Tag Archives: Roleplaying

Games Imitating Life: Rape Culture In MMORPGs?

The following is a guest post from J.E. Keep:

J.E. Keep, and his partner M. Keep, write romance and erotica, administer their adult forum Darknest (a fantasy erotica site for gamers) and read simply everything. All while playing games and leading a guild. They can be found at The Keep and their blog, Keep It Up where they write about all of the above.

A curious event happened to me recently while roleplaying, and I’ll use direct quotes whenever appropriate. For those of you not familiar, I’ll explain things. Roleplaying, being the act of taking on the role of a character that’s not yourself, is traditionally done through tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. With the rise in popularity of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) it’s taken on a different turn in the online space with people playing out scenes as their avatars (their usually three-dimensional computer generated character) in an online world.

These days I play Guild Wars 2 (GW2), a recent and fairly popular MMORPG set in the fantasy world of Tyria. GW2 has the trappings of traditional magical fantasy, mixed with some steampunk elements. It has rather medieval humans facing off with curious beast people, short little goblinoids from beneath the earth, faerie-like plant beings, and giant nordic people of the mountains.

I bring all this up because of a scene that was roleplayed out one day in a tavern. I, playing a human woman named Sylvia, happened to observe a curious sight at the bar. A human male giving a single drink to a female character, who then promptly passed out.

Out of character (OOC), as the player, I recognized what they were doing. The player behind the unconscious woman had to drop out of the game and used a convenient ‘out’ as an excuse to take off from an in-character (IC) perspective.

From my in character perspective though, it looked highly dubious at best, and out of character I saw it as a great opportunity to pursue some roleplay. My character, who was already standing near the exit, questioned him on his way out about the woman over his shoulder. She wasn’t even aggressive about it then, it was casual. Mild.

His mutterings were nervous and dubious at best. He spoke about how he had “papers” to allow for such a thing, and he just had to get her back to his place. While my character found this all terribly suspicious, he continued to murmur about how this “wasn’t how [he] saw the evening turning out at all”.

My character, Sylvia, was quite alarmed by this. So with a growing suspicion she insisted the man either leave the woman with her or be escorted to a healers to see her taken care of. The man refused, and immediately got defensive about how these implications were “libellous” and insulting.

Troubled by his agitation, Sylvia then called for one of the local guards. You understand, in these sorts of roleplay environments there are usually one or two RPers about who take on the role of the Seraph, one of the local guards. This time, however, there was no such luck.

Left to her own devices and ignored by other players nearby, Sylvia got more forceful. She demanded he not leave with her and that she would see to it that this unconscious woman was taken care of. Things grew more heated, and she took to trying to enlist some aid from other patrons of the bar.

Instead of support, however, she was met with incredulous stares and mutterings about what a “nuisance” she was, and how much of a “loud mouth” she was “making such a fuss” about “nothing”.

As the encounter drew out, the irritation with Sylvia’s insistence that the man not “abscond with an unconscious woman” grew. Instead of muttering about her being a “loud mouth”, they were now actively interfering. The other characters were showing support for the nervous man, one going so far as to call Sylvia a “bitch” and several offering to distract her while the man got away. One even went so far as to try and physically restrain Sylvia while ushering the nervous man out the door.

All throughout it only one person offered even momentary support for Sylvia’s suspicions. A character playing a priestess wandered by and showed concern at Sylvia’s distress. However, once the man stated that the woman passed out from a drink so he was taking her home, she shrugged it off and informed Sylvia that her accusation was “very serious” and she shouldn’t say such things so lightly without hard proof because of the consequences it could have for the man.

I had initiated RP with the other player for the sake of fun, but I had increasingly become more and more unnerved by the turn. It’s only a game and it’s fantasy and roleplay and silliness, of course. The other players undoubtedly took cues from the out of character nature of things. It’s not, after all, as if anyone could force another player to RP out something they don’t wish.

However through the time spent playing this scene out, the manner in which it mirrored real life behaviour that I’ve either seen or read about in such detail was unpleasant, to say the least. Not only in the casual disregard for the unconscious woman’s well-being from an IC perspective, but OOC the things that were said were so jarringly similar to the sexist and harmful things you hear in real life.

My female character, showing concern, was deemed a “loud mouth”, a “nuisance,” a “bitch”. While every ounce of understanding was given to the nervous, muttering man. Sylvia was informed of “how serious an accusation” such things were, and how damaging such things could be to the man, though not a single one seemed concerned for the seriousness of the accusation if true.

I’m not making any real case to argue how much of it was based upon real sexism of the players behind the characters, or how much the players were aware of in their actions.

It’s noteworthy because of how unnervingly true to life it was.

(Originally posted at Keep it Up)

Flatpack: Fix the Future's iconic character; as a "Wrench" your adventure is one where you save the world by rebuilding it. Pictured, a woman drawn in black and white wearing a worksuit and carrying a large wrench as she descends into (or ascends from!) a hole.

The Do It Yourself RPG: An Interview with Game Designer Filamena Young

Flatpack: Fix the Future's iconic character; as a "Wrench" your adventure is one where you save the world by rebuilding it. Pictured, a woman drawn in black and white wearing a worksuit and carrying a large wrench as she descends into (or ascends from!) a hole. Art by Juan Santapau http://www.thesecretknots.com/

Filamena Young is a game’s writer with several years of experience in the industry. She’s written for a variety of RPG properties, including White Wolf (she is a co-author of the Vampire the Requiem supplement Strange, Dead Love) Margret Weis Productions, and  EVE Online. I sat down with her- virtually speaking- to talk a bit about the importance of pen and paper roleplaying games and her upcoming RPG project, Flatpack: Fix the Future.

Quinnae Moongazer: So, tell me a bit about your history as a games writer. Do you have a favourite project?

Filamena Young: I got started in tabletop roughly five years ago. I heard about an all-call for new writers through a friend. I’d published a short story or two on microfiction zines, and so I thought I might as well give it a shot. Matt McFarland of White Wolf was looking, and I guess my stuff worked for him, because he took me on to freelance for the project right away. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of pitching myself, chasing leads, and getting the occasional request for my work from all sorts of game publishers. As for a favorite… That’s like which one is my favorite kid. Working on projects we’ve self published tends to be the most rewarding, but also the hardest work. Of work for others, adding romance and sex to Vampire the Requiem in our latest book, Strange Dead Love was strangely fulfilling.

QM: Oh? Can you tell me a bit more about that (the Vampire the Requiem writing) and why it was fulfilling?

