Larp and Prejudice: Expressing, Erasing, Exploring, and the Fun Tax

Larp and Prejudice: Expressing, Erasing, Exploring, and the Fun Tax

Larp designers who choose a real-world setting – historical or contemporary – are faced, whether they realize it or not, with a set of decisions about how to portray the social prejudices (based on gender, race, sexuality, class, age, etc) of that setting. Exploring prejudices in larp can be an interesting and enlightening experience, but there is a question of whether the players whose characters are discriminated against will have enough interesting game content. Moreover, there is potential for bleed in and out, especially if players are encountering the same prejudice in their real lives.

In this article, I’ll identify different approaches that may be taken to these decisions, and discuss their advantages and disadvantages. Approaches may be divided broadly into expressing (playing the prejudice ‘realistically’); erasing (aiming to represent the game setting without the existence of prejudice); or exploring (approaching the prejudice by playing a parallel or sideways version). Moreover, I will describe and discuss some techniques for playing prejudice, in the context of player safety.

Prejudice and Larp

Oxford Dictionaries define “prejudice” as follows:

Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience: dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour deriving from preconceived and unfounded opinions.

Oxford Dictionaries 2015

The world is full of prejudice and its consequences: discrimination, microaggression, violence, and societal friction. It makes some people’s lives miserable, while endowing others with (perhaps unnoticed) privilege. Some political groups work to reduce or destroy it: others try to intensify it. A non-exhaustive list might include prejudice on the basis of: sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability/impairment, neurodiversity, body shape/size, etc.

Some larps are designed specifically to investigate a particular prejudice or group of prejudices. However, prejudice can also be presented as a realism-supporting factor in a larp whose subject is something else, or which is a sandbox in which players find their own subjects.

Broadly speaking, these are the escalating intensity levels of prejudice that you can work with in a larp:

  • Prejudice is described as existing, in the larp background materials;
  • Character is described as being a victim of prejudice in the past;
  • Character is described as feeling and/or expressing prejudice in the past;
  • Character is expected to be a victim of prejudice during the larp itself;
  • Character is expected to feel/express prejudice during the larp itself.

So for example you might be portraying a world in which sexism exists, but (perhaps because the characters are all of the same sex, or are morally enlightened) it’s not going to be actually apparent during the larp itself, other than maybe by reference. Of course, that will be less intense as an emotional experience than if you’re expecting characters to be sexist towards each other during play.

It’s quite common to use non-real larp settings as a lens to examine aspects of human society. So, for example, a larp set in space might have prejudice against aliens as a kind of metaphor for human racial prejudice. Or in a fantasy world, prejudice against a third gender might take the place of male–female sexism.

Any real world setting, and most larp settings will include at least some aspect of prejudice. After all, irrational dislikes and hostilities seem like an integral part of human societies. So, whether you realize it or not, you have to make a choice on how to portray prejudice in your larp.

Paying the Fun Tax

Players who have to face prejudice in their daily lives might find it tolling to have to encounter similar prejudices ingame. This can be exemplified by the notion of Fun Tax.

In video games, Fun Tax refers to the practice of being urged to make payments to speed up, or otherwise improve, a free-to-play game (see eg. Ralph 2013).

It was later adapted to the context of tabletop role-playing, but there it has become a rather different concept:

I use [Fun Tax] to describe a passage in [a] gaming book that typically reads something like this: Yes, you technically CAN play a person of color, a woman or a queer person in our game but you’ll have to put up with that character being harassed, discriminated against or ignored because of it. What you are doing, with that passage and the infinite variations upon it, is saying ‘If you are a gamer who isn’t a cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, middle class or higher male, you have to pay a toll of unfun to have fun playing a person like you’.

Thompson 2014

So Curt Thompson here is proposing a positive virtue of erasing prejudice in a game setting – that failing to do so may make the game miserable for players who are themselves among the real-world group that would be suffering the prejudice.

A 2015 discussion around the tabletop role-playing game Lovecraftesque (2015) develops the idea a little:

[F]or some people, the historical impact of bigotry is too unpleasant to be fun. For those people and their group, it would be better to play in a historic setting that carefully avoids those issues or excises them altogether, or to choose a different setting.

