Do video games need trigger warnings more than other forms of media?

Yep, I can already see the push back for this feature coming. Please leave all responses and comments until you have finished the feature. We good? Right, let’s begin.

Trigger Warnings – 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”. 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. The most common cries against trigger warnings generally come from those who believe they are an excuse for people to bubble wrap their media rather than deal with the “real world”. Rather than deal with difficult media, it’s often argued that trigger warnings allow people to just entirely skip difficult works of fiction.

In practice, trigger warnings are 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 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.

So, with the concept of Trigger warnings out of the way, let’s get down into why they may be more important to video games than other forms of media. Don’t worry, we will touch on how video games could implement them without posing a spoiler risk to those not wanting to interface with them.

Right, here we go. Video Games as an artistic medium are fairly unique in that a person interacting with them has control and agency within any presented narrative. While that narrative may still lead to the same end point for many or all players, the player has to actively progress the story and be a part of any chain of events that occurs.

While I’m certainly not going to try and suggest that this kind of player agency influences behavior or causes changes to mental state in any dangerous way, I think it is fair to say that the medium’s increased level of agency does vastly increase the connection between the player and their actions. In linear video games this presents as feelings of accomplishment tied to character progress. In branching narratives, this results in a sense of ownership over your choices and their outcomes. Both of these have their own consequences and effects on players, although perhaps linear narratives in a less direct way than those narratives that branch.

In linear narratives, player agency can manifest as forcing a player to perform an action they may not wish to perform in order to progress the plot. 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. Due to that agency within a linear narrative, that person might be left with the choices of never finishing a narrative they purchased, or actively causing the events that they know are going to cause them distress to witness.

In non linear narratives, player agency can end up much more closely mirroring real life events, and the emotions tied to the outcomes of those choices. As someone who has failed to talk a friend down from committing suicide in their life, I was left distraught when earlier this year I was caught off guard by a video game putting me through that same situation. I was put in the same position I had previously been in, forced to relive many of the choices I remember having to make, and unfortunately I was once again unable to save this person. The video game then did what video games do and told me what percentage of people could save their in game suicidal friend.

80% of people saved their friend.

I was in the vast minority who did not.

Not only did I have to have agency over a very distressing moment from my life in a piece of media, but I then got scored on my performance compared to how others would have done. That was incredibly distressing. You can read a more detailed account of that experience, with spoilers, here.

By closely tying your actions and agency within worlds to the narratives being told, video games are able to elicit stronger emotions in those enjoying the media, but they also cause considerably more distress to people with very specific triggers for experiencing negative emotions. Because you can’t shy away from what’s happening or place the blame for the consequences of your actions solely on to the character you are controlling, an additional amount of involvement sticks with you as a player.

I have watched plenty of movies that tackled the topic of suicide without feeling distraught myself. Having agency over that moment was so much harder to go through. This is why video games need trigger warnings more than other media.

Video games can elicit very powerful emotions. With that comes an additional layer of responsibility to allow effected players to prepare themselves before engaging with certain moments.

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. Well, I think that an online system like Steam could easily be updated to support such a feature.

Picture the scene: When creating a Steam account, one of the available options is to tag your Steam account with selections from a preset list of common triggers. Options include suicide, graphic self harm, rape and targetted attacks on specific minority groups. 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 Steam to select any of these categories that may apply to their game.

When you as a player go to purchase a game on Steam, if the tags on the game and your account match, Steam 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.

I suspect a solution like this, if implemented, would likely solve the issue for everyone involved. Well, it wouldn’t fix the issue for those who think the very existance of trigger warnings as an option for others is harming the planet, but they’re a bunch of noisy idiots so we can just ignore them.

So, what do you think? Do video games have a greater responsibility than other media to allow people to choose how and when they interface with difficult topics? Does agency play a role in that? Would a system for optional trigger warnings across the board be viable? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Categories: Gaming

17 replies »

  1. Brilliantly argued. And the idea of tags for trigger warnings on Steam is **inspired**. The only caveat I can see is whether it would work with other platforms, or independent sellers.

    • Actually, it could work even without the Steam integration by simply being a menu option at the start of a game to see any trigger warnings the game may contain. That, of course, would be a more voluntary approach by developers, but it is still an option for those on board to not be ignorant or outright hurtful to people who need trigger warnings.

