• Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 7 – The X Card as Care Overlay

    by  • October 23, 2013 • Essays • 5 Comments

    This is part seven of a series. The first post can be found here: Gender and Game Mechanics Series: Part 1 – Introduction and the previous post here: Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 6 – Self Organization with Care and Justice. 

    Last time I talked about ways that care and justice players could come into agenda conflict in games while discussing some personal experiences in White Wolf LARP and MUSH. I’m reaching the end of the care and justice part of the series (at least for now) as it’s only one of the topics I wanted to explore and has gone on longer than I had originally intended! In this last article I’ll be talking about the X-Card, how it relates to care and justice, and how discussing it reveals things about our orientation.

    For those unfamiliar with the X Card, it is the brain child of John Stavropoulos. John is the President of NerdNYC, one of the team leads for Games on Demand GenCon, and was part of the team (along with fellow GaWdians Jessica Hammer and Meguey Baker) that went to Ethiopia last year to develop practical social justice development games for Girl Effect. He is an all-around awesome guy and a GM for literally thousands of players a year. The concept of the X card is simple: There’s an index card with an X on it. It sits in the middle of the play table. At any time, if any person involved in the game becomes uncomfortable, they can tap or pick up the X card and the thing in progress will stop – no questions asked, no explanations required.

    The X card is a mechanic – one that negotiates social play. But it’s a mechanic that is independent and transferable. It can be used in conjunction with any system. It serves as an overlay to the game as it exists – a rule zero over every other mechanic in a game’s system. The X card works functionally at several levels:

    First and most powerfully (IMO), the X card frames play and shortcuts social contract of the game. Introducing the X card initiates a conversation among all participants at the beginning of play. It sets (particularly when introduced as recommended) a clearly communicated set of priorities to everyone involved. Directly from the X Card document: “The people playing are more important than the game we are playing.” Participation within this framework – effectively achieved only via buy-in – establishes a firm group commitment to tend to the emotional and social needs of the people at play, even, if necessary, at the expense of the fictive outcome, the flow of play, the play experience, or the game’s design.

    Next, the X card enables and facilitates social safety at the table. It is a particularly important and powerful answer to dealing with hard psychological triggers being set off in or around the fictive content of the game (e.g. rape, child abuse, addiction) which could slide an otherwise happy play experience towards trauma. However, it is also fully legitimate to use the X card to overcome barriers to social enjoyment (e.g. undesirable subjection to in or out of game racism or sexism) or personal comfort (e.g. a player experiencing too much bleed).

    Thirdly, with most playgroups, even talking about the X card in a way that frames the priority up front will influence the social environment in a way that makes the participants more mindful of monitoring comfort and distress around the table. This can create an environment that is more inter-personally supportive, and in which the X card is actually less likely to be used1.

    I shouldn’t have to explain too much at this point about what kind of facilitator this overlay can have for care oriented people, especially in unfamiliar groups where relationships are not pre-established (e.g. con games, first time groups) or where relationships may be known but the system is unknown or may feel dauntingly justice-oriented. It states upfront that even if the rest is unknown, the priority is that we as a group will take care of you, and will make sure our relationship with you is OK. This kind of overlay can literally make access possible for some players and some games or communities. I personally don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the X card grew out of John’s wealth of experience in communities of play that have an explicit – and successful – agenda of attracting and promoting diversity among participants.

    Unsurprisingly, the X card does also have its critics. As an example, players who find their fun in an agenda that prioritizes brutal (but consensual) brinksmanship legitimately don’t want safety nets to overlay the game. Players who find their fun in unsafe (and again, consensual) edgeplay with strong bleed and do not want anyone to have an out 2. There are many games that are at legitimately at odds with X card use. That’s not surprising! All mechanics, both core and overlay should serve the goals of the participants and their desired outcome of play. The X card can actually help clarify terms for players that like these kinds of games. Right up front, the X card is a clear and present signal that the game does not support their kind of play, and allows them to opt out.

    But back specifically in terms of care and justice: some (often strongly) justice oriented people find the concept of the X card deeply uncomfortable. Remember that justice orientation assumes separation, prioritizes self , serves goals around autonomy, agency and is deeply concerned with rights management as mitigated and enforced by an external system. This all means that the X card inserts a fundamental short circuit into their desired game structure. It says: “At some point in the game, I may suddenly and unexpectedly lose my right to safely proceed in pursuing my goals without any explicit justification”. And because justice oriented individuals reach to universalized principles or points of view rather than localized ones, creating a mechanic that specifically prioritizes the needs of an individual in the moment over the global laws of the game can seem extremely arbitrary, and feel violating to their base need for fairness – and justice – in the game.

