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Black Folx LARP? Why Aren't They Playing My LARP?


People hear “this _____ is racist,” and they [rightfully] cast it off. They want to be as far from it as possible, because racism is bad. And I’m not going to tell you that racism isn’t bad, but I am going to say that the first step to understanding and dismantling racism is accepting that we live in a racist society, which means that a lot of things we enjoy are going to be racist. It isn’t necessarily a reflection of our values to realize that something we love exists within our own blindspots and that because we are not the targeted demographic of -isms that it has an offensive stance towards, we did not notice its issues. 

It is okay to be ignorant. It is not okay to stay that way.

“But, Jess,” you might say, “I thought this post was going to be about why Black people don’t LARP.” I’m getting there, and I feel like I need to brace a lot of white folx for what they’re about to hear about their beloved games;  The answer is simpler than you think. 

Black people aren’t playing your LARP because your LARP is racist. 

every LARP creator hearing their game is racist.


I know, I know, that’s a loaded sentence. Take a few seconds, blow off the pearl-clutching steam and come back to this. 

You good?

Ok, I’m going to continue. 

Your game is racist because you don’t know how not to be. Without being a pedant and explaining the subtle ways that racism is ingrained into our culture, the way it crops up in all forms of storytelling, odds are you’re simply  mirroring what you’ve seen growing up, and things that you think might not be racist. And it’s not as blackface-and-white as whether or not to paint your skin obsidian to play a Drow (hint: Don’t.) It can be much more subtle and much more nefarious than most people will notice.

Does your LARP have an entire race of people that is known to be untrustworthy, thieving nomads? Congrats, that’s a racist stereotype. 

Does your LARP have an actual, factual race of slaves? Congrats, that’s a racist stereotype. 

Does your LARP have an entire race of short, hooked-nosed, bankers? Congrats, that’s a f***ing stereotype, holy s**t guys can you not see that!?

And those are just the obvious ones. Now, there is a difference between using harmful stereotypes in your game building and coding, which is a concept for another blog post. In TL/DR format, coding is a neutral term meaning to provide allegory to a real-world culture, people, phenomenon or what have you. Coding exists everywhere, whether we mean to or not, and is not always negative. Coding is neutral. (If you want more context on coding in media, check out this brilliant video essay on the movie Bright by Lindsay Ellis. She explains it better than I will.)

Even without any of the above listed criteria, your game might still be subtly racist without you realizing it. Hell, even some of the steps you take to make it not racist might backfire and be worse than if you’d never tried. A prime example of this is the number of games that exist that erase race in their lore, or take the “I don’t see color,” approach to world building. While I understand the intention and the desire to level the playing field, this just swings back to the root of the problem; 

  • The ability to look away from race, it’s implications, and the uneasiness of dealing with it is white privilege in action. Privilege isn’t necessarily all about how your life isn’t hard because of thing xyz, but is about how you can opt to not engage with it, you can look away. Even in a setting where there is no race accounted for, you are giving your white players the ability to glance away from something that your potential players of color will definitely still see and exist in. 
  • The “neutral” point will always be white. This is true in every media form, but even more so in LARP. When no other race is selected, it will default to white, and thus further the idea that any other type of race or expression is “other” to the white norm. 
  • Without meaning to, your white players will push plots or narratives that closely mirror white-supremacist racist thought patterns, plot lines, interactions, and so on. And your POC players will feel alienated by it.


There is a Difference Between Making Space and Allowing Access

Ah, yes. The LARP table. With so many spaces.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I owned an already old version of the game Perfection. Turn the timer, and you have a set amount of time (I think 30 seconds??? It's not that important to the metaphor) to put a bunch of different shapes of pegs into their slots. The idea is that each peg only fits perfectly in it's own place. Maybe the version I had was worn or broken, maybe it was a knock off, but I learned very young that some of the pegs, if you rotated them they fit in a different space. It doesn't fit right, but it fits.

That's what it feels like, to me, being a larper of color in most larp spaces. I'm not denied being there, if I rotate and squeeze, I can almost slide into the space. It's not the most comfortable, but it works, and I get to experience something close to what was intended. I just have to keep rotating.

Playing in a fantasy setting very obviously based in European stories? Shift a little.

Lore elements having pieces of P.O.C. history twisted to fit the setting but with the actual culture removed? Rotate just a fraction of a hair.

Pre-written character with family issues, but with no POC NPCs to facilitate a believable relationship? Turn and gently place yourself into that space.

You get the gist. Round peg fits in a square hole...kinda. There are gaps along the corners, nuances and direct things that we just can’t engage with. “Maybe it’s me,” your players of color think. “Maybe my willing suspension of disbelief just isn’t strong enough. I'm in the space, isn’t that all that matters?”

