The Evolution of the Depiction of Rape in Larp

The Evolution of the Depiction of Rape in Larp

Content Warning

Description of role-played and simulated rape scenes. Graphic or suggestive images of rape, assault, and trauma. Minor spoilers for some French-speaking games.

Foreword

This article is the amended translation of a piece that was originally published in French within the context of internal discussions within the French-speaking larp scene regarding emotional safety tools and calibration. I have since come to consider that it could be of interest to a wider audience. However, It should be noted that many of the examples that I will present may only be understood within the context of the French local scene. Furthermore, this article will only focus on rape depiction and simulation within the game’s fiction, not off-game incidents of assault.

Introduction

Why is rape such a specific issue in larp?

Depicting rape in larp is often used as a prime example to demonstrate the importance of organizer communication and emotional safety in larp. When we role-play violence in larp, physical violence can be more easily dissociated and put at a distance. As horrible as the perspective of murder can be, it is rare enough in most of our daily lives that we can accept it as part of the fiction and, in most cases, without thinking that it might happen to us.

Rape or sexual assault, however, remains a very real risk to women. We might discuss specific numbers and statistics, but it can be said with certainty that among the participants of a larp, there will be former victims of rape or sexual assault.  Most women have been confronted with the fear of sexual assault, including a whole series of measures meant to prevent it, from the way they dress to thinking about how they will manage returning home in the evening. And this is not limited to women either: men, trans, and non-binary people may also have lived through sexual assaults in their past or have reasons to fear assault in the present.

Consequently, depictions of rape in fiction — and for the purpose of this article, I will consider larp as a form of media — can be more impactful to a significant part of the audience than other forms of violence. As such, choosing to depict or allow role-playing rape scenes inevitably has a stronger impact, and will often fall under close scrutiny, owing to the fact that it is still an issue that impacts a lot of people.  

I have found it interesting to observe the way that organizers and participants have handled allowing — or not allowing — role-playing rape scenes in larp. I have found these decisions to be emblematic of cultural changes both in larp writing and social perceptions surrounding rape. I will try in this article to present an overview of this evolution, and how, in my opinion, it can inform us of the interconnection between larp, media, and cultural representations. However, this article will only represent my own experience as a larper and creator, and does not aim at being exhaustive or impartial.

Painting of an ancient city of people engaged in violence and rape
Jacques Stella, The Rape of the Sabines, mid-17th century.

Trivializing Rape

During my second larp, back in October 2001, which was part of a now-terminated Drow campaign, my character was knocked out by two other characters and robbed. Fair enough. That situation was written in the rules, and, as a beginner, I hadn’t learnt to walk with my back against the wall at all times. After that scene, right before leaving, one of the two participants in the scene added, “And before leaving, we rape you.”

As in many games of the time, there were no simulation rules for sexuality. In campaign games such as this one, sexuality was mostly managed off-game to produce offspring that could become playable characters if your own character died. Games that offered rules for sexual simulation usually used mechanical rules: dice; cards; marbles, oftentimes with some random draw that would determine the quality of the relation; and sometimes a “pillow talk” mechanic, in which sharing intimacy could lead a character to share an important secret to their partner. However, the issue of sexual violence or coercion was rarely broached explicitly  — except in rare cases of complete prohibition, more on that later — and was considered, therefore, possible.

Here is another emblematic example. In the mass larp campaign La Faille (or The Rift, which ended in 2007), the orc faction would organize fictionalized rape of female characters.  They would mark the victims’ clothes with green at the buttocks to signify what had happened to the character. While some of these scenes might have been discussed beforehand, it is certain that negotiation and consent was neither written into the rules nor systematic.

In the context of these early games around 2000–2005, integrating sexuality rules was an answer to the objective of creating a 360° realistic representation and mostly “sandbox”-type game. In this style of game, players had to be able to do any action they wanted. Rules only came into play when an action was considered impossible (e.g. magic) or dangerous (e.g. fighting). Physical contact was completely prohibited. In that context, depictions of rape simply represented something “that could happen,” just like in real life. The practice was acceptable because there was no physical contact and because rape was usually only mentioned verbally.

Rape scenes were usually performed by characters that could, in this manner, display their violence and could establish their role-play as a “villain.” Rape usually had no consequence in-game.

Rape as a Narrative Device

Meanwhile, we could also observe games that, while prohibiting rape in-game, used it as a narrative device in the game’s backstory. Rape, in this case, has consequences that take the form of in-game conflicts and dramatic outcomes. As illustrations, I will mention three examples from the so-called romanesque style. I played witness to the plot in the first game and the rape victim in the last two.

