TOWARD MORE SUPPORTIVE PLAY

Recently I’ve seen lots of talk about the use of player safety techniques in play. I decided that I ought to formalize my thoughts in writing since I haven’t actually done that until now.

I’d like to begin by saying that I am a huge advocate for the use of player support tools to help us make our games and play communities safer and more compassionate. However, I am disappointed by our current tools (and I certainly include the tools I’ve developed in this statement). I think we, as a play culture, are overdue for an evolution in our support practices. Much of my experience stems from X-Card play culture, this being the most widely used tool in my experience, and it may seem that this essay is a criticism of the X-Card specifically. While that isn’t exactly incorrect, it is much more accurate to say that this is a scrutinization of safety-related cultural values that are widely practiced in part through the use of tools like the X-Card. My criticisms also apply to other similar tools, though I encounter those much less frequently. I’m also a bit surprised to say that I am currently much more satisfied with modern player support techniques currently found in larp, though my commentary largely applies to Cut and Brake as well. I was first introduced to these tools in early 2012 (I “arrived” on the story game scene in late 2011), and at no point have I ever felt that the tools on offer satisfactorily met the challenges that I observed in my play experiences.

Why I’m Writing This

First of all, I understand that I am in a minority opinion and that my views on this issue might be unpopular. By only having half the conversation - that I’m unsatisfied with a given tool - I do myself a disservice. I hope that by writing this the full scope of my perspective can be understood because I have often felt misunderstood in conversations on this topic. There is rarely enough time to go into every detail, after all.

Second, I am frankly tired of literally having the same conversation over and over. I feel that the issues with the current tools have existed since their inception and have seen little to no development to address those issues. I am not the first to draw attention to the limitations of these tools. In any case, I want to be able to direct interested parties to this in the hopes of having new conversations about this topic.

Third, I want better tools. I recognize that my needs from player support tools are not every person’s needs. I most enjoy playing high-impact scenarios that ask for a lot of vulnerability from the players. These kinds of scenarios often explore real-life social issues either directly or indirectly; subjects which must be handled with respect and responsibility. Though I think that the X-Card and other tools adequately support low-impact play, I have seen these tools consistently fail to support the players in high-impact play. I hope that as a community we can continue developing tools that help us go deeper more conscientiously.

[EDIT: Here are some helpful definitions. The impact of play refers to the affected emotional experience of play. Casually, it's the "intensity" of the play and subject matter. But it can be very subjective (personal relationship to the subject matter, personal/local playstyles), too, so an objective measure of "intensity" isn't always accurate. High-impact play is play in which the playgroup is intending an emotionally deep/affecting play experience typically in which a game/scenario expressly facilitates said experience. It's when you play to engage. Low-impact play is more or less everything else. It's when you play for entertainment.]

Finally, I want to lay all this out in a space where nobody is frustrated (or what have you). Many times a conversation regarding the shortcomings of support tools comes immediately after an experience in which one or more people feel failed by the tool in question when emotions are already high. Further, some of the conversations I’ve had about this have been bad experiences in their own right.

I would also like to take a moment to say what this essay is not.

It is not a call-out against anyone or anything. If we have had a conversation about this in the past, even if it was a difficult conversation, this is not a criticism of you. Our relationship has survived, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to have thoughtful (if spirited) discussion on important matters.

It is not a rebuke of the X-Card, anyone who was involved in its development, or anyone that makes use of it. I’m glad for what this tool has been able to do for our community, even if I think that more still needs to be done.

On Current Tools

Before I get into the issues, I would like to recognize a few points about our current tools. In this essay, I’m going to reference the X-Card the most because it is by far the most widely used tool found in the table-top indie story gaming community in my experience. As a point of clarification: I am discussing the tools as I have seen them practiced first and they are described in text second; these two don’t always match up and the tool in practice is more important to me.

I fully expect that basically any tool is composed of carefully considered compromises. I don’t expect any single tool to be a magic bullet, or for any single tool to be the best fit any given circumstance or community (I do, however, expect the same concession when I say that the X-Card, for example, doesn’t support my needs or the depth of play that I enjoy). I do not hold those compromises against the tool itself.

I think that the X-Card does a lot of things well. It’s probably close to enough for a lot of people and a lot of games. It’s commonly familiar to lots of people. It’s easy to make and explain. Just having the conversation covers a lot of ground as it is. It has a relatively low barrier to use. These are all good things.

