Solmukohta 2020 Keynote: Sarah Lynne Bowman – Integrating Larp Experiences

Solmukohta 2020 Keynote: Sarah Lynne Bowman – Integrating Larp Experiences

Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. is a professor. scholar, game designer, and event organizer. In this keynote, Dr. Sarah Lynne Bowman will discuss the importance of integration practices for concretizing and completing transformative processes after larps end and daily life resumes. She will present different techniques for integrating transformative experiences into our off-game lives, including creative expression, intellectual analysis, emotional processing, interpersonal processing, and community building.

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Solmukohta 2020 Keynote speakers: Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Usva Seregina, Jonaya Kemper.


Hello, I am Sarah Lynne Bowman. I am a professor, scholar, game designer, and event organizer. Today I am going to discuss the concept of Integration with you as an important part of the process of personal transformation.

As role-players, it’s no surprise to many of us that we are deeply fragmented in our identities. There are parts of us that are only able to be seen by certain people in specific contexts. Some parts get left behind, discarded, or buried when we are out in the world.

When we role-play, we are allowed to bring these aspects from the shadows into the light. Now, some of these parts are undesirable; we might want to disavow them completely and pretend they don’t exist. Often, though, role-playing reveals parts of ourselves that we wish were more in the light, more seen by others. Sometimes we discover parts of ourselves that surprise us, that we didn’t even know were there: aptitudes that we might have, courage that we didn’t know existed, or abilities to connect with others in ways we had not before experienced.

In many cases, we have powerful experiences within larping communities that are not replicable in other frames of reality. We may have extremely altering experiences, ones that change us and transform us, whether in dramatic ways or in more subtle ways. Regardless of the degree of change that we undergo, after a powerful larp experience, we are never quite the same. And we have to find ways to make sense of these experiences after they conclude.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to talk about these experiences with people who have not taken part in them, especially people who don’t regularly shift their identity and inhabit fictional worlds in their spare time. Often, we might feel even more fragmented than we did before, as pieces of ourselves feel trapped or lost or ephemeral in this fictional reality that technically no longer exists after the larp is over.

But, what I have come to understand is that, for many of us, those bits of fiction, those pieces of self, still exist and they still may need to be integrated into the daily self in some way and into our understanding of reality. This integration may mean acknowledging, but further distancing ourselves from those parts It may mean finding ways to bring those parts into the light in our daily lives. Integration may even mean fundamentally changing our self-concept.

Through role-playing, I have discovered some of my deepest spiritual understandings. I have discovered my deepest fears, my deepest desires for love and connection. I have discovered what community can actually feel like when it’s supportive, nurturing, and permissive of different ways of being. I have discovered what creativity and play can do in terms of understanding who we are and who we deeply desire to be.

For us to really maximize the potential of role-playing, I think that we need to remove the stigma around personal identification with the character. Around playing parts of ourselves that were perhaps quite vulnerable and we are afraid others will see out here. We need to step into our desires. We need to step into our dreams and our hopes. Not hide them away solely in play as things that are frivolous or that can only exist in leisure or in some bounded reality that is not this one.

Now, this all may seem obvious to some of you, but the truth is, a lot of us still hold shame around our play experiences. We are taught at a very young age that play is for children and that what we experience when we role-play isn’t real. And therefore, we shouldn’t take it seriously as something that transfers to this world. And as artists, academics, journalists, many of us have been working very hard to dispel that shame. To validate that this artform is useful. That it has educational purposes. That it can change lives. But I would argue that even in our communities, we still carry that shame at times.

A common example is the larp crush, as Sanne Harder discusses in The larp crush is the experience of falling in love or becoming infatuated with a co-player after sharing a powerfully intimate larp experience with them. And this is an area that is still extremely taboo for a lot of people, especially people who have very clear, bounded relationship agreements outside of the frame of the larp. Because it’s play, we have alibi to explore our fantasies, our romantic needs. We may touch into parts of ourselves that were dormant before or maybe we didn’t know existed. And then all of a sudden, the larp is over, and we don’t know what to do with these emotions. Those places that still need to be seen and loved. And we think maybe that other person is the answer. And sometimes they are. But often, the larp has merely revealed to us our deeper needs for intimacy.

