This article was first published in the book Playing Reality in conjunction with the Knutpunkt 2010 (Nordic) larp conference.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

Albert Einstein

Dreams are my Reality

Is reality what we perceive, imagine and react upon? It is not possible to deny the feasibility of The Matrix purely on an epistemological base. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume consensus reality on a physical level: there is a planet called earth in an expanding universe, about 7.5 billion humans currently live on this planet, there’s fast food and cancer, quarks and mp3 players. 

Still, there is a huge difference between reality in a physical sense and its imaginary counterpart in our minds. In this article, we try to show why what we perceive and remember is only remotely related to consensus reality, why larp can be considered a conscious splitting of personality and how we can deal with dangers resulting from these observations.

The Man-Machine

Many people imagine their sensory organs as some kind of technology: human eyes like cameras, ears like microphones and the skin as some kind of huge touch sensor. They picture their brain as some kind of biological computer, with RAM, a huge hard drive and the most sophisticated CPU in the world. These are nice models, but just like there are no electrons spinning around the atomic nucleus like planets around the sun, they are not real. They are fairy tales for adults, but still fairy tales.

One Vision

There is a blind spot in each of our eyes, where the optical nerves are attached to the retina. If you have two healthy eyes, it is easy to understand that the pictures from both eyes are merged into one in the brain and since the blind spots do not cover the same area of the picture, a complete picture is the result. But what happens when you close one eye? You still cannot see the blind spot, so maybe it is just too small to be consciously detected. If you look at the full moon, you can get a good idea of how big this blind spot is: it is considerably larger than the surface area of the moon.

Listen to your Heart

In a normal day-to-day situation, there are more signals send from the brain to the ears than vice versa (for more on this subject, see A User’s Guide to the Brain, Perception, Attention & the Four Theatres of the Brain, by John J. Ratey, MD). There are specific sounds some human ears cannot discern, because they are programmed to ignore the difference. This is a process quite obvious in languages: the average adult Japanese cannot tell the difference between the English “R” and “L” sound. They usually are able to pronounce both, but they do not hear them as two different sounds. 

I have the touch

The sense of touch is even more complicated. Any dysfunction aside, we do have a pretty good idea of our body’s proportions and a feeling of integration. But there are phantom limbs and dissociation – people still “feeling” missing limbs and not feeling still existing ones. You can experience some idea of dissociation when part of your body is anesthetized, e.g. at the dentist. Touching the numb skin feels “wrong”. This is partly due to the fact that you only get sensory input from the active body part involved in the touching – your finger touching your cheek. Although, for the fingers, this is the exact same sensation as if touching somebody else’s cheek, it feels different.

You cannot tickle yourself, since the sensitivity of your skin is extremely reduced when you try to – even when using tools to do so. Something similar is true for pain: it seems a lot less painful if you e.g. remove a splinter from your skin yourself than if somebody else does (God knows why this works different for genitalia, but thanks anyway.

So, even if we imagine and experience our senses as being accurate, they are by design not. And even if they were, there remains the question of how information is processed and stored.

Brain Damage

Actually, it is hard to tell if our brains are like computers or not, because there is still so much we do not know about how they work. But evidence suggests it is not a “biological computer”.

Usually our memory works just fine, but if something does not work as designed, your whole world works differently than the majority’s. Reality takes on a different shape. One interesting example is demonstrated in the movie Memento. The main character’s long term memory does not work correctly anymore since he had an accident. He remembers everything before that accident perfectly well, but since then nothing, which happened longer than 5-10 minutes ago, is stored. The filmmakers use a very simple trick to make us experience something similar: all scenes were cut in a reversed order. So you see a scene and after that what happened in the 5 minutes earlier, then the next scene before that and so on (apparently this happens if both your Hippocampi are dysfunctional or removed).

You can’t go home again

Another failure of memory processing is something most of us have experienced. It is usually called déjà-vu. According to one theory, this is what happens: a course of events is erroneously moved to long-term memory before it is committed to short-term. When the information is stored in short-term memory, the brain recognizes that the same memory does already exist in long-term memory (the “past”), therefore you experience that you already “knew that”. 

Both sides of the story

The brain stores memories by telling us stories. It can store simple bits of information, but it is exponentially easier if the information is in some context – apparently that is why mnemonic rhymes work so well. The problem is that when the information is stored, the brain cannot discern between “made up” or constructed and experienced of (lacking for a better word) “real” information. This is something one can experience with particularly realistic dream sequences, where it is sometimes hard to tell if it really happened or not. Another example is the other way around, it is called source amnesia. It happens quite a lot that you memorize a certain story or even idea, but you cannot remember exactly where it came from. Sometimes people actually do not remember being told at all and mistake them for their own ideas. Welcome to the wonderful world of plagiarism.

This method of storing information can also be used to our advantage. In trauma theory, e.g., there is a method to find a compelling story where the trauma originated from. Some therapists argue that it is more important that the story is conclusive than whether it is true.

Another Version of the Truth

Just as serious, but a lot more common is what is called the witness problem. Part of this phenomenon has to do with how information is perceived by our sensual organs and then stored by the brain. Missing parts of the picture are quite literally filled in (c.f. blind spot discussion above), but also to make “the story work”, not necessarily consciously, but sometimes also to make sense of what we remember. In stressful situations this might only be bits and pieces of the actual events. When thinking about the course of events that we experienced, what we remember to have perceived needs to fit into place, but the whole “story” will be remembered and later on we do not have any means of telling which parts of it were actually perceived, filled in by the brain while perceiving it or filled in to make sense out of a number of disjunctive facts.

