Thoughts on Gaming and Safe Spaces

April 8, 2016

So I was thinking about gaming and thought that mature rated games don’t clear as Safe Spaces. I mean, you’re in character the entire event, you’ll experience scary, terrible things, and there is a real chance things will happen in game that you aren’t OK with out of game. And these days we talk a lot about trigger warnings and Safe Spaces and micro aggressions – and I think that’s great!  But how much of a place does that have in modern gaming? Is it a worth while conversation?

First off: yes, this is definitely a conversation to be had but I think it is one with different answers for each game, maybe even each event. Every game and event has a different goal and culture and engaging each on its own terms. A family-friendly high fantasy game may not allow character vs character combat and ban certain themes like torture or slavery. But a cyber punk game aimed at 18+ players might go as far as using forced mind hacks as a metaphor for sexual assault. There’s a markedly wide variety. So how do we apply the ideals of a modern and accommodating culture to the future of gaming?

I think the first step is to acknowledge we can’t be Safe Spaces and still run most games. Many LARPs runs off of conflict, either characters vs non-player characters or even character vs character. Essentially, most games cannot be entirely Safe Spaces in the traditional sense. But there are things we can do, besides. The first is making clear the range of common things a player should expect. Is there character vs character conflict allowed? What topics are off limits? What subjects fade to black and occur “off screen”, initiated in character but handled mechanically out of character rather than acted out (such as, say, beginning torture but having the scene narrated / mediated).

In Dystopia Rising  (a game I not only play but help as volunteer staff), we make clear it is a mature rated game. There is swearing, death, torture, fear, spiders, pyro, character vs character conflict, in character bigotry (based on the in game Strains of humanity, not skin tone, and in game Faiths), theft, and screaming in the dark. This is a game that can absolutely trigger a player.

But sexual abuse is off limits as a topic. Not in backgrounds, not off screen, not even as a topic for jokes in or out of character – ever. Racism and any real world bigotry is left at the door without debate. Violating these edicts is subject to a network wide ban. And if anything else becomes too much, a player may leave any scene out of character with absolutely no consequences.

And we clarify that every single event.

I think this is a good model for every game. Not the specifics of what we have in and out of bounds, but rather how it is handled. A game should not only set boundaries but make them explicit along with the consequences for stepping out of bounds and enforce those justly and professionally.  Players both prospective and veteran alike should hear these regularly. Knowing what to expect and what the staff won’t tolerate gives players a better idea of what events will work well for them.

What I think we should aim for is, rather, Safer Spaces. Not safe, because even the most kid friendly event will likely introduce some conflict and escalation is a real possibility at all times, but Safer. Sure, at an event you might be chased, woken, ambushed, or running terrified (all of the above are actually part of Dystopia Rising’s appeal, honestly), but it’s all your character.  You are safe from the world outside.

By clearly in both verbal announcements and written in our rules and websites defining what a player should expect as intended by the staff and the out of game rights and privileges we give (like being able to leave a scene out plot that is to upsetting with no consequences and medical out of game sleeping arrangements) I think we as hosts encourage not only better and safer community and spaces but also help players who might otherwise not attend or attend and side line themselves.

I’m of the opinion that these steps let us create a Safer Space in LARP. We can still play hard and confront scary things while being sensitive to the emotional needs of the players that are, at the core, the most essential part of the experience.

As for the absurd notion that making these concessions makes gaming some how less masculine or fun or whatever – you are wrong. Nothing here stops someone from having a full – contact, no – role play, any subject goes event. It just ask you to make sure your players know what to expect in that before they show up. If anything, it ensures that only players you want to show will show and keeps away negative reviews due to mixed expectations.

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