Notes from a session where Mo H. spoke about a Knutpunkt 2014 discussion called ‘The great player safety mess’ and also ran a workshop to test different debriefing techniques.
Led by Søren Lyng Ebbehøj, ‘The great player safety mess’ questioned whether the Nordic larp tradition of post-larp debriefs was a valuable one: whether debriefs did actually help players, or whether they might be useless, or even potentially doing more harm than good. And it opened up the larger question of whether organizers should consider themselves responsible for player emotional safety in general.
Notes from the original Knutpunkt session are in black. Mo’s explanatory notes are in brown. Notes from the The Game Kitchen discussion are in green.
Starting with quite a general definition: by ‘debrief’ here we’re talking about an emotional debrief, ie. any sort of activity that takes place after a larp and is intended to help players make the emotional transition from the game state back to reality. We’re not talking about players providing feedback about typos on their character sheet, and that kind of thing.Debriefs of this kind are not universal in Nordic larp – they’re not always thought necessary after light-hearted games – but they pretty much are mandatory when games are intended to be emotionally intense. This is where there’s a risk of bleed – the characters’ experiences affecting the players’ own emotional states. It’s generally seen as part of the duty of care of the organizers to administer a debrief to help players who may have been affected by bleed.
Eirik Fatland says:
“[I]t is possible, though rare, to have too much bleed – especially when playing close to home (your real self, and your real problems) – and end up with more emotional turmoil than you bargained for. Debrief is a tool to identify and begin dealing with such instances. And if you expected the larp to be “just fun and games”, then bleed experiences can be troublesome. Especially when they are dismissed by co-players who still insist it was “just fun and games”. Implicitly or explicitly, they’re telling you there must be something wrong with you. The first function of the debrief is to say: there isn’t.”
Søren led a discussion about the range of debrief techniques available. Examples include: group hug, guided meditation, sacrificial ritual, individual recap/summary, pair conversation, group Q & A, partying. (In the UK tradition, they usually also involve revelation of secrets and unfolding of plots so as to construct a shared narrative of what took place in the game, Richard pointed out.)
What’s not at all clear is: do they work? Does the process of going through a debrief actually help players deal with emotional bleed? Might it actually make things worse? Søren cited psychiatric studies showing that inviting trauma victims to verbally or mentally review the traumatic events could have an intensifying effect rather than a cathartic one. And we should be particularly concerned about this risk as larp organizers are not (usually) trained counsellors.
He hastily added the caveat that of course playing in a larp is not to be compared with suffering a real-life traumatic event. But he felt it’s enough to flag up a sign of concern.
A Q&A elicited that for pretty much any suggested technique, there were some players who didn’t like it or felt it didn’t work for them. For example, some found a closing ritual bonding and helpful, others found it boring and pointless.
But it was also felt that it shouldn’t be possible for individual players to just duck out of the debrief if they didn’t fancy it, because other players might need to talk to them personally about what went on in the game between them.
One suggestion was to offer an assortment of approaches, in the hope that people will be prepared to put up with the ones they don’t like, in exchange for the ones that they do. With breaks inbetween to let people refresh themselves.
Stuart said that after playing the emotionally intense American freeform A Flower for Mara, he had very much felt the lack of a debrief, as it had taken him a few days to process the experience. Even a brief chat would have helped.
Jenny said she had found the debrief after the Nordic-style larp The Outsiders almost more difficult than the game, because of not really wanting to speak about her experiences in front of a group of strangers. She felt the option of individual debriefing should be offered where practical. And that it would be good to declare in advance of the game, as part of the safety policy, what resources would be available for players who might experience emotional difficulty: knowing who can help is important. And that confidentiality should be explicit.
Mo said that Eirik Fatland recommended (in the article linked above) that debriefs should be run by people who aren’t the game organizers, so they can concentrate on the task and also there’s no potential mix of agendas. Such extra people will rarely be available, though.
So this leaves open a big question still: should organizers really feel this responsibility towards their players, who after all are consenting adults? Some will feel the responsibility, whether they should or not. And some will refuse to accept it, whether they should or not. Søren concluded that the ‘mess’ was unresolved.
Everyone at The Game Kitchen felt that such a duty did exist. It seemed inconsistent if organizers were to accept responsibility for physical safety, but not emotional.
Stuart said that players have a duty of care to each other, too. But Richard pointed out that organizers have the authority to call for particular debrief activities, where players may not feel they can.
Mo said that the debrief situation in a weekend game was practically very different to a game at a con where people would shortly be rushing off to another game. At Consequences, debriefs of this kind were still very unusual.
Richard said that with players you don’t know, there was a particular one-on-one need to separate the character’s acts from the player: otherwise you would just think of that player as being like the character they had played. It was important to unload how you felt about what had happened between you in the game, and reintroduce people as themselves. While debriefing badly (eg. dismissing opinions) might do harm, as long as it was respectful even an unskilled debrief should do more good than harm.
How Was it for You?
The group then played through the game-like exercise How Was it for You?, in order to test out a range of debrief techniques in practice. Here are some notes about these techniques:
* Music – the facilitator plays a short piece of music while everyone closes eyes and listens quietly. This was felt to be a useful transition mechanism that helped people get their heads out of character-space and into reflective mode.
* Guided meditation – the facilitator leads a spoken meditative exercise to re-embody players. Richard felt that ‘visualization’ was a better term for this. Jenny felt that the psychological break provided was more important than the content of the meditation (and that music was sufficient to provide this). Mamading suggested that a dynamic meditation, involving physical movement and instructed change of emotional state, followed by a ‘mindful’ still mediation, might be a more effective approach for re-embodying. Stuart suggested that tea and biscuits, and the traditional and familiar ‘ritual’ surrounding their provision, would also make for an effective physical component.
* Fire – each player consigns an aspect of their character to an imaginary central fire, in a symbolic gesture of renunciation. It was optional whether to say it out loud or not, but everyone chose to do so. Richard thought that if players announced what they were consigning publicly, this was useful in expressing the player–character separation: players could make it clear that the ‘bad’ aspects of their character were not parts of themselves. Mamading suggested that this might invite judgement of other players. Jenny felt it might be psychologically better to use an approach not suggesting that some parts of the character were ‘bad’, rather that all aspects were capable of integration into oneself. Stuart suggested that consigning name-badges to the fire might be a powerful act of de-roling.
* Individual recap – each player in turn speaks for a minute about their experience, while others listen silently and non-judgementally. About how the game felt for you, and how the character felt for you. This was felt to be very useful and effective, but how well would it work with larger numbers of people and so longer waiting? Split into smaller groups? – if so, on what basis? Privately between each player and an organizer, rather than to the whole group of players? Richard also wondered whether players might be unsure whether to apologise for their characters’ actions, or to try and justify them. Individual players might take different approaches to this. Mamading suggested that this exercise might be insufficient for some players, who might need an ongoing conversational opportunity over an extended period of remaining in contact with fellow-players.
* Pair support – one-on-one conversation and de-roling. We didn’t get to try this because after all the above we were already pretty thoroughly de-roled.
* Party – general drink and chat about whatever topics arise. This was felt to be effective because of its flexibility, but by the time we got to this point we’d covered everything already.
(On a debrief-debrief note, it was felt that How Was it for You? was an effective exercise for its purpose, and also had been fun to take part in.)