In one of my other articles this month I talked about Discomfort. I find myself more and more thinking about uncomfortable games and game themes, and I feel that comfort-at-games is ever-becoming a central topic of discussion among gamers. As a gamer, and as a designer, I think a big drive behind making people comfortable is inclusivity. I want this awesome community of gamers that I am a part of to grow. I want it to be open to everyone. With that, comes a responsibility to understand that people in their respective lives have had different experiences than I have, and writing games with certain content, themes, and discussions means that my body of work would not be all-inclusive. Some folks may feel like they need to turn away and play a different game. It's the same reason that someone may not go to see the newest horror movie in theaters, or play certain video games. If, however, you provide maximum comfort to everyone, then your game can reach the largest audience possible, and is therefore more "inclusive".
When I first saw trigger warnings out and about on the internet, I just sort of took them as gospel and didn't question it. What I did notice however was that whatever was tucked behind the warning affected me probably much less than it would have if I'd gone in blind. Which makes sense, that's what they're there to do. I first really started to question the idea of trigger warnings was when I read the introduction in Neil Gaiman's book "Trigger Warning". The important bits are here below:
[Trigger warnings were] an idea that I found myself simultaneously warming to (of course you want to let people who may be distressed that this might distress them) while at the same time being deeply troubled by: when I wrote Sandman and it was being published as a monthly comic, it had a warning on each issue, telling the world it was Suggested for Mature Readers, which I thought was wise. It told potential readers that this was not a children's comic and it might contain images or ideas that could be troubling, and also suggests that if you are mature (whatever that happens to means) you are on your own. As for what they would find that might disturb them, or shake them, or make them think something they had never thought before, I felt that that was their own look out. We are mature, we decide what we read or do not read.
But so much of what we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: we need to find out what fiction is, what it means, to us, an experience that is going to be unlike anyone else's experience of the story.
Neil goes on to write "We build the stories in our heads. We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?" He winds down this bit of introduction giving, in fact, a light trigger warning to the book that follows, but makes it clear that there have been many things he's read that have troubled him deeply, and he would not have traded them for the world.
After I read that, I've found myself asking similar questions. Are games safe places? And then, Should they be safe places?"
I tend to hold games up, and perhaps I am biased in this as a game designer, alongside art. I believe that games are art. Art can be jarring, painful, bizarre, and changing. It can make you question, and doubt, and wonder. In fact, I believe that that's, in part, what makes art art. Artists will create without apology, and do not need to (and perhaps should not have to) place warnings on their pieces, because art is meant to get in your head and soul and change things. Yes, sanding down the harsh edges of a game, or a movie, or a piece of art with a warning such that it does not hit you as hard may be exactly what someone needs. However, it comes at the cost of sanding down the harsh edges of a game, or a movie, or a piece of art such that it does not hit you as hard. When the piece itself is designed for just that - to hit you, and change you, and make you look at something new... then to sand is for it to lose itself.
This is something that I continue to think about and argue with myself over. One part of me never wanting to place a single warning on my games, while the other part wants a detailed list of triggering themes so everyone is prepared.
I think that I will likely land somewhere in the middle, a bit like Neil, noting that my games are for Mature Readers, and allowing folks to proceed (or not) on their own. I'm curious to hear feedback regarding this. Feel free to leave a comment below!