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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.

Kindra Pring

Staff Writer

Teacher's aid by day. Gamer by night. And by day, because I play my DS on my lunch break. Ask me about how bad my aim is.

  • Winston_from_the_Ministry

    Excellent piece.

  • JackDandy

    Somehow, I haven’t played W3 yet… fml

    Anyway, great article. I hope more an more people start to understand “trigger warnings” are a folly

  • chizwoz

    Trigger warnings are in principle ok as far as I can see. The problem is the people who’re pushing them and the fact that they’re being used to drive this “if you feel wronged, you’re in the right” nonsense that is just a complete incoherent worldview.

  • The Robot Devil

    “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.”

    Well said.

  • cyto lpagtr

    trigger warnings should basically be what steam tags are

    eg if a game has spiders, arachnophobes could use the spider tag to know which games to avoid. asking to change games to not feature spiders however is bad.. and you should feel bad

  • Typical

    Well I like to call trigger warnings bitch alerts. If it’s so difficult for you that you are caused actual real stress, you probably shouldn’t be in the gene pool. On the other hand, I kickstarted, yet will never buy or play That Dragon , Cancer, because I saw a lot of the things I do with my young son in the test footage, and figured it probably would e a depressing experience to play. But I don’t piss and moan that it shouldn’t exist, or that the game isn’t for me so it should suffer exclusivity punishments. And let’s be realistic, SJWs would never consider the people who have tried unsuccessfully to have children and the emotional toll it takes on them to keep trying new things that never seem to work, or the pain of losing a child to miscarriage because motherhood is a tool of the patriarchy and hipsters generally don’t look to parenthood as something desirable, and they are incapable of considering things outside their narrow worldview. To them, characters getting called names is the real tragedy.

  • Zanard Bell

    I remember this one time I attempted to do an evil playthrough in Fallout 3. I already blew up Megaton, which was hard on the conscience, and to see Moira Brown still happily accepting her ghoulification and trotting away to the Underworld broke me. I had to end the game when I started to make the Lamplight children into slaves.

    Things like these offended my sensibilities, but I didn’t shun nor barked at Bethesda. I actually applauded them for making me understand my breaking point of evil. If video games will be removed of these ‘offending’ content for the sake of some retarded Tumblerinas, what, I dare ask, is the point?

  • I genuinely respect games as art, rather than just treating the phrase like a fashionable bumper sticker. I am prepared for them to provoke the full spectrum of emotions, negative as well as positive, because I am an adult and that contrast can potentially create powerful stories. On several occasions I have walked away emotionally drained from games like The Walking Dead or This War of Mine, and that’s fine.

  • Code : Verde

    The Bloody Baron quest really?
    How would you feel about the Valley of Defilement and Plague Babies?

  • Code : Verde

    The reused voice actors and deadpan acting killed all emotion from me in FO3.
    After a while, the screams all sound the same.

  • Cred

    trigger warnings are for people with actual emotional scars and issues so deep they can get in trouble
    like a veteran that should avoid some gory war stuff that could actually trigger a flashback and an emotional crisis

    regular people using them are just being immature babies

  • Niwjere

    “Trigger warnings” were created as a psychological tool — a tool which, by the way, has effectively been debunked as useless. Helping people avoid that which disturbs their fragile mental state does not help them overcome their difficulties. Rather, controlled exposure over a period of time helps people become accustomed to the experience and thereby aids in the mental healing process (it’s more difficult to fear that which is familiar, especially when it’s repeatedly demonstrated that the familiar thing in question is harmless to you).

    These warnings may have once had a place in psychological practice, but not anymore, and they certainly don’t have a place anywhere outside psychological practice.

  • Niwjere

    You’re asking for the tin to be properly labeled so the consumer knows what the contents are. That isn’t a trigger warning. That’s a content advisory. “Trigger warnings” were appropriated (yes, literally appropriated) from psychology because Tumblrinas “felt” that they were suffering “PTSD” from certain things they didn’t like. The phrase “trigger warning”, as it exists in the zeitgeist, is significantly different in connotation from the standard (and far older and more respectable) content advisory, as it implies that the product might contain “Tumblr-brand offensiveness” as opposed to anything that might actually concern a reasonable human being.

  • chizwoz

    Yeah, I don’t think the kinds of people behind these things are particularly interested in scientific truth.

  • “Rather, controlled exposure over a period of time helps people become accustomed to the experience and thereby aids in the mental healing process..”

    I’ve heard of this specifically in regard to war veterans. I know too that they’re attempting to use war simulators in small doses to help them heal mentally.

  • Niwjere

    Too true. There’s a reason the term “biotruths” exists.

  • Hmmm… Trigger warnings are there to help those who have gone through traumatic experiences to choose whether or not they feel comfortable viewing something analogous or close to their trauma, or at least give them an opportunity to “brace” themselves against it. They’re not there to protect people with generally sensitive dispositions. It’s very different to just find something offensive than to actually have something trigger a relapse into panic attacks and severe anxiety as a result of trauma caused by other people.

    No, people who have been through trauma shouldn’t hide from those emotions for their entire lives. That’s not healthy. That’s what people have been encouraged to do for ages. Just bottle it up. Don’t bother people with it. Keep calm and carry on. However, I feel people should be able to choose when they are confronted with it so that THEY have control over a situation where they are reminded of something where control was taken away from them completely.

    The thing is that, yes, if you’re watching Game of Thrones, you should expect it. Because that’s the kind of show GoT is, and everyone knows this. Very few people who went to see Irreversible in the cinema didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, as well. Sometimes, though, games and movies spring these things on their viewers completely. Obviously, that’s a narrative tool. That’s what art is at liberty to do. It can suddenly introduce you to something delightful or horrific without you expecting it, and the results are very effective. But imagine you were brutally raped a month ago and you’re playing a video game to take your mind off things, and out of NOWHERE your character or someone else in the game gets dragged to the floor and raped.

    That’s what trigger warnings are for. I’m not saying you’re WRONG as such, just wanting to add a little bit of perspective into a comments section that is HEAVILY weighted toward people complaining about how SJWs make the world a terrible place. I think the advisory tags and Steam tags that someone mentioned are probably good ways of informing people, though. That is, if they are used deliberately and consistently for that purpose in the same way nutritional information is displayed on packets of food. Want to avoid sugar or forced miscarriages? Check the labels.

    This would give those who want the warnings a reliable and easy place to check for the relevant information without offending the poor souls who just want to play some games by reminding them that other people just like them (or at least people who play the same games) have actually suffered the kinds of violence they are about to witness or even perpetrate in the game they’re booting up.

    People who want trigger warnings are not the problem, people who say stuff like this are: “If it’s so difficult for you that you are caused actual real stress, you probably shouldn’t be in the gene pool.” Yes, that’s from this very comments section. Those are the people who agree with you.

    PS: The reason this is even an issue is that games and movies have really gone wild with the sexual violence over the past years, so it’s a lot more prevalent and pervasive in our culture, and much harder to escape for those who’ve survived trauma.