Monday, November 16, 2015

Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings: They Are Not What You Think

Content Warning: I'm going to talk about trigger warnings here, so if you don't like hearing about that, click away now.

Hey humans! 

I want to talk about what content and trigger warnings are, and why they are important. Let's first establish what these things are:

Trigger Warnings:

Trigger warnings are related to psychological triggers, like those from abuse and trauma. Triggers are things like sights, scents, sounds, and sensations that can produce flashbacks, painful memories, or anxiety/panic reactions in people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma.

For example: I have been sexually assaulted. When I watch movies, play games, or read books that have sexual assault in them, I can become panicked, stressed, and uncomfortable. This feeling can last anywhere from a minute or so to days or weeks. Some people I know are triggered by scents like smoke, sounds like yelling, or sights like specific violence in media or even something like being on snowy roads in winter.

Triggers are not something of cowardice. They are a psychological reaction to traumatic experiences of someone's past. No one can define the severity of someone else's trauma. Even when it comes to professionals, they can't read someone's mind. When someone is triggered, they can have complex and extreme reactions, or just some stress and a desire to remove themselves from the situation.

Content Warnings:

Content warnings have some things in common with trigger warnings, but they are not the same. We see content warnings all the time - at the movies (Rated R for language, violence, and sex!), on TV (This presentation may contain material that could upset viewers - just like Law and Order), and on video games (Rated M for content). They are not new, and anyone who is surprised by them may have been living under a rock.

Content warnings are not in regards to people's mental health or put together to avoid panic attacks or flashbacks. Content warnings are there so people can prepare, or decide what they should let their kids see. They are not censorship, and they are not any restriction on media. They are there to guide consumers to media they want, or away from media they don't want.

Common Objections:

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are for cowards/babies/wusses/immature people!"
Nope! Trigger warnings are there to prevent people with past trauma from experiencing further trauma. Believe it or not, a lot of people suffer from trauma, and it is not something that you can just "tough it out" most of the time. Soldiers who return from war with PTSD (diagnosed or not) can have trouble because of triggers. People who were abused as children can have triggers. Not just soldiers have PTSD, and people of all ages have experienced trauma in their life. This is why trigger warnings are valuable. When you expose someone to a trigger, it has a psychological impact. In some ways, it is like an allergy. If someone were allergic to peanuts, would you tell them to eat peanuts anyway, because their allergy is just "all in their head"?

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are censorship!"
Nope! Slapping a rating or a simplified list of the content of media on the package doesn't censor anything. The media is still produced, and available for consumption. It might be limited by age, but parents can buy for their kids, so that isn't a significant issue. People who are triggered by the content might be upset that the product exists - and that's okay! They can talk to other people about it and say, "hey, if you don't like this stuff, don't buy this thing!" and maybe other people won't buy it. Maybe they still will. People can make choices!

"If people see trigger or content warnings that have stuff they don't like in them, they won't buy it or consume it!"
Not necessarily true! While everyone, regardless of their issues with triggers, might decide not to consume a product, there are plenty of people who still will. People can, and often will, still consume media that has objectionable material in it, and that has triggers for them. Seeing a trigger warning isn't always "That's not for me!" It might be "I can watch this when I am having a good day" or "Maybe I will save this until when I am not in a depression" or "If I get a friend to watch this with me, I'll be great" or even "Maybe if someone tells me what part to skip, I can enjoy the rest of the thing!" Also, we are not in the business of forcing people to buy things. No one has to buy what you are selling. It's not like creators walk beside people in the store just putting things in their cart and telling them that it's something they should watch, even if they don't like it. That's like forcing people who like action movies to watch Oscar bait.

"People will abuse them to get out of work/school/responsibilities!"
Totally! And you know what? That's okay. It's okay because those people will be few. It's okay because people use excuses to get out of work/school/responsibilities already. It's okay because the people who use trigger warnings and content warnings for their own wellbeing and awareness will, a lot of the time, still take the classes or go to work or fulfill their responsibilities. People abusing systems is nothing new, and we shouldn't put other people through difficult and often dangerous situations just because some people are jerks.

ETA: "You can't possibly list all of the triggers, how am I supposed to know what they are?"
Well, for one, you can't list all of them. That's okay. You don't have to list them all, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't list any. Part of the point of trigger warnings is demonstrating that you are aware of your audience and willing to listen to them. You can try to focus on the common ones: graphic violence, sexual assault and abuse, domestic/child abuse, and rape. From that, most people can get an idea of whether it's their kind of media. Trigger and content warnings are not an all or nothing tool. You can talk to your audiences or potential audiences, you can check around in forums and on social media to see what your potential audiences might have issues with. Even if you don't do that, you can still be considerate even with limited information.

Why are these things important?

A lot of reasons, actually! I have covered a lot of them already, but I'll summarize.

  • Many people have been affected by trauma in their lives, and it is important to provide support for them to feel safe and still able to enjoy their lives in any way we can.
  • A lot of people prefer to consume different types of media for many different reasons. Some have kids, some like to compartmentalize their media, and some people just don't enjoy all types of content.
  • We should respect psychological issues just like we do physical issues. They are valid, and denying people the ability to avoid things that hurt them is, honestly, just rude.
  • Everyone should have choices in their media! Everyone is different, and we shouldn't force everyone to enjoy one thing just because the majority enjoys it, or because not liking it makes them seem judgmental. 

How can this be applied?

In school, it's simple. Put a note on your syllabus about what kind of content will be discussed in class, what materials you'll be using, and how to contact instructors to either change classes, consider alternate materials or assignments, or help to figure out a good way to go through the classes without putting students in a position where they don't feel safe in class.

In media, it's pretty easy. Create what you want, but put a note on it. It can be simple: "This film includes rape, sexual assault, and sexualized violence." It can also be more complex: "This game has mechanics that allow for PC mind control, which are not optional and central to the game's premise." Either of these options are great, and importantly, they are way better than nothing. If you are planning a convention game, you can put notes in your description, or let the players know when they arrive at the table, and offer them the opportunity to step out.

What about in games where we aren't using a script? What if something happens in game that wasn't planned?
This is more difficult! The cool thing is that it's not impossible! One of the first things you can do is establish boundaries with your players so that if there is something completely off the table, you know in advance and can avoid that material. Another thing is that you can provide tools like Script Change and the X Card. These tools give you either the option to skip content altogether, or to back up and go through a scene again with new content, fade to black, or pause for a moment to evaluate players' comfort with moving forward. It gives players more control of the content, as well as helping them to feel comfortable. It is awesome because sometimes it makes players even more likely to try adventurous content they may not have otherwise tried.

I want to emphasize: You can still create whatever you want to create. The key is to allow those who aren't interested in your content to safely avoid it, and give those who want to enjoy your content an easy way to navigate. People have more fun doing the things that they enjoy, and when they are stuck doing things they don't want to, it drags everyone down. Trigger warnings and content warnings help people find content that they can enjoy, and can encourage them to try new things.


In the end, trigger warnings and content warnings are a great way to support other people in trying new things, expanding their boundaries, and exploring, without leaving them with no safety net, and without ignoring the importance of their mental and emotional health. Some people might not care about this at all, and that's okay. However, I think that kind of attitude definitely shines a light on who is likely to consume their media, and whether they are the kind of person those who have experienced trauma are willing to trust. For me, there's no question: I want everyone to have fun - not just the people who don't care.

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