Abstract: This paper addresses questions of accessibility to different disabilities within larps, based on several life stories and previous work produced within the nordic larp scene about matters of inclusivity and accessibility.
Résumé: Cet article traite de questions d’accessibilité à différents handicaps en GN, à partir de plusieurs témoignages et de précédents travaux produits dans le cadre du GN au sujet de problèmes d’inclusivité et d’accessibilité.
Many thanks to the persons who asked me to write this article and provided me with their experiences and insight to that end, especially Cécile, Brand, and Charlie, for their patient support and relentless proof-reading.
About a year and a half ago, some friends and I created a larp association in Toulouse, France, called La Scénaristerie du Petit Peuple (which could roughly translate as “The Story-Factory of the Small People”). La Scénaristerie is hella cool: all decisions are taken by a collegiate council which every active member can become a part of with no distinction of status, we are careful to keep our larps inclusive for LGBTQ+ people and actively fight against harassment and gender discrimination, and we organize online debates to discuss important larp-related matters, among other things. Yet, recently, Brand, a role-playing game designer, publisher and member of the local community, sent me a message explaining that the last larp La Scénaristerie had announced was explicitly discriminating against fat and obese people. And I, for all my feminism, queerness, and general awareness of discrimination mechanisms, had seen nothing.
Needless to say I immediately felt ashamed: although I didn’t take part in anyway in the making of this larp, that I didn’t notice such obvious bias was indeed a reason to blush. But since shame has never led anyone to no good, I did what every sensible person should do in a similar situation: I sat, listened, and learned. Because we all have much, much to learn about real life discrimination and the specific difficulties different groups have to face on a daily basis, and how to not reproduce them in larps: and if discriminations against women, and to a lesser extent LGBTQ+ people, are gaining visibility, other discriminations, like class, race, disability, or shape, remain vastly ignored.
Let’s try and assume the best intentions, and listen. If PoC [people of color] can continually try to see missteps as non-malicious, then the folks who make those missteps can at least listen. Being informed that something you’ve done is racist is not actually the worst thing that can happen to you. Having someone say, “Hey, this thing you designed is racist,” is not the worst thing that could happen. Refusing to listen and becoming defensive is much worse, and even then, one can come back from this by listening and understanding. (Kemper, 2018)
With your body, or despite it: the inescapable physicality of larp
Although physical disabilities, visible or invisible, will not be the only concern of this article, the first tangible issue when dealing with disabilities in live-action role-playing game is the profoundly physical nature of it. Unlike pen and paper RPG, which primary requirement is the ability to speak, or online RPG, which are accessible to anyone to whom technological devices permit digital expression, the main interface for playing a larp is the body. Often taken for granted, fully-functioning and able, this ideal larp body is not a small requirement; assuming that everyone has it, in fact, creates a threshold which effectively keeps some people to attend larps because of inherent features – it is, in short, discriminating. As Shoshana Kessock points out in her paper “The Absence of Disabled Bodies in Larp”,
much like other forms of entertainment, larp [is] a rather ableist1 space, erasing disabled players by creating obstacles for inclusion that [keep] them out. (Kessock, 2017).
But how exactly do disabilities keep players out? Common representations of disabilities can lead us far from the actual needs of the players, because the spectrum of disability is much wider than what is visible to the unaware eye. So to speak, being disabled doesn’t equal being in a wheelchair, although some are; in order to understand some of the issues players with disabilities have to face when they wish to enter a larp, I addressed this question together with larpers with different disabilities. They accepted to either write about their experience or give an interview, and collaborated in the making of this paper from an early stage; obviously, their experiences don’t cover all experiences of disability, but I do hope this work of gathering individual stories and theoretical views takes part in the exposure of accessibility issues in our favorite hobby and art.
No matter the complexity of the physical design, from the stripped-down aesthetics of black box theatre games to the blockbuster nordic games set in castles or the combat-intensive live “boffer” games set out in forests around the world, there is one basic design principle of larps: players move and interact with the game space with their own bodies. (Kessock, 2017)
Brand, whose warning and later encouragement led me to write this article, suffers from morbid obesity. This condition can result in health issues such as: sleep apnea, which keeps obese persons from attending a larp which lasts more than one day unless they have the possibility to have a private room with electricity; the need for appropriate sanitary and secure facilities and equipment; painful, difficult movement and low stamina; etc. Within larps, obese persons also face specific issues such as: the lack of fitting costumes and the price of making or buying them; the lack of playable characters, and the risk of stereotypes; co-players being ill-at-ease about performing physical contact and themes such as romance with them; the importance of photos versus the trouble dealing with one’s own image; etc.
Riikka, whom I met on a larp in Helsinki just before that, was born blind, which means she has never been able to see, apart from some light. Visually impaired persons may encounter many difficulties if the environment isn’t designed for them, including: interaction with the environment; non-verbal communication; collecting information; moving from one place to another; etc. In larps, other problems arise, for example: the presence of visual documents, especially digital texts merged into pictures or images with no description ahead of the game, which makes the visually impaired players unaware of certain informations; costuming may be difficult, and necessitates help in the finding or making; finding things and people is nearly impossible if not specifically designed; keeping track of the surrounding events can be challenging, etc.
Cécile, whom I interviewed for a program addressing accessibility hosted by La Scénaristerie du Petit Peuple (available here in French), suffers from a hypermobility spectrum disorder, probably related to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disease. Her condition notably causes: articular and muscle pain; asthenia; digestive disorders; attention disorders. Because of this, she cannot drive, nor walk more than a few minutes. This condition necessitates larps with smaller venues, equipped with an elevator if there are stairs, comfortable chairs to sit in each room, the opportunity to sleep in a bed and without nightly interruptions, etc. In addition to these practicalities, the lack of state aids induces economic precariousness, which can, ironically, make it difficult to attend games with appropriate venues.
Ange has a condition called developmental coordination disorder, more commonly known as dyspraxia. This chronic neurological disorder affects the planning of movements, resulting in the inability to perform gestures or activity necessitating fine motor skills, as well as extreme fatigue. Because of that, Ange cannot assume roles in which complicated, repetitive or fine gestures are demanded, or perform any in-game activity for too long. Additionally, they suffer from dyslexia, which is frowned upon as it is often considered a sign of neglect or low intelligence.