In Greenaway’s Feeling (played in 2007), a Victorian-era game, I played as the governess to a wealthy family. One of the secrets of the family is that the lady of the house was raped before her wedding by a friend of the family. The game ended with the rapist being killed in a duel. In the second game, Spirits (started in 2008, played in 2013) I played as Maggie, a girl from the working class falling in love with an upper class aristocrat. Maggie was then raped by her lover’s cousin in what constituted clearly a punitive action on the rapist’s part. This storyline was lifted directly from the novel that inspired the game, A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Fowlett, published in 1993. In the run I took part in, the rapist also got killed in a duel. The final game, Noces de Cendres (The Ashen Wedding, 2012), was set in Argentina in the years following World War II. My character was a famous socialite, raped as a young woman by her wealthy patron, and bent on getting revenge. The game invites a resolution where she poisons her rapist. In my run, he was shot to death by another of his enemies.

It must be noted that, in two out of these three cases, the resolution of the storyline resulted in a duel between two male protagonists, taking away the agency from the female victims, and that the “rape-and-revenge” trope was invoked in the last one. Furthermore, due to the historical context, a significant part of the story revolved around the victim being shamed and forced into secrecy.

Important note: I still consider these games to be good and I generally had strong experiences playing them. However, these games are a reflection of the fictions that inspired them – sometimes picking plots directly from books used as inspiration. In these stories, rape is the traumatic inciting event that kickstarts the narrative arc for the female characters or drives the conflict. However, It feels important to point out that, in spite of their qualities, these games reproduced some of the stereotypes around rape that also can  be found in certain media.

A woman in a jail cell and western clothing bent over and crying
Conscience 2.0. Photo by Stefano Kewan Lee.

The Criticism and Rape Prohibition

I think that criticism and changes in the way rape is depicted in larp appeared in conjunction with criticism regarding the depiction of rape in media and fiction, as well as demands for changes in that regard. The subject is regularly broached in the media, mostly regarding the use of rape as “shock value.”  Regarding larps, two arguments were at the forefront of discussions: imposing rape scenes without the participants’ consent and using sexual assault as a cheap plot device.

First and foremost, some members of the community argued that imposing rape in the storyline was neither agreeable nor fun for many participants for the reasons already mentioned in the introduction.  In cases where the possibility of rape was left open on the grounds of realism and 360° immersion, some argued that even a larp with an ambition for immersion has to enforce limitations on its players and some degree of abstraction, if only to accept, for example, that fake weapons will be real and wound the characters. Some participants claimed that letting players impose rape scenes upon others went against their own enjoyment of the game and sense of safety. Even a competitive player vs. player game could find ways for players to act against one another, including violence, without making rape part of the arsenal. Of course, in real life, rape is indeed a tool for humiliation and a weapon of war. Larp, however, remained a fiction, and even the most historically accurate larp makes choices in terms of what it can represent. Therefore, it was possible to contend that taking away rape from the larp wouldn’t change the narration in most cases, but would make the game experience safer and better for all.

The second argument criticized rape as a cheap and somewhat overused plot device. That critique was not as severe, but pointed out the fact that rape was too often used as a cliché, either to justify a dramatic conflict or to illustrate the cruelty of a character or the world. So it was not so much the existence of rape narration that was at stake as its treatment and recurring aspect, e.g. making it a staple of most pre-written female characters. These critics underlined that there should be other ways to establish the unforgiving quality of a world or set up a character as an antagonist. Additionally, it was important to diversify female narratives using other angles than rape. The use of rape as a “shock factor” to show how dark a situation is, if not used to bring an interesting narrative, tell a good story, or deconstruct prejudices, can simply become derivative; these stories can contribute to trivializing rape; perpetuating stereotypes about rape and sexual assault; or invisibilizing survivors’ experiences.

Because of these issues, larp design choices and communication surrounding rape depiction has significantly changed in the 2010s, with an acceleration in the wake of the #metoo movement. Sexual assault is frequently forbidden in games, with some games even banning any role-play around sexuality at all. If rape appears in the backstory, it will be explicitly communicated and only played with the participants’ consent.