FY: Sure! So Russel Bailey, one of their developers has long held that there is plenty of room in the World of Darkness games for romance. He wanted to explore the paranormal romance genre with an eye toward a game supplement that wasn’t the same old straight male gaze. So, he hired me, Jess Hartley, and Monica Valentinelli to do the actual writing. We set out to give players and Storytellers the tools they needed to use these romance elements in their games. Plot ideas, some minor rules hacks, all meant to bring that into a game. It’s got sex, it’s got tragic love stories, and it’s got, I’m hearing, a lot of room for all sorts of gendered approaches to the theme.

QM: That sounds very exciting. I’ll have to look that up. On that subject can you tell me in your own words why you think interventions like this in PnP RPGs are important? Or even why these types of RPGs are important to consider? In my own work I’ve tried to make such games visible as I think they’re very underrated, both in terms of their cultural effects and in terms of their great potential to subvert a lot of hegemonic narratives about gender, etc.

FY: Humans, as animals, play games and tell stories. It’s what we do. A situation where a group of human animals sitting around and playing games as well as telling stories, well, that’s the human experience wrapped up pretty neatly. I love video games, but you can’t beat the magic in the personal interaction around a table. (Or even a video chat.) It’s a social experience for a social animal and we can learn a lot about each other in the process. Like, real, face to face learning. I can read about the African American experience, but sitting across a table form a gamer of color letting me know through her character as well as her personal anecdotes what it’s really like is a big change.

There are a lot of ‘ah hah’ moments around a table as we explore stories together, and bring our own experiences to them. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re not doing the same Dungeons and Dragons, dungeon crawl adventure over and over. There’s nothing wrong with that style of play, but if that’s all we’re doing, we’re missing out on opportunities to have fun and learn in a new way. We need to use games to try out things we can’t personally experience. Games where violence isn’t the answer. Games where gender means something different, (or nothing at all.)

Games where we are people we can’t be in real life, or games where we see life from someone else’s shoes entirely. Those games, those stories, can help us all shrug off some of our baggage and see the world as a bigger, wider, more wonderful place. (Gee, preachy much?)

QM: No more preachy than I get, at least! *chuckles* I agree entirely, I think one of the biggest failings of all RPGs, whether video game or PnP, is that they tend to redound to normative social arrangements. Which is bizarre considering the whole point is for there to be this fantasy of limitless possibility that transcends the “real world.” On that note, perhaps you can tell me a bit more about how that influenced the creation of your upcoming RPG, Flatpack: Fix the Future. What made you want to make this game?

FY: So there’s the ‘be the change you want to see’ passed around. It’s something a lot of indie game designers really feel, and I find it inspiring. I thought about games I wanted to play, and more importantly, games that I wanted my daughters to play as they got older. I love Fallout, I loved Rifts when I was younger. I love a world AFTER the end when people are struggling, but more importantly, they are rebuilding. There are a lot of post apocalyptic games, but very few of them focus heavily on community and rebuilding. So, I could wait around to see if anyone else did it, or I could do it myself. I wanted a game that focused on traits not seen in more classically male-centric design. I wanted to see cooperation, friendship and compassion, and non violent conflict resolution. I wanted to encourage players to think through problems instead of punching through problems. I don’t see any inherent problem in violent games, I just think we need to do other things too.

QM: Very interesting! Post-apoc always turned me off due to how depressing it can be, so it’s interesting to see explorations of the more positive side of things. You had talked about how your game uses non-violent solutions to problems; while I’m always down for a good dungeon grind now and again, I have been troubled by the fact that most games seem to use violence as the sole metaphor for progress. It’s perhaps the easiest way to design an RPG- kill x, y, and z for experience- but also increasingly boring and uncreative. As you say, we need other things to do too. Can you talk a little bit about how Flatpack subverts that?

Flatpack: Fix the Future! (TM) - in sea green text, letters circumscribing blueprints.

FY: Well, it’s a bit about game currency and what rewards you give to the players. In many classic games, the player kills something, you give them magic beans to make their character better. (Experience points and level ups in many traditional games.) In Flatpack, the character advancement isn’t given for killing things. It’s tied to other things your character does. I give out video game style achievements. So, say, your character has successfully outsmarted a group of scavengers in a really fantastically clever way. The game rewards you by giving you a bonus to outsmarting scavengers in the future. Or, let’s say you failed to hack a really advanced AI, and the results were epic and awesome, you’re character know understands AIs better and will do better next time. I have to health levels. The non player characters don’t roll against the characters. It’s all about problems and obstacle and overcoming them creatively. There are no physical stats on the sheet. The in character text tells the players that their characters are special, exceptional, and too important to the future to risk death. Don’t fight, the text tells the players, because we need you too much.

QM: That’s very intriguing, so the game is built around creative storytelling mostly, with a minimum of statistical advancement?

FY: The core system is about a page long. Super simple, so much that a seven year old could probably grok it. It’s so simple, in fact, it almost begs to be hacked. Which is what character advancement is tied to. In the way that Magic the Gathering as a simple set of rules, and each card hacks those rules and changes the game, Achievements hack the characters in Flatpack. We all love playing the exception to the rule, after all. The core rules say that you only get a magic bean (Spirit points in this game) whenever your character does X or Y. But thanks to your Achievement, you now get those points at X, Y and Z.

QM: Hacking is probably one of my favourite metaphors with regards to RPGs. *grins* I often think of the games themselves as being, potentially, ‘culture hacks.’ So, what are the titular Flatpacks of the game?

FY: Here’s where I show what a geek I am. There’s an episode of Doctor Who with David Tennant where he ends up on a space station on the edge of a black hole. As he’s getting out of the TARDIS, he mentions that the station is one of those ‘flatpack models.’ It’s a sort of passing reference. I do a lot of shopping at Ikea, and a lot of my furniture comes out of flat boxes with that adorable big-nosed guy telling me how to put them together. I got this image of a future where you buy, say, a box that has a whole pet shop in it. Or a whole teaching hospital. Or a whole museum.

Open it up, follow the instructions, and you have a fully functional building. Then, I thought of a future way past that invention where people are rediscovering that technology. “Well, our city has court house, and a mini mall, but we really wish we had a doctor’s office. Or a post office.” You’d end up with these crazy mishmashes of buildings at varying usefulness. It’s pretty quirky, and it’s where a lot of humor in the game comes in.

QM: Hah! That’s delightful. And I imagine part of the fun might come from creatively repurposing some of these buildings, which can be mini adventures in and of themselves. So, you’ve written this modular game which, as you say, begs to be hacked- which raises interesting possibilities. What is the direction you hope to take Flatpack in? Do you see yourself writing supplements? And if so, what will they be about?

