The Butterfly Effect Manifesto

The Butterfly Effect Manifesto

This manifesto describes in detail our preference for playing, designing, and facilitating larp experiences with the explicit purpose of encouraging transformative impacts within participants. This work is a synthesis of countless conversations over the years and reflects the insights of many people within a number of regional and international larp communities from a variety of cultures. Ultimately, this manifesto reflects our personal perspectives built upon our exploration of dozens of different styles and genres of larps over the years. 

This work also integrates concepts and language from group dynamics, psychoanalysis, and personal development work in order to enrich our discourse about the potential of the larp experience. Thus, while this work represents our own commitments and beliefs, we are indebted to our wider communities for much of the content of this manifesto.

While this work represents our current completed thoughts on this topic, we understand that as we progress further and deepen our knowledge in the field of transformative larping, the need for revisions and additions will present itself. When that happens, we will revise as necessary.  This manifesto is intended to promote serious and respectful discussion rather than humor or antagonism. These words are offered in good faith with full knowledge that many may disagree. The authors welcome reflective and kind engagement for those who wish to discuss this approach. 

If you are interested in larping, designing, and facilitating for transformation, we invite you to join us in exploring the next steps together. We have created a Facebook group called Larping for Transformation where we will discuss themes, strategies, experiences, techniques, and pitfalls pertaining to larping in this fashion.

Central Tenets

1. We believe in the power of larp as a tool for transformation, self-awareness, empathy, and personal growth. We actively and intentionally use our larp experiences toward cultivating these capacities. Like the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly, changing oneself can be painful and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. While sometimes messy, the transformation process can yield life-changing results if participants grant themselves and others grace throughout it.

2. As with the Butterfly Effect in chaos theory, we believe that even the smallest experience in a larp can have profound effects upon individual human and collective consciousness. A considerable number of people have shared the ways in which experiences in larps have helped them personally grow or become more engaged in their communities. We choose to honor and conscientiously amplify these impacts rather than think of them as secondary or serendipitous.

3. The world is often a dark, dehumanizing, and demoralizing place. Because we believe that these small experiences can have profound effects, we feel that we have the obligation as players, designers, facilitators, theorists, researchers, and documenters to amplify these transformative impacts in order to help make the world and people’s lives a little bit brighter.

4. We honor and respect all play experiences and motivations, while strongly expressing our preferences. While we do not discount or devalue the experiences of people who wish to larp for other reasons such as for instance entertainment, we choose to focus our intention toward these transformative impacts. We hold no ill will or criticism for people who play toward other purposes. 

5. Transformation involves stretching our edges in order to grow. Transformation involves taking risks and playing outside our comfort zones. Transformation involves exploring the boundaries of what we consider ourselves to be. Transformation is nurtured by the consensual creation and maintenance of a container that is secure enough to emotionally hold participants.

6. We engage in transformative work with a deep reverence for our vulnerabilities, our sensitivities, and our hard limits. We acknowledge the bravery of anyone who chooses to push their edges, while equally honoring anyone who chooses to set healthy boundaries for themselves.

7. Transformation involves moments of expansion and contraction. We may have peak experiences within a larp or within the larger community where we experience intense catharsis, ride unparalleled highs, give tirelessly of our energy to provide an experience for others, or have profound realizations about ourselves. These experiences may feel as purposeful as our daily lives outside of a larp context. 

8. Contraction is part of the expansion process. In order to explore the higher limits of our potential, we may also experience equally profound lows before, during, or after the event. Dips in energy, enthusiasm, sociability, feelings of profound loss, alienation, angst, or even post-larp depression are examples of contractions. These lows are part of the process and are invitations for us to reflect upon the change that is occurring within us. 

9. These moments of contraction can be valuably informative, showing us the places within ourselves that need healing or change. Embracing the contraction with open arms can help us learn how to deeply care for ourselves and steward our own experiences of life. 

