This article discusses problematic depictions of and ideas about autism. It also contains a spoiler-filled plot summary of the larp Resonance, including discussions of an apocalypse and mind-altering biotechnology.
All artists grow and change over time, and as they grow, they sometimes come to the realization that they are no longer happy with their earlier works. As larp creators, we are no exception. When we discover that one of our works is problematic, what should we do? There isn’t an obvious answer in general, and the medium of larp makes the question even murkier.
In this article, we’ll introduce a case study in how a problematic larp came into existence, how we came to realize its problems, and the challenges we ran into while tackling those problems. We’ll also discuss the broader implications and lessons that can be gleaned from these experiences.
The larp we’ll be looking at is Alleged Entertainment’s Resonance, a scene-based1 litform2 game in which all of the characters begin with amnesia. Due to the nature of the analysis we’ll be doing, revealing some secret information written into the larp is unavoidable, so if you don’t want spoilers for Resonance, please stop reading now.
Resonance was written by Susan Weiner, Vito D’Agosta, and the authors of this article, with additional conceptual development by Jesse Cox and Danielle Reese. Since we only comprise some of the writing team for this larp, we cannot speak as representatives of the team as a whole. The opinions in this article are purely those of Nat Budin and Phoebe Roberts.
Resonance takes place in an unspecified near-future time in the United States of America. In this future, the US Department of Defense, in collaboration with militaries from other nations, has developed a mind-altering virus called “Resonance,” which was accidentally released into the world and has wreaked havoc. Much of the population has been rendered unable to function; power grids have shut down. In short, the virus has caused an apocalypse.
None of this background is known to the characters as the game begins. They wake up, remembering nothing—not even their own identities—in an underground government hospital with no way to leave. The characters slowly regain their memories by experiencing group flashbacks. These are represented by removing the players from the main space in three groups of five players each, and giving them short character sheets for the flashback scene they are to experience. The memories each character is given, as described in the short character sheets and played out in the flashback scene, may belong to someone else. The reason for this, and for the shared memories, is that the Resonance virus is causing the characters’ minds to be linked telepathically.
In each of the flashback scenes, each character has a choice to make between two values (for example, Vigilant vs. Compassionate). When the character has made that choice, the player circles the appropriate value on the character sheet for the scene and hands it back to a game master (GM). Once the players have experienced three flashbacks, the GM team uses their answers to assign each player a character that matches their choices. There are a total of 45 pre-written characters in Resonance, so in any given run, a third of them will be used.
The characters are all in some way connected to the project that produced and released the Resonance virus. They must spend the rest of the game coming to terms with the fact that they caused the apocalypse, while experiencing further flashbacks leading up to a scene taking place the moment they entered the underground hospital. In that scene, the code to activate the elevator leading out of the hospital room is revealed. Once they take the elevator up, they arrive in another underground chamber with a computer in it. The computer is programmed to let them leave the facility, but only after they establish a line of succession (the president may or may not be one of the 15 characters present) and a plan for the future.
The original version of Resonance makes use of autism as a plot device, in ways that are deeply problematic. In that version of the larp, the virus was developed as a “cure” for autism, and it worked by stimulating mirror neurons in order to allow a form of direct brain-to-brain communication.
Mirror neurons are a type of neuron in the frontal cortex. Not long after the discovery of mirror neurons, early studies linked them to the function of imitating behavior. In 2001, a group of research psychologists from Scotland and Australia proposed that “some dysfunction in the [mirror neuron] system might be implicated in the generation of the constellation of clinical features which constitute the autistic syndrome” (Williams et al. 2–15). By the time Resonance was written, several popular science publications had promulgated this theory. Also by this time, however, multiple scientists, such as Dinstein in 2008 and Fan in 2010, had raised doubts about the theory. In 2013, the idea had been thoroughly debunked, as shown by Hamilton’s comprehensive meta-analysis (Hamilton).
