By Ericka Skirpan, originally posted at The Space Between Stories.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing the negative bleed and how players can cope with it (the most prominent blog here); I suggest giving it a read in conjunction with this blog. However, I believe one of the most powerful, wonderful things about LARP is the changes it can create in a person through positive bleed. For this blog, I’m going to define bleed as anything that spills over from a LARP into real life. While we generally focus on the emotional aspects of bleed, I think the positive effect LARPing can have transcends just the emotional. I’ll start this blog with some general categories of positive bleed, then discuss things to be careful about when chasing positive bleed, and I’ll round out with personal stories.
What Is Positive Bleed?
Good bleed comes in a lot of fashions, but I generally see it broken out into the following categories (complete with some brief explanations):
Personality Exploration: LARPing is a great way to develop aspects of your personality that you don’t feel confident in using every day. Sometimes this is playing an outgoing character when you are generally a shy person, taking bigger risks than you would in real life, or learning more about a section of your headspace/history by focusing on it in a character. Finding aspects of your personality which you want to highlight and grow is one of the best forms of bleed you can pursue in LARPing.
Skill Development: While this isn’t necessarily emotional, the amount of people I know who have learned real life skills in pursuit of their passion in LARPing surpasses any other instructional hobby I’ve ever SEEN in the world. I’ve watched so many personal friends become experts through LARP in everything from sewing, to foam crafting, archery prowess, physical fitness, singing, playing instruments, brewing, and history. Finding a passion for storytelling and then using that passion as motivation to enhance yourself physically or mentally is the most powerful kind of bleed around.
Promoting Understanding: For a few hours or days at a time, while at a LARP, a player walks in another person’s shoes. Developing sympathy for people in different situations from yourself can be a wonderfully positive effect of LARPing. Be it living in an impoverished family, someone staking claim on new territory, the struggles of an addict, or someone from a different religion, when LARP is done respectfully it can open players eyes to so many different, difficult facets of the world. More about this below, though, as this can spill into appropriation or mockery if not done correctly.
Testing Ground: As written about by several of our guest bloggers in the LARPing While Queer series, LARP can also be a place where people can live truthfully to parts of themselves before making massive, life changing decisions. Many transgender LARPers found their first safe space to express their real gender during LARPing. Other people have found more comfort experimenting in gender fluidity, sexuality, and other scary but freeing lifestyles which they might not have approached if it wasn’t for the safe space of LARPing. The lessons and confidence they learn in LARP then can be taken into making real life changes.
Good Bleed Turned Bad
While these are all positive things, the above categories can turn unhealthy if pursued in the wrong way. Therefore, I want to touch more on ‘Personality Exploration’ and ‘Promoting Understanding’ as to not endorse unhealthy LARP practices under the name of positive bleed.
LARPing Is Not Therapy: While LARP can be used to enhance aspects of a player’s personality, or even push into testing different aspects of yourself, LARP should never be used to actively work on emotional trauma which hasn’t been discussed with a professionally trained therapist. LARPing can be therapeutic and, with the guidance of a professional, I know some people who have worked through some serious trauma while LARPing. However, in general, it’s a bad idea. Your fellow players have not agreed to being your counselor or therapist and, should you have a breakdown mid-game, most of them will not know how to handle it. A good example would be a player who wants to work on family relations. In positive-bleed encouraging style, that player could build a healthy mother/father relationship with other players who willingly agree to develop such roleplay with them in efforts for the player to figure out what it’s like to have a healthy family. However, if someone was severely abused by their parents and wants to ‘work through their abuse’ by shoving themselves into another abusive situation in a LARP until they either break or push through it, that is unhealthy bleed. Purposefully pushing trauma buttons in a LARP without any preparation, warning to other players, or professional guidance is a form of unhealthy LARPing and it can do as much damage as good.
Understanding, Not Appropriation: Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can turn into appropriation real damn fast if it’s not considered respectfully and researched heavily. If you are going into an experience with the hopes of better understanding someone else (be it their culture, lifestyle, life experiences, or hardships), you better ask some serious questions before taking that leap. Are you doing this in the appropriate setting or is the game prone to making a mockery of such things? Have you done all your research and can you treat this matter with the highest level of respect? Have you spoken to someone else who IS a part of that life/culture and asked them if what you’re doing is okay? Have you gotten their opinion and recommendations about how to play it faithfully? Why have you decided to make this decision and is there any other way to tell this story without taking these risks? Often the answer is no, there is no other way to tell this story. The point is to better understand someone in those circumstances. However, if you don’t do serious self examination going into such endeavors, you risk turning good intentions into disrespectful play, and no one wishes that to happen.
