Friday, September 13, 2019

A Modest Defense of Consent in Gaming

On Wednesday, Monte Cook Games ("MCG") released a free product in PDF entitled Consent in Gaming, written by Shanna Germain and Sean K. Reynolds  In many respects, it is a very on-brand product for the MCG crew--it is beautifully laid-out (I continue to believe that MCG products have the best looking and cleanest lay-out of any tabletop RPG company), has lots of pretty, Numenera-ish art, and is a breezy read.  It is also on-brand in the sense that MCG has tackled similar, or at least adjacent, topics before--Germain's Love and Sex in the Ninth World was the first ttrpg product about sex that I encountered that both mature and thoughtful (i.e. not completely cringe-inducing), as well as useful and relevant for play.  Likewise, MCG has recently come out with Your Best Game Ever, an incredibly useful (and, as far as I know, unique) book laying out best practices for all of the social and meta-contextual elements of playing a ttrpg that don't involve the game rules--how to create a character that other players and the GM will enjoy playing with, who should bring snacks, table etiquette, things like that.

Consent in Gaming can be seen as a supplement to Your Best Game Ever, honing in on the question of content in games and how to get everyone at the table on the same page about that content.  As the title might imply, Germain and Reynolds borrow the framework of consent in the sex context--no content is necessarily off-limits or problematic so long as everyone is prepared ahead of time and has affirmed their desire work in that space.  This framing is also not a surprise, as Germain, in her "other job," is an erotica/BDSM writer and advocateConsent in Gaming is in many ways a modest work, as it is only 13 pages, and it draws on (and very explicitly acknowledges) other works and other people who have developed tools and strategies in this area.  Still, Consent in Gaming is very useful, as it brings all of that somewhat disparate material together in one place and promotes it under the imprint of one of the most prominent ttrpg publishers, greatly enhancing the visibility and accessibility of these ideas.

It is a sign of the times, I think, that people were Big Mad Online about Consent in Gaming.  I should say, right up front, that (surprise, surprise) I think some of the online commentary is not being offered in good faith.  But, for purposes of this post, I am going to do everything I can to treat the criticisms that I saw at face value, and attempt to address them in what I hope is a constructive way.  Because I believe that Consent in Gaming is a good and necessary product, even if you don't use many, or even any, of the tools and approaches that it lays out.

So, what were the critiques?  One level of critique is to the notion of consent as a framework for approaching a tabletop RPG session, viewing it as fundamentally unnecessary.  This is expressed, in a troll-ish way, with questions like "what, am I as the GM going to have to ask my players' permission to kill their character?"  Well, yes and no.  Some of the content that makes up a tabletop RPG session is implicit in the nature of the game and its core elements.  If I sit down to play having spent twenty minutes min-maxing my combat stats, setting a stat that explicitly measures how much punishment my character can take before he or she dies, and choosing my weapons, I have to know that combat is going to be part of the game.  By sitting down at the table, one is at least tacitly consenting to some measure of violence in the game, including violence against your character.

However, there is a wide chasm between "your character might die," and "we are going to describe in detail your character being disemboweled."  Indeed, the way most ttrpgs abstract combat would likely lead one to the default assumption that there will not be an in-depth description of viscera and the other elements of "real combat."  Within the boundaries of the implicit consent provided by agreeing to sit down and play a particular ttrpg with particular content, there are a host of variations and unaddressed elements, and thus a host of places where different people might have different expectations around content.  In other words, there are lots of potential consent questions that are floating out there in a tabletop rpg session, and it is reasonable and prudent to bring some clarity to those questions.

This dovetails with the second strand of criticism, which has to do with implicit versus explicit standards.  There is a school of thought (in all things really, but here as well) that it is a bad thing to make these expectations concrete because it reduces creativity and flexibility.  I know there are a lot of people who feel this way in general, but I just fundamentally disagree.  In my experience, having clear, explicit boundaries enhances, rather than detracts from, creativity, because it provides a protected space in which to work.  If you don't know where the go and no-go areas are, I think most people will (and, I would argue, should) err on the side of caution when treading on potentially challenging ground.  But if you know exactly where the boundaries are, you know exactly how far you can go.

