So that’s what he meant when he said that.
Almost a full year ago, I had a brief lunch with Michael Pucci, Sarah Lynn-Bowman, and Maury Brown at Dreamation 2016 (last week of February). This was the first time I met Michael, and we all talked about Magischola and what our hopes were. I’m sure I said a lot of naive stuff about community management. But it was a very laid back and fun lunch, and Michael and Sarah had tons of very smart and helpful suggestions and ideas.
Before we left the con, I shook Michael’s hand and said that it was awesome to meet him.
And he said something like, “Dude, thank you for treating me like a human being.”
(record scratch sound effect)
I think I said something like, “Of course!” in response. It didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t anybody treat him like a human being? Just meeting him, Michael is warm, humble, reflective, friendly, who has been a fantastic community leader of his Dystopia Rising larp and the numerous other projects that he and his partner Ashley Zdeb, the Eschaton Media CEO, have made. He was very patient when we talked at length about our projects, and it was obvious that he wanted us to succeed.
So I let it go. Something outside my personal experience was happening there, and I didn’t get it.
Later on, I got it.
Since that meeting, we’d had three very successful kickstarter projects, produced 6 Magischola Blockbuster larps and and co-produced one spin-off larp. Today, we finally launched the early tickets for New World Magischola 2017 for the folks who had put down a deposit on attending.
To a lot of folks, now that I’m part of a company, now that I’m running these larps professionally, I have crossed a line that means that certain expectations regarding how I would be treated by friends and community members were no longer the default.
Since I made things, those things are subject to criticism, and that means they get to both criticize the things and criticize me for the things that are wrong with the things.
A lot of people may be thinking, “So? You made a thing, that means you have a responsibility to accept criticism for the thing. Suck it up.”
What makes it special for me, and I suspect for Michael as well now, is that when you make the significant effort to produce larps, a process of remarkable complication the more ambitious your project is, the criticism that follows is:
A. Made from a place of ignorance of the complications and constraints.
B. Very quick to conclude that anything that happens that is not satisfactory is a result of incompetence, insanity, or evilness.
In a talk that Maury and I had at Intercon Q last friday, Evan Torner, had asked how we handle the idea that fans of our work, the participants, our customers, feel a kind of ownership and entitlement of organizing larp, a stake in the direction and management of the whole thing.
And the answer was really long but I’ll try to express it here much shorter.
Back at the College of Extraordinary Experiences, one of the things that both Claus Raasted and Joe Pine talked about is the fact that larps are experiences, and when an experience customer is thinking about their experience in terms of a service or a transaction, there’s a disconnect; they are comparing service economy values to an experience economy product. Imagining a larp like a service or a tangible product, the purchaser can find themselves believing that they have ownership of the larp. They bought it, right? It wouldn’t work without them, right? Because larp participants have agency, they even can create content for the larp, right? Surely they own a piece of it in that regard, right? RIGHT!?!
The fact is that it’s not black and white.
I think larp participants, because of player agency, should have a great deal of control and ownership of their experience.
The devil is in the details.
Because people should have control over their own experience, but not the experience of others, that feeling of control and ownership is quite constrained out of the gate. That means that the overall experience requires stewardship. It must be designed. The expectations must be calibrated.
I told Evan that I was happy to give a great deal of enthusiastic encouragement for taking ownership of the direction of their individual experiences. Larp participants, unlike fans of novels or television shows, have agency and can control a great deal of their experience. Our options for not liking the direction of a novel is to put the book down, or selectively retcon the book’s objected contents to our own headcannon. Our options as larp participants can be dramatically greater (as long as the design allows for it; larps can be run with “endure or go home” standards which is actually less agency than someone deciding whether or not to keep reading a novel.)
Leave the logistical elements to the organizing team.
My responsibility for people’s safety, at the bare minimum, must fall under the umbrella of Organizer Only Stuff. Between ethical responsibility and liability, organizing larps mean that this aspect cannot be among the things that players can claim ownership of.
Among the most hurtful criticisms is the accusation that we’re stupid/evil/insane with regard to logistical decisions. “Why didn’t they just do X?” is a twinge inducing refrain, simultaneously implying that organizers are both morons and that the job is “just do X” simple.
And it comes from people that
A. You thought you were friends with who now think you’re a contemptible idiot.
B. Haven’t ever done the thing they’re criticizing you for not doing right.
People who used to contact you on facebook personally, back when you were cool and before you became a disappointment, stop. All communications start becoming public, “advising” you on the directions you should have taken on your larp’s page, shaking their heads at you by acronym. It ends with communications stop entirely.
I’ll never forget the time I was told that I was being irresponsible for taking a mental health break from facebook during the weeks leading up to our first Magischola event.
The pain of these things, is that when you examine them, is that people have stopped being your friend because they disapprove of the decisions you’ve made as an organizer, regardless of whether those decisions were good or bad calls, but just because they didn’t like it, sometimes explicitly stating that there is no decision outcome that they’d ever be happy with, but objecting that the decision had to be made at all.
This isn’t that surprising though. Our like for each other is at least partially about the fact that our friends do as we expect them to, and that they do not do stuff that we don’t like. By doing something that has as many moving parts as larp organizing, the opportunities to fail to meet people’s expectations and do something that people don’t like become so numerous that by attrition you’ll eventually make someone mad no matter how hard you try. While nobody’s perfect, our friends imperfections can often be forgiven precisely because they don’t really affect us that much. The imperfections of larp organizers (or worse the perceived imperfections) impact the participants profoundly.
We can’t be friends if you hate me for how I organize larps.
I mean, they probably already know this, what with not speaking to me anymore, but it’s still an important realization for me. That friends will have to be among those people who can forgive my imperfections, and remember that I’m a human being.
Thank you for reading, please remember to follow me on medium, send me scathing emails at email@example.com, and buy the t-shirt.