I think this essay is going to start by confusing people. But please read the whole thing before you start throwing tomatoes. I was inspired to write this after a whole series of stuff appeared in my news feed about rape, and monsters that perpetuate rape, being in cartoons and gaming products, and the enormous hullabaloo this caused.
I’m going to start by saying this: I think it’s perfectly fine to have rape happen in your tabletop RPG.
Yes I do.
Rape happens. It’s a horrible experience that evil people inflict upon good people. It’s an excellent way to illustrate alignment, because the kind of callousness that it takes to rape another human being is exactly what the D&D evil alignments are all about. In my game, which is played by adults for adults, the bad guys kidnap the kids, torture the spouses of the heroes, raise villages, and so forth all the time. Those are acts of horror and violence, and rape has happened for those same reasons.
I think, however, some conditions need to be met. The first is that only adult players should be participating. This is not a kid’s story. Let’s save some of our children’s innocence somewhere if we can.
The second is that everybody has to be okay with this being part of the game. The possibility of it coming up should never be a surprise. My games, that I play with my husband and an adult group, are rated R. We fade to black in the more graphic violence or sex scenes, but we let people know they might come up and we make sure we have permission and nobody is uncomfortable, and the minute anyone is too uncomfortable to continue, that’s the end of it, period.
The third is that it is never funny! Rape is not funny, guys. Rape is an act of torture and violence. The experiences of POWs is not funny, the experience of concentration camp survivors is not funny, and the experience of rape survivors is not funny. If you can laugh at rape, you can laugh at the torture of children. You are a bad person and you lack human empathy.
This is where Penny Arcade went wrong with their Dickwolves. Though honestly, I would have let the first joke pass. They weren’t making fun of rape per se. They were making fun of the stupidity of quest lines in video games in which you only rescue a handful of the people who are suffering and leave the rest of them to die. Yeah, that is kind of bizarre when you think of it that way. It’s their response when somebody complained that is the problem, as was explained in the article I reblogged. That’s exactly right. Okay, so you didn’t see why rape survivors would have taken that joke so personally. So what? Apologize and move on. Don’t use it as some bizarre anti-censorship rally. It’s not censorship. People thought you were being assholes, and your response proved it. I bet it generated all kinds of views for your lame cartoon that you’d never had before, either. You’re a bunch of jerks. And if people don’t want to carry your products, I think that’s awesome. I believe in voting with your dollars.
The fourth is that rape should never be part of any official game product. Ever. The reason why is that it prevents people from being able to “opt out” if that’s something they don’t want to get into. The makers of a game in the spirit of the D&D Al’Qadim setting, which they call “Promised Sands,” had a monster called an Uzmek, a type of ogre, which was all about rape. The makers have pulled this monster and have also decided not to make it available as internet content, even though there was a significant group of fans who wanted them to do so. Kudos, guys. I hope your Kickstarter campaign is successful.
It can be a grey area. For instance, the latest Tomb Raider game has received a great deal of criticism because in the plotline, which is the prequel to the other games, Lara Croft is forced to kill a man who’s trying to rape her, and this is the first time she has killed a person. I think this is fine, even thought-provoking. For one thing, he appears to be unsuccessful. The second is that obviously, we as a culture believe that shooting a person for trying to rape you is perfectly okay on a moral level. That’s a good thing. And you know you’re going to shoot people in this game, and you know it’s going to be bloody.
If we don’t talk about rape at all, the world will never know what a horrible thing it is. One of the beautiful things about RPGs is they let you imagine “what if” scenarios and practice making different decisions. I like stories about survivors who overcome incredible odds and terrible experiences to become genuinely heroic people. To me, the Tomb Raider plotline gives Lara Croft depth and dignity. But it’s just not funny, and it should never be forced on anyone in an RPG. I think D&D’s “Book of Vile Darkness” has the right idea. You can read the implications of rape, torture and sexual abuse between the lines of their exceptionally nasty villains, but they never get into the gory details. And that means you can opt out if you want to.
My two cents.