We Collectively Suck at Setting Boundaries in Larp

(Featured Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash.)

I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately on learning to set boundaries and damn it’s hard. However, it’s also an incredibly necessary step towards not just being your own person, but having a healthy relationship with the world around you. The more I dive into boundary setting, the more I realize that a vast amount of problems people encounter through larping is because they have not effectively set their own boundaries where this hobby is concerned. Now, I’m not a therapist and I certainly don’t have all the answers as to how we do this better, but I do know that recognizing a problem is one of the first steps in fixing it. Therefore, I invite anyone reading this blog to take a close examination of your relationship with the hobby and find the places places that you haven’t done enough boundary setting. Even articulating that a certain area of the hobby might be a problem for you is a huge step in the right direction.

When this discussion first started on Facebook, a dear friend mentioned an incredibly valuable point as well. Jonathan Goldsmith is a long time larper and professional psychotherapist. He clarified that boundaries and limits are two different things. In Jonathan’s words: “Limits are a hard no. It’s good to understand where that is and to feel that in relationship to your physical proximity. Boundaries are (in this model) more porous and can be highly contextual, so In different relationships or social situations they may change.

When a boundary is touched on, it can be an early warning system to start to push out and say no and make choices as to what is appropriate in that particular context. When I’ve worked with clients using this model often it’s the case that there isn’t enough ‘space’ between their limits and boundaries so that if a boundary is breached it feels transgressive.

By helping to delineate between the two you can create a healthy space where you can recognise that a boundary is being touched upon without it pushing up against your limits. By extending out a boundary you create a buffer zone between what feels ok to be challenged and a clear line that you don’t want crossed.

I think larp is an interesting space as it’s a unique social situation that can challenge an individual’s boundaries as part of the social contract of the larp environment. Whether it’s a combination of social pressure, people pleasing, working to create a communal dynamic or simply difficulty in saying no, boundaries (and also limits) can be challenged.”

While such advice might not work for everyone, when going into larp situations that you have acknowledged you may already have issues going routinely past your limits, it is even MORE vital to set boundaries with some breathing room. That way, you know that when a boundary has been crossed you have time to come down, get out of a scene, or extricate yourself from the responsibility without immediately having to bow out. I’ve seen a lot of larpers remain overly long in uncomfortable situations because of fear that they will be disappointing others (be it breaking a scene or failing as a staff member). Setting a boundary in front of a limit gives you more room to bow out gracefully.

Top Boundary Setting Challenges for Larpers

These are the areas I see my fellow larpers fail in setting their own boundaries the most often. Hell, to be honest, these are all areas I’ve failed at times in the past as well. Just because you fall into one of these traps doesn’t mean that you are doing it wrong, but if you recognize yourself in some of these words, it’s worth stepping back and seeing how you can better reassess your relationship with that part of the hobby.

A bruise weeks after a larp, because I failed to set physical space boundaries in a scene.

Physical Health: I’ve never seen a hobby where people so often push their bodies to the absolute limits, come home sick after nearly every event, and are hurting for days following a game. As much as we remind each other to drink enough water, get food, and get enough sleep, it’s a rare larper that actually practices all three goals in a fully healthy fashion. While I am personally good at hydrating and eating, I never get enough sleep for my own health at a game. In the future, I’m going to push hard to set a boundary of ‘Get seven hours of sleep a night at game,’ knowing that my limit should be six, and if I start going to bed in time to get seven hours sleep, I MIGHT actually hit the pillow in time to get that needed six. If you are having issues maintaining your physical health at a game, I challenge you to articulate the places where you most often fail and make a game plan to better meet those physical needs in the future.

Staffing Obligations: I’d put money on 75 percent of the larp staff I know being in some stage of burn-out. Whether it’s the exhaustion of having to do heavy writing month after month, dealing with a large amount of player entitlement which comes with many gaming circles, or pure social obligation to continuously handle large amounts of people, larp organizers are often expected to be counselors, customer service experts, experience designers, and engineers at the same time. Because there is often a lack of good help and people are intimidated to step into staffing roles, staff members will stay along far into their burn-out periods out of obligation to a community. Instead of taking a step back at the first signs of exhaustion, they push through to the next month in hopes things will turn around. Or that player will just leave the game. Or their real life will get easier. They put player’s needs before their own and dig themselves deeper into a burn-out hole. It’s hard to see it before it’s too late, but if you are feeling the burn out of being an organizer, I invite you to talk to your fellow organizers about it. See if you can assess a plan to take a game or two off, even if you don’t want to fully step down. See if you can get a change in duties. Or, if none of those things are possible, please start setting some clear boundaries with your players, your fellow staff members, and your own calendar about when game work happens and when life work happens. No one should be larp staffing 24/7. No one.

