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.


Ready To Start

So.  Right now, amongst many other things, Maury and I are working on our presentation at Intercon OGaming With Empathy, and we’re in discussion regarding what information to present and how.  We’d tried out some roleplay where she’s slowly making a case for empathy to a strawman played by me, which we thought was fun and would be very entertaining, but I’m having second thoughts on using it because of the potential to lose some opportunities to communicate earnestly for the sake of entertainment.

Our basic goal with the presentation is to invite folks to consider an empathetic approach to their larp gameplay.  For those that practice that already, I’d hope the presentation would be validating and encouraging, not only for their gameplay, but also for conversations with others about empathetic play.  For those that don’t make empathy a focus of their gameplay, I’d hope it’d be at least food for thought, and maybe something that they might try experimenting with in the games that they’ll enjoy that weekend.

One of the items that I’m struggling to convey convincingly is the motivation to try it.  We can lay out some incentives to do it, and plan to do so in our presentation.  Though there’s one in particular that’s a big deal and a little thorny to express.  For me, empathetic play itself actually feels really good.  But why?  Is this merely a case that I’m fortunately empathetic on a neurological level, and so I experience pleasure during empathetic play?  And if so, can I effectively make a case to someone who is a little less empathetically inclined that this is worth trying?

I’m struggling with it.  So far the best analogy that I have so far is related to food.  As a dude who lives by himself with a cat, the joy of cooking is precisely “not”.  The only time I’m really motivated to put time in with my meager kitchen (M: No one needs to know exactly how meager my kitchen is.) is when I have an opportunity to also make some food for someone else.  The work to prepare food for just me feels like a waste of time, and the work to prepare food for me and one other person feels like a great investment of time and energy.

I don’t think that this is unique.  I believe that there’s some level of pleasure in sharing an experience with someone.  Favorite ice cream shop?  Dude, you have to try this.  This game is fun to play?  Dude, you’ve got to experience this.  I think this sense of desiring to share an experience might make the case for empathetic larp gameplay being a genuinely pleasurable experience.

More later.