A Touching Taxonomy

by Cameron Betts

If I accept your physical role-play, if I consent to your touch, what are you going to do? Clap me on the shoulder? Slap me? Hug me? I would like to know.

What kind of physical interaction would you appreciate from me? I would like to know that too.

Not all forms of touch are the same.

They are not the same from a player perspective. They are not the same from a design perspective. Touch interacts with LARP design. Touch plays a role in a LARP. The right form of touch at the right time can create a sense of presence and authenticity; the wrong kind of touch, even outside of ethical concerns, can pull a player out of the experience.

Here are four types of touch that we see in LARP: normative touch, game necessary touch, design enhancing touch, and individual enhancing touch. Each type of touch interacts with the game differently, and by thinking about how to handle each, a designer can help ensure that players experience the right form of touch (and avoid the wrong form).

Normative Touch

This is the kind of touching that we encounter in the world outside of LARP—at work, at home, or among friends—that bleeds into our expectations and gameplay. A typical example might be using a handshake to greet a stranger. Normative touch is difficult to control with rules because players don’t even think about the action as one that requires asking consent, considering a rule, or deploying a technique. Even in a LARP where there is a no-touching rule, it is common to see people shaking hands.

In groups where a high percentage of the players know one another, sub-culture norms can override the norms of the broader culture—it is not uncommon to see normative hugging in such groups. Interacting with differences in cultural normative touch can create serious challenges when one player considers a touch normative and another does not; consider, for example, kissing on the cheeks or hugging as a form of greeting. A player for whom this is a normative interaction may hug another player without asking consent because they are acting on “auto-pilot”.

How much touch is encouraged or allowed in a design can also alter the norms of touch in a LARP. For example, in some live-combat games, players routinely touch one another’s shoulders to indicate that they are carrying that person or performing some in-game action on them. This action becomes normative in the culture of play for the LARP, and players no longer stop to think about if this touch requires consent.

Necessary Touch

Sometimes a game design requires players to touch one another in order for the design to be realized. There have been several games about ballroom dancing that require touch that is normal for dancing. Live combat games require players to accept touch via padded weapons (which may not seem like touch from one point of view, but consider if it is acceptable without consent).

Necessary touch needs to be very well indicated in the description of the LARP or scene, so that all participants understand what is required.

In some designs, there are ways for a percentage of participants to opt out of necessary touch, but it is still necessary touch if the design relies on high percentage of people participating in the touching activity.

Design Enhancing Touch

This is the level of touch that the design would like to optimize for, but that would not harm the LARP if any given or all players opted not to engage in. These are actions that your players will likely encounter due to the scenario or situations the designers intend for them. Design enhancing touch speaks to the overall themes of the LARP.

The line between necessary and design-enhancing touch is sometimes blurry, as they both relate to the designed intentions of the scenario. The difference is that design-enhancing touch can be replaced if the situation calls for it; perhaps it can be just removed or it can be replaced with a non-touch-based technique.

An example is a game set at a ball, but the plot is all about politics. It would be great if people participated in some ballroom dancing to enhance the atmosphere, but the game will be engaging, interesting, and complete even if no one dances. Another example might be in a gritty combat game where it can add to the atmosphere if the players physically drag or carry the wounded to safety.

Individual Enhancing Touch

When we talk about touch and consent rules, we are often talking about this type of touch. This is when players sense an opportunity for touch to enhance their experience. Imagine a moment where a character is grieving, and the player of another character thinks a hug would add to the experience.

Since this kind of touch in very dependent on specific scenes and context, the process of suggesting appropriate individual enhancing touch is challenging. Most LARPs use an open-ended system for requesting consent to deal with this. Many systems involve an in-the-moment, out-of-character conversation, which can be as simple as “do you accept my physical roleplay?” or as comprehensive as a structured conversation to ensure that players don’t feel pressured to consent. Many systems also accept that consent conversations can be streamlined with negotiation before play begins.

While individual enhancing touch can add to the player experience, it is also possible that it can detract from the LARP design. Imagine a LARP in a formal setting about characters from a reserved culture, where a some of the players decided act out a bar brawl. Although open ended consent negotiations are needed, it might be worth the designer considering if there are some actions or categories of action that should be disallowed.

The A-B-Cs of a Touching LARP

Here is one way to handle creating a permission space around touch that addresses all of these forms explicitly: players select which forms of touch they would like to opt into. In order to make this simple to use, the forms are placed on a scale of intimacy, tied to specific game-related types of touching. Players wear an indicator of what they would like to opt into; I suggest a letter that they wear in a visible and consistent location. Players can change the letter they are displaying at any time.

Thinking through the forms of touch and their role in the LARP can help you achieve the LARP you want to produce. Being specific in the levels allows the players to feel confident that the others have opted in to some action, and is suggestive of what kind of play is expected as well as what the players might witness during the course of play.

A game that suggests that grasping forearms is a common greeting feels different from one where a kiss on each cheek is common. A culture where you are more likely to be punched than hugged feel different where one where you are more likely to be hugged than punched. Using this A-B-C method the designer can determine for their LARP what kinds of touch are common and what is an escalation.

