Venn Interstices Between Polyamory and Gaming

Developing rules for how to handle it, advocating for its social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.

[with thanks and comprehensive, constructive, and creative input from the bright and beautiful ladies (all of them!) of the G+ Community:A Game Room of Our Own]

Defined via Google as “the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time,” polyamory is not new.  Developing rules for how to handle it, advocating for its social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.  This article is not about that.

A “Role-Playing Game” is loosely defined as “a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures…” Developing rules for games, advocating for their social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.  This article is not about that.

Don’t look up “polyamory and gaming” on Google.  No, really.  Some of the options are just… detestable.1 On the other hand, there are many groups devoted to people who “are poly” and “into gaming.”  You may be able to simply reverse those labels – they “are gamers” and “into polyamory.”

It’s important to note that both subcultures value (if not require) creativity and having an open mind. The poly lifestyle is considered an “alternative” one, and that means guidance and education are hard to find and often one has to set up their own procedures and environment and suffer the consequences when one “player” is unbalanced in the relationship.  Role-playing games may have rules and constructs for coming to some agreements, but often one has to say, “Okay, let’s play it this way and if it’s not working we’ll speak up and make some other rule.” They are both improvisational experiences, and it is impossible to provide blanket consent to all of what might happen because no one really knows what all of their “hot buttons” are, and some are going to hold it against you when they realize that they really didn’t want to kill that dragon…

From outside, both groups seem somewhat caught up in obscure details and specialized vocabulary, along with fast, furious, and enthusiastic debates about how to define pieces of the culture. The similarities are intriguing as they relate to both positives and challenges.  That’s what makes it interesting, and that is what this article is about.

The first and obvious comparison is Scheduling. Time spent together is a currency of value that one rarely gets to bank with someone else.2 The issues collide in having time for yourself, time to handle your responsibilities, and having time to meet up with those who share your passions. It’s one of the biggest challenges in both poly and gaming.

When can we run our Monsterhearts game? When can we get together for lunch?  When will you spend time with this gaming group and when can you turn around and play with me?  Did you get the laundry done? Why are you always so tired?  Why can you spend until midnight rolling dice but if it’s just us you’re asleep before eleven?3 

Maybe more obvious on the poly side is Communication. It is critical and there are issues and challenges for both groups. Some of the corollary issues with this are (but are certainly not limited to) both written interaction rules, from “veto rights” to “gaming contracts.” In both you should always have an utter right to say, “No, we’re not playing this out.” Sometimes it’s the unwritten rules that trip you up, the things one player or partner seem to think all reasonable creatures understand and with which they agree, and you are like, “Really? The Tooth Fairy is real but not the Easter Bunny?” Relationships in polyamory and in gaming are an unmarked minefield and occasionally some accidental step makes everything explode.

Similarly, there are invisible rules and fences determining behavior and expectations, and justifiably emotional reactions when these have been broken.  Of course as is true for many things, and not just polyamory and/or gaming, things don’t get fixed unless you can talk about them.

Robert Sternberg’s components of a loving relationship include Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment.  His definition of Intimacy talks about the “specialness” of the relationship. The connections and closeness of the interactions between PCs and the gamers themselves really make a difference.  You’re spending time, you’re giving attention4, you’re listening5 to the participants, and you’re celebrating (if only by participation) the Passion (the ‘excitement’ and the ‘arousal’) they bring to the table.

Commitment is split by time between short and long term, depending on the short form of being able to become vulnerable, and the long term to commit to maintaining the adjustments of sharing and being willing to go deeper in the relationship.  “I’m willing to try a new game for every other Sunday, maybe a couple months, sure,” and “I’m in a 30 year AD&D game.”

We worry in games that someone else might take over our “niche” in the party and make us superfluous, and that same Fear of Competition often raises its ugly head in polyamory. One method many use to justify their poly leanings is in the problematic thought of it being “okay” because “You get different things from different people.” My primary partner likes women who are creative. Should I feel that my metamour is my rival because she’s creative?  Is it okay only because she’s an amazing artist with pen and brush, and my art uses bead and keyboard?   Is Storm any less of a hero because Thor is around and they’re both using lightning?6 Are you limited in being able to love only one person for one trait or play only one type of character?

