135: Game Expectations – The Social Contract

Portuguese: 135: Expectativas de Jogo – O Contrato Social

Traditional role-playing games are, by their very nature, social, involving a group of players interacting with one another by portraying characters they have created.  The MES’s primary medium for role-playing – LARP – is by far the most social way to play a role-playing game, and it is potentially the most immersive.  Far more than online role-playing, even more than table-top, LARPing means constant social interaction with other people.

Humanity is messy – each of us is an individual, with individual preferences, wants, and needs.  Each of us has individual emotional and psychological triggers, things that bother and annoy us, and lines that we don’t want ourselves – or others – to cross.  People in our club become friends, some become lovers or spouses, some get divorced, some like or hate each other – and all of that is part of the social interaction.

A social contract is how we as members of the MES navigate the messiness that is humanity in the hopes of preventing problems and issues as we enjoy our shared hobby.  It’s not perfect, but the more we work on crafting a social contract that is at least acceptable to all, the closer we will get to a club that is welcoming while not permitting members to behave inappropriately for the sake of being inclusive.

 

What is a Social Contract?

A social contract is an agreement – codified or not – between members of a society or group that defines appropriate and inappropriate behavior. It also defines and place restrictions on the rights and duties of individuals belonging to that group.  In other words – it defines how members of the group are expected to behave and act when interacting with one another.

Many of a nation’s laws can be considered part of its social contract – we agree that stealing and killing is bad, we agree that we shouldn’t speed or peek in the windows of each other’s houses.  But social contracts aren’t always codified; for example, we don’t use profanity in certain places or in front of children, we don’t engage in certain acts of hygiene while in public.  These are all parts of our social contract as a society, and the people who break that social contract are generally viewed unfavorably, and sometimes with disdain or disgust.

How does this relate to my game aka Why should I care about Social Contracts?

How do social contracts relate to the MES and to your game in specific?  To answer this, we must first acknowledge the elephant in the room – the big pink one that everyone continues to try and deny exists.  And that’s the fact that for the vast majority of players, there is bleed between OOC and IC.  This is even truer given the medium in which the MES plays its games – we aim for an immersive, face-to-face experience (as opposed to a table-top group).  Players are going to take what happens to their characters personally, even if they never admit it, even if they flat-out deny it and make fun of other players for it.  Players’ OOC behavior absolutely will be affected by what happens to their characters IC.  It is impossible to escape that fact, even if we wish it weren’t the case.  Having a Social Contract for your game can help mitigate some of the effects of this elephant.

The MES as an organization has a Social Contract with all of its members – you can find it Chapter 4 in the Handbook.

In addition to the Social Contract we all agree to when we become members, every game played in the MES has a Social Contract as well, whether it’s codified in writing or not.  This is important to understand, because how players relate to one another both IC and OOC – social interaction, in other words – is dominant over everything else about the game, including the rules and mechanics.  This is a primary reason rules and mechanics debates happen (because we as individuals often have different interpretations) and why rules or mechanics debates and clarifications cannot and will not fix a game if the players are struggling with Social Contract issues.

A gaming Social Contract is an agreement that governs how we treat each other in the context of playing a game.  It is a shared understanding about the game itself and what everyone should expect when they show up to play.  As such, the gaming Social Contract affects both OOC and IC actions and behaviors.

Social interaction and communication are vital components to role-playing games, so it only makes sense to talk about and craft a Social Contract for your game to prevent confusion, drama, and hurt feelings later on.  Just remember – when you create a Social Contract for your game, it must never contradict what’s in the MES Handbook.

What is the goal behind creating a Social Contract?

The goal is to create an environment that is welcoming and safe for all players, one that makes it possible for everyone to have fun playing the game in a positive way, where one person’s fun doesn’t take precedence over another’s.  A game’s Social Contract is the agreement that allows everyone to play together in harmony; it is the foundation for whether or not the game will be enjoyable and will thrive, or whether many of the players will end up disappointed.

How do I craft a Social Contract for my game?

A Social Contract cannot be created in a vacuum – you must talk to your players – as a group, and individually.  This is one area where you’ve got to make sure everyone gets a chance to have their say in whatever way is most comfortable for them.

You have to, as an officer, find out what lines can and cannot be crossed when it comes to your players.  A survey works well for gathering up individual feedback, because it allows players who might be uncomfortable or shy the chance to provide important input without having to “out” themselves to a larger group. This can be especially important if the issue is extremely personal.  You can gather these individual responses and bring them to the larger group discussion.

Make sure you stress the need for honesty – players need to know that if there is something they really like, or really dislike, they have the ability to be heard. Without this, many times they will be unwilling to speak up for the fear of reprisal or dismissal.  Players should never assume people will just “know” something isn’t OK (no matter how logical it might seem); that’s a recipe for disaster.

Specific Considerations when Creating your Domain’s Social Contract

Prime Directive

No single person’s fun ever trumps another person’s fun.  The goal is to have fun together – and that sometimes means that one player has to curb his or her personal wishes and preferences when it comes to what happens at game.  The goal of game is always OUR fun.

What game are we playing?

