Bleed-out on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Character-to-Player Spillover in Larp


  • Diana J. Leonard
  • Tessa Thurman



role-playing games, larp, counseling, ethics, safety


This paper investigates the psychology of bleed-out, in which in-character dynamics spill over into out-of-character thoughts and feelings (Montola, 2011). We pair emerging neuroscience theory and research with classic models of emotion and motivation to examine the causes and consequences of this important larp phenomenon. Regarding positive bleed, hormones associated with trust and love may promote social bonding between players through shared in-character experiences (Kosfeld et al. 2005). Negative interpersonal dynamics could also develop, however, during antagonistic character interaction via “neural alarm bells” -- increased activation in brain areas associated with social rejection (Eisenberger, Leiberman, and Williams 2003). Such neural activity could in turn set off defensive aggression or social withdrawal (Twenge et al. 2001), behaviors that could bleed over into out-of-game interactions. The impact of these and other neuropsychological reactions on players’ behavior may be determined by the degree to which the line between self and character becomes blurred during play. According to Lankoski and Järvelä (2012), however, such blurring is a baked-in feature of human embodied cognition. Therefore, we propose that compartmentalizing “in-character” reactions requires immense self-regulatory control – a limited resource which is known to be depleted through many activities common to larp, e.g., effortful decision making and self-presentation (Vohs, Baumeister, and Ciarocco 2005; Vohs et al. 2014). Connecting self-regulatory resource models with bleed in this way is especially important since negative bleed-out can be a source of conflict in player communities (Bowman 2013). As such, we offer proactive solutions for those players or designers who wish to tailor a particular larp experience in order to avoid bleed-out, building on pre-existing best practices: informed consent, safe-spaces, and debriefing (Burns 2014; Atwater 2016; Brown 2016; Bowman, Brown, Atwater, and Rowland 2017).




How to Cite

Leonard, D. J., & Thurman, T. (2018). Bleed-out on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Character-to-Player Spillover in Larp. International Journal of Role-Playing, (9), 9–15.