Geek Girls Rule! #399 – Emotional Safety in Gaming: Part I Triggers

Ok, so in another couple of posts designed to make Space Mom proud of me, I want to talk about two things:  Triggers and what they aren’t and Tools for dealing with Triggers in game.

Triggers are something, a sight, scent, sound, a texture, a color, a taste, a graphic description of something, that “trigger” a panic attack or other type of emotional episode for someone with trauma in their background, frequently this is linked to PTSD.

Trigger warnings are for when you know that you are going to have content in your post, game, book, assignments, that has a fairly good chance of triggering something in someone, like graphic depictions of rape or violence, child or animal abuse, graphic battle scenes for those with combat-related PTSD.  They exist to warn folks, “Hey, I don’t know what all you may be dealing with, but there’s some stuff in here that might be triggering, and I’m giving you a heads up so you can choose to engage with it with some awareness, or choose not to engage.”

That’s it.  It’s a means of offering people a choice and the ability to decide if they can cope with something right now.

It wasn’t called trigger warnings when I was in grad school, but I had a teacher who warned everyone at the start of her African American Lit class, “There are a lot of dead babies in these books.  If you’re pregnant, this may not be the course for you.”  She did this because she’d had several pregnant women drop her course in a previous year because they could not keep reading about miscarriages and dead babies while dealing with their own anxiety around their pregnancies.

She did that as a courtesy because she didn’t want to unduly upset anyone, when that one sentence at the start of her class could prevent it.

That’s all trigger warnings are, a courtesy you offer to other people because you aren’t an asshole.

And having been triggered by something that caught me by surprise, I can tell you, it sucks.

Now, here’s the thing.  A lot of triggers are not things that you would necessarily know to warn people about. A big one for me for a long time was the smell of the cologne the guy who raped me wore.  And it was really popular, so I lived in a near constant state of anxiety until styles changed and hardly anyone wore it anymore.  But that wasn’t a thing anyone could do anything about, so I dealt with it.

However, I, and I posit most decent human beings, feel pretty sure that if you can help narrow the scope of the landmines people are facing on a day to day basis that maybe you should think about doing that.

My first really bad complete surprise gut punch trigger was an assignment in a lit class.  Joyce Carol Oates’s story with Arnold Friend in it echoed what my rapist had done so closely, that before I even got to the rape, I had to run and throw up.  I couldn’t finish the story.  Just thinking about what I had read left me shivering in a corner.

The next day I went in to tell my lit teacher that I hadn’t finished it, couldn’t finish it, and did not want to be in class for discussion.  I also told her that I was prepared to take the F for that assignment, because I just could not cope with it.  And because my lit teacher was a wonderful human being, she told me not to worry about it and to go sit somewhere and try to unclench, because even talking to her about it made me so tight, I could barely breathe.  She also said that going forward she would warn people about the content of that story and come up with an alternate assignment.

And I’ll tell you the truth, she probably only had to use that alternate assignment a handful of times, because when people know that shit is coming, it’s a lot easier to deal with.  I had not, to that point, read any Joyce Carol Oates, and so did not realize I was heading headfirst into trauma-land.  Had I been forewarned I would have been able to brace myself. Instead I went skipping merrily up a road that suddenly got way darker and scarier, and I knew that darkness.  I didn’t even have to make it to the end of the road before I had to abort mission and throw up, because I knew what was coming. Because it had happened to me.

So, if anyone tells you that trigger warnings are a waste of time and for “special snowflakes,” you can ask them if maybe it isn’t better to err on the side of not being an asshole.

And, no, there isn’t a way for you to tell if someone would be genuinely triggered, or if they’re being “snowflake” and it doesn’t fucking matter.  If someone wants to try to protect themselves from emotional damage, even if what might happen would not be a “legitimate” trigger, I’m all for that.  Too many of us are walking around with too much emotional damage committed upon us by insensitive assholes as it is.

I am all for protecting yourself any way you can because I don’t think emotional trauma should be considered a rite of passage.

And who is it hurting?

I have some early trauma around animal abuse.  I asked friends on social media to not post pictures of abused animals, or if they had to, put them behind cuts.  If they didn’t want to, I unfollowed them.  It wasn’t punitive.  It was me protecting myself.  It also gave those folks I unfollowed a heads up, that “Hey, I’m not unfollowing you because I don’t like you. It’s because I cannot cope with being surprised by pictures of bloody and abused animals in my social media content.”

BUT Animal Cops on Animal Planet used to be one of my favorite shows, because I chose to watch, and for the most part I knew those critters were going to get happy endings to their stories and that helped me deal with my trauma around animal abuse in a way that didn’t leave me either a quivering wreck or trembling with impotent rage because I couldn’t go do to the abusers what they had done to those animals.  Honestly, watching me watch that show was a study in tightly coiled rage and anger, followed by happy crying when those critters found their forever homes with people who would treat them well and love them.

Also, panic attacks don’t just look like quivering in a corner, or crying.  Sometimes they trigger a deep, sudden, violent rage.

Not triggering people really is in your best interest.  Because you don’t know, hell, they don’t know, what their response is going to be until it happens. Mostly, it’ll likely be a very subtle, tightening of the muscles, maybe crying, maybe fleeing. Or may be you won’t notice it at all, and spend the next however long wondering what happened to Jeff and why does he always seem to be busy on game days now?

When I game I ask for two things:  a heads up if you even THINK you’re going to use sexual assault, and could we please not torture animals. People, ok, as long as it isn’t sexual. But all dogs are good dogs, Bront, and I can’t cope with that.

Is that so hard?  And I posit that if you can’t work around those two limitations on your story, you’re not a very good GM.

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