Trigger warnings

Splitting off from the IFDB Top 100 topic -

Hm, I don’t think “This content will be actively harmful to a significant enough subsection of the population…” is an accurate read of the cited geekfeminism article.

For things people define as triggers, there are no guarantees of active harm to anyone. The worst case scenario in particular cases is a possibility of emotional distress for someone.

I want to point this out because I don’t think there is much scientific evidence out there for the value of trigger warnings. I don’t think Carolyn necessarily cited the geekfeminism article as the last word on the subject, but as something just to show to Peter, to whom she was talking. However, that article is one of the top Google hits on the subject. It then links to articles by La Bruja Morgan and BetsyTheMuffin. Yes, I am making fun of BetsyTheMuffin’s name, but only cursorily, since if BTM’s article was strong support material to the geekfeminism article, it wouldn’t matter. It is instead a personal blog article.

The following Pacific Standard article (they have a progressive agenda and write for media and journalists) points to several research pieces relevant to the topic. … arch-81946

I think the last two are pretty important: The reminder that confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the way to overcome them. And the point that people who place their experience of abuse or trauma centrally in their identity tend to be damaging their own mental health in the process.

I think ratings boards basically have the correct approach. Their labels cover the typical areas of broad distaste and those which we shield children from until they are old enough to understand - violence, sexual activity, horror and gore, drug use, language, sexual violence, and the oft-uninterpretable ‘adult themes’. The consumer advice element is for adults. The protection element is for children, not for adults.


I haven’t looked into the topic deeply, but what you write sounds reasonable to my uneducated understanding.

I’m not sold on the rating boards approach, though. It doesn’t seem to be necessary for books, so why would it be necessary for any other medium? Especially any medium that clearly distinguishes – as books tend to do and movies perhaps do less – between works meant for young children en works meant for those in or entering the adult world.

My experience with the psychological effects of trauma and triggers is only second-hand, not first-hand, but I feel I know enough about the topic to disagree strongly here.

First off, the article you linked only talks about ptsd, but I feel it doesn’t cover all the possible (and useful) trigger warnings; there’s trigger warnings for eating disorders, for instance, or even for specific fears. The point is, for all of those, they cover situations in which some people can be triggered, which specifically means they will end up in a situation where they will not be able to stop unwanted, harmful thoughts or behaviors from manifesting. And in those situations, they are really not able to stop the thought, sometimes for hours, and if they do (or when it stops) they feel exhausted and miserable and their day is ruined. So if you’re talking about games, you’re playing this game to chill on lunch break, and it catches you with a traumatic scene that triggers you, and then you can’t do anything but fighting harmful thoughts for the next hour; not cool. You don’t want to do that to your players.

Triggers are really bad, they arise because of problems that caused psychological harm and distress that your brain can’t process and deal with alone; working on them is a long, difficult (and costly) process, but it’s overall better for the person if they can do it. You probably agree with that, and hey, the people who have triggers probably agree with that too, cause nobody likes crippling pain. However, talking specifically about point #4 of your article here, evoking a traumatic subject, in conversation or media or your game, when there’s trigger/ptsd is not helpful at all for the person: it just sends them in the downward spiral for more hurt and it sucks. There’s no desentization or whatever; you hurt every time. And sorry, but suggesting it does in the generality you used here kinda feels like “get over it”, which is super, super not helpful (because in essence the conversation feels like “i don’t believe in trigger warnings” “but it hurts me!” “it’s better for you, you’ll be fine”. Broadly simplifying).
What the article really says, it’s that controlled exposure to triggers with a mental health professional can help - a HUGE difference. And it’s true, they do work - prolonged exposure therapy, and emdr (which is based on repetitive left-right motion to reconfigure the brain) are scientifically proven to be effective, and they’ve been used in warzones for examples with great effect. But those therapies work extremely progressively, chewing little by little tiny pieces and processing them. If you take example of a fear of spider, you start by thinking about a spider that’s miles away from you, being ok with it, then you get closer, then maybe you look at a child’s drawing or a plush toy, and then on progressively, until finally you’re ready after a long process to see a picture of a real spider, etc. It takes a long time, and every time you panic, it’s cause you pushed yourself too far, and you have to stop instantly, feel safe again, and start all over again. It’s a very different process from playing a/your game - and if you’re not there yet, playing a triggering game can undo a lot of progress, cause you couldn’t handle it and your fear is vivid again.
That’s why I feel it’s really unfair on this article’s part to relate emdr&al to triggers for classroom discussions: they are not controlled environments, they could cause harm, and there’s no comparison. (I don’t know if i should give a specific example here, cause trigger warning, but let’s just say a discussion in a room full of freshmen can feature some genuinely clueless statements and some heated words, which is not controlled and can hurt even if you overcame ptsd). Similarly, you are not going to make a game that helps with ptsd (there’s a mmo-like game like this, developed by psychologists, can’t remember what it was) so it’s only fair to warn people that they could be hurt.
And don’t think people will hold it against you or your game if there’s trigger warnings: it just means that they can’t/won’t enjoy your game and it’s best for both of you to not continue. They’ll be happy you did it, and thank you for it!

