Erotic roleplay (ERP) and consent in games

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A headshot of Andruid, shaded blue.
By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    Let’s face it: sexually explicit roleplay in online multiplayer games is nothing new.

    One of the reasons these games are so popular is that they allow people to escape, pretend, and share fantasies together. Thus, it should come as no surprise that people engage in physically intimate and erotic scenes, as well – both in video games and those played primarily through text.

    However, with erotic roleplay comes a number of risks for players, and it’s important to be aware of and understand those risks.

    As I’ll explain later in this post, it’s important to understand the risks even if you have no intention of engaging in sexually explicit roleplay yourself.

    What’s covered in this post:

    • definition of erotic roleplay and various types of consent
    • the role of consent and why it’s important
    • the limitations of consent in text-based games
    • things to keep in mind during your roleplaying adventures
    • how to respond to unwanted sexual advances during RP
    • approaches and alternatives to erotic roleplay
    • tips and suggestions for game admins / staff

    We have a lot of concepts to unpack, so let’s start with some definitions.

    Content warning: this article contains mention of sexual assault and rape.

    What is erotic roleplay?

    Erotic roleplay, often abbreviated as ERP, is any roleplay focused on physical intimacy – especially roleplay leading up to and including sexually explicit behavior.

    ERP can occur in both video games and text-based games, such as chatroom RPGs and multi-user dungeons (MUDs). In the context of MUDs, ERP may also be referred to as mudsex or Tinysex.

    What is consent in RP?

    In the context of multiplayer RPGs, the concept of consent has to do with whether – and to what extent – certain things can happen to your character without your permission.

    When a roleplaying game is described as nonconsensual, this means that there are certain things that can happen to your character without your permission, such as injury, illness, or even permanent death.

    The role of consent

    Consent is important for any kind of roleplay, not just ERP.

    It’s the often unspoken, unwritten rule that keeps players happy and forms the foundation of trust that is necessary for many kinds of stories and events.

    When consent is present, it generally means that players are having a good time and want to continue.

    When players choose to play games with nonconsensual elements, however, such as player killing or contagious disease, they accept the fact that bad things can happen to their character later without their permission.

    Nonconsensual elements are more common in MUDs where underlying code is used to dictate characters’ limits/abilities and decide the outcome of events.

    There’s also something called consensual non-consent (CNC) roleplay, which is when players agree beforehand to act out scenes of a non-consensual nature, such as those containing bondage or violence.

    Be aware that some games do allow nonconsensual sexual violence. This means that when you play these games, your character could potentially be raped without your consent.

    Always read the rules before you invest your time in a game, especially if it’s a game with mature/adult themes.

    Implicit vs explicit consent

    Picture of consent entry in the dictionary.
    The concept of consent is key to safer roleplay.

    With physically intimate or erotic roleplay, consent between players can come in two forms: implicit or explicit.

    It’s important to understand the differences between the two.

    • Implicit consent is when a player is assumed to give their permission by the very act of their current or past participation.
    • Explicit consent is when a player actually says they give their permission for something to happen.

    Most roleplay that occurs in online multiplayer games happens with players’ implicit, rather than explicit, consent.

    In fact, many – if not most – games don’t even address the idea of consent at all.

    If and when players choose to engage in ERP, it’s often either against the rules (such as in World of Warcraft, for example), or players are assumed to have given their consent for that roleplay to occur (i.e. implied consent).

    Why explicit consent is important for erotic roleplay

    When it comes to roleplaying, explicit consent is important for online ERP for the same reasons it’s important offline: it’s healthier and safer for everyone involved.

    To quote a friend, “When it comes to ERP, it’s never better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

    Sure, it might feel awkward halting the action to ask if it’s okay to proceed, but it’s far better than disrespecting your roleplaying partner or causing them harm.

    How to ask for consent

    Asking for consent should be simple and straightforward and can be done in-character (IC) or out-of-character (OOC).

    If you’re unsure about where the other player stands, asking out of character is the safest approach. Some games may even require that consent be obtained OOC rather than IC.

    Simply stop the scene before it gets hot and heavy and say something like, “Hey, it looks like this scene is heading toward X. Is that all right with you?”

    Or, “Is it okay with you if our characters do X?”

    Note how both of these questions are being posed out of character. You, the player, are making sure that the other player is comfortable with proceeding.

