At Knutpunkt 2018, I somehow found myself holding a talk called “A Trinity of Consciousness.” This subject might seem an odd choice for someone who, although holds degrees in Nature Science and Public Administration, is pretty much void of any academic expertise on the subject of consciousness; I realize that my approach to the subject can be somewhat unorthodox as a result of this. As a trained actor with almost two decades of experience in Nordic larp though, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the processes that are involved when we are shifting in- and out-of-character. If there are any concepts that can be considered central to these processes, they are consciousness and bleed.
This article is a write up of a couple of the subjects that I touched upon in my 2018 talk. Since then, some of my thoughts have changed, hopefully for the better. In the aftermath of my talk, which was primarily on the subject of consciousness, the one thing people seemed to want to engage me in discussion on was my suggestion for further categorizing different types of bleed. In particular, the freshly coined term memetic bleed, which I in all honesty described fairly briefly, was something about which I received comments and questions in the following weeks and months. I am grateful to the people who contacted me and for the discussions that followed, as they have led to a furthering of my own understanding of the phenomenon
A Brief Take on Consciousness
In order to understand a little bit more about the nature of any type of bleed, we must first very briefly touch on how we understand — or rather perceive — consciousness. This is a subject that seems to present us with several new questions for every single answer we find. Yes, even an attempt to reach a consensus on the simplest definition is challenging, as it is an ambiguous term commonly used to describe a width of different phenomena. For sake of clarity, it can be helpful to make a distinction between the parts of consciousness that are possible to explain and define with the help of standard methods of cognitive science and the ones that, well… simply aren’t.
Chalmers (1995) calls these first aspects of consciousness “the easy problems” and among others names the following: “The ability to discriminate, categorize and react to environmental stimuli; the integration of information by a cognitive system; the reportability of mental states;…” (Chalmers, s. 2) The list can go on for some time, but the common denominator is that all of these aspects can be explained reductively in terms of neural mechanisms. Personally, I find it helpful to consider whether it would be possible to replicate the phenomenon with computational programming, and if the answer is yes, it belongs on this list of “easy problems.” For these phenomena, “consciousness” might not even be the correct term. “Awareness” — or rather “functions of awareness” — would be a better fit. A system that performs functions will be aware of the parts of its surroundings that are relevant to perform the function in question, but this awareness would not equate to “consciousness” in the sense that human beings are “conscious” or “sentient.”
Then, what is consciousness? Good question. In fact, great question. British psychologist Stuart Sutherland’s attempt at an answer is one of the more memorable ones; the two last sentences went on to become rather infamous. Sutherland describes:
Consciousness—The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness . . . The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness—to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it. (Sutherland 1989)
Sutherland’s exasperation might be very understandable, although it does not really bring us any closer to an understanding. What it does do, though, is perfectly exemplify how our established scientific methods have not been capable of providing answers. So, while waiting for a future paradigm shift of thought, we will just have to accept that any work on this subject will have to contain a certain amount of subjective philosophical thought. Then again: what is human existence, if not a subjective experience of how it is to be the one who we are?
I am writing this, sitting by a beach in Spain. The sun is shining over a perfect azure sea, the wind keeps tugging at my papers and the air is full of languages that I do not speak nor understand. Now… the functions of awareness are explaining all of this to me; the colour of the sea, the strength of the wind, the words that I don’t understand. What they don’t explain though, is how I subjectively experience these factors. A mere description of the functions themselves does nothing to explain the deep pull within me, the longing for foreign shores that this scene awakens, this song of the sea that the poets have written about since ever there was written word. Clearly there is something that is like “being me” in this moment that defies both objective description and reductive methods.
Chalmers (1995) calls this layer on top of awareness experience:
When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience. (Chalmers 1995)
These musings into the fascinating field of consciousness could go on for some time. For the sake of this article, we can in summary say that while we do not fully understand consciousness, we can conceptualize it roughly in terms of external stimuli and our internal responses and perceptions to those stimuli.
Reality and How We See It: The Stained Glass Window
Personally, I find it helpful to think of the world as a large building. My own particular cultural background makes it easy to imagine an old European cathedral, but any building will do. It does not have to be any particular one, and can be made up in your head solely for this exercise. The important part is that the interior of this building represents reality as it can be objectively described using the terminology of physical science. The size, layout, materials, structure of surfaces, and such can all be described in detail, providing us with an objective take on the reality we inhabit.
