Reflective Games: My First Time as a Larp GM

reflective games, research

This morning, for the reflective games group, I ran “Abattoir” (also known as Heiferdammerung) by Mike Young and Scott David Grey. You can find it here. This nano larp is meant to last around ten minutes. The original game has nine playable characters, but this morning, there were only five of us including myself. Here are some brief notes.

I’ve got a fair bit of experience as a tabletop gamemaster, but this was my first time running a larp.

I used the opportunity to try out a number of nordic larp techniques and approaches to framing a game that I haven’t used formally before. It feels like the sort of opt-in that I often frame my games with, however, so it felt comfortable enough. After I cast the four players, I started off by offering a little bit of information on the themes of the game — this wasn’t exactly a content warning. Content warnings are not usual for most larps, from what I have seen in my research, because it is difficult to know, especially in something freeform, what topics might arise. Instead, there are rules and systems that larpers put into place to deal with difficult content as it arises and afterwards, once the game is finished. Specifically, the systems that I’m thinking of are the “cut/break” system, which players can use to redirect or interrupt the game, and the “Debrief” period after the end of the game.

Last week, I gathered together a set of rules cobbled together from some of the sources I’ve been reading for the kinds of larps that I would like to run. I’ve gathered that information here.

So, after the content warning, I explained the concepts of “break” and “cut” and how to use them. In terms of physical boundaries, I suggested that this time around we have a no-touch larp, since it didn’t seem necessary for the sake of the story, and then I opened up a discussion about boundaries. Knowing that it can be hard to figure out what to say at that point, I tried to give the players enough time to think about what subjects or topics that might arise and what they were up for or not. What that wound up meaning this time around is that one player decided to observe rather than play given the subject matter. I think this underscores the importance of creating opportunities for players to opt out, and talking about the themes of a larp even if you can’t quite give completely accurate content warnings. I had to rethink my casting choices a little bit, and decided that I would be a GMPC, which is to say that I would play a character in the game as well as run it.

The space that we ran the game in was set up for a meeting, with eight interconnected tables arranged in a square, with an empty central space. The creators suggest running the game in an open field, but one wasn’t readily available in the immediate environs of downtown Montreal, and our time was limited.

This was a good first experience in terms of learning when to wait (which in this game, was responsible for quite a lot of the tension, I think), when to cut/go to the next part of the game, and when to improvise. To make the game run smoothly with so few players, I had to occasionally add in information or events. For example, all the players managed to dodge the winches and hooks that were meant to capture them. As a result, although they could not go backwards, there was not necessarily any incentive for them to go forward. I considered ending the game there, with them waiting, but instead introduced an event with a non-player character that one of the player characters had an attachment to, which worked to urge them further into the abattoir.

The players remarked on the tension between knowing approximately what happens in an abattoir and trying to think and behave like a cow. One player also noted in our debrief that it was largely possible for this to be played in such a short amount of time because most people are at least a little bit familiar with the subject.

I think this is an important note for the nanolarp that I will be designing this week, to be played next Wednesday, the 13th. I’m trying to delineate a topic with the idea that it might be good for the group to have some general, common knowledge about it in mind. More on this soon!

Reflective Games: Coming Home to a New Form

critical making, reflective games, research

Learning about Nordic Larp and the culture around it is a little like coming home. The discourse often focuses on taking care of people, making sure that consent and boundaries are negotiated, and making sure that larp can be a space to explore difficult subjects as safely as possible. On the other hand, there are so many styles and schools within Nordic Larp, and learning about those is both thrilling and intimidating.

What’s amazing about larp is that there is a huge amount of content (especially proceedings-style papers from the Knutepunkt conference) published each year and available for free. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot that makes me feel uncertain about the best way to proceed. At the same time, the sheer volume and variety of manifestos and articles available signal the lack of unified consensus about larp design. That means that maybe I can carve out a space that I am comfortable designing in. I’ll try to explain my discomfort and excitement a little bit.

So. As a game designer, the subjects and scenarios that I design around are often ones where there is the potential for discomfort and even outright (emotional) harm to the player. To name a few topics, I’ve worked with design questions related to consent and physical touch, sensual relationship with plants, inequality and harassment for women in the workplace, different intersections of oppression, and emotional labour and radical softness.

