I think of safety work in larp as having two different aspects. One is safety from unpleasant or triggering experiences. But, for larp to be this transformative, amazing, brilliant artform we know it as, another aspect is just as important. As players we also need safety to lean in, to be brave, and to get the play we crave.
So a safe space is not enough. For larp to be amazing, we also need to create brave spaces.
Safety From Culture and Why It Is Not Enough
I am dead scared of rollercoasters. I have never actually gone on one, but my mother has kept me safe from them my entire upbringing by telling me that they are hideously scary and that I really do not have to try them. I had a similar experience when I met the safety from discourse at full scale at a larp for the first time. And it baffled me.
So, I had opted in by signing up to a challenging larp. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I wanted to do it. But even if I want to do something ever so badly, I will probably get intimidated if the safety workshops preparing me for it are all focused on the right to opt out; to not take risks or challenge myself. After a day of workshops and safety talks, I was more scared than I had ever been of a larp before.
This is an inherent risk with the safety from discourse. I define it as an approach to safety where the focus is to create a safe space by saving players from triggering experiences. It may contain policies like “no touching without consent in advance” or “all play on intimacy or violence should be pre-negotiated before the game.” Other parts of it are thinking about safewords as something used only to break play, sometimes completed with the idea that one should never have to tell why one safewords or withdraws from the game; and safety rooms where players can get away from the game and talk with a third-party safety host. Another common feature is a flag system to prevent predators and unsafe players from participating in games. Maury Brown’s (2017a, 2017b) articles on community safety here at Nordiclarp.org contains a good example of this discourse.
We need safety from unsafe experiences at larps. However, without the feeling that we all lean in, create a good experience together, and care about each other, I will feel insecure and hold back a lot. Knowing that my mother will keep me safe from the rollercoaster is nice, but it will not make me dare to ride. And knowing that I can seek out a safety host if I need it will not make me trust my co-players and be brave enough to get the play I signed up for.
Creating a Brave Space
The idea of the brave space is pretty simple. It is a space where the players feel safe enough to lean in and get the play we really crave. It is an environment where players dare to open up and be vulnerable. This requires trust and a sense of caring for each other, both during the game and after it.
Creating a brave space cannot come from above, with a code of conduct or a set of safety mechanics. As Mo Turkington and Troels Ken Pedersen (2015) point out in this article, the most important thing with those is to signal to the participants that here we take care of each other.
As a game master or larp designer you can do wonders by creating an environment where the participants dare to lean in and be brave and vulnerable. Make sure your players get to meet. Create opportunities for them to start talking with and caring about each other. But the big job is our shared responsibility as players. We are the player culture, and we are responsible for giving each other a good experience.
Yes Means Yes
I want to borrow some feminist terminology here and say that a brave space requires a consent culture. This means that to play together we need enthusiastic consent. No means no. And “err… maybe later?” generally also means no. Always give your participants the possibility to opt out of play they do not want.
But also remember that yes means yes. Make it easy for your players to opt in, and to help each other get the play they crave even if it does not come easily to them. Normalize the scary things and set the tone. If you treat your challenging content as normal and expected, the players are more likely to do so as well. And workshopping content like oppression or sex mechanics is not just to make the participants know how to use them, but also a way to let them try with guidance, and discover that they dare doing so.
For yes-means-yes reasons, I really like check-in words like the traffic light as a complement to safewords. This mechanic uses the colours of a traffic light to calibrate consent during play, and I specifically like it for the opportunity to signal what you want to do (e.g. hold a bucket of water as if you were to throw it over a co-player), ask “green?” and if you get a “green!” back, go ahead and do it. The OK check-in is a similar mechanic.
If you are unsure if a co-player wants to do something, it is better to check in and get that enthusiastic consent, than to just-to-be-sure refrain from doing it.
The Pre-negotiation Problem
Informed consent is a tricky one at larps though. It is easier to feel secure when you know in advance what you are signing up for. Some designers talk about expectation management – when we know that a larp will handle challenging themes, we can give informed consent to play them (Svanevik & Brind 2018).
Designers can use ingredients lists or make explicit rules against content they do not want in a larp. But they can not control what the players bring into the game, and therefore we can not expect consent in larp to work with pre-negotiation only.
Larp is like sex in this regard. Most people would call it impossible to pre-negotiate everything we want to do in a sex scene. The same applies to larp. Often we are not aware of all our limits in advance. Something might seem like a thing you would never do, but when you try, you end up loving it. Something might be fun for a little while, but not what you want to spend the entire night on. And some things seem like amazing play in advance but end up awkward or horrible. Consent is dynamic and can be given or taken back at any time. There are many mechanics to make this work during runtime: for example, Johanna Koljonen’s Safety in larp blog (2016) is a veritable goldmine of these.
The risk with the idea of pre-negotiating so that uncomfortable or triggering things should never happen in the first place is that players get ill-prepared for actually calibrating and finding their limits during play. And then we risk players holding back and not getting the play they crave, because there is too little space to calibrate and check in for consent.
