Too Easy: A Response to James Desborough’s ‘In Defense of Rape’

By Alexander Leach

Gaming writer James Desborough’s post defending rape as a literary device has caused a bit of a stir. It might be more appropriate to say that the responses to it have caused the stir – Responses, counter-responses, a PR message from Mongoose, a publicized email exchange, and an online petition to game company Steve Jackson Games to cease printing work by Mr. Desborough have made their rounds around the Web (and apparently, as the email exchange claims, resulted in several threats of rape towards the petitioner). I haven’t read the whole closed thread on, but it looks it exploded like prima donna player who’s dice roll was forgotten.

It’s undeniable that Mr. Desborough’s pretty smug about it, spending most of the post chiding his critics (even before he added in a message, he spent the first few paragraphs belittling those who immediately react negatively to all depictions of rape). His unfortunate choice of title has undoubtedly contributed to the response. I have not read his other contributions on sexuality and gaming, but the relevant ones appear to mostly be satirical works on sex in gaming and depictions of female gamers. I haven’t read any these contributions, so I can’t say much on how offensive they are; what I have seen isn’t something that I’d hope anyone would actually use in games.

The responses to him, particularly the petitions, One of them makes an interesting point in the final paragraph – he doesn’t really address why it’s referred to as a ‘lazy plot device’.

Desborough’s blog post is essentially stating that rape can be used effectively as a plot point – something he outlines himself in later posts. However, his abyssmal choice of wording makes it rather difficult to see his argument, along with kinda avoiding the main point. Mostly, he outlines how it can be used as a plot device, and criticizes arguments that its normalized in a roundabout way (You’re upset about this article, ergo rape is not normalized).

….you know, I think I actually want to spin this off in another direction. The controversy regarding his blog post (the argument regarding rape and misogyny as being ‘normalized’ in RPGs and the debate against works promoting mistreatment of women), are not really something I can readily address. I don’t support glorifying rape or misogyny, and I don’t support trivializing female gamers. Desbourough’s own views aren’t readily apparent, and while card games parodying tentacle rape and books mocking female gamer stereotypes are debatable in themselves, they’re not the actual issue he first presented.

But the question is never really answered properly: Why is rape considered a lazy plot device?

Because, simply put, it’s a terrible plot device.

Rape immediately evokes an emotional reaction in the reader/player, one that’s so powerful that it overwhelms everything else (hence some of the controversy about this blog post, though most is due to actual legitimate concerns). Often the context of it doesn’t even matter. If someone is raped in a story, most people are going to go ‘oh crap, that’s awful’.

Secondly, rape has a lot of known, psychological effects. As Desborough outlines in his lengthy description, characters who suffer this can react to it in all sorts of ways. These reactions can be found in real-life examples – I’m sure you can find a wealth of psychological cases on responses to rape. Therefore, a writer could (I did not say ‘should’) use it to justify character drama, or flaws, or personal motivations. After all, it’s such a bad thing, it surely must be the source, right?

And that’s laziness.

When RPGers create characters, we want to play someone a certain way. We may want to have someone who’s damaged psychologically, or who has a phobia or other personal weakness. We may want them to have to overcome this – we may want them to hate someone, or fear something, because it’s more interesting. We may need a reason why we’re killing vampires for a living.

“The character was raped by [insert target here], so [insert character trait here]” is an instant character reason. It immediately evokes a reaction in the players surrounding you, regardless of context or circumstance. Secondly, it can be stretched to cover any character trait you can think of, relying on how inherently hated it is among players. There’s no effort required on the part of the creator; they don’t have to make a justification.

Because of this utility, however, rape also carries a ton of baggage which can actually limit its use. If you use it to justify a flaw, a whole other slew of problems crop up in the game that warrant discussion. When you’re playing an RPG, this can bog a game down, and cripple them. It pretty much has to be the core of the character’s motivation and personality to be used properly; it will always have an impact, and it will always be defining. Ignoring these implications and saying ‘I just needed to excuse a trait’ trivializes it.

Can it be used effectively in an RPG? Yes, it can, with proper awareness of what it means to people and to characters. It has a LOT of baggage, though, that RPGers may not want to deal with. When Desborough says its a “fucking awesome plot element, one of many”, he refers to it in terms of utility and scope and emotional impact. The problem is that this is an example of fallacious and frankly poor writing, where rape is used as a means to an end in a story. Rape is NOT a narrative device; it’s a physical act that occurs in real life. Treating it as as something that rests in a player’s toolbox of words to provoke a reaction, rather as a human action provoked by human reasons, is pretty cynical and sociopathic thing to do. It’s not an attitude that belies well-reasoned characters.

And in the case of dungeon crawls or ‘RP light’ games (Games where it’s more about the action than playing a role), it’s just out of place. These games aren’t supposed to have complex, dramatic RP, so having a character a victim of rape is far out of place.

So unless you want to have it dominate your character, find another reason. It can’t be much harder.

On that topic, I should perhaps do a post on the creepiness involving Lara Croft’s newest depiction. It’d go well with my other post on Elizabeth.

Leave a comment


  1. Bubkiss

     /  October 28, 2014

    So rape is OK in a video game story only if used a certain way… who decides that? If rape is not OK at all, who decides that? If rape is OK, who decides that? Do you really think you should be the one deciding for everyone whether it’s OK, or just OK in certain ways?

    How many fiction books do you read? Are there things you don’t like in them? Excluding things that are against the law to have in a fiction book, are there some things you wish all fiction books wouldn’t have? Do you think your choice should be limited by what someone else thinks shouldn’t be in a fiction book you might read?

    Do you think you should be able to determine for all fiction writers that they can’t have what you don’t want in their books? Do you think you’d want a bunch of book readers telling you what you can’t have in your books?

    It’s the same thing with video game stories. Writers put in what they think is compelling. To tell them they shouldn’t have this or that because you don’t like it is ridiculous and stomping all over their creativity and my freedom, and reeks of fascism and book-burning. I may get something different out of it than you did, and it may not be what you think, and it may not hurt anybody.

    To limit writing to rules of not having things in them that be of something traumatic that happened to somebody is to turn our culture into a culture of fear, of weakness, of blindness, of ignorance, and of arrested growth. This isn’t the crony capitalism, this is story-telling, and the free market can decide what they will and won’t read and what is right or wrong for them to read in stories.

    • I apologize for approving this late and replying late.

      I will point out first that I neglected to be clear that Desborough was referring to pen-and-paper RPGs, yet was arguing on behalf of literature. Pen-and-paper games have a considerably different dynamic than books or video games because they are cooperative stories focused primarily on narrative and reliant on being in a group. People being upset about content can actually damage or disrupt a game and you have to take personal comfort into consideration. Rape is a subject that many people aren’t comfortable roleplaying and I think any narrative impact isn’t worth the prospect of reducing the game’s fun.

      I don’t believe that I addressed video games specifically (I read it over last night – I wrote this post years ago), and was mostly focused on literature.

      Criticism does not equal censorship. Pointing out the real-life gravity of something used as a literary devices and pointing out the consequences if it’s portrayed poorly is a perfectly valid observation to make. If rape is portrayed in a cheap way, there’s no reason that can’t be pointed out and in turn debated.

  1. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood | Department V

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