In addition, there is a large stained glass window on one of the walls, like the ones you would find in many houses of worship that usually depict saints or religious scenes. This window is the only light source in the building and, in this exercise, represents the filter through which we experience the reality around us. Now imagine that every person that enters the building will have a personalized and different window from everybody else. So when I, for example, enter the building, my window is particular to me and is shaped by things that are particular to my life, like my long term memories, earlier experiences, skills, knowledge, and so on. When the light from the outside shines on the glass, the depictions and their colours will fill the empty spaces with sensory experience beyond the mere physical outlay of the building. The light will illuminate some areas while keeping others in the dark, in effect providing me with my very personalized experience of the seemingly objective reality. So, the world might exist objectively in a certain way, but the way we experience it changes from person to person.
Furthermore, the glass is not permanently fixed, but rather it exists to be changed by the present, the future, and reflections on the past. Any action I take in my life can to some degree change it and most of them will. In my everyday life though, where most days are similar in both rhythm and content, changes are slow and minute. How many times will I have to drive the same 12 minute commute to work before that experience makes me reach new insights or have an epiphany that changes something fundamental about how I experience the world? My guess is: quite a few.
Now, there are of course larger events in our lives that might change things both rapidly and oftentimes also violently: falling in love; the death of a loved one; sudden injury or loss of health; a new job in a different field; moving abroad; becoming a parent; and so on. Any event of comparable size to these is likely to bring more substantial changes in how I experience and see the world, and by that, what it is like to be me in any situation in the future.
On Consciousness of Character: Altered and Othered
When we larp, we consciously subject ourselves to simulated events like the life changing ones mentioned above. In fact, a lot of the time, the simulated events to which we subject ourselves will most likely be substantially more dramatic and intense than any we will ever experience in our own modern lives. In addition, most of us subject ourselves to these events at a rate that will probably be much higher than even the most dramatic life one could ever imagine. Of course, for the most part, our minds will know perfectly well that these events are just simulated, but the body and senses that we experience it with do not. In their article in the International Journal of Role-Playing, Leonard and Thurman (2018) present a overview of the neuro-psychological processes that might lead to stronger bleed-out, stating, “These processes are fundamental, biological, and often outside of conscious awareness and control, which likely makes direct influence over bleed-out a fleeting or even illusory concept” (Leonard and Thurman 2018). I describe bleed-out in more depth later in this article.
In regard to the stained glass window, what we are doing is changing, substituting, or moving pieces of the filtered consciousness that belongs to us as a player in an attempt to create a distinctly different one through which our character experiences reality. The players’ window will of course never be fully substituted, but the simulated changes will affect how we see the world, even if it is just for a limited time. And as it is never completely static and fixed, changing with our experiences, it is safe to say that what we experience in character would also have an effect on us as players. In other words, when we simulate alterations to our glass painting, we will almost certainly also subtly alter it permanently, and thus we change what it is like to be ourselves.
In summary, when we temporarily change the filter through which we see the world, we are adding a layer of altered consciousness. When the stained glass window of experience is sufficiently changed for the immediate experience of functions of awareness to overwhelm long-term established frames of “what it is to be you,” temporary states of “othered” consciousness can be experienced.
Which Leads Us to Bleed
The term bleed was coined by Emily Care Boss in 2007, and has since been generally accepted to describe when emotions “bleed over” from character to player and vice versa (Montola 2010). In the following years, the addition of thoughts and physical states were done by among others Sarah Lynne Bowman, who states, “Role-players sometimes experience moments where their real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill over into their characters’ and vice versa. In role-playing studies, we call this phenomenon bleed” (Bowman 2015).
At my talk at Knutepunkt in 2018, I proposed a way to further structure the phenomenon by classifying it in three distinct sub-categories: emotional, procedural, and memetic. I also briefly touched on a potential fourth category that I named cognitive bleed, but the more I have studied it, the less I am sure that it merits its own category and as such I am leaving it out for now.
It is also important to note that even though it might be useful to categorize the different types of bleed, any actual bleed situation will most likely be a case of these categories both overlapping and clustering. It is also quite possible that such overlapping could be a catalyst for increasing both the duration and the intensity of the experience. For now, we will content ourselves with saying that the act of categorizing bleed might be useful, but it is important to remember that it is just a framework imposed upon a chaotic reality. In larping, as in the rest of the world, black and white are seldom the only colors.
