Steering for Survival

Steering for Survival

We need bread, yes, but roses too.

Helen Todd

All humans have experienced being shy or uncomfortable, and we generally fear being unwelcome — in larps as elsewhere. For some participants, though, the stakes are higher. What they are worried about is not a lonely moment or a frustrating experience, but being singled out, experiencing social violence like out of character humiliation or racism, or even for a stranger to become physically violent towards them.

When such worries come true, the result for them is not just a bad larp, but pain, anger and heartbreak. It is bad enough to have to face prejudice in daily life. To not be allowed to escape it, even in other lives in fictional worlds, can feel like being robbed of an especially important freedom. Such experiences have led players to disengage from larp entirely, which is a loss for our communities and a failure for us as collectives of players.

Many of your co-players at different larps will have real-life experiences of violence, harassment, and social rejection based on racism, homophobia, transphobia, or other kinds of cultural bias. Some will have experiences of fearing for their lives because of acting or being “wrong” relative to social norms in the real world. You may or may not know; they might even come across as strong and unbothered. Either way, the calculations they make as they larp are necessarily different from someone whose expectation of the world generally is to be seen and respected. This article will try to illustrate how our differences in experiences and expectations can affect how we larp.

When we play, we automatically use our cultural knowledge to make assumptions about the goals, intentions, identities, and personalities of the people who play with us. However, inserting our social bias into play also has counterproductive results. We often miss cues or opportunities from our fellow players, and may unintentionally associate them with their ingame role — to the point where it’s quite common for the player of the villain to introduce themselves to people after the larp by saying that no, they’re not actually that horrible character.

You might assume that the player of a character you read as socially confident or sexually aggressive is equally comfortable being socially confident or sexually aggressive when the larp is over, or that someone whose attempts to play a powerful character fell flat is a bad leader in real life. In most cases, we know not to trust our assumptions about who the player is after a larp is over. But with everything going on in a larp, we’re not as good at not assuming things about people during play. Most assumptions are harmless, and often our co-players won’t even notice. But when those assumptions reflect internalized bias, they can cause harm.

When we engage in play during a larp, we are always betting that our suggestions — our social bids (Edman 2019) — will be picked up on by others and create interesting interactions.

When you burst into the room with an urgent message for the Queen, you are betting that other players will respond to you, will give you space to interact, and will mirror the role you are performing back to you — treating you as, say, a royal messenger, not as the court jester or ignoring you entirely. Internalized bias affects how co-players react to the bids we make as we larp.

Ignoring a character as “not serious” or dismissing them as somehow “obviously not important” is one example of internalised bias. Another one would be automatically assuming that a player from an oppressed minority is interested in bringing that oppression into the larp and seeing their character go through it as well. Cultural bias can make it difficult for us to imagine more than a narrow set of stories that would “fit” certain player bodies.

It is not your fault that such prejudiced norms exist in society and inside your mind, but it is everyone’s responsibility to be aware how they limit us, and to work actively to change them. Unwittingly playing on your own internalized bias can entirely derail your co-player’s experience in ways you didn’t intend (Kemper, 2018). You can set the tone of their larp in ways they didn’t want, and in some cases, ruin it entirely.

Most of the time for most players, the outcome of play invitations are safe and predictable. For some players though, certain play situations can be wildly unpredictable, even if they spend more time than their co-players reading the social dynamics of the room and managing risk. This risk management work takes them away from play, weakening the fabric of the larp and hurting everyone’s experience.

Let’s look at some (fictional) examples:

  • A middle-aged woman, cast as a beautiful libertine, finds herself continually rebuffed by players who say, “It would be like playing with my mom.” She wonders how to get her co-players to play her up without making them uncomfortable and without herself being made to feel undesirable or wrong.
  • A tall, heavily built man is playing a brooding, emotionally volatile character. He repeatedly asks himself in each scene how much anger he can express to be seen as accurately portraying the character without scaring or hurting his co-players, or removing their agency.
  • A person who is an amputee is cast as a warrior. Despite meta-techniques that make it clear they are just as capable, they worry players will find excuses to keep them from fighting. “What can I do to make my co-players want me on the battlefield instead of guarding the camp?”
  • A racialized[1]I.e., read by others as “not white” person playing a historical game notices many players singling them out for play on racism, despite it not being a theme of the larp. They ask, “What can I do to stop my co-players from performing racism they think is historically accurate? What can I do to put myself on the same level of agency as my white co-players?”
  • A trans player in a larp that engages with physical desire finds herself nervously reading each player, trying to guess who will be willing to engage and where their limits are. Despite a play contract that emphasizes slow escalation and opt out, she isn’t certain that other players will engage at all if she initiates a scene, and is afraid they may react violently.

While most participants in a larp will be steering for a fun or interesting experience, others will be steering around cultural bias or — especially players from marginalised groups — even steering for survival.

