Monday, January 31, 2011

Yellow Journalism and Runequest's S&M “Scandal”

Since my related post earlier, I have been a little obsessed with reading about the sad details of Runequest IV project leader Oliver Jovanovic's sex abuse case. What's clear from the successful appeal that overturned his conviction is that there was a troubling misuse of New York State's rape shield laws to ban email and phone evidence that would have cleared Jovanovic.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so I can't make much further informed commentary on this. But I have been a real-world print journalist on and off again for two decades now and I am floored by how sensational and irresponsible coverage of the case was at that time.

More relevantly to this blog, is how some of the more lurid accounts repeatedly point to his involvement with Runequest and role-playing games in general as a sideways proof of his creepy deviance. The hysterical framing would be funny if it hadn't had such a tragic outcome.

Take this 1996 excerpt from that shining bastion of journalistic integrity, the New York Daily News:
"Apparently this guy has a very warped video collection," including titles devoted to sexual deviation, said one law enforcement source.
There were also books of photography that include explicit images of gay sex that Jovanovic said he considers art, the source added.
As part of the probe, police are sifting through the E-mail Jovanovic sent and received through America Online.
His E-mail address is an apparent reference to a complex fantasy game he loved to play called RuneQuest. In the game, which is played on paper, GRAY is an acronym for the "Glorious ReAscent of Yelm."
In the game, Yelm is an evil emperor.

Evidence of deviant sexual activity?

Worse though is this oh-so soberly-titled one from the same paper:
The Columbia University doctoral student accused of torturing a woman he met online helped create a computer role-playing game in which characters gain points by maiming opponents.
Oliver Jovanovic developed a point system for "RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha," a copyrighted fantasy game like "Dungeons and Dragons," in which players assume roles ranging from mighty gladiators to elderly farmers and create adventures in a magical kingdom.
In 1994, two years before meeting his alleged victim through an America Online chat room, Jovanovic posted a summary of the game's major rule changes on the Internet to introduce prospective players to "the cosmology, history, lands and peoples of Glorantha, focusing on the regions around Dragon Pass."
Explaining a change in the point calculation, Jovanovic wrote: "Thus, a normal dagger blow can easily sever an arm, and a normal kick will cripple an unarmed target. We would prefer a more reasonable range of damage, and to not force characters to wear armor.
You know, it takes some serious spin to make RQ's cumbersome combat rules seem this titillating.


  1. Whatever the facts in the case, it always frustrates me to see this kind of media coverage. The same sort of thing goes on with defendants related to comic books or any sort of outside the mainstream media. Guilt by insinuation.

  2. Absolutely, Trey.

    And here the RQ tie-in seems so incredibly weak as to be almost a non-sequitor--other than "rpg player" as subtle code for weirdo.

  3. Very sad this. The ludicrous case against Jovanovic was really enough to beggar belief. This is not an instance where we should grudgingly afford him the benefit of the doubt- the entire fabricated case was capricious and not in the least bit convincing. The media's involvement seems to have been the decicive factor in matters going on for as long as they did. Very sad to see a good man have his life destroyed like that.

    It's also easy to forget the vehemence of the various recurrent witch-hunts against roleplaying and roleplayers. It seems so ridiculous now. :(

  4. I remember all this well, as a former RQ fanatic and reformed Gloranthaphile. I wonder if any of Jovanovic's accusers had copies of write-ups for the Cult of Thed (Goddess of the Broo and Rape)...I bet Ralzakark, the Unicorn Broo King of Dorastor really freaked them out...

    BTW, the Drune= Thed Rune

  5. There is so much that is so wrong with this story; it is just heartbreaking. I would wager to say that if, as a prosecutor, you were able to pick and choose through someone's possessions and creatively edit their emails you could make just about ANYONE look like a serial killer or sex offender. I would hate to find out what some trigger-happy D.A. with political ambitions could do with my books and art.

  6. I'm really shocked to see my own gaming proclivities highlighted in legal documents: "players assume roles of elderly farmers". How did they know that? It's like they're seeing into my soul. Creepy. They should be on trial with spooky voodoo like that.

  7. @Comrade Drune
    Ah yes Ralzakark, the most worldly of Broo lords. Beware the "other" Ralzakark with the scorpion arm.

    I mean really, who wants to be a "mighty gladiator" when one can assume the role of an elderly farmer. "As soon as I get this back 40 tilled I will get down to the dungeon to join the rest of the party."

  8. Journalistic irresposibility, insinuation, and downright fraud for agaenda mongering ranks among the greatest crimes in my book and occurs all too often. Look at what happened to the Tasaday. Initially a huge preserve was established to protect these people, much to the anger of the powerful logging interests. Then a couple journalists "bribed" two Tasaday with cigarets to say it was all a hoax. Despite irrefutable linguistic and anthropological evidence to the contrary, the world press bought it, the preserve was removed, the loggers moved in, and today the ?Tasaday are scattered, impoverished and losing thier identity. Garbage journalism should always be challenged just as loudly as it gets broadcast, but unfortunetly that's not how the game gets played.

  9. Yeah, after reading your post yesterday I looked up the case on Wikipedia. Sad, sad stuff. But for a chance online encounter... The most interesting thing to me was the fact that the defendant's own family supported Jovanovic. Poor fellow. Too bad his civil suit was dismissed last year.

    I don't remember hearing about this case back then, but I do believe this was around the same time as the national media was trying to link Vampire and/or the CCG Jyhad to a murder case down in Florida. The late 90s seemed to be the yellow media's last hurrah with RPG witch hunts. Hopefully.

  10. The more I dig the more I get incensed at the whole business. The 90s were a particularly bad time for journalism IMO, the field had a tough time processing and balancing against the massive speed-up of the news cycle that came with the Internet.