Game Ratings Aren’t the Only Component of Gamer Safety

Vanessa / PleasantlyTwstd6 minute read

When we talk about accessibility in games, there’s almost always a specific gap surrounding safety.  

When we think “safety,” the connotation may be life vests for swimming and helmets for biking. Or, in the case of gaming specifically, ensuring your PS3 doesn’t melt into your entertainment stand and that your Xbox Series X doesn’t catch fire (which was a hoax, but a concern nonetheless). However, what often gets ignored is how we don’t do a great job considering the safety of gamers during gameplay

Over the years, there’s been plenty to debate keeping youth, or individuals aged roughly eight to 16, safe, which is at a very base level the reason the ESRB came to be. However,  a quick glance at the ESRB rating guide illustrates that safety doesn’t extend beyond the bounds of gore, sex/sexuality, nudity, specific substances and strong language. This may seem sufficient for many, but it’s really only useful for parents who want better tools and knowledge of what their children are consuming.  This doesn’t provide safety otherwise, as it doesn’t translate to potentially triggering topics.

There are no major (at the time of this writing) resources similar to the ESRB committed to warning players about content.  We saw this recently with loud criticism of Cyberpunk 2077, including scenes that could cause severe epileptic seizures. The game also included billboards ‘quietly’ advocating self-harm or suicide, only to be immediately met with Gamers™ jumping up to defend it, saying that “the warnings are always included at the beginning, just don’t play the game.”  

We saw it with loud racism in BioShock Infinite, with animal harm in Pathway (which was patched later), or practically any game juggling “insanity” as a mechanic or core part of the story,  such as the Amnesia series.  Not only are those ‘warnings’ often vague and insufficient, but they also don’t touch on something that games need, in all magnitudes:  content warnings.

…content warnings would save a lot of people trouble from being traumatized, or retraumatized, by games, even if it is accidentally. 

Many people look at content warnings as “fluff,” “excessive,” or a call to completely overhaul games. As someone who doesn’t have a chronic mental illness but does have some pretty bad anxiety and depression, content warnings would save a lot of people trouble from being traumatized, or retraumatized, by games, even if it is accidentally. 

I recall playing Inmost from Chucklefish Games (which I adored and you absolutely should play) with no heads up that the game was essentially about abuse, suicide, neglect and many other sensitive topics.

I’m a Twitch Partner that streams three times a week and I stream mostly roleplaying games, along with action-adventure titles over the last three years on the platform.  I also host a small segment on my channel called ‘Attack of the Indies’ anytime a publisher sends me an indie game key, with a current viewership of roughly 100 people per stream.  

My community consists of a significant number of marginalized people, many of which do have varied mental illnesses and disabilities. I played Inmost live on stream and had no idea of what was coming, and to this day, I have no idea how many people were impacted and if people left the community over it. It makes me as a streamer feel irresponsible and puts off an idea that I didn’t care enough to warn anyone that this game would house these elements.

The same applies to many retro games, which sometimes have bits of ableism or sexism throughout.   Even in cases where it can be argued “but you should’ve expected this,” in conjunction with ESRB ratings, content warnings can be added to games by adding something akin to a title card saying, “this game talks about topics around [sensitive materials].” On the outside, this seems like a solution that can be integrated easily; many people seem to think of content warnings not as the quick, one-to-two second card, but something that shows up with a mountain of legalese.

It isn’t.

Likewise, there is nothing of value lost by adding a small indicator/info card saying ‘this game engages topics of [insert potentially triggering content here].’ Worst case scenario you just….know what’s coming, which is the entire point.  A heads up of what is coming.  If it doesn’t impact you, then the card can just be bypassed.  You lose no in-game experiences from it whatsoever, seeing as how you would never have been impacted by it. But for people who don’t want to be reminded of say, traumatic experiences from growing up, it’s an excellent tool for those who need them. 

…there is nothing of value lost by adding a small indicator/info card saying ‘this game engages topics of [insert potentially triggering content here].’ Worst case scenario you just….know what’s coming.

This idea can be taken a step further by providing an option to skip cutscenes. This also allows people with mental/invisible illnesses to be informed and make a decision about if they want to engage the content or not.  It affords them an opportunity to opt-in or out of something without feeling helpless or that there’s nothing they can do about it. 

However, there is a conversation to be had about the perceived agency:  some people may get access to content warnings and be put off of the game entirely. We want content warnings to function as a tool to help others as best as possible, and not just to hamper and remind people that games may have problematic elements. Perhaps there is more space to have a more fleshed out discussion about how they should be implemented within games.

I think that’s the big part that people get stuck on:  the content warnings aren’t there to infringe your gameplay. They’re there to protect those who ALSO want to enjoy games alongside you. And we know this can be done:  Hellpoint recently released and, upon turning off blood in the game, even went as far as to renaming itself “Heckspot.” If Warner Brothers could put a full message involving prejudice depictions in their cartoons from over five years ago, it feels to me like games can do the same.  The message was met with generally positive reception, and many people found it informative, useful and educational.  

We’re asking for essentially the same thing in gaming.  At the end of the day, the function of companies adding content warnings to their games is one that ultimately allows for more people to buy and enjoy their games.  

We’ve long passed a stage where we should be content and/or comfortable saying, “it’s perfectly fine if we alienate the exact people who want to play our games; just get over it or grow a thicker skin.” We’ve seen developments en masse for character creation, for world-building (and destruction!), for carrying over save files-all things that are SIGNIFICANTLY more complicated when it comes to development.  So is it really unfair to expect gaming companies to start including actualized, detailed content warnings in their games or ways to avoid sensitive materials? I don’t think it is. I’ll even go as far as saying it’s probably…pretty easy and a fast way to appeal to gamers of all kinds.

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Vanessa / PleasantlyTwstd

Vanessa / PleasantlyTwstd is a black, asexual Art Director for the upcoming Kickstarter-backed setting book “Into the Mother Lands”, and a part-time content creator on Twitch, focused on community building, charity, and DEI in gaming. Her passion is in activism for Black & queer communities, alongside gaming design and development focusing on accessibility & engagement. She has been seen on: FlameCon, VidCon, LiveWire, GenCon TV, St. Jude Play LIVE's summit, Kotaku, The Verge, Launcher, E3, Valve, and The Jimquisition. She challenge runs and speed runs in her free time, and occasionally writes strategy guides when her cats aren't sitting on her laptop.

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