Due to these changes, communication and participant consent have improved. Most organizations now present a design document stating which themes and issues can be expected in their games, explicitly asking participants to write down issues they don’t want to play. It must be noted that, when I have handled participants’ sign-ups as an organizer and what they didn’t want to play, I had many male players requesting not to play a rapist. I also know many people who prefer to pass on any game mentioning rape, which in my opinion is a perfectly valid position.

Can Rape Be Responsibly Depicted in Larp?

This last question will of course be open to debate. Many people state that rape should be forbidden in larp altogether, which is a very understandable position. However, I would like to give a couple examples of games that, in my opinion, use rape in their scenarios in such a manner that it brings a real narrative depth, avoiding the issues that I addressed previously.

The Swedish game Last Will (2014) presents a not-so-distant dystopian future in which big corporations have re-established legal slavery. The game fiction takes place in a modern gladiators’ arena and depicts teams of fighters and the arena personnel. One of the categories represented in game is the Pleasers: sex slaves whose purpose is to exclusively serve the needs of the fighters. This game is a Nordic larp with clear expectations in terms of safety: the themes are clearly communicated well in advance, the character distribution is done according to participants’ requests, violent scenes must be negotiated, and any scene can be interrupted with safe words. Ars amandi was used to simulate sex and was practised beforehand during workshops.

My character was a fighter called Sol. She was forced to perform sexual acts in front of the medical examiners charged to evaluate her. As a reaction, she became in turn abusive to her own Pleaser, Eden. She was then forced to witness Eden’s rape by one of the guards as a punishment for her repeated insolence and transgression. In this game, the presence of sex slaves and the possibility to play rape scenes was part of the construction of a dehumanizing environment for the characters. After the game, discussions among participants and the viewing of a documentary on modern slavery were used to contextualize the whole experience.

My own game Flowers of May takes place in a Parisian brothel in 1910. One of the prostitutes, Violette, is there against her own will. She has been locked up and blackmailed into accepting it before the beginning of the game. The game doesn’t allow the depiction of rape with violence, but the character being threatened and coerced means that she undergoes at least one rape scene over the course of the game. Using inspiration from Last Will, the game also uses ars amandi and follows along the same lines in terms of safety and communication. Sexuality and sexual violence are a central theme of the game. This character is used to show that rape happens any time there is coercion, not only through direct threat and physical violence. The game in general explores the interconnection between sexuality and power.

Finally, Conscience 2.0 (2018, created by NotOnlyLarp in Spain, is another recent example. The game was inspired by the TV series Westworld and is set in a Western theme park populated by extremely realistic robots. Sexual violence and nudity were possible, but only in certain predetermined spaces, also called zoning. This practice has been recently introduced as a means to set up boundaries and allow players to steer towards or away the most intensive forms of role-playing (more examples in “The Larp Domino Effect”). As always, communication was extremely explicit about sensitive themes, with workshops and safe words. Participants who wanted to play on physical or sexual violence had to signal it by wearing a small white (physical) and/or red (sexual) ribbon over their costume. Sexual scenes were simulated in full clothing, while real intercourse was explicitly prohibited. Any scene of sexual violence had to be negotiated following a pre-scripted discussion. Here again, integrating sexual violence against robots sets up the action within an abusive context and, the more the robots were gaining consciousness, to question what makes a human being. Between characters who treated the robots as literal objects and those who wanted to defend their humanity and rights, the visible and brutal depiction of sexual violence could be a catalyst in these conflicts.

In that larp, I played an abusive character who was intended to enable others in engaging in violent interactions. My characters very routinely organized collective rapes and torture sessions. The strict safety rules of the game allowed me to constantly check the well-being of the players who performed as my victims. Playing as an oppressor was way out of my comfort zone; it was indispensable to me to know that playing these violent scenes improved the game experience of other players and was not only there to show my character’s menace and physical superiority.

I cited these examples because they have, in my opinion, common aspects. They all use sexual violence to show how the environment dehumanizes the victims of violence. They all try to deconstruct the way this violence operates, in particular how it can be trivialized. I believe that an essential difference from the examples I treated in the first paragraph is there: the rapists in these examples don’t see themselves as the “villains” and the characters themselves are not written as such. They simply consider using other human beings’ bodies as their right, whether as a client or simply from their position of privilege. Rape is not used for the mere “shock factor,” but to serve as a discussion about the type of society that renders the banalization of rape possible. I believe that the stories created in this context are all the more poignant for that.

Members of a western town watch as a woman character straddles a prone man character in the Conscience larp
In-game photo of the author’s character in Conscience 2.0 (2018).