FY: I wrote it with room for expansion in mind. I’m hoping, time permitting, that I can release new sets of buildings and new modes of play. Currently, the game assumes that you’re a group of kids or young adults rebuilding one city so that the people of your underground bomb shelter have a place to live and grow. I could see hacking the game so that you’re each looking over the well being of your own city. Or one where trade, import and export, and diplomacy are a big function of the game as other newly established cities and communities vie for limited resources.

I have, down the road, plans to take the core of the game, and twisting it to a game about catching and taming dragons. That one will be a completely separate game geared toward family play. I had a lot of ideas, ways to layer the game to add to complexity, but I decided to leave that out of the core game to keep it affordable and easy to access if you want to play it with preteens or whatever. It’s a YA game, really, and I don’t want to overwhelm new players. Not at first.

QM: That also intrigues me. You say it’s a YA game, and that you also designed it with your daughters in mind. It still seems all too rare that game devs think about women or girls (or queer people, or people of colour) in development. Would you say that that’s still the state of the PnP RPG industry? And have you seen changes in your time working in the industry?

FY: Well, for PnP, it’s really a series of niche hobbies that have enough similarity to them that they crash into each other. I’m among the dirty hippy crowd who make experimental games. There’s a lot of attention to inclusion and reaching out to a wider audience in that crowd. There are also schools of thought that if it was good enough for Gygax, it should be good enough for us. I do a lot of headbutting over character art and ‘you can’t play that, that’s not realistic’ with those sorts. There’s room for a lot of styles of play, and I know a lot of the bigger publishers are reaching out to a wider audience.

Cam Banks of Margret Weis, for example, made damn sure that there’s a lot of welcome room for the young lady gamer is the Smallville RPG, which I can’t recommend enough, on a design level and on a philosophical one. Daniel Solis, working with Fred Hicks and Evil Hat do some AMAZING games with young, all-shades-and-color gamers in mind. Do is, without a doubt, an amazing piece of welcoming gaming.

Elizabeth Sampet, Emily Care Boss, Meguey Baker and Julia Ellingboe explore gender and race in some games that run from very heavy to light and wonderful. And this is all just people off the top of my head trying to change things. Plus, there’s a lot of subversive voices working their way into the big names. Tracy Hurley is very active with Wizards and D&D and she has a lot of amazing things to say. It gets better every day.

QM: Yes, I have to say I’m inclined to agree. One of the things I love about RPGs of this sort is that they’re much cheaper to make and the barrier for creative entry is a ways lower. It can be less daunting to raise, say, 5000 dollars for a PnP game in seed money rather than having to find venture capitalists with 50 million dollars lying around. Another RPG I have a lot of hope for is Eclipse Phase, have you heard of it? You’ll be holding a Kickstarter event for Flatpack this month, yes?

FY: Yeah. The plan is to have it about a month long through the middle of February. Kickstarter is a great equalizer, as it allows a lot of projects to be crowd sourced and brought to life that might never have seen the light of day in the past. It’s changing everything. I hope it helps indie video games the way it’s helping indie PnP games.

QM: Likewise! Any closing thoughts about anything we haven’t covered here?

FY: You really let me talk, *chuckles* I just wanted to say that I hear a lot of ‘but there aren’t women in gaming.’ I want to say that’s straight up not true. We’re here playing, we’re here creating, and the more of us that stand up and reach out, the better it gets for everyone. Minorities of any stripe are a big part of gaming, and instead of ignoring them, we need to be creating for them. Welcoming them, and inviting them to game and design with us. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

Ah, how many times has my RP looked like this in my head? ((A Night Elven woman in a comfortable green and earth tone dress looking out over a harbour at dusk, the twinkling lights of a town in the distance beneath the fading light.)) Image Credit: WoW Fan art by Jian Guo.

Clicks on a Keyboard: Dungeons, Dragons, and Trans-Feminism

 

Ah, how many times has my RP looked like this in my head? ((A Night Elven woman in a comfortable green and earth tone dress looking out over a harbour at dusk, the twinkling lights of a town in the distance beneath the fading light.)) Image Credit: WoW Fan art by Jian Guo.

What I love about “click” is that it can happen anywhere, anytime, for any reason. It can best be defined as the moment you became conscious of the personal being political, the moment you learned a social fact through a deeply personal interaction. But “click” also connotes precisely that brief space of time, the moment, the instant, something changed forever. For me, my click was a bit longer and slower than that. It was a pastiche of revelations and experiences- both good and bad- that enhanced my feminism. You see, that’s another part of this: the story I’m going to tell begins with me already being feminist, but ends with me making peace with being a woman. To me, this is something that is vital to a feminist consciousness among women. In my own case, I learned this through video gaming.

Being a transgender woman means one has a ‘special’ relationship with gender and with womanhood in particular. For many of us, part of our self-discovery necessarily involves a dawning of pride and acceptance of one’s own gender. I grew up surrounded by media images and socialisation that told me femininity and womanhood were inferior, weaker, undesirable, and should be either avoided or pitied. As a young trans girl trying to find her place in the gendered sun this naturally screwed with my head in many deeply unpleasant ways and fed self-hate in a rather dramatic way. I came out as a feminist when I was 15 because my father’s abuse of my mother put the lie to the notion that sexism was a thing of the past; but that did not click away my own self-loathing and fears regarding acceptance of my gender.

What finally did that for me was video gaming and roleplaying. As I suffered through severe depression and suicidal ideation, I discovered a wonderful oasis that enabled me to live as someone more closely approximating what I would choose: roleplaying games. It all started with The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, and my discovery that I felt so much more comfortable and even empowered when I played as women characters. Same with Knights of the Old Republic; the women characters in that game, like the Jedi Bastila Shan, provided me with secret role models that gave me hints of the kind of woman I’d like to be. Above all, each game elucidated a possibility that the cheap TV I was exposed to never did: that women could kick ass. It’s knowledge I take for granted today, but for young-me it was an eye opener and something that began the slow and steady process of scrubbing away the socialisation that had told me to be a woman was to be lesser.

Quinnae. ((A Night Elf Priestess in purple robes with a dark staff, white cape, and floating against a wintry background.))

Single player games provided me with visions of female power. Women with swords, spells, lightsabers, martial skills, elegance, high education, class, guts, skill, and who above all showed no shame in who they were. If these fictional characters could do it, so could I. But since I was still being forced to live as a man, where could I possibly begin? As I subconsciously chewed over that dilemma a friend suggested my first online multiplayer roleplaying game: Neverwinter Nights. He wanted someone to play as his character’s daughter and since he knew I enjoyed RPing as women characters he thought I would be perfect for this. If only he knew. What began with NWN expanded into a range of other games, most prominently World of Warcraft, and it is here that abundant clicking became commonplace.

