Emotions as Skilled Work

Emotions as Skilled Work

Larps are played for many reasons, but emotional experiences show up time and again as part of the pay-off. This makes the skills related to creating, shaping, managing and enjoying those emotional experiences crucial for taking part in larp as a hobby and as an artistic pursuit. These skills may be especially valuable or desirable in Nordic larp, as the Nordic larp tradition emphasizes emotionally impactful or emotionally complex experiences.

Emotion work or emotional labor is also an important part of connecting and relating to others, and it connects to our intimate selves. As Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983) has argued, the commercialization of this work as the emotional labor expected of, say, flight attendants and bill collectors is worth studying for this reason: carrying out such work enacts a price that can be devalued and hidden away.

In larp, we participate in very similar activities as those expected in commercialized emotional labor, but the context can make all the difference. In a larp context, the same activities are usually voluntarily chosen by participants, experienced as rewarding both for personal reasons and for their relational and community-supporting value. However, even voluntary work may turn out to be onerous or burdensome at times, and the risks might be particularly high if our expectations of who will carry out this work are constructed in divisive and discriminatory ways.

This paper is focused on the social and cultural aspects of emotion work and on our understanding of the skills involved, rather than on the psychological impact emotion work may have. I first examine briefly what kinds of emotion work can take place in larp during runtime; then I introduce the key findings from Hochschild’s classic research and recast the emotion work in larp within that context as emotional regulation. Based on this, I examine the social and cultural expectations around emotional regulation in larp, and consider how the non-commercial nature of many larp cultures affects its pay-offs and costs. Finally, I will discuss emotion regulation in larp in the context of Hochschild’s “feeling rules” and highlight how those feeling rules are navigated in the Nordic larp tradition. I conclude by recapping and honing the key argument of this paper: that emotion work is an indispensable part of larp and that skilled labor in doing it is simultaneously valorized but also unseen.

Emotional Regulation in Larp

Emotional regulation is a key part of the mainstream way of engaging in Nordic larp (see e.g., Stenros and MacDonald 2020, in this volume). Emotional regulation is what allows the participants to create, enhance and experience desired emotional states, as well as suppress or downplay undesired ones.

Marras is a small and intimate Finnish larp about a small community of survivors in post-apocalyptic Finnish forest. It is the kind of larp where you cry a lot. The larp examines the loss, despair, and grief after a virus wipes out most of the population, and engaging meaningfully with the design of the larp practically requires the players to feel at least some of those feelings. The design of the larp supports the players in adopting suitable emotional states by several means, such as deliberately writing the loss of a close friend or family member into most of the character backgrounds and including partly scripted blackbox scenes that play on that loss.

Emotional regulation is also an important tool for the players to support, navigate or challenge the intended emotional design of the game.

In Inside Hamlet, the act structure of the game works to drive home the contrasts between the decadent party of Act 1, the listless ennui of Act 2, and the heady destructiveness of Act 3. The players participate in the act design by adopting emotional states that they feel give artistic interest or verisimilitude to the experience. A player might steer their character to drunken shenanigans and outrageous flirting in Act 1, and strive for an audacious, sexual mood. That same player can then use the act breaks to reset that emotional state and adopt a tense and anxious mindset for Act 2; perhaps transforming the boldness of Act 1 into the character acting out in a futile struggle in Act 2. Emotional regulation is a way for the player to participate in the runtime design of the larp, as well as a way to provide continuity and contrasts in the character portrayal.

Emotional regulation begins well before runtime, as players will start engaging with their character materials and building a mental map of the larp design. It also carries on after the larp itself ends, as players negotiate the emotional impact of the larp and sort out character-appropriate feelings and relations from those that belong to the player. In effect, sorting out “bleed”, such as managing romantic or sexual attraction derived from portraying an in-game romantic or sexual relationship, constitutes emotional regulation.

Hochschild and the “Managed Heart”

As a key part of larp participation and design, emotional regulation deserves a more thorough examination. The topic has been addressed in larp studies now and then; in some pieces moredirectly(Jones,Koulu,&Torner2016)and in others more indirectly via analyzing various related phenomena such as bleed and embodiedness (e.g., Widing & Gerge 2006).