Two restrictions are included in this system for the sake of usability. First, the touch is placed on a scale, which means players can’t easily opt into some things and not others. They only indicate that they are consenting to all up until a certain point. Second, each player’s letter indicator needs to apply to every other player. These restrictions allow the communication of consent to be simple to display and to understand since there not a series of special conditions for players to remember. To mitigate these restrictions, the plays may also wear a symbol to indicate they are open to explore and negotiate opportunities.

Here is an example of how this system might look for a ballroom-dancing LARP, with each display letter A-D defined and discussed.

A - No Touch

No touching means no touching at all.

No touching at all is hard to achieve, and is a weakness of this system. The nature of normative touch is that people don’t stop to think about think it before they do it. Nevertheless, there should be a way indicate that a player has not opted in to any touch, and they should have organizer support. I would reserve the “A” for no-touching, even if your game has a minimal touch requirement. If our ballroom-dancing LARP includes some characters for whom dancing is optional, then this is an option for the players of those characters.

If you would like to maximize your chance of a touch-averse player not getting touched at all, not even normatively, the best way is to have a game where touch is specifically forbidden to all players, and where the characters also have specific reasons not to touch each other.

B - Ballroom Dancing

In order for our ballroom-dancing LARP to work, we need people to dance. Putting on a “B” indicates that you have opted-in to being touched on the arms, hands and waist in the context of dancing with a partner.

This level is for Necessary Touch. Including the context of the touch can be important, as opting in to dancing with someone is not the same as opting in to being suddenly grabbed by the waist.

In games that do not have a necessary touch, “B” can be used to indicate that the player opts-in to normative touch for that game. You should still define what is considered normative for the space you are creating so that players have a baseline of understanding what this means (e.g. handshakes).

C - Slapping

While our ballroom-dancing LARP is set at a ball, it is really about politics and scandal. Loud and dramatic scandal. So, if player displays a “C”, they opt-in to being lightly slapped on the cheek, in addition to opting-in to the necessary touch of ballroom dancing described in “B”.

This level is for design enhancing touch. Be specific in describing the design enhancing touch actions, and (just like with necessary touch) give some context as to how the touch is to be used in play. Players are much more likely to take actions that are specifically called out with a letter.

D - Shoving

Scandal and dancing might cause bitter rivalries to boil over. If a player displays a “D”, they opt-in to being pushed, shoved, or knocked down, as well as opting in to the necessary touch of ballroom dancing of “B”, and the light slapping of “C”.

Some games can benefit from having multiple levels of design enhancing touch. This example shows that the designer has decided that opting in to the “C” level is a prerequisite for the “D” level. While there may be players that are happy to opt in to being shoved (“D”), who don’t want to be slapped (“C”), having a simple hierarchy allows for players to remember fewer things and works better than having a player wear multiple symbols for different configuration of actions. The hierarchy also communicates to the players what actions, in the context of this LARP, are more common and which are escalations.

Plus (“+”) - Open to Explore Opportunities

Sometimes lovers embrace after a fight. Sometimes mothers march their sons out of the ball by their ears. Those might be fun to play out, but you need to make sure all the players involved opt-in. If a player displays a “+” after their letter, they are open to discussing different forms of touch on a case-by-case basis other than what is described in the other letters. Any letter can be followed by a plus.

This is the Individual Enhancing Touch and allows players to have some flexibility in their actions and experiences. A player who does not want to dance but who might opt-in to a slap-fight can display an “A+”. A player who wants to dance and embrace their romantic interest but does not want any form of violence, can display a “B+”.

Including the plus in as an option means you might need additional guidelines for how to negotiate consent. If a player does not have a “+” the other players should not approach them about negotiating more touch than their letter indicates. The more the designer can fit into the lettered structure the less the players will need to stop play to negotiate.

Making Consent Visible

In addition to providing a structure for consent between players for using touch in their roleplay, this system also makes visible and explicit the consent structures that drive touch in during play. With less visible structures, such as arranging for consent before the game, there is a risk that some players will see others touching and assume that this level of touch is normal, expected, or desired.

Consider a situation where two players consent in private discussion before the game to exchange casual back rubs during play as a sign of that their characters are close. Another player watches as one of the consenting players step up behind the other to rub their shoulders without any obvious consent negotiation. The watcher might assume these two players enjoy backrubs and initiate one in the same way they saw modeled (without asking consent); or they might assume that this is normal behavior for players playing characters in close relationships and step up behind someone else. Of course, our watcher might also assume that no consent has been given for the backrub. They might then intercede, and disrupt a moment the consenting players had been hoping for.

In this example, the consenting players inadvertently end up modeling a flawed consent structure because their consent negation was not discernible by an observer. This problem can be exacerbated in situations where some players know one another before play and others do not. The former more easily can have invisible consent negotiations while the latter may be attempting to figure out what is the norm for play with this group. The ease with which players who know one another can pre-negotiate can also create a feeling in newcomers that they are boxed out or not able to have as complete an experience as those with established friends.

Using a structured, visible consent system allows the free flow of physical play within the comfort and consent of all the players involved, and considering touch as an intentional design tool can help players get the most out of a LARP.