Emotional separation from fictional content

  • Admin

    To understand what prompted this thread I'll give a very brief rundown on Agents of SHIELD's latest story arc. There'll be as few spoilers as possible, and you don't need to be familiar with the show to keep up.

    So there's an dystopian alternate reality plot arc going on. Characters had their pasts changed to 'grant them a wish' each which led to an evil organization taking over the world as a result, and several of them were working for that organization. One in particular, who had a long romantic story with another character in the show, ended up leading the evil faction and he's paired up with the arch-villain of the season.

    So there was a Q&A on twitter with one of the show's runners today which... didn't go well. Fans of the canon romance were complaining that they're not being rewarded for their loyalty, and the show runner was being attacked and confronted with complaints the show was traumatizing them with rape/abuse/domestic abuse apologism. In the end he stopped doing the Q&A.

    It's not the first time this sort of thing has happened, either. Only last year Arrow's fan base was downright toxic about a similar shipping and some cast members had to quit being on social media for a while.

    Anyway, back to the thread (there's a reason I put it in a MUSH forum). Most of us have seen the barrier between fiction and real-life be crossed before in our little corner of fandom, and it happens with other flavors of gaming - and of course the entertainment industry.

    So onto some actual questions as it relates to MU*!

    1. Where is the correct balance point between the players' responsibility to maintain the separation between the fictional content and their real life trigger points, and the game/plot runners' responsibility to flag such material?

    2. What is the correct response by the latter to the former after such a triggered response? Even assuming the best of intentions such things are bound to happen, so how should staff handle an upset player?

    3. How do we achieve both (1) and (2) without discouraging people from running things which aren't either inoffensive or completely black and white? Or is it better in certain games that controversial themes are never ran, and staff plots/public PrPs are always 'safe'? If so, when?

    If you think this is an interesting topic feel free to chip in but please remember this is supposed to be constructive. Attack ideas, not people.

  • Pitcrew

    1. Players have a responsibility to be aware of what might trigger them and make them upset. There are numerous things I simply won't scene. A scene-runner has some (incredibly limited) responsibility to let people know what the rating of a scene might be, particularly if it is going to be a scene revolving around anything that might be a trigger. In general, though, I question anyone who feels the need to play out any content above, say, a MA or R18 rating. All games should have a general idea of tone and rating in the rules and it is the responsibility of players to stick to that.

    2. Probably nothing. Let's be honest here, if a scene makes someone upset for reasons that no one might have been able to guess, it is not the responsibility of the scene-runner to placate an upset player, nor is it the responsibility of staff. It depends on the exact circumstances: did the upset player go into the scene knowingly (or disregarding the outline), or did the scene-runner spring it on the group without any warning? In the latter case, I'd say an apology would be warranted.

    3. You can't. Controversial themes probably shouldn't be run because very few people will handle them with care. Staff/public scenes should probably always verge towards safe, particularly pick-up public RP, but plots can honestly go anywhere -- providing that people are warned.

    At some point, and for lack of a better term, players need to acknowledge the social contract between themselves and their RP platform.

  • Pitcrew

    You can be asked to make the attempt, and that's it. Nobody has the right to demand that a person completely emotionally disassociate themselves from something they do for fun. That is, to put it baldly, lunacy.

    Subjective Thoughts:

    Anyone who goes at you too hard for not being able to separate your emotions from a roleplaying event, especially if they are placing the goalposts for what that means and in relation to what or whom, should be assumed to be trying to take a dig at you. Also, since that invariably seems to come from a person in the power position, it has always struck me as a type of gloating, and largely contemptible.


    The truth is that everybody involved has emotions, and it's easy enough to forget that when you're looking a person in the face. Having a computer barrier between you and the other person or persons is an additional complication.

    It makes people shitty communicators, and it makes people shitty listeners, and when you add a raw emotion to that mix, you might as well jam a blasting cap into it and call it a bomb.

