Sometimes You Just Want to Yell Criticism

Criticism, Salt, and Learning to Listen Better

Guest Blog by Lyn Hilton. Featured Photo by Evelien Legein.

(A guest post that, frankly, I think she put into words much better than I did. Giving AND receiving criticism is vital for the growth of not only a game, but our community, yet it’s something we all tend to do poorly, if we do it at all. So, without more delay, Lyn’s words of salty wisdom…)

I carry a lot of salt, y’all.

From the time I was young, I’ve been a natural critic. I like picking creative endeavors apart to see what works and what doesn’t, and brainstorming how to fix what might feel like an insurmountable problem (or worse, a necessary evil). When I got into larp, and especially when I slipped behind the scenes of larp, I found plenty that needed work and a massive pushback every time I brought any of it up.

It makes sense. For organizers and staff, larp feels like an extension of themselves. They’re houses built by hand, each piece painstakingly fitted together until they created something unique and made it their home. And let me tell you, these nerds do not like it when you mention their leaky faucets and uneven molding —  and they like it even less when you rip up the floorboards.

That’s okay. Salt saves games if we can just listen to it and take it seriously, and I can prove it.

Today’s blog is about handling criticism for your larp — not necessarily yours in a sense of it belonging to you or your having created it, but yours in the sense that it’s the one you’ve chosen to hold near and dear to your heart. Everyone has A Thing, and this game is Your Thing.

Let’s say you’re staff at this game — one of several storytellers or mod staff. You can run things during your shift, send out mods and conduct plots, and you feel that you’re a valued member of the team. Your influence, however, is not systemic. It’s the reasonable place one might occupy in a game they love while they’re still very much in love with it. You know there are flaws, because every game has flaws, but overall, you feel a very keen responsibility to make sure the players under your care have fun.

Orange background with the world 'salty' repeated on it and some candy.
Gloriously salty. 
Photo by Jeff Frenette on Unsplash

Then you’re hanging out with some friends one day, outside of game, and you hear some complaints about the experiences they had at the larp. These complaints don’t have anything to do with you, specifically, but you’re still disappointed and embarrassed that your game was worthy of complaint.

Maybe the staff wasn’t the well-oiled machine your friend thought it was. Maybe the mechanics were hard for them to grasp or people were unclear about the way they worked. Maybe they had trouble finding the roleplay they were looking for.

You care about your friend, and their fun is important to you. So you open your mouth to say “Well, the next time it happens, just come find me and we’ll figure something out!” or “Next time, come and do my NPC shift, and I’ll give you extra good mods to go on!”

Stop. Stop right there.

The urge to say these things is strong because often, the instinct for a staff member (or even just someone more experienced with that particular larp) when they come across a player having a problem is fix it yourself and move to the next problem. Put a band-aid on it.

This tends to work well during games, when a lack of time to get to the heart of the matter means that treating the symptoms will have to do. But outside of game, especially in casual situations, a response like this isn’t just unhelpful to the person you’re speaking with; it’s actually detrimental to the greater system as a whole.

Telling someone that they should come to you next time (assuming they even allow a next time) is a problem for several reasons. Let’s start small-scale and work our way up (I promise, it does have a point).
First and most obviously, it dismisses the problem. It shows no willingness to take the complaints seriously on a level beyond two individuals. If someone is, for instance, feeling like they were gatekept from plot for an arbitrary reason, telling them to change their behavior the next time it happens doesn’t address the problem of the gatekeeping.

More than that, it makes your friend’s fun contingent upon another person — you. This is unfair to both sides of this discussion, since relying on someone else for fun in a larp is exhausting for both parties. What happens if you’re not around, or need to do a scene with someone else? Your friend shouldn’t have to track down you specifically to have a good time.

Then there are larger-scale issues. Favoritism is a constant complaint in larp circles, and methods of problem-(non-)solving like this only prove the refrain to be true. If your friend can rely on you to provide them cool mods or lead them into plot, what can people who aren’t your friends expect? Probably nothing, because they don’t know that they must have an “in” to have fun.

Finally, all of these interpersonal things fall under the shadow of the biggest problem of all: by putting a band-aid on the problem and sweeping it aside, we fix nothing about the game we love  — and we set up our organizers, the people we trust to lead us, to be blindsided when they hear complaints from outside.

Imagine you’re an organizer who keeps a running feedback form, but nothing has really come in recently, other than some pretty standard things. This story line was good, that mod fell flat. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, posts on social media start talking about not just a single-event problem, but a massive systemic problem in your larp.