Emotional bleed is when emotions or feelings belonging to either the player or the character affect the actions and emotional state of the other. It is well-known, documented, and has been thoroughly described in theory over the last 10 years and more. It is the most easy to recognize and therefore its existence is not widely questioned in the Nordic larp communities. However, as a workshop that I conducted together with Jost L. Hansen at Knutepunkt in 2017 showed, there are players that report that they have never bled like this. Not even once. This workshop was partially the reason I started looking deeper into the concept of bleed, as the idea of exposing your body and mind to larping and not being affected by the consciousness of the character at all seemed very strange to me. I might not be the heaviest bleeder, but safe to say, I have bled a lot during my years a larper. For some time, I might also have been someone that actively steered my play to increase the chances of experiencing it.
Emotional bleed-in occurs when the state of the player’s emotions affect the actions of the character in the game. It is probably most easy to recognize when characters are exposed to things in-game that closely resemble experiences that the player has had out-of-game, be they loss, love, or other strong emotions that can be difficult to control.
Based on work done by among others Bowman (2013) and Leonard and Thurman (2018), out-of-game animosity and feelings of real life exclusion seem to be among the most common bleed-out phenomena. In “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study,” Bowman discusses how this form of emotional bleed-out can lead to negative effects on game communities:
Participants explained that when overinvolved, the player assumes in-character interactions correlate with out-of-character personality traits and feelings. In addition, players may possess underlying psychological problems that events within the game world trigger or intensify. (Bowman 2013)
Other well-known emotional bleed-out phenomena are commonly known as “larp crushes.” These are instances where the love played out between two characters are transferred to one, both, or all of the players that played said characters. As Sanne Harder (2018) describes, “Larp crushes are definitely real experiences of being in love. Larp crushes are real in the sense that the barrier between you and your character’s emotions are eroded to the point where you really, truly are going through limerence” (Harder 2018).
In summary, emotional bleed is the sub-category that is most widely recognized. To me, the availability and quality of research and writings on the subject are sufficient evidence of the existence of this phenomenon.
Procedural bleed gets its name from procedural memory, more generally referred to as muscle memory. Basically, it refers to gestures, bearing, ticks, or any other kind of physical action that originates in either player or character and then surfaces in the other.
Getting rid of the physical things we do without conscious thought can be very difficult. Procedural bleed does not cover physical expressions connected to ability, but rather the ways of moving and carrying ourselves that come from for instance cultural conditioning and force of habit. For instance, the culturally coded language of gender will tell us as players how to stand, move, and walk. Players that play other genders than their own will often have to make considerable conscious efforts to change their body language, a task that is made harder by the existence of procedural bleed-in. For my own part, years of being a competitive powerlifter has made procedural bleed-in something that is sometimes very hard to overcome. For instance, I am unable to hunch my shoulders forward in a subdued stance for some period of time without substantial conscious effort.
Procedural bleed-out is for all intents and purposes the exact same as bleed-in, only with the roles reversed. The biggest difference would probably be related to the force of the phenomenon. It is natural to assume that the years of physical conditioning of a player would exert more force on the character than the few days of portraying a character’s physicality could ever exert on the player. There might be some exceptions, though.
For instance, right after the larp Conscience (NotOnlyLarp 2018) ended, I could not stop drawing my phone from my pocket and twirling it as I had done for days with the gun that I carried on my hip. A more horrifying example would be how my portrayal of a Nazi officer at the larp 1942 (FLH 2017) seem to have removed the issues that I had with the Nazi salute as a movement, which for me had caused a considerable amount of physical cognitive dissonance in the past. It would seem though, that in general, it is common that procedural bleed-out burns itself out within a relative short time of the larp ending.
Some players have told me of lingering procedural bleed-out, which is something I myself have experienced as well. For instance, I carry myself with an air of authority, sometimes quite military in nature. This has lead to my (for some reason) numerous interactions with police officers and military personnel in my travels around the world always being quite enjoyable. However, there is very little in my life outside of larping that could explain the ease with which I interact with (and subtly command) gun-carrying soldiers and officers. Now, I was in the military when I was young, and even dabbled with command, but this was too low level to fully explain my current tacit skill. So to me, at least part of the explanation might be my numerous military and law enforcement commanding characters forming some sort of feedback loop originating from my original military experience over the years. These experiences have provided me with the physicality of someone used to command and having their orders obeyed.
