I Feel Released  – How Designing for Inclusivity Might Mean Including Oppression

I Feel Released – How Designing for Inclusivity Might Mean Including Oppression

Sometimes you learn from your failures. Rocky Horror Larp is one of those projects for me. A well-designed larp we never ran due to an unsuccessful Kickstarter. Even though we never got a chance to run the actual game, I learned a lot as head of design for that project, especially about specific parts of the design. The journey towards our inclusivity design for Rocky Horror Larp is an issue in particular which changed the way I approach designing gender, sexuality and oppression in larp.

I’d like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey… through our design process for sex, gender, and oppression.

Rocky Horror legs (photo: Simon Brind)

Rocky Horror legs (photo: Simon Brind)

The Rocky Horror Show and the movie it spawned is all about liberation. It’s a seminal cult classic, steeped in delicious B-movie tropes and outrageous storytelling. But watching the show or the movie today, it becomes increasingly clear that society has moved on from the 1970s. This is of course a good thing – progress and inclusion is awesome – but it also means that a few of the themes and, more importantly, the way those themes are expressed in Rocky Horror, are problematic.

Frank’n’Furter in particular is a fascinating but problematic character. He is a wonderful villain. He has the best lines, sports great costumes, and goes through a wonderful arc. He is also a deviant, a rapist, a cannibal and a murderer.

We live in a world where trans people are at risk of assault – or worse – every day. We didn’t want to make a larp that could add to that in any way.

So as the team sat together in a hotel room in Moszna castle, trying to figure out how to make sure we created a larp that celebrated all the things we felt The Rocky Horror Show stands for, while making sure we didn’t end up with a larp that was homophobic or transphobic, we decided to remove a few elements from the original story.

The things we took out were:

  • Homophobia
  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Sexual assault
  • And transphobia.

Designing a larp that lets players explore the drama of sexual liberation and the transgression of restrictive normative values without using those themes, was tricky. We proposed that the citizens of Denton, the largest community in the game, would espouse a unique version of a conservative outlook.

Whatever happened to Saturday night? (photo: Nadina Dobrowolska)

Whatever happened to Saturday night? (photo: Nadina Dobrowolska)

In Denton, Romance – especially physical romance – was something that only grown-ups should engage in, and even then only after a proper church wedding.

Acceptable activities for teenagers would pretty much start and end at church picnics and chaperoned mixers. So kissing or even holding hands with a romantic partner (or God forbid, rock’n’roll music!), would be utterly beyond the pale, and those were the things that would receive condemnation and provoke outrage.

This meant that there was something for characters to push back against, but that it would remain blind to race, gender or orientation.

We felt that this would allow character to overcome oppression without hurting players who may very well be struggling with their own identities or feel this oppression in their real lives. But as it turns out, we were wrong about that.

Getting Feedback

We were very much concerned about doing this in the right way. So we wrote up our design decisions and sent them to a few designers we trusted. Some American, some Nordic, some European, women, men, non-binaries, straight and queer.

The people we asked were very supportive and kind. They put in time and effort to really review our design and to push back where they found it necessary. And this is where it gets interesting!

The cis het designers we asked said that we had clearly put a lot of thought into this, and in general supported our decisions. The consensus from their feedback – regardless of nationality or gender – was that we were aware of the discussions, we listen, and we make informed decisions. They were more or less happy. The queer and trans designers we asked, however, had a different take.

Here is some of what they said:

“It seems to me that by making everything queer you remove queer from the larp.”
– Jaakko Stenros

“Fantasies relating to being a villain, including turning the straight world gay, are certainly a part of many queer readings, and I think part of Rocky Horror Show.”
– Jaakko Stenros

“I guess I wonder why this is the RHPS larp at all, if it’s about sexual awakening and going against the norm but doesn’t actually include the norms and awakenings that are in the film, and the ones in real life that kids like me who loved the film needed to fight for, for years and years.”
– Jamie MacDonald

“I would not shy away from gender and orientation’s relationship to the normative world, because that is still in play and that is specifically what I need help fixing as a queer trans person. I don’t want a holiday from it; I want tools.”
– Jamie MacDonald

I Don’t Want a Holiday from It; I Want Tools

Although there wasn’t an overall consensus in the feedback we received – some people liked the design choices, other people didn’t – the responses quoted above really resonated with everyone on the team. Clearly, in our attempt to be inclusive, we’d gotten it wrong. Our design ended up missing the core part of what makes Rocky Horror into Rocky Horror.

So we decided to put it back in.

I feel released (photo: Nadina Dobrowolska)

I feel released (photo: Nadina Dobrowolska)

Denton became a place of real repression and 1950s values, with all that entailed. The key theme here was Squares vs Freaks – the comfort (and straitjacket) of tradition against the allure (and fear) of the new.

We decided to keep sexual assault out of the design, we didn’t think it added to the story. And since the larp was about overcoming *sexual* repression, we kept race out of it as well. There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether that meant we were erasing anyone who were non-white from the larp, rather than including them, but at the time, we felt that to focus the game on a few key issues would help make the design clearer.

We told our players that this larp is about overcoming repression. That playing one of the Dentonites would give them a chance to explore transgression and liberation through “deviancy.” We wrote most Dentonite characters with a secret desire or repressed identity, to give people a drive to explore themselves and overcome repression.

We never ran the larp so we’ll never know if we got it right. But we did decide to put repression based on sexuality, religion and race back into our next larp: The Quota. The Quota was a larp about some of the pressure points experienced by refugees and migrants in long-term detention. We kept these themes strictly opt-in and played them out in one-on-one scenes with NPCs and in a black box, and what was interesting to see was that a large part of our player based did want to opt in to this type of play. Several people chose to play characters that were very close to home, dealing with issues they themselves dealt with in real life, and pushing themselves on precisely those themes that we had initially been afraid to include. They didn’t want a vacation from their struggles in real life – they wanted tools.

So in conclusion, I think our starting point of trusting our players to play on difficult themes and to expect them to make every larp we make inclusive, even though the themes we explore are difficult and can hurt, is the right call. It has certainly changed the way I design for inclusivity in the larps I’m making moving forward.

Suggested further reading

Holkar, Mo. “Larp and Prejudice: Expressing, Erasing, Exploring, and the Fun Tax”. In Larp Realia, 94. Ropecon ry, 2016.

Kangas, Kaisa. “Playing the Stories of Others”. Accessed 4 August 2018. https://nordiclarp.org/2017/02/18/playing-stories-others/

Kemper, Jonaya. “More Than a Seat at the Feasting Table”. Accessed 4 August 2018. https://nordiclarp.org/2018/02/07/more-than-a-seat-at-the-feasting-table/

Knutpunkt 2018. “Larpers of color panel – Unlocking the Spectrum”. Accessed 4 August 2018.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RXOAPhiOGc

Montola, Markus. “The positive negative experience in extreme role-playing”. In The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, 153. 2014.

Paisley, Erik Winther. “Play the Gay Away – Confessions of a Queer Larper”. Accessed 4 August 2018. https://nordiclarp.org/2016/04/15/play-gay-away-confessions-queer-larper/

Pettersson, Juhana. “Larp for change”. In The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp, 71. 2014.

Tudor, L. D.  Gender, sex, and race in the gamespace of live action role play. Doctoral dissertation, University of Alabama Libraries, 2010.

Cover photo: I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey (illustration: Lisa Wolfrum).

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Martine Svanevik is a Norwegian larper, fiction writer, narrative and game designer. A co-founder of Avalon Larp Studio, her work has featured in both AAA games and indie productions. She’s been playing and making larps since 1999.