Malcolm Gladwell is one of my newest heroes. And if you’re a larp organiser, he might become one of yours as well.
He’s a researcher and a former journalist, and deals (among other things!) with statistics, poking into dogma about things like choice and culture. He’s done tons of podcasts, interviews and filmed talks, so it’s easy to find content by him online.
The last interview with him that I’ve listened to is this one, where he talks about the problem with market research and with asking people to explain their choices. There are some fascinating examples from music, soft drinks and strawberry jam, just to name a few. But if you don’t want to go into the full 48 minutes of it, here are some condensed insights that are incredibly relevant to those of us who do larp.
1. One of the differences between experts and non-experts is language. Experts not only have more refined/nuanced taste, but they are also much better at explaining it. Give me a beer and I’ll say if I like it or not. I might say a little about its taste, but I’d run out of language fast. Give a beer connoisseur the same beer, and she’d be able to tell exactly why she liked it (or didn’t). Let me play a larp, and I can pick it apart like nobody’s business, and tell you a lot about not only what I liked or didn’t, but also why. As a larp organiser, I know that not everyone has my level of expertise in that regard.
2. People who don’t have a lot of language will opt for simplicity. This is crucial for us as larp organisers, because explaining why “serious” larp is enjoyable is never simple – especially for the uninitiated. “Fun” is a lot easier to explain. This is expressed very clearly in that many people have an easy time imagining themselves as a witcher, a pirate or a knight, but few understand why anyone would like to pay money to be a prisoner, a slave or a servant. The preference of an expert is much more complicated than the preference of a layman – no matter whether we talk movies, wines or larps.
3. When asked to justify choices, people who can’t, may end up changing their feelings.If someone asks me to rate two cars in a “Which do you like better?” snap judgement, I’ll pick one over the other without too much thought. I don’t know much about cars, and if asked to justify my choice, I may end up talking myself into a position where I can’t – and that’ll possibly lead me to changing my preference, even though it was clear. If asked about two larp experiences, there’s not much chance that I’ll change my mind, because I’ll know a lot better why I choose A over B.
4. I’ve seen this happen time and again at larps. People go. They have an amazing experience. When asked to talk about it, they sometimes end up faltering if they can’t put words on it. Then, if the experience doesn’t hold up to whatever accepted paradigm exists, the emotions may end up changing.
5. It happens with people as well. Oh, how it happens with people.
“I had a great time last night! That guy was fantastic.”
“But he was ugly, and fat, and old. You normally don’t like that. Why was he different?”
“Yeah, you’re right, I guess I was kidding myself. I really didn’t have that good a time.”
“You sure? You just said you had a good time…”
“No, I’m sure. After all, he was ugly and fat and old. How COULD I have had a good time?”
6. Larp is often ineffable and noetic. Simply put, ineffable means that it’s hard to describe in words exactly what you experienced, though you have the feeling that is was important. Noetic, on the other hand, is a way of describing that you feel you have learned something, without being able to vocalise exactly what it is you have learned. Larp often has these qualities for newcomers, especially the more intense ones.
7. Larpers are (kind of) experts on the larp experience. When we deal with people who have larp experience – or at least experience with the kind of larp we do, since there are many different forms – we need to treat them like experts. They want to know about design choices, setting, mechanics and all those things we ask about if we go to a larp. They do this because they know the score. They know the power of larp, having experienced it at least once (and possibly many times), so they want to know details.
8. Non-larpers don’t know what’s going to hit them. They may have read about it. They have seen one documentary after the other. But until they’ve played and had that intense experience of their own, they don’t know on a gut level. It’s a bit like parents and non-parents. As a non-parent, I can know a ton about kids and I can research what it would be like to have one. But I don’t know, deep down, what it’s like, because it’s so very different. Of course, this is true for everything, but larp is a pretty special beast.
9. The first College of Wizardry proved the point perfectly. We had a very simple website, with almost no info on it. It had the date, some pictures, basic setting description and very little else. It didn’t say anything about how we simulated magic (we didn’t know at the time), it didn’t say anything about whether characters would be self-created or written (we hadn’t decided), and it said nothing about safe words, vegetarian food or sleeping conditions. It screamed “Do you want to play Harry Potter in a real castle?” and people signed up like crazy.
10. For the experts, there was a lack of information. Afterwards, I had debates with Nordic larp veterans I knew, who said “I didn’t sign up because there wasn’t enough info on the web page for me to make an informed decision.” For them it was true, because as experts, they simply didn’t have enough to go on, and weren’t interested in making a snap decision. For others, there was plenty of information – for them the choice wasn’t about whether we used Ars Amandi or not, or how the character creation process was. For them, it was a matter of Harry Potter in a castle or not.
11. For the non-experts, there was plenty of info. In fact, one of the things we’ve suffered from since is information overload. Many first time larpers tell us about how hard it was to orient oneself in the massive amounts of text, both on the website and in the Design Document (a 88 page monster, when it was at its highest). We see it now with our Convention of Thorns communication. For the Vampire the Masquerade fan, it’s relevant to know how we deal with blood bonds and vaulderie. For someone who’s seen True Blood and thinks it would be cool to play a vampire for a weekend, it’s super irrelevant and offputting to have to deal with that sort of detail. They don’t want to know the history of the beer or see the ingredient list. They just want to get drunk!
Conclusion. We need to make the language simpler for newcomers. We need to realise that the difference between one larp played (if we’re being picky, we can talk about one larp in a certain tradition) and zero larps played – it’s immense. We see it again and again. Most people who have their first larp experience at one of our events come out changed. They have that noetic and ineffable experience and they now get it. Next time they choose a larp to go to, they may ask about mechanics or characters or workshops. But for their first time, those things aren’t relevant for them. They’re simply clutter in their decision-making process, and with good reason. Do you want a computer with 1333 Mhz DDR3 RAM or not? What are the alternatives? What does it mean? If the level you’re at is “Is it a Mac or a PC?”, then talking about RAM specs won’t help you at all – in fact, it’ll just make your life harder.
And that’s why we need to get serious about weeding out the unnecessary clutter, if we want to get new larpers into the fold. Sure, we can keep our complex and information-rich websites and Design Documents for people who’ve already crossed the threshold. Personally, I like knowing about the character creation process for a larp. But thinking that we’ll help newcomers overcome their fears and worries about going to their first larp by overloading them with information that is meaningless to them? That’s got to stop.