This article is first in a series on Larping Intimacy and Relationships.
From October 28-29, 2023, I participated in Listen 2 Your Heart Season 8 (L2YH), an online larp (or LAOG, Reininghaus 2019) based on the Netflix show Love is Blind (2020-). The game was organized by JD Lade and took place on Discord between Saturday evening and Sunday evening, with enforced off-game sleep hours. We played 8 characters, plus the robot-voiced “Production” who gave us instructions at each stage of the larp.
The following article describes the reality show genre within which this adaptation was placed, addressing its fascinating but also problematic nature, as well as its similarities and differences with larp. I then discuss the potency of playing romantic relationships as vulnerable and potentially transformative experiences, as well as the pitfalls that can arise. I briefly discuss Oliver Nøglebæk’s (2016, 2023) “4 Cs of Larping Love”: context, consent, communication, and chemistry. Finally, I explore how a larp’s design can impact player experiences of romance, situating Listen to Your Heart’s game design and my play experience as a case study. I discuss the surprise twist of this particular run and consider it with regard to safety and consent.
Is Love Really Blind?
As a binge-watcher of many shows related to intimacy, relationships and marriage, Love is Blind is one of my favorite concepts. Single people are invited to take part in an experiment to see if love truly is blind. An equal number of cis-het men and women who all ostensibly are ready to get married are grouped in living quarters according to gender. Then, they take turns dating each person from the other group with a twist: they cannot see each other and can only communicate through a thin partition between them. They spend hours on end in these rooms called “pods” and they can choose to share or not share aspects of their physicality to the person on the other end. However, most avoid such talk, as the premise of the show is to date people without judging them immediately based on looks alone. Of course, some of the cast are there to get on TV and get famous, but some earnestly want to find a life partner through the show.
If one of the cast proposes to another — always heterosexual pairings, with usually the cis man proposing in the traditional fashion — and the woman accepts, they prepare for The Reveal. The two are placed on opposite sides of a room with the partitions slowly rising. The anticipation is intense — will they be attracted to this person who they only knew by voice, and vice versa? After they propose, they rush to the center of the room, where they embrace, and if he still wants to propose, the man drops to a knee and asks again.
They are then thrown into a honeymoon with the other newly engaged couples, which can be intensely romantic or disastrous depending on the couple’s compatibility and each partner’s ability to handle insecurities or shallow habits, such as focusing overmuch on physical traits that are not their usual “type.” If they make it past the honeymoon, they have three weeks to live together back in the “real world,” then have a wedding with their friends and family watching. At the altar, they find out if the other person will actually marry them, which makes for high-stakes and intense television. A year later, they come back to the show for the reunion, sharing how life has unfolded for them since they made this big decision.
Emotional Extreme Sports and Consent
I have seen many seasons of the show, as well as its spiritual predecessor, Married at First Sight (2014-), which is made by the same production company. In Married at First Sight, the cast members are matchmade by experts (a sexologist, a pastor, and a sociologist) and are subject to extensive questionnaires and interviews before, during, and after meeting their spouse at the altar. The experiment in this show is to see if love can grow over time. At times, these experts intervene in times of conflict, which is viewed as inevitable, and guide the couples through marriage counseling. The experiment is predicated on research developed at the Gottman Institute (2023), where psychologists have studied the formula for long-lasting relationships. The show emphasizes how love can grow through moments of intimacy and connection, even if attraction is not present, as attraction can fade, while intimacy needs tending over time. In this way, Married at First Sight is educational, and my view is these counselors deeply want these couples to be happy and have healthy marriages.
The Love is Blind experience has little to none of that concern. No one intervenes on camera, although occasionally the fourth wall breaks and you can see a producer or camera person trying to persuade the person to stay in the relationship. Cast members have recently revealed shocking filming conditions, including being abandoned with no food, sleep-deprived, and forced to stay on set for 20 hours straight at a time (Hogg 2022). As a larper, this makes total sense to me: of course you would deprive people of their basic needs in order to push for intense emotional reactions (Leonard and Thurman 2018) — and many larpers willingly push these limits regardless of the game’s design, and some larps consider such deprivation a feature, not a bug. Larpers who enjoy this type of intense experience or even edge play (Poremba 2007; Montola 2010) often refer to their play activities as emotional extreme sports. Furthermore, such extreme experiences, especially when paired with romantic play, often do lead to romantic feelings between players, as they experience the catalytic container of the liminal space of the larp and the altered, paradoxical state of being themselves-yet-a-character.
