This article is partially a complement to the recent ”The Brave Space” opinion piece, but is more generally fueled by long standing discussions regarding status and social dynamics in larp communities, both at the local and wider international scale. It represents my opinion alone and does not mean to establish a universal truth regarding these issues. I will first present a definition of safety and expand it using the notion of zone of proximal development, an education theory proposed by Lev Vygotsky. I will then reintroduce the notion of social capital to argue why imbalances of power between participants should be taken into account while discussing safety and player negotiation of boundaries. I conclude with the idea that you can’t discuss a culture of trust without addressing social capital and the imbalances of power between all people involved.
The Ideal Purpose of Safety
Safety techniques as they exist at the time of this writing provide means to both opt-out of sensitive issues of scenes or to opt-in to certain types of play. Furthermore, communication around safety has become essential to establish the role and positioning of the larp organization on safety and inclusion of all players. We can admit that talk of safety mostly focuses on opting out mechanics, such as clear author statements with explicit trigger warnings, safewords, white zones, stating boundaries, etc. However, opt-in mechanics also exist, such as the signal light colors (red/yellow/green), okay check-in, pre-scene negotiations, opt-in color ribbons, and the more recent zoning, which creates opt-in spaces within the physical space of the larp. While the possibility to calibrate opt-out and opt-in is obviously central to giving participants the opportunity to experiment and step out of their comfort zone, each participant has different needs and boundaries in that regard.
In education, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Harland 2003) is considered the ideal space to learn. The zone refers to the space between the comfort zone of what you already know and a yet unattainable zone where the difficulty would discourage or overwhelm you (see Figure 1). We can apply this frame to understand how players can develop skills in larp, such as speaking in public, brawling, handling sensitive issues or emotionally charged conflicts, and even intimacy or sexual scenes.
Let’s keep in mind that the zone of proximal development is unique to each individual, in the same way as triggers and boundaries are (Brown 2014). As in education, if a player stays too much in their comfort zone, they might miss the opportunity to grow, experiment, and learn. And in larp, some people explicitly prefer to stay within their comfort zone for a variety of reasons, such as escapism, socialization, or love of a certain genre, all of which are absolutely valid. Furthermore, pushing someone out of their zone of proximal development too quickly can be damaging to the players’ development by forcing them to engage with problems that they are not ready for or that could be triggering for them. Brown (2014) especially underlines how triggers exist on a wide spectrum, and how they can be detrimental to their player’s whole experience and impact the player’s agency.
Therefore, the core idea is that you need a solid comfort zone before you can expand it. The scope of your zone of proximal development is completely personal and calls for personalized handling. Another educational parallel can be drawn here with the notion of scaffolding in education, where progress is built through progressive steps, support from educators, and interactions with other learners. Applied to larp, in order for a person to feel brave and explore out of their comfort zone, they need to feel safe and supported by their environment, which is not a given in larp communities for many players.
There is no denying that larp can provide powerful transformative experiences. Jonaya Kemper (2017) coined the term emancipatory bleed to reflect on the process of steering towards a specific type of play that would reflect one’s own life experience of oppression. Players should be allowed the opportunity to steer towards that kind of play, and designers can support emergent play along those lines. However, how can we support transformative play and exploration while still ensuring safety for those players who most need it? This question usually brings up issues of consent, pre-game or in-game negotiation, and personal boundaries.
We are Not Equal in Setting Boundaries and Tone
In the international larp community, we usually remind participants that the players are more important than the game, make sure that enthusiastic content is given and can be revoked at all times, and support negotiation and opt-in mechanisms. Our goal is to build a collective culture of trust. However, to build such a culture, we need to be able to negotiate it as equal participants. I don’t believe that every negotiation and every discussion is carried on an equal footing.
Games going through reruns and several iterations can sometimes be played more violently or intensely from one session to another. Framing the game experience with hard limits or requirements for consent negotiations in such a way that it sets up cohesive boundaries for the whole experience remains an organizers’ prerogative. However, I would contend that the collective level of intensity is also influenced by the players through their collective interactions. Since we tend to take cues and ideas from other players, I believe that participants are unequal in influencing the tone and intensity. Outspoken participants with a wider comfort zone can influence the game atmosphere more, sometimes for the better, by inspiring others and creating unexpected interactions.
On the other hand, a single or small group of participants who decide to play for their own agency and to disregard the collective buildup of the game can just as easily derail the tone and cohesion for the whole larp. These are rare occurrences where the domino effect can negatively impact the experience of many players (Bowman 2017). My previous article (2019) on the depiction of rape scenes in larps showed how the introduction of scenes featuring sexual violence used to be the province of a dominant group who used it for power play. Only the introduction of restrictions and safety regulations enabled the minority group — women players in this instance — to refuse playing these scenes if they were not negotiated. Further down the line, we found women participants were willing to play rape scenes for dramatic purposes or to support intense narratives because they feel empowered to choose to do so. This empowerment, though, was entirely contingent upon a corrective intervention upon the social imbalance that had originally prevented these players from voicing their discontent. Thus, safety culture was the crucial thing that allowed these women to feel comfortable to play this content.
