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Author Topic: On rape in roleplaying games  (Read 16033 times)
Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 390

« on: July 09, 2005, 06:43:16 AM »


As is briefly related in this thread, I recently had a very uncomfortable moment when the character I played was in the verge of being raped. I spoke out before we got that far, the stakes of the conflict were changed, and the moment passed. But questions remain. Why didn't I ask for a change of stakes the moment they were announced, but instead waited until the conflict was all but decided? What was it exactly that made me uncomfortable? Why would I rather have had my character killed than raped, even though in real life I would rather be raped than killed? Should rape be banished from RPGs, or can it play a positive role? These questions became even more interesting when I realised that another recent game of mine also featured rape, but with a totally different effect on me.

What I want to do is first sketch the two times rape appeared in my recent games, and analyse their differences. Later on, I will give a more thorough description of my uncomfortableness. Perhaps some conclusions can be drawn from this. I am also interested in hearing other people's experiences.

The 'Dogs in the Vineyard' scene

I was playing Dogs in the Vineyard. Sister Obedience, a strong-willed feminist with a background of (physical, non-sexual) abuse rides, in the late evening, all alone, to the encampment of a bunch of soldiers a short way from the town. She demands that they do not enter the town anymore as they are having a bad influence on the youth, at least one of whom has already been drinking alcohol supplied to him by the soldiers. They do not take her seriously and make lewd suggestions instead.

I start a conflict, and state that Sister Obedience wants to extract a promise that they will not enter town. The GameMaster states that the soldiers want to have sex. Under the circumstances, this can mean nothing but rape.

My mistake was that I did not speak up at this very moment. I should have, because I knew instantly that I did not want this to happen. That it would, in fact, spoil my fun and be very distasteful to me were these stakes to become fictional reality. Why didn't I speak up? I do not know. I guess that somewhere in my unconsciousness the maxim "do not whine about the adversity introduced by the GameMaster" is still present. Easier to take the path of least resistance, play along, win the conflict, and solve the problem without having to say anything.

However, I was losing the conflict. I escalated all I could - not because I decided that violence was justifiable, but because I as a player definitely did not want to lose, given the stakes - but to no avail. As the conflict played out, I felt more and more uncomfortable, until I overcame my resistance and told the GM that I did not want these stakes to become reality. So we changed them, and that was that.

The 'Universalis' scene

Several weeks earlier, I played the last sessions of a 5 or 6 session game of Universalis, in which we had told the story of the rise and fall of an idealistic commune in the '60s. The most important character was John, who was very anti-authoritarian, but had been informed by visions that he could either change the commune into a religious sect and assume leadership of this sect, or see it fall apart completely. And this is exactly what happened: tensions became rows, rows became fights, one of the fights ended in murder, and in the end John saw no other possibility than taking up authority as a religious leader, betraying all he stood for in an attempt to save it.

Two other scenes must be born in mind. First, that John had had a vision in which he spoke to the commune and suddenly a gunshot was heard - but the vision did not show who shot who. Second, that there was a guy called Dennis, who was the biggest trouble maker and wanted to be the leader himself, about whom there had been a flashforward scene. In this scene, which took place 25 years in the future, Dennis was at the marriage of his son, when suddenly he stood up and confessed that the marriage could not take place because his son's prospective wife was - unbeknownst to him - his half-sister.

Now, the last scene of the entire game. It was "gunshot" scene. We had a conflict, and the outcome was that Mary, John's wife and beloved, shot John. Why? To save the commune, to save their ideals, and most of all, to prevent the John she loved from making the biggest possible mistake and turning into a John she would have to despise. Now imagine everyone running away. Mary kneels next to John, who is not dead but dying, and they exchange a few last words and a kiss. John dies. Mary suffers a complete breakdown. She is crying, overwhelmed by grief, guilt, doubt, and so forth. She is torn between grief for her lost John and the terrible knowledge that she has killed him. At this moment, for this moment, she no longer has the will to go on.

Enter Dennis, the only one who did not run away. We established that he would proclaim himself the new leader of the sect and start a very successful organisation that had none of the original ideals. But now he walking towards Mary, who sits on the ground, bent over the dead body of John, crying bitter tears. He forces himself upon her. She does not resist. Curtain.

So, here too, rape. But this was a scene of great emotional strength, of, if I may say so, beauty. No one challenged the rape. All four of us - two men, two women - accepted it, although I'm not sure what the emotional reaction of the others was. For me, at least, is was a fitting end to a memorable game.

So, what was the difference?

I can think of several reasons why my emotional attitude towards these two scenes of rape was different.

1. Mary was not anybody's dedicated character, but Sister Obedience was.
2. In Dogs I was mechanically helpless to prevent the outcome. In Universalis everbody could challenge.
3. In the second case, the rape was thematically appropriate.
4. In the second case, it was the last scene of the story.
5. In the second case, the rape was not the degradation it was in the first case.