10. When undergoing transformation, we give ourselves permission to ask for help from members of our community when we may feel at our most vulnerable. We may also be called to help others when they experience a profound low after a peak experience. Supporting one another as much as we are able is critical for creating a container where the needs of individuals having transformational experiences can be met in a secure environment. Co-creation has the power to catalyze powerful change. Mutual support provides nourishment throughout the process so that participants feel resourced.

11. If we complete a larp experience without learning something about ourselves that we can use to improve our daily lives, we feel that we have missed an opportunity. 

12. We acknowledge that larp is not therapy unless facilitated by trained professionals.

13. We also acknowledge that people already widely and consistently use larp for transformative purposes. Increased awareness around the principles of facilitation for transformative larping will therefore help create a safer environment for these transformative experiences to transpire. Thus, we believe that all parties engaged in the creation and enactment of transformative larping have a responsibility to try to create a secure environment for such experiences to unfold. 

mural of a rainbow butterfly on glass

Butterfly mural outside of St Martins Lane Hotel in London, England. Photo taken by the authors after the August 2019 run of Just a Little Lovin‘, a larp by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo that has inspired transformation in many of its players.

Playing for Transformation

14. As players, one of the tools of transformative larping that we employ is actively steering toward bringing aspects of our lives into our character experiences and stories and vice versa. We mindfully work with and intentionally insert aspects of our own lives into our characters and stories in order to examine, explore, and innovate our sense of self.

15. As we believe that larp can be a transformative tool, we recommend treating the process of enactment with respect and reverence. Some players may bring into a larp content that is extremely personal and sensitive to them. We encourage this type of play when it is conscientiously used rather than disparage it, as it may lead to greater self-awareness and growth for the player and others within the community. 

16. We also believe that each player should have the right to opt in and out of challenging and intimate experiences. Therefore, we err on the side of consent and communication when inviting co-players into a particular theme or experience.

17. Playing “close to home” — or close to one’s self-concept — may maximize the potential for transformative larping. Thus, we consider playing close to home a brave choice that we support whole-heartedly. The risks associated with playing close to home are lessened when the container surrounding the experience is held as supportively as possible.

18. Playing a character unlike the self may also lead to transformation. Playing far from home may create an opportunity to explore characteristics one might like to attain, discover new facets of their identity, or reveal traits that a person might never want to embody again. Playing for transformation involves recognizing the humanity in both the heroic and the shadow sides of any given character. This recognition of the full range of human potential can encourage dramatic shifts in understanding and awareness about the world around us and ourselves if the opportunity for reflection is taken.

Designing for Transformation

19. While any larp content can be potentially transformative, how designers and players choose to implement that content before, during, and after the larp greatly influences the impact that a particular theme, moment, or story can have upon its participants. Conscious implementation of any and all design choices matters.

20. As designers, we will choose themes, narratives, techniques, and facilitation principles that we believe have the potential to encourage transformative experiences. Of late, we have been interested in narratives that emphasize positive human potential, including traits such as compassion, empathy, humanization, personal growth, philosophical pondering, spiritual questing, conscious communication, and envisioning more optimal ways to build community. 

21. While exploring the darker sides of the human experience can be valuable, we are increasingly finding less interest in telling stories that only focus on oppression or harmful personality traits without offering some pathway to hope and redemption, even if such positive reframing only occurs during the post-larp process. Without sufficient post-larp processing and integration, we believe that exploration of narratives about oppression have limited transformational potential. We believe that play upon these themes can be recontextualized within the players’ lives in a way that motivates reflection, positive change, or prosocial behavior.

22. We posit that all the stories we tell are connected to the world in which we live, even when exploring themes that seem fantastical. If we want to maximize the potential for transformation, then we need to contextualize these fictional narratives, anchoring them into the “real” world in a meaningful way.

23. Because we believe that all stories are connected to the “real” world in some way and that larp can have a transformative impact, we emphasize the need for designers to write responsibly and inclusively. The goal of this process is to help the widest range of players relate to and feel engaged with the content. The positive impacts are limited and larp content can even become potentially harmful when care is not taken to consider the lived experiences that players bring into the fictional world.

