First, I’m going to start off by saying this essay is a direct response to a conversation going on in the larp community right now, started by a few other essays including one by Ericka Skirpan regarding Playing To Win at larp. This article stirred up some controversy recently because of the stated thesis that should a player approach larps with the aim of ‘winning’ as a solitary goal, then perhaps larping isn’t for that player. The article states:

“If you are in LARP to play solo-Nerdball [a term originating in an article by Matthew Webb regarding inherently selfish, individualistic style play], LARP is not the right hobby for you. If a player’s pure and only enjoyment in a game comes out of the fact that they need the most points, stats, or mechanical advantages over other players, then LARP is not the gaming medium that person should be devoting their energy to playing.”

This in itself, in my opinion, is not as controversial a declaration as some might think. The notion of viewing one’s own empowerment and achievement in a shared environment as more important than the fun and achievement of others is a problematic one at best because it recognizes the selfish goal of self-fulfillment over the needs and wants of others. However, is there a way to strive for your own goals in a game while still recognizing the needs of others and even go so far as to help the other achieve their goal? All the while still allowing for the drama and potential excitement of antagonistic play?

The fundamental answer, I believe, lies in a single question, one often thrown around by actors everywhere: what’s my motivation?

Who Doesn’t Want To Win?

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Before we get into the solutions, let’s take a look at how we got here a little bit. I’m going to throw on my Game Studies brain for a second, and thank the NYU Game Center Masters program for making me learn all this game history. Strap in, folks, here we go.

The notion of Play To Win, with its origins in competitive gaming culture, has its roots in the early simulationist styles of play which historically predicated much of what we’d call modern gaming. Many early games, from chess to old Kriegsspiel (or war games), were conflict or competition simulations, intended to replicate states of power struggles between armies or oppositional groups. They replicated standard power structures we expect out of our world: people or groups strive against one another, winners beat losers, the game ends.

 

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H.G. Wells playing “Little Wars” in 1913 (Wikipedia)

Tabletop roleplaying games and video games copied these same models for much of games history, providing goals for the players which involve striving against a competing power structure to achieve their goals. They need to overcome obstacles, slay the foe, even outthink an opponent. Some games even perpetuate a culture of considering the game system itself (be it the video game and its designers, or the tabletop GM) to be a force they strive against for victory. This gave rise, in my opinion, to the notion of the game master or game designer as the enemy, the obstacle to be outmaneuvered and conquered to achieve victory.

 

This perpetual state of striving against an oppressive force, battling for power against an oppositional system, is baked into even the most story-driven game. By nature, dramatic action is created by striving against something to attain a goal. Even in the more recent evolution of games which accommodate more narrativist thinking copy these power dynamics in many (if not all?) their narrative choices. It’s the tale as old as time. Beowolf strives against a monster and its Mommy Dearest. David against Goliath. Oppositional forces create tension. Without Sauron to fight against, Lord of the Rings would just be about a brisk jaunt to see a very pretty volcano. Without Panem’s oppressive government, Katniss’s story in The Hunger Games would be about a girl getting her chance to be on television. And while those stories can be fun (pastoral narratives can be very pretty), dramatic storytelling – and therefore in games oppositional design creating dramatic and exciting play – are driven by competition.

 

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“We’re just off for a lovely walk. Don’t mind the weapons!”

 

If that is the case, then I believe expecting competitive attitudes to be absent or diminished in live action games is, inherently, expecting people to embrace a massive shift in their expectations about dramatic structure. We as players and consumers of narrative content have been hardwired to expect our characters to have to strive against power structures and opposition. How then do we expect characters and larpers to not identify other characters and their players as oppositional forces to be overcome?

How can we deny that these ideas have been baked into our game culture so long so as to become second nature? And how can we expect players to ignore actions taken by others in opposition to their goals, when even the narratives we create in cooperative story environments are predicated on the idea of striving against forces in competition for our own prefered win state?

In short: we have been telling stories about competing since the dawn of time. Then we’re putting our players in situations where they must strive in their narratives against forces put in place by the game designers. If they’re recognizing the game as having competitive forces anyway, why wouldn’t they see their fellow players as antagonists? Plenty of other things in the dramatic structure are their opposition already!

With this giant structural framework already in place encouraging competition for resources in our players and their characters, the question becomes: how do we aim to de-incentivize Playing To Win for individual goals so we can have the cooperative space for play we want?

