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  • Ryan Hart

People F*** Up, Part II: When Larpers Make Mistakes

Mistakes are going to happen, what are you going to do?


A larper cries over the relic of a lost loved one.

If you haven’t read Part I of this article, check it out. In it, we talk about risk management, and how we, as designers, seek to reduce the probability and severity of harm through something called controls. There are two types of controls: independent controls, which don’t rely on individual participants performing any mechanics, and dependent controls, which must be used properly by participants. Because a participant is a human being, they make mistakes, meaning dependent controls are inherently less reliable than independent controls. As such, let’s look at how larpers make mistakes.


A Matter of Trust

The first thing to remember is that a mistake is unintentional. When we talk about mistakes, we’re not talking about “bad actors” - individuals who intentionally take actions that cause harm. This doesn’t just include people who show up with malicious intent, but also those who don’t respond to feedback regarding their actions. Bad actors, by definition, subvert and disregard rules and risk controls, so dealing with them is always a problem. 


It’s actually less of a problem to address the people with malicious intent than it is to address people who don’t respond to feedback; there are reactive, passive, and active ways to deal with malicious bad actors. First, such people have a tendency to show you who they are. Once a bad actor reveals themself, they can be refused service in a variety of ways (such as flagging them for future larps). This is a reactive approach that keeps out people who have done something wrong but doesn’t prevent new bad actors from showing up. To prevent this, a larp organizer might add an anti-harassment policy to their website, or review the larp’s content to avoid attracting abusers, bigots, and others with malign intent. We’d call this a passive approach: it establishes that such bad actors won’t be tolerated, but it requires engagement from the staff to make it effective (an anti-harassment policy won’t do much if the larp organizer doesn’t enforce it). A best practice is to use active measures to dissuade malicious bad actors from even wanting to come to the larp. There are countless ways to do this, but they generally require integration with design and logistics, such as:

  • Having a diverse staff (employed in public-facing roles, not just as sensitivity readers).

  • Presenting content that appeals to a wider audience (and avoiding problematic settings - some fandoms are more toxic than others).

  • Openly presenting political leaning in your messaging (you’d rather someone be a jerk to you on the internet than have them show up at your larp).

However, all these tools rely on identifying, warning, or actively abjuring individuals with malign intent. The other type of bad actor doesn’t show up to the larp looking to cause harm… something happens during the larp to turn them into a bad actor.


People will make a mistake, but often, the harm from the mistake is minimal compared to the fallout that follows. Sometimes, people can do some really harmful things without realizing it. Then, when confronted with their actions, they get defensive. They try to explain why they were justified to do the harmful action, or worse, explain why it’s not actually harmful. They might dismiss it as a joke. At this point, a person who just made a mistake has become a bad actor. Preventing this sort of bad actor is much more difficult, but if you don’t, you’ll have to use reactive measures, like removing them from play. 

Larps rely on trust. After an organizer has shown their participants the steps they’ve taken to prevent bad actors from attending the larp, everyone has a degree of trust. Some people have more reservations than others, but at the beginning of a larp, all the participants trust each other enough to at least show up. Then mistakes start happening, and some of those trusted participants become bad actors. 


Accountability

Larpers often use the metaphor of the missing stair, where known bad actors are managed by spreading information, rather than confronting the individual and their behavior directly. Missing stairs are a problem, but not because no one knows who they are… it’s a problem because everyone knows but does nothing. Most larps with active risk management have controls to deal with missing stairs, usually by refusal of service (for example, vetting identifies individuals prior to sign-up and eliminates the hazard known bad actors represent by refusing to allow them in the larp). However, some people become bad actors over the course of the larp. They become aware their actions cause harm and don’t change. When this happens, a larp organizer must ensure they’re accountable for their actions.


Accountability has several parts. First, the larp organizer must inform them of their actions. At Sinking Ship Creations, we have best practices for this, and it’s almost always a producer (an individual in charge) or the risk monitor who does so. Second, the individual has to understand what they did wrong in order to continue participating with improved behavior. This isn’t a judgment on the person, but a requirement for them to change their behavior - if they don’t know what to do, they can’t do it. After that, they have to know the consequences if they don’t change their actions. And finally, those consequences have to be enforced. This process helps an individual avoid becoming a bad actor.


When accountability fails, it doesn’t just risk further harm on the part of the bad actor, but rather the integrity of the larp itself. It’s actually less likely that the same bad actor repeatedly causes harm at a larp because the missing stair theory will kick in and other participants will inform each other about the bad actor, and the bad actor will have less opportunity to cause harm again. A larger problem is the failure of accountability causes the participants to take risk management into their own hands, as the staff cannot be trusted to do so. With limited tools, they use social pressure on the perceived bad actor, who in many cases, still doesn’t know what they did wrong. This leads to a breakdown in trust, and without trust, from a participant’s perspective, the larp is suddenly full of potential bad actors. Worse, it’s on them to protect themselves, as the larp has failed to do so.


Trust cannot endure without accountability; these two elements form the foundation of error management. If the staff does ensure accountability, trust from their participants will help them deal with a potentially larger problem: that even well-meaning people make mistakes.