A Personal Perspective
For two years, I played a House President character at the New World Magischola LARP. Quinevere Radcliff-Forsythe. She spent two years bossing people around, organizing her house, getting people ready for classes, and marshalling people to protect their school. She was all the best things about my personality with a bit more self-confidence thrown in and less fear of authority figures. She routinely had to deal with Professors on an almost peer-level basis and didn’t step down when she knew she had genuine concerns. After playing her for several days last summer, I came back to a chaotic work meeting where we had to reorganize our calendar and reschedule several deadlines. Previously, I’d have sat like a meek mouse in a corner, waiting for the entire department to debate for an hour and barely make decisions in the end. After playing Quin for a week, with her personality still bleeding in my head, I sat forward, proposed and clean new calendar with fresh deadlines, and presented my reasoning in the first fifteen minutes of the meeting. The whole department paused, looked at me, looked momentarily confused at my courage, and then agreed that all made sense. The meeting lasted 20 minutes instead of an hour and we’re using those deadline calculations to this day. Letting aspects of Quin’s personality bleed into my life certainly changed things for the positive.
More recently (and more powerfully), I attended a Nordic-style LARP in Belgium by the name of Myrrdin Emrys College. I played a character type I’ve only recently started exploring, but a type that has already opened my eyes in a ton of positive ways. “Angry, high-femme, punk-bitch” is probably the best way to describe the type in my head. Audi (Dystopia Rising Virginia), Phrankie (The Forgotten Empire Campaign) and now Simone Odili (MEC LARP) all fall into this character type. Previous to MEC, playing this type of character really helped open my eyes to a whole new world of what it means to be femme and beautiful. I grew up being taught that women are to be seen and not heard. If I was too loud, I’d not be attractive. If I didn’t wear dresses, act delicately, and strongly convey all the ‘traditional’ aspects of femininity, I would never be beautiful. This was doubly important as a large, tall, loud girl who had to do everything she had just to conform to the box of what I was taught is attractive and feminine. I spent 30+ years of my life fighting to be a delicate, fragile, quiet, feminine flower of a woman because that was beauty in my head.
Goodness, I was wrong.
While I’ve found other women attractive who did not convey the traditional aspects of beauty, I did not think that was acceptable for me. It wasn’t until I walked a mile in Audi’s shoes, after I ripped up her jeans while listening to loud, angry, riotGRRL punk music and learned to faux-hawk my hair did I realize that there was both power and BEAUTY in this style. I didn’t need to wear a skirt to be beautiful. I didn’t need to be quiet to be feminine. I screamed, cursed, and stomped my way through a weekend in the woods and felt more attractive than I had in ages. The power in loud, beautiful, angry women finding their voices was nearly overwhelming. At the age of 34, I finally understood how punk can be beautiful, that quiet does not mean feminine, and bad-ass, high-femme bitch is both HIGHLY attractive and HIGHLY feminine in its own right. It was an awakening. This is an example of life changing positive bleed.
Now, looking more currently, I played that type in Belgium. But I pushed it harder. I dared not just be loud, but to truly embrace anger. Anger a system that was unfair. Anger at the oppression of students. Anger at the sickness I see in the world these days. I went a step further than bad ass. I am not an angry person and I got loud, angry, and JUSTIFIED.
There is a lot to be angry about in the world these days, especially living in the United States. I’ve spent much of my time under this horrid regime being quiet, trying not to shake things up too badly. I give money to charities when I can, I keep supporting my department in journalism to push back against ‘fake news.’ I support my friends who are better at being on the front lines and I cheerlead from behind, or hold hands and shoulders while people cry. But I never let myself get angry. I’ve been told my whole life that anger never changes anything. People shut down if you yell at them. Good people don’t scream, they hold civilized debates.
Once more, for those in the back, GOODNESS I WAS WRONG.
Simone saw true injustice in the world and instead of holding a ‘civilized debate’, she got angry about it. She screamed. She stood up in front of an entire room and risked getting herself kicked out of school because she wasn’t going to be quiet while students were demeaned and tortured. She did everything I’ve never been able to do in life. And when she ran out, she stole government paperwork on the way and literally burned the report in front of a government bureaucrat. It was the most angry, impulsive, crazy thing I’d ever embraced in my life and it felt GOOD. Even more than feeling good, it inspired CHANGE. Simone’s words pushed other students to stand up against injustices. Eventually, the entire school stood against the teachers which had dared torture them, said they wouldn’t take it any more, and the system changed.
Yes, this was only a game. But it taught me an immensely valuable lesson that I’m still processing in how to take into my daily life: that sometimes anger can inspire change, sometimes you need to scream to get things done, sometimes you don’t have to be the more civilized person. Taking those feelings back into my real life has let me stand up for myself in micro-situations where, previously, I would have backed down or gone silent. Simone has taught me not to silence my own voice and I’m so thankful for that.