My experiences with my mother, some things I had observed at school, and had read about all impressed upon me the realities of women’s situation in the world. But WoW would afford me my first opportunity to experience them first hand. Knowing and knowing are two abundantly different things, and the harshest lessons WoW taught me were to know what it was like to be stalked, to be harassed, and to feel excluded; World of Warcraft provided me with a virtual social world where my character’s female gender became a salient fact of both her existence and my own experience in the game world. I began to understand on an intimate level what it felt like for your refusals to go unheard and for people to feel entitled to your time, attention, and sexual interest.

Some might argue that this is a lesson in victimisation. I beg to differ, however. My direct confrontation with these realities threw more fuel on the political fire that had been burning since I was fifteen; more reminders of what it was that we needed to stand against, more reminders of the politics that inhere to everyday life. More than this, however, it taught me empowerment. My story in World of Warcraft is not just a story of people stalking me. Hardly. I made friends there, explored my sexuality there, and apropos the harassment I learned to fight it.

For a long time I had been deeply shy and unable to speak up for myself. The shame inculcated in me by patriarchy and the gender dysphoria it was in part responsible for also had a gag effect on me. It was the silence that had made me afraid to take up space, the socialised quietudes that were the wages of my feminine identification. WoW, for all the failings of that game, provided me with a social world where I found the power to break that silence by seizing subjectivity as a woman consciously and affirmatively. In that world I was “Quinnae” and “she and her” to everyone, and I quickly became known on the forums for prosaic arguments, tongue lashings, and verbal self-defence par excellence. I found shelter in communities of fellow women gamers, people to commiserate with and laugh with, who made harassment a much more manageable problem. All of these people were 3D avatars and text on a screen, but it was all that saved my life and showed me a brightly lit road to accepting my womanhood in the real world.

Each click on the keyboard brought me one step closer to loving myself.

As I stood up for myself and took crap from no one in WoW I realised that I had developed more of a spine here than I ever did in the physical world. Part of that was due to the anonymity the Internet afford, but it was more than that too. It was because the game offered me the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a woman character I had created, a thoughtful, strong woman modeled after my newfound role models and representing a potential vision of myself. The scholarly Night Elven Priestess who became my main character in WoW was how I explored womanhood, became a woman, and how I learned to take pride in being a woman. She taught me how to stand up for myself, how to fight back, and eventually how to take control of my life.

It was WoW who introduced me to the first trans woman I ever knew,  who spoke of what transgender transition was like. This would offer me a new path in life that I never realised would be open to me.

This ‘click,’ as it were, took roughly a year and a half to run its course. I had to overcome socialisation that told me there was something wrong with me for desiring womanhood, I had to teach myself that I had everything to be proud of if I was a woman, I had to overcome. Growing up in the South Bronx left me with few options in my immediate vicinity to do this. The Internet, and most of all gaming, was what saved my life in this regard. World of Warcraft and other online games still suffer from a variety of problems, including sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia. But there is a tremendous amount to be said for the subversive agency of the people who populate these worlds, and it provided people like myself with the breathing room necessary to use online gaming spaces for self-exploration and growth in a relatively controlled way.

This is a theme I have explored in a lot of my recent writing for The Border House to be sure, because I think it’s important. Vitally so. When we discuss online games, we must not confine the discussion to the world that the developers deliver to us only, but expand it to include the variegated social worlds the players themselves weave within that space. My story of ‘click’ is how I assumed female subjectivity in the midst of an oppressive moment of my life and learned that I was a strong woman who could fight back.

When I came out to my father I had to stare down threats and words one never wants to hear from a parent, but I faced it with determination. Physical threats, threats of being thrown to the street, of being rejected by everyone around me were all hurled my way because I claimed womanhood.

Artist's rendition of Quin coming out. (Note, some events may be exaggerated or metaphorical.) ((A poorly drawn black and white sketch of Quinnae and her father who looks suspiciously like a moustachioed Dalek. Dalek dad says incredulously "Transition!? But you have no weapons; no defences; no plan!!" and your ravishing correspondent and hero replies "Yeah! And doesn't that scare you to death!?" ))

In defiance of this I stood there that day with the strength of all my fictional characters behind me, with the knowledge that feminism meant strength, meant power, meant courage- and that my womanhood was not a shameful fact of my existence, but something for me to be proud of. That was something I learned through roleplaying and gaming, in great measure. My mother also deserves a tremendous amount of credit: she inspired me with her heroic endurance and courage in an abusive marriage, and she never attacked me for roleplaying female characters (unlike my father). She was and remains a huge supporter of mine, who helped me transition and who helped me to find myself. No story of my transition is complete without her, no telling of my feminist history is possible without her.

She found my gaming to be more cute than threatening, and she gave me the levity to explore. Props definitely go out to her.

To most people it may seem strange that I can speak of my feminism being enhanced through roleplay, giving me the needed experiences and subjectivity to see the political in the personal. Stranger still could be my statement about how my characters stood with me when I came out; to some that may well parse as the words of a childish fantasist. But what I was trying to get at was that video gaming provided me with a range of personal guises I could explore in the social world, that enabled me to train myself to both take pride in my womanhood and to fight sexism with vigour. These are two things that are central to my feminist consciousness and nothing I’ve accomplished since then would’ve been possible without it.

In the intervening years I found the strength to stand firm against rape threats, more casual and quotidian sexism, the wolf whistles of random men, and the courage to face down sexists and transphobes everywhere. I’m still relatively shy as people go, I’m probably not your go-to gal to hand out a petition to random strangers. But I am far more confident than I was and far truer to myself than I ever was: I have all my little Elves, Wizards, Clerics, and knights in shining armour to thank for that.

This post is part of the Feminist Portrait Project’s and Bitch Magazine’s Blog Carnival where bloggers from all corners of the web are contributing their feminist “click” moment. Have a story you want to share?   Get in on the blog-a-thon action here!

Cyberfucking While Feminist, Episode II

A good approximation of one of Swanmay's favourite character archetypes, the fel-driven Warlock. ((Green dominates this especially striking image, the woman's staff glows a sickly fel green that coils around it electrically, the same as her eyes, set against a dark background that seems to be illuminated only by this woman's power.)) Image credit: Kageko of http://shadowpixol.blogspot.com.

Author’s Note: I am sorry this wasn’t updated sooner. I’ve been exceedingly busy at school as of late and I’ve had very little time to write for any of my sites. But rest assured that one way or another this series will continue bit by bit.

In our previous installment we discussed a bit of the adventures of Rosethorn, a woman who RPed as a stately paladin who was both bisexual and quite sexually active. Today’s chapter opens on a woman who plays a wide array of characters but who particularly loves her wicked warlocks and rogues. She provides still more insight into the social world that women who roleplay in online games can often inhabit. Shedding light on this hidden dimension of geek culture is the purpose of this series.

