How to queer up a larp: a larpwright’s guide to overthrowing the gender binary

Note: This paper was originally published in the Mittelpunkt 2018 anthology (Rafael Bienia et Gerke Schilckmann (dir.), Larp: geschlechter(rollen), Zauberfeder Verlag, Braunschweig, 2018), under the title « How to queer up a larp: a larpwright’s guide to overthrowing gender binary ». Reproduced with permission of the editor.

Abstract: Based on an introductory analysis of norm reproduction and on a panel held in BEtaLARP, Belgium, in January 2018, this paper discusses different methods to write characters in a way that makes gender a relevant part of the design, not barely a default feature of the characters.

Résumé : S’appuyant sur une analyse introductive de la reproduction des normes et sur une table ronde menée à BEtaLARP, Belgique, en janvier 2018, cet article discute différentes méthodes d’écriture de personnages qui font du genre une part pertinente du design, et pas seulement une caractéristique par défaut de ceux-ci.


Everything is political, if we agree with Aristotle’s take on politics as everything concerning the polis, i.e. the organized state of humans living together; and, as is only fair, larp makes no exception. If most of the fantasy role-playing games have kept avoiding the subject, pretending that there is something like non-political collective activities, some larpwrights and larp cultures have nonetheless been addressing the issue frontally: this is true, for example, of most of the nordic larp scene, in which larp as strayed from being “merely play” for more than two decades. The dedicated website, nordiclarp.org, thus states, in a brief article aptly named “What is Nordic Larp?”: “The goal in these games is to affect the players long term, to perhaps change the way they see themselves or how they act in society2.

This statement may seem audacious; however, in this paper, I will argue that it is not yet daring enough, and that even the pettiest of larps has the power to act on the players’ insight, both on their own actions and on social norms. Indeed, I hereby aim to explore one of the world’s trendiest topics, namely the outdatedness of gender binary, and reflect on how larpwrights can participate in rendering it obsolete, not only within the contents of the larps, but through writing strategies in the creation of larp characters – I thus posit empathy and identification with one’s character as powerful levers to induce individual and collective questioning. This question, which is especially aimed at game designers creating games in which characters are pre-written regardless of the players’ own gender, was previously addressed during a panel I held in BEtaLARP, a Belgian larp convention, in January 2018. This paper thus attempts to draw conclusions from this discussion and establish a typology of adaptive writing strategies for different larps and design purposes; first, however, a short detour through sociology and art studies is necessary in order to explain why exactly we should bother at all questioning our character-writing techniques.

Understand the structure of norms…

Live-action role-playing games are a peculiar thing: stepping apart from daily life, they operate the creation of a collective, yet imaginary and ephemeral, shared social world. As such, the same constraints of intelligibility and inter-subjectivity as paramount reality (Berger, Luckmann, 1967), i.e. the “real reality”, apply to this shared world: indeed, throughout our lives, we learn languages, gestures, postures, norms, etc. which shape the way individuals behave and exist altogether within the “same” world – at least in reference to something we consensually call “reality”. In other words, we need to somehow agree on how to live together: the following arrangement then discriminates between what is normal and what is not – the norm, and the deviation. Needless to say, though, that the shaping of the norms is not a democratic process, but occurs without us actively taking part in the decision – unlike in larp –; rather, it is made by the repetition of certain behaviors by most. The norm is iterative, which means it relies on continuous repetition of itself (Butler, 2011): to give a simplistic example, if the norm is for women to have long hair, it is because most persons identifying as women have long hair, which leads persons who identify as women to have long hair, and so on.

Logically, mimetic activities – such as imitation, representation, of mimicry – are then some of the most powerful tools for human and animal learning (Schaeffer, 1999; Gebauer & Wulf, 2004); by indulging, as kids, in activities such as pretending to cook dinner or scolding our toys, we manifest that we are learning what behavior is deemed proper, or expected of a grown-up, fitting member of society – we, in short, reproduce the norm. As adults, when we cook actual dinner or scold our kids, what we do is no different: we apply a model that we learned through observation and imitation, and allow it to perpetrate as we become models ourselves.

