Magic is Real: How Role-playing Can Transform Our Identities, Our Communities, and Our Lives

Magic is Real: How Role-playing Can Transform Our Identities, Our Communities, and Our Lives

What is magic? From our perspective, at its core, magic is a form of manifestation: the ability to alter the self and the world around us through the power of intentional thought, force of will, and creative action.[1]Mat Auryn, Psychic Witch: A Metaphysical Guide to Meditation, Magick & Manifestation (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2020). At the root of this magic is the power of transformation — and the collective agreement within the community to support it.[2]Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. “Transformative Role-play: Design, Implementation, and Integration.” Nordiclarp.org, December 10, 2019. Magic also involves deeply immersive ritual states in which people take on aspects of other identities in order to draw status, strength, power, or insight through embodiment.[3]Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1969); Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. J. W. Swain (George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1964).

These rituals often require the collective efforts of the community to uphold the potency of a magic circle that contains the experience, with each person adhering to this temporary liminal state and supporting one another in co-created immersion.[4]Mike Pohjola, “Autonomous Identities: Immersion as a Tool for Exploring, Empowering, and Emancipating Identities,” in Beyond Role and Play, ed. Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros (Ropecon ry, 2004), 81-96; J. Tuomas Harviainen, “Information, Immersion, Identity: The Interplay of Multiple Selves During Live-Action Role-Play,” Journal of Interactive Drama: A Multi-Discipline Peer-Reviewed Journal of Scenario-Based Theatre-Style Interactive Drama 1, no. 2 (October 2006): 9-52. Rituals are playful spaces in which participants cross a threshold from the social reality of daily life. They enter into an agreed-upon reality with different rules for a bounded amount of time, thereby creating a new social contract. While role-players may not perceive their actions within play as a form of ritual magic, experiences within this magic circle often do impact them in powerful ways that can have lasting effects.

Simply put: when we imagine ourselves becoming someone else, we tap into our latent potential as human beings and as a community. When the group agrees to “pretend to believe” in these transformations, we create space in our consciousness for an expanded sense of our own identities.[5]Pohjola, “Autonomous Identities.” Through the power of imagination, we are able to conceptualize ourselves as capable in areas in which previously we may have felt limited. Some examples include expansion in one’s abilities, such as leadership and physical prowess; one’s personality qualities, such as extraversion and openness to experiences; one’s interpersonal capacities, such as empathy, intimacy, and connection; and one’s experiences of emotional release, such as catharsis, anger, desire, and grief. We can also explore our shadow sides — those unconscious and scary parts of ourselves and of our collective humanity that arise when we play characters that reveal undesirable character traits and behaviors.[6]Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, “Shadow Work: A Jungian Perspective on the Underside of Live Action Role-Play in the United States,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2013, ed. Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con, 2013), 94-101. As a result, many of us have experienced powerful impacts from role-playing and may even continue to hunt for these peak experiences, returning to larp after larp in the hope of immersing in moments of exquisite intensity once more.[7]Elin Nilsen, “High on Hell,” in States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World, ed. by Juhana Pettersson (Helsinki, Finland: Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 2012), 10-11.

But what happens when the magic circle fades, we return to daily life, and are faced with the sometimes brutal facts of the social and physical reality within which we usually exist? What role can bleed play in our ability to create “magic” outside of larp contexts: that uncanny phenomenon in which emotions, behaviors, physical states, and relationship dynamics sometimes spillover from character to player?[8]Beltrán, “Shadow Work”; Bowman, 2015; Diana J. Leonard and Tessa Thurman, “Bleed-out on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Character-to-Player,” International Journal of Role-Playing 9 (2018): 9-15; Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, “Investigating Types of Bleed in Larp: Emotional, Procedural, and Memetic,” Nordiclarp.org, January 25, 2019; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Solmukohta 2020 Keynote: Sarah Lynne Bowman – Integrating Larp Experiences,” Nordiclarp.org, April 4, 2020. Our belief is that the “magic” discovered through role-playing can persist long after an event concludes when supported by integration practices — not as a form of delusion, but as a valid facet of the role-player’s social and psychological life.[9]Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. by R.C.F. Hull. (New York: Penguin Random House, 1976); Stéphane Daniau, “The Transformative Potential of Role-playing Games: From Play Skills to Human Skills,” Simulation & Gaming 47, no. 4 (2016): 423–444; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Active Imagination, Individuation, and Role-playing Narratives,” Tríade: Revista de Comunicação, Cultura e Midia 5, no. 9 (2017): 158-173; Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, “Transformative Role-play: Design, Implementation, and Integration,” Nordiclarp.org, December 10, 2019; Jonaya Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” Nordiclarp.org, June 21, 2017; 2020).

With this position in mind, this article will include an in-depth discussion of the “magical” potential of role-playing. We will describe some of the barriers to transformation that can arise from alibi, cognitive dissonance, role-distancing, and the pressures of conformity. We will then examine role-playing from two quite different lenses:

a) Conceptualizations of ritual, aspecting, and manifestation in occult and metaphysical traditions; and

b Research in the social sciences about the power of thought and narrative upon self-concept, behavior, performance, and well-being.

This preliminary exploration of concepts that might help explain the potential of role-playing as a form of postmodern “magic” is by no means exhaustive or detailed. Rather, we present vignettes of thought from various areas of spiritual practice and social science. We explore how role-playing, perspective taking, narrative, ritual, and the conscious use of specific imaginative practices can directly impact people’s performance at tasks, their self-concepts, and their perceived agency. Then, we examine different models of bleed theory, investigating ways that we can raise awareness around bleed effects and consciously steer toward or away from them as needed.[10]Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Eleanor Saitta, “The Art of Steering: Bringing the Player and the Character Back Together,” Nordiclarp.org, March 29, 2015.

If we intentionally emphasize responsibility, safety, and growth in our communities, we can imagine the role-playing space as a transformational container within which we can explore our edges and mold our self-concepts through play. We can use alibi as a tool to permit greater experimentation, while decreasing its strength when we wish to transfer skills, insights, and personality traits outside of the magic circle. Finally, through conscious and deliberate integration practices, we can distill these insights and more permanently infuse our lives with this magic, manifesting new conceptions of self, of community, of relationships, and of our life potential.

Blonde person in a chair outside in the snow with fire erupting from their hand

Photo by Enrique Meseguer, darksouls1 on Pixabay.

The Limitations of the Magic Circle

Many role-players claim to have experienced powerful impacts from play within the magic circle, whether they describe these moments in mystical terms or not. Yet, some scholars remain skeptical about the generalizability of such claims and may even demean such stories, relegating them to the rather dismissive and even derisive category of “anecdotal evidence.” In other words, if such accounts cannot be measured and quantified in ways that are predictable and generalizable to meet social, psychological, and neurological scientific standards, then they lose tangible credibility in the world of the “real.” Similarly, some role-playing communities still maintain strong boundaries between in- and off-game, distrusting or even scorning players who experience bleed or who express the need to process their experiences after an event.This dismissiveness can lead players to question whether or not their experiences had lasting meaning and may lead to shame and alienation.

In spite of such critiques, we suspect that the majority of participants who continue to role-play and scholars who devote their lives to understanding the mechanics and dynamics of playful spaces do so because, at some point in their lives, role-playing was transformative for them. Yet, when players attempt to make sense of their experiences outside the frame of game even within playful communities, they may have difficulty perceiving or admitting that these powerful play moments were “transformational.”[11]Matthew M. LeClaire, “Live Action Role-Playing: Transcending the Magic Circle through Play in Dagorhir.” International Journal of Role-Playing 10 (2020): 56-69. Why do some players reject the notion of play as a vehicle for transformation?