(Unnecessary culinary metaphor: advertise there’s peanuts in the salad so that people who are allergic don’t order it. If you didn’t warn them, they’re gonna blame you; if you did, they’ll avoid it and say “phew”)

Finally, i can’t help but point out that point #5 confuses correlation with causation, at least in the way it’s presented: could it be that people who see traumatic events as part of their identity maybe took them harder and felt worse and had to deal with them for years, whereas if you can shrug it off reasonably quick it doesn’t take that big of a part in your life and so you don’t see it as a big part of your identity? Instead of the reverse, like the article implies? (“It’s bad for you to have this as part of your identity” -> hey, maybe it was just really bad for them). Just saying.

Thanks for reading the long post!

Thanks for writing it! This certainly puts the topic in a different light for me.

Still, I don’t think trigger warnings and food labelling are on entirely the same level. Food is not spoiled when one knows its ingredients (well… not in general) and the ingredients are objectively defined. Fiction, on the other hand, may be spoiled by revealing its content in advance; and determining whether or not its content falls into a specific category is an act of interpretation that you’d really prefer to leave to the reader rather than objectifying one interpretation by labelling the work with a trigger warning.

For instance, should the Iliad have a trigger warning for “sexual slavery”? I don’t think the status of Briseis is ever made entirely clear and, quite frankly, I prefer it that way. If I get a copy of the Iliad which makes this interpretative decision for me by putting this trigger warning in front, I would feel that my authority as a reader has been violated. If the book contained a trigger warning for “violation of corpses”, an important plot point would have been revealed beforehand.

In fact, trigger warnings can set up the reader to read the work in a way which was never the intention of the author. They remove the open-ended wonder of the “anything can happen” which is such a large part of the charm of real fiction.

I guess the ideal system would be some kind of opt-in, where you only get to see trigger warnings if you have opted-in to seeing that specific trigger warning. But that is, for obvious reasons, impractical for electronic and impossible for traditional media.

I’d like to ask a question here. It’s just a question, please don’t misinterpret it or my intentions in asking.

There are a couple of themes that affect me in fiction, which have caused me to abort my experience - in films, in books. I know that they have that effect on me, and at some point I just go “Stop. This is not helping. You’re making yourself feel bad. Go do something else”.

Why are people who need trigger warnings unable to recognise what’s happening and abort the experience themselves? I mean, it’s not like they see the word “rape” and are immediately thrown into an uncontrollable spiral of depression… is it?

Yes, it is.

And it’s not that difficult to make trigger warnings “opt-in”. Just stick them under a collapsed spoiler tag. People who know they need warnings can click on them.

