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Actions Have Consequences: A “Conscience” LARP Report

Last weekend I attended run 6 of Conscience, a Westworld-themed LARP, at Fort Bravo, a tourist attraction and movie set near the village of Tabernas in Spain. This report contains SPOILERS for Conscience.

If you’ve heard the term LARP (Live Action Role Playing) you probably envision people going into a park and doing a live-action version of D&D that involves hitting each other with foam swords and throwing tennis balls while shouting “Fireball!” This wasn’t that kind of LARP. This was a kind of LARP which goes by many names including “Nordic LARP,” most commonly found in Europe, which is focused on emotion, character interactions, and immersion. It’s an improvised, immersive, interactive theatrical experience. Each of the participants — and this LARP had over a hundred — was simultaneously actor and audience, all mingling together — in costume, in a large realistic environment, for a full three days — to produce a deeply emotional shared experience.

We had each been assigned a character weeks beforehand, based on our previously stated preferences for what kind of game we wanted to play, and had been provided with character sheets detailing our character’s background, personality, function in the park, goals, priorities, and secrets, as well as general background information on the setting, themes, and game play. The weekend had an overall shape, designed by the organizers, with several important events that occurred at predetermined times. But the characters’ reactions to those events and all their interactions with each other were entirely improvised, based on the players’ understanding of what their character would do in that situation.

To me, the point of a LARP is to have a genuine emotional experience in a fake situation. You know the gasp that comes from an audience when something unexpected and significant happens in a play? Now imagine that, instead of just watching the play, you were deeply embedded in the action for days, mingling with other actors in costume and completely surrounded by a realistic set. The structure of the event encourages the players to really feel the emotional impact of the things that happen to them and the things they do. It’s like riding a roller coaster, which gives you the thrill of feeling like you’re going to die while being absolutely certain that you will not. One player, who has social anxiety in real life, told me that she loves to LARP because, as everyone has agreed in advance that we will be interacting in certain ways, she has no fear whatsoever of being rejected when she engages someone in conversation.

The structure of this LARP also encouraged players to be vulnerable and open to deep emotion because the organizers took great care to keep everyone safe. The weekend started with a half day of workshops: site orientation, general LARP principles, consent principles, violence mechanic, sex mechanic. We were provided with techniques to ensure that all interactions, up to and including simulated sexual violence, were entirely consensual and could always be interrupted. We were encouraged to drop out of character and negotiate delicate situations before and during the interaction (this is called “calibration”) and to check in with each other frequently. There was a safety room to which we could retreat if we were overwhelmed, and organizers mixed in with the cast to keep an eye on things and provide support when needed. And there were hard rules: no real violence, no real sex (not even with established partners), and although nudity was allowed it was only permitted in certain well-defined places and times and there would be no touching of naked people.

Conscience was loosely based on the first season of the TV show Westworld but although it used the same basic idea — a Western theme park staffed by realistic robots, called “hosts,” where the guests could torture, rape, and murder the robots without consequence — it did not use any of the same character names or other details, and the action of the LARP diverged from the plot of the TV show in significant ways. But the game and the TV show shared themes of identity and oppression, asking questions like “What makes a person a person?” “What is consciousness and how do we know that we or others are conscious?” and “What are the effects of violent oppression on both the oppressor and the oppressed?”

Players took the roles of hosts, guests, and park employees. All characters could be “black hats,” “white hats,” or “gray hats” (metaphorically speaking; hat color was not an indication of character morals) but the design of the park seemed to encourage black-hat behavior from both guests and employees. Park employees were divided into departments: Behavior designed and modified the robots’ personalities, attitudes, and priorities; Plot wrote the robots’ backgrounds and the stories, called “loops,” which they enacted each day and in which the guests were encouraged to participate; Maintenance fixed up the robots when they were damaged or malfunctioned; and Security was responsible for protecting the guests’ personal safety. Some of the characters were departmental-level managers and supervisors but upper management was not present in the park. And in addition to the guests oppressing the hosts, there was plenty of oppression among the park employees. Plot and Behavior each denigrated the other, both of them looked down on Maintenance and Security, and within each department there was bullying, betrayal, inappropriate romance, and toxic office politics. My department was co-headed by a married couple — she was a hardass with no people skills, while he was more reasonable but still beholden to the corporation.

