- Marvel Comics’ Ultimates
- George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones
- Image Comics’ Invincible
- Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
What do these have in common?
They are among the pieces of media I’ve stopped consuming lately due to their portrayals of the death of children. I could go on a very long rant about what I find responsible and irresponsible, and civil rights vs. saying right things, and on and on… but that’s not why you come to Intwischa.
Let’s take my personal issues out of this. After all, I’m sure there is a legion of geeks ready to tar and feather me for quitting Game of Thrones less than 20% of the way into it. The point isn’t so much about what is and is not offensive to people, but about what your group can and cannot handle.
I have the fortune to have never had to deal with the death of a child in-game. I’m grateful that I’ve gamed with GMs for whom this topic is either taboo, or simply hasn’t crossed their minds.However, as I thought on this topic, it did bring to mind other sensitive issues I have encountered (and yes, even introduced) to games. From the violent sexual crimes to situations where torture happens, there has been some content that might be less that acceptable to some players in my game.
Don’t get me wrong: I won’t tolerate a game where rape or torture are described, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. However, the mere inclusion of these elements could be psychologically distressing to certain players, and I realize, I’d never made an effort to identify whether such players existed in games that might simply focus on investigating a sex crime or witnessing a torture chamber.
Today, we’ll discuss the inclusion of such sensitive topics in games. We’ll start with an exploration of whether and why these topics should be included in games in the first place, then move to a discussion of careful ways to handle such topics. We’ll conclude with an outline of how to set tone for your game, and how to identify (with fellow players) what topics might be taboo.
Whether and Why to Include Sensitive Topics
It sounds like a cop-out, but the first answer to the question of whether or why such topics get included in games is simple ignorance. This isn’t ignorance in the sense of “That GM is too dumb to know he’s being inappropriate;” rather, it is “My personal issue is too personal to be recognized by my GM.” This clearly isn’t the case for all such issues, but it likely considers most of them.
Take a personal example. I used to game with a person who simply couldn’t handle scenes that pitted PCs against dogs or other canine creatures. (It’s odd how much PCs have to fight dogs in low-level campaigns.) I even once threw zombie dogs at her, thinking that she might not have a problem with the dogs if they were already dead. (She did).
Why couldn’t this player handle violence against animals? I don’t know if it was personal sensitivity or a scarring experience from earlier in her life. My point here, again, isn’t about whether it is right or wrong to include dogs as enemies in RPGs; my point is that this topic evidently touched a nerve for a player. (And I didn’t pay too much attention to that. I’m a jerk. More on that later.) More specifically, the point of this story is that once you game long enough, you will inadvertently include a topic that is disturbing to one of your players.
Still, there are a number of topics–for instance violence in general, torture, affairs, loss of loved ones, sexual crimes, slavery and other rights abuses, racism, abuse of power by clergy, imprisonment–that clearly threaten to provoke reactions in much larger audiences. Why include such topics? Leaving aside the fact that the most popular RPGs are built around violence and are set in a time where civil rights are virtually unheard of, these topics are relatively easy to use to provoke an emotional reaction in players.
Things to Consider when Including Sensitive Topics in Games
So, if we intentionally include sensitive topics out of a desire to create an emotional reaction, how do we do this well?
I’m tempted to say the key thing is to ask yourself: “Is this exploitative?” But that’s not enough. I used dogs against my friend out of ignorance, and the belief that it “wasn’t that bad.” (Still jerky, still more on that later!) So, turn the tables and ask, “Does this help the story in a meaningful way?” and follow that up with, “Is it exploitative?”
Let’s explore this from the standpoint of violence against children. You’re running a superhero campaign and need to give a villain a compelling reason to be. You decide that, in his quest to take out the hero for perceived crimes against humanity, the villain stages a hostage situation with his wife and child. In the ensuing fight, the villain accidentally kills the wife and child. (Yeah, I totally ripped that one off from one of the four aforementioned sources. Uh, spoiler alert!)
See how this ups the ante? It’s pretty damn compelling, and one of the best reasons I’ve heard for a super-villain getting villainous. It’s also a way to take a campaign a notch darker if that’s the appropriate direction. So, in answer to the first question, “does this help the story in a meaningful way,” the answer is “yes.” Are there other similar ways the story could be enhanced? Probably, but I’m hard pressed to think of something that is this efficient.
So, move on to the second question. Is it exploitative? The answer: it depends.
There are two points of view to consider when examining whether a thing is exploitative. First, is the subject matter exploited and second, is the audience exploited. The former is subjective; what I find exploitative (visually depicting the body of the child or describing it in detail) another might find tone-setting. The subjectivity of this leads directly to the latter: are you exploiting your audience?
Did one of your players just have a kid? Did one of your players just lose a pregnancy? Did one of your players just have a loss of a young person in their family? Does one of your players work in a children’s hospital? Is one of your players me, and you’ve read this blog post? If the answer to any of these questions (and dozens more than I’m not asking) is “yes,” then you are running a very serious risk of being exploitative of your audience.
Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the Dogs of War
Finally, on to my bastardry.
The dog thing. Yeah, I knew my player didn’t like violence against animals. I didn’t respect that. I didn’t aggressively exploit her disdain for canine violence, but neither did I stem it. How easy would it have been to substitute a cat, which didn’t seem to bother her? Or better yet, some small monstrous quadruped? For zero effort on my part, I could have sidestepped the whole issue.
And instead, I maintained the line that “it’s not a big deal to me, therefore I think it shouldn’t be a big deal to her.”
That’s exploitative of my audience, even if it isn’t intentional. In the last several weeks, I’ve been told by over a dozen people that I just need to get past the child-killing in Game of Thrones and stick with it because it’s just so great. And I believe them; as I say, I love the writing and the intrigue.
But seriously, a good book (no matter how good) isn’t worth plunging into depression over because it touches a nerve. If you want to be a good friend, don’t recommend that I just suck it up and read the book; instead, recommend a good therapist or keep your mouth shut.
And don’t think that throwing me into an RPG situation where I face this will “help me” get over it.
Engaging Fellow Players About Sensitive Topics
So, there’s probably no good way to uncover all of your players’ phobias and sensitive issues with a short questionnaire; otherwise Netflix would likely be far better at recommending movies. So how should you go about both uncovering and including such topics in game play?
Uncovering them almost always happens by accident. So, rather than try to prepare for the issues themselves, prepare your fellow gamers by fostering an atmosphere where people can speak up when they’re uncomfortable. When you ask for feedback on your games as a GM, ask if anything is preventing them from enjoying the game. If you notice a player checking out, follow up on it.
If you uncover something, don’t include it in games that include that player. Period. Games aren’t therapy sessions, and while they can probably be used as such, that sort of thing should include a licensed therapist. You’re not writing a novel for untold millions, you’re crafting an environment for a small handful of people. Respect those people.
When common sense dictates you’re treading on new territory- let’s say you decide to have a team investigate a sex crime, as I did in a game I ran last year- do what I didn’t do and run it by your players first. You don’t have to give all the details, but you should say “I’m intending to focus this storyline around investigating a sex crime.” Give people a private opportunity to tell you whether they’re uncomfortable with that.
If you get pushback? Let it go. It’s just a game.