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Author Topic: Drawing the line, drawing the veil  (Read 9084 times)
J B Bell
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« on: April 04, 2002, 04:15:01 PM »

In another thread, Valamir brings up the salient point that there are different lines to be drawn as far as different kinds of depiction.  Famous in the culture I was brought up with is the double standard around sex and violence, where sexual depictions get censored much more quickly than violence that is similarly (hard to say how to decide it's "similar", I admit) graphic.

Quote from: Valamir
Is there a distinction on how far we cross the line based on which line we're referring to?


From the above paragraph, I'd say the obvious answer is "yes."  What makes it an interesting question is seeing how different groups draw different lines, and just where in the sand they get drawn.

For my part, I usually draw the veil on consensual sex, and draw the line for PCs at non-consensual sex (that is, I don't want PC rapists in my game, and my players seem to agree).  I have run mostly horror games for the last few years, and while they have had some graphic violence, most of the "ick factor" has been psychological.  Offhand, I would not be interested in GMing or playing in a game that featured torture as anything but a threat or off-screen activity of decidedly bad guys who, Harris-code style, would definitely be getting their comeuppance a little ways down the road.

Obviously again, this is a point that should be settled in a social contract.  Sex & violence are big hot-button issues, and maybe not surprisingly, also major entertainment sources in our world--not checking the appropriate "dials" in one's game leaves a whole landmine field waiting to mangle a game.

To keep the thread on a topic without being too boring, what other lines do people draw?  I find that they can be surprisingly variable.  I may have mentioned the "no teeth damage" in the social contract for my Sorcerer game--it sounds comical, but one player has had a real dental nightmare over the last year or so after getting hit in the face by a baseball (an accident), and she really does mean it.  Not a big issue, nor one that even comes up normally, but if we hadn't talked about it, I might have decided a Marathon Man scene would be interesting, and then that would have been a bad scene in more ways than one.

--JB
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: April 05, 2002, 07:22:36 AM »

Hi there,

I'll continue with this interesting topic-split, which I think (correct me if necessary, JB) is about how we "draw the veil" or otherwise set boundaries differently regarding different issues.

This phenomenon doesn't surprise me at all, and to some extent I agree with Gareth (Contracycle) and Mike that part of the issue is relevance - as Mike put it, we don't really need to know whether the missionary position was employed.

However, similarly, do we need to know about the details of torture, critical hits, and violent depravity? This is Ralph's question, and I have observed much game-play and even many game systems that revel in these acts, with no veil, and more importantly, no apparent desire on anyone's part for a veil.

I think it relates to Chris' (Bankuei's) point regarding the fictional relationships and the actual relationships. My call is that the fictional relationships with immediately-relevant real-life corresponding relationships are the ones which people seem to avoid, or if not to avoid, to veil.

If I'm right, then the real people in a role-playing situation are not likely - in fact, are extremely unlikely - to have a violent context for real-life interaction among themselves. I'm not talking about martial arts practice or even a penchant for bar fights. I am talking about the real people, in the group, having a relationship in which hostile, physical damage is involved. If your character rams a spear up the halfling's ass and leaves him to die slowly in the courtyard, this act is probably not going to have an immediate parallel among the real people in the group. This is why imagined violence in the game has such a well-defined, easily-understood "fantastical" or (although I hate this word) "escapist" element.

However, are the real people at the table engaged or potentially (without squinting) engaged in romantic, emotional relationships? Of course they are, or trying to be, or recovering from them, or whatever. And let's not forget that re-arrangement of such relationships tends to occur quickly, and without much deliberation.

Example: back in the 80s, I freely confess, one of the pleasures of role-playing for me was getting laid a lot. In other words, say I was in a group with some people, and the characters played by me and by one of the women present would get interested in one another. It wasn't too much of a stretch to see whether this indicated genuine interest among the two actual people, and in the vast majority of cases, it did. On many occasions, this occurrence either subverted existing relationships (which I admit was a Bad Thing) or sidelined what someone else thought was a developing relationship (which doesn't bother me in retrospect at all).