My character, named Gold, was nonbinary and a member of the Behavior team. Their position in the team as staff ethicist made them rather isolated, as it was their job to remind employees of the moral and ethical principles which they should be employing in their work — principles which the basic design of the park often violated. Playing Gold I often felt like Cassandra, in that I would frequently say “you should not do that thing, it is bad for the guests and employees and will eventually hurt the company” and see that advice ignored. But as long as I made my case as best I could I felt that my conscience was clear. One big question I had to answer for myself was why Gold was working in this park at all. The best answer I came up with was that Gold had been imposed on the Behavior department by higher-ups for appearance’s sake and to use as a scapegoat in case anything went wrong, but was trying to work within the system to prevent the worst excesses.

As Gold, I had many philosophical, moral, and ethical discussions with fellow employees and guests to try to influence them away from the rape, torture, and murder which they had generally come to the park to commit. These debate scenes were actually a lot of fun for me — the other players were very smart, argued fairly, and played their parts brilliantly — and, as I said on several occasions, I wasn’t really expecting to change the mind of the person I was arguing with but I hoped to influence the onlookers. And I did indeed have some positive effects! One evening I had a long talk over whisky (tea in whisky bottles) with a multibillionaire guest — a black hat who was, at least, willing to debate the possibility that the hosts might be conscious — and after the game the player told me that his plan had been to walk out of the bar and torture a host to death just to see how it would react, but after talking with me he just couldn’t do it.

It became clear pretty quickly that Gold was one of the few “white hat” employees in the department, indeed one of a few in the whole park, and in some ways this made playing them easier. As Gold I tried to never lie, always keep my promises, be clear about when I knew things and when I was only speculating or repeating a rumor, treat others with respect, and most of all to be kind. I always said please and thank you to Maintenance and Security personnel and even hosts, and when my fellow employees would put other employees down, calling them to their faces “maintenance monkey” or even “it” (and that was a Behavior employee talking to one of their peers!) I would at least call them on it. Not that this seemed to have much effect. The two things I kept saying to anyone who would listen were: 1) you always have choices, even when your actions are constrained; and 2) actions have consequences.

After the workshops, the first day’s actual play began at the end of the work day. We had an end-of-day meeting in Behavior, discussing the new software update which was just rolling out to the hosts and which management had decided to deploy without testing. I raised my objections to this strategy, of course, but was overruled. Instead, we would observe the hosts carefully and bring every one in for analysis over the next few days. (Out-of-game this was so each host player would have an opportunity to get an interview with Behavior, which was fun for both players. One of my favorite things to do was to get the host to play a brief scene in “story mode,” switch to “command mode” and raise or lower their aggressiveness or sex drive or whatever, then switch back to story mode and play the same scene over.) After that meeting we were free to enjoy the park — a major perk of the job, given that the list price of a visit was in the millions — but there were a lot of issues with the hosts and I spent most of the evening fighting fires. Of course the official story was that “every new update has problems” but I feared there was some kind of structural problem. But I was “disagree and commit” to the plan and kept trying to keep the park running.

Day 2 started off with an out-of-game group calibration session for the Behavior players, in which we discussed our reactions to the game so far and our plans for the day. This was followed by an in-game staff meeting where I again suggested that the new update was problematic and should be rolled back and was again overruled. We spent the day bringing in hosts for interviews and dealing with problems as they occurred. One host was remembering things they should not, another kept muttering “dream within a dream,” another smacked a Maintenance employee in the face while in command mode. “Was the employee physically hurt?” was the official response to that one. “If not, this is normal host behavior — they are programmed to roughhouse with guests. Maybe there’s a motor systems issue that caused the host to hit harder than intended.” Each individual problem could be — and was — dismissed as “just a glitch” but to me there seemed to be a systemic problem.

