When the conversation turns to harassment or exclusionary behavior in a gaming community, my first thought is always “where are the community stewards? Who is responding and reacting to reeducate, redirect and flat out censure such behavior?” It comes up all the time in connection to larps – I hear a lot of larp stories. Some of them are amazing and inspiring and some are just cringe-worthy.
Because I and my collaborators tend to share ALL the hats, I didn’t realize until relatively recently that running a game involves several offices, which might be filled by the same person concurrently, or might be filled by different people. Two of the three are pretty well-understood and even if your game does it differently than I outline, you probably follow the jist. The third, though, seems to be the unconsidered role – the one people take on as a defacto role, or the one that goes untended.
First: Storyteller – this person is responsible for pruning, tending and collaborating with players to tell a satisfying story.
Second: Game Master – this person is responsible for tending the mechanics of the game. There might be sub-offices within this category, like “person responsible for items” or “person responsible for facilitating combat.” This is more engineering and design than artistry, but no less vital and no less creative.
Third: Steward – this office requires the most deftness and the lightest touch. It’s also the one that seems most often missing, and leaves people to fight their own battles against disenfranchisement on their own.
One of my favorite mantras regarding larp campaign management is this: If you’re getting the same complaint or negative feedback from multiple fronts, you’ve either got a PR problem or you have a real problem that needs to be fixed. If it’s the former, find the source of the problem and initiate a reculturing process. If the latter, fix the problem. This might involve some deep navel gazing and some internal struggles to assess which it is and sort out a solution. The steward’s job is to be the mirror, the gazer and the fixer.
The office of steward is about keeping your ear to the ground and sorting out the chaff from the wheat – catching that somebody is having a bad game and determining that it’s because of something game driven, and figuring out whether there’s anything the game needs to do to adjust. It’s also about minding game culture and modeling adjustments and laying out plans for course correction as appropriate. A mindful observation of any game culture will reveal that we’re a work in progress, all of us, and the office of steward, ideally, would keep us moving towards being inclusive and encouraging and supportive on every necessary level. They would also be the conduit for information to other offices, where appropriate. If they saw that a specific storyteller’s themes were always unsettling and harmful to the overall community, they would speak up and work with the storyteller to adjust. If people gripe about sign-in, the steward should make sure that the customer, the consumer, the player is heard and the other offices adjust to provide a quality experience.
The steward (there could be more than one, it could be an office filled by a team of folks) is also responsible for calling out behavior towards each other that doesn’t live up to the community’s standards. Cheating, hard hits, thrusting, stealing – those aren’t the steward’s job. Using “gay” as an expletive? absolutely in the purview of the steward. It might take one or two well-placed corrections, or a heart to heart off-screen. Regardless of how it comes about, I believe that game cultures are responsible for observing their communities, making decisions regarding acceptable standards of behavior towards each other, and holding the community to those standards. Without the mouthpiece of a game/community steward, it’s every gamer for themselves. Communities who actively embrace the idea of a steward, I believe, increase their likelihood of being inclusive and safe.