Tears Are A Cheap Shot
Updated: Feb 25
About a decade ago, the unofficial slogan of the Sinking Ship larp at the time was “we make our players cry.” It was an extremely popular slogan, and honestly why people came. Something about watching your friends die, your world collapse, and bawling your eyes out… then coming back to reality and having it be okay… was extremely cathartic.
Actually, it’s kind of the definition of catharsis (the literal definition of catharsis is actually kind of problematic, but Aristotle was a raging chauvinist). In theater, catharsis refers to the purging of emotions that occurs when engaging with tragedy. It differs from comedy, which instills pleasure with delight, in that it delivers pleasure from the release of pain. When you engage with tragedy, you release the painful feelings trapped within you, and feel better from the release.
Which, of course, makes the statement “larp isn’t therapy” problematic as well. While we can’t argue “larp shouldn’t be therapy,” any engagement with catharsis is inherently therapeutic. Generally, larp isn’t practiced as healthcare, larp designers aren’t licensed as practitioners, but participants will still seek out the therapeutic aspects of catharsis the same way people will seek out any sort of cathartic engagement. This raises the question, “is catharsis ethical?” Our answer: presenting catharsis as a cure or treatment to our participants would be unethical, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with someone improving their quality through the cathartic power of larp.
That said, from a design perspective, there’s some serious problems with the grip that catharsis has on the American freeform larp scene. There’s an increasing focus on Type 2 larp, which generally focus on catharsis as the payoff of engagement: you play in an uncomfortable or stressful situation, and then afterward value the experience. While some designers do make participants uncomfortable without the goal of tears (Caro Murphy comes to mind), there’s a lot of “crying larps” out there (and we’ve written more than our fair share). This obsession with making our participants cry leads to a number of problems. To name a few:
Larp designers are not your fucking dom(me)s. But we’re human, and respond to positive feedback, and tears are a very clear sign that the participant is engaged emotionally with our work. And positive feedback reinforces behavior, and we end up trying to repeat the experience, with the goal of a similar, dramatic response. The problem? We’re supposed to be telling a story, not directly evoking emotional pain to allow for a purge. When tears become the goal, as opposed to the artistic expression of the larp, then we’re not providing a design as much as emotional topping.
We’re not drug dealers either. Like a drug, participants become acclimated to the emotional rigors of larp. There’s only so many times you can role-play having your loved one die before you just don’t get the same response. The quest for tears becomes an artistic block as old tropes and techniques no longer work, due to overuse, and design focus shifts to finding even deeper traumas to explore, often at the expense of creativity and quality of play.
There’s so much more out there. The success of Goatlarp in 2019 shows that people do like comedy in larp. After fantasy and tragedy, the most common larp genre might be horror, which provides catharsis through fear instead of emotional pain. Fewer still larps address romance and sexuality (compare the number of times you’ve kissed someone in larp versus the number of times you’ve killed someone). But these genres are hard, and designers can focus on tragedy (and the catharsis that follows) with faster success.
This last point might cause the most trouble for us as a design community. Even if you’re in a feedback loop of Type 2 fun, you can still be artistic and create amazing designs. In fact, you might achieve more mature designs than if you worked towards a different effect: if you’re like us, you have thousands of hours of design work with the goal of catharsis, and maybe a few dozen towards the goal of making someone laugh. It’s the fixation we lament: how many amazing comedy larps will we never write because of our obsession with tears?