All the World's a Stage: Drawing the line on ERP

All the World's a Stage is brought to you by David Bowers every Sunday evening, investigating the mysterious art of roleplaying in the World of Warcraft.

There are some people out there who use online games as a venue for their erotic fantasies, from husbands and wives spending some imaginative time together online, to complete strangers flush with desire and looking for some sort of satisfaction in each other. Most of these people who try out Erotic Role-Playing (or ERP) in WoW realize the need to keep it private; they do whatever they do in private chat channels, where it stays their own affair.

But there are a rare few who take ERP to an extreme: they form a guild whose whole purpose is to engage in ERP, and proceed to garner a largely negative reputation for themselves. They wear their suggestive guild name like a sign above each of their character's heads, as if to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. Their members indulge in various sexual fantasies, some of which may even be extremely distasteful and objectionable, played out in an environment where everyone is encouraged to "explore" with one another in anonymity.

Obviously, the moral danger here is that young people may be tempted to wander in, way before they are mature enough to understand or deal reasonably with what they experience there. We generally assume adults to be responsible for themselves in such matters, but children may very well be confused and curious, even willing to lie about their age in order to unravel such adult secrets. Indeed, ERP is a subject matter that the vast majority of players do not want to see -- least of all parents who like their kids to grow and learn from their interactions with others within the game, or at least have a safe and fun experience. Therefore, roleplayers of any sort have a responsibility to keep the public environment clean and safe for all who play there, and for the few involved with ERP guilds to do otherwise is dangerous and unethical.

Before I go on with this topic, let us try to imagine, if we can, a hypothetical "responsible and ethical ERP guild" which strives to respect the needs of young people in their larger gaming community, as well as the needs of other adults who do not wish for sexuality to be part of their online gaming experience. Such a guild would take great care that their membership would only consist of consenting adults, perhaps interviewing new members with voice chat, requesting Facebook pages, and generally doing their best to "prove" that a new member is not a minor. Of course no system is foolproof, but such a guild would also try hard not to attract the attention of kids by being too overt with their activities. They would keep their activities entirely private and unknown by the general public in the same way that normal citizens don't go about flashing their private parts or wearing S&M leathers in the street.

Such ERP guilds may exist, but I do not know about them. Indeed, perhaps this is a sign of how well they are doing at keeping themselves private and respectful of the larger community's needs -- if so, I thank them for it. I fear, however, that such a reasonable approach generally goes against the basic urges which drove the players to form ERP guilds in the first place. The sex drive is not a rational, balanced feeling; it's tied up with so many other feelings of loneliness, frustration, insecurity, hope, affection, assurance, validation, and fear that people who form guilds based on it are not likely to turn around and say, "Hey, let's be logical about this."

Quite the opposite: anonymity is one of the big draws of the whole online sexual fantasy. People engaging in group-based ERP are not at all likely to want to share their personal details with everyone. A male wanting to explore lesbian sex, for example, probably won't want to be interviewed with voice chat and subjected to a real life Facebook examination before getting into his fantasy. I'm sorry to say that, from the limited conversations I have had with overt ERP enthusiasts, I haven't seen much caution, or any desire to know anything at all about their partners' real life identities. They've seemed perfectly happy to just assume the other person is a consenting adult without even asking, apparently because their avatar is so very obviously not a child, and children shouldn't be online getting into this sort of thing, and if they are then it's the parent's fault for not being aware of what the kids are doing online!

This is just another way of shirking public responsibility. It's so very tempting to blame the parents for everything in this situation, but before we do so, let's be realistic for a moment: when a parent signs up for cable TV, they know full well that some of those channels have sexual content on late at night. It is their responsibility to judge what their children may or may not watch. When a parent signs up for general internet access, they are likewise aware that pornography is readily available to anyone with even an accidental interest in it, and are responsible for protecting their children in the way they see fit.

But in WoW, their only warning is "Game Experience May Change During Online Play." There is nothing there to warn that children may be exposed to mature content because some other players have decided to go ahead and play out their fantasies with any character that comes along. Indeed, no further warning ought to be necessary -- there is no sexually offensive content in the actual game itself, and players really have no right to inject it in the online public setting anymore than they have a right to do so in a public park or video arcade. It is the right of parents to decide that their child is old enough to watch R-rated movies, but it is not the right of the online player to decide that R-rated content should be good enough for anyone around them, or even anyone who might express an anonymous interest.

In short, if anyone chooses to engage in ERP online with anyone else in WoW, whether in a guild or not, that person has a profound responsibility to be sure the other party is a consenting adult. One can ask directly, interview with voice chat, or even demand a scan of their driver's license along with a picture of their face alongside the screen showing their in-game character. If some people insist on having their very own guild dedicated to ERP, even more care must be taken to insure that others are not negatively affected.

But for those who make ERP into public drama, reveling in all the attention they get, thumbing their noses at the general populace of roleplayers who request them to stop -- there is nothing to do but draw a line. This is the point at which the majority of roleplayers must sadly point a finger and say, "That is not us. We do not engage in this behavior, and we do not condone it."