In the following section, we posit that this tendency to interrogate and ultimately diminish the importance of role-playing as a vehicle of personal transformation is a defense mechanism intended to protect the self from identity confusion and social shame. In order to make sense of the liminal ritual space of play — which is often erratic, contradictory, and ephemeral — role-players undergo the following processes, whether consciously or unconsciously. Players:

  1. Establish alibi to engage in playful activities that remain bounded by the magic circle,
  2. Resolve cognitive dissonance through off-game role-distancing, and
  3. Conform to mainstream social norms after role-play events conclude.

While such processes may enhance a player’s sense of safety, they can also disrupt a participant’s ability to integrate key experiences and revelations emerging from play into daily life.[12]Simo Järvelä, “How Real Is Larp?,” in Larp Design: Creating Role-play Experiences, ed. Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen (Copenhagen, Denmark: Landsforeningen Bifrost, 2019).

Alibi

According to Erving Goffman, all social interactions take place on a specific social stage — or frame — that requires the enactment of predictable roles.[13]Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1959); Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1986. From this perspective, identity becomes a much more fluid concept than many of us might recognize. Since we must perform appropriately on different social stages, our self-presentation must remain adaptable to the constraints and expectations required by each frame. In Western productivity-focused societies, we have certain predefined roles that we are expected to perform, such as teacher, sibling, parent, colleague, etc. Playing roles and creating fictional realities without a socially acceptable purpose is often frowned upon and even demonized by mainstream groups attempting to uphold these norms.[14]Lizzie Stark, Leaving Mundania (Chicago Review Press, 2012); Joseph P. Laycock, Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. (University of California Press, 2015).

As Sebastian Deterding has described at length,[15]Sebastian Deterding, “Alibis for Adult Play: A Goffmanian Account of Escaping Embarrassment in Adult Play,” Games and Culture 13, no. 3 (2017): 260–279. in order to play, we need to feel safe from the embarrassment of performing social roles inadequately or transgressing norms of acceptable behavior.[16]Cf. Cindy Poremba, “Critical Potential on the Brink of the Magic Circle,” in DiGRA ’07 – Proceedings of the 2007 DiGRA International Conference: Situated Play Volume 4 (Tokyo: The University of Tokyo, 2007); Jaakko Stenros and Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Transgressive Role-play,” in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. Sebastian Deterding and José P. Zagal (New York: Routledge, 2018), 411-424. Such moments of embarrassment threaten the stability of our sense of belonging and safety; our behaviors become unpredictable and others may feel uncertain how to react. When we role-play, our communities create in-game spaces that act as temporary social frames within which such behavior is no longer transgressive. In other words, we create an alibi for adult play, which allows us to present identities and behaviors that would otherwise be inconsistent with the expectations of our normative social roles.[17]Deterding, “Alibis”; Pohola, “Autonomous.”

Game systems, lore, mechanics, design documents, character sheets, social contracts of play, social media groups, event sites, workshops, and debriefs all serve the purpose of creating alibi. They facilitate the construction of what many game scholars call the magic circle: a frame within which playfulness can transpire.[18]Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958); Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004); Markus Montola, On the Edge of the Magic Circle: Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games (PhD diss, University of Tampere, 2012); Jaakko Stenros, “In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play,” in DiGRA Nordic 2012 Conference: Local and Global – Games in Culture and Society, Tampere Finland, June 6-8, 2012, ed. Raine Koskimaa, Frans Mäyrä and Jaakko Suominen. For our purposes, both the off-game social contract and the in-game magic circle afforded by it create a holding container for spontaneous co-creative play and shifts in identity presentation that can feel intensely liberating.[19]Wilfred P. Bion, Experiences in Groups (Tavistock, England: Tavistock Publications, 1959); Donald W. Winnicott, “Theory”; Kemper, “Battle.” However, these framing devices can also lead to cognitive dissonance, especially in communities where discussion of bleed and the transformative impacts of play are discouraged. In other words, playing with one’s self-presentation can only transpire within frames that have been established by and protected by alibi.

Cognitive Dissonance, Role-Distancing, and Conformity

Due to these expectations of proper performativity, the mind is often in a state of vigilance in social interactions as it attempts to regulate and adapt to the demands of the group. When we enter the magic circle of play and we allow ourselves to surrender into the experience, we are still aware and cognitively engaged, but our minds tend to relax some of this vigilance. We place some measure of trust in the group and experience varying degrees of immersion.[20]Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Immersion and Shared Imagination in Role-Playing Games,” in Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, ed. Sebastian Deterding and José P. Zagal (New York: Routledge, 2018), 379-394; Leonard and Thurman, “Bleed-out on the Brain”; Lauri Lukka, “The Psychology of Immersion,” in The Cutting Edge of Nordic Larp, edited by Jon Back (Denmark: Knutpunkt, 2014), 81-92. We may experience intense moments of vulnerability and intimacy within our play groups, which can lead to a rapid sense of bonding. Yet, we also experience a paradoxical cognitive space in which parts of our brain perceive the game events as real,[21]Järvelä, “How Real Is Larp?” while other parts work hard to reality test by discerning fact from fiction and organizing information accordingly.[22]Sigmund Freud,  “Formulations Regarding the Two Principles in Mental Functioning,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works by Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 13-21.

When we leave the magic circle, the mind often returns to a more vigilant state, moderating self-expression in order to conform to social norms. Memories of in-character events may feel hyperreal, meaningful, and profound, i.e. peak experiences. Yet, the mind must accept that they are not “real,” despite these feelings of profundity. Even within a supportive community, role-playing can be a confusing process in which previously solid notions of selfhood, proper behavior, and social rules are challenged. In order to manage this cognitive dissonance, the mind often erects defense mechanisms — ways in which it unconsciously attempts to protect itself from identity confusion, emotional dysregulation, challenges to paradigm, and social shame. In order to transition into daily life without major emotional disruption, the mind must find a way to resolve this cognitive dissonance.

Additionally, we are expected to key our off-game behaviors and self-presentations as decidedly different from our playful ones through a process of role-distancing. When we role-distance, we indicate that we understand the difference between fantasy and reality, signaling that we will adhere to social norms outside of the frame of play.[23]Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Educational Live Action Role-playing Games: A Secondary Literature Review,” in Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014, ed. by Sarah Lynne Bowman (Los Angeles, CA: Wyrd Con, 2014), 112-131; Daniau, “Transformative”; Deterding, “Alibis.” This process allows us to displace any in-game behaviors that would be considered socially problematic, such as erotic, violent, destructive, manipulative, or otherwise “evil” play. In other words, our performances remain bounded within the magic circle, giving us plausible deniability that the whole experience was “just a game.” Alternatively, some of us work to justify our play experiences as “productive” by signaling to non-players that we have learned important, marketable skills that help us better integrate into mainstream society. While this tactic helps validate our play experiences as “useful,” it may further distance us from the pleasures of creativity and personal development for their own sake.[24]Deterding, “Alibis.”

