Putting Rape on the Table: How to Play Safe, Push Boundaries, and Break Barriers

I'm going to start this by putting a big content warning on this article. I didn't when I wrote about abuse in gaming, and I hurt people. That was shitty of me. So in case the title didn't give it up, this article is going to contain a conversation around rape. In this article, I will discuss the inclusion of rape as a theme, a trope, and a tool in gaming, and a bunch of stuff around that. If this will make you hurt or uncomfortable, I recommend not continuing. If you feel comfortable, please proceed, but with caution.

When I was eighteen, I met a guy. He saw me, he liked me. We became a couple. He was abusive. Physically, emotionally, verbally, and eventually, sexually. I had to do things for him to be able to just walk by him. He'd hold me down when I was sleeping and rape me. I didn't know this wasn't normal. We broke up. I started casually seeing someone. We had sex. We got drunk a lot. I said I don't want to have sex anymore. I got drunk. He had sex with me after I said no. 

These are two types of rape. I experienced them. I was told I was lying. I was called a lot of things. I was isolated. I was dealing with trauma for a long time after. I'm not telling you this so you can feel sorry for me. I have had enough sympathy from people to last me a life time. I'm telling you this so you know I'm not an impartial party coming to the table to tell you what to do, and that I'm coming at this topic with sensitivity, experience, and layers of thoughts around it. It's not an easy topic and it's not going to be one everyone agrees with. Now this being said, my experience is unique to me, just like all victims, and my experience is not universal. It does not give me the right to speak on behalf of rape victims. I speak on behalf of me. That's it.

When it comes to problematic content, I've heard the gamut of responses from a variety of people. Everything from "I can do what I want, it's my game" to "we're making art here, we do what we need to do that" to "nope, never, not okay" and finally to the most common "I don't know, maybe?". While I don't fundamentally agree with some of these opinions, none of them are inherently wrong. I can't tell people what to do or how to do it. I can offer some insight as a rape victim who's said all of those things at one point or another in my almost twenty years of gaming. There are people who believe some topics are just immediately off the table and some who believe they should be included because nothing is off the table and some who think that it can be included but they don't know how. A smaller crowd still thinks problematic content can and should be included, and they have an idea of how they would want to see it.

The question of rape in RPGs came up after I was recently added to a group of designers who are making challenging and politically focused games on hot topics to fight back against the influx of Trump-era politics. Everyone chose topics near and dear to their hearts. I had already been working on a game that meant a lot to me about rape culture, and I naturally gravitated back to it. As I worked on this game, I wondered how okay it was to have a game about rape. Was it okay at all? Was I forcing something that I shouldn't?

In my other two games I'm actively working on, Crossroads Carnival and The Arena, rape is, well, part of them too. When I played a Monsterhearts game awhile ago, I brought in statutory rape as a conversation piece. In my new Monsterhearts game, my character is in a semi-serious relationship with a man in his 40's and he's grooming her to be his partner. I'm not fighting this. It's uncomfortable territory and I know it's got some gross undertones. In an Urban Shadows game, my character was drugged and had sex with someone, who was actually possessed by an ancient wizard. I didn't really think of it as intensely at the time, but I knew my character had been damaged by that. It was rape. And she had put it to the back of her mind to figure out later.

Why was I bringing so much rape to the table and why was I okay with that? For the longest time, I was part of camp "no way not ever never" and was adamant that rape not be in games. I thought rape in games normalized rape culture and helped enforce the gross stereotype that happens in more traditional games with female PCs getting raped by male PCs. I thought it would legitimize the narrative of raped woman as plot device for male PCs, as seen in pop culture, and I never wanted to see that in a game, not ever.

Me on my first date with my rapist
When I first played games, rape was something that was part of the culture but not really discussed. It was just present. It was assumed in ways I hadn't noticed. I was part of this. I had assumed certain characters I had had been raped and it never really crossed my mind. At that time, I hadn't been a victim of rape and it was in media everywhere. Buffy was almost raped by Spike but she still loved him. He just had done it because he loved her and wanted her. Rape was in media. It was normal to see. It was bad, sure, but it made for common story telling.

After my rapes, I began to notice the themes a lot more. I began to notice when a bad guy was painted as extra bad by just noting he raped women. I noticed when the threat of rape was a motivator for male PCs to save a woman. I noticed when it was used as a plot device, often a revenge story, for a female character. I don't think I ever saw rape used against a male character as a plot device, other than against a woman in the man's life. I noticed it, and it hurt. It stung to see people use it as a trope, as a device to make someone more evil. It wasn't like that in real life. People who rape weren't seen as evil. They were justified. They were given validation. So why in games, then, was it so different?