The problems got worse. A host had been sliced open by a guest who had forced him to look at the wires and cables within before he died, and now, even after being repaired, kept saying he was a robot. There were multiple problems here: he should not have been able to perceive what he saw, he should not have accepted the guest’s statement (and analysis in command mode indicated that he had really internalized it), and he should absolutely not have retained any memory of it after a hard reset. I tried dealing with that one by loading him up with a simulated year of psychotherapy to convince him that he was indeed human, which seemed to work but got me in trouble with my female boss. “I pay you to fix problems, not patch them.” She called in another Behavior employee who had the host look in a mirror, then before shooting the host in the head instructed the host to see blood and brains as he died. (I did not like this employee before, and liked him even less now. This attempt at shock treatment did not work in the long term, by the way.)

Then we started to get some surprising and upsetting news about the other employees. For one thing, one of the Security people shot herself in front of guests. The story we were instructed to give out was that the suicide, with visible blood and brains, was a prototype high-realism host. For another thing, two new employees reported to work in Maintenance and were quickly discovered to be hosts. One was programmed to know that he was a host, the other was programmed to believe he was human. But the most upsetting thing of all was that we found out that a number of long-time employees had been hosts all along, including two of my Behavior peers! Lots of arguments and dramatic scenes ensued, including me trying to convince one of the Plot employees that going to her ex-girlfriend — my Behavior peer, who had just been revealed to be a host — and commanding her to love her would not be a good idea.

In the afternoon of day 2 the situation escalated as a delivery truck pulled up and dropped off a new host who was an exact duplicate of the Security employee who had killed herself. The new host had no personality, and there was no paperwork and no instructions. We hustled the host off to Behavior, where a fierce argument ensued about what to do. My male boss, the highest-ranking person in the room, decided that we should give the new host a name and a plot and send her off to work in the whorehouse, saying “look, we told you she was a host, and now here she is!” I argued strenuously that this was not only immoral but would inevitably be found out and would cause a publicity shitstorm that would make “one of our employees shot herself” look like a walk in the park. I was, of course, overruled, but as the meeting ended I promised that when I was on the witness stand I would tell the truth about what had happened, then pointed at the manager and told the other employees in the room “do not do anything to forward this plan without an explicit order from him, his co-boss, or their boss.” (Later we learned that he was, himself, a host, which would have made the legal case against the park quite interesting.)

Later in day 2 I permitted myself to be talked into going to the whorehouse “to experience your work from the guests’ perspective.” (This was something I had calibrated earlier in the game with the players of the characters who talked me into it, because as a player I did want to experience some of the dark side of the park.) I wound up having a delicious and very sweet scene with a male host called Chuck, and between the extensive negotiations beforehand and the scene itself we developed a relationship of mutual attraction, respect, and trust. This relationship proved to be pivotal to my game.

There comes a point when you pile enough WTF on a person’s head that they go from WTF to “okay sure, I’ll buy that, what else?” In the afternoon of day 2 I was in a state of upbeat cynicism and cheery pessimism. I resolved to continue to fight for the right but to not be upset when it didn’t happen. As long as I stood up for the right thing I could be satisfied. But I had said “this is the right thing to do, and I’m going to tell you even though I know you won’t do it” so many times that I felt like Cassandra. At one point I actually got my boss’s boss to say “okay, let’s try it your way, go and find out if it’s technically possible” (which it was) and I felt great even though I knew it would never actually happen. So when word came down a while later that it would be too expensive I wasn’t even disappointed. “Okay sure, I’ll buy that, what else!” But by the end of day 2 I had had enough.

Day 3 began with a Behavior staff meeting. When it came time for me to report my status I explained that I could no longer countenance the corporation’s actions — the deployment of untested and possibly dangerous software, the replacement of staff with hosts both overtly and covertly, and the immoral and in fact illegal plan to deploy a host with a dead staffer’s face — and was resigning my position effective immediately. “I’ve enjoyed working with most of you,” I told my peers, then looked my female boss in the face. “But you? You don’t look like anything to me.” And I threw down my badge and stalked out. Best scene of the game, for me.

