Empowered play — taking up agency given and fighting over-hesitation

So. Maury here, fresh on all the impressions of an amazing Intercon O, which included our presentation and four great games. Over the course of the con, Ben and I also had some experiences that brought us into visceral and contemplative contact with some of the principles we are working on with role-playing games and exploring here.

It’s not so much Post-Larp Depression or “con-drop,” but the return to the mundane world after the exhilaration of larping is rife with physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological effects. I find myself today stuck in the realm of the “woulda, coulda shoulda” or as Ben put it, “ye olde ‘I ought to have'” with regard to various larp elements. I don’t intend to get stuck here. But it happens. It’s a result of caring about the game I have helped create and about wanting to have played my part well. By thinking metacognitively about my play I hope it will improve with each game that I’m in. Reflection is powerful, and replaying a game experience is enjoyable even. But I’ll admit, there is a bit of anxiety — and maybe even perfectionism — roiling about in this angst: “if only I had …” But, you didn’t. I didn’t. And now it’s gone.

There’s this concept of “learning not to hesitate” that I want to put in conversation with our notion of “mindful play.” As we have said, it is important to maintain a level of dual consciousness that allows you to think about the consequences of your actions (both in game and out of game) in a larp. And gameplay involves choices. Good gameplay involves lots of choices, ones with actual in-game consequences, and, as we discuss with regard to playing with empathy, out-of-game effects on players and relationships. In a larp, choices, consequences, and considerations are coming at you quickly, and that can be both exhilarating and exhausting. You have to make quick decisions or the game goes by. Sometimes, hesitation leads to regret and lost opportunity. Sometimes, as Hamlet can attest to, thinking too much creates inaction. And inaction in a larp can be a problem. In a larp, not-doing can profoundly affect the game experience since other players are bound to you in a networked interactive design. You doing things — taking action, making choices, accepting consequences — not only drives your game, but also the opportunities for others.

Hesitate too long in a larp, and the moment when a choice can matter is gone or, worse, the game has ended. Angst too much over a decision, seek too much consensus, defer too long, and you’ll be left with the GM calling time and the cards still in your hand. And that reluctance to take up the agency that you’ve been given as a character — either through the game design, mechanics, or the play of others — has affected not only you, but the entire game you are co-creating with others. Something you *could have* or *would have* or even *should have* done isn’t part of the game if it doesn’t come out for others to know and play with. It remains a latent potential that *could* have made an impact, an opportunity lost.

The opportunity cost of over-hesitation can be huge for the game-play of others, so I think this is a principle related to playing with empathy. Sometimes, a player needs to take a risk because it matters to the overall game and to others’ ability to play and get to enact their goals. I hesitate sometimes to make a decision because I am waiting for others to speak up, or because I do not want to dominate play, or because I am unsure if this will agree with what others have in mind. Because I do not want to overplay and leave play for others, because I am trying to be mindful of the designers’ intent and the goals and feelings of fellow characters and players, sometimes I over-hesitate. But I think that what might initially feel like “taking charge” when creating a scene in a larp may actually be an instance of transferring privilege and game-play to others.  By *doing* something, but taking action, I may be giving play and encouraging play. This seems to me a form of the kind of mindful risk-taking that we have promoted elsewhere. It’s an interesting paradox, nonetheless. Taking a decision and creating play doesn’t mean taking away from others necessarily. Done mindfully, such action may be inspiring and an instance of offering choices (and attendant consequences) to others. Indeed, in some cases, too much hesitation and inaction may become game-play that disempowers rather than empowers.

As players who are intentionally playing for empathy and transfer of privilege, we are busy thinking about others  and how our interactions create dynamic storytelling in game and powerful relationships out of game. However, we can’t forget that we, as individual players, have an integral role. We can’t be afraid to take up the agency when it is ours to do.

If we are left after a larp experience with a desire to do something different next time, then we are a mindful player. When we play — heck, when we live our everyday lives — we do the best we can given the many variables we are wrestling with at the time, variables that are both within and outside of our scope and control. So playing with empathy allows us to imagine ourselves complexly, not just others.

I’m interested in your thoughts.  Is intention the primary factor to distinguish between making the game about a single player and his/her goals vs. about the collective game experience? In other words, *can* you play powerfully without dominating play? Can taking charge and taking action be a way to give play? Can over-hesitation harm play? How do you play with both strength and empathy, reconciling power and privilege with mindfulness? Is it a matter of degree? Of give and take? Let’s talk.

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