In transformational language, an expansion of consciousness is often followed by a contraction, colloquially known as a crash or drop. While helpful and even important to a degree, role-distancing after play can lead to feelings of alienation and cognitive dissonance for people who have powerful moments of catharsis, profound realizations of selfhood, and intense experiences of intimacy within the magic circle. The insistence on alibi can become a shock to the system, in which meaningful experiences that occur within play have difficulty finding a place within the rest of life, leading some players to experience an existential sense of loss, grief, depression, or angst.[25]Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner, “Post-larp Depression,” Analog Game Studies 1, no. 1, 2014; Sanne Harder, “Larp Crush: The What, When and How,” Nordiclarp.org, March 28, 2018. While such responses can emerge after any peak experience ends, the bounded fictional framing adds an additional layer of complexity; peak experiences occurring within a Burning Man festival, a rock concert, or a weekend meditation retreat are still considered mostly “real,” whereas role-playing is not. While many larp communities have worked to normalize debriefing, discussions of bleed, and other forms of off-game processing, shame may arise if a person feels overly attached to a game experience that has long since passed for other players.[26]Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study,” International Journal of Role-Playing 4 (2013): 17-18; Lizzie Stark, “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief,” Leaving Mundania, December 1, 2013. Subsequently, players may continue to sign up for larp after larp, yearning for the permission to deeply feel, experience, experiment, and connect once more.

A diagram of the role-playing process, with two people entering the magic circle, playing witches and wizards, then leaving play mostly the same

Figure 1: This figure charts the role of alibi within the role-playing process. Players are able to depart from their daily selves, adopting characters within the magic circle. While the social contract of the game allows for playfulness, alibi may interfere with desired transfer of traits, insights, and relationship dynamics from character to player. Vectors designed by macrovector_official and bybrgfx / Freepik.

This article seeks to complicate notions of identity and reality by suggesting that alibi can actually hinder one’s potential for personal growth. Paradoxically, the very same mechanism that allows for playful transgression of self-presentation can also create a barrier for the transfer and integration of play experiences into one’s daily life, self, and community (Figure 1). Even if we experience a shift of selfhood during play[27]Christopher Sandberg, “Genesi: Larp Art, Basic Theories,” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys, and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, 264-288. (Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry, 2004); Jaakko Stenros, “Living the Story, Free to Choose: Participant Agency in Co-Created Worlds,” Alibis for Interaction Conference, Landskrona, Sweden, October 25, 2013. Reprinted as “Aesthetic of Action,” Jaakkostenros.wordpress.com, Oct. 28, 2013. — often enacting a dual consciousness that holds both self and player — ultimately, these experiences are happening to the same person embodied within the same physiological organism.[28]Järvelä, “How Real Is Larp?” If alibi is a polite fiction in which we allow players to obviate responsibility for their actions within games, what happens when we adopt a view of self as consistent and fluid between player and character? What happens when we decrease alibi and imagine the role-playing container as extending beyond just the fictional space and the temporally bounded event? What becomes possible when we steer toward “magical” experiences that can inform our self-concepts, our worldviews, and our definitions of community in more permanent ways?[29]Beltrán, “Shadow Work”; Kemper, “Battle”; Hugaas, “Investigating.”

Role-playing and Manifestation

Answers may lie in contemporary occult and metaphysical discourses that conceptualize manifestation as a magical process. The process of manifestation varies from source to source. Modern witchcraft often focuses upon the casting of spells using rituals, physical components, and invocation of spirits. Alternatively, New Age conceptions of manifestation often involve aligning one’s attention and imagination toward the types of experiences one wants to summon into their life, e.g. The Law of Attraction. People outside of such communities may find such concepts suspiciously unscientific or fantastical — forms of magical thinking that do not reflect social or physical reality. Such thinking can also reveal a form of privilege, e.g. leading some individuals to dismissively downplay the real structural inequalities that might inhibit someone from “manifesting” a new Ferrari. With these limitations in mind, we wonder: what insight on personal transformation might role-players gain from manifestational theory and practice?

Although many manifestational models exist, this article will focus on Mat Auryn’s Psychic Witch, which has become successful within alternative subcultural audiences in the last year. In the book, the author works to streamline and make coherent for newcomers different threads of metaphysical thought.[30]Auryn, Psychic Witch. He synthesizes theories and practices pertaining to witchcraft and psychic abilities in non-denominational ways by crystallizing these concepts into more universally applicable language.

Auryn explicitly discusses the connection between role-playing and magic. Due to his belief that all people have inherent psychic abilities, as a basic exercise that he terms “psychic immersion,” he recommends that practitioners role-play being a gifted psychic for a day in order to notice their latent skills.[31]Auryn, Psychic Witch, 18-20. In other words, the author recommends invoking the alibi of inhabiting the role of a skilled psychic, using imagination as a tool for practitioners to step more fully into their nascent abilities. Drawing further parallels, Auryn has addressed an apparently common dismissive attitude held within occult communities toward spellcraft that looks performative as “mere role-playing.” He opines, “The level of devotion and dedication role-players have is something I think witches should aspire to in their Craft. So when someone accuses you of this, take it as a compliment.”[32]Mat Auryn, Twitter post, February 22, 2020, 8:33 a.m., https://twitter.com/MatAuryn/status/1231225521062776832; Mat Auryn, Twitter post, February 22, 2020, 8:36 a.m., https://twitter.com/MatAuryn/status/1231226271683792896

If we consider that the processes behind postmodern magic are at the very least similar to role-playing, how is manifestation conceptualized? In one chapter of Psychic Witch, Auryn describes several dimensions of reality that overlay the physical world.[33]Auryn, Psychic Witch, 182-183. He states that successful manifestation — or simply put, “creation” — requires performing several steps within each dimension:

  1. Physical reality: Gathering physical ingredients that support the magic, e.g. herbs, crystals, candles, etc. Physical gestures may also be helpful.
  2. Etheric reality: Creating an energetic container for the magic to take place, e.g. meditation, altered states, establishing a time and space within which to invoke the (literal) magic circle.
  3. Astral reality: Pushing the magical container, which holds a thoughtform or conceptualization of the desired effect, into another realm. This process involves filling the container with one’s personal willpower.
  4. Emotional reality: Moving the thoughtform into alignment with the emotional energy the person wishes to manifest and using those emotions to direct the work, e.g. invoking magic to call love into one’s life by imagining experiencing bliss.
  5. Mental reality: Distilling the thoughtform into concepts or words that represent what the person wants to manifest, e.g. vocalizing affirmations, intoning a spell, chanting, singing, or composing a petition to an entity.
  6. Psychic reality: Using visualization to clearly envision the desired outcome.
  7. Divine reality: Sending the thoughtform to the divine with a petition for assistance with this goal, surrendering, and releasing attachment to the outcome.

Auryn emphasizes the need in this last stage to envision the effect as having already happened, consciously avoiding considering any outcome that contradicts this imagined reality. He further stresses the need to take inspired action on one’s goals through the use of willpower, stating as an example, “You are not going to manifest the perfect relationship for you if you are not actively putting yourself in social situations where you can meet someone.”[34]Auryn 2020a, p. 184 Thus, in manifestation, magic requires not only imagining and energetically aligning with the goal, but also taking action and focusing one’s will in order to achieve it.

While these concepts may seem far-fetched to many role-players, if we consider the basic principles Auryn is describing, they do not seem removed from other processes of personal growth and creativity: establishing space for the growth to transpire; aligning emotions, thoughts, and intention toward the desired goal; taking action based upon this aligned, focused willpower; and letting go of attachment to the result. One can imagine these steps being useful, for example, when building a house, establishing a business as an entrepreneur, or pursuing a consensual romantic relationship.

