This summer I had the pleasure of attending New World Magischola, a Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) game at the University of Richmond. For those of you who aren’t familiar with LARP, basically what you need to know is that about 200 people got together and pretended to be students and teachers at a college for wizards for 3 days. Imagine a cross between D&D and improv theatre, set in a world sort of like Harry Potter. This post isn’t going to go into a lot of details about the mechanics of the game, so if you’re interested in further information, check out the obligatory linkspam at the bottom of this post.* A lot of cool people have written a lot of eloquent stuff about the event already, so I’m going to be tackling something totally different–my experience at NWM as an ace playing an ace character.**
Before the game began, every player was assigned a character. You’re given some basic details about the character (last name and first initial, major, house, year, etc.) and then the basic sketch of a backstory which you can fill in as you see fit. All characters are written gender-neutrally. You’re also given some of your character’s goals and positive/negative attributes, but those are more suggestions than mandates, and you are welcome to completely ignore them if you prefer. You’re also allowed to send in rewrites. Basically, you’re given the basic framework for a character, but you’re also given a lot of leeway in filling out that framework, and if you really hate an aspect of your character sheet, you can rewrite it.
I was given a character who I’ll call B. B is a mindreader. She’s convinced she’s lawful good, but is maybe more lawful than good (think wizard Javert). Despite being a mindreader, she is really bad at understanding or dealing with emotions–from the character sheet: “You have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps you’re missing something in the world by not engaging emotionally, but your cool, logical approach has served you well thus far.” This was also part of her character sheet:
Other students have been drawn to your natural leadership and protection, but you haven’t really connected with anyone as a close friend. This had never bothered you before, but last year, you noticed another student, and some interesting new feelings blossomed. You’re afraid it is one-sided, though. […] You haven’t decided if you will pursue these feelings or suppress them as they could lead to a lot of discomfort.
My immediate response was, “HAHA, WOW, THIS KID IS HECKA GREYRO” (“interesting new feelings”? c’mon). I had not originally planned to play an ace and/or greyro character; part of my resistance initially was that I didn’t want to play a character who was too close to me as a person (I realized very quickly, though, that while B and I may have some identities in common, we are vastly, vastly different people). I was also worried, as I always am, about taking up space, about having to explain my identity over and over and over, about being an inconvenience.
When we received the player guide and the world document (basically a huge guide to the world that NWM is part of), asexuality was explicitly mentioned as an option. Gender and sexuality are much more readily accepted in their infinite diversity in the magical world than they are in the mundane world–the standard pronoun is “they,” for example, and one of the house founders was non-binary. When I saw asexuality mentioned (such a minor thing, really), that sealed the deal for me. I was going to wizard college and I was going to play a greyro ace mindreader with a tremendous thirst for justice and a metric ton of social awkwardness.*** I’ve always felt a certain disconnect with the ace narrative of assuming that everyone else is just like you but faking it–I knew that I was different early on, and fall much more into the first narrative nextstepcake lays out in the above link. Playing an ace mindreader put an interesting spin on that narrative–being a mindreader, B is viscerally aware of the fact that she’s not feeling the things other people are, that she is somehow different, that she is “missing out” on something everyone else is experiencing. I thought that would be fun to play out.
What can I say about the game? There are so many things I could talk about (seriously, get me started and I will not stop), but let’s start with this: For three days, I felt totally comfortable in all my identities. I wore my hair down (you know, the butt-length tangle of pelo malo that I try to keep contained in polite company).**** I wore a vest and tie (which made me feel awesome but also was maybe not the brightest idea in 90+ degree weather), including to the formal dance that closed the event. B had anomalous feelings for another girl in her house. She was flamingly ace and didn’t try to hide it. And all of that was fine. People thought my terrifying cloud of hair was awesome. Several people complimented my fashion sense at the dance, which made me ridiculously happy. A bunch of people rallied around B and tried to set her up with the object of her affections, leading to some truly spectacular hijinks. And, of course, there was magic, so much magic–conspiracies and rituals, pranks and potions, ghosts and gremlins and chupacabras. But more than that there was the smaller (but no less important) magic of feeling safe, of wearing a vest and tie and holding hands with a girl in public and being unafraid. Given how much of the time I spend afraid of being open about my identities or nervous that I’m taking up space I shouldn’t be, that was a huge, huge deal for me. (The whiplash from NWM to being harangued daily about my marital status and gender presentation in Japan was honestly pretty bad.)
As I was packing up, I realized that it was probably the first time in my life that I had experienced my identities without doubt. B never doubted who she was–she knew she was ace, she knew she was aro spectrum, she knew she was mixed race and Latinx and queer. She knew she was different than other people, that she experienced attraction differently than other people. She was an intensely anxious person, but none of her anxiety centered around who she was; she was anxious about minor things like doing a good job on her ethics essay and excelling in her extracurriculars and whether or not there was a dark wizard running around campus. It wasn’t just that she was secure in her identities–it was that everyone around her accepted her for who she was. It was that the world was set up to accommodate people like her. It was a confluence of minor things–the inclusion of asexuality in the official documents, people being allowed to go to the dance with dates or with friends, the announcement that people could take multiple dates to the dance (I think someone in our run of the game went with seven dates), the fact that although some characters were assigned romantic objectives you could totally ignore them if you weren’t into that, the way the world was explicitly built around diversity (of all types) and inclusion, the way that other characters treated B and accepted her. The world was created with space for someone like B–and someone like me, by extension.
