Let's Get DigitalThe prejudices—and the potential—of gaming and erotic roleplaying

Illustrations by Amy Martin

Ask any World of Warcraft player about “Goldshire” and you’ll likely hear more than a little embarrassed giggling. The small town just outside the human capital of Stormwind is a known hotbed of ERP—shorthand for erotic roleplaying—derided but secretly loved in the gaming world in a way that mirrors the physical world’s vexed relationship with sexuality.

In Goldshire, among other little hideaways in online games, one’s chat window might fill with seamy erotica that seems lifted from a bodice-ripping penny dreadful, with players speaking their parts in describing an unfolding sexual drama between their avatars.

Roleplaying in a video game or in pen-and-paper (PNP) roleplaying games (RPGs) means adopting another persona through a kind of method acting, allowing you to inhabit an avatar adventuring through the game world. You do not just play with these roles, you are the role in a certain sense. To roleplay in any kind of game is to make the road by walking it; it is a microcosmic form of biblical creation, where words create worlds and action shapes the contours of its topography.

While sexuality abounds in gaming culture—scantily clad women gracing RPG manuals and magazines, intimations of sex from flirtatious succubi or Dark Elves—the world of roleplaying is incredibly skittish or childish about sexuality, from the fantasy tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to the multiplayer online World of Warcraft (WoW). To broach the subject in an open way that announces itself and gets to the heart of sex (thus helping players have a healthy relationship with it in the game world) is all but verboten.

But ERP isn’t just an esoteric hobby—it’s a steadfast component of many online roleplaying game worlds. Neverwinter Nights, an early online roleplaying game, let player-hosted servers be listed on an in-game portal that allowed players to select player-created multiplayer worlds outside the immediate jurisdiction of the game developers. These “social servers” were universally understood as a polite euphemism for sex servers where ERP was the norm, complete with nude avatars, sexy clothing, S&M kit, and more.

In general, the RPG community has a “live and let live (preferably somewhere else)” attitude about ERP, one that parallels the putatively liberal tolerance of “sex is natural” and “everyone does it…just don’t talk about it.” Likewise, sex and sexuality in RPGs are understood as both ubiquitous and unspeakable. It’s there, everyone does it, but it need not be discussed openly. After all, everyone knows how to, you know, do it.

Most pen-and-paper roleplaying games have hundreds or thousands of pages worth of rules, ideas, story content, and other kinds of errata, but very few devote any of that space to content that addresses issues like consent, sexual diversity or orientation, or the sexual culture of the world one is playing in. In-game, then, one is often subject to depressingly familiar forms of sexual harassment—men having their avatars walk up to yours and awkwardly propositioning you, for instance, or refusing to take “no” for an answer if one rebuffs their entreaties—in or out of character. Online roleplaying gaming simply follows the paths of sexuality laid out in the physical world.

In spite of this, sexuality is endemic to the world of RPG and part of its visual culture. Commercials and box art for games are rife with heaving bosoms while pornographic proportions are common background decoration, seen by gamers and non-gamers alike.

Much as in the physical world, an objectified female body is offered up time and again as window dressing for the enjoyment of male gamers. She adorns book covers, video game box art, and 3-D models with fully rendered animation whose dance is an eternal reminder of the Victoria’s Secret imagery that saturates our wider culture. The ubiquity of sexual imagery in roleplaying game culture is matched only by the silence that surrounds it.

As it is, many established roleplaying gamers see ERP as detrimental to the hobby or evocative of the crude stereotypes “normal” folks have of us nerds. Much as in the physical world, this is a vexed relationship rife with petty hypocrisies: Gamers will angrily declaim cybersex one moment then roleplay a steamy werewolf scene in Goldshire the next. This attitude channels the culture of ERP into shadowy corridors, far from the bright drags of online gaming, and the salacious parliament of whispers away from the gaming table in pen-and-paper RPGS. Those of us involved have had to make do, quietly finding community established through winks, nods, and bad puns. Websites like Darknest and F-List blossomed around the subculture-within-a-subculture that ERP created, providing a hidden forum for every sexual fantasy.

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What remains out in the open, however, is rather sterile. Even in the most alien of fantasy worlds, portrayals of romance are oddly familiar, drawing from the same store of rom com–inspired tropes. Most pen-and-paper RPGs confine their discussions of romance to (heterosexual) marriage. D&D’s second edition included a special supplement for roleplaying the knight-in-shining-armor paladin class—The Complete Paladin’s Handbook—whose treatment of courtship rituals, while simultaneously adorable and creepy (“[the paladin] attaches a lock of the beloved’s hair to his shield”), were decidedly confined to the most chaste forms of stereotypical chivalry. “A fleeting glance or a chance meeting,” the book says, “is all that’s required for the paladin to become hopelessly smitten,” recapitulating the hoary old “love at first sight” cliché.

