[Note: This article was meant to be included in my submissions for the Knutpunkt 2018 companion books. However, due to being short on time, I ended up only submitting this article about personal games instead. I figured this is a topic I still wanted to explore, and so here we are. Please enjoy.]
I didn’t want to cry after the game.
We sat around in a circle, everyone still breathing a little heavy from the last few minutes of the game we’d played. We were testing out a new live-action roleplaying game at a convention, a serious subject black box game where we played political prisoners about to be executed and experiencing the last hour of their lives with their comrades. The very end of the game is a harrowing experience (which I won’t ruin for anyone) but I had a very strong emotional reaction. I’d played very tough during the game, but once the last few minutes before the end happened, I turned into a panicked, weepy mess. Then game off was called and I had a lot of feelings to unpack, and I wanted nothing more than to be on my own.
Too bad that wasn’t really an option.
You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a pretty private person sometimes. I can talk forever about topics that interest me, but when it comes to my feelings I am very self-protective. Being vulnerable around people takes time for me, and certainly can’t be turned on and off like a switch. It’s only through the alibi provided by a larp that I feel comfortable enough to open up and show vulnerability in character, exploring deeper emotions in front of others and even feeling comfortable enough to cry in public.
But once the game is over and the alibi is stripped away, I am often not interested in sharing my personal feelings with others. However, the recent trend of mandatory debriefs has provided me with a serious conundrum after a game.
There have been many articles written about the importance of debriefs or de-rolling exercises. In the perfect practice, these post-game sessions allow people to separate from their characters and seek an understanding of their own emotions provoked in game for the purposes of managing bleed. (Quoted from the Nordiclarp Wiki: “Bleed is experienced by a player when her thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of her character, or vice versa.”)
Debriefs manage the closure players allegedly ought to have before returning to their regular lives and begin a process of uncoupling from the intense emotional experiences one can have during a larp. They also serve as a way to reconcile the often deeply personal relationships developed between player characters during the game and allow players to resolve any potential serious feelings (both negative and positive) they’ve had during interactions with others in play.
Debriefs may take the form of a workshop at the end, a roundtable, or even a series of steps begun after the game and spread out over the weeks (or even months) post game. These steps are meant to be put in place to help players not only go back to normal life, but get the most out of the game experience by resolving negative feelings, solidifying positive ones, and offering the best possible emotional resolution for everyone involved.
And on paper, in theory, that all sounds perfectly fine. And when these debriefings are optional, they remain a positive addition to any game design.
The problem becomes when they’re mandatory.
I have been to several games which have instituted mandatory debriefs, or debriefs which have been ‘strongly suggested.’ In the latter, members of the game staff have gone around and pressured people into going to the debriefs if they seemed uninterested in attending. The premise behind their pressure was simple: as a participant in the game, you not only owe yourself the experience of a debrief, but you are responsible for giving others a chance to share their feelings with you as well. If you participated in the game and impacted someone else, you need to give them an equal chance to share with you and hear what you have to say in return. To be part of the community of play you entered into, you must complete the game experience with this sharing to honor the spirit of the social contract you agreed upon when coming to the game.
But what if debriefings and the open emotional sharing in public are not good for you? What if the very idea of such a public airing of feelings is nigh on horrifying to you, or even traumatic?
In other words, what if all you want to say to the mandatory briefing is:
I sat in a debriefing after a game, and my heart was in my throat.
Everyone was going around the circle, speaking about their feelings, and I knew it was almost my turn. I knew I was going to have to talk about the experience, and the moment I did, I’d start to cry. The game was very intense for me and had tapped into some very fundamental, dark and difficult feelings I hadn’t expected to experience. There were elements of past trauma uncovered during the game, deep feelings I needed to process. And as I looked around the circle, I didn’t see a single face I trusted enough to want to unburden to that moment. I needed time. I needed people I trusted. I needed to get out of that room.
But the peer pressure was on. Everyone had been told it was best if we stayed and it wouldn’t be fair to others if you left when everyone was sharing. So I stayed. And the moment they got to me, I did start to cry. I felt instantly ashamed, on the spot, and betrayed by the organizers and myself. I kept my explanation short and sweet. My fingers knotted in my sweater as I tried and failed not to cry. I felt dirty and embarrassed and I wanted to flee.
I wanted to say:
Afterward, while everyone else went to a party and drank and laughed, I sat in a corner and tried to shake the feelings of intense unease at how badly I felt. I’d been peer pressured into sitting in a room and sharing my feelings with people I didn’t trust, all for the sake of being a good player. I felt raw and furious.
A person’s emotional experiences are their own and are myriad in the way they are expressed. Expecting everyone to respond to intense feelings the same way or to homogenize their way of processing their feelings ignores the fundamental issue of the complexity of human emotions. Moreover, forcing people to be involved in debriefings which require speaking about those emotions publicly as a matter of rote, prepared only one way and presented as a must for all players, raises the possibility of inflicting emotional harm on your players.
Moreover, it presents a serious question: just who are the debriefs for anyway?