So I can see quite easily that "drawing the veil" when two characters (even if one is an NPC) get into a sexual situation is ... well, for lack of a better word, safer. Even though now I think that my lifestyle, romantic situation, and many other things would make such occurrences very unlikely, I think that the entire issue is close enough to home, for anyone and everyone, that we all treads lightly when it comes to generating those events imaginatively, as a group.

So what happens when a group with a lot of distributed Author-power is role-playing regarding lots of sex stuff? As in our Hero Wars game, which was totally about sexual transgression and related matters, or, very differently, as in the current Violence Future game in another group, in which casual and/or abusive sex is a common occurrence. The veil is still there, and in my opinion (or perhaps to my taste), needs to be there. But it shifts from "avoid topic, concentrate on fights" to "focus on emotional context and avoid positions and spattering fluids."

Such a group is successful, I think, when the people already have a high comfort level regarding their own sexuality and their interpersonal relationships, such that imaginatively constructing fictional (and thematically powerful) situations and outcomes is possible and mutually enjoyable - not because of potential ramifications in the real world, but because we are plain interested in getting that story created, and willing to use our own backgrounds and perspectives in contributing to it.

[Nuance One: one upsetting exception to my blanket comparison is when someone in the group really is involved in a violent situation with someone else in the group, specifically, a physically-abusive relationship. I've witnessed this, as far as I know, only once, so I can't generalize about the phenomenon.]

[Nuance Two: when the ugly specture of Deprotagonizing arises, all the gloves come off, as Clinton described with his halfling-spanking anecdote. I think that an unfortunately association has arisen over the years of role-playing, that when graphic violence or sex is occurring, someone's getting a character de-protagonized. Thus to avoid the latter, people tend to avoid the former. The effect is a kind of sanitized, gender-neutral, vaguely emotionally-bland Denial situation, regarding the events of play.]

The person I'd really like to hear from in this regard is Dav. To my knowledge, Dav has played in some games with amazing levels of physical atrocity perpetrated by player-characters (the Kultist brand of Obsidian, in particular), and many of these games were played with Elizabeth, his partner, also in the group. So Dav - what's up with this? In social terms, is explicit sexual activity by characters be the same, or different, from explicit torture/violent activity by the characters, in these games?

Best,
Ron
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Balbinus
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« Reply #2 on: April 05, 2002, 08:08:28 AM »

It seems to me there are three different areas where problems can arise.

These are:

consensual sex;

non-consensual sex; and

extreme violence.

I think Ron get's right why most players don't have a big issue with graphic violence, it has no real-life analogue for them.  Although, some players will object on essentially genre grounds ("we're heros and you don't see that kind of thing happening in Star Wars") and others on grounds of taste.

Consensual sex Ron addresses well.  Essentially, I find it boring to portray in game.  It happens, characters have sex lives, but dwelling on the mechanics seems to me trivial and dull.  The emotional consequences are what what is important, if there are any.

Non-consensual sex triggers a number of issues.  Firstly, if a PC is involved there is a risk of deprotagonisation, rape is necessarily a deprotagonising event, this is the source of much of its trauma - the utter powerlessness of the victim in that context.  Secondly, many players will either have experienced some form of sexual assault or will know someone who has, addressing it in game then risks triggering highly unpleasant emotional issues which that person is still dealing with.  Thirdly, some will feel it is simply out of genre or distasteful.

So, it is necessary with any such scene to ask why it is there.  If a PC is being subjected to sexual assault, why is it happening?  It may be essential from a story perspective, as in the SF book the Sparrow.  Perhaps this scene provides the PC with a prime motivation for continuing.  In this case it is probable the player has requested or part-authored the scene, if not it is questionable what the GM is doing deciding what the PC's prime motivations are anyway.

If the victim is an NPC, again the scene must be there for a reason.  If it is simply gratuitous, the players find it amusing to describe and participate in such scenes, that is fairly unpleasant IMO and a form of pornography.  If it is to establish a truth about the world, that it is a brutal place say, that can be done my mentioning that the act occurs but glossing over the details.  If it is to potentially motivate a PC, description may be required in order to give the PC something to be outraged by.  The more description though, the more risk of actually outraging the player.

