Your game is not my game, but your game is ok


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Talk on the ethics of consent and negotiation in BDSM, play and gaming, given at Playful11. 21st October 2011, Conway Hall, London.

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  • I’m Georgina – I do research around the social side of technology and design, and I teach around business and technology ethics and innovation. I’m particularly interested in what gets constructed as normal, acceptable, legitimate, and what doesn’t, and why.  I’ll be drawing together some themes already talked about today into my own personal rant: criticisms techno-centric approach – technology is awesome, everyone will want it! Put it in everything! Now I’m seeing the same with games and play – they are awesome, everyone will play! All shall have games! What if people don’t want to play?Today I’m going to talk about risks, ethics and consent in play.  
  • Let’s start with a story about what happens when you try to engage people in games that they don’t want to play. It’s almost true, names have been changed.It’s about a friend of mine who went off one night to a fetish club. He got there, met his friends, and was introduced to a man who was, like the rest of them, dressed up in his finery – leather, great boots, a belt with various things hanging off it, floggers, whips, crops, what’s colloquially known as a ‘grass skirt’. ‘Hi’ said the man ‘I’m Master Keith’. ‘Hi Keith!’ said my friend. The event progressed and they ran into each other at various stages during the night. ‘Hey Keith’ said my friend each time, and Keith replied, increasing tetchily ‘Its *Master* Keith’. By the end of the night Keith was quite pissed off and, grass skirt jangling away, confronted my friend. ‘It’s MASTER Keith. MASTER. I’m a MASTER.’ To which my friend replied, ‘Yes, yes you are somebody’s master. But you’re not mine’.
  • It’s Friday afternoon – let’s talk about sadomasochism. BDSM (which I’ll be referring to as SM in this talk) is a catch-all term to describe a series of practices. Some are about physical experiences – pain, bondage; some are about emotional and power-based experiences – dominance, submission, power exchange. Sometimes the physical and the power overlap, but sometimes not.  We might – we do! – experience some of these things in our everyday lives. We obey some people, we have control over people, we follow some rules and break others. We endure physical things – hello cyclists! Hello rugby players!  What SM does is to codify these practices more explicitly in community-based literatures so there is a shared understanding, a common language of what is going on, what to expect. There are terms in common usage like ‘scene’ – the space entered to perform BDSM acts. …and the commonly used term to describe acts of BDSM themselves: ‘play’.  I just want to say now: I don’t want to set this up as ‘Ooh, let’s laugh at the funny people in rubber’ – I have no idea of most people’s backgrounds here are, or what people make at home on their 3D printers, and neither do you. Human sexuality is a broad church, and there is only a tiny slice of it which is seen to be ‘normal’ and acceptable.But also, kink isn’t a direct analogy for all kinds of play – it’s just one kind. But the SM community has done some really important thinking about consent, and negotiation in play: who sets the rules, and whether they get changed; who chooses to play; who consents.
  • People involved in various aspects of SM have always emphasized the importance of prior negotiation of SM play to accommodate the desires of everyone involved. This is a narrative of ‘free choice’ which is important for SM folk who emphasise the agency of everyone involved, particularly those who may appear to have no power (but paradoxically have lots). I don’t know how many of you have been to fetish clubs, but if you have you’ll know that, after you’ve seen people looking fantastic in their corsets and their boots, you can go through to the dungeon or play space and see all sorts of amazing things. The person strapped to a device which looks like a failed experiment from Grand Designs that couldn’t they couldn’t get planning permission for, who might look pretty helpless, has hopefully consented to all sorts of things you can’t even imagine.  Being able to explicitly negotiate or agree consent can actually be a key part of the experience yourself – that you get to play out all sorts of roles in a safe space.
  • There is the concept of ‘safe, sane and consensual’ as a way to counter assumptions of harm. There are pretty common assumptions the SM activities are dangerous, mentally harmful, and abusive.  Sexuality itself is often only acceptable only within certain confines, a lot of which are constructed by the social norms of our societies, and the law as well: under the ‘Offenses against the person Act 1861’, sexuality was acceptable only on the basis that it appeared ‘civilised’ to the reasonable observer. So to counter that, SSC emphasizes the agency of participants when they play, the primacy of safety, and of freedom of choice in whether to participate or not. Play is ethical when it happens in a way which is perceived to be safe – physically and emotionally; when players are sane enough to make the choices about playing; and when people consent to play. 
  • Consent is the big one, specifically informed consent – it’s not just about saying ‘yes’. Informed consent is about knowledge, and voluntariness, using your agency and free will.Think about this in terms of the winter holidays – you go home, or have your family round, and someone pulls out Monopoly. Firstly, how are you asked to play? Are your children telling you ‘Please please play, we *really* want to play this?’ Is someone say, ‘You have to play, your gran will be so sad if you don’t?’ Will Uncle Gary get you in a headlock if you don’t play Monopoly because he really likes it? If you’re saying yes because you’re co-erced, blackmailed, physically pressured – that’s not informed consent.Secondly, when are you asked to play? Is it after dinner when all the blood is draining from your head to go towards digesting, and your vision is shifting to black and white and the booze is swilling about? If you’re not in a fit physical or mental state to make informed decisions, that’s not informed consent.Finally, what are you agreeing to play? If you think you’re going to play Charades and then someone pulls the Monopoly board out – that’s not informed consent, you need the right knowledge to make the right decisions. 
  • So what rules are you negotiating and consenting to? The rules might be that the rules are flexible. There’s an assumption that SMers always take a fixed role when they play – master. Mistress. Submissive.But the roles aren’t always fixed. For some people, they’ll take on a different role in new play sessions. Some people might switch roles within the space of a single play session. You might start out topping, and end up on the bottom.If you hang out with elementary particle physicists, you might also choose roles of Up. Down. Strange. Charm. You might be an Elf. A Halfling. A Paladin. Any of them. All of them.  Michel Foucault, the French philosopher said, of SM, ‘The S and M game is very interesting because it is always fluid. Of course there are roles, but everyone knows very well the roles can be reversed”.
