Over the past few weeks on this show, I’ve focused a lot on things the video game industry is doing right, and could do with doing more of, in terms of making games more accessible to more players. From one handed remappable controls, to games with customisable difficulty settings, there are a lot of areas of gaming that we are seeing, little by little, get more accessible.
However, one aspect of video games that developers have made very little progress in making more accessible over the years is making players aware of narrative elements they may personally find disturbing or upsetting in the narrative. Aspects of their story that may cause a traumatic response in players with personal experiences connected to those events.
So, let’s spend a little time today talking about trigger warnings, why they might be important in games more than other media, and how our industry is uniquely placed to implement them in ways which don’t spoil narrative surprises for the bulk of players.
So, first up, let’s talk about what trigger warnings are, and what they are not.
Trigger Warnings are a warning attached to a piece of media regarding a specific piece of content that may cause distress. These are more specific than the general content warnings of Violence or Sexual Content you may find on an age rating for a piece of media. Rather than simply violence, you may be warned about something more specific like “graphic violence of a sexual nature” or “On Screen Depiction of Needle Use”. As these go into more detail than your average content warning, many consumers may consider these spoilers for the referenced piece of media.
Trigger Warnings as a concept are one of those ideas often misconstrued in arguments and outright decried as negative by those who don’t need them. They’re painted as part of some terrifying plot to sanitise all media so that nothing unsuitable for children can ever be created again. In practice, they’re far less insidious.
Trigger warnings allow people who are likely to experience distress due to reliving a personal upsetting experience like rape or a failed suicide to make informed choices regarding when and how they interface with that piece of media, if they choose to at all. If a piece of media is likely to cause me distress due to a topic like graphic depictions of self harm, I can make the informed choice to psych myself up and tackle it on a day I feel up to the challenge, so long as I know the topic is going to come up from the start. This is the benefit of trigger warnings on sensitive or distressing topics, they allow control over when and how distressing media is consumed. They allow players to make informed choices about how and when to engage with stories.
Video Games as an artistic medium are fairly unique in that a person interacting with them has control and agency within any presented narrative. If I beat a tough level in a video game, I talk about how I did it, not how the character did it. If I make choices in a story based game, I talk about my choices, not those of the character. While this level of connection to stories is part of what makes video games great, it can also put upsetting events directly into the hands of a player.
If you have a phobia of needles pushing through skin and a scene in a movie appears where a character has to stitch themselves up, you can cover your eyes and look away while the narrative progresses. If you came across that in a video game, you might be required to keep your eyes on screen to see button prompts in order to progress. You are forced to engage, and play an active role, in events you might personally find upsetting.
I know I’ve myself had to wrestle with distressing experiences in video games, which I wish I had been better informed about in advance. Released back in 2015, Life is Strange is a choice based narrative game about a young woman who discovers she has the ability to rewind time, and alter the future. The series’ second episode featured a scene in which the main character has to try and talk one of her friends down from committing suicide, without the use of her time manipulating powers. It is entirely possible to fail that scene, and fail to prevent that character’s death. You’re then shown what percentage of players managed to save her.
As someone who has, in the past, failed to talk someone down from suicide, experiencing that in a piece of interactive art was traumatic, as was afterwards being told that 80% of people managed to save her, where I did not. That is an example of a piece of media that, while impressive and impactful, I wish I could have experienced, with some foreknowledge it was coming. I needed to know to brace myself for reliving that experience.
So, how do we incorporate trigger warnings into video games in a way that supports active informed decision making about media for those who need it, but does not reveal undue plot spoilers to those who do not want to engage with them? While we don’t yet have many existing examples of how trigger warnings could be implemented naturally, I do have an idea for a system level solution, which might be a good start along this road.
Imagine, when creating a Steam account, or a PSN login, or an Xbox Live Gamertag, one of the available options is to tag your account with selections from a preset list of common trauma triggers. Options include suicide, graphic self harm, rape and targetted attacks on specific minority groups, violence against animals, violence against children, and a whole host of other options. Any you select will not be publicly displayed, but will be registered as tags on your account.
On the developer end, developers are asked when placing their game on to storefront to select any of these categories that may apply to their game.
When you as a player go to purchase a game, if the tags on the game and your account match, the system brings up a menu saying “This game matches some of your listed content triggers. Would you like to see which?”. You can then make an informed choice to either find out which triggers apply to the game, or to play on without being spoiled on the experience.
For those players who have not opted into listing triggers on their account, nothing will happen.
Now, obviously, such a system is not perfect. You’d be putting a list of things you find upsetting and distressing onto the internet, and as much as we like to believe our personal data is safe, it’s entirely plausible someone might get a hold of your list of trauma triggers, and abuse that information. Maybe that information could be stored offline? There are probably ways to work around this, but it’s something worth considering.
For all the praise I placed on The Last of Us 2 last week for its disability focused Accessibility menu options, this is one area where that game wasn’t really accessible to some players. A key example of this is the fact that the game contains descriptions of quite violent transphobic abuse that, while not shown on screen, are still quite upsetting to experience for those with personal experience of the topic. Reviewers ahead of launch were not permitted to discuss this character’s existence at all, due to the terms of the publisher’s pre launch embargo, meaning that any transgender players who might need a heads up about that content could not be told anything about it until launch day.
The game also includes descriptions of violence faced by children, an unavoidable scene depicting the death of a dog, scenes of torture, homophobic slurs, and a whole host of other content that players may wish to be aware of before playing. Giving players the ability to opt into knowing those triggers, would likely have helped more people engage with a game that is deliberately fixated on deliberate and detailed depictions of violence.
Until video games come up with their own standardised system, or more games on a case by case basis start implementing steps to warn players about trigger warnings in their content, I’d recommend players who don’t mind waiting until a few days post launch check out DoesTheDogDie.com, a website that initially focused purely on telling viewers if a given movie featured the death of a dog, but has over the years expanded to cover big budget video games, and a much wider variety of trigger warning categories per piece of media. The information there is sourced over time by audiences, but it does a pretty good job of offering a comprehensive list of common triggers, and information on if they are touched on in the piece of media.
Video games are unique in their ability to tailor their experiences to individual players. We’re a medium better equipped than any other to help players with trauma engage with our stories safely, and I’d love to see that become more common in the years to come.