Unpacking Disablism in UK LARP Design

I wanted to write a bit about disablism in the UK LARP scene. Something that might not interest some of you, but interests me.

A quick bit of context for those larpers that don’t know me: I’m a disabled LARPer; I use a wheelchair because of an enduring set of impairments, I have enduring mental health issues and I like to attend collaborative storytelling events. I like to think of myself as progressive and part of the UK (not US) disabled people’s movement, so I use the language we use to describe myself and other disabled people (should you be wondering about the choice of, for example, disablism rather than American terms like ableism).

empire 2, 2017 - beth dooner

Photograph of three larpers, including myself using a wheelchair and another using a stick for support (and looking awesome). Photograph taken by Beth Dooner, Empire LRP, June 2017.

Disability is, at it’s root, a function of an inaccessible world. It’s people with impairments (such as medical conditions, or differences in functioning to whatever society is calling “normal” this year) being stopped from accessing all the things non-disabled people can. This isn’t about getting rid of disabled people’s impairments, it’s about ensuring that with those impairments they can still get the same out of an experience. In traditional LARPs that is something we fail at spectacularly. There is a lot I could talk about when it comes to disablism and LARP; player/crew/monster preconceptions, venues (access vs aesthetics), tactics for disabled players and so on. However, today I’ve picked LARP design. Partly because I just designed and ran one with a couple of excellent people with access at it’s core, and because I have had a number of conversations about it since then.

Unpacking Common Barriers to Access

There are some really common themes in LARP design that are both super popular with non-disabled players yet often profoundly inaccessible at their core. Because I’ve been taking about it today I’m going to use the LARP shibboleth, “the Linear” as an example.

This is a standard bit of most games, in fact it’s presence goes without question in most larp events. However, it’s also often the least accessible part of the game. The fact it’s something that non-disabled LARPers demand and can’t imagine running without should tell you just how important this is to most traditional games.

How do you make something that often involves going into inaccessible parts of the venue to do some frenzied fighting accessible to your disabled players?

Some event runners try to get around this by running one purposefully accessible quest at an event and prodding the disabled players to volunteer for this one. That way they have the option to go on one. Of course there are issues around this;

  • Only having one or two accessible quests doesn’t really give the players the same level of choice that non-disabled players have at most games. Not giving disabled players equal access to the game is disabling in essence.
  • Unless the disabled player is put directly on that linear by the refs there is a chance that non-disabled players will block them from going/taking part. Players are often very paternalistic as, like everyone, they carry some dodgy internalised ideas about disability. Especially if they are playing part of a fantasy setting where they expect to protect “the weak”.
    • Unpacking the whole “protect the weak” thing, paternalism in games and its implications for sexism and disablism is another long post in and of itself!
  • If you have multiple disabled players that one quest might not fit all of them.
  • Disabled players are less likely to be able to commit to being available in a small time slot. Aids may need charging, assistants/carers may not be available then, energy might have dropped off, or a hundred other things. Having a large selection is far more useful.

Some event runners get round it by just not having disabled people at the game, or letting those players pay full price to watch others LARP (it’s like crewing but with less action and lots more bitterness) . It’s a choice they are welcome to make, but like all things it’s not without it’s social repercussions. It normalises disablism in LARP, like it or not. The same way only giving women access to half the game normalises sexism.

uts 2018 - tom garnett

Two players, one using a wheelchair posing for an 80’s “prom” portrait at Under the Stars. Photograph taken by Tom Garnett, 2018.

Overcoming these Barriers

A common tactic when it comes to over coming this barrier is to write the linear parts off as inaccessible through and through, but to try and improve the non-linear parts of the event. This is key. It is crucial to make the accessible bits of your event parts of the event. They need to shine every bit as much as a linear, if not more. Obviously, as a militant cripple I’d rather there eventually be no non-accessible parts of games 😉 but I don’t think I’m going to get my way any time soon!

