Intimacy Enabling: Art, Kink, and the Virtual

So in thinking about my last post in the series, it occurs to me that there are a lot of things that enable intimacy in roleplay. This post is about three of them.


Ages ago, on Yud’s Dice, Brand talked about how the word art was a power word…

“Art is a loaded term. Art is a word used to give value to one human endeavor or activity above another. Art is a way of saying ‘This thing is important to my stance on the human social condition and gives/takes power away from the part of society I inhabit.’ ” ~Brand, in Games, Art, Power, and Me

…and I’m entirely on board with that. I think discussions about what is and is not “art”, (just like those about what is and is not a “game”) are most often semantic wars used to legitimize one endeavor while marginalizing another. However, in thinking about the more extreme kinds of RPG situations where intimacy is strongly enabled, it occurs to me that “art” is a power word loaded in other, possibly more positive ways.

Just as I can legitimize or marginalize an activity that other people are doing by bestowing or withholding the word “art”. I can use the same word to bestow an activity I am participating in with a particular kind of freedom, not just to empower it from an objective cultural perspective, but to empower it socially within the activity itself. “Art”, we are taught to believe, is something of value that transcends the normative rules of human behavior. “Art” is something that is breaks us out of our mundane, human experience and compels us instead to move towards a sublime contemplation of the human condition; it’s a goal greater than value of its elements or of its participants.

So what does that mean to intimacy? Well, when an organizer of an RPG-as-art event uses the word art, most importantly, without even opening up an actual discussion, it begins a framework for a social contract between the participants. It says: this event is about seeking a sublime reflection of the human condition, and the product of it is greater than my desire or your desire, and aims to make a creation greater than the sum of our inputs. It mandates a particularly demanding level of investment on behalf of the participants, but at the same time promises a particularly powerful artistic license and bestows a lack of judgment in the process of, and a particular sense legitimacy on the participants as “artists”.

Similarly, several of these events, especially in the range of the Nordic Art-LARPS, span play over extreme periods of time (such as Europa, a five day, fully in-character LARP set in and simulated like a refugee camp in Eastern Europe) which demands a particularly intense level of intimacy not just with other participants, but with the story, the setting and the character. This is linked in with what I said above about the particularly demanding level of investment mandated to participants. I also don’t see it as a co-incidence that these mechanisms of intimacy are coupled with a pro-immersion mandate. After all, I started this discussion to explain how intimacy was a vital component of support for those playing in character-socketed Impassioned Other territory.

Now, I should be clear that I’m not at all interested right now in the discussion of whether the product of these RPG-as-art events actually are or are not art, nor whether the participants are or are not artists. What I am interested in is the way that the use of the word creates a specific cultural context drawn in a tight circle around these events that optimally should result in a powerfully intimate milieu to play in. I’m also not interested in the discussion of if RPG-as-art events are or are not better or worse than other kinds of roleplay. What I’m interested in is the way that the intimate milieu and cultural context drawn around these events facilitate the participants arriving at and achieving a common payoff.


Taking intimacy to the emotional and physical extreme, BDSM roleplay is replete with mechanisms to facilitate intimate play. Although this may not be the first thing that jumps to mind for you when considering roleplay, BDSM play certainly involves taking on characters, degrees of immersive activity, and story play to varying degrees of completion, spontaneous and organized, small and large from the episodic to the epic. Although it’s rarely discussed, there is a good deal of people involved in both activities independently, and I’ve also talked to a wide variety of folks who have described the BDSM activity that has spilled over from their LARP or tabletop experiences.

Participants in BDSM play put a strong emphasis on safe words and scene negotiation. Whether the event is between consenting partners or as part of a larger, organized venue, a vast, varied, and clearly defined vocabulary aids in the the identification of hard and soft limits for the participants (kind of like lines and veils in power sexual situations) and events are not only flagged to facilitate the understanding of the event’s social contract, but occasionally they come accompanied with fully explicit, written codes of conduct or actual legal contracts that must be signed before walking in the door. Also, not unlike NGH and IWNAY set up boundaries and support space, some BSDM scenes use SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual) and RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) philosophies to guide or inform their play practices and use ritual elements to transition into and out of the play space.

The tools in a BDSM context are, for the most part, better defined and the contracts more explicit because the potential for harm is considerably greater than it is with conventional roleplay, and so there is an absolute need for them to be more efficient and reliable. Here, like in RPG-as-art events, a particular investment and level of intimacy is demanded and created in a direct response towards supporting the achievement of a particular payoff. And like my conclusions above, I find it no surprise at all that BDSM events also have pro-immersion mandates. Even in situations where there are no distinct characters to play, becoming the *role* you play in the BDSM context is, well, the point, and for many involved, the pathway to sexual fulfillment; it’s the payoff.