My hand-writing is slow, complicated, with a lot of spelling mistakes… I had some trouble being taken seriously, when it took me two hours to write a four-line telegram! […] People argue that you could make an effort, that everyone can read and write properly… It can sometimes be violent or complicated for people to say “I know I have difficulties, but I can’t do otherwise”. (Ange, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
Finally, Charlie2 defines himself as neuroatypical; this term, built in opposition to neurotypical, designates individuals who diverge from the neurological norm. He is autistic (with dyspraxia), anxious (in a clinical sense), and has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). This causes difficulties to interact with others; little to no capacity for social improvisation; anxiety and panic attacks; social discomfort; etc. In larps, neuroatypical persons may have trouble engaging in diplomatic encounters, feel pain and distress in front of unplanned events, or feel a strong need for isolation, among other issues.
In reading about the various problems these persons need to address to engage in larps, the reader may start to glimpse how huge the invisible part of the iceberg is; because studying it in its full extent is impossible, however, we will instead try to better navigate in order to not end up like the Titanic.
Inclusivity is for everyone
Imagine a game designer who would tell one of their players: “sorry, but it’s a game about the first Christians, so it is not accessible for a Muslim.” The scandal that would come out of this would be huge, or so I hope: there would be hundreds of larpers advocating how oppressive, how islamophobic and overtly ignorant this is. Maybe the designer would explain themselves by attempting defense such as “but the food is not halal, and we eat pork”, and dozens of appalled players would tell them “why should we care if someone doesn’t eat pork?”.
This little story should bring us to ponder what happens if we change “Muslim” for “disabled”; why does it become all of sudden acceptable? Why would the disabled player themself probably answer with a disappointed “too bad, I understand”, and the community feel sort of sorry, but not oppose the decision of the organizer? Of course, unlike religion, gender, class, or race, disabilities are not merely social constructs: however, as I will later note, that some physical or psychological conditions are inherent to a person doesn’t automatically turn them into a handicap, and most of it is situational.
If a game wants to truly call itself inclusive and welcome all kinds of players, disability inclusion must be part of the discussion right alongside discussions about the participation of all genders, sexualities, races, religions, classes, etc. (Kessock, 2017)
Inclusivity is for everyone; and the fact that it seems somewhat okay to reject players based on their ability, without really thinking about how to include them, is proof that we collectively lack awareness – not that it is any different from other discriminations. I don’t think a majority of game designers would wave the question away and not listen if a player with a disability came to their larp and asked for accommodation; however, not thinking, and communicating in advance, about the possibility to adapt the larp for players with disabilities may effectively keep them from even considering entering.
Shoshana Kessock additionally notes that, while it would be tempting to create larp spaces destined specifically to disabled players – as Riikka, for example, experienced in larps held in an institute for the visually impaired –, this possibility cannot account for the whole larp scene, and should not exempt it from working towards accessibility.
The notion goes that if an activity is based on physical interaction as the primary mode of engagement, and a disabled person is differently equipped to engage with that activity, rather than providing accommodation, a separate space should be provided for them to interact. While the concept of larps only for the disabled may intrigue from an artistic perspective, if only to see what might be created by people with those unique life experiences, it cannot be the hallmark of the entire larp world. (Kessock, 2017)
Disabilities match environmental flaws
The first thing we need to understand when reflecting upon larp accessibility is that disability is not something that lies within a person, but without, between them and their environment. Because of this, speaking of people with disabilities is quite unfair – it could as well be called “environment with flaws”. The French “en situation de handicap” (in a situation of handicap) reveals something important; disabilities are situational, and an ideal future would have it that technology and town planning, among the most crucial fields, would allow for 100% mobility and autonomy for persons with disabilities. This ideal future is asymptotic – it’s a horizon to work towards, which can probably never be reached. However, even if 100% is an unattainable goal, there are yet many easy steps to be taken for accessibility to progress.
[In Suomenlinna] there are some caves and tunnels and things like that, and in one larp we had a scene that happened there, and it was related to my character. I was playing some kind of oracle, and there was some kind of magical place with some message for me, and we had, we were five characters and we went there, and there were strings going on so that I could follow the route. And there were some little papers with some braille writing and I knew “this is it”. And we had only two… What do you call, torches light…? There were five people and I. I was the one going first, I was leading the others, and for – I can see a little light, but not any characters or anything so for me it was, it didn’t make any difference whether it was light or dark, so I just went there, and I followed the strings, and I was very fast, and the others were like “no! No wait! We cannot see! We have only two of these torches and we cannot do it!” and I was “ooooh come oooon” and it was so, so great. Because I felt so independent, so powerful, so… I was someone who was leading the way. The sighted people who normally assist me anywhere and help me, now they were more helpless than I was. (Riikka, personal interview, 2018)
In this example, the game masters took into account Riikka’s disability, and designed the game so that in this situation, the disability was turned upside down: in an environment where sighted players were not able to see and by providing indications based on touch (Braille messages, strings to follow, etc.), the organizers designed a scenario in which Riikka was not the one with disabilities, but instead, it was the ordinarily abled players! This example illustrates very well that disabilities exist in relation to an inadequate environment, and it certainly is a model to be followed.
Alas, a lot of games, unaware of disabilities, do not even provide information about the accessibility of their venues, whether it is the presence of stairs or certain commodities, the size of the game area, etc. Giving those details in advance is necessary so that players with disabilities can figure out by themselves if the game is accessible to them or not; additionally, the simple mention that any suggestion to increase accessibility or minor arrangement would be gladly fulfilled by the organizers will allow players to actually ask: indeed, asking for specific accommodation is far from easy, and the responsibility to open a dialogue shouldn’t be left to the sole players. Conversely, the absence of information can dissuade people with disabilities to come; in other cases, they may inadvertently greet them with unpleasant surprises…
It would have been unpleasant to many people, but for me it was simply unmanageable. […] Like the toilets in the off-game camp… Outside, in view of everyone. And the impossibility to access the sinks (the game masters’ room were closed to the players) to wash hands (I have hygiene OCD regarding using the bathroom so I have to wash my hands after each visit), another surprise novelty of this game session. Then the path to go to the camp, which was very badly and barely indicated (with my issues about location in space, I got lost several times in thorn bushes, I almost got really hurt, and I had a panic attack…). (Charlie, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
In an article published on the French website Electro-GN by Elise H. and Mathieu L., “GN et handicap : comment rendre notre activité plus accessible ?” (“Larp and disabilities: how to make our activity more accessible?”), the authors establish a list of question organizers should ask themselves in order to provide the most accessible larp as possible. They go as follows (my translation).