Furthermore, these steps can inform how we might envision our participation in a larp: learning about the location, setting, and game design; excitedly creating characters and costuming; imagining a positive future experience; purchasing tickets and arranging travel; calibrating with co-players for consent regarding the themes one would like to explore; and surrendering to the experience. Surrender in this case still involves remaining aware, present,  and conscious, but may require releasing one’s attachment to the larp unfolding “perfectly” or banishing one’s “fear of missing out.” We can also envision these steps as useful after the role-play experience in order to integrate our desired goals: establishing space and time to process the events of play; distilling takeaways; and continuing to align thoughts, emotions, and actions toward concretizing these takeaways in daily life.

Person walking in the woods approaching a magical portal

Photo by Ivilin Stoyanov, Ivilin on Pixabay.

Aspecting and Wyrding the Self

From a “magical” perspective, the distinctions between self and character are less stark. We can view our characters not as a means of leisurely escape from reality, but as tools for self-reflection. A lifelong Pagan, Phil Brucato, the primary author of White Wolf’s Mage: the Ascension since the 2nd Edition, connects role-playing to the occult practice of aspecting: a term that generally refers to the act of embodying or performing aspects of a divine entity’s characteristics. When conceptualizing characters through the lens of aspecting, Brucato envisions Mage in particular — and role-playing in general — as a metaphor for personal growth and transformation.[35]Phil Brucato, “Mage 20 Q&A, Part I: What IS Mage, Anyway?,” Satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com, March 23, 2014. He states, “I view aspects as creative masks and mirrors through which we can understand ourselves better… and thus, grow further than we would grow otherwise if we stuck to a stubborn (and often self-deceptive) sense of one Self.”[36]Phil Brucato, “Aspecting: Song of My Selves,” Satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com, April 23, 2013. Thus, when used intentionally, the character can become a tool for better understanding and transforming the self rather than an isolated entity bound to the fictional frame and disconnected from one’s self-concept.

Additionally, characters can occupy spaces, express aspects of selfhood, and perform behaviors that we might feel socially inhibited from exploring in daily life. In “Wyrding the Self,” Jonaya Kemper presents her assiduous process of autoethnographic documentation before, during, and after larps.[37]Jonaya Kemper, “Wyrding the Self,” in What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Jukka Särkijärvi, and Johanna Koljonen (Helsinki, Finland: Solmukohta, 2020). Kemper intentionally steers her characters toward experiences of liberation and seeks out emancipatory bleed, a type of bleed that allows players “from marginalized identities to fight back or succeed against systemic oppression.” Kemper discusses how the root of the word “weird” arose from the Old English term “wyrding,” which was also connected to the concept of magic and fate. Kemper asserts:

To be weird, is to control one’s fate, rather than let society determine your place and fate. To be weird, is to be outside the normal aspects of society, yes, but to also collectively decide who you would like to be, not based on societal pressure. It is my belief that larp affords us the actual ability to wyrd ourselves, that is to shape ourselves and our conceptions of self through play.[38]Kemper, “Wyrding.”

Like Kemper and Brucato, we believe that role-playing can be used to better understand and wyrd the self. Ultimately, we assert that participants need not believe in magic, different layers of metaphysical reality, or fate in order to use role-playing as a tool for manifestation. Rather, we view role-playing as a vehicle for self-development and community building that can be used alongside other more traditional practices, whether educational, therapeutic, or recreational.

Imaginal Selves, Performance, and Agency

How can we conceptualize this type of “magical” thinking from a scientific paradigm? In this section, we will explore evidence of the impacts of imagination on self-concept and community, drawing parallels between spiritual frameworks, ritual studies, and other social scientific perspectives. We assert that while the domains of science and magic have developed largely in isolation from one another, they reveal similar insights about the human experience and personal growth. We will examine five topics that seem especially relevant for understanding how role-playing can be used as a transformational process: ritual, narrative, identity, empowerment, and imagination.

Ritual

Is the ritual of larp distinct from other forms of magical practice? In terms of formal attributes, J. Tuomas Harviainen has explored how the two practices of larp and postmodern chaos magic are “identical”; they both involve delineating time and space in order to shift identities and engage in pretense play. Harviainen discusses the work of D.W. Winnicott[39]J. Tuomas Harviainen, ”The Larping that is Not Larp,” in Think Larp: Academic Writings from KP2011, edited by Thomas D. Henriksen, Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle (Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet, 2011); Donald W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” Playing & Reality (Tavistock, England: Tavistock Publications, 1971). and Ana-Maria Rizzuto, emphasizing that the processes underpinning play are central to human practices from infancy onward, as children often project fiction onto objects that later grow into imagined entities.

These imaginings are especially strengthened when supported by engagement with others in playful activities, as we do in role-playing communities. Following Winnicott[40]Donald W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 585–595. and Wilfred Bion[41]Bion, Experiences., we can conceptualize role-play spaces as ritualized holding containers: environments in which players feel sufficiently secure within the group to explore their authentic selves and experience empowerment by projecting fantasy onto brute reality.[42]Montola, On the Edge; Jaakko Stenros, Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach, PhD diss, University of Tampere, 2015. In ritual theory, participants engage in three phases: separation from their mundane roles, entrance into the liminal — or threshold — space, and reincorporation into daily life.[43]Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1969). According to anthropologist Victor Turner, these activities are often associated with rites of passage that support communitas: a group feeling of camaraderie and interconnectedness.

Lady Gaga in a Blue Dress with a large monster behind her

Lady Gaga symbolically enacting her battle with the Fame Monster in an on-stage ritual. Stefani Germanotta created the alterego of Lady Gaga as a means to gain strength. Photo by John Robert Charlton, Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Despite these formal similarities, enactment in role-playing games as they are generally played today remain fundamentally different from magic or other religious rituals. Players agree to a social contract that dismisses these activities as not “real” in the same way that a religious ceremony or spiritually-motivated ritual is real for a believer. In Turner’s formulation, larps would be considered liminoid, not liminal; players do not acknowledge these shifts in role as rites of passage that have lasting meaning in daily life, e.g. an in-game wedding does not officially marry the players off-game.[44]Victor Turner, “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology,” Rice University Studies 60, no. 3 (July 1974): 53-91.

Again, when considering the power of ritual, alibi can become a barrier between the incorporation of game elements to socially recognized states outside of play. By invoking alibi and strongly reinforcing the boundary between reality and fiction, we distance ourselves from much of the content that takes place within the container of the magic circle, blocking it from transferring to our self-concept and group understanding of reality. In Mike Pohjola’s words, we “pretend to believe,” rather than actually believing that what we are invoking is real.[45]Pohjola, “Autonomous Identities.”

On the other hand, game scholars Doris C. Rusch and Andrew M. Phelps describe play as a form of “psychomagic,” asserting that games are ritual spaces where players can perform deeply meaningful acts through the lens of fiction. They assert that “symbolic acts are particularly conducive to envisioning – through the tangibility of bodily experience – new ways of being, utilizing the powerful interaction between body and mind.”[46]Doris C. Rusch and Andrew M. Phelps, “Existential Transformational Game Design: Harnessing the ‘Psychomagic’ of Symbolic Enactment,” Frontiers in Psychology (forthcoming). The authors emphasize the role of post-game reflection as central to these transformational processes of envisioning and meaning-making.

What becomes possible when we uphold larp as a liminal rather than liminoid activity? In other words, what happens when we shift our perceptions to actually believing that some of the emotional, social, and physical changes that we experience in games can become lasting over time?

