Social-Emotional Learning, Consent, and the Gaming Industry
Think of a time when you might have said something or acted in a way that hurt someone you cared deeply about. Did you feel bad for doing it? Did you talk to the person you hurt? Did you try to do better next time so that you wouldn’t cause that pain to them?
The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is called empathy, and that is a huge part of Social-Emotional Learning or SEL. SEL is currently a huge talking point for education but has been a part of adult therapy for many years. SEL needs to be taught at an early age, but also needs to be continued throughout a person’s lifetime. Those who are lacking in SEL skills will lack empathy toward others, fail to recognize their actions and the impact it may have on others, and may not have many close relationships.
“SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL
SEL has been the backbone of a movement in the Roleplaying Game Industry and Live Action Roleplaying Industry, even if it hasn’t taken the spotlight and it comes in the form of consent. Consent is giving permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something, so in the gaming industry, it may be giving the storyteller permission to use different types of horror to tell a story or may include some trauma-based plotlines that could trigger players at the table. Many RPGs and LARPs are using check-in systems before beginning play so that players are aware of potential plots that might happen and can choose to opt-out of those plots. Many storytellers are also giving players the ability to X card out of scenes as well since many players do not realize a particular topic is uncomfortable for them until they are in the scene. All of these safety mechanisms are set-up and maintained throughout the run of the game.
But this movement within the industry has not come without push-back. There are many gamers who do not see this as a good thing, but rather a weakening of their hobby and a way to virtue signal to PC culture, even comparing it to Maoism. These gamers do not want their industry to change and do not accept any sort of movement in the direction of consent. There are even storytellers who have said they would not welcome anyone at their table if they wanted to put into place these safety mechanics.
There is becoming a wider and wider gap in the gaming industry of gamers who are wanting their industry to become more welcoming to everyone, and gamers who do not want their industry to change. The rift grows deeper each time a new product comes out with consent rules or checklists, X card mechanics, or even the power to fade to black for uncomfortable scenes. The reaction is ‘players should know what they are walking into,’ and ‘I never faced any of these issues, so they don’t exist.’ As companies support more and more consent rules and safety mechanics, the louder and louder the dissenting voices will become.
Can you see connections between SEL and this mentality?
Everyone comes to a gaming table with their own experiences, their own traumas, and their own expectations. In order for everyone to have an enjoyable time, all of that has to come to a balance at the gaming table. What is comfortable for me might cause someone else to have a panic attack in the bathroom for 15 minutes.
Horror tends to be the biggest genre that has a tough time grasping this concept. The reaction is ‘why are they playing a horror game when they know they cannot handle it?’ My general response is ‘well what genre of horror did you tell them it was because there are many types of horror.’ I love horror, but there are certain genres of horror that I will not participate in for reasons of my own. So when I’m playing a horror game, I’d like to know what I’m playing so I can choose to participate or not. I’d also like to know if a storyteller is taking my preferences into consideration while they are in charge or not so I can make an informed decision on whether I want to participate.
Another reaction to this is the argument that adults shouldn’t have to go through this process every game. And while you don’t have to set up consent every game for regular gaming groups, it is important to review things every once in a while so that everyone remembers what the agreed-upon limits were. It is easy to forget things, like those car keys you’ve been looking for. Check under the couch.
With SEL, regular check-in’s and reinforcement of boundaries is important and necessary for healthy relationships. When you don’t set those limits, it is easy to walk right past a topic you might not consider important but the other person does. And when you flat out refuse to acknowledge someone else's boundaries, you are creating a hostile environment for them. Consent is not optional. It is an important part of SEL growth and a healthy mindset.
So why is it important that I give up some of my experiences so others can have fun as well? Well, my answer is that storytelling and roleplaying are collaborative. You cannot have a full story when you are excluding or traumatizing someone. Because if one person isn’t having fun because of the content being presented at the table, then the table is failing to have positive storytelling and roleplaying experience. SEL is central to this because as players and storytellers, we all need to be aware that there are other humans at our tables, and agreeing upon what is fun for everyone beforehand is a safe and easy way to make sure everyone is coming away from the game on a positive note.
So what is the answer? Honestly? Keep moving forward is my answer. Support companies that will continue to make products with safety and consent in mind, and be aware of the companies or storytellers that don’t.
You are free to play whatever games you want with the people who consent to play with you. Nobody is going to stop you from doing so. But when reaching a larger market, the bigger picture takes precedence.
You can find many different resources for incorporating consent, safety mechanics, check-in systems, and collaboration in your game at the links below.