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.