As obvious as this might seem, it’s not.  It’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to what sort of game you’re playing.    For example, if the game is focused on cooperation and teamwork between PCs, then players need to know that upfront so you don’t end up with lots of characters whose primary goals and motivations involve backstabbing and cheating one another.  If your venue is heavy into PC death and physical PvP, then players need to know that.

This isn’t just about the specific venue; rather, this deals with crafting the VSS.  The VSS is where you’ll tell players what they can expect if they come and play your game.  There’s an entire course on how to go about creating a VSS; you can find it here.

OOC Considerations

Some things that might get included in a Social Contract that deal only with OOC behavior are:

  • Is drinking alcohol or smoking allowed during the game?
    • If yes, at what point is someone considered too inebriated to continue playing?
    • What happens if someone shows up inebriated, particularly at a game that doesn’t allow drinking?
  • What should players who arrive late do?
    • Is there a point where, if a player arrives after a certain period of time, they will not receive experience for the game session?
  • In cases of scenes with mechanics, are players allowed to help one another and offer advice?
  • What is considered unacceptable behavior – behavior that means a player is either given some sort of warning, or is asked to leave the game for some period of time?  For example, if you’re playing in someone’s house where there are children nearby or in a public location where “Muggles” may be able to at times hear what you’re saying, then it may not be acceptable for a player to use profanity or to shout.
  • You might have an “OOC PvP” guide here, in terms of what is expected of players who are engaging in PvP, before, during, and after the killbox is over.

If this sounds a lot like the pre-game announcements made by the on-site Coordinator, it should, because the two are similar.  The difference is that the announcements made by a Domain Coordinator may change from game site to game site (one site may not allow smoking indoors, another may have pets that players need to keep an eye out for, and another may have rooms which are off-limits), whereas the OOC considerations in a game’s Social Contract never change.  If you as an officer do not want people drinking alcohol during your games no matter which game site you’re at, that is something that needs to be in the Social Contract.

Handling Potentially Emotionally Upsetting Storylines and Plot

Most of the games played in the MES have some aspect of horror associated with them, which lead to stories that may contain themes, events, and situations that are potentially disturbing and may trigger PTSD in some players.  Remember, we are friends first, players second.  If at any time one of our friends is no longer having fun or is made uncomfortable by something we’re doing in a game, we should stop.  Saying “it’s only a game,” is not only incorrect (see discussion above about bleed), but is also callous and unfeeling.

  • What are a player’s options in terms of having an “out” if a scene or story becomes too disturbing for them to continue to participate in?
  • What topics/situations require special handling (such as requiring a player to come out of character to ask if a subject is OK or to provide a warning so as to allow players who do not wisk to be part of the scene to leave)?
  • Possible topics and situations that may fall into this category: rape, hate speech, hate crimes, child abuse, extreme violence/torture descriptions
  • What, if any, topics/situations are off-limits for this game, both for you as an Officer, and for players?

Example: If a number of your players have issues with stories portraying or discussing rape, then it may be decided that this topic is not something which should be explored in your game, and that it is not something one PC can ever do to another.

How do I know if my game is having Social Contract problems?

It’s an unfortunate truth that some people are solely focused on social goals which, while satisfying to them, are negative for everyone else in the game – wanting to “win” at role-playing, wanting to always be in the spotlight/center of attention, wanting to be in control of others, wanting to assert dominance over other players – these sorts of social goals lead to behaviors like bullying, harassment, dominance games, emotional manipulation, and/or the marginalization of other players and their role-playing experience.

Toxic Social Contracts

Not all Social Contracts are healthy.  Some of them are actually toxic, and lead to players not showing up to game, or worse, quitting the club altogether.  A toxic Social Contract can actually encourage the sorts of behaviors listed above: like bullying, harassment, dominance games, emotional manipulation, and/or the marginalization of other players and their role-playing experience.

Signs of Trouble

The biggest sign of trouble is that one or more players are no longer having fun.  If you’re the officer in charge, you may or may not hear about this directly, so you have to learn to watch out for indirect signs such as:

  • Players who once attended your game but are now absent, without giving any reason why.
  • A drop in actual role-playing during game – so you might have folks frequently dropping character to shoot the breeze OOC.  You see your players “checking out” of the game mentally and emotionally.
  • The formation of tight cliques who don’t allow other players to participate or who are avoiding ST-run stories.
  • People arguing or getting angry about something that happened during game
  • Arguments and angry debates about rules and mechanics
  • New players have trouble getting involved, finding their place in games, or getting into the role-play. This can quickly lead to the first bullet point – players who abruptly stop attending your game
  • Retaliatory behavior in-game: one player is upset over something that happened, and engages in various IC and/or OOC  behaviors as a means of “getting back” at the person/s who upset him.

 

This is a lot of work. How does this help me and my players have more fun at game?

Everyone brings wants and expectations with them to game, and if these are not in concert with one another, sooner or later it’s going to adversely affect your game.  Having a Social Contract in place ensures that players who choose to play in a game know up front how they need to behave, and what sort of game is being played, allowing them to tailor their wants and expectations so as to have fun while not ruining the fun of others.

Conclusion

Once you’ve decided, collectively, on the Social Contract for your game, make sure that new players are aware of it before they play their first game.  If you codify your Social Contract, then you can simply provide them with a copy.  If you don’t, then be sure you as an officer take new players aside and tell them what is expected of them.