Approaching sensitive themes in games

I like when games try to tackle thorny, complicated real world issues. When their ambition succeeds, games can drop you into conflicts over war, ethics, greed or historical political or religious conflict and let you see how you’d behave. And even when those issues take back seat and become more of a wallpaper to a compelling story and fun gameplay (IMO, the Bioshock series is like this), they still elevate the experience and get the brain juices flowing a bit.

The nice thing about a video game is that you almost always know what you’re getting into. Pop culture usually expresses gritty themes through violence that’s bloody but ultimately sort of toothless, or dialogue that references awful things but doesn’t show or discuss it in detail.

Games tend to follow that trend. Pre-rendered kill scenes in Bioshock show you boring a drill through a splicer’s chest or flattening his skull with your boot, but in the end the enemy looks like the same ragdolled body as any other dead non-player character in the game. While the bar for photorealistic violence is ever rising, the player’s emotional connection to those actions remains comfortably distant.

A big reason I play tabletop games is to try to break out of those limitations, and to push the line on safely exploring more uncomfortable or disturbing elements of horror. But pushing those limits comes with a greater burden of responsibility: when your players afford you the trust to scare or even shock them with real-world gruesomeness, you have a greater obligation to keep your storytelling compelling without actually traumatizing people.

In my dream Dungeons and Dragons game (You know the one, where you spend months daydreaming a world but never get around to running it), I’d get to walk players through the horrors of a mundane war between mortal armies, the mental breakdown of a person who encounters an extradimensional eldritch god, and the physical and mental tolls that going on an “adventure” would actually exert on a group of medieval do-gooders

But doing so requires at least the following:

1. Player buy-in

Whatever the medium, the storyteller and story participants need to be in accord over what the themes of the story will be. Video games have ESRB ratings. Dungeons and Dragons often has ‘Session 0,’ when the overall thrust of a campaign is sketched out and players start creating characters.

However it’s done, you have to communicate your intentions clearly with those about to go through your story. Err on the side of revealing things, but don’t feel obligated to spoil every twist or surprise in the story. Just make sure people understand what, in general, they should be prepared for.

It doesn’t hurt to repeat those warnings before sessions, too. If you’ve got a brutal execution encounter coming up, checking in with players can let you know if someone is having an off day and needs a more laid-back session. Again, the goal is to take people right up to, but not over, the line of revulsion and discomfort. That line is different for everyone.

2. Getting the details right (or at least being conscious of them)

You don’t have to be a victim of racism to talk about it, but it surely gives you a vault of personal experience to draw on. In the same way, writing genuine-feeling stories that explore bigotry, cultural intolerances, or even individual suffering that happens on a wide scale (like domestic violence or abuse) might come easier to those who have first-hand experience.

But anyone can explore those areas (especially in a fantasy world where it’s a bit removed from real world suffering). I think what matters is that you do some research and try to present something that feels real and not stereotypical and lacking or incorrect in important details. Or, you could go a less realistic route, as long as you know what parts of reality you’re twisting and why.

As an example: I’m descended from survivors and victims of the Holocaust, and my familial connection to that event makes me especially sensitive and cautious about having it portrayed or drawn from creatively in the form of entertainment.

A realistic telling that examines the lives of those in concentration and death camps would work, as would a hyper-colorful, exaggerated version that highlights the mythical-feeling evil of the Nazis, such as in Inglourious Basterds or Wolfenstein. But either way, I’d really want to know which kind of story I was getting before it started.

And similarly, if I were to write a D&D campaign that deals heavily with elements of racial discrimination (whether by skin color or by orcs and elves), I’d talk to potential players in the group about whether they had personal experiences with it, and if so, what would make the story more compelling and comfortable for them (and of course, whether that kind of thing is what they want at all.)

It will probably not come as a surprise that my D&D groups have been mostly me and other white guys, and I think it’s fair to say that in a more diverse group, it would be prudent to revise and more closely consider the content and style of the story I’m running.

What all this boils down to is: a game should be fun, and you should meet people where they’re at. Unlike real life, games give you autonomy over what you want to deal with and how much you want to be challenged. Being sensitive to how others react to your storytelling into isn’t being ‘politically correct’ or coddling. It’s just good game design.

One thought on “Approaching sensitive themes in games

  1. Love this. I think a lot of creators who complain about PC culture blur the lines between “I want to say this thing because I feel like it” and “I want to say this thing because I am trying to get an audience to see my point.” Meeting people where they are at and being conscious of our individual sensitivities only improves the likelihood that someone will see it your way

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