Thursday, July 11, 2013

I See What You Did There... (Or: Why Dystopia Rising Rules)

Dystopia Rising, where have you been all my life?

I've been LARPing (live-action role-playing) since I was 17 years old. Most of that's been in LARPs based on the Storyteller System games by White Wolf - Vampire and a little Changeling, usually with the Camarilla (now known as the Mind's Eye Society). Along the way I've been to regional and national events, met some fine actors without a single second of formal training, and come to think of LARP as an immensely powerful tool for personal transformation. I've been picking away for the last few years at a book on what my friends and I like to call "alchemical gaming" - the practice of creating a character around issues you'd like to work on and/or things you'd like to learn more about.

Many gamers do this already, whether on purpose or by accident, but I think better results would be possible with a formalized system. I've personally spoken to a lot of gamers who've told me that working on their social anxiety is much easier when they're in character, since playing someone else makes it feel safer if you (metaphorically) fall on your face. If you intrude on a conversation or say something inappropriate, there's far less at stake if others badly of your character than if they think badly of you. If you're trying to learn to be more confident or outgoing, it's easier to "fake it till you make it" as someone else than as yourself. In psychology, this is known as successive approximation.

I'd only just completed a very rough draft of the alchemical gaming book when I made it to a Dystopia Rising game for the first time. What I discovered is a game that left me feeling more fulfilled than any LARP I'd preveiously been to, largely because it's build from the ground up for alchemical gaming. I have to admit, coming from the nonprofit LARP background I did, the idea of a for-profit LARP company gave me pause at first. But from what I understand, Dystopia Rising was in many ways built to address some of the longtime shortcomings of the Camarilla. And they deliver a truly kickass product. I've personally never seen so much attention to detail regarding props, costuming, and makeup, not even at most regional and national events I'd attended in the past. (The Grand Masquerade being the notable exception, but that was heavily subsidized since it was a promotion for the World of Darkness MMO.) And staying in character for a whole weekend straight allows for an unprecedented level of immersion.

What amazed me most was how many talented people I've run across at DR. At first I thought it might be a coincidence that every other person I meet seems to be a game designer or a singer or a poet, but as I said above, the game system is built to encourage creativity (and to appeal to those who already like to create). If you play an Entertainer and perform in-character, you can get the mechanical benefit of restoring someone else's Mind points even if your performance wasn't that great. And in order to teach someone a skill, you have to be able to talk somewhat authoritatively about how that skill works for 15 to 30 minutes. That usually requires real-world research into whatever your character is supposed to be good at, which is information you're probably going to remember later.

Before I had been to a boffer LARP, I had concerns about being forced to play a character that's physically similar to myself. After all, when you simulate combat with rock-paper-scissors instead of foam weapons, you can play a character who's strong and fast even if you're a scrawny weakling. But if you want to be strong and fast at a boffer LARP, you need to get that way for real. And that's not a bug, it's a feature... just like how if you want to have some awesome item, you have to actually take the time to make it yourself (or get someone to make it for you). I can't begin to tell you how sick I was of seeing item cards pinned to someone's lapel saying "I look this way" or "I'm carrying this item", in lieu of actually having the right costume, prop, or makeup to make the card unnecessary.

In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, which has rapidly become my bible for revising the alchemical gaming book, Jane McGonigal explains that most people are far more inclined to improve themselves for the sake of being better at a game than just because it's a good idea. And it's true - when I think about exercise, the idea of being able to be better at running away from zombies excites me  a whole lot more than "being in shape" or even "having an easier time getting a date". This is because, as McGonigal says, games are defined by being something we choose to do, unlike the everyday realities of life that we didn't choose. And this is why I have to applaud the folks at Eschaton Media for creating a game system that naturally tends to herd its players toward testing their limits and learning new things, without it really even being that noticeable unless it's already what you're looking for.

I'm currently working on my own game system built around teaching people about peace in the Middle East and also some basics of occultism such as the four elements and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, set in medieval Spain and featuring angels, demons, flesh-eating ghuls, djinn, werehyenas and other Middle Eastern mythological creatures as playable races. I can only hope the educational parts come out as subtle and effective as the ones in DR. It's also my hope that I might find some Dystopia Rising players who are interested in testing Alchemical Gaming once I have the system complete enough for playtesting. I could also really use anecdotes about how a character has helped you to become a better person or to work on a long-standing issue, and maybe a collaborator for the book who has background in both LARP and either counseling or psychology. If you're interested in helping, please contact me either here or privately.

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