Heresy, LARP, Role-playing Games

Five reasons LARP needs to get over the Stanford Prison Experiment

Note: This article is meant to fuel skepticism and critical thinking in the LARP community. These things are healthy, though sometimes painful to face, and I do not expect this article to be taken as gospel. But it does contain some things that really need to be said about this often-cited experiment in the context of our hobby.

"Guards" work during the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Courtesy of Phil Zimbardo

In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment where 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as prisoners or guards in a fake prison underneath a building in Stanford University. According to the widely read recounting of events, dressed in their uniforms and given their fake authority, the guards adapted overwhelmingly to their role and exceeded Zimbardo’s expectations, and began a systematic campaign of authoritarian brutality with little coaxing. Shocked, Zimbardo stopped the experiment after only six days. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or SPE.

In essence, it was a live action role-playing scenario that got out of hand. And that is why when talking with some advocates of LARPing, it is hard to get through a discussion of ‘bleed’ without them bringing it up. Central to some LARP philosophy is that one can descend so far into an assumed role through immersion that one can almost lose track of reality, to feel and react as if you really were that person you are playing.

On the surface, the Stanford Prison Experiment confirms these beliefs quite well – normal every-day college students put in a fake prison with fake uniforms suddenly start acting like brutal prison guards with the proper stimuli and without much encouragement. Here, they say while pointing, serious academic proof that the phenomenon is real.

In fact, some critically acclaimed artistic LARPs have been little more than attempts to recreate the SPE in all its brutal glory. Why wouldn’t organizers want people to feel the ultimate immersion, and walk away with a life-changing, haunting experience?

One problem – the experiment was utter balderdash. Rubbish. Poppycock. And most of all, crappy science. And LARP scholarship and designers really need to get over it. The SPE wasn’t about ‘bleed’, and in fact, it was all about people just playing out characters without feeling anything was real. To turn it completely on its head, the SPE is the strongest evidence against the ‘immersionist’ outlook I have ever encountered. And it ought to make us very skeptical, or at the very least cautious, of self-ascribed success in immersionist LARPs.

Here’s why:

1) Zimbardo got exactly the result he wanted because he forced it, not because of immersion in roles

Generally in experiments, the scientist who drafts the proposal is not allowed to directly modify the experiment in progress to prevent a conflict of interest from arising. Zimbardo, however, was given a direct role in the simulation – that of the prison warden – and had constant contact and influence on the guard’s behavior.

He was already on record as having an interest in the behavior of concentration camp guards and other ‘average people’ being central players in the Holocaust, so it was a bit of a pet topic. So, here he was, prepping his guards and directly observing them, wanting desperately to explain the atrocities which were on his mind. So, he made sure he got results he thought were correct, and kept the brutality turned to high.

I’ve noticed a similar trend in a lot of LARP publications (and more broadly, journalism as a whole) – one on one conversations with interviewers who are free to guide the conversation wherever they want, and somehow they consistently produce the right quotes which confirm the depth and emotional truth of the experience.

2) The guards never experienced ‘bleed’, and even said they were just emulating characters

The central posit of the SPE is that given the right costumes and the right ‘power role’, your average kid turns into a monster and loses track of reality due to immersion. Except the actual participants in the experiment never reported such behavior – Zimbardo just said it was what happened, and his conclusions were never published in any academic journal.

In fact, they were just being ‘actors’. The single most brutal guard player, nicknamed John Wayne, just said he was trying to emulate Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke. He was playing out a role. In fact, movies of the time were awash in prison stories and the news was full of reports of prison brutality, so the guard players were just trying to ‘behave correctly’.

They were acting, not experiencing bleed, and they even said so. They were acting out stereotypes, and were being actively pressured into doing so. Their behavior was tied to pressure to make the experiment ‘go well.’

3) The guards were practically given instructions from Zimbardo about how to behave

Everything Zimbardo did encouraged the guards to behave brutally. The initial instructions to the guards were a long list of horrible things they were or were not allowed to do – they were not allowed to torture, but they were allowed to create arbitrary fear of a controlling system. They were implicitly told to behave that way.

There was even some indication, given how specific some forms of degradation mimicked the input of an African American ex-con who gave research material to Zimbardo months before the experiment, that Zimbardo told them exactly what to do then ‘expressed horror’ at it.

In other words, the actions of the guards were reactions to metagame rules, rather than immersion.

4) The guard players were biased in their selection

The advertisement for the volunteers itself said it was for a simulation involving prisoners and guards. These were not random people pulled off the streets or selected blindly, but these were college students who thought it would be interesting to play a guard or prisoner for a couple weeks. It is pretty easy to see how that might attract certain personalities?

Similar biases might explain the emotional ecstasy and torment often waxed about poetically by some LARPers – maybe the players were just primed for it already?

5) It did nothing but confirm expectations

Real experiments have the possibility of producing surprising results. For all the shock that Zimbardo apparently showed at the results, he actually got exactly what he wanted and what most people would have expected. The guards and prisoners themselves reported that they were just trying to live up to the expectations of Zimbardo and thought it was ‘for science’.

This is the definition of confirmation bias, and as a result, when LARPs like the SPE report great success in achieving the goals set out at the beginning, we should be highly skeptical of confirmation bias.

In the end, as LARPers and gamers, reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us more about what might be wrong with the outlook that privileges and highlights immersion. The biased conclusions, the biased selections, the ‘forced’ outcomes that are then pointed to as having the same weight as spontaneous results, along with the positive enforcement and feedback given to participants when they play into existing biases and wishes – all these color many articles on LARPing.

There is nothing wrong with the artistic or immersionist approach, however we must remember that this vaunted example, the SPE, is deeply flawed. It merits no smugness, it should not allow echo chambers to form, and its example should humble, rather than embolden. A bit of skepticism and self-critique can improve discourse and create a more honest conversation about what is actually going on in our games.

Further Reading