In the social sciences, the analysis of emotion work blossomed in 1983 with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s classic The Managed Heart. Commercialization of Human Feeling. In the book Hochschild examines how people manage emotions and carry out so-called emotional labor as part of “a system composed of individual acts of ‘emotion work,’ social ‘feeling rules,’ and a great variety of exchanges between people in private and public life” (Hochschild 2012, xviii). Hochschild is mostly focused on emotional labor, i.e., emotion work that is done for pay, especially in the service sector. She notes that emotional labor requires one to “induce or suppress” feeling in order to sustain the right kind of outward appearance, and that it can draw on resources that we consider very personal and private. Thus it can also be costly, leading to a feeling of alienation with the part of self that is used to carry out this labor.

In this chapter, I have chosen to use the concept of “emotional regulation” rather than emotion work or emotional labor, since larp is a recreational pursuit that is rarely done for financial compensation. That said, it is clear that larp can involve emotional labor in the strict sense as well even if the larp context places an extra layer on the work. For instance, the organizers of a larp might hire someone to perform a specific role in the fiction. The emotion work required of the performer, as well as the benefits or pay-offs they gain from it, can be almost identical to that required of the fictional character. Along these lines Torner argues (2020, in this volume) that the work players do at larps is best examined as ”playbour” and notes that there is little benefit in distinguishing between play and work.

I define emotional regulation as the management of emotion in order to create, enhance, or sustain desired emotional states or to suppress or downplay undesired ones. This definition leaves the question of compensation and cost deliberately open, as there may be several benefits but also costs to carrying out emotional regulation, and these probably vary quite a bit from larp to larp and community to community. Whatever the context, emotional regulation is about “managing the heart”. It requires skill, but skill that is paradoxically more valued as it is more invisible — much as in the case of the flight attendants Hochschild studied. The larp participant’s portrayal of a character’s emotions relies on an impression of “authenticity” even as the distinction between the character and the player is necessary for the larp to function. Players may employ several different strategies to achieve this sense of authenticity, but especially in Nordic larp perhaps the most valorized method is to “really feel” the character’s feelings. This demands a high level of skill at emotional regulation from participants, as they are expected to be able to feel things on command, or at least give the impression of doing so.

Expectations, Costs, and Pay-Offs

Emotional regulation in larp matches Hochshild’s description of emotion work in many respects. However, in larp emotional regulation is rarely done for financial payment but instead for less tangible pay-offs. Some potential pay-offs might be

  • personal enjoyment, such as when a participant hypes themselves up in order to get more engaged with what might be a somewhat boring and stale larp;
  • artistic expression, e.g., when a character gives a passionate and moving speech on their deathbed, and the participant leans into the feeling of tragic loss so as to experience the scene more fully or to affect other participants more strongly;
  • social approval and disapproval, asemotional regulation has a social dimension — expressing feelings that deviate from the expectations at a larp can lead to social disapproval, while being skilled and expressive at portraying authentic emotion that is in line with the expectations of the larp can garner attention and admiration both inand offgame;
  • community status, as gaining a reputation as someone who plays expressively and emotionally convincingly can bolster a person’s status in their own larp community; especially if that community values emotional expression and regulation.

Even this short list shows an interesting dimension in emotional regulation: while it is carried out on a very personal level, it also connects to the social norms and expectations in the wider community. As Hochschild noted, emotion is not private or individual but part of a system that connects the individual and the social — and even the public. Thus the lack of financial payment may not distinguish emotional regulation in larp quite as clearly from emotional labor as such as we might wish. Insofar as emotional regulation is socially encouraged, valued or mandated, we may need to look at the structures and contexts in which it is being carried out. Those structures and contexts depend on the play cultures and communities involved. The need for emotional regulation may differ based on the types of larp that are played: a tight-knit community playing Vampire: The Masquerade will most likely have different expectations for emotional regulation and the expression of emotion than a community of hundreds of players participating mostly in combat-heavy boffer larps. At the same time, emotional regulation is socially and culturally contingent, and the communally originated expectations around it can solidify and become embedded in play cultures (e.g., Bowman 2010).

The expectations on emotion work that exist generally in society do not suddenly vanish in a larp context, but instead are layered in with the larp-specific expectations. We might suspect, for instance, that emotional regulation like emotion work is not evenly distributed.

We know from a lot of earlier research that many forms of emotional and caring labor are gendered, so it may be worth examining whether we expect more skill and more effort from female-presenting people in larp as well. For instance, one form of emotional regulation that may prove necessary during a larp is the management of one’s own emotion in order to help another participant process their feelings. It is worth interrogating whether we expect female-presenting players in particular to be more caring and more willing to do that work, so that when we need support or validation during a bad moment in game, we seek them out over other potential contacts. This is a kind of emotion work that is relatively invisible in general (Hochschild 2012, xvii, 200) and while larp communities are perhaps better at spotting it, is worth asking what kind of expectations we have around it.

