Ashley Brown recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester in sociology. Her thesis, entitled ‘Sex Between Frames: An exploration of online and tabletop erotic role play’, focused on how role players involve erotic content into their games and what this particular type of play means for conceptions of sexuality.
[Disclaimer: some mentions of rape and sexual violence]
At the heart of this post is an effort to define and explain the social phenomenon of erotic role play for those unfamiliar with the term. The post compares and contrasts erotic role play with other types of online sexuality and after arriving at a thorough definition, asks the dreaded ‘so what?’ question. Rather than summarise the findings of my research, as I have laboriously done in my recently-defended thesis, I would instead like to use this post as an opportunity to highlight some of the questions that arise from playing with erotic content in imaginary worlds. Although, through research, I have developed my own answers to some of these questions, they are presented here as a rhetorical exercise to illustrate not only the fruitfulness in studying how erotic role players play with sexuality, but also what this play might mean to our conceptualisation of role playing games, reality, and relationships. Answers, musings, and follow up questions are encouraged in the comments.
A Brief Introduction
From the infamous bloodninja quote in the title of this piece which has become an internet meme, to Julian Dibbel’s account of a rape in cyberspace, to Blizzard’s reports to patrol Goldshire in World of Warcraft, to table-top role playing guides like the Book of Erotic Fantasy, erotic role play, often abbreviated as ERP, has garnered plenty of media attention. Despite this, academic accounts of erotic role play are sparse. This is unfortunate as many of the questions that perennially spring up in the study of games, such as confrontations about their ethical responsibility, quandaries of their potentially corrupting influence, and how far virtual boundaries can be pushed before they become too ‘real’, are exemplified in role playing with erotic content.
My own work seeks to remedy this lack and shed an academic light on an often misunderstood and misjudged form of role play. In this short post, however, I aim not to thoroughly explore the topic but to provide an introduction and some vignettes from my field experience to generate dialogue. I will first define what erotic role play is, and then present abbreviated examples from my fieldwork which help illustrate not only how erotic role play is functionally used, but also what studying it can potentially tell us about the intersectionality of games and sexuality. To do this, I will rely on my doctoral research which focused on table-top role playing games and World of Warcraft as sites for erotic role play. Using an ethnographic approach, I embedded myself within two communities of erotic role players to understand the activity as they did. In total, I conducted interviews and a focus group with seventeen participants which provided inspiration for the vignettes presented later.
First, erotic role play can simply be defined as role play with erotic themes. Such a simple definition, however, fails to adequately explain the nuances of the act and how it differs from cybersex or virtual sex. Cybersex generally refers to the exchange of erotic or arousing messages using a synchronous chat system, such as an internet relay chat (IRC). These messages are typically exchanged without the pretence of role playing, or acting within the persona of a fictional character. With the increasing affordability of broadband connections, cybersex may also take the form of sending and receiving real-time or previously recorded audio visual materials for the same purpose. Virtual sex refers to essentially the same textual process, only with an added element of role playing. In her 1995 book Life on the Screen which studied players of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), Sherry Turkle defines virtual sex as “…two or more players typing descriptions of physical actions, verbal statements, and emotional reactions for their characters” (p.223). So rather than typing actions and speech for oneself, the MUD players engaging in virtual sex describe their character’s actions, speech, and emotions.
Although both cybersex and virtual sex share similarities with erotic role play, they also differ by way of medium. For example, the World of Warcraft participants in my research type and send erotic messages through text in a way similar to cybersex and virtual sex, however, the table-top players who meet in-the-flesh to role play verbally described their characters’ actions and reactions. Although this might seem like a minor difference, the absence of technology to convey the erotic experiences of characters has many other implications. For example, with cybersex- and to a lesser extent virtual sex- it is often assumed that the primary motivation to erotic role play is to gain sexual gratification by way of a cheap thrill. In Tom Boellstorff’s anthropological exploration of Second Life, for example, he found that participants preferred to use the term ‘sex in virtual places’ to define their erotic activities rather than cybersex (2008, p. 160). Boellstorff interprets the preferential use of the phrase as indicative of the high value placed on sexual experiences within virtual worlds. However, it may also be indicative of the physical stimulation received from the act. This, in itself, raises the important question of what really counts as virtual. If the physical body is involved in more than just typing, does the experience still exist within the imaginary? This, and other questions, will be tackled in the second part of this post. For now it’s important to highlight that for the table-top participants in my research, there was no such confusion. Although the physical body was involved in the rolling of dice and the verbal description of what was occurring within the game, erotic role play was viewed as less an opportunity for arousal and more an opportunity to either develop fully-formed, believable characters, or an opportunity to play with and push personal and societal limits on the acceptability of certain sexual acts.
