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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Recap: Gaming with Empathy Panel Discussion Part 1

Our presentation of “Gaming With Empathy: Creating Play For and With Others” went fantastic. Thank you to everyone who attended.  As requested, we’re blogging some of the bullet points we’d discussed.  This is about one-fifth of the presentation and focuses on strategies players (as opposed to designers) can do to play with empathy and empower others.

This main purpose of the workshop was to help participants identify cases of transferable privilege, determine plausible opportunities to empower others, and enjoy the freedom to make choices unfettered by win conditions and other arbitrarily constructed restrictions that limit play and fun. Our solution to noticing and possibly subverting in-game privileges and reimagining a new social co-creative space is to play with empathy.

To recap, we identified three types of empathy

  • Affective empathy, which tends to happen first, is the emotional reaction that happens neurocognitively through mirror neurons and amygdala reactions. You notice that someone else is feeling a certain way, sad for example, and you feel sad, too.
  • Cognitive empathy, which tends to happen next, is the thinking reaction whereby a person identifies and understands other peoples’ emotions and needs (a point of roleplay itself); also known as “perspective taking.”
  • “Compassionate empathy” or “active empathy,” whereby after feeling and thinking, you make the conscious choice to take a helpful, righteous action on behalf of others. This is the motivation to action we hope to incite in players who can make choices to make a gameplay experience that is collaborative and empowering for all players and can highlight and/or challenge institutional structures that may limit play for some.

We moved to highlighting some things you can do as a player no matter what type of game you’re in. We acknowledge, however, that some games make it easier to play with empathy than others. In a hierarchical larp with betrayal mechanics? Trust may be harder to come by. The bottom line is that you’ve got to play the game that you’re in.

One of the strategies is a shift in personal objectives of the game. We’re asking players to take risks and consider letting go of win-condition thinking. Games can fall along a ludus-paidia spectrum, and play includes both types, as Roger Caillois noted in 1961.

  • ludic goals are explicitly set up to demonstrate superiority, either in skill, strength, or good fortune of the winner or winners. There are clear victors and clear losers; the game has explicit win-conditions that require separating into winners and losers. Your goal is to be a winner, even though you know that not everyone can be. Players are expressly competitive with one another and their personal ludic outcomes are primary.
  • paidia is more open-ended, improvisational, play. Though sometimes characterized as not having goals, paidiac play does have rules, but it does not define winner and loser. There are goals and subgoals, but not win-conditions. The key objective is generally  to play together. We contend that although larps will have ludic goals and characters can and should play with a measure of competitiveness, that a larp itself operates primarily on the paidiac level of players choosing to play together for the experience of the event. The characters are competing and accomplishing ludic goals; the players are enacting paidia when you are gaming with empathy.

But how can I give up my competitiveness? Are you saying I should “play to lose?” Losing doesn’t feel good! We’d like to remind players that there are no non-diegetic (out-of-game) consequences to diegetic (in-game) failure, and that diegetic failure does not necessarily mean the game is over (barring permadeath, of course, but that’s another story).

Some of the tricks and techniques we offered to help encourage empathetic play include:

“What does failure feel like when it can’t hurt you?” – When you find yourself having difficulty letting go of ludic gameplay, I find it’s helpful to ask this.  It lets you assess that the risks you take in larp, do not often have very punishing failure conditions.  What would the gameplay be like if you didn’t have to try so hard to win at every turn?  Try exploring this!

  • “Imagine Others Complexly” – As a simple mantra of thought, it helps us resist our first conclusion regarding someone’s motivations and circumstances, which are often both knee-jerk responses and judgemental.  Entertaining the possibility of complicated motivations or circumstances helps get our thinking into a less reactive and more mindful state, necessary for empathetic play.
  • Dual Consciousness – In addition to trying to achieve immersion in your role, it’s helpful to try to also be conscious of the fact that you are a player in order to be mindful of others while you’re playing together.  When considering consequences for choices, it helps to think about how the choice will affect me as a player, other players, other players’ characters, and the overall gameplay experience.  Even if those questions are difficult to answer, merely raising them primes one’s thinking towards more mindfulness.
  • Betray Up – many larps are designed with a significant intrigue component to drive the game’s plot.  Intrigue, and it’s climax of betrayal, is not exactly all that conducive to empathetic play.  I’d like to suggest that in games like that which are also cases where power is distributed hierarchically, that one tries to avoid betraying “down” the hierarchy, taking a betrayal action against a character who is powerless to retaliate (which I call “kicking the dog”), and instead try to find ways to betray “up” the hierarchy, taking action against a character with plenty of means to retaliate (which I call “punching the man”).  Betraying up is incredibly risky, but as an attempt to try to reverse the standard flow of above in hierarchical games, I think it’s worth trying to explore. See letting go of ludic goals, above.
  • “Yeah!  What she said!” – Under normal circumstances, we don’t imagine a supportive voice to contribute much of value.  I would like to suggest that in larp, supportive voices are of incredible value.  A single supportive voice to someone’s idea or suggestion can help significantly to that person’s voice being heard, and their idea being given due consideration.  Our panel’s participants contributed the experience of making a suggestion which is ignored, and when the same suggestion is made by a player with some privilege, the suggestion is then deemed meritorious.  “Yeah!  That!” may feel a bit like the waving of pom poms, but in larp spaces, where so much of gameplay is derived from imagination and consensus, the act of being cheerleader for someone can produce great results.
  • “Reinforce Non-Standard Roles” – Similar to the above remark, explicitly supporting someone who is in a leadership role that defies non-diegetic (out-of-game) power dynamics can help.  Making it clear that your character firmly believes that the person in the authoritative role owns and deserves that authority can help overcome other players’ often unexamined tendency to disbelieve a player enacting the role whose embodied appearance doesn’t conform to their expectations of what that role would look like (e.g. a small female battle leader).  
  • “The Relationships You Form Are Better Than XP” – It helps to remember that when you leave a larp, all that you’ve achieved and accomplish don’t follow you back into non-diegetic space once the game is over.  The exception is that the relationships you form with the players do stay with you, and they are of incredible value.  Even in cases where gameplay is resumed from session to session, or there are opportunities for win-conditions during gameplay, it’s easy to imagine someone “winning” the game, but alienating other players to the point where they are not invited to form relationships.  Likewise, someone that “loses” but plays well with others and forms positive relationships with other players, can be said to leave the game with far more than they entered it with, and has, to a certain perspective, “won.”