According to this approach, nearly all human actions, collective and individual, effect on reality (which strictly refers, in this text, to what is commonly considered as constituting the world in which humans of a similar culture live in, regardless of any notion of “truth” or “objectivity” (Caïra, 2011; Berger, Luckmann, 1967)): in the perspective I’m defending here, however, all collective role-playing activities even stand a greater political responsibility, as they emphasize the role of mimetic activities in the construction of social reality. In role-playing games, the reference to the shared reality of the players and the deflecting use that is made of its elements in order to construct a common narrative is explicit: as Gary Alan Fine puts it about table-top RPG, “Each gaming group interprets, defines, and transforms cultural elements in its sphere of knowledge into the cultural framework of an imagined society” (Fine, 2002:2). In the process of translating norms into an imagined world, the iterative structure of imitation is revealed as being at the same time a condition of reproduction of social schemes and the possibility to subvert them – to alter, appropriate and affect them from the inside.

The reproduction process is gravely unstable: let us come back to our topic, namely gender – and the way that it shapes, and is shaped by, the reality we share. Judith Butler states that “sex” as a social construct “is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration” (Butler, 2011:XIX): as such, performing sex (or gender), whether it is in “real life” or within larp contexts, runs the risk of reproducing social norms and stereotypes, while at the same time offering opportunities to rework and subvert them… In the perspective of politically engaged art and game design, it is the responsibility of the larpwrights to take those norms into account, and hack them.

…and hack it.

Norms are similar to genes; they carry information which are then transcribed and translated into each individual. Much like genes, too, the tiniest alteration in the translation process can effect the way they will be copied into the structure, thus changing, ever so slightly, the DNA of our society. The concept of meme, coined by Richard Dawkins in a 1989 book called The Selfish Gene, conveys this idea: according to Wikipedia, “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme3. Larp is a unique media, which altogether uses writing, speech, gestures, and resembles a ritual – as Joseph P. Laycock remarks about table-top RPG using Levi Strauss’ distinction between games (disjunctive) and rituals (conjunctive): when, in most games, players start as equal and come to be differentiated through play, a role-playing game, as ritual, “creates a union between groups that are initially distinct” (Laycock, 2015:37). Therefore, larp offers the possibility to fight norms on many sides: those opportunities include in-game content (themes of the larp, plots, universe, diegetic norms, etc.), rules (metatechniques, safewords, etc.), accessibility (race and gender inclusivity, patronage of debuting or financially poor players, adjustments on disabilities and religions, etc.), communication about the game (gender-neutral e-mails, larpwrights’ vision, etc.), and design choices (characters, workshops, etc.). For example, the larp Mad About the Boy by Tor Kjetil Edland, Margrete Raaum and Trine Lise Lindahl questions gender dynamics through an all-female society (content); gender or race can be signified by ribbons of colors to establish them as social construct (rules); communication may insist on welcoming all players regardless of gender (accessibility and communication); workshops are used to analyze and recreate gestures and attitudes attached to gender expression (design choices).

When writing larps for which characters are created prior to casting, one of the design choices we have to be careful about is how do we introduce and portray those characters: indeed, they must be thought of as participating in the normative process by offering a representation of a certain social category. Think of representations as a catalogue, from which each person has to pick different traits and features to manifest who they are. Imagine, for example, a female-identifying youngster who gets asked what does she want to do with her life; if she opens the catalogue and three-quarters of what she sees is preschool teachers, nurses, or mothers, she might not have the idea of answering “fire-fighter”, while a male-identifying youngster might on the contrary not have the idea of becoming a nurse. By creating characters who don’t fit the main pages of the gender catalogue, larpwrights, as all visual, performing, and literary artists, add new, even though small, entries to it. In order to multiply those entries and make the table of contents an impossible mess, I will thus here, by quoting reflections from the participants to the BEtaLARP panel “Dégenrer pour déranger : stratégies pour un GN queer” (available as audio for French speakers on the Facebook page of About LARP (Cazeneuve, 2018a), or as a report on the website larpinprogress.com (Cazeneuve, 2018b)), interrogate different character-writing strategies on the matter of gender. This paper will ponder the usefulness of assigning characters a gender as well as different gendering possibilities, then reflect on the importance of the vision in writing a larp and emphasize that character-writing is but a tool serving the creation of a consistent narrative. Through this, we will keep in mind one common purpose: denouncing the arbitrariness of gender and taking steps to overthrow it.

