Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hazards of PvP: Objectification

The Wikipedia entry has a lot to say about objectification, including that a person is objectified if they are used:
  • as a tool for another's purposes (instrumentality);
  • as if lacking in agency or self-determination (denial of autonomy, inertness);
  • as if owned by another (ownership);
  • as if interchangeable (fungibility);
  • as if permissible to damage or destroy (violability);
  • as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences (denial of subjectivity).
Now a person might be objectified on either an individual or a group basis.  Each has it's own problems and possibilities.

On an individual level, the player might be individually treated as an object because of a political attack set to undermine them which tries to paint them as little more than or due to a more powerful character's prejudices, or due to the individual belonging to an objectified group that has low representation in the game (i.e. being the only female in a realistic medieval LARP or being the only ghoul in a vampire game).

The benefits of objectification for the power players involved is that those who are objectified have their meaningful choices slowly strangled out of them, which is great for an enemy or a rival.

There are also benefits for the player of the objectified character.

Objectification may be a new experience for the player, especially in an exaggerated form.  When reversed so that those most often in power positions are now objectified (such as a medieval game with a gendered role reversal, it can be a powerful teaching tool and growth experience for everyone involved.  While a valid tool for a short-term or weekend campaign, this may still prove tiring in the long-term if the objectification is intense as it is, by its very nature, disempowering.

It can, in the short-term, provided significant protections to new players, such as where a new player might choose to play an unreleased childe of a vampire.  The more experienced player takes responsibility for training and protecting them, including taking the flak of any missteps, while the new player knows that their position is temporary.  Generally, though, these positions are not truly and pointedly 'objectified' outside of the books as the childe is more often seen and treated as a learner than as an interchangeable commodity with no will of its own.

Some people may actually enjoy the challenge, such as those playing ghouls, though in this case it's often good to have an 'out'.  This might be an easy status shift (i.e. a ghoul can become a vampire) but if it is a permanent and unchangeable identity trait then the player may need to create a new character to find a more enabling role.

Be wary of automatically objectified group identifiers which players share in real life unless you're willing to let players cross dress to get out of it, especially when considering a campaign.  It can also be deeply unpleasant, even triggering, to face discrimination both inside your game world and outside of it.  Does your fantasy land or science fiction game really need to make all black people slaves?  Couldn't it have green slaves or genetically modified slaves?

So what's the difference between objectifying a group and an individual?  Well, a group provides a sense of cultural identity where you can feel empowered.  It also allows for all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle underdog conspiracies and group rebellions.  Imagine a vampire game where half of the players are playing ghouls.  Regardless of any intent on the part of the game designers, those ghouls will now create a power bloc of their own even if they are never acknowledged as a faction.  In fact, there would be a secondary game of power and influence within the ghouls themselves which the vampires might not even know exists.  That sounds far more fun than playing the sole canonically silent and disregarded ghoul in a room full of predators.

Groups can also objectify each other even when neither holds a higher status position.  Two enemy tribes might view members of the other group as interchangeable non-entities who can be killed or enslaved merely to obtain more land or crops.  While group members may identify a few important out-group names and faces, they likely won't be thinking of their enemies in terms of being someone else's child with their own hopes, dreams and fears, just like anyone else.

These kinds of in-character schisms can make for some very deep and interesting roleplaying so long as the game is either large enough to allow them to avoid each other or if the objectification is subtle enough to avoid causing *too* much offence.  A vampire game which includes a lot of clannism might have some of the subtle varieties of objectification.  Gangrel are all merely dogs, afte rall.

Regrettably, objectification can also cross the line between players and not just in a discriminatory fashion based on age, gender, etc. 

A player might come to objectify the other players, seeing them as merely being actors for that players' own enjoyment or as faceless props who can be pushed into ideal directions on an out of character level.  The player might feel that their own needs and desires are paramount and that any player who doesn't cater to them is a cold-hearted bastard. 

More commonly, they might just forget that the other player is a *person* first and foremost and they may do or say something insensitive, unfairly take up the spotlight, or ruin another player's chances to do *that one thing* they've spent the entire campaign building up to do, without any thought about how that might make the other player feel.

They might see GM as standing for Game Machine, becoming upset or even irate when the GM doesn't want to take a call about the game at a particular time, or who fail to deliver downtimes on time one week.  They might also see them as tools or props who can be worked against each other, and against the other players, through a clever pattern of flattery and lies.  After all, if one GM falls to burnout then another one will rise up to take their place, right?  Right?

This form of out of character objectification needs to be dealt with promptly, sometimes by literally stating your own humanness and your own rights and needs in a fair and reasonable way which also takes in account their own needs.  If they persist, sometimes you need to show them the door.

So how have you found objectification in your roleplaying games?  Got any good stories on it?

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