And my answer is: you don’t. You don’t deconstruct the instinct to Play to Win. Instead, you harness it by refocusing just what Winning means, looking past viewing goal based achievement as a win state, and instead creating shared win conditions based on recognized motivations in opposing characters.

Simply put: we look not at the goal, but the WHY behind the goal. Because in recognizing WHY characters compete and identifying just what they’re competing for, we can not only construct a framework for combating toxic Play to Win play strategy, we can encourage cooperative play and reframe the dialogue about what winning truly means.

“Part fools! / Put up your swords. You know not what you do.”

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This quote from Romeo and Juliet, delivered so well in my opinion in the 90’s Baz Luhrmann retelling, is the quote that comes to mind when I think of the motivations behind play styles in larps. When players enter a play space, embodying their characters for a play session, often times there isn’t a lot of time for examining a character’s motivations. The immediacy of larps, much like the immediacy of events in real life, requires players to react much faster than, say, a player might when playing a tabletop roleplaying game. There, players may break character to discuss their options more freely (although many playgroups cut down on that sort of behavior to simulate that said immediacy). It is far easier to examine the motivations behind a character’s actions when you have the chance to break character and really have a good think.

In larp, the actions one takes are often quick, driven by the mindset a player has taken on for the duration of character play. This embodiment of the character simulates in many ways the immediacy needed to engage in improv acting. One must react spontaneously, driven only by the way a player understands their character. When reacting, a player in a larp may engage in actions that are driven by the fundamental needs their character has as they understand them in the moment. And when presented with obstacles to overcome, challenges to their goals or their authority, or simple antagonism, a player may respond as their character would – with the knee-jerk one would expect in a real-life antagonistic situation – rather than sitting back to examine the full motivations behind why the scene has become antagonistic.

It is this why I believe lies at the heart of how we can tackle the issue of truly antagonistic situations in larp, and address why Play To Win can be a toxic mindset – and how it doesn’t have to be.

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When engaging in a struggle between two characters over a goal, a player is recognizing only their own goals as valid in the situation, and view the other character involved in that struggle as an oppositional force rather than a cooperative element in their play. They push aside the needs of the other, often times not taking the time to consider why the other character has become said obstacle. Yet should lines of communication be opened between players during play, both players may find by understanding each other’s motivations rather than relying on a knee-jerk reaction, they can find ways to achieve both goals in a satisfactory manner.

This adjustment to a player’s mindset does not mean the players require long negotiations to make sure the antagonistic situation just ends and has a happy ending for everyone involved. Antagonistic action has a place in narrative, as we’ve pointed out above. However, instead of recognizing only their character’s motivations and actions as valid, understanding the other character’s needs and motivations can allow the players involved to course correct in their own playstyle. This correction makes room for both to reach a fulfilling end to their antagonism rather than focusing on only one successful outcome: an outcome which leaves one the winner and one the loser.

 

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An Example: Susan and Edward’s Characters And The Fiefdom Fight

I’ll provide an example:

  1. Susan and Edward are playing two characters who are fighting over the same fiefdom in a medieval fantasy game. Susan’s character is driven by the motivation that she must take the fiefdom so she can bring its armies to bear against her brother’s kidnapper. Her character is driven by the need to save her brother, not by the need for power and glory. Meanwhile, Edward’s character’s goal is to gain the fiefdom to attain personal power, because he is driven by the need to control the chaos of the world around him and provide what he perceives as order. He is driven by his own view of the world and what he believes is serving the greater good.
  2. Susan and Edward’s characters are striving against one another for this fiefdom. Without understanding the reasons behind the others’ character motivations, their reactions in game would be uninformed by what the other player needs to get out of the circumstance to achieve a satisfactory result in their play. As Susan makes moves to get the fiefdom for her character before Edward’s character can, Edward can become increasingly frustrated because his play is not reaching a fulfilling goal, his character’s motivations (and therefore a core tenant of his character’s mindset) going unfulfilled.
  3. To avoid that unfulfillment creating tension between Susan and Edward, when the two recognize their characters have entered an antagonistic situation, they share a conversation regarding just what their characters want in the game. Not simply what their goals are, because that has become obvious. But what MOTIVATES those character’s actions. They begin to understand the psychology behind the other character’s actions, outside of the player’s own need to fulfill those character’s goals.
  4. Susan and Edward then reenter play, now understanding the needs of the other. They can then shape their play accordingly, understanding also that the other player is not there to ruin their time, but is informed about what the other would want as part of their resolution. Susan’s character isn’t interested in the fiefdom, for example – she just wants her brother back. Edward can then steer his character towards recognizing Susan’s character’s need and find a way to achieve a solution that works for both of them. They continue their competition, but if Edward wins, he pledges to help Susan’s character get her brother back. While if Susan wins, she brings on Edward’s character to help achieve order in the fiefdom, satisfying his need as well.