Swanmay – Choirgirl, Warlock, Spy

Swanmay is a young college-going woman who describes herself as reserved in her quotidian interactions in the physical world, but who enjoys roleplaying characters who are considerably more confident in their socialising. The conversation I had with her was particularly moving and she related a good deal of her personal life over the course of our discussion. At the heart of her ERP is what it does for her specifically. She told me that she fears being more sexual in real life:

Quinnae: What do you like about the sexual self you project through your ERP characters?

Swanmay: Power.  Raw sexual power.  Even when I sub.

Quinnae: What is it that you feel denies you that power in real life?

Swanmay: In all honesty?  Me.

Swanmay: I can say that there’s a lot of the modern culture which demands I should not be sexual (and certainly, there is), but I know I’m handicapping myself.

* Quinnae nods. “Do you know why?”

Swanmay: Fear.  Fear to be more sexual.

What was interesting to me was her extolling of the power of submission and the feeling of control that ERP gave her over her sexuality.  It was a feeling that she felt both she and social forces robbed her of when she tried to express herself sexually in the real world. In submission (at least in its strict BDSM context) there is a significant amount of agency- you choose the person to whom you sub and you have complete control over what happens to you, ideally. How you submit, how long, and to whom are all in your purview of control and Swanmay said she enjoyed playing both roles or equal partnerships. What mattered was that this sexuality was hers.

Swanmay: Something that bothers me: I like name calling in bed.  But then people use it out of bed, and that bothers me even more.

Quinnae: And when you like dirty talk there’s always the risk of someone, usually a man, reifying the idea that you *are* a slut, on *his* terms, rather than the complex character you’d created, and thus no longer a threat.

Swanmay: Right. It’s funny.

Swanmay: I like the madonna/whore dichcotomy when it works in my favor.  That is, when I have control over it.

Swanmay: I do not like having that power taken away from me.

She quickly emphasised that what she meant about the Madonna/whore dichotomy was its use with certain characters, rather than in real life.

Quinnae: So, you mean, taking madonna/whore and reappropriating and resignifying it for the benefit of your own sexual empowerment?

Swanmay: Pretty much…actually, I think a lot of women identify with that.

Swanmay: Based on a few comments I am thinking of in retrospect, at least quite a few of my friends.

Quinnae: How does that work for you, exactly? What does resignifying madonna/whore do for you?

Swanmay: It does come down to power.  It comes down to having total control over what identity I choose to portray.  And really those two are just the obvious ones to play around with, sexually.

Central to a lot of these peoples’ ideas about what it means to erotically roleplay is the notion that one can, so long as they are in full control, take certain symbols and ideas (like power dynamics, say, or certain types of namecalling) and give them new meaning that services their pleasure. Swanmay said again and again that ERP was empowering for her because it enabled her to enact sexuality in a controlled way that was impossible for her in real life, saying that her real life friends see her as “choirgirl-ish.” Indeed, she said, many had no idea about her true fantasies nor her occasional indulgence in ERP.

Quinnae: I don’t subscribe to the idea that sex reveals *the* truth about a person.

Quinnae: But rather, *a* truth.

Swanmay: Agreed.

Swanmay: Very agreed.

Quinnae: So, my strong female character is not ‘truly’ or ‘really’ “just” a little slut who wants to be fucked. She’s someone who owns that as one aspect of how she has sex which is one part of a much fuller life. The independence, virtue, and sex, all coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

Quinnae: One of the things I’ve found that people have had to guard against is precisely that: partners running away giggling in the wrong direction with the meaning of a sexual encounter.

Quinnae: “You’re not *really* a noble paladin, you’re just a slut.”

Swanmay: I think there’s a very distinct divide between sexuality and personality in this country [The United States].  Not just for women, but men too.

Swanmay: Which leads to problems like what you just said.

Swanmay: …and also creates a greater need for discretion, which in turn creates problems very similar to real life.

Swanmay: And this is why I never ERP on WoW servers proper.  *facepalms*

Swanmay: …and you know, I really dread the idea of my “normal” friends ever finding out that I enjoy ERP.

Quinnae: Can you explain why specifically? I’m sorry to hear that.

Swanmay: LIke the above stated – I feel very much that my sexuality and my “personality” are sort of removed from one another.

Swanmay: Which is not true.

She goes on to say that while this is untrue it feels like it’s the truth simply because she cannot be ‘out’ as a sexually active woman with certain kinks to most of her friends.

The idea that en sexo veritas is, unfortunately, still a very dominant one in our culture and it persists in many roleplay environments which- no matter how fantasy based they are- are still heavily influenced by the very real culture in which they are situated. Swanmay said that these days she creates certain characters specifically for ERP only and keeps her main roleplay characters separate from those activities because of fear that they might be traced back to her. This is despite the fact that she says her ERP characters were actually inspired by her normal roleplay characters. She fears the reputation that can accrue to her if it is known that she erotically roleplays, not just in her real life but even in her non-erotic gaming life she is worried her RP characters will carry a taint if her proclivities became known.

The trouble lies in the fact that finding a woman engaged in sex remains a “gotcha” moment for people- both men and women- looking to undermine the integrity of a woman’s character, and I use ‘character’ in all of its definitions here. If a woman is having sex, that’s all she “really” is; it’s not understood as a facet of a complicated person, just the baseline truth that serves as a prerequisite for dismissal and derision.

This was a recurring theme in these interviews and there was often good reason to fear that people would simply be unable to process a woman character who was both independently capable and sexual. As I discussed briefly in my recent piece The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains, de facto chastity is all but required of women characters who are to be seen as morally upright, protagonists or heroic. Open displays of sexuality are relegated to female characters who are typed as evil.

Swanmay the Erotic Feminist

Central to the issues that this series is supposed to examine is how one regards their cybersexuality through a feminist lens and how that impacts their roleplay. Swanmay was one of the most forceful interviewees in this regard when I asked her a general question on the subject:

Quinnae: So… how does your feminism enter your ERP, if at all?

Swanmay: Feminism enters into everything I do.  From my entertainments to my arts, and to the mixing between in roleplaying.  I don’t think about it, but I always create characters with the mind set that there is something at their core which makes them all invariably the same in their humanity, regardless of sex.

Quinnae: Interesting, can you explain that a bit further?

Swanmay: This is so far only in regards to character creation.  But yes, I usually try to think of my character’s gender as a given circumstance rather than as something that defines them.  And I’ve played with gender quite a bit, sometimes I swap characters gender and start a new game with them just to see how much of a difference, if any, it makes.