However, although these cast members signed a contract and receive the benefits of being on the show, such as instant fame, they clearly are not privy to the kind of consent and safety mechanics we encourage in the international larp community. That contract also states that they must stay legally married for one year and can only get divorced after the reunion is filmed, which is a surefire way to ensure psychological damage if the relationship is dysfunctional. They risk the humiliation of being turned down at the altar not only in front of their friends and family, but the world. It’s exploitative, problematic, hetero-, mono-normative, although not necessarily more so than other Hollywood products sadly.
Nonetheless, I can’t help watching and being fascinated by the human struggle to relate to one another playing out in all these different dynamics. What is remarkable about these shows is the way in which cast members open their relationships to be inspected and consumed by millions of people. Relationships are the places in which our deepest insecurities can be revealed, including any prior wounds or attachment trauma, such as a tendency to fear abandonment (anxious attachment) or engulfment (avoidant attachment) (Levine and Heller 2011). As the show airs, fans around the world watch every (edited) moment of their relationships at their ecstatic best and excruciating worst. Furthermore, the edits they receive tell a narrative that is more of what the producers want to portray, which may not accurately reflect the actual dynamics and happenings between the participants. Many have difficulties dating non semi-famous people after the show airs, instead dating other people from the show or from other reality TV shows, especially if fame was indeed their objective. However, it’s clear that being on the show changes their lives forever; one cast member recently claimed he has been turned down for jobs in his profession due to his participation on Love is Blind, although other cast members have found these claims dubious (Brathwaite 2023).
I think what fascinates me most about this show in particular is the idea of only knowing someone by voice and spending many hours with them, learning all about them, without the distraction of examining their physicality or the anxiety of them examining yours. When I think about concepts that would be appealing to larp, a Love is Blind-themed game was on the top of my list. Could “the experiment” be replicated in a serious way in larp form, or would it devolve into the familiar (and safe) realm of satire, as in The Upgrade (2004) a jeepform larp by Tobias Wrigstad, Thorbiörn Fritzon, and Olle Jonsson about couples deciding whether or not to “trade up” for a different partner? Would players experience emotional bleed (Montola 2010; Bowman 2015) or relationship bleed (Harder 2018) they find triggering or exposing? Or perhaps have a breakthrough as a result of playing out a trial relationship under these circumstances? As a result of this fascination, when JD Lade posted in Larpers BFF that late spots were open to Listen 2 Your Heart Season 8, I jumped right into playing that evening.
Romantic Play and Personal Development
One of the things that interests me most about romantic play is the way it can open opportunities for players to explore relationship dynamics that are unfamiliar, but might reveal parts of themselves, their desires, and their patterns that were less clear to them before. They can experience hypercolor moments of relationship intensity that they may never have felt safe, worthy, or brave enough to try to achieve before. They can play characters that are more sexually or romantically confident and experience what that feels like; alternatively, they can play deeply insecure people who employ manipulative tactics in order to gain power over one another. They can watch in horror as their character takes their own attachment trauma into dysfunctional extremes, or practice playing out a more healthy relationship dynamic. They can experience what true love is — for their characters, at least. What happens to the relationship between the players and any lingering feelings afterward, i.e. the larp crush (Harder 2018), is an often taboo, but necessary topic to openly discuss within larp circles and between players. Ultimately, such experiences can be spaces for healing, learning, personal, and interpersonal growth if handled with care (Baird, Bowman, and Hugaas 2022).
Aware of the vulnerable space that romantic play can open, I am always curious how larps will handle issues of attraction, consent negotiations, storylines, and relationship dynamics. A tendency in role-playing game design in general and romantic games specifically is to design for conflict and tension — the more explosive, the better, especially in communities like Nordic larp that emphasize playing to lose or playing for drama. I am often dubious and even bored of such dynamics — beginning play at the height of conflict means next to nothing if there was no relationship developed between the characters beforehand, no embodied sense of what being “in love” with that person might feel like. For that reason, I have often favored preparatory scenes (Holkar 2021), also called backstory play, in which the basic dynamics of the relationship, including the excitement, the tenderness, and the passion can be experienced, therefore making any drama that unfolds meaningful.
Furthermore, the idea of trying to play out functional relationship dynamics can be equally fascinating, as conflict often arises in human interaction whether we pre-plan it or not. Being asked by the larp’s design or by organizers to overperform drama in order to keep things exciting for other players has often annoyed me, as sometimes the best play in my view is in the quiet, gentle moments of subtle intimacy. I am also careful about bleed, as I am aware that angry or shaming words said in-character when in such a vulnerable state can often reach us as players, especially if the dynamics we are exploring are relatable to our own lives.
The Four C’s: Context, Consent, Communication, and Chemistry
Of particular sensitivity are matters of chemistry and attraction. According to Oliver Nøglebæk (2016; 2023), “four Cs” are important to consider when larping romance (and, arguably, when engaging in relationships in general):
- Context: Considering the context of the larp as a whole, its themes, and the experiences of other players when approaching romantic play;
- Consent: Making sure all players enthusiastically consent to play within stated boundaries;
- Communication: Directly, openly, and regularly communicating what types of experiences each player would like to have;
- Chemistry: The inexplicable spark of connection that can be instantaneous or cultivated over time.
Regarding this last point of chemistry, many larpers will understandably lean more into in-game relationships with people to whom they are emotionally, intellectually, physically, or spiritually attracted; that sort of bleed can be experienced as pleasurable and may even lead to relationships with the other player in daily life (Bowman 2013). Chemistry from this perspective need not be rooted in sexual desire. On the other hand, if one only plays for chemistry, one might end up rejecting play from others, which can emotionally impact other players, especially if they consider themselves outside the bounds of conventional attractiveness, or as Karijn van der Heij (2021) calls it, appearance-based prejudice. Rejecting such connections can also negatively impact the larp, e.g., in larps with a strongly narrativist structure like Fortune & Felicity (Harder 2017; Kemper 2017), where a specific arc is meant to be played out over time with one’s assigned co-players. However, when considering the importance of consent, we arrive at a conundrum: should we force players to engage with one another in romantic play at all if they are not enthusiastically consenting? When considering the ethics of larp, this sort of peer pressure to perform romance can be a bit murky. In such cases, trying to find mutually satisfying ways to adjust the narrative through larp hacking might be kinder for everyone involved. Larp hacking involves subverting the game’s parameters such that it is more playable or enjoyable for participants but does not “break the game” completely (Svanevik and Brind 2020).
Nøglebæk’s (2016, 2023) view on chemistry is “You can’t force it. But you can grow it, if both of you are willing to open up – it takes a little work and communication to build up mutual trust and connection.” This philosophy is quite similar to the stance taken by the Gottman Institute and, by extension, Married at First Sight and Love is Blind. Laura Wood (2022) has given a Nordic Larp Talk on the topic, advising much the same, discussing the way larpers can cultivate chemistry through “emotional bids,” as Gottman describes. It is certainly possible to foster such connection in a startlingly short amount of time in larp through workshop activities such as eye gazing; ars amandi, a technique developed by Eliot Wieslander for playing out sexuality through touching arms (Nordic Larp Wiki); or asking each other 36 Questions intended to help you fall in love (Aron et al. 1997).
Listen 2 Your Heart: Salem Edition
The run I experienced of Listen 2 Your Heart was called Season 8 diegetically and was the eighth iteration of the larp non-diegetically. The title of the larp refers to the Roxette song by the same name; the Glee (2009-2015) version of the song (2015) was played at the beginning of the larp, ostensibly as the theme song for the show. The setting was realistic in principle: all characters were given their own apartment and were communicating through chat rooms, audio, and video conferencing. This practice made it easier to immerse through the interface, which can be challenging in online larps. Furthermore, the online format took any anxieties around physical touch or intimacy off the table, which was a nice change of pace from physically embodied larp.