1. When you control a single character, your identification with this character is much stronger than when you can play many characters all of whom can also be controlled by the other players. This was very evident in my Universalis game: our perspectives were much more distant than is usually the case. This is part of the reason why my two experiences were so different. When Sister Obedience was about to be raped, I was experiencing the situation through her, and I felt what I can only describe as a part of her panic and helplessness. When Mary was raped, I contemplated the scene as an aesthetic observer. And yet, this cannot be the whole answer. The rape of Mary - although morally evil - was not aesthetically disgusting. It was what fitted. It felt right - aesthetically, not morally. But the rape of Sister Obedience felt really, really bad. My greater identification with Sister Obedience can explain why I would feel stronger about what happened to her, but not why I would feel something totally different.

2. This is complicated. First, my Sister Obedience experience has shown me that it is definitely wrong for players to have the last word over their part of the stakes. When someone says "if I win the conflict, A is going to happen", the other players should have a way to tell him they are unhappy with these stakes. This right should be explicitly stated in the game text. As far as I recall, The Shadow of Yesterday dot not do this; Dogs does, but rather vaguely. I recommend that future game texts make it perfectly clear that every player can challenge stakes he thinks are grossly inappropriate. Second. Had we been playing Universalis, things would have been easier for me. I would have challenged the rape, I would no doubt have won the challenge, and little harm would have been done. Thumbs up for Universalis' Challenge mechanic. Third. But neither of the two previous remarks are directly relevant to the difference between Sister Obedience and Mary. For I would have challenged[/i], and in a very important extra-mechanical way did challenge, the rape of Sister Obedience. But I did not challenge that of Mary, and was about to narrate it myself when someone else beat me to it. So reasons 2 is not the explanation I am seeking.

3. Perhaps a shrewd interpreter could extract a theme from my Universalis game and show that the rape of Mary was an important thematic statement. The rape of Sister Obedience, on the other hand, was rather gratuitous. It had nothing to do with her judgements, with the questions about power and justice that Dogs in the Vineyard asks. So perhaps it was theme that gave aesthetic sanction to the rape of Mary? I doubt it, but am open to arguments that try to make this case. At the very least as case can be made that the rape of Mary was partly redeemed by the functional role it had to play in the story. But this does not seem a very good explanation of my emotions.

4. Actually, both scenes were the last scene of the game; but in the case of Sister Obedience this was a mere matter of time, with the story stopping midway, whereas in the case of Mary is really was the final scene of the game. It might be thought that because we would never have to play Mary again, we did not have to face the consequences of rape. But I would have had to face the consequences of Sister Obedience's rape, even if only in my mind, which would not have been much fun. There is something in this, but I do not think it plays an important role. I do not think the Mary case is characterised by a lack of compassion, or a lack of empathy, or any lack concerning my ability or willingness to think about the future of Mary.

5. My final attempt, and think it is the most successful, is the following. First, I did a little thought experiment: would I ever play a minion in My Life with Master who was regularly sexually abused by the Master? Yes, I definitely would, if I were convinced that the GM could handle it in a mature way. What do the minion and Mary have in common? They lack the will to fight. In one word: resignation, Gelassenheit. Does that make their rape less rape? Absolutely not. What does it mean?

So I did a second thought experiment. Would I rather have Sister Obedience raped, or would I rather have her shot down, maimed, killed? I would rather have her killed than have her raped. Why? Killing negates life. But rape negates humanity, worth, even personhood itself. To rape someone is to commit the ultimate act of negation of all that makes the other a person, a subject, somebody you can relate to. The rapist makes his (or, rarely, her) victim a thing. He shows a complete and total lack of respect of the humanity of the other, but uses him or her as nothing more than a disposable, impersonal tool for slating his lust.

When someone has a sense of self-worth, being raped is the most total degradation imaginable. Where is the fun, or for that matter the beauty, in playing a character who is degraded in the worst possible way? Why would anyone want to play an self-assured, comparatively healthy character and suddenly have him or her go through an ordeal that negates everything the character meant to you? I think very few people want that. But if the character is already in a state without self-worth, rape - though morally just as condemnable - is no longer the negation of the character's meaning. Were I to play the MLwM character mentioned above, she would be all about escaping the state of resignation. Mary was led into a state of resignation by the things she had done, and that state was part of her meaning at the moment in the story that she was raped. In other words: both the hypothetical minion and Mary are characterised by being in a state in which they have no self-worth. Rape is a fictional device of expressing this state. It will still be hard to handle without doing more harm than good, but rape is not a destructive story element. In the case of Sister Obedience or any other character who is not characterised by a state of resignation, rape is a total negation of the character. In such a situation, using rape is very bad idea indeed.

I think that this analysis answers my question about the difference between Mary and Sister Obedience. I think it also shows under what circumstances rape can be an allowable element of roleplaying: circumstances in which rape is not the negation of the character. These are not circumstances that obtain in the SIS, they are circumstances that obtain in the real world. The question is: what does the character mean to the player(s)? Is rape a negation of this, or is it an expression of this meaning that can - when handled with care - be used to positive effect? If the first, there is no excuse for using it, unless all the players are committed to a very weird and dangerous form of gaming that has nothing to do with fun or beauty anymore.