Aside from the issue of mirror neurons, the original Resonance’s conception of autism is further flawed. The Resonance virus is designed to create a telepathic link between the minds of its carriers. Its creators mean this to function as a counter to autism, in that it creates a capacity for empathy where none existed. While this conception of autism is widespread, research, as well as the lived experiences of autistic people, show it to be incorrect. Some autistic people do have difficulty recognizing emotions in others, but this is far from universal and is also not the same as a lack of empathy (Brewer and Murphy).
Many in the autistic community feel that, when speaking about autism, it’s important to include autistic people in that creation. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, one of the world’s most prominent autism nonprofits, has adopted “nothing about us without us” as its slogan. None of the writers of Resonance are autistic, and we did not consult with any autistic people as part of the process of creating the larp. Furthermore, none of the playable characters in the larp are autistic. Autistic people are used purely as plot devices and background props in the original version of the game.
Resonance was created by most of the team that had, at the time, just finished writing The Last Seder, which had itself been an experiment, using the scene-based structure to craft a tightly-plotted narrative with built-in twists and pacing. The Last Seder had been a very popular larp that accomplished what it set out to do, but some players complained of not having any influence over the storyline. Resonance was conceived, in large part, as an attempt to respond to this criticism by using some of the same mechanics in a way that afforded players more and more directorial power as the game progressed.
When it originally ran in 2011, Resonance was well-received. Several players in early runs told us it was their favorite larp. In particular, players enjoyed the game’s unusual structure and new take on the well-worn amnesia trope.
In the third run of the game, we conducted an informal debrief on the spur of the moment, because players were eager to ask questions about how the mechanics worked and share their experiences. During this session, one player brought up the subject of neurodiversity, citing Resonance as a positive example of a neurodiversity narrative. This player took away the message that society must treat neurodivergent people better. This reading of the larp did not sit well with all of the writers; in particular, Phoebe did not recall this message having been considered during the creation process. However, we didn’t discuss this discomfort at the time.
For the fourth run of Resonance in 2014, Phoebe was on her own. The run was at Brandeis University’s Festival of the LARPs, which none of the other writers were attending that year, and so Phoebe asked some trusted collaborators from outside the writing team to help with GM duties. At that Festival, Jules Pilowsky, one of the players in the game, became quite uncomfortable with the treatment of autism in the larp, and after the run, gave Phoebe some specific feedback about it. Pilowsky is not herself autistic, but has personal experience of autism via a close family member. She pointed out the game’s characterization of autism as a deficiency in empathy.
Phoebe, who had herself been feeling uneasy about the larp but had not yet been able to pin down why, found Pilowsky’s comment insightful and illuminating. However, she wasn’t sure what to do with the feedback. This conception of autism was baked deeply into the game’s story—the only way the Resonance virus can operate as a cure for autism is if autism is a deficiency in empathy. Eventually, she spoke with Nat about her concerns, but he too was unsure of how to correct the issues. Both authors agreed with Pilowsky, but neither had any good idea how to proceed.
Resonance didn’t run again until late 2015, when Nat and Phoebe produced the game at a private home in the suburbs of Boston. During that run, two players noticed the treatment of autism, which upset them enough that they needed to leave the game temporarily and return during a later scene. After the larp, the players expressed their anger at the authors’ thoughtless inclusion of this content. Phoebe, Nat, and the players of this run all discussed ways to change the game to be less problematic, and the two players suggested that the easiest solution might be to replace autism in the game with some fictional disorder.
We brought this feedback to the rest of the writing team, and some discussion ensued over email. The potential problematic reading of the content was acknowledged by all, but because of the earlier feedback, particularly at the third run, some of the team did not want to change the game. There was a feeling that it was possible to make the game read more clearly as a positive neurodiversity narrative, but that idea was not universally agreed upon amongst the writers. Attempting to carve a compromise path, Phoebe proposed to do some rewrites to some of the main characters to help make it clearer that many of the views about autism expressed in the game were those of the characters, not the authors. The other authors agreed it would be a good idea.
After completing these tweaks, however, Phoebe felt that the result was not successful, and that the distinction between the characters’ views and the authors’ views did not come across. Therefore, the writers decided to proceed with the 2015 players’ suggestion of replacing autism with a fictional disorder. One of the writers felt that it was important to make sure players knew the game was actually “about autism,” and planned to mention it during game debriefings; the other authors felt the opposite way.