Games People Play

When playing roleplaying games (especially larps) you take on a role, which is in some way or another different from your day-to-day personality. Thus you change the way you perceive the world, sometimes in very delicate, sometimes more blatant ways. In multiple meanings of the word, you try out new realities: quite often in a literal meaning by entering a fantasy, scifi, horror world, but also in the meaning that your own image of reality is changed by your perception. You see situations from a different angle than your own, thus you put your normal view of reality in perspective. 

Mad World

Larp can be used to question or even challenge your reality. This presents a huge opportunity to try out different “what ifs”. On the other hand, assuming roles in a larp can be quite similar to the definition of dissociative identity disorder (DID):

  1. The individual has at least two distinct identities or personality states. Each of these has its own, relatively lasting pattern of sensing, thinking about and relating to self and environment.
  2. At least two of these personalities repeatedly assume control of the individual’s behaviour.
  3. Common forgetfulness cannot explain the patient’s extensive inability to remember important personal information.
  4. This behaviour is not directly caused by substance use symptoms cannot be the temporary effects of drug use or a general medical condition.

The first characteristic is similar to the definition of roleplaying. The second characteristic reminds of recurring characters in roleplaying and campaign-style larp games. The fourth one is obviously correct.

The third point looks questionable, but it is not as clear-cut as it seems. First of all, for the sake of the role played, the “player memory” does not exist. It is non-diegetic and thus referring to or using it is viewed as switching “out of character”. Second, the same paragraph in the German Wikipedia translates to:

  • Actions of the respective “other” person are not – or only dimly – remembered or they experience it as the actions of a different person.

This is even closer to what we usually describe as “in” and “out” of character perspectives.

I want to break free

Do not get me wrong, this is in no way arguing that larping is the same as having a DID. There are similarities, though. Getting into character is at least comparable to a conscious and willing act of “splitting personality”. It is a controlled act, but what happens “in character” can sometimes overwhelm and ask too much of you or other participants. Hence it is argued that phases of immersion can be viewed as DID episodes. Being aware of this fact can help dealing with the resulting emotions and experiences.

One obvious difference between the two is that we voluntarily and consciously play a role as opposed to involuntarily and maybe even subconsciously switch into a different personality. Resulting from this is also a difference in the evaluation of the experience. “Immersion” usually has a positive connotation as opposed to the “medical condition” DID.

One might question how much choice a person with DID has or had in creating her personas, but then again: if you immerse into a larp character, even more so into a gamemaster-provided one, how much choice do you have how the character acts? The first step, registering for the larp, is voluntarily. Everything, which happens thereafter, has at least peer group pressure associated. Developing the role and how it acts often is a very deliberate and conscious process, the actual reactions of the character in the game often are not.

In game situations, the choice is even more limited: either you have to act in character or break the immersion and game reality – at least for yourself and maybe also for other participants. It can be an embarrassing experience to break the immersion. It is also opposed to the general idea of roleplaying, and some people might even consider it as impolite. Thus it is only an option in the most extreme of situations.

When you are not acting, but actually immersing into a character, breaking the immersion can only happen in your mind. This can be a very trying process since what you experienced while in character is part of your personal experience – including all emotions. Emotions cannot simply be ignored; in the long term one has to deal with them in some way or another. So even when a participant decides to “jump over his own shadow” and break the immersion, she still has to deal with the emotions that led to the decision.

Where do we go from here?

Considering this, live roleplaying as a trial field for personal borderline experiences is walking a thin line in the best of circumstances. Even rather light-hearted games can become taxing and challenging. Without attention to these dangers, players are left to themselves to deal with emotional problems resulting from situations considered utterly harmless by their fellow participants and game organisers.

So what is needed to prepare game organisers to handle such issues? Depending on the gaming culture, a formal or at least ritualized feedback and reflection mechanisms should be offered for all games, even those considered as “psychologically light-weight”.

From a game organiser’s perspective, there are also a number of tools to make the transition from character to player unnecessary. This can be done e.g. with a trigger word. Some people have also suggested using keywords not only to deescalate, but also to escalate game situations. The advantage of this method can be that all players involved in a situation exactly know what the other players are comfortable with. The increase in “meta-play” could be considered a disadvantage, though. 

Offering overburdened players ways to recover from the situation is always a good thing. This can be done with an “out room” which is near the gaming area, but not part of it. There should be a discreet way to contact the game organisers and some room to relax. Fear of not being able to get back in the game should be addressed before the game starts.

The End

It does not hurt anybody to consider options for players to deal with emotionally overstraining situations. Not offering any solution can – and does – hurt.


The title of this article is a quote from “Touch Yello”, a virtual concert by the Swiss music duo Yello (2009). 

Dreams are my Reality – Richard Sanderson, The Man-Machine – Kraftwerk, One Vision – Queen, Listen to your Heart – Roxette, I have the touch – Peter Gabriel, Brain Damage – Pink Floyd, You can’t go home again – DJ Shadow, Both sides of the story – Phil Collins, Another Version of the Truth – Nine Inch Nails, Games People Play – The Alan Parsons Project, Mad World – Tears for Fears, I want to break free – Queen, Where do we go from here? – Buffy, The End – The Doors

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