Larps are role-playing games where you interact with the physical world. This also means that when you larp you face physical limitations. These limitations can be unfair and excluding.
There are other types of role-playing games without physical elements, e.g., tabletop and computer games. In tabletop games you describe what the characters perceives and how the characters act. In computer games your character’s perception and actions are represented as sound and images on the screen. In larps, your own perceptions and your character perceptions overlap and you physically act out your character’s actions.
This might seem like a small difference, but it’s not. It fundamentally influences how you relate to the game and what challenges you face in the game media.
In tabletop games, your characters’ experiences are defined by what the game master or the other players describe to you. During a larp your senses—what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste—are all part of the experience. The chill of the evening air, a gentle touch on your shoulder, or how your body aches after a long day of walking are all part of the game.
The interaction with the physical world acts as a complement to the players’ imagination. For example, stumbling through the woods in the dark of night with someone on your trail can make it easier to imagine that an actual monster is chasing you. You use the physical perception to strengthen the experience.
But the physical aspect of larps comes at a cost: what you physically can experience in character will be shaped by what you can physically experience out of character.
I’m a 27-year old able-bodied woman that works out a lot and has a bunch of allergies. These are things that are related to my body and my abilities out of character, but not necessarily my characters. During a physical game, my body and my physical abilities affect what I can experience, how I’m perceived, and what actions I can take. In a non-physical game like a computer game, they don’t have to.
If I want the physical experience I need to use my body and my physical abilities, but I will have to face the limitations they bring along. If I don’t want physical limitations, I can play a game without physical aspects but then I will miss out on the physical experience.
We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. The more you use your body as a tool, the more it will be a limitation.
I love physically challenging larps. I love running or sneaking through the forest, eating a meal in character, and using touch to communicate intimacy. I love letting what I see, hear and feel be part of the game. But each way I physically interact with the game also adds out of character limitations.
Something as simple as eating a meal in character means that all the food restrictions that exist outside the game like allergies, religious dietary practices, health conditions, eating habits, etc, will affect the game, possibly in life-threatening ways.
If you have a game with a lot physical activity like a boffer larp, the players’ health and actual fighting abilities will affect both their performance and their experience. A player facing the risk of an asthma attack during combat will have a different experience than someone who doesn’t.
If touch is part of a larp, how comfortable a player is with touching will limit how that player character can interact with other characters.
If we perceive how the characters around us seem to be feeling through reading their body language, then how good a player is at reading body language out of character will affect how good the character is. And so on.
For each physical aspect we include in a game, we also bring the limitations that come with it.
It gets even more complicated. If it was just a game design issue where having more of one element meant that you would have less of another, it would be fine.
But it’s not. Each and every limitation has possible consequences when it comes to who can access the game and how. Physical limitations also tie into issues of accessibility and discrimination.
Let’s say you run a larp in the forest where players need to be able to walk between camps on uneven forest trails. That will limit who can fully access the game. Some players might not be able to attend at all due to movement disabilities. Other players that might be able to attend could have a problem moving between camps.
If the organizers make bad design choices they can make the situation even worse. Let’s say there are camps A, B and C in the forest. Camps A and B are the most accessible and camp C is located on top on a mountain and very hard to access. In which camp is best to hold the super important council meeting?
Most people agree that it probably is best to hold the council at camp A or B so that all players can easily attend it. But you might forget this aspect when you plan the game as an organizer. Perhaps camp C on top of the mountain looks really awesome and was chosen as meeting place for that reason. It’s not like anyone thought “Hey! Let’s discriminate all players with movement disabilities or other conditions that affect their mountain climbing ability by placing an important event in a place they can’t access!” But the choice to place the meeting in the least accessible camp might still have that side effect, even though no one intended it.
If there’s a mountain in the middle of the larp area, congratulations—just think about how you use it. If not all players will be able to climb to the top of the mountain, perhaps it’s a good idea to avoid placing super important events there.
We can’t organize larps where we have physical interaction and no physical limitations. They go hand in hand. We can’t get around them. Larp as a medium is defined by its physical aspects, and the only way to get around the problem would be to have a larp with no physical aspects. A self-contradiction.
While we might not be able to get around it, we should address it, both as organizers and as participants.
When we design and organize games we need to consider in what ways we want the game to be physical, and we need consider how the design choice affects the game’s accessibility. We need to think through the design so we don’t needlessly add discriminating elements.
As participants we can encourage and challenge the organizers to make diverse games. No single larp can fit everyone, but we can encourage organizers to run both indoor and outdoor games, games with lots of fighting and games with no fighting, games with no touching and games where touch is a part of play, and so on. No single game will reach 100% accessibility, but if the larp scene is diverse enough there will hopefully be a game for everyone.
If there are many different cakes around it is possible to both eat one cake yet have another, different cake, too. That is the only way we can have them both.
Larp is a physical medium. It has strengths and weaknesses. Physical experiences and physical limitations go hand in hand, and as a designers and participants we need to be aware of that.