An enriching experience?

Just to make absolutely sure nobody misreads me: I am not about to claim that real life rape is 'enriching'. Good.

But I want to say something more about my experience with Sister Obedience. From the moment that the stakes were announced, the idea of rape was foremost in my mind, and filled my with unease, distaste, even a bit of horror. As the conflict progressed, I rolled all the dice I possibly could, but it was clear that it was not going to be enough. I was still going through the motions of raise and see, but my mind was mainly occupied with contemplation of the rape. I saw the coming degradation of Sister Obedience, I felt how the soldiers saw her not as a human being, but as a thing, and most of all, I felt the complete helplessness of someone who sees that there is no possibility of escape. If I may be so bold, I think I felt what a real victim of rape would feel, only toned down by a factor of thousand. (This meaningless number is to convey the extreme difference in intensity between experiencing a real rape and experiencing a rape in a game of make-believe. If you think 'billion' is more appropriate, be my guest.)

And, you know what? It was revelatory. I have read philospphers speak about the objectification of subjects in the works of De Sade, and stuff like that; but it is all theory. When you get a glimpse of the real feeling, the real feeling of being nothing but an object, well, that is something else. No matter how weak this feeling was, and it never rose above being vaguely uncomfortable, it was still something I had not experience before. And I believe that this experience has taken me a small step towards understanding what it is like to be raped. I think it has raised my ability to identify with rape victims. It has taken my empathy from an intellectual to a more emotional level.

That is the kind of enriching experience that roleplaying games can give us. They can teach us empathy, and make us better people. Bad experiences in the game can make for bad experiences outside of it; but if handled in the right way, they can also make for morally enriching experiences. That is the happy note with which I want to end my article.

Questions for discussion

First of all, I would be very interested in other people's experience with sexual assault in roleplaying games - both negative and positive experiences.

Second, my article gives analyses and makes claims. All of these are up for discussions. Especially interesting to me is the question whether rape can ever play a positive role in roleplaying games.

Some literature

The Inevitably-Named "Rape in RPGs", a thoughtful article with good discussion.
Christopher I. Lehrich argues that banishing rape from games is an overreaction.
Some stories about characters being raped
The famous "Rape in Cyberspace" article. The parts about virtual communities are not relevant to us, but those about the emotional impact of fictional rape are.
An example of how not to handle rape in RPGs.

Lance D. Allen

Posts: 1962

« Reply #1 on: July 09, 2005, 07:43:39 AM »

Hm. This is a delicate subject, for certain. My thoughts are half-formed on this topic, as it's not something that's ever come up in any game I've played. I tend toward more adventurous games that deeply exploratory.

However, I can see both sides of your Sister Obedience experience.

On the one hand, it was not something you were prepared to deal with. Especially with it being likely a one-shot game, I probably not have done differently than you did (except perhaps calling bullshit from the beginning of the conflict.. the tendency to accept the adversity thrown at me by the GM has never been strong). However, had it been the beginning of a long campaign, I might have gone with it, fought with everything I had to win, and then accepted the consequences.. It may be that I'm typically more distant from my characters, but I'd see such a horrible experience as an opportunity for exploration of things I never ever hope to have to deal with in real life. People are raped all too frequently in real life; What do they have to go through to survive and rebuild themselves? Even if it be one-one-thousandth or one-billionth of what a real rape victim must go through, It would be something to be able to empathize with.

For many of the same reasons, your Mary experience horrifies me more; There's no closure with that situation, you don't get to know how, if, she survives the experience.

My creative agendas are primarily escapist and explorationist; I want to get away from the doldrums of my personal existance, but I also want to explore how different situations might affect me. It's possible that, if such a situation were to actually happen to me I might react much differently than I have a character react, but the thought put into it in the fictional experience may benefit me, or at the very least give me an insight.

I'll be following this conversation, I think; There's a lot more to be said.

~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 2591

« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2005, 08:03:39 AM »

Quote from: Victor Gijsbers

Second, my article gives analyses and makes claims. All of these are up for discussions. Especially interesting to me is the question whether rape can ever play a positive role in roleplaying games.

I personally take a completely realist tack on this stuff. That is, there's nothing special in rape as a fictional device. It has human meaning, but so do many other things. It has more than most, but that's at least partially a matter of cultural context of the participants. In this manner I find it hard to relate to your singling rape out as a meme; as far as I'm concerned, it's a thing you use in the game or don't exactly on the same basis you use lightsabers or don't. Both rape and lightsabers can take over a story (or rpg session), but that's a matter for literary theory and not rpgs per se. Some memes might be more commonly applicable, but in this case I'd say that rape is the more usable of the two.