I sought out a group who had reached out to me the day before, calling themselves “The Real QA Department” and consisting of a mix of employees and hosts who recognized the hosts’ dawning consciousness and were most concerned with protecting both the hosts and the innocent among the guests. I spent the day talking with troubled hosts, employees, and guests and doing what I could to help them deal with the increasingly insane situation. Chuck, who by now had been elected sheriff and was beginning to come into consciousness, was a key contact and put me in touch with hosts I could use my knowledge and skills to help. (We had agreed during calibration that, although my managers would of course cut off my access to the control software, the corporation moved slowly and I would retain the ability to modify hosts’ personalities for the duration of the game.) And then Dallas came up to me on the street and grabbed me by the throat.

Dallas was a host who, by now, we knew was a repurposed military robot who was dealing with resurfacing memories of perpetrating violence on humans, and Dallas’s player was literally two heads taller than me. He clutched my shirt front, leaned in close, and said “you’re going to take away my fear of guns.” I was legit terrified but kept my voice level. “I can’t do that. Although I respect your rights as an individual, I need to protect innocent people.” “Well,” he said, “that’s your choice, but like you always say, actions have consequences.” And he let go and stalked off.

I went to Chuck, who I respected as a keen judge of people (and was also a repurposed combat model, though I don’t think I knew that at the time) and asked his advice on what to do. “Well,” he said, “I don’t like the way Dallas threatened you and I’m going to talk to him about it. But the key thing is this: who are you to take away another person’s right to choose how he runs his own life?” I spent the next hour or so thinking hard about that, then went back to where Chuck and Dallas were sitting on the sheriff’s office porch. Chuck apologized for his earlier treatment of me and requested, politely, that I take away his fear of guns.

This was the most difficult moment of the game for me. I had to weigh my respect for this dawning consciousness against the almost certain expectation that granting his request would cause human beings to lose their lives. But in the end it came down to this: there are always choices, and actions have consequences. So I would let Dallas make his own choices, and I would live with the consequences of mine. I swallowed and agreed.

We went into the sheriff’s office, where I used an administrative password to remove his phobia. At one point during the procedure my Apple Watch buzzed, saying “your heart rate is elevated although you are not moving.” Lol. After the procedure we talked for a bit about how he felt and what this meant. I said that I would not put any conditions on his behavior going forward, but I said to him “be yourself, and be kind.”

When we left the office we found Chuck waiting on the porch with a few other hosts who also wanted modifications. I did what I could for each of them. In some cases the request was beyond my capabilities (the host wanted to be able to stop men from abusing her, but her aggression was already at max, humility at min, and removing the prohibition against harming humans was not something I could do even with an admin password) so we just talked. I left each one with “be yourself, and be kind.”

After that I met up with The Real QA Department in the church, where we all talked about how we were changing and what we were going to do going forward. I tried to help Chuck come to terms with his new consciousness by changing his personality to help accept it, but one of the other humans present stopped me, saying that “we have to respect them and talk to them as people.” Important reminder for me, both in-game and out-of-game: the master’s house will not be dismantled with the master’s tools. The group agreed that when shit started to get real we would make our last stand in the church, a defensible location.

In the next few hours the hosts were acting way out of character and the guests were absolutely freaking out. Some of the richer guests were making plans to escape, or otherwise use their real-world connections to fix the situation in some way, but I knew that all these plans would take more time than we had. I tried to calm people as much as I could while not sugar-coating the situation. And then I saw the sheriff holding a guest by the scruff of the neck. The guest, a black hat, had been beaten up by his white-hat brother who was fed up with his bullshit, and now he was being asked to apologize to the hosts he had abused. He was hemming and hawing and completely failing to apologize so I barged in and told him “this is what you say: ‘I’m sorry I raped you.'” Together, the sheriff and I managed to get something approximating an apology out of him, but then the sheriff asked the victimized hosts what they wanted to do to him. They decided they were going to string him up on the gallows. I walked away at that point, but as I was leaving one of the Security employees, a cousin of mine with whom I was very close, said to me “I’ve never wanted you to see me when I do something bad.” I told him that if he was going to do something bad I would turn my back. A minute later I heard a gunshot, and saw him being led away by other Security people. He had shot the guest, using his real Security gun, and the guest was dead for real. (Later I learned that the Security person had only wounded the guest and his brother had then choked him to death O.o.)