Fox 2015

Player sensitivities are important, of course, but it might be that tailoring your game design to the players’ wishes (rather than designing the game and then seeing who wants to play it) is more common practice in tabletop role-playing than in larp.

If you’re setting a larp at an advertising agency in the 1960s, in the world of the TV show Mad Men, sexism in the office is likely to be prevalent. Suppose you’ve decided that you do want to explore it thoroughly, and your players have been briefed accordingly. Female characters can expect to be constantly sexualized and diminished.

You will need to consider how this is going to feel for players who themselves are experiencing sexism at work in their real lives. Is it going to be unfun for women who experience lecherous microaggressions and dismissive comments in their daily routine, to have to experience even more of the same in this larp?

The Fun Tax argument suggests that you should at least have tools and techniques available to help players deal with these bleeding-in feelings, and to allow opt-outs.

Sociopolitical Duty

Perhaps you feel that sexism in the setting is so important that you actually want to make it the focus of your design. Rather than being “about a 1960s advertising agency” it’s going to be explicitly “about sexism in a 1960s advertising agency”. This description will repel some players, but will encourage others.

And there are some settings where you’d be unlikely to be designing a larp unless you actively wanted to explore the prejudice manifest there. St. Croix (2015), set in the Danish–Norwegian slave colony in the Caribbean in 1792, with some players in the roles of slaves and others as owners or overseers, is a good example. The tension between slave and slave-owner is predicated upon the latter’s view of the former as a lesser form of human being. To run a larp set in such a colony without focusing on the racist nature of the establishment would be distorting history. And once you take that as the basis, you can explore variations in prejudicial thoughts, feelings and experiences across the range of characters available.

Larp is a fantastic medium for investigating social and political themes, and prejudice is an interesting and significant aspect of society. A suitable larp design can be the right tool to give your players a really thorough and thoughtful experience into which they can take their own thoughts and feelings about prejudice, and from which they can hope to emerge having learnt and felt more and more deeply.

What can go wrong with this approach? One pitfall is that the larp may end up being too grim and difficult for many players to enjoy. The other is that you may find that you’ve sacrificed other things that you found interesting about the setting, by focusing on the prejudice. Your vision of characters breezily drafting clever ads may have been swept away and replaced by anxious and tearful workplace-sexism discussions.

Ways of Designing: Expressing

Perhaps the simplest approach to prejudice in your larp design is to play it realistically: allocating feelings and experiences of prejudice to your characters in the same sort of way that would be expected in real life, and encouraging the players to express them in the same range of ways that real people do.

Sexism will be prevalent in the 1960’s ad agency game. Some male characters may express it in a ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘chivalrous’ way, like the character Roger in Mad Men; others may be cruder and more exploitative, like Pete. Some female characters may suffer it in silence, like Joan; others may complain, like Peggy; others may not see anything wrong with it, like Betty.

This approach may of course require research. We’re not always as aware as we may assume of the extent and shape of prejudices in other societies, historical or elsewhere in the world. Some historical forms of prejudice are now obsolete, or weakened: some were unremarkable at the time but are highlighted in today’s society. If you aim to give a realistic picture of prejudice at work within your depicted society, make sure that it actually is realistic.

In Just a Little Lovin’ (2011), which is set mostly among the gay community of New York in the early 1980s, the characters are in a largely homosexual bubble during the game. But prejudice that they may experience in the outside world plays an important part in the backdrop. As does straight-on-gay, male-on-female, homo-on-bi and cis-on-trans prejudice between individual characters during play: it’s there and acknowledged, and players can pick it up and use it as much as they feel will be valuable to their own play experience. In the 2015 run, the hetero male leader of the Saratoga cancer survivors’ group, Kohana, was initially ignorant and mistrustful of homosexual male lifestyles. And Nick, a trans man, had to demonstrate by deeds and self-sacrifice that he deserved to be respected as a gay man rather than a straight female “tourist”.

What can go wrong with this approach? If you find that, to express the prejudices realistically, you end up overwhelming your other material – because these prejudices were such an important part of that society that they end up influencing every interaction – then this may not be the best way to go. And furthermore, the players themselves may be overwhelmed – because as modern people, they are likely to be more aware of and sensitive to expression of prejudice than their characters would have been. This can make players feel that the prejudice you’re representing in your design is a more important theme, colouring their experiences of the game, than you had intended it to be.