However, I see this as a first step; an admirable and necessary first step (maybe it’s actually more of a second step). But we need to take the next steps. I have no doubt that these tools will improve and expand on what came before it, and we should welcome and celebrate this.

My thoughts regarding Line and Veils, and the Oly-Seattle Veil are much the same, and the differences don’t really apply here. Cut and Brake, as practiced in many larp cultures, has their own set of issues. Chief among them being that they are almost never used in practice. Because of that, the impact that Cut and Brake has had on play culture seems to be minimal. I find Largo to be a small step in the right direction, and I’m a big fan of the OK Check-In. All of this is to say: it is simply the most relevant and most convenient to use the X-Card as a vehicle for talking about this.

Breakdown of Issues

My observations fall under four main categories of issues: the method of establishing and maintaining consent, circumstances in which use of the tool causes harm to a player, contact points with toxic behaviors, and recurring phenomena found in the wider play culture that appears to accompany the use of the X-Card.

Model of Consent

The first and most glaring issue with the X-Card and similar is that it practices a “well they didn’t say no” model of consent. Honestly, why this isn’t enough to justify the use of other tools I have no idea, as it is insufficient in principle. This is not a model of consent I want to rehearse at all, much less hold as a standard. I want my tools to be grounded in affirmative consent, end of story.

The most common defense of this I hear is “but we don’t know what’s going to come up in play; asking first is impractical.” Yes, this is technically true, but ultimately I disagree. We do know what content is central to a game before we play it, or at the very least we should. Except in cases where I or the facilitator didn’t bother to fully investigate/present a game, I have always had a clear idea about what content we would be exploring, what topics are adjacent to that and may or may not come up, and what topics are either unnecessary or inappropriate. Are there grey zones at the edges? Absolutely. But the point is that I actually know quite a lot about what a game will entail prior to play.

Following this, a frequent rebuttal is “but facilitators make mistakes and we still need tools for that” and “what if we don’t agree on content for whatever reason?” Yes, these things happen. But human error applies to other areas of tool application as well, and everyone seems to be willing to accept that. Why can’t we hold ourselves and facilitators to higher standards when it comes to content advisory? Aren’t we making a similar ask when we employ a tool in the first place? And if we do discover a disagreement, why can’t we just have a conversation about it? If the answer is “well, that may be difficult if a player feels vulnerable,” then my response is that they are already exposed by making use of the tool anyway.

These rebuttals feel much more like excuses to me because:

  • The complaint is selective by way of ignoring the same shortcomings already present in the tool.
  • The tool is already asking for similar (though not equivalent) exposure from the players.
  • The argument is for resisting a change to a reported concern, aka maintaining the status quo.

When I see this pattern emerge in rebuttals against criticism of the X-Card I immediately suspect that there is something else at the root of these rebuttals. I grant that this isn’t entirely fair, because I’m always on high-alert for that kind of thing.  I will revisit this later.

A concern that I have much more sympathy for is “but we don’t always know how we will be affected by fiction in the moment.” I’ve been here, especially as someone who wasn’t always very aware of my own boundaries. This is a moment I expect a tool to support. However, the X-Card offers only a very specific kind of support for this instance. If you need to not talk about it and move on, the X-Card does that. But if you need literally anything else - a conversation, a break, a distraction, intentionally staying with it - it doesn’t, and the possibility for harm skyrockets when there is an expectation at the table that issues will be handled in only a certain way.

And this is where the “well you didn’t say no” model completely fails the playgroup because it firmly places the onus on the injured party to make use of the tool. That isn’t care; it’s survival. It places the responsibility for using the tool - or not using it when they “should have” - on the person who is already in an emotionally activated state; probably the person who is least able in the moment to actually make use of the tool anyway. This dovetails into all of the usual trappings of victim-blaming: the player in question may feel guilty for using or not using the tool as the case may be, they may feel responsible for their own negative experience, of this all may be so confusing that they dismiss whatever they are feeling about the incident (it’s not a stretch to say that this results in the player gaslighting themselves).

And again, the common rebuttal “but you can use the tool on behalf of someone else” and “well I’d just check in with a player if I noticed something like that.” Ok, sure, but now we are back to relying on on-the-fly interpersonal judgment, which is exactly what we were all doing (or not doing) before we had tools, which means this moment is no different than not having a tool at all. But it’s actually worse than that because you also have an illusion of safety on account of the tool being present.

