One of the most important tenets of the communities built around Nordic larp these past few years has been inclusivity. “Inclusiveness” was defined by Lars Nerback in a 2013 Nordic Larp Talk as the feeling of
being culturally and socially accepted, welcome, and equally treated (Nerback 2013).
From a larpmaker’s perspective, it designates the effort to design spaces in which people who experience discrimination in their ordinary lives are actively supported and encouraged. Over the years, people involved with Nordic larp have consequently developed practical and educational tools to support their claim of being inclusive. For example, papers have been written about how to perform cultural calibration so that players have the same vision and understanding of the culture depicted ingame (Nielsen 2014) or of the actual culture and everyday experiences of the people whose lives are being used as a direct inspiration for the larp (Kangas 2017). Others have written to address discrimination experienced in larp contexts, for example due to race (Kemper 2018) or body type (Kessock 2019).
Those tools, although primarily designed to be used in larp contexts, contribute to shaping the behaviors and practices expected on a community level. Indeed, if larps are the ground from which most social relationships among larpers grow, sociability doesn’t end at larps. For most people, it continues, through Facebook, chat, public meetings, events, etc. That’s why, in this chapter, I will address larp primarily as a community — a social group sharing common interests, supported by a feeling of belonging.
In addition, many (larp and non-larp) communities, seeking inspiration from Nordic larp or following the spirit of the times, also strive towards inclusivity. Those communities may encounter similar problems: inclusivity questions our collective ability to remain actively open while taking part in a group of interests. It is, at its essence, a matter of community skills.
The partial success of the effort towards inclusivity is especially apparent in the increasing visibility of queer people, for example at Solmukohta — from Drag me to KP to “queer at KP” badges to the prominence of rainbowcolored pieces of clothing. However, the larp world remains strikingly homogenous, revealing limits to how inclusivity is currently practiced. Even though it is not true of all larp cultures, most Nordic larpers are white, able-bodied, and come from moderately wealthy, educated backgrounds: people of color, people of reduced mobility, and people with low income or education, are scarce.
Intersectionality, a notion created by African American academic Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), helps us understand how different discrimination (for example, race, ability, and class) combine in ways that make it necessary to address all its aspects in order to understand how a person is being limited or suppressed based on their identity. We must also take that into account in designing for inclusivity.
The aspects we need to consider to make a community effectively inclusive are many: gender, class, race, ability, but also education, and even social skills. Nordic larp was born out of an endeavor to get several emerging larping traditions to share practices and ideas, and it worked tremendously well. However, this creative proliferation has, over the years, built to increase the distance between insiders and outsiders. From the outside, the threshold to participate in the Nordic larping community now seems ridiculously high.
I joined the Nordic scene two years ago at age 23 during Knutpunkt 2018 after a pretty short larping career in France, in the pursuit of a degree in Social Anthropology. I was fortunate enough to have a motive to join (research), a feminist background, and a compulsive learning attitude forged by years of university training. Yet, even today, after spending some time in the Nordics countries, reading as much larp theory as I could stomach, and writing a thesis I’m pretty happy with, it still feels I can never, ever catch up with what was produced during the last twenty years.
As a result, I feel dangerously ignorant of the cultural and social ways of the community, and constantly in danger of making a misstep. I think it is safe to say I’m far from being the only one. Many other larpers I had the chance to talk to shared similar feelings. The cost of access, i.e. the amount of specialized knowledge required to participate in the Nordic larp community is very high.
Some of the cost of access that impedes inclusivity is, in fact, due to the efforts to support it. There’s two sides to every coin: to be inclusive to certain people, a space has to be exclusive of others — and it is not always clear who.
This is the paradox of inclusivity.
In this chapter, I would like to address how “being inclusive” and “feeling safe” come into contradiction, notably in the way that we design community spaces. Then, I will try to question the phenomenon of community violence and how it relies on our in-group conceptions of difference and ways to confront it. These thoughts will help build a clearer vision of what inclusivity does, and can, mean. Finally, I will try to offer practical advice to help us build more inclusive communities, encourage collective reflexivity, and conceive of larpers’ spaces as a piece of a more global society, which needs to become more inclusive as well.
