Gossip Grenade

Smear Campaigns
Covert predators spread falsehoods to slander your reputation and degrade your credibility to others…They may gossip behind your back, slander you to their or your loved ones, create stories that depict you as the abuser while they play the victim, and claim that you engaged in the same behaviors that they are afraid you will accuse them of engaging in.

-from The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide To Dealing With Toxic People
by Shahida Arabi

Some of you may have noticed that, for a while there, several of my older posts vanished, only to be restored in a large lump last week. There is a common thread in the posts that were deleted: they all had to do with me writing on the Improbable Island game. They were either things I’d written about writing there, or were things I’d actually written for or as my character.

I removed them as a result of an incident on the Island that has driven me almost entirely from the game. I put them back because fuck them, it’s my writing and I’ll be damned if I let someone else keep me from writing what I like, for whatever reason I like.

Over the past six months, my character Castalia has upset a number of other players on the game. If it had simply been that their characters were offended or hurt or otherwise negatively impacted, I would have smiled and chalked that up to the fact that Casta is a villain. I’ve mentioned this before, both here and in the game. If you were to use the Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart, Casta is Chaotic Evil. So, if she’d hurt another character, I would say that is what she’s designed to do and it seems I’m doing it well. A compliment to my writing of an effective villain.

But that’s not what happened.

The two situations that provoked the ire of the other players had no direct impact on anyone else’s players. The two situations only involved Castalia, one other character who was there by their own choosing, and NPCs that I made up for the occasion (and were played by me). The situations were not done in public spaces – they were written inside the Place creations of other Island players that are usually left open for other players to write in, or at least explore – and involved nothing of a graphic nature.

A moment to explain something: one of the conceits of the Improbable Island game (and its ‘storying’) is that a player’s character never truly dies. Kind of like comic book characters. They may get their memories wiped, or they may fade into obscurity as the player that wrote them stops doing so, but they don’t die.

How do I, as an author and a player attempting to make a believable and sympathetic villain, show my character’s evil in an environment that has no such thing as permanent death? If you were to look at a cross-section of today’s bestselling books, I’d venture that somewhere around 85% of them use the device of murder as the way the author chooses to show that the antagonist is evil. It’s a near-universal taboo and it strikes us at our hearts; no one wants to die out of turn, to have your life and your potential cut short. But you can’t die on Improbable Island. If I can’t use the murder device as the evidence that Castalia is evil, how do I do it? Moreover, how do I make her a credible threat to other characters if she isn’t a stone-cold killer? Some of these other characters have been played long enough that they’re nigh invulnerable or were created as super-powered. A random, unpowered and unproven new character is not a threat to them.

This was my entire purpose in writing this character of Castalia the way I chose to. As an author, to write a character that was frightening, threatening, and evil was the exercise I performed with Castalia. Because, up until her, the adversaries I created for my writing were Bond villains at best and cardboard at worst.

I chose to make Castalia amoral, a drug dealer, a complete slut, bloodthirsty, a chemical addict, and slightly megalomaniacal. She enjoys making chaos, will sell her ‘product’ to anyone who wants it (uses them on herself reguarly), participates in bloodsport for money, and will brag about the number of people she’s bedded, and feels no remorse for any of it.

To be believable or sympathetic, a character must undergo a change of some kind. This is what makes Bond villains so ridiculously out of proportion: they never change. They die like video game bosses. So my character needed to change. I posited that Castalia couldn’t be remorseless and truly, wildly evil if she actually allowed herself to feel anything. So the experiment changed slightly, but retained its core of building a sympathetic character.

The change in her behavior came back in January of 2021. And the first of the two incidents followed shortly thereafter.

I take Casta out on what she terms ‘mayhem nights:’ a trip to a bar or a dance hall or something where people gather (not to be confused with public places in this game, which are essentially the cities and are open to all players and need to be respected as places not to do things like fight each other, show awful things, or generally have occurrences that would put off new players) where she indulges in her penchant for harm. No other player need be involved. I’m accomplished enough to write interactions between Casta and people who technically don’t exist in the game (my favorite one of these is the bartender, Ben. He’s developed quite an amusing personality over the months. But he isn’t a character I can walk around as – he’s an NPC – non-player character).

Castalia will hit the dance floor, interrupting partners, slithering into people’s personal space; trying to get everyone to pay attention to her (megalomaniacal, yes). She sometimes uses contact poisons to make people sick, she’s an expert pool sharp, and gets into drinking or fighting contests. Occasionally, she will also use her knowledge of alchemy to drug someone, then dump them back with their friends.

This is the activity that has caught people’s ire.

In January, I wrote one of these mayhem nights at a particular Place on the Island. The next day, I received an email from the player whose Place it was, saying that they didn’t want me to continue writing such scenes at their place because they felt it interfered with other players’ ability to have their characters feel safe in the establishment.