The Virtual

Finally, and distinct from the previous enablers, virtual spaces such as MU**’s , MMORPGS, PBP and PbeM, by their very nature as anonymous gateways enable participants to achieve a heightened sense of intimacy. Here I am not talking about games like Bitches in the Vineyard, in which a MUSH was used to facilitate the play of a bunch of people who knew each other from another context (Story Games) but for whom physical distance made around the table play impossible (Brand and I are in Toronto, Jess Pease in Boston, Jess Hammer in New Jersey, Nancy in California). Instead, I’m talking about standard PBP, MUSH or MMORG play, where a participants logs into an interface to play a game and meets the (majority of) other participants through the game.

While you could argue that actually intimacy is impossible in such an anonymous environment, when you look at the reasons that intimacy are important to the Impassioned Other context, as an environment which supports personal vulnerability and unfettered social interaction, you can see what I’m getting at. When a participant in this situation engages with the game, who they are in actuality ceases to matter, and assumption of the Other is facilitated. An enhanced sense of safety is inherent both because of the anonymity of the medium, and also because the ritual is built in: to enter the game space, I logged in, to get back to the safe space, I log out.

Environmental factors may also enhance this, for all of these games are most played from the safest of spaces: your own home, they are often played while alone, without outside interruption, frequently in dim light looking at a bright monitor in a way that lends itself to a mildly hypnotic connection. Participants can fully be vulnerable to the game environment because their selves are fully protected, they can full give over to the character or the story they are “living”and because whatever information they give over can be carefully constructed, can express things that are of a more vulnerable, personal context. They have less fear of being judged, and can escape more effectively in a fantasy context.

Again, just like in RPG-as-art events and BDSM play, most of these virtual play spaces (all of them, I warrant, in which characters exist as more than an icon on the screen) are pro-immersion environments that encourage participants to act fully within the context of the character in reaction to the game world. I don’t find it surprising that intimacy and a permission to be vulnerable is found in the same context.

Whether its that Impassioned Others are drawn to intimate spaces or that intimate spaces are constructed to support Impassioned Other play, I’m not sure, but I thought this would be a good start to looking at the connection between the two to see how the qualities of the social interaction encourage particular modes of play. Also, if you abstract, you might glean how different qualities of social interaction might discourage particular modes of play. How, for example, would a person playing in a Cognitive I mode with a system socket fit into an Art LARP, a hardcore BDSM scene, or a strict IC MUSH?

10 thoughts on “Intimacy Enabling: Art, Kink, and the Virtual”

  1. {lightbulb goes on} I can see how your model would carry nicely into discussions of these other things. For example, I can see how a deeply cognitive-system approach could function in a bdsm context, plugging into the rules-y facet of the scene (e.g. the classic contract a la von Sacher Masoch). Talk about explanatory oomph!

    I would be willing to bet that you’d find some interesting variations in socket preferences in the same individual in the different play modes described. That Cognitive I / System-socket tabletop player might very well be a Impassioned Masker, story-socket (getting invested in the lives of the characters they are revealing post-by-post) player when they are working with a trusted PBP buddy, or an Impassioned Possessing Force / character socket sort (even if that ‘character’ is pretty typic, ‘bad boy,’ ‘vixen,’ etc) when playing with their bestest bdsm play partner.

    I suspect, too, some nice portraits in that regard would go a long way to drive home the multi-faceted, we are human beings not sockets/points on a graph issues that crop up from time to time around these sorts of discussions…I think once you get this ‘big model’ in place, you will be in a crazy cool place to start mapping out the more subtle complexities of personal motivation and social negotiation!

    1. Hi Ian,

      Absolutely! When my environment is most intimate, say in the year and a half long solo game of Truth & Justice I just finished with Brand, I’m as much an Impassioned Other as I ever really want to be. It’s the sweet spot where my best RPG happens. But when I’m playtesting with brand new people or con-like games, I’m very Cognitive I.

      Speaking of von Sacher Masoch, while writing this, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be an interesting discussion to be found in comparing the “suprasensuality” that Masoch described or the more current “subspace” or “domspace” in relation to the “flow state” often described in discussions of immersion.

      Anyway… you’re definitely looking down the same road I am here. Any suggestions on how to best to get to the meat of it?

      1. My head is a little thick with sickness at the moment, so I’ll try to respond more coherently when I am more coherent. But just to touch on the sub-domspace thing: your model might be a better way to get at what is going on there than immersion. Immersion/flow just seems like a fancy way of talking about certain kinds of focused attention–your model starts to sketch out the quality of that attention. In other words, flow just as a particularly intense versions of the sorts of attention you are elaborating (a z-axis, perhaps).

