I haven’t blogged in a while due to an overwhelming lack of motivation, despite having far more free time due to work from home privileges. In last three months I managed to write just over 1,000 words of a new story that I’m interested in exploring, but I must have stared at the page for longer than I wrote. That said, when I saw the topic for this month’s GLAM blog club was ‘play’, a post started forming in my mind and I had to sit down and write. Motivation is odd like that. Why this topic though? Well, for long time readers my love of role playing games would come as no surprise but interestingly enough it’s not the play part that I’m interested in, it’s the safety mechanics that sit alongside it that got me putting words on a screen. Especially after I read Genes’ post, I realised that there might be something I can share to the GLAM community here.
Role playing games (RPGs) are something of an interest to me. I love telling a story that involves everyone at the table, and finding different points of view. Nothing interests me more than exploring what motivates a character and moves them through a storyline. To that end, I’ve run and played many RPGs over my thirty plus years. It was only in the past few years however that I was introduced to some amazing safety mechanics. In every game I run I make sure to outline the safety mechanics the group will use, give examples of their use, and ask for feedback and input into them. The main three I use are:
- The X Card
- Lines and Veils
- Script Change (Stop. Start. Rewind. Edit. Fast-forward).
In addition to this I also try and run a session zero (for long sessions) or a miniature version (for quick one-shots). This helps set things like themes, expectations, and movie rating (eg. MA15+ vs PG). Having a good idea of what your players want to get out of a session helps reduce the gap between expectation and reality, plus you can keep an eye on people and help weave in their favourite things into the story as it goes along. Something that seems to be a benefit of my very people pleasing/echo personality is that I’m constantly checking in on my groups (inside and outside of play) to make sure people are enjoying themselves. If I notice someone withdraw, become silent, or just tune out I will direct play to them and involve them more, or ask during a break if there is anything that they need or want. Its group facilitation, the game.
Safety isn’t something you do once at the beginning of a game, it’s a constant checking and rechecking. For some, a triggering event might take them by surprise (either they didn’t know the event was a trigger, or the event itself was not discussed prior), this can cause a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response that could prevent a player from using one of the safety mechanics. A good games master (GM), or even fellow player should be watching for this and call breaks if needed and follow up with the player.
In addition to this there is the concept of aftercare. Most often heard about in BDSM circles, aftercare is the act of giving attention and care to your partner to prevent them crashing after the adrenaline drops. In RPGs, aftercare can be a simple debrief going over everyone’s favourite parts of the game, checking in with everyone if their play goals were met, what they liked, what they disliked, etc. Playing well means that everyone at the table can enjoy themselves, and if they run into something they don’t like there are safety mechanisms to help everyone navigate that space from beginning to end.
A lot of what I’ve talked about so far can really fall into the umbrella category of consent. Without enthusiastic consent, your games become unsafe and people can feel isolated, hurt, and even traumatised. Consent is a topic near and dear to my heart, it comes up regularly in my daily life, be it when I’m playing games, partner dancing, consuming media, or in my regular polyamorous thoughts and feelings. For me, the default answer everyone gives is no. You need to opt in with enthusiastic, well informed, consent. What does this look like in life though?
A good example of this is partner dancing, late last year I took up swing dancing (lindy hop, solo jazz, and balboa). The school I go to is extremely good at putting consent front and centre of every lesson. Before we partner up for a drill or a social dance you are encouraged to ask your partner to dance. Just because you’ve danced with someone previously that lesson doesn’t mean that they want to dance with you again. You need to ask. This gives people the option to say an enthusiastic yes or a solid no (or a not so solid no, but still a no). I’ve had someone ask not to connect during a drill because they needed to work out the footwork on their own, which I replied ‘no problem’ and respected their boundaries. On a related note, the school is also very good at trying to make dancing as safe as possible, while also having those backup tools for dealing with things that come up. Codes of conduct, safe spaces, reporting procedures, and good communication are tools that you can, and should, use in GLAM spaces too.
It has come to the point now in my life that the media I consume needs to have strong consent present otherwise I tend not to enjoy it. A classic example of this is Game of Thrones who’s entire story is littered with non-consensual acts. While I can still enjoy a show (Black Sails is amazing, and queer, and polyamorous, but has a pretty horrid sexual assault scene in the first season) those moments of non-consensual acts can take me out entirely and potentially ruin a narrative for me. I’m also quite aware of these things when recommending media to others. When telling people about a show, or a book you enjoy it doesn’t take much to mention any potential triggers or problematic areas that you found. It could help someone either avoid that media entirely or take measures so that they can try and enjoy it as well. I’m a huge fan of comics  and one comic I absolutely love, Sunstone, would be unreadable if consent didn’t play a strong part of the narrative.
Expect the Unexpected
Sometimes we don’t know what will trigger us until we’re confronted with it. While using things like lines and veils, you can draw a hard line at animal cruelty, but then discover during the story that your line might also extend to general bullying behaviours. What do you do then? You could use the X Card and stop play and then debrief about it, or you could pause the game, rewind and then edit out the part that troubled you. But if you don’t have those mechanisms in place what then?
What if while social dancing someone asks you to dance and you don’t want to? How will they react if you say no? Will it be worse than your own discomfort? Are there measures in place to help you backup the no?
What if you’re in a work situation and there are mandatory icebreaker team games and you don’t want to participate? Maybe you’re uncomfortable about sharing personal information about yourself that might show that you’re not cis/het/mono? Are there tools built in that allow you to help modify the game to allow everyone to feel comfortable? Is it really team building if not everyone feels safe and happy to be there?
Can you really play if you don’t have enthusiastic consent and safety measures in place?
GLAMRise it for me
In what seems like a weird turn, how do we deal with unexpected trauma reactions in the GLAM world? My first thought to bring the ideas of play and safety together was the idea of exhibitions. Exhibitions can be all about play, they allow people to explore and experience collections up close with places like ACMI really leaning on that play-like experience. Ask yourself though, what would happen if you were strolling through an exhibition and suddenly found yourself in panic mode because something you saw, or heard, or experienced had set off your fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode? What safeguards are there to help you navigate this play space?
This happened to me in Japan when I went to see the MORI Building Digital Art Museum by TeamLab. It was an amazing experience and was absolutely stunning, however about half way through I found myself in a room filled with large inflated balls and I started feeling very claustrophobic and over sensitised by all the projections. Trying to find a quiet area to calm down and relax was difficult due to the large number of people in the exhibit, and the nature of the art instillation. I didn’t know that I would have this reaction at all and it took me by surprise. Having a clear area without lights, or people would have helped me recover much quicker and allowed me to enjoy the rest of the exhibit, rather than having a mild panic follow me for the duration of my visit.
You could also look at the content of your exhibitions and adopt a harm minimisation approach to ensure that people can safely navigate your spaces. This isn’t to say that you can’t display potentially triggering works or explore difficult narratives that challenge the community. Providing proper safety tools such as trigger warnings, rest areas, clear signage, and possibly well trained guides could allow people to play and explore these topics safely.
In the end, play is about providing a safe environment for people to explore new narratives, sensations, and build trust. If your play doesn’t have safety as a core mechanic then how can you expect anyone to relax enough to enjoy it? As the old saying goes, ‘it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt’, it’s our duty of care as both GMs and players to make sure it never gets to that stage or if it does, we’re there to help people through it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. When we look out for our most vulnerable we ensure that everyone can experience fun and enjoyment equally.