But of course you have to set that against the considerable advantages of using a realistic portrayal: accessibility to players via their real-world experiences and those of others; availability of research materials that players can immediately apply to their expectations without having to apply some sort of filter; the chance to learn directly about an authentic part of history; relative ease of simulation and creating immersion; and so on. For these reasons, departing from realism has to be a positive decision from which you feel your design has much to gain.

Ways of Designing: Erasing

A common approach to real world prejudice in a larp setting is to not represent it at all – either because of lack of awareness or thought about its existence, or because of a wish to make the players’ lives easier by not forcing the task upon them. Examples include Mare Incognitum (2014, set in Sweden in 1951) and Tonnin stiflat (Thousand Mark Shoes, 2014, set in Finland in 1927), both of which gave characters full gender equality.

If you’ve taken the conscious decision to ignore prejudice, you needn’t feel guilty about it being a cop-out. It may be necessary in order to keep attention on the parts of the setting that are important to your design ideal.

However, you might want to think about whether by erasing the effects of prejudice from your larp, you’re maybe doing a disservice to its victims by misrepresenting their situation. Take those female staff in the 1960s advertising agency: their real-life counterparts suffered abhorrent discrimination and sexual microaggression. And many women in modern-day offices still do suffer those effects of prejudice. Is it right to present the agency as a sexism-free utopia, and ignore that historical and contemporary suffering? (The answer to that will depend on your view of a larp designer’s sociopolitical responsibilities.)

The experience of prejudice may have been important in shaping a person’s identity, and when you erase prejudices, there is a danger of erasing experiences and identities. Prejudice is often based on the idea of seeing someone as the ‘other’: out of the norm, and unlike oneself. However, some aspects of the ‘other’ identity were actively embraced by some of the people you’re portraying – and may be so too today, including potentially among your players. For example, if you remove prejudice against queerness from your setting, you remove part of the rationale for queer pride – and this may make queer characters less interesting to play.

It’s very tempting to be drawn to the glamorous and fun parts of a setting but to neglect the less pleasant aspects of what it was actually like. If you’re making that decision, make sure that you’re doing so consciously and with awareness of the implications – not just by not thinking about it. Perhaps instead you might think about moving the larp to a modern setting – like the trendy ultra-21st-century advertising/PR corporation depicted in PanoptiCorp (2003) – where you can still have the advertising-agency fun, but sexism isn’t such a dominant part of the setting, and so can be more readily left in the background for the players to express and portray as they see fit.

Ways of Designing: Exploring

A rather different way of approaching prejudice in your larp design without making your players feel too uncomfortable is to explore it via a parallel of some sort. If you’re concerned that the prejudice you want to investigate is likely to have a high Fun Tax component – or if there’s some other reason that you prefer not to address it directly, perhaps because you’d like players to approach it fresh rather than with preconceptions – abstraction can be a useful tool in presenting your players with the thoughts and feelings that you seek to inspire, while detaching the associated emotions somewhat from those that they might be all too familiar with in real life.

Suppose that having researched your 1960s ad agency setting, you realize that sexism is such an important part of the milieu that you can’t leave it out. But you don’t want the intensity of bleed that players are likely to feel when playing sexism of the period, which might cause this play thread to dominate their game experience at the expense of other aspects of your design.

A suitable parallel might be eye colour,[1]See Jane Elliott’s ‘Blue eyes / Brown eyes’ experiment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Elliott or hair colour, or the colour of arbitrary scarves that you hand out to the players. Instruct characters of one colour to be casually discriminatory and microaggressive towards characters of the other colour, in ways analogous to sexist behaviour, but regardless of the characters’ gender. That way “scarfism” can colour the in-game interactions in the same ways that sexism would, but without the unhappy associations of playing actual sexism.

Note that this not the same as using coloured scarves or similar as a representation of in-game race, as seen in Hell on Wheels (2013), the Czech Old-West-set larp. There, in the first run, some players playing African-American characters used dark face make-up: in the subsequent 2015 run, to avoid the unfortunate associations of “blackface”, instead coloured scarves were used non-indexically to indicate the characters’ race. In the situation we’re now discussing, though, the coloured scarf is the actual indexical property that causes its possessors to suffer or inflict prejudice.

