When I was 11 two things happened to me: I climbed a tall tree in a storm, and I watched the film Alien. One of these things gave me nightmares for years afterwards; the other was scary, exhilarating and life-affirming. Which one was unsafe? As you may have guessed, it was my time on the claustrophobic Nostromo with Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt’s little friend that traumatised me. I can still recall a particularly gruelling Alien nightmare that I had in my early 20s. I’ve watched the film subsequently, as well as a couple of the sequels, but at 11 I was unprepared for the psychological shock I received. Clinging to the top branches of a poplar tree as it tossed in a fierce gale, I knew I was fairly safe. I’d done this kind of thing before; I knew my limits; and climbing that tree was me pushing past them gently.
I would argue that most larp players are looking for an experience that is stimulating but safe, like my tree-climbing, and not one that leaves them traumatised. It’s clear that both can happen. Rasmus Høgdall, one of the most vehement critics of larp safety, writes in Playground issue 7: “I know people who needed professional help [after a larp] and friends waking up in the middle of the night suffering from panic attacks because of what we do.” In the documentary on the legendary 2010 Danish larp Delirium, set in a lunatic asylum, it seems to me that Helene is displaying signs of mild trauma (at 25 mins) as she talks about the effect of hearing the Arcade Fire song ‘My Body is a Cage’ in the months since playing the larp.
This is unsurprising, and tells us no more than that larp is a powerful mode of experience, and that we are still learning how to make use of it. Johanna Koljonen remarks that human beings have no inherent awareness of fiction: when we see something happening, our bodies believe that it’s really happening, even if our sophisticated minds know it to be unreal. There are many accounts of larp experiences that are intense and challenging, but which are felt to be ultimately life-affirming. By the same token it’s clear that sometimes larpwrights and larp producers get it wrong.
As a grim joke goes, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, except polio”. The truth in the joke is that are plenty of non-fatal experiences that don’t make you stronger. Stretching our muscles at the gym or by rock-climbing is healthy. Tearing a muscle by stressing it suddenly and unexpectedly is not healthy.
Experiences that take us beyond our usual tolerances in a manageable way are important and help us to develop psychological resilience. But we need to be clear about the dangers present. Larp is not inherently dangerous, any more than rock-climbing is, provided that it’s done responsibly and with awareness of the risks. Those include unexpected shocks, players that have a low tolerance for stress, poorly-workshopped safety procedures, and subtle pressures that make players feel unable to ask for help.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” according to Spider-Man. Larpers might prefer the Kick-Ass version, “With no power comes no responsibilty”. But that’s not the way things are. If larp really is a powerful medium then it of course has potential both to damage and to heal.