Eliminating Threats Prevents Mistakes

In Part I, we introduced Threat and Error Management, where we describe the three steps of a mistake: threats, errors, and harm. Threats are conditions that make mistakes more likely. Larp designers and organizers can’t stop people from making mistakes, but they can eliminate threats, which will reduce mistakes. This begs the question, what threats should a larp designer look for? Here are three big things to think about:

  • Physical discomfort. Everything gets harder when you’re tired. Or hungry. Or cold. Or wet. Some larps purposely introduce physical discomfort, and that can lead to really fun experiences, but in doing so, they increase the possibility of error. Sometimes a larp can reduce risk just by making sure players are well-fed, well-rested and have a comfortable place to role-play.

  • Difficult or numerous policies or mechanics. If a mechanic is complex, mistakes are more likely. If you have a lot of rules, participants will forget them. If your workshop explains four metatechniques to a participant, they’re likely to have forgotten the first one while you’re working on the fourth. 

  • Social Isolation. There’s a reason why airliners have two pilots… so they can back each other up. If participants don’t know each other, or haven’t had time to interact, they’re less likely to help each other or correct each other, and more likely to form cliques with their own informal mechanics. 


Most of these threats can’t be corrected in a workshop; they have to be addressed in the design. Physical comfort is a larp designer’s responsibility to address and set expectations. Mechanics have to be simplified and streamlined and then properly explained. Participants need the opportunity to socialize, and the organizer should explain to them the importance of doing so and actively engage with them as they do. Note that when we talk about these threats, we always introduce an element of communication (set expectations, properly explain, actively engage). A player can’t actively help you mitigate a threat if they don’t know about it. 


Even if you address all the threats present in a larp, players will still make mistakes… and this fine! The problem occurs when mistakes cause harm.


When Larpers Make Mistakes

At Sinking Ship Creations, we’ve gone through five different mechanics to simulate violence. We test them all out, and they work… when they’re used properly. We scrapped them all, however, because they’re too hard to use: players either use them improperly or not at all. But we’ve never had a complaint about them in our feedback surveys (in fact, people who use them tend to like them), because they’ve never failed in a manner that hurt anyone.


There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, our mechanics are fail-safe… if they don’t work, nothing happens. The mistake doesn’t go any further. Second, we don’t have a lot of violence in our larps… we don’t run boffer larps, so most of the violence is sudden and short. This means mistakes can rarely compound… they only have one chance of causing injury.  So the failures of our violence mechanic rarely reach third step of the mistake chain: causing harm.


Think about kids in the 1980s playing on monkey bars… they were six feet up above concrete on a rickety metal frame. It wasn’t safe. But obviously, some Gen Xers survived unscathed… because not every kid is going to fall off the monkey bars every time. Whenever a mistake happens, there’s a chance of harm, but also a chance that nothing bad happens. The problem with the monkey bars is that if one kid plays on them, all the kids are going to run over and play on them until some kid falls and breaks their arm. 


Mistakes are like that. Sometimes they have an effect, sometimes they don’t. In a larp where the designers have actively mitigated threats and put in controls, most of the mistakes that cause harm probably involve misuse or non-use of participant-used mechanics (also called meta-techniques). If you have a meta-technique, you have to ask yourself, “what happens when this meta-technique fails.”


The meta-technique we’ve seen with the most disastrous failure mode is the OK Check-In: if you use the technique properly, it’s great. But it relies on one participant perceiving potential distress in the other participant to work… if this doesn’t happen, it fails, and the distress continues (this is called “fail-passive,” by the way). Further, there’s an unintended consequence: the OK Check-In puts onus to monitor role-play on others to perceive distress, which introduces multiple problems: the participant in distress may not have a formal way to signal distress, they may hold others accountable for their distress, etc (these are called “failure modes.”) Compare the OK Check-In with the Tap Out, where a participant in distress is told to signal their condition. It’s still fail-passive, but it doesn’t have the additional failure modes of the OK Check-In.


Whenever possible, techniques should be designed to be fail-safe… if they’re used improperly or not used, nothing happens. Our various violence mechanics were all fail-safe… without them, you couldn’t (in accordance with the design) take any high-risk physical actions. When they didn’t work, participants either did nothing, or went out-of-role and mitigated risk informally. But not all mechanics can be fail-safe, meaning if misused or forgotten they can still cause harm. In such cases, you’re relying on your other controls to prevent an incident. 


In aviation, this situation is called the “Swiss Cheese Model.” Every control is going to have holes in it, like a piece of swiss cheese. A holes in a single control is going to let threats become mistakes, and mistakes from causing harm.  But if you stack them up, like pieces of swiss cheese, it’s hard to find overlapping holes, and that prevents harm.  A “safe” larp (or more accurate, “a larp that is more safe”) has many pieces of swiss cheese, which is how they protect their participants.


Of course, this means when someone does get hurt at a larp that’s put all these controls in, multiple things went wrong.  What happens next might be the biggest problem in larp safety… which we’ll reveal in Part III.

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