One could argue that though the tool has shortcomings, it has increased the scope of comfortable and consensual play. I think that’s true, but I think it has also increased the likelihood of creating certain harmful situations. This is particularly relevant to high-impact play in which those circumstances are more likely to manifest.

Personally, I don’t find it worth it. I’m not sure that I’d say that it would be better to have no tool at all, but I have often considered not playing at all rather than playing a high-impact game with an X-Card, and I for sure consider developing and implementing alternative tools for those situations.

Before I move on, I also want to mention another common complaint about the use of player support tools: “you are hacking the game.” In general, I do not share this view, or rather if a game does not offer sufficient player support I think you should hack it so that it does. I will concede however that I think it is hypothetically possible for an imported tool to subvert consent and support techniques that might be hardwired into a game’s structure. I can’t think of an example of this, but it seems possible to me. Again, this isn’t completely fair, but I have to wonder if this response is a defensive reaction to the implication that a given game or a style of play isn’t sufficiently safe in some cases.

Harm in Application

The following sections details instances in which use of the X-Card or similar has resulted in avoidable harm that I have personally witnessed. This is not to say that I haven’t seen it work without an issue on numerous occasions - I have. But even so, these failure points still need to be addressed.

Trauma and Alienation

I am not the first person to mention this. As a person with trauma who also suffers from PTSD, I can say from my personal experience that use of the X-Card not only does nothing to assist a player experiencing distress but places them in a situation that is even more distressing (please understand that I am in no way speaking for every traumatized person). I do not believe the X-Card was developed with this in mind; my understanding of the X-Card suggests that the tool was designed to navigate boundaries in play, not to help players through emotional turbulence. I don’t think it’s right to criticize a tool for simply not being something it isn’t, but my issue here is that the way in which it navigates boundaries creates situations are even more distressing. This is especially troubling because many tout the X-Card as being particularly useful to people who have trauma when in reality it is a very mixed bag at best. That the tool works sufficiently for some people with trauma and exceptionally poorly for other folks with trauma suggests to me that the tool is “trauma agnostic” and therefore should be presented as such.

The first issue here is that the X-Card requires encountering the unwanted subject matter before it can even be used (with the hope that you can avoid it entirely in the future). You can’t prevent this situation every time, but I am a little dismayed by the fact that the default function of the tool requires a fail-state of sorts before it can even be used. People who exhibit a freeze response might become pretty passive and quiet - which looks like consent in this model.

Further, speaking again from my own experience, by the time I encounter a trigger it’s pretty much already too late. Even talking about it can be difficult, so discussing it in advance is not an adequate solution either. I make a personal calculation about how able I am to be okay with these specific people, on this specific occasion, when I choose to play a game that might introduce subject matter that is triggering to me; I decide if I can invest that kind of trust in my fellow players. However, if the X-Card is used by another player at a time that I’m in distress, and we just move past it, it has a disastrous effect on me. What I need in that moment is to stay connected. When we just move past it like nothing ever happened it rehearses my condition prior to beginning the healing process. A big part of my healing has been letting it hurt, so to speak. When we just remove the offending fiction it takes me back to a time when the wound was fresh. It hurts, and it’s scary. Additionally, the sudden switch is very similar to gaslighting - at the level of the fiction, it literally says “that thing never happened” - which introduces a whole new level of distress in me even I’m reasonably sure that’s not the intent.

When I become aware that nobody else is understanding what I’m experiencing (or if I’m having the emotional response of being gaslit) I experience alienation. My sense of connection and trust with the other players is shattered. I have become estranged from the playgroup because I know that I am either not understood or ignored and that they are unwilling or unable to support me in my experience, all while feeling that I should be connected to the group (because they’re all fine) while also being treated as though I am still connected to the playgroup even though I know that I’m not. At this point I recognize that my trust in the playgroup was misplaced in that I will not be supported should I find myself in a moment of need. It’s a confusing place to be in which you pretend to pretend in order to continue. I don’t know how to say it better than that; it is genuinely confusing.

Going beyond the moment of alienation, the connection and trust were probably required for my consent to participate in the first place (and is again a crucial healing element that is now painfully removed). The entire game is scary now, trust is uncertain, and - most importantly - questionably nonconsensual (though I grant that this aspect of consent in play is rarely discussed in advance, but it is most certainly included in the “indie intimacy” rhetoric that is widely used to discuss and promote focused roleplay experiences). I’m certainly not ever going to mention anything about it now, because that would make me more vulnerable and more distressed. This entire sequence of events and emotions could take place in ten seconds. This experience is so painful. Looking past the emotional harm caused, the play environment is now in no way suitable for sustained personal and creative vulnerability.

