Last weekend I played The Solution, a larp about a social experiment designed to study group behaviour under extreme conditions. The characters agreed to spend an unspecified amount of time (at least several months) in a secret government facility, where they may experience starvation and sleep deprivation, and where criminal law does not apply. The participants were doing it for various reasons: to use the generous compensation to escape poverty, to have their criminal convictions cancelled, to become a celebrity, to help science, or because their friends/lovers/family members were participating. They didn’t know almost anything about what awaited them (and the players didn’t know much more themselves), except for a couple of basic rules: not to talk about the past or the future, only use names assigned by the experiment, and to join one of the four study groups following different codes of conduct. A soft meta-rule suggested to the players was to try to genuinely embrace the beliefs of their tribe, as the larp experience was supposed to be more powerful if they let their character be brainwashed rather than just pretending to believe in the rules. The main themes of the larp were the dissolution of self when the collective is valued much more highly than the individual, and – like in the Stanford prison experiment or, even more so, the Robbers Cave experiment – how being arbitrarily divided into groups can foster antagonism to the point of breaching the characters’ (and hopefully not the players’) moral code. Here you can read more details about the basic concepts of the larp.
Unfortunately, I completely failed to in any way engage in the larp, with a detachment unprecedented in my larping history: the only feeling shared by my character and me throughout most of the larp was boredom. I understand and appreciate the philosophical and artistic points the larp was trying to make, but the game itself did not convey them to me to any greater extent than just reading the larp’s website. I do not want to judge the larp, as I know many people had a great, immersive and bleedy experience, but I will try to analyse the reasons why the game did not work for me, and suggest a few improvements. I think that the main contributing factors were: the design (perhaps deliberately) hindering character immersion, the insufficient external pressure put on the characters/players, and my personal lack of skill in roleplaying in author stance.
Immersion is Fragile
The Solution provided the players with standard length character sheets, describing their background, world view and relationships within their core group. My character entered the project with 2 other people she met in group therapy for prisoners: she had a crush on one of them, and was frenemies with the other; this is pretty representative of how the relationships in the other core groups were set up as well. The character design seemed reasonable and engaging and I did not predict any difficulties getting immersed.
First minor problems emerged during the pre-game workshop. We started with a meditation and an exercise in moving and walking around in-character, and engaging other characters in brief and inconsequential interactions – that went smoothly, was fun, and left me energised and feeling ready to start roleplaying right away. However, that energy dissipated during the next 2 hours of out-of-character explanations of rules and guidelines and meta-technique workshops. Then, we had some time to workshop the relationships in our core groups and roleplay short scenes therein: we decided to roleplay one of our group therapy sessions and it was highly engaging and bonding. Again, I was feeling immersed and eager to start the actual game as soon as possible, but then we had a 90 minutes break. I believe the workshop would have worked much better if it started with out-of-character exercises, followed by a break and in-character exercises just before the game itself – that would align itself much better with the (presumably) desired OOC to IC flow.
The game began with the characters having a couple of minutes to interact in the waiting room, before being asked to enter the empty and featureless White Room, where they changed into identical plain uniforms, got assigned a new name, e.g. Payment, Message, Song, and where they were supposed to wait before being called to enter the Complex, the main facility. The rules of the White Room were as follows: no verbal communication, no physical contact, no hostility (these rules were also suggested as meta-rules to the players, complying to them was supposed to enhance the experience). That was interesting for about 10 minutes out of the (estimated) 3 hours I had to wait there. People started out treating it like a prolonged “movement in character” exercise: my character was quite sporty, so she passed some time doing push-ups and sit-ups, and once in a while checking on her friends, using eye contact to convey emotional support. After a while, most players started running out of ideas and resorted to sitting or lying around, comatose, sleeping, or engaging in mindless activities like stacking the uniform boxes. Very soon, all traces of immersion were gone, at least for me – the fact that both me and my character are bored at the same time does not equal immersion.
In principle, I do not mind spending some time alone in larps, or even being subjected to short periods of boredom: serving tables at dinner at Fairweather Manor wasn’t entertaining neither for me nor my character, but gave me some time to think in-character about her current issues and plan for the near future; it also managed to convey the message that a servant’s life was quite tedious at times, which I knew intellectually, but now had the opportunity to feel it for a while – just long enough to keep the boredom, though real, in some way interesting. I think that the key to making downtime meaningful is letting it happen only when the character is already strongly established in the player’s mind, when there is actually something to think about – and even then, not prolonging it excessively. Otherwise the best the player can do is pointlessly rehashing the character sheet, and when that material is exhausted, struggling not to return to their real self and eventually failing. What the White Room devolved to was, for me, an exercise in out-of-character boredom accompanied by other people bored out of their mind (or rather, back into their mind). The theme of boredom breaking immersion recurred throughout the remainder of my experience at The Solution.
