Wednesday, September 26, 2018

approachable theory: Post-Consent Safety Paradigm

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Hi all! Today I have a post from J Dymphna Coy on the subject of post-consent safety paradigm. For some advance clarity, consent is basically whether or not we grant permission for people to do a given thing. And if you click here, you can find some references for the safety tools mentioned. Otherwise, I think you should be able to follow the article pretty well! 

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A few months ago, I attended a session at RightsCon about Sidewalks Toronto. Sidewalks Toronto is a project by Alphabet (i.e., Google) to build an entirely new neighborhood in the city of Toronto from the ground up. They want to create a so-called “Smart City,” which uses various electronic surveillance tools in order to allocate resources more efficiently.

Naturally, the attendees of a digital rights conference cast a somewhat skeptical eye at this development. But one of the things I kept hearing about was “informed consent.” The most common question was some version of the following: “How can we make sure that people have informed consent about what kind of data is being collected about them?”

Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation brought up an interesting point: the business model of Google (and virtually every other Silicon Valley company) is to collect as much data as possible and then decide what to do with it all later. How can we even have informed consent, he said, when even Google doesn’t know what we’re consenting to?

Ultimately, my conclusion from the session was this: consent is ultimately meaningless in the context of the information economy. We cannot place the burden upon the populace as individuals to protect itself from Big Data; we must collectively assert our rights as a society and place the duty upon megacorporations to not exploit us.

a graphic representation of an index card with an X on it

That’s all well and good, you might say, but what does it have to do with gaming?

The inimitable Jess Hammer once mentioned that the X-Card has been dubbed a safety tool when it should more properly be considered a consent tool. The observation stuck with me, and I’ve been tooling it around in my head ever since.

So what is the difference between consent and safety?

Consent* happens before a game begins, or during a game. It involves mechanisms for determining the content of a game, or whether the game will continue at all. The X-Card, cut-and-brake**, and lines and veils are all good examples of consent tools.

Safety happens during or after a game. It involves mechanisms for directly attending to the emotional well-being of the players. A well-done debrief is a safety technique. De-roling is a safety technique. Anything that requires that players provide care (rather than merely asking if care is necessary) is a safety technique.

This is not to say that consent tools are bad, or should not be used. Quite the opposite is true! But they should be regarded for what they are, and used in a way that complements safety tools.

So why should I bring up Google’s data collection practices in this context? Surely a put-upon LARP organizer who already has to deal with the utterly thankless task of running a game does not have anything in common with Silicon Valley megacorporations. After all, the power relations are completely different. We can negotiate consent with another player of a game in a way that we can’t with a company like Apple. I can walk up to my fellow player and say, “Hey Fred, please don’t include bananas in this game, I have terrible fructiphobia!” By contrast, the notion that would could just write a letter that read, “Dear Apple, Please remove line 52 of this iTunes agreement because I don’t like it!” and expect results from it is absurd.

I bring up the comparison because much like Sidewalk Labs, your fellow players of a game have no idea what’s going to happen, and therefore any consent-based paradigm has limited utility at best. I bring it up because I want to emphasize the importance of safety and care, and to make sure that we’re not glossing over these things as designers and communities.

I’m not a big fan of making up categories of things for its own sake, or of having self-important internet arguments, or crushing my community with the tyranny of small differences. But I’ve heard the common complaint for years that safety mechanics don’t quite do what they’re advertised, and I hope that making the distinction between consent and safety might make something clearer in at least one person’s head, and maybe even make games a little better for the people who play them.

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*It is perhaps worth noting that consent originated as a legal term. It’s designed to protect various parties from indemnity or liability. While legal protections are important, focusing on what technically legal is not necessarily the best way to give guidance on how to navigate ways to avoid hurting or exploiting the people around you.

**The OK check-in straddles the line between what I’m deeming as “safety” versus “consent.” It resembles safety insofar as it places the onus on the entire community to ensure that that all of the participants are OK, rather than on other mechanics that place the onus on the affected person to tell the other persons in the scene to stop. I’m calling it “consent” here because it primarily involves whether or not care is necessary, as opposed to actually providing said care for the most part. But like all categories, the point is not to get into nitty-gritty arguments about where the boundaries are, unless you find that sort of thing really exciting (I find it tedious).

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Thank you so much to Dymphna for the excellent article! I hope you've all learned something a little new today. :)

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