Workshopping strategies at BEtaLARP

The possibilities I listed in preparation of the panel were a number of five: we collectively imagined two more. All of them focused on how to avoid to write or give to play involuntary stereotypical characters, by extracting them from global gender norms. They went as follows: please note, however, that the discussion was held in French, a language in which even things have genders, and speech neutrality can only be achieved by tinkering with the rules of grammar. Since this paper is primarily intended for a German audience, which may encounter similar difficulties, I chose to maintain those culturally determined possibilities; however, the reader may want to skip options 2) and 3) if they feel the concern isn’t likely to echo with their own issues.

  1. Neuter gender – “they” (French “iel”, which is an unofficial mash-up of masculine pronoun il and feminine pronoun elle) or “you” (“tu/vous”). This strategy presents the advantage of limiting the risk of unconsciously writing stereotypes, by not assigning characters a gender. It is also a simple way to avoid gender-identification problems for the player. However, neuter gender doesn’t challenge gender as a norm, since the players will likely project their own gender onto the character.

  2. Feminine neutral – “she” as a default pronoun (“elle”). In French, “neuter” gender is masculine “il” (“he”); using “she” as neutral – giving the player the possibility to change the pronoun of their character – is unusual, therefore likely to question the players about the regular use of masculine as neutral. This strategy doesn’t apply to English, or languages which offer the possibility of a neuter gender for humans.

  3. Masculine neutral – “he” as a default pronoun (“il”). As previously said, in French, the grammatical masculine gender acts as “neuter”; this writing choice is thus the most normative, and is of little interest to our approach.

  4. Multiple genders – the same character is written as “he” and “she” (+) (“il/elle”). This option is the heaviest, as it implies to adapt the same character sheet in at least two almost identical versions, one of which will be feminine, the other masculine. In French, grammatical genders determine the construction of verbs and adjective: therefore, gender-neutral characters are complicated to build, and the tinkering it requires is often deemed heavy, especially to those who aren’t accustomed to it. Assigning the character not one gender but two is a way, for the designer, to nuance the gender issues without imposing them on the player: some slight changes in the background may be required as gender is switched, in order to make them more relevant to the story. However, this strategy isn’t very cost-effective, and is a better fit for semi-scripted games, with a narrative structure built as a flowchart, including a brief background and short scenes.

  5. The gender of the characters is irrelevant to the gender of the players – “he/she/they/+”, whatever the player’s gender is. A variant of this is completely gender-swapped games, where players have to play characters which gender is different from theirs. First, please note that this option is to use with care, since unknowingly asking a transgender person to play a character of their assigned gender could be extremely painful. Make sure that you offer the players the possibility to play a specific gender if they want to, without them having to justify their choice. However, the communication about the game should state that the intention is to (safely) lead people out of their comfort zone on the matter of gender: by imposing the gender of a character, but making it irrelevant to the player’s own gender, the possibility emerges for players who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to do so to embody a gender that isn’t theirs, therefore unmasking the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender. However, without appropriate workshops to support gender performance, some players would likely fall back into stereotypes, or act their character’s gender as their own.

  6. Agender universe – non-existent gender. This strategy exceeds mere character writing, since it consists in completely removing gender from the universe, as many science-fiction novels intend to do – with more or less success. Indeed, intending to remove gender doesn’t typically lead to its actual dissolution, since the players, or readers, are gendered and have most probably lived in a society where gender matters. Abstract, surrealist games where all attitudes, postures, body language and interaction structure are workshopped are, however, suitable for agender settings. Nonetheless, physical appearance is still likely to induce unconscious behaviors; come out of the binary is much more difficult than reversing it, and requires some design tools to achieve it.