All of this gets tangled up in feelings of guilt and responsibility inherent in both trauma and victim blaming, and it’s awful. Challenging the use of the X-Card isn’t socially acceptable at all, even if you had the emotional fortitude to do so. And this isn’t to mention the range of other emotions that a triggered person might be experiencing.

I haven’t even touched on bleed yet, and this is a much bigger topic that I can’t fully go into here. So here is a very short version. A player with trauma has a potentially complicated bleed experience to navigate. Trauma and triggers can be understood as a bleed-in experience (past emotions/experiences bleed in to the play experience). Alienation as a result of tool use also has the high potential for a bleed-out experience in which the disconnection and distrust felt in play bleeds out into their personal relationships outside of play. This is obviously detrimental to the individuals in question and is damaging to community health as a whole. As if that weren’t enough, finding belonging in a community is often critical to a person’s healing process when recovering from trauma; this experience, therefore, compromises their access to a primary source of healing to some degree.

Long story short, what the X-Card does is literally the last thing I actually need when I encounter triggering content in play; its use makes a bad situation worse.

People with trauma aren’t the only ones who encounter this. Deep alienation is by far the most common emotional injury I’ve seen from high-impact play, though the result may not be as extensive as a trauma response, it’s very similar. Having another player use a tool to pull away from a moment that has deeply affected you can result in a total disconnection from the other players (especially when all of the other players also pull away when the tool is invoked, which is a pretty typical response) because a sense of trust in the playgroup is in question once you know that you are alone in your experience, that your experience will not be supported, and that there is little you can say or do about it (should you even want to do so) because use of the tool must always be respected. I’ve been here too, and I’ve seen others be put in this spot as well. It’s ugly, and it has the potential to turn away from the activity entirely. I know my taste in games is not most people’s taste, but I swear I’ve seen this result more often than I have seen the X-Card address the issues it’s supposed to address (beyond acknowledging that safety matters in the first place).

What would be much more helpful is a tool that reaffirms connections to others while letting one stay grounded in that moment. This might mean breaking play to talk about what we are feeling and why. It might mean letting that moment be as real as possible. But, the X-Card actively discourages this kind of support. Yes, lip-service is given to “we can talk about it if you want to,” but in every single implementation of the X-Card I’ve ever seen there has been a spoken or unspoken emphasis on “we’re not going to talk about it” which makes giving and receiving this kind of support the exception to the rule. Also, I’m very tired of hearing things along the lines of “then you should have used the tool sooner,” which is yet another concoction of deflecting responsibility, victim blaming, and gaslighting.

Lack of Nuance

One major pitfall of these tools is a lack of nuance. With any tool that is comprised of nothing more than a full stop, there is little support for carefully navigating a boundary. This is related to the fact that the tool in question can’t even be applied until a boundary is crossed. In addition to backing away from a crossed boundary, what we also need is a tool to avoid crossing the boundary in the first place.

With the X-Card, you basically have only “red lights” and “green lights.” In live action play, we at least have Brake/Largo, which serves are a kind of “yellow light” function. I think this is the area we need to expand the most when it comes to developing more nuanced tools. Not to mention that asking for a change of narrative direction before a boundary has been crossed is far easier to do than telling someone that they have (accidentally) crossed a line.

Further, simply tapping the X-Card or shouting “Cut” doesn’t actually tell the other players what is needed. Sometimes it’s obvious, but other times you are left with the choice of either guessing or possibly asking unwanted questions of someone who is already feeling vulnerable. There are so many things that might result in a person using a tool that the mere use of it imparts little information. Was it the subject matter? Was it the treatment of the subject matter? Was it actually something that happened a few minutes ago but they went with it anyway and now it’s even worse? Was it something that wasn’t in the “foreground” of the fiction? Do we need to remove it entirely? Do we need to handle it differently? Is it a matter of something problematic that might escape the attention of someone who is less aware for whatever reason? Was it the attitude of another player? There are no clear answers to these questions. I can think of no other case where safe words are used that leave this level of ambiguity - because this kind of instruction is often necessary in order to be able to proceed.

Further, if it was obvious, then it probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. A tool with a middle ground could have helped avoid this completely. This is not to say that what is obvious to one person is obvious to everybody, but in a great many cases these kinds of situations could have been avoided.