For a lot of us, for larpers of color, larpers who come from a marginalized heritage, we often don’t know what it’s like to be in a space that actually accepts us. Instead, we know what it’s meant to be allowed access to a space clearly carved for a white person. 

“But, Jess,” you might say, “what more can we do than allow people to come in? LARP is interactive, they can tell whatever stories they want. We don’t make special space for white players, why should we make special place for POC players?” I don’t know, mystery Karen who serves as a device to illustrate white stupidity on this topic. If I’m serving peanut butter pie for dinner at my dinner party and one of my guests is allergic to peanuts, but I serve it to them anyway with a smile because they are allowed to eat it, I’m still a s**tty party host

Our society has so much racism ingrained into it that white is the default, which means that white stories will always, always be more numerous and louder at any given LARPS. Which means that it is the job of the organizers and facilitators of these games to lift the stories and narratives of P.O.C. players. Creating a space at your table means that yes, you will have to give some special treatment to players of color that you wouldn’t give to white players. Yes, you will have to invite them in and give them a little more than you would give a white player.

You have to make a space specifically for players of color, it is not just enough to give them access to the same space that was clearly made for white people. 


Let Us Tell Our Stories, Don’t Tell Them For Us

One of the hardest things to come to terms with, as a black nerd and as a black larper, is that a lot of creators will try and take our story from us and tell it, thinking that this is what inclusion is. They’re writing black and black-coded characters, that’s inclusivity!...Right?

Not exactly. Including P.O.C. in your backstories and lore but not having them edited and checked by a member of that group means that you will, I guarantee, be pulling from stereotypes and histories that were written by white people, for white people. The pendulum swing of all of this are finding spaces where the emphasis is put on erasing our history and not allowing us to engage in telling those stories. 

Yes, some P.O.C. narratives are going to be difficult to engage with, they will be uncomfortable for white people to hear. Do it anyway. Let us tell the stories, let us engage with stories that are as deeply important to us as any white narrative is to a white larper. Encourage your white players to sit with their discomfort in order to lift the narratives of P.O.C. players and I guarantee, you will make a safer LARP community as a whole, and a community where P.O.C. players will feel safe and excited to engage with your game. 

There is a difference between comfort and safety, which is something that a lot of white players and white people in general do not recognize. Just because you are uncomfortable does not mean that you are unsafe. Ask any P.O.C. player, because I guarantee we’re uncomfortable more often than you could imagine. Prioritizing white comfort by letting white people tell our stories for us, or by denying us the ability to tell our full story because it makes white people uncomfortable actively makes games unsafe for P.O.C. players. Do not prioritize white comfort over P.O.C. safety by allowing it to happen.

Black people do LARP. If there aren’t black folx in your game, the answer as to why is looking back at you in the mirror. Only you have the power to fix it. 

Comments

  1. Teacher brain has me thinking about how larp runners can use specificity of language to force white players to engage with race, in larps that are trying to make space. Things like larp descriptions (period piece: at this time X beliefs were hegemonic, Y beliefs were radical, and Z beliefs would get you socially ostracized if known) and character survey questions (I.E. In this time period racial mixing was anathema? How many people of color/black people/latine people/asian people does your character interact with in their every day lives? What does your character think or understand about the day to day lives of the PoC they know?) At the very least this could give STs some information about what they're working with and at the most it could make players think critically about these issues affect character interaction.

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  2. "Creating a space at your table means that yes, you will have to give some special treatment to players of color that you wouldn’t give to white players."

    No. No we don't. If POC means extra effort for an organizer we simply won't do it. If you make demands of me as an organizer to specifically cater to you - I'll just tell you you're not welcome. I'm not paid to do this, I don't need to take anyone's demands.
    It's a volunteer gig that costs hundreds of hours of work per year. Most of us would rather play someone else's LARP but we want to see something we care about become a reality.
    You want to have a POC inclusive larp tailored to your sensibilities that reflect the POC cultural elements and isn't an Eurocentric story? Do the same thing everyone else did and MAKE it. Don't whine that volunteers are doing what they want to do. Become the person who does. If a whole larp from scratch is beyond you - offer your time and expertise to an existing organization team and write them what specifically would you change and how would you personally make it work.
    Otherwise... noone cares. We get entitled player's whining about their pet issues all year long. Good luck.