I’m sure that a mega foodie might prefer to be surprised by the ingredients of their amuse bouche as well, but not if that includes something they’re severely allergic to. It’s not like you can cancel anaphylactic shock by regurgitating the food. Unfortunately, there’s no epi-pen for flashbacks, compulsions, etc.

It’s just a few words that helps make some people’s lives less shitty and minefieldy, and nobody is forced to see them if they don’t need it. Surely that’s of some significance even when placed beside that all-incomparable ideal, ~artistic integrity.~

edit: The AO3 (an archive like the IFDB) uses a system where authors can check off which common triggers their story includes, or a definite “none”, or “choose not to use archive warnings” if they aren’t sure or don’t want to. On the viewer side, showing or hiding warnings is a preference each user can set.

Am I reading this correctly? Trigger warnings on IF works to tell people what could cause discomfort when playing/reading? Are we really coddling people like this now? When I buy a Stephen King book, I’m not besieged by warning labels about rape, murder, and gore. This is getting ridiculous.

You are reading very incorrectly. It’s not “discomfort”, it’s traumatic flashbacks. To continue previous analogies, that’s like the difference between “ew, okra” and “oh shit, peanuts, where’s my epipen”.

edit: And to continue to the spoilers discussion – as it stands, the only recourse for people who need to avoid triggers is currently to 1) ask their friends if their friends have read/watched/played it, and if they haven’t, 2) look up the most detailed plot description they can find. That’s certainly more spoilerful than an opt-in warning.

Thanks for the clarification. It’s still highly ridiculous.

MTW, on some levels I feel exactly the same way, I rewrote my post several times until I just collapsed it to that single question. Lux’s link was very informative - thank you, lux, that does straighten things out.

I don’t think this thread started with the idea “we should include trigger warnings”, and we shouldn’t inject this idea either. We are not trying to be a “safe place”, I don’t think (in which case we’d REALLY have to watch our creative input, an idea that makes me very uncomfortable). But it is a matter of conscience, I guess, that if you know that your work has elements which might cause people to experience mental harm - and that is knowledge every author should have - you can somehow prevent that from happening (the alternative is to excise them from your work, and I’m completely against that. The author’s vision, for me, is sacred. Art that coddles to everyone isn’t art). TWs do seem the best way to achieve that.

As lux said, quite a few Twine games start with two links: “Begin” and “Trigger warnings”. In static fiction, like books, I suppose… hm… what about putting them in the last, or second-to-last page? Easily consulted for those who care, easily ignored for those who don’t.

Rather than me label all my work with trigger warnings, those people prone to traumatic flashbacks from a work of IF should get some mental help instead.

They typically already are. Shockingly, psychiatry isn’t a magic bullet.

I hear ya. It’s just that it’s twisted logic, putting it on the authors. It’s the same logic that Sharia law uses (I might covet that woman so SHE should be the one to cover-up head-to-toe rather than ME take responsibility for my own issues.)

I believe they are. [EDIT - yeah, as lux said]

It’s not as preposterous as it sounds, no one is forcing anyone to do this. If your game depicts racism and homophobia you’ll probably get some negative attention. If your game fails to include trigger warnings, no one will come to you and blame their unhappiness on you. But it’s a small thing you can conceivably do to prevent someone being hurt.

I mean, it’s all in how you look at it, you know. The internet is a special place in that you meet entire communities of people whom you wouldn’t interact with at all in “the real world” (pardon the expression). You meet them and interact with them even before you learn that they aren’t neurotypical, or that they’ve been scarred, or that this or that that or that whatever. You don’t see their faces, hear their voices - you don’t pick up on the little signs that say “I’m harming this person, I’d better stop”.

A few guidelines have been emerging on “how not to harm people” to help with exactly this. I don’t think anyone’s being forced; think, rather, that you have the chance to have your work reach people in circles you had no idea existed, and that a set of guidelines exist to prevent you from causing accidental harm.

Or, if you want to be cynical about it, and I sometimes am, to protect you from a vocal minority who’ll take you and your game and burn you at the stake for daring to do something they didn’t like. Everything cuts both ways.