It’s a Game, Not a Job: Much like staff remaining in a false sense of obligations, players are horrible at realizing when the fun of a larp has ended and they are simply attending out of habit or a fear of missing out. Many players will keep going to a game they long ago ceased having fun with for far too many reasons. Peter Woodworth explains it far better in his “Badass Larp Talk #22: Why You’re Not Having Fun Anymore” piece. I encourage you to read it and set a few new boundaries for yourself about which games you want to play and how often you genuinely want to be there.

Financial Burdens: The economy sucks, I get it. For many people under 30, larp is the only thing they feel like they have control over in their lives (especially here in the US.) However, I’ve watched a lot of young larpers forego important real life financial obligations just to make a game. And when you are trying to set the realistic ‘Can I afford this game?’ boundaries for yourself and your pocket book, it’s not simply the game you have to consider. Food while at that game, gas money to and from the game, paying for afters, and weather safety gear (hot packs for your hands?) are all money right on top of your entrance fee. Doing a personal budget for life AND larp is vital to realistically setting a financial boundary of can you healthily attend this game. It’s something I’m facing right now with Knudepunkt and plane tickets. If I decide to go, I will go with a budget ALREADY IN PLACE to pay off the credit card that plane ticket goes on within three months. But putting oneself in a financially risky position for a hobby is never a good choice and happens all too often among our peers.

Scene Boundaries: I actually feel like the larp community is a bit better about this than other categories mentioned above, mainly because the conversations around bleed and consent have been so prevalent over the last several years. However, there is still this shy amount of peer pressure around setting boundaries of what people will and won’t do in scenes. We coach people constantly to be willing to say no and to take no’s gracefully, with a thanks and no pressure; but people still hesitate to turn down play when they don’t want it. Therefore, I encourage you all to practice setting boundaries ahead of time. Know the genre and style of the larp you are going into so you can have a few ideas of what sort of scenes you are most likely to face. If you already have prepared a firm: “I’m not interested in deep romance roleplay, I’m sorry,” or “I’m fine to be romantic, but don’t wish to act out anything beyond holding hands,” then it is easier to come up with on the fly instead of making up your boundaries right there. Think hard about the kinds of play that make you uncomfortable and set a boundary that ISN’T right at those limits. Then you have given yourself some negotiation room on the ground. Lastly, when you are approached for a scene and asked your boundaries, “Do anything, I’ve got no limits!” is a really crappy answer and ALSO not one you should give. Even I have boundaries (they tend to be ‘I won’t actually have sex in game.) but that is a boundary. Giving that as an answer shows I’ve thought things through and understand how far a scene might go.

Character Boundaries: We’re pretty good at acknowledging bleed and getting help with it, but if we were better at setting boundaries between ourselves and our characters, bleed would be far less a thing. People aren’t great at taking a step back to acknowledge ‘Hey, this topic is very close to my emotional psyche right now, so repeatedly exposing myself to it in a larp is probably not a great idea.’ I’ve said before in this blog that while larping can be therapeutic, it’s NOT therapy, and that is a hard boundary that larpers need to both UNDERSTAND and SET for themselves. If you are using larp to work on your issues with shyness, socialization, gender exploration, or any other personal matter which isn’t crisis triggering but still is pushing your previously established social norms, it’s vital to set some boundaries which will be warning bells if you cross them. Don’t let yourself experiment so hard with a character that you end up broken, over socialized, or mental anguish by the end of the weekend. Acknowledging that you are pushing a difficult playspace for yourself and setting a boundary well within your breaking zone is vital.

While setting healthy boundaries certainly isn’t the key to solving all of larp’s problems, learning to do it would make all of us into far more healthy larpers (and people.) It’s some of the most uncomfortable work you can do on yourself as a person and, trust me, your brain is going to fight it most steps of the way. But if you can take a few risks and stand up for your own mental health as a larper, I promise you’ll end up having a far better time at the end of the day.

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