Discussion

I originally wrote all of the above in a French context as a means to promote the importance of safety rules and mechanisms. My goal was to underline the necessity of building a culture of explicit consent whenever sensitive issues are portrayed. I especially wanted to debunk the all too common notion in my local community that implementation of emotional safety structures would condemn any game depicting violence or abuse by highlighting some games that treated such issues while putting participants’ well-being first.

However, the discussion surrounding that piece of writing and the general handling of controversial themes have also led me to the following reflections:

1. Larp doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Larp, among other things, exists as a medium and is therefore inspired by societal representations and the media we consume, sometimes explicitly by directly using existing franchises as a setting (e.g Wizarding World, Vampire, etc.) Even with a small audience, a larp will be part of the construction of a certain discourse and representation and should be analysed as such. The criticism that was levied against the abusive use and representation of rape in French larp stemmed from such media criticism approaches.

2. Change takes time. The evolution that I present in this article stretched over years. I can also personally recount how I deconstructed my own internalized prejudices over those years before taking a more active role in promoting emotional safety rules, creating guidance for prevention of harassment, and defending a culture of consent. Increased global exchanges and digital communication may accelerate some of this process of acculturation, media criticism, and change of opinion, but they still take time nonetheless.

3. Managing resistance. The cultural shift that is described in this article took time, and was met with quite a lot of resistant comments, one of the most frequent being that depicting rape was just “realistic.” In fact, I have yet to see any safety technique or communication that wasn’t met with some form of resistance. In this instance, change was brought about by a combination of communicating about the subject (e.g arguing why trivialized depictions of rape are problematic), valuing good practices (e.g organizing or promoting games with a clear safety policy), and, in some cases, avoiding games that do not have clear communication on these issues. I also believe that the issue with rape depiction was a good example and gateway to discuss safety issues, since the line between organizers’ freedom of creation and players’ safety was pretty clear in that case: trivialization of rape led players to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the game, or even to avoid larping entirely. Taking the subject away didn’t hurt the structure of most games. Creators who wanted to handle rape as a sensitive issue could still do it, only with a better knowledge of the kind of communication and careful management that it requires.

Conclusion

By writing about the depiction of rape in larp, I hoped to highlight some important cultural changes that occurred in the media around these issues and subsequently in larps as well. Through these examples, I tried to show that you can absolutely handle sensitive issues in larps, but that a clear communication and safety policy is necessary. I used the example of depiction of rape to show how a design choice (or lack of consideration of it) could create a disagreeable, or even hostile environment for some players. Additionally, changes in communication and techniques have made the practice safer and more inclusive. Finally, I opened the discussion by affirming my belief that there are probably other issues and techniques that are still to be explored. My hope is that discussion on these issues will continue.

References

Algayres, Muriel. 2015. “Last Will, Second Run.” Electrolarp, February 2, 2015. https://www.electro-larp.com/886-larp-review-last-will-second-run

Algayres, Muriel. 2017. “Character-Based Design and Narrative Tools in the French Style Romanesque Larp.”  Nordiclarp.org, February 20, 2017. https://nordiclarp.org/2017/02/20/character-based-design-narrative-tools-french-style-romanesque-larp/

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2018. “The Larp Domino Effect.” In Shuffling the Deck: The Knutpunkt 2018 Companion Book. Edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner. 161-169. ETC Press. https://nordiclarp.org/2018/02/14/larp-domino-effect/

Montero, Esperanza. 2019. “Conscience, Layers of Reality.” In “Knudepunkt 2019 Summary.” Nordiclarp.org, February 12, 2019. https://nordiclarp.org/2019/02/12/knudepunkt-2019-summary/

Orsel, Amelie. 2015. “Les Fleurs de Mai.” Electro-GN, September 29, 2015. https://www.electro-gn.com/9845-critique-de-gn-les-fleurs-de-mai


Cover photo: Last Will (2014). Photo by Lisa H. Ekbom.

Editing: Elina Gouliou, Mo Holkar.

Authors

Muriel Algayres
Muriel Algayres is a larp designer from France, who also works as a History teacher and researcher in Education. She is the creator of Harem Son Saat, which was run both in France with Role Association and in the Czech Republic through Rolling International. Her short formats include Flowers of May, la Vie Bohême, Sorority, Between Limbo and the Veil, and Ghostbusters by Gaslight. She was also a contributor to the #feminism anthology, and a character writer on Fairweather Manor and Suffragette!
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