Another example is larp drop, sometimes called post-larp depression, when a peak experience that was so intense and so powerful is over. Players may wonder if the sense of community they felt at the larp still exists, where those parts of themselves they explored in the larp still exist, where those stories exist. It may feel like these things have evaporated or dissipated, which may feel intensely painful.

In transformational language, this is what we call a contraction, meaning that after a period of expansion — of stretching ourselves past our normal comfort zones — it’s natural that we will also then contract. That we will need time to come back into ourselves, to perhaps grieve, to perhaps rest, to process, to think, to feel.

Integration processes help validate that need for contraction. We can validate that it is understandable and also perhaps necessary to come back into ourselves and make sense of these experiences, so that we don’t continue to feel even more fragmented and incoherent. We have a tremendous opportunity here to alchemize: to take lead and make it into gold. To find within ourselves the things that are perhaps unfinished, are not in the form that we would like. To learn how to transmute and transform ourselves.
Integration processes can take many forms. They can be artistic in nature; we can create new works. We can create pieces of art. We can create stories. We can create new larps. Often, creativity begets creativity, so it makes sense that some of us would process in this way. Usva Seregina has centered their academic work on the creation of art as a means of making sense of larp experiences. Jonaya Kemper’s beautiful post-game autoethnographies help her articulate the ways in which larp experiences have felt emancipatory for her, how she has grown as the result of embodying her characters.

We can also emotionally process. We can debrief. We can write journals. We can write letters to our characters and vice versa, which is a beautiful way to integrate and dialogue with these parts of ourselves.

We can intellectually process. We can write theories and research. We can document experiences in larps for others, making them comprehensible to the outside world. We can discuss our experiences in groups, innovating our field of design, improving our implementation strategies, and expanding our consideration of the diverse perspectives of members of our communities.

We can engage in group processes where people tell stories about their experiences. We can create new communities after larps so those feelings of connectedness and shared imagination can move forward. We can envision and build the future that we would like to see together rather than feeling so overwhelmed by the way the world is as we see it now. Through our shared imagination, we can envision new ways to move through the challenges that we face. We can transform conflict through play by envisioning new futures, new ways of being, and new selves.

Each player has their own needs with regard to preferred integration practices. Larp designers such as Martin Nielsen and Johanna Koljonen have worked hard to establish methods where, after a larp, there are multiple areas of the space where people can get their various needs met, such as a place for hugs, a place for game design discussions, a place to debrief, a place to talk about life moving forward. Regardless of our individual needs, it is clear that creating means to more easily transition from the fictional frame to everyday life is beneficial, and may even strengthen the potential for personal transformation.

In order to concretize these shifts, I am advocating for a greater awareness and more deliberate practices around integration. As players, as designers, as organizers, we see the world from the meta perspective due to our experiences with larp. We inhabit characters, we experience, we feel. But we also analyze and we can see the systems that underlie social reality. We can learn the lessons that came out of these group experiences and we can use them to shape the world that we’re in on a daily basis. Larp allows us to create new realities with new frames of reference, with new rules for reality. And it allows us to experiment with new ways of being, with new ways of interacting and organizing. It allows us to explore existing ways of interacting with others and figure out what aspects of those patterns we want to keep and what aspects we want to leave behind.

So my questions to you are: how do we move forward with these understandings? How do we move forward with helping this transfer between this world and those worlds? How do we value and honor those lessons that we learn inside of these larps and help each other to make them more concrete in this life, in this world? It may be more important now than it ever was as the world becomes more and more bifurcated, fragmented, and polarized. How can we find alignment with one another and with ourselves? And how can we build the future that we want to see?

This was part of the Solmukohta 2020 online program.

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