Basics of Opt-in, Opt-Out Design pt 4: Rage Quitting as a Measure of Your Expectation Management Skills

Basics of Opt-in, Opt-Out Design pt 4: Rage Quitting as a Measure of Your Expectation Management Skills

This is the fourth part of a series on Opt-In, Opt-Out Design. These posts are intended to establish a bunch of concepts and basics before going into nitty gritty (case studies and so on). The first part was an introductory video. The second instalment was a text about why the opt-in, opt-out design philosophy is a good practical baseline, especially if your players have limited larp experience. The third discussed things your players will need to know at signup.

This fourth piece is about a very specific sub-issue, namely people who opt into your larp, engage with your materials, sign up, prepare and get all the way to the location – and then get very angry at something, scream at you, and leave.

Leaving the larp is of course also an entirely normal way of opting out, and I personally think we should always design for that to be possible, for all kinds of reasons. This blog post is not about that. It is not about a player, upon consideration, deciding to leave the larp because they realise that they cannot, for some personal reason, continue playing.

This blog post is about rage quitting. Or really mostly about rage. About on-site participant rage and its causes. Sometimes you manage to resolve the rage issue so that people stay and play anyway. They might even have a great larp. Sometimes you don’t, and then they quit on you.

I have been at the receiving end of participant rage. I have also been the person feeling the rage. I haven’t rage quit, but I think if I’d have had a driver’s license and access to a car, I probably would have at least once.

I think most of the language below is also applicable to the freaked-out or deeply disappointed player who has enough self control not to explode in your face (or who trusts you so little that they don’t even want to talk to you). They’re basically just saving their rage for later, but that has the benefit that you may be able to pre-empt it.

 

Rage Quitting In Larp

Picture of Cinderhill villagers and dragon, from the Dragonbane larp
The larp Dragonbane was beset by troubles connected to its enormous ambition and lack of resources to deliver on its promises on time. Many players, especially in the village (pictured with animatronic dragon) had the best larp experience of their life. Elsewhere in the larp, significant numbers of players rage quit.

The term rage quitting is adopted from video gaming, where it often means aborting a play session either because you’re losing, as a reaction for trolling from other players, or because you’re enraged with the bugginess or difficulty of the system.

In collaborative-style larps, though, “winning” and “losing” are not meaningful concepts, and “trolling” is a marginal phenomenon (at least in the play cultures I’ve been directly exposed to). When players rage-quit larps, then, the reasons veer towards the last two kinds of thing: their experience being “buggy” – for instance because of logistical breakdowns – or the larp itself being unplayable for them in some way.

From the organiser/designer perspective, an angry, super-sad, freaked-out or massively offended player is both a terrible burden on resources (such as time, attention, and energy) and super annoying (because one either feels their complaint is unfair, or that their complaining is distracting from solving a real problem).

From the player perspective, of course, the problems are always real, and the emotions are definitely real, and they are often accelerated by a feeling of betrayal, which means you can’t actually ask the enraged player to shut up or wait, because that would make them feel even more abandoned.

If you are an experienced organiser, you probably have one person on location to deal with this kind of thing. You might be able to validate the player’s experience and their feelings, acknowledge your responsibility and apologise as appropriate, and find a workable solution that allows them to play. But would it not be nicer if you didn’t have to deal with it at all?

Please note: this blog post is not about larp criticism in general, or players having questions and uncertainties on site, or seeking attention, or about people having political objections to your larp before it’s even announced, or about design criticism delivered after the larp in ways that undermine the experience of players who were actually happy with it. Those are important issues and absolutely worth discussing.

This post is exclusively about the problem that the super enraged participant represents to the larpmaker on site, when the larpmaker is typically too tired or busy to deal with it in a good way, which then affects the other players negatively, and may have a long afterlife on the internet after the fact.

In an earlier post, I wrote:

The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.[A.k.a. rage quit]

 

Not Your Fault But Still Your Problem?

Make no mistake: there are absolutely people who just bring their own drama, and if you organise events or communities long enough you will eventually meet one. Some of them have mental health issues, some are just difficult or selfish, and dealing with them in constructive ways is its own kettle of fish. (Over at her blog, Lizzie Stark is encouraging us all to figure out whether perhaps we ourselves are creating drama where none is needed).

There are also people who just misunderstand or miss something that has actually been communicated. A good friend of mine signed up to a larp with a fair amount of sexual content without actually reading the game description, because she had liked the designer’s previous work. She was slightly outraged and quite disappointed, as she did not feel like playing on sexual themes – but I think even she agreed in the end that this was basically her own fault. However

…Her unhappiness and inability to engage with play are of course still the organisers’ problem, and it would have made sense to communicate the content much clearer and, (like some larpmakers making intense games already do) to also require her as part of the signup to specify that she had understood the game’s content. This is good practice, but since players get disappointed, confused or angry about a whole range of different things, and you can’t have them sign off on everything, this is not foolproof either.

Also, if you organise a recurring thing, your more experienced participants will increasingly assume they already know everything, and stop reading or listening to important information.

 

Disappointment is Relative to Expectation

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At Dragonbane, my group – the Witches – were hit the worst and had the largest number of rage quitters. The main complaints were that out promised camp had not been built, that we lost a full day of play time building it ourselves, and that our culture as written was not playable in the larp. I remained, and had a middling larp with a few unforgettable scenes. I sympathised with the rage quitters, especially people who had travelled from other countries. (Promotional picture, Dragonbane project)

Here’s the thing though: most of the players screaming or crying or demanding things of you are probably reasonably socially competent, reasonably “sane”, and reasonably well-informed. They feel you’ve let them down (and clearly you have, since that can only be measured relative to expectation).