  7. More genders and/or more sexes – going past gender binary or female/male “faders”. From Isaac Asimov’s novel The God Themselves’ three sexes to the five genders of the Bugis of Sulawesi, fictional and actual cultures offer plenty of examples of gender and sex non-binary. Creatures with metamorphic powers, entities of diverse genders sharing the same body, transhumanist perspective on psychological and physical fluidity… are other possibilities, among an infinite amount of more or less close to home non-binary options. They offer numerous opportunities to expand our views of gender, as well as other social structures and intimate experiences.

As we discussed the elaboration and use of these writing bias, we quickly came to the realization that they were all valid; the real question, however, was to know when and why to use them. Therefore, we instead focused on the relevance of each strategy according to the vision of the larpwrights and the goals they pursue.

Gender is not a primary feature

Discussing this typology led us to identify one major issue, which impacts character-writing as it is a definite feature of ordinary life: gender is a basic data, an apparently irreducible aspect of how we see and experience the world and the people around us. The difficulty we may encounter not to assign a character a gender springs from the trivial experience of gender as something everybody is supposed to have. However, if gender does effect language, either in the pronouns that most European languages use or in the terms we use to designate a person (typically woman or man), gender assignment mechanisms are a lot more wider than apparently simple taxonomic purposes. Indeed, gender assignment is a process through which we predicate a certain category about someone without their explicit approval: these categories are attributed mostly based on external features, such as the shape of a newborn’s genitals, the clothing, the presence of an Adam’s apple, etc. The consequences are countless: with a perceived gender category come numeral biases, prohibitions and prescriptions, as well as contrasted rights and ways to appear in public spaces. Refusing to act according to one’s perceived gender norms is dangerous, often even deadly: this is why it is necessary to set the categories loose, to weaken them, take them apart.

In this, larp can perhaps play a role: by neutralizing gender – literally, rendering it neutral, but also harmless –, character-writing can manifest that gender has to be neither binary, nor central in the understanding of social relations. Consequently, assigning a character a gender must be done only if it is useful and relevant to the game – for example, if the game aims to highlight gender-based discrimination. Gender, an apparently mundane and “natural” data, acquires a new dimension in the narrative, subject to the dramatic principle called Chekhov’s gun after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who used the metaphor of a rifle hanging from the wall in the beginning of a play to support that it should either be used, or not be there at all: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story4. Then, gender becomes fully part of the game design, and must be left aside if it isn’t needed, or on the contrary emphasized, questioned, or augmented.

So we must wonder: should we neutralize gender through the characters, or instead, the universe? One can argue that building a diegetic language using “feminine” neutral has more impact than mere character-writing, because it effects the entirety of the social relations and mindset within larp. However, chances are that using a different language will be experienced as exterior to the player, as performing a different accent: when gender trouble (Butler, 1990) is about one’s character, it is a much more intimate feeling. Indeed, the player has to question their own gender identity and experience, as well as the many ways people of different genders experience the world and how it affects them and society. One participant of the BEtaLARP panel sorted this dilemma out by pointing to the fact that both strategies are valid, but match different design logics and visions, as well as different character-writing strategies. The question is: do we aim at deconstructing fiction, or gendered social relations? Indeed, using neuter pronouns to write characters is a way of making the weight of gender assignation lighter for the players and to avoid inadvertently writing stereotypes, while detaching the character’s gender from that of the player can support enlightenment about the reality of social relations, and augmenting or suppressing gender within the game universe manifests gender binary is only one of many options. For example, a game using strong binary can be used to serve a feminist critique of social norms, while a surrealistic, non-gendered game can be set to address human condition beyond taxonomic features. The point lies in the larpwrights’ vision: hence the crucial importance of making it clear.