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins presents the concept of the meme as a noun that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Dawkins 1976). Since then, the concept has of course been popularized and redefined a number of times. For the sake of understanding memetic bleed, we can say that a meme is an unit of culture that carries an idea, behaviour, thought, belief, ethical conviction, or similar from person to person. In this definition, a catchy pop song on the radio would be a meme, as would the idea of the earth being flat, although paradigm shifts over time as a result of the scientific revolution have rendered the second meme somewhat less successful in recent centuries. On a side note, this example also shows us that the potential successfulness of memes is dependent upon environmental factors and as such will be subject to change.
This leaves us with the following attempt at a definition:
Memetic bleed describes the process by which a meme — a unit of culture — carries an idea, behaviour, thought, belief, ethical conviction, or similar cognitive construct between player and character and vice versa. In addition, it describes the process by which memeplexes — complex structures of memes — are transmitted in part or in whole between players and characters that are part of a group, scene, or subculture and vice versa.
Since memetic bleed at least partly deals with societal and political structures, it seems to happen on both individual and structural levels. In the case of the latter, the most well-known phenomenon might be what some know as larp democracy, where the players, mostly without communication, “agree” to handle situations in ways that are more in tune with the values of the players than the characters. For example, characters in scenarios involving historical systemic oppression may “solve” the situation through democratic means, a political structure with which their players are familiar and appreciate, but one that might also be entirely alien to the characters themselves.
A somewhat more subtle example might be how tacit cultural knowledge can affect the feel of a game. For instance, after the larp 1942 (FLH 2017), a larp set in a small village in occupied Norway during the Second World War, the organizers shared how the Scandinavian run and the international one had played out somewhat differently. The assessment expressed verbally was that the tacit cultural knowledge of the Norwegian players playing the bulk of the Norwegian civilian characters in the first run had moved the game in one direction, while the lack of said knowledge among the international players playing Norwegian civilians in the second had moved it in a different one.
Being Norwegian myself, I can quite clearly see the validity of this observation. Norwegians “know” how life in a small village in the bottom of a fjord would have been, because most of us will have family or relatives that actually lived those lives. Our grandparents would have told us stories and our history books would have explained the societal structures in detail. As modern and progressive people, we might not always like to think so, but concepts such as the low church Haugean movement and the Law of Jante are still deeply ingrained in the culture within which we as Norwegians have grown up. As a result, in the Norwegian run, the civilian play was reportedly quite subdued and low-key. International players, on the other hand, not having access to the same tacit knowledge, based their play upon other sources. What these sources were would probably be pretty individual, but as a result, the run was reportedly richer in both dramatic scenes and amplified play.
On a individual level, memetic bleed might affect our ability to play on certain traits or play out certain actions. The one that stands out to me is how some players report that they are, not from lack of trying, unable to play oppressors or antagonists of a certain type. The larp Conscience (NotOnlyLarp 2018) is a prime example of a larp where the oppressive characters are quite extreme; I have spoken to two players that more or less mid-larp had to steer their characters away from how they were written in order to be able to portray them. My opinion is that this impulse is at least partly a result of memetic bleed-in of ethical convictions that were too strong for the alibi of play to overpower. As previously noted though, any bleed might have aspects of more than one of the sub-categories; in this case, it is also probable that there was some emotional bleed related to, for instance, the players’ ability to feel empathy for the oppressed characters.
With bleed-out, the most difficult part might be distinguishing between where memetic bleed ends and cognitive reflection begins. By this statement, I mean that not all changes in ideas, values, beliefs, and so on will be the result of bleed, but also that it can be quite a mixed experience where no single reason can claim to be the instrumental one.
For instance, on a structural level, I propose that the spread in our communities of ideas and values found in intersectional feminism is partly due to it being a memeplex that for years has been central in both content and design choices in a variety of Nordic larps that have, one way or another, set the contemporary standard. Of course, it might be a question of whether feminist larpers demand the creation of feminist larps or if feminist larps create feminist larpers; personally, I think that the correct answer is probably a mix of the two. There is no getting around the fact that we somehow seem to have gotten a lot better at making larps that incorporate these ideals though, and I for one believe that memetic bleed-out has played a part. For my own sake, observing the struggles of marginalized groups in general society on an intellectual level is one thing; routinely dealing with structures within which these marginalization issues are recognized and addressed as the most natural thing in the world is a lot more efficient with regard to furthering my understanding and evolving my progressive views and values.
On the individual level, memetic bleed-out can be quite hard to recognize. Why do we hum that particular song? Why do we hold that specific opinion on that particular subject? Why have our views evolved over time? Why do we “know” how to act and behave in certain social settings? I think it is safe to say that why we behave the way we do is rarely the result of one single defining reason and there is possibly no right answer to any of the questions above.