Insufficient External Pressure
I will need some broader context to discuss the lack of external pressure, so I will briefly describe my character’s journey during the main part of the larp.
Getting called to enter the Complex was a relief from the boredom of the White Room; as I walked into the impressive scenography (best described as a post-apocalyptic abandoned building site at night, hosting warring groups of squatters, dishevelled and covered in body paint) my stupor quickly turned into the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by new, powerful and threatening sensations. Almost immediately, I briefly met my love interest. “We cannot be together anymore, I’m a member of the Family now”, she said sadly. I wasn’t a rebel, and, to be honest, not the brightest bulb in the box; I wanted to excel in my new job as a participant of the experiment, expecting a generous reward afterwards. “I’ll miss her, but that’s all right; if those are the rules, I’ll better obey them. It’s just a game anyway, and we’ll reconnect in a couple of months”, I thought – and thus the entire, possibly emotionally powerful, dramatic arc of fighting the system to be with my loved one was gone in one fell swoop.1
After initial confusion, I came to realise that there were four “study groups”: the Family, a hierarchical dictatorship, the Church, a religious cult, the Pack, a tribe of ferocious warriors, and the Connected, a hippie commune embracing group intimacy. The only hope of obtaining food or shelter was getting accepted by one of them, and all of them were quite selective. The rational choice was to join the Connected, as they seemed the least threatening and the most reasonable of the bunch, and eventually I managed to do so.
Thus began my life of relative complacency. Food was plentiful, though disgusting (grey goo in saline packs that I didn’t dare try, though fellow players told me later it was actually reasonably tasty), shelter was freely available, though not exactly comfortable. I probably took it better than my character would, because as a person I happen to not be hugely affected by starving for a day or two, and I can sleep like a baby under the harshest conditions. Walking around in no man’s land could land you a couple of gentle and respectful punches – again, my character should mind that even though I didn’t. Being a part of the Connected required frequent group intimacy which in principle should have been far outside of the comfort zone of some characters, possibly being an analogue of rape or sexual abuse, but then, most players weren’t at all disturbed by having their arms gently stroked. All in all, there wasn’t much physical pressure for me as a player.
The characters didn’t know almost anything about each other’s real selves, so there was no way of exerting real emotional pressure, except by threatening someone’s position within the experiment. My character as designed wouldn’t strive to be a leader, but she wasn’t a weakling either and would not let others bully her – not that anyone really tried… She shed her real-life connections early on, as described above, so it wasn’t possible to hurt her that way either. One of the themes of the larp that we were supposed to embrace both as character and as players was the loss of individuality in favour of the collective, but it is hard to emotionally abuse someone who is no longer an individual.
Under the circumstances, my character would just try to pass the time until the end of the experiment; the environment and the fellow players did not inconvenience her in that almost at all. Bored and mildly depressed, she would chose to sleep most of the time. With my default character-stance approach to larping, so did I.
What I am getting at here is that in a larp about oppression, I as a player did not feel oppressed at all. I would if I were immersed in my character – but that unfortunately wasn’t the case, for reasons described above. I wanted to feel oppressed – that would possibly restore my immersion, or at least give me an interesting experience of me as a person participating in a mildly unethical social experiment. I think that the larp failed to provide the tools to subject oneself to oppression or to oppress others, or at least that they were insufficient. I believe that the core of the problem was the fact that the upper boundary of cruelty/punishment/physical hardship that the players are willing to experience was never clearly established. There was time to do that in the workshops before the larp, but most aspects of it were left vague. I kept asking questions and I felt that without that we would have no guidelines at all for bullying each other, except for the violence meta-technique (pressure on the shoulders to push someone down, then fake punches). Through my questioning we established that some people want to be slapped or spat on, and some find this idea completely unhinged – and we didn’t really agree on what to do with that issue, so I think everyone shied away from that in the game. It’s lucky that it occurred to me to ask about having one’s head pushed underwater2 – it turned out that it was actually an element of one of the groups, probably by design, but the organisers seemed to want to keep it as a surprise to the players and would not mention it during the workshop unless explicitly asked.3 I think it’s irresponsible – ensuring that the players are on the same page when it comes to handling this safely is more important than the surprise factor. In general, it was never really clear what we are allowed to do to one another, which resulted in players being relatively timid about putting meaningful pressure on each other.
The only intensity-guiding technique available to the players was saying “cut” or tapping out (tapping the ground or the other player two times), which meant an immediate and complete deescalation; using it the players could avoid any kind of treatment that is out of their comfort zone, as long as it is signalled a little bit in advance. There was also the off-game room with food and good sleeping conditions. All this ensured that the players could soften their experience as much as they wanted, but there was hardly any way of making it harsher. Personally, I would like the food to be scarcer, have people wake me up all the time and punish me more physically – I’ve happily gotten bruised in larps before. For me, there was no way of getting that, while people who don’t want such treatment could easily avoid it.