A reasonable request. It was phrased in a manner that clearly stated what their issue with the scene was and I took no offense at it because it was eminently reasonable and considerately worded.

Okay, so now I feel like I can’t take Casta back there. That’s my own interpretation of things; the other player did not say that. But I went with what the character of Casta would do. She’d look at it and say she was being banned (if you’ll recall, I talked about this in a previous post, when I spoke of Castalia’s perspective being very warped). She, being who and what she is, looks at the banning as both bullshit and a badge of honor. I wrote that into her story. It unfortunately caused some confusion: many other players believed that I as a player had been banned by the other player. No, not at all, and I said so. It’s just a story device to continue Casta’s evil.

Fast forward to early May. Castalia has undergone some significant changes, following the path of my experiment. She’s allowed herself to have feelings for another character. Her evil begins to diminish and she knows it and feels like she needs to do things to make up for it before she loses face or people begin not to fear her. But she wants this character’s approval and returned feelings. The experiment is still to write a sympathetic villain, but now that villain is in love. How does that change her approach? Can she still be evil and yet be in love? What happens when, now that the door to feelings is open, more feelings are acknowledged? Can she still be evil if her suppressed memories, ignored morality, and gentler feelings start coming through the gap opened by her falling in love? Can she live with herself if she makes a conscious decision to remain evil while understanding exactly how her actions are affecting others?

It’s a fun experiment and Castalia is a fun character to write.

But then I made the mistake of having Casta talk about the previous incident in another location. There is no way to tell exactly who wrote or owns any location on the Island. Generally speaking, if you write a place (that isn’t specifically someone’s home) and leave it unlocked, it’s fair game to explore or write in. This happened to be another bar (Casta is a major barfly, most of the time); a particularly sleazy dive kind of place. I was writing with another player whose character was starting to show signs of being interested in Casta. Casta wanted to scare this other character away, so she told her version of the mayhem night banning saga.

Again, remembering that her perspective is severely warped and that she’s evil, she painted it as bullshit and a badge of honor. Casta: Are you listening, other character? I’m a badass. I get banned from these idiot places and they think they’re doing something noble. But I’m still here, and I continue to do as I please. You might want to run now, before I do something like that to you.

Nope. The other character didn’t give a crap that Casta is bad news…the other character kind of thinks she’s bad news herself.

The following morning, I received an email from the Place’s owner. Unlike the first time this happened, this email was rude, ignorant, and made assumptions that simply were not present in the scene. I, as a player, was banned from all of this other player’s locations (again, no way to know who wrote or owns what)…for glorifying rape.

To say I was stunned is to put it very mildly. As a childhood rape victim myself, the idea of glorifying it is…putrid; the person who wrote this email to me knows my history with the subject. And while what Casta had done was questionable, surely, it was neither explicitly nor implicitly written that Casta had either raped someone or facilitated someone else’s rape.

Obviously, I had little recourse if the person was this angry and rude about things. So I responded that, fine, I wouldn’t write in their Places. And I thought that was that.

But this is when the gossip grenade went off; the smear campaign had begun.

Within the span of a week, fully half of the players I interacted with were no longer willing to speak to me. Three quarters of the people I normally wrote stories with were either no longer interested in writing, or peppered their writing with veiled threats about what would happen should I (as player) stray into such terrible places again. Moderators on the site also adopted this ‘we’re watching you’ attitude (without actually contacting me directly to say so). The other player who had been in that scene reported that she’d been contacted by yet a different player who was sending her ‘faux-concerned “suggestions”‘(again, from Shahida Arabi’s excellent book) that maybe she might not want to write with me anymore.

I hadn’t said anything about the situation to anyone other than the other player who’d been in the scene, so obviously gossip was at play here. As the days progressed and I happened across things said in out-of-character channels or stories I ran across, I watched my name as a person (not my character, but me as a player) be dragged through the mud. People removed themselves from communication with me. That was a month ago, and the ostracism continues to the point that I rarely play on Improbable Island any more. I don’t attempt to contact the people there who I’d previously believed were at least Internet friends.

Only two people ever asked me what had truly happened. I gave them my version of events (because, if Casta’s experiment proved anything, it’s that everyone’s perception is skewed to their own satisfaction. Scientific studies relate that there is no such thing as an objective witness). And they remained in contact with me – remained friends to me – despite what else was being said.

Let go of the people who choose to support the [abuser]; they will find out how wrong they are on their own. It’s not your job to convince them. Take it as a blessing that you now know who your true friends are.

– from The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide To Dealing With Toxic People
by Shahida Arabi

I made a mistake, playing on Improbable Island. I was using it as a playground to develop characters that I might later use in my books; rather like a real-time writers’ group. That isn’t what the Island is. It’s a game. More fool me for believing that I could use it in a manner that would help me with my own writing.

But I think it says a lot about the players who congregate there that they decided the gossip grenade was the way to play.

Credit for the wonderful term ‘gossip grenade’ goes to my dear friend Melanie.

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