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Should LARPs include trigger warnings?

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Have you ever experienced a traumatic event that affected you for the rest of your life? I have, and I think about it often. Even at LARPs (live action role playing games), I am occasionally reminded of a past traumatic incident.

Several years ago, I was in a car accident. I was a passenger in a car that hit a concrete wall at 60 miles per hour. I live with back pain every day and will have to do so for the rest of my life. This affects how I LARP, what types of characters I play, and how often I play them. It also creates situations in which I am triggered - by that I mean I am immediately reminded of the car accident. This produces a state of anxiety which is common among those who experience triggers. I was diagnosed and treated for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and find that LARP has helped me become stronger than my fear and anxiety.

Fortunately, most LARPs do not include car accidents. However, other immersive experiences do - such as the Test Track ride in Disney World. I had a complete panic attack in the middle of the ride because it involved a mock collision. Because of this experience, I understand that it can be horrifying to be reminded of trauma when you are not in control of the situation.

A trigger warning lets people know that content (media, presentations, etc.) may contain content that causes emotional reactions to those who have experienced a type of related traumatic event.

Trigger warnings are diverse. Many elements of a surrounding can trigger a victim of abuse, accidents, traumatic experiences, losses, or other issues, including:

  • Scenes or scenarios (abuse, a character screaming for help)

  • Scents (some not typically encountered in the real world)

  • Scene or surroundings (including uncontrollable elements such as weather)

  • Topics of conversation (even another PC speaking about her past)

  • Loud and unexpected noises

  • Physical violence (including typical LARP combat)

  • The appearance of certain objects

Triggers are particularly problematic for LARP designers, especially in games involving high levels of improvisation. In some games and genres, scenarios are designed to surprise and terrify the participants; to move characters and immerse players while creating dramatic events and responses that develop characters. This means that many common occurrences in LARP worlds are things that may not often happen (or legally happen) in the real world. Crime, abuse, rape, slavery, torture, and more are often rampant in game worlds.

Additionally, game organizers and writers can only control or predict so much. Part of the fun of LARP is that PCs may get to determine the story. The PCs will act, react, and respond in a way unpredictable to the organizers, meaning at any given time, one character’s actions could trigger a player.

Furthermore, everyone who has triggers reacts to them differently. You may not know you even have a trigger until it happens. In my case, if I know I am about to go into a potentially triggering situation, I can prepare. This helps me in everyday situations such as driving a car or going to a movie that may contain car accidents.

How can LARP organizers inform those potentially triggered of their content?

Website: Regardless of the type of LARP, a game’s website is the primary way many potential LARPers are exposed to the game, its rules system, and its content. Therefore, the website is the most effective way for most games to indicate the tone of their game. Websites can easily display:

  • Genre

  • Information about how out of game safety is achieved

  • Thematic elements of the game

It is often fair to assume that an event in the horror genre will contain scary surprises, for example.

Common triggers: As stated above, triggers are as varied as the people who experience them. However, when writing and producing content, you may wish to consider it from the perspective of people who have experienced the following occurrences which are common in our culture:

  • Rape and sexual abuse

  • Physical abuse

  • Emotional abuse

  • Verbal abuse

  • Violence against a specific group (homosexuals, women, people of color)

  • General violence or household violence

  • Auto accidents

  • Military experience (read more about PTSD and veterans)

  • Civilians in warzones

  • Negative experiences in certain environments, such as hospitals or vehicles

  • Slavery

  • Death and grieving

  • Self-injury and self-harm

  • Starvation and body image

  • Phobias (including the rare and specific)

  • Destructive disasters or attacks and related effects (example: Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11, Boston Marathon bombing)

Per-event notices: Game designers and staff members can always post trigger warnings per event. This is especially important for one-shots or for campaign LARPs whose event somehow differs from their usual fare. You do not have to give the content of your event away, but you can warn participants about content dealing with types of violence, etc.

