Wednesday 23 March 2016

On Slavery, and the Violation of Consent

Page of Wands

This post carries a warning. If you are offended or distressed by discussions of human consent and the violation thereof or if they bring back things you'd rather they didn't, please stop reading. I'm on your side here, believe me.

If you like my writing and you agree with what I'm getting at, you can still support Chariot here, and I would love you to do so. VII.CHA.BE.CHA

OK, look.

Chariot is a game built on source material written by imperialists, racists, and at least one prolific paedophile, and on the visceral way I responded to that when I was an adolescent. Re-reading these books over the last twelve or thirteen years, and it's been that long, truly, since I started the first of my Atlantis projects, it struck me that what I wanted to do was approach that the way that principled historians view history. And in writing my game anew from the archaeological detritus of my boyhood imagination, and figuring out whatto do with it, I decided to put these things front and centre.

That is, I wanted to address it, to tackle it. I imagined a world where these things were factual, and written by Victorians, and then imagined how a modern voice might look at these facts, and how different the truths that we drew from them would be.

Scott-Elliot and his whiskers.

So here's William Scott-Elliot, who in 1904 described in a single, matter-of-fact, throwaway sentence how the Atlanteans he so admired (whom he incorrectly cast as "Toltecs") enslaved the Rmoahals. 
" was from these dark races who inhabited the equatorial provinces, and the extreme south of the continent, that the Toltec conquerors subsequently drew their supplies of slaves."
— Scott-Elliot, The Story of Atlantis, (1990 edition, p29)
Let's unpack that: slavery is a thing in Scott-Elliot's Atlantis. It's a big thing. It's so big that he doesn't feel the need to talk about it.

It's part of what you expect of an imperial culture. Bear in mind that while Britain had abolished slavery about seventy years before this, Scott-Elliot was the product of an education system based on a completely uncritical presentation of Classical Rome. And what that meant was that he would have seen slavery as a perfectly normal insitution for a successful ancient culture. Duh, they had slaves, move on.

And the literature that informed Scott-Elliot, that formed the glasses through which he saw the world, didn't see slaves as worthy of comment. And Roman literature as it is handed down to us never challenges slavery as an institution. So you get things like this:
It will be best that cubicles for unfettered slaves be built to admit the midday sun at the equinox; for those who are in chains there should be an underground prison, as wholesome as possible, receiving light through a number of narrow windows built so high from the ground that they cannot be reached with the hand.
— Columella, De Re Rustica I.6.1, Loeb 1941
Think about that for a moment. Columella says quite openly that slaves are naturally stupid, shiftless and dishonest, because if they weren't they wouldn't be slaves (and before you mock that as ancient and dumb, it's not a million miles from the opinions of people who rule us – you only have to look at the assumptions of George Osborne to see that). But look at what he wrote. Do you think these people – these people – feel OK with slavery as an institution?

They're so OK with it they need really high small windows so they don't get out.

"But it was different then! People didn't challenge the institution," said so very many people while I was doing my time in Classics academia, to which the answer is how can you know? 

The only voices we hear are the voices of people who are part of the establishment, and voices sanctioned by the establishment.

That was a digression. I'm not sorry about that.

So I wanted to have slavery in the fiction of my game setting, and tackle it head-on. When you're enslaved, your personhood is negated. Your voice is stolen. And... the issue of whether you consent to things that are done to your body is taken away.

Look, I've tiptoed around this for a long time, and this is the only place I'm going to discuss this, but I'm talking about rape.

In Ancient Rome it was taboo to talk about having sex with your slaves. But it happened all the time. All the time. And when you start talking about a person-as-chattel, consent is almost impossible to untangle. It's actually irrelevant as to whether the slaves wanted to have sex with their masters or not, because they didn't have the choice. Masters and Mistresses could use their slaves' bodies  without any question of consent.