I’ve seen a lot of reasons people put forward for the importance of debriefing. Emotional safety and the management of uncoupling from alibi for a return to the real world, as mentioned above, is one. Allowing people to air their feelings about one another before they go their separate ways, as I also already mentioned, is another. There’s a third, which is the opportunity for organizers to hear feedback about their game, as well as letting the staff open up emotionally about their experience as well.
But all of these reasons come back to a single underpinning idea, an underlying message of, “this is what I need.” Whether it be the players involved needing to unburden their feelings or the staff members needing to process, the feelings involved in a debriefing are, in many ways, inherently selfish. They reflect an individual’s needs, or the expectation and assumption of what players need, to de-roll their feelings and experiences.
“I need to share how I feel with others.”
“I need the players to do this so I can mitigate liability if they get lost in bleed.”
“I as a staff member need to hear the players’ feedback, or make sure they’re okay for my peace of mind (and liability).”
“I need to air my grievances to the other player and confront them about our interactions, both positive and negative.”
I and I and I. Debriefing is about the consideration of what an individual or a group feels is necessary for others at the end of the game.
But what if what they believe is necessary or what they’d like to see happen is wrong?
What if, by insisting on a mandatory airing of feelings, you’re spoiling the game experience and opening up the player to negative feelings that can create temporary or even lasting distress?
I’d had an incredible weekend. One of the best larps of my life, in fact. I packed up my gear and was ready to head home when someone reminded me of the thing I dreaded the most: the debrief. I tried to beg off, say I had some things to finish before getting into my car. And yet I got the stern look. Other people should have the chance to talk to you. You’ll feel better if you go. It’s part of the game, it’s mandatory.
And all I could think was: No, I don’t want to talk to people. No, I won’t feel better if I go. And it wasn’t part of my game experience. I’d left that behind before putting my character away in my suitcase when I got out of the game. I knew what I planned on doing to debrief my way. I had a car ride home and my friends to talk out my feelings, the people I trusted.
Instead, I ended up at a table, sitting around with others I’d gotten to know over the weekend. And they weren’t bad. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel vulnerable or awkward. Except when the facilitator came around. Staring at us at the table, making sure we were ‘getting along okay,’ and prying. Prying with their questions, with their ‘guiding’ by leading us towards speaking about our feelings. In the moments before we’d been joking around about war stories from the game and I felt happy, lighter, and safe. The next moment we were being reminded this was not about telling funny stories and joking around, but sharing how we felt.
This was about what others expected we should feel, and not my emotions at all.
I clammed up. I was furious. Because the interference wasn’t about my feelings or even the people around the table. It was about the facilitator’s expectations of what we needed, their job to steer us towards being vulnerable. And again, all I thought looking at the facilitator was the underpinning behind their words: I need you to have these expected emotional experiences now. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.
And all I wanted to say was:
It was about them, not me. They wanted us to come out saying we had some kind of emotional catharsis, lead by their expert hand. It was about ‘positive guidance’ towards exploring your feelings, even if the feeling we had might not be positive at all. There was no room for real emotional exploration, I knew, but the measured sharing of polite company. Crying was allowed. Being angry, being negative, would have to be mitigated by ‘I’ statements and rephrasing into words of encouragement and mutual support.
What if that wasn’t what I was feeling? What if my unburdening of feelings involved telling another player their roleplay made me feel awful about myself, or I felt they’d been selfish and treated me or another person like crap during the game? Would that honest emotional response be allowed, or would I have to find some calming I statement to make everyone feel safe?
I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel positive, perhaps, not entirely. I didn’t know what I felt because I had complicated feelings, as any person can. But we had our guidance, and it was based on the ‘learned’ experience of our facilitators, most of which I knew were not mental health professionals. They had taken on the responsibility of helping guide people on their emotional journey back from alibi to reality without any professional training and only based on what they perceived as the proper way to handle strong emotions. All packaged and prepared and homogenized to work for a large group of people, rather than the individual.
I know how to run this debrief. I know how to help you handle your bleed.
How? You barely know me. And you probably don’t have the training to know how to handle the complexities of multiple human beings’ mental health. So why should I trust you with mine?
I had intense feelings. I wanted to get them out. But as I looked around the circle, I wondered if there were others who didn’t have intense feelings that were both negative and positive to be dealt with. But someone around the table must have just the opposite. Someone’s feelings might just be ‘meh’ and not be in need of the complex debrief and airing of emotion. But here we were, being watched closely for proper responses. Here we were, being molded and shaped into a single narrow ditch of express your feelings now. And I wondered if we’d all know what we were feeling later at all when we were being pressured into needing an outlet for strong feelings at all.
I wondered what the facilitators’ intentions were and what they were feeling. At the end of the day, they’d go home after the game to their lives, having completed their task of guiding their players towards game’s completion. And I would go home with my feelings, still convoluted and complex and ready for unpacking in a positive form of my own choosing. I’d go home to my Monday morning after game and all the responsibilities therein. Only I’d be adding all the tangled emotions a mandatory debrief added, feelings of forced vulnerability and emotional flaying, being put on the spot and feeling shame and distrust and imposition. Feeling as though my emotions were not respected.