  2. So long as they aren’t used in the future as a cliff’s notes by those who would censor products due to content, I can’t immediately see anything but usefulness in this idea.

  3. What to do about the back catalog of existing games on the platform, or publishers who aren’t willing to check the boxes?

    Maybe the boxes could have three states: yes, this game includes this content, no it does not, or no information available. That way players could choose to be warned about missing information as well.

  4. While I agree with your points the only worry I have is if publishers or even the developers themselves would shy away from these harsh topics for a broader market appeal.

    • Though I can also see the argument that it’s better to layout what your game has in it and would rather have trigger warnings be implemented then not but i just want to bring up a potential downside

    • I can see the logic behind thinking bigger publishers might want to shy away from certain content if consumers as a whole were being made more aware of it, meaning they’d take the hit if people felt that it wasn’t dealt with sensitively enough, but to my mind the kind of people who want to make that sort of content will find a way to make it regardless.

  5. The trigger warning system with Steam is beautifully elegant and simple solution to a complex problem. The only issues I can see with it are the thousands of pre-existing games which developers/publishers may not want to retroactively tag.
    I do think if Steam (or Origin or Sony) were to implement it without any noticeable negative results [and why would there be?] the rest of the major services would follow suit because it’d be a good easy PR Gain for them

  6. I don’t really feel qualified to talk about this topic, because I don’t need trigger warnings. Never has a movie that I’ve seen or video game that I’ve played had content in it, that legitimately upset me that I broke down or had any similar reaction. I have cried .. I cry a lot during movies/video games (I have a soft heart for impossible love and dying pets), but I think that doesn’t really count.

    But as someone who doesn’t need trigger warnings I don’t really feel restricted/insulted/annoyed by such a trigger warning, because in a worst case scenario it would be an additional click to skip said warning. A trigger warning doesn’t dictate censorship of content with trigger potential, it is merely a notice informing the consumer of what’s coming that might actually stress some people out; a tiny line of text or a voice talking for 5 seconds at best.

    To be honest I don’t understand, why this is even a discussion. Considering the amount of pain and psychological damage this could prevent from happening to people, having to click one extra time to skip a warning, is a fairly low price.

  7. The Steam idea is good, I noticed someone mentioned that the game itself could have an option on there?

    Expanding on that you could have an option which alerts that there are triggers, one that tells you what it is and where it is, one that alerts before coming up and one that skips scenes with it in.

    I think that once people become accustomed to non-spoiling trigger implementations it won’t be much of a problem any more, like parental child-locks on consoles these days.

  8. I do think this is a valid point to discuss as most talk of Trigger warnings are often over sensationalist, to either the far right or far left of the political spectrum. I’ve been often surprised by some people’s lack of understand of this issue but also the lack of a solution that can keep both happy. I believe your idea to be a sensible and reasonable solution to the problem.

    As someone who has studied the BBFC at length it would be nice that if there was an employment of a system similar to theres. On the BBFC website you can view an extensive list of contents that are in said film. From U to 18, it can be checked prior to watching said film. If there was a site that contained this information for all video games it would be a solution to console games too.

    Very good piece, sensibly written with all views in mind.

    • There is the PEGI system, which not only lists what they feel to be the suitable base age is for the respective game – but also a general description of the kind of content. Combine this with the genre(s) whatever the game will be in and a consumer should have a good idea, and should in fact not need to even read user reviews (although obviously, that would be a good idea).

      To add to this? It’s not difficult (should a developer so choose) to put “the following game contains material that some may find disturbing” in a similar way to select TV broadcasts, and of course to replace the word ‘material’ or add to it in order to elaborate beyond the general PEGI descriptions.

      Either way, the onus to continue would then at least be on the now hopefully well informed consumer.

  9. I can only think of two problems that might occur with the Steam implementation being described, and I can’t really speak to how likely it is that they would be an issue in practice, but I feel they’re still worth mentioning?

    1) I’m not sure how comfortable some people would be entering a list of stimuli that could cause them severe distress into a company’s system. That’s kind of a lot to trust someone with. That system would have to be pretty fuck-damn secure, and…well, it’s Steam. How much faith do we give them at this point?