    Notably, this is a barrier for some justice players and not others, largely because as an accepted overlay it is part of the express and explicit mechanical system of the game, and as such can comfortably fulfill many justice-based players’ conceptual understanding of what fairness means as the course of the game. But if that is not that case, and we come across a game where there is a critical divide between actual players at the same game, what then? This is the point that things become political. To quote Leonard Cohen: “it’s the homocidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”. Whose needs will get met, how will they be met and why? 3

    To me, it’s critical to evaluate these situations contextually. As an overlay to an existing system it should be contextually compared to that system’s degree of support for care or justice. For example, an X card may be a small ask when used as an overlay on a system that offers strong justice support, especially one that also restricts care orientation. But when the situation is reversed (strong care support with strong justice restriction) the X card may further disenfranchise a justice player at the table. Whose needs are more consistently being met, who needs more support, and what is the X card doing in service of those goals? Also, worth considering is the context of the game. Within the community of practice (organization, con, single group’s history) what is the level of systemic support for players of each orientation? Will offering concessions like the X card create an environment where fair access and inclusion can be more equitably be distributed until more care supported games are designed and offered?

    It’s also important to contextually evaluate the whole X card frame structure rather than just looking at individual moments of its mechanical invocation. The X frame as asserted in the social contract emphasizes a responsibility to tend to the communal social environment. This means that as well as creating opportunities for players to invocate their safe space, it should socially influence the participants towards containing misuse. In practice, those that have greatest opportunity to report on the X card’s use in actual play (like John) report that the X card itself gets used very infrequently. I personally think that people who have been socially conditioned towards care orientation are by the same conditioning more likely to invoke the X card, more likely to respect the boundaries of accepted use, and more likely enact autonomous acts of reciprocity4.

    And that’s some of my thoughts on the X card! Next up: Who knows? I’m going to choose a new topic for the next chapter of posts.

    1. For an first hand use of the xCard in game, see Brie Sheldon’s article on her X card experience
    2. There are strong similarities between the X card and the Nordic larp safewords Cut/Kutt and Brake/Brems both in terms of desireability (for use in emotional situations), and in the mechanisms themselves.
    3. This conflict is also at the heart of many of the con harrassment policy debates.
    4. Please be clear that I am not implying that care orientated people are any more immune from personal dysfunction, transgressive or coercive behaviour than justice folks. A person’s quality of behavioural interaction is not determined by their orientation, the orientation is only the paradigm we see their choice of actions enacted through. There will always be assholes on all sides!


    By trade a systems analyst and by academics a cultural studies and theatre geek, Mo spends an inordinate amount of time in life, work and play figuring out how things work. She likes to break them down, tinker with their guts and then mogyver them back together with a rusty screwdriver and some duct tape.

    5 Responses to Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 7 – The X Card as Care Overlay

    1. avatar
      Jason Morningstar
      October 23, 2013 at 19:02

      I use the X-card consistently and often outside my home group and agree with everything you say here. In my experience it is rarely invoked but establishes a baseline of caring and respect as its most prominent feature. The minute you spend explaining its use sets the tone in a really positive way.

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    2. avatar
      October 31, 2013 at 08:22

      I think it would be a marvellous addition to any game – especially, as Jason points out, outside one’s “home group.”

      (And, as an aside, Mo, I’ll be looking out for that Night Witches game you mentioned in another post!)

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      • avatar
        February 27, 2014 at 00:45

        I had the chance to play Night Witches at Dreamation this weekend and it did NOT disappoint! I was only sad to not have enough time to play it out more slowly. :) Not sure when Jason is considering releasing it, but it’s getting very close to publication I’d think.

    3. avatar
      November 2, 2013 at 01:16

      Thank you, I’ve never read about an X-Card before. It’s fascinating.

      I want to know if anyone has had any experience using it with the game My Life With Master. My Life With Master is a notoriously difficult game to get to the table, and I was wondering if the X-Card helps get the game to the table with strangers who might otherwise not be interested in playing the game, or does it break My Life With Master because making players uncomfortable is kind of the point?

      There are other similar games. Off the top of my head I can think of Wraith: The Oblivion. Playing the shadow of another player’s character could get nasty, so it’s hard to get people to play it who don’t know each other really well. But the shadow is supposed to be the part of the character that the character is uncomfortable with. So if anyone’s played any game that fits this mold, using the X-Card or a similar rule, I would be very interested in reading about it.

      I don’t want to seem mean spirited, that making people uncomfortable is fun, but we all saw Let The Right One In. We have to admit that sometimes, being made uncomfortable is fun.

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      • avatar
        February 27, 2014 at 00:43

        I agree that sometimes making people uncomfortable can be fun My Life With Master is a good example of how that can be (I don’t know what Let the Right One In, so don’t know what you are referring to there, though). A lot of the Nordic-style larps I’ve been playing (and a few larpwrighting) are about extremely difficult subject matter, hard political issues, trauma, tragedy, and deep emotional scenarios. Many of these are deeply hard to play, sometimes even traumatic. That can be fun for some folks in the sense of engagement and enjoyment without having to be lighthearted – the way most people refer to fun. I have plaid games with this level of subject matter that used an -Card like mechanism, but not MLWM itself.

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