Potential for Bullying

Though I don’t think the mere fact that a person might choose to abuse a tool is a fault of the tool (that is the abusing person’s fault), we would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the potential for abuse. Using the X-Card to bully another player is a concern that has been voiced on and off by some over the last few years. Like others, I’m not sure that I’ve seen this, but I’m not sure that I haven’t, either. Use of the X-Card provides an unchallengeable alibi that can conceal bullying.

Using the X-Card to bully another player would involve one player using the X-Card to repeatedly censor another player’s contributions to the fiction, or otherwise use the tool as a vehicle of criticism. Victim stance is often a component of abusive behavior, so using the X-Card in bad faith is not out of the question. In my experience, this looks less like one player using the X-Card against another for spurious reasons multiple times in the same game, and more like one person (or more than one person) using the X-Card to censor the target’s contribution during climactic or interesting moments across many games. Repeated use of this also serves to give others the impression that something about the way they play is unsafe, thereby gaslighting the victim as well. This can be incredibly difficult to spot since it happens over longer periods of time, probably under multiple facilitators and/or playgroups in which instances of this can appear to be isolated instances.

I don’t know really that I’ve witnessed this or not. I have certainly felt that I have noticed targeting behavior that involved inappropriate use of the X-Card, and there is no way to tell. Abusive behavior takes advantage of both the plausible deniability and the fact that the use of the tool is placed above criticism, generally speaking. This actually makes this kind of targeting more accessible with the tool than without. This is not a ridiculous concern.

Relationship to Toxic Behaviors

Below I discuss areas in which use (or misuse as the case may be) become similar too - and sometimes indiscernible from - actual toxic behaviors.

Lack of Communication

In every pitch of the X-Card I’ve heard, there has always been an emphasis on “and we don’t need to talk about why.” I am fully on board with judgment-free environments, and players deciding how exposed they are willing to be. But I also feel that whether it’s intentional or not, the message that gets across is that “we’re not going to talk about it.” There are two problems with this.

For starters, it is entirely consistent with a “the game must go on” value system that makes players feel guilty for “ruining the fun” for other players. The text for the X-card literally says that by not having a big ol’ talk we leave more time for play. This view prioritizes the game over the well-being of the players. Granted, part of this probably comes from an effort to seem unobtrusive so that reluctant gamers will still give these tools a shot. I can understand, even if I don’t agree, with this approach. However, a tool that’s supposed to care most for the people at the table should present “we are happy to talk and listen” and “we will understand if the game needs to stop entirely.” But these options are either not mentioned at all, are mentioned as completely secondary, or they are tossed in as an afterthought. I must ask myself why this tool aligns so closely with toxic values and passes on clear opportunities to embrace more compassionate values? And if it’s not the tool itself, why is it used this way?

Additionally, communication is good, healthy, and necessary. In fact, one of the touted perks of the X-Card is “since we have this tool we don’t have to talk about what we don’t want ahead of time.” The entire function of a safety tool is to facilitate communication (especially when it’s difficult). Why isn’t this incorporated as a feature of the tool? Why aren’t there a variety of options presented for more vulnerable conversations? Why aren’t we helping players talk about what they are feeling? If the X-Card was used it even adds a social barrier to talking about the incident later.

Let’s be honest - many of us participate in geek culture, and we’re famously bad at this. As a culture, we need the assistance, not discouragement. As a bonus, the lack of communication makes catching abuse of the tool exceedingly difficult.

Gaslighting

One form of gaslighting is the denial or distortion of past events in an effort to skew the events in favor of the gaslighter (whatever that means for them). Use of the X-Card can look an awful lot like gaslighting because it literally says “that thing didn’t just happen” and then moves on as if it’s true. Is this a procedure we want to be practicing, in the name of safety no less?

As someone who has experienced extensive gaslighting first hand this is very difficult to deal with. My brain instinctually sends the klaxons blaring. Because triggers aren’t strictly rational (for lack of a better word), the context doesn’t matter - the resemblance is all it takes.

Coupled with that response is a rush of doubt. I immediately begin feeling that I have lost trust in the other players. There are so many reasons this is a problem. Among them is the fact that I sure as hell aren’t feeling like talking about what I’m experiencing because not only am I not feeling like I can trust the other players, but I also can’t shake the fact that I feel actively messed with, and also it’s not appropriate for me to initiate a conversation on why someone else used the X-Card in the first place. By this point, you’ve entirely lost me. Heaven help me if we are three hours into a high-impact game.

