It’s been a long time since I wrote something on this blog, and there’s good reason for that, which I’ll be getting into in another post. However, after attending the Midwinter Gaming Convention this weekend, I had some rambling thoughts about live action games I wanted to put together before they all slipped away.
Let’s talk about those squishy things you don’t like speaking about at parties. Let’s open up and talk about feelings.
A group of players stood in a circle in the middle of a fake party. One held a tiny green container full of viable human embryos. Well, not really. They held a tiny vial of green liquid stuffed full of tiny plastic baby dolls whose legs had been cut off (the funny things we make for larp). The player stood in a circle and discussed just what they should do with these embryos. Some wanted to take them, bring them to maturity, and raise them as their own. Others wanted to destroy them. And still others wanted to turn them over to the highest bidder. It was an emotional conversation among the most unlikely of custodians of these future babies. You see, each of the players in the conversation were playing robots recently brought to sentience who had become the inheritors of mankind’s future.
These players were the first to ever try my newest game AFFINITY, a game about sentient robots inheriting humanity’s legacy when the human race is dying out. Think CHILDREN OF MEN meets AI. It’s been a passion project of mine for several years to see this live action event come to fruition and finally we had a chance.
I listened in on the conversation as a Non-Agency Character, a character played by a staff member meant to steer the story a little and keep the plot moving if necessary. But really, I didn’t need to do much during this game. The players had embraced their new Mechanica characters with both hands. They stood and discussed humanity’s future while outside they knew a human’s first hate group was closing in on their location to murder them. They had to escape.
And as I listened, one character named Cassandra gave an impassioned plea for keeping humans alive, because how could they truly learn and understand feelings and emotions if the originators of that sensation were to die out.
Just as Cassandra gave her speech, the music for our fictional party changed. The Beatle’s “Hey Jude” started to play. As Cassandra made her plea, two of the other Mechanica named Joy and Watt took each other’s hands and began to slow dance. And I sat in wonder at a small moment that touched me down to my core. Because all I could think was, “You can’t write spontaneity like that. And you can’t write emotion that comes from nowhere.”
There was only one word I could find in that moment: profound. It was profound.
True emotional moments in live action games are a gift. And they are a gift given by the spontaneous expressions of one factor bouncing off another, of the improvisation + character immersion + opportunity. That’s always been my formula for seeing real deeply beautiful, powerful moments come together in a larp. However I’m now starting to understand there is another piece of the puzzle we must have to make it all come together: feeling. And now just the surface level emotion we throw out for games. I’m talking about the kind of emotion that makes us vulnerable, the kind we save for our most precious moments or unexpected outpourings.
These emotions aren’t always expected. We may come into a game believing we are going to keep our emotions to ourselves, just play the game, and leave without getting too embroiled. But many times we find ourselves embracing those offered opportunities and something strikes just the right nerve, and we’re off to the emotional races. Other people come in expecting emotion, seeking it, and when the chance comes grasping it with two hands. It’s that kind of emotional preparation that can provide the opportunity as well and the character immersion into emotion that offers up chances for profound moments. But in many cases, those long preparations into character or bracing one’s self and stating in advance that one is seeking emotional role-play (saying things like “I can’t wait to cry all weekend” or calling one’s character a suffer puppet) sets expectations about the emotional weight of a game that might not be filled.
I have a suggestion inspired by what I saw this weekend: radical vulnerability. Instead of preparing for the emotional expectations of the game, or the character’s emotional journey to begin, or even planning your character’s plot trajectory, prepare yourself instead to step out into the space and just open up your emotions. Be ready to feel whatever comes and roll with the experiences that come with it. And in the process, be ready to feel things you may not have expected, good and bad. Be ready to be touched by those emotions and have them leave marks.
Experience them together with others or alone in the quiet moments. Experience them in combat scenes or dinner parties, long walks in a forest or in a wizard classroom. Because larp still is about improvisation + character immersion + opportunity. But now embrace a frightening fourth, a hot potato that asks you to unlock parts of yourself you might not be entirely comfortable with, or even entirely explored. Here you are, and you have a chance to tap into that place when at game.
There are caveats and concerns for radical vulnerability as a process when at larps. First, there is a chance you might encounter some serious emotional bleed when pursuing this kind of openness. Bleed meaning the emotional conveyance of either your real life emotions in character or your in character emotions out of character. Radical vulnerability makes the chance of of bleed very high and so players must consider this before engaging this practice. I’d say it is necessary even to embrace metatechniques which help to deroll (deconstruct the experience) afterwards in a safe and comfortable environment.
Another consideration is the idea that larp is not therapy. There is a great deal of a difference between coming into a larp with an open emotional slate for experiences and coming to a game aiming to explore one’s deepest emotional traumas with your fellow players as part of your attempt to exorcise your demons. There are a lot of discussions going on about whether it is fair to other players to come into a game to attempt therapeutic catharsis if other players have not opted into being part of that kind of experience. But for the sake of the idea of radical emotional vulnerability, that is not the intent of this experience.
That being said as well, this kind of vulnerability might not be for everyone. People who already feel as though they are in an emotionally shaky place (either for temporary reasons or due to neuroatypical or emotional/mental issues) may find this kind of vulnerability uncomfortable or even destabilizing. This technique is not, repeat not, suggested for everyone. There are those who might simply find this kind of vulnerability too uncomfortable. Choosing not to engage in it does not in any way invalidate any other kind of engagement with larps. It’s just a suggested tool and nothing else.
The last issue is this kind of vulnerability might bring up emotions previously unexpected during play. There are techniques which allow players to check on one another during play if someone seems in distress, as well as allowing yourself to leave the game if needed to reassess, take care of one’s self emotionally, or just leave if things become too overwhelming. This kind of self-check in and community care becomes vital the more open and emotionally vulnerable one allows themselves to become.
I believe this concept of radical emotional vulnerability is not new. It has been spoken about by other blog posts and larpers for ages. But as live action events pass more into various forms, including forms like immersive theater, I believe the chance for emotional vulnerability on this scale (with the proper safeguards) can open up experiences as vehicles for all kinds of unexpected emotions created not by the spectacle provided by the event’s creators, but the players themselves thanks to their willingness to step off an emotional ledge.