By this point in the larp’s evolution, certain rules were in place in order to try to avoid the pitfalls of larp romance described above, which was a pleasant surprise. I am particularly sensitive to issues of chemistry; people’s feelings can get hurt if romantic gestures are not reciprocated or they can feel violated if forced to play out relationship dynamics without the option of opting out. Such issues can lead to larp ghosting, in which players drop their pre-arranged relations to seek out more fulfilling play.
Listen 2 Your Heart dealt with this conundrum in several ways. Most importantly, it broke with the cis hetero-normative formula endemic to many of these mainstream shows. The setting document states, “All characters are some flavor of bisexual / pansexual. They may have preferences, but none of the characters are to be played as straight or homosexual with only one gender preference” (“L2YH Schedule and Rules”). This rule tries to solve issues that can emerge in larps, such as queer players being forced to play straight romances (Paisley 2015; Stenros and Sihvonen 2019; Wood and D 2021), players steering away from players that their off-game self would not normally consider “their type,” etc. However, the rules also explicitly state that this world is mono-normative and that the dilemmas inherent to dating in groups cannot be solved through polyamory or dating outside of the pods. Such solutions break the premise of the game. In addition, the setting document states that all characters want to be on television and consented to the possibility of marrying someone.
I played Melaina, a young adult Fantasy author who believed she could do magic. The last part was a tweak I added to the original pre-written character concept when I started noticing the twist (see below). The in-game experience toggled between playing in the pods in a series of dates with members of the other group (audio only), in my case, Group B, then communicating with one’s group about what unfolded (audio and video), in my case, Group A. Though the larp was fairly long for the online format at approximately 13-14 hours of play over a 28 hour period, the pacing was such that while we were asked to interact with co-players through these “pod dates” played out in a series of Discord channels with camera off, we were not interacting with any one person for more than 20-30 minutes at a time. This kept the pace going and the format allowed for players to make any choice with regard to their character’s romantic storyline, although they were not allowed to unalive themselves, as that kind of choice can negatively hijack the narrative for everyone.
Group meetings featured different stimuli in addition to talking, such as prompts for us to go to the “confessional camera,” prompts to vote on characters in specific ways, e.g., “Most Likely to Receive the ‘Hero Edit’,” “Least Favorite Date.” This input was gathered in practice in Google Forms, then the larp adjusted in some way. For example, characters could request all the confessional quotes from a particular character, or were given anonymous confessional quotes to decipher. Votes were tabulated and winners (even in “losing” categories), were sometimes invited to choose the next series of dates, including to benefit themselves and either thwart or assist others. This practice kept us always on our toes and the game flowing nicely. Consistently shifting between interactions ensured that even if the setting was mono-normative, the play was more a collective negotiation.
Many larps these days have rules against larping rejection of someone based on personal appearance for the reasons van der Heij (2021) described. L2YH had a particularly interesting approach to this rule, stating: “Don’t play negatively on someone’s OFF-GAME looks / age / etc. Everybody is hot, that’s the fun of the show, right? Somebody might not be your character’s type, but they are still objectively hot (“L2YH Schedule and Rules”). In practice, this was quite lovely after Reveal scenes, in which each of us were sent on dates where the camera suddenly came on, like the barrier lifting in Love is Blind. Cast members on Love is Blind often comment on how jarring it is to finally connect this new face with the voice they fell in love with and the physicality they imagined, which I found to be true as well, but still a pleasant surprise. In fact, these scenes were even more potent for me perhaps than the several of the other players, who seemed to play the larp together often I presume as new characters each time; I only know one of the players previously so I had an authentic experience of curiosity and surprise.
When Group A would reconvene to gossip after these Reveals, we would play to lift (Vejdemo 2018) the other players, talking about how hot they were and how confusing it made everything, which we would then also sometimes reveal to characters in Group B. This practice can potentially lead to positive experiences of bleed that might counteract feelings of insecurity present in the player.
