In the earliest articles of this series, we were looking at what might be considered the issues in role playing, those areas in which Christians might have concerns. We started with some fairly simple ones—the implications of various types of mechanics, the matter of creating settings which were different in any way from the world God created, the inclusion of bad things in our worlds. Then we started to get sidetracked, perhaps, into answering the many objections raised against role playing games, beginning with the weaker brother argument. We took many sidetracks and then started to talk about how we might actually involve our faith in our games in specific and intentional ways with the idea of playing the good guys, the first of eight generally on that subject, which included things as diverse as playing the bad guys and using Christian imagery. Then, abruptly, the focus changed when we talked about Pagans and whether modern Christian treatment of them was at all appropriate or Biblical. This opened up a new direction for the column—or perhaps merely returned us to the old direction, back to those matters which might be issues to us as gamers, such as battle and war and making deals with the devil.
Yet in all this time, we’ve never looked at the question of the place of sex and gender in our games. We touched on it, perhaps, when we talked about characters, and how role playing helps us identify with people who are different from ourselves; but then it was merely in the context that some of us through cross-gender play come to better understand the “opposite” sex. There are so many potential pitfalls in this area that it deserves some attention. The Bible appears to condemn aberrations ranging from homosexuality to bestiality and necrophilia and pedophilia to cross-dressing. How does God feel about a man pretending to be a woman, a woman pretending to be a man, or anyone pretending to be something that is not within the Biblical parameters of normal human sexuality, when that person is playing a role in a game?
The range of possibilities that have already been explored in various games is greater than perhaps might be imagined. Games have suggested playing species with no concept of family structure and what we would consider essentially promiscuous or animalistic sexual mores. There have been sexless beings presented, and beings that reproduce through the spread of spores in the air. Some have played homosexual and effeminate male or masculinized female characters, whether or not the games they played provided any suggestion or reason to do so. Beyond that, drawing on fiction, it is possible in some games to play a member of a species that is oviparous, or in which there are three genders which must combine in reproduction, or which reproduces by mating with members of other species. Once we accept that the characters might not be human, it suddenly becomes very difficult to establish any clear rule about what is appropriate sexual behaviour. We don’t expect our pets or other domesticated animals to observe the sort of sexual morality we expect of ourselves. If we were playing characters who were such creatures, or who were other creatures with no real existence at all, would it be a sin to suggest that they, the characters we are playing, were involved in sexual relationships which would be perfectly appropriate for them as whatever they are, but not for us as humans?
Taking the issue further, history provides examples of both polygamy and polyandry. Even the Biblical accounts remind us that Jacob had two wives and two female servants who bore his children; that David had several wives; that Solomon had many wives and more concubines. Outside the Bible, there are cultures in which normal sexual relationships are completely different from what we understand. Is it a sin to play an Australian aborigine, given the odd rules by which their relationships are governed? Is it a sin to play an Old Testament king, with several wives? Is it a sin to play a character who yields to sexual temptation?
We should take the question back, though, one step further. Do these details belong in our games at all, ever?
After I had raised this question and drafted my response, my regular studies took me to Song of Solomon. I’d been reading this very sensual book when it suddenly occurred to me that the intimate portrait of the sexual feelings of a woman contained within these words was written by a man. Solomon had managed to put himself into the mind of a bride, and to depict that for us in remarkable detail. This itself may have been one of the values of the book for centuries, given that women rarely wrote anything at all, let alone anything so intimate and personal. In the most recent J. K. Rowling book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a moment when one of the boys says to the other that divination is all well and good, but what the school should really be teaching was how to understand the mind of a girl. Song of Solomon provides a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a girl, a woman. It was a glimpse into how women feel; but it was glimpsed by a man, in a real sense playing a role as he wrote. He asked what it was like to be a woman in love and strongly attracted sexually to a man, and so uncovered something many men would never have understood otherwise.
Thus the answer to this may well be yes, these things do belong in our games. In the same sense that they belong in our movies and our books, they belong in our games. They are part of reality, and in fantasy and science fiction they are part of the shared world. Yet as it is in films and books, the nature of the presence of these aspects of the reality or the unreality should be appropriate to the audience. If Disney started putting sex scenes in their animated love stories (and from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast, many of those films are love stories) very few parents would permit their children to watch them. We have ratings on movies which are intended to provide some guidelines for the maturity of the intended audience. It may be that aspects of our culture go too far, and that we would be far better off with less shown on the screen and more implied for those old enough to understand (as one of Woody Allen’s characters says in The Purple Rose of Cairo, we kiss, the screen fades to black, and we’re off making love in some perfect place). Yet to pretend that sex does not exist is as antithetical to Christianity as to exploit it for prurient interest. So yes, human relationships are a necessary part of the creation of human stories, and we should not pretend that the physical aspects of those relationships don’t exist.
Beyond that, though, we are reminded of all the complexities and complications put on us by the consideration of the Weaker Brother—not primarily that we must not offend others, but that we must be wary about our own limits. I would have no problem with many kinds of play that would bother others. I regularly play female characters; as author of Verse Three, Chapter One: The First Multiverser Novel I was very much involved in understanding and in a real sense “playing” the role, becoming the character, of Lauren Hastings, the thirty-five year old mother of three who was one of my primary protagonists. I have painted villains by implying sadistic orgies which occurred off-screen, such that player characters were the more eager to destroy the evils they faced. I’ve presented female non-player characters so convincingly that player characters run by men married them. I found romance for one of my characters with a female non-player character created by my wife. From the basic concepts of rescuing fair maidens in distress to playing an alien who might be male one week and female the next, I’ve found many ways in which I am quite fine with issues of sex and gender in play. On the other hand, I would be extremely hesitant to play a sentient tomcat; the promiscuity implied by the role would probably play to one of my weaknesses. For that matter, if I were playing an eastern monarch with a harem, I would have to make a point of ignoring that aspect of my character’s life. It’s important to know one’s own weaknesses and avoid encouraging them. I’m sure my wife would have no problem playing an eastern king with a bevy of wives, and talking about his relationships in significant detail—just as I am sure that she, a registered nurse, is not at all tempted by the naked bodies of patients she tends and often bathes several nights a week. Some can do what I cannot; I can do what others cannot. As long as all of us playing a particular game agree that we will not do what any one of us cannot, we are within bounds.
That’s not the kind of answer most Christians want. Most Christians really want Pharisaic answers—we want to be told that this is something you can do and that is something you can’t, and we are constantly asking where the lines are and exactly what God requires and what he permits. Our faith doesn’t work that way. We must each do that which God expects of us individually, that which helps us to grow in grace and knowledge. Hosea was commanded to marry a harlot, and to give his children names which were tantamount to calling them illegitimate. Tamar secured her place in the lineage of God’s promise by posing as a prostitute and so seducing her father-in-law. Sex can be a very important part of a great story. It is up to each of us to use our own wisdom in determining what we and our friends can play, and how to use that effectively.
This article was originally published in August 2003 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.