Possibilities for Queer Community-Building Through LARP

In-game photo by Karin Ryding from a Sweden Run in 2012

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, artist and writer based in NYC. His writing has appeared in publications such as Kill Screen, ZAM, and Sub Q. Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from NYU-Tisch. Follow Sharang on TwitterCheck out Sharang's PortfolioEmail the Author

 

Games are relationship-engines.

While most definitions of games focus on choice, resources and obstacles, to Cole Wehrle, it is the phenomenon of “affective entanglement”, the organization of relationships and emotions between players and their bodies that comprises “the hallmark of what a game is” [1]. As Mary Flanagan writes, games are “social technologies” [1], tools to manage relationships between participants.

“The place where queerness meets games is a site of radical potential,” write Bonnie Ruberg and Amanda Philips [3]. Beyond merely representation, they assert, games have the ability to address many more topics of relevance to the queer community.

In this essay, I will discuss how live-action roleplay (LARP) can be used to build queer community.

Case Studies

In Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), players embody queer individuals in the ’80’s trying to comprehend the AIDS epidemic [4].  Beat Generation casts the players as the artistic, musical, and literary luminaries of the ’60s [5]. The two games discuss complex queer issues, from loss and how it forges friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the former, to the role of queer art in resisting the status quo in the latter. Both LARPs synergize game mechanics and game narrative to enhance feelings of queer community, and encourage camaraderie and social support among players. I recently participated in both games.

A note on terminology: I use the word “player” to mean real-world identities, and “character” to mean fictional personas (though the two aren’t entirely distinct.)

Immersion, Emotions, and Bleed

In LARP, great pains are taken to increase player immersion, a multifaceted, much-debated term that encompasses being engrossed in an activity or challenge, losing oneself in a setting, narrative or character, or being deeply involved in the community created within a game [6]. Unlike other storytelling media, the embodied nature of LARP facilitates immersion. According to Sarah Lynne Bowman, “the act of role-playing is particularly immersive due to the first-person audience.” [6] A role-player is at once a performer and viewer, and as Markus Montola writes, the larper is “the primary audience of her own performance and the diegesis she builds is her primary object of appreciation.” [7]

As a result, since characters and their actions are often vehicles to communicate larger themes, a larper becomes a sort of reflexive transceiver of theme, at once creating meaning, consuming that meaning, and observing themselves consume that meaning. For example, I sharply recall the feel of tears on my cheek as my character in JaLL cried at the memory of a dead friend, while I, the player Sharang, observed that this was the first interactive experience where I had physically cried.

This first-person audience stance contributes to a roleplay phenomenon of “bleed”, where emotions and thoughts that a character experiences escapes into the player’s real life, or vice-versa [8]. In the freeform LARP tradition, many players seek out bleed, attempting to better understand themselves through roleplay. These players may “play close to home”, perhaps by portraying characters with issues similar to their own or pursuing in-game situations that echo their real-world experiences. The key is a blurring between character and player, with the hopes of both creating a more compelling character, and a more emotionally satisfied player.

Both JaLL and Beat Generation recreated historical worlds and characters relevant to modern politics and to a relatively queer player base (indeed, one participant of JaLL had grown up in New York during the 80’s AIDS epidemic). By doing so, the games perforated the player/character membrane. All kinds of bleed were encouraged to ooze in, including feelings of friendship, camaraderie, and emotional support—explicit themes in both LARPs—leading to what Jonaya Kemper terms “emancipatory bleed”, or bleed used to uplift marginalized identities [9].

Wehrle’s understanding of “networks of dependence” also plays a role: “Dependency is an important engine of affect…Feelings are muted or amplified depending upon a subject’s position within a broader structure of dependence.” [1] In other words, complex emotional responses in games, say emancipatory bleed, both require and are generated by complex interrelated social dependencies. One might argue that a well-written LARP, with nuanced characters and conflicts, cannot help but act as Flanagan’s “social technology”, creating relationships that bleed into players’ real lives. Coupled with a relevant setting, these LARPs can coalesce into platforms for emancipatory and uplifting bleed.

An Imagination of History

The setting and backstory of a LARP are more than mere dressing, more than just flavorful contexts within which characters and narratives can marinate. Rather, they are essential for players and characters to create meaningful connections and impactful narratives. 

Each of the five days that comprise Just a Little Lovin’ is set in a subsequent year during the 80’s, at a wild, queer party held in a campground in New York. The “gay cancer” has just emerged and no-one knows anything about this new disease. In addition to set decorations, detailed backstory for characters, and summaries of the time period, the organizers reinforced the historical context through daily, mandatory, out-of-game workshops which included readings from relevant books, and lectures from visiting guests. Discussions around portraying identities different from those of the players were significant.

Similarly, the organizers of Beat Generation rented out a flat in the West Village in an attempt to immerse players in the physical context of the 60’s bohemian arts scene. Since every character was a historical individual (Joan Baez, say, or Jack Kerouac), the organizers provided well-researched biographies, and suggested artworks to experience. Many participants took pains to study documents, art, and writing from the time period.