Children. Those with them know what I mean, those without have their issues, too.  Children are a big deal. Taking care of children while dating, or at the table is the kind of stress that has broken otherwise strong relationships.  There are often conflicts and entanglements between who has the responsibility of being “on-call.”  This is one of the many places where it is important for people in both camps to understand the differences between fantasy and reality.

Too meta for you?  Here’s one you may be able to relate to on either side: you do not get to know (without asking) or control someone else’s feelings (PC or partner) unless you have some kind of superpower.  “You think I’m being hysterical,” and “You feel your hand reaching down to press the red button,” are both phrases of nuclear-level escalation.

Both require the ability to view things from another’s perspective, whether it’s being the dwarf girl who realizes she’s never going to be able to bang the elf, or empathising in that your metamour doesn’t have a place to call her own and thus is on an unstable foundation with your existing couple.

Both can be hard to explain to parents and other concerned people, and both can be pointed to by well-meaning family and friends as “the problem” when you are stressed.

The myths are similar, too. The idea that people with poly are “unsatisfied.”  Would you be considered “unsatisfied” if you played more than one game?  Amber DRPG and I are like… well, we’re separated right now. I’m not currently seeing Amber, and I think we had a dysfunctional relationship.  Just because I’m playing Nightlife does not mean I’m cheating when I play a game of Earthdawn.  Fate’s tempting me.  That’s all I can say about that.

There are of course challenges that can make both involvements miserable.  What makes a good polyamory situation and a good gaming situation include not setting people up to fail.  You might not want the kind of game or relationship where one person (be it GM or primary partner) tells you “what is what.”  Games and relationships are both way better if participants are clear on what they want with themselves and everyone else participating, and how to handle it when you discover something new about yourself, your partner, or your play style. Not deliberately making things hard for yourself or a member of your relationship for no reason except to ‘tweak’ them is essential in building the necessary trust. Understanding each other’s strengths and offering caution and support when one is likely to take bites that are just too big to swallow is a part of making both kinds of group work.

Sometimes people want in both, but don’t understand and/or care about the limits.  “We  meet at a house where there’s cats and children, and you’re violently allergic.”  “I like you. I really like you… but we’re not really open right now – we’re working on meeting the needs of some of our relationships.”

Sometimes someone insists on having all the attention to the extent that others feel their voices aren’t heard.  “`I think we should sneak around ba–’ `I STRIDE RIGHT IN LIKE I OWN THE PLACE’” is congruent with, “`Yeah, I mean, sure, you can go out…I just–’ `I STRIDE TO MY OTHER DATE LIKE I OWN THE PLACE.’”

Sometimes individuals involved in either don’t accept the same reality (or feel the same way) that the others do.  Not everything can be fixed on your own, and not everyone is able to fix it. Not everyone has the training or patience or `spoons.’

There’s the capability of both to become very dark, because sometimes someone is in power who doesn’t appreciate your ability to consent or choose for yourself.

Overall, both have their rewards. Heroism, love, honor, romance, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles…  It can be hard to empathise with those who have different experiences.  It’s easy to fall into the social fallacy that what makes you happy would make anybody happy, if they only gave it a chance!   It’s okay to not want to play a game! It’s okay to be happy with monogamy (or even with no one at all)!

It’s okay to have given it a try and had it fail.  That failure helps make it interesting.  Pick yourself up, maybe try again.  That’s life. That’s love. That’s…gaming.

  1. (“Harem Management” anyone?)
  2. …although one can invest.
  3. These examples may not be drawn from real life.
  4. defined by Simone Weil as ‘the rarest and purest form of generosity’ and akin to prayer
  5. remember the rule: sometimes being listened to is so akin to being loved that many people do not know the difference
  6. Or, as is more likely, vice versa?

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