As for your analysis of what makes rape an acceptable part of a story, that seems more or less exact. Note, however, that your reasons 1,2 and 4 are all predicated on there not being emotional commitment to the meme in the first place, while reason 5 is a subcategory of reason 3. Actually you only state two reasons, and as I implicated above, they are common to all literary memes, not just rape. The reasons for the differences you experienced, as I understand you, are:
1) Emotional commitment to the character's fate
2) Thematic relevancy of the meme
As I see it, these are common justifications for any literary ideas, not just rape (indeed, I would even argue that they're, again, one and the same). In this regard there is little to say about rape specifically. However, there's a third factor that plays with the above two:
3) You personally don't like rape
If lightsabers were introduced to the game without thematic reason, the worst emotional result would be annoyance. This very annoyance, however, is egged into a righteous fury and feelings of illness when the meme at hand is not only unjustified, but disgusting as well. Thematic appropriateness justifies even disgusting things, and thus protects the audience from those feelings. That feeling of disgust seems to be why you feel that rape is such a special case, but that's a matter of your own cultural psychology, not of any theory of art.

So, that's my take on the issue: the "problem" of the rape question, as it's usually delivered, is not rape as an idea, but ways we choose to communicate and affect our fellow players in general. Simply put, the problem is handling of taboos in communication. This is important, because it seems to me that with this particular issue - depictions of rape - people start mixing in all kinds of cultural stuff, assuring each other about their political correctnedness and empathy, losing the real question in a mire of social pornography. I suggest getting over it - whether depicting rape is acceptable as a literary device is a matter for religious and ideological debate, not literary or rpg theory. Theory-wise, it's not particularly different from a lightsaber.

(Note that the above paragraph is not about you particularly, Victor. I'm just answering your question.)

Practically, then, the question is about our own feelings and tastes as human beings. When looking to handle rape fruitfully in a rpg, we have to either find non-disgusting ways of talking about it, or put rape in a thematic context that justifies it in all it's vileness. From your description I'd say that your Universalis game was more about the former, but there's no reason why the latter couldn't play a part, as well. What was that moderately famous movie about rape/revenge, again? Spitting on his grave or something like that... anyway, that movie's a fine example of how you can justify rape as a story component: just make the rape a starting point for your story, and you pretty much accept it's happening as a literary necessity. I don't know if that's the kind of "positive" role for rape you asked for, but at least it's necessary. In general, the rule of thumb is the same as it is with lightsabers: only include them if they serve a purpose.

Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
« Reply #3 on: July 09, 2005, 09:17:25 AM »

Hi Victor,

I think the key to understanding all this requires keeping perspective:  look first at what was going on with all the real people at the table, then look at the thematics and details of the imagined material.

As far as real life- rape (and abuse, and sexism) is a major issue of society, one which it is taboo to talk about.  On one hand, the social conditioning make it very hard to face, plus the emotionally loaded issue of it as well, on the other hand, it keeps coming up because it's such an issue.

On note of gaming- the key focus ought to be "Is this fun for the group?"- and with the GM setting up what will result in having to face rape as THE conflict- the GM has dictated the focus without the group's input into whether it ought to be the subject or not, much less how it's going to be handled.  With Universalis- the nature of the game always allows input.

In the first case, you understand the whole concept was thrust upon you without your input or necessarily consent- and it's also not fair to assume that you should be able to, on a drop of a dime without time to think, be able to digest and figure out if you want to deal with rape or not as an issue, and most notably- an issue for your character.  Issues this heavy take time (and most importantly, discussion) before you can just throw them out there.  With the second case, though rape was the situation- the whole group consented to it as a story device.

In terms of the people at the table- it was definitely a power move on part of the GM.  Dogs is explicitly about what the PCs do and what that means- not what is done TO the PCs (which, makes it a big jump from most gaming, period).  Also, by making it rape- the issue was directed specifically towards your character- it wasn't something you could see happening to anybody's character, and it wasn't a result of your choices as a player.

Finally- thematically- the rape issue wasn't about an NPC that you knew- it wasn't an emotionally loaded character to provide theme- it was nameless soldiers- faceless, which means the rape was there to have rape- not to really address a theme.   And, subconsciously, you knew- that there was no point to this.  

The part that really creeps you out is you're wondering "Why did my GM decide that rape for the sake of rape needs to be part of our game?"- and assuming that this person is an ok person, you figure he's got a good reason for it, which is also part of why you let things slide so long, until you realized there was NO good reason.

Then the real issue comes up- "Who am I playing with here?  What's this person's issue, and why is this appearing in our gaming?"

Lots to think about.


Posts: 3702

« Reply #4 on: July 09, 2005, 09:19:58 AM »

Victor:  Would you play a strong-willed character who had been raped in backstory?  Or, put another way, if your Dogs story had started immediately after Sister Obedience was raped, would you have had trouble playing her?

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Trevis Martin

Posts: 499

« Reply #5 on: July 09, 2005, 10:21:19 AM »

Wow Victor, what a powerful article.

I don't have anything profound to say about it, but I found it extremly insightful.

Something I thought though was that it seemed the conflict in your dogs game was being 'dual - staked'.  I mean, I don't know if that's strictly legal.  Your stakes were "Does Obedience convince the soldiers not to go to the town again."  "Will the Solders rape Sister Obedience" is another stake and would have been a followup conflict in my game.