    2) I’m ever so slightly terrified that whatever Steam puts on the list of possible negative stimuli might wind up dictating what certain people do and don’t consider to be legitimately traumatic. If anything gets missed off the list, a lot of people are going to feel like their traumatic experiences are being de-legitimised, and likewise a lot of arseholes (for want of a more diplomatic term) are going to try and use it to trivialise other people’s major negative reactions to certain things. Something similar to this is probably going to happen whatever the system (the Internet, everybody), but it happening with a list of check-boxes involved would be particularly painful to watch.

    I still think some kind of system for this is definitely worth pursuing, and I say this as someone who wouldn’t even really benefit from it. Maybe even just a section that says “CONTENT WARNINGS” that you have to actively click on to find out what they are. Nobody’s being forced to click on it, and it’s a decent enough system for digital storefronts short-term.

  10. Great piece. I personally don’t need trigger warnings, but I’ve got a friend who does. Her mother died several years ago, and whether it’s a book, a TV show, a movie or a game, whether it’s a major plot point or a minor one, she needs to be warned for it or she is likely to just put it down and walk away. Being caught unaware by it does more harm than good in her situation. If it’s something I’ve recommended to her, or if it’s something that I know has it in it, I warn her beforehand so that she can be mentally prepared going in. It helps her a lot, so while I don’t need warnings for my own traumatic experiences, I can definitely appreciate and respect someone else’s need for them.

    An opt-in system for this kind of thing would really be fantastic for a lot of different people. Developers should definitely not stray away from tackling issues like these, but having a system to help prepare certain individuals for the issues would really be a great way for developers to continue to tackle those types of issues while giving some individuals a much safer environment in which to do it.

  11. Whilst steam tagging is in theory a good idea, I feel like it puts too much faith in the developers and, given how laissez faire Valve are, potentially be open to abuse/confusion/trolling.

    With this being a new tag, how would information be backported? Both in terms of older titles, or titles tagged under the new system if the list of tags was updated. Would it be something the developers (who may no longer exist as a company) would be obliged to do on older titles? Or would community suggestions come into play? Given the steam community’s track record of applying “joke tags” to games, I suspect that would reduce the trust in the system if someone encountered a game missing a particular tag. There’s also the problem of who defines what is a ‘recognised trigger’, which could be handled via community management but, again, possible abuse.

    What would happen with games such as Modern Warfare 2 or Hotline Miami 2 where the especially distressing missions can be skipped, or in the case of games like The Long Dark distressing mechanics (e.g. wolf attacks) can be deactivated? Would there be some way to apply a modifier to the tag to indicate the particular topic can be avoided via in-game settings?

    Personally I feel like for something like this to work the ratings boards should probably get involved. Currently for a given game on the PEGI website, you see the overall rating, the little images from the box, and a simple breakdown of what’s contained in the game that lead to the decision. For example GTA V has the following listed: “Extreme violence – Multiple, motiveless killing – Violence towards defenceless people – Strong language”.

    What I think would improve this would be if instead of the developers providing some of this information, they provide a PEGI/ESRB ID for the game and then steam can generate the tags from information provided via an API. Obviously the better fleshed out the information provided by the ratings boards are the better the tags (e.g. the BBFC provide a little paragraph outlining the details of each criterion they use). It would also mean that the information can be accessed by other platforms, so the information can be consistent across online stores.

    Now I appreciate this a bloody long comment, but I read this a few hours ago and since then I’ve had my software developer hat on thinking about how to solve this, and had enough points/questions to make it worth dumping my thoughts in a comment.

    • Another thought, given people are concerned about spoilers, what’s to stop a journalist ticking all the boxes and using that to extract potential spoilers from pre-order pages so they can write articles about it?

      It’s not like with reviews which can dissuade huge spoiler drops through various forms of NDAs, contracts & embargoes. Probably a fundamental limitation of this problem, but something to consider nonetheless.

  12. I found this after googling complaints about mass effect. I just finished the Overlord DLC in ME2 and as someone with an autistic spectrum condition it has left me feeling seriously unstable. I also had a similar reaction to the colony background quest in ME1, I was able to prevent disaster, but it could have ended much worse than suicide.

    Trigger warnings are needed to prevent people from hurting themselves. People who have survived abuse often have other issues, like self-harm. Witnessing, or being forced to participate through a game, in the acts that caused the trauma can also cause the coping mechanism. For me, my coping machanism is comfort eating, however I am also a type 1 diabetic, so stuffing myself with chocolate and icecream could be deadly. It would be the fault of the computer game makers if I ended up in a coma because I didn’t know I was going to be exposed to such trauma.