I became someone who spoke out against rape culture shortly after. I began to learn more and more, I found other victims, I found other people who got it. I wouldn't ever be the same and it took me years to figure out some stuff in my head around it. But I knew that games shouldn't have rape. I knew that they shouldn't have that kind of topic at the table. I knew that I was going to fight against rape culture forever and one way of doing that was removing rape as a topic in gaming. It shouldn't be for entertainment. Ever.

Lines and Veils became a thing. We talked about things we wanted off the table to begin with and thus began my eight year history of immediately listing sexual assault as a hard line for me. Every game. Every single game. Sexual Assault. I wrote it out time and time again. After a few years of writing, I said it out loud.

A Monsterhearts game I was in resulted in the Ghoul's hunger, having sex with my character, coming up as he became his darkest self. There was a pause. The player looked at me and grimaced. I looked at him in perfect understanding. In that moment, I was okay with it happening. It was a new moment. I was okay with my character being the victim of rape. Why? I was ready to talk about it, I suppose. I was ready to tackle what had damaged me so much in game.

The X-Card hit the Toronto scene hard. I began to feel safe at the table. It was a tool that immensely helped me create a space I felt I could tackle stuff in. I stopped saying Sexual Assault when lines and veils came up unless I didn't feel ready at the time to tackle it. I had found a way to begin to explore content that I wanted to deal with, but at the same time, wanted a way out of if it felt too much. The X-Card was the solution to me and it changed how I gamed.

But now for the big question. How did I include rape in my games in a way that avoids all the stuff I hated? I know how I got here. I know my journey. And I know my identity and how it has changed because of my experiences. I know I can watch Mad Max Fury Road and Jessica Jones and feel empowered. I can see Game of Thrones and hate every second of it. I can exist with rape existing and know it should exist as a part of media and a part of games.

Why? Because it happens. I don't want it to happen. I think rape shouldn't happen. But it happens. It happens all the damn time and we have ways of sending the message that it's not okay while also exploring what rape means and how it impacts those involved. We can watch movies about it, play video games that include rape tropes, and we can read books that have all the rape. Many of these will use rape a way of showing how evil someone can be. Not many will show the impact on a victim, or how it spreads through a community and can divide a town. It won't show the house burning down when a teenager is called a liar for accusing the jock of rape. It won't show the PTSD. It won't show the people demonizing you.

In gaming, we have the option to explore really upsetting content and to break it down and tear it apart and understand it. We can play with power dynamics. We can experience identity crisis. We can feel the frustrations of body dysphoria. We can sympathize and empathize with our characters. Games allow us a platform to experiment with situations and experiences we will never experience ourselves, and allows us to break down some of those experiences and show why they're harmful. A game like Night Witches shows the hardship women fighter pilots went through. A game like Grey Ranks talks about the horrors of war. A game like Cartel lets us empathize with Mexican gangs. A game like Velvet Glove lets us rage at the system of power set against young women.

Games can give us the space to unpack this information. Now, how do you bring something like rape to the table? Well, the first step is understanding rape. I don't mean reading Game of Thrones and pretending you get it. I mean genuinely reading victim accounts, looking at the psychological and physiological impacts of rape, researching what happens to victims when they tell authorities, friends, loved ones, and reading the stats around rape. Understanding rape culture will go a long way in allowing you to play with it in your game.

Secondly, make sure it's a theme or story that everyone is okay playing, and decide how rape will be handled. It must, of course, be a good long conversation around tone, expectations, and what it will mean in the fiction. Check in, have your safety tools on hand, and make sure to do check ins after game to ensure everyone's feeling safe still. Some people won't want to play with rape in a game, and that's okay. We're making space here, not taking it away.

Also make sure everyone understands it's not a theme to be taken lightly and it's not a trope. It's not here to make someone lose agency, but to provide a pathway to empowerment and to help someone find agency. The key is in that the story is about the victim, not the rapist or those who know the victim. It's their story. Not their rescuer's story. Finally, I encourage you to play this kind of theme with people you trust. People who will call in if there are issues or will discuss their concerns openly with you.

Once it's clear people are buying into what you're setting up, talk about how the rape will happen. Will it be off screen? This is what I recommend. The rape itself isn't the part that generally wants to get played out. It's everything around the rape. It's what happens to the victim after, how they are treated, and how they respond. It's going to be more so about them, their movement forward, and their actions around it. Make sure that expectation is clear. Then talk to the person whose PC is the victim. Find out what they want out of playing that story and how you can best offer that as a facilitator or GM. We don't see the rape in Jessica Jones or Mad Max Fury Road. We don't need to. We only need to see the impact.