Inclusivity vs. Safe Space: Bringing In or Keeping Out
When trying to achieve inclusivity in practice, the first obstacle encountered is the exclusiveness of general society. Just because a space seems public, or open, doesn’t mean that it is: homeless people are constantly pushed away, people of color are at risk of police violence, openly gay couples often have to fear assault, sex workers are criminalized and stigmatized, etc. Therefore, all attempts to build an inclusive community must deal with the matter of the space in which events, gatherings, or larps take place.
In short, we need to make the participants feel safe. According to Johanna Koljonen, this involves the following:
The careful framing of such spaces, the rules and limitations we actively give them, differ from how we experience our everyday lives. There are no safety mechanics in real life, no word that magically stops your boss from yelling at you, no graceful opt-out that’ll let you walk free of a street harasser.
What we try to achieve through all the rules, the caring, the long discussions about consent, is commonly called a safe space. And, as society itself is certainly not a safe space, we need to build a space that is separated from it and tries to counter it, to cancel the prejudices, power relations, and inequalities that we encounter in our ordinary lives.
We try to build an inclusive environment by removing it from society, and by making sure unwanted elements of society don’t follow inside. We try to bring (people) in by keeping (the problems which individuals are a part of) out.
In short: safe spaces, which are instrumental in allowing for inclusivity, are exclusive. Then again, what choice do we have? The world in general remains a dangerous place for many of us. In the absence of other options, we must ponder what we call safe and what (or who) we deem unsafe.
First, it is important to acknowledge that safety is a collective concern requiring all members of the community to actively contribute to the social design that organizers — primarily — come up with. As Maury Brown puts it:
These are no small tasks: the exact meaning of words like harassment, abuse, and assault, is far from evident. Safety requirements are specialized knowledge, and contribute to raising the cost of access to communities such as the Nordic larp scene. Fortunately, in larps, cultural calibration tools and workshops provide support, and have shown remarkable efciency in including, for example, autistic people (Fein 2015).
Blockbuster larps and performance or art games marketed to the general public have an ability to attract new faces, thus building an entry point to the community. However, becoming part of the community, being a valid, full member of the group, able to participate in Facebook conversations, is not easy.
In fact, during my first Solmukohta, I felt so distressed and alone (I knew barely a handful of people among the 500, and none of them well) that I spent a whole afternoon in my room writing about “extrovert privilege”. The first time I wrote the Nordic larping community was not actually inclusive was the first time I came into contact with it. Being told this community was “a big family”, it was hard to realize that it was as difficult to take part in for an introvert as anywhere else.
The amount of community skills required to support a safe space is high, and at odds with the concern for inclusivity. To address it we can, at least partly, rely on “herd competence” — hoping the people bold enough to enter our spaces learn by doing in contact with others. However, by relying on the rather elusive notion of safety, we court confusion.
Safety is a many-sided issue: we need to be safe to play, express our identities, meet our needs, voice our opinions, etc. (what Friedner 2019 calls the brave space), but also safe from. There’s a positive safety, rooted in empowerment, and a negative safety, emerging from the perceived need of protection and defense.
Although enforced in more or less tangible ways, safety is a feeling, not a state of affairs. As such, it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with reality: we may feel unsafe while running no risk at all, or engage in risky behavior because we feel safe.
In an interview for the Knutpunkt 2018 Companion Book, Johanna Koljonen says that larp safety “is about feeling safe to play rather than being safe from harm” (Svanevik and Brind 2018, my emphasis). However, this principle of safety offers very little ground for facts. It relies largely on subjectivity.
It is difficult to decide what constitutes a threat, and even more so to distinguish between an actual threat and one we project based on our own past experiences.