But my game isn’t elitist, you would think to yourself, or my game doesn’t gatekeep, or maybe my game doesn’t encourage unhealthy larp mentality. This has to be just some disgruntled former player who is irrationally lashing out, because if it weren’t, someone would have told you by now, right?

Now let’s go back in time to that same situation with friends. Instead of shutting down your friend’s criticisms, let’s look at what you might do instead.

First of all, you can listen to them. Even if their complaints were about something the game designers can do nothing about — even if it’s just about the weather being bad at the event that weekend — hear them out. The most common complaint about larps isn’t about the systems, stories, rules, or roleplay; it’s about an unwillingness to listen to criticism about any of those things.

Two people talking in an uncomfortable conversation over coffee.
Listening is hard. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Once you’ve listened, reassure your friend that they’ve been heard. I’m of the very firm opinion that everyone should study active listening and interviewing techniques, but even without those tools in your belt, a simple I understand where you’re coming from and I appreciate your perspective can do wonders.

Recognize that even limited or small problems are still problems. So what if only three people out of a hundred came across this bad mechanic? So what if the player just came across that NPC or storyteller at a stressful moment which led to a bad interaction? These things are still worth paying attention to, because they’re things that we can fix when you move to the next step.

Bring the problem to your organizers, one way or another. This is the scary part. This is the part everybody second-guesses themselves on. Many larps have built-in feedback forms on their websites, and you can encourage your friend to fill one out for themselves! This is ideal, especially since then they can put things in their own words. If your larp doesn’t have that, odds are good it’s a smaller game which will make this mantra a lot more applicable, so practice this: If my head staff did not trust me to bring problems to them, I would not be staff. Repeat until confident.

Work to find a solution. I have yet to come across a ‘necessary evil’ in a larp, in the sense that it was a problem that could not be solved. Some problems require more work to solve, and some have debatably been more trouble to solve than they were worth, but none were unsolvable. Work with your team to figure out a solution to yours.

One last thing:

I harbor no delusions about the personal and individual nature of criticism. I know that bitterness is its own cyclic monster, and not every criticism is going to be valid. Sometimes things are just a matter of, like, your opinion, man.

This isn’t meant to apply to someone venting about a player or staff member they don’t see eye-to-eye with, or someone making bad-faith arguments for bad-faith reasons. This is assuming someone’s criticism is, within the bounds of reason, intended to bring attention to an aspect of a game that isn’t working and they’re being honest about their experience.

And for my fellow complainers, rabble-rousers, and nitpickers:

Bear in mind that being honest and making criticism in good faith is an endeavor that can feel like walking a tightrope. We are vindictive little creatures and when we add frustration and disappointment to that, it often leads to criticism that comes off brutal and callous. When making criticism of your own, remember that for every bad experience you may have had, there was an entire team of real human people (maybe even your friends!) whose intention was to do the opposite.

So rip up the floorboards. Comment on the mold on the foundation, and point out the leaks in the roof. But acknowledge that the odds were good those bricks were handed down to them, and they didn’t know they could make something new. Be honest, but be kind. Be constructive, and be considerate.

And stay salty, my friends.

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3 thoughts on “Criticism, Salt, and Learning to Listen Better

  1. Michael Duetzmann says:

    This was good.

    One of the things that was taught as younger player and eventually as a plot writer when confronted by a complaint was to invite them into helping create the experience.

    And while my feelings have been sincere and genuine on those invitations, I have learned that I was forcing additional creative and intellectual burden onto someone who just wanted to say something is wrong.

    Sometimes someone does not have the necessary tools to solve the problem, but it does not invalidate their ability to identify the problem.

    My new practice is that when confronted with a complaint or critique is to use on of two tools: agency or advocacy.

    If someone wants to open up the hood and make changes, recognize their agency. Let them set their own level of involvement.

    Whatever else is needed to solve the problem, serve as that person’s advocate. Even if you don’t necessarily agree, respecting the opinions of those that play and exploring what can be done to accommodate will serve the community at large well in terms of sustainability.

    And as a subset of those tools, respect your limits of agency and seek out those who can advocate for you if you cannot personally solve the problem.

    This has been a giant wall of text and I hope it makes sense and is useful.

    Like

  2. petewoodworth says:

    This is very good. My only reaction is not a critique of it, but an expansion – to gently remind organizers that it’s also OK to listen to someone, acknowledge their problems, and then explain to them that this game is not what they’re looking for, if that is in fact the case.

    I’ve seen some great games break themselves trying to “fix” things that weren’t actually problems, but they didn’t want to lose the player(s), so they changed things anyway, and … yeah.

    Like

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