Managing Bleed Through Game Design

Bleed is a LARP term defining emotional crossover between a player and their character. It’s not a bad thing. The rush of excitement on finding an important gadget and the satisfaction of an in-game job well done are also bleed. Bleed can also occur when our experiences affect our character’s behaviour such as when a player’s exhaustion leads to their typically free-wheeling character becoming quiet and withdrawn.

Other emotions such as fear, guilt and sorrow can also be entertaining experiences in a LARP that help us feel immersed.  There are plenty of players who will specifically attend a LARP that is designed to invoke an emotion that we may typically avoid in real life.  How many people attend horror LARPs for the possibility of feeling, just for a moment, a whiff of actual fear?

The problem arises when these emotions overwhelm us or when they persist over time.  It is one thing to feel sad during a character’s funeral and it’s another thing altogether to be crying over a fictional death a few weeks later.  Yet just as events in a television show can affect us long after we have stopped watching, so can a LARP continue to affect our emotions well after the scene ends.

In fact, LARPs have a greater ability to emotionally affect us because we are literally there, moving as our characters, and because our decisions often play a role in creating the outcome that affects us.  Thus our characters, and therefore ourselves, could be somewhat responsible (or feel that way) for the death of a fictional friend.  Bleed can even be addictive as our general day-to-day lives often lack the highs and lows of a character’s life.  After all we move toward comfort in our daily lives, not hair-raising adventure.

The following information will give you an idea of things that can increase the chance of bleed, things we can do to contain the bleed to the session and things we can do to actively decrease bleed as it happens.  Bleed can add zest and interest in a game and should be embraced within healthy limits.  If bleed is affecting your out-of-game relationships or your day-to-day life than it’s very important that you find some way to reduce the bleed — perhaps by taking a break from the game for awhile.

So what are some game design elements that can increase bleed:

  • Permanent character death introduces themes of grief and loss.
  • Inclusion of romantic entanglements and the possibility of in-game breakups and infidelity.
  • Political settings that encourage competitive play through humiliating or discrediting characters.
  • Horror settings that encourage emotions of fear and anxiety.
  • Tragic settings where your character will inevitably fail or suffer some misfortune.
  • Lengthy sessions and weekend games.
  • Frequency of events (i.e. weekly games rather than monthly).
  • Opportunities for downtime betrayal (increases anxiety between sessions that something terrible will happen to your character that can only be prevented through between-game vigilance).
  • In-game forum use where you post as your character.
    • Frequency has a big impact here. Daily posting affects you more than weekly posting.
    • Political or otherwise emotive discussions on forums can create persistent anxiety as you wait for people to post and prevents the use of tone and body language to mitigate upset.
    • Forum use can also create a persistent in-play environment which prevents a player from having adequate breaks to emotionally re-settle after the game.

What are some game design elements and player choices that can help contain bleed:

  • Clear, defined procedures for stopping and starting a session.
    • Pre-game discussion occurs in a separate room and then people enter in-character.
    • Playing a particular theme song before a game.
    • Ringing a bell or some other auditory cue for Session Over.
  • Players encouraged to discuss emotions raised during gameplay in safe spaces or with key staff.
  • Key staff available during game for such discussions.
  • Some degree of cooperative play allows characters to resolve some emotional scenarios through discussion with other characters before the session ends which allows the player closure.
  • Individual player rituals that mark the start and end of each game
    • Listening to suitable music on the way in, unsuitable music on the way out (that doesn’t fit the character).
    • Putting costume and makeup on and then taking it off, perhaps with a long shower.
  • Standing around in a circle and discussing your favourite part of the game which provides a chance to air your experiences and remind yourself of what is within the game and outside of the game.
  • Time after the game to debrief about what happened during it and unwind.

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