What (supposedly) makes the larping community safe or inclusive is primarily the language we use to qualify it: it is safe because we’ve said so. It is inclusive because we’ve written about it. This is what is commonly called, following linguist John Austin (1962), a performative use of language: uttering a certain speech, in appropriate circumstances, may produce effects in reality. When we collectively declare “larp is safe”, we make safety happen, because all of a sudden we become mindful of others, their vulnerability, the precariousness of any social situation, etc. But when we have no clear definition of what “safe” means and the word “inclusivity” is little more than gibberish to many community members, the performative function of language is in jeopardy.
That’s when crises happen.
What We Do to Each Other: Community, Care, and the Making of Forgiveness
We often perceive safety as a human right. As far as I’m concerned, this is true. However, the chasm between “the right not to be shot on the way home” and “the right to not feel uncomfortable” is wide. As Sarah Schulman, author of an essay called Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (2016), warns:
There is no way to ensure 100% safety, and by trying to increase our chances, we might put other people at risk. If safety is a feeling, so is the impression of threat, unsafety, or intentional harm.
According to Sarah Schulman, projecting fears and insecurities onto others (the people who are “not us”, not part of the safe group) is common with two attitudes that we usually do not think to associate with each other: supremacy and trauma. Supremacy is the belief that the reference group is superior to other groups (by way of race, nationality, gender, ability, etc.), and therefore their own needs must be prioritized. This can lead to hate crimes, but more mundanely manifests in the feeling that the members of the supremacy group are put at risk of harm by non-members, and it’s therefore legitimate to use whatever means of “protection” against the (imaginary) threat they deem necessary.
In Europe, supremacist ideology directly translates to anti-immigrant laws, horrendous detention camps, and thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean each year.
Schulman describes supremacist attitudes in terms of the irrational feeling that one’s group must be protected against and separated from others, who are deemed dangerous, unworthy, or inferior. She draws a disturbing parallel with the attitude of traumatized people, whose feeling of being unsafe can be based not on actual risks in the present tense, but “a projection in the present based on dangers that occurred in the past” (ibid.). Because both supremacy and trauma are rooted in an analogous feeling that the group is being at risk of harm from non-members, the traumatized can become the supremacist. The Israeli occupation of Palestine constitutes a major institutional example of that escalation.
It is natural to seek to be, and feel, safe. However, when it leads to expecting others to comply with our own (not necessarily clear, visible from the outside, or reasonable) needs, conflict becomes inevitable. Moreover, conflict is often simplified until one can clearly distinguish a victim and an abuser.
The following pattern is common especially in communities using a lot of social media: A person commits, often without realizing it, an act that makes some members of the community feel hurt. These people share their pain, unease or dismay with other members. As more and more people become aware of the situation, the initial feelings flare up and reach a level where the status quo can’t hold, inducing a crisis.
At this point, it seems like nothing can be done: sides are taken, the community becomes polarized, and a stable state is only reached through splitting the community or shunning the wrongdoer. When this process targets public figures, it can take the form of “canceling,” an attempt from an active minority to deplatform a creator by publicly denouncing, slandering, and threatening them and their supporters.
Issues concerning the building of a safe space are involved in such crises. Designating a space as safe leads to the passive exclusion of people who do not know, or feel they know, enough, and the active exclusion of people thought to threaten the safety of the group. By creating a space that is viewed as separate, different from “the rest of the world,” and validating it through a feeling — safety —, those attitudes may lead to creating a critical differentiation between “us” and “them,” and to posit otherness (difference, disagreement, strangeness, etc.) as a threat. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to treat others with the same care as we expect to be treated as rightful members of our community. A Finnish larper who had been part of a recent community crisis as one of the wrongdoers told me: “You heard about the Week of Stories? We didn’t even have five minutes.”
The “Week of Stories” is a short period of time after an event (generally a larp) in which the participants withhold their criticism to give the organizers an opportunity to recover — and let the steam cool down.
As the actions of the organizers of this particular event were deemed outrageous, many attendants reacted by expressing their shock and indignation immediately. These feelings were, of course, legitimate: all feelings, in fact, should be acknowledged — although not always acted upon. In that case, though, the immediate outburst caused the organizers to feel hurt and disregarded in turn.
