Should video games have content warnings?

Would you like to go out with a sword? Would you date it if it wasn’t just a sword (or a dagger or some other handgun), but a weapon that can transform between a metal killing stick and a being? rather handsome human? This is the central concept behind Kitfox Games’ latest release “Boyfriend Dungeon”, a self-proclaimed “shack-n-slash” where you date your weapons to gain a deeper connection with them before making your way through enemies. in the dungeons together.

The game is brimming with charm, leaning wholeheartedly on its admittedly bizarre idea of ​​providing three-dimensional characters and an addicting gameplay loop that makes you want to come back for just one more date / attempt. Created by a small team full of gay developers, the game attempts to allow the player to romance (or not romance) one of the blabes (blade + baby? I’ll see myself) they choose.

Having spent only a few hours there, I can attest that the cutesy nature of the game belies a long-awaited and in-depth examination of modern adult relationships. This is where things take a turn for the divisive.

As part of this rumination on modern relationships, Kitfox designed the character of Eric, who is the game’s main antagonist. Eric sucks. From the moment you meet him, he’s blunt, rude, critical, and controlling, and the fact that he immediately loves you no matter what you say is deeply unsettling. As the game progresses, Eric only gets worse; he sends you unsolicited gifts, he is constantly texting you whether you answer or not, and he constantly expresses his disdain for swordsmen.

Eric is a brilliantly crafted portrayal of a stalker, a dangerous man trying to lure you into a monstrously one-sided relationship where he has all the power and you have none. The other characters in the game are quick to pull you away from him and protect you from Eric’s unwarranted advances in group situations, but usually no one else is around when it’s just you, Eric, and you. a phone. There’s no block button – it won’t listen when you ask it to stop, and you’ll receive text messages daily. For the developers of Kitfox Games, Eric is the terrible relationship they try to avoid you in real life. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to handle this lesson.

Just hours after its release, Twitter was filled with upset people on the disturbing nature of Eric’s character and his dangerous behavior towards the player. Many people have expressed how their enthusiasm for the game turns into fear and anxiety whenever Eric shows up.

The character often triggered a traumatic response in people who had experienced real relationships, stalkers or manipulators. The uproar has dominated the Twittersphere of games for days, if not weeks if I’m being honest; its repercussions are still being felt in the ongoing discussions about the relationship between developers and gamers.

Many players began to talk about consent, focusing on the fact that they were never asked if they were okay with such a dark and personal subject in their games, to which Gretchen Felker-Martin of Gawker responded. On the other hand, the developers at Kitfox and other queer studios have publicly shared with PC Magazine their experiences of being targeted for much more negative reaction than their mainstream / heterosexual counterparts.

The most common complaint – and something Kitfox immediately promised to fix and implement – was better content warnings. Even at launch, starting “Boyfriend Dungeon” for the first time prompts the game to provide warnings about what to expect while playing. These warnings explicitly refer to the types of actions Eric will take in the game, with the warning update: “The story of this game involves exposure to unwanted advances, stalking, and harassment. other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with caution and take breaks as needed.

The updated warning garnered praise, but there were still people on Twitter unhappy with the mere existence of Eric’s character and his impact on the story. Instead of criticizing the developers for a lackluster warning, these fans wanted their specific needs and desires addressed. They didn’t want to be challenged, they didn’t want to be upset, and they sure didn’t want Eric in the game.

What started out as a problem with content warnings has turned into people wanting any difficult content removed from art so that they can enjoy it without conflict. With queer art, this is a particularly common phenomenon – the disinfection of queer stories supposedly in the service of pure joy – and it makes sense: when you spend most of your life fighting, sometimes all you want is to experience something without remembering the pain you have crossed.

But not all artists want to do something shiny and spotlessly clean; Sometimes we have to face uncomfortable facts and situations in order to learn and grow in life. What stood out to me more than the harassment of developers and voice actors was the misunderstanding people seemed to have with the existence of content warnings. The concept itself is rather nebulous, so ultimately I can ask: what is the job of content warning?

Content warnings exist as messages from creators to an audience letting them know the gist of what’s to come, a friendly pat on the back letting people know about difficult content and allowing them to turn around if they have it. wish. These warnings air before graphic television episodes, and they even adorn movie and game trailers in the form of rating systems.

It’s hard not to feel that these warnings, as they exist, are quite dull, jostling every possible disturbing event in the basics of blood, violence, sex, language, or a combination of the four. An M rating for the recently released “Twelve Minutes” does nothing to inform the player of the myriad of times they will be forced to drug, stab, or ignore your desperate pregnant wife’s pleas. No matter how disturbing I find this forced action, it will be hundreds of times more intrusive and traumatic for someone with a history of domestic violence or lost pregnancies.

What adds to the difficulty is that, unlike movies or television, games are interactive. The player is not just watching what is happening; they actively participate in it. Whenever you shoot in a game, your finger pulls the virtual trigger. Every time Eric sends you an unsolicited gift, it feels like an invasion of your privacy. Something being digital doesn’t mean it can’t seem real, especially when you’re forced to participate in the interaction. There’s not always a problem – it would seem silly to ask if the player is okay with stomping on Goombas in a Mario game – but the more realistic the storyline, the more likely it is to cause harm or discomfort to the player. a potential player. No one is going to get all this complex, nuanced information out of the back of the box; a more comprehensive warning system is absolutely necessary.

Many indie games have already taken on the challenge of creating a new kind of content warning that lets players know what to expect without spoiling the story. The wonderfully weird school of magic RPG “Ikenfell” contains a toggle to add content warnings when specific events appear throughout the campaign. “Boyfriend Dungeon” was actually praised for a separate toggle that allowed users to opt out of receiving messages from “Mom,” a decision made on the understanding that not everyone has a happy relationship with their parent figures and would not like to be reminded. Many of these practices have already spread to other areas of our lives, such as social media. It might seem silly to some that “CW: food” accompanies a cookie photo, but for those who have struggled with an eating disorder, the post is a saving grace from a massively uncomfortable and unhealthy experience.

As Kitfox learned, a content disclaimer needs to be more detailed than a few words; putting care and effort into the posts is vitally important to making a game for as many people as possible. They are not intended to spoil the plot of the game or allow potential players to withdraw from the rhythms of the main story that the developers find integral to the story they want to tell.

While we might wait a while for hit triple A games to catch up with the trend, it’s important that we as a gaming community create and share our own solid content warnings to make everything as accessible as possible for others. Not all games will be for everyone, but having the correct information is good to make these decisions.

Oh, and as you improve the community, don’t forget one important thing: a good content warning lets players know what to expect, and a great content warning prepares them.

Digital Culture Beat editor, Mr. Deitz, can be contacted at [email protected]

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