I cannot emphasise this enough: disappointment is relative to expectation. The seed to your players’ disappointment is planted before they even arrive on location, through the expectations you create in them, implicitly or explicitly.

As a larpmaker, therefore, you may seem to have two apparently conflicting goals: attracting participants to your event, and giving them realistic expectations.

I call the goals “apparently conflicting”, because that is actually phrased wrong. If you’ve ever had a player yell at you, or ruin the experience for everyone else by refusing to engage with the intended design, you’ll know that the goal shouldn’t be “attracting participants”, but “attracting the right participants” – those who are willing and able to play your larp together.

To play the larp you will actually be running.

If you value inclusiveness highly, or need to maximise the number of tickets sold for financial reasons, you will be tempted to try to make your larp suitable for everybody. This is not a trivial task, and if you make that promise, you better live up to it too.

 

Hype vs Expectation Management

You may be tempted to create hype around your game for marketing purposes. One dictionary definition of hype is “deception for the sake of marketing”. If you obfuscate details about the experience (explicit deception), or for instance create a very professional-looking web-site even though your logistics team consists of four chimpanzees managed by a child (implicit deception) you should not be surprised or offended by players raging at you – or quitting on you.

The players who opt into your larp are choosing the experience you have communicated. Not the compromise you’ll end up with after having run out of time and other production resources (as you inevitably will). Not even the larp that is in your mind. They expect the larp that is in their mind, because you put it there.

If you do not communicate to your participants what the larp’s basic outline and organisational principles are, they will inevitably fill in the gaps with their assumptions or guesses, but still hold you accountable for not living up to their imagined larp.

As I started writing about rage quitting, I realised I didn’t actually have a specified list of the kinds of things participants generally need to know at signup. So I wrote one; it is Basics pt 3 and you can find it here. It is a good place to start.

Unfortunately, you are not the only communicator of your larp. The image of your production is shaped by all the conversations about it everywhere in the physical and digital worlds. Hype, fantasies, and misunderstandings might attach themselves to your larp regardless of how clear and realistic your own descriptions are. This can happen for instance because your game concept or location are just super awesome, because some tastemakers in your community have signed up, or because of some throwaway comment you made months before the game wasn’t even announced yet.

If you are working with hype, or hype attaches itself to your larp, having a person on your team handling social media responses and enquiries is smart. Keeping track of what images of larp the potential and signed up player base have developed between them is a time-consuming task. As will become clear below, however, this is an investment that will likely pay itself back down the line.

 

Ownership or Entitlement?

When we’re at the receiving end of participant rage, we often view it as a kind of “consumerist” reflex. We feel participants are treating the larp as a product and us larpmakers like evil corporations, and that feels bad, since we’re actually well-meaning artists, whether or not we charge for or make money on the events we create.

It would be constructive here to be able to think two thoughts at the same time. One is that whether we like it or not, the larp is a product. We have made some promises, and often received money, which in many places even makes the promises we have made legally binding.

The second thought is that at the very least the player has invested attention and time, and they have done it with the intention of participating in – in other words: contributing to – our larp. Inviting people to participate in a larp is a big ask. You are inviting grownups to play; you are inviting them to engage their emotions and their bodies and to create something together with you. By the time they show up on location you may also have lured, inspired, or instructed them to prepare, study and create something in preparation, and/or to invest money in not only the ticket, but also their travel, equipment and freeing time.

In exchange, you give your participants some influence over the outcome, and responsibilities. You give them some ownership. And the attitude that may feel a lot like entitlement when their rage spit is hitting you in the eye is quite often a feeling of betrayal.

They may feel the tradeoff is unbalanced – that they are asked too much and given too little. They may feel their investment, their ownership, gives them the right to be heard, or even a right to make decisions about how you allocate your resources, or to control how other players engage with the larp.

They don’t have a right to decide stuff about your larp unless you’ve specifically told them they do. But they have some rights, like the right to demand you live up to your promises and, yes, the right to be heard.

Rage is not constructive. But at the point when a participant is feeling rage, some important personal limits have clearly been crossed. Rage is a defence mechanism. Rage quitting combines the two most fundamental defences we have! Fight. Flight.

 

Typical Reasons for Rage

tauronIMGP9578
At Monitor Celestra, I found out on location I’d been double cast; another player had traveled from the US to play the exact same character. We decided to be twins and had a great time. At the previous run, the exact same thing happened with another character that there could not feasibly be two of. One of those players rage quit. (Image by Larson Kasper).

Typical reasons for rage quitting can be organised in four broad categories:

  • Cultural Assumptions & Misunderstandings. Your players think what you told them means something else. There are differing expectations about what constitutes acceptable humor, touching, content.
  • Perceived or actual threats to physical or emotional safety. Something horrible happens that you could have prevented. Maybe you forget to tell players about the ravine in the dark forest. Maybe you design a fictional culture that will fatshame your players.
  • Non-delivery of core infrastructure. You promise a camp, or food, and do not provide them.
  • Non-delivery of core game content. You accidentally cast two players as the exact same character. Or you make many plots dependant on a magic object you then forget to introduce in the game. You promise aesthetics you can’t deliver.

