Age of Wushu, an MMORPG inspired by Chinese fantasy, is adding a controversial new feature to their world of colorfully dressed, gravity defying warrior-calligraphers: Castration. Yes, you read that right. An MMO where male player characters can be forcibly castrated by enemy players.
This is definitely not something you're going to see in the WoW patch notes.
While I might know where I stand on the issue players of enslaving NPCs in a game, I'm not at all sure where I am on this. (Trigger warning; proceed with caution)
First I want to give you some background on this game because it's not a run-of-the-mill MMO, and understanding that is key. Age of Wushu is a rather weird game, and in spite of the colorful fantasy setting it takes its world rather seriously. When you log out, your character does not simply cease to be. You are offered a few different jobs you can choose from, based mostly on your character's level in society, and once you leave your character will become an NPC filling that role. Acrobat, traveler, merchant, noble, there are quite a few roles to choose from. While this is an interesting way of making a player feel like they actually have a tangible place in the game's world, it's not all sunshine and roses. Other players can kidnap offline players who are doing their various scripted NPC tasks using "knockout powder", carrying them in a sack to a broker who will then buy the kidnapped player for a hefty sum (unless another player manages to rescue the "merchandise" along the way). This is an element of the game that bothered me when I tried the game a few months ago, but is couched in a lot of vagueness, has negligible consequences (a debuff), and is buried in a sea of fetch quests and grinding.
This game has a very strong historical and cultural component, moreso than any other games I've played in similar settings. Crafting abilities like calligraphy are just as important as being able to make gear, and poetry metagames are part of how the developers engage with the community.
Age of Wushu feels very carefully put together. There is an obvious interest in being faithful to both the beautiful and ugly sides of reality in some regard even within the fantasy (and I appreciate that this isn't used as an excuse to make female characters take a back seat). I guess when I call it weird, what I really mean is that it's interesting... In a very weird and sometimes uncomfortable way. Given all this, the presence of kidnapping mechanics and castration makes sense. Both kidnapping and forced castration existed in ancient China, so they both have a place in this story.
To be clear, the castration process in Age of Wushu is also fairly complicated. There's only a chance of success, and if the action fails the player sustains significant damage, according to this interview with the developers. NPCs will try to help the player, but most NPCs won't stand much of a chance against the 5 other players required to form the group to carry this out. It will also only work against players who are at a certain level, so at least it won't be a way for assholes to harass and humiliate new players.
If they complete the castration process, the victim receives an invitation to join their clan, the Rootless, but other than that it seems to change very little about actually playing the game.
Even so, part of me is horrified at the idea. It's true you're not losing anything that's measured in stats or meters or inventory slots, but it feels much more significant. It's something being taken from you on a more personal level, and it can't be returned, repaired, or regained. Loss penalties in games, especially MMOs, are rarely (if ever) permanent in the same way. Even though it never really existed in the first place, it matters.
I really don't want to invoke the R-word here (I try to always think twice before I do, especially when it comes to gaming) but if it was a group of five players carrying a female character off into that tent that's exactly what it would be, and sadly that also has a place in history. That's a line I doubt the developers of Age of Wushu (or of most games) would be willing to cross quite so explicitly (even though they aren't staying entirely clear of it either, in the case of quest NPCs who have been sold to brothels directly) but it doesn't make me feel much better, especially given the fact that we don't really know how this will be treated. The kidnapping never quite felt like it had the appropriate weight -- it was almost caperish and gimmicky, even when selling someone to a "darkminded trafficker" (Edit: Which in many ways implies rape, even if the game refuses to say so outright). As awful as selling someone, the game handles it with vagueness, distance, and negligible in-game consequences. Kidnapping is ultimately a minor irritation because of this, and maybe it says something that the new feature stands out to me far more than the other admittedly unsettling content did when I was playing Age of Wushu. The vagueness doesn't excuse it, but it makes the explicitness of the castration feature seem much more jarring.
I'm not male and I rarely play males, but I have enough empathy to find something about this genuinely upsetting, even if it really does fit within the world. It might just be one step too far.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.