Narrative

One way this shift can occur is by streamlining narratives that happen within role-playing games within the context of our larger life stories. Humans are storytelling machines. According to the theory of narrative identity,[47]Jefferson Singer, “Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An Introduction,” Journal of Personality 72 (2004): 437-59. a person will form their identity by integrating important experiences into a structured “life story” that provides them with a sense of purpose, unity, and a consistent self-concept. When such life events involve adversity or suffering, psychologist Dan McAdams has found it beneficial for people to create narratives of redemption, i.e. extrapolating redemptive meaning from otherwise challenging experiences. In McAdams’ research, individuals who were able to construct stories of agency and exploration tended to “enjoy higher levels of mental health, well-being, and maturity.”[48]Dan P. McAdams, “Narrative Identity,” in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, ed. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Luyckx, and Vivian L. Vignoles (Springer, New York, 2011).

Role-playing is one of that many forms of narrativization that people employ in order to make sense of their experience. As role-players, we not only tell stories, but also embody the characters whose stories we tell. Sometimes, we construct clear story arcs, whether redemptive or tragic. Additionally, many players will engage in forms of storytelling after larps, whether by relaying amusing or exciting anecdotes — i.e. war stories — or sharing serious, intense narratives as a form of emotional processing, e.g. debriefing sessions or written accounts of play. Players may slip between first- and third-person perspective when recounting these tales. In first-person, players may feel more self-immersed and connected to the story as an active participant. In third-person self-distanced narratives, the players may feel less connected, recounting the tale as an observer of their character’s actions.[49]Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk, “Self-Distancing: Theory, Research, and Current Directions,” Advances in Experimental Psychology 55 (2016): 81-136.

In terms of using narratives as a tool for transformation, alibi might help or hinder the process. As described above, alibi might make it harder for players to own core elements of these narratives and apply them to life outside of games, e.g. “My character was brave, but I am not.” On the other hand, overly immersing in the fictional content off-game might also disrupt growth. As Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk discuss in their work on self-distancing, with regard to one’s own life stories, continued self-immersion in the first-person perspective may lead to rumination and a lack of closure.[50]Kross and Ayduk, “Self-Distancing.” In these cases, adopting a third-person distanced perspective may help players reduce shame and engage in self-reflection, e.g. “I wept for hours when he left me at the altar” versus “Elizabeth wept for hours when Anya left her.” Such distancing can enhance post-game narrative meta-reflections when streamlined with the player’s own narrative identity, e.g. “Looking back on Elizabeth’s story, I can see how my own abandonment fears led to strong emotional bleed-in.” The player might then consider approaching future situations differently after reflecting upon these experiences, e.g. “Unlike Elizabeth, I am going to take active steps to make sure that partners are willing to remain in relationship with me before I commit.” In other words, the third-person perspective might allow someone to create a narrative identity that distills important redemptive lessons from the character’s experiences without persistently reliving and rehashing painful emotions.

Additionally, using narrativization tools, players can intentionally explore and process aspects of their own lives within the fictional settings that they inhabit. Organizers can construct containers for this specific intent, giving participants explicit permission to bring personal content into the fiction, e.g. a player’s fear of abandonment. Players can find redemptive meaning within their life stories through their game experiences, especially ones that emphasize adversity, e.g. “When I experienced the death of my character’s partner in the larp, I realized I am more resilient than I thought.” Ultimately, the most important component of this narrativization process is creating opportunities for post-game reflection, which allow players to streamline character narratives with their life stories, making meaning that can positively impact their lives.[51]Bowman, “Active Imagination.”

Elton John in a metallic puffy outfit, glasses, and a poiny hat playing piano

Reginald Kenneth Dwight, aka Elton John, in 1975. Publicity photo, Wikimedia, no copyright.

Identity

One of the most potent tools for transformation within role-playing is identity exploration. When we role-play, we inhabit a dual consciousness[52]Sandberg, “Genesi”; Stenros, “Living.” in which we simultaneously experience both our own subjectivity and our character’s. We engage in perspective taking when we willingly alter our own identity in order to consider the perspective of another.[53]Adam Gerace, Andrew Day, Sharon Casey, and Philip Mohr, “An Exploratory Investigation of the Process of Perspective Taking in Interpersonal Situations,” Journal of Relationships Research 4, no. e6 (2013): 1–12. This perspective taking process can help us approach challenging situations or embolden us to act in ways counter to our self-concept.

The Batman Effect and The Proteus Effect

The creation and embodiment of characters occurs in many activities outside of role-playing games. D.W. Winnicott suggests that through imaginal play, children can express themselves in ways that may feel more authentic than their daily social roles permit.[54]Winnicott, “Theory.” Additionally, researchers have studied the phenomenon of the creation of alter egos: personalities that someone envisions and embodies who can better handle stressful, challenging, or even traumatic situations. When the alter ego is the one performing challenging tasks, some people seem able to exert a greater level of control over their own performance. In their research on how alter egos can affect perseverance in children, Rachel E. White et al. coined the term The Batman Effect.[55]Rachel E. White, et al,. “The ‘Batman Effect’: Improving Perseverance in Young Children,” Child Development 88, no. 5 (2017): 1563-1571. The added meta layer of Batman being the fictional alter ego of a fictional Bruce Wayne that was created as a result of emotional avoidance after a traumatic event in Wayne’s life, is not lost on the authors. They found that children who adopted a third-person perspective in relation to a task showed higher degrees of perseverance than participants operating in the first-person did, but both of these groups were surpassed by the participants that took on powerful alter egos such as Batman. This technique is also common in edu-larp theory and practice; for example, students at the Danish boarding school Østerskov Efterskole are often asked to play experts in larp scenarios in order to cultivate their perceived competence and self-efficacy in leadership.[56]Malik Hyltoft, “Full-Time Edu-larpers: Experiences from Østerskov,” in Playing the Learning Game: A Practical Introduction to Educational Roleplaying, ed. Martin Eckoff Andresen (Oslo, Norway: Fantasiforbundet, 2012). 20-23.

As role-players well know, alter egos are not just helpful for children. Drag performers routinely report creating and embodying larger-than-life characters through which they can draw the personal strength to face marginalization in their daily lives. The name of Brian Furkus’ famous drag alter ego Trixie Mattel arose from childhood slurs hurled upon him by his stepfather in response to Furkus’ queerness. Furkus describes:

If I was being too sensitive or acting too feminine especially, he would call me a Trixie. You know, for years that was one of the worst words I could think of. So I took that name Trixie that used to have all this hurt [connected] to it and I made it my drag name. And now it’s something I celebrate, something I’m so proud of. If I hadn’t gone through all that horrible shit when I was little, Trixie Mattel might not even exist.[57]Nick Murray, dir., “Episode 8,” RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7,eprformed by RuPaul Charles, et al. (Los Angeles: World of Wonder Productions, 2015).
Trixie Mattel in a Girl Scout inspired outfits holding a stake with marshmellows at the end

Brian Furkus transformed childhood experiences of abuse and shame into creative fuel for his drag persona, Trixie Mattel. Photo by dvsross, Wikimedia, (CC BY 2.0).

