Consent: It’s not a new concept, although it’s been focused on in the media lately. Defined as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something,” you’d think the idea would be universal, especially in a country where we (supposedly) value self-autonomy and personal freedom.
Most of us were taught this idea as children, to respect others and ask permission before you do something. Not saying society is perfect, as we have entire “cultures,” not to mention recent issues, that violate consent, yet the overall idea has been around (and championed) for decades.
Here at PCU, we’ve talked about consent in cosplay, conventions, and Renaissance Festivals, but what about consent in other aspects of geek culture? This Tabletop Tuesday, I want to talk about how the concept goes hand-in-hand with tabletop RPGs.
As mentioned in our article on social contracts, when you sit down to play a game, everyone agrees to many things. This arrangement can include anything from what games are played, what themes or topics should be avoided, or what to do if someone isn’t having a good time.
Consent is the core of a social contract; without everyone agreeing to what’s about to go down, you can’t have a good game. From GM to the players, once the game, themes, topics, and limits are decided, everyone is permitting to play within those lines.
Good friends usually understand each other and have each other’s consent overall; an agreement and permission are often based on years of relationship. Even friends may need to talk about heavy topics or personal barriers, especially as real life and situations change.
The real test of consent in RPGs is among strangers, which often occurs at conventions, Meetups, and other less-committed gatherings. When random people come together for a game, social contracts and consent are even more critical.
That’s why the events this past weekend at the UK Games Expo are an excellent example of the importance of the concept.
During one Things from the Flood game, run by volunteer GM Kevin Rolfe, the players found themselves confronted with a situation and experience to which they did not consent. The GM decided to have the characters kidnapped and gang-raped, without any forewarning in- or out-of-game, much to the dismay of the players.
Let’s be clear – it’s one thing if you’ve talked to your players and they’ve either requested, or agreed, to these sorts of themes, topics, and scenes. It’s another when the description of the game you sign up for has no mention of adult topics, let alone ones that probably belong in an indie film banned in multiple countries.
This GM created a false social contract by advertising a generic Things from the Flood session. When you sign up for a game with strangers, the description is what you’re consenting to and what you should receive.
The fact that Rolfe supposedly admitted he did it “for the shock factor” is all the more problematic. As we’ve mentioned before, the RPG industry is done with edgelords, most of whom care more about “the lulz” than consent.
Luckily, UK Games Expo publicly apologized and removed that volunteer. I certainly hope Mr. Rolfe is blacklisted from ever GMing at any convention ever again.
Why is consent in RPGs so important? For one thing, this problem stretches beyond just “wrong services received.”
When consent in gaming is violated, it’s more than receiving something unexpected. We’re not talking about seeing a movie you didn’t know was a Horror, being sent a “descriptive” romance novel from your local book club, or not knowing what a specific food dish is until it’s in front of you.
We are all individuals with our personal tastes, beliefs, limits, and even traumas. It’s basic empathy and compassion to not willfully expose people to things that are questionable without their permission.
You wouldn’t let out a sling of foul language or slurs in front of somebody’s kid, would you? Or joke loudly about rape in a public place? What kind of person makes insensitive remarks about death around people who’ve recently lost loved ones?
The same is true when playing RPGs, where players agree solely to what’s been discussed or advertised, including consent to adult or controversial things. I’m not saying you must “tip toe” out of fear of offending or causing distress, but at some point, there are topics or acts that most everyone with a shred of decency and civility knows they shouldn’t just spring on people.
When you decide to run a game, you need people’s consent to use those things. If you don’t, and you just want to shock them, you’re not only violating the social contract, but you’re also a jackass.
Another aspect of RPGs and consent is to consider the investment that people have in the game and their characters.
For good or ill, an RPG character is an extension of ourselves, even if it’s only our imagination or delusions of grandeur. We invest a lot of mental and emotional energy into our characters, from backstory to motivations to play.
It doesn’t matter if we’re merely playing roles in a GM’s story or we’re cooperating with them in everything from NPCs to world-building; even the meekest player puts themselves into these roles on some level. Therefore, when someone violates what we consented to upon creating the character, they are violating our real-life consent as well.
Imagine an actor who, after months of practice and rehearsal, finds out they’re expected to get nude or have a sex scene. Similarly, some authors or directors might find their works edited into a completely different, and possibly uncomfortable, story.
When this creative extension of your self is put into a situation you didn’t agree to, it’s much more than just being exposed to something you don’t like. It’s a violation that can have similar effects to real-life trauma, especially if it’s a personal barrier for the person.
I’m not saying we should go full Chick Tract over our characters, but we also shouldn’t expect heinous in-game behavior or situations any more than real-life ones, especially from those we trusted as friends or fellow gamers.
The lack of consent in RPGs has been an issue for a long time, given the sheer amount of complaints women have regarding GMs using their characters to live out their sick fantasies. Luckily, the industry has responded with entire chapters on consent and rules at conventions, in addition to tools like the X-card.
There will always be detractors who whine about how sensitive people are, but let’s be clear: consent is NOT a grey area. You need to be clear from the start what an activity entails, and if nobody permitted adult or controversial aspects, then you do not include them.
It doesn’t matter if it’s dancing, dressing in costumes, or sitting around a table throwing dice and telling stories. Consent is necessary at all levels, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
If you can’t get down with the idea of consent in TTRPGs, then I suggest you keep your “shock factor” to sessions with personal friends…if you even have any, with that sort of attitude and behavior.