Let me give an example.  With my core gaming group, I'm getting ready to run a horror game for the first time (Eternal Lies for Trail of Cthulhu, for those curious).  Eternal Lies has some very explicit sexual content, and it has a strong dimension of body horror.  Neither of these are areas we have gone to before as a gaming group (our games thus far have been pretty PG-13, and this is at least a hard R), and so I wanted to make sure everyone was OK with those elements.  One of my players's response was basically "depends what you mean by sexual content--I'm not OK with demeaning or degrading depictions of women."  This is enormously helpful to me, first because I don't think the material in Eternal Lies fits that description, but also because I now know exactly where not to take the material that is there.  I feel much more confident and much more free to run the game in this space as a result of know where the landmines are located for my players.  If I didn't know what the problems were, I would be more inclined to just back all of the sexual content down (or, more likely, just not run Eternal Lies, as the material is pretty central to the plot).  All of that was made possible by being as direct as I possibly could be without spoiling the story.

Next, we have the "none of this is necessary because if there is a problem we can just talk about it" school.  One version of this centers around the checklist that is at the end of Consent in Gaming, which lists a series of potential trouble spots and encourages the user to check the green, yellow, or red box for that particular item.  This is presented as adding a bureaucratic element, one better addressed with less formal conversation.  But the virtue of the checklist, for me, is that it raises danger areas that many people might not be aware of as danger areas for others.  For example, I never considered "paralysis/physical restraint" as a danger category, but once you become aware of it, you can immediately see why it might be a problem for people and why it should be brought up.  If you find that having everyone fill out the checklist and submit it is overkill, then it is still useful as a reference sheet and to spur areas of discussion and consideration.

The other, and I think much more problematic, version of "just talk about it" is the notion that there is no need to address these issues on the front end because people can just object if and when an issue comes up.  There are several problems with this.  First, the cat is already out of the bag at that point.  I basically have a phobia around needles, and if a GM has described a bad guy driving syringes into my PC, me saying "hey, let's not go there" means I've already had a pretty bad time.  At the end of the day, playing a ttrpg is supposed to be fun, and so preventing an un-fun thing from happening again is not as good as preventing the un-fun thing from occurring in the first place.  Along those lines, putting the burden on the person who is in the midst of having a bad time to object in the moment can compound the bad time.  Is that an overwhelming burden?  Well, that depends of how bad a time the person is having.  My needle fear is not bad enough that I would be likely to have a big problem speaking up.  But other folks, especially if this relates to or stems from trauma, could be in a bad place, and not really able to "just speak up."  Finally, "just speak up" reflects a naive understanding of social and interpersonal dynamics.  It's hard to be the one person who dissents, even among a group of friends.  Many people, very often, will just choke back the objection and endure a bad time.  And, once again, the goal of this exercise is for everyone to have a good time, so this is a failure of the objectives of playing a ttrpg.     

Another line of critique is "we don't need to talk about this because we never use edgy or problematic content."  And, for many groups, that's true.  My regular group was more or less that type of group until this coming campaign.  If so, then this product is not for you, and that's fine.  But other groups do get into these sorts of spaces, and so it is relevant for them.  And, as discussed above, you may not be aware of what content is problematic unless or until you lay it all out on the table, so there is value in making sure you are not near any no-go zones.

It's also the case that, for some people and for some groups, they are not trying for a particularly emotional or personal experience.  This is part because of content (or, rather, a lack of certain more emotional or personal context), and in part because of the attitudes of the players and GM.  But it is also the case that ttrpgs can very quickly and very easily move into those spaces, and many players and groups seek out personal and emotions experiences through these games.  Being a player or being a GM is a kind of acting, and acting is a necessarily personal activity.  You bring a big part of yourself to the table when you participate in these games, even if everything is pitched at a very casual level.  I think many people in this hobby, especially people who don't have any sort of acting or performance background, don't really realize how quickly you can find yourself in a very personal and emotional space that you didn't necessarily see coming from the jump while playing these games, and you often don't realize until it is upon you.  My one experience playing Monsterhearts at Gencon was like that--everything was cool and casual and I am playing this edgy indie game with random folks at 11 in the morning, and then all of the sudden it's "oh, wow, I'm playing myself as a teenager, and feeling all of those old feelings, and this has gotten very real very fast."  So, even if a group doesn't intend to tread on any of these sensitive areas, I think it is wise to at least consider these questions.