So What’s The Catch?

Now, this strategy for cooperative play requires several accepted rules, better explicitly shared rather than implicitly expected, going into the game. These social contracts must be laid out as part of the play culture of the game for this motivation-based Play To Win style to work.

  1. Players must accept that antagonism is only in character and not motivated by player antagonism (CvC versus PvP).
  2. Players must assume positive intent when entering into this style of play. This is a fundamental social contract which I believe should be expected as part of larping in general to create a cooperative narrative environment, but it is explicitly required when sharing motivational-driven play.
  3. Players must consider each other’s character goals as just as valid as their own, to be respected as co-evolving story threads rather than simple oppositions to be destroyed in the pursuit of their own character’s success.
  4. Players must embrace a level of trust, that the other player – once they understand the other character’s motivations – will consider a blended ending to the competition which allows even the ‘loser’ to achieve a satisfactory stepping stone to their own story’s goal achievement. The losing character may not win their initial goal, but the winning character’s player will help steer the outcome towards a next-step for their co-player to achieve their aims.
  5. Players must maintain out of character communication (as laid out in Craig Page’s response essay entitled “How Playing To Win Can Work”) to make sure the players can check in with one another should the level of antagonism begin to bleed into the out of character realm.

Sounds complicated, with a lot of caveats? I never said this style of gaming cooperation would be entirely easy. Yet this kind of paradigm shift, I believe, can open up a whole new way of looking at what Winning really means in our games. Winning becomes a state of motivational recognition and fulfillment rather than goal-oriented success. For the ‘losers’ in a competition in character can then know they may have lost initially, but their striving to win will have satisfactory opportunities just around the corner, facilitated by their co-players.

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So after all that, here’s my suggestion: let’s try to look at one another’s characters not as obstacles, or another player as an opposing force, but simply as a force with separate motivations to be respected as you play to fulfill your own character’s motivations. Together, by respecting what drives both characters (and therefore what drives a player’s actions in-game) we can better understand how to make us all win in the end, together.

[[Note: trigger warnings for mental illness, bipolar disorder, medication, and some spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.]]

These days, I call it burning, but for most of my life, I called it flying.

It’s that feeling when you’re wrapped up in a writing project so hard you look up, and half a day has gone by. You haven’t moved, you haven’t drunk or eaten or talked to anyone. You work and work until your knuckles hurt, and there are words flowing out of you, and you can’t stop until it’s all done. Then you look up, realize what time it is, and fall over because the words are done for the day and you’ve been doing it. You’ve been flying.

That’s what writing when you’re me feels like.

Well, a lot of the time. Some days it’s just normal. I get up, I do my morning routine (take my meds, get some grub, boop the cat, check my email, mess around on Facebook) and then it’s off to the word mines. And on those days, they are indeed the word mines. I check an outline, I write notes, I putter around, I get the words going however I can, tugging that little mining cart up the hill towards those far-off paragraphs and… y’know, this analogy has gotten away from me. I digress.

Those are the hard days at the job because that’s what it is – writing, like making any art, is a job. It’s craft and talent and passion rolled up into one ball. It’s doing a thing you worked hard to learn to do the best you can. You’re capturing those weird little ideas rolling around in your head and making them into words, then lines, then paragraphs, and somehow they’re all supposed to reach out to someone who reads them and make their brains go POOF, I LIKE THIS. No pressure or anything, writer, just take the ephemeral and translate it onto a page.  You make it happen as best as you can.

Then, there are the other days. The days when BLEH becomes BANG. The days when something just clicks and comes roaring down the pipe inside my brain and it’s all I can do to get to my computer because it’s ready to go and that’s it. Get out of the way.

fantasy-2934774_1920I call it burning these days because that’s what it feels like: like there’s an idea inside me burning its way out. But when I was younger, I called it flying. What I really meant was controlled falling. Like there was a tornado going on and I would leap off something and ride right through the middle of it, all the way up, chasing words. Because that’s what it felt like for me, rolling on through the manic energy that comes with being bi-polar.