Feeling safe, seen and recognised – valued – are fundamental human needs. You’ll usually find a lack of one or more of these at the base of participant rage. Try to figure out as fast as you can which are involved, so you don’t accidentally escalate the situation by depriving your participant even further of that specific thing. If they don’t feel safe, make an extra effort to be non-threatening. If they feel ignored, give them extra attention. And of course: listen, validate, evaluate, act – and apologise if needed, as part of validation.

In a co-creative environment, I think being recognised and valued are extra important for feeling safe to play. Don’t diminish the value of your participant’s contribution to your project. Even when their reaction is actively depriving the project of an even more valuable resource – your attention.

 

Letting Them Stay, Letting Them Go

I started out writing this piece like I always do, with my sympathies with the organiser. But then I gathered a bunch of stories about actual rage quitting and to be honest, quite often the organiser is at fault. This sucks because everything becomes about communication and prevention.

When it is too late for those things (and you will find that out only when it is) the best strategy is to face the music. Listen, admit fault if you are at fault, ask what a good outcome would be for the angry person, ask for help, ask for time – this will also give them time to calm down. Give them some choices, any choices.

Say, “I’m really sorry. I messed up, and you are right. At this time the other players need my attention. If you feel like you need to leave, I understand, and I’d be happy to give you your money back. If you’d be willing to wait around for a while, I’ll be back in an hour and then we can talk some more. Maybe you can think about what you’d need to be able to continue playing.

There is tea in the office. Help yourself to the biscuits. If you don’t feel like playing anymore, I understand, but maybe you’d be interested in taking on another role – perhaps helping us run the larp? Think about it. I will talk to you in a little while. If you feel you need to leave before I get back, please leave a note so I know you’re not lost in the forest.

If their grievance cannot be resolved, and there is literally no one at hand to listen to them, let them go.

I’m really sorry we let you down. I hear you. I understand that you want to leave. I really wish I had time to talk to you, but as you understand, we’ll need to run twice as fast to keep the larp going. I’d be happy to talk to you on Monday – would you prefer facebook chat or a phone call? Do you need help with your travel? The bus schedule is on the desk. Or feel free to use the phone to call your ride. Of course we’d rather see you stay and play.”

Or, the hardest one.

I hear that you’re upset. I realise now that we could have been much clearer. When you’re screaming at me I find it very difficult to process what you’re saying. I’m sorry you had a terrible experience, but since you feel this strongly about it and the problem cannot be resolved, I think you are right: you should probably leave. I’d be happy to talk to you some more when we’re both less upset.

 

If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! If you’d like to learn more about Dragonbane, I co-authored a book-length autopsy of the fascinating project. There is a link to the free pdf download on this page. After Dragonbane I also wrote an essay about the ephemerality of larp experiences, which turned out to become quite influential. It was reprinted in the collection The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, available for free download here. The essay starts on page 231.
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Basics of Opt-in, Opt-Out Design pt 3: What They Need to Know at Signup

Basics of Opt-in, Opt-Out Design pt 3: What They Need to Know at Signup

This is the third part of a series on Opt-In, Opt-Out Design. These posts are intended to establish a bunch of concepts and basics before going into nitty gritty (case studies and so on). The first part was an introductory video. The second instalment was a text about why the opt-in, opt-out design philosophy is a good practical baseline, especially if your players have limited larp experience.

This third piece is about some of the kinds of things your players will need to know when they are preparing for your game; ideally before signup. Some of this may seem glaringly obvious to you now, but as you shall see in the next instalment on rage quitting, these things are not clear to everyone. I would also like to point out that like most of this blog it is written primarily from a larpwright’s perspective. I’m not asking you to communicate with your players to mollycoddle them: it’s to protect your larp and to save you tons of unnecessary work later.

Just like every computer game teaches its players how to play it, every larp should teach its players how it is meant to be larped, and this includes how to prepare for it and what to expect of the experience in a general sort of way. These are some things you should make sure your participants have understood.

Target Audience, Required Ability and Casting Principles
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What kinds of themes will the larp engage with and in what kinds of ways? What kinds of unusual experiences might the participants expect, and what kinds of actions might they need to perform in the larp. For instance, if there is violence in the larp, how it will be modeled. (I will write more about how to communicate this at a later date).

 

Who is your larp intended for? Do you limit participation based on gender, age, background, language, player experience, height, looks or something else? Are there factors in your larp that exclude some people from participating – for instance, does your larp involve all characters climbing a mountain, or horse-back riding, or a scenography consisting of 800 kg of wheat flour? Must everyone have good hearing? Will there be nudity? Must they be able to read and process a hundred pages of text?

It is good to know that if you are excluding potential players, which of course you will almost always need to do for some reason, people will ask you why. When you provide an answer, they might question this answer in the hopes that you change your mind, or because they feel it is unfair. Not all people will question your choices in a constructive manner (and sometimes they will have solid points, and you might wish to make minor changes in the interest of the greater good; at other times you will be unable or unwilling to make changes, but should still acknowledge valid points as valid).

If your players don’t create their own characters, some level of information about casting is necessary. For instance, what kinds of characters are available; how much one will be able to influence casting; what to do if one is unhappy with the casting; when one can expect to know what one will be playing in the larp and with whom; whether the player’s gender is expected to match their characters’; and whether characters are written as presenting as one of only two genders.

If it is physically impossible for your players to leave the larp in the middle of the larp, they should know this at signup. If there is no cell signal or it is otherwise impossible for their families to stay in touch with them in case of emergency, or for them to discreetly send text messages to their babysitter or whatever, this is also vital information.

 

And talking about communications, players will assume that even if they have no way to call an ambulance, you will have one (like a satellite phone). If the location involves actual dangers and no help in case of emergency, that should be the first information you share with your players, and you should probably make your players sign something to indicate that they have truly understood the risk. Also, I would urge you to never open that larp for signups, because it seems like a really stupid idea.

Division of Labour

Example: Finnish fantasy larps in the 90s tended to run for a weekend, and the culture was that on Friday night everyone helped set up tents and do other practical tasks. I invited friends who were Vampire larpers to play, and they were livid that I had not told them that they were expected to do physical labour, outdoors, in the middle of the winter.

Dirtbusters
Dirtbusters at Fastaval

Your participants don’t automatically know your organisational model or understand your finances. Whatever they pay or otherwise invest will feel expensive for some people and trivial for others, and the expectations for what should in all fairness be included will vary. (This is also pertinent to the point below, Responsibility for Provisions).

Using volunteers is common in many larp cultures and makes a lot of sense in co-creative contexts. The concept of volunteering, however, kind of requires the work to be voluntary, a.k.a, to allow for opting out without fear of social punishment. Your participants may need a rest after their trip before the larp, or have planned to use the time to discuss character relations with other players.

Doing stuff, including physical labour, together out of character is actually an excellent way to create a collective sense of purpose and out-of-character relations between your players. I’m not in any way opposed to requiring it of your participants. But they should know on sign-up that it is expected of them. Otherwise the group will destructively divide into those who enjoy the work or do it as martyrs, and those who opt out either because they are physically unable, or for the very reasonable reason that they did not sign up for this.

Being clear about who does what, and how, is even more vital if you are asking your participants to do in-game labour. Will that work be actual (rather than symbolic)? As in, will real carrying/singing/teaching/serving/digging/studying be happening? What are the in-game and off-game consequences if this work is not performed? To what degree does it limit other kinds of gameplay? (If you want to read more about In-game Labour, there’s an article starting on page 125 in this book).

Division of Game Master Power/ Responsibility for Content

It is of vital importance that your players understand who actually creates the building blocks of your larp: rules and interaction mechanics, world, cultures, plots (as relevant), mods (as relevant), history, institutions, lore, characters, goals, roles, relationships, aesthetics, costumes, run-time direction/game mastering, etc.

You’d be hard pressed to find two larp cultures that divide these responsibilities in an identical fashion between larpmakers and players (and many larp cultures also have in-between functions, such as NPCs, that perform some of them). Unless you are designing exclusively for players with backgrounds identical to yours, you will need to be quite clear about who takes care of what.

This does not have to be conveyed as a meta-level description; you can also demonstrate it through doing it. If there is a world description on your web site at launch, or a sentence saying that the larp is set in an abstracted insane asylum in a contemporary world that does not need to be specified further, your players will know that part is taken care of.

The players also need to know whether their character description as written, and its attached relationships, are a vital part of the game’s design – the interface through which they engage with this machine built out of rules and narrative –  or just a fun suggestion to consider a starting point for exploration. If the character has roles or performs functions that are vital for the larp, I would suggest a level of transparency that lets the player know which parts really matter. Just so they know what to prioritise in play – and what they’re expected to not opt out of.

And most importantly, the players need to know how to role-play. What can they invent? Will they bump against the edges of the fiction or the simulation system, and if that happens, what do they do – sort it out amongst themselves, or find an organiser or a referee? (I know this is bizarre to many Americans, for instance, but in my 22 years of larping, I have only once played a larp where non-playing directors or referees were an active presence in the game area during play. Not counting smaller freeform games, some of which would be considered larps in many countries).

Can the players create content and plot? Can they request it? Can they refuse it, if it is suggested by NPC:s, and will they know who the NPC:s are?

Much of this stuff may not seem on the surface if it to be connected to safety or play-style calibration issues, but in fact they often interact with safety on a systemic level. For instance, if a character must be present in specific intense situations for the plot to remain coherent, the player of that character cannot easily choose to opt out of such scenes in the interest of self-care. You can make those design choices, but that choice might then require robust pregame work and aftercare, good calibration mechanics, and a specific casting process.

Division of Responsibility for Provisions, Including Survival and Safety Stuff

Example: My Danish husband ran an international larp in a rented mansion in Denmark. During the larp, a number of players cut their fingers and feet on paper, glass, splinters, etc. The accidents were trivial. The first two who came to him for band-aids got the dusty, wonky ones floating around in his personal toilet bag. Then he ran out, and the third player was utterly outraged that he did not have band-aids at hand – or indeed a first-aid kit at all.

GDS_fastaval
Participants on a service shift at Danish convention Fastaval

When my husband came home and told me this story, angling for sympathy, I was almost as angry and astonished as his participant: In Sweden and Finland it is pretty much unthinkable to run a larp without bringing at the very least band-aids, painkillers, and tampons. In Denmark, apparently, if you’re a grownup and go away for a few days, you’re in charge of bringing anything you might need. My husband had not thought to share this information with the players, just like he would never specifically remind them to pack their own underwear.

Clearly, the participant’s rage was not about paper-cuts, but about other injuries that could happen, and the care that could then not be provided, unless a first-aid kit was found at the venue.

In other words, the absence of band-aids was to her a symptom of an absence of safety thinking in general, and undermined her trust in the organisers, which could then hamper her ability to play intense scenes with her co-players. In her mind, and mine, the logic sounds something like this: “How can I trust that these calibration mechanics in this intense game have even been tested when the designer has not even brought band-aids?” In the stereotypical Danish organiser mind, the same sentence would go: “How can I trust my players to engage responsibly with my carefully designed interaction system when they are not grown-up enough to bring their own bandaids?”

Both standpoints are valid and logical. It’s just a cultural difference – which in this case happens to be geographical too, but even in the most safety-oriented cultures (like the US) there are enormous subcultures (like people who go to Burning Man) who have entirely different assumptions about how safety and provisions can be organised – at Burning Man, which is in the Nevada desert, everything you do is at your own risk, and you have to bring literally everything you need (including water), except toilets, and take every minuscule scrap of trash you produce with you when you leave.

In many larp cultures, the organisers provide the food, as stated in the game information. In many of the same larp cultures, it is also culturally understood that this food is not sufficient and often of poor quality, and that players should also bring their own. Sometimes dietary needs will be taken into account by organisers; at other times not.

In most countries, organisers of outdoor larps provide sanitation. They don’t always provide toilet paper though, especially not if the toilets are present at the venue (like they would be on rented camp sites, for instance). I followed a very interesting conversation about this on Facebook between an organiser who felt it’s unreasonable to ask organisers to provide hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, and another one who felt that each player carrying their own TP roll was inefficient, a logistical idiocy.

What’s the right answer? You tell me.

I mean, literally, you have to tell me what the right answer is for your larp I’m signing up for.

If you are organising for beginners, people from another larp culture, or just absentminded humans, “What Will I Need To Bring” is a list you have to provide. And please be precise. What does it mean that you will provide “some props” or that player groups are expected to “decorate their area”? With what? To what standard? Are your expectations for what the players can carry with them adjusted for their mode of transport? If this is a larp that requires paying for an extra bag of checked luggage, or arriving in a private car, the players will need to know at signup.

In the next instalment of Basics of Opt-in, Opt-out Design, I will write about rage quitting in larps.

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Pictures: At the Danish convention Fastaval, as at many Nordic conventions, the basic sleeping arrangements provided are a rectangle of floor to place your sleeping gear on. At this con, you can also pay extra for a mattress (and there are options further away at hostels, hotels and family accommodation organised at a nearby boarding school). Most importantly, every participant at the convention is supposed to do one shift of “service”, whether game mastering, working the info desk, staffing the kitchen, being a fire guard, or serving breakfast. This is culturally accepted as a way of keeping costs down, building community and creating a sense of ownership for the convention. Cleaning (including cleaning bathrooms) is excluded from the service shifts, and given instead to the Dirtbusters, a pervasive subculture/larp about a kind of paramilitary organisation fighting the forces of chaos through mopping, drinking beer, and listening to Manowar.

Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 2: Why?

Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 2: Why?

“Opt-in, opt-out design” = designing participation that empowers individual participants to continuously make informed choices about engaging in an experience as well as in specific aspects of that experience.

Opt-in, opt-out design operates on the assumption that to feel curiosity and take initiatives, your player first needs to feel safe. (This is different from being safe, which is important for other reasons, and should be the foundation upon which the feeling of safety is built).

Participants need to feel seen and secure, they need to know they’re in the right place, and have a reasonably good idea of what kinds of experiences and activities they are about to engage in. This makes them not have to worry, which allows them to be present in the moment and explore the actual instance of the experience in a playful, mindful and proactive manner.

Whether your goal is for your participants to game the hell out of a statistics-heavy battle simulation, or to portray personifications of colours and emotions in a poetic non-linear dream larp, they must know what they have signed up for, what they are expected to do next, and how to interact with the experience to find out where to go after that.

The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.

Sometimes these reactions are completely justified! At other times, that player is just at the wrong larp. And that’s usually not the player’s fault either – it’s you who’ve failed at telling them who your event is for.

Why Opting In At Sign-Up Is Not Enough

Tubaline under threat of Messedor Voltemand.  Diegetic.   Photo- CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Tubaline threatened by Messedor Voltemand. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Explaining what larp is, how larp feels, and what larp can do, is really, really difficult. If we could all do that – if any of us could explain it in a satisfying manner – the hobby would not be ridiculed or dismissed, and our loved ones would not roll their eyes at us when we tell them about our latest games. This means that specifically for a larp or participatory event that is of an entirely new kind or has first-timers present, pre-game communication has very limited utility as a basis for informed choices.

It might not even be possible for first-timers to make informed choices! As we all know, early larp experiences have a tendency to be very powerful regardless of the nature, quality or content of the larp. These experiences are often positive, which is why we keep coming back, but the important thing here is that this basic oomph has to do with larp as a medium, not the specifics of your game.

This oomph, again, is the very thing we’re so bad at communicating. Larpers take it for granted, so if you give them a content warning they will judge it in the context of the power of this medium they already know. A beginner might read the exact same warning and think, for instance, that they read about the topic in question all the time without it being a problem. And then be quite surprised at how different it feels to experiencing something physically in the first person.

Also: emotional reactions to larp are really unpredictable. Sometimes you go into a very intense larp with a brinkplay agenda, to challenge yourself and push your own limits – and you’re fine. Some other time you volunteer to cook at a Harry Potter-themed comedy larp, and have only the thinnest of characters with minimal interaction with the plots of the game, but end up having a meltdown because something about the dynamics among the staff characters reminds you of a really destructive work environment from 20 years ago that you thought you’d forgotten.

