Our Lives Were the Crimes They Couldn’t Ignore:
An Open Letter on the Intent of Velvet Noir, and the Meaning of Allyship
(While this letter went up on our business page, it felt important to put it in the permanent archive and, as the lead designer of Velvet Noir, to keep it here as a mark of lessons learned over this last year. The photo is by Bret Lehne and the translations were done by so many from our collective gaming community, to represent many of the languages from the characters’ history of Velvet Noir.)
When we began this endeavor in early 2019, we were all so anxious about how the game would be received. Velvet Noir: a 1920s freeform game about oppression and the truth of the American Dream from the viewpoint of the disenfranchised peoples who struggled to gain a foothold in our country. A country that simply did not want them there and did everything in its power to quell their voices and strip them of their humanity. Themes like these had never been seriously addressed in North American LARP; we were told that it couldn’t be done, that it wouldn’t be taken seriously, that it wouldn’t be safe.
Yet, here we are. One year later, we are being lauded as one of the most important games in the country, with a dedicated player base that grows ever stronger. We’ve created beautiful moments, told deeply personal stories, and set the foundation for a space where we could explore a history that many would rather quietly sweep under the rug.
Unfortunately, we ourselves are running the risk of sweeping such uncomfortable truths under the rug.
During the game’s early days of marketing, it was important to catch the attention of our audience. Snippets and sneak previews were sent out, with catchy phrases to boot. One slogan came out on top: “Be Gay, Do Crime.” It was slick, it was sexy, it was something our players could get behind. But soon, being gay and doing crime became the larger focus of the game. To others, it became known widely as “the queer gangster game.” The fact that the game was meant to explore stories of oppression in ethnic and cultural minority communities was either glossed over or forgotten when talked about in the LARP community at large. Regretfully, the voices of those people we had meant to lift up have now become buried under the queer white narrative at game in Velvet Noir. We as a community have allowed the message to become diluted for the comfort of our white players.
Let us be clear now: this game is not about being gay and doing crime.
In the setting that we have chosen, crime was one of the only ways a person of color could gain an equal footing with a white counterpart. Gangs, tongs, and other such collectives were often the only way an immigrant could feel safe. But in the eyes of society, the true crime that our predecessors committed wasn’t larceny, bootlegging, or embezzlement. Their only transgression was to have existed at all. They were told that they were subhuman for their skin color, their religion, their parentage, their country of birth. They were relegated to the outskirts and given the barest minimum to survive.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Through sheer will, they held their heads high, fought back against ugliness and bigotry, and helped shape our world — all the while being true to themselves and their cultures. At its core, this game is about strength in the face of adversity, and we must not forget this.
To that end, we’re unveiling the official Velvet Noir tagline: “Our Lives Were the Crimes They Couldn’t Ignore”.
We ask that players consider the message they’re sending to the wider LARP community when they describe the game using “be gay, do crime.” Reducing it to focus on the queer narrative erases the very communities the game was designed for. We understand that LARP is an ideal environment to explore queer themes, and we have no intention of erasing queer themes at Velvet Noir. However, many LARPs explore the queer experience, but very few, if any, explore the Asian, African-American, Jewish, or Hispanic/Latinx experience — or if they do, they are often written by white writers as allegory, which invariably waters down the message. It is our responsibility as a community to promote the diversity that is so desperately needed, but so far little seen.
To our queer white allies in the cultural factions, we ask you to sincerely reflect on why you have chosen the groups that you have. Allies are so deeply important, but understand that allyship in this game is not just about being accepted by a faction. It is about recognizing that, despite your character’s inherent privilege, they would rather choose to be associated with society’s riff-raff in order to show The City that these people are worth the same as anyone else. Why is this? What aspect of that culture speaks to you? Are you willing to learn about and become immersed in that community, including facing the darker aspects of history where these people were persecuted and abused? Most importantly, how can you play in such a way that you lift the stories of your friends? If you have concerns or difficulty answering these questions, we ask that you consider joining the Civilians to start, where you will have ample opportunity to experience the themes of the game, as well as potentially explore what allyship means to you.
From the creators of Velvet Noir, we thank everyone who has stuck with us and shared in everything we have done thus far. We have learned much in this past year, and wish to renew our intentions to cultivate a game that examines our past, not with rose-tinted lenses, but with a sharp focus that brings to light the tragic, heartbreaking, beautiful stories that shaped our lives today. We hope that you will continue with us into 2020 and beyond. Until this, we are the staff of Velvet Noir and we invite you all to reflect on our new theme: “Our Lives Were the Crimes They Couldn’t Ignore”.