There’s a lot of folks who equate the manic energy of being bi-polar with the creative spark that drives artists to brilliance. They point to so many great artists in history who lived with mental illness and say, “there it is, that energy, that’s what made them great!”

Except for so many artists, mental illness didn’t make them great. It made them ill. And if they weren’t careful, it made them gone.


MV5BY2I3MThmYTctZTU4YS00YWNmLTg4YzktNDY0ZGE5MmQ3Y2Q3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_Hannah Gadsby’s blockbuster comedy special “Nanette” was billed as exactly that: a comedy. She was meant to get up on stage, make some jokes, and entertain us all on Netflix. Instead, Gadsby delivered what I can only call a commencement speech for comedians, a bait and switch that took the audience from laughter to silence and ultimately to a standing ovation. Gadsby, a queer comedian with a career going back over ten years, started her performance with a fairly standard routine, drawing in the laughs. Then she started explaining how jokes worked, about how they increased tension and then broke it into laughter.

Then, she stopped breaking the tension. And just rose it higher and higher by telling the truth.

She spoke to her audience about a lot of things. Her family, and what it was like coming out to them. About violence, about triggering subjects. She broke from the funny parts of her routine a little over halfway through and talked about quitting comedy because she was tired of making people like herself, a lesbian still fighting with some deep shame issues, into a punchline. I watched in spell-bound silence as Hannah Gadsby deconstructed comedy to its most basic building blocks and rebuilt them into a soapbox, a grand forum where she read the audience a monologue of pain and vulnerability, her farewell to wisecracks and the opening of perhaps a new chapter of honest, open speaking in her life. She was out to speak her truth, and by the end, I was in awe.

It was somewhere in the middle where she told people to fuck off when telling artists to “feel” for their art that I felt the ground open up beneath me a little and I cried.

 

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Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

She talked about Vincent Van Gogh, the artist who suffered during his life from mental illness, self-medicated, was treated by doctors and struggled to succeed despite his obvious impossible talent due to his sickness. She talked about her knowledge of his life, thanks to her art history degree, and how he only sold one painting his entire life – not because he wasn’t recognized by his community as a genius, but because he struggled to even be part of a community due to his illness.

 

And I thought of the flying and the hard days at the word mines. I thought about the days when I heard the tornado in my head and couldn’t make the words get to my fingers. I thought about the frustration, the depression, the difficulties talking to people about what it sounded like inside my skull some days when I could barely pay attention because of the rush of words and ideas.

Hannah Gadsby told people artists don’t have to suffer for their art, and I’ll forever thank her for having the guts to stand up and say that to the world. Because I used to believe it was true.


anxiety-1337383When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2.

I came from a family that didn’t really get what being bipolar meant. My parents tried to get it, but when I’d do something irresponsible, it was always because I was ‘bad.’ I tried to explain how it was impossible to keep my whirlwind mind straight sometimes. How it was a battle against depression to get up in the morning and go to class. When I flunked in school, I tried to explain why, when I overcharged my credit card on a manic binge, when I cried for days and couldn’t stop. But those were the bad days. And the good days – those were the days I could take on the world, where no one could stop me, where I was manic off my head. I was out of control.

I went to a therapist when my school suggested it to my parents. The therapist took one look at my behavior and referred me to a psychiatrist, a loud and overbearing man who listened to me talk a mile a minute for fifteen minutes, heard my symptoms, and pulled out a giant prescription pad. I started taking the drugs he gave me but received no explanation about what being bipolar really meant. He never explained what behaviors were unusual, or what could be attributed to the illness, or any coping skills or resources to better understand my situation. He gave me pills and saw me every two weeks. I knew almost nothing about what was going on with me but was even enough to realize I needed more information.

So? I went online.

Because my family didn’t know much about bipolar disorder and my doctor wasn’t telling, I learned a lot from the internet. Those were the wild and wooly early days of the internet, when it was the 90’s and everyone was in AOL chat rooms and the world was a wacky, wacky place. It was on the internet I found a community of roleplayers that eventually led me to the career I have today. It was also where I got a LOT of bad advice about mental illness.

I read a lot of stories about people being overmedicated or given the wrong medication. I heard stories about people being committed by their families if they didn’t hide what was wrong with them. But I especially came across the same story over and over from people who had been medicated. “If you go on the drugs,” they said, “the creative drive goes away. You’ll lose that spark inside you. If you want to be an artist, stay away from medication. It’ll kill your art.”