We talk a lot about doubt as a component of asexual experience, constant checking and rechecking, comparing your experiences to those of the people around you and trying to figure out what you’re missing. I consider myself fairly secure in my identity (I’ve been identifying as ace for 8+ years at this point), but I still go through frequent bouts of doubt. I worry about whether I’m really ace, whether I’m allowed to identify as ace given my past experiences, whether I’m allowed to identify as queer, whether I’m “Latinx enough,” etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum. I’ve often wondered what ace experience would be like without doubt–I’m certain there are aces out there who don’t have self-doubt as such an integral part of their experience, but looking around at people writing about ace experience, that seems to be a common theme. I think I now understand, at least a little bit, what asexual experience without doubt is. I am really glad I am not B (playing her made me realize a lot of the positive qualities I have that I tend to take for granted–I’m much more compassionate than she is, for example), but I’d like to work toward having a bit more of her self-confidence, at least with regards to her identity.
A lot has been written about asexuality in fiction.***** I’ve talked before about the need for more space wizard boyfriends (i.e. fiction about LGBT people that isn’t solely about them being LGBT), and NWM definitely fell into that category of fiction for me. B was ace and greyro, but her storyline wasn’t focused solely (or even mainly) on that–she also had magic to cast, dark rituals to stop, enemies to thwart, and justice to serve. But the fact that she was ace and greyro mattered to her story–it changed how she thought of herself, how she related to others, how she felt about the girl she eventually worked up the courage to ask to the dance. Being able to be her, even if only for a short time, was a really powerful experience for me–I have so few people who look like me in fiction (especially in SF/F), who share my identities and get to play a substantial role in the story. I was a huge fan of Harry Potter growing up, for example, but there is little to no space in the world of Harry Potter for someone like me. Doing NWM meant that I got to represent aces in media (of a type), but I also got to be my own self-representation. I could be the sort of character who would have mattered a lot to my younger self (and also, you know, I got to go to wizard college, which was cool too).
LARP is kind of weird to talk about as a type of media–it’s ephemeral, and pretty much can only be consumed by the participants, so we can’t necessarily talk about ace representation in LARP the same way that we can talk about ace representation in novels or TV shows. But, on the other hand, when asexuality is explicitly written into the game world, it means that everyone playing within that world has to accept that asexuality exists as a possibility. And LARP can have real effects on people who play it that extend beyond the world of the game. There were people who were introduced to gender-neutral language for the first time through the game, and now are integrating it into their daily lives. There were people who were able to process the tragedy in Orlando through the game, or who felt included and valued in a way that they aren’t always in the mundane world. One of my friends decided to come out to his family because of his experiences in game. Stories matter, and I don’t think this was any exception. Certainly, it mattered to me.
(For any of you who are interested in experiencing New World Magischola for yourself, there are a couple of upcoming games that have tickets on sale/will have tickets going up for sale soon. Check their website for details. Also, take the house quiz and tell me where you wind up!)
If you want a sense of the aesthetics of the game, here’s a trailer for the LARP.
And some selected posts on the experience:
New World Magischola (this is a nice introduction, especially for folks who have never LARPed before)
When Trends Converge–The New World Magischola Revolution (focuses on mechanics and the culture of play)
Chasing Bleed–An American Fantasy LARPer at Wizard School (focuses on bleed and differences in LARP styles)
Orlando, In the Light of Upraised Wands (focuses on the experiences of a bi player in the wake of Orlando; this made me cry a ton, fair warning)
Blind Lady Versus: New World Magischola (what it says on the tin)
**By the way, if you’re an NWM player who has just found your way to this blog, welcome! If this is your first time hearing about asexuality, [chancellor voice] think of this as a learning experience. I recommend checking out some 101 resources and clicking through some of the links in this post. (Also, #birdhousebesthouse, but you already knew that, I am sure.)
***As a completely ridiculous in-joke that I’m fairly sure only I got, I wore my ace ring for the entire game, but B being B, it was actually a magical dampener for her mindreading abilities so she could shake hands with people without having to worry so much about reading unwanted stuff off of them. Bam. Ultimate backstory. (But, c’mon, let’s be real; wizards would definitely have magical pride symbols.)
****No pictures of me in character (sorry, still intensely camera-shy), but for the curious, here is a tiny doodle I did of B before the game.
Her hair wound up being even more of an all-consuming cloud than it is here. I was detangling it for days afterward, but also, WORTH IT.
*****Second obligatory linkspam!
chess-ka’s piece on some issues with asexuality in fanfiction
There is a ton more I could link to here, but that is probably enough to get you started.