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.

Sometimes the Blue Curtain is Just a Blue Curtain

I know I'm not the only one in an English class where a teacher or another student has tried to find every little piece of meaning in the setting or a character. Sometimes I'm grasping at straws when looking for symbolism, and I can't deny the enjoyment of playing connect-the-dots with setpieces in literature with guesses as to what the author meant. But sometimes that blue curtain in the character's room isn't blue to represent sadness; sometimes it's just a color.

More meaningful than curtains are actions characters have done, whether this is depicted to the reader or if it's described to the reader as something that already happened. Our hobbies and interest say a lot about us. What we choose to do with our free time shows what we care about, what we choose to invest ourselves in. Were those curtains already there, or did the character pick them out? Were there other curtains? Why blue? There doesn't always have to be a reason, but some of the character's design choices should be a statement. In Dontnod's episodic game Life is Strange, we get to learn a little more about each character by seeing what their room is like. For example, Max, the protagonist, has a dorm room similar to the one I, and probably lots of college students, had. From pictures and posters on the walls to her acoustic guitar and plant, Max seems like a pretty normal middle class girl. When we see her best friend's room, we see Chloe has a more rebellious streak. She's handwritten on the walls in permanent ink, her room is smokey from doing weed, her lights are usually dim, and it's a mess.

Characters' rooms should, in most cases but especially in dormitory situations where students have freedom to decorate, be just as important to character design as the clothes they wear. However, moral judgments make their way into writing and character design. When we only see antagonists and "evil" characters liking certain things, we're drawn to a conclusion that only bad people would like that sort of thing.

This came to mind as I played episode 4 of Life is Strange, "Dark Room." I've written about Life is Strange before, finding some truth in how the writers portray how embarrassing Max can be, but I was also worried the writers thought women who are intimately close will get engaged in romantic activity together but treat it like a platonic friendship. I'll have to wait until the final episode to get a firm grasp on how the writers are treating Max and Chloe's relationship, but I'm less worried now. Instead, something else caught my attention. Spoilers for Episode 4.
Inside Nathan's room we see lots of dark-themed imagery as well as NSFW pictures of women. In this case, we see pictures of a woman being spanked with a paddle, blindfolded, etc.

Since episode 1, Nathan Prescott has been a dangerous kid to himself and others. He has an explosive temper and carries a gun. He tried to intimidate Max with violence, and he assaulted Warren. In episode 2, he texts Max and her family, breaks into Max's room and leaves a terrifying message for her. If that wasn't enough, Kate opens up to Max and tells her she thinks Nathan drugged her at a party.

Nathan is an extremely troubling kid. There are still a lot of mysteries going around as to how involved he is in Rachel Amber's disappearance and exactly what he did to Kate. We learn a lot about Nathan in episode 4, and it's a grim picture for this twelfth grader. In this episode, Max is able to investigate Nathan's room while he's out. She can read his emails to learn more about his troubling family life, look at his furniture and posters, and make value judgments — which she does frequently when snooping.

The way students choose to decorate their dorm is an important design choice. It speaks to how the character feels or wants to be perceived by others. Max has several photographs on her walls because she wants to be a photographer. Victoria, who also wants to be a photographer, similarly has pictures on her walls, and she also has expensive clothes in her closet because her family is at the very least in the upper-middle class. Kate's room was dark and closed off when she was bullied and felt isolated. Getting a look into Nathan's room should be just as illustrative of what he likes or how he feels.

Nathan's room is literally dark; a lamp in his room is broken. His shades are drawn, and he has a lot of clutter. Much of the art on his walls shows photos of women who are bound or otherwise submissive. (That's usually a little more personal, so I don't know exactly why Nathan chooses to put that on his dorm walls in case a friend walks in, but I guess nobody really likes Nathan other than Victoria, soooo ...)

Similar art is found in the "dark room" that Max and Chloe discover later on in the episode, and they also find pictures of young women from Arcadia Bay, primarily Blackwell Academy. These women look spaced out, and they were probably drugged before being taken to this room. The game sets up the dark room and Nathan's room to feel similar. Emails from Nathan's father are in the room, and his jacket is lying on a couch. Furthermore, the evidence Max and Chloe find clearly point to Nathan being a great danger to all of the girls at Blackwell Academy. Even before finding the dark room, Max learns Nathan bought GHB, the "date rape drug," just before going to the party where Kate said she was drugged.


We even find out Nathan has a mental illness and that his therapist is no longer comfortable seeing him. Everything points to Nathan being terrifying, and I truly was scared for all of the girls at that night's party. It sadly isn't surprising that the game depicts the character with a mental illness as a creepy guy because this is common in media, but it's even worse that the game uses Nathan's interest in domination and bondage as a clue that he's dangerous.

(Side note: The very end of episode 4 shows the photography teacher at Blackwell, Mr. Jefferson, has a much more heinous role to play in the game. I don't know exactly to what extent, but I believe he has before, and it's entirely possible he's the one who killed Rachel and not Nathan. So, it could be that Mr. Jefferson is into domination as well, considering most of his photography is of young women with dark or sexual themes. Even if that is true, Nathan is still used as a red herring, and we're still led to cement our suspicions of Nathan when Max gets a look at his room.)

In Nathan's case (and probably also Jefferson's), I don't think the boy understands the concept of consent, and that's much scarier to me than knowing he likes to see women tied up. A person who buys GHB and drugs a woman is dangerous; a person who enjoys being dominant in sexual play in a safe, consensual environment for all parties is not scary due to that interest.

We were already led to believe that Nathan is a dangerous guy. Showing us those photos draws on judgments that people who like domination and submission play aren't good people. Kinky stuff is supposed to be only for the morally ambiguous or evil characters.

Sometimes the blue curtain is just a blue curtain, and sometimes kinky interests are just fun play and not a moral judgment of character. We don't need every instance of dominating sexual interests to be nonconsensual ones.