At least the way you write about it you make it sound as if you were rolling more to avoid the latter stake than to achieve the former.



Posts: 446

« Reply #6 on: July 10, 2005, 12:48:41 AM »


I was the GM in the Dogs game. I've refrained from posting on this  because I wanted to avoid this becoming a discussion between just Victor and me.

Chris' post begs for an explanation on why I used the rape.

As mentioned in the original thread, there were some time pressures on the game - the desire (on my side) to end with a really heavy confrontation for each player. Given the fact that Miss Sawed-Off Man Hater rode out into the dark to confront a foursome of soldiers alone, death and rape seemed obvious suggestions (which my girlfriend, wondering what I was doing on the internet, just confirmed).

Vile as it is, I don't consider rape an out-of-bounds topic in games. The threat of rape adresses Obedience's nature more than the threat of death, strangely (?) enough (imho, of course). And we're playing a game where escalation of violence and hard choices is a central theme (although there's little choice here, actually - everyone would resist rape fully).

So if there was anything wrong with the rape conflict (other than Victor's dislike of it) from a game-system viewpoint, it is that there wasn't any interesting choice in the conflict itself (follow-up story could've been interesting, though!). From a player-comfort viewpoint, it was obviously inappropriate at that point, which is why it was changed right away when Victor voiced his objection. (As would any conflict I introduced, rape or not. Other conflict set-ups, for instance the initiation conflicts, were decided/suggested by group input were as well.)

As to the note of gaming that the key focus should be "is this fun for the group?" - I'd say there are other emotions/thoughts/concepts than 'fun' worth gaming for - during the evening it certainly seemed the players were able to enjoy adversity and setback as much from a detached, 'this is a cool story' viewpoint (fun), as well as a 'we learn things about ourselves through roleplaying' viewpoint. Again - this is my perception of the evening, it may be flawed. (You might also think 'all these possible methods of enjoying the game can be considered 'fun'' - I don't want to get into word-quibbles here, but I don't want a mismatch between definitions of 'fun' to ruin our conversation).

In terms of people at the table, and the power-move - it was a power move in as much as I used my GM powers to stage a 'heavy' conflict. Again, like other conflicts, this is open to player consent. Also, I personally thought Victor would be able to handle a topic this heavy well - this is the guy from My Life with Adolf, remember?
Dogs being explicitly about what the PCs do - this PC made the choice of heading out to an encampment of soldier, in the dark, alone. All the PCs made the choice to take on possible confrontations alone (something Victor mentions as an interesting source of learning for the PCs in the original thread).

As to the namelessness of the soldiers - perhaps a flaw on my part to not reveal some more of the soldier's humanity, personality and issues (which were written up - these guys had backstory), but sometimes the story isn't all nicely set-uppy, but you get hit with a piece of wood between the eyes.

I mention all this because Chris has opened up the question (which he's perfectly entitled to). While the situation at the table naturally is really important for Victor's reaction, I think there's still interesting discussion to be had about reaction to rape a priori, and the (strange?) fact that rape sometimes hits harder than death.

(is it just that death is a generally unvoiced pre-set and accepted possible outcome for any PC in (almost) any RPG?).

Trevis - you're probably right on the awkward dual stakes in that conflict. I wouldn't do it this way again.

Tobias op den Brouw

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Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 390

« Reply #7 on: July 10, 2005, 03:36:30 AM »

Note: the two bottom links in my first post are accidentally switched. I can't edit them anymore.

The social situation of my Dogs' example

I appreciate Chris' comments, but I think they do not really address my situation. I take it that introducing rape as part of the conflict was a misjudgement on the part of my GM, as evidenced by my reaction, but I do not think anything deep about my GM can be inferred from it. It's late, you're GMing a game you've never played before with people you've never played before, you've got 20 minutes before you have to catch your train, one of the female PCs goes out by night, alone, to confront an unruly bunch of soldiers - and you just run with the first that comes to mind.

If it is true, as Chris writes, that "it's also not fair to assume that you should be able to, on a drop of a dime without time to think, be able to digest and figure out if you want to deal with rape or not as an issue", then surely the same thing must hold for a GM. If anyone wants to pursue this topic further, I suggest he take it to the relevant Actual Play thread. Personally, I have not the slightest ill-feeling towards Tobias and would play with him again without hesitation.

On the analysis of Eero

When your point of view is sufficiently distant, you can always group together a set of different things under a single concept. Look at roleplaying from very far away, and rape and lightsabers become different instantiations of the same type. But during actual play they are very different indeed, and qualitatively different. If RPG-theory transcends the level of actual play experiences so far that theory-wise rape and lightsabers are 'not particularly different', then justified doubts about the usefulness of RPG-theory arise.

But I don't see why RPG-theory should thus transcend the actual play experience. I fail to understand why Eero sets up a dichotomy between 'theory' on the one hand, and 'cultural psychology' and 'our own feelings and tastes as human beings' on the other. Good en fruitful RPG-theory should talk a lot about cultural psychology and our human feelings, and not lose these aspects in an orgy of abstraction.