One could say that the purpose of the X-Card is to give players an out to avoid interacting with fiction that contains elements they don’t want to engage with for whatever reason. For many, this means using the X-Card to avoid fiction that contains, say snakes. But for someone who has experiences gaslighting this can be like forcing an actual snake upon them - not just a fictional one. I’ve seen little empathy for this problem.

Tone Policing

Though somewhat less troubling that the connection to gaslighting, use of the X-Card can also literally be tone policing. As in, “you must do this differently in order for your contribution to be accepted.” I’ve seen this most as a form of gatekeeping used by established community members against younger community members as a means of getting the younger member to do things “their way.” Again, I must ask myself if this is a behavior we want to rehearse.

Lack of Equity

The X-Card is completely agnostic when it comes to the differences between players’ needs. Every time the X-Card is used the result is more or less the same regardless of what the player is experiencing.  Though there are some benefits to this, there are also some serious downsides.

The most significant problem in my experience is when there is a large disparity in privilege between players at the table. In short, the tool places the preferences of one player on the same level as the well-being of another. This “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” approach is problematic in many consequences. The scenario I see play out over and over again is a cishet white male claiming their discomfort is an equal priority to the kinds of discomfort, discrimination, and harm trans/queer/POC/women/non-binary individuals experience in the same spaces. This is the result of privilege blindness; the person with more privilege in this case really may not understand that there is a difference in severity between what they experience and what less privileged people experience. This becomes a real problem when a less privileged individual used the tool for the sake of their own well-being, and then more privileged people use the tool to “get their way” - because that’s what they see the less privileged person as doing. This dynamic upholds the status quo by raising the importance of more privileged experiences above that of less privileged experiences.

This dynamic doubles over on itself when we consider the selling point “this tool allows you to push harder.” Pushing harder in play is generally riskier for people from marginalized groups (who are more likely to have endured trauma at the hands of those more privileged than they), especially when playing with people who are more privileged. I’ll get more into this in a later section, but forming the tool as “you don’t need to worry so much because they have an out” places both the risk and the responsibility on the most marginalized and most poorly served players. If privilege blindness has perverted the meaning of the tool at all this is very dangerous in play.

The tool also tends to mistake who needs support the most. As has been observed many times in the past, it’s often the players who are playing antagonistic roles that need the most care during and after a game. Use of the X-Card against a player in an antagonistic role/moment often drives the impact of that moment (in which they are probably feeling some kind of in-character self-loathing) beyond the fictional to the personal, thereby increasing the harm the player is experiencing and also increasing their need for care - which they are not receiving now (and probably won’t later, either). I have never seen a situation like this in which the X-Card could have possibly helped. This is one of the observations that suggests to me that the X-Card was not intended for high-impact play; the tools application simply does not understand the needs of high impact play.

Avoidance of Accountability

With all of these issues taken into consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the X-Card and other tools do a much better job at helping people avoid accountability for causing harm than they do at actually preventing harm from being caused.

Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point supports this conclusion, but to briefly summarize for the sake of clarity:

  • The model of consent places the responsibility on the injured party
    • Coupled with “but we couldn’t possibly know;” an excuse often used by sexual assailants
  • A boundary must be crossed to implement the tool
    • Almost nothing is done to avoid crossing a boundary
    • Using the tool literally suggests that a “thing didn’t happen,” which is itself a statement that avoids accountability
  • Communication is subtly or overtly discouraged
  • This method of application can be actively harmful to those with trauma
  • The tool is most accessible to people who are more comfortable and less vulnerable
    • Thereby taking voice away from people who face marginalization
    • “Push hard without worry” is often the selling point
    • The tool often mis-identifies who needs support in certain play circumstances
  • Toxic and harmful behaviors are still viable with the use of the tool but are even more difficult to identify and intervene

At one level it’s not a surprise that our tools reflect the problems in our play culture. However, I think it’s time to really scrutinize these things. I believe that the issues I’m seeing have less to do with problematic behaviors from individuals and more to do with deep-rooted and unspoken values that have permeated our communities. I think it’s safe to say that every one of us has been marked by patriarchal values in one way or another.

Progressive One-Upping

This will serve as a segway into the next section because this is a mix of play culture and individual behavior.