For each sort of disability (visual, auditory, physical, motor, language disability, etc.), will a disabled player be able to:
Be autonomous? i.e. could them, without assistance:
Move safely across the entire venue?
Feed (think about allergies and food intolerance), drink, clean themselves?
Communicate with the other participants?
Rest? Activities such as staying up or move can be extra tiring for a pregnant person, or someone with backache for example.
Receive all the informations the organizers transmit? Examples: sound announcements (keywords, music, buzzer, etc.), visual announcements (smoke, signs, colored ribbons, etc.).
Play any kind of character? Will they be forced to take the role of a disabled or old character?
Could the play system induce a situation of disability? Example: a character’s skill necessitating the use of both hands will not be available to someone with an arm in plaster.
Could play preparation induce a situation of disability? Examples: do the character sheets exist in a form that is readable for the visually impaired (ex: big letters)? Is there a vehicle access near the game site for someone with physical disabilities? If the game requires to watch a pre-larp video, is it subtitled? (Elise H. and Mathieu L., 2016)
These questions offer useful guidelines for the organizers; however, answering them alone is at best difficult, at worst, dangerous – even if the designers are themselves with disabilities. The participation of the disabled players is crucial: although it obviously doesn’t exempt the organizers from making efforts on their own, they cannot assume what others will need, and they should not do so.
Those concerned know better
Disabilities come in many different forms and situations, which we can’t possibly all know and take into account. Asking the disabled players about their needs is an absolute necessity to adapt the design of our games to their specific needs – even being with disabilities doesn’t make one a specialist on the topic.
Even well-intentioned people can express demeaning and belittling treatment of the disabled, unsure of how to engage with their differences and needs for accommodation despite the best of intentions. (Kessock, 2017)
They try their best to find solutions. Simply, most of the time they didn’t think of it, because there’s a lack of culture regarding handicap in our society, which also appears in larp. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
By discussing this subject with the persons who accepted to confide me their experiences, it appeared to me that filling the gap created by the lack of awareness was actually fairly simple, and lay in an effective communication. I narrowed it down to a few principles, that don’t regard design itself but instead, an organizer’s or game master’s attitude when communicating about the larp and with the players with disabilities.
Do not pretend that you know; ask. You think your game is not accessible? Maybe it is accessible to some. Let the persons with disabilities figure that out by giving them knowledge about what you think makes your game inaccessible, and give them the opportunity to improve your design by contributing to it with ideas and tricks towards accessibility.
The organizers can only assume the roles of facilitators, because the disabled players are the ones who know best what is good for them. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
Do your research. No, you won’t become a specialist of colorblindness in two weeks because one player told you they were with this disability; but some basic research may relieve the person from having to teach you everything from the beginning and adapt the game in your stead. The more aware you are, the smoother it will be, and it will take a lot of pressure and stress off the shoulders of the players with disabilities attending your larp.
Do not “out” the persons. Taking their disabilities into account doesn’t mean you have the right to tell anyone else (except the medical team, after asking for explicit consent from the player, and the kitchen team if it has something to do with food) about which disease, difficulty, or disability of any kind they encounter. Ask them if they need you to pass some informations to the other players, what they need, and what would make their life easier in your larp; but don’t assume how to behave and who to tell it to.
Take them seriously. If a player tells you they have specific needs, assume they do. It is not your job to diagnose them with hypochondria or to dismiss their demands because you think they would be “privileged”. Likewise, needless to say that blaming or shaming a player for being incapable to pursue a scene or perform a role because of a disability is out of question.
I went to a larp last week-end as a roving NPC. And several things turned out problematic. First, I asked the game masters to play characters such as fighting monsters. I explained them that I didn’t have the social skills to play a human character (permanent NPC, in practice almost a PC). So it’s not just a preference, it’s really important. And they know it, because they know I’m autistic. […] I’ve been told “yes”. I would have understood a “No” or “We can’t promise anything”.
And finally when I arrived, first, with the other roving NPCs we waited more than six hours after the start of the game to have our roles. In the meantime we’ve been told to do “entertainment play”. What I am incapable of with a such unclear guidelines (because of autism, I need clear and explicit guidelines).
Then we had our roles… Which were neither monsters, nor fighters. And in fact it was planned from the beginning. So I came to this larp on a false promise. (Charlie, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
If Charlie’s story demonstrates a (hopefully rare) case of grave neglect from the game masters towards a player (or in that case, NPC), it also shows how important it is to be able to listen, and to provide participants with a clear vision of what is going to happen in the game – and stick to it.
In short, people “like me”, to include them it is necessary to pay attention to various details. Explain things in a clear, explicit and complete manner (before larp in a written form then at the beginning of the larp). Make sure everything was understood. Do not change plans without notice, especially concerning the kind of characters or other critical game element. Mark the paths (signs, perhaps fluorescent patches). If NPC, clear and explicit guidelines, no implicit expectation or interdiction. Think of the issues concerning meals, sanitary, the need to withdraw from the game in a quiet space… to have a contact person who’s available (and caring). These are all small, simple things, but they’re important. (Charlie, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
Communication seems to be an obvious key feature of accessibility; it involves everyone, from the organizers to the players in general, between the players, between the organizers and each player with a disability, etc. Knowing what’s going to happen, who is accountable for it, and more importantly, who to rely on if anything turns bad, is crucial to be able to enjoy one’s larp experience – and before that, to even engage in it.
