Reflective Games: Roleplaying for Reflection

Process Writing, reflective games

I began my work this week by brainstorming actions that could have meanings ascribed to them, or that seemed to easily support meaning-making in ways that could potentially be reflective. I’m including this portion of my week as a record of my process, even though I didn’t pursue this avenue for very long, because it led me, along with other factors, to what I’ll be working on next for Reflective Games. Here are a few of the actions that made my list:

— Sorting (Categorizing)
— Dividing/Separating
— Button-clicking
— Rolling Dice
— Teaching
— Speaking
— Running to/Running from
— Searching/Hunting
— Attacking/Defending

After this point, I finished reading Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, which is going to be of use for both reflective games as we study design processes and for my dissertation. Then, as part of my weekly roleplaying group activities, I started to roll up and conceptualize a character for a campaign where everyone will be playing a monster, and we have the opportunity to play with some powerful abilities and character concepts. Mine is the ghost of a Dhampir, and let me tell you, with the Dhampir and ghost stat boosts, my ghost character now has a charisma score of 25, and is only level 3 (+2 levels for the ghost template, which is powerful).

The process of character creation made me think back to the avenue that I was exploring with Blast Theory, bleed, deictic language, and Nordic Larp.

I have been considering the strengths, limitations and challenges of narrative as a tool for creating reflective moments. So, it occurred to me that a roleplaying campaign, either purely physical or with a special added digital element or alt controller, might be an interesting thing to design. I next thought about how I could design a campaign in an extant system, and how I am currently designing a tabletop roleplaying system called Radio D-20, which involves sections of play divided up according to the structure of radio program segments (inspired by the usual structure of a Welcome to Night Vale episode), and involves collaborative character creation and a shared character pool. In roleplaying games, there are always a lot of unknown elements and it is difficult to say whether players will ever reach the content that you write for them (railroading and reorganizing aside), so there are no guarantees whether the moment that you as a writer/designer think is so poignant will also affect them. However, I have had many reflective moments as a player, and I think that the openness of the system can support that by balancing that openness with constraints. This is still a strong possibility for a future design, but it occurred to me that this is a potential opportunity to experiment with a format that I have been curious about designing around for a long, long time, and doubly so after reading about some of the amazingly reflective game examples within it: larp (Live-Action Roleplay).

Having never designed a larp, but read about them at length, my next step is to read some larp manifestos and creation guides, starting with the ones listed here, all while considering the subject of my larp:

Thematically, there have been explorations of some incredibly nuanced and difficult topics in larps, especially in the Nordic Larp scene in particular. The tip of the iceberg includes terminal illness, the 1980s AIDS crisis, and sexual assault. Larping can be a very intense experience, especially when one deals with these kinds of themes. For some LARPs, the organizers have mental health professionals on-hand as a resource for during or after the experience.

“Bleed” is the idea that one’s experience in a larp, where one is asked to totally identify with and embody a character, can “leak” (y’know, or bleed) over into the rest of one’s life. This might happen during a break in the game, but it can frequently also happen in the weeks and months that follow a larp. These feelings, which may be negative and difficult to deal with, are one reason why many larps include a sort of debriefing session with the organizers, potentially the other players, and mental health professionals. It seems like an excellent opportunity for critical reflection.

This hearkens back to Blast Theory’s Ulrike & Eamon Compliant and the interview at the end of the experience — something that I have been considering all along. It’s satisfying to have circled back around this way.

Thus far, I’m thinking that I will choose a theme that relates to my own lived experience with my intersectional identities. I also think that this should be a short larp, although I’m not sure how short. Larps can range between five minutes (Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou) to being spread across multiple sessions over the course of months, or even years (Vampire: The Masquerade). More experienced larp writers have experimented with characterless larps that are about the environment created, with very specific constraints around speech and language, but I think that even for a short larp, I’d like to have the players participate in character development sessions ahead of time. I am not an actor, but I think that I may be able to design exercises to help players discover who their character is, and perhaps I can enlist the help of some friends who are involved in the Montreal Improv community.

Even before having settled on a subject, I am thinking of the kind of “gamemaster” that I usually am, and the techniques that I use to approach the control of information. This makes me think that I don’t necessarily want to just provide the rules and see what happens. I think I’ll have to communicate with players either in-character or through technology. I’m already considering how to diegetically pass along information. I know that some styles of larp are very directed and take place in a contained space. This is where reading more about larp manifestos will be invaluable.

Some of the themes that I’m considering right now relate to queer identity (and, in particular, my lived experience with nonbinary gender identity) or mental health, or queer identity and mental health. Although the stakes are very different, I was deeply affected by the actions available to the player in …&maybetheywontkillyou, where the actions available to the player are to speak up, or choose to be silent. This is something I think I might want to experiment with. And, although I didn’t like A Closed World (MIT GAMBIT) very much, one of the ways that it has been easier to talk about gender identity, pronouns and sexuality with my family has been by “swapping the norm”, which is something A Closed World sometimes does (this is, if I understand correctly, randomized at the beginning of the game). The premise there is basically, “What if being heterosexual were the ‘abnormal’ identity?” or, y’know, calling someone whose gender identity matches their assigned-at-birth identity the wrong pronouns for five minutes to let them see how they like it — these things obviously don’t stand in for lived experience, but I suppose they illustrate a rhetorical point.

Well, these are the thoughts and work that is percolating at the moment. On to researching nordic larp design!