Other famous performers have created alter egos that are able to withstand the demands of marginalization and even stardom. Before he created Elton John, Reginald Kenneth Dwight was an introverted bespectacled piano-playing teenager.[58]Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman, performed by Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, and Richard Madden (2019; Paramount), film. Stefani Germanotta created Lady Gaga as a separate and “stronger” version of herself.[59]Sarah Begley, “Lady Gaga Says Her Public Persona Is a ‘Separate Entity’ From Her True Self,” Time, June 8, 2016. However, the lines between these two entities often bleed together for Germanotta as art becomes life. With regard to this artistic process, she has insisted that we humans “possess something magical and transformative inside — a uniqueness and specialness waiting to be exiled from the depths of our identity.” In order to delve into these depths, bleed is a necessary state, as we “must effortlessly vacillate between two worlds: out of the real and into the surreal. Out of the ordinary, into the extraordinary.”[60]Lady Gaga, “V Magazine Gaga Memorandum No. 2,” V Magazine 72 (Fall 2011). Another widely-known and fascinating example is how Beyoncé created her alter ego, Sasha Fierce. When even someone as successful and praised as Beyoncé feels the need to create an alter ego to accomplish what she wants, the positive potential of identity alteration becomes difficult to dismiss.

Similarly, in role-playing studies, we have the Proteus Effect.[61]Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior,” Human Communication Research 33 (2007): 271-290. Named after the shapeshifting Greek god Proteus, this effect describes how the physical attributes of virtual avatars can sometimes affect the behavior of their players. In their research, Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson show how playing more attractive avatars led to more confident behaviour in in-game interpersonal situations and how playing taller avatars led to greater confidence in negotiation tasks during play. While MMORPG avatars are not always fully “role-played,” the avatar clearly provides players with enough alibi to present themselves in ways that they might otherwise feel inhibited when enacting their daily identities.

Some role-players do report actively utilizing their characters to handle situations in their daily life. Players describe a form of “aspecting,” where they enact certain traits or skills from a character rather than performing the character in its entirety, e.g. aspecting a character’s leadership skills during a work meeting. In other words, even in small ways, we can expand alibi beyond the magic circle to allow for certain facets of the role-play experience to extend to the “real” world. Ultimately, role-players do not “become” our characters, but we can distill core aspects and substantiate them into our self-concepts.

Empowerment and Imagination

How can role-playing enhance our sense of personal empowerment? One of the coding constructs used in the narrative identity theory described above is agency. People who create narratives in which they see themselves as protagonists with a high degree of ability to affect change in their lives are likely to feel more agency in general. Agency is closely linked to the concept of locus of control.[62]Julian B. Rotter, “Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement,” Psychological Monographs 80 (1966): 1-28. Individuals who have an internal locus of control tend to believe that they have a high degree of influence on the events and outcomes in their lives, while those with an external locus of control tend to insist that outside forces are primarily responsible for determining what happens in their life story.

In relation to role-playing, our characters often have a large degree of agency and even power. Even for disempowered characters, the very act of playing involves exerting a certain amount of control over the character and the environment. As such, role-playing can be a way for players who tend to favor an external locus of control in their everyday life to experience how it is to shift to an internal locus of control through the game. If those experiences feel empowering, through the use of narrative identity, players may be able to shift their own locus of control more readily in daily life. While we acknowledge that, in many situations, outside factors such as structural inequalities and marginalization will reinforce the external locus of control, processes such as Kemper’s Wyrding the Self can feel emancipatory and empowering for players.

Beyoncé on stage in black leather and sunglasses with two other dancers

Beyoncé during the tour for I Am… Sasha Fierce. The album explored empowerment through the embodiment of an alterego. Photo by idrewuk, Wikimedia, (CC BY 2.0), cropped.

We believe that the more individuals can experience themselves as agentic beings in games, the more they can feel empowered to make changes in the spheres of influence they inhabit, including the personal, interpersonal, and communal. Many role-players likely never believed they were capable of leading groups or running large-scale events before they experienced the motivating agency of larp. From this perspective, the very structure of our role-playing communities has been built upon this increased sense of agency, demonstrating that some forms of transfer are observable. Role-players also often describe the ways in which larp situations have prepared them for the working world in terms of social skills like leadership, teamwork, and understanding how to operate within systems.[63]Bowman 2010, 2014.

While these concrete “productive” skills are of interest, we invite players to consider ways in which they might bolster agency throughout other dimensions of their life, including altering their personal narratives to ones that are more empowering. For example, a player may have previously believed themselves to be unlovable, then experienced a successful, impassioned romance in a larp. If they can distill that experience into a new belief about themselves, such as “I am capable of cultivating love,” then they might make different choices in daily life that proactively seek the love they desire based upon the positive proof of concept within the larp. Alternatively, if these experiences remain bounded within the fiction, a player might instead reinforce their previous belief with such thoughts as “My fictional characters are capable of cultivating love, but I myself remain unlovable.” Therefore, we strongly recommend finding ways to integrate these experiences into one’s personal narrative in order to foster a greater internal locus of control.

Furthermore, imagining ourselves as capable of certain activities might actually enhance our physical performance at tasks. While role-playing is not always an obviously physical activity, for many players, especially in larp, some degree of physical embodiment of character is central to their experience. In 1874, William B. Carpenter originated psychoneuromuscular theory, positing that the visualization of mental imagery related to a specific behavior will lead to subsequent greater motor performance of that activity.[64]William B. Carpenter, Principles of Mental Physiology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1874). This theory is still central to a number of approaches to sports psychology. In brief, research into mental imagery shows that the mere practice of imagining oneself performing a task in an optimal way — such as lifting a heavy weight — will lead to noticeable increases in physical ability when one later performs that action.[65]Robert S.Weinberg and Daniel Gould. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 7th ed. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2018); Paul Holmes and Dave Collins, “The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 13 (2007): 60-83. Studies have also shown that substituting the physical act of working out with imagining the activity can have positive effects on motivation, self-confidence, anxiety, arousal control, and injury rehabilitation.[66]Danielle Alexander, Eric Hutt, Jordan Lefebvre, and Gordon Bloom, “Using Imagery to Enhance Performance in Powerlifting: A Review of Theory, Research, and Practice,” Strength and Conditioning Journal 41 (2019): 102-109. Similar to Auryn’s insistence that action is necessary to fully realize manifestational outcomes, psychologists pair imagination with action in psychoneuromuscular work in order to enhance performance. In other words, while some limitations we cannot control, when we imagine ourselves as capable, we come to realize other limitations are psychological in nature; thus, we can imagine and perform a self that might be able to move past them.

In summary, role-players can find value in both metaphysical and social scientific explanations of transformation. In fact, manifestational work aligns with concepts in social science in the following ways:

We can place collective social meaning upon our ritual experiences that lasts far beyond the liminal phase;

  1. We can place collective social meaning upon our ritual experiences that lasts far beyond the liminal phase;
  2. We can use narratives to construct positive meaning, streamlining our fictional and non-fictional lives;
  3. We can adopt aspects of our alter egos in daily life in order to augment our personalities;
  4. We can imagine ourselves as capable of performing difficult tasks; and thus,
  5. We can strengthen our belief in our own abilities to affect change in the world.

For participants who wish to experience lasting change from their role-playing experiences, the question remains: How do we design, facilitate, and play to maximize such impacts?

Role-Playing Communities as Transformational Containers

As we have discussed, many role-players claim to have experienced powerful transformative impacts as a result of adopting alternate identities in fictional worlds. In many cases, these impacts have evolved somewhat accidentally or even in spite of the game design, meaning that designers and players may not have intended for such effects to unfold. Role-players sometimes have differing views regarding the potential of the medium. Some participants make broad claims about the ability of role-playing to “change the world,” whereas others may insist that their larp activities are purely recreational or for entertainment. Similarly, in role-play studies, some scholars emphasize the educational or therapeutic potential of games, whereas others remain skeptical or conservative about such claims, pushing for quantitative evidence of change over time along specific dimensions of human growth.