Also: participants aren’t great at judging their own limits. They’re typically acceptably good at it, and they are astronomically better at it than you are! But they can’t know exactly, because the variables are just too many. For instance: is this specific content just present in the game in general, or at the core of my character’s story? Will I have slept well the previous night when other physical stressors are introduced? Will my co-players in intense scenes be my friends I’ve signed up with, or strangers twice my size? Etc. And a million times etc.

Burley_CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Burley, the Ambassador’s assistant. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Also: many larps have a very long time between buying a ticket and arriving at the venue. Any participant judgements made several months before an event will have been made in a completely different context. I played a larp last weekend where homophobic violence – treated very seriously – was an integral part of the story. We had all signed up for the game with our eyes open, but we could not possibly know months and months ago that we would be engaging with these themes less than a week after the horrific act of terror at the Pulse club in Orlando. (I may have reason to return to this specific example and its resolution in a later post).

Also: people don’t have the same amount of spoons on different days, let alone different months. They might be much more or much less comfortable, secure, healthy and happy than they were at sign-up. If they need to not play, they obviously shouldn’t, and if they do play, it makes sense to have a built-in way to fine-tune levels of exertion and intensity closer to and during the event. If you do not have a toolkit for this, they may not be able to play, which may leave you with an empty spot, or a participant less well suited to and prepared for the game overall.

Also: participants, even experienced larpers, don’t always believe you when you tell them what the larp will entail. You tell them the scenography is 800 kilos of wheat flour and might kill asthmatics and people with certain allergies; you tell them your sci-fi larp catering includes edible Japanese clay; you tell them you are a great believer in the aesthetics of boredom and will make the characters wait for hours and hours in minimalist environments; you tell them all characters will strip to their underwear; you tell them sex will be simulated by dry humping; you tell them Norwegian mountaintops are really cold even in summer. And they don’t believe you. (In case you didn’t either, these are all real examples). Now this, finally, is something that is not your fault! But it’s still your responsibility, or can become your responsibility to resolve.

ArkonKatrineJaredCornelius_CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Arkon, Katrine and Jared Cornelius. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

For all of these reasons, opting into an event is not enough. You also need to be able to opt out, or opt in progressively, as the event is running. The cool thing about designing for this is that you don’t have to have a binary “either you’re in or you’re out” model. Which would be an asshat move anyway. Especially if you live in a country where people have limited vacation time and will travel long distances to join the experience you’ve promised them.

In fact, if the choice is between participating in something that is not right for you, or not participating at all, most people who have already committed will choose to participate anyway in this thing that is not intended or perhaps not appropriate for them. They might have a good time in the end, but let’s be real: they’ll probably hate it, drag down everyone around them, make your event seem terrible and make you come across as both an inconsiderate asshole and a lousy participation designer.

Since we don’t want that, your event or game needs opt-in, opt-out mechanics that participants can fluidly deploy just before and during run-time  to calibrate their interactions with each other and the fiction. These tools add very little load to your design, since many of their functions are necessary anyway. For instance, if your players are already able to pause the gameplay to negotiate conflict stats or inform each other of real-world dangers, it is relatively trivial to slip in some mechanics that empower them to take better care of themselves and their co-players during the experience.

To Be Continued…

How this is done is the topic of this whole blog, but in the next few posts I’ll continue this walk-through of opt-in, opt-out basics. What are some of the structural effects on your larp (both inside and outside of the fiction) if you want to empower your players to leave or stay, and intensify or de-escalate, at any time? What are some tested, practical methods for doing this?

PS…

Verro the paparazzi and Kristian Strato.  Portrait.   Photo- CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Verro the Papparazzo and Kristian Strato. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Related issues that I promise to elaborate on in later posts:

    • What kinds of things, exactly, will people need to know before signing up to participate so that both you and they feel their decision is informed?
    • Is opt-in design even possible in games with very low transparency? (Hint: yes!)
    • Are there practical tools to use in pre-game communication to enable and enhance opt-in structures? (Hint: yes!)
    • What if I want my players to opt into really intense stuff, for instance simulated torture – can it be done without a hundred pages of text detailing every possible act that could take place? Can it be done without massive spoilers? (Hint: yes and yes!)
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All pictures in this blog post are from the larp Inside Hamlet and taken by Petter Karlsson. The two-day game used a mostly successful opt-in, opt-out design structure that allowed play on depravity and violence, as well as sexual content, in a mechanics-light environment where real alcohol was served. Visit the game’s web site for a gallery of dramatic images by John Paul Bichard.

Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 1: Introductory Talk

My keynote from the Living Games Conference 2016 has been released, and having first re-watched it in that cringing way one always does I’m actually now quite happy to share it!

It covers an insane amount of ground in 20 minutes, all of which this blog will go into in depth later. (I’m also referencing talks that John Stavropoulos and Maury Brown gave just before mine; they’re really good and you should check them out).

 The Core Claim of my Talk:
  • Unless you are very, very skilled at larp and interaction design…
  • and unless you know your players, their expectations, and their comfort levels really, really well…
  • …the baseline for your safety and participation thinking should be opt-in, opt-out design.

This talk is the starting point for a series of blog posts covering the basics of opt-in, opt-out design. Why do it? What is it for? How does it work?

If you’d like an introduction, this 20-minute video is not bad. If you hate watching videos online, and loooooove long posts with a lot of words in them, I promise everything in that video will be covered on the blog over the next few weeks!