Nat searched through the game’s text for mentions of the words “autism,” “autistic,” “spectrum,” and other related terms, and replaced them with “Braiden’s Syndrome.” In addition, he changed some of the text that mentioned some of the markers of autism to different characteristics not tied to autism. There has only been, to our knowledge, one run of this version of Resonance, in 2016 at Nat’s house in the Seattle suburbs. That run seemed to be successful, and the changes did not appear to worsen the gameplay or decrease players’ enjoyment of the game. One run is, however, not enough data to decide if the rewrite was truly a success. Nonetheless, this is the version of Resonance now available on Larp Library3 for public download.
As may be apparent from the multiple attempts required, addressing these issues was not an easy process. We ran into a number of barriers that prevented us from implementing changes that really tackled the problem.
There was, as is often the case, an instinctive, emotional pushback on the part of the creative team. It’s always difficult to confront the notion that something you’ve lovingly created is flawed or even damaging, when you’ve put so much work and time and emotional energy into making it. Nobody likes reopening the book on a satisfying finished product. Also, the reception the game received for the first several years of its running life was overwhelmingly positive, acting as a powerful counterpoint to any criticism encountered so much later in the process. It’s a common feeling among artists to develop resistance to redoing strong work you thought was finished. And the members of the team initially did not agree on the best way to respond to the issue. There was some initial hope that this was only the opinion of a small minority of players and not actually a problem. One often finds with criticism dealing with the artistic value of a work that it can be only a matter of taste, specific to one or a few people, upon which the artist can agree to disagree.
Further still, there was an impulse to attempt a fix involving writing tweaks that still maintained the presence of autism in the story. At the time, this was seen as a way to a simple fix. But in actuality, our ultimate solution of simply switching out autism for a fictional disease was much, much easier. Why did we miss this in our initial efforts? Because, we felt a need to deny that the problem was large, that if the content only needed some slight re-presenting, our mistake could not have been that serious—that we hadn’t been so unthinkingly ableist. It took some processing, discussion, and serious self-reflection before we came to the conclusion that the whole concept had to be removed from the game. And that the reason for that removal was that our insensitivity caused us to create a harmful depiction.
Of course, there remains the question of why this even happened in the first place.
The biggest reason was ignorance—of autism, and of the consequences our portrayal of it might have. While none of us were completely uninformed, we did not realize how much we didn’t understand about the condition due to a lack of experience and some level of ableism. Also, at the time of the game’s inception, some recent research, that has since been discredited, suggested a relationship between autism and mirror neurons, which shaped the conception written into the game. Insufficient further research was conducted, which might have provided much-needed perspective into the reality of the condition. Also, early planning discussions of the game’s design focused mainly on the unusual structure and how to facilitate its workings. This meant that any thought as to the game’s message became secondary, with the unspoken implications of that message even less thoroughly considered
While many of our mistakes in this process are clear, something like this can happen to any project. We were a team of educated, relatively socially aware writers, all of whom would have professed a desire to create art that was inclusive and did not perpetuate harm, and we still managed to stumble into this pit. Of course artists should attempt to educate themselves as best they can, so they avoid the failures our team had to manage. But despite the best of intentions, and better efforts than we were initially able to make, it’s still possible to make mistakes.
If you’ve learned that you’ve created a problematic work that deals with marginalization other than your own, what do you do then? When you’ve made a misstep and put hurt out into the world that you didn’t intend, how do you properly own your mistakes? Based on our experiences here, we learned a few things that might be useful in a number of similar creative situations.
The first necessary step was to listen. In the absence of our own understanding, other people with greater perspective were the ones to point out the problems with our portrayal. Natural protectiveness of one’s creation can make this hard, but dismantling this resistance is key to embracing this process. If the writer is not open to this, they will stay limited by their own perspective and bias. The corollary to this is to maintain an open and respectful attitude while listening. While this can feel like a personal attack, it’s important to separate one’s emotions from the process of evaluating one’s work. Often someone who has come to you to tell you of a problem like this is taking on an emotional burden themselves in speaking out— at the very least, they risk your upset in pointing out the error. It shows respect to hear them out in a non-defensive manner. And frankly, when your actions have caused harm to someone else, the first feelings you should be focusing on are not your own.
