“Opt-in, opt-out design” = designing participation that empowers individual participants to continuously make informed choices about engaging in an experience as well as in specific aspects of that experience.
Opt-in, opt-out design operates on the assumption that to feel curiosity and take initiatives, your player first needs to feel safe. (This is different from being safe, which is important for other reasons, and should be the foundation upon which the feeling of safety is built).
Participants need to feel seen and secure, they need to know they’re in the right place, and have a reasonably good idea of what kinds of experiences and activities they are about to engage in. This makes them not have to worry, which allows them to be present in the moment and explore the actual instance of the experience in a playful, mindful and proactive manner.
Whether your goal is for your participants to game the hell out of a statistics-heavy battle simulation, or to portray personifications of colours and emotions in a poetic non-linear dream larp, they must know what they have signed up for, what they are expected to do next, and how to interact with the experience to find out where to go after that.
The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.
Sometimes these reactions are completely justified! At other times, that player is just at the wrong larp. And that’s usually not the player’s fault either – it’s you who’ve failed at telling them who your event is for.
Why Opting In At Sign-Up Is Not Enough
Explaining what larp is, how larp feels, and what larp can do, is really, really difficult. If we could all do that – if any of us could explain it in a satisfying manner – the hobby would not be ridiculed or dismissed, and our loved ones would not roll their eyes at us when we tell them about our latest games. This means that specifically for a larp or participatory event that is of an entirely new kind or has first-timers present, pre-game communication has very limited utility as a basis for informed choices.
It might not even be possible for first-timers to make informed choices! As we all know, early larp experiences have a tendency to be very powerful regardless of the nature, quality or content of the larp. These experiences are often positive, which is why we keep coming back, but the important thing here is that this basic oomph has to do with larp as a medium, not the specifics of your game.
This oomph, again, is the very thing we’re so bad at communicating. Larpers take it for granted, so if you give them a content warning they will judge it in the context of the power of this medium they already know. A beginner might read the exact same warning and think, for instance, that they read about the topic in question all the time without it being a problem. And then be quite surprised at how different it feels to experiencing something physically in the first person.
Also: emotional reactions to larp are really unpredictable. Sometimes you go into a very intense larp with a brinkplay agenda, to challenge yourself and push your own limits – and you’re fine. Some other time you volunteer to cook at a Harry Potter-themed comedy larp, and have only the thinnest of characters with minimal interaction with the plots of the game, but end up having a meltdown because something about the dynamics among the staff characters reminds you of a really destructive work environment from 20 years ago that you thought you’d forgotten.
Also: participants aren’t great at judging their own limits. They’re typically acceptably good at it, and they are astronomically better at it than you are! But they can’t know exactly, because the variables are just too many. For instance: is this specific content just present in the game in general, or at the core of my character’s story? Will I have slept well the previous night when other physical stressors are introduced? Will my co-players in intense scenes be my friends I’ve signed up with, or strangers twice my size? Etc. And a million times etc.
Also: many larps have a very long time between buying a ticket and arriving at the venue. Any participant judgements made several months before an event will have been made in a completely different context. I played a larp last weekend where homophobic violence – treated very seriously – was an integral part of the story. We had all signed up for the game with our eyes open, but we could not possibly know months and months ago that we would be engaging with these themes less than a week after the horrific act of terror at the Pulse club in Orlando. (I may have reason to return to this specific example and its resolution in a later post).
Also: people don’t have the same amount of spoons on different days, let alone different months. They might be much more or much less comfortable, secure, healthy and happy than they were at sign-up. If they need to not play, they obviously shouldn’t, and if they do play, it makes sense to have a built-in way to fine-tune levels of exertion and intensity closer to and during the event. If you do not have a toolkit for this, they may not be able to play, which may leave you with an empty spot, or a participant less well suited to and prepared for the game overall.
Also: participants, even experienced larpers, don’t always believe you when you tell them what the larp will entail. You tell them the scenography is 800 kilos of wheat flour and might kill asthmatics and people with certain allergies; you tell them your sci-fi larp catering includes edible Japanese clay; you tell them you are a great believer in the aesthetics of boredom and will make the characters wait for hours and hours in minimalist environments; you tell them all characters will strip to their underwear; you tell them sex will be simulated by dry humping; you tell them Norwegian mountaintops are really cold even in summer. And they don’t believe you. (In case you didn’t either, these are all real examples). Now this, finally, is something that is not your fault! But it’s still your responsibility, or can become your responsibility to resolve.
For all of these reasons, opting into an event is not enough. You also need to be able to opt out, or opt in progressively, as the event is running. The cool thing about designing for this is that you don’t have to have a binary “either you’re in or you’re out” model. Which would be an asshat move anyway. Especially if you live in a country where people have limited vacation time and will travel long distances to join the experience you’ve promised them.
In fact, if the choice is between participating in something that is not right for you, or not participating at all, most people who have already committed will choose to participate anyway in this thing that is not intended or perhaps not appropriate for them. They might have a good time in the end, but let’s be real: they’ll probably hate it, drag down everyone around them, make your event seem terrible and make you come across as both an inconsiderate asshole and a lousy participation designer.
Since we don’t want that, your event or game needs opt-in, opt-out mechanics that participants can fluidly deploy just before and during run-time to calibrate their interactions with each other and the fiction. These tools add very little load to your design, since many of their functions are necessary anyway. For instance, if your players are already able to pause the gameplay to negotiate conflict stats or inform each other of real-world dangers, it is relatively trivial to slip in some mechanics that empower them to take better care of themselves and their co-players during the experience.
To Be Continued…
How this is done is the topic of this whole blog, but in the next few posts I’ll continue this walk-through of opt-in, opt-out basics. What are some of the structural effects on your larp (both inside and outside of the fiction) if you want to empower your players to leave or stay, and intensify or de-escalate, at any time? What are some tested, practical methods for doing this?
Related issues that I promise to elaborate on in later posts:
- What kinds of things, exactly, will people need to know before signing up to participate so that both you and they feel their decision is informed?
- Is opt-in design even possible in games with very low transparency? (Hint: yes!)
- Are there practical tools to use in pre-game communication to enable and enhance opt-in structures? (Hint: yes!)
- What if I want my players to opt into really intense stuff, for instance simulated torture – can it be done without a hundred pages of text detailing every possible act that could take place? Can it be done without massive spoilers? (Hint: yes and yes!)
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All pictures in this blog post are from the larp Inside Hamlet and taken by Petter Karlsson. The two-day game used a mostly successful opt-in, opt-out design structure that allowed play on depravity and violence, as well as sexual content, in a mechanics-light environment where real alcohol was served. Visit the game’s web site for a gallery of dramatic images by John Paul Bichard.
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