Consent and Games: Creating an Interactive Experience with the Player in Mind

From games on the playground to structured roleplaying experiences, consent is something players can give or take away. As an assistant teacher in an after school program, I tried to subtly give kids pointers on how to communicate their desires to be included or excluded from a game. In an aggressive tagging game where they chased each other and grabbed each other (something I found alarming at first), they said “safe word” whenever they were uncomfortable with the game and needed to stop. From what I saw, they took “safe word” seriously and backed off when somebody needed to take a break.

That’s a start.

In LARPs (live-action role plays, or a game in which you are physically playing a character and interacting with other players in character), the gamemasters (called GMs) typically solicit desired experiences from players who have indicated interest in playing. Players may indicate whether they prefer puzzles or combat, complex storylines or relaxed roles, characters who will lie through their teeth or characters who are exactly who they appear to be, etc. This helps the GMs find the right roles for players to fill. In my first (and only so far) LARPing experience, I made sure to communicate how much I did not want to be doing several little quests to do build an item nor did I want a tricky character to play. So, I was assigned a character who was pretty straightforward but had many, many goals. I was pretty satisfied the whole weekend.

Sometimes LARPs involve situations that are potentially triggering experiences for players if they don’t know what content will be addressed. Games about loss, suicide, or trauma hit close to home for some people, and when you have no warning, the subject matter can be deeply unsettling. While it’s common courtesy for game designers or previous players not to spoil the content of the game, people’s mental health is always more important than a spoiler. Hell, our culture cares way more about spoilers than it does about trigger warnings (see outcry over Star Wars spoilers and compare that to the response to people asking for trigger warnings in media). If sensitive material is a part of your game, it is your responsibility to explain what that means players will be dealing with. This doesn’t have to go into details; just a simple content warning before players sign up that the game will address ____ themes will suffice. GMs don’t want players needing to suddenly leave a game because of a bad experience that could have been averted, and players don’t want to get into a subject they would rather avoid for whatever reason.

From xoJane: (because this is nice and succinct)

“Trigger warnings were originally implemented with a very specific and very clear function: to tag content that contained traumatic material for the benefit of people who experience panic attacks, PTSD flashbacks, and other responses to such material …
Trigger warnings would provide people who know they experience intense physiological and psychological responses to certain known stimuli — triggers — with a, well, warning. Which would allow them to prepare for something that might be traumatic.”

Trigger warnings aren’t a be-all, end-all solution, but they can help reduce harm. Content warnings are much broader, but they’re also good to implement. This is all about transparency and providing people (and players in game settings) with the information they need to decide whether that experience is something they want to sit through. For example, I like to know when a video game or a LARP is going to contain sexism. A content warning might let me know that the media contains sexism, and a trigger warning might let me know something more specific, such as a male character sexually assaulting a female character. There are some days I’m fine with consuming media about sexism, and there are other days when I’m too exhausted by sexism in daily life to want to experience it in a game setting. Either way, I appreciate the information.

Now, getting back to consent — without those warnings in the case of LARPs not suitable for everyone, I can’t be expected to consent to a potentially traumatic or disturbing scene if I don’t know it’s coming.

Even for milder things, consent can be given or taken away. Sometimes games will have characters who are in a relationship played by people who are not dating; maybe they didn't even know each other beforehand. Your comfort level is far more important than playing up the role. It's important to discuss this before the LARP starts, but you should also establish when you are in and out of character so that it's obvious when you're telling another player to stop it's you the player saying that. The easiest and most common way I've seen of communicating out of character is the placement of the player's hand over their nametag. 

It's hard to quit a LARP when you've already begun. There's an implicit pressure to be a well-behaved player or not to hinder the game for anyone else. After all, playing in a LARP is like participating in an illusion with many other people. You're all physically in a classroom or a hall, but you've all agreed to pretend you're in a specific setting, acting as someone who is not you. Essentially, everyone is acting but sort of doing it improv. LARPs function because players agree they enter "the magic circle," a place separate from our reality with different rules. However, it is unreasonable to expect people to completely shed what they bring along with them (e.g. their experiences and identity) to the game. That's why proper communication is important to distinguish when you're playing along and when you are not. Before signing up for a character, think about what you want and don't want out of the game so that you're prepared to break the illusion when your safety is threatened. The game organizers should also take care to be someone players can trust so that they can approach an authority who will take their concerns seriously.

The point is everyone, from players to designers to GMs, wants to participate in a game they’ll enjoy. Crafting a space where players can discuss or exit the situation when they’re not comfortable is just as important in a LARP as it is in a sexual context. You are not your character, and it is perfectly reasonable to leave or avoid a game that makes you uneasy. A lot of mid-game uncomfortable situations can be avoided simply by telling players what they should expect to see and do in the game.

Because LARPs are interactive, multiplayer experiences where players’ actions shape the story (although the games’ design makes certain events likely or certain to happen), there’s huge value in players coming together to participate and co-write what happens in the game. Don’t put pressure on players to keep on playing when they’re disturbed by something in-game (I’m the type of person who would likely keep participating because I wouldn’t want to inconvenience my fellow players). Trigger and content warnings take almost no effort to provide. They’re another sample of information for players so that they can decide whether that experience is something they want. It’s not your business to counsel others on what experiences are right for them.

Once we focus more on players’ needs than spoilers, media and interactive experiences will be more welcoming to people. The more accessible we make it, the more people can enjoy it. More information doesn't hurt.