Are we having fun yet?

So, if you’ve read the last few posts, you may be wondering what all this talk about privilege and empathy and rhetoric has to do with gaming. At first glance, nothing.  Then, if you think about it, everything. How? Let me give a few ways:

  1. Nerd Entitlement: Aaronson speaks about being a nerdy white male and being less privileged than other white males. Because gamers and gaming is an often stigmatized group (at least in the United States), our subculture is a geekdom and participants are often “nerds” (whether called that in derision or embracing that as an identity). Gamer culture has a proportionally larger number of “lesser privileged males,” who by virtue of their interest in gaming (or their social awkwardness that drives them to seek it out) become part of this group. Thus, Aaronson’s point of view of not recognizing or understanding privilege as a result of his own marginalization and underclass treatment can be a relatively common one in gamer culture. In fact, I’d argue (and I’m pretty sure Ben agrees) that this is the root of certain feminism-resistant groups in gaming culture and their backlash against feminism in gaming. Lots to say here. More to come.
  2. Games are culture: We can learn a lot about ourselves and our culture by looking at the games we play. Play is a simulation of real life, but with differing structures and rules that create new paradigms designed for fun. Roger Caillois notes that play is governed by rules that provide a level playing field for all participants and consists of finding a response to the opponent’s action – or to the play situation – that is free within the limits set by the rules. These rules are socially and culturally constructed by game designers, storytellers, and the players themselves. Even with these game rules and mechanics, out-of-game power structures and representations get replicated, and the empowerment that is possible from games can often be distributed in normative ways rather than allowing and encouraging the liberating possibilities of play. This phenomenon is an ongoing source of inquiry for us and many others.
  3. Privilege exists in games: Games, as a cultural creation, are not immune to the social issues that exist outside of games, privilege included. Some in-game factors such as genre or historical time period call to mind certain representations of gender, race, and class. Yet certain players have power in games, regardless of their character. This power comes from outside of the game and is not fully mitigated through game mechanics. It is the result of out-of-game cultural norms as well as previous personal experience (in- or out-of-game) with specific players. Generally (but not always) at the top of this category are larger or stronger bodied, white, straight, loud-voiced men. By default their character is often deferred to (many times unconsciously) by other characters due to socialization outside the game. Exploring this privilege and how to use empathy to be aware of it and possibly transfer it is the crux of our work at the moment, and the focus of our upcoming presentation at Intercon O.
  4. Games can be safer spaces: Because games are microcosms that have their own explicit rules, a game can facilitate a respectful and tolerant community, a safer space. The injustices, intolerance, and marginalization that occurs outside of a game can be mitigated or upended within it. Many Nordic Larps and American Freeform games explore these opportunities. In addition, a game has the ability to reset the parameters of reality, which also allows awesome opportunities to explore equality. Fantastic settings don’t need patriarchal systems and realism can be reimagined by players, designers and organizers. Gaming communities also have a specific play culture: guidelines, norms, or implicit rules that may not be codified or written into the game rules and mechanics, but are nonetheless expectations of participants and are enforced informally by community members and/or game organizers. It is here that dialog about empathy, equality, and social justice can be translated into felt reality. And what begins to happen in a game or gaming community can begin to happen outside of it. This is what excites us.

These are just a few ways that we believe the discussions about social justice, nerd privilege, feminism, equality, and other -isms come into play with regard to gaming. We plan to explore each of these in more depth here, and we hope you’ll let us know what you think.

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.

Ben