarlathotep (The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Andrew Leman, 1991), a larp run by the HPLHS where players had to jump off a roof through a fabricated temporal gate not knowing what, if anything, would catch them on the other side.

Only when a keeper can earn the trust of players are events like this possible. Under normal, everyday circumstances, a person would not jump off a roof into a prop time portal. They would most likely consider it an insane proposition. But, in a game setting, where the keepers have earned the players’ trust, that insane option is now a likely choice. The investigators, properly motivated, would jump in; the players, knowing the keeper would never ask them to do something exceedingly dangerous, can jump in.

Bestul, 2006

As an experience creator, too, you have to trust your players that they will engage to the best of their abilities. In larps, organizers entrust their players to carry out a plot and to role-play their characters as best they can. If you are designing for transformation, you also have to trust that the players will make themselves open and vulnerable.

Paying the designers/organizers money can alter the risk and transformative power. One of the keys to The Night Heron was its exclusivity and price point: “The Night Heron was very much inspired by a design principle that we had hit on in doing our previous events, which was this notion of generosity. We looked at what we were doing as a gift to the guests or the participants. We never charged for tickets because we were doing this all illegally […] as soon as we had a ticket relationship with the guests, it felt like we were going to be in nebulous legal territory. The positive byproduct of doing that is that people were even more over the moon that this was this weird thing they got invited to and was spectacular. Because it had such a profound emotional effect, it ended up informing how people got to The Night Heron […] you could only come as a gift of somebody who had already been.” (Nelson-Yu, 2017)

Similarly, the HPLHS usually did not charge their players money to play in their larps. “On the whole the Cthulhu Lives games [larps] we produced were never staged as for-profit enterprises and the Keeper would generally bear the cost of producing his/her own event. It’s possible that there may have been a couple of games where a Keeper asked players to chip in a few bucks to help defray expenses, but that usually wasn’t the case. Most of our Keepers would design their LARPs so they could be executed within the resources available to the Keeper.” (personal correspondence with Sean Branney of the HPLHS, 2018)

Asking for money alters the relationship between organizer and participant. It does not eliminate the risk or transformative nature, but gaining the trust of others might be easier if the organizers also take a financial risk. Conversely, paying a higher fee could also prime people towards personal transformation; they are already taking a financial risk. The immersive play YOU by Hall & Mirrors costs $5000 for one night of bespoke performance and interaction. The high cost can influence our reaction (“Britt”, 2008). The monetary cost of a transformative experience should not be treated lightly. Benedetto says one of the core questions to consider is “What’s the risk, and what’s the gift?” (Nelson-Yu, 2017)

Deceiving the participants: How much information do participants really need to know? Can you obfuscate parts of the adventure? In most experiences, certainly larps, there is a chaos factor that even the best-prepared organizers cannot expect. Since participants are by nature unpredictable, and more so in a risky, potentially transformative state, all variables cannot be accounted for and stated up front. But organizers owe it to their participants to inform them of at least the generalities expected in the experience. Do not forget that for first iterations or first-time participants, no precedent has been set, no foreknowledge provided, and that itself indicates a risk. Use this to your design advantage. An example from an immersive theater experience playing with transparency comes from Annie Lesser’s A(partment 8) (2016), the first chapter of The ABC Project. Although the waiver mentions nudity, physical contact, and darkness it did not put those together to say (spoiler alert) “participants with shut eyes will be kissed by a naked woman.” You can lose trust if you deceive too much, but if you have trust from the participants, there is a level of mendacity that you can use to a transformative advantage. Even with deception, any opt-out rules such as safe words should be apparent and honest; although this dictum has already been challenged by Frederik Berg Østergaard’s Fat Man Down (2009), which has a fake safe word and a real safe word. Where and when the safe words are usable should be carefully considered. How many positive personal transformations were ruined because someone took an early exit instead of breaking through to the other side? And of course, in some experiences it might be too late, e.g., using a safe word after you jumped out of the airplane.