I need a good communication with my in-game partners, so that when I tell them “now I am tired in-game, and I’m tired because of my disability, I need to rest”, they let me rest. […] What reassures me, obviously, is precisely the possibility to have “calm” roles, a savant, a teacher, things like that, which are things I know won’t necessarily have me run around, or fight. […] and also to know the organizing team well, to extensively discuss with them prior to the larp. [On my last larp] we talked a lot via e-mail, about anticipating my disability, what was to be done to settle my problems, or if I personally have a [in-game] problem, etc. (Ange, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
Communicating is essential; but is it enough to make room for players with disabilities in a specific larp? We already mentioned that sometimes, practicalities are too heavy to manage to include everyone, especially without drastically rising the cost; but occasionally, the larp itself, in its core design, prevents accessibility. This is why we must address the question of accessibility along two lines: default inaccessibility (lack of awareness or communication) and design inaccessibility, which lies in the very vision of the larp… And has only begun raising questions.
Inaccessible: by default, or by design?
If I wanted to, say, make a survivalist larp based on drastic physical conditions, wouldn’t that be a tiny bit frustrating having to design towards accessibility – when it is, at its core, inaccessible? Shoshana Kessock retorts:
If a game is not physically accessible to disabled players for one reason or another, designers have taken away a player’s agency to opt in or out and instead set up obstacles to act as gatekeepers that bar players from even making that choice. (Kessock, 2017).
Indeed, if virtually 100% of games are accessible to ordinarily abled players, then making games which are, by design, inaccessible to players with disabilities drastically reduces the number of games they can attend, thus effectively discriminating players by keeping them from entering certain larps and larp spaces. Kessock also criticizes the notion of “authenticity to genre” which leads to explicitly ableist games; it is the same rhetoric as saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to play roles of power in historical larps, or that black players could only play dark elves, etc. In short, arguing that the game is more important that the players involved, or that the immersion would fail if some people were included, is discriminating.
However, game designers are most of the time volunteers, working for free: requiring them to adapt their larps for all disabilities can be a tough demand, both to their skills and their desires. That larp largely remains a non-profit, non-professional activity also means that it is not subject to the same kind of rules regarding accessibility as institutions or professional structures: this being told, it is legitimate to wonder if 100% accessibility is a horizon to aim for.
When somebody wrote a game, they made efforts so they still have the right to have, perhaps, some requests. But… I feel, I think that fortunately, there are enough games which don’t rely on this idea of an adequacy between the body and the character so that everybody finds something to suit their desires. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
Financial accessibility is also a tricky issue, which comes into contradiction with accessibility to disabilities: by designing towards the latter, cheap venues, makeshift setups, and generally speaking all playing-in-an-abandonned-building/unclaimed-piece-of-land games are out of question. As prices rise, so do the players’ average income: people with fragile economical situations are pushed even further away from the larp scenes – let’s not pretend larp is not mainly an upper-middle-class hobby; it is, both for cultural and economical reasons –, and with them, a number of persons with disabilities, as they are statistically more concerned by poverty than the general population3.
Just because the design challenge is difficult does not mean it should not be tackled. (Kessock, 2017)
Indeed, for numerous reasons, 100% accessibility is an impossible goal: however, we are very far from this number, and we certainly can extend our practice a great deal if we simply try – thus gradually fighting default inaccessibility. Inaccessibility by design is a trickier subject; indeed, if Kessock condemns games which willingly exclude players with disabilities because those larps take away their agency, maybe there could still be games which design inaccessibility would be justified, for example by educational or artistic purposes.
In the end I would say that there are games I can’t access because of some intrinsic feature of the game that it would be a pity to change, in my view, just to adapt it for me, because it would change the meaning of the game too much. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018)
My take on this is that most larps, even the most immersive or survivalist, could be rendered more interesting if they were designed towards greater accessibility. However, as Cécile remarks, no larp is fit for everyone: that is simply not possible. Although Kessock’s rhetoric provocatively states that a larp that is not accessible is a choice that players cannot make, all players experience some kind of limits which keep them from entering some larps: some people couldn’t participate in a horror larp, while others have to stay away from popular topics because of their own history, etc. Not all larps are for everybody; still, the more diverse the larps, the more likely it is that diverse players will find the right match. We have plenty of work to do to make larps accessible to more, and the offer is not yet as diversified as would be necessary for larp to be an activity in which discriminations are reduced to their possible minimum.
There are many areas a designer ought to consider from the beginning if they wish their games to be more accessible. They include: 1) The role of the disabled in the game’s world building and narrative 2) The question of how disabled and abled characters will be played, by whom, and how they are portrayed 3) Physical design of your game space and its availability for accessibility and/or disability accommodation 4) Consideration for equal treatment out-of-character within your player community. (Kessock, 2017)
Indeed, besides practicalities, many other things come into account; community and representations are huge issues, which are to be addressed if we want the logistical efforts to bear fruits – and indeed provide players with disabilities with comfortable and fulfilling game experiences.
Spaces to be played, games to be made
Techniques to sustain accessibility
Accessibility is not a marketed product, nor is it a stickfigure sitting in a half circle on a blue field; it is a conviction that all people should be treated as equal regardless of their abilities or other social or physical features. Because of it, it belongs in the greater project of inclusivity. And since, as you may have noticed, saying “but we never said we didn’t want people of color to attend!” has never led to any increase in the number of PoC who felt welcome in a larp, there’s no reason why it would be different with people with disabilities: this is why, in both cases, being inclusive requires a little bit more than that.
I have noticed, for quite a short time, maybe a year, slight progresses in the letters of intent4, where there’s a bit more precision. It is not always exhaustive, there are certain items which are often left aside – I myself forget some when I write letters of intent, being exhaustive is difficult –, but they try to warn, first of all, about the difficult themes addressed. That is something that has been done for a while and starts to be commonly used, but also, now, the more physical aspects, saying what is going to be expected physically of the players. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018)
The first, and easiest, way to make people with disabilities feel welcome inside a larp – besides having clearly established healthy communication and thought through some logistical arrangements –, is to make it clear that a player’s disabilities don’t have to pass along to their character. Indeed, if people are allowed to perform fire-breathing wizards or ancient, powerful vampires, they should also be entitled to play abled characters. Right? If it may appear complicated, because a wheelchair is slightly more tangible than a fireball (well, those we have in larps, anyway), pretending that a handicapped person is without disabilities is quite easy, really: it’s all about acting like they are.
