Dangerous games

Recently, Monte Cook Games published a freely available document called Consent in Gaming, written by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain. This document is presented as containing strategies to tackle potentially difficult elements in games (role-playing games in particular), in such a way that everybody at the table has a good time. This document is hotly debated on the Internet, and I can spot about equal numbers of people who applaud the document’s ideas and people who find the whole thing abhorrent. I am firmly in the second category.

The authors’ approach encompasses that at the start of the game, players provide the game master (GM) with a standardized checklist on which they have indicated all the topics that they have problems with. It is then the job of the GM to ensure that these topics do not come up in the game. Moreover, everybody at the table is bound by a social contract to not introduce such topics spontaneously. The checklist included in the document contains such categories as “Horror” (e.g., blood, demons, rats, spiders), “Relationships” (different approaches to romance and sex), and “Mental and Physical Health” (e.g., claustrophobia, gaslighting, paralysis, police aggression, starvation). All in all a total of 40 topics, with plenty of room for players to add more.

The document is aimed in particular at players who have a lot of sensitive issues. This is clear from the document’s language, which talks about the player with issues as “you” (“you decide what’s safe for you”), while it talks about others who are involved (the GM and players who have no issues) in the third person. It takes the stance that a game that brings up an issue that “you” are sensitive about, is doing something that is “not okay.” It states that you have to “consent” to being subjected to game elements that make you feel uncomfortable, and that if you do not give consent, then those who bring up these elements are at fault. The checklist, by the way, is not a way to give consent — it is simply a list of things that you do not consent to right now, but it does not preclude you taking away consent on anything else at any moment. The document even introduces methods to do that, such as a card that you can hold up to force everybody to immediately stop the game and move to a different topic. The document states explicitly that you have the freedom to do that at any point, on any topic, without explanation or discussion, and that from thereon that topic is taboo and it is the group’s responsibility to uphold your demands.

The whole document is drenched in players with sensitivities off-loading the responsibility for their feelings to other people, and being assured that it is their right to do so, and the duty of others to take on these responsibilities. If by chance someone introduces a topic that a player feels uncomfortable with (whether they announced that beforehand or not), the document even states that the offending person should publicly apologize to the player who takes offense. In no way is the player who demands that their personal whims are catered to by everybody else asked to apologize for their obnoxious behavior. Absolutely not; the fact that they feel uncomfortable absolves them of any responsibility for their behavior when they ruin the game for the other players.

By the way, the document completely ignores the fact that a GM who gets handed a list of demands might feel unsafe because of that. I do not say that frivolously. I GM quite a lot of games, and I have been in discussions with players about potentially sensitive topics in games. I felt quite uncomfortable with the idea that I might be hurting someone inadvertently by introducing certain topics. But hey, I am an adult and I can deal with that.

I positively hate the attitude that you have a god-given right to feel safe and comfortable, and that it is other people’s responsibility to make you feel safe and comfortable. The world is not a safe and comfortable place, and the quicker you learn to deal with that, the easier your life will be. Moreover, you are safe at a game table. The monsters are not real. The situations are not real. That is why it is called a game. The fact that you run the risk that your feelings get hurt does not make the game unsafe; you run the risk that your feelings get hurt everywhere you go where there are other people! Grow a spine! Be an adult and learn to deal with your issues rather than wallow in them. And if you cannot, see a psychologist or psychiatrist, because you are clearly in need of one.

I always tell my players up front what they are in for — what the style of the game is, and what kind of things they can look forward to. I am always open to discuss these things. But in the end, when I run the game I expect players to work with me just as I am working with them. If they have a problem with something, they can bring it up and I will try to adapt. Just as I will tell them when something bothers me about what they are doing, and I expect them to try to adapt. That is how mature people deal with each other. A group of reasonable adults will try to accommodate each other without much friction. If instead you give one person the power to subject others to their will, the relationship between them is effectively ruined.

If you are the petulant child who comes to my gaming table with a list of demands, I will not allow you in my game. I don’t care about what is actually on your list; I will send you away because I know that you evidently feel that you have the right to demand of me to adhere to your whims in a game that I am running, and thus you are not a person who I want to play with. If you take the right to make demands of me, I take the right to refuse you access to the table. I am going to have a fun game with reasonable adults of good will. You, instead, can go play with a bunch of other whiners with lists of demands, creating a game in which everything that ever could make anyone feel uncomfortable is excluded. I sincerely hope you have fun with your game about bunnies and ice cream.

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