The classic example of this technique in practice is Mellan himmel och hav (2003). In this larp inspired by the science fiction writings of Ursula K. le Guin, conventional gender was replaced by the notion of “morning” and “evening” people, denoted by different-coloured clothing that was intended to replace visible gender signifiers.[2]In addition to “morning” and “evening” people, there was a third gender, the sunnivas, who wore white robes. In this way players were empowered to explore the social effects of a structure similar to gender but without all the bleed-in baggage that working with actual gender would bring.

Playing Prejudice

So let’s look at playing prejudice from the player’s point of view. This is potentially troublesome material, with a lot of opportunity for bleed in and out. As well as the normal things that any emotionally intense larp should include for player safety, there are some techniques specific to prejudice, which are worth looking at.

Escalation

If you want to address real prejudicial traits directly in your larp, a possible safety approach is to taper in their effects, either intensifying over time to a planned schedule, or intensifying when the players choose to do so. So, in the sexist ad agency setting, you would start with the male characters only allowed to make mild sexist remarks to the female characters (“Nice work taking the minutes of that meeting, honeycakes!”). Once people are comfortable with that level, a signal (or player agreement) allows them to intensify the sexist behaviour, with discriminatory practice (“A pay rise? When you’ll most likely be getting pregnant and leaving?”) and microaggressions (“Let me stand behind you so I can see down your blouse, gorgeous…”) Next, add in coarse and disparaging speech and physically-exploitative touch. And so on until the prejudice is in full exercise, as far as you or the players are willing to go.

An escalation technique of this type was used in Inside Hamlet (2015). In this larp set at a decadent and vice-filled court, players were given scope for quite extreme acts, so it was necessary to be able to establish levels of comfort interactively. The word “rotten” was used, included naturalistically in a spoken sentence, when a player wished to increase the intensity of an interaction; and “pure” was the spoken signal that the right level had been reached. Another common system uses traffic-light colours – “red”, “orange” and “green” – as spoken signals for “stop”, “slow down”, and “that’s OK”.

This sort of technique will need workshopping first, and opt-outs must be clear and available. And you’ll need to ensure that your larp has an overall safety culture – an embedded mutual awareness and care-taking (Pedersen 2015) – that empowers players to opt out of the technique at any point without anxiety or fear of condemnation. But, given those provisos, it’s a workable system which in safety terms perhaps has an analogy with the combat-replacement meta-technique Ars marte:[3]Described on the Ars Amandi collective’s website: http://www.ars-amandi.se/resources/ars-marte/ each participant has the freedom to raise the intensity to their own level of comfort, and then to stop the escalation cleanly.

Larping the Other

Finally we need to look at one of the most important tools in the play of prejudice – playing the Other. The assumption underlying the discussion around the Fun Tax is that players will identify with the experience of playing “people like them”. But what if they are playing people who are explicitly “not like them”?

In many larp traditions it’s customary for players to play characters who physically resemble themselves (with suitable costume, makeup, etc), for the sake of immersive verisimilitude. So for example the default assumption may be that the character will be the same gender as the player, the same broad ethnicity, and so on.

But there’s great expressive and exploratory power to be found in playing the Other – playing the trait which is unlike oneself, and which is consciously or unconsciously seen as “Other” in one’s own society. In European societies, “othered” traits include: female; ethnic minority; queer; trans*; disabled/impaired; fat; mentally ill; poor; etc. The default social identity is none of these things; and it requires an effort of imagination and empathy for a person who has none of these traits to put themselves into the position of someone who is seen as “Other”.

So, for example, as discussed, exploring male-on-female sexism in a 1960s ad agency might have Fun-Tax-associated issues if the female characters are played by female players. But if the female characters are played by male players, then those players will get an unusual and perhaps valuable insight into the life of the female Other.

Whether you also choose to inverse-Other by casting female players in the male roles is a design question. The effect is likely to be more powerful if the males in female roles feel themselves the victims of prejudice from other male players, rather than from female players: because experiencing sexist anti-female prejudice delivered by a male should feel more real than if it’s delivered by a female, which would have a stronger alibi of “we’re just playing at this”. You’ll need to think about how intense a lesson you wish your male players to be learning; and what you want your female players to get out of it (or if you want to have female players at all).