If the perpetrator is a PC, the question becomes what kind of a protagonist is this?  Cugel commits rape at at least one point, without losing what little sympathy we have for him.  I have trouble thinking of any other examples of protagonists who engage in such behaviour.  Most games will not benefit from protagonists who will be found morally repulsive by most players at the table.  If nobody likes the character, why are we creating their story?  Where is the interest?

Where it is a taste issue, then it is simply a question of what people want depicted in the game.  No more, no less.
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AKA max
contracycle
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« Reply #3 on: April 05, 2002, 08:16:47 AM »

Hmm.  Although I've had overlaps with romance and games in real life as mentioned, they have not occurred with sufficient frquency to be a recurrent problem.  OTOH, I'm not much keen on trying a faux seduction of someones partner with everyone present.  Or at least, I've done it and was sufficently uncomfortable not to want to do it again.

There is IMO a qualitative distinction in our approach to violence and to sex - their shared viscerality is only one aspect.  For one thing, violence much more than sex (in our societies anyway) is much less of a public event.  Public ritual sex largely stopped a long time ago - but public executions still occur all over the place.  

Then, of course, violence has a political function - it is an implement of public policy.  Sex (performance of) usually only appears as a political instrument as either torture or subject of religious moralism.  By contrast, from the early age at which we learn concepts like "police" and "army" we must find a comfortable, public position on the morality of violence - which fact is mirrored by the prevalence of violence in public media.  

Although RPG is an intimate environment, which I suspect makes addressing such topics relatively easy, it is still a public one, and some hesitancy is probably normal, at least among groups who do not share a great deal of mutual confidence.  For some, the intimacy may be counterproductive.

I am inclined to use graphic violence if I think it is appropriate - having  done a fair amount of celtic themed RP, I'm a big believer in heads on spikes; I want the characters to experience the intended political terror.  However, all of these occurrences will be selected by their thematic or situational relevance.  I would much prefer a big (in terms of: setting significant) field battle than a series of piddly skirmishes; in such a set piece, playing up the gore, I think is appropriate because it is contextually boxed.  I have carried out interrogations/tortures of PC's; "villain credential" massacres; some of them have been a bit close to the knuckle perhaps, but they are set pieces not just rolling colour.
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Valamir
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« Reply #4 on: April 05, 2002, 09:47:46 AM »

Thats a great point Ron.  Romantic entanglements are a part of daily life and that colors our comfort level as to how we portray them.  If we were living in some part of the world where violent physical atrocities were a part of daily life, we'd probably think differently about how we portray them as well.

Same principle behind those who've experienced or know people who've experienced rape having a different take on how it should or shouldn't be addressed in a game.

Are there any gamers here who have experienced a degree of violence or the potential for violence as a routine part of their lives who can comment on how that has colored their portrayal of violence in games?
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #5 on: April 05, 2002, 04:05:58 PM »

Very early in my current campaign, in the course of establishing the back-story of my real-life SO's PC, I ran a scene in which her character was drugged and gang-raped by her boarding-school classmates. This was pursuant to prior OOC private discussion of her character's back-story, i.e., she knew it was coming. She didn't have a problem with it, either in the private OOC discussion or in actual play in front of another player, despite having been drugged and raped in real life when she was the same age at which it happened to her character (how much closer to home could it hit?).

On the other hand, the other player (who was not involved in the scene, and who to the best of my knowledge has no sexual abuse or victimization in his history) seemed to be somewhat upset by the scene, though he didn't say anything about it.

You can't always predict how a transgressive scene will affect someone by looking at their history.
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the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue
contracycle
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« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2002, 10:44:29 PM »

Quote from: Valamir

Are there any gamers here who have experienced a degree of violence or the potential for violence as a routine part of their lives who can comment on how that has colored their portrayal of violence in games?