Finding One’s Limits
This leads me to another key aspect of the brave space. It is easier to achieve it when we practise to actually find our limits – soft and hard ones – and know how to set them.
In this context, I find it very useful to separate between different kinds of limits. There are hard limits that should not be crossed. And then there are soft limits that we can push when we feel brave and comfortable enough to get new and exciting experiences. Many of my best larps are those where I have learned new things about myself, love, or life by stepping out of my comfort zone. Those where I have been able to let go, embrace the uncertain, and let other people affect me. The ones where I have felt safe enough to push my limits and see where I end up.
When one is playing with pushing limits, one always risks hitting them. And this is good. The goal is not to never have to use a safeword, but to know that you are able to. And what happens after you safeword or get safeworded at, and that it is gonna be okay.
I actually consider fake safeword workshops a harmful feature in larps. It is very common in pre-game workshops for players to be told to practise using safewords in an artificial setting where no-one is actually close to their limits. This teaches players to lie with safewords, but not to recognize their boundaries and experience how to actually use them.
In contrast, I learned a really good safeword workshop technique at the Atropos game Reborn (2018). There, we were told to practise the sex mechanic of the game and to escalate it until we felt a need to say “this is comfortable but don’t go further,” – or to use the safeword “off-game” followed by the information we wanted the co-player to have, e.g. “off-game, no touching my face please.” This was a chance to actually feel where our limits were, to experience authentically using safewords, and to get a good experience when they were respected.
Hurting and Aftercare
The last part of the brave space that I will explain here is what to do when we hurt someone. This is important, because the key to make players safe enough to be brave is making them care about each other. I will only dare to push my limits and to do amazing transformative things at a larp if I trust my co-players to care for me when it hurts. And it will.
If someone ever promised that they would never hurt you, they lied. Because one cannot know that. Sometimes we hurt each other. And an important part of building consent culture is realising that not only Bad and Unsafe people do this.
When we allow larp to affect us, and get emotionally vulnerable together, we sometimes make other players uncomfortable. We fail to communicate, we transgress boundaries, or we do not realize until afterwards that someone else has transgressed our own. But that is a natural part of life. The important thing is what happens afterwards. If I hurt someone during a larp, I have a responsibility to try to help them feel okay again.
This is where I start worrying when I hear thoughts like “you never have to explain why you safeworded” and when this responsibility between players gets replaced with flagging systems and third-party safety hosts. I have spoken with too many players who fear that they will make someone feel unsafe at a larp and will not get to know about it until the harm is already done, someone is hurt, and they are red-flagged from further activities. I have also seen too many players become defensive and claim to have done nothing wrong because only Bad and Unsafe people do that. And when a safety discourse makes players react with defensiveness and mistrust, feeling that the threat of being labelled a Bad Person is too great for them to admit to their mistakes, it does not build safety. It destroys it.
I honestly think that a responsibility we have as players is to make amends and try to correct our mistakes. We cannot promise to never hurt a co-player, but we can promise to do our best to help them feel okay again. Sometimes, they do not want that help, and the best thing can be to give a little space before we try to solve something. But in order to not leave conflicts hanging, we must get to know what has gone wrong and take responsibility for it. I think a third-party safety host can be a great asset here to help solve conflicts between players or between players and organizers. But I find it important that the safety host is a support and not a shield. Solutions like red-flagging or letting a safety host remove a player from a larp are there for when the trust between the players is irreversibly broken – but when creating a brave space, it is important to not let them replace communication between players before that happens.
For larp to actually be safe, we need to be safe with each other instead of away from each other.
We need to build spaces where we as players can grow together, learn together, and have intense, emotional, vulnerable, and unexpected experiences. We need to talk about how to make mistakes and then correct them. How to lose trust, but also how to regain it. How to feel bad after a larp and how to care for each other in it. How to lean in, explore difficult topics, and learn to fly.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne, Maury Brown, and Johanna Koljonen. 2017. “Safety & Calibration Tools in Larps.” Knutepunkt 2017.
Svanevik, Martine and Simon Brind. 2018. “Playing Safe?” Nordic Larp. https://nordiclarp.org/2018/01/22/playing-safe/
Brown, Maury. 2017a. “Safety Coordinators For Communities, Why What and How?” Nordic Larp. https://nordiclarp.org/2017/04/17/safety-coordinators-for-communities-why-what-and-how/
Brown, Maury. 2017b. “The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto.” Nordic Larp.
Friedner, Anneli. 2013. “Gränsdragningar och gråzoner, ett utvecklingsforum om lajvetik.” Jeu de rôles. http://jeu-de-roles.blogspot.com/2013/03/gransdragningar-och-grazoner-ett.html#more
Koljonen, Johanna. 2016. “Safety in Larp. Understanding Participation and Designing For Trust.” Safety Participation.
Pedersen, Troels Ken. 2015. “Your Larp’s Only as Safe as its Safety Culture,” Leaving Mundania. http://leavingmundania.com/2015/08/04/your-larps-only-as-safe-as-its-safety-culture/Cover photo: Backlit couple floating (photo, Isabella Mariana). Content editing: Elina Gouliou