    If your roleplaying partner says no or indicates a preference to fade to black, respect their wishes. Don’t proceed without their permission. No means no.

    Also, the other player(s) will probably appreciate that you asked.

    Limitations of consent

    Even in games that require explicit consent from players, the concept isn’t without its limitations.

    For example, there’s no way to be sure that the person on the other end of the screen is legally old enough to give their consent. (And the minimum age varies by state, by the way.)

    You might think you can tell the difference, and you wouldn’t be the first person to mistakenly make that assumption. I started roleplaying online when I was 14, and other players often mistook me for being in my 20s. It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive advances from people who turned out to be full-on adults.

    Another situation where consent might fall short in a multiplayer game is when a scene is interrupted or monitored by a third party to whom consent has not been given.

    For example, imagine a player walking into a scene accidentally and reading an erotic passage they didn’t intend to see and that wasn’t meant for them. These things can and do happen in multiplayer games.

    Remember: consent granted toward one player doesn’t count for everyone else, and even if consent is given once, it doesn’t necessarily “carry over” to every scene thereafter.

    4 Things to keep in mind during your text-based gaming adventures

    Whether you’re a player or a staffer, below are some things to consider during your roleplaying adventures, even if you don’t intend to engage in erotic roleplay yourself.

    I don’t bring these things to your attention to scare you. Rather, my intention is to make sure that you’re informed.

    1. Age requirements

    The word EXCUSES written inside a circle with a diagonal line.
    MUDs with mature/adult themes often have age requirements but no easy way to enforce them.

    Text-based games with adult themes (such as war, sex, or violence) will often require players to be at least 18 years of age in order to play.

    However, there is no easy, straightforward way for staff to enforce an age limit.

    (I’m not saying it’s impossible, mind. See this r/MUD thread for additional thoughts/ideas.)

    The point is, staffers aren’t checking government-issued IDs at the door, which means it’s entirely possible that the game has underage players.

    Keep in mind that in some states, ignorance is not a legal defense, and cybersex with a minor is considered a crime.

    You can ask the player to confirm that they’re 18 years or older before you proceed to ERP. However, if you’re even the least bit skeptical about their age, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid ERP with that player.

    2. Privacy and confidentiality

    An open padlock and the word PRIVACY.
    When playing multiplayer text-based games, your privacy isn’t guaranteed.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that most MUDs do not offer secure connections.

    This means that data is unencrypted as it passes back and forth between your computer and the server, making any command you send to the game inherently non-private.

    Simply put, your privacy cannot be assured.

    On top of that, the admins and staff in most MUDs have commands that allow them to snoop on players’ activities without their knowledge or consent.

    While these commands are often meant for monitoring players suspected of twinking and metagaming, the MUD community is full of horror stories about staffers using their elevated privileges to silently observe, comment on, and even ridicule players for engaging in erotic roleplay.

    Finally, bear in mind that anything that happens in a text-based game can be logged, which means bad faith actors can use logs of erotic or intimate scenes to dox or blackmail other players.

    In short, do not assume that your roleplay (erotic or otherwise) is ever truly private.

    3. Sexual harassment and discrimination

    The word NO! spelled out.
    Not everyone understands that no means no.

    Remember that most MUDs are run by volunteers and hobbyists, not therapists or certified HR professionals.

    As hobbyists, staffers aren’t necessarily trained on how to recognize and address sexual harassment or discrimination, especially in the context of text-based games. At best, they have some training through their real-life job; at worst, they may be regular offenders themselves.

    The same is true for players.

    If a game’s rules forbid something from happening without OOC consent, my recommendation is to:

    1. Pause the scene immediately and ask the offending player to stop.
    2. If they refuse to stop, it’s now clearly a policy case. The other player has broken the rules. Leave the scene and report the player to staff with a log of what they did.
    3. Use the game’s built-in tools to block or ignore the player if necessary.

    Situations like this are why it’s a good idea to keep logs of all your interactions in the game.

    If you’re ever in a situation where another player has broken the rules, you’ll have evidence to present to the game’s admin.

    Evidence is important because it can help others make informed decisions faster than if they have to monitor players for future bad behavior or try to unravel the truth from conflicting accounts.

    If you’re a game owner, you might consider requiring yourself and your fellow staff to undergo training to better recognize the signs of sexual harassment – just as you would with a real-life job. There are some free resources online.