A larp example of playing the Other can be found in Halat hisar (State of Siege, 2013), in whose setting Northern Europe is in turmoil and the Arab League is a wealthy, stable bloc similar to the real-world EU. Finnish and Nordic players took on characters who were othered in the larp setting in the same way that Arabs are othered in our own world, while Palestinian players played first-world citizens.

In Fine

Prejudice is such a significant and interesting aspect of human society, and larp is such a potent and mind-expanding creative tool for examining life, the two seem a natural fit. It’s understandable that many designers are wary of addressing prejudice in their larps: the pitfalls are many and the requirement for safety is great. But with sufficient thought, imagination, and communication of your design goals, you can give your players a valuable and powerful experience which has the potential to make a real impact on their lives.

Bibliography

Joshua Fox (2015): Google+. Feb 9th, 2015. https://plus.google.com/u/0/116932540386279575846/posts/MeAAm6TfcCA, ref. Jan 3rd, 2016.

Oxford Dictionaries (2016): http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/prejudice,
ref. Jan 2nd, 2016.

Troels Ken Pedersen (2015): Your Larp’s Only As Safe As Its Safety Culture. Leaving Mundania. Aug
4th, 2015. http://leavingmundania.com/2015/08/04/your-larps-only-as-safe-as-its-safety-culture/,
ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

Nate Ralph (2013): Don’t fear the fun tax, and try Dead Trigger 2. Greenbot. Oct 31st, 2013. http://www.greenbot.com/article/2059741/dont-fear-the-fun-tax-and-try-dead-trigger-2.html, ref. Jan
3rd, 2016.

Curt Thompson (2014): Google+. Jan 3rd, 2014. https://plus.google.com/+CurtThompson/posts/X3R2C4jeqKm, ref. Jan 3rd, 2016

Ludography

Halat hisar (2013): Fatima AbdulKarim, Faris Arouri & al., Parkano, Finland, Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen
seura. http://nordicrpg.fi/piiritystila/, ref. Jan 25th, 2016.

Hell on Wheels (2013): Filip Appl, Jan Zeman & al., Stonetown, Czech Republic. http://howlarp.cz/about/, ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

Inside Hamlet (2015): Martin Ericsson, Bjarke Pedersen, Johanna Koljonen & al., Helsingør, Denmark,
Odyssé. http://www.insidehamlet.com/, ref. Jan 12th, 2016.

Just a Little Lovin’ (2011): Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo, Lunde Leirsted, Norway.
http://www.justalittlelovin.com/, ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

Lovecraftesque (2015): Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, Black Armada. http://blackarmada.com/introducing-lovecraftesque/, ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

Mare Incognitum (2014): Olle Nyman, Sara Pertmann, Sebastian Utbult and Andreas Sjöberg,
Göteborg, Sweden. http://xn--ii-viab.se/, ref. Jan 12th, 2016.

Mellan himmel och hav (2003): Eliot Wieslander and Katarina Björk, Stockholm, Sweden, Ars
Amandi Collective. http://www.ars-amandi.se/larps/mellan-himmel-och-hav/, ref. Jan 12th, 2016.

PanoptiCorp (2003): Irene Tanke, Jared Elgvin & al., Norway. http://rollespilsakademiet.wix.com/panopticorp, ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

St. Croix (2015): Anne Marie Stamnestrø and Angelica Voje, Maristuen, Norway. http://sverigeunionen.wix.com/sankt-croix, ref. Jan 11th, 2016.

Tonnin stiflat (2014): Niina Niskanen and Simo Järvelä, Helsinki, Finland. https://tonninstiflatlarp.wordpress.com/in-english/, ref. Jan 12th, 2016.



References   [ + ]

1.See Jane Elliott’s ‘Blue eyes / Brown eyes’ experiment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Elliott
2.In addition to “morning” and “evening” people, there was a third gender, the sunnivas, who wore white robes.
3.Described on the Ars Amandi collective’s website: http://www.ars-amandi.se/resources/ars-marte/

Authors

Mo Holkar
Mo Holkar (b.1967) is a British larp designer and organizer. He is part of Larps on Location, and is a co-organizer of The Smoke and of The Game Kitchen.
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