Later editions of D&D’s Forgotten Realms do slightly better by including a pantheon of deities, some of whom openly extol a (thinly described) libertine sexuality—but it refers to little beyond the vaguest sexual touchstones of our own “real world” culture. Sune Firehair, for instance, is a goddess of beauty and love, with dogma that includes “Believe in romance, as true love will win over all.” According to the sourcebook, her “Order of the Ruby Rose” has followers who, among other things, “often adopted a beautiful individual to adore from afar whether that individual would be flattered by such attentions or not.”

The stalking motif is strong with D&D, it seems. But like in the paladin book, this is framed as virtuous and romantic; both paladins and Sune’s Order are rendered as objectively “good” in the game material, encouraging players to regard such ideas as moral.

More troublesome is the fact that one “evil” deity, Loviatar, the “Maiden of Pain,” is given a strong BDSM theme. In fact, most games often portray dominatrices as explicitly evil characters who do not distinguish between painful pleasure and actual torture. World of Warcraft’s shivarra and succubi creatures are given similar motifs, one being called a “foul demon dominatrix” by a human questgiver.

Players are therefore left on their own if they want to color outside the lines. In the shadowed world of ERP, players must weave their own stories of love, lust, and everything in between, with no help or guidance. The resulting culture is a paradox: emancipating gamers from the sexual monoculture of mainstream gaming but trapping them in new (albeit sexier) fetters as well.

***

In 2011 I interviewed two ERPers for a project at the feminist gaming blog The Border House entitled “Cyberfucking While Feminist,” with the intent of exploring gender’s valence in ERP.

The two women I spoke to were adamant that ERP had allowed them to experience a magnificent sexual awakening. One spoke of the “raw sexual power” she felt after a good ERP session; the other felt it lent depth and complexity to the character she played, providing a compelling backstage to her adventures in WoW’s Azeroth.

Yet they also had to navigate a tricky minefield because of the silence around ERP that prevails in gamer culture. “I really dread the idea of my ‘normal’ friends ever finding out that I enjoy ERP,” one said.

The women also talked at length about the way gendered double binds seeped into the play, one explaining that ERP is “used as a means of argumentum ad hominem. It’s a way of discrediting someone.” Just as in the physical world, in the realm of RPGs, a woman (or a man roleplaying as a woman) is most easily vituperated by insinuating that she has an active sex life.

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When I caught up with one of my interview subjects to probe her thoughts for this piece, she described ERP as a “sword that cuts both ways.” It could be “positive and affirming, potentially,” but also a “conduit of toxicity and sexual insecurity.” She recounted how one man on a popular ERP forum would act out misogynist fantasies with the women he ERPed with, even when they said they were no longer comfortable with a scene or being contacted by him. “You do have to remember that creeps exist, and the sexualized nature of the roleplay only encourages them to express their worst side,” she said.

The mainstream world of RPGs, in its various games and guises, tends to take no responsibility for such behavior, instead pouring scorn on the entire exercise, even in its most benign forms. Exploration and education are actively discouraged, considered too racy for open discussion in most game forums and source material.

But even the most chaste forms of romance remain suspect, and when they are discussed openly it tends to be in deeply disturbing ways. When romance is done well in roleplaying games, by contrast, many male gamers have been known to sound off rather violently on the matter. Roleplaying of any romantic sort becomes suspect for emasculating forces in gaming and, to some gamers, represents a cancer to be cut out.

Just as romance is segregated on bookstore shelves and consigned to feminine irrelevance in the physical world, romantic roleplay gaming—whether or not it expressly involves anything sexual—is looked askance at, as something that somehow drains roleplay gaming of its grittier essence and threatens to drown epic storylines in cooties.

This antagonism to romantic plotlines in roleplaying games has a strongly gendered character to it. When former BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler was viciously harassed for expressing her views on game design, she was hit by a wave of male displeasure about her role in writing romantic plotlines for BioWare’s Dragon Age video game series. Amid a slew of misogynist slurs, she was told she should go write “young adult romance novels,” and that she wrote for “middle-aged women who read yaoi fanfic.” Many men complained about what they alleged to be “forced gay romance” in Dragon Age 2 (DA2), blame for which was partly laid at Hepler’s door, since she wrote one of the game’s gay characters.

Despite the singular lack of smut in these games, they are still condemned as aggressively sexual and even emasculating. A popular complaint from heterosexual male gamers about DA2 was that even if they roleplayed as men, a male character by the name of Anders would flirt with them. (Yes, the phrase “shoving homosexuality down our throats” came up.)