I didn’t believe it. I was taught doctors were to be trusted. And besides, I knew I needed help. So I took the drugs the doctor gave me and fell into the worst confluence of events you could imagine. Because the medication the doctor gave me DID kill my creativity. It also made me sleep too much, have no emotions whatsoever, destroyed my memory, and made me gain tons of weight. And every time I brought this up to my doctor, his answer was to add another pill to balance out the others or up my dose.

mental-health-1420801_1920I didn’t realize it until later, but I had a bad doctor. What I did know was at the height of this medicine dance, I’d spend my days sleeping, or staring at a television, and feeling nothing at all. I couldn’t even cry. But maybe worst of all, I struggled to create. I couldn’t find that spark inside me like I used to, that flying feeling that gave me inspiration. In the moments when I could feel something, it was the overwhelming terror of going back into that stupor once again.

This went on from the time I was seventeen, when I was so messed up I dropped out of high school, until I was nearly 19. In between, I struggled to get my GED so I could at least get into college and proceeded to flunk there too due to the medication’s impossible weight on my mind. I went through so many ridiculous emotional issues I can’t describe, but all of it was through a curtain of medication so thick I can barely pull up memories from that time.

The times my emotions would push through was during what I discovered later were hypomanic phases, mood swings so strong they butted through the haze and made me wildly unstable. All the while I struggled to get my life in order, and every time I did, it was under a fog of badly managed medication, or through the adrenaline of mania so strong I could barely function. I didn’t understand I was badly medicated, of course. All I knew was everything was falling to pieces, all the time, and I couldn’t feel a solid, real emotion long enough to care.

So in 2002, in one of those moments of emotional lucidity, I made a decision to stop taking my meds. I suddenly thought: the internet is right, this is a horrible, horrible mistake. I trusted my experience and my terror and I stopped taking my meds.

And well, to quote one of my heroines from the time, Buffy:

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What followed were ten years of the roughest, rockiest, unbelievably manic, altogether difficult experiences of my life. I had bouts of going back on medication, but would always stop for one reason or another. I’d make excuses but each time it was the same thing: I convinced myself I didn’t feel right on the medication. That I couldn’t feel that creative spark I so relied on as part of my life. I was afraid of going back to that medically-induced haze I’d been in before. I hid from it and kept riding the tornado, every day. And like any tornado, my instability left chaos and destruction in its wake.

I can’t say I regret those ten years. They taught me a lot. I regret a lot of the horrible decisions I made, the people I hurt, the situations I got into where I got ripped up myself. I have memories I’ll never forget, instances of realizing too late I’d gotten into something because of my mania that led ultimately to disaster.

But I remember the creative highs. The way I could just fly like the wind and produce 12,000 words in a night. How I could map out entire novels, series of books, all the things in the world I thought I could create. I wrote papers, read whole book series, stayed up for days on end, played role-playing games from morning until night, and never, ever saw anything wrong with where I was in life. Because I was living that artists life and I thought, hey, this is me. This is who I am.

I know now the truth: that was the illness talking. The living high on life, throwing caution to the wind, tornado voice? Is the manic voice. And unless tempered with medication and coping mechanisms can lead to disaster.

From 2002 until 2012 I remained largely unmedicated. And those ten years are, in hindsight, an unspoken cautionary tale of someone not flying, but falling without recognizing the drop in altitude. A tale of someone on a corkscrew through rough weather, catching fire all the way down.


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I went to grad school in 2012 and thank god for so many reasons that I did. It’s not even my education I laud when I think of those years, but a single day in November 2012. I’d only been in classes for two months and already I was starting to lose it from the stress. The day I broke down with a massive anxiety attack after a critique from a teacher, hiccuping with tears and hyperventilating in a bathroom, I walked across the street to the health clinic and got an appointment with a mental health counselor. There, a very nice man named Bob talked to me about my experiences, about what I knew about bipolar disorder.

Bob told me some truth about where I was at and what I needed. He said he was surprised I’d gotten as far as I did going the way I was. He listened to my fears about going on meds and what had happened in the past. Then he calmly explained how he was going to give me medication and we’d work together to find what worked.

The first day I took medication, I woke up in the morning and the tornado was quieter. Not quiet, but less a twisting funnel of noise and more of a loud echo. I called up someone who was then a friend (who had experience with the medication I’d started taking) and broke down crying. I asked him: is this what normal felt like? I had no idea it would get even better.