24. If a larp integrates themes of real world structural oppression, we believe that the design team must include and prioritize voices that represent people from those marginalized backgrounds as early and consistently as possible in the process. With greater nuance and care in representation, more people may experience a transformative impact from the larp.

Facilitating for Transformation

25. When facilitating a potentially transformative experience, organizers have a responsibility to create as secure and nurturing a container as possible so that the players feel held and respected through the experience. Building a strong container involves intentional and conscious co-creation and management of the social contracts between all participants; the safety structures that hold these contracts in place; and the content within the fictional world itself.

26. The container of the larp experience does not only refer to the time spent onsite and in-game. The container starts with the genesis of the idea and continues with the beginnings of the organizing phases; the interactions with players before, during, and after the larp; de-roling and debriefing strategies; documentation; and the opportunities for integration that are made available after the experience. We recommend considering each of these stages at the forefront of design and facilitation throughout the process.

27. When playing for transformation, everyone holds a piece of the responsibility for maintaining a strong container: the designers, the individual players, the play community, the organizers, and even the documenters, theorists, and researchers. Through shared responsibility and respect for the process, all parties can hold each other in a greater feeling of safety.

28. We believe that the transformative impacts of larp can be amplified and negative impacts ameliorated through the use of proper frameworks. These frameworks can include consciously designed workshops, debriefs, meta-techniques, consent negotiations, check-ins, calibration conversations, and other methods that align the group toward both individual and collective transformative goals.

a rainbow butterfly on a black and white leaf

Integration

29. We believe that the next step for maximizing the transformative potential of any given larp  experience involves more extensive integration practices. Integration is the means by which a person or group can transition from a peak experience such as a larp back to their daily lives, evolving their own experience of themselves and the world in the process. Skills might transfer. Identities might shift. Social dynamics might change. Deeply buried pain may arise to be acknowledged. We encourage embracing the process of conscious and intentional integration from the fictional frame of reality to daily life, which involves facing and working with whatever arises.

30. The post-larp integration process often involves a complex ebb and flow of emotions and thoughts. Relationships may shift, communities may expand, and consciousness may evolve. Contractions may occur that call forth intensely uncomfortable emotions. Creating solid structures to facilitate these transitions and integrate these experiences is paramount.

31. Integration can also involve greater reflection upon the themes, the emotional dynamics, the social structures, and other aspects of the larp experience. Such reflection can occur through personal journaling, debriefing, documentation, discussion, theorizing, creating works of art, and many other processes. In larping for transformation, we understand that the larp does not end when the organizers call for the end of play.

32. Our hope for the future is that we become increasingly mindful and intentional when designing toward transformative play. Engagement of this sort requires consideration of the integration of larp experiences into daily life as a vital part of the growth process for everyone involved.

We appreciate your consideration of our manifesto. If you are interested in this style of play, come join us in the discussion at Larping for Transformation.  


Content editing: Elina Gouliou, Mo Holkar, and Johannes Axner.

Valuable feedback on early drafts (alphabetical order): Arielle Brown, Clio Yun-su Davis, Dani Higgins, Jonaya Kemper, Joe Lasley, Lizzie Stark, and John Stavropoulos.

Authors

Kjell Hedgard Hugaas
Kjell Hedgard Hugaas is a northern Norwegian larp designer, organizer, writer, and trained actor. He has been active within Nordic larp communities for about two decades and contributes to larp conferences on a regular basis. His design work tends to be quite political and often addresses societal issues. In his daily life, he works as a technical advisor in local government, works with local, regional and national trade unions, and is a part-time lumberjack.
Sarah Lynne Bowman
Sarah Lynne Bowman is a game scholar, designer, and organizer. She currently teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities for several institutions including Austin Community College. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Bowman served as an editor for The Wyrd Con Companion Book from 2012-2015 and is currently a Coordinating Editor for the International Journal of Role-Playing. She was the lead organizer for the Living Games Conference 2016, helped coordinate the Role-playing and Simulation in Education Conference at Texas State University, and served on several committees for Living Games 2018.
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