This soaring level of original discourse is matched by YouTube comments on a video made by a young man exploring Goldshire with his character and reading out the hypersexual profiles of other characters. (Sample text includes “macro futa, loves giant booty, blow jobs. Turnoffs: all gore, watersports, scat, boys, other futas (sorry).”) While some ERPers disdain this sort of flagrance and adopt more subtle or less-graphic approaches in their roleplaying, the popular response to this knows no such distinctions. One commenter on the video simply said, “ok that is just gay.” Another says a lot with a little, writing “ya all need to get this shit off of [WoW] its a fucking game NOT A WHORE HOUSE.”

To be sure, the pornographic roleplaying profiles of many of the Goldshire characters are shocking to the uninitiated, replete with all manner of kink and fetish jargon. But the anger sired by this more extreme group of ERPers, who are primarily interested in roleplaying fetishistic sex, is instructive. Another commenter says, “It’s actually kind of rare that dudes do that…,” defending the idea that this pastime is feminine in nature, and not something that real men would be caught doing. Other commenters aver the opposite: Female avatars, they claim, are all played by men because only lonely, horny men would ERP. Teenage boys are scapegoated routinely, presumably because of “raging hormones” or some such.

Whatever the pearl-clutchers argue, it turns on questions of gender and proper gendered behavior: Whether one believes all ERPers are lonely housewives or pervy teenage boys, each myth is a defense of threatened masculinity. “Real men” should have “real” (heterosexual) sex available to them, and ought to have no need of cyber sexuality. In my time playing WoW, I saw that argument appear repeatedly on forums: Real men got real chicks, pathetic men roleplayed their sex. There was no other reasoning. Women who ERPed, meanwhile, were met with the same opprobrium that greets all sexually active women.

“The old double standard is still there,” said one of the women I interviewed, when talking about attitudes among ERPers. “Male character, tons of women in his e-harem? Total stud. Female character, unabashed and confident about sex, isn’t really ashamed of her various partners? Whore.”

***

What this antipathy to romance and eroticism evinces—beyond the obvious prejudices—is a collective unwillingness to openly explore a universe of stories that allow for more complex roleplaying. Romance, after all, is a huge part of our lives; though it is considered a stereotypically womanly interest in its narrative form (which by itself accounts for its vicious devaluing in RPG culture) it affects us all regardless of gender, and the best plots in RPGs or player-driven stories often draw from that wellspring of human experience.

This is not to say that everyone should ERP or romantically roleplay, but we must bring this kind of play out from the shadows so that it can no longer be used to shame roleplayers, reinscribing a virtual madonna/whore complex.

This means being able to discuss ERP without fear, and that game developers should welcome and sanction it rather than pretend that such groups do not constitute part of the fanbases. Are there models for this social magic? Happily, yes.

Monte Cook Games’s Numenera is an independent, crowdfunded pen-and-paper RPG with a lightweight set of rules (less math and dice rolls, more actual roleplaying) and a heavyweight story. It is set in the “Ninth World”: Earth, one billion years in the future, after eight hyperadvanced civilizations rose and fell. The setting of Numenera is that of a society rather like Game of Thrones but considerably less bleakly patriarchal, and with more explicit magic. That magic comes in the form of the titular “numenera,” the technology left behind by the eight previous civilizations.

Simply for the sheer, lovingly crafted scope of its vision, it is worth checking out—perhaps even as a game for first-time pnp roleplayers. But it also stands out for being one of the very few games to have actually given thought and care to sexuality and romance in its setting.

That’s where writer and lead editor Shanna Germain’s excellent 13-page supplement Love and Sex in the Ninth World comes in. Though purchased separately from the main book, it’s worth every penny of its $3 price. In its introduction, Germain manages to go further than most RPGs with two simple sentences: “When bringing love and sex into a game, it’s important to remember that most of our modern-day sensibilities about those topics don’t carry over into Numenera. Because people of the Ninth World don’t have the same cultural norms, pressures, and expectations that we do today, they have very different views of relationships and sex.”

Unlike most other games (which, despite their fantastical settings, just give us reruns of television and film clichés about love and sex), Germain digs deep into the larger source material to compel players of Numenera to think differently about how they play with sex and gender in their games; she skillfully harnesses the climate of alien unfamiliarity to pique player curiosity about kink, queerness, polymorphously perverse morphology, and more. Much of what she describes in these all-too-brief pages is not unfamiliar to some of us—queerness, transness, BDSM, sex toys—but she queers it all again through the vagaries of the titular numenera. The hyperadvanced technology suffusing the otherwise medieval setting magnificently warps and distorts the society.