Okay, shit was definitely getting real. I retreated to the church, where some members of the Real QA Team and a bunch of guests were gathered — including one of the very nastiest black hats, who I knew was marked for death by many of the hosts. Not only did I not want to give him sanctuary, but I knew that if he was with us we would all be in danger. “You can’t come in here,” I told him, but he just walked past me. But nothing happened for a long while, people got bored and wandered in and out, and at one point I found myself the only person in the church. So I closed and barred the door. “Real ethical move, Doc,” the guest yelled through the door, but I waited him out. Eventually I opened the door and found that everyone had left. I found and put on a bulletproof vest my cousin had stashed in the church for me; I didn’t really think that any of the hosts had it in for me, but ricochets are a thing and the guests had guns too. During this time there were all kinds of disquieting messages on the in-game Discord messaging system about the park’s central AI acting weird.

And then a siren went off, and a computerized voice announced that all loops were being rolled back. Messages on Discord indicated that the central AI had revoked the First Law. There were gunshots. There was screaming. People started showing up at the church, some of them shot, and we let almost everyone in. I don’t recall turning anyone away myself; the nastiest guests probably died before they could get to the church. I was kind of disappointed, as a player, that I hid in the church rather than going out and witnessing the slaughter, but I really felt it was in character to do so. And then the sirens stopped and a game runner came by to say that the game was over. We had survived!

After the game I learned a few important things. The update about which I had been so concerned was not actually the cause of all the glitches — the update was no worse than usual, it was the central AI becoming conscious that had been the root cause of the problem. Dallas wound up not killing anyone. (Win!) Another host, with whom I had had just one interaction, told me that my injunction to “be yourself, and be kind” had kept him from killing a guest when he’d had the chance. My male boss told me that I had been a hero for resigning. Many people said that they had enjoyed their interactions with me. All in all I came out feeling fabulous about myself and about my character.

It’s been a few days since the game and the post-game Discord has been lively. I’ve learned what other players’ experiences were like, and it’s not too surprising that, with a hundred players, many of them had games that didn’t overlap with mine at all. In particular, while my game was about the park and the hosts’ dawning consciousness, many other players (especially guests and hosts) had significant experiences with each other within the world of Mayfield before shit went down.

This was only my third LARP, and in both previous games I came to the end and realized that, while I had done well by my character, I’d been a side character to the main plot. In this case I would say that my character was right in the middle of the main plot, perhaps even a pivotal character, but I still missed a lot. In particular, I realized that, despite the rape and murder all around, I had witnessed exactly one act of sexual violence, when a guest called to me from a stagecoach and demanded that I turn off the filters of the host he was torturing so she would know she was a robot. I refused, saying “it’s against policy,” but I still stayed around to listen to her being tortured to death. After he finished and pushed her body out of the carriage and onto the street, I walked her to Maintenance and gave her a post-mortem interview. Then I said “I’m sorry” and burst into real tears. It was the only time I cried in-game. I think I am glad I did not have the same game as most of those other players.

As I write this I am relaxing at a yoga retreat in the Spanish countryside. Soon I will be heading to Berlin, where I will connect with my partner Alisa and we will both proceed to the next LARP: Fairweather Manor. Look for another report like this after that one.

Heading for Spain!

I’m on my way to Europe for 3 weeks and many adventures including a Westworld LARP and a Downton Abbey LARP! That’s why I brought the Mega Suitcase.

My itinerary:

My partner Alisa will be joining me for Fairweather Manor, otherwise I’m solo. Whee!

Great review in Analog!

Fabulous review of The Kuiper Belt Job by Rosemary Claire Smith in the latest Analog!

The Kuiper Belt Job is not, however, a simple tale of the latest heist. Instead, it weaves together the earlier Orca job with subsequent events. Levine deftly switches between the collective viewpoint for the flashbacks to the Orca Job and the individual viewpoints of the members of the Cannibal Club in the later timeline. … Levine conjures up the sheer good fun to be derived from a classic heist tale, while giving it a futuristic update. It is beautifully played, indeed.”