  • Pitcrew

    When I couldn't divorce my emotions from my screen, I was a literal teenager. The peaks of my RP were higher and the valleys were much lower, and it is, all in all, not an experience I would ever care to repeat. This is not a dig at you, @The-Tree-of-Woe, but I wonder why most people can't?

    Surely the ability to take a step back from everything and get your bearings, to encourage healthy emotional separation and healthy emotional investment, is something MU players should encourage? Frankly, I wish someone had said as much to me back when I was that teenager, before I said and did things that absolutely ruined friendships -- even when, looking back on it, I can still acknowledge that my emotional response was understandable and not unexpected.

    It's a rough thing to say but, again, let's be honest here: not everyone's emotional reaction is proper. The person who is upset because a character they liked to spend time with is dead, and they need a moment, okay, fine. Understandable.

    The player who has an extreme emotional reaction and complains to staff about the character being killed and disrupts the scene to try and force an OOC retcon... Well, something something "no right to demand", "goalposts", etc.

  • Admin

    @Gilette To give you an idea, I was running an arc on SHH where animals were being mutated/abused by a Mage... and I did get the occasional upset page about it. Now, I toned down the descriptiveness and shifted the focus a bit after that, but when I started out I wanted people to hate the villains - I thought it'd be a good way to tie them to the story. However there are limits.

    That's reasonable. If a player seems genuinely upset at something I'm running I'll take steps to make it easier for them. The story doesn't take precedence over people's emotions... up to a certain degree of course.

    However the limits are just not always very clear. For instance I had ran into a disagreement once about whether or not a story someone else proposed based on IC abortions should be allowed at all (that was on a CoD MUSH, so an adult environment) because it might trigger someone. It's hard for me to decide where the lines are, but not allowing it at all seemed too drastic.

  • I am not entirely sure how well some of the inspiration jives with the questions, for a big reason: a lot of what's being complained about, from the summary provided, is about wish fulfillment and people's wishes being not granted. That's a different animal by far than being shocked and surprised by the appearance of unexpectedly traumatic and highly personal subject matter that might set off somebody's PTSD or somesuch.

    The former is not getting the pony you asked for when you were five. The latter is unexpectedly getting the pony you had when you were five served to you for dinner without warning, and those two things are in no way the same.

    1a (players): It's a player's responsibility to be as aware as possible of their own limits and boundaries. This is possible only to a point, however. Someone may never have been exposed to <subject> before, and may not know until then that they find it troubling or disturbing to them. It may also be simply a matter of how something's played out. Taking a film example and comparing it to RP doesn't always work, because there is a greater measure of separation in material you're passively consuming vs. that with which you're interacting. I can watch a rape scene in a film and only rarely has it bothered me (exception: Strange Days, which is a great movie, but holy shit did I have to stop watching it the first time after realizing what the hell was happening). I will not go within a mile of one on a game.

    That passive vs. interactive difference is huge, because while both are works of fiction, you are actively engaged with one in ways you are not with the other; that alone diminishes the separation factor. You, the player, are involved, even if the events are occurring to a character in the story. There's less separation in RP by default here.

    1b (storytellers/GMs): If you know you're including something that is a common trigger, label that shit up front to enable people to make the decision for themselves as to whether or not they wish to participate. If they read the warning and ignore it, it's on them. People should be given the tools to make an educated choice, however, and there are no two ways about this one to me: this is a fundamental and genuinely baseline level of player-to-player respect in my book.

    1c (game): Games should set clear standards re: the maturity level expected on their game, which subjects they will allow, and which they will disallow (if any), and whatever other conditions apply. If something about the setting or game world is commonly objectionable (sexism or slavery in historical settings, religious persecution, etc.), even if it should arguably be understood that players should know this coming in, you should still lay out how this is handled on your game. Is it minimized? Not a thing? Handwaved away? In full force IC? In full force IC for NPCs but players are exceptions? "It happens, it just doesn't happen right here... " -- whatever you're going with, say so, and say so clearly. If something requires additional approvals to go into it, say so. If anything goes, say so.

    (Other two post-nap.)