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    1. I mean, clearly you don't ask yourself why black players aren't playing your LARP, so this article isn't for you. If you're not actually trying to include POC, your rejection of strategies to do so is pointless, and your entire rant here is just self aggrandizement and posturing to, I don't know... intimidate POC? Take them down a peg for asking for understanding in why particular genres or story-lines might intersect with their identities differently than yours?

      Really not sure what you were trying to accomplish here, but your hot take is hot garbage.

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    2. Hey Ashwynn, what LARPs do you run? Asking so I can avoid them forever.

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    3. So racism and exclusion and white bubbles are just a "pet issue." Wow. Just wow. The number of POC I know personally who have described being overtly othered, caricatured, and slurred at larps is significant (it's all of them). If you don't think that is a problem and you just want them to go somewhere else, then your larp might as well have a "Whites Only" sign on it.

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    5. You care? Good for you. Do you organize a LARP? Because if you don't your caring doesn't matter. This article was aimed at organizers. If you ain't one, sorry but you are irrelevant.

      ...Unless you care enough to become one. Because hell, this hobby would surely could use more larps and organizers. Everyone wants to play, everyone wants the game to be just like they would like to... damn few are willing to actually do something for it instead of yapping on people who aren't as lazy.

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    6. And just so we're clear. I have no intention to "put POC in their place" as someone insinuated. I would tell you the same if you came to me about how we should present Fae as based on Irish Folklore or had some "amazing idea" about how we should totally include demonology in our schools of magic. And you know what? I actually did both of those. I told those people exactly the same thing - I don't have time to change the game and make sure it is followed and understood and find NPC's that would play it out. You want it? Do it yourself.
      ...which is incidentally how we got our Queen of the Fae and her court and Master Demonologist. No-one has a problem with tailoring the game. It's just that everyone is too busy to do it for you.

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    7. I am a long-time LARP organizer, writer, NPC, cook, and player. I matter, and so does the author, who also organizes LARPs!

      Seems though that since you're "central European so black people are not counted in % but in hundreds and those who live here are straight from Africa so without the slave-born culture," maybe your opinion here is pretty irrelevant.

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    8. Hey Ashwynn, what larp do you organize, cause A) I'm going to avoid it like there plague, and B) you know the person who wrote this article organizes larps and gets PAID. So clearly she's doing better than you. Maybe take some notes and improve yourself instead of sharing your ignorance with everyone.

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  3. @Ashwynn: you absolutely don't need to take demands, but it can't hurt to listen to advice on how to make a game more welcoming!

    If you really love Norse mythology and really want to make a specifically Norse mythology-themed larp, that's fine, even if not everyone will be interested. You don't have to make every game you ever write avoid every possible thing that could make your game unwelcoming to some players.

    But I hope that you *want* black players to feel welcome in your games, right? In which case, it's worth doing things that are relatively easy to make that happen - like consulting with POC as you design some of the cultures in a new game world, or reading posts like this one to get perspectives on what you can do to help address the problem.

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    1. Not to mention, people of color were absolutely around Viking culture, and there was cultural exchange. People from many cultures traveled unimaginable distances in the ancient and medieval world.

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    2. Well it's honestly a bit of a moot point considered we don't have any - I'm central European so black people are not counted in % but in hundreds and those who live here are straight from Africa so without the slave-born culture.

      The point I had was - this is counterproductive. Larp organizers are often overworked people with zero tolerance for high maintenance people. No-one is going to go through the painstaking effort to study all this culturally sensitive stuff - and let's be real, just look up the article above and you'll see it's no trivial matter to learn so - so they are much more likely to just consider you a troublemaker/high maintenance and just ignore you or just straight up ban you from the event.

      If you want to grandstand on the internet to a handful of head nodding activists who never even been to a single larp, let alone organized one - sure, articles like these are great. If you want to actually change something you need to do more then "flap your gums" - get your ass up and actively participate in the process. That was my point and advice. If you care DO, instead of Talk.

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    3. No. No no no. Let's not do this.

      Ok, let's do this.

      So one-- what you think of as 'norse culture' is not actually Norse culture. The truth is we know almost NOTHING about real norse cukture, because Christian scandanavians wiped that out after conversion. What we have are: the prose and poetic eddas, the sagas, Tacitus's roman history Germania, and some Christian accounts of the Anglish before conversion.

      Everything else is New Age attempts at reconstruction, including literal Nazi propaganda, followed by heavily white supremacist Astaru musings, and only more recently an attempt at Astaru multiculturalism.

      We know there were people of color in the ancient world, but no one knows how they were seen or treated, becauae none of the white Christian authors bothered to write about them. We do know that there was a good deal of prejudice against Finns, who spent more time with other artic circle indigenous peoples. That is not a promising sign of how they might have treated with Roman mercenaries, North African traders, Mediterranean rim trades, etc.

