Book Review Of Violation: Rape In Gaming

Book cover by Ei Jane Janet LinMaybe you don’t think of the words “rape” and “gaming” being used together very often, but according to Clarisse Thorn and Julian Dibbell, co-editors of a new anthology, perhaps you should. They recently released Violation: Rape in Gaming as an e-book and paperback, and as we MSP readers know to expect from Clarisse’s other work, this is a thought-provoking foray into the collisions between sexuality and subcultures.

Thorn’s introduction reflecting on game rape, feminism, S&M, and selfhood is one of the highlights of the book, giving readers some framing terms and concepts to accompany us through the rest of the essays. Thorn describes her involvement with feminism and with the BDSM/S&M/kink communities, and she draws some intriguing connections between the use of negotiated boundaries and safewords in BDSM and consensual reality in role-playing games (such as how the Mind’s Eye Theater system of role-playing emphasizes player boundaries even in horrifying in-game situations).

Thorn also gives a history of gaming starting with tabletop role-playing games like D&D, and moving up through LARPs, MUDs, and MMOs. This section can help non-gamers get a glimpse into various types of games and gaming experiences. And for the gamers who perhaps don’t know as much about the study of gender and sexuality, Thorn explains concepts like rape culture and goes into the debate about whether depictions of sexual violence have any kind of causal relationship with real-world sexual violence.

The remainder of the essays, spanning nearly two decades of writing on sexual assault in cyberspace, role-playing games, and video games, present an array of perspectives on these issues. Many of the essays had originally been posted on blogs or in online forums, so the tone and level of formality vary. Co-editor Julian Dibbell’s contribution chronicles how an online community dealt with an unexpected in-game sexual assault, while Anne C. Moore gathered forum posts about role-playing game rape to offer a variety of viewpoints on character rape, particularly in RPGs and LARPs.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of when and whether it’s ever acceptable for a player’s character to be raped in-game. Along similar lines, Lydia Laurenson’s piece discussed how to include rape in role-playing games in a way that’s consensual and meant to move forward the plot. Even that, however, can be very tricky to navigate.

Darren MacLennan and Jason Sartin contribute a scathing review of FATAL, a role-playing game that is just an excuse to have your characters running around raping other characters. In a similar vein, Daniel Terdiman explores sexual assault in an MMO in beta, Sociolotron, that allows characters to pursue dark sexual fantasies, not all of them consensual. Shawn Rider’s contribution, also on Sociolotron, relies on interviews with players to understand some of the game’s appeal. Leigh Alexander’s essay is about a Japanese “rape simulator” game, RapeLay, that inspired moral outrage in the U.S. (despite it not being available there). Mary Hamilton considered the incorporation of a rape attempt into video game heroine Lara Croft’s past, asking what precipitated that decision and whether it was truly necessary.

Other contributors grappled with the effects of rape culture on their own lives. Courtney Stanton, a professional in the video game industry, wrote about her decision not to accept an invitation to speak at PAX (a major gaming convention) because of a rape joke made by the conference’s sponsors. Hint: it’s not because she was a humorless feminist, but rather it had to do with her comfort level as a rape survivor who didn’t want to be in a venue full of men wearing popular T-shirts with a rape joke written on them. Patricia Hernandez wrote about the intrusion of rape culture, specifically the phrase “I raped you” (meaning “I beat you”) into one of her gaming experiences and how unsettling it was.

The multifaceted nature of the essays – some by industry professionals, some by gamers, some by rape survivors, some a combination of the above identities – made them an intriguing entry-point into the intersection of gaming and sexual assault. While every essay started from the basic contention that sexual assault in the real world is a reprehensible act, they diverged in their accounts of how gaming as a form of fantasy might be able to healthily (or not so healthily) explore human responses to it. I highly recommend this book to gamers and feminists alike.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.