I hope I’m not revealing psychopathic tendencies here. I’m not saying that every player should be required to starve, undergo sleep deprivation, get slapped, spat on, waterboarded, sexually abused and subjected to all kinds of torture that doesn’t leave permanent scars. I’m just saying that players who want that kind of pressure in a larp like this should be able to get it. In general, deescalation in larps is much easier than escalation – there are more meta-techniques for that, and players, being nice people, are psychologically more ready to back off than push harder. Without a suggested upper boundary on physical pressure, people are most likely to stop way too early – having a conclusive discussion on that during the workshop, or an intensity-guiding technique which can be used for escalation (“green”/”yellow”/”red”) would alleviate that problem.
It is interesting to consider how sexual abuse can be portrayed in a larp while staying within the bounds of Ars Amandi (in the Solution we used the “arms up to shoulders” variant) – I think the Connected had weaker play because of the inability to make this aspect of the group more disturbing. Towards the end, they added a rule enforcing eye contact during the intimacy technique, and I think it was a step in the right direction, making it a bit less comfortable for the players. I wouldn’t mind adding scratching or tightly gripping someone’s arms, pushing someone against a wall or pressing to the ground – of course, still using the cut or tap out techniques.
Author Stance When Things Go Wrong
I’m an immersion junkie, and I don’t think it’s a bad addiction to have. I want to believe that flowing with my character’s feelings and channelling their actions creates a simpler and more truthful story for everyone, and enhances other players’ experience – at least I find it extremely powerful to feel my mirror neurons react to other people’s real tears or other expressions of emotion. And these seem to be coming from character-stance – most larpers aren’t professional actors and emotions that genuinely-looking are hard to fake. The main problem with that approach is recovering from an undesired game/character state, diverting play from where the character would be headed but where the player doesn’t want to go.
In this particular case, by saying “undesired state” I don’t mean being miserable or traumatised in character, and that bleeding back to the player – a lot of my larper friends and myself crave those moments, as they usually carry special beauty and give us valuable insight into ourselves and the human condition, and that’s what art is supposed to do. Here, I mean cases of characters stuck in a boring rut, or changing too far away from how they were supposed to be played, and thus possibly defeating the point of the game or spoiling the other players’ experience. I think that I as a roleplayer need to learn some tools to deal with that, because at the moment I find myself deficient in that area. I know I should have switched to author stance to figure out what my bored and depressed character should do to make her life more interesting and then implement those changes. However, because of being in character stance, I was feeling bored and depressed myself – and when you’re depressed, deciding to rethink your life and turn it around starting now is very hard. I would love to read people’s thoughts on that, any advice will be appreciated. How do you handle such situations in larps? What’s the perfect character/author stance balance?
I don’t want all this to sound like an angry rant – I do appreciate the organisers’ efforts and I know that a lot of people had an excellent time and found themselves deeply immersed in their characters. I loved the scenography and found it very inspiring, it showed how much you can achieve even with very limited resources but unlimited imagination – I will definitely try to experiment in this area in the future with the larps I run. There were many very interesting ideas in the larp and it provoked me to think more deeply on various aspects of game design, and to put more effort in learning how to use author stance, and I would like to thank the organisers and the fellow players for that.
1 I did get some more play out of that, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. There was a scene where her group forced her to publicly renounce all ties with me, telling me that I meant nothing to her; and an almost identical scene arranged for me by my group. In both cases, my character felt quite upset, but quickly explained to herself that it’s just temporary and that everyone needs to follow the rules. Then, as my character embraced the ideology of her group (which, admittedly, required a strong player-push), the external connections stopped mattering, she was part of the “we” now and didn’t long for people from her past. I think that this emotional dullness was intended by the larp design, but it again seems to be rather an intellectual message to be read on the larp’s website than something to be explored in character. It might be a personal preference: I’ll gladly read about lack of feeling, but in a 32h larp I prefer to actually feel.
2 I discovered I love having my head pushed underwater in larps – it is sufficiently unpleasant to be a meaningful, powerful experience, but at the same time is not really dangerous. I want it to be present in all larps I play from now on!
3 Lack of transparency seemed to be an important part of the larp design, but I would prefer more clarity in communicating at least the practicalities. There was a lot of anxiety on the pre-game forums with every frightening bit of information revealed: scarcity of food, irregular sleep, if any, not being allowed to bring anything into the larp (except medically required medication), no access to basic hygiene, the possibility of having any item of clothing stolen or destroyed. In reality, the players – if they wanted to – could bring into the larp anything they wanted, including toothbrushes, soap, change of underwear, snacks, earplugs and mobile phones – and many did so; they could also eat, sleep and shower to their heart’s content in the off-game areas. I think it would be more fair to tell the players from the start that all that will be available to them, but encourage them to push themselves as far as they are willing when it comes to physical discomfort.