I have tried to give an analysis of the difference between rape and lightsabers, which I will talk more about in the rest of this post. I admit that it is not an ontological analysis; it is an analysis that ties in directly to our way experiencing a roleplaying game. But I think this is a virtue, not a vice. One can disagree with my analysis, but am not yet convinced that the very attempt to analyse the difference between rape and, say, lightsabers is misguided.

I am not sure that this is a fair critique of what Eero says, because I'm not sure I understood the gist of his argument. Please let me know if my interpretation is way off.

One things on which I can comment with confidence is the claim that my five claim can be reduced to two. I disagree. One, two and four are not just different reasons for emotional detachment; certainly two is not. It is about player power. (Even if all of them were different reasons for emotional detachment, it might still be fruitful to talk about them in isolation. It's a matter of distance again.) I am not sure five is a subset of three, and would like to see an argument for it.

Investment; or why rape can be both appropriate and inappropriate

This is the most important part of this reply. I'll try to answer some questions that came up and at the same time explain my point of view in a clearer way. In particular, I'll be reacting to:

1. Lance's, Eero's and Tobias' point that rape can make for an appropriate and interesting story.
2. Tony's question about having Sister Obedience raped in the backstory.
3. Tobias' remark that he thought I could handle heavy themes well.

I don't think there is any subject that I consider off-limits in roleplaying games. I can imagine interesting roleplay experiences involving rape, child abuse, torture, and so forth. I think subjects as heavy as these have to be handled with care, but 'care' here doesn't mean 'tone it down until it has no emotional impact anymore'. It has a lot more to do with maturity, empathy and concensus. These are not themes to make fun of, to tell insensitive tales about or to force upon your players. But when handled with care, they can be very powerful.

Nor do I consider myself averse to playing with these themes. I have played some dark games. I mean, I even wrote the unplayable game Vampires. As far as I know, only Ethan Greer's Chamber is a more cruel RPG.

So, would I have been willing to play Sister Obedience if she had been raped in the backstory? If the events that transpired during our game had already happened before play started? The answer is: it depends. Suppose I had thought up Sister Obedience beforehand, without the rape, and was intrigued by the character, would like to explore her issues, and so on and so forth. I would have been invested in the non-raped Sister Obedience. She would mean something to me. Indeed, she would be this meaning. Supposing that that were the case, and the GM would say, just before the game started: "O, what about Sister Obedience being raped by a bunch of soldiers, and we just starting our game just after that?" My answer would be: "No fucking way!" The suggestion would be (almost) as distasteful to me as the events transpiring in the actual game. (Only without the feeling of helplessness.)

But suppose that instead Sister Obedience was thought up, from the beginning, as a raped woman. The character would be identical, but the investment of the player in the character would be different. I would not have been invested in the pre-rape Sister Obedience; and her rape would not force me, a player identifying himself with the character in which he has invested, to go through a similar process of degredation. Let me say the same thing again in other words. Real rape is (among other things) an attack on the personhood of the victim. In a roleplaying game, a fictional rape is an attack on the meaning the character has for the player. Unless, of course, the character's meaning already contains or is easily compatible with being raped. In that case, fictional rape is not an attck on the meaning of the character, but a reinforcement of this meaning. Rape in roleplaying games has a duality which is not mirrored in reality.

Let me make my theory clear once more. Fictional rape is accompanied by an experience for the player of the character. The fictional rape is a fictional attack on the fictional character's fictional sense of personhood, of self-meaning. IF the character's meaning for the player is identical with the character's self-meaning, or at least does not involve and is not easily compatible with rape, the real world establishment of the fictional rape is also a real world attack on the meaning the character has for the player. Depending on the importance the player attaches to this meaning - we often call this importance the degree of identification of the player with the character - this can be a shocking experience. Follow the links in my first posts and you will find stories of people having nightmares because their character was raped; that is extreme, but it happens. IF, on the other hand, the character's meaning for the player does involve rape or is easily compatible with it, the real world establishment of the fictional rape is a real world reinforcement of this meaning. It does not have the same kind of emotional impact. If you want to play a girl who is abused and then seeks revenge, having her raped in the first session reinforced the meaning the character has for you and is appropriate. If you want to play a minion who is raped by her Master but finally breaks free, or succumbs to her Weariness, or whatever the dice may give you, rape by the Master is appropriate. But if the character you are playing means something to you that is incompatible with rape, then rape is simply inappropriate.

(All this holds for male characters as well as female characters, of course.)

I hope this answers the three points I wanted to react to. Anyone agrees or disagrees with this analysis? I'm also very interested in hearing about rape in others' actual play, and your reactions to it.


Posts: 5

« Reply #8 on: July 10, 2005, 05:39:13 AM »

... if Victor was offended by something I suggested about a month ago for our online Nobilis game.

I certainly am not planning on including rape in that game. Far from it. Never was.
But what I did suggest in a personal e-mail to Victor to have one of the NPC's in the game be a (former) rapist. To me at least it made perfect sense. I got a pretty negative response from Victor.

