I am a player who starts play with a lot of limits. A lot of “nuh uh!”’s. I have anxieties and fears and triggers. But, I love gaming. I love it, and it is one of the few places in my life I can find new experiences, work out my emotional and mental complications, and where I can push my boundaries.
This is why I love safe space gaming. A lot of people think this means you will never talk about anything bad ever, and that’s so far from true! While I tend to lean towards a little bit happier gaming and I prefer a hopeful ending, I don’t need to avoid every bad topic ever to have fun. I just need to feel safe.
What does that mean, then? To feel safe?
It means I have an exit strategy. It means I can say no. It means no one will laugh at me, criticize me, or quiz me if I say no or have to leave. It means that if I have to get up and walk away, I won’t hear “what the hell was that about?” from anyone at the table. It means that the worst thing someone will say in response to me needing to press pause is “Are you okay?” and that they’ll wait a minute before asking, “Are we okay to continue?”
Until about a year ago, I didn’t know I had triggers at the table. The more I played, and the more I learned about gaming, the more I knew that there were things that could happen in game that might upset me or scare me. During game design I found out that wow – consent in social interactions? That matters to me. I didn’t know that before!
There are a lot of ways to play without risking triggers. One option is just being open about your hard limits – which risks people thinking you’re being a “baby”, being “too sensitive”, or somehow crushing creativity/stunting the story. Another is to not play games where there is a risk – a big shock to me was that some triggers are socially acceptable and sometimes key parts of the game’s setting! You are always at risk of some triggers.
It’s hard to confront fears and work towards pushing your boundaries when you keep a pristine surrounding and play nothing adventurous. It goes against my nature. I kept looking – how can I feel safe but still try new things that might scare me?
Then I found the X-card. It’s just a card with an X on it that you can use to indicate when you’re uncomfortable with content in a game, and it guides the players and GM to skip over or avoid that content. I thought it was awesome! If I feel uncomfortable, I just tap the card! No twenty minutes of explanation, no shoving my feelings under the rug. Mind you, plenty of people hate the idea of playing with one because of the aforementioned crushing creativity and stunting story complaints. But! There is something about the X-card I want to unpack. First, I want to share the other side.
When I went to OH, Games in December, Kira Scott ran Monsterhearts, and she put out an X-card – with an O on the back. The O is great, because Kira explained that when you want more of the content, you tap the O instead of the X. The O actually got used in that game – the X didn’t. In that game, there were at least 3 instances where I thought about using the X, but I didn’t use it. Why? I felt safe enough to not have to.
Having a tool like the X-card – particularly one with the opposing O side – at the table creates a specific kind of mood at the table. It says “We’re here together. If you need to stop, we’ll stop. But if you want to keep going? Let’s do this.” It encourages a style of gaming that I had not really pursued before – a knees-deep, heart-pounding headlong run into emotional risk, but the best kind.
I know that I risk getting hurt if I play like that. If it’s a bad hurt, and I want to stop, I put up the X and I know that the other players will support me in that. They don’t want me to be hurt, I don’t want to hurt them, it’s an understanding that we’re together in this. I haven’t used the X yet, but I am betting there will be a day when I do, because as much as I love confronting my fears, sometimes it’s a matter of time and place.
But, if it’s a good hurt, one that makes me feel like I’m unlocking something and that I want to feel more of, I tap the O and hold on tight.
It might make people think – well, why not just have the O-card? That establishes that people are on the same page, right? Not really. It’s easier to say more, more, yes, please! It’s not as easy to be in a group that’s saying yes! when you can feel yourself closing in and thinking, oh, please, no! That X-card is like a little unwritten rule. It says “Everyone has boundaries. Anyone could need this. It’s here for everyone.” It means I’m not alone.
Do you have a tool like this? Do you have a pre-game prep that establishes trust? How do you handle introducing new players to complicated or uncomfortable topics?