It’s 2019, and nobody goes outside anymore without putting on their finest set of woke accessories, intellectually purchased from your nearest yellow journalistic rag or angry Facebook post. LARPs are no exception, there is an arms race to seem as tolerant, accommodating and safe as possible, courtesy of a culture of drama and abuse. But like your racist aunt who watches Ellen so she couldn’t possibly be racist (or was it Oprah?), LARPs are merely engaging in a calculated and time honored practice of buck-passing. And the buck is passed, as usual, to players.
Because even as games write rules to protect the marginalized and suspend the bully, I’d bet my bitter balls that actual enforcement is rare. So rare in fact that players, good and bad, have learned how to game the game’s safety rules in order to accomplish their ends: they rush to the conclusion. To win, you must make your opponent Hitler, and yourself Anne Frank, whether you are the bully or the bullied. The stakes are high, drama begets drama, and only drama can save you: the suspense is literally killing me.
I’m your announcer, Bitter Bruce, and the race to the bottom has begun!
Inertia is the Enemy. Inertia is the Ally.
If your game is run by volunteers, they’re tired and have lives to go back to, no matter how menial or unpleasant. If your game is run for profit, the owners want as little change or effort as possible to maintain stable income. Thus any change, good or bad, comes up against inertia.
I’m interested in both definitions above: LARP can be infuriatingly bureaucratic and inactive, after all. But #2 has special value here, because it reminds us that an object in motion stays in motion just as much as an object at rest stays at rest. What I mean is, people benefit from both the status quo, and rapid change, depending on what they want.
There is a tug of war going on at all LARPs, always, but it’s not between good and bad, bully and bullied, but between both types of inertia. You can understand a game’s problems, and the angles of its agitators, based on the state of the game’s inertia.
Case 1: Them Good ol’ Boys
Let’s start with the stereotype we’ve all come to hate: a local game run by a dense-ass GM and their cabal of buddies. They could be racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, or just self-absorbed bullies, the specifics of their misconduct doesn’t actually matter for this discussion, what does matter is that if you want to improve the social situation of your game, you need to gain momentum. But this is difficult, because for a game to reach this state of shitty equilibrium, it is likely that the bullies play by the rules, or that the rules are systematically not enforced.
If you break the rules, you are ejected. If you rock the boat, you are ejected. So a savvy social justice saboteur must bring the situation to a head: you have to find an irrefutable way to make your enemy, in this case the racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic/bully, a perfect example of a rule breaker. You are forced by the game’s inertia to up the ante and directly impune the character of your opponent, so that the game is shaken from its inertia and is forced to take a stance.
The danger here lies in the necessary evil: by upping the ante to its maximum required point, by making your opponent Hitler, rather than Steve who works at Denny’s and is casually sexist, you are being just a touch intellectually dishonest. For the greater good perhaps, but you know what they say: the road to hell is paved with mediocre LARPs and their good intentions.
And those bad guys, well, they’re not stupid, they’ll catch on. And the backlash is beyond unpleasant.
Case 2: “I’m no Rape Apologist, but She’s a Known Liar”
Let’s say you’re part of a cabal of good ol’ boys. Sure, you all might be a little sexist/racist/transphobic/homophobic, you may bully people sometimes, but you’re not literally Hitler. And even if you were, whatever allows you to live day to day as a crummy person prevents you from seeing that about yourself anyway!
The real problem are these people who don’t like the fact that you’re winning. That you’re just better at the game. They’re bringing social justice into this, trying to make it some big social crusade. Sure, Steve got drunk at that party and might have ignored one or two no’s from Lucy, but it’s not like the game has a rapist problem!
So when Lucy comes forward and says that Steve sexually assaulted her, you find a hole or two in her story, a small embellishment here and there. The inertia of the game and the buck-passing of the rules enforcement has forced Lucy to up the ante, to make Steve match or exceed the requisite crime for banning, and in doing so, you’ve caught her!
You, as a baddie, are now free to state up and down how you believe all victims, but this girl is not trustworthy. Inertia allows you to optimally defend yourself, while forcing those in search of change to expose themselves.
Case 3: Losing the Game? Make Your Own Hitler
Let’s say your game has revised its rules to encompass more social trespasses, but rarely acts to enforce these rules and protect players. IE it’s doing the organizational version of virtue signalling. Whether you are blatantly good or bad, you’ve got a weak grip on reality, and you hate to lose. And you’re losing.
Your IC opponent has become your OOC opponent, and you can’t stand them. Everything they do, to you, is a reflection of the face of evil, be it sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or straight up swastika. And if I’m to give you, o’ dangerously unhinged player, the benefit of the doubt, they may gaff, they may say something off-color, or they may in fact be just a little bit [SELECT MORAL FAILURE FROM LIST ABOVE].
Those expanded player protections, why, they’re now your express ticket to removing this impediment from your life. All you need to do is wait for them to expose themselves, to say something just wrong enough to match the broadest criteria of misdeed. Or better yet, you can entrap them, you can push them towards the precipice. You can goad them and bully and torment them, publicly embarrass them, all while protected by the veneer of protecting the unprotected. And you are, right? This isn’t just about winning or losing, is it? You’re helping [SELECT MARGINALIZED GROUP] by calling this person out, aren’t you?
And the game, being inert, in motion or stationary, does as little as possible to make a decision, to expose itself to criticism, to risk attendance, and so it does nothing as you stampede towards your goal of removing an opponent from game, from the local LARP scene, dragging everyone with you. Until finally you hear the metaphorical *DING* of sufficient grounds for banning being met, and your mission is accomplished.
Drama Begets Drama
All 3 cases above share 1 quality: the game abdicates decision-making to the players. The players, acting out of tribalism and an often deeply flawed sense of community, may seriously misuse this power. This inevitably creates drama, and bad actors will realize that drama benefits them. To a bad actor, a state of heightened drama is a constant opportunity to call people out, tarnish reputations, and eliminate opposition.
Meanwhile those who sought actual positive change, who campaigned to make games safer and to make the rules stricter, will find themselves powerless to stop this escalation. They will find themselves robbed of the language needed to distinguish between social justice and social justice warrior. Most appallingly, they will watch as the protections they put in place are seen as ineffective or worse, causing more problems than they solve.
Players have come to see drama as the natural state of LARP, an exhausted and typical reaction to the endless anxiety and petty warmongering drama entails. This status quo becomes defensible, even comfortable, and only breeds more of what ails us. This is the existential threat to LARP, to a LARP scene, to an individual game, the assumption that things will always be bad. That is inertia.
And more often than not, that inertia is blamed on players, the buck having been passed to them.
Lax Enforcement? Leave.
If a game doesn’t enforce its own rules in a healthy manner, leave. Enforcement is the litmus test, and it’s very easy to see if they’ve passed or failed.
Whether the rules are outdated or so woke that the entire staff has socially just insomnia, enforcement is what matters. It is the responsibility of the game runners, not players, to identify and react to problems within the scope of their own rules. It is their responsibility to make decisions as ethically as possible, even if it risks backlash. The alternative is to put that burden on players.
And players, given access to such responsibility, are capable of making the situation much, much worse.
For more blame-shifting, rules trashing, and sodium-powered bitter truths, share this content on social media, and follow me on Twitter @the_larp_cynic.