More than just trying to present an immersive, believable world, both games attempted to ensure that players were grounded in a sense of history. Moreover, by creating worlds dominated by queer issues, it was queer histories that rose to the forefront. Players were given the opportunity to gain some level of understanding of how being queer here and now directly related to the events then and there.

History, of course, is written by those in power, and even in constructed worlds, historical bias and ignorance emerge. Conspicuously downplayed in both games was the role of race in their respective time periods. The role of queer people of color in the major turning-points in LGBTQIA history, from the AIDS crisis to the Stonewall riots, has been erased in the popular imagination to such a degree that the narrative of the white, gay man has been apotheosized to the “default” narrative of the queer struggle, a “narrative deeply rooted in racial insensitivity and injustice played out again and again in our LGBTQ community’s history.” [10] Was my portrayal of an Indian prostitute in JaLL whitewashed by my Western study of queer histories? Undoubtedly. Was my understanding of Beat Generation art complexified and nuanced by perspectives of the very American racial tensions of the time? Not as much as I would like. But were these issues alleviated by my own Indian identity, by the brown body and immigrant mindset that inescapably comprise every character I play? That question is much harder to answer definitively.

The designers of JaLL, in particular, did attempt to include race as a theme in the game. Certain characters were written as explicitly racialized in accordance with the setting and time, and workshops on using race as a theme were held during the game. Despite these efforts, players in both European and American versions of the LARP, even non-white players, seemed to actively avoid emphasizing race-related themes [11]. The question of why is outside of the scope of this discussion, but the argument that this colorless hole in our roleplay of history biases our perspective even further is difficult to fault.

To be clear, neither game, nor LARP in general, claims to produce an accurate representation of a historical conflict. No player comes out of JaLL asserting that they have relived the AIDS crisis and knows exactly what it felt like; this is impossible for anyone but the survivors of the crisis itself. Instead, the LARPs play with the interpretation and imagination of the past, attempting to create empathy and connection. 

Despite certain gaps, our reimagination of history still carries value. As Michael Bronski writes in the introduction to A Queer History of the United States, “History teaches something new every time it is rewritten or interpreted.” [12] By creating and interpreting our own queer histories, histories that for so long have been kept from us, we learn a little bit about our connection to the past, and by extension, to each other.

Resistance

It’s difficult to talk about queer history without touching upon queer political resistance. Victor Turner writes that, “liminality, marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art,” [13] and indeed, a large portion of play included the creation of art and symbolism about affirming queer identities in the face of hetero-cis-normativity, and many of the plotlines generated concerned resistance and rebellion.

“Games are particularly ripe for subversive practices,” Mary Flanagan writes, and describes in detail roleplay’s historical preoccupation with resistance, using the example of Victorian dress-up and doll-play to underscore her point: “even in everyday play, nineteenth-century girls met the emphasis on normative domestic behavior for women with subversive resistance” [2]. A key reason for this is that “games provide a space of ‘psychosocial moratorium’ where real-world consequences are lowered” [14]. Not only does a player have the “alibi” to take actions that would be difficult to justify outside of the game context, but they can also indulge in behaviors that are dangerous or taboo. For queer players, many of whom still live under those dangers and taboos, these acts can be cathartic and even transformative (such as when players discover their own transgender identities after playing different genders).

Sex is one such act of resistance. “Queer sex is our greatest act of resistance,” Alex Garner exhorts in the Huffington Post [15]. For many players, sex with certain partners in their regular sociopolitical milieu is incredibly risky, and both JaLL and Beat Generation provided mechanics for simulating sex acts, with encouragement to perform them liberally and blatantly. Pantomimed sex, thus, carried weight as metaphors of identity politics and resistance, providing “emancipatory bleed” free from danger.

Of course, diegetic risk remained. In LARP, characters can be brutalized, both physically and emotionally, and the draw of LARP for many players is “playing to lose”, a concept that affirms that the most satisfying narrative arc for the player is not necessarily the one that’s best for the character. In the freeform LARP tradition, there is no “victory condition”, and as Wehrle argues, this lack of clear goal permits players to “explore a broader affective space” [1]. In JaLL and Beat Generation, playing to lose permitted a rich exploration of what resistance, prejudice, and the consequences of our actions. The negative experiences generated might even have helped cement social bonds [16].

By portraying and performing resistance, we question social structures and illuminate the possibility of change, arguably one of the very functions of performance  [17]. JaLL in particular, provided ample opportunity within the fiction to defy convention, and proclaim one’s beliefs in the face of oppression. By performing justice —even via ahistorical acts—players were able to express a collective desire to pull it out of the tremulous realm of possibility, and into the more concrete world of probability.

Ritual

Ritual has long been closely tied to games. Mary Flanagan delves into how humanity’s ancient games originally served to divine truths, communicate with the dead, or serve other spiritual purposes [2]. Richard Schechner writes that “a coherent theory of play would assert that play and ritual are complimentary, ethologically based behaviors which in humans continue undiminished through life” [18], and Martin Ericsson’s essay “Play to Love” undertakes a deep analysis of LARP as rituals unto themselves [19].