In addition to being gendered, emotion work in general is often racialized. Sociological research has noted that the racialized aspects of emotion work are often glossed over or silenced (e.g., Mirchandani 2003, Wingfield 2010) and larp scholars have indicated similar issues in larp and in larp scholarship. Jonaya Kemper has noted that larp communities have expectations around PoC participation and ”free backend labor” (Kemper 2018), in ways that seem to echo broader societal expectations. There are also similarities here with the self-regulation that Stenros and Sihvonen (2019) have indicated is often expected from queer persons. In very broad terms, expectations around emotion work are structured along normative and hegemonic lines, in that less privileged groups are supposed to do more of it for the benefit of the privileged. However, these structural similarities do not mean the expectations are identical; instead, they intersect in complex and socially impactful ways both during larp events themselves and in the broader communities that form around them.

Here the larp context may prove significant in accounting for the structures around emotion work. Emotional regulation may involve downplaying and suppressing one’s own emotional state in order to support another participant – a typically gendered or racialized expectation – but it may also require adopting and expressing emotion for dramatic purposes – such as when a male-presenting player of an authoritative character is expected to perform their role in a decisive, ”masculine” manner. The same distinctions are of course present in emotion work in general, but the larp context would seem to highlight the performative aspects of emotional regulation. Different kinds of emotional regulation may also be valued differently in larp contexts, in that privileged, performative modes of emotional regulation are perhaps more visible than the emotional constraint expected from participants belonging to marginalized groups. Of course, as Widing & Gerge (2006) note, different play cultures have different norms around what is considered valuable or legitimate.

Feeling Rules in Nordic Larp

Emotional regulation constitutes an important part of one’s private experience of a larp. However, as with most socially mediated activities, it also has inherent social and community significance. Here the concept of “feeling rules” from Hochschild’s work comes in handy. Feeling rules, according to Hochschild, are “standards used in emotional conversation to determine what is rightly owed and owing in the currency of feeling” (Hochschild 2012, 18) and as scripts or moral stances towards feeling they are “one of culture’s most powerful tools for directing action” (ibid, 56). Feeling rules tell us what feelings are appropriate or expected, or conversely inappropriate or unconventional, in each situation or context.

The concept of a feeling rule helps us examine larp on several levels. Scripts that lay out appropriate feelings are a great tool for designing fictional communities, and they can be tied to mnemonics, sound cues, or small actions that reinforce the script. In Baphomet, for instance, the cult’s refrain of “Praise Ardor” became a mnemonic reminding both players and characters of the need to accept serenely whatever bizarre and oppressive actions the cult’s leaders decree. In Odysseus, the spaceship’s diegetic jump sequence involved a great deal of out-of game sound and lighting tech in order to pace the emotional and narrative flow of the larp. And in House of Craving, the workshops before the game were deliberately used to re-program the players’ feeling rules about sexual relations, creating space for the metatechnique “I need some alone time” where a player could invite another for a scene about, essentially, masturbation with an audience.

Here, we can lay out the different forms of feeling rules based on their relation to the diegesis of the larp. The categorization is of course somewhat arbitrary, as the categories often overlap one another and in intense social contexts there can be a vague but pervasive expectation to mirror others’ feelings.

