In some larps, especially within the Knutpunkt School of games, oppression is a dominating theme. Discussions on how to play hard and full on, with fictitious violence, where players are safer and characters suffer, has a long and impressive history. As there still are plenty of situations where players would had wanted play performed another way, be it safer, harder or more or less physical, there might be something we’ve not looked at.
A bold suggestion
One feminist suggestion to diminish patriarchal power is to rename ‘penetrative sex’ into ‘enclosing sex’ and thus shifting attention in what party (action) is the active one. This strategy has many merits and a suggestion that, taken seriously, could have monumental impact.
Maybe the most symbolic pillars of patriarchy is the phallus, used directly or indirectly to invade, threaten or to differentiate between ‘active’ and ‘passive’, subject and object or superior and inferior. Symbols of penetration are abundant in the oppressive structure of patriarchy, not only within actual intercourse, but also as in probing with needles, bullets and swords that penetrate bodies, cavity searches or surprise visitations of the cell in a prison.
Note that I say nothing of ’male’ and ’female’ as this has nothing at all to do with individual humans and their sexuality, sex (or even gender), but everything to do with patriarchy as a system of division, upheld by people of all genders and most cultures present on earth today. Shifting focus (and thereby power) from the penetrator to the encloser is one way of breaking, or at least diffusing, this reification of the gendered power stratification. Even further along we might also break the dichotomy completely and relate in non-linear hierarchies altogether.
In game relevance
Playing with intrusiveness/penetrative force is one of the ‘easiest’ ways of achieving oppression and hierarchy in larp. This is probably because it plays along with the theme of patriarchy, a system of oppression that we all, consciously or subconsciously, relate to.
Achieving a superior position (or making others subordinate/inferior) can of course be done in other ways. Just as status achieved by playing down often becomes a ‘game stopper’ but where status achieved by subordinate players playing up creates more game for everyone. What I propose is taking the feminist suggestion serious also regarding oppression and violence. Thus we should explore options to either use the penetrative oppressive methods with extreme care and consciousness or shift how and what methods we use and create into more enclosing ones.
There are many reasons for trying to find better strategies:
- The most obvious might be that the more we use penetrative force to symbolise superiority, the more we risk upholding the patriarchal system of gender-based power division, especially if done by habit or ignorance.
- Another, maybe less self-evident, is that ‘real’ oppression creates a larger and messier bleed in. In other words that it makes it more difficult to distinguish between the player and the character. An example would be a gender neutral or same-sex situation where players break that by reintroducing penetrative force to decide who’s the dominant part.
- Player safety, for both oppressor and victim, can be another reason. It’s almost impossible to remember who wants what kind of physical and psychological game, at least in bigger games. By making the oppressed party the initiator and even the active one we can shift the player power balance in one way while the character power balance rockets the other.
- More player safety, almost all the current systems and methods of protection (cut break, negotiations etc.) presuppose that the oppressed has the agency to make an action to opt out. While the tools of oppression are intrusive/penetrative and, in the player consciousness, the active action, there’s a lot less possibility for the oppressed to actually remain active enough to make it stop. Shifting the player situation into one where the oppressed is the active one will enable a more seamless way to opt out, preferably without infringing on the emotions of oppression that the scene aimed to realize.
- And of course, some more player safety for the oppressor: by getting runtime queues on what to do and what to increase both intensity and security can increase. The oppressor won’t carry the sole responsibility to initiate, perform and provide for the interaction. The scene becomes more co-creative.
Whether a scene is pre-negotiated or not (although for rougher scenes personal negotiation of some sort are always advisable) the actions used to create oppression could still be enclosing and not penetrative. In many ways, and certainly in settings that are patriarchal in other ways, this could lead to a higher degree of debasement rather than defusing the potential drama.
Person Arendt, Butler and Cixous are part of a subordinate group of soldiers; Pizan and Quinn are officers with the right and tradition to abuse the subordinate soldiers. Arendt wants physical and psychological oppression, Butler wants physical, but no verbal abuse and Cixous wants verbal but no physical.
In a penetrative system Pizan and Quinn will invent play around intrusion. This might mean separating Arendt, Butler and Cixous (making play between them difficult), stripping them, searching them, planting things on them, diminishing them through yelling, making them feel insecure by invading their tents or planting bugging devices. A, B and C can react to all of this. If there’s a method of letting other players know beforehand (through a so-called oppression matrix or similar) there’s a chance that A and B will have a more physical play but it’s more likely that none of them will get a very physical play (if not individually negotiated) and that C will get a strange feeling of having limits breached without having had a concrete situation to opt out of.
In an enclosing system Arendt, Butler and Cixous take initiatives or react in a more game-promoting way earlier on. When Pizan and Quinn enters the space of A, B and C, obviously up to no good, A shows P and Q that physical play is wanted by taking a step towards them, thus telling the players that an interaction is wanted. A might actually give them a hint on what kind of play A wants by saying something insubordinate about fighting back. When P approaches A, C steps in and tries to talk A back. Arendt gets a chance to struggle forward and stay insubordinate. P can talk back to C. C doesn’t take any step forward but jokes under their breath, communicating to the player that some verbal abuse is ok. Q steps in and starts verbally abusing C. Now B steps forward, in front of the others clearly ready to fight. P gets close and asks quiet ‘green?’ as B answers quietly ‘green!’ P punches B in the stomach (holding or not holding depending on general agreement) or starts an ars marte fight. A who want’s some too tries to jump in and a similar fight breaks out with Q or C manages to hold A back and both Q and P has a go at B who’s at this point playing to lose (albeit while struggling and feeling the adrenaline, fear and all that) to make sure that P and Qs characters are still in power and that the hierarchy is upheld. P and Q interacts and reacts with force, drama, violence and abuse but it is A, B and C as players that can escalate and decelerate the scene. When someone uses a safe word or withdraws/lies still the interaction is over for now.
Butler would like to get a very violent beating and has talked to Pizan and Quinn before about this. They negotiate (fx through The Compass ) and decide that the scene will start in ten minutes by B kicking a bucket full of water. When B kicks the bucket, P and Q are close by and start interacting. B is forced to hold the bucket out with arms straight while P and Q takes turns beating. B has to count and each time the bucket drops they start over. B can accelerate the scene by stumbling and taking several steps. This means go harder. B can also decelerate either by saying the agreed word for break or cut or by falling. The scene is over when B falls and doesn’t get up. Butler can stay in control as a player while the character gets a pretty bad beating. As Pizan and Quinn takes turns they check each other if it’s still ok and any of them can break or decelerate too, regardless of what signals B give.
Many talks and discussions on safety in larp so far have focused on retaining safety and control in spite of ‘real’ terror and oppression. Very few of these have, to my knowledge, focused on the type of violence and how it’s played out in this respect. Neither have we created methods with specific focus on who’s the active party in an oppressive setting. Instead it seems most common that oppression in it self, very much like with other forms of penetrative/enclosing activity, is considered penetrative by nature.
In less than a week I’ll be playing a guard in a slave pen at Last will. I’ll try this some more there and let you know. It would be interesting if others would too at as many different games as possible. I’m very much looking forward to discussing and hearing your experiences on this. Lets explore!
 For an explanation of bleed in and designing for it watch the short talk from Larpwriters summer school 2014.
 This method was developed by me and Eleanor Saitta and introduced at Knutepunkt 2013.