Steering is “the process in which a player influences the behavior of her character for non-diegetic reasons” (Montola, Stenros, and Saitta 2015). Steering for survival is the experience a marginalized player has in a larp when they’re trying to get through the game without being hurt more than they can afford, while hopefully getting some of the positive or healing things they’d hoped to find.

The ability to read social situations is a learned skill; so is learning to read a larp. As we learn to larp, we all learn to pick up on things like the play bids of others and to read the arc that our character is on so we can evaluate if it’s one we want. Many players find as they larp that they only need to read the fictional situation, and can forget for long stretches of time that the players are actually from our societies and our time. This is a kind of privilege. Their lives and/or their experiences with the particular players have not given them reason to trust that the pain and bias of the real world will not follow them into imaginary places.

In just the same way that learning to read the emotions your co-players are performing makes you a better player, so does learning to read the choices and decisions they may be forced by their experiences of the world to make in their interactions with you. The following is a list of questions your co-players from marginalized identities may be asking themselves during runtime.

  • Will it be physically possible for me to be where the most play is happening?
  • How do I need to modulate this (real or portrayed) emotion for my (or my character’s) behavior to not be read as socially unacceptable?
  • Will other players react negatively to my body in game-breaking ways if I take this action?
  • What stereotypes are being projected onto me that I cannot modulate via actions?
  • What kind of play will I not be permitted to engage in that other players are permitted?
  • How will people misread my emotions or my actions?
  • How will I be (uniquely) socially penalized for my (perceived, normal) actions?
  • If I do this, will I be physically or emotionally able to do other things I need/want to do?
  • What don’t I know, where my ignorance will shock other players or will be held against me?
  • Will I be able to understand others and/or will I be able to get others to understand me?
  • Does my role in this larp push me to perform a negative stereotype others may have of someone like me? Can I avoid playing into it, and if so, how?
  • Are there other players like me also attending? Will their presence be enough to change what I’m able to do or experience, or the consequences it has?
  • If I do this (normal) thing, will other players react/treat it as real in the fiction/pay attention?

This list isn’t exhaustive, and we’re trying to generalize here — some of these questions will matter more in some play cultures than others. Almost everyone will have to ask some of these questions sometimes; you probably have. Now imagine how exhausting it must be to constantly perform social risk management and navigation as you move through the world. How it might drive you to fear violence or rejection from your environment, and the ways it might make you wary of trusting strangers.

Larp is at its best as a medium when we can push boundaries together, as one ensemble. Pushing together means each of us realizing that our narrative can’t come at the expense of other players. To create space for deep exploration, we first need to build deep and mutual trust within the ensemble. One of the places trust comes from is first understanding the challenges faced by others, and then showing by our actions that we care enough to help them overcome those challenges in whatever way that they want us to, even if it’s inconvenient.

If you are aware of questions your fellow players may need to ask, you’re going to be more able to play together on difficult themes without accidentally hurting anyone or making light of serious issues. If you know your co-players may be steering for survival, you’re less likely to be the reason they need to. Being attentive to how other people’s agency may differ from yours will make you a better co-player for everyone, not just marginalised groups, and contribute to a play culture where all participants will feel more confident engaging in brave play.

While playing and pursuing games with difficult subject matter may be liberatory, there is no point in making games about hard subjects if they drive us apart. If we refuse to acknowledge both our own internal bias, and the need for many of our co-players to adapt around bias, we will not be able to play as deeply as we might hope.

Larp as a medium can tell serious and nuanced stories, but doing so requires us to be brave together. In Nordic larp, we like to tell stories about things that matter deeply in the real world. Many of the subjects we want to explore, like sexism, racism, sexual violence, or the experiences of migration or class oppression, come much closer to the lives of some players than others. To be forced without warning to recreate or re-experience oppression from your everyday life inside a larp can cause emotional or social harm, whether serious or subtle. On the other hand, in some other larp, the same scene can be genuinely liberating — if you have actively chosen to engage, and have the agency you need around the experience and its framing.

Bibliography

Jonaya Kemper. (2018) “Playing to Create Ourselves: Exploring Larp and Visual Autoethnographic Practice as a Tool of Self Liberation for Marginalized Identities” (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). New York University, Gallatin Graduate School.

Karin Edman (2019): “Social bid”-method of playing on oppression in larp. WonderKarin. https://wonderkarin.se/2019/11/15/social-bid-method-of-playing-oppression-in-larp/, ref February 5th, 2020.

Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Eleanor Saitta (2015): The Art of Steering. Knudepunkt. The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book.


References

References
1I.e., read by others as “not white”

Authors

Jonaya Kemper (b.1985) is an activist, educator, games scholar, and designer whose work focuses on liberation through reflexive play. She is known for theorizing the concept of emancipatory bleed and encouraging intersectionality within the medium.
Eleanor Saitta (b. 1978) is a hacker, artist, designer, writer, and barbarian making a living and vocation of understanding how complex, transdisciplinary systems and stories fail and redesigning them to fail better.
Johanna Koljonen (b. 1978) is a Finnish larp theorist, experience designer, and author. She lectures internationally on participation safety and on the development of the media industries.
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