Give up control. As an organizer, you need to loosen the bonds of any agenda or plan that you have made. But be ready to intervene if a crisis occurs. Being prepared to interrupt might be enough, too. Some participants, knowing safety rules are in place, may be more willing to push themselves further than if they do not know where the line lies between reckless endangerment and regulated hazard. Others may not push themselves far enough.

As a participant, you may need to relinquish control over your social, emotional, or physical safety to either the organizers, your own subconscious, or random chance. The latter two might be the most frightening of all. Be vulnerable.

Lack of epiphany does not mean failure. It may come to pass that after everything a participant has gone through, they have not been altered in any demonstrable fashion. That is OK. Maybe they were not fully committed to the event. Maybe they were not the right person for this particular experience. Maybe the Magic Circle could not wait for one last person. It could be a design flaw. Hopefully the participant still had a satisfactory or enjoyable experience. Keep the discussion channels between designers and participants open, be honest, and compare the reflections of all attendees. If you followed the tip about marketing, you never promised a metamorphosis.

For participants, avoid major decisions for approximately a month. Assuming the experience was transformative, you are different. The way things were in your former life will probably seem strange when viewed with a new perspective—and you might not like the way they look. While you put your pieces back together, refrain from making other major changes or decisions. You could lose a connection you may, years later, have wanted to keep. This sound advice is given at the end of Legion: A Siberian Story (Rolling, 2016), a Czech larp based on the historical past of Czechoslovakia’s army trapped in the Russian Revolution.

Limitations on Safety and Consent

The most stunning commonality among these experiences is that the risk posed to the participant also poses a chaotic and uncontrollable element to the guide that, if fully tamed, destroys the transformative potential of the experience.

Ida Benedetto, Patterns of Transformation (2017)

Safety and risk are obviously related. Risk can be increased simply by decreasing safety, but without corresponding conscious decisions regarding the risk, participants can be unintentionally hurt. Even if safety is elevated, serious risk can still lurk in an experience. In this section we explore some of the limits of safety and some conditions where safety inhibits the experience and its potential. For more information on safety techniques and calibration, read this manifesto, this article, these four posts, or these two entries from the 2018 Knutpunkt Companion. All qualities of larp safety techniques should be considered when deciding which mechanisms to adopt or eschew.

Consent-Based Play Reshuffling

While the word “consent” suggests that anything else is “non-consensual”, it is instead one of many social contracts that can be adopted by a group of people. Consent-based play moves the cognitive overhead of coordinating playstyle from the design and planning stage by the organizers to the players during run-time. This removes the possibility of errors in calibration, but it requires more work to be done during the larp itself.

This is an approach many people enjoy and find freeing, but it is not a universal response. Communication and coordination take effort. We do not often think of emotional effort the way we count walking far or carrying heavy items, but it is work. In low-coordination, high-calibration larps where the rules of engagement and interaction are pre-set, this work is not undertaken, and playing takes less emotional effort. For example, larps that have established no-touch policies remove player deliberation during the larp on whether or not a particular instance of touch is comfortable: the pre-larp external calibration replaces run-time player coordination.

Alliance, a New England sports larp organization, encourages players to be invested in their characters and play the same persona in many different games, with little to no preparation or specific connections. It is possible to travel across America to another chapter and drop in to play on a whim. This is supported because all Alliance events share a common rules system and constraints on the level of risk and reward, topics that are out-of-bounds, and elements of world design. Players who choose to play are opting in to a set of understood external requirements, and so dozens of strangers can play without so much as an introduction. Run-time calibration between players and a lengthy pre-larp workshop is not required.