Some people, myself included, have conceived of feminism as militating with erotic roleplay, or as something that might need to be compartmentalised from it, mirroring how one might think that it can be difficult to square being a feminist with being a pornographer. But true to the spirit of the newer theoretical strains in feminism that emphasise ownership of empowering sex, rather than only attacking disempowering sex, Swanmay and others set their sights on how feminism can enhance their RP experience. Swanmay uses it to prevent herself from sex typing her characters, as well as to open her mind to conceptual possibilities in character creation that might not be there had she retained a binarist or traditional mindset about gender.

But she emphasised that it also made her very aware of what her partners brought to a given session of E/RP:

Swanmay: In actual play, feminism impacts me most in what partners I choose to play with.

Quinnae: Does that extend to ERP? Or is that what you meant?

Swanmay: Oh yes, in ERP and regular play.

Swanmay: As for how it affects who I play with: There are a lot of misogynists in ERP.  I try to cultivate feminist atmospheres rather than anything else.  If there’s exploitation, I always try to make sure it’s equal opportunity.  :-D

What she meant here was a playful tongue-in-cheek reference to BDSM, not literal exploitation, and she pointed out that she adopts a variety of roles in such contexts, ranging from dominant to submissive, and abjuring traditional or patriarchal arrangements of power in the sex she roleplays. But the main thing she wants is someone who she can trust, someone with whom she knows there’s nothing but pure fantasy at work. For Swanmay this means ensuring that her partner themselves has feminist leanings.

When I asked her what she looked for in a partner she said:

Swanmay: Equally minded players, for one thing. For another thing, making sure that people can recognize the difference between a character and themselves.  And for a third and very important thing, trying to shake up gender stereotypes…although that tends to be more in my non-erotic play.

This lead to a deep discussion of what it was she was specifically seeking to avoid when ERPing with people and while what she had to say on the matter is no doubt familiar to most of us, it deserves to be quoted in full:

Swanmay: It’s like they don’t see me as human.  If I wanted that I’d go back to waiting tables.

Quinnae: In what ways does that occur? Does it manifest itself in how their characters may treat yours, or is this entirely a consideration of OOC behaviour?

Swanmay: Both.

Swanmay: While I’ll take that kind of behaviour from a feminist player, it’s with the understanding that the player doesn’t feel that way.  Quite frankly, sometimes it can be quite erotic to be treated badly.  But when you think the player actively believes the same awful things his character says?  It’s unnerving.

This is where the issue of trust becomes most salient: trust that your roleplay partner is really roleplaying. For Swanmay, the fantasy of rough ERP with medium to heavy BDSM can be a lot of fun so long as it isn’t an externalisation of a man’s violent rape fantasies, a matter she was quite explicit about when I asked her what bothered her most about RP chatrooms:

Swanmay: There are a lot of rape fantasies and fantasists.  That’s generally a fantasy that turns me off.

Swanmay: I can understand ravishment (which is a fine line, but basically is the different between, say, a violent rape fantasy and a romance novel ravishment wherein its quite clear that both parties are actually willing despite pretenses)

Swanmay: But rape creeps me the fuck out.

For me this highlights a particular issue that does confront feminist minded people: the need to ensure that one’s partner is not inimical to your ideals. As Swanmay points out, the underground world of ERP can be a dark place where much lingers that is deeply unpleasant. In the shadows of social opprobrium can dwell as much misogynist ugliness and hate as one can imagine. For me personally there is also a vetting process out of necessity. With partners that I get very close to, I often feel compelled to out myself as transgender. It’s a necessary bulwark against the possibility of closely roleplaying with someone who cannot accept me.

The reasons for this are myriad, and chief among them is the fact that roleplaying is a process that can forge deep relationships. I only have one long term RP partner at the moment, a young woman with whom I’m weaving a long and interesting series of story-arcs for our characters that periodically involves sex. The amount of trust required to do this is significant: one has to always trust the motives and intentions of your RP partner, and there is an issue of compatibility that arises as well. You have to get along as friends of a kind if you are to do anything long term. This necessitates ensuring that you’re on the same page, so to speak, and that you are not at cross purposes in your roleplay.

Like Swanmay I ensure that my partners are interested in ERP that is mutually affirming and as thoroughly un-problematic as possible. Some male roleplayers in particular make it their mission to dominate women in a clear exercise of working out very real anxieties about female power. Some will go so far as to attempt to force women RPers into RP scenarios that fulfill this particular ‘fantasy.’ There have been incidents where we’ve encountered people who actively attempted to force their RP onto someone who did not wish to roleplay a particular sex scene. I’ll discuss this in a future article.

Another approximation of Swanmay's character! ((A light skinned and blonde haired Blood Elf wearing red and purple robes.))

The Presentation of Your Sexy Self in Everyday Life

The line between fantasy and reality can be quite thin. Swanmay uses her ERP as a means of asserting sexual confidence in an area of her life where she feels safest doing so. To look at her roleplay, particularly in her ERP it would be very hard to see the ‘choirgirl’ she describes herself as being in the physical world. Her presentation of self changes dramatically in ERP but it’s not just because she’s playing a role- there is an element of aspiration and wish fulfillment in it, filling a need that she has to express herself more freely, in a way that she cannot because she feels so much fear of her sexual self in the ‘real’ world.

She places the blame for this squarely on her own shoulders but I would contend that she is doing what most people do: assessing the probable social consequences of her actions with a degree of accuracy. She senses that were she to become as sexual as she desires, she would face not only judgement from others but from herself. I would argue this is based on deeply internalised ideas of how women should act. I myself enact this on a daily basis by presenting myself in a manner that does not openly betray my sexuality because I am keenly aware of the social costs of doing so. In my profession (higher education) an openly sexual woman will not be taken seriously.

The flip side of my own tale, however, reveals the importance of social networks. While my general appearance and comportment will do little to tell you who I am sexually, all of my friends are aware of my proclivities and are very encouraging of them. At a recent conference in Washington DC, all-women delegation from my university, gathered in my hotel room for a terrific slumber party cum consciousness raising group. Our discussion of our sexualities was open, free, and completely non-judgemental. I do not have to live with the fact that most of my friends/colleagues don’t know or wouldn’t accept all dimensions of my sexuality.

For Swanmay matters are different, and I would contend that this isn’t her fault. Examining erotic roleplaying behaviour among women can elucidate on our sexual struggles as much as our joys, and in this instance I feel that what was revealed is a small measure of the social cost inherent to the Madonna/whore dichotomy, which Swanmay plays with and attempts to reclaim in the course of her ERP. For her, this is how she is sexually navigating the world. The roleplaying spaces offered by online games, formal and informal, can offer people a means of steadily exploring and owning their sexuality in a safe way. Swanmay is a young woman in college with what I perceive to be a bright future, and I feel that in time she’ll overcome her understandable fears.