Social Capital in Larp
Social capital is a notion popularized among others by Pierre Bourdieu as the product of resources conferred due to integration into a certain network and the capacity to act in society (Siisiainen 2003). The chart below illustrates social capital as an aggregate of these resources that allows an individual access to favors or greater resources.
Since larp groups or organizations are part of society, they are also prone to the same biases that affect us in daily life. Although efforts have been made to support the integration of minority or marginalized groups in larps, some players still accrue social capital by virtue of being or passing for white, straight, cis-, or because of their class and education level. Another major point in the international context is their mastery of English, which will confer advantages to native English speakers and players from countries where English proficiency is especially high, as well as highly educated and internationally-integrated professionals. Finally, social capital as we will discuss it is also dependent on larp-specific criteria: being geographically anchored as Nordic, clout as an organizer and/or larp theorist, visibility on social media, participation at international larp conferences and conventions, playing high status characters, and involvement in high-profile games with a lot of hype.
I would claim that larpers with higher social capital are in a position to influence their co-players’ choices or leverage their own desires when boundaries are negotiated. Has anyone ever been accidentally pushed out of their comfort zone for fear of missing out certain parts of the game or the opportunity to hang out with this cool larper they’d read a lot about? Could peer pressure and “hardcore larp culture” ever push some people to willfully step out of their zone of proximal development because that’s what a “good larper” would do? I would contend that this can happen, and that it is very easy to be blind to your own social capital, as it can intersect with other forms of oppression. For example, as a woman, I have to contend with sexism and have even been the subject of sexual violence. However, since I hit almost every other marker of status, I have often been in situations where I benefited from my higher social capital and I was sometimes blind to it to my own detriment. I believe it is important for us to acknowledge our own degree of social capital and how it may influence our relative abilities to push play in our desired direction. It is also important for us to listen to people with lower social capital when they request greater safety culture around sensitive topics.
Regarding the Creation of Safe Spaces and Trust Culture
I think that safety must be used both as a way to opt-out and opt-in of specific themes and scenes. However, safety also has been used to protect minority groups and players with specific triggers and limits from play that would be oppressive to them, and is especially beneficial to players with lower social capital (Kemper 2017). In larp scenes where safety was introduced more recently, resistance to safety techniques usually comes from the more dominant and entitled groups of players. These groups sometimes feel that safety techniques are not necessary because they feel safe enough not to need them. They may have sufficient trust and familiarity within their local communities of play to feel safe without negotiation, which is a form of privilege that is not afforded to many in the international larp community, who may enter larps without the benefits of established group trust. Only active communication by the organizers compensates for this imbalance of power between groups that feel confident to play without safety rules and those who need to be sure of the implementation of safety structures before they will even sign up for the larp. In other words, players with this social capital privilege may not realize that lack of safety culture in a larp may be actively dissuading players from marginalized backgrounds from ever signing up, which further contributes to issues of inclusion in the international larp community.
I don’t believe we can discuss expanding our boundaries, reducing the need for scene negotiations, or exploring out of our comfort zones without taking into account imbalances of social capital, influence, and power. Discussion around opt-out safety was once framed around the protection and benefit of marginalized groups and players most in need of it. I would therefore wish for discussions around trust culture to be built around this issue: how can we build a trust culture that will above all benefit players with the lowest social capital and the greatest need for it?
I hope that we will develop tools that can enable players to explore and expand their comfort zone. However, when we develop these tools, we should measure their value on how much they actually empower those with the lowest social capital and facilitate a sense of psychological safety. I believe that our capacity to build a collective sense of trust will only be as big as our capacity to compensate for these imbalances and support all players to feel safe doing so.
Algayres, Muriel. 2019. “The Evolution of Rape Depiction in Larp.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified on May 20, 2019.
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2018. “The Larp Domino Effect.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified on February 14, 2018.
Brown, Maury Elizabeth. 2014. “Pulling the Trigger on Player Agency.” In The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014, edited by Sarah Lynne Bowman. 96-111.
Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity.” Nordiclarp.org. Last modified June 21, 2017.
Harland, Tony. 2003. “Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Problem-based Learning: Linking a Theoretical Concept with Practice through Action Research.” Teaching in Higher Education 8, no. 2: 263-272.
Siisiainen, Martti. 2003. “Two Concepts of Social Capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam.” International Journal of Contemporary Sociology 40, no. 2: 183-204.
Cover photo: FreeImages.com. For illustrative purposes.
Content editing: Elina Gouliou