Once you’ve absorbed the information as neutrally as you can, be sure to take time to reflect on the feedback. Not every bit of input is going to be useful, and no one is obligated to act on every single response, but particularly if you are feeling knee-jerk resistance to criticism, this is crucial. It may take time for the emotional reaction to subside enough for you to be receptive to the point. Moreover, even if you are open to incorporating feedback, this will help you truly internalize it into your own understanding. The greater the understanding you can come to of how you erred, the better you will learn to avoid this same pitfall in the future.
We also found it helpful to take time to deal with the sad feelings that come from knowing that despite your best efforts, this work you poured your heart and soul into is imperfect. Maybe even mourn it, because dealing with these emotions will better enable you to move through them in order to make an honest critical examination. But while it’s all right if you are not able to neutrally process this criticism right away, make sure you take this processing time privately, away from the person who has brought you the critique, or anyone else you may have hurt. Again, you can and should take care of your own feelings on the callout, but you must not make those feelings the responsibility of those who were impacted by your mistake. It is not their job to soothe you on this, so it would be inappropriate for you to demand that emotional labor from that quarter.
It may be that you do honestly examine the work you made on the point of critique and genuinely decide that it is not valid. This could be possible. But especially if the critique comes from a member of a group to which you do not belong regarding their experience which you do not share, we strongly encourage you to be very conservative in substituting your own judgment on this issue. Overwhelmingly, they are greater experts on their own experience than you are.
Finally, take responsibility. Be honest and forthright about the mistake you made. Apologize for it without making excuses or putting the blame on someone else. Only when you accept that you screwed up do you have a chance on learning and moving on from it. Also, it signals to others that you are concerned for other people’s feelings than just you own, and you are worth engaging in good faith.
Once you’ve gotten to the place of accepting that you’ve made the mistake, what are you to do then? Fortunately, the larp medium is one of the most open to revision. You definitely are afforded the opportunity to fix the problems with rewrites that improve the game on artistic counts, and improvements of a more sensitivity-oriented nature are no different. Seeing as a different, edited version of the game is easy to disseminate and run for any subsequent instance, it is very possible to remove the element from the game. This can be a very satisfying course of action for all parties, as it demonstrates an effort to eliminate problematic depictions that would spare people hurtful experiences, as well as maintaining the parts of the larp that you were proud of making in the first place. But it is an equally legitimate decision to simply decide to retire the larp. Editing and reworking can be a draining, labor-intensive process, so there is no shame in deciding you’d like to prevent further harm by ending exposure to it, and moving forward with your new knowledge onto new projects.
Whichever you choose, you must also think about being accountable to your past players about it. At the very least, it’s a good idea to reach out to those who put themselves out there enough to point out where you made your mistake. This is meant to be a respectful gesture, demonstrating that you took their words into account and that it matters to you to do better. It should not, we note, be an effort to gain their approval or absolution in order to assuage your feelings. If your intentions are to excuse yourself from guilt, then you are not communicating about your efforts in good faith. Again, it is not the job of those who hurt you to make you feel better about it.
With all this possible fallout, both external and internal to the writer, it may seem like dealing with any potentially hurtful or problematic themes is a minefield. Is it better, or at least safer, to not put oneself in a position to mess up by avoiding these issues entirely? Or should one take on the risk inherent to delving into sensitive topics, and face the consequences if one should fail? Interactive and performative media always involve the contributions of people beyond just the writing team that conceives of them; larps ought to appeal to players of a diversity of backgrounds and experience by providing something many different folks can relate to. We don’t want all larps to be centered on the perspectives of white straight people all the time. However, we two authors are both white straight people, and perhaps it’s not up to us to decide that?
Tricky as it may be, we are not advocating avoiding depicting difficult issues entirely. But we would recommend a course of due diligence if you’re going to make the attempt.