        Which means you can start talking about someone’s payoffs in, say, a scene less as a matter of what happens (spanking, check; name-calling, check) then as to the sort of engagement of the participants. Which also says a lot more about what the *actual* payoff is for the behavior, in a way that participants can really recognize and identify with.

        So, cognitive domspace, person who is getting off on the intellectual ‘game’ of working their way through someone’s subspace. Impassioned domspace, someone who is working out some deeply emotional issues in the play…and so on. I feel like there is a joke to be made about how easily you could substitute GM for dom, but that’s because there are real structural similarities at work here, so I’ll not sully it ; ).

        Start elaborating the more personal dimension of the experience, things like George needing a good purging impassioned masking session when he is really stressed, needing that intensity to shake him out of that cycle, but preferring a genial, cognitive-marionette game when he is all chill and calm because he enjoys the puzzliness of it…and, wow, see, sick rambling.

        1. Which means you can start talking about someone’s payoffs in, say, a scene less as a matter of what happens (spanking, check; name-calling, check) then as to the sort of engagement of the participants. Which also says a lot more about what the *actual* payoff is for the behavior, in a way that participants can really recognize and identify with.

          Exactly! And can I really blow your mind? What would happen if we could tie reward systems of our games to the actual payoff rather than to a fictional one?

          I should also say, just in case it isn’t clear that domspace is not necessarily cognitive and subspace not necessarily impassioned. I think there are a lot of impassioned Dom/me’s, and cognitive subs.

          So, what you want to see are scenarios?

        2. If by scenarios, you mean actual play vignettes thickly described in light of your nifty model, then yes:). If you can manage to organize different socketing moments of an individual, all the better.

          Your model seems functionalist–it answers questions like “what function does this behavior serve?” There is a real risk to them–namely the elision of the particularity of each account beneath a blanket notion of payoff. On the other hand, though, functional models potentially do a better job of capturing particularity of behavior than a lot of other approaches.

          Trying to be more concrete: the more specifically described the payoffs, the better. I want to get a sense of the *different* reasons behind socket preferences, an idea of the range of behaviors certain sockets support and reinforce, as well as the sorts of things that happen when someone tries to get something poorly supported out of a socket.

          I’d love to see user histories, describing the active way in which people explore sockets. Heck, maybe the coolest thing would be for the final result to be something like a user’s guide–a map of different play styles, of interactions, of the sorts of reasons different people engage in them. Something that people could use to find their play, not just identify their play.

          (I’m sorry, I can’t seem to think in a straight line 😉

  2. Those are some excellent observations. I couldn’t agree more regarding virtual spaces. They definitely allow for intimacy, though it’s not physical; it’s intellectual and emotional. After all, that’s how Lisa and I got involved, as we first grew intellectually intimate with each other, and the rest developed from there.

    I have a whole list of motivations that I see for virtual space players; I’ll have to cross-reference them with your sockets and see how that matches up.

    For one, though, there are plenty of people who use virtual spaces like BDSM scenes: for safe sexual experimentation and fulfillment through characters.

    1. that’s how Lisa and I got involved, as we first grew intellectually intimate with each other, and the rest developed from there

      That’s funny, same goes for Brand and I – a Changeling MUSH. 🙂

      Looking forward to seeing that list/cross up, please do come back with observations.

  3. Mo, we need to talk about “Peacock” games at some point (Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, Polaris, Kazekami Kyoko Kill Kublai Khan, While You’re Far Away, and the one I’m working on about Marlowe) and how the limiting of players, especially in two-player games, and the encouragement of close forms of cooperation and antagonism creates a place for, basically, structured flirting that makes roleplaing really intimate and sexy. Like, I talked about it a bit here, but there’s so much more, and you’re getting at some of it here.

  4. I couldn’t find any other way to contact the site’s owner, so here I go:

    I’m currently planning to write a Master’s Thesis in Drama/Theater at the local university. I’m writing about immersion in RPG’s as an alternative and closed form of improvised theater. Can I use/quote material from your website/blog? Do you want your name mentioned in the thesis if I can and do use/quote your material? I think a lot of the material here is really good and very relevant for me.

    Please reply on this address: grumejl [at] hotmail [dot] com

    Thanks in advance for your reply (and hopefully, your consent).

  5. Mo;

    Not sure if this is the right article to put this comment on, but… I ran into the ‘socket’ stuff a while back, and I’m rereading it this morning.

    I’m not sure, but *think* I’m talking about some (not all, even remotely, just some) of the same things you are, in different language, over here:


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