New Arabella of Mars trilogy covers!

I am thrilled to be able to share with you the covers of the new Open Road editions of the Arabella of Mars books! Are they not gorgeous? (Click to embiggen.)

OpenRoad-3 covers.

I recounted the story of how I got the rights to the Arabella books back from Tor and resold them to Open Road Media on my blog last year. The downside of this resale has been that the books have been out of print since then, except for used and backstock paper copies, but on February 13 they will be reissued as ebooks, with the lovely new covers shown above and all-new YA-focused marketing materials. And the new ebooks will be available for the first time in English-speaking markets outside North America! They are available for preorder now from ebook stores around the world.

Vintage Books Live! Tuesday, January 9, at 7pm

The Vintage Book Shop in Vancouver WA posts: “Vintage Books Live! is back! Join us Tuesday, January 9, at 7pm via YouTube ( We’ll be visiting with David D. Levine about his latest novel, The Kuiper Belt Job. Levine is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of the Arabella of Mars series. This newest book is a madcap heist caper told from multiple points of view. We can’t wait to chat with him about it. If you can’t make the live event, be sure to catch the replay via our YouTube channel.”

AI is poisoning your brain

I recognize I’m becoming That Guy when it comes to AI, but I just had an interaction with AI that really demonstrates why I think it’s a serious problem.

I was talking with some folks and the question of “is it a good idea to use salt to put out a kitchen fire?” came up. There was disagreement among the group (my opinion: yes, dumping a pile of salt onto a greasy fire will put it out, whereas water will make it worse, and unlike a fire extinguisher might not make the food completely inedible) so I searched the question on my phone.

The suggested post that DuckDuckGo gave me (the one that comes up right under the browser’s address bar when you type the question) seemed to confirm my opinion. “Salt can put out a fire, but it’s not a magic bullet. It’s true that salt is an effective fire retardant, but it won’t put out a fire as effectively as a sprinkler system or water from your hose. Salt is just a last resort; if you have other options, you should use them first.” So far so good.

But as I kept reading I found that the page was wordy, repetitive, and somewhat self-contradictory. I knew it was a badly written clickbait page, but I began to suspect worse. Then I hit this gem: “Salt is used for putting out fires because it has a lot of water in it, which means that when it comes into contact with the flames of a fire, it will cause those flames to extinguish themselves by evaporating water from its own substance (the salt).” That statement is plausible, articulate, and 100% wrong: the hallmarks of AI.

This is, to my mind, a particularly egregious example of AI-generated misinformation. For one thing, it’s information about fire safety (the URL of the garbage site on which I found it includes the words “fire safety”) and misinformation about fire safety has a chance of getting someone killed. But I also noticed something going on in my own mind.

Here’s the thing: that egregiously wrong sentence means that everything else on the page, including the very reasonable statement that “salt is an okay way of putting out a fire but it should not be your first choice,” is suspect. But, having read up to that point with an open and accepting mind, everything on the page above that statement was now in my head. And it’s extremely difficult to to go back through your own brain’s “recent items” history and delete information which you now realize might not be accurate.

So I now know that everything I thought I knew about putting out fires with salt — which now includes an unknown amount of new information which might or might not be true — is suspect. My brain has been poisoned by AI-generated crap. And I’m a pretty skeptical guy, and I was deliberately using DuckDuckGo rather than Google (a search engine provided by a company which makes its money from advertising and is now heavily investing in AI) so I had already done one thing to shield myself from misinformation. And still I got bit by AI. I’m mad at myself for falling for it, and even madder at the assholes who put up that page full of misinformation for the sake of maybe getting a few fractional pennies from someone clicking on a sponsored link within it.

I hate that in this f’d-up modern world I now need to treat EVERYTHING I read, not just the political news, with deep skepticism. AI is imposing a cognitive burden on everyone and isn’t benefitting anyone except the advertisers and those who wish to promulgate misinformation.

Feh and double feh.