Badass Larp Talk #26 – The Dangers of Chasing Catharsis

This may be a bit of an unpopular idea, but please, hear me out:

Larp isn’t therapy.

One of the things I’ve loved seeing as larp has grown and developed over the years is the notion that this art form can produce real, profoundly emotional moments for players. While some games are specifically designed to elicit such responses, particularly in the Nordic and American freeform traditions, I’ve still seen plenty of these moments develop for players in more traditional parlor or boffer larps too. Sometimes they even happen to players who normally scoff at the idea of having such a cathartic moment as a consequence of donning elf ears and venturing into the forest for the weekend or putting in fangs and haunting a hotel ballroom for a night. There is really no question that larp can induce moments of great emotional release or trigger surprising personal revelations. And just to be clear, that’s not a bad thing at all!

But catharsis isn’t therapy, and it’s dangerous to mistake one for the other.

The example I like to go with is the Dr. Phil show. Wait, trust me, I’m getting there. On the show, it’s not unusual for people to hear some pat wisdom and “tough love” from that bargain basement Professor X, and respond by dramatically breaking down and tearfully acknowledging their mistakes and promising to do better about some dire personal failing. And while I know the show has been accused of staging such moments, I’ll give them the benefit of doubt and say that most of the folks who do so are genuine. After all, it’s a high pressure, highly emotional situation – they’re on television, they’re usually confronted by several loved ones, they’re getting sound bite wisdom from a world famous personality. Everyone around them is urging them to do better, to be better, and to do so now where the whole world can see it. In those circumstances, even a stoic individual would have trouble not giving in to the emotions of the moment, and most of us aren’t nearly so reserved with our feelings (or resistant to group pressure). Dr. Phil provides a moment of catharsis, a quick fix of self-esteem and the sense of being “better” for those involved.

The trouble, as any responsible mental health professional will tell you, is that rush doesn’t last. People feel clarity and warmth and direction – for a moment. If it’s not followed up on soon, however, and in a serious way, it fades and the individual is often worse off than they were before, because now they’re back where they started and they’re also beating themselves up with guilt about failing to change when they had such a golden chance. Except it wasn’t gold, it was straight up pyrite. Personal change – real, lasting change – takes time and effort and support. And if you’re dealing with actual mental disorders or psychological conditions, you really need the guidance of trained experts and possibly medication to make sure you’re actually getting  better and not simply masking your problem or using bad coping mechanisms.

This is what makes larp as therapy a dangerous idea.

Games almost by definition are exactly that kind of short term rush. You have an amazing roleplaying moment, and it releases all kinds of emotions, maybe even nudges you into looking at yourself or the world in a different way. Games are intense, packing a lot of story and substance into a short period of time. Which is great for entertainment, but it’s not what you need if you have a problem that requires real, long term therapy to treat. At best you’re likely to ride a bit of a rollercoaster, up high around game time and then slipping back between sessions before rising high as the next game approaches. At worst, well, you’re learning bad coping mechanisms to say the least. Yes, a game can be “therapeutic” in the sense that it’s stress relief if you’ve had a rough week and need to blow off some steam, but that’s not the sort of therapy we’re talking about here.

I know what you’re probably thinking. If you’ve been a larper for even a little while, you’ve heard the success stories about people who overcame chronic shyness through larp, or who used in-character events as a springboard to solve problems or confront emotional issues they were facing in real life. You might even be one such success story, for that matter, and if so I’m glad things worked out for you! I’ve known such cases in the past myself, and while I’d argue that most of them were not situations where larp replaced the need for treatment of a serious disorder, there’s no question being part of a community and getting together for regular activities with others is good for anyone, just like eating well and exercising is a good idea all around. The support of a larp community and the friends it contains is a powerful thing that can do a lot of good for a person, and is absolutely to be cherished.

But here’s the thing: support is not therapy, just like catharsis is not therapy. Both can help a person who’s going through changes, sure, but they’re not the same and should not be viewed as replacements for such. Actual therapy is often a long, difficult, and sometimes downright emotionally dangerous process. And if that’s the kind of thing you’re using larp to do, instead of being professionally treated, then do everyone around you a favor. Stop larping, and see a therapist. If the therapist believes that larping can help you, hey, that’s great, but it should never substitute for real treatment for a serious condition.

I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. Accidents happen, for one thing – a player with a phobia might not know it’s going to come up in game if it hasn’t in the past, for example, and that’s nobody’s fault if it gets triggered during play. I also know therapy can be expensive, though many clinics and practitioners operate on a sliding scale if you can show hardship, and I’d argue that attending a regular larp often isn’t much cheaper when you factor in event costs, costuming, props, gas, food, etc. But at the same time, look at it for from the other side. The staff and players of your local game are not mental health professionals – and if they are, it’s safe to say that you’re not their patient and they’re still not “on duty” when they’re playing – and putting your well-being in their hands is a disservice to everyone. You’re not likely to get the help you need, and they’re not prepared to cope with the complications if things go wrong.

Which brings up another issue that often gets overlooked as well, but it’s really important to remember: Making other people part of your therapy without their consent is wrong. If you’re trying to confront a lifelong phobia of spiders, for instance, and decide to do so by getting involved in the Unholy Spider Kingdom War at your local fantasy boffer larp – especially without telling anyone about your history – that’s being awfully cavalier with the feelings and enjoyment of your fellow players. They’re not responsible for your therapy, to put it bluntly, and so if you have a breakdown and go catatonic – or start swinging like a berserker as that fear shunts into anger and adrenaline – then you’ve made them responsible for your condition without their consent. Even if you tell them in advance, I’d argue that untrained people can’t really consent to being part of handling a scene involving severe phobia or trauma, simply because they’re not informed enough to know what to do to avoid making it worse.

This also means that games deliberately designed to explore potentially dangerous, emotionally triggering territory need to be overseen closely and with great transparency, for the health and safety of all concerned. Briefings, content advisories, “escape hatch” mechanics for overwhelmed players, and detailed debriefings and “aftercare” should all be standard issue and taken seriously for such games. I’m particularly fond of the growing trend of using simple hand signs to signal other players to slow down, stop, or continue with particular types of scenes, as I feel it is a big step in the right direction. But if you’re not willing to put in that kind of work for an intensely cathartic game, then you’re not simply ready to put on that kind of game, and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near players until you remedy the situation. No, it’s not “edgy” or “shocking” to drop players into such extremely taxing and emotionally loaded territory without warning, it’s immature and irresponsible. Full stop.

In the end, a friend had a very good parallel for this whole situation – larp will not get you in shape, though getting out and getting exercise is still nice, and wanting to wear that beautiful heavy plate armor you’ve been dreaming of or fit into that swanky suit you feel will catch the Prince’s eye can certainly be outstanding motivation to eat better and work out more. But trying to get fit solely through larp just isn’t going to work, and attempting to make it happen ignores important realities of exercise and nutrition that will at best leave you frustrated and at worse actively hurt you. Not only that, but it isn’t the job of the staff or your fellow players to be responsible for your fitness regiment during an event.

Mental health is no different. Yes, larp can be a powerful and wonderful thing – it could generate a breakthrough you take back to therapy, for instance, or even inspire you to recognize a problem and seek help in the first place – but beyond that it’s no substitute for trained professional help. Enjoy your catharsis, by all means, but for your own sake and the sake of others around you, don’t mistake it for therapy.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

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