This is a guest post by Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. is a role-playing studies scholar and adjunct professor in English, Communication, and Humanities.
Historically, one of the most common worries about role-playing games has involved concerns about their psychological effects. In the past, alarmist parents and other non-gamers have complained that RPGs might negatively impact participants, leading to occult activities and players “losing touch with reality.”
While such claims are laughable to people who actually engage in tabletop and larp games, researchers and practitioners in these communities have become increasingly interested in the psychological impact of enacting characters in a fictional world. Therefore, the topic of establishing safer spaces in larps – both physically and emotionally – is one of the key concepts we plan to cover at our upcoming Living Games Conference, which will take place May 19-22, 2016 in Austin, TX.
In order to engage participants, role-playing games often offer intense experiences that sometimes leave a lasting impression upon their participants. These impacts are particularly potent in larps, where players physically enact their character actions, although immersive tabletop and online games are also potently powerful. When experiences within a game emotionally affect players out-of-character, the phenomenon is known as bleed. Similarly, emotions and relationships from mundane life can impact events that transpire within the game space.
Bleed is neither positive nor negative, though people have different reactions to bleed experiences. Some groups, such as the Nordic larp and the American freeform communities, often actively design games to create bleed experiences, finding them powerful and impactful. Other players avoid bleed at all costs by maintaining a strong sense of alibi, meaning that they adhere to the psychological principle that their character’s personalities and the events of the game do not represent anything in reality.
While alibi is necessary in order for a game to function, my recent research has demonstrated (PDF) that our real lives can affect game events and visa versa. Sometimes, these impacts can lead to players experiencing lasting feelings of alienation, depression, or anxiety, especially when the culture of the game does not promote open, serious, and compassionate discussion regarding player emotions.
How can role-playing communities establish safer spaces for their participants? Here are some suggested steps:
- Pre-game activities, such as workshops and new player events: Helping new players become integrated into the game through character ties, fleshing out backstory, and getting to know other players helps tremendously. Some groups engage in workshop activities similar to theatre exercises that help build trust and create a gaming ensemble. Players can plan antagonism collaboratively with one another ahead of time in order to decrease the potential for negative reactions to such play in-game.
- During-game safety mechanisms, such as safe words, asking for consent, and checking in: Allowing players the opportunity to “cut” or otherwise opt-out of scenes that make them feel uncomfortable or triggered is crucial to establishing trust. Alternately, players can have “slow down” mechanics such as saying the word “break.” Breaking character briefly to ask for consent in a particularly intense scene is an especially important strategy for helping players feel safe. Checking in with participants who appear distressed in-character either verbally or through signals is also advisable.
- Post-game activities, such as war stories, debriefing, and player communication: Many players enjoy telling war stories, which is a way to narrativize the events of game from a funny or exciting perspective, which can facilitate bonding. Sharing a meal while warstorying is a common post-game practice, especially in larp groups. However, more serious debriefing is sometimes necessary in order to process emotionally powerful material and help players work through complex feelings. Often, a structured debrief can make the transition to mundane life easier. Finally, players who have experienced conflict, romance, or other intense feelings together should contact one another if possible, get to know one another out-of-character, and discuss future boundaries for such play.
- Off-game socializing, such as parties, dinners, fundraisers, social media groups, conventions, crafting sessions, and other events: Players benefit a great deal from communication in non-game contexts. Participants often find it far easier to trust one another if they get to know each person in a “normal” social context. Community building activities like these help people feel part of a larger group and often encourage deeper friendships than game play alone facilitates. Players are less likely to make negative assumptions about the intentions of another participant if they have opportunities to get to know that person out of the game context.
The more trust that role-players can establish among members of their community, the more comfortable individuals will feel increasing the intensity of role-playing experiences. Role-playing games are intended to push the boundaries of what is possible in reality. Trust helps players push boundaries even farther when they know that their community will support them through any difficulties.
If you would like to learn more about strategies for player safety, please join us at the Living Games Conference, where we plan to have additional keynotes, panels, and workshops on this important topic.
Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D. is a role-playing studies scholar and adjunct professor in English, Communication, and Humanities. She is the author of The Functions of Role-playing Games, the editor of the Wyrd Con Companion Book, and the lead organizer of the Living Games Conference.