And that's rape. Rape is about power at least as much as it is about sexual desire, and in a sense, slavery is, if not an act of rape itself, a de facto prelude to it. The violation of a human's agency and consent; the seizing of control over a person's body. The removal of personhood. 

This is relevant to Chariot because I made the setting pretty much about a slave economy. I talk about it all the time, and I haven't mentioned the sexuality of it except in the most roundabout way. The most direct reference to it is in the existence in the setting of the Thralls of Leagh, people turned into what are in effect pretty-looking zombies (and if that isn't a metaphor for slavery-as-the-theft-of-personhood, well, I might as well just give up now), whose categories include the euphemistically named Thralls Decorative. I don't have to talk about what the point of them is. You're clever people. You get it.

Here's where it gets thorny and painful and hard to swallow: a culture based on a slave economy doesn't have a rape culture, it is a rape culture. It is a rape culture in and of itself, and the reason I don't spell that out elsewhere is I don't need to.

What I'm saying here is that if you're going to tackle slavery in your games, there is a chance that it's going to veer into difficult grounds. I talk about sexuality in Chariot, too. When there's sexuality openly acknowledged and slavery is openly acknowledged, rape may well come up.

How to handle that?

I'm trying to create an entertainment that is supposed to have some sort of artistic legitimacy here, some metaphorical weight, that is more than a throwaway entertainment. I want it to handle difficult, painful things. I want to deal with poverty and economic inequity and racist oppresssion. Yeah, I've filled my Atlantis with silver warriors on sabretooth tigers and sky-chariots and blue cyborg amazons, but they're there to sugar-coat the pill of a world with terrible inequities and injustices that are no worse than any real world, that can't even compete with the real world (in the same way as I used futuristic science fiction and comedy to sweeten the horrors of market capitalism in MSG™).

And also, I made a game that rewards you mechanically for caring about people. My intention is by incentivising this behaviour, bribing it if you like, players will lean into it, create situations where they role-play empathy. And that means putting yourself in situations where you have to care. So again, it makes sense that this is going to butt up.

At the same time, it is a game. A role-playing game has a sense of what some people call immersion to it, a way of playing into a world and participating in a shared pathworking.

(Footnote: Patricia Pulling got it so very wrong when she thought that having a character who could cast Magic Missile might put you in touch with Satan, but let us not pretend that a role-playing game can't be a sort of communal magical working. In some ways that's what this kind of role-playing is by definition, and that's why certain sorts of religious conservatives are so very scared of it still. Because it's about asserting the power of imagination.)

I think that if everyone knows what slavery means, you don't have to spell it out. Don't be prurient. For example: to steal a scenario from a recent popular movie, a runaway slave woman is pregnant; her former "owner" is desperate to retrieve her. You don't need to be told why or how this came about or why they are both motivated this way. The simple facts there are enough. Rape is a reality in that setup without ever having to be mentioned once. You don't need to say the words. The horror is there, and its consequences.

You absolutely don't need to show it. The implications and the consequences are enough. I cannot think of a valid situation where playing out an act of rape, or having the real-time event described to you, could ever be something that you would need to have around a game table. The most sensitive way to treat this is through its implications.

Rape is not a backstory. It's not a rationale. It's not a plot device. It's a pervasive horror that plagues our society, and for many, many women and a fair few men, an insoluble trauma. You can't trivialise that. You might have people around the table who are deeply uncomfortable or distressed by the very mention of this. If you don't know the people you're playing this game with so well, and you're going to bring these things up, maybe it's worth talking about it. 

The bigger a thing is, the less you need to talk about it directly, and that works both ways. You just need to know it's there. Which is why I wrote this in the first place. Because it needs to be said, to be owned... but it doesn't need to be said any more than it has to be said. And you can confront it, I want you to confront it, I made a game designed to encourage you to confront it, and you can do that without prurience. 

I'm done. The implications of my game setting are horrible. They're supposed to be horrible. Sometimes implications are all you need. And you may never have to say the R word.