  • Negotiation and consent are also important for creating a safe space in which the different meanings around play can be accommodated. For some people, SM can be an integral part of their identity it’s who they are. Others, it’s just an activity which they practice, maybe at the weekend, maybe just when Torture Garden is on. Neither of these are superior reasons, and neither is the more ‘authentic’ player.  People play for lots of different reasons. Play can be fun. Play can be serious and solemn. It can be ritualistic. Play can be casual. It can be professional. And these are not mutually exclusive categories! What’s also interesting about this space is that – mostly – people play for the experience of play, not – mostly – to level up, or accrue points; (although one of my favourite t-shirts which I’ve seen in recent times is the one with the slogan – ‘When I play doctor, I play to win’). People bring loads of different meanings to the scene, and consent and negotiation can be used to balance and accommodate them.
  • Another important concept is the notion of kink as a safe space – that people are informed about the levels of safety around what they’re doing. Things are safe if their risks are judged to be acceptable. This reflects differences in values. For some people there might be concerns about social risks – who will find out? What will they think? It might be about emotional safety – will you be ok after this? Will you need someone to look after you? For some play, there might be physical risks too, though possibly not so many as are traditionally thought of in SM. If you want to play games that have highchance of severe physical injury from the other people you’re playing with, whilst wearing very few clothes – bruising, head injuries, muscle strains – play rugby. There’s also the question of who judges safety in play. Rugby players and boxers and ice-hockey players are seen as ‘sane’ and able to consent to getting smushed to a pulp in play, under the law. In Regina vs Brown, 1990 – more commonly known as the Spanner case – 16 men were charged with assault, or aiding and abetting an assault. The judge declared that consent was not a reasonable defence, and all the men were found guilty. The European court of human rights upheld the decision in 1997. However, in 2004, Canadian police seized a load of BDSM videos, and the judge rules that, actually, BDSM was ‘normal and acceptable’ if it was based on consensual play. And this is the problem with the notion of safety, even in negotiated space – nothing really is ever safe. Every single item of clothing, everything in your rucksacks, all the lovely balloons here, bunting (if there was any) – all of them have the potential to be used as lethal weapons. We live in a terrifying world of peril.
  • So instead of thinking about play in terms of safety, maybe we should think about in terms of risk. One newer term that has emerged is ‘rack’ – risk aware consensual kink. This refuses any unrealistic commitment to safety over risk taking. Instead it includes an adult awareness of potential risk, accompanied by harm reduction strategies, where risk is defined as the potential that something unwanted and harmful may occur. So this is better, because it recognizes that risk can be desirable. It can be fun. Who wants to be safe? Potential danger and peril! In 1940 the Tacoma Narrows bridge opened in North America . The designers hadn’t taken into account the cross winds, or the traffic flow – and when the wind blew, and enough cars travelled over it, it bounced all over the place like a piece of chewing gum. It was a hugely dangerous structure, and people queued to drive over it because the danger was so exciting. So taking risks is awesome – IF we get to choose them. Rollercoasters, scary movies, the Republican party candidates debate – they’re all great if we choose to engage. 
  • When we’re setting up play within a closed space, we can negotiate with everyone involved about what the risks are and check in that everyone’s consented to play. In a more immersive, shared space it gets more difficult. There is more to play than individual acts between individuals.There are big debates in the SM community about the appropriateness of play in public – are you involving people in your play who might not want to play. Are they consenting? In terms of risk and consent, this is critical because our perception of risk varies with our level of consent. People are more willing to be the subject of their own experiments, the masters (no pun intended) of their fate, the captains of their sole. People are up to 1000 times more likely and willing to engage in risky behavior if they choose to do so – if they have control and choice, not if it is forced on them. People are also more willing to take risks if it’s part of a specific role or identity. Folks who work on oil rigs are notorious for being cavalier with the risks they take around their own health, because it’s what they do on a day-to-day basis, it’s their job. Critically for thinking about who we play with – we are 20 times more likely to be concerned about risks that affect us and the people who are close to us, than of those who aren’t. If we design games and play around people we know, we’re more likely to consider the risks affecting them than around anonymous bystanders.
  • And this is critical – we prefer to voluntarily undertake risk, but we object to involuntary risks around things where we’re neither the participant or the decision maker. This might explain the decision of the judge in the Spanner case – he wasn’t involved, and he didn’t have a choice about what the rules were, he saw the risks differently. Don’t assume that everyone wants to play, don’t assume that because you’ve set the rules. People will have an excellent time with play and be willing to do all sorts of things IF they choose, not if they’re coerced and not if things become so pervasive that you have no choice but to play. The dialogue and claims around gamification, constant play – ‘we’ll make everything into games! Everything will be about play!’ makes me incredibly uncomfortable because it takes away my agency. It doesn’t feel fun or meaningful – it feels like Master Keith standing in front of me, jangling away, telling me – all of you – that YOU WILL PLAY. I don’t want that – I want to have a choice about which games I play. Maybe if we don’t have the future that we dreaemed, it’s because we haven’t provided a future that people would choose to be in. If I can’t choose to play, I don’t want to be part of your future revolution. Thank-you.
  • Your game is not my game, but your game is ok

    1. 1. Your gameis not my gamebutyour game is ok Georgina Voss @gsvoss
    2. 2. Photo: sunset sailor
    3. 3. Photo: fotogail
    4. 4. Photo: Jim Barker
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