Allowing disabled players to play non-disabled characters, essentially asking others to ignore their adaptive devices during play, is a form of making accommodation during a larp, bending the rules of the full immersion for the sake of making all roles in the game accessible. (Kessock, 2017)
Once more, communication is key; if the players haven’t been warned in advance that the game intended to be inclusive to people of all abilities, the abled players may inadvertently behave in a hurtful or improper way. If a person with an atrophied arm arrives in a larp and see half the players staring at them, the other half deliberately not watching in avoidance, they will not feel welcome. If a player with speech impairment participates in a larp, and some of their fellow players act annoyed at their difficulties, they won’t feel welcome. If someone shows signs of anxiety and is met with “you’re ruining the mood” comments, they won’t feel welcome – and will likely break down. I have been kicked off of a larp by an offended game master because I was having a panic attack as a result for practicalities (no running water, toilets, or plain ground to pitch a tent) not being communicated in advance of the game, and she felt I was just there to ruin her larp; believe me, I didn’t feel welcome.
Ensuring an atmosphere where everyone feels safe and acknowledged is extremely important: if it is not, then all of the efforts put into the larp, by the organizers who adapted the facility and the players who prepared for it, are worthless. Maury Brown, in an article called “Safety and Calibration Design Tools and Their Uses”, presents some techniques, mainly based on her own work and the work of Finnish writer Johanna Koljonen, to support a safe game space.
Overall, Safety & Calibration tools help create Cultures of Care and Trust by overtly signifying that participants take priority over the event. They model the expectations for how community members should behave toward one another. Safety and calibration mechanics actualize formerly implicit norms and empower players to make their own choices about what to participate in. Because they provide a method for quick player-player calibration, their use leads to more satisfying and safer role-play. A participant who feels safe, seen, and acknowledged feels more trust toward other participants and more willingness to engage in the shared experience. (Brown, 2018)
Those techniques, which I encourage you to go and check in her article, include: check-in tools to make sure, within the game, that everyone is okay with what is happening and that role-play is role-play, not real suffering; meta-techniques to allow players to opt out of a scene without having to explain or suffer consequences; pronoun markers and correction to avoid misgendering.
These techniques focus mainly on psychological safety and management of incidents within larp; as such, they are tools which can be used by game organizers to prevent physical or mental damage, but they can not substitute to a healthy playing atmosphere, and always need to be adapted to a larp’s specific needs. Insisting that no physical or mental abuse, harassment, nor any discriminating attitude will be tolerated in a larp is necessary to sustain all kind of inclusive framework.
No design tool is universal for every larp, and the same goes with safety and calibration techniques. Larp designers need to evaluate their design goals, their community, and their players to decide which tools will work well for them and that specific larp. A basis of a culture of care and trust is needed to a certain extent for role-play to happen and to be welcoming to a variety of players. Safety and Calibration tools help to establish that culture of care and trust, making for more meaningful and intense role-play. No tool will be one hundred percent perfect one hundred percent of the time for one hundred percent of your players, but designers need to consider the good that the tools do on balance with the annoyance or resistance to change they may encounter. (Brown, 2018)
However, these techniques do play a role in creating a safe atmosphere; by allowing opt-out and check-up mechanisms within the game design, they convey the message that it’s okay to feel bad or hurt, and that letting someone feel that way is not.
Safety & Calibration techniques (Koljonen 2016)5 allow participants to advocate for their own self-care by setting the expectation that one should speak up about one’s needs, lowering the burden of asking for help from others. They also establish an expectation for how players will treat each other in the community — with respect, compassion, and recognition. (Brown, 2018)
To Brand, though, these techniques can be useful when, and only when, more primary requirements are met. He warns about the risk incurred that the game would candidly use those techniques as the whole package of accessibility, when in fact, many more things would have been required to support it.
If I play a larp, I want to have an interesting character and to not be constrained by my handicap, not just say “pause!” when a problem occurs. It is good to have it too, but it’s so much like a band-aid on a wooden leg that we mustn’t take the risk that people stop at that (given the lack of articles on the topic, the risk is real). (Brand, personal e-mail, 2018)
When specifically dealing with disabilities, safety techniques alone will indeed not do the job. Game designers must, additionally, “play smart” – the specific needs of the players are, in fact, a great incentive for design inventiveness, and offer the opportunity to get off the beaten track and come up with newer ideas to create more diverse characters and plots. Cécile, who dreamed of playing a duelist in an XVIIth century game, cannot perform physical combat; instead, she asked to embody a former duelist, as fierce and fearless as any other. This very simple example shows how easy it is to adapt character archetypes so that they can be playable for everyone, without even changing anything to the core of the design. For her part, Riikka has some interesting stories to share, where her visual impairment was made into a design element sustaining an ever greater immersion.
I was a medium who had a session in a dark cellar room… She [her character] was contacting the dead, and what we did is I had this Braille display with me, and the game master was right behind me, behind a closed door, and she wrote with her computer and I read it in my Braille display. Then I brought all these messages there, and because it was dark, and they had this cloth on the table, the players didn’t even see the machine! It was so cool because I didn’t have to remember all these messages, I didn’t have to make it up, I just read them from there and it seemed like I just got the messages and… oooh! It was so cool! (Riikka, personal interview, 2018)
Having differently abled players in a larp is a chance to broaden and enrich our practice and our design, as illustrated by Riikka’s successful experiences. Even though sometimes, the challenge can seem too high, it is worth trying, and the diagonal thinking it requires is a great creative opportunity. For example, providing diegetic help (human or animal) for a player with disabilities can lead to all sorts of interesting narratives. A queen and her personal interpreter, a lawyer and their clerk, a warg and their bounded creature… There’s an endless number of possibilities to provide disabled players with compelling, exciting game opportunities: placing their characters in positions of power, as Cécile remarks, often helps, as they likely won’t have to “run after the game,” which could be challenging. Riikka, who is determined to open up larping possibilities for the visually impaired, is currently working on a larp designed for them to be the heroes, where the sighted players will act as diegetic support and partners6. By providing a safe space of experimentation and play for both the sighted and the visually impaired, she aims at proving the latter that their disability should not keep them from attending games intended for sighted people, and the former that including players with visual impairment is actually just as fun as playing with sighted players. If this particular larp is designed to make a point and can appear as providing players with visual deficiency with in-game privileges, this is probably not the purpose most larp should pursue: on the contrary, flexible designs that show that diverse abilities equal diverse play experiences for everyone should be further developed. For example, I trust that welcoming a deaf player and their interpreter is not a privilege granted to the player, but a compelling opportunity to provide, say, plots drawing on language barrier and subaltern power (the interpreter), which can add narrative layers to many characters.
