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  • Ryan Hart

Negative Transfer

Even when you don't design something, something still happens.

A larper role-playing in a crowded room with the words "Negative Transfer: Even when you don't design something, something still happens."

So, you’re at a larp, and someone puts their hand over their face and looks down. What do you do?

What if they make an “OK” sign at you?

In terms of content: is there a type of story that you shouldn’t bring up at larp?

If you were able to answer these questions… then someone needs to talk to you about negative transfer. Because these are mechanics that should be specific to every larp, and bringing them into a larp without accounting for it in the design is a risk that isn’t yours to accept.

What Is Negative Transfer?

In aviation, most professional pilots have flown many different aircraft; early in their careers, they might learn a different aircraft every few years. When you learn to fly a new airplane, your training is pretty comprehensive, but the training can’t account for things you have to unlearn - techniques and procedures you learned flying your old airplane that no longer apply. An example of this happens when pilots switch from propeller airplanes to jets for the first time: with a propellor-driven plane, you have to use the rudder pedals all the time to account for the effects of the prop; on a jet, you fly with your feet on the floor to avoid excessive rudder inputs. When you carry behaviors over from previous experience, it’s called transfer. When that transfer results in a potential hazard, it’s called negative transfer. 

We see this in larp all the time.

At Sinking Ship Creations, we first noticed it when we stopped using the OK Check-In. It’s a ubiquitous risk management tool, and it’s decent at what it’s supposed to do: it’s an out-of-character check to make sure a participant isn’t in actual distress. However, we had a couple of problems with the mechanic (specifically, we don’t use any hand gestures in public), so we took it out of our mechanics. And we found that people kept using it. 

Which was probably fine: the OK Check-In is a challenge and response: if you flash the OK sign and the other person doesn’t know what it is, nothing happens. We’ve also had people start spontaneously using the lookdown, however, and that is a problem. The lookdown requires everyone at the larp to know what it is and respect the signal: but with some newer larpers in the group, they might not even notice it. 

The Danger of Negative Transfer in Larp

There are two big dangers with negative transfer. The first is fairly obvious: you’re using a mechanic that might not work, and that’s a risk the designers didn’t accept. The bigger issue, however, is one of behavior. 

When a good larp designer creates mechanics, they don’t do it in a vacuum: they consider them as a system of play. They think about how they interact, if participants will remember them, and how people react instinctively to them (that’s why the OK Check-In requires a thumbs up as opposed to another OK sign: people might automatically return the gesture they receive). Often, designers make many decisions that the participants never know about… and the most difficult to make clear aren’t the mechanics they give the participants, it’s the ones they leave out. 

When you put in a new mechanic, you’re now becoming one of the designers… and one who is unaware of all the design decisions that went into the other mechanics. Further, you’re setting an example to the people around you: they can bring in mechanics as well. Now you have the spontaneous creation of mechanics, often involving risk controls. With a group of experienced larpers, they usually just figure it out without issue. But if you have new participants, you risk not only their confusion but that they’ll start making things up. 

When we design a larp, we acknowledge we’re going to miss a bunch of things. Our past is littered with risks we missed or failed to control. But our most frustrating problems are when participants fail to use our mechanics: it speaks not only to a design failure on our part but a problem with the participants as well. Negative transfer is by far our most common problem with participants.

Luckily, negative transfer is very easy to solve once it’s identified: you just have to point it out. Once we started saying “We don’t use the OK Check-In because we don’t use hand gestures in public,” the OK Check-In disappeared from our larps. We’ve often had frustrated players come up to us with an expectation they brought from a different larp - when we point out that the participant’s previous experience is simply not part of the design, they can correct the frustration almost immediately. That’s because negative transfer is unique in that it occurs more often as people gain experience in a situation: that same experience gives them the tools to correct the problem.

How can a participant combat it? Pay close attention to the mechanics of a larp, and what mechanics it doesn’t have. Further, give the designers the benefit of the doubt: just because they don’t have the mechanics you prefer doesn’t mean they're wrong.

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