For many of us -- myself included -- LARP felt like the first place where we were accepted. It's not uncommon for our games to become our community, our family, and that moment once a month where we get to go pretend and be someone else also means letting go and really being ourselves around our friends. Personally, I find the community aspect the most important part of LARP -- it's what keeps me coming back to game and in this business. However, when I was younger I used to think the community was the end all and be all. Self-governing, self-actualized, our community leaders (the staff and GMs) were the judges, the jury and the executioners -- not just on things like rules calls or game mechanics, but on things that went beyond and into the real world.
What I've realized now is how dangerous that can be and that there are boundaries to what a community and it's leadership can and should do. This is particularly relevant when it comes to issues of both safety (both physical and social) and creating safer spaces. What can, and should, we act on in our community? What should we handle internally and what do we need to escalate outside our community?
Where We Come From
Like many successful hobbies, LARP didn't start as a business. No one expected to monetize something that was essentially going into your backyard and beating up your friends with sticks. LARP has had to constantly adapt to not being born with a business plan and how it has to interact with the world when we started getting people outside of a group of friends involved. I compare the beginning mentality of LARP as a clubhouse or a fraternity. When there are conflicts in a fraternity, you solve them internally and the methods of doing so vary. A vote, an arbitrary decision, a yes or no from a leader. LARP was no different and that standard method went unchallenged for years. When you're dealing with a small group of people and there's no business involved, you can handle everything internally.
The problem of how to manage your community arises when LARPs go public. The minute you allow the public to access your game and community, managing your LARP like a clubhouse no longer becomes feasible, especially if you are a for-profit LARP. Now you have to examine your local laws and federal laws, business practices and rules, and try to balance them with something that no one ever expected to be more than a backyard hobby. It's the transition of mixing drinks for your friends at your house and then going to work as a bartender. Working the same way as you did before is a recipe for trouble. Similarly, when someone acts like a jackass in your house while you're having a private party, you can kick them out. But when you have a publicly run business, it becomes trickier ground to work with and you can run afoul of the law in terms of denial of service.
And here's where we get into the legalese rabbit hole.
Businesses cannot arbitrarily deny service. Although under American law, businesses have the right to refuse service to anyone as long as it isn't based in discrimination of a protected class (I'll get into that in a moment), it still needs to be proven in court that the individual is detrimental to the safety, health, or well-being of others within that establishment. Additionally, any policies are applied evenly and fairly. What is a protected class? It essentially boils down to denying service to anyone based on race, age, disability, citizenship status, religion, or military status. There has to be clear proof that a denial of service is warranted, and that means to deny service, we need evidence to do so. At the same time, as LARP grew and stepped away from being a clubhouse, the concern for standards within our community raised beyond what the law required. Keep in mind that at one point, LARPs were -- as a majority -- played by white men. While the majority is still white, the number of women and LGBTQ individuals has greatly increased. In the past decade, we've seen games accounting for that by a shift to make a more inclusive and safer space for women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.
Then comes how to enforce those standards and we return to denial of service. Let's say you're at a McDonald's and see someone who has hurt you in the past. The manager at the McDonald's has his hands tied -- did that person do something with criminal intent in his establishment? Is there a record somewhere, a history he can access? How can he be sure he is neither discriminating against an individual and ensuring that he is applying the same standards to anyone who is a patron in his establishment?
But LARP isn't a McDonald's and it isn't a fraternity. This is where some LARPs are now, balancing community and business to ensure that they are providing the safest space they can within the constraints of a public, for-profit world.
Creating Safer Spaces
When we run a LARP, we are creating a community and become community managers. There's no way around that. This has created a desire and a need to have standards for our community to interact with each other. Those standards vary from LARP to LARP, especially depending on if they're public or private, but the foundation of most of these is creating safer spaces where we can try to enter a space of collaboration and fun. LARP and community go hand in hand, and a part of that is being able to manage your community to ensure that it remains healthy.
We can balance that by having consistent community standards that are agreed upon both by the members and the business owners. At its core, we want to make sure game spaces are free of harassment, sexual assault, discrimination, and real world violence. But when, and how, can a community leader act on and enforce this within their community in a way still is legal within the law and protects themselves or their business?
- At-Event Infractions. If a situation arises at game that directly violates rules or community standards.
- Evidence of Infractions Outside of Game. Verifiable evidence of someone violating standards with other community members.
- Historic Records of Infractions. Police reports, court records, or broad evidence in the larger world.
This is often why many LARPs have to gather evidence and wait for an infraction that allows them to protect themselves and their business. Believe me, a LARP wants to eject problem players from their communities -- problem players don't do them any benefit -- but they have to make sure that if they do, that they can provide thorough evidence that they were within legal grounds to do so in a court of law.
Community & Law
Shifting from being a club to a business means that a LARP cannot be the judge, jury, and executioner. There have been many points I can remember back in the Dark Ages of LARPing where someone committed an actual criminal offense at game and it was expected to be handled by the game runners -- things like drugs or assault or harassment. At the time, that made sense to me and it's crazy to think about now. LARP doesn't exist outside the rest of society and we still have to act within the bounds of the law.
That means that LARPs have a legal obligation to follow the policy and procedures of the law. They must respect the processes that the law proves us and also turn toward the law to handle anything that is a potentially criminal offense. A LARP can and should call the police if someone is doing drugs, if they've assaulted someone at game, or any other criminal matter. This allows any players involved and the LARP itself to address potential illegal activity. Additionally, if creates a written history of issues should they or other LARPs choose to deny service to problem individuals, and ensures that the LARP as a business is running well within the law.
As a hobby that's established itself on the sense of community and togetherness, it can be a hard pill to swallow. LARP has long been a place where those who are disenfranchised with society as a whole have gone for escape, but it does not mean that the location or group receives a pass on operating within the larger structure of said society. For all that someone can try to manage a community and breed a place of belonging, it can be tempting to handle it all yourself, but it's a dangerous and terrible mistake. At the end of the day, a game organizer is running a business and if something occurs at their business, it's their responsibility to make sure any incidents are reported or they risk running a dangerous legal gambit.
The Bottom Line
A lot of this might seem convoluted, garbled, or even a little depressing when you try and figure out what you can do to exist within, help, and manage your community. So what does this all mean?
- LARP was not born a business and is now trying to fit that mold.
- Your community leaders want to create a safer space, but also must protect themselves.
- LARP is a business that must follow federal, state, and local laws when denying service to an individual.
- LARP wants to remove problem individuals in your community, but it may take time to do so.
Believe me when I say that no matter what LARP you participate in, your game organizer wants you to be happy, wants your place space and players to be as safe as possible, and wants to cultivate a community that you want to join. But there are many, many moving parts to that that your LARP might have to navigate in order to do so and it can be incredibly challenging. A lot of this is evolving too, changing as we all discover how LARP fits in as a public, for-profit business in a world where there isn't anything else quite like it.
For the most part, I've seen this produce a lot of amazing improvements in both how LARPs choose to create and manage their communities and their business. A lot of this comes with help from the individuals who play. You are the ones who help LARPs create safer spaces by understanding how you can help and providing feedback to problems as they exist. Managing a community requires active participation and care from all levels. At the end of the day, it's you and your game organizer can work together to create a better LARP for you to play in.