Turner asserts that rituals underscore the social and moral beliefs of a society while simultaneously providing space to display resistance and non-conformity from these beliefs, and by doing both, help build and structure community [13]; more pithily, “[rituals] might be said to ‘create’ society” [13]. Turner especially focuses on the rituals of marginalized communities, calling their members “prophets” and “artists”, who express the “sentiment of humanity”, and in whose “productions we may catch glimpses of that unused evolutionary potential in mankind which has not yet been externalized and fixed in structure” [13]. In the rituals of queer folks, Turner might have seen the seeds of change.

Both JaLL and Beat Generation, featuring stylized, symbolic acts conveying meaning that transcends their physicality and aims towards loftier themes, can be viewed through the lens of ritual and can promote cohesion and bonding through their game structures. Bowman makes this very point in Love, Sex, Death, and Liminality: Ritual in Just a Little Lovin’ [20].

Furthermore the LARPs supported players in creating their own rituals, their own micro-cultures of queerness that overlap both the diegesis and the extra-diegesis. For example, Beat Generation players together created a ritual to cleanse “Moloch” from our bodies, involving disrobing, being anointed in a bath, and vociferously reading Ginsberg’s Howl. Here, the symbolic or higher purpose of the ritual was never discussed—the point was simply to enact ritual together, to express solidarity and community through our bodies, coated with a “Beat Generation” veneer.

Conclusion

“Play patterns”, writes Flanagan, “reflect cultural change” [2]. It is perhaps naïve but nevertheless comforting to think that the rise in cultural significance of LARP evinces a general societal desire to come together. It is also empowering to see that LARPs about queerness are enjoying greater attention.

While it’s probably maudlin to say that the two games were life-changing events for every participant, at the very least, thanks to the deliberate choices made by the games’ organizers and designers, queer people managed to form a connection. And as Turner maintains [13], “When even two people believe that they experience unity, all people are felt by those two, even if only for a flash, to be one”.

Works Cited

[1] C. Wehrle, “Affective Networks At Play: Catan, Coin, and The Quiet Year,” Journal of Analo Game Studies, vol. 5, no. 4, 2016.
[2] M. Flanagan, Critical Play, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013.
[3] A. P. Bonnie Ruberg, “Not Gay as in Happy: Queer Resistance and Video Games (Introduction),” Game Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 2018.
[4] H. G. Tor Kjetil Edland, Just a Little Lovin, Minneapolis: Pink Dollars, LLC, 2017.
[5] M. Brown, Beat Generation, New York: Learn Larp LLC, 2018.
[6] S. L. Bowman, “Immersion and Shared Imagination in Roleplaying Games,” in Role Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 379-394.
[7] M. Montola, “Social Reality in Roleplaying Games,” in The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, Knutpunkt, 2014, pp. 103-112.
[8] S. L. Bowman, “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character,” NordicLarp.org, 2 March 2015. [Online]. Available: https://nordiclarp.org/2015/03/02/bleed-the-spillover-between-player-and-character/. [Accessed 15 January 2019].
[9] J. Kemper, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity,” NordicLarp.org, 21 June 2017. [Online]. Available: https://nordiclarp.org/2017/06/21/the-battle-of-primrose-park-playing-for-emancipatory-bleed-in-fortune-felicity/. [Accessed 15 January 2019].
[10] J. M. J. Rea Carey, “The Whitewashed History of HIV: A Black Teen Died of AIDS in 1969,” HIV Plus, June 14 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.hivplusmag.com/stigma/2018/6/14/whitewashed-history-hiv-black-teen-died-aids-1969. [Accessed 2 MAr 2019].
[11] T. K. Edland, Interviewee, Personal conversation. [Interview]. January 2019.
[12] M. Bronski, A Queer History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.
[13] V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
[14] A. T. K. S. S. L. B. G. K. Jessica Hammer, “Learning and Role-Playing Games,” in Role-Playing Games Studies: A Transmedia Approach, New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 283-299.
[15] A. Garner, “Queer Sex Is Our Greatest Act Of Resistance,” The Huffington Post, 17 1 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/queer-sex-is-our-greatest-act-of-resistance_us_587d1b4ce4b094e1aa9dc887. [Accessed 18 1 2019].
[16] M. Montola, “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing,” in The Fondation Stone of Nordic Larp, Knutpunkt, 2014, pp. 153-168.
[17] D. Handelman, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events, New York: Berghahn Books, 1998.
[18] R. Schechner, The Future of Ritual, Writings on Culture and Performance, London: Rutledge, 1993.
[19] M. Ericsson, “Play to Love: Reading Victor Turner’s “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual; An Essay in Comparative Symbology”,” in Beyond Role and Play – Tools Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, Solmukohta 2004, 2004, pp. 15-30.
[20] S. L. Bowman, “Love, Sex, Death, and Liminality: Ritual in Just a Little Lovin’,” NordicLarp.org, 13 July 2015. [Online]. Available: https://nordiclarp.org/2015/07/13/love-sex-death-and-liminality-ritual-in-just-a-little-lovin/. [Accessed 13 1 2019].

 

Cover image by Karin Ryding from a Sweden Run in 2012.