Understanding rape culture and what your player wants will let you better facilitate that and ensure that how people who are victims are treated is clear. Engaging this content will let you explore rape culture, how we can break down rape culture, and what it looks like in game. It will let people who have experienced rape unpack things a little, respond like they wished they had responded, or deal with something in a way they hadn't thought of before.

For me, it's been cathartic. It's let me find power in moments where I have never had power. It's let me explore being a victim from different angles and lets me feel like I'm bringing a conversation to the table that isn't usually explored. It isn't explored for valid reasons. It's totally okay to say you don't want to play with something as heavy as rape. But do keep in mind that we play with something as heavy as murder all the time. It's a regular part of gaming. I mean, we call it killing, but it's still murdering a person. If we can play with heavy things like mental illness, murder, sex, romance, and torture, why can't we play with rape?

Yes. There are people who will be triggered and harmed by bringing rape to the table. This is why consent is a big part of the conversation. You must get consent from all your players ahead of time, and if something comes up that's too intense, an escape hatch is necessary. It's mandatory. People need to be able to breathe and get air. They may need to walk away for awhile or they can quit. It doesn't matter what as long as they feel safe. Your goal should be to provide a safe place to explore this topic, not a topic you demand to play with and force others to buy into. You as a designer or GM are not god. You are there to provide a group experience.

I'm not done my journey with rape in gaming. I know now that there's a place for it, and it's something I want to explore. It took me a long time to get here. It's why I say all the answers are right, kind of. As long as the topic is being treated with the respect and integrity it deserves, as well as the consent from the players, it's a topic you can explore. We can unpack a lot of things this way, and rape is only one of topics in problematic content that gaming can tackle. If we start designing and playing and running games that deal with rape as a real issue, and unpack how it happens and how it's allowed to continue happening, we won't have games anymore where random female PCs get raped. Because everyone will know that shit isn't cool.

Because they'll have a chance to experience the trauma and impact a rape can have on a victim. They will see it, hell, they may even experience it depending on what side of the table they're on. Every chance we get to break down the normalization of rape (and other issues) is one I think we, as an artistic community, are responsible for taking.

Why am I including rape in my games? Because rape matters. It matters to me a lot. It's impacted my life directly, as well as the lives of many, many people I know. Across all genders and all sexualities and all ethnicities, rape is a problem. It hurts so many people and we remain silent on the culture that allows it to continue. We are seeing the birth of games that deal with racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. We're seeing more and more games tackle mental illness and trauma. It's an amazing time to be a gamer as we watch our artistic community take on big topics and knock them out of the park, or at least learn along the way.

Rape will be one of these topics. It's already a topic in some games, and I'm sure, as we continue to explore the deepest worlds of problematic content, more and more people will begin to see how we can use gaming as a social tool to break down problematic culture and to empathize better with those victims we may have been isolating and hurting before. We can be heroes, absolutely, and we should be by using our tools available to create safe gaming environments that let us understand and fight back.

My journey here has been long. About seventeen years long. It took me being a victim to understand the gravity of rape in gaming. It took me understanding my trauma to want to make games about it. It took me a long long time to get from where I was to here. I was raped eleven years ago. Today I am writing a game about it. This is how I'm fighting back. This is how I am choosing to make a difference. I will still be wary about playing this with people I don't trust and don't know. And that's okay. Everyone should play (or not) as they want to. That is to say, if you want to engage this theme in a way that's meaningful and not as a plot device for some non-victim character, then go for it.

I died my hair green after breaking up with my abusive ex.

What not to do? Don't make it a trope. Don't add rape just to make a bad guy more bad. Don't use rape as a tool to get players to do what you want. And for the love of all things wonderful, don't make rape jokes. If it's in the game, it should mean something. The threat should be real. And it should be treated consensually out of game. If you're going to play this, then play it. And mean it. Statistically, you are guaranteed to know at least one person who's been sexually assaulted. Don't be a douche.

There will always be space to push further and harder in gaming. We will always find new ways to relate to one another and new ways to explore problematic content. I hope you find ways to engage this material in meaningful ways, and find yourself challenged by it and growing because of it. There are always ways forward, and using our art to break down normalizing rape culture is one of them. So go ahead, be vulnerable. Stay fierce.

Fighting Back