The Beating Heart of Bleed

9 Posted by - February 27, 2014 - Reflections

So there’s thing we call Bleed, yeah?

Loosely, bleed is what happens when you spill over into your character, or your character spills over into you. That’s the description everybody tends to recite when you ask them to pin it down. But I noticed this weekend at Dreamation that people mean wildly different things when they use the word. I found this shifting definition fascinating because bleed and immersion are closely linked and the same kind of wild vacillation occurs in definition when talking about that topic.

So despite the fact that I’m near delusional from sleep deprived con drop, I thought I’d take a first stab at writing about my observations….

So for me, bleed is a psychological and emotional thing. It’s what happens when our thoughts and feelings between character and player can’t quite be shaken apart even if we wanted them to. There is a go-to story that I use to explain what I understand as bleed to people:

In Sweden last year, I played the all-female run of  Mad about the Boy (Tor Kjetil Edland, Margrete Raaum and Trine Lise Lindahl). Two awesome women in the larp played Thomas and Martine, a trans man and his wife who were living in a world where people with XY chromosomes had died. They were powerfully pair-bonded, tangibly in love — the players played the couple very adeptly and deeply through an extremely emotional arc. The game is a 360 immersion game that runs over three days, so there is lots of time to seat and submerge and really get deeply inside the characters.

After the larp and well into the next day, Martine’s player continued to have persistent and powerful feelings of love for Thomas and these feelings transferred to Thomas’s player. The two women did not know each other well before the larp, and they would not normally be the object of each others’ affections, but every time Martine’s player thought of leaving Thomas’s player she felt a tangible sense of heartbreak and panic – the remnant of Marine inside her. She clung to the Thomas’s player through the evening, and stayed close until forced apart by life the next day. It was sincerely distressing — Martine was bleeding into Anne Marie in an extremely powerful way.

This weekend, a lot of people talked about bleed, and many of them weren’t talking about anything like that example. Some of the experiences I saw/heard called bleed were:

  • I had a violent, powerful and unexplained emotional reaction while playing.
  • I felt really sad / angry / frightened while playing.
  • The story moved me deeply and personally.
  • I could not think clearly following play (either as my character or as me).
  • It was transformative and changed something that I previously  thought / felt / believed.
  • It triggered me.
  • I am experiencing cognitive distortion.
  • I felt the emotions of someone else’s character as my own.
  • I didn’t want to leave the world / story / character.
  • I found myself mourning mine or another character’s death long after play.

In my own mental definition of bleed, some of these are it, and some of these aren’t it. It doesn’t matter if they are or are not – I don’t aspire to be  the Arbiter of Bleed. I just note this because I find it interesting to see what we bundle and what we don’t – especially ideas that are deeply emotional and hard to articulate.

Bleed, I am beginning to think, is our code word for: “The game brought me vulnerable.” We use it without defining what it did to us, or identifying how it got us there. It helps us talk about the unspeakable we experience when we pull our senses through the unreal.

Most of those definitions underscore a surfacing of real emotional responses to fictional events. Some of them are about emotional contagion between character/player/organizer/story/game in any combination. Bleed is used also as a catch all description for moments where emotional containment does not feel possible. It is frequently used to describe psychological displacement, loss of control, or transgressive experiences in game – especially when the moment when they rise up unexpectedly, unwantedly or just surprisingly.

But the beating heart of all of them? Vulnerability.

In my corner of play, enabling vulnerability is critical. My tastes (whether in larp or tabletop) lean towards full-out cathartic engagement. I want my games to make me shake and personally transform me. In my communities of play, vulnerability is also critical: we engage with difficult subject matter, we strive for diversity, we look to make spaces where everybody can come together and vulnerably engage with each other through a catalyst of play.

Many of the larps that I played in Dreamation used mechanisms that intentionally invoke vulnerability, and open the door to bleed. Some of them stated that expressly some of them didn’t. It was fascinating to observe how the designs themselves reveal things about what vulnerability and bleed mean – both as a concept and as a tool.

Mikkel Bækgaard’s Vasen Road (which I sadly did not get to play) asked players to tell each other about the moment in their lives where they were most afraid. Summer Lovin’ (Anna Westerling, Elin Nilsen and Trine Lise Lindahl), which I happily did get to play, asked players to tell each other about their most awkward and disastrous one night stands. Right from the top of the workshop, the games demand that you stand before your fellow players in raw vulnerability: this, right here, is the place we play from.

Lizzy Stark’s In Residency and the Monsterhearts Larp (Terry Romero, Kira Scott, John Stavropoulos, James Stuart) asked players in their workshops to personally visualize moments of their own trauma in a Strasburg-esque method acting request: “Bring your own life to game, you know what this feels like already – use it to fuel your character.” In Residency also went one step further, asking players to refer back to an objectified version of their personal trauma several times in the course of play to stay connected (and make art) with it.

The Prison (Aleksandra Danilenko, Mariya Grubaya, Sergey Kolesnikov) rends players vulnerable by giving them limited information about what will happen to them, making them vulnerable as a player in the same manner as they are vulnerable in character: in total uncertainty.

It is more and more apparent to me that for those of us facilitating playing and designing these kind of emotional larps and scenarios (I’m specifically talking about North America here though it likely extends) that approaching vulnerability will be one of the major places of concern, debate, difficulty and struggle – as will other concerns that are near inevitable by-products of playing in vulnerability such as bleed and player safety. Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor who specializes in social behaviour around shame, connection and vulnerability asserts that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for.” and I think this is a particularly true in the context of emotional larps. My own current perception is that we as a culture specifically do not engage comfortably with vulnerability, and perhaps even more: as a subculture we are both afraid of it and crave it deeply. I know this is true for me, and this weekend I saw it in others.

I’ll probably be writing more about this as I continue to Imagine Funerals.