Cruel to be Kind: Abuse in Game

I can't find my boyfriend. He was supposed to be here but I've been busy trying to deal with the angel and the werewolf and all their shit. I saw my boyfriend last night. Things had gotten awful. Really awful. And he said he loved me. And then we had sex. But he's gone and I can't find him. My mom calls and I find out Vincent's at my house. But the call's cut short. You have to understand, my boyfriend... he's not like other guys. He has... this like, demon, that looks after him. Kind of. Samael is dangerous. 

I can feel the panic rise inside of me as I run to the car and drive home as fast as I can. When I run inside the house, Vincent's there, a strange look in his eyes and a bloody knife in one hand. My mother's bleeding out on the floor from multiple stab wounds.  He smiles at me, spreads his arms and says in his but not his voice: "Hello, lover." 

If you're not aware, the above bit of thought-text is from Monsterhearts, a game inherently about the messy, awful lives of teenage monsters. I was playing the Mortal, the ultimate abuse victim. The mortal thrives on being in toxic, abusive relationships and the drama that ensues from those kinds of relationships. When I chose the skin, it wasn't because I wanted to explore abuse. It was because I loved the idea of being the weak one in a world full of supernatural creatures. I hadn't played enough PbtA games to really be able to read moves and 'get it' like I do now.

I don't think I would've selected something different if I had really known what I was getting into. Not because I'm like "Yeah! Abuse!" but because I'm like "Wow, abuse." See the difference? Me either. I spend a great deal of time talking about safety in gaming, often out of character safety that has to do with fundamental rights I think all people deserve. And sometimes I talk about in game safety, providing spaces to explore things. Right now, I'm talking about a bit of both.

A lot of games now-a-days have geared themselves towards "dark" play. I put dark in quotations because there's no real working definition of that kind of play, but it seems to be play that has uncomfortable themes. It's the kind of play where puppies get eaten and children get skinned and bad things happen to good people and you're probably gonna walk away sad or upset. And hidden amongst those themes, right along side power, blood, and sex, is the theme of abuse. From Vampire the Masquerade to Monsterhearts to My Life With Master to Dogs in the Vineyard, games have been discussing the themes of abuse and inserting abuse into their foundations for a long time now.

So why is it I've read so very little about handling abusive relationships in games? Why is it I've heard from so many people that they didn't think of it at the time, but the relationships they were in whilst in character were abusive? I mean, when I was playing Robin, I certainly began to understand that what was happening was toxic and not okay, but it had been packaged so prettily in popular media to me that this was normal that I didn't think about it. It's totally okay and dramatic that the vampire bit me without asking. That's cool, right? Consent issues much?

When I started talking about consensual abuse in the context of gaming, people came out to tell me their thoughts. I love talking to people about their experiences in gaming. It gives me a chance to see other points of view than my own. I will note that most of the people who talked about being abused in game were women or trans and non-binary folks. There were a few dudes, but not that many compared to everyone else. That being said, it was still interesting to see what people said.

Overall, most folks talked about emotionally abusive relationships or situations. Many of them were about PC - GM abuse vs PC - PC. I find this interesting, because it means that we want to explore abusive relationships in game, we tend to rely on the GM to do that instead of other players. But what I wanted to know was how many weirdos out there were like me and seeking out player to player abusive relationships. The kind that the Mortal encouraged in Monsterhearts.

Abusive relationships are often a safe way for people to explore really complex and impactful emotions without having to actually be in an abusive relationship. I like to explore these feelings, probably for multiple reasons, but the one I see most often put forward is because it creates drama/tension in the game and people know that drama is at the centre of a good story. Usually when this happens, we don't stop to ask if this will create an abusive situation. We stop and look at it to see if it'll cause tension and drama, and if it does, then we move forward.

I know some people in games talk about how cathartic the emotions they feel are. I've talked many a friend through game related emotions that has caused them to think of shitty things that has happened to them, and thus, is letting them process those emotions in new ways, or look at it with a modicum of safety. This may be one of the reasons I am drawn to this type of play, because as a victim of abuse, I want ways to unpack it that are safer than looking into my own experiences. It probably isn't a perfect type of therapy, far from it, but it is a way to explore and examine our own experiences with abuse in a relatively safe way.

But why don't we notice abuse, often until after the fact? Why don't we go into a game with the intention of exploring abuse? Why do we pull back from some of the most invasive forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse or full on physical abuse? These were some of the questions I stumbled across as I asked more and more abuse focused questions.

I want to be clear that I'm not talking about nonconsensual abuse. I'm not talking about the times when some douche nugget has declared they're raping a female PC or when someone's being creepy and removing agency from another PC. I'm talking about when a PC has a relationship with an NPC or another PC and there's been a bit of talk about what's happening and everyone's said they're okay with it. Like when my vampire was gonna fuck and then kill the ghoul. I asked the player, Rob, if he was cool with that first. He consented.

This brings me to talking about how we should shape abusive relationships in games first by consent and second by regular check-ins. No one is surprised that I tend to think we should talk about how we game. If you want to explore heavy emotional content like abuse, power to you. I know I do! But try to make sure you're doing so safely and with everyone's consent. Maybe you didn't mean for the relationship to become abusive, but once it is, it's important to check in and make sure everyone's okay, and that also means yourself.

I know when I was playing Robin, and her boyfriend stabbed her mom, I was definitely not okay. My dad died when I was 14 and I wasn't ready to play a protagonist whose parent died, when she was a teen, on screen. Had there been an x-card back then, I would have tapped the fuck out of it. But there wasn't. So I sat there, horrified, and tried to find a way to reclaim my agency in game. What would have made this situation better? Vincent's, the boyfriend's, player asking me if it was cool. But he didn't. I was left dealing with something I felt horrible about. To the point where I worked at the game in my mind for a couple weeks after so I could find a way to feel okay about what had happened.