  • Pitcrew

    @Gilette Inches and degrees. Emotional reactions can be wholly unreasonable, for a variety of reasons. It cuts both ways, and I have seen (and on occasion BEEN) a person who needed to take a step back and take a deep breath, and didn't, at least not with the alacrity I should have. You live and you learn and on occasion, you err.

    I have also seen people who viciously emotionally abused others by telling them they were too invested, when in fact it boiled down to them holding the other person by the wrists and making them slap themselves in the face, while chanting "Stop hitting yourself!"

    Some people can be cool cucumbers. Some can't. The last time I lost a character, I actually found the experience liberating, like passing through a pitch-dark doorway and finding not a stone wall or a bottomless pit, but a multiplicity of choices on the other side.

    But I can't really blame someone for not wanting to go through the door, especially not if there are other attached problems, which all too often there seem to be in these high-emotion instances.

  • Pitcrew


    Hmm. Whenever I think I'm going to touch on something that might be a bit too graphic for most, I tend to really tone down the details. In general, I also try to keep things to a M15+ rating at best. For example, in Australia, a film like Terminator 2 is M15 - and T2 features a lot of stuff, but typically fleeting and not very graphic.

    I'd question the need for most games to go beyond that. However, for a setting like CoD, I can definitely see where a R-18 rating could be mandated because the whole point of that setting is the dark side of humanity. But even then I'd question -- if only silently and to myself -- the people who'd want to scene graphic depictions of torture, sexual violence, and so on.

    To go back to my Terminator example, it's the difference between the T-1000 killing the dog implicitly with a yelp and a bloody collar and a graphic scene where you see it strangle the dog, for example.

  • Pitcrew

    @surreality I quit the recent Mage: the Ascension CYOA game because one of the first things that happens to you is that you run into a Cultist of Ecstasy who says "Let me teach you the ways of Ecstasy!" And gets handsy and mouthsy with you when your POV character is emotionally vulnerable and physically stressed due to an accidental use of Magick.

    I noped right the fuck on out of that game. The vampire one may have had a controversial writer, but that bit was unconscionable to me. You have a point.

  • Back in the day, I was asked by a friend to run a graphic and squicky scene (not non-con or dubcon, however) for her that she'd scripted out pretty thoroughly.

    She just really wanted my character to do specific things to hers, posed in my style. It wasn't my kink, but I was familiar with it, so it was all good: I'd been asked by staff to play a villain because I don't get too fussed ooc about that and am happy to accomodate and negotiate ooc.

    So I did. I was there for her afterward and let her talk about it and wind down. She loved it. She dreamed about it. And then she reported me to staff because it subsequently triggered deep feelings of guilt and self-loathing and I 'should have known better to enable' her. She 'no longer felt safe' around me because I was willing to RP it.

    I got bitched out by staff, until I produced the log of her requesting everything and lobbying me pretty hardcore. I still got shit for it as 'proof' that playing a bad guy meant I must be a predator.

    To this day, I refuse to ever again be the dominant partner in several types of scenarios, without exception. The retaliation was so unpleasant that I refuse to even risk that kind of reaction ever again.

    So, about potentially-triggering scenarios: if it's my character playing the heavy, I clear everything ooc and scrupulously avoid certain things. If I am on the receiving end, ask me first and accept that I might refuse; too often people have a script that reduces you to a mere accessory and doesn't account the damage to your character's psyche. And don't bitch if my character responds in ways that you can't dictate.

  • @Paris I have actually seen this same pattern, unfortunately. Someone I knew on Shang played a 'phoenix' sort of character who would come back from the dead if killed. (I'm sure you can see where this is likely going.) I'll be damned if I didn't see her badger countless players IC and OOC into snuffing her IC (most of whom were just doing so to get her to leave them alone -- I saw her badgering behavior so it wasn't just a he said/she said sort of thing), after which, inevitably, she'd go on at length OOC about how disgusting they were that they had done so, even if it was only to get her to shut up and stop badgering them to do it. The type is out there in the wild. :/

  • @surreality that wasn't the player or the game but it was just that type of crap, yep. Edit: I don't get it at all except drama.