This is what makes memetic bleed such a difficult thing to grasp. In fact, the moment we become cognitively aware that we are affected by it, it might even be possible that the effect diminishes, maybe even disappears. The reason why it is important to understand though is that the memes with which our characters interact will latch onto and take advantage of the exact same functions in our consciousness that any meme that we encounter in our daily lives will. In addition, it might be that when subjecting our characters to ideas that we as players will find ridiculous or even harmful, we will without being fully aware of it have lowered some of our “shields,” thereby making ourselves more susceptible to them.
For instance, in 2017, to portray a German officer that was a true believer in Nazism in 1942, I read Mein Kampf as part of my preparation. My short review is that it was a jumbled together mess of ideas that were sometimes ridiculously easy to counter. Yet, when I read it in-game, my character hanging on to every word, and me using the same words to explain the ideas to my fellow German characters, it felt very differently. I am not saying that the experience turned me on to Nazism, but it felt uncomfortable enough for me to decide to actively de-role by rereading the arguments against the particular points to which my character had attached himself. I must also mention that I used this larp as one of a few to see if I could detect the elusive memetic bleed-out. To this day, I am not certain if I did detect it or if I just think I did because I wanted to do so.
As larp continues to evolve and take ever larger steps into the realms of education, training, and therapy, so must we also seek to further our understanding of the phenomena connected to it. It is my opinion that better understanding bleed is crucial in order for larp to be as valuable an addition as possible in the mentioned fields. In that regard, in the last few years, important work that has furthered our understanding has been done by, among others, Jonaya Kemper who introduced the term emancipatory bleed, Whitney “Strix” Beltrán who introduced the term ego bleed, and Maury Elizabeth Brown who has written about the connection between player triggers and bleed.
As I add my thoughts to the ongoing discussion, let me make it clear that I am acutely aware of how we all tend to fall in love with our own ideas. As Dan Ariely puts it, “In the scientific world, the Not-Invented-Here bias is fondly called the ‘toothbrush theory.’ The idea is that everyone wants a toothbrush, everyone needs one, everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else’s” (Ariely 2012).
Let me then be the first to say that I am certain that there is a lot more out there to figure out, but I hope that my thoughts on possible structures can at least be useful as a point for further discussion. For all I know, there might be categories that are lacking or one of my proposed categories is only part of a larger one. And so let me end this little write up with a very familiar call for further research, and state my belief that either some of the great thinkers I have cited or maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet will deliver it to us in due time. To me, at least, the future of bleed seems bright.
Ariely, Dan. 2010. The Upside of Irrationality. London: Harper.
Beltrán, Whitney “Strix.” 2013. “Shadow Work: A Jungian Perspective on the Underside of Live Action Role-Play in the United States.” In Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek, 94-101. Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2013. “Social Conflict in Role-Playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study.” International Journal of Role-Playing 4: 4-25.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified March 2, 2015.
Brown, Maury Elizabeth. 2014. “Pulling the Trigger on Player Agency: How Psychological Intrusions in Larps Affect Game Play.” In The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman, 96-111. Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con.
Chalmers, David J. 1995. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: 200-219.
Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hansen, Jost L. and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. 2017. “To Bleed or Not to Bleed.” Workshop at Knutepunkt Norway 2017, February 24.
Harder, Sanne. 2018. “Larp Crush: The What, When and How.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified March 28, 2018.
Hugaas, Kjell Hedgard. 2018. “A Trinity of Consciousness.” Presentation at Knutpunkt 2018, Lund, Sweden, March 15-18, 2018.
Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified June 21, 2017.
Leonard, Diana J. and Tessa Thurman. 2018. “Bleed-out on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Character-to-Player Spillover in Larp.” International Journal of Role-Playing 9: 9-15.
Montola, Markus. 2010. “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing.” Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players.
Osmond, Will. 2018. “A Game of Give or Take? A Methektic Analysis of Scene-making in Larping.” Filmed May 18, 2018 at Living Games Conference, Boston, MA, video, 26:41.
Sutherland, Stuart. 1989. The Macmillian Dictionary of Psychology. Basingstoke: The Macmillian Press Ltd.
Cover Photo: Saint-Malo Cathedral in Brittany, France. “Pillar and pinnacle, arch and corbel” by Derek Σωκράτης Finch on Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Image has been cropped.