My intention with Robin had been to explore abusive relationships, but I didn't frame it that way. My intention, in my head, was to explore what it meant to be the weak one amongst supernatural creatures and have codependent relationships with them. I mean sure, if I broke it down it meant I wanted to be abused. But I hadn't thought of it like that.

Now, when I made Trish become the lover of one other character in Monster of the Week and eventually Urban Shadows, I knew the relationship would be abusive and toxic. This was a few years after Robin and I knew what I wanted to explore with her. I wanted to go in and try that again and do what Robin didn't do, endure it and not become a violent font of rage. I wanted to see healing and love for oneself, the kind of thing I wanted for myself out of game.

But the player who was playing the character Trish fell in love with was not aware how that relationship was going to go. When they figured it out, they felt intensely guilty and immediately checked in with me that I was okay. I had been the bad gamer and hadn't said what my intentions had been and as a result, my gamer friend panicked. And felt guilty. Which is a good thing because I would be more concerned if someone's character was abusive and they weren't alarmed by it if it wasn't consensual.

All of these examples of abuse in play come from emotional abuse. I have never played any victim of abuse who received sexual abuse on or off screen. Only once have I played someone who was a victim of physical abuse by the hands of her father. The father was an NPC however, and the GM was willing to explore that with me. I have also ran games with abusive parents (physical) and one game where one player implied their father was sexually abusive. I decided that, while it was in the context of the game, I wasn't ready or comfortable to tackle sexually abusive parents of children as a GM.

And yet, our pop culture is filled with sexual assault as story tool. Game of Thrones. Mad Max: Fury Road. Jessica Jones. We love rape victims. We hate rapists. Rapists are horrible people and none of us could ever be rapists because they're such bad people.* But what is it about sexual assault that takes it off the table for RPGs? I'm guessing it's the level of discomfort. No one wants to be a rapist, at least, in my experience. I've never wanted to be abusive, let alone sexually abusive, in game.

*Edit: It's come to my attention that this reads as how I think about rape culture as a whole. I want to apologize to anyone this triggered and hurt, and for my own idiocy at not seeing that, as many people don't know me who read this, my communication on this was not clear. The paragraph above is written as how I see gaming culture talk about rape and rape culture. It is not how I believe rape should be treated in media. The above statements are how rape culture is perpetuated, by using rape as a trope and by using it as a tool in media to vilify a person. How we treat rape in gaming and in media in general is not okay and that's a bigger discussion than I can fit here.

Is this some new type of challenging content we can use RPGs to explore or is it off limits because of the nature of the beast itself? I don't have an answer specifically. I know that it's something I keep looking at, given I'm writing two games that involve rape itself and one that can have rape very easily. It's something I obviously want to explore but I haven't figured out how to have that conversation in person with my gaming table. That and it has such potential to go toxically wrong and be extremely bad that it's not necessarily worth the risk.

Even physically abusive relationships don't seem to appear as much. We, as a culture, seem to say that emotional abuse is a-okay to play out because it invokes strong feelings but the minute we hedge towards hurting each other physically in a non-combat way (because let's face it, we think violence is awesome as long as it's not abusive and what the fuck is with that?) most of us tend to pull back. This is because physical and sexual abuse are the most obvious forms of abuse. We know when someone hits another person in anger, it's abuse and that's not okay. We know rape isn't okay. But the lines around emotional abuse are blurry and hard to define, which is a reason we stumble into those moments often instead of setting them up ahead of time.

Naturally there are always stories of physical and sexual abuse and they rarely come with the sentence "It made the game so emotionally intense, it was great." It's usually corresponding with "and I wasn't okay with it and it was awful." I know this is just my experience and those people who spoke to me about it, but I did find this interesting. Any reports of physical or sexual abuse were attached to an out of game feeling of violation while the many reports of emotional abuse came with out of game reports of loving and hating the experience at the same time. I think consent and intention are the big differences.

So how can we explore hard hitting content like abuse (on multiple levels) and still ensure we all feel safe? You know my answer! Have safety tools, like the X-Card and the O-Card and have consent conversations. Stop, pause, check in, and proceed (or don't). Talk to folks online between games to make sure they are actually okay with the content. And if you're going to jump into a relationship with another PC in hopes of exploring that troubled water, maybe state that intention to your fellow player to make sure they're okay with it.

Having an escape hatch will let you push a little farther. At least it does me. And I know, after asking so many questions about this stuff, I'm wanting to go out and play an abusive character. Weird, right? I've only ever played the victims. I want to be the bad guy. I want to see how it feels now from the other side and to see if I can find someone willing to go pretty far with it. Oddly, I think this is driven from a place of curiosity, and a place of attempting to understand abusers. This isn't to say I've never abused people, I'm sure I have, but that I can't comprehend someone who perpetuates that cycle as the abuser.

Gaming lets me explore that and get inside of it. In the best possible way. In a safe and controlled way. In a way that I would say, and I'm not a professional, feels almost therapeutic. I can't put myself back into the role of victim of abuse and be table to tap out of it when I feel uncomfortable any other way than in gaming. It's an accessible and relatively safe avenue to explore those complicated feelings that come from being in an abusive relationship. Sure, it's my cheap therapy. I'll own it.

Do you explore abuse? Have you been the abuser or the victim? Did you check in with folks around it? Will you next time? How far down this rabbit hole will you go if allowed? And what emotions does it let you safely explore?

They're questions I enjoy asking and questions I look forward to answering for myself for the next game of Monsterhearts I play. I'm gonna get my toxic on and consensually abuse my friends. Good times will be had. Hearts will be broken. And maybe I'll come to understand abuse in a new and fascinating way.