  • Diegetic feeling rules
    Diegetic feeling rules are feeling rules that exist in the fiction of the larp. The expectation that cult members will love one another, or the expectation that a noble will never forgive an insult offered to their house, are examples of diegetic feeling rules. These kinds of feeling rules are often designed by the larpmakers, though of course their feasibility as design choices depends on the intended audience and context. The players’ responsibility is to accept the feeling rule as a social fact in the fiction and find ways for their characters to obey, enforce and challenge it — perhaps in order to support a “realistic” depiction of the fictional setting, perhaps in order to create dramatic and artistic scenes as in ”the late-stage capitalist fairytale” Midwinter.
  • Cross-over feeling rules
    Cross-over feeling rules are feeling rules that exist both inside and outside the fiction but have more or less different meanings in each context. They cross over from the out-of character context of the larp into the diegesis or vice versa, such as when the participants in the larp are expected to feel comfortable and brave with each other in order to support a diegetic relationship involving intimate interaction (see also Widing & Gerge 2006). Here, Inside Hamlet’s invitation to all participants to “act wicked and be beautiful” is a neat example (https://www.insidehamlet.com/is-this-larp-for-me). The feeling rules are not always verbalized, though. At the larp Odysseus, the aforementioned jump sequence was an impressive piece of design that resonated quite literally throughout the location. It was clear that it was meant to make an impression on players as well as on characters, and the quality of the execution made it easy to transfer that feeling over to the diegetic experience.
  • Non-diegetic feeling rules
    Non-diegetic feeling rules are feeling rules about how participants in a specific larp are expected to feel about their experience or about a specific part of it as players. One widely shared non-diegetic feeling rule concerns the use of safety mechanics such as “cut”. The player who receives a “cut” message is expected to manage their emotional reaction in a way that supports and validates the player who employed the mechanic. Other non-diegetic feeling rules might relate to challenging or resisting broader cultural norms, such as when the larp deals with sexual or violent themes. And of course, non-diegetic feeling rules are in force when participants engage in the non-diegetic activities at a larp, such as participating in workshops or in cleaning up the site after the larp ends (see also Stenros & Sihvonen 2019).

Of course, while feeling rules can be used as a design tool for larp, larp does not take place in a vacuum. The communities built around larp form specific social and cultural contexts that can mediate between the larp-specific expectations on emotion and our broader cultural scripts. Larp communities can and do also develop their own feeling rules: rules about how we should feel about larp, how we should carry out the emotion work related to larp, and how we should feel about the community. Community-level feeling rules are somewhat outside the scope of this paper, however, but it is worth noting that they are crucial in determining who is a good player or community member.

These feeling rules can be all the more powerful in being relatively invisible, and the feeling rules of individual larps exist against this background of community-level feeling rules. These higherlevel rules inform our understanding of what we can reasonably or fairly expect from our fellow players and community members e.g., in preparing in-game relationships or managing bleed. They can be implicit, as when we have ingrained expectations on how much pre-runtime negotiation between players is normal, or explicit, such as in the earlier mantra “the character is not the player” that tried to eschew the idea that the player would owe something emotionally to others based on their character’s actions. Implicit feeling rules in particular can be hard to assess. A socially and emotionally skilled player will often be more adept in perceiving these feeling rules accurately and in acting in accordance; but the feeling rules can also conflict with individuals’ preferences and make a specific community a bad match for a specific person regardless of any skill involved.


In this chapter, I have argued that emotion work is an indispensable part of larp. Larp is fundamentally an art form meant for the first-person audience (Montola 2012, 89, originally Sandberg 2004), and emotional experiences can be a large part of that. A kind of “authenticity” becomes valuable, in that many participants consider “really feeling” the character’s feelings to be key for their experience and many consider the impression of authenticity to be valuable and desirable in their co-players as well. Stenros & MacDonald (2020, in this volume) connect authenticity especially with presence and vulnerability and argue that it is a source of experiencing larp as beautiful. Here I would like to highlight the skills involved in experiencing yourself as authentic, present, or vulnerable, and in offering that authenticity as relational labor to other participants.

The skill of doing emotional regulation well can be valued quite highly, but larp participants may not be any better at recognizing actual emotions than the general public. This leads to a disconnect between the experience of the emotion and the appearance of it, much like in Hochschild’s examination of emotional labor itself. While Hochschild discusses the estrangement deriving from performing/feeling emotion for pay, there can be a sort of estrangement in performing/feeling emotion in larp as well especially with the commodification of larp and larp labor as noted by Seregina (2019) and Torner (2020). Managing that disconnect between the performativity of larp, and the management of emotionalstatesforone’sownexperience,can then be an important skill in itself.

Essentially, emotional regulation cannot be fully and completely distinguished from emotion work or emotional labor. Emotional regulation can be playful and creative, and it is mostly voluntarily chosen for personal or artistic reasons, but it also intertwines with socially enforced expectations on how we should behave and act. It is perhaps best to accept emotional regulation as a sliding scale between the playful and the effortful, between the telic and the paratelic (see Stenros 2015, 66–72), the voluntary and the expected. We might even go as far as to say that emotional regulation is a key element in navigating the tension between the playful and the effortful, in order to experience the larp as distinct from the work involved.


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Sanna Koulu (b. 1977) is a Finnish larper and gamer with an interest in the theoretical and social implications of play and games. Professionally, Sanna works as a researcher in child law and human rights. Photo by Henry Söderlund.