Then we have the "why are you trying to impose your vision of ttrpgs on me?" group.  This again, has two versions.  The first is the idea that somehow Germain, Reynolds, and MCG are trying to impose a vision of how ttrpgs should be conducted, and are thus interfering with a gaming group's prerogatives.  I really don't get this objection.  Shanna and Sean and the folks at MCG are not the RPG police, breaking down your door in the middle of a session and demanding that you present them with your X-Card and consent checklist.  Nor is there anything in Consent in Gaming that presents itself, or them, as seeking that role.  If you don't like what they have written, then you can ignore it.  If you think all of this is unnecessary, then move along.

But the other, and I think more sinister, version of this is the idea that documents like this will encourage people to insist on these sorts of structures, making them normative in the ttrpg community, and thus negatively affecting other people's gaming experience.  You saw folks on Twitter saying things like "I would kick anyone out of my group who thinks this is a good idea," or "I will not allow this to be waived in my face."  On one level, I mean, OK.  Neither I nor MCG nor anyone else can stop you from purging folks who think consent structures are a good idea from your gaming universe.  Again, there is no RPG police.  But it's hard not to wonder what is going on in a gaming group where a discussion of boundaries by a player or potential player is greeted with this sort of reaction.  What is it that you want to do that is going to be limited as a result of these tools?  I thought we were all trying to have a good time here.

Underlying all of this is a certain sort of GM absolutism, in which the GM is allowed unfettered discretion to define the world as he or she chooses, and the players just have to sit there and passively accept it.  I found that kind of thing really odious when I first started back in the early 90s (when it was more common), and it feels positive archaic now.  Tabletop RPGs are, and should be, a collaborative exercise and power-tripping GMs are bad for everyone.  And when the power-tripping is taken on by people with a poor sense of boundaries and consent, you get horrible and totally unacceptable shit like the incident at the UK Games Expo a few months ago, where a GM running Things from the Flood (a game where the PCs play teenagers) had the PCs kidnapped and gang-raped for shock value.

Which leads to the last group, and I think least defensible on even the most generous reading, the "fuck your feelings" crowd.  I saw a post by Mark Finn in which he chronicles a thread in which a commenter insisted that it was necessary to have rape in tabletop RPGs because barbarians raped people, and thus we must be historically accurate in our Conan games.  Medieval people died of diphtheria, too, but I have yet to see anyone insist on the importance of that sort of historical accuracy in a medieval fantasy game.  Curious how rape is the element of the medieval period that is the marker of historical accuracy (again, in a Conan game, a world known for its fidelity to historical fact).  It is hard not to conclude that the commenter really likes the idea of depicting and talking about sexual assault in his ttrpg games.  Which, it should be said, I suspect Germain and Reynolds would endorse so long as everyone new what was going on and was on board.  Personally, I would not want to play in such a game, "historical accuracy" or no historical accuracy, but I am not offended that such games exist conceptually.  But if I show up for a session and you start describing in detail a violent sexual assault, I'm out.  And if the point of this exercise is to make me uncomfortable, then we have a fundamental breakdown in what it is we are trying to do in playing these games.

The other version, which I think might be worse, is the idea that tabletop RPGs should be spaces to explore and push on boundaries or difficult areas.  If that's what people want, and again consent ahead of time, then OK.  But you are a GM, not a therapist.  Getting into someone else's trauma and poking around, especially if you don't know what you are doing, is very dangerous.  And, more to the point, except for a small category of court-ordered interventions, therapy is a consensual process as well--once again, we are back to that word consent.  The idea that I show up for a fun ttrpg session and the GM unilaterally decides that he or she is going to "help me grow" by poking around in sensitive areas is profoundly irresponsible, and far, far above the GM's pay grade.  This is a very, very bad idea, for all involved, and if you think you are helping people with this, rethink things.

Again, perhaps none of this is helpful or worthwhile, as people who insist on being upset are likely going to be upset no matter what.  If your experience of playing ttrpgs is ruined by Germain and Reynolds and MCG publishing a 13 page PDF on consent, I don't know what to tell you.  But if you have a beef with this, at least take a moment to step back and think about the broader context, and why these resources are and can be useful to other people.