Enchanted sex toys—preternaturally cool rods that stay chilly regardless of temperature, a randomly vibrating sphere, super goo that assumes any shape, devices that change a person’s physiology—all abound. Rituals and wildly disparate norms of gender also populate the text, as do frank discussions of all the ways sexual exploitation can occur in the setting. Rather than eliding such things or shying away from them, Germain makes clear the dynamics inherent to coercion, rape, and sex trafficking, as opposed to enthusiastic consent and sex work as a career.

She does this through the authoritative voice of the text (which, in most roleplaying games, dictates what the entire game world looks like) but she also takes things a giant step further by encouraging that all-important discussion in the text. Time and again she encourages openness and respectful dialogue among players to sort out the understandably controversial and, perhaps, discomfiting material they are presented with. But what this also does is short-circuit the “everyone knows” fallacy that suffuses other roleplaying games by reminding players that, when it comes to sex, everyone doesn’t know; boundaries and comfort levels vary, and the most important thing in introducing sexual roleplaying is to respect that, Germain argues.

She also throws a wrench in other long-standing RPG conventions by stating clearly that no player should feel their character is being compelled to do anything sexual that they want no part of—for example, “forced seduction (‘I have a numenera device that puts you under my control, and there’s nothing you can do about it’) and impossible circumstances (‘Sleep with me or I kill your loved ones’).” If only such rules had been in place in one D&D game I played where the dungeonmaster took his title a bit too seriously and imposed impregnating tentacle rape on all of the players.

Bringing consent and dialogue back into the picture, as Germain avers in her Numenera ruleset, would go a long way to preventing players from stoically facing such nonsense during their leisure time because they don’t know how to say no, or know of any sexual alternatives.

There are hopeful signs in Paizo Games’s Pathfinder as well, where a good deal of text has been devoted to new imaginings of fantasy religion that are more sex-positive, while avoiding the association of free sexuality or kink with evil or femme-fatale archetypes. Pathfinder, now the biggest rival to Dungeons & Dragons, has surpassed the granddaddy of RPGs in sales. This happened for a number of reasons, some of which would be far too nerdy to get into (I’d rather not bore you with the finer points of the fourth-edition D&D ruleset), but Pathfinder’s bid for sexual maturity and diversity is surely not repelling players either.

Games like Numenera and Pathfinder not only unravel the conventions of our cocooned hobby but also provide a model for the rest of the world as well, in an environment where social experimentation is often the norm. If roleplaying can overcome its sexual silences and slut-shaming, as is tentatively promised by these literary greenshoots of new games, then there may be hope for the rest of the world yet.

***

When I reinterviewed one of the women I spoke to for “Cyberfucking While Feminist” she told me that one critical thing in ERP had changed for her down the years.

“Five, six years ago, I’d have felt bad and ashamed about it. These days, if someone tries to call me out on the basis of enjoying ERP and being shameless about it, my response is something along the lines of, ‘Yes, I do. And you’re going to have to go to the back of the line.’” 

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Katherine Cross is a PhD student and sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center, a games critic, and a weekly columnist for Feministing.

by Katherine Cross
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Katherine Cross is a PhD student and sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center and a games critic.

This article was published in Love/Lust Issue #64 | Fall 2014

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Excellent article!

I had to repost this. Anything that gets people talking about consent is exciting. Thanks!

Thank you!

Thanks so much for a great article on this topic -- and for saying such nice things about Numenera and Love & Sex in the Ninth World. It means a lot to me to know that we're pushing this topic forward into new places!

Me and my ex used to have a

Me and my ex used to have a romantic little bathing spot northeast of Tarren Mill. East to the river full of giant turtles, then head north like you're going to the Plaguelands. Secluded swimming, cooking by the campfire...rather romantic, not to mention that little thrill of maybe getting caught?

For us Hordies, Goldshire's not only crowded, and a little too fetishistic, but enemy territory. So you sneak off where you can.

More tabletop RPGs that go way beyond Numenera

This is great article, but I wanted to ale the author aware of some other tabletop RPGs that have been pushing the boundaries with regards to sex, many long before Numenera.

Sex & Sorcery (a supplement for Sorcerer, 2004)
http://adept-press.com/games-fantasy-horror/sorcerer/sorcerer-sword-soul...

S/Lay w/Me (2009)
http://adept-press.com/games-fantasy-horror/slay-wme/

Bacchanal (2005)
http://www.halfmeme.com/bacchanal.html

Kagematsu (2010)
https://sites.google.com/site/creamaliengames/Home/kagematsu-the-rpg

Monsterhearts (2012)
http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/monsterhearts/

Hot Guys Making Out (2013)
http://celstyle.com/?p=727

Breaking the Ice (2005)
http://www.blackgreengames.com/shop/breaking-the-ice-pdf

There's probably more that I'm not remembering right now. :)

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