    4. Thematic vs. unthematic roleplay

    A person in a dress sitting beside a candelabra while knitting.
    Games with historical themes often promote a culture of heteronormativity in the name of “realism.”

    Finally, keep in mind that a game’s theme can dictate what kinds of intimacy are acceptable – and between whom.

    This is most often an issue in games that consider themselves “historical” or “historically-based,” though it can also be true of games based on fictional settings.

    In such games, behavior such as cross-dressing or same-sex relationships may be frowned upon or even punished in-character.

    At the same time, marriages and sexual relationships with underage characters may be permissible.

    Again – and I cannot stress this enough – do read and understand the rules before you invest your time in a game. And not just the rules. If it’s a roleplay-enforced game, read the cultural helpfiles, as well. Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you play.

    If a game has themes that make you uncomfortable (e.g. institutionalized homophobia, transphobia, or pedophilia), it’s probably not a great fit.

    Approaches and alternatives to erotic roleplay

    Not everyone looking for romantic RP is interested in erotic RP, and not everyone interested in erotic RP is just looking for sexual gratification.

    Erotic roleplay can also be a means for character development or part of a character’s story arc.

    If sexually explicit roleplay isn’t your jam, however, there are ways to approach romance and intimacy between characters without going into graphic detail.

    Here are a few variations commonly used by players:

    • fade to black (FTB) – players “fade out” of an intimate scene before things get too steamy, similar to what happens in movies.
    • fast forward – players jump ahead to some point after the sex act took place, such as lounging in bed afterward.
    • summarizing – players briefly summarize the intimacy in words that wouldn’t make anyone’s grandma blush.

    If you decide you do want to try erotic RP, you should consider using a safeword with your partner(s).

    In BDSM roleplay in real life, a safeword is a way for participants to indicate that something is not part of the game. It’s a codeword that means, “Stop the roleplay, we need to talk as equals.”

    For that reason, a safeword policy also lends itself well to text-based roleplaying games. The safeword makes it clear that the player, not the character, is asking for a timeout. Players can then discuss their comfort levels with certain activities before they proceed.

    Tips and suggestions for game admins / staff

    Below are some tips and suggestions for game staff. As the folks with power and authority, staff also bear more responsibility when it comes to upholding the rules of their game.

    For example, players will often adopt staff behavior, either consciously or unconsciously, as the example to live by and will repeat staffers’ language and claims in arguments with other players.

    A staff member’s words carry weight, which is why it’s even more important for them to watch what they say – as exhausting as that sounds.

    So here’s my advice:

    • First of all, keep it professional. If something isn’t against the rules, don’t ridicule or shame other players for doing it. You’re of course entitled to your opinions, but if you insist on expressing them in a way that ostracizes, marginalizes, or belittles other players, what you’re actually doing is promoting a toxic community.
    • Along those same lines: don’t use your elevated privileges for the sole purpose of eavesdropping on players’ erotic scenes without their consent. It undermines players’ trust in staff (and not just in your game, but for every game they play after) and likewise contributes to a culture of toxicity.
    • Make sure the topic of consent is addressed in your game’s rules. Are there activities or outcomes that do or do not require a player’s explicit consent? If so, outline these clearly in the helpfiles and/or on the website. Use examples where appropriate.
    • Also, make sure players know early on what they’re getting into. For example, if your game has a rape command, be upfront about it. Don’t let it be something that players only discover after weeks or months of playing. Failing to inform players is not only irresponsible but runs the risk of causing them avoidable harm.
    • If your game has mature adult themes, consider instituting an age minimum (18+), as well as a safeword policy. For example, Tapestries MUCK uses a universal safeword command. A good safeword policy allows players the freedom to explore IC while maintaining a culture of OOC respect.
    • If player consent is required for sexual activity between characters, consider coding it in with a consent command. Make it so that consent can be granted to individuals or revoked at any time. This will ensure that other commands (breed, sex, etc.) cannot be used on a character without the player’s permission.
    • Finally, consider instituting a graphic command to alert everyone in the room that the roleplay is becoming too graphic for someone’s comfort. When used, players must immediately scale back the level of graphic detail in their emotes.

    That’s it from me this time. I hope you found today’s post useful. Remember to respect others’ boundaries, stay safe, and have fun!