My take on “Consent in Gaming”

Consent In Gaming is a free product released by Monte Cook Games which has gotten a lot of attention in the last week. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts, conversations on FB groups and YouTube videos. Most of the commentary has been entirely positive or entirely negative. I definitely lean in the negative direction but I want to inject some nuance. You all remember that right? There are a few points where I see something like this having a certain amount of value.

If you are playing in a convention game or an open game at a game shop, it’s not a terrible idea for the game master to be clear about what kind of game they are running. If your convention blurb says, “Tomb of Horrors” the content might involve some horrors so, do we need to spell out just what kind of horrors? If you show up with your consent form saying, “I don’t like gruesome depictions of death and dismemberment” I’m going to tell you that you are at the wrong table. Honestly, there are so many directions I could go with this. What I’m going to do is point out the fundamental flaw in the text, provide the basic advice of “don’t play with assholes,” and leave it at that.

Consent In Gaming by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain is available in PDF on Monte Cook’s site or on Drive Thru RPG. The stated design goal of the project is “To be a resource for consent in gaming, but is not meant to be a comprehensive document on the topic.” What I think this means is that that author’s intent was to offer a tool gaming groups can use to avoid situations where a member of the group will feel emotional distress caused by content presented by the game master or something said by one of the players in the group. The basic idea of having an easy and low pressure way for everyone in the group to communicate content they don’t want to get into isn’t a bad one. Most people are not assertive and will often go along with something that bothers them if the rest of the group seems to accept it. Having a way for unassertive people to get their feelings out before it becomes an issue isn’t a bad one. In concept, I think the basic notion is a good idea but this execution of it is a poor one.

To be clear: I think the basic notion of letting people in your gaming group know that there some things that you’d rather not have in the game and having an agreed upon way to address issues of upsetting situations is a good one. I just think the path Shanna and Sean are going down is not useful to me or most other groups. It may be great for you, but it’s not for me as a game master.

The biggest problem I have with this document is the choice of words throughout the document. The primary word I am struggling with is “safe.” Numerous times throughout the text, it is stated that everyone at the table should feel “safe.” The dictionary definition of “safe” is “protected from or not exposed to danger or risk.” What is assumed, or a least seems to be, is that describing certain situations or events occurring in the fictional world may cause harm or risk of harm to the people playing at the table. Obviously, that’s not direct physical harm. There is the possibility of physical violence, I suppose. If you have the sense a person at your table may be willing to assault someone as a result of something said at the table, you need to get new friends or don’t play with strangers. The only potential danger then is exposure to psychological harm.

I am aware of how devastating a mental health related issue can be. I have seen and experienced it first hand, and it is horrible. People’s lives are turned upside down and sometimes they die as a result. Psychological damage is not to be discounted or trivialized.

Therefore, if the author’s are suggesting that serious psychological danger is a risk of playing RPG’s then they ought to tell us what those dangers are. They should show us some evidence that playing RPG’s are potentially dangerous and can cause a person to suffer from a debilitating emotional episode. Why have they chosen not to provide this information? Because it isn’t a real issue of actual safety.

A person may feel discomfort. They may feel disgust, offense or some other emotional state but actual harm or actual danger from which they need to be kept safe is extremely unlikely.

If the fundamental unstated premise of the text is that RPG’s pose a significant degree of danger to the psyche of their players (they don’t) then that pretty much causes the rest of the book to unravel as far as I’m concerned. As a text, it fails to achieve its intended purpose to provide you with a tool to prevent you from being harmed. If there is nothing to be harmed by then there’s nothing to keep you safe from.

If you think the group of people you are playing with want to harm you intentionally, or may potentially harm you inadvertently while playing an RPG then you either have shit friends or you have trust issues and RPG’s are not for you. In same way I would suggest a person with a fear of heights not take up rock climbing, a person with a delicate emotional state due to pre-existing mental illness might not want to play in games where characters experience violence, horror or conflict.

If playing an RPG as it is customarily been played has caused you a horrible mental affliction then you have my sympathy but you are an extremely rare and and unique person.

People have had bad experiences at the table with assholes. No doubt. Here’s what you do in that situation. Don’t play with assholes. Simple and 100% effective. Shun them. Exclude them. But don’t make the rest of us fill out some absurd piece of paper that prevents nothing. If anything, an asshole will look at a consent form and say to himself, “Oh, Wendy hates baby rape. I’m playing a pedophile and keeping it a secret until the best possible moment.” Your form is then ineffective and worse, a way for the jerk to know exactly what button to push. If the group doesn’t decide to exclude that person then you are in the wrong group.

Find a different group. Find a different hobby. Better yet, introduce nice people you trust to RPG’s. Grow the hobby and bring in more pleasant people. That’s way better than any consent form.