There is a tendency to have the accessible parts of the game dedicated to a couple of things, and the linears dedicated to others. I’ve tried to highlight some the general differences in the table below:

Common Features of Accessible Parts of the Game Common Features of Non-Accessible Parts
Low-Risk High-Risk
Predictable & stable environment Unpredictable & challenging environment
Quests seeded & planned for Quests enacted & resolved
Constant player led politicking Sudden bursts of quick negotiation & thinking under pressure
Complex logic puzzles that require a high level of concentration & a background in code breaking Collecting & completing quick puzzles for an instant reward.
Taking back complex stuff that would eat hours of game and giving it to non-questing characters
More ‘Lawful-Good’ NPCs More challenging ‘Chaotic-Evil’ NPCs
High level of disabled, female and non-binary players High level of non-disabled male players
Players required to create story between themselves and to drive it with minimal assistance from the game team Players given story prompts in the form of monsters, NPCs, items, and other encounters
A place to celebrate generally non-disabled players’ achievements on linear A chance to become a shining hero and celebrate it
Players rely on generally non-disabled players in the linears for access to the game’s story Players can choose to share what happened with disabled players however they can also choose to keep it to themselves as it is now their story.

The accessible parts of the game lack a lot of the appealing, exciting features of the non-accessible parts. That’s a problem right there. Fortunately it’s one with a solution.

If we look at the list above we can see that we have unpacked a lot of what makes the linear a common and popular occurrence. The good news is that all of those elements are things that can be added into an accessible play area! Not one of them requires running and jumping over tree roots in the dark to insert. It also doesn’t mean taking away safe areas that are low risk. You can have both with some creative design.

With that we hit the crux of the issue. Design.

Designing an Accessible Game

Because LARP has a history of being non-accessible, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of coming up with a non-accessible concept then trying to tag accessibility onto it after it’s been created. This rarely works. It needs to be a consideration at every step in the process. I use the following questions to quickly challenge my choices;

  • Is this accessible to all my players that might wish to get involved?
  • Yes? Excellent. Go for it.
  • No? Can it be made accessible by changing the location/font sizes/background noise/light levels/assistance levels/timing/the way the system works/the tone/adding seating/providing a quiet space for anyone that struggles with the scene etc..?
    • Still No? Can I chuck it out of the game?
      • Of course I can, I’m designing it. Let’s think of something else.
      • I really want this in the game regardless of the exclusion. How can I make this as non-story central as possible so that the players that can’t access it through no fault of their own don’t miss out?
uts 2018 rhona - tom garnett

Player using a mobility aid looking badass as they menace someone with a club. Photograph by Tom Garnett taken at Under the Stars, 2018.

The Bit where I get on my Soapbox

I’m personally likely to chuck anything out that’s not accessible, but that’s because there is no way in hell I’m designing and running something I can’t get to. Other folks’ mileage may vary, as will the amount they care about access. The thing is, as a society have a strong tendency to blame the disabled person for access issues, it’s their body after all! They’re the ones that didn’t just get better. It’s not your fault they can’t do things. Disabled people don’t get to do stuff unless someone chooses to go the extra mile. Access is a luxury, not a basic human right, right?

I get why folks think like this. Heck, some counter-revolutionary disabled people feel the same way. It’s what we hear from the media and people all around us all the time. Access is a pain, do the minimum, it’s not like the disabled people will sue or complain, they’re too used to the world saying “people like you can’t come in” (literally) to cause a fuss. It’s the price you pay for not staying healthy. The issue is that those common thoughts are rubbish, victim blaming in some cases, and work to ultimately feed the exclusion and oppression of people like me. I’d suggest challenging the shit out of those when they pop up, but I’m aware that before that can happen folks need to realise they are a problem.

We recently ran an event called Under the Stars, which was a horror game set at a prom in 1987. We created an accessible combat system that was non-touch and theatrical, kept things oscillating between high risk and relative safety, kept the challenges coming and took the angst that you’d normally get on a linear and brought it into the main (and only) play area. One of the things that shocked me afterwards was the tearful thanks from a number of our disabled players that expressed that they were really grateful for having been able to access the game like the non-disabled players. I was happy they were happy, especially because they had added so much to the event, but also really annoyed that this was the case. The prevalent, institutionalised disablist attitudes throughout society and the larp games within it were really effecting a lot of us.

We disabled LARPers are humans and some of us nerdy types crave some LARP based escapism. We want to give you our money, improve your stories by having more diverse characters, and improve your events by making them more interesting for everyone.

I honestly believe we can keep doing better as a community.

Thanks for reading, I hope it’s given folk some food for thought.

  1. Reblogged this on access: larp and commented:
    A superb blog post from a LARPer who has seen both sides of the fence (playing and running) from the perspective of being a disabled LARPer.
    Under The Stars was a great success not just in terms of plot and game play but in terms of it’s accessibility and it is something we should be aspiring to.


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