The rules and norms of care and attention in larps are largely there not to be used: they are there in case of need, but their primary purpose is to support a feeling of “safe enough” to participate — much like a lifejacket or a seatbelt. But when those rules, like the Week of Stories, could come in handy to address a particularly difficult situation, we are not always able to resist the initial flare of emotion.
Unfortunately, social media encourage us to react immediately to stimuli, and facilitates emotional outbursts at the expense of caution and reflection. As the authors of the Living Games’ Crisis Management Workshop put it:
Speaking about safety is not enough. Imagining safety measures is not enough. We need to practice understanding why we made those rules.
Violence happens. Conflict happens. But violent reactions, even verbal, even righteous, even targeted at the people who wronged us, are unlikely to lead to positive outcomes in a community. There are other ways than exclusion to support a safe and inclusive space, and resorting to it too often may weaken the space we try to preserve.
We frequently use the metaphor of the missing stair to describe an individual that we know to be “problematic” in a community, yet carefully avoid instead of confronting (putting at risk those who are unaware a stair is missing). It could have provided a nice basis for understanding how to address detrimental elements in a community, but this metaphor was built on a logical error: we don’t fix a stair by removing it, but by safely replacing faulty parts, adding safeguards, and making sure the stair doesn’t put people at risk anymore.
If shunning can be a temporary solution to address a potential danger in the short term, it is not likely to support understanding of the harmful behavior, for the perpetrator or the community.
Being denied the right to speak, the perpetrator can experience a strong feeling of unfairness and rejection. This won’t help them listen and understand the consequences of their actions. As for the community, it cannot reach an adequate comprehension of the sociological causes of the harm done without facing the perpetrator and hearing them too. As a consequence, the community renders itself incapable of preventing similar behaviors in the future. Furthermore, enforcing safety rules using the fear of shunning encourages perpetrators to hide and deny their actions instead of acknowledging them and trust the community to resort to transformative justice.
Transformative justice is a comprehensive and non-legal approach to problem solving and peacemaking that doesn’t seek to punish the perpetrator, but to collectively reach a new state of balance through educating, supporting, and encouraging dialogue. It doesn’t mean that we are responsible for fixing people: in some cases, that would simply be impossible. However, “sacrificing” members of the community who are known to misbehave may be beside the point. In fact, punishment for the sake of righteousness is often beside the point. I believe that it is our individual and collective duty to try to understand the etiology of a crisis. Otherwise an appropriate response remains impossible.
Reaching Past the Choir
By keeping us from reaching more people, building our communities as safe spaces fails to allow us to fully benefit from the educational and transformative powers of larp (e.g. Bowman and Hugaas 2019). To change that, we need to be inclusive towards other kinds of people, to be able to extend the safe space in ways that allow anyone to step in and benefit from the kind of awareness we’ve had.
The para-larp environment is awfully technical, albeit for good reasons: in general society, something as widespread as e.g. sharing one’s pronouns is mostly unheard of. Being for once in a space where people won’t misgender you is priceless — that’s also why I’m not rejecting inclusivity as we usually conceive of it, simply pointing at some of its dark spots.
Most people quickly become allies when they are placed in an environment that is appropriately forgiving with their missteps, yet encourages their efforts in learning and being included. On the contrary, hurtful reactions to honest mistakes can create more anger, confusion, and a feeling of rejection that fosters resistance and hatred. Getting angry happens, of course: but offering the other person an explanation for our reaction can help bridge the difference, and slowly bring them to our side.
Shunning hurts us. When addressing community issues, violence is almost always detrimental. If inclusivity is synonymous with purity, we are not protecting ourselves from harm, but ensuring it happens.
As it stands, the community requires specialized knowledge and legitimacy to talk about many sensitive topics. As a consequence, it is more difficult for newer and low-status members to achieve social recognition, while older and high-status members benefit from a kind of indulgence that might result in unhealthy power relations (especially in the event of a crisis). Muriel Algayres’s article about social capital in larp offers a detailed account of the effects of status differences on play opportunities and social dynamics (Algayres 2019).