The game encouraged players to amp up the interpersonal drama, which I sometimes struggle with being forced to do considering my preferred playstyle of keeping intensity growing at a slow boil rather than exploding for the sake of narrative drama. However, off-game calibration with other players in terms of boundaries and the direction of storylines was strongly encouraged. In practice, this worked quite well, especially when communicating with experienced larpers who are conscientious of other player’s experience.
However, from my perspective, a major issue with such calibration occurred due to in-game secrets embedded in this particular run of the larp. While most runs focus on the traditional relationship trajectory storyline, this run of L2YH had a twist due to its proximity to Halloween: all the characters in Group B were actually vampires. Furthermore, it was revealed through play that if anyone in Group A does not choose to get married, they will be hunted and killed on the vampire television network on which the show now airs. Furthermore, they would then be forced to become a vampire themselves or die, thus becoming the monster themselves, now implying an additional meaning to the word “bleed.” This plot was hinted at in our briefing, in which the facilitator alluded to spooky things being afoot due to the game running close to Halloween and placed in Salem, Massachusetts, the location of the famous witch trials in colonial America that were unfortunately all too common in Europe.
In terms of a plot, it was intriguing and my character figured out some of what was going on fairly early, but the secrecy of the game led to some cognitive dissonance around genre. On Love is Blind, you might end up with someone with narcissistic or abusive tendencies, but on this show, you would most certainly end up with a serial murderer, which is a steep escalation. Players in Group B were instructed to try not to reveal the secret until the Reveal, ostensibly to stir up the aforementioned drama. However, as it leaked early, I had to make a choice as a player: I could lean into the premise as horror or as the aforementioned satire/mockumentary style of play, similar to What We Do in the Shadows (2014, 2019-). I ended up doing what my characters often try to do when playing romance in larp: attempting to redeem or save the “troubled, misguided” abuser. My storyline started off fairly seriously, as I wanted my character to be earnestly looking for her life partner, as befits the genre of the show, but ended up in a dysfunctional love triangle between murderous psychopaths in order to amp up the drama for the finale. Furthermore, as Vampire fiction is often considered a metaphor for sexual violence, this twist did not entirely line up with the rule, “Do not play upon child- / sexual abuse / non consensual sexual encounters” (“L2YH Schedule and Rules”).
I decided to lean into the absurdity and still had a good experience. However, this example illustrates the problems with secrecy in larps in terms of player consent (Torner 2013), as I may have declined playing upon such themes or negotiated a less severe storyline through calibration if I had known ahead of time. My understanding is that the next runs of this larp will revert to the typical Love is Blind format and will therefore likely not have such issues.
A further hiccup revolved around the opt-out mechanic, a semi in-game phrase, “I’d rather not…” We were instructed to say or chat the phrase and use the X-arms to the camera if we wanted to take the scene in a different direction. “I’d rather not…” could also be used to indicate a desire to change the topic of conversation, similar to an X-card (Stavropoulos n.d.), meaning that topic was off-limits. In practice, remembering such phrases during play can be quite difficult, as can remembering to signal, or remembering to check the chat to see if someone had sent an off-game message. These issues are ongoing with regard to safety. Cues can be missed whether in-person or virtual play, and in-game phrases meant to be immersive can sometimes be missed. In future runs, I would recommend workshopping such techniques to make sure all players had some embodied experience with them before play rather than only receiving them in the rules document and having them explained at a briefing.
A Successful Experiment
Despite this narrative twist at the end, overall Listen to Your Heart Season 8 provided an authentic-feeling experience that strikes me as similar to what it might feel like to be in the pods of Love is Blind. I very much enjoyed being able to focus only on the voice as a means of communicating, whether the topics were flirtatious or deeply metaphysical, which is where my play tends to go. The experience of listening to the character’s voice on headphones strikes me as particularly intimate, as well as the pressure of attuning to every nuance the person was communicating explicitly or implicitly in order to ascertain in a short amount of time whether or not the relationship would work. Overall, I think the designer made smart choices in terms of the parameters of the larp.
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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash. Image has been cropped.