While we hold each of these perspectives as valid, our goal is to envision role-playing communities as transformational containers. We define transformational containers as spaces explicitly and intentionally designed to facilitate personal growth and encourage communal cohesion, consent, and trust. Transformational containers extend far beyond the bounds of the magic circle of play. These containers include pre-game goal-setting, transparency, creative activities, bonding, trust-building opportunities, and workshops. They include safety structures, calibration, and negotiation during play. Most importantly, they involve post-game integration activities, such as creative expression, intellectual analysis, emotional processing, community support structures, and taking action on goals. These practices help players streamline game experiences with their self-concepts and social lives (Figure 2).[67]Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, “Transformative Role-play: Design, Implementation, and Integration,” Nordiclarp.org, December 10, 2019.

Transformational containers place personal growth and emotional safety at the forefront of activities. They strengthen and extend the magic circle, providing support for individuals and groups undergoing powerful and sometimes confusing processes. They hold space for personal alchemy, not only facilitating the shift from one state of consciousness to another, but also guiding the process of intentionally shaping consciousness and social reality through experimentation. Central to this process is projection of imagination; thus, fantasy becomes an asset to personal growth rather than “escapism” or a distraction from life.

Such role-playing containers may encourage players to consciously seek out certain types of bleed. While bleed is often unconscious and unpredictable, players can notice bleed when it arises by practicing meta-awareness and can even steer for desired types. Examples include:

  1. Emotional bleed: Accessing and expressing one’s often suppressed emotions, allowing for deep catharsis and further processing;[68]Markus Montola, “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing,” in Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players (Stockholm, Sweden, August 16, 2010); Nilsen, “High on Hell”; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character,” Nordiclarp.org, March 2, 2015; Hugaas, “Investigating.”
  2. Ego bleed: Exploring new or suppressed aspects of personality or identity, allowing for consolidation of these aspects into one’s off-game self-concept;[69]Beltrán, “Shadow Work.”
  3. Procedural bleed: Practicing physical abilities, habits, or ways of holding the body, allowing for greater skill and confidence in one’s off-game abilities;[70]Hugaas, “Investigating.”
  4. Emancipatory bleed: Experiencing a successful challenge to structural oppression, allowing for feelings of liberation for players from marginalized identities;[71]Kemper “Battle”; “Wyrding.”
  5. Memetic bleed: Experimenting and acting in accordance with different paradigms, allowing for the adoption of new sets of values, ideas, and understandings of reality.[72]Hugaas, “Investigating.”

Some players may require a strong alibi in order to experience these impacts, whereas others may play thin characters that are quite similar to themselves. Whatever approach players choose, the goals of the transformational container are to facilitate the exploration of self, envision new configurations of community, and transfer insights from these experiences to one’s life through integration practices. In other words, alibi should not remain so strong as to get in the way of this transfer process.

A diagram of the role-playing process, with two people entering the magic circle, playing witches and wizards, then leaving play transformed and integrated

Figure 2: Envisioning role-playing as a transformational container. Explicit goals, agreements, safety structures, community support, and integration practices facilitate changes in participants’ identities over time. Vectors designed by macrovector_official, and bybrgfx, and kjpargeter / Freepik.

Thus, in a transformational container, we do not simply de-role, with a brief exercise evaluating what we wish to take with us and what we wish to leave behind. We distill the essence of the experience and infuse our lives with the meanings we uncovered. We do not shy away from owning the shadow parts of our identities that may have emerged during play. We embrace the shadow as part of the human experience. We learn to acknowledge and come into psychological balance with the different parts of ourselves. We reflect not only upon the “positive” traits that we hope to cultivate further, but also upon those “negative” behaviors that we fear to own. We hold space as a group for all of these aspects to emerge and develop, providing ongoing opportunities for reflection as individual and group processes. We avoid shaming others for what they have exposed about themselves so long as it emerged under conditions of mutual consent. We understand that feelings may linger, intense bonding may occur, and players may need support long after the game is done. We work together to process such emotions and to help each other learn how to create experiences in life that are as meaningful as we experience in larp. Ultimately, players within transformational containers must feel supported enough to expose their true intentions, desires, and vulnerabilities and the container must feel secure enough to hold space for such goals to potentiate.

Let’s perform magic together.

Acknowledgements

This theoretical framework is part of Sarah Lynne Bowman’s larger ethnographic research project on the therapeutic and educational potential of role-playing games. This project was approved by the Austin Community College Institutional Research Review Committee in June 2020 under the supervision of Dr. Jean Lauer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Austin Community College. Sarah would like to thank from the bottom of her heart all of her participants in this study, who have helped her refine her thoughts on these topics by offering their own expertise. Special thanks also to Doris Rusch, Lauri Lukka, Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde, Sanne Harder, Michael Freudenthal, and Mo Holkar for their insightful feedback on early drafts.

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Montola, Markus. On the Edge of the Magic Circle. Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games. PhD diss, University of Tampere, 2012.

Montola, Markus. “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing.” In Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players. Stockholm, Sweden, August 16, 2010.

Montola, Markus, and Jussi Holopainen. “First Person Audience and Painful Role-playing.” In Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing, edited by Evan Torner and William J. White, 13-30. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Eleanor Saitta, “The Art of Steering: Bringing the Player and the Character Back Together.” Nordiclarp.org, March 29, 2015.

Murray, Nick, dir. “Episode 8.” RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7. Performed by RuPaul Charles, et al. 2015; Los Angeles: World of Wonder Productions. Television.

Nilsen, Elin. “High on Hell.” In States of Play: Nordic Larp Around the World, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 10-11. Helsinki, Finland: Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 2012.

Pohjola, Mike. “Autonomous Identities: Immersion as a Tool for Exploring, Empowering, and Emancipating Identities.” In Beyond Role and Play, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, 81-96. Ropecon ry, 2004.

Poremba, Cindy. “Critical Potential on the Brink of the Magic Circle.” In DiGRA ’07 – Proceedings of the 2007 DiGRA International Conference: Situated Play Volume 4. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo, 2007.

Rotter, Julian B. “Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement.” Psychological Monographs 80 (1966): 1-28.

Rusch, Doris C., and Andrew M. Phelps, “Existential Transformational Game Design: Harnessing the ‘Psychomagic’ of Symbolic Enactment.” Frontiers in Psychology. Forthcoming.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Sandberg, Christopher. “Genesi: Larp Art, Basic Theories.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys, and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, 264-288. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry, 2004.

Singer, Jefferson. “Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An Introduction.” Journal of Personality 72 (2004): 437-59.

Stark, Lizzie. Leaving Mundania. Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Stark, Lizzie. “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief.” Leaving Mundania, December 1, 2013.

Stenros, Jaakko. “Living the Story, Free to Choose: Participant Agency in Co-Created Worlds.” Alibis for Interaction Conference. Landskrona, Sweden, October 25, 2013. Reprinted as “Aesthetic of Action.” Jaakkostenros.wordpress.com, Oct. 28, 2013.

Stenros, Jaakko. “In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play.” In DiGRA Nordic 2012 Conference: Local and Global – Games in Culture and Society, Tampere Finland, June 6-8, 2012, edited by Raine Koskimaa, Frans Mäyrä and Jaakko Suominen.

Stenros, Jaakko. Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach. PhD diss, University of Tampere, 2015.

