Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Interactive is Your Game?

As a roleplayer, I have played in a number of different situations. Most people have played home games - at your place, or the home of a friend, in a closed environment. Some people have played at local events, or even large cons like GenCon. With larping, people play in all types of environments - small house events, large outdoor weekend events, convention hall rooms, and so on. Our environments often shape our play - how loud we talk, whether we move around, and our props or costumes.

Today I'm thinking very deeply about interactivity. This is not just "does your game involve you and do you do a thing," but instead "how much does the player emotionally and physically interact with a game?" I wasn't able to find a lot about interactivity in relation to tabletop and live-action roleplaying games. If I'm missing something, obviously feel free to share them in comments, but please avoid diluting my points.

I'm proposing some concepts on how to evaluate interactivity in tabletop and larp, and these are key for accessibility and player choice

Ask these questions:

  • Will players sit at the table, stand, or move around, or a combination of those?
  • Will players speak in character, use distancing (third-person), or alternate as comfortable?
  • Will players "perform" their character - changing from sitting at the table to standing, entering into other players' personal space, raising their voice, moving hands more than just standard "talky" movement?
  • Will players be required to do these things, encouraged to do them, or have the option to do them?
  • Is there an opt out option for any of these things, or is the only option not to play?(1) 
  • Will players be in separate spaces, or in one space?
  • Will players need to move from space to space?
  • Will players have assistance moving from space to space if needed?
  • Will players have character sheets, index cards, name tags, props, or other materials to represent characters, powers, abilities, or resources?
  • Will these materials be available in alternate formats, or is there a standard?
  • Is it possible for players to have access to materials in advance?

There are probably more questions to be asked! This is a really complex subject, and it's come to me from a very specific place: my own fears. Most people who know me are aware that I operate with pretty clear awareness of my fears because without that I can't make it past them. This comes through in games! I ask for use of X-cards or Script Change or pre-game discussion on boundaries because I can decide then what I'm really comfortable with, and with who. However, the one thing that none of these cover by default or even in some extrapolation is interactivity. 

We rarely discuss at the table "Hey, are we going to talk in-character for this session?" or "Can I stand up if my character wants me to?" or "Can I sit while others are standing in this session?" or "Can I just write these character stats on an index card for while we move around?" However, these questions are incredibly important! Not just from an accommodations point of view for mental or physical disabilities, but also from the perspective of safety and comfort. I'll give a brief example.

I was playing a local home game with some people I was mostly familiar with. It was an emotional game, for sure, and the situations were pretty intense at times, but after a few sessions, we had still only used descriptions of raised voices or physical action, and that had been okay. However, the GM at this point brought forth a very (for me) scary and intense situation. In playing the NPC character, they stood up, walked over to me, and screamed at me. Repeatedly. As someone with some history involving abuse and raised voices, the combination of the yelling and interference with my personal space completely terrified me. At that point my mental options were to 1) react violently (which I didn't), or 2) freeze up. I haven't spoken to the person about it,(2) but that's partially because I still feel anxious around them.

I can't be the only person who has experienced this. If I had known that these kind of actions would have occurred in game, I might not have ever played. Did I have good times? Yes. Was it worth that panicked experience? No.

Upon hearing recently that some people at Games on Demand were playing with more intense interactivity (characters were arguing, so players raised their voices and were physically acting), it brought this idea to the forefront. I'm really frustrated that I haven't seen a lot of discussion about this, actually, because yes, we're all playing games and having fun. But, not everyone has fun in the same way, and not setting these expectations can ruin someone's time.

This is normally when people come in with the "if they don't like it, they don't have to play!" or "we aren't writing/running games for people who won't do improv/aren't willing to be physical/can't handle intense situations!" and you know what? Fuck you. I'm actually really tired of it. Games are not just for one specific class and type of people. You can design games and run games in any way you want to, but if you aren't willing to tell people up front what to expect, you are doing it wrong.

There is no reason I should be unable to play games because I am afraid someone will shout at me at the table. There is no reason I should be unable to play games because I can't stand for four hours. I might not be able to play all games, but I should be able to play some games, and if someone tells me the situation and expectations, I can determine whether I can meet those expectations of that game. 

If you are designing games and/or running/facilitating games, please take these things into consideration. It may take time! It may even take effort! But if we want people to enjoy our games, why wouldn't we take time and effort? People have spent decades designing entire adventures with the minutiae of what potions are available in a chest in the sixteenth room of a 25 room dungeon, so I think we could take a half hour to ask ourselves how interactive our games will be, regardless of their type, to ensure that everyone involved has a good time and can contribute to the game comfortably.

Thank you for reading!

(1) The second is not condemnation, it's just important to note.
(2) If you see yourself here, this is not the time to talk about it. If I ever want to talk to you about it, I'll come to you.

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