I grew up in a militarised state, in which nearly all the adult males were ex-soldiers, and all of the players had to look forward to being conscripted.  I think that a large part of our RP in highschool could be considered preparation for military service; certainly I think the gunbunny stuff was part of that.  Except me, all served but only one saw actual combat, but it was very bad; however I don't believe it had an observable impact on the nature of his play.  I mentioned heads on spikes above; as late as the mid 80's it was not unkown, in this conflict, for soldiers to decorate their armoured vehicles with skulls.  To this extent, the prevalence of violence in the real world had an effect on our perception of violence as human beings, and this is I think echoed in our play as it would be in everything.  I know the man who saw combat will not play certain FPS games because they are a bit too close to home.  I guess from my perspective, as a GM, part of my Sim tendencies are directed toward the opinion that violence should not occur without the associated mess; I'm not much keen on the bloodless violence often seen on TV (and in fact I think the absence of smell is part of what makes violence so accessible for TV).  OTOH, I'm very wary of using graphic violence with or "against" actual PC's - based on a variety of considerations, I fear it may be possible to inflict psychological trauma through RP, and I don't want to risk it.  Hmm, I guess the best way to sum this up is to say that may games may sometimes contain graphic violence, if I think it arises from the sim, but that it will not happen to the players.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #7 on: April 06, 2002, 02:37:25 AM »

I'd like to say that it seems that the veil really relies on understanding why something considered controversial being used or not used and to what level and how.  Obviously in Ron's game, rape is going to come up because it is part of the premise, whereas in a standard dungeon crawl D&D thing, there's no real reason to go there.

In most of my games I don't go into vast detail of gore, just enough so that people know that violence is bad.  Of course, none of that is as bad as watching someone kick and convulse and gurgle for 10 minutes from some godawful wound that you know you can't help.  I think on a very real level  there is a sense of helplessness, and dehumanization when placed in those situations.

I can't say I grew up in any situation as war, but I can definitely say when you live in certain neighborhoods you certainly grow a different sense of awareness than most folk.  As a perfect example, I was showing my apartment to one of my friends and he said," I like your shower-you can fit 3 people in it", and I said,"I like my shower- there's enough room to dodge in it".  You become highly attuned to how many people are on the street and if anything is slightly off about them("He's carrying groceries, ok, that's cool, but that guy, he's hanging out on the corner, but the bus isn't running at this time...")

You can definitely see this kind of stuff transfer over into the games people run.  I give a big thing for tactics simply because it's always on my mind.  You also see stuff like racial issues, oppression, exploitation and poltical issues show up.  Some players don't get it, some get upset and leave.  It's not like a pulpit to preach, but the realities I see get put into the games.  I think all the issues people are not comfortable with in real life are the same ones they do not want to see in their games.  

I think its really sad because the big message that goes out in all my games is,"Evil exists when good folks do nothing", and the players as the protagonists, are always content to fight evil in safe ways, but never the same evils they may recognize as the ones we have in our society.  It's the thinly veiled issues from Mage and Werewolf that appealed to me more than the,"ooo-I'm so gothy" bit.

I suppose that the hidden "guilt" factor of knowing that war, rape, child molestation, world famine, and other things go on, and as a society we as a group deliberately ignor the issues also makes folks not want to be forced to acknowledge them in a game either.

ahh, people...

Chris
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: April 08, 2002, 06:34:27 AM »

Hi there,

Here's an old thread from the Gaming Outpost that broke ground for a lot of people currently at the Forge:
Glossophobia

It's well worth a review.

Best,
Ron
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hyphz
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Posts: 157


« Reply #9 on: April 08, 2002, 09:53:09 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

Example: back in the 80s, I freely confess, one of the pleasures of role-playing for me was getting laid a lot. In other words, say I was in a group with some people, and the characters played by me and by one of the women present would get interested in one another. It wasn't too much of a stretch to see whether this indicated genuine interest among the two actual people, and in the vast majority of cases, it did. On many occasions, this occurrence either subverted existing relationships (which I admit was a Bad Thing) or sidelined what someone else thought was a developing relationship (which doesn't bother me in retrospect at all).


You know, I wish I had known about this when I read the "be confident about role-playing" advice in Sorcerer's Soul.  

The fact that these happened is pretty strong evidence that Ron is sufficiently personally attractive that any negative roleplayer stereotype would be cancelled.  Not that there's anything wrong with that of course ;) but it's may well not apply to his readers (evidence: I've read it ;) ) who might not have such cause to confidently announce themselves as roleplayers!
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: April 08, 2002, 10:11:22 AM »

Hey,

My junior-high-school and early-high-school self would be mighty amazed to hear this assessment, having received inordinate amounts of direct evidence that he was entirely and permanently unattractive ...

