I know, I totally named this blog Safety in Larp. But in something like seven places already I’ve referred to “safety” in quotation marks and made points about “larp safety” actually being only partly about safety. What is up with that?
My main objection to the word is that safety suggests protection from danger. And when we talk about larp, there are many valid safety concerns, for instance how we can portray sword fighting experientially without the danger of killing each other.
But then there are other issues, like the puzzling propensity of people to cry after larps have ended, which we often talk about as though they are safety concerns (a.k.a. symptoms of harm or risk or danger) when they’re usually nothing of the kind.
Universal Joys, Universal Worries
It’s super interesting how this terminological confusion is not specific to any particular larp culture. That is a clue that the same emotional phenomena are a side effect of, possibly literally, every kind of larp. It seems that larpers everywhere will experience certain things that we do not, in Western culture at least, have any good names for, and what we do not know, we are wary of.
It is actually a good safety practice to look very carefully at the unknown before you make up your mind about whether it’s safe. It makes sense, if people are often crying after your events, to ask very specific questions about why that is. Because it could totally be a clue that they are, for instance, mentally or physically exhausted in some way they do not feel they had signed up for. In which case there is something off, either with your larp or your player group or your communication with your players. At its extremes, that could actually get dangerous.
But it is also possible that some totally different things are going on. In fact, in all likelihood it is something else, and I’ll write more about what that could be in a later post.
Before I get to that though, I’d like to establish this truism: larp is not dangerous, life is.
Which is to say, there are many culturally accepted things like mountain climbing, ice hockey, boxing, smoking and binge drinking, that are actually far more dangerous than larps are. There are also other parts of life, like driving in bad weather, or meeting strangers from the internet to have sex, which are risky. Nevertheless they are understood to be acceptable things to do if you take precautions.
Then there are things that aren’t consider dangerous at all, but which cause many of the same strong reactions as larps can. Yet those aren’t conceptualised as even worrying – let alone dangerous. Let’s take dating as an example.
Dating: Not Unlike Larp
Dating – just ordinary dating – shares many of the same emotions and risks as larps do. You worry before you go, and the more excited you are about the date, the more you dread it in advance. There are also different genres and styles of dating, some casual and light, some rules-heavy, some actual brinkplay (the kinds of dates where you, say, are expecting to at the very least have sex, but if the evening also include climbing up on a rooftop while drunk to read poetry, that is A-OK too. Not to suggest in any way that I was once on that date and it was both fantastic and lethally dangerous).
When you’re finally at your date, it starts with the uncomfortable bit when you’re both speaking in unnatural voices, trying to figure out what your social roles are relative to each other. Then you might fall into a social script of How Dates Work (if your culture has one), or be forced to co-create it in a more freeformey style.
If your date goes really well, you can reach enjoyable flow states, and many of the best dates are designed around cool environments or sensory experiences that distract from possible weaknesses in the core proposition. Sometimes they include flirting, sensual content, or even sex. If the date is good, or you feel undue loyalty to the role you’re playing in it, you might end up making choices you later regret. Sometimes you will even find yourself crossing your own boundaries, like making out with somebody out of politeness. Or sleeping with someone mostly because your idea of what a good date is requires it, or for the story. Sometimes that’ll weird you out afterwards and at other times you’ll shrug and say hey, it was an experience.
Awesome, Not “Psychologically Unsafe”
Dating invites us to risk vulnerability, to reveal our lives and our bodies even though we never know for sure will be respectfully handled. And that risk is especially true if you date someone that you don’t know at all and who you have no social sphere in common with. Or if your date is someone you really fancy, and they might or might not think the same about you – that is an enormous risk of pain, but also a chance for something joyful, and therefore, as a culture, we totally think going on that date is worth it.
We don’t talk, as a culture, about psychological safety around dating. We don’t talk about bleed when our baggage and body issues colour our dating experience, and we don’t talk about the post-date blues, and when we evaluate and process a date with our friends we don’t call it a debrief (except jokingly), and if dating makes us sad, or the person we dated turns out to be a jerk, we don’t frame it as a threat to our mental health (unless we have a pre-existing condition). We just think of it as life, or heartbreak, or an encounter with an asshat, and cry a little, and move on.
I’m not talking about violence or emotional abuse here. Those are real, dangerous things. And when we date, especially strangers, we often put procedures in place to be able to get out of scary situations safely. And ease into intimacy gradually, over several encounters. Which is super important because getting out of abusive relationships is a lot harder than not getting into one. Those are actual safety issues.
And lest it sounds like I’m suggesting that safety is always about physical things, let me be very clear: I do believe in for instance emotional abuse, trauma and triggering, and these are things we as designers of larps and larp communities must work against just like we as people who date and live in communities should work on emotional and psychological safety in those contexts.
Trauma is Real – and Relatively Rare
HOWEVER, out of the zillions of emotions and experiences people have at larps, only a miniscule fraction are connected in any way to trauma. And out of the many conflicts and social discomforts that larping can entail, almost none are intended to be offensive or harmful. (But as these things go, it’s never the thought that counts, and in worst-case scenarios casual discomforts can escalate into harm. Also: systemic thoughtlessness is absolutely harmful to individuals, communities and the quality of your game design).
That feelings or experiences are not dangerous does not mean they’re not important. They are very important – the good emotions and the bad, the flow interactions and the failed interactions. They’re at the the core of larp (as they are of dating).
So when I talk about safety in larp, I talk about safety, but also about those things that can be chipped off your list of safety concerns once you’ve checked them properly. And about the things that might create safety concerns if you don’t take them seriously. And finally about things that aren’t safety concerns at all, but just the ordinary cost and benefit of sharing a piece of your soul with another human.
We don’t, as a culture, stop dating even though every date offers the possibility of intense and sometimes painful emotional and/or physical experiences. Not even though we know that dates will often leave us disappointed or sad. Or happy and exhilarated. We don’t stop dating even though we might fall in love and become incapable of focusing on work and tell inappropriately endless stories about our awesome experience with this awesome person. We don’t call it dangerous, because it’s not dangerous, it’s life and it’s human. But we make an effort when we’re out there to play nice together.
Perhaps it is not surprising that there are larps about dating, and dates about larping. All pictures with humans in them in this post are from The Lovers’ Matchmaking Agency by Aarni Korpela and Jamie McDonald. It is a multi-day pop-up art larp where participants are (among other things) matched to do something unusual on their date – like having a two-person pillow fight in a park, spending their date handcuffed to each other, or giving Jamie a real haircut.