Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Playing a Person vs Playing a Character

"What pitfalls should you watch for when presenting queer, kinky or poly romances?"

You'll get this in a second...

I was just in a great panel on +Indie+  about romance in rpgs. One of the questions we were asked was, how to avoid pitfalls when portraying gay, pan, or kinky relationships? As we were answering this question, I thought to myself, there is a bigger question here and that is – how to you respectfully portray people other than someone like you?

If you have ever asked yourself this, you are a good person and thank you for caring :). You want to make sure that you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable over how you are portraying someone they may identify with.

I feel, the answer to this question is very simple – you are playing a person not a character. Often in rpgs, we use the term Player Character or PC and while I am convinced this is because if you used Player Person there would be far too many giggles at the table when everyone declared what their PP was going to do, there is some merit in discussing this.

What if you woke up tomorrow and liked men instead of women (or vice versa)? At your core, your secret –private-wonderful self, would you change? The answer is most likely no, the only thing that would change is the fact that you liked a group of people you didn't like before. You are still you the good, the bad, and the lovely.

Furthermore, saying that you are playing a character rather than a person (or dragon-person etc.) removes yourself from your character. It puts a space between the two of you, stating to the world – this person is not real! It is good to have some distance between yourself and who you are playing, otherwise we’d be crying each time our character got  hit, but if you want to treat your character with respect you should see them as more than words on a character sheet.

I’d like to give two examples (on what not to do and what to do) that I hope help illustrate this, one is a personal experience and one is about one of my favourite video game characters.

What not to do:
Me, Liz the derp

If you don’t know anything about me, what you need to know most for this story is: My name is Liz, I am half Thai, half Italian/American, and a woman.

I played in a group with someone who played a character who was half Asian, half American, who was a woman, who was highly sexual, in a sadomasochistic relationship with someone who kept her hostage for years, and she was also called Lizzie. I feel, at its base, this was not an offensive character concept. We play role play games because we want to explore, people should not be penalized for this.

The likeness between me and Lizzie was an innocent brain fart of her creator. However, there she was, and I identified heavily with her, at least the Asian/American/woman/peoplenamedElizabeth parts of her. As the game progressed, the only way Lizzie handled things was sexually. If she wanted to convince someone of something, she’d get on her knees, if someone wanted wanted to speak to her, she’d get them in bed. While this is not a character I would choose to play, this is not what I found offensive.

What I found offensive was, each time Lizzie would fail at a seduction, the player would declare they had done all they could do and there was nothing more in Lizzie’s power to do.

This is what angered me. This living, breathing character who had such a carefully crafted back story, who lived through Apartheid, who had the strength to break free from her captor after so many years, was only able seduce or bust? This showed me that Lizzie was the caricature of ‘the slut with a heart’ rather than a person with any type of agency.

If I imagine myself with even half of the back story that Lizzie had, if I failed at seducing someone, there would be fifteen billion things I could think of doing rather than saying oeps that is my only card. Lizzie just wasn't real, she wasn't a person, she was a character of a stereotype of a person, and this was her flaw.

What to do:

Clementine is one of my favourite video game characters of all time. For those of you who don’t know her, she is a young girl of colour who is living in the zombie apocalypse of the Walking Dead. If you ask anyone who has played the games about Clementine, how I just so sparsely described her is not what they would say.

Instead, you’d get responses like, “Clementine kicks friggen ass!”or “...But she’s little!” (omg the feels O_O).  While some people may describe her as kid in passing, I am willing to bet no one is going to say “oh she is a kid of colour”.

This is because Clementine, as a character, as a person, is more than the colour of her skin and her age. Like everyone else in the world. Clementine could have been a Irish girl with freckles, an Asian girl with straight black hair, her story would not have changed, and she would be just as awesome.
Clementine’s back story and age may have shaped who she was, but it was not all she was.


We play games to explore facets of life that we have not experienced before, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, push our own boundaries, and to have fun.

I feel like we can do that and that games are a safe place to explore. I also feel that the gaming community is, just as equally, a place to be yourself and feel like people treat you like the person you are. That you play with people who care more about who you are than the colour of your skin, who you love, or what gender you identify with.

How do you portray a character who is someone other than exactly like you? Treat them like a person :).

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