Ask Again Later: Saftey in Improv

After participating in “Ask Again Later” (AAL), I found that I most appreciated their stance on the treatment of bleed and conflict. Sarah Lynne Bowman describes the concern that, “Denying that participants can become personally impacted by game events erases the experience of many players and silences their ability to ask for help” (Bowman). The “Ask Again Later” team actively works to dispel this, by creating a communal norms on how to communicate bleed.

First, I am going to describe the role of some of the bleed strategies described by Bowman were used or not used in “Ask Again Later” and how they succeeded and how they were limited.

AAL relied largely on in – game signaling. Not only did AAL create a method to check in, but they also encouraged affirmative signaling to indicate that players felt comfortable before another player had to be concerned. During game play, I found this element to be particularly useful since I had not LARP’ed with any of the players before, and didn’t know many of them personally. This signalling led to an ability to not be concerned about the impact of my characters actions.

A strategy proposed by Bowman but not implemented largely by AAL was de-rolling. Bowman defines de-rolling as, “a method by which the player ritually casts aside the role and re-enters their former identity. Some strategies for de-roleing include: players removing an article of their characters’ clothing and placing it before them in the circle; participants stating what they want to take with them from the character and what they want to leave behind” (Bowman). AAL finished the experience as introducing ourselves with our real names and pronouns rather. However, there was little direct interaction between players structured like before the game. This led to the majority of my perceptions of the players remaining as their characters rather than re-identifying them as people. Additionally, since AAL was set in a world close to our own there was little distinction between the player and character appearance which led to an increase in bleed.

While acting and LARPing share the same emotional conflicts ‘bleed’ is discussed as a solely game related subject. Stanislavski describes moments where he feels completely one with character, which Bowman would describe as bleed, and the feelings lasting for days. However, he fails to create a language for communicating this impact or managing it.

This is especially evident in classroom settings, where actors are putting themselves in vulnerable positions and the natural response is to laugh. After such an interaction, his director states, “Maria is going through a most important moment in her artistic life. Try to learn when at laugh, and at what” (Stanislavski, 35). From this experience, we can see that there was limited structure to create a rehearsal space that dealt with the emotional burden of performance that exists in both theater and LARP.

As much as we ask LARP and games to take from the older practice of theater, perhaps we should look to games for deeper structures for emotional safety. Since games often assume a lower level of professional experience, and as a method of leisure and therefore requires higher safety mechanisms.

Education Through ARGs

As we talk about the gamification of education, I always come back to my elementary school cafeteria. They came up with a new way to keep the cafeteria quiet. A traffic light hung at the far end of the cafeteria and as long as we were quiet it would stay at green, a bit too loud yellow, and way too loud red. At that point, we were given a minute of silence.

The game was obvious.

How fast can you make the light red without getting blamed.

Although ARGs seek to be less constrained by rules and non-punitive, that traffic light is my best example that no matter what if there is a game element, people will game it.

I’m interested in comparing the summer experiences: Source and S.E.E.D. to the more permanent experience of Quest to Learn. Some key differences and similarities I noted in these programs:

  • Choice: the UChicago programs were short experiences chosen by the players to participate in. In contrast, most middle and high school students have less choice in where they go to school. In many ARGs the choice to play is essential. How do you navigate a group that has not necessarily chosen to play?
  • Time: Typically, ARGs are relatively short lasting in measures of months. In the UChicago programs, each session had a clear narrative. Similarly, Quest to Learn breaks down each class into having its own narrative. Both of these programs must manage the game to fit into a specific time frame, while continuing to engage students in different ways.
  • Success Metrics: ARGs tend to lack clear success or failure, just the progress of the narrative. Summer programs are a great way to engage with this since there is little pressure to prove oneself, and it is a step back from the highly structured school environment. Therefore, the UChicago programs seem more easily suited for ARGs. However, Quest to Learn requires metrics, if only to prove itself. Despite the attempts to shift the perception and punishment of grades, I wonder how you balance a game that measurably effects the outcome of your life without incentivizing “gaming” the game.

Even with best intentions, you can always make a traffic light. The question is how to change the game once you have made it.