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Live Wires: Dispatches From the Live-Action Front


Scott Lynch
June, 2000

A Simple Psychological Tool That Can Make Your LARP a Memorable One

Abraham Maslow was a Chicago psychologist deeply interested in understanding the roots of human motivation. In 1943 he published an eloquent and widely-respected theory on the hierarchy of motivation- often referred to as Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. This simple tool, which many of you were probably introduced to at least briefly in high school and college, contains a formula which live-action game coordinators (as well as tabletop gamemasters!) can and should use to keep their gamers happy and coming back for more.

The Hierarchy has five levels, with each level describing a different type of human requirement. Maslow argues that the higher levels cannot be effectively satisfied and will not be sought until the lower levels have been satisfied first. The levels are, descending from highest to lowest:

Self-Actualization (Arts & personal expression)

Esteem (Ego-driven needs for respect and attention from self and others)

Social (The need for affection, interaction with others, and a sense of belonging)

Safety (The need for all levels of security, protection from physical and emotional harm)

Physical (The most basic and instinctive needs for food, shelter, sustenance, reproduction, etc.)

In other words, you cant expect a person to compose you a symphony while theyre naked and starving in the middle of a desert. They have other things on their mind, needs that must be satisfied first. Supply that person with a lean-to shelter, a water fountain, a pen and some paper, a box of doughnuts, and a radio to listen to the outside world, and they might be a bit more receptive to your request for some music. The really keen thing about Maslows Hierarchy is Maslows statement that the dominant need is continually shifting. For example, if Picasso became hungry, he would probably stop painting. Once Picasso went off and got himself a hearty dinner, self-actualization (painting) needs would again become dominant over physical needs, and food wouldnt be an issue for some time.

However, as far as LARP goes, the Hierarchy laid out above will suit our needs just fine. LARP gamers are people with the same needs as any other people, and as the more basic requirements are met their enjoyment of and involvement with each game can increase. Self-actualization, the highest level, can be defined for our purposes as total immersion in the game without thought or care toward more mundane worries. In other words, having fun. Lets look at the needs a good game coordinator has to help meet:

Physical Needs (Level One, the Base of the Pyramid)
Are you a game coordinator who has ever regularly run a LARP without providing at least some form of snack and beverage? Go to your kitchen, boil a single noodle, and give yourself fifty lashes. Hungry, thirsty, distracted gamers can be Public Enemy Number One for a good game. Look at the facts- many of your players have probably rushed to your game from work and school, taking little time for amenities such as a balanced meal. Many of them subsist on a diet of caffeinated soda and vending machine pseudo-food in the first place. The last things you want for your night to remember are groups of people sneaking out to hunt down food elsewhere, losing their voices due to parched throats, and quietly fuming at your lack of hospitality and foresight.

If a coordinator cant secure a supply of water, at the very least, then they really shouldnt be running a game. Even if its just a cast-iron drinking fountain dating back to the time of the Spanish-American War that spits water the color of Oldsmobile rust, its better than nothing. Gamers will, without fail, become dry-voiced and thirsty from their hot costumes and hours of speaking.

Next, coordinators must secure restroom facilities that are up to the task of handling their gaming crowd. If a group is using public facilities, this is almost never a problem. If a coordinator is considering using a location that does not have safe or convenient restroom access for your players, they must find another location.

Last, it is in the coordinator's best interests to supply, at the bare minimum, at least one form of inexpensive snack for their players. Even Vampire games can use food- just keep it red and low-key. Not only will this make them look great in the eyes of their players, it can be just enough to keep hungry gamers satisfied until they can get something more substantial following the game. Even a handful of pretzels and a cold paper cup of Kool-Aid are better than empty air and bad feelings.

Safety Needs (Level Two)
Gamers should feel secure at the game location, free from the threat of physical harm. This means avoiding trouble spots and rowdy non-gamers. It also means examining the location before each event for hazards such as broken glass, faulty wiring, loose stairs, and unexploded bombs. Lack of physical security can and will drive your players away and spoil the fun even faster than a lack of the physical needs listed above.

Also, gamers need certain guarantees of emotional security- these guarantees are provided by the game rules. Players need to feel that the rules are fair, equitable, and enforced by the coordinators without bias. Players who feel cheated, discriminated against, or misled will give the coordinators a noisy and embarrassing problem, and if their concerns are legitimate the coordinators will deserve it.

Social Needs (Level Three)
This is, perhaps, the easiest need to meet in a live-action setting. As more people join the game, it almost meets itself. Players grow comfortable in the presence of others- there are more characters to plot against, interact with, and be entertained by. Individuals who are frightened to utter a syllable in a crowd of ten or less might find their inhibitions vanishing when theyre in a crowd of fifty. Dont forget that large-group interaction and the spectacle of size are two of the primary attractions for a large-scale LARP.

Esteem Needs (Level Four)
Players need to feel good about being players, and valued for their contribution to each game. Coordinators who feel above their players, who feel that they are owed respect and deference for deigning to run a game, will soon find themselves ex-coordinators. Loyal players who trust and respect their coordinators will make extra efforts to plug any gaps in the ongoing game, while abused and unappreciated players will go elsewhere and leave undesirable games full of holes. Even the person playing the part of the Second Assistant to the Assistant Spittoon-Polisher should be made to feel that the game would be somehow lessened by their absence. Even if this isnt the case, a good coordinator will try to make them feel that way regardless. Such efforts to make players feel wanted are direct insurance against misunderstandings, hard feelings, and bad rumors down the line- money in the emotional bank.

Self-Actualization (Level Five, The Apex of the Pyramid)
If a coordinator takes the necessary steps to keep their players safe, appreciated, comfortable, and well-plied with food and drink, they will have removed 80% of the barriers that stand in the way of an enjoyable game. If players are free to relax, take refreshments, and ignore the lesser concerns that have already been dealt with, then the bulk of their attention will be focused on roleplaying, and a better time will be had by all. Even a weak plot and a shoddy setting can be made enjoyable by a happy crowd. Remember, cozy and satisfied gamers can make a silk purse out of a sows ear, but unhappy gamers are pitchfork-wielding villagers waiting to storm Dr. Frankensteins castle and burn the monster. Are a few pretzels, a little respect, and some foresight too much to ask to prevent that from happening?

No. Meet those needs, coordinators. Youll look great, your gamers will have fun, and everyone will win. Its as simple as that. Running a good game really doesnt have to be any more complicated than Maslows little pyramid. Keep it in mind.

Game well, game often, but dont game on the electric fence.

Scott L

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