After all, in her fiery, fierce, and forthright characters it’s hard not to see the kind of woman she is capable of being.

Cyberfucking While Feminist

Can the strong, independent, and noble woman be sexual? Yes, and RPers show how. ((A dark skinned human woman in realistic silver armour that covers her from head to toe with a red cape fluttering down her back, broadsword in one hand and shield in the other)) ((Image credit: Pathfinder RPG, Paladin))

One of the driving themes of my gaming writing has been to emphasize the fact that how we experience games is a factor of the games players forge for themselves and not just what the developers hand us. There are worlds of social experience that exist in a netherspace between the physical world and the ideal fantasy world of developers’ intent.

One of the more interesting worlds is that of erotic roleplay or ERP. This is a field of interaction between gamers that is the subject of many jokes, stereotypes, derision, concern, and sometimes the bitterest of scorn. It is considered by some to be symptomatic of a male-dominated gaming environment lardered with male-gaze oriented objectification of women- the inevitable result of men literally taking control of idealised women’s bodies and enacting perverse puppet shows with them. However, there is another highly significant side to this that such a superficial critique misses. The women and the feminists who ERP.

For a number of us, erotic roleplaying is a double-edged sword. It is, for some, a path to sexual freedom and a means of enacting another significant dimension of a roleplayed character’s life. But it is also an exercise fraught with a myriad of pitfalls created by the institutional sexism that still haunts many gaming and geek spaces.

Rather than have this piece entirely in my own words, however, I wanted to give voice to actual ERPers who are women and/or feminists, or people highly sympathetic to feminist ideas. This idea came about during a personal conversation with one of the people I’d interviewed. As we got to talking about our experiences in gaming the issue of how difficult it can be to roleplay a strong female character who is also sexually active came up; we discussed it for a good couple of hours, discussing the links to dominant cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, or as Jessica Valenti might put it the ‘he’s a stud, she’s a slut’ double standard. It operates heavily in the world of roleplaying as well, and to me it became important to not only speak to this issue but to let others speak to it- the often invisible women and feminists who ERP.

They deserve to be heard both about why they ERP and how they deal with the troubles it brings, often alone due to concern about being judged harshly for what they do and why, whether they are women or men in real life.

The issues that arise are oftentimes familiar. A leading concern among many is having their sexuality appropriated by men for their own ends, and worries (and solid advice) concerning the undermining of a roleplay character through sexuality. Critical for all is the idea that any number of sexual tropes can be used meaningfully for their own ends and their own pleasure, rather than the exclusive pleasure of a male partner, and the idea that ERP enables them to demonstrate how women’s power and women’s sexuality need not be at odds in the slightest. It only becomes such in the hands of people attempting to slut-shame.

 

Some Brief Definitions!

To be clear Erotic Roleplaying is the use of fictional characters that one roleplays as during sexual encounters. This distinguishes it from cybersex which is usually done as some iteration of one’s self and in the first person. When ‘characters’ are spoken of these are the fictional beings roleplayed by the interview subjects in both sexual and non-sexual RP scenes.

IC means ‘in-character,’ which refers to fictional words and actions carried out as part of acting out one’s character in a roleplay scenario. OOC, or out of character,  is reverting to your real life personality.

Notes on Methodology

The people I interviewed for this article are all friends and acquaintances of varying degrees of closeness. To discuss this subject honestly requires a great deal of trust and all were kind enough to give their permission to have their words used for this series of articles. They are all familiar with The Border House and support its aims. This is not intended to be a random sample, by any means, but rather a collection of perspectives from people who explicitly identify as feminist or who sympathise strongly with feminist goals. The questions were tailored to each interviewee and the interview was conducted in a largely conversational style. To that end some of my questions will read like commentary, but it is my hope that these conversational interviews will be all the more elucidating as a result.

In thinking about how to organise this article, where interviews and research had been going on for several weeks before this one was published, I decided that- pending the reception of this first one- this should be a series. Too much of value was said to fit everyone’s insights into one extremely long article.

All names and identifying information have been changed, and where WoW servers are mentioned I changed their names as well. Why did I do that? Well, to be perfectly honest, I could’ve just bracketed their words with [my server] whenever they mentioned its name, but it was much more fun to come up with pseudonyms.

For today’s article we’ll be hearing from just one person.

The Undimmed Light of a Paladin–Rosethorn

Rosethorn roleplays prominently on a decently travelled server in World of Warcraft. Today she comes out as an ERPer with a good deal to say about the subject.  A roleplayer of a well heeled warrior class on the Northshire Abbey server, she participates in her server’s RP community for both erotic and non-erotic roleplay. She feels that while the dangers to women are real, one can overcome the backbiting gossip of others to face the headwind that blows against sexually empowered women. She states in no hold’s barred terms what the stakes are:

Rosethorn: I don’t have much formal knowledge about gender theory other than what I observe, but it’s interesting how, even in a space that is wholly fictional (by which I do not mean “fake” so much as entirely within the control of its creators–fabricated. Different from fake.) we tend to bring in our standards of behaviour.

Rosethorn: It’s actually kind of weird. I’ve noticed that people with predominantly male personas tend to get away with ERP without much drama or flaming or whatever.

Rosethorn: In other words, guy characters tend not to take as much criticism as female characters if they’re known to indulge in ERP. They’re not called sluts or whores or trolled on the forums for it. People don’t look at them as lacking willpower or being perverts.

A vague approximation of Rosethorn's character- ((A light skinned woman with short hair, again in wonderfully realistic armour, victoriously resting her sword in the corpse of an undead she's rendered even dead-er.))

This is something I’ve observed as well. Interestingly this fate befalls men too, but only if they are playing as female characters, in which case a special level of forum troll hell is reserved for them. But even there, the issue is association with the feminine, the idea that women serve only as Trojan horses to invade male space and undermine it from within. If a woman is found to have ERPed with guildmates, or heaven forefend a guild officer, she will immediately be accused of doing this for no reason other than personal material gain. The stereotype of women sexually manipulating men to gain material goods and wealth is still disturbingly popular, and in online gaming ERP is seen as women’s tool of choice for doing so. It is this broad stereotype of woman-as-manipulator that attacks both women playing as women, and men playing as women.

It is also an inhibiting force on people who roleplay women’s sexuality.

Rosethorn recalled an interesting and rare case of a male character found to be ERPing with a female raiding guild officer and how her erstwhile GM opined upon it:

Rosethorn: We don’t have a word for male characters who use sex for manipulative ends. Not a clear word, just metaphors.

Rosethorn: There are cases where two characters sleeping together lead to guild drama, loot distribution issues, etc.

