A Note From Dystopia Rising: Georgia
Playing To Lift Vs. Lose And Why We Don’t Have To Fight
There are two terms that get thrown around a lot in the LARP-o-sphere these days. Playing to lose and playing to lift.
The first is a bit older of a concept, one that’s no longer unique to just LARP. You play to lose for several reasons - to make the game last longer, to give others a chance to have some glory, to create more drama, because winning is boring... the list goes on. It’s the anti-power-gamer method, the playstyle that elevates story over success. And while it was born in LARP, you can find it in tabletop, play by post roleplay, and anywhere that collaborative storytelling can be found.
And then there’s playing to lift. Playing to lift take the focus away from yourself, and places it onto others. It’s all about using your own character and story in the service of other players’ stories and characters. You set up other characters to win, thereby creating a better story all around. The concept has floated around for a bit, but from my view it was popularized by an excellent blog post on nordiclarp.com.
I love playing to lift. And I love playing to lose. An odd thing I saw after the article made the facebook rounds was the sheer volume of people saying that “play to lose is dead,” that, “This is so much better than playing to lose” and that “playing to lift is healthier than playing to lose.”
I don’t really agree with any of that. I think that the two play styles are made to work in unison, and they assist one another. Moreover, one style isn’t necessarily better or worse, or for that matter healthier than another.
Something I do want to point out is that Susanne Vejdemo’s excellent and oft-shared article does say exactly what I’m saying: that playing to lift does not need to be at odds with playing to lose, and they generally go hand in hand. But while her article primarily focuses on making the case for playing to lift, I wanted to say more on the union of the two PTLs.
God damn I love losing.
It’s not something you hear a lot. But it can be rewarding, especially if you’re the type of person to get invested in a tragic story.
When you play to lose, you intentionally set yourself up to fail. You may make a costly mistake, or maybe you were misguided the whole time. In any approach, it is the ultimate in dramatic irony: you are both the actor and the audience, knowing things your character does not, and going through with the mistakes anyway.
When you lose, you create additional drama for yourself and those around you. The people who win because of your loss feel like rockstars, and you get the nuanced emotional role play of failure, be that terminal or finding a way to continue on. To a certain player (which might be you, even if you don’t think it is, even if you’ve never tried it- it’s surprising how addictive losing can be) it’s better than winning any day.
And the cool thing is that success general means the end of a story. You climbed the highest mountain, now what? But losing isn’t like that. Losing creates more stories, ranging from revenge to redemption. It’s a great option for campaign games.
And losing can be a spotlight all its own. There’s a lot to be said for the role of crowd-favorite villain in fiction. Who didn’t find their heart tugged, find themselves wanting to root just a little for naked, shamed Cersei being pelted with rotten vegetables? That scene was a loss, but a loss with a spotlight.
And that’s the cool thing about losing: you can lose and have the spotlight and still be lifting, all at the same time. The heroes finally vanquish the bad guy. You die dramatically, all eyes are on you... Until the camera pans to the heroes, and the emotional impact they feel at your death.
Another, less evil approach is the Qui-Gon Jinn angle. You go into the role knowing you’re not the hero, knowing you’ll die to spur the real hero’s growth, but that your death will be dramatic, meaningful, and will come with a very cool fight scene.
Loss does not mean being out of the spotlight. And being in the spotlight doesn’t mean you aren’t lifting.
Playing to lift is a style of play where you make other characters the focal point.
The most clear cut way is to play a baddie who needs to be beaten for another to win. But other ways amy involve being a teacher, parent, best friend, faith advisor- all those little, “lesser” roles that make someone else feel like the main character of the story. You’re the one tapping someone else in and letting them shine.
It’s extremely rewarding to lift. You get to tap in someone who may not always feel like a rockstar, who may struggle with putting themselves into a heroic role, and you give them that. You get to hear their dramatic backstory reveal and let them save the day. People remember when you do that for them, and it often makes someone’s whole game.
It’s one of the most altruistic play styles out there, when done properly, and it allows people to feel amazing in a way that they might not if they forced their way into the same role without your help.
You don’t have to lose in order to lift, but you do need to be willing to take a step back and not hold the spotlight. And losing is not at all at odds with lifting, but rather a natural companion to it.
I also want to point out that playing to lift requires a certain level of emotional labor. You either need to take a loss to another player (which, generally speaking, feels different than losing to an NPC), or you need to be comfortable with shifting your character to a background role in another’s story.
And lifting isn’t always being the mustache twirling bad guy who gets gunned down at high noon. You might be the to-be-rejected fiance who must be cast aside for a couple to find true love. You might be the wise elder who instructs the next generation, though there’ll be no battle glory for you. All of these roles can offer you great depth, a lot to sink your teeth into, and you can find yourself getting emotionally attached. You can find yourself wanting to win, even though you took on the part to assist others. It can hurt to feel like you’ve failed, as there’s frequently a particular type of bleed when you play this way.
It isn’t bad or wrong to want a turn in the spotlight. But, like all good things, spotlight needs to be shared. The key to beating the potential bleed is to voice it, talk about it, and plan future situations where you have a turn to be the victor. Find other things to love about the role that don’t rely on being the winner all the time.
Pretending there is no bleed or emotional labor in lifting others does lifting a disservice. Better to embrace the effort and let it lead to greater, more complex collaboration.
Something Something Dream Work
In both cases, the keyword is collaboration. You can lose all on your own, but it’s not as much fun with no PCs around to care. You can also attempt to lift others up, but if they aren’t in on the storyline, they may misunderstand and view you as an in game adversary (or worse, out of game). Playing to lose and to lift are the antithesis of combative, competitive game styles. It’s not that that play style can’t also be fun, but it generally does not feature the same level of teamwork and community that a collaborative game style does.
So if you’re interested in losing and lifting, it’s vital to reach out, communicate your plans, needs and wants as a player, and character details to others, especially those you’d like to lift.
You can lose and lift in the same game, with the same folks, with different folks, with different characters, in some plotlines but not others. It’s a beautifully customizable way to LARP, more so when those around you work with you to create multiple nuanced storylines and share the burden of losing, lifting, winning, and enjoying being lifted.
When we all understand the value of failure, as well as success, we create a richer, warmer game. And isn’t that what we all really want?
Sincerely, Our Entire Team