We’re back and we’re heading into uncomfortable territory. This is our discussion about extreme subject matter in games. As you might surmise, the conversation gets a little unpleasant at times. It is hard to talk about things that genuinely upset us without talking about things that, um, genuinely upset us. Inevitably, this leads us to discuss topics such as sexual violence, cruelty to children and animals, gore, necrophilia and cannibalism. If you are worried that we might bring up something you really don’t want to hear, it’s probably safest to assume that we do.
We start off by trying to define our terms, using examples from media — mainly horror films — that exemplify what we mean by “extreme”. We largely focus on the difficulties of portraying extreme content, whether this is repelling your audience, being so focused on transgression that you fail to do anything interesting or crossing the line into unintentional farce.
This episode isn’t just a catalogue of atrocities, however. We try to identify where our own boundaries lie, how to handle it when a game crosses the line and possible techniques to stop players becoming uncomfortable (in the wrong way) without neutering the game. This last topic in particular, tricky as it is, is one we care passionately about. All three of us run a lot of horror games at conventions or online, often for people we’ve never met before, and there is a world of difference between making someone’s skin crawl in a fun way and stirring up horrible emotions that will leave them upset afterwards. Finding that balance isn’t always easy and we’ve all made missteps.
This was one of the longest recording sessions we’ve had. We spent the best part of three hours dissecting these topics, trying to work out where our respective boundaries lie and why they are there. We were stopped only by sore feet and the encroachment of teatime. Paul has been fairly brutal in cutting down our rambling, removing redundant examples and circular arguments. We hope that we have left you with only the juiciest meat of the discussion.
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I think the film scene that most affected me was the “curb stomp” from American History X. I’ve watched horror movies since I was 6, and that is the only time I’ve ever winced. I don’t remember if they even explicitly show it, but it got to me all the same. Another instance, from a medium you guys didn’t touch on, is the rape scene in Alan Moore’s Neonomicon. I also started reading his Providence series when it came out and promptly stopped once I saw that it too contained rape scenes.
I can’t remember how graphic the kerb stomp was, but I think it’s one of those images that is conveyed powerfully enough through implication and sound that it has a visceral impact even if you don’t see it.
Oh yes, Neonomicon… That scene was gruelling, and not in a good way. I really like Moore’s Lovecraftian work, but the rape scenes have come close to driving me away. Given the nature of the scene in Providence, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but I would have been happier never to have seen it.
An interesting conversation. I personally had never considered safety until I was exposed to the wider rpg community. I’ve deliberately played ‘close to home’ in the past and been left unmoved and so I was very surprised during a game where my character suffered a particular injury and I suddenly shut down. I needed someone to reach out to me, to my character, but when I tried to do so in character my PC was rejected and the situation became even worse. I kept thinking that it was obvious that I needed help and was waiting for the GM to do something, but they didn’t notice. I was being impacted out-of-game and so I needed to address it out of game, but I didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to do so. It not only impacted how I felt in that game, but it also impacted how I felt personally about the GM for a long time after. I’ve taken safety more seriously since then, but still I’ve been affected and affected others without even realising it.
‘Lines & Veils’ were introduced by Ron Edwards in Sex & Sorcery (2003), a supplement to Sorceror. His stated intent in introducing them were as a tool to allow a group to introduce explicit material without become dysfunctional (a term he had defined earlier). Unlike a ‘Palette’ (introduced in Microscope in 2011) which is explicitly generated at the beginning of play, I’ve always felt that lines and veils can be should be added to during play. In one game I played, my character (an immigrant on his first day in a new city) was killed suddenly and we decided that I should transfer over to play his wife. I asked to veil the scenes where my new character learned that she had just been widowed because I was not prepared to play those scenes. None of us could have predicted that such an event would have arisen or such content introduced at the beginning of the game.
In this sense, the X Card (which, as the podcasters say, was created by John Stavropoulos in 2012) is redundant to lines & veils because isn’t the X Card just adding a line mid-game? I recommend having a look at the introduction to the X card here http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg “[Introducing the X Card at the beginning] can be more useful that the X-Card itself. It makes it clear that we are all in this together, will help each other, and that the group of people playing are more important than the game.”
For me, roleplaying is fundamentally a collaborative exercise and I won’t be having a good time if I see someone else having a miserable time.
But Lines and Veils and the X Card are both just tools and – like any tool – they’re only effective if they’re used. In my example at the beginning, by the time I realised I was in trouble the game had moved on. Even had the X Card been on the table, because I was shut down, because I was looking for an in-game solution to and out-of-game problem (attrib. Baz King), because I hadn’t practised using it before, I probably wouldn’t of. Think of it, I would have to raise my hand and tell the GM that I needed to retcon the injury they’d inflicted on my character after I failed a roll 15 minutes ago.
These and other limitations of the X card have been often discussed as there are many limitations and ways to misuse it. But it is just one of an arsenal of ways (many are listed here http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/comment/439163/#Comment_439163 ) that we have to try and help everyone have a good play experience.
The safest way to play is with people you know, who you care about and who care about you. All these tools are just ways to try to bring that culture of support and consideration to a group of people you might play with who you don’t know so well.
I forgot to mention that – when playing with strangers – I find the safest way to play is to be the GM or facilitator. It gives me a huge amount of control over the content of the game, I’m not attached to any of the characters I play, and if I say something didn’t happen then there’s little argument about it.
I feel a lot more exposed when I’m a player.
(PS a good thread about beneficial experiences with the X card)
This was a fantastic episode – touching on some difficult themes which I think you handled in an appropriate way. I’ve used the X card once at a con – it wasn’t touched but I could see the players appreciated it and I would certainly use it again.
On the subject of sex in RPGs, I can see Matthew’s point and I think the reason that ‘we’ are generally happier with violence in games than sex is a cultural thing. Relate it to movies – most people would have no issues inviting friends over to watch a movie with violence in it (eg Die Hard – everyones’ fave Christmas flick!) or even a horror movie, however I suspect that there is a much smaller percentage of people that invite friends over to watch a sex movie…
Sex is implicitly intimate; for most, the enjoyment of it takes place ‘behind closed doors’ with loved ones. Sex is us at our most vulnerable and sexual violence attacks that vulnerability directly – reason that (for me at least) is it the worst kind of violence. Few people are comfortable being vulnerable, even with fellow gamers, therefore exploring sex in a game is not something people are generally comfortable with IMO.
As an aside – I was driving whilst listening as just as you described the central premise of The Human Centipede, my radio cut in with the traffic report just as the reporter said “-there’s a nasty queue!” 😀
Keep up the great work, and topics.
the movie with the puking guts is called The Gates Of Hell.
Thanks, Jerry! Looking at IMDB, it was released in the US as The Gates of Hell, which I’d not encountered before. In the UK, they used City of the Living Dead, which was a cut-down version of the Italian title, Fear in the City of the Living Dead.
I love the variety of weird and wonderful names that horror films of the 1970s and ’80s accumulated. It can sometimes make it a bit tricky to confirm whether you’re talking about the same film, however.
For example, I watched The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue under a couple of different titles, thinking the second time round that I was going to be seeing something new.
“Ichi the Killer” is my limit. I lasted about 5 minutes before turning it off. It is truly nauseous.