Some background. Please feel free to skip it, as it's an awful lot and may not make too much sense if your neither familiar with Nobilis or our particular game.

It had been established pretty early on in the game that Mnèmia (Victor's character: the Power of Memories) had had one of the human anchors of Thornking (an NPC : the Power of Thorns) killed.
In my mail to Victor I tried to hammer out some stuff that had happened between Mnèmia's last seeing Thornking at the execution of his human lover and Mnèmia meeting Thornking in 1972. In any case I had to have Thornking go from a relatively happy guy who liked roses a lot, to a tormented man who likes crimson suits a lot.
In the first scène of the game Victor suggested that Mnèmia's favored anchor should die, a Chinese woman she had loved for almost twenty years called Mei Lin. Rather than having her die I had her abducted (but not killed or abused!!!) but at the same time saved by Thornking.

What I needed to establish was why Thornking saved Mei Lin (or better: kept her alive) if he could have simply killed her. That would have made him even with Mnèmia at least.
So, I suggested to Victor that he saw Mei-Lin as a way to repay an old debt at the same time, rather than just cheap revenge for what Mnèmia did to his love. Thus I introduced Encanta, the Power of Matches, who was a cellestial sister to Thornking (that is: they shared the same Angel as their Imperator [read: Master]).
The basic idea was: after his love was executed Thornking would seek support from his "sister", seeking more and more attention from her. In the end his need for attention from her would lead him to forcing Encanta to have sex with him, which would in the end lead to her suicide.
In a way to both take his revenge on Mnèmia, but at the same time trying to lessen his guilt, Thornking pleaded with his Imperator to have Mei Lin be made the new Power of Matches.

So, perhaps Victor did think nothing of this and just wanted to reprimand me for bringing up the subject.
On the other hand, I thought I might have unwittingly trodden upon Victor's personal space.
Mei Lin had been firmly established by the time as one of the main reasons Mnèmia kept going. After all Mnèmia was the power of memories and could remember over two millennia of hurt and heart-ache.
At the same time it had been established that memories of a dead power return to newer incarnations of power. Only slightly hinted at in the original game, it sort of became one of the driving themes of our game.

So, with Mei Lin being as good as a part of Mnèmia and her about to inherit the traumatic memories of Encanta, an insignificant character being raped somewhere in the backstory suddenly becomes pretty significant and all too real for an existing character (Mei Lin). An existing character that is both shared by me and Victor. (Victor played Mei Lin in two scenes, I played her in two other scenes)

But as Mei Lin's fate has sort of faded to the background for the moment, the issue is still not resolved and I didn't think much of it. After all: to the overall story it isn't all that important.
And than ofcourse Victor starts this topic about rape in RPG's on the Forge and, well...

As a side-note: the online Nobilis game spawned a spin-off game called "My Life with Al-Isben". In the game Tobias plays "Nashima, daughter to a drop of water".
Tobias put her pretty close to Master. She needs a kiss every night in order to not turn into a puddle of water and the Master has been eager to give her one.
However, the wife of the Master has recently deceased in order to make the backstory he had in Nobilis compatible with MLWM master creation rules. His grief has done nothing but exacerbate the madness of his Beast nature.
I didn't really feel like asking Tobias whether Nashima could have been raped by Master in the past. As I mentioned above: I don't want to include rape in my game (not explicit rape in any case), as I feel it's not appropriate to the game. The game's also played on a public http://www.mandragon.be">forum, everyone can go and read it (it's in Dutch though).

But as Tobias himself more or less started the discussion over here on the Forge and because he asked me to amp the scaryness of Master. Well... It sort of begs the question if he'd be comfortable with it himself.

Perhaps I'm taking this thread in the wrong direction by introducing issues that are immediately related to my own game. For that I'm sorry.

Posts: 5

« Reply #9 on: July 10, 2005, 05:45:06 AM »

As a quick reminder: I played in Victor's My Life as Adolf game and I loved every minute of it. Just so you know that my political incorrectness tolerance is slightly higher than is considered healthy for a human being.
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #10 on: July 10, 2005, 06:09:35 AM »

Hi Victor,

I'm not sure if you're familiar with my Thed essay in Daedalus. If not, I hope you'll find it thought-provoking and in agreement with many of your points.


Posts: 3702

« Reply #11 on: July 10, 2005, 06:43:48 AM »

Victor:  To summarize (and hopefully so you can correct me if I'm wrong):  Rape is, like other major character events, something that changes the characters fundamental nature in the story.  You're saying that it's okay for the player to choose that change, but not okay for it to be imposed by another.  This is the case both because of the players need to maintain their individual artistic vision and because of the players identification with the fictional construct.

Which is, basically, reiterating the axiom "I'm in charge of my character, other people keep their mitts off."  Yes?

Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum
Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 390

« Reply #12 on: July 10, 2005, 07:46:17 AM »

Tony, I'll correct you, 'cause you're wrong. (Which shows that I still haven't found a clear way of making my point, several attempts at it notwithstanding.) I am not opposed to people changing the characters of other players, at least not within certain limits. I immensely enjoy hosing people and being hosed by them using the Confessional in InSpectres, for instance. And can enjoy more radical ways of influencing another's character too.

But rape does not simply change the characters fundamental nature in the story. The words I have been using were that the establishment of fictional rape is (can be) an assault on the characters fundamental nature in the story. (Or rather, I have been talking about the player, not the story, to emphasise that we're talking about subjective judgements here.) Let me try to explain what the difference between a normal change and an assault is.

A change is a link in a continuous change. We speak about character development, and we do this for a reason. The new state of the character is a result of the old state and some intervention, it is continuous with the old state. Although the old state of the character has not been preserved, its validity and value have not been questioned.

An assault is an attempt to question the validity and value of the old state of the character. The character's meaning is not simply changed, the previous meaning is negated. It is no longer accepted as a valid part of the SIS.

To understand this claim, you'll first have to understand my take on real rape. As I see it, rape is not merely a form physical abuse, not even a very sick and disgusting form of physical abuse. It also, maybe primarily, a form of mental assault. The rapist states, as it were: "What is most intimate to you is merely a tool for me. Your personality is not something I respect, is not something I oppose, is not even something I wish to destroy. Your personality is simply something that has no validity whatsoever in my world. And look, I have the power to do what I wish: my world is the real world. You, as a person, have no validity at all. You are merely a thing to be used." Of course this is a very intellectual way of saying things and no rapist actually thinks these thoughts, but I think it captures the basic 'logic of rape'.

When the fictional rape of a character is established, and the previous meaning of the character (for the player) did not include rape, something happens that is qualitatively different from a change in the meaning of the character. It is as if the SIS is saying to the character: you have no validity. And something similar, if weakened by an enormous factor, is happening to the player.

Does this clear things up?

It is of course allowed to say that my thoughts about rape are abstruse and unitellegible, but I ask anyone who does so to furnish an alternative explanation why rape in RPGs is considered much worse than death.

Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 390

« Reply #13 on: July 10, 2005, 07:56:03 AM »

Jeroen: it seems those PMs of us made so little impact on me that I did not even remember them while writing this article. If I recall correctly, I did not care for your proposal because I considered it psychologically unprobable and too complex for the backstory. It was not the element of rape in the backstory that put me off, I think. (I seem to recall that my original character concept included the never-forgetting Mnemia still exacting her revenge, after 2000 years, on the father who had molested her as a child. And me asking you whether you were 'comfortable' with that.)

Ron: I read part of that article once, but I couldn't finish it and forgot to read the rest. I will certainly make up for this failure.

« Reply #14 on: July 10, 2005, 08:22:42 AM »

Hi Victor -

I think your thoughts on this subject are great, but - do you really think that rape means the same thing to all people in all circumstances?

More to the point, do you think that rape-fantasies mean the same thing to all people in all circumstances?

That's the point at which I'm sort of with Tony.

I mean, I find the rape of Mary far more shocking and terrible than the rape of Sister Obedience, if you can compare two shocking and terrible events like that - considered as an imaginary event. In fact, it's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen described, this woman living up to her ideals to save her husband from himself by killing him, the ultimate personal sacrifice in a way, and she gets violated by someone else who's going to wind up destroying what they've built anyway? What kind of statement is that about the meaninglessness and futility of human existence? Talk about negation of Mary's humanity! (Or maybe you think she was wrong to murder her husband?)

When I read your response to Tony, I think: well, imaginary rape CAN do this to many people's characters, but it really depends on the people, the social contract, a lot of stuff.

I think the important question to ask about rape in roleplaying is this: when one or more players decide to introduce or attempt to introduce a description of another PC or NPC getting raped, why are they doing it? An answer to that question is the one we need to analyze any particular case of when rape came up in a game.

Sometimes it's for titillation, or exerting psychological dominance over another player, and I suppose I have the same negative judgment of that that most people do around here, more or less. (The 'more or less' is that sometimes people have multiple motives and I don't think that in some weird Kantian way you have to be completely non-titillated by any descriptions of rape you introduce for them to be serving some other purpose.) On the other hand, players might collaborate to bring something like this about because they think it's the best way to develop their characters, or because they want to explore the issue of how they feel about rape more in real life using their characters, or whatever.

The Sister Obedience case seems like it's a bad one to introduce the rape because look, it's just these damn soldiers, you're going to change this character's whole life and meaning over it? It seems like the GM was just like "woman travelling alone in the countryside, bored horny soldiers, what else would happen?" I would not want a character of mine to be raped in that situation either, usually, and I don't think it serves anything for it to happen. (This is the social contract stuff I was worried about in my other dogs thread.)

On the other hand, no matter what I think of the imaginary material itself, you all agreed to handle Mary the way you did, so there was consensus. No players were violated, dominated, used as objects by others, etc. in the decision to treat imaginary Mary this way, so I'm not surprised that you're all OK with it.
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