This post might contain triggers due to discussions of PTSD.
It’s nice on a blog like this to be able to see a trigger warning and then make an informed decision about whether or not to read on. Edge magazine doesn’t give you the same luxury, instead in this month’s issue plunging you feet first into a graphic description of the Lara Croft sexual assault scene right at the start of the article. It’s a writing strategy perhaps intended to intrigue the reader and make them want to read on. Instead it caused me to curse loudly on a crowded train and then angrily throw the magazine on the floor in a kind of post-traumatic hulk smash reflex.
I want to pose a question. It’s not something I want to attempt to answer on my own, but it’s something I want to talk about.
The discussion about rape in games took an interesting turn when someone very generously wrote a difficult and emotional post for The Escapist explaining to the unaware what it feels like to hear the rape discourse in and around games if you are a rape survivor suffering from PTSD.
The writer didn’t say that game developers should avoid triggering his PTSD, rather that there should be a greater awareness of what rape survival is like, and a greater sensitivity in the wider gaming community about possible harm caused to the invisible masses of survivors.
Still, it’s worth considering the question: should game developers – and other media producers for that matter – be more careful to avoid triggering PTSD in their audience?
This isn’t just about offending some players, as the anonymous Escapist writer points out – triggers cause a person genuine pain and harm, not just for the duration of the initial response (panic attack, anxiety, depressive mood) but sometimes for days afterwards, as the trigger opens a Pandora’s box of fear, self-doubt and anger. Triggers send you to a black pit of molten tar deep inside your psyche; it’s a dark place that you usually manage to avoid, but the ground there is so sticky and rotten that once you enter, it can take a very long time to wade back out again.
It’s lucky that there are so many PTSD-aware writers online now critiquing games that sufferers are able to find fair warning before a game unexpectedly throws them into the tar pit. But it’s frustrating to learn that a game much-hyped for its cinematic storytelling achievements might make you feel unwell. Insensitive use of traumatic content limits access to cultural products to only those people privileged enough not to suffer from mental health risks.
Is this fair or right? If a game developer makes the decision to include triggering content, knowing that it will cause a portion of the audience significant distress and pain, can that ever be an ethical decision?
Well, maybe. I don’t believe it’s as simple as do-no-harm. Will Luton argued a while ago that games should be able to explore difficult topics, and that any obstruction of this is against creative freedom. I’m inclined to at least partly agree with him.
It’s not reasonable to expect someone to recognise and remove any and all content that could serve as a trigger. The majority of triggers are nobody’s fault. Nobody did anything wrong or meant any maliciousness, they just unknowingly pushed an emotional button and left another person in a terrible state. It could be a particular facial expression, as mentioned in the Escapist post, or it could be a scene that the writer considered to be tender and romantic or graphically inexplicit but the viewer reads in a different way. Sensitivity on the part of writers can only help to an extent.
Also, a story can contain triggers and still be a worthwhile journey. Certain Game of Thrones scenes unquestionably contain triggers, but I’ve been pretty satisfied with the show for dealing intelligently with questions of aggression, consent and agency. Getting through certain episodes of the show can be extremely challenging, but in the end I felt like I experienced some catharsis, because the show makes an effort to give a complex and difficult account of survival.
A good rule of thumb may be to include trigger flags alongside other content warnings on games. But content warnings can be so vague and all-encompassing that if you were to allow them to filter your media consumption you’d have little left to play with.
Another thing I’ve been wondering about is how the unique qualities of video games affect this problem. If the entirely passive experience of watching Game of Thrones can deal complexly with traumatic issues, then there is far more scope for similar complexity and perhaps even authenticity in more interactive media. Maybe a medium that ordinarily gives the consumer an unprecedented level of agency can deal most intelligently with situations where agency and autonomy are cruelly and mercilessly taken away. Video games could even raise awareness by simulating in the player-character the physical effects of the same post-traumatic symptoms they have in the past callously triggered.
Again, I don’t want to propose an answer to this problem. I’d rather have a discussion about it. But I’m left wondering if maybe the key question when dealing with traumatic content that could cause people pain is, ‘is it worth it?’ Does the triggering content in question achieve enough that it is worth paying the price of hurting people?