Calibration and Coordination Issues

Although some people enjoy or find it easier to participate in run-time coordination rather than playing larps with a risk of mis-calibration, expecting players to be skilled in this effort limits the potential pool of players. If a game is designed such that one can play with people one wouldn’t trust to communicate accurately and effectively in the game (IG), there are far more people you can play with. Casual low-trust events are especially useful for reaching audiences who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to larp at all. Adding mechanics and categories of interactions raises the barrier of entry for participation, and few non-larpers or untrained improvisation actors are used to an ongoing negotiation of play.

Consent and safety mechanisms are sometimes presented as a matter of accessibility. Instead, they are a question of competing access needs: there is no design that will accommodate and enable everyone to play. Some people with mental health or physical concerns find that consent-based play enables them to safely participate. For other people who struggle with communication and coordination, consent-based play can require forms of interaction they find difficult or impossible, making the events inaccessible. Often consent mechanisms are built to serve those with the emotional intelligence to recognize when, for example, check-ins should happen, and who are able to easily swap from in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC) considerations.

Someone with a nonverbal learning disability may have trouble interpreting facial expressions and body language (Petti et al., 2003). The expectation that they are responsible for successfully negotiating playstyle on the fly can be anxiety-provoking. This can be especially true with mechanisms such as the OK check-in that are exclusively visual, rather than audio and visual combined. Since this is an invisible disability, it is possible that someone who flashed a missed signal might think that the other person was unsafe to play with, even though they could safely play in systems that rely on expectations or verbal game interrupts to negotiate playstyle.

Additionally, slipping in and out of a check-in is much easier for people with strong working memories and executive processing. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can be easily distracted and find interruptions or context-switching more disruptive than neurotypical people (King et al., 2007). Requiring coordination or task switching can reduce the probability of flow and the general enjoyment of players with ADHD. According to Pattern Language for Larp Design by J Li and Jason Morningstar (2016), “A typical person can only keep track of 5-6 unrelated things at a time, with concentration. Without concentration, that number is closer to 3-4. When trying to keep track of a set of potentially complex dynamics, a typical person will get lost if the set has more than 4 elements.” Combining consent-based play, where interactions are negotiated outside the Magic Circle, plus a litany of safety mechanics such as OK check, look-down, tap-out, cut, brake/largo, and pronouns can be overwhelming even for neurotypical individuals. These memorizations are layered atop your character’s life, your IC relations, the world setting, and real world considerations such as who the GMs are and where the bathroom is.

This does not necessarily exclude neuroatypical players from playing emotionally risky larps where consent mechanisms mitigate risk, but such experiences may be less appealing or more challenging for such people. On the other hand, physically risky games that minimize the kind of work they find difficult may make transformative experiences more accessible to players with such difficulties. Remember to identify the worthwhile risk and eliminate or reduce the others. There is no single answer for “the most accessible” experience.

Safety Mechanics and Play Styles

Are we truly increasing safety by using risk-reducing mechanics? As described in Target Risk 3 by Gerald J.S. Wilde, humans tend to maintain “risk homeostasis”. He says

…in any activity, people accept a certain level of subjectively estimated risk to their health, safety, and other things they value, in exchange for the benefits they hope to receive from that activity […] In any ongoing activity, people continuously check the amount of risk they feel they are exposed to. They compare this with the amount of risk they are willing to accept, and try to reduce any difference between the two to zero. Thus, if the level of subjectively experienced risk is lower than is felt acceptable, people tend to engage in actions that increase their exposure to risk. If, however, the level of subjectively experienced risk is higher than is acceptable, they make an attempt to exercise greater caution.

This means that simply adding safety mechanisms does not inherently change the level of risk in a game. If a mechanic makes an experience safer, people are likely to adjust the level of risk they take to compensate.

Calling these “safety mechanics” can suggest that larps with them are safer than those without, but that is not necessarily true. If a larp is not designed for risky play that would be padded by safety mechanics, adding unnecessary safety mechanisms can push people to adopt more risky play than the game as a whole supports. The context in which safety mechanics are seen as universally appropriate and universally adopted is one in which the riskiest possible play is seen as a goal, and every experience is expected to support such play.