The very first step is to do your research. Learn as much as you can about the topic you’ve chosen to deal with, and not just to be able to create thoughtful, accurate representation, but also to educate yourself on the potential pitfalls you may be facing. In service of this, it helps to be very clear up front on the themes and ideas you want to treat. This will help you find relevant information more easily, plus make you more cognizant of who your art may be depicting or affecting. New themes and notions will naturally arise during the writing process, and that’s certainly okay. But you want to identify them as you see them, and be deliberate about what you are including. This new direction may necessitate new research, and you want to make sure you don’t neglect that duty.
Researching should start with an independent effort. Take it on yourself to do the legwork of looking up the subject matter using publicly available resources. Read as much as you can, from as many sources close to the issue as you can. The more personal relevance the issue has to the person opining about it, the more likely that source is to perceive the nuances that an outsider may miss. It’s important to start with this type of research, as it places the labor within your own responsibility.
It may also be necessary to collaborate with a person with more personal perspective. While all writers can include the marginalization of others in work focused on other subjects, if you are going to create art specifically about a particular marginalization, you don’t want to do it in the absence of an artist who experiences it directly. But even if that’s not the entire subject matter of your piece, it can still be a good idea to get direct thoughts on your specific idea from someone with the actual relevant experience. You can run the ideas you’re planning on incorporating into your larp by them, and they can tell you how they feel about your particular use in your particular case. This is great because they can personally point out things you may not have considered, and give you actionable feedback on where you’re strong and where you’re going to need to revise.
This approach must be taken with care and respect, however. It is work, both mental and emotional, to engage with someone’s art that deals with their specific life circumstances and be in the position of having to deliver critiques on something so close to them. You want to make this request for someone to do this for you with respect and acknowledgement of that fact, and if you can offer some kind of compensation in return—whether it’s for a favor in kind or a treated meal for someone you know well, or actual monetary recompense for someone to whom you don’t have personal connection — you are demonstrating that you understand the effort involved, and the value thereof. This is definitely something you only want to ask, however, if you are absolutely certain the person will not feel imposed upon by it, nor an intrusion into their lives. Our goal here is to reduce the harm our art puts into the world, so you definitely don’t want to inflict more in your quest to ensure that.
As we’ve said, even despite these best intelligence and due diligence, we all remain flawed human beings, so the possibility of screwing up will always be there. Being willing to accept this truth doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself up—it just means you need to be willing to accept responsibility, and take steps to do better. We screwed up in this manner with Resonance—our groundbreaking, powerful, revolutionary, flawed game. While we’re not proud of ourselves for that, we also don’t think it makes us bad people to have made this mistake—although of course you’re free to disagree. But we are dedicated to owning our mistakes, rectifying them as best we can, and working to do better in the future. We feel that as artists and human beings, it’s the best any of us can shoot for.
Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “Position Statements.” autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/position-statements. Accessed August 29, 2018.
Brewer, Rebecca, and Jennifer Murphy. “People with autism can read emotions, feel empathy.” Scientific American 12 (2016).
Dinstein, Ilan, et al. “A mirror up to nature.” Current Biology 18.1 (2008): R13-R18.
Fan, Yang-Teng, et al. “Unbroken mirror neurons in autism spectrum disorders.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51.9 (2010): 981-988.
Hamilton, Antonia F. de C. “Reflecting on the mirror neuron system in autism: a systematic review of current theories.” Developmental cognitive neuroscience 3 (2013): 91-105.
Lesya. “When Am I Writing an Identity Story?” Writing with Color, 21 July 2017, writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/163223303098/aware-that-a-story-about-z-character-should-be. Accessed September 29, 2018.
Williams, Justin HG, et al. “Imitation, mirror neurons and autism.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 25.4 (2001): 287-295.
“Scene-based” refers to a larp that is split up into small scenes rather than playing out in one long continuous set of action. ↩
“Litform” refers to a one-shot larp in which the characters are prewritten by the game creators. ↩
Larp Library, at https://www.larplibrary.com, is an online repository of free-to-run larps available for download. ↩