EDIT: The slides have ben requested. They’re here: LivingGamesSafety2016. If you want to think about the diagrams in more detail, you can find those bits in these earlier blogposts.

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What I Think About When I Think About Larp Design, Part II: The Disciplines

In my previous post, I wrote about viewing the designable parts of your larp as not just the event’s run-time, but also pretty much everything leading up to it, and also everything that happens after, potentially for ever. (No, really).

LarpDesign

Here are some of the things I mean in my mind when I think about larp design. (I drew the diagram with my finger again!) I’m explaining the different categories below; I’m sure there are totally more, but this is a good place to begin. Safety, trust and calibration systems goes across all of these. In the right-hand column you can see some examples of the kinds of design that is happening on each level.

Larp Design

“Larp design”, or “game design” as used in the context of larp, obviously goes beyond the design of game mechanics (which is, basically, a technical term for the “rules” of the game and the formal negotiations between players during play). Just like film or opera or videogames, larp is an art form that combines different disciplines like writing fiction, composing music, handling logistics, directing performers and so on. All of the disciplines involved interact with each other and the mechanical game design in complex ways. They are all part of the larp design, because they all have a direct relationship to the actions and experience of the players, and thus also the “outcome” of the game.

We usually use “outcome” to talk about diegetic results: what happened in the story? Did some faction reach its goals or not? But I actually also mean all of that fluffier stuff, everything that is negotiated at the end of the game – answers to questions like “did this individual player have a valuable experience”, “did the players feel the game was well designed?” or “was this larp fun?”

Because of the reasons sketched out in part 1, the outcome of the game is in great part a consequence of practices and communications that happen before the runtime, and the players’ understanding of their experience is negotiated after the runtime. Therefore those spaces are also part of larp design, whether you are making active design choices or not. (If you’re not, you are surrendering those effects entirely to the forces of tradition, assumptions and dominant norms. This is very risky unless you are designing for a community with shared assumptions who really like each other, see below).

The inclusion of pre- and postgame design also means that if you have a very conservative view of what counts as game design, you might want to add a dotted line to the diagram around the game design circle, to allow it to overlap with experience design. Don’t draw on your screen, print it out first.

Experience Design

An experience is basically a journey that a subject takes through a period of time and space that can be somehow separated from the surrounding flow of life after the fact. It typically has a narrative structure: a beginning and an end, and a middle in which something changes. Any kind of traversal of a magic circle, like a religious ritual, a sports game, a concert or a larp, can pretty much be understood as an experience. And if you think about them in an structured way like experiences, you can intentionally design them to have specific effects.

 

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The experience design toolkit is basically exactly the same as the larp design toolkit – analyzing and/or affecting the cultures, social roles, backgrounds, and goals of the participants, and shaping the physical and social environment to produce the kinds of interactions you want. This can be done with or without storytelling techniques (although being aware of narrative arcs is always important in my opinion). And while some kind of role-taking is often involved in these spaces, they don’t necessarily involve character-play (of course, it will if the experience you’re designing is a role-playing game, kink or something like that).

 

In the context of larp, we can think about this as nested magic circles. One magic circle is the fiction of the game; the next one out is the formal activities before, during and after the larp; the following is the time your participants spend on location both in and out of character; the next again perhaps all of their interactions with you, your larp and the players of your larp from the first time they hear about it to the last time they think about it. You won’t design all of these limits or all of these journeys, but it’s smart to be aware of them at the very least!

Community Design

Since trust is a prerequisite of play and creativity, the underlying relations and norms of your player group will affect how they play. The obvious baseline is that people who like and trust each other to begin with, and have similar assumptions about what larps are and how to play them, are relatively easy to turn into a functioning player group for your game. If your game mixes players from different larp cultures, and/or beginners, they’ll have quite different assumptions about everything, and creating that cohesive group becomes a different process.

If approximately the same group continues playing across several games, like in a campaign larp, the player group will rapidly start thinking of itself as a community. (This might happen even before the first game they play together starts, and the culture they develop will start to form before they even physically meet). But “the community” can also be for instance the larpers of a city or region, the members of a university gaming club, the people who attend a specific convention, an extended friend group, the people who play Dystopia Rising, or (which is most common) different, fluctuating combinations of these and other communities.

But the longer one group continues to play together, the more automatic and entrenched their common assumptions will become, making it harder to on-board new players or introduce design or other structural changes. Another challenge with long-running groups is that out-of character social hierarchies also can become entrenched, and especially if they are destructive or even toxic, they will bleed into and out of the gameplay.

An aggressively socially competitive community will find playing fundamentally collaborative games very difficult, because they are unlikely to be willing to take social risks together. But in truth, they might find playing competitive games even harder, since games in which you can lose have a lot at stake.

But community design is also important for other reasons, since the community’s culture is key to things like inclusiveness, recruitment of new players, being credited for your work, organization of labour, the amounts of emotional labour required to maintain the community and so on.

The blue dotted line in the diagram is a timeline or road that represents your larp culture. You iterate your larp culture every time you organize an event for your community, and so of course do everyone else; you can only affect it in part. But hey, since you have that power wouldn’t you want your part to make your larp culture a little better?

What I Think About When I Think About Larp Design, Part I: The Total Larp

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The experience of your larp is shaped just as much by what happens before and after the event itself as by your game mechanics

Since live-action role-playing was invented, our focus for how to make larps better has been about optimizing game design: creating a “rules machine” that given the input of players and player choices will output the kind of experience you are aiming for.