  • Pitcrew


    I had someone do that sort of thing to me -- very heavily push an IC relationship, with some stuff that wasn't my kink but I was happy to oblige -- and then turn around and get me banned. Then, when asked about it, I got a 'you know what you did' from the player in question.

  • @The-Tree-of-Woe said in Emotional separation from fictional content:

    I have also seen people who viciously emotionally abused others by telling them they were too invested, when in fact it boiled down to them holding the other person by the wrists and making them slap themselves in the face, while chanting "Stop hitting yourself!"

    Also, this.

    I tend to find this comes up the most often not when someone actually is too invested, but when someone expresses even the slightest irritation that someone else pulled a major dick move on them, either IC, OOC, or both, as a deflection tactic. It isn't that they did something that might, say, have crossed a line, or just be the sort of thing that maybe they should have thought to ask about, or clearly didn't think through properly before charging ahead like a bull in a fine glassware emporium, it's that clearly the other guy is just too sensitive.

    Kinda hate those people. Kinda hate them a lot. Sometimes this isn't even intentional dickery, but really, if you hurt somebody, you don't get to tell them that you didn't. If you didn't mean to do it, yeah, by all means make that known, but not meaning to do it doesn't mean you didn't do it anyway. Very crazy-making.

  • @Gilette Man, that sucks. :< <3

  • Rule Number One of Online Play: You are always allowed to fade to black. You may always log out. You may not always be given a pass to avoid the consequences, but you may always, always avoid playing them out.

    Without this right, what we do isn't play.

  • @Thenomain I would actually not stick this one as rule #1. It's more a... 1b?

    This sounds like splitting hairs but I swear it isn't -- it's simply because this is something that has other precedents it relies on folks understanding to make sense.

    Rule #1 for me is this: There are real people on the other side of the screen, and what happens to real people is ultimately more important than anything that happens to pretend people.

    While that is one of those 'it should go without saying' sentiments, it is what a lot of the fundamentals are based on:

    • RL comes first.
    • FTB is a right.
    • Harassing people OOC is not cool.
    • etc.

    FTB is sort of the 1a under 'RL comes first', really, on there.

    While it sounds fussy to bring this up, it's not, really. People forget it all the time. (How many times have we seen posts about 'OMG HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET A JOB DONE I HAVE BEEN WAITING A WHOLE TEN MINUTES HERE!' or 'OMG why don't I have an answer to my complex question at 3am on a Tuesday on channel within 30 seconds?!' and so on over the years? All signs somebody forgot reality was a thing for a hot minute or twelve.)

  • Pitcrew

    1. In theory I think it's largely the player's responsibility to scout out what setting/etc is likely to cause them emotional issues and avoid them, but in my experience people really don't do that even when it seems kind of plain so in practice I'd say any plot- or game-runner that isn't doing everything they can to forewarn people about the type of content and danger they might experience is just asking for a headache. For example, while I've never played a World of Darkness game, what I've read from the setting would make me thing just about anything goes in various situations but explicitly stating, "Hey, you might run into things like x/y/z" gives people the tools they need to decide, and might wake them up a bit.

    2. If you've gone ahead and made sure that people are (or at least don't have an excuse for not being) aware of what they're potentially getting themselves into, all that's really left to do is be sympathetic, help facilitate a smooth exit if you can, and wish them well. IMO it's not really your job to assume responsibility for their reaction or to talk them down. Just help them separate and be kind about it: especially if things have already progressed to the point that something awful has gone down or will go down with their character.

    3. I like environments that have plain guidelines about warning people, because then the staff can easily defend or support the storyrunner. Personally speaking, I want controversial themes and potentially jarring things in a game I'm going to be playing, so I want people who are spinning that stuff up to feel like they're not going to be lambasted for an errant step or someone else's issues. Dangerous content is a fantastic catalyst for character and story growth on a game, so I think by completely restricting it you end up stifling the potential depth of your cast.

