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Dystopia Rising builds strong communities by design

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CRAIG LEMLEY
  • Craig Lemley

Though the monsters and drama in Dystopia Rising are simulated, the adrenaline is very real, and play gets intense. That April night in the snow, when the cultists had left my character and his boss out to be eaten, Lucas blossomed into a full character. He HAD to save his boss, and that meant getting the Shamblers away. When he was screaming, it was pure, organic improvisation, and it felt pretty real.

In the DR community, there's a word for those moments when the barrier between player and character gets hazy, when a character's feelings affect the player, or vice versa. It's called bleed, and it's something that has to be managed. Everyone processes it differently and has different limits. Add to that the fact that DR exists as a horror game at its core, and it becomes all the more important for players to know when to cool down and to communicate when something crosses a line.

More, it's important to distinguish between player feelings and character feelings. Players usually refer to their characters in the third person. Reaffirming out-of-game friendships after in-game conflict also helps. I like playing a non-player character (NPC) for the last few hours of each game; getting made up as a monster and groaning for the flesh of the living can be relaxing as well as fun. (Who knew?)

Dystopia Rising emphasizes that it's a community with a game — not a game with a community. Every player shares responsibility for making the game work. Beyond taking a shift as an NPC, some players become Marshals, a volunteer staffer somewhat akin to a referee.

For most, the sense of community is a big part of the draw. Director of Storytelling Raymond Bruels III says his favorite aspect of LARP has changed over the years, but "where I am now I truly enjoy the community-building and shared storytelling experience, not only among staff members driving plot, but also the players with their own intricate backstories."

Juliet Meyer, logistics director for the Colorado branch of Dystopia Rising, says "Community, locally and nationally, is important to me and has genuinely impacted my life for the better. LARPing means I have friends across the country who I share something unique with. You're all watching the same TV show or sport in a way, and just like when you root for a favorite character or team, everyone is excited to share their thoughts and experiences."

That attitude runs deep. When real-life problems happen, the community rallies to help.

Last summer, the house where four Springs-area DR players lived caught fire. Firefighters knocked down the blaze quickly, but the damage was extensive. They lost almost everything, including two cars.

The community immediately responded. Within an hour, three more local players were on-site to help out with transportation and moral support. And a couple hours after that, a GoFundMe page was up and circulating around the Dystopia Rising: Colorado Facebook group. In under a day, the community raised $1,680. A Boulder-based player even loaned the group a spare car. Since, they've moved into an apartment and have, as much as possible, returned to normal life.

"I am typing this with tears in my eyes because when I stood in my street watching the place we called home go up in flames I was so unsure of what would happen when I turned to my community for help," wrote Benji Dezaval, Char's player, on the GoFundMe page.

"I am blown away by all the help we've received. I can't thank everyone enough for their donations, for the shares, for everything that you guys have all done to help us."

According to DR co-owner and co-founder Michael Pucci, he in part designed the game to build these ties. It's one of the things he says sets the game apart in the LARP world.

"Everything in DR comes back to mechanical systems that require players to engage one another to be successful," he says. "Our biggest difference isn't in the game but instead is our approach to community. When we first brought out our design of inclusive play to the public, our stance on equality in gender choice, and our progressive social focus to the world, we made a very public and definite stance on the culture we were looking to build. By defining the type of culture you want in-house, you are also defining what kind of culture you don't want in your house."

Pucci's companies use a broad definition of harassment to describe what players are not allowed to do at DR and other Imagine Nation events. It goes beyond the expected bans on assault, stalking and intimidation. The community rejects all racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. There's also a blanket ban on so much as mentioning rape and sexual assault. Players have been asked to leave games for joking about it.

In many nerdy spaces, harassment and hate speech remain pervasive. Companies like Microsoft still struggle to curb these behaviors in game communities — voice chat especially can be a dumpster fire for anyone who sounds feminine or non-white. But DR's community was built by and for people who recognize the fundamentals of treating others with respect.

These standards aren't just heartening, they're necessary, especially for managing bleed. The game hits a wide variety of stressors over the course of a weekend. Difficult, often gray-at-best moral choices and intense subject matter like slavery and torture come up frequently. Separating those from real issues keeps the game fun. While there's plenty of in-game drug use and addiction, only caffeine's allowed on-site. And instead of avoiding the subject of bigotry, DR uses bigotry against in-game religions and "Strainist" prejudices as part of the setting. The rulebook even has pages of Strainist slurs to inspire players. In DR, bigotry only hurts characters, not players.

All defined, none of these restrictions feel forced or even prominent. Players still find plenty of creative ways to have their characters say horrible, repugnant things. Out-of-game, players are too busy bonding over simulated trauma or real-world commonalities.

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