My games often invite players to be vulnerable. Although they may choose their own level of comfort, players frequently choose to be quite vulnerable, as it turns out, particularly when it comes to my game about consent (In Tune) and the one related to emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter). Negotiating consent and learning about one’s comfort levels frequently means a certain amount of disclosure to one’s partner, by way of explanation for why a boundary exists, or even by disclosing the existence of a boundary. Similarly, since The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter prompts players to draw on their own experiences to come up with a (fictional or non-fictional, player’s choice) trouble, players often wind up coming up with problems that are partially based on the ones that they are already facing.

These experiences are carefully crafted, and I have considered how to facilitate this sort of play through rules, framing, and control of the experience. That is what makes some forms of larp intimidating — there’s a loss of control that goes beyond anything that I am used to as a game designer or as a tabletop game master. There are many techniques to help restore some of that control, though, which makes this loss of control both intimidating and exciting. I am used to crafting moments both as a designer and as a game master, and responding on-the-fly to my players, but I am always there in order to provide additional information, to tell them what they see, to play non-player characters and shape the experience.

There are so many forms of larp to learn about, and relatively few chances to experience them all for someone living in Canada. That means that I will have to feel out what will work best for me as a designer by reading widely — on the other hand, there is so much to read that it has been difficult to absorb everything as well as I would like. I’m working on it, but there’s still plenty to read.

For my larp, I think that I would like to invite the Reflective Games group to play, along with some other folk at TAG and perhaps my usual Monday Night RPG gaming group. That would mean having roughly ten or so people, so perhaps I will create a smaller-scale prototype to experiment with an even smaller group.

When it comes to subject matter for the larp, gender has, as one might imagine, been on my mind lately, as I approach a legal name change and have been using they/them pronouns for roughly a year and a half with most people. I keep thinking about the discomfort of being misgendered, the compromises I choose to make, and the discomfort that some people seem to feel at even the idea of nonbinary identity. This isn’t a very settled subject — there’s a lot of (not necessarily in good faith) debate around this, especially lately with respect to the Jordan Petersen video incident at Laurier. Maybe this is a good thing because of the questions that it raises – questions that I have no answer to. I am also not altogether sure yet what the “thesis” of such a game would be. I’m working on it.

I will continue to read, but this week, I think I’ll also focus on trying to create something.

[PS: I also had the chance to showcase The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at MEGA this weekend — I had some very interesting conversations around it, and on the whole the game was well-received. To children, I got to talk about making conductive buttons and makey-makeys. To parents, I got to talk about the value of emotional labour. To my academic peers and other designers, I got to talk about physical-digital hybrid games and the genesis of this game. On the whole, the feedback that I got was that generally people were surprised by how effective a tool this was. Oh, and of course, in case you missed it, the digital edition of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is available here!]

Reflective Games: Bodies in Pain

reflective games, research

[Content Warning: Chronic pain, bodies, bodily fluids, personal information related to said topics]

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about instructions, deictics [1] and grammar related to situating the person receiving the instructions in the present. Using Alison Gibbons’ work as a starting point, I’m interested in the topic because of how it might help players identify with a character. In Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant, this type of language brings the player closer to the identity of one of two terrorists, either Ulrike Meinhof or Eamon Collins.

I was planning to prototype an exploration of the subject matter this week, but became ill, which has led me to thinking through a much more personal subject than I had originally anticipated: pain, illness, and embodiment. As I write this I have a low fever and the flu. In this post, I’m going to position my own experiences with the aforementioned subjects, which means I’ll be talking a fair bit about my personal experiences with chronic pain and illness.

Nothing brings the notion of embodiment crashing back into view like a body that is ill or injured. In Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, the author elucidates how our own pain is immediate but the pain of others is almost impossible to relate to. “Pain separates us,” Scarry notes. Even though we might be just a few inches away from someone who is in pain, their pain is remote. We “invoke analogies to remote cosmologies.” Scarry discusses how pain can rob a person of their speech and how others, even though they do not have direct access to a person’s pain, may explain or attempt to metaphorize their pain to bridge that gap. Direct descriptions of pain are passed through very quickly and instead we get “as if” and “as though” descriptions. These descriptions picture an external agent to pain, and bodily damage to accompany the pain. How these metaphors work is problematic because they do not adequately describe pain as divorced from violent actions, or from the act that may or may not have actually caused the pain — for example, “it feels as though a hammer is coming down on my spine.” As Scarry tells us, “Physical pain is not identical with (and often exists without) either agency or damage, but these things are referential. Consequently, we often call on them to convey the experience of the pain itself.”