    Emotional separation is challenging in a roleplaying game because you're constantly walking a line between investing in your character enough to give them an authentic feel and have the nearness to understand their motivations while trying to stay separate enough whatever Bad Things happen to them don't feel like they're happening to you -- at least, not enough so that it's overwhelming.

    I'd say a storyteller's responsibility is properly signposting the game and/or the specific plots involved in it. I don't think the setting should ever obviate this need. A player's responsibility is doing their best to understand their own emotional wellbeing, what they can handle, and what they need to do when they've misjudged or a storyteller hasn't accurately communicated the risks. Staff's responsibilities are curtailing any verbal fistfights that kick up and maintaining a culture or standard of respecting others. There's no call for denigrating someone else, whether it's for running a plot with a controversial subject or for someone realizing they need to get away from a topic or subject.

  • @Arkandel said in Emotional separation from fictional content:

    1. What is the correct response by the latter to the former after such a triggered response? Even assuming the best of intentions such things are bound to happen, so how should staff handle an upset player?

    It really depends on what steps have been taken to prevent it from happening. If a plot was clearly labeled, the content is clearly allowed on the game, and all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed, it really is on the player.

    If something hits someone harder than expected -- which can happen -- or something they didn't expect or know would trouble them does? Well, first, they know for the next time. In this case, I would say best possible practice would be to minimize any lingering impact on the character within whatever reasonable bounds the IC reality allows. There's FTB to avoid the RP of a thing, and that's a step one default requirement. There's also maybe toning down the horror show factor for the aftermath if there's some discretion there to do so, to avoid the 'I don't know how to play something that has been broken in this way' factor, which can be troubling and hard as well. If there's means to give somebody an IC reality they can deal with that doesn't evade required consequences or break reality, I do strongly suggest looking for that option, and potentially working with the player at least a little to find something that might be a good out for them. Hell, 'these things occur, but your character has a blackout and doesn't remember the trauma' is not unreasonable and it's something that does occur frequently enough RL that there are flaws and conditions for this in WoD, which seems to be the prime environment in which such circumstances arise.

    1. How do we achieve both (1) and (2) without discouraging people from running things which aren't either inoffensive or completely black and white? Or is it better in certain games that controversial themes are never ran, and staff plots/public PrPs are always 'safe'? If so, when?

    If someone is discouraged by having to clearly label their content, I question whether they have the emotional maturity to run a plot, and I am reasonably certain they don't have the emotional maturity to run a game. Mutual trust and respect is not an easy thing, but some measure of it is required for these game environments to work at all. Demonstrating trust (labeling, thus potentially revealing some content) is as necessary as granting trust (understanding that people running things are not doing so with the intent to cause harm if an issue does arise, and not acting like the person who did is a giant asshat trying to be every sort of evil when seeking resolution of some kind).

    Again, I think the examples from television aren't quite right for the two reasons mentioned before: they're ungranted wish fulfillment as opposed to inflicted emotional trauma, and the level of separation in the passive vs. interactive consumption of entertainment is considerably different. 'Not getting the daydream wish' isn't the same as being actively hurt by something, even if everyone has a general baseline wish of 'not being actively hurt by things if at all possible'.

    A closer parallel for this wouldn't be a trigger, but 'that character I had my heart set on hooking up with mine isn't interested'. While that may suck, and be sad, and arguably we have all probably gone through 'the person I'm crushing on isn't interested' in real life at some point, it isn't the same as reliving the suicide of a friend, the loss of a child, a rape, the murder of a sibling.

  • I would never wish to inflict genuine emotional pain on someone from a MU* plot. It is, after all, just a game. But at the same time, these are usally games with serious dramatic themes. Should nobody ever be allowed to kill off their character because it might cause someone to re-live the trauma of losing their BFF? Should no child ever be harmed in the story because it might upset me, a parent? Should nobody ever RP war trauma because it might upset a veteran? The list goes on and on and you can't reasonably be expected to label a plotline with every possible thing that might upset someone. If a game is generally labeled as including "mature themes" then I think the onus is on the player to communicate things that they don't wish to be involved in.

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