Six years later, I’ve never been off my medication a single day. And I’ve graduated from grad school, survived a brain surgery and being diagnosed with two serious chronic illnesses, ending up using a wheelchair, running my own business, becoming a writer, and too many personal ups and downs to count. Each of them I tackled with a surety in myself I never could have before, because I was no longer screaming through a tornado all the time. More importantly, I’ve spent those years creating games and writing work I’ve made with deliberateness and careful consideration. When I create, it was no longer controlled falling, but dedicated flight on a controlled course. Well, most of the time.

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I won’t say everything became perfect after I started medication because I won’t let blogging make a liar out of me. Being bipolar is a constant system of checks and balances. These days, I fight against needing my medication adjusted a lot, against depression and anxiety, mania and hypomania. I still end up flying some days, sometimes for days at a time, because as time goes on the body changes and you have to adjust to new needs, new doses, new medication.

Coping mechanisms change, life situations go ways you never expected, mania and depression rear their ugly head. But the day I went on medication was one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my creative spark stopped becoming an excuse to keep putting up with an illness that was killing me.

I did some research online (now responsibly!) about artists who were known to have fought with mental illness. Google it some time and it’ll be a stark look into some suffering for art you might not know about. People know about Van Gogh, but what about Beethoven and David Foster Wallace, Georgia O’Keefe and Sylvia Plath, Goya and Cobain, Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse. I did research and discovered artists like Mariah Carrey, Demi Lovato, Catherine Zeta Jones, Vivien Leigh, Russell Brand, Linda Hamilton, and of course Carrie Fischer all have/had bipolar disorder. Their stories, their struggles, are well known.

I read books about people theorizing about the connection between mental illness and creativity and shake my head. I don’t need to know the connection, because if there is one, it doesn’t matter to me. I take my medicine and work my craft at the same time because I don’t need to suffer as an artist. I don’t need the mania to take flight and reach inspiration. I can do that on my own.

 

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So speaketh the General, the Princess, Carrie Fischer

 

Mental illness and the struggle against it is one I’ll tackle for the rest of my life. But to quote Hannah Gadsby: “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” The day I started on my journey to getting better by taking medication, by denying the world my suffering and instead gave myself permission to live healthier while making art, was the day I started rebuilding myself into the strongest version of me. Every day, one more brick, with every word I write, I build myself higher.

And so I offer a special thanks to Hannah Gadsby, and her brave “Nanette,” for reminding me of how important that choice was to my life. For reminding me I owe nobody my suffering to make what is precious to me, and that a creator doesn’t need to push aside their own mental health to be hailed as an artist. Thank you, Hannah, for your strength. May you find your inspiration wherever you walk.

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Tumbleweeds rolling across a buckboard-lined street. The wide open prairies baking under a hot sun. A shot of whiskey at a rowdy bar. Cowboys riding across the range on beautiful horses. Gunfights at high noon.

The Wild West frontier, as we know it from legend and Hollywood, is the backdrop of a brand new project by Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective. It’s called 1878: Welcome to Salvation and it’s a four-day larp experience set in a fictitious town outside of Austin, Texas. For one weekend in November, guests will descend on the J. Lorraine Ghost Town under the hot Texas sun and play the citizens and visitors to Salvation, a town on the edge of the ever-shrinking western frontier. And I’ve had the pleasure of being the project lead for this immersive historic-ish event.

Taking on a project like 1878: Welcome to Salvation has been a monumental experience so far. Though I’ve been running larps for quite some time, the scope of a blockbuster larp like this has been a learning experience every step of the way. Backed by the phenomenal people in Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective, I’ve been supported so I can take the reins and take this event from the original concept phase to the eventual staging in November. It’s honestly been my humble pleasure to be given the space to create as widely as I have been, especially in a space as dynamic, complicated, and exciting as the Wild West. And in this post, I want to talk a little bit about the process going into the creation of 1878: Welcome to Salvation and some of those choices.

How The West Was (Not Really) Won

30709539_2122418241313618_5521391024074653696_oIt’s no secret that the Wild West setting comes fraught with a lot of problematic content. The history of western expansion is laden with horrific historical events, such as the genocide of the First Nation people of the North American continent, the discrimination against people of color, and the exploitation of the less fortunate by wealthy expansionists. Many of those events were later white-washed away in the media representations of the Wild West, out to create a thrilling backdrop for cowboy-and-Indian stories made popular in propaganda stories as early as the push west in the 1800’s and continuing down to modern day Hollywood representations. Television shows of the mid-twentieth century showcased heroic cowboys and lawmen rescuing damsels from marauding ‘savages’ and desperados, all the while brandishing their guns to protect the good folks of the west from danger. Even as media evolved and stories about the dark side of the west began to leak into more progressive television shows or movies, there was still a glamorous sheen on the Wild West ignoring the most difficult events for the most part in favor of adventure.