By opening the way for practical access, another issue, and not the least, surfaces: representation. How can designers get out of the boxes they inadvertently confine people with disabilities, as well as other discriminated social categories, into?
That’s what I’m trying to do with these planned larps [Kätkössä katseilta is a short campaign larp], I want to get – like, do blind persons could be easily soldiers in a sighted larp? It never happens if you have these… Sighted men to do the thing, but… That’s so cool, that I want that once in a larp. (Riikka, personal interview, 2018)
designers may inadvertently set up obstacles which block disabled players from engaging with the game. Furthermore, I’ll go so far as to posit another argument: by not taking disabled players into account and allowing them to be under-represented or misrepresented through play, then the game in question and whatever narrative it crafts becomes inherently ableist. (Kessock, 2017)
What Kessock states here in a quite blunt manner, is that the representation coin is two-sided: there’s what disabled players are allowed to play, and how disabled characters are portrayed. Indeed, there is close to zero correlation between practical – formal, logistical – accessibility and actual access – welcoming and acknowledging –: harmful stereotypes, which effectively bar access to the people wrongfully portrayed, are legion.
A larp can be offensive while remaining practically accessible, and a larp can be totally safe for a group while at the same time making it impossible for this group to participate. (Brand, personal e-mail, 2018)
Representations of disabilities are perhaps the most critical question, since it is not merely about adapting a larp for someone to be able to attend it: it’s about designing a larp with a diversity of characters, beyond the default straight, abled, neurotypical, etc. combination. In fact, most everything regarding inclusivity could be summed up in this maxim: “do nothing by default” (Cazeneuve, 2018). Indeed, “default” representation is dominant representation – and there’s no being inclusive if characters outside the dominant norm are portrayed as exceptions.
In larps, almost all characters with disabilities there is have suffered from an accident or a wound […] there’s almost never a character with a visible or invisible disability induced by something else. […] [It is important] that the characters are not valid by default, knowing that in [real life] society, abled people are admittedly a majority, but not as overwhelming as it seems. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
However, allowing abled players to play characters with disabilities can be very problematic: the risk of performing harmful stereotypes, making fun of them, or contributing to real-life discriminations is high. As Brand remarks about the Scénaristerie larp I was talking about in the opening of this article, even though a game may look like it is providing representation, by emphasizing on stereotypical representation it is actually incredibly damaging and excluding towards the people concerned.
Way more disturbing that the previous point [I made], especially in a larp which is intended as “open and accessible to anyone”, in an association which shares this ambition (and I can do nothing but to associate with that, which is why I got interested in the association), I don’t see players in a situation of advanced obesity sign up for this larp. From what I read in the note of intent, there is no way to see this game proposal as a safe frame of play, where you won’t spend the best part of the day being humiliated or reduced to your condition. I cannot speak for all obese persons and I don’t intend to, but in my view, not having access to some larps is something, but there, we speak of avoiding a larp because it seems it was designed to make fun of people like you. (Brand, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
Such larps are indeed an extreme example; yet, on a smaller scale, this happens all the time, because staging or performing conditions which are unknown to us is problematic. Yet if players with disabilities must be given the possibility to play abled characters, and if disabled characters should be a part of the design to advocate for the representations of disabilities and for a more realistic narrative, then abled players must be allowed to play characters with disabilities. Be that as it may, the fact remains that it is far for simple.
Without time to research and understand the illness they’re being asked to portray, players may default to naturally offensive and harmful stereotypes, making the play space a hostile place for people who actually have those disabilities. (Kessock, 2017)
It is actually very complicated to perform autism in a respectful and correct way. And yet a person who is bipolar, schizophrenic, ADHD… may do it because there’s a lot of common points and they can figure what it is. But a NT person, it’s nearly impossible. And it’s the same for all development-related atypical traits (dyssynchronia, intellectual handicaps, personality disorders, schizophrenia…) because they have multiple, complex and invisible dimensions that the NT will ignore and/or can’t imagine. And honestly, I don’t think that a NT person playing such a role (even seriously), it would really help them being more respectful in their life or to really understand. (Charlie, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
Indeed, when struggling for equality and advocating against discrimination, there is one issue we are doomed to struggle with: the line between understanding and appropriation is thin, and so is the one between empathy and stereotypes.
In all three cases [neurotypical players playing neuroatypical characters, cursed or mystical characters, or “NA-coded characters” (characters which aren’t explicitly NA, but correspond to some stereotypes)] I find it very ableist […]. For example, a neurotypical person who plays the role of a schizophrenic or autistic person, even if they do their research, even if they try to do it properly and to not go towards a caricature, I think that in 99% of cases it will necessarily lead to an ableist performance. Because people who didn’t experience atypical symptoms, they can’t understand the specificities (of personality, feeling, cognitive/emotional/sensory/executive/motor operation) which come with it, they will only see its surface at best (for example, they will see that someone stutters, but they won’t know exactly how they stutter, in which circumstances does it trigger, etc.). They won’t understand either what it implies socially to live in an ableist environment, how it shapes our own feelings and reactions everyday. (Charlie, personal e-mail, 2018. Translated from French)
Indeed, it is impossible to truly step into someone else’s shoes. Playing an Asian woman for ten hours cannot make a white player experience the reality of fetishization and objectification of actual Asian women. However, my opinion is that preventing players for performing roles that are far from home deprives larp of its greatest power, the ability to broaden the conscience of the self and the understanding of alterity. Larp is one of the few medias in which referring or relating to existences that are different from ours can be done in a safe way, staged and questioned with care; in a culture of trust and respect, to rephrase Maury Brown, larp can be used to sensitize people to discriminations experienced by others, and, as we will argue later, to improve one’s agency about their own oppressions.
