It’s never the kind of thing you know when you walk into a LARP (live action role playing game) or other geek community of any scale: is this a safe place? Is this guy walking next to me on a trail alone in the woods a rapist? Is the man who is 20 years my senior just being friendly and in character, or is he taking advantage?
When I think back to my first LARP experience, I remember thinking these things.
Content warning: this post is about rape culture, abuse, and LARP communities.
It wasn’t about being new to the LARP, the community, or the area as much as it was about safety:
All the times my mother reminded me to lock the car doors and keep my keys out as I walked towards the car.
The ‘don’t get raped: a practical guide’ training I received as a woman in college.
The statistic I couldn’t ignore reading every time I had to pee because it was posted on the bathroom stall door: 1 in 4 women will be raped.
But there I was, wanting to take a risk to explore my nerd nature, out on a walk on a trail with someone I didn’t know. I had no idea where the guy I was dating had gone – he was the one who had introduced me to the game – and he was surely understanding that the community was a safe space full of his friends.
And while nothing did happen, the guy walking next to me on a trail became a major creeper with his comments. I thought it had something to do with me. But over the course of years – yes, years – I learned that it was his standard modus operandi and he was a known creeper who had done some questionable things.
So Why Did the LARP Community Put Up With It?
Same reason as me, I guess: I wanted to fit in; I didn’t want to upset a community already filled with drama. I didn’t want to become an outcast because I spoke out against someone who was already part of the community; I knew the guy I was interested in would surely vouch for him.
Fast forward to many games later and many years later. Eight years in, now I know lots of people; being pretty outspoken when it comes to issues of feminism, women in the LARP community are comfortable about being a bit more open with me about certain things.
“I can’t say what he did, but I know you wouldn’t like it.”
“She was underage…”
“I don’t know for sure, but he has a reputation.”
“I wanted to give you a heads up about this guy. Here’s what he said/did to me.”
So it’s like there’s an underground network here, and I wasn’t really keyed into it until I’ve already been in the scene for eight years. And that makes sense: it takes trust to tell someone that kind of thing. But it doesn’t help the eighteen year old who rolls into her first LARP alone.
This Creeper Has a Name, and It’s “Missing Stair”
“Missing stair is a term coined by blogger Cliff Pervocracy in 2012 to describe an abuser or harasser who is tolerated in a community, even though their misdeeds are well known. The analogy is that of a missing step is in a staircase, that everyone in the house avoids and generally tries to warn others about, but which no one actually assumes the responsibility for repairing. Often victim-blaming is used on anyone who is harmed by this individual, with the reasoning that “everyone knows about them,” and the victim should have heeded the warnings (which they may or may not have actually received).”
It’s not the fault of any one LARP, but most LARP subcultures seem to have these “missing stairs.”
It’s Not Limited to Sexual Assault
As the victim of an admitted emotional abuser, this kind of missing stair acceptance and defense is hardly limited to sexual assault. As someone who has been through this kind of thing, I’d like to share with you some of the comments I have heard from members of my local LARP community:
“You really shouldn’t expect anything from staff members. They can’t take sides.” (Even though the abuser actively disliked the game in question.)
“[The abuser] really does have a point. I have to agree with him on that one thing.”
“You have to understand, I’m friends with you both. I just can’t take sides.”
“You wouldn’t have a problem with me hanging out with him, right? You’re going to be mature about this.”
And just like with what goes on surrounding sexual abusers in LARP, there’s been the hush-hush talk; the people that won’t talk to me about this and instead save face by explaining to others why it’s just ‘too uncomfortable’ to include me in things anymore.
You know what makes me uncomfortable? Knowing that people in the community felt for years that I had been abused when I couldn’t recognize it; yet, only a few said anything about it to me or offered any sort of help or guidance.
And now, walking away from a completely toxic and harmful relationship was an action I did that made other people feel uncomfortable all because they’d rather include a missing stair. And my missing stair isn’t even interested in going to most of the same LARPs as me.
Handling an emotional abuse situation that way perpetuates victim-blaming, a culture that does not support or believe the victim, and it provides the abuser with a platform to abuse again.
Do you really want that happening in your community?
What About the Broken Stair?
Here’s the problem with including and defending the missing stair.
Every time you don’t say something and every time you commit to de facto acceptance of the missing stair you fail to repair a broken stair. This is what I call someone like me: someone who used to be fully immersed and enthusiastic. Someone who now has to second guess every interaction and out of game allegiance. Someone who could thrive in your community, but feels broken or like they have to move on because the missing stair is okay but the broken stair makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
Why can’t you make the missing stair invisible? It is, after all, missing. The broken stair wants to hang around but just needs a little support.
What Can You Do to Deter Missing Stairs?
Hopefully you don’t want to include missing stairs in your LARP community. Legally, it can be tough for LARPs to exclude them. Often times, sexual assault survivors either do not wish to press charges or don’t want it talked about within the community, and that is very much their choice.
This sometimes means the survivor chooses to leave the community and the abuser is free to abuse again.
Furthermore, LARP assault, drama, and general socialization often happens away from the LARP itself. Can a LARP ban someone for bad behavior that didn’t occur on LARP grounds? A lot of this stuff is hearsay, and even though people should believe survivors, it’s hard to expect a LARP staff to prohibit a player from attending because someone said that someone said he did something inappropriate.
Prevent Creepers and Jerks
Preventative actions are useful. Clear, distinct language on a LARP’s website can help. Talk about the sort of culture you want to facilitate and be clear about what is not tolerated at your game. Even accurately defining the game’s themes can help attract the right crowd and deter the creepers.
Keep Each Other Aware
Remain an active part of your community and connect with other LARPers. Most people feel pretty isolated in thinking someone’s a total creeper until someone else says something about it. Then you realize most people think that person is creepy and/or inappropriate. This is especially important for the people running these games. If one or more of your staff members isn’t ‘in the know,’ they should be.
You can count on trusted allies to remain aware during social events.
Missing stairs are hardly unique to LARPs or to geek subcultures, but the constant stream of new participants and the complacency of existing players can create a welcome place for missing stairs. It’s easy enough to stand by or even introduce a missing stair into a social group by accident, but once something happens to you, you will realize the magnitude of the situation and the interconnectedness of these social relationships.
If you’re the broken stair, you’ll have to live up to it: most people are going to tolerate the missing stair. You can find allies, move on, or some combination of the two. I have relied on a careful combination of finding a new community and relying on some trusted friends all around.
It definitely feels like it’s one of those things that’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there.
I hope you’re never there.
Thoughts and comments appreciated below.
Editor’s note: We occasionally publish “NPC” posts to protect the identity of the original poster upon request. This is done when the poster feels they may be threatened, abused, punished, or negatively outed in a personal or professional way.