Perhaps the fact that I live with a fair bit of chronic pain and illness is one of the reasons why I am so interested as a designer in the subject of embodiment. So rarely am I able to forget my own body completely and become “involved” (in Calleja’s sense of the word) that I rarely, if ever, forget the player’s body in my design work.

Just so that there are no surprises, and in case you’d like to skip over these sections, I am going to tell you about my experiences with chronic pain and other chronic conditions, starting with the back and leg pain that I live with.

From a young age, I had a tendency to hyperextend my knees when told to stand up straight. When I was fourteen years old, I wanted to join karate because I had a crush on a boy. As it turned out, there was no room in the junior class that he attended, but I joined anyway. I always have been into team sports, playing football from ages 7-12, and being on my school’s swim team. My brother soon joined me as well, and I attended karate for eight years, earning my blue belt, and stopping while training for my brown belt. It is through karate that I found out that I have an abnormally high pain tolerance. Karate, despite the kindness of my teachers, was occasionally a problematic, male-oriented space. Advanced belts were encouraged to join the advanced class, which I did, where I was generally the only non-dude. There was subtle encouragement to work and train through the various kinds of pain we encountered. We were barefoot at all times in the dojo, and began each class running around in circles on the hardwood floor. I made a habit of running on the balls of my feet (which is not good). I also had a wicked front and side kick (which put strain on my feet).

During the time that I was in karate I also worked for a number of years at a sushi shop. Once a week I would complete one twelve hour shift spent entirely on my feet. During this shift, and in other contexts, my feet were constantly sore. I used to tell myself that I must get sore feet from working that twelve hour shift, and since I only did it once a week my body could not get used to it. Eventually, I mentioned it to my doctor who sent me for X-rays. My doctor was astounded to find that I had multiple microfractures in my feet, which had healed poorly, and were leading to pain. I had basically broken my feet multiple times without noticing. This was the beginning of an ongoing saga involving my lower back, legs, knees, ankles, and feet. I somehow gave myself a stress fracture in my right arch, and for half a year could not do high impact sports. I saw a physiotherapist for both my knees and my ankles, which would give out on me painfully. I discovered that my tendency to hyper-extend my knees, as well as the microfractures in my feet, led to a number of other problems and alignment issues. My leg muscles are extremely tight. There is a nerve that runs from my lower back, to the outside of my thigh, into my knee, down the front of my shin, and into my ankle, in both of my legs, that is constantly being trapped by my tightened muscles. I have a number of stretches that help alleviate the pain, but when the pain is tolerable it can be hard to prioritize an hour’s worth of physiotherapy stretches in my everyday schedule. I also roll out my muscles every night with the help of my spouse, and I wear orthopedic insoles in my shoes. Truthfully, the pain never really goes away for long, and I have to be constantly vigilant for signs that it is worsening.

This next example deals with a normalized disability that plenty of people in the world have, and I want to contrast that experience with another chronic health issue that I have. From the time that I was thirteen until January 2017, I wore a combination of glasses and contact lenses for a fairly strong prescription. Since I needed them to do most sports that I was involved with, including scuba diving, swimming, and karate, I had a number of learned behaviours and rituals around my contact lenses. For example, when working at the Sushi Shop, I used to put in my lenses when I got to work. I had to wash my hands very carefully, and dry my hands with paper towels. These had to be the white paper towels, which we used for food preparation, and not the brown paper towels that we were supposed to use to dry hands, because the brown paper towels were much more likely to leave dust and filaments on my hands. Even with all this careful preparation I still often felt a foreign object sensation in my eyes after putting in my contact lenses. (I later discovered that I have dryer than usual eyes, a symptom of which is a foreign object sensation). Another learned behaviour that I have is never opening my eyes underwater as long as I wasn’t wearing a mask. I’ve also changed into my lenses in all sorts of contexts and locations, from the middle of forests, to outhouses, to truck stops, and gas stations. I always had to carry my glasses, a bottle of saline solution, my contact lenses, and a set of back-up lenses. I thought for sure that one day I was going to give myself pink-eye, or some other eye infection. Since glasses and minor sight problems are a totally normalized disability, I never thought twice about all of the preparation and ritual involved with my sight. Having laser eye surgery, although there were hassles in the short term, has been life changing in terms of how I travel and how I participate in sports. I’m only now learning to open my eyes again underwater, which I now realize was a constant low-level stressor throughout my scuba diving career. That is to say, the thought that I might lose my mask and be blind underwater was a constant stressful possibility.