I’ve heard of this described in a number of terms (I believe Lizzie Stark has referred to this as the “Liberal Dogpile”). In short, in communities that identify themselves by their progressive values, holding more progressive values yourself tends to get you greater social standing. The result is a judgemental community in which two things happen: community members are very critical of others (thereby keeping themselves above the people they are criticizing) and community members perform progressiveness (thereby increasing their standing). These behaviors appear at basically every level of community activity, including the application of player safety tools. When the use of safety tools becomes conflated with establishing status, our games are not safe.

Before anyone says that their community isn’t like this: I have seen this to one degree or another in every gaming community I’ve participated in, including communities that I have loved very much.

Observations on Play Culture

To be honest, I would not have examined these tools so deeply were it not for a number of negative and weird experiences I’ve had with play cultures that seem to surround their use. Hypothetical abuse of safety tools is much less of an issue if the play culture seems healthy and functional. This has not been my experience.

The Seatbelt Effect

Let’s start big picture. I saw this in my own community when we got really serious about using player safety tools, and I have heard tell from other communities that they have seen the same thing.

This is the phenomenon in question: when safety tools are first introduced to a community, players tend to pay less attention to the well-being of other players because they can now rely on the tools instead (I call this the seatbelt effect because something similar happened when seatbelts were invented: drivers drove faster, accidents were worse and more frequent because the drivers felt safer, resulting in increased pedestrian fatalities). The result is that play is actually less safe than it was before.

Granted, communities can grow out of this. But I see that as unlikely when “push harder without worry” is advertised as a positive feature. Many players play like this deliberately.

The issues here are somewhat more subtle. Relying on the tools to mediate safety and consent means that players aren’t practicing the social skills they would usually employ to navigate those concerns. This is antithetical to fostering a compassionate and caring community. Further, it seems to me that almost none of the modern progressive values regarding consent, privilege, care, and accountability are actually reflected in these tools at all, so I’m left wondering what we are really practicing in the first place.

Red Flags

Ultimately, when I sit down for a high-impact game with a table of strangers and someone puts an X-Card on the table, I have no idea if anyone is aware of the limitations of the tool (unless they have expressly dismissed them, in which case I know that they do not). If a facilitator thinks that the X-Card is “enough” then this is a huge red flag for me. If they try to placate me with a quick conversation so we can get on with the game, this is another red flag. If they show a lack of compassion for the people failed by the tool, this is yet another red flag. I’m left with too many doubts, and I know that this game probably won’t be safe or supportive. I end up passing on a lot of public play because of this.

Instances of Weird Play Culture Interactions

I don’t even know how to organize this section. So what you are about to read is a collection of different interpretations I’ve had in discussions about the X-Card. These are by far the most negative experiences I’ve had with the X-Card. To me, this confirms my suspicion that the values inherent in the tool radiate outward into the communities in which the tool is widely practiced.

Insistent Defensiveness

In most conversations I’ve had, criticizing the X-Card is tantamount to picking a fight. I make no exaggeration when I say people leap to its defense. These conversations tend to become heated very quickly. I’ve had people justify the model of consent (as mentioned above, these justifications are flimsy), that if I don’t like the kind of play it fosters that I should just “be the change I want to see,” that asking first is too hard/awkward/breaks the momentum of play (“kills the mood”), that I just don’t understand how the X-Card is used, that it’s “good enough” and that no tool “is perfect,” that none of my concerns actually happen in the real world. Seriously, what the hell is this? What am I supposed to think when so many interactions involve dismissing or minimizing my concerns, immediately followed by a hypercritical attitude toward any and all alternatives?

When my concerns are met with that kind of attitude I, and the loudest proponents are those who benefit from a lot of privilege, I have some serious questions. Everything about this looks like maintaining the comfort or the most comfortable first and foremost. When the X-Card it treated as though it’s the only thing important about table consent all other needs are ignored. I can’t help but feel that this is the case when those same people are reluctant at best and mildly hostile at worst to even trying a different tool.

Some other odds and ends:

  • Lack of empathy for those abandoned by X-Card use. The knee-jerk reaction to this is “No, the person using the card, their consent matters more.” While I’m not disagreeing with the importance of consent, I am troubled by touting that value as a justification for completely dismissing the abandoned person. Not to mention that the abandoned player was failed first and we just didn’t know it yet. This looks an awful lot like reluctance to perform difficult emotional labor.
  • From the X-Card text (paraphrased): “GM says ‘Most likely I’m going to use it to protect myself from you guys!’” To be frank, I find this facetious. I have literally never seen anything even remotely like this in actual practice anywhere. I feel that this confuses and misrepresents both the tool and the nature of narrative games as a whole.
  • Some have touted that use of the tool creates a more supportive play environment. I have never witnessed this. As I’ve detailed extensively at this point, I’ve seen a lot more of the opposite.
  • When the X-Card is introduced at a table there is a palpable expectation that everybody will just conform. A discussion about this isn’t particularly viable (see next bullet) at this moment, so I often feel forced to play with an X-Card even though I feel less safe.
  • There is immense pushback when I propose a different tool to use instead, even if it’s similar. As a result, the whole table feels unsafe because they are unsure of what/who they should trust. Once that seed of doubt is placed, it stays there. The attitude that accompanies this is “whatever you are doing isn’t good enough for me” no matter what alternative tool you present. This makes it almost impossible to actually develop an alternative tool.
  • Finally, I am openly gaslit when someone responds to my criticisms with “You are saying that “No” isn’t important.” This is not my position, and this is not what I have said. But this is often the very first thing I hear when I voice my concerns.

I hope that you can agree that these experiences are not good. When this is more or less the kinds of behavior that my concerns predict I feel like this proves that my concerns are valid.

I’m going to be my most cynical self here for a moment. This is what I think is actually going on with all of this defensiveness. It isn’t really about the tool itself. It’s about defending the progressive status of the people and communities that use it.

That is a contentious thing to say. But it makes a lot of sense. The attitude I see propagated by proponents of the X-Card is that of “our work here is done.” And these criticisms suggest that their work is not done and that there have been some huge oversights. In essence, it questions the progressive status of the people/communities in question, something we indie roleplayers are very proud of.

We have a number of problems in our community. We can’t seem to let go of cults of personality, exclusive cliques, grudges, and all kinds of things large and small that attempt to raise one group above the rest. I’m guilty of this too. But dammit, so much ugliness in our communities comes from this; it is so prevalent. How could our safety tools not be caught up in this?

Conclusion

I’d like to reiterate that despite all of my many criticisms I do think that the X-Card and other tools do some things very well and that they were a good step up from what we had before (which was very little). My position here is that better tools are yet to be made and that we should actively encourage their development and implementation. Also, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear more and more people voice that “one size does not fit all” and that games need to have player support built into their design.

I really don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that our player safety tools influence our play culture as a whole. We should care about that.

Support vs. Safety

I think that we need to move away from the concept of safety toward the concept of support. To be clear, I see support as encompassing safety entirely. I think we just have a lot more to do. This requires a shift in paradigm.

When I say support I am talking about avoiding unwanted situations, helping people who find themselves in an unwanted situation, conscientious facilitation of challenging/sensitive/uncertain situations, and finding our most desired situations in play.

Needs and Possible Solutions

Here is what I would keep from existing tools:

  • Meets the needs of low-impact play adequately.
  • Relatively low social barrier to use.
  • Easy to make on the fly.
  • Simple.
  • Prefaced by a support talk.

Here is what else I think a new tool needs:

  • Affirmative consent. Core content of the game must be defined upfront. Play culture adopts an understanding of sticking to core content, adding secondary content thoughtfully.  Ask before you push or introduce secondary content. Must be able to say “yes” and “more.” Consent must be established are “yes” rather than lack of “no.”
  • Nuance. Tool must be able to navigate away from a boundary before crossing it. Must be able to navigate space between “yes” and “no.”
  • Values healthy behaviors. Must encourage communication (encourage does not equal necessitate). Must recognize privilege, equity, justice. Must steer away from toxic/abusive behaviors. Have all players practice emotional labor for the individual that needs it.
  • Allow for deeper exploration in play. Must help player go deeper knowing that they will be cared for. Must serve those who need it most first and best.

So what does a tool like this actually look like? Well, I’m working on a possible example and I may be talking about it soon. But in more general terms:

  • It’s probably more complicated than current tools. This is a compromise in exchange for better support.
  • It relies on a concerted effort during both briefing and debriefing. Players must have detailed information about the intended play experience in advance.
  • It allows for communication that doesn’t interrupt the game. More specifically, it allows players to express how they are doing at any given moment, not just when action needs to be taken.
  • It incorporates trust more deeply. Such as allowing the player in need to take narration rights so they can get the fiction to where it needs to be. This means taking specific directions from each other.
  • It allows for a variety of applications in order to accommodate a variety of needs.

This is a tall order, but we are nothing if not imaginative. I’m excited to experiment with new ways of supporting each other better. I truly hope that we can begin to foster more compassionate communities from the inside out. Thanks for reading.