      So let's not try to spin norse mythology as racially inclusive. It's not. Games basing thier mythology on norse mythology are simply promoting a different narrative of exclusively white Christian authors.

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    4. @ashwynn: ah, that explains things. If you live in a country where there are basically no black people, I agree you needn't put much effort into making your game welcoming to black players. ...but this blog post was written by someone in a country where there are *tons* of black people. It's like, if you ran into a larp where all the major npcs were men, and the women npcs were all stereotypically weak, emotional, and scantily clad... and the gm said "I'm not going to cater to women. If they want to enjoy larps they can make their own."

      There are enough women that making games where they feel welcome is just the right thing to do. The same goes for (e.g.) black people in the US.

      One last note: "do instead of just talk" seems to imply that the author of this post's only actions to make larping more inclusive are to write this blog post. What makes you think that's the case? It's possible that the author is both working within their own larp community to make more inclusive larps... *and* posting their thoughts about it online, in case others want to read about it. (Which I, for one, do!) Nothing wrong with that!

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  4. Hi! I'm a member of an overwhelmingly white LARP running team hoping to make our game more inclusive (when we return from a much needed break after the end of our last campaign). I think we've done a decent job making the game feel safe for some marginalized groups, but not others. This is some good food for thought and I am going to bring this to my team and see if we can brainstorm some solutions, because I do see some errors we have made in this essay. We can do better. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

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  5. I appreciate the notion and the general feel of the article.

    I do feel that this entire article could have been more constructive, however, if one were to include resources to help with this issue. As you say, most LARPs, most culture, in fact, is racist without even realizing it--that being the case, I feel that most people likely have -absolutely- no idea where to even start looking. And not everyone might have a person of colour in their life with whom they are close who is also invested in what could be considered a fringe hobby to consult with.

    A short list of some specific examples that can be included, a few links to resources of a similar caliber, and a concrete place to start for organizers and writers who don't have the right contacts, and this would be gold. And in contrast, a short list of specific examples of what to avoid (because let's be real, people are going to try to do something to help and in turn make it worse because they don't know any better) would make it even better.

    Just my thoughts. I used to help run plot at moderately sized LARP and have since stepped away and don't really have any intentions of returning, but I still enjoy reading content from the community.

    Keep writing things like this; the community needs it. If you have the time or incentive to include an action plan and resources, then you are a true gem.

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    1. https://lmgtfy.com/?q=list+of+sensitivity+readers&iie=1

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  6. Black larp organizer here. 7ish years organizing. 10ish years larping. AAAAAAAAND I feel this DEEPLY!! Even though i dont do much plot driven larp (scenario combat mainly, boffer/heavy armored full contact, crazy oregon pirate shit that i dont wanna explain)

    The part about peanut allergy and party organizers is my highlight of the article. Calling larps and larp organizers racist is true but they dont have the ears to hear. The comments seem full of big reactions by those who only have a concept of racism, completely different from any actual consistent experience.

    I thank you for this article. Even though i know its gunna irritate most non POC who read it. "Youre larp is racist" is hard to swallow but what follows is dead on in talking about whats so off about larping in most places that give a shit about narrative. (Some places we just fight and use fun names and costumes and make up cool battle games)

    But in light of whats said id like to share my own really confusing experience with the oregon pirate community. I'll have to wait till im at a key board to comment but like for ten years of my life (considerably more in other parts of my life such as relationships and employment) i fit that square peg in a round hole analogy dead on! And fuck do i have a lot to say about it and what it has shown me about "white ppl" (i think saying white ppl is a over generalization. These ppl have real races, russian, german, itallian and so on. Its just easier to unite them by calling them the name of their skin -- yes racism is that subtle)

    really its the not the race but the accepted norm and things ppl come to expect that is where the ground is laid for that institutional racism that most "white" ppl dont know how to interpet or address. In my experience they havent felt it so they cant compensate for it. Maybe if they read this they can get some ideas but every larp is so different.

    I could go on but ive well exceeded how much effort i wanted to put into this. It really hard to find words and sometimes the calm to communicate so as to be understood by others. I know ive blown up at the mentioned pirate community in oregon when i, my friends and hundreds of others have been raped, sexually assaulted, ive even gotten death threats. Like, its different when larps are small but when larps are in the thousands (reportedly topping out at 6000 one year) different problems come up. Safety is a real concern. Its honestly at the point with that larp that i go there pretty much out of spite for those who have made it their thing to attack me. Like i said i can go on but its late and im done. Again thank you. Nobodys perfect but avoid those who think they are.

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