At this very moment, I have the flu, and I may have in fact ignored the symptoms for a few days because of another chronic condition that I live with. This one is a good deal less easy for people to understand compared to glasses. I have a postnasal drip, which basically means that thicker than normal secretions run from my nasal passage down my throat. To be clear, the secretions part is normal, but they are usually thin enough that the average person just swallows them without noticing. My postnasal drip is constantly filling my throat with thick spit, which obstructs the passage and occasionally, when it is very bad, makes me feel like I am choking. I constantly have to clear my throat and spit, or deal with the feeling that I am choking. So, occasionally, when there are no other options, I have to spit outside in public, or have to use a napkin or other receptacle to clear my throat (and some people are less than understanding about this). Accompanying this is a constantly runny nose, most of it water. As a result, I carry a handkerchief everyday (the alternative being a large box of tissues), and blow my nose frequently. There is a corticosteroidal nasal spray that helps to alleviate the problem somewhat, although when my seasonal allergies are at their worst, it can have little effect. At night, I use a humidifier and an air purifier to help with allergy symptoms and prevent my mouth from drying out too badly, and I drink a lot of water.

Still, occasionally, my postnasal drip acts up and causes me to cough up a lot of spit, and since I had let my prescription for the nasal spray lapse of late (switching between Montreal and Fort McMurray has its challenges in terms of keeping prescriptions active), I thought that my coughing in the past few days was simply the aggravated drip. Today, I was running a fever, had the chills, and was coughing up phlegm that was decidely not mostly water, which brings us up to date.

My body, and I imagine the bodies of others, has grown accustomed to pain and to ignoring it, especially if new and exciting pain is drawing my attention. Still, pain is a constant presence in my life, especially in my back and legs. It affects what I am able to do, and it never completely fades from view.

Deictic language was useful in Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant because it continuously pulled the player’s attention back and involved them in their immediate surroundings. Coupled with the use of “you” to address the player, and the simple actions that the player was called upon to perform while being addressed as either Eamon or Ulrike, deictic language helped players become involved and identify with the stories of a type of person that we would rarely want to be seen as identifying with — a terrorist.

Thinking through how this might connect up with embodiment and pain or illness, there are a number of practices from psychology that operate by creating a focus and awareness of the subject’s body. Many forms of meditation, relaxation, and hypnosis ask participants to focus on their breathing, for example, and taking slow deep breaths. Similar methods exist for controlling pain, such as the Lamaze method for childbirth.

My Master’s thesis, which attempted to translate the technical aspects of scuba diving into a readable dimension of a collection of short stories, often dealt with breathing, as this is core to the experience of scuba diving. Awareness of one’s own breath can make the difference between a long or a short dive, but also the difference between life and death. I found that, by mentioning breathing in these stories and making readers aware of their own breathing, these sections often had a dramatic effect. Readers reported feeling unsettled, claustrophobic, and in some cases, close to panic. This makes me wonder about the use of bodily awareness in player instructions for creating experiences in the vein of Ulrike and Eamon Compliant.

In my personal life, I constantly have to read the needs of my body, and am also quite bad about ignoring symptoms that I shouldn’t, due to my experiences with chronic pain. If I could see into another person’s experience with their body, since humans experience embodiment every day, I wonder how similar our experiences would be. Scarry’s work suggests that we cannot know another’s pain, even in relation to our own, and that furthermore, even our own recent pain quickly becomes inaccessible to us. Now, I’m not suggesting that I want to create a series of malevolent instructions that would cause players pain, but I wonder how creating bodily awareness and thinking through rituals related to caring for our bodies might be used in embodied game experiences.

[1] From ThoughtCo: “A deictic expression (or deixis) is a word or phrase (such as this, that, these, those, now, then) that points to the time, place, or situation in which a speaker is speaking.”

WORKS CITED

Blast Theory Theatre Company. (2009). Ulrike & Eamon Compliant. [Performance] Venice,
Italy: Venice Biennale.

Calleja, G. (2011). In-game. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gibbons, A. (2014). Fictionality and Ontology. In Stockwell, P. and Whiteley, S., eds., The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.410-425.

Scarry, E. (1987). The body in pain. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

ThoughtCo. (2017). Deictic Expression (Deixis). Website.
https://www.thoughtco.com/deictic-expression-deixis-1690428