Rosethorn: Actually, yes. I do know of such an accusation, justified or otherwise, in which the leader of a raiding guild on Northshire Abbey(female character) was being derided in private by my asshole GM at the time, for “cybering” with a male character in that same guild, a warrior geared to his teeth in epics.

Rosethorn: The attitude wasn’t so much that the warrior was a slut using sex to get more loot from his guildmistress.

Rosethorn: But rather that he was a big, dumb idiot who didn’t deserve what he got, but was getting by on being screwed by the GM’s female character. Someone with dumb luck. It was still the guildmistress insulted for being a whore.

Rosethorn: I think the fact that these accusations often come from other guys says something about the unspoken jealousy inherent to it.

Here the male player’s skill was insulted, certainly, and he was considered undeserving of his epic raiding loot- but the appellations of whore and slut still found their way to the person gendered as a woman in this situation. Had the genders been reversed in this scenario, based on my own experience certainly, the male guild officer would’ve been seen as a victim more than anything else.

Rosethorn’s initial observation here that no word exists for male sexual manipulators is also a highly salient one. The mythical bogeywoman of the female gamer or RP character who wants to fuck her way to a full set of raiding armour has no real male equivalent, except perhaps by the avenue of a man who plays as a female character. As she goes on to say:

Rosethorn: ERP is occasionally used as a means of argumentum ad hominem. It’s a way of discrediting someone. Or trying to.

Rosethorn: Someone hates you for a seemingly unrelated reason. Almost always an irrational one. Your personality irritates them; the way you write, the friends you have, the way you might’ve wounded their pride–more commonly, the way you play your character.

Rosethorn: The most common way to discredit a woman is to either call them a whore or call them a man.

Defensive Masculinity, Transphobia, and ERP

I found this especially interesting as a trans woman- calling out transsexual women as being “really” men is a significant form of bullying and social control that often occurs in gaming spaces, and using a cis man’s real life gender against him if he’s playing a female character is another patriarchal operation of power where men are kept in what activist Tony Porter called “The Man Box.” But when applied to trans women, who are actually women, our efforts to retain agency (or to achieve transcendence, as Simone de Beauvoir might have put it) are seriously undermined and discredited by being called men. Our abilities to be seen as legitimately sexual women, both in and out of character, are also called into question.

In discussing her old guildmaster she described him and his relationship to both RP and ERP thusly:

Rosethorn: Being the GM of a massively successful (and therefore controversial) guild in a quickly growing server, a loud if occasional presence on the forums and backed by a team of officers the majority of whom seemed to agree with his ostentatious Drill Sergeant style of leadership really only amplified whatever frustrations, anger or bitterness he harboured in him. It was like a rash that grew inflamed. He was lonely, and so he took it out by ridiculing ERPers and alternately stalking or harassing female characters. The latter followed the former if he realized they were played by guys.

She said she’d found that his misogyny and generally vitriolic nature stemmed from overcompensation for what he perceived to be the thwarting of his ambitions in real life. Despite these failures he was sustained by wealthy parents that allowed him to comfortably nurse his bitterness in World of Warcraft. It is people like this that women who roleplay, and men who roleplay seriously as women often have to confront in online gaming. Rosethorn was, it should be said, ultimately sympathetic to her old GM and said that while she hated him, she also felt sorry for him. Despite his hatred for roleplayers he confided in her one day that he wished *his* character could “find someone.”

Walk The Line

What was certainly very true for us both was how we found ourselves struggling occasionally with the expectations and meanings that some men projected into ERP with us:

Rosethorn: It is a tough line to walk, and I admit occasionally I tend to feel a little frustrated or ashamed that I’ve decided to make Rosethorn bisexual.

Quinnae: *nods* Being sexual can be quite a minefield for a woman. Whereas men are rewarded for being seen as sexual, women’s authority will be *vastly* diminished if their sexuality becomes known.

Rosethorn: I think that’s really perceptive and correct.

Rosethorn: In Rose’s case, the frustration is manifold. On the one hand, I’ve just reasoned that if she ever felt like sleeping with a guy, fear of losing authority ought not stop her. Otherwise it turns into a Catch-22. Denying herself, she implicitly recognizes a guy’s power to reduce her own.

Rosethorn: But if she does follow through, another set of problems emerge, not in the least of which is this peculiar pattern among male characters to seem, on the one hand, sexually confident and strong willed, and on the other, needy, possessive and totally incapable of understanding the mutual respect necessary in a concept like “one night stand.”

This dilemma, the sense of damned if you do, damned if you don’t traps in one’s social space was what philosopher Marilyn Frye identified as a hallmark of sexism in her well-known piece “Oppression.” In the course of our conversation we both remembered instances where we tried to navigate issues of sexual agency with men, trying to roleplay sex with confidence while not running the risk of losing control of one’s agency to a man who would thereafter only see your character as a sex toy. Even when one does expertly pilot their way around those jagged shoals, however, we still encounter men who may be creepy or needy about sex and who sometimes channel real life desires into ERP, hoping it will be an immediate path to something more real.

I’ve dealt with this more than once myself. One male roleplayer sought repeatedly, through OOC means, to get into a relationship with my character. I repeatedly rebuffed him, even explicitly stating that my character was not interested in men and that this was a non-negotiable aspect of who she was. His reply was to tell me that this wouldn’t stop him from trying and that he still had ‘hope.’

Yet in the midst of all of this Rosethorn loves roleplay and has said that over the years she’s built up the confidence necessary to deal with the less pleasant quarters of these communities, and I would say the same. Both her and I get a tremendous amount of value out of our RP, erotic and non. ERP can be a great way of expressing the sexual side of a complicated character and exploring the intimate sides of such a person. A lot of RP I’ve done that’s shaded in and out of ERP often involved character development. Rosethorn remains optimistic and upbeat about roleplay in general and I asked her for her advice to anyone who wants to avoid the drama and opprobrium that comes with ERP:

Rosethorn: The short answer is to remain in character, to keep good company and be discreet, to cultivate mystique and to keep drama confined into IC terms, where it may be dealt with.

And the long answer?

Rosethorn: I believe players should roleplay that which excites them, genuinely excites them, with honesty to their characters and not a care at all of the disapproval others. There’s a certain rare pleasure in slipping into a persona you really enjoy, something which can’t be experienced in real life, and I think to squander that valuable resource of self-expression, or to somehow silence ones creative urges in shame inflicted by another’s insecure judgement is monumentally dishonest to one’s own integrity.

To be honest, sexuality is not at all a valid metric of the strength of a character of any gender. Strong characters are believable, a complex interconnection of desires, urges, vices, virtues, tempers and intellects. Play a strong character by exploring every facet of her persona, from her emotions to her desires to her taste in bedmates, and do it honestly. And players who disapprove of honesty are probably not worth your time.