Oppression play is not something to be engaged in lightly, especially if you plan to open larp to international audiences and invite PoC. You cannot just invent factions that call for racist stereotypes, and then say, “These aren’t racist, we just wanted to introduce oppression play.” One can’t simply write a larp about the Western expansion in America and then conveniently tell players that people of color are available to play without understanding what oppression play around that entails. Trying to escape it by handwaving away racism, ends up erasing PoC and their histories as well. (Kemper, 2017)
In order to address oppressed identities in a sensitive and realistic way, we must, then, occupy the field between erasure and stigma: in that case, make room for disabled characters where they actually are, in a caring, interesting manner, just as would be done for defaultly abled characters. A disability is part of someone’s identity and experience, but never can they be reduced to this: similarly, characters with disabilities must by no means be defined by their disability.
Never have I seen a character who looked like me, and it’s true that I would like, some day, not to play it myself but I would like it to exist in games, just as I would like characters who look like me to exist in fictions. It is always about feeling represented. (Cécile, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
As representation grows, so do the opportunities for emancipation and empowerment: indeed, players with disabilities may carry with them the weight of their own systemic oppression without even being conscious of it. Larps, by providing chances to play upon aspects of one’s own life as well as extraordinary traits, is a tool for emancipation, as conceived by game designer and researcher Jonaya Kemper.
Role-play for emancipation
Creating a narrative of liberation for oneself is a revolutionary act. Larp as a medium is not a luxury to be discarded, it is a tool for self-liberation. (Kemper, 2017)
For Kemper, larp was a life-changing experience, one she had wanted to have since she was a kid. Indeed, imagination allows for the questioning and reshaping of the world: in larp, the embodiment of shared fantasies can be used, according to her, as an emancipatory experience that could lead to reconfigure oppressions outside larp and free oneself from them. Furthermore, she argues that larp changed all of our lives, even though we won’t always admit it: and from my own perspective today, I clearly cannot disagree.
“You may not say it because people think that it’s silly. Play is silly. It’s for children. But you know what? Children aren’t stupid.” (Kemper, 2018. Personal note-taking)
Play out of one’s oppression is not easy, and self-censorship happens all the time, in larp as in “real” life. Would a female player want to play a warrior, she may decide against it, because she doesn’t think she could be as good as some men, that she needs to be the best female fighter in order to participate, or simply because that’s too much pressure for her to really have fun.
By default I still have some self-censorship, which is a mix between what I can’t do, physically speaking, and what I can’t do precisely because I don’t feel legitimate, I don’t feel good or experienced enough to do it. But I really have some kind of censorship towards everything that is really physical, technical, all that. I know that a good deal of roles of druids, wizards, or savants at most, require to perform quite precise gestures: these are things which I am bloody interested in because there’s all this spiritual learning, language skill etc. besides, that’s very interesting, but there’s a strong aspect that’s motor ability, gestures and all that, that prevents myself from doing it because I know that I wouldn’t be very good. (Ange, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
Ange’s feeling is not a marginal feeling; when dealing with oppression and difficulties on a daily basis, most people experience something similar to what feminist theory call “glass ceiling”. The glass ceiling is the idea that social minorities face invisible barriers which prevent them from accessing higher social functions. Because everything is more difficult when in a situation of discrimination, the idea is that the persons have to “try twice as hard” as if they were dominant, thus leading to be under-represented and -acknowledged.
There’s a psychological impediment which makes us think, as for any other activity, “I am handicapped, so this activity is going to be harder for me than for an abled person”. (Ange, personal interview, 2018. Translated from French)
However, larp could be the very activity in which glass ceilings can be shattered: indeed, games are distinct from ordinary life in space and time, and constitute a framework where different modes of interaction are enacted. In larps provided by a culture of care and respect, self-exploration and emancipation should be possible, and benefit the people regardless of their oppression.
Larp provides what Sarah Lynne Bowman calls “trying on different hats” of self-hood. (Bowman, 2010)7 She states, “Role-playing environments provide a safe atmosphere and experience for people to collectively enact new modes of self-expression and experience a sense of ego permeability while still maintaining their primary identity in the ‘real world.’” (Kemper, 2017)
Those frames of emancipation can be encouraged by game designers, as Riikka does by creating a larp which aims precisely at that: showing that the limits visually impaired players encounter can be overcome, and contributing to their liberation. Similarly, Brand suggested that some interesting, non-stereotypical roles could be reserved for overweight people, in order to encourage them to participate and make them feel there’s room for them; then again, communicating and designing towards accessibility is something game designers can and should do, but it mustn’t take away the players’ agency, or make choices in their stead.
When I’m playing with sighted people, they find everything. My player [slippage; character] wants to find things, and uh… I was in a larp where there were a lot of closed doors, and then the keys where found one by one, and then they opened the doors, and they found these new rooms with diaries, and items, things like that… And I was always the one who followed the others. And oh! How I dream of doing like, this game where there’s an apartment, and clues or whatever there, and then these blind players can go there and feel around, and search for things, and read some messages and find some strange items and… They can be the ones who find it.” (Riikka, personal interview, 2018)
In order to accompany one’s liberation through larp and favor bleeding out, i.e. getting intimately affected by the character’s emotions and experiences, as a means for fighting internalized oppression and come back in the “real world” empowered, Jonaya Kemper designed a method, which I reproduce here based on my note-taking at her Knutpunkt talk about emancipatory bleed.
Identify what you want. Identify a common oppression with the character.
Pre-larp activities to invoke pre-bleed. Write about the character, costume carefully, listen to music, read related books (read things your character may have read) etc. Use visual connection between real and in-game life (for example, use in game a prop which has a strong emotional value in “real” life). Props are essential.
Steer for liberation. During the larp: talk to your co-players to ensure that everything is okay (for example, if you want to experience racism in game, it may be useful to warn the other players that you want them to make you feel it). Create in game ephemera: do what you won’t do outside of the diegetic space.
