Nobody Wants to Be a Space Whore
by Heather Logas & Josh Powell
So there I was, at a gaming convention, about to play a LARP I was looking forward to set in the Firefly universe; which I love; and hosted by a good friend of mine.
Unfortunately, I had screwed up and come right before the LARP without signing up ahead of time. In the "Ol' Days" this was perfectly acceptable. Now, to my joy but at the time chagrin, there is so much interest in LARPing that games fill up and you may be in trouble if you haven't gone through official channels to secure a spot. As a result I put my name and that of my husband's on the spillover list and hoped for the best. While waiting to see if we had gotten in, I struck up a conversation with a woman about my age whose boyfriend was off playing some tabletop D&D. She had never played in a LARP before, but a mutual friend of ours had directed her to this game thinking she'd enjoy it. She was a mild-mannered school teacher who in fact had been dragged to this convention by said boyfriend and wasn't much of a gamer at all. She had never watched an episode of Firefly either. I got busy filling her in the best I could.
The moment had now come and those of us who were latecomers were given the last character picks. In case you aren't familiar with Firefly it is basically a western set in space, with colonized planets standing in as frontier towns. This particular game took place on a mining colony/town; a rough place. The female character choices remaining to me (and mind all the male ones were already taken) were basically Madam of the brothel or non-prostitute. I picked the latter. This stuck our school teacher friend with the Madam character. Oops. She was really uncomfortable with this choice of characters and I really didn't want it either so through some convoluted trading operation which I still can't quite understand, the school teacher gave the Madam to my other friend, I gave my character to the teacher and my friend passed on to me...
...Down on her luck prostitute (it was a mining town after all). I read the character over and over, looking for something to latch onto. It was an interesting character, in a way. Some poor gal who was stuck in the brothel but was looking for a way out. She had some information and items that she might have been able to use to her advantage to leave her dismal situation. But you just couldn't get around the fact that she was beholden to her madam and at the beck and call of all the filthy miners. She was still a space whore.
So there I was, at a gaming convention, about to play a LARP I was looking forward to set in the Firefly universe; which I love; and hosted by a good friend of mine – and I walked away. I had never done that before, and the fact it was a friend's LARP made it all the harder. I felt guilty for abandoning him and I couldn't help but feel my hardcore gamer pride shrivel a bit at having turned down a "challenging" role. There are some places, however, where even us hardcore gamers don't want to take our role-playing. Even though I felt bad, I felt it likely that I had just escaped from a many hour session where I would have spent the entire time feeling uncomfortable and on edge.
There is, of course, a moral to this story. Nobody wants to be a space whore. The choice to populate the mining colony with prostitutes made perfect sense from a narrative stand-point. The character I was to play would have been an interesting one in a play or trite romance novel. But it didn't work as a LARP character, because very few female gamers would have felt comfortable playing it. The space whore moral can be distilled to this: make characters with your players in mind.
When designing characters for a LARP or online RPG, consider the players and not just the story. It is tempting to consider your game in broad dramatic narrative strokes, but always remember that this as a game and not just a story. Characters that are downtrodden and oppressed may make fodder for an interesting story because of the tragedy surrounding them but that doesn't make them fun to play. Sexuality is a touchy subject for a lot of people, so its important that there are alternative choices for people who do not want to play that sort of character. If you are setting up a game, especially at a convention or online where your players will be people you may not necessarily know you will want to avoid forcing people into extreme backgrounds even if it "fits the story" or would bring a good "point of conflict." By extreme backgrounds, we mean anything that may cause uncomfortable gut reactions in a fair majority of random players that lead them to not want to play your game. Downtrodden space whores fall into this category but so do characters who represent certain ills of our society, such as racist characters or brutal mass murderers. In a different type of game players may create their own characters with an extreme background that interests them, but that would be by their own choice and they wouldn't be forced into something that offends them or makes them unhappy.
In this particular game, it wouldn't have been so bad if there were only one or two space whore characters (occasionally there is somebody who wants to be a space whore), but there seemed to be a gaggle of them. The game would have been much better served with a smaller selection of extreme character backgrounds and a larger variety of milder character backgrounds that a new player like the mild-mannered school teacher could be interested in. Sometimes there will be border line cases where you aren't completely sure if the character you are designing could be considered "extreme". If you are unsure if a character type you're considering for a game might be offensive or bothersome, a simple solution is to ask someone their opinion. Preferably someone not in your regular gaming group who might hold the same biases as you.
So there I was, at a party a couple weeks ago where I met up with the friend who had run the above referenced Firefly game. I still felt guilty for walking out of his game but we were choosing not to talk about it and instead were talking about new LARP ideas. I was telling him about this great new concept I had. "So everyone's a pirate see, and once a year all the pirates come to this island to have a really big party, kind of like a pirate prom, and they get all crazy and...." He cut me off with a very serious look on his face "Look, take my advice on one thing," he said grimly "when making characters, do NOT, under any circumstances, make a bunch of whores."