Stenros, Jaakko, and Sarah Lynne Bowman. “Transgressive Role-play.” In Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations, edited by Sebastian Deterding and José P. Zagal, 411-424. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice University Studies 60, no. 3 (July 1974): 53-91.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1969.

Weinberg, Robert S., and Daniel Gould. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 7th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2018.

White, Rachel E., et al. “The ‘Batman Effect’: Improving Perseverance in Young Children.” Child Development 88, no. 5 (2017): 1563-1571.

Winnicott, Donald W. “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 585–595.

Winnicott, Donald W. “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. Playing & Reality. Tavistock, England: Tavistock Publications, 1971.

Yee, Nick, and Jeremy Bailenson. “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior.” Human Communication Research 33 (2007): 271-290.

Cover photo: Photo by Stefan Keller, Kellepics on Pixabay, cropped.

This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. “Magic is Real: How Role-playing Can Transform Our Identities, Our Communities, and Our Lives.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).

References

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2Bowman, Sarah Lynne, and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas. “Transformative Role-play: Design, Implementation, and Integration.” Nordiclarp.org, December 10, 2019.
3Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1969); Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. J. W. Swain (George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1964).
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5, 45Pohjola, “Autonomous Identities.”
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21, 28Järvelä, “How Real Is Larp?”
22Sigmund Freud,  “Formulations Regarding the Two Principles in Mental Functioning,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works by Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 13-21.
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24Deterding, “Alibis.”
25Sarah Lynne Bowman and Evan Torner, “Post-larp Depression,” Analog Game Studies 1, no. 1, 2014; Sanne Harder, “Larp Crush: The What, When and How,” Nordiclarp.org, March 28, 2018.
26Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Social Conflict in Role-playing Communities: An Exploratory Qualitative Study,” International Journal of Role-Playing 4 (2013): 17-18; Lizzie Stark, “How to Run a Post-Larp Debrief,” Leaving Mundania, December 1, 2013.
27Christopher Sandberg, “Genesi: Larp Art, Basic Theories,” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys, and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, 264-288. (Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry, 2004); Jaakko Stenros, “Living the Story, Free to Choose: Participant Agency in Co-Created Worlds,” Alibis for Interaction Conference, Landskrona, Sweden, October 25, 2013. Reprinted as “Aesthetic of Action,” Jaakkostenros.wordpress.com, Oct. 28, 2013.
29Beltrán, “Shadow Work”; Kemper, “Battle”; Hugaas, “Investigating.”
30Auryn, Psychic Witch.
31Auryn, Psychic Witch, 18-20.
32Mat Auryn, Twitter post, February 22, 2020, 8:33 a.m., https://twitter.com/MatAuryn/status/1231225521062776832; Mat Auryn, Twitter post, February 22, 2020, 8:36 a.m., https://twitter.com/MatAuryn/status/1231226271683792896
33Auryn, Psychic Witch, 182-183.
34Auryn 2020a, p. 184
35Phil Brucato, “Mage 20 Q&A, Part I: What IS Mage, Anyway?,” Satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com, March 23, 2014.
36Phil Brucato, “Aspecting: Song of My Selves,” Satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com, April 23, 2013.
37Jonaya Kemper, “Wyrding the Self,” in What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Jukka Särkijärvi, and Johanna Koljonen (Helsinki, Finland: Solmukohta, 2020).
38Kemper, “Wyrding.”
39J. Tuomas Harviainen, ”The Larping that is Not Larp,” in Think Larp: Academic Writings from KP2011, edited by Thomas D. Henriksen, Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle (Copenhagen, Denmark: Rollespilsakademiet, 2011); Donald W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” Playing & Reality (Tavistock, England: Tavistock Publications, 1971).
40Donald W. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 585–595.
41Bion, Experiences.
42Montola, On the Edge; Jaakko Stenros, Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach, PhD diss, University of Tampere, 2015.
43Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1969).
44Victor Turner, “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology,” Rice University Studies 60, no. 3 (July 1974): 53-91.
46Doris C. Rusch and Andrew M. Phelps, “Existential Transformational Game Design: Harnessing the ‘Psychomagic’ of Symbolic Enactment,” Frontiers in Psychology (forthcoming).
47Jefferson Singer, “Narrative Identity and Meaning Making Across the Adult Lifespan: An Introduction,” Journal of Personality 72 (2004): 437-59.
48Dan P. McAdams, “Narrative Identity,” in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, ed. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Luyckx, and Vivian L. Vignoles (Springer, New York, 2011).
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52Sandberg, “Genesi”; Stenros, “Living.”
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54Winnicott, “Theory.”
55Rachel E. White, et al,. “The ‘Batman Effect’: Improving Perseverance in Young Children,” Child Development 88, no. 5 (2017): 1563-1571. The added meta layer of Batman being the fictional alter ego of a fictional Bruce Wayne that was created as a result of emotional avoidance after a traumatic event in Wayne’s life, is not lost on the authors.
56Malik Hyltoft, “Full-Time Edu-larpers: Experiences from Østerskov,” in Playing the Learning Game: A Practical Introduction to Educational Roleplaying, ed. Martin Eckoff Andresen (Oslo, Norway: Fantasiforbundet, 2012). 20-23.
57Nick Murray, dir., “Episode 8,” RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7,eprformed by RuPaul Charles, et al. (Los Angeles: World of Wonder Productions, 2015).
58Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman, performed by Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, and Richard Madden (2019; Paramount), film.
59Sarah Begley, “Lady Gaga Says Her Public Persona Is a ‘Separate Entity’ From Her True Self,” Time, June 8, 2016.
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61Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior,” Human Communication Research 33 (2007): 271-290.
62Julian B. Rotter, “Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement,” Psychological Monographs 80 (1966): 1-28.
63Bowman 2010, 2014.
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66Danielle Alexander, Eric Hutt, Jordan Lefebvre, and Gordon Bloom, “Using Imagery to Enhance Performance in Powerlifting: A Review of Theory, Research, and Practice,” Strength and Conditioning Journal 41 (2019): 102-109.
67Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas, “Transformative Role-play: Design, Implementation, and Integration,” Nordiclarp.org, December 10, 2019.
68Markus Montola, “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-playing,” in Proceedings of DiGRA Nordic 2010: Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players (Stockholm, Sweden, August 16, 2010); Nilsen, “High on Hell”; Sarah Lynne Bowman, “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character,” Nordiclarp.org, March 2, 2015; Hugaas, “Investigating.”
69Beltrán, “Shadow Work.”
70, 72Hugaas, “Investigating.”
71Kemper “Battle”; “Wyrding.”

Authors

Sarah Lynne Bowman
Sarah Lynne Bowman is a game scholar, designer, and organizer. She is currently a Researcher in Game Design at Uppsala University, as well as the Program Coordinator for Peace & Conflict Studies at Austin Community College. Bowman also teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. She helped organize the Living Games Conference (2014, 2016, 2016) and the Role-playing and Simulation in Education Conference (2016, 2018). In addition, Bowman served as an editor for The Wyrd Con Companion Book from 2012-2015. She is currently a Coordinating Editor for the International Journal of Role-Playing and a managing editor at Nordiclarp.org.
Kjell Hedgard Hugaas
Kjell Hedgard Hugaas is a northern Norwegian game designer, organizer, writer, theorist, and trained actor. He has theorized the ways in which ideas impact players through the process of memetic bleed. He has also published on the transformative potential of games on their players. Hugaas writes and designs on a freelance basis for a number of different studios around the world and also creates chamber larps on his own.
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