Even as larps in my particular design tradition (Nordic Larp) became more about exploring narrative possibilities, relationships and character psychology – and less about gaming in a competitive sense – this mindset continued.

In addition to the design of game mechanics or rules, we started to think systematically about stuff like the design of playable characters and fictional cultures, and meta-techniques that allowed players access to information that the character’s didn’t necessarily have.

The Full Duration Of Your Larp Is Forever

But all of this development was still focused on the game’s run-time – the period during which the players portray their characters and the story progresses. (Or in other words, the time during which the participants are inside the magic circle of the rules and fiction of the larp).

The longer I’ve thought about safety and trust in larp, and also about different outcomes when the exact same game is run more than once, the more obvious it feels to me that designing the run-time is not enough. As for safety, rules compliance (whether people follow the rules) is obviously key, and that requires both understanding the rules, remembering them, trusting them, and a social environment where following them makes sense. And for the success of the larp, it’s the same: the players’ retention of game materials, use of the interaction mechanics and general ability to create together depends on how you’ve organized their preparation.

Behold this here ugly diagram, in which you can see your larp in its entirety! I have drawn it with my finger on an iPad, partly because I can’t afford one of those snazzy styluses, partly because it is also representative of the wobbly nature of game design. You make plans, you attempt the perfect circle, and then humans engage with your thing, and suddenly your grand structure looks like you drew it with your finger.

 

larpdesigntimeline

From Announcement To Afterlife

At “A”, you announce your game, and from that point on, people will be talking about your larp, and therefore affecting your player selection and your players’ expectations on your game, and therefore the way they hear and read everything you are communicating about your larp. The non-participants’ understanding of your larp can sometimes continue to shape your participants’ experience during the larp, and/or affect how they value and process their experience after the event.

In the purple section, you start communicating directly with your potential and actual players. You sell them on your idea, communicate your vision (for instance: what genre is this larp? What playstyle are you encouranging?) and probably start establishing some norms around things like the division of labour between organizer and player. This is very important: what is expected of your participants? What do they expect of you?

In all probability you are also communicating the design and much or at least some of the pre-established content (like the world of the fiction) at this stage. It follows that if you are still designing your game after you’ve started selling tickets (or accepting signups) you will probably run into difficulties communicating things in a timely manner.

Basically, your job is to communicate to the players everything they need to be able to play your game. You can choose to do this on location, or by gathering everyone for workshops in advance, or by emailing them long documents, or sending them short youtube films – whatever works for what you’re trying to achieve and the abilities of your players.

But anything you don’t tell them, they will either decide for themselves or come asking you about during the game. At the same time, the more you tell them, the less they are likely to remember. And if you are communicating action-based things, like rituals or safety procedures, they will probably need to actively practice them to be able to use them in the game. Designing the “teaching” of your larp in an optimal way, to empower the players to play it, is just as important as designing how it’s to be played.

The red curly bracket represents the time when the players are with you at the location of the event. Every minute you have with them is valuable real estate for sharing knowledge and practicing game procedures, but it is also important that the players get to interact with each other, so that they can actually be in a playful mindset once the playing starts. You have to design this period too.

If your player trust you enough to show up, that’s great, but you can absolutely blow that trust by appearing disorganized, terrified or unprofessional at this stage. Quite often, you have also not slept enough at this point, which makes having a pre-designed framework in place even more important.

Designing Beautiful Memories and an Awesome Legacy

After the larp, a bunch of things happen whether you have designed for it or not. The players leave their characters and the fictional world behind, negotiate between themselves what happened in the fiction, as well as how their real-world social relationships have changed thanks to the experience they have just shared. They might also reflect on the themes of the larp and/or formulate opinions about the quality of your game design and overall production. Some will feel a need for closeness, others will need to be alone, and some will want to blow off steam.

You don’t have to design anything of what happens after the larp, but I strongly recommend it for the following three reasons:

  1. Many people have unpredictable emotional reactions (positive or negative) even to cheerful, fun, trivial larps. That is normal and not in any way dangerous, but since participants will feel you are in someway responsible for their emotions, it’s nice to somehow acknowledge the existence and validity of these emotions.
  2. If your larp has any kind of educational agenda, or even just an important theme or meaning, it’s good to know that the learning happens not during the run-time but during the reflection period afterwards. If you can create a framework for this reflection and give the participants some tools for it, it will give both them and you a better yield on the time and effort invested in the playing itself.
  3. Since the afterlife or legacy of your game is pretty much defined in the period after playing stops but before the cohesion of the participant group breaks, you might as well invest some thought in how to have them leave your event happy. If you make larps professionally, this makes business sense; and if you make them as a hobby, respect for your craft as a larpmaker is the only payment you’ll get, so it’s just as important. (Don’t worry if designing a good after-larp process feels manipulative – I promise the players would rather feel happy about their experience than not).

So, to recap: the experience of your larp is shaped just as much by what happens before and after as by your game mechanics. Every stage in this process should be designed with just as much care as you’d put into the game design itself.

That concludes the timeline view of larp design. In the next installment, I’ll break larp design down in the sub-disciplines relevant to the design of safety systems!

PS. This diagram does not display the context of the blue lines – the wider larp culture around your event. Obviously its norms and traditions has an enormous influence on your design and the behaviours of your players! In particular if your players come from different larp cultures (or just different cultures) this is a completely fundamental design limitation for your project.