Clarification in rules: Does the LARP you run or attend contain rules and procedures for scenarios about rape and domestic violence, for example? Some games expressly forbid the topic - other games serve as a means to explore and understand the effects of trauma so participants are more understanding of what others confront. Either way, you should know and post your rules on this topic if you run a game.

LARP staff members should also have a clear policy of communication between themselves and their players. Aside from being generally helpful, this creates a way for those who are potentially triggered to provide information about possible triggers.

Player and participant responsibility: If you know that certain events may trigger you, you should consider revealing this to the event staff - but only if you are comfortable doing so. This concerns your personal safety and it is particularly important because others may not know whether you are reacting to a traumatic situation in and out of game.

You can also ask a friend for help. If your friend is comfortable, ask him or her to keep your triggers in mind and go out of game to assist you or guide you away from a scene if necessary.

That said, players should not be required to declare all past experiences and phobias. They should know that if they are comfortable with describing it, it can help game marshals prevent a difficult experience for them.

Additionally, all players, NPCs, staff members and game participants should be responsible for asking permission, especially if the game’s rules require players to ask permission before making any sort of physical contact or discussing situations that are potentially emotionally distressing.

Ratings: The popularity of this idea varies geographically, but LARP organizers may elect to rate their games as movies are rated.

Safe words: Your LARP probably has ‘safe words’ even if you don’t call them that - words such as hold, caution, heavy, green/yellow/red light, stop, brake, ‘permission for physical role play?’ and more. Games of all genres and styles use these words to indicate physical and emotional safety. When implemented properly, an out of game safe word or request for permission is integrated into the game in a way that enhances role play instead of breaking immersion.

Should there be a limit on triggers?

The social network tumblr is known for being a safe and sensitive place (it’s kind of opposite-reddit). On tumblr, users often encourage each other to tag trigger warnings. For example: one of my tumblr friends was sensitive to the subject of Sept. 11. When I wrote something about it, I used the tags “trigger warning” “September 11” and “tw: september 11.” My friend and other users were able to use an extension or plugin like tumblr Savior to avoid specific tags, such as this one.

For this reason, tumblr has become a bastion of gender equality and a safe place for those of all sexual orientation. However, critics of tumblr say the sensitivity goes a bit far. Communities like Facebook are more known for political and opinion posts that might not be as sensitive - which begs the question: Should LARPs be more like tumblr or more like Facebook? In May of 2014, this was a question addressed in academia.

The answer is likely different for every game and every player. There should be room in the grand scope of LARP to allow players to safely explore dark themes and topics (in Nordic LARP, for example, when such may be the point of the game).

What do you do if a participant at your LARP is triggered?*

  • Best to be safe: If you feel that someone else may or may not be out of game upset, clarify out of game whether their emotions are in or out of game.

  • Remove the affected individual from the scenario unless he or she asks otherwise.

  • Offer support and a safe place. Get any individuals or resources the affected individual asks for - they may feel safer with certain people and objects. Make it clear that you are in a safe space.

  • Generally, always have an out of game area and indication of out of game status (hand over head, out of game headband) so that people may leave the play area should they need to deal with discomfort.

  • If a participant experiences any physical symptoms as the result of a trigger, sometimes the physical symptoms may present themselves first. The participant may or may not know whether s/he is experiencing a panic attack. Game staff and medics should review the symptoms of a panic attack.

The LARP community as a whole and per specific game is a real community. Like any close-knit community, it works best when everyone takes some personal responsibility while helping out and looking out for friends. Learn about triggers and educate others about them. Additionally, make sure you learn and encourage proper use of game rules, especially those concerning safety.

*Please note: I am not a psychologist; this is simply advice based on personal experience and years of LARPing and dealing with a traumatic incident.

Additional notes:Thank you to the Larpettes and Rick Clapper (formerly deployed in the USMC) for their opinions and feedback on this topic.

This article is not meant to be comprehensive, although I did make an effort to gather a varied set of opinions on this issue. Please feel free to add opinions and resources in the comment box. This is meant as a starting point for discussion.

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