The Nordic larp community is inclusive, but not all the time, and not to everyone. In fact, inclusive is, in my opinion, not the right term to use for the larp community: instead, it is queerfriendly, with (white) feminist values, and an education to difference. Not bad, but with a few fixes, we can do better. By understanding that the need for safety may come into contradiction with the ideal of inclusivity we can move to an increased awareness of how to address and support differences in our community. Here are a few steps:
- Acknowledging feelings, while at the same time recognizing that feeling alone cannot be the baseline for acting upon a conflict situation.
- Ensuring the persons who felt hurt receive appropriate care, but remaining careful in assuming the intentions of the wrongdoers or initiating punishment.
- Keeping in mind that being inclusive means making space for different people and opinions to coexist.
- Holding the space to hear all parties involved in a crisis, and offering or asking a neutral community member or entity for mediation.
- Refraining from immediate social media exposure.
Instead of projecting our expectations based on a unilateral understanding of a given situation, we need to assume the best of others (at least provisionally) and create the space for reasonable dialogue to occur.
A lot of good can arise from constructing a safe space around positive tenets meant to cancel, or compensate, behaviors at play in general society. However, we need to be wary of the risk of seclusion and insularity. Indeed, such a state of affairs would give way to distorted thinking about the state of the world and the intentions of the people who don’t belong. In wanting to defend the group from harm, insular communities may thoughtlessly replicate harmful behaviors such as bullying, shunning, and rejecting difference. In doing so, community spaces become less resilient to change and dissent and thus more precarious.
Inclusivity has to meet a double logic. First, the creation of a safe space allows, from the outside to the inside, to take in people whose identities do not meet the dominant social norms. Second, from the inside to the outside, larp and larp communities can create opportunities for educating people to difference and provide alternative social models that contribute to the struggle against all oppression — a purpose the seminary The State of the Larp in Oslo in December 2018 explicitly pursued.
However, neither the one nor the other should be taken for granted or implied: what makes a space safe is far from obvious, and the power of larp is only as great as the people it reaches. In the design of our larps and communities, we must explicitly ask ourselves: what do we think we are doing, and what do we want to do in practice? To put it provocatively: to make a better place in the world for ourselves, or to make the world a better place.
Muriel Algayres (2019): The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety. Nordiclarp.org.
John Austin (1962): How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sarah Lynne Bowman (2017): A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture. Nordiclarp.org.
Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas (2019): Transformative Role-Play: Design, Implementation, and Integration. Nordiclarp.org.
Maury Brown (2017): The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto. Nordiclarp.org.
Maury Brown (2018): Safety and Calibration Design Tools and Their Uses. Nordiclarp.org.
Axelle Cazeneuve (2018): Larp Accessibility: Our Most Challenging Quest. LARP in Progress.
Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989): Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum.
Elizabeth Fein (2015): Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum. Cult Med Psychiatry, 39(2), pp. 299-321.
Anneli Friedner (2019): The Brave Space: Some Thoughts on Safety in Larps. Nordiclarp.org.
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Jonaya Kemper (2018): More Than a Seat at the Feasting Table. In Annika Waern and Johannes Axner (ed.), Re-Shuffling The Deck. Knutpunkt 2018.
Shoshana Kessock (2019): I’m Not Too Fat For Your Larp. Nordiclarp.org.
Johanna Koljonen (2016): Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 2: Why?. Participation Safety.
Kat Jones, Mo Holkar and Jonaya Kemper (2019): Designing for Intersectional Identities. in Johanna Koljonen (ed.), Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost, 2019.
Lars Nerback (2013): Three Ways to Make Games More Inclusive. Nordic Larp Talks.
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Sarah Schulman (2016): Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Arsenal Pulp Press.
John Stravopoulos, Samara Hayley Steele (2016): Crisis Management: Bleed, Harassment, Trauma Workshop. Austin Living Games Conference.
Martine Svanevik and Simon Brind (2018): Playing Safe?. In Annika Waern and Johannes Axner (ed.), Re-Shuffling The Deck. Knutpunkt, 2018.
The State of the Larp (2018). A Larpwriter’s Summer School’s seminar. Oslo.