4 thoughts on “My take on “Consent in Gaming”

  1. Maximilian Wilson

    This is a comment on your post, but not on Sean Reynold’s and Monte Cook’s resource, which I haven’t read:
    Let’s suppose your goal is to NOT be a jerk to other people, but you don’t know which buttons to avoid pushing, so you push them, and then they write you off and “Shun Them. Exclude Them.” It would be useful to find ways for that not to happen, right?
    The idea of prior consent is interesting, but I also really like Ars Ludi’s take here: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/945/story-games-101-saying-terrible-things/
    ‘Since we started in 2010, we used a “safe word” technique (which we originally called the Veil, later the X) so that anyone who is uncomfortable with particular material can remove it from the game. Which is crude but generally works.
    ‘But there’s another thing which can happen, which a safe word does not solve: If you play a terrible person, or introduce some dark idea or plot twist, a total stranger (like the people you’re gaming with) might think that’s the kind of person you are. They might think the words coming out of your mouth reflect the kind of person you are, which is not a surprising reaction since that’s how the world works most of the time.
    ‘It’s critical (critical!) that we can tell the difference between our real world beliefs and the stuff we’re bringing into the game. We might be okay exploring racism and sexism as issues, but who wants to sit down and play with someone who they think is actually sexist or racist, even a little bit?
    The solution he gives is to add an out-of-character acknowledgement that this terrible thing is terrible, and say why it’s terrible, and then go ahead and do it anyway.
    ‘Luckily the fix is incredibly easy: make the fiction (say what your character is doing or saying, etc.) and then immediately break character and tell the other players that, yeah, that’s a really terrible thing you’re bringing into the game. Then describe why it’s terrible. “Yeah, my character is being completely abusive and exploiting her husband’s feelings to guilt him into doing what she wants.” Or, “the councilor is completely confident the laws are just, but the whole system exploits the lower caste. This society is messed up.” And then I’ll go right back to adamantly defending that society in-character and argue why this oppression is good and necessary.
    ‘Say that what you said is terrible, then say why it’s terrible.’
    I think that’s a really interesting approach, and I’ve found it worth using.

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    1. Hi Maximilian. Thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment.

      I partly agree.

      I assume that anyone who wants to play games with me is not trying to be a jerk. If they are being I have a respectful conversation about it. If the problem continues I ask them to leave the game. I have only had to eject someone a few times in 30 years of gaming.

      If I do something or say something that bothers my players I also have a basic expectation that my friends are adults who can advocate for themselves and say what is bothering them. That way we can have a respectful conversation about the issue, learn something, and move forward. This is what mature people with basic social skills do, in my opinion. Cards, contracts, and the like are crutches and are appropriate for gaming with strangers in an open table/public setting but I think it is unnecessary for closed games with people who know each other.

      I make it a point to tell people who are sitting down at my table that I run transgressive games. Shit is going to get weird. There’s going to be body horror. There’s going to be terrible things happening to innocent and the not so innocent. The general theme of my current campaign is “the bad vs the worse.” If you don’t like horror movies, Game of Thrones, Etc you won’t like my game. That’s the game I am running. It’s not for everyone. Though it wasn’t the major point of my post, the premise of the consent form/safe word/x card is that on player can decide what is OK for the rest of the group. I am simply against an individual player deciding to yuck the group’s yum when they knew where we were going in the first place.

      The short version is that I run a MA rated game. If a player thinks that might be wrong for them then they should be honest about that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maximilian Wilson

        Good point. I’ll also note that Ars Ludi is speaking of a setting where you play with strangers every week–in your case you’re gaming with people who can be expected to know you and your style a little better.
        Personally I’m a little undecided about how MA to make my games. On the one hand, it really _does_ aid the adventure narrative to have genuinely, unambiguously bad, corrupt, cruel, evil villains. Gygax didn’t write adventures about defeating people with slightly different political views–he wrote about defeating mad cultists, slavers, blood-sacrificing villains. There’s a lot of adventure to be had in opposing evil.
        On the other hand, I also find being around evil unpleasant, and as a DM (or an author) running a world filled mostly with evil depresses me, and hanging around truly good people elevates and inspires me. I would not want to adventure in GRRM’s world, even if the other PCs were good, because I just don’t care any more what all of those awful, horrible people do to each other–I just want out.
        My current compromise is to create worlds that have lots of evil, corrupt, Conan-style bad guys in it, lots of neutral-ish self-interested people like in real life, and about 5% modeled on the best people I know. So there’s lot of bad guys but also fellowship with like-minded good guys. (But careful not to make the good guys too powerful from an _adventure_ standpoint, or there won’t be anything for the PCs to do.)

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  2. One other brief response. We should shun assholes assuming we have done our part to resolve the issue. We communicate with the person who is behaving badly. We respectfully try to come to an understanding of where they are coming from. If all parties can then come to an agreement on what is and is not acceptable and we move forward then that’s great. Just a misunderstanding. But an asshole will continue to behave badly and they should be removed as quickly as possible. I have seen those sorts poison game groups that would have been great otherwise. It’s unfortunate that there are such people but they are rare in my experience.

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