And that is the fiction of the Wild West, just like much of the history of the United States is full of its own fictions. The War of Independence. The story of Pocahontas and the early settlement of the Puritans and the first Thanksgiving. The legend of Alexander Hamilton made popular in the Broadway play. The heroic grandeur of the greatest generation in World War II. Each well-known story has created the majestic tapestry of American history when, in fact, most of these stories have been mistold, the darker truths massaged away to create more palatable tales to make up the American identity.

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History is complicated and full of dark spots. So when tackling a larp like Salvation, it was important to look at the history of the Wild West and recognize just what we were trying to accomplish in our design. Was Salvation going to be a game tackling the darker parts of the Western experience head on? Was it a game about post-slavery bigotry in a Western town, or the tensions between Texans and Mexicans over territory and culture? Was it about the First Nation genocide and loss of land?

These issues loomed large over the design, dictating we question just how we were going to design everything from the town of Salvation to the backstory of the area around to the characters players could take up for the weekend. It would be too easy to handwave the harder parts of the history of the Wild West in favor of the cleaner Hollywood version. Yet we as a team wanted to create something different, a play space between the Hollywood adventure and the reality of the historic Wild West.

What we’ve come up with is what we’re calling a historic-ish representation of a fictional Wild West town, complete with space for all kinds of iconic western characters and adventures. We’ve acknowledged the game space is not equipped and not supposed to be a place where the complex history of the Wild West will be interrogated as core thematics, though they’ll serve as part of the backdrop and influence for the development of our fictional town.

31732294_2132258743662901_4395690279160512512_oWe also made a conscious effort to look at the way certain groups – women, queer people, immigrants, people of color, people of different religions, the disabled and more – were treated in the 1800’s. Our goal was to find a way to design a way for players to not only play whatever they’d like within the town, but to have in and out of character issues of race, gender, sexuality, origin, and ability to hold back the in-game adventures. We certainly couldn’t go back in time to fix the bigotries of the past, but we didn’t have to allow them to plague our setting or our out of character space.

The design of this game presented some serious challenges, and a catch-22 many designers face when setting their game in time periods beset by horrific inequality and dark historical events. On the one hand, a game can focus on these events and make them a part of the game design. Yet often that means derailing more light-hearted adventures as the more intense thematics take center stage. This was certainly not the intent of Salvation, as we were aiming for a more thrilling, Hollywood Westworld influenced day-in-the-life adventure game.

Yet there is no way to ‘sanitize’ away the darker parts of the history without being unfair to the groups whose suffering were endemic to those time periods. Go one way, and you’re white-washing. Go another, and you can create a setting where dark content can drive away players due to triggering material. That material can end up forcing people whose backgrounds include ancestry related to the historical events to be pigeon-holed into characters they might not wish to play. If a woman comes to a game and wishes to play something outside the gender norm for the time period, there needs to be a place for that in the game, even though it breaks from historical precedent.

And so, a delicate balance has to be struck between history and fictional ‘adjustment’ for the sake of play.

In the end, the design and writing team tread that delicate balance and ended up with the setting we’ve created for 1878: Welcome to Salvation. With a backdrop of historical events and a town created to be a more tolerant and open location than other places during that time period, I believe we’ve found a fun and respectful middle ground that will make Salvation a weekend players won’t forget.

Wild West Adventures For All

So what does this mean for Salvation? With the work we’ve done, we’ve weaved a little Wild West town bringing together card sharps and law dogs, sex workers and desperados, undertakers and homesteaders, all centered around their proud little piece of the frontier and out to survive in an ever-evolving and shrinking West. For one weekend in November, players from around the world will don the spurs and hats (black and white) to bring Salvation to life. And as I said before, it’s been my honor to work for Dziobak and Imagine Nation to bring Salvation to all of you.

The next few months will be full of character creation and player communication, larp practicality planning and finally my first trip to Texas for the main event. And I really hope to see some of you there as we bring the town of Salvation to life.

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[[All graphics and photos are courtesy of Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective.]]

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