Post-larp reflection. Narrative write-up, autoethnography. “An autoethnography carries beings of the world outside another one”. Analyze narrative write-up (in game letters, diary…) (Kemper, 2018. Personal note-taking)
Kemper advises to steer, to orient the game in a direction that can ultimately lead us to experience things that we wouldn’t experience in our ordinary life, but that we can bring back with us and feel empowered. Being fully acknowledged as their true self in a larp doesn’t make a trans or non-binary person less subject to transphobia in their out of game life; but it may give them room to breathe, think, and gain power over their oppression. If this is true of gender and race discrimination, there is no reason why disabilities should be left out: through larps, anyone’s experience can be broadened and self-appropriated, and it is the duty of all players and designers to make it so.
However extensive, this paper doesn’t provide any proper tool to manage larp accessibility; the package for inclusive larping created by Finnish players and game-designers (“Huomioi helposti”, 2018), which should be made available in English soon, will undoubtedly provide larpers with more practical content. Nevertheless, by conveying the experiences of some players with different disabilities, this paper may successfully participate in raising awareness on this topic. Drawing conclusions from it, we may indeed pull out some base principles, regarding our attitude as players and designers, ordinarily or differently abled.
First, we must make sure we create a safe environment for all people to speak and feel welcome in. For this, we need to communicate and ask all players about their needs and desires. When interacting with players with disabilities or other specific needs, we need to be careful not to get them to do “accessibility work” for free, but instead make it into a balanced, constructive exchange.
Second, we must remember that there is nothing more important than the players’ well-being and safety, and that no game is worth causing unsolicited suffering, whether it is by intent, or by neglect. We need to care and assist others and ourselves: working as a team is probably necessary to be able to support all players and not be overwhelmed oneself.
Third, we need to be grateful for the opportunity to be creative, and consider including players with different disabilities, as players of all genders, sexualities, origins and social background, as a chance to improve our design and expand our horizon. Doing this also means, on the topic we were most concerned for here, that we have to be careful not to make our characters abled by default, and not to let a disability define a character’s identity. An inclusive larp is a larp in which all players feel welcome regardless of their gender, race, class, ability, etc.: we must take all of these specific needs and oppressions into account, in order to provide a greater, safer larp scene. However, we must not fail to consider financial accessibility in this process, since I suspect class may be the least visible, but certainly not the least frequent, discrimination in larps.
People with disabilities, as well as queer people, racialized people, and generally all people deviating from the hegemonic cultural norm, are valid members of the society. They, we are as worthy as any other: keeping diverse people out of larp simply because they have different needs is not acceptable, and I believe we larpers must collectively fight and work towards inclusion of the greatest number. Larp is a place of self-exploration, a safe, alternate reality where players can experience otherness, and come back with useful and empowering experiences. We all deserve it: so let’s go and get it.
Brown, Maury. “Safety and Calibration Design Tools and Their Uses” in Shuffling the Deck: The Knutpunkt 2018 Companion, 2018 [online]. https://nordiclarp.org/2018/01/24/safety-calibration-design-tools-uses/ [Accessed June 29th, 2018]
Cazeneuve, Axelle. “How to queer up a larp: a larpwright’s guide to overthrowing gender binary”. MittelPunkt larp convention, 2018 (forthcoming)
Elise H. et Mathieu L., « GN et handicap : comment rendre notre activité plus accessible ? ». Electro-GN [website], 2016. https://www.electro-gn.com/10973-gn-et-handicap-comment-rendre-notre-activite-plus-accessible [Accessed June 29th, 2018]
“Huomioi helposti: inklusiivisempaa larppausta”, Helsinki, 2018. https://turvallisempaa.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/inklusiivisempaa-larppausta_v1-0.pdf [Accessed August 3rd, 2018]
Kemper, Jonaya. “More Than a Seat at the Feasting Table” in Shuffling the Deck: The Knutpunkt 2018 Companion, 2018 [online]. https://nordiclarp.org/2018/01/24/safety-calibration-design-tools-uses/ [Accessed June 29th, 2018]
Kemper, Jonaya. “Bleeding Out: Steering for Emancipatory Bleed”. Talk at Knutpunkt, Lund, 2018.
Kessock, Shoshana. “The Absence of Disabled Bodies in Larp” in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories: The Knutepunkt 2017 Companion, 2017 [online]. https://nordiclarp.org/2017/02/14/the-absence-of-disabled-bodies-in-larp/ [Accessed June 29th, 2018]
All other quotations come from personal interviews led by, and e-mails addressed to, the author, upon agreement with the persons cited.
1From able with the suffix -ist, ableist characterizes a form of discrimination based of diabilities.
2The name was changed.
3“In 2013, about 30 % of the population aged 16 or more in the EU-28 and having an activity limitation was at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared with 22 % of those with no limitation. Similar results were obtained for the at-risk-of-poverty rate (19 % vs. 15 %), severe material deprivation rate (13 % vs. 8 %) and the share of individuals aged less than 60 and living in households with very low work intensity (24 % vs. 8 %). The latter result reflects a more difficult access to the labour market for people with activity limitation.” (Eurostat statistics, “Disability statistics – poverty and income inequalities”, 2015 [online])
4I have been unable to find the English equivalent of the French “lettre d’intention”, which designates a short document, usually a few pages long, which exposes the vision of the game designers towards a larp. It could be similar to the first part of a design document.
5Quoted in Brown, 2018. There are four bibliographic references for Koljonen, Johanna in the year 2016, so it is unclear which work is referred to here.
6This larp will be co-created with the players during workshops and take place in Helsinki on September 7-8th. If you’re a Finnish speaker and always dreamed of playing a magical creature such as The Golden Compass’s daemons, you might want to attend the first session of Kätkössä katseilta! You need not be too picky about food however, since I’ll be cooking it ;).
7I was unable to procure the book for this article. The reference, as cited in Kemper, 2017, is the following: Bowman, S. L. (2010). Role-Playing as Alteration of Identity. In S. L. Bowman, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity (pp. 127-154). McFarland & Co.