It’s not being unfairly “put on” authors any more than it is to consider other accessibility issues like screenreader-friendliness or possible seizure triggers. There is no guy in the sky commanding authors to do this Or Else. Authors (and archives, and platforms) have the choice of being Good Guy Gregs about it… or not.

Trigger warnings are real and serious, but I’ll be honest. I think a lot of the hoopla people raise about them is exaggerated. I’ve seen people claim to be triggered by the most innocuous things, and by the way in which they describe these “triggers” and their reactions, it’s clear they’re just talking about feeling disturbed or anxious, not about having a traumatic response.

But unless you know everyone intimately, it’s impossible to tell who truly suffers from triggers and who doesn’t. So you still need to try covering the bases for those who actually need it. And yet… I can never bring myself to put “trigger warnings” on what I write. I feel as though that’s bowing to pressure from the wrong camp. Instead I prefer “content warnings” or simply “warnings.” It’s a small difference, but it changes the context a great deal. People can see content they want to avoid, and then avoid it, without needing to claim it “triggers” them. Likewise, people who have real triggers would also know whether those are present in a work by looking at a content warning.

With IF, I haven’t written anything that has really disturbing content (yet). But I have tagged my games with “violence” and “sexual content” where appropriate. A tag system exists on IFDB; may as well use it. And I think it’s easy enough to give a broad content warning at the start of a game, similar to one you’d give to alert players if a game has sound.

When it comes to specifics though, that’s where I draw the line. Some people want you to enumerate in a detailed list every plot element in a work. For something like The Baron, a general warning like “sexual violence” ought to be enough. It doesn’t spoil what happens in the game, and if anyone is triggered by any sort of sexual violence, they should know to stay away without having each explicit act spelled out beforehand. Things such as genre should factor in too. People who suffer from triggers should probably avoid most horror games as a matter of course. In that sense, a genre label is already a content warning. The two words “Stiffy Makane” come preloaded with about a hundred content warnings.

So here’s another thing to think about specifically for parser-based IF:

What if a subject can come up in a work, but only if the player specifically chooses to bring it up? For example, Shuffling towards Bedlam only includes active violence if the player chooses to act violently toward other characters. You can command the player character to kill someone and the game will describe the act in detail, but otherwise it doesn’t really come up. Similarly, it can contain themes of suicide, but only if the player chooses to go that way (by telling the player character to throw himself off the walkway or hang himself).

With The Baron – which might be one of the most triggering IF works in existence, especially because it doesn’t wear its content on its sleeves – I’m a bit worried that even having a general warning on the tin will change the reading experience for everyone and in a way that could lessen the impact of the work. If I were to release a new version, I might contemplate having a menu item called something like “trigger warnings (spoiler)”. Would that work?

Answers to both of the above: the advantage of the parser is that it’s interactive, so an optional menu item called “content warnings (spoiler)” does sound like the best solution indeed.

Similarly, I’ve seen content disclaimers that state that some paths do include , and but only at the player’s discretion. Again, this seems fair enough. “One Girl” can get very nasty, but the readme does state something like “If there’s something you don’t want to see, don’t initiate the action. Chances are it’s been implemented”. Sounds very reasonable to me.

A very conscientious designer, who would allow violence as a possible solution to puzzles but include others, would probably want to make that clear anyway - it’s the bane of alternate puzzles that players don’t REALISE there were alternative solutions, which might even have been more to their liking. Presumably, someone who is triggered by violence and suicide would not actively pursue that route in-game.

Unless that path is necessary for the game, in which case the point is moot because it’s not optional content anymore.

I think that if a subject can come up in a work, it’s in the work. Simple as that.

Regarding The Baron, I don’t know that having a content warning really would change the experience. I went into that game knowing it would have something messed up happen. I just didn’t know what. But I was already thinking about various types of violence, and sexual violence certainly popped into my mind as a possibility before I even got to the halfway point.