Art has always been used to express emotion. Why wouldn’t it? Emotions are an important part of being human, and it’s bound to show up in any form of self expression. Video games are no exception. Especially as they have become more detailed and driven by narrative stories, games offer a unique way to experience emotion in a story. At the same time though, some people have decided they don’t like these emotions. As games tackle harder subject matter, people attempt to tune it out and insist such content shouldn’t exist. They try and hide it behind “trigger warnings.” This ideology has become pervasive in every part of life, but it seems strange to see it in art and gaming. The idea of art being uncomfortable isn’t anything new, so why do people seem so surprised by it?
Recently, I’ve gotten the chance to play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It’s wildly popular and for good reason. It is a beautiful game, with very in-depth lore and story, and some fantastic characters. In a lot of ways, it’s an adventure game for the ages, but it also pulls no punches in the story department. Nudity abounds and there is a lot of very detailed violence, but this is nothing surprising. What was surprising, to some degree, was a lot of the very dark turns the story takes.
Specifically, the quest line of the Bloody Baron caught even me entirely off guard. For the uninitiated (by the way, spoilers), the protagonist Geralt, while searching for Ciri, agrees to help The BloodY Baron find his wife and daughter, who had mysteriously gone missing. He finds instead they had fled the home, after the Baron beat his wife and forced her to miscarry her unborn child. This spawns a monster called the botchling, an angry spirit who is invoked when a miscarried child is not given a proper ritual burial.
These are very difficult sequences to watch. Even if you have never had to deal with such a situation, society is not comfortable talking about miscarriages. But, many mothers and fathers still deal with them, and for those people in particular, such a scene is bound to invoke heavy emotions. And that is perfectly, absolutely, and inarguably okay.
There is nothing wrong with being emotionally stirred by something meant to be emotional. There is nothing wrong with a game wanting to invoke that emotion. Yes, it is uncomfortable to watch those things, but being uncomfortable is a vital part of learning. For those who haven’t had that experience, who likely do not think about these things, it is also uncomfortable. But that discomfort represents the weight of the characters involved and affects your thinking and decisions. It is that discomfort that creates empathy in people. Without it, there can’t be real understanding.
That said, emotions aren’t always easy, particularly painful ones brought on by remembering something tragic. It is scenes like this that push people to create “trigger warnings” and content censorship because they’re afraid someone might be hurt by it. Often this is done out of selfishness, but sometimes there is a genuine concern. All too often it’s linked to this idea of how sexism and racism should exist in video games. The Witcher 3 has also been held to this, with some arguing that realistic sexism being pointed at characters somehow encourages it.
But these are real experiences — many women do go through what characters like Ciri go through in the game. The game doesn’t belittle that. Yet we still feel the need to “warn” people about it, but why? So they aren’t hurt by it? The solution here though, is not to just remove it or hide it behind a “warning.” This is only a bandaid. Yes, a person may avoid playing The Witcher 3 to shield themselves against something uncomfortable, but what happens when it is no longer avoidable? Video games offer us a unique situation where we have a choice, and we shouldn’t be teaching people not to take the choice, but how to take it.
There is no shame in putting down a game for a while if you feel it’s emotionally draining. Just like there’s no shame in putting down a game if it’s getting hard and you need a break. It is at that point you can choose, “Do I want to move on with this, or do I want to put it away and find another way”. No doubt, The Bloody Baron quest is a difficult one. The mixture of fantastical and realistic elements might be too much for a person who’s gone through experiences like that too handle. Other games dealing with violence, abuse or loss might seem like too much. But consider it another obstacle in the game. Just like your technical skill determines how difficult a game is for you, so can your emotional baggage. Don’t simply decide at will you won’t do it because it’s too difficult. Talk to a friend, tell people anonymously, examine why you feel how you do, examine the characters, the situation.
Then face it.
It’s a cliche at this point, that courage is not about being fearless but about facing things even when you are afraid. In games we live our wildest fantasies and get to be heroes and adventurers. We immerse ourselves in those worlds, but the greatest immersion involves all parts of humanity: your decisions, your actions, your skill, and your emotion. Don’t be afraid to feel things about a game, and certainly don’t let a single person try to tell you not to feel over a game. There are indeed people on the other side of this argument who would insult anyone who might get emotional about a video game character or scene. They are just as wrong.
But don’t be afraid to face those emotions either. Treat it like any other game. Turn off the system, decide how you will face it beforehand, be prepared, and don’t be upset if you fail the first time. Like any game, you can try again. And you can keep trying. And eventually, you will defeat it. And what you gain from that is the ability to know how to face it in the future, where perhaps you don’t have the choice to simply walk away. By playing a game, you practice a valuable skill,and learn about your own history and feelings.
You can’t gain that if you strip games of all emotional content. If you convince people they need to avoid anything that might make them uncomfortable, you remove the learning opportunities, the self improvement. You put people in a little bubble, but the stronger you make that bubble, the harder it will hurt when it inevitably bursts. Instead, embrace those. It is baffling how people can insist video games are a testosterone-ridden man-fest, yet desperately want to hide away any and all emotional scenes. Those scenes exist, they affect all players, regardless of gender, and they’re vitally important to many of the greatest games ever made. Don’t take that away to preserve a false sense of security.