It can be disappointing for players if they are prepared to experience risky play that safety mechanisms inherently advertise and instead find themselves in low-risk play where the mechanisms were not needed. This could encourage players to circumvent or ignore safety mechanics, reducing their effectiveness when they would be useful.

Additionally, with a consent-based larp where no consequence befalls a participant unless they agree to it, there is reduced possibility for growth because there is no conflict, struggle, or resistance. Our muscles grow due to tissue rebuilding after experiencing micro-tears (Goussetis, 2015). Emotions, like muscles, may need to be damaged in order for personal growth.

Although designers usually desire a safe experience, safety mechanics and consent conflict resolution are not the only nor necessarily the best tools to use in all instances for all people. For example, using instead deception to suggest, or to actually include a risk higher than one participants feel comfortable with may make the experience safer—as participants adjust their role-playing to their acceptable risk tolerance—without an undue burden of excessive safety mechanics.
As the philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle says, “We want intensity without risk. That’s impossible. Intensity is jumping into the unknown, that which was previously unseen, which has not yet been written, yet which is however attainable within us.” (Dufourmantelle, 2011)

Caveats to Using Risk and Designing for Transformation

The element of risk we discussed relates to that which is specifically embedded into the design. Risk outside the experience, such as the potential for harm to or from an experience or negative contact betwixt players and organizers between episodes, was not addressed.

Designing an experience to be risky when the participants only expect entertainment can be extremely hazardous and should be avoided.

Risk does not guarantee a transformative experience. Great peril can be faced, yet the person walks away unfazed.

A risk-based transformation may not always end positively. It could cause trauma and lead to a stress disorder, anxiety, physical injury, even death.

Not all larps should be made for personal transformation. It is infeasible and impractical to plan every one of your designed experiences to rewire every participant. For players, it is a fool’s errand to expect every experience you participate in be created with the purpose of transformation.

Greater risk does not always correlate with greater transformation. Although the prospect certainly exists for “more risk means more change,” it is not a guaranteed formula.

Transformative experiences are no substitute for psychological therapy, and should not be used as such nor made with that intent. They can be palliative, cathartic, eye-opening, self-consciousness expanding and perception shifting, but they cannot replace a licensed therapist or medically-trained psychiatrist.

Objectively, risk-laden larps are no better nor no worse than risk-averse larps. The enjoyment, appreciation, or qualitative transformative benefit is purely subjective.


Risk scares people. It is a natural human response to perceived danger. But avoiding or blocking all risk in a designed experience, as in life, is like chasing rainbows, an uncatchable illusion. Designing to limit risk through safety mechanisms can exclude some people and overwhelm others. Reducing risk curbs the participants’ ability to attempt personal transformation in the experience. While risky endeavors and personal revelations are not and should not be the norm of designed experiences, it behooves all creators to not only look at safety mechanisms but also risk, and to use both in their creative vision. Ida Benedetto’s landmark work, Patterns of Transformation, provides an excellent guide for these bold, daring adventurers.

In the first essay of the landmark Nordic Larp book (2010), “The Paradox of Nordic Larp Culture,” Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola list four ways that larp can be used: to escape, to explore, to expose, to impose. Perhaps a fifth way should be added: to transform.


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This article is part of Re-Shuffling the Deck, the companion journal for Knutepunkt 2018.

All articles from the companion can be found on the Knutpunkt 2018 category.

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Bettina Beck is a U.S. larp designer, organizer and player of 15 years. Working primarily in New England Sports Larp, her focus is on creating generative world systems and subverting the racist and colonial tropes of the form. As a player she enjoys blackbox and surrealist larps that draw on her background in theater, where she specialized in Augusto Boal-inspired improvisation.
Aaron Vanek survives Los Angeles with the help of his wife Kirsten, also a larp designer, and Missekat, a pussyfoot named in honor of Nordic larp. For a longer bio and free stuff, check out AaronVanek.com