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How LARPing can become a collective research tool for future care systems.

  • Jun 23 2023
  • Yin Aiwen, Zhao Mengyang
    Yin Aiwen is a practicing designer, researcher, theorist, strategist, and project developer, who advocates relationship-focused design as a strategy to redesign, re-engineer, and reimagine the relationship between technology and society.

    Zhao Mengyang is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Their research interests are digital labor, the future of work, and social movements.

    In collaboration with educator and community practitioner Yiren Zhao, they formed the artivist collective LDT, which has a hybrid practice leveraging the power of art, technology, and social innovation.

Liquid Dependencies is a live action role-playing (LARPing) game about long-term mutual aid and radical care infrastructure. For 5-6 hours, ten players are assigned roles that they must embody using their personal experiences. The game simulates 20 to 30 years of shared life with various individual and societal challenges. 

At the beginning of the game, players receive a character card detailing their occupation, age, skills, finances, and Life Status. The → Life Status includes five dimensions that qualitatively measure the status of the character: Available Time, Personal Well-Being, Relational Health, Stability and Social Safety Nets. Societal and Personal Events are introduced during playtime, which either affect the entire group or individual players. For example, a pandemic may impact everyone's Personal Well-Being and Relational Health, while personal impacts, like the sudden loss of a friend, add complexity to each player's Life Status. To respond, players support one another using Mutual Coin, a special currency rewarded in committed mutual aid relationships, experiencing challenges together as a unified group.

The game is developed based on the multi-year research & design project ReUnion Network [1], a trans-local care system for chosen families and mutual-aid communities. Unlike ReUnion Network as an abstract infrastructure underneath everyday life, Liquid Dependencies unfolds the more complex and nuanced dynamics of caring relationships in reality. The game has gone through more than 40 sessions with more than 400 participants across different cities around the world. By observing 2,400 hours of condensed lives, we have been able to draw many conclusions about care, relationships, and our societies. The following example serves as a case study to examine intersecting links between different conditions based on fictional characters.

Among the many simulations of Liquid Dependencies, a character in one of the Shanghai sessions epitomizes the major care challenges in an atomized, aging society. This protagonist, Grandma Hua, has been helping others financially, but has yet to find a lasting relationship. As the oldest retired employee of a state-owned enterprise, Grandma Hua feels empty and hopeless at the beginning of her story, wanting to give away all of her money before passing away. However, after she helps a lawyer named Gandalf, who is in jail due to his boss' betrayal, a boxer named You Jia, who is on the verge of death, a fitness coach named Angelina, who is in debt due to her family's addiction to streaming celebrities, and a construction worker named Joyce who joins the community later on, she gradually develops a desire for companionship and a future.

However, all of the young people she helped immediately returned to their busy lives and didn’t have time to attend to her needs for companionship, making it difficult for her to establish a deep connection with them. In addition, her relationship with her peers invited frustration, too. Nelson, a househusband who established a Stage-3 relationship (the most committed registered relationship in the game) with her and subsequently became her guardian, but did not provide the companionship she expected, and their joint purchase of a car resulted in separate travels. This lack of companionship made the generous Grandma Hua angry and determined not to leave a penny to Nelson after she died, dismissing their relationship as "plastic." She turned to another peer named Jia Nanjing, and traveled to the moon with her. But Jia also returned to her intimate relationship after the trip, leaving Grandma Hua alone again. In the last days of her life, Grandma Hua, who was single for all her life out of political convictions, ended up believing that immediate family and children would have, in fact, been the more effective way to be cared for in their old age. Grandma Hua's tragedy is the result of multi-layered exclusion, offering an important insight about how a society that structurally supports mutual aid can still fail. 

At a personal level, Grandma Hua has significant limitations, assuming that retired elderly people are worthless in the eyes of others except for their property. This presupposition makes it difficult to establish relationships. Although Grandma Hua longs for love and companionship, she cannot establish an effective emotional connection with others. While her way of building relationships is generous, it is also shallow—relationships built through donations can receive temporary gratitude but are not sustainable.

Her relatively covert assumptions and "utilitarian" attitude towards relationships limit the scope of relationship making: the assumption that, after giving others what they needed, they would also satisfy her needs in return, even if she never clearly expressed her own needs. As such, albeit possibly unconsciously, Grandma Hua instrumentalized Nelson, Jia Nanjing, Gandalf, You Jia, Angelina, and Joyce as tools for companionship, and never really spent time with the people she had helped. She did not understand the real needs and purposes behind her relationships. This transactional belief continued into Grandma Hua's longing for offspring at the end of her life, assuming that blood-based kinship would feel obligated to give her the care she wanted.

Not everyone has the ability to establish meaningful relationships, and doing so often requires self-awareness and continuous learning, as well as luck and opportunities. Individual shortcomings in relationships can be slowly overcome in attentive long-term relationships. The dilemma of Grandma Hua is that no one gave her the time and space to build meaningful caring relationships in her twilight years. Her financial generosity did not prevent people from disappearing in the flurry of life. Even in the environment of an alternative care system, people in the session were inclined to prioritize traditional kinship, marriage, and relationships with immediate benefits and costs. For them, Grandma Hua is someone they could only consider when they had extra energy beyond essential priorities. This reveals that an ostensibly progressive society could espouse queering relationships while still lacking imagination of new kinship.

Grandma Hua's story is both moving and relatable. Many of us may experience the inability to express needs and our own shortcomings. An atomized society may trap us in the rat race of precarious work and life subjectivities, leaving us little room to care for the people who once lent their hands to us. 

Despite the presence of progressive care models, deeply ingrained traditional, atomized, and patriarchal care relationships can still easily ensnare us in their traps. Liquid Dependencies serves as a research tool for and powerful reminder that creating a lasting, resilient, decentralized care society requires the combined efforts of institutional, cultural, and cognitive change. 


Life Stauts

  • Available Time is the amount of free time left in your role beyond work and necessary daily living;

  • Personal Well-Being indicates the general condition of your physical and mental health;

  • Relational Health represents how well you get along with the people around you as a whole (i.e., is it pleasant or always a bit tense?);

  • Social Safety Net is the people you can rely on, people you feel you can turn to when a personal crisis arises.

    What's the difference between a safety net and relationship health? Sometimes we may be on good terms with everyone around us, but don't feel like we can call on them when things go wrong. There may also be people who are not on good terms with everyone around them and have a few very reliable friends or relatives they can rely on. Basically: a safety net is a person or people you can rely on for help, whether or not you are close or on good terms. Relationship health is the overall status of your interpersonal relationship, whether or not they are part of your social safety net.

  • Stability is the resilience that your social position gives you, and it's also related to the overall social welfare situation.

    For example, the stability of a civil servant and a platform rider can be very different, but the stability of a rider working in a high-welfare area and a rider working in an area with little to no social welfare protection can also be very different.

    On the other hand, the difference between Stability and a Social Safety Net is that a safety net is specific to people and the relationships you run yourself and stability is something that society as a whole gives you—it is a structural resilience over which individuals have no direct control.




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