Now that a broad understanding of what erotic role play is has been achieved, the post can move on to list vignettes based off scenarios I witnessed or was told about during my research, but with names and identifying information changed. These vignettes raise questions for speculation, debate, and potentially future research. I thoroughly encourage all readers of all backgrounds and levels of study to scroll down to the comments section and weigh in on one or two.
Vignettes for Consideration
Scenario 1: Ryan and Sarah have been in a monogamous marriage for 6 years. Ryan role plays in a massive multiplayer online role playing game which Sarah has no interest in playing, but is generally curious about. Eventually, one of Ryan’s characters starts a relationship with another character. Ryan struggles with whether or not he should tell his wife about his character’s online activities. He decides not to, but rethinks this decision when he begins to flirt with the player of his character’s partner outside of the game. When nude photos are sent back and forth, Ryan ends all communication with the other player out of guilt. He then tells his wife everything and she is emotionally distraught. After fully explaining what erotic role play is and how he had let it bleed over into something more, a mistake he’d never let happen again, Sarah said she understood and was fine with Ryan’s erotic role playing as long as it never again left the gameworld.
Scenario 1 discussion prompts: In this scenario, were traditional views of monogamy challenged by ERP? Is this an example of how ‘new’ media upsets modern notions of fidelity? Is it possible to truly separate in-character actions from out-of-character emotions?
Scenario 2: A group of table-top role players decide to play a game set in a fictional horror setting. To invoke terror in the players, the storyteller (game leader/ dungeon master) graphically describes a scene of sexual violence as it happens to the player-characters. When questioned about his particular use of rape to invoke terror in the players, the storyteller cites the game’s player guide and rulebook, saying that within the gameworld and confines of the game’s system such acts are permitted if not encouraged. The players defended the storyteller’s decision, stating that the scene wasn’t taken frivolously and that exploring harmful and painful topics through games can be a memorable, powerful, and emotionally disturbing experience which adds to their enjoyment.
Scenario 2 discussion prompts: Did the storyteller cross a cultural line and step too far in his use of sexual violence as a plot device? Are there some topics which shouldn’t be played with, or can games be used to test, question, and reshape moral boundaries?
Scenario 3: Amy and Scott have been in a monogamous relationship for ten years and they have role played in various online settings during this time. They acknowledge that they have an active sex life together but each have a list of scenarios or fetishes they would like to try, such as involving a third, but cannot for one reason or another. In the example of their desire to have a threesome, both Amy and Scott agree that whilst the thought is desirable, the practicalities of involving another in their activities is not. Thanks to government health warnings, they fear contracting a sexually transmitted infection as well as the emotional risks of attachment or jealousy. The couple, who erotic role played together anyway, began using the activity to vicariously experience threesomes and other sexual fantasies through their characters’ perspectives. Online erotic role play has become, for them, a type of foreplay.
Scenario 3 discussion prompts: Could it be said that for Amy and Scott sex starts on screen before it moves into the flesh? What does this mean for the traditional mind/body, reality/virtuality divide? If fantasies can be played out with few risks to physical health, what does this mean for our conceptualisation of certain types of sexuality as deviant?
Discussion and Conclusion
Although I hope you will use the comments to discuss the prompts above and develop some of your own conclusions, it is worth ending this post with some reflection. As mentioned in the introduction, not much, academically speaking, has been written about erotic role play, but this is changing. Game studies, as a discipline, seems to mirror the game’s development industry in their increasing growth and maturity. I am confident that as both areas grow a greater priority will be given to games, and ensuing studies, which recognise sexuality’s playful nature. In playing with sexuality, in a way which is regulated by the relegated structure of games, there is potential to learn more about the human condition, the natures of both sexuality and play, and ourselves.
Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton University Press: Oxford.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks: New York.