At the risk of getting off-topic, attractiveness is largely a matter of comportment, voice management, and attention to the desires of others. Physical details like cleanliness play into it as well, but I think that many physical details are irrelevant.

To pick a potential hot-button topic, I know some people who are fat (no, not just chubby, fat) who are tremendously romantically successful. Why? To use one example, his girlfriend (now wife) told me she loved his voice, and it was true - the fellow had a resonant, wry, pleasant voice. Any voice register can be made pleasant; being tenor doesn't mean one has to be shrill.

So, in essence, you may be placing the cart before the horse. My argument stands: follow the suggestions in Soul about comportment, and your attractiveness increases, regardless of whatever body-fat percent (or whatever; again, I just picked that one variable because it's a sensitive one) that you may have.

Best,
Ron
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hyphz
Member

Posts: 157


« Reply #11 on: April 08, 2002, 11:57:45 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
At the risk of getting off-topic, attractiveness is largely a matter of comportment, voice management, and attention to the desires of others. Physical details like cleanliness play into it as well, but I think that many physical details are irrelevant.


Yes, many people will post or say this sort of thing in response to what I said.  All I can say, Ron, is that anyone who has ever said this to me has invariably turned out to be in fact good-looking regardless of whatever obscure technical faults they managed to (probably with difficulty) discern in themselves.

Not that I think looks is what determines it.. in fact, attractiveness doesn't seem to be based on much other than attractiveness - not even looks, weight or behaviour.  It's a stat (not a skill) with no RP bonuses that's seperate from comeliness.  (Hey, maybe that's one thing that HackMaster models right.)

I'm sorry, I'll stop being whiny and off both board and thread topic now.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: April 09, 2002, 07:55:36 AM »

Hey,

I consider this last series of posts, which I am very sorry to have participated in, to be grossly inappropriate for the Forge. I've taken the matter to private email.

If anyone would like to continue this thread on-topic, please do so.

Best,
Ron
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Daredevil
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« Reply #13 on: April 09, 2002, 08:30:18 AM »

Several folks are saying -- and I think it is a popular opinion -- that any "questionable content" needs to have a reason to exist. Very few glorify in an excess of it. That's all good, of course.

Personally as a GM I aim to understand the comfort level of my players, and take scenes as far as I think (with input from them as well) they want to. If they want a sex scene narrated in detail, I am personally willing to go quite far if it seems relevant to anything.

What I mean by relevant is demonstrated by an earlier comment by Ron that I agree with (except where the text has been italicised):

Quote
The veil is still there, and in my opinion (or perhaps to my taste), needs to be there. But it shifts from "avoid topic, concentrate on fights" to "focus on emotional context and avoid positions and spattering fluids


Sometimes, however, I like to push around the expectations of the players (gently, not to create any permanent traumas), but that continues to be difficult as I have an open-minded bunch of players not overly phased by anything. I have to get very creative to actually hit them where it hurts.

Now, before you consider me a cruel idiot, I must say that my players know and expect this from me. In fact, my intense treatment of material is probably often what draws them in. So, there exists a strong social contract.

The players are pretty open-minded and they come to my games knowing that I'm not afraid to tackle tough themes.

What is interesting, though, is that we've never played with women and there have never been real life relationships occurring across the table making things more convoluted. Those would certainly put a twist on things -- a twist I'd be happy to explore in various ways.

In fact, there's been few sexual relationships between player characters either, but there have been notable relationships to NPCs. In one instance where a sexual relationship was initiated by a player character on another player character, the description continued as quite vivid up into the sexual act itself, though it quickly faded into black before getting boring or repetative. I was very impressed by the players, myself, and we keep chuckling back at it every now and then (even though then at the time the situation was not necessarily humoristic).

However, we're soon about to play a game where there are two male-female couples present (!) and where I will be participating as a player. We're all excellent friends outside the table. As the game is Vampire -- and my own ideas regarding that are quite vivid, intense and angsty -- I will contribute to the game possibly a lot of questionable themes. I'll make certain though that they understand that this is me playing the character, though, and not me acting out a personal fantasy (even though I do like exploring strange vistas), hopefully with results where we can really explore those issues in mature way.

Hopefully that contributes something meaningful to the discussion.
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