Larp as a social contract

Larp is, at its core, a social contract signed by both the participants and the organizers which establishes reciprocal behaviors, rights and duties. Unlike the paramount social contract, i.e. the one we agree to by living in a certain space governed by certain institutions, it is entered willingly: however, one can only freely accept a contract if they know what’s in it. This is why all writing strategies require to be explicitly stated before the players sign in for the game, and to always leave the possibility for them to opt out of certain configurations or characters, for example when the game offers the players to play different genders than theirs. The choices the larpwrights make regarding gender, as well as all vectors of oppression, must clearly appear in the vision, typically in the form of a letter of intent made available at the same time that the larp is announced.

This clarification is a win-win; first, it secures the players, second, it protects the organizers from encountering players who would not respect their vision due to a lack of understanding. To support the social contract, several narrative tools are then to be used in the making and setting of the game, so that it can run smoothly: character-writing strategies are one of them, as is universe construction, etc. Workshops, of course, are a powerful tool to set the mood and establish proper gender norms: indeed, no gender expression is innate, and although most people don’t realize that they have actually learned how to perform their gender, they have been practicing it their whole life – making it necessary to provide help for the people who act as another gender to not feel ill-at-ease or perpetuate stereotypes.

Workshops are a crucial part of using larp as a tool to deconstruct gender norms, to “queer up”; since this paper is already long enough, however, I will have to set the topic aside, and move to a conclusion.

Eventually, all writing strategies are tightly tied to the vision and purpose of the larpwrights. Rendering them explicit, although necessary in all games, is ever more crucial when those games address such sensitive topics as gender, or any other life-like source of oppression. To ensure that the players all freely consent to the game, it is also necessary to be careful in the pairing of the characters and players, and to make it easy for them to opt out.

Character design fully belongs in the design of the in-game universe and social relations; it is a narrative tool, as are workshops, rules, decor, or other useful element. Indeed, a larp aims to tell a story, highlight certain things, or more generally build a fiction carrying a vision, to which end proportionate means need to be set. Therefore, neutralizing gender can be appropriate to games where gender is irrelevant, or to detach the characters’ story of gender assignation; gender-swapping, adding other genders, distinguishing between a player’s gender and their character or suppressing gender entirely, however, make more sense with the purpose of deconstructing gender social relations as they are instituted in ordinary life. Moreover, larpwrights have to be careful not to gender characters for nothing, to only give characters a gender if it is relevant to the game vision; this Chekhov’s gun principle knocks gender off its pedestal of “essential feature” to relegate it as a “narrative tool”, serving the purpose of pointing out the arbitrary of gender.

Furthermore, new perspectives on anticipatory and psychological fictions pave the way to other possibilities to allow larp to accompany the deconstruction of oppressive social norms; so that long live larp activism.

References:

BERGER, P. L., LUCKMANN, T. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor, New York, 1967.

BUTLER, J. Bodies That Matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge, New York, 2011 [1993].

BUTLER, J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York, 1990.

CAÏRA, O. Définir la fiction : du roman au jeu d’échecs. Editions EHESS, Paris, 2011.

FINE, G. A. Shared Fantasy. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002 [1983].

GEBAUER, G. WULF, C., Jeux, rituels, gestes : les fondements mimétiques de l’action sociale. Anthropos, Paris, 2004.

SCHAEFFER, J-M. Pourquoi la fiction ? Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1999.

CAZENEUVE, A. “Dégenrer pour déranger : quelles stratégies pour un GN queer ?” . About LARP, Facebook, 2018a.

https://www.facebook.com/AboutLARP/videos/144083149719382/ [Accessed 07/23/2018]

CAZENEUVE, A. “Dégenrer pour déranger : table-ronde à BetaLarp 2018 (compte-rendu)” [review]. Larp in progress, 2018b.

https://larpinprogress.com/2018/02/25/degenrer-pour-deranger-table-ronde-a-betalarp-2018-compte-rendu/ [Accessed 07/23/2018]

1Although, for practical purposes and because I wrote and researched it, I sign this article with my sole name, it is important to take into account that its content is based on a collective discussion with many French and Belgian larpers, to whom I am very thankful.

4The Chekhov’s gun is a widely known principle: as such, it is difficult to trace back to one single quote or source. The present quotation was just simply taken from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov’s_gun

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