Mandatory debriefs have an undercurrent of inherent selfishness. By requiring people to open up and speak about their in-game experiences, those who are doing the requiring are putting their emotional needs ahead of those whose mental and emotional processes don’t need or even sometimes allow for public unburdening. It says everyone, no matter their own individual mental health and emotional status, is inherently required to set aside their own processes for the sake of being part of a community of play, no matter if it isn’t what they need. This is a selfish action on the part of those doing the requiring, and can even reach the level of victimizing another for the sake of that selfishness.
But for the sake of safety, and managing intense emotions brought to the surface by larp, we put our fear of players having a negative reaction after game ahead of individual needs. For the sake of the many, the few are sacrificed to the altar of peer pressure and concerns of liability.
I sat on the internet a month after a game. My hands shook as I typed.
A month before I’d had a terrible experience in a game. I’d had a very public confrontation with a male player who was larger than me, and who humiliated me in character in front of nearly fifty people. When I lost the confrontation and sat on my knees on the ground in front of him, the player in question mimicked unzipping his pants right above me and urinating on my character.
I sat on my knees on the ground, my body shaking. My good friends rushed to my side in character and carried me off the field. The moment we were out of sight of the group, they checked in on me out of character. I was in a daze. I told them I was just tired. I told them I was okay, that the shake in my hands was just adrenaline. I jabbered, stammered, my eyes far away. I was in shock and didn’t even know it.
I made it through the end of game, but I was out of sorts, jumpy. When game was over, there was no debrief. I left with my friends and went to a diner, where the player of the character in question sat a few tables away with his friends. It took all my courage to get up and head for the table. I joined his conversation and jokingly asked what he thought about what had happened. He responded by defending his character’s actions, saying my character “deserved it.” My hands kept shaking. I tried to joke about it too, then tried to say how screwed up the whole thing was. I tried to talk about it with him. And he blew me off with jokes, unwilling to let me tell him what I needed to say. I walked away from the table and within two weeks wanted to quit the ongoing game.
It took me three months of dreading going to game, of ducking out of events and making excuses, for me to figure out what was going on. It took a friend talking to me on Facebook Messenger about it and pointing out I was having serious negative bleed that I fully accepted how traumatized I was by the in character events. That the very act of this man standing over me when I was vulnerable in character, winded out of character, and on my knees in supplication, triggered awful things for me. That when he unzipped his pants and pretended to urinate on me, humiliated me further, it triggered issues of past sexual assault buried deep in my head. I had bleed and after game, I’d tried to talk to the player in question. And his saying my character “deserved it” only made the shock and trauma of the experience all the worse.
At that moment, I needed a debrief. I needed someplace to take those emotions and unpack them, to uncork the bottle and get those feelings out before they started to fester. But for three months, because of a lack of debriefing, those feelings did fester and nearly ruined the whole game for me. Every time the player in question came near in the subsequent games, my hands started to shake. It took him cornering me again in the game for me to realize I needed to get through the feelings once and for all. A friend of mine had to drive the player away from me as I had an anxiety attack. I was not okay. And I didn’t feel I had an emotional outlet or recourse to help deal with the way I felt.
There are instances when sharing is imperative. When having the resources to unpack serious emotional experiences after game are not only important but essential to a healthy resolution of intense in character events. But what if those same events had occurred and I’d instead been forced immediately to confront this other player in a mandatory setting, rather than in a manner more comfortable and my speed? If at the very end of game we were required to sit across from each other, led by someone who was not a mental health professional? What if in that setting I’d been told I “deserved it” and was forced to speak to this person in front of others, triggered as I was, feeling unsafe and in shock?
I needed a debrief. But I needed options. Not a one-size-fits-all approach.
For debriefs to work as positive experiences for all, it’s my opinion they need to be a toolbox rather than a list of steps, not linear exploration with a single means and an expected end. Instead, having multiple options for unpacking one’s feelings, without a forced time and place expectation takes the weight off the individual to perform emotionally on the spot, but gives them the chance to tailor their needs towards closure with the tools provided.
Optional roundtables, optional discussions with staff members at a time and place that is equitable to both parties (because forcing staff into mandatory interactions is equally as unfair to the staff who just went through running a game, their own emotional labor extended and often taxed), and later-date de-rolling with other players are all tools available for inclusion. And should those needs require further and more serious emotional unpacking, one of the tools offered should be the suggestion to seek out more professional mental health resources rather than (often) well-meaning laypeople.
In the end, I’ve had a lot of different experiences with debriefings but as yet I have never had a mandatory debriefing that hasn’t left me feeling uneasy when forced to express emotions. Those which are simply checking in or offering optional chances to speak aloud, or else those used only to offer the toolbox of debriefing choices have provided ample safety for me to choose my own path to closure. But the more popular choice of mandatory debriefs remains a terror for me attending games and, in my opinion, one of the least healthy choices made in the name of creating safety in our larps.
Reconsideration of the techniques used and the personnel employed is paramount, I believe, in truly making sure the needs of players and organizers are tailored to provide actual emotional support in games to come.
Otherwise, I will have to continue my own practice of simply (sometimes) saying: