A case for trigger warnings in games exhibition spaces

Trigger warnings (TWs) are a simple way to help your audience engage with difficult themes. To some people, they’re essential. Many don’t know what they are, why they’re needed, and how to make them. This article will try to answer those questions.

My knowledge and opinion on these topics are those of an artist & event organiser, living with PTSD and mental illnesses. I added suggestions for further reading at the end of the article.

Defining “Trigger Warnings”

Defining “trigger”

In this context, the use of the word “trigger” comes from people suffering with PTSD or mental illnesses. It describes how crises can be triggered by specific things — e.g. depictions, sensations, or conversations related to one’s trauma(s).

These crises can be violent. Anxiety episodes, flashbacks, terror attacks, violent outbursts, dissociation, complete withdrawal from the outside world, and so on. In some cases, these crises can lead the victim to harm themself, sometimes others.

Crises can last for hours, days, weeks. For me, dealing with PTSD has been immensely worse than living the initial trauma. PTSD rewires your brain and physically prevents it to treat the event as something that happened in the past. When you are in crisis, you’re not remembering, you’re there again. Your body and brain are re-living everything they went trough. There’s often no escaping, and it comes back over and over again.

Exposure therapy, “toughen up”

An argument often given against the use of TWs is that people should “toughen up”, or that they need to be exposed to their trauma to “get over it”.

These arguments are profoundly misplaced and false.

Be it on social networks or during exhibitions, you and we are not doctors. Our spaces are not therapy. It is not our role, nor our competence, to treat and heal PTSD sufferers. PTSD studies proved that exposure therapy is not necessary for and doesn’t work for everyone. (see: The Body Keeps The Score, reference below). If the patient doesn’t feel like it’s the right time to do it, there’s a high risk they will get re-traumatised.

A healing process, whatever the object, is extremely personal. No one else than the victim or their therapist has a say in how and when it’s the best time to do it. You are in no way involved in this choice and process, unless specifically asked to.

The purpose of trigger warnings

Using TWs means two things for people who need them: avoiding an overwhelming crisis, but also being able to engage with difficult media.

Wanting to confront difficult media is a very personal choice. It can change from person to person, and over time. Many of us actually do want to engage with media discussing our traumas or illnesses. These topics are rarely discussed, and we can be glad to discover pieces about them.

By using trigger warnings, you allow people to engage with their triggering content.

Having even a general idea of what they’ll be confronting allows for mental preparation, which transforms the experience. If they’re prepared, they might get uncomfortable, but they can choose that. They can choose the how and the when, based on their current ability to deal with it.

It’s not censoring, it’s giving a platform

Some people argue trigger warnings are a form of censorship, but it doesn’t have anything in common.

Curating for an exhibitions means choosing what is going to be displayed, and how. The curator selects what they believe is a good pick for the space and atmosphere they’re trying to create. That’s the core of any exhibition: it’s not a list of good pieces, but a carefully selected and crafted collection.

Warnings are the opposite of censorship: they’re something curators can do to display content in a way they believe is best for their space and audience. If they can’t find a way, they might choose to remove it entirely. They’re giving a platform to those themes and works — while trying to care for both artist and audience.

Making a case for trigger warnings in exhibition spaces is not a call for censorship. If a piece is important to your curation, and tackles topics difficult to engage with, you should have it. I do believe art should be able to talk about everything — especially difficult things. I also think it’s one of the ways games can prove to a broader audience their strength as a medium and as an art form.

Using TWs is nothing more than cinemas saying “this contains violence and sex scenes”, or food mentioning allergens. The content is not altered, its nature is only mentioned. It lets people make an informed decision on whether they can and want to engage with what they’re given.

What kind of scenes do we want to build?

One of the questions I ask myself, as an event organiser, is: “Who am I building this for, who do I want to see enjoying my event?”

This “who” isn’t only a matter of industry field or shared passion. It’s also a question of identities. I want my spaces to welcome all kinds of people, with all kinds of backgrounds and life experiences. I want them to be welcoming of marginalised people, not of only the most visible groups.

I’ve seen a lot of event organisers working to reach marginalised folks; giving highlights to creators, helping them attend events through sponsorship,… And I think trigger warnings are a step to take in our path to proper diversity.

If traumas and mental illnesses are often a cause of marginalisation, it gets even worse for people who are already otherwise marginalised. Indeed, marginalisation makes one disproportionately likely to endure traumas and to develop mental disorders. Which makes the need for TWs much greater for people who differ from the norm.

In societies where public spaces belong by default to cis, white, able-bodied men, diregarding the need for trigger warnings pushes us even further away.

So how do we do it?

There are many ways to add trigger warnings, and it tends to be pretty easy. A lot of pieces don’t even need them! You can focus only on the ones that do. Here are a few examples:

  • You can simply add a couple lines under the piece’s title & info. Lots of people don’t read signs in public events, but I believe those who need TWs would tend to look for them there. Additionnally, you could add them on your event website, if you have a curation page.
  • You can display them before the game launches. FLIPPER, a desktop app being developped by Gianluca Pandolfo, allows to display several games on one computer. It should have special parameters for displaying trigger warnings. You could also write them in the description.
    FLIPPER is announced for mid-May 2018.
FLIPPER app preview
  • This one is for devs: add a simple screen at the beginnning of your game. If it is important to experience your game without spoilers, I recommend checking “Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story” by indie studio Accidental Queens.
“We created a several-step trigger warning. It allows people who do not need them to avoid spoilers about the game, while those who need it can learn more about the topics tackled by the game.” — Miryam Houali, Accidental Queens
Trigger warning screen for Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story (spoilers)
  • Screenshake 2016 displayed graphic sex games by Rober Yang. The space where visitors could play the games was perfectly visible from the entire room, but the screen itself was facing a wall. A note next to the space specified the games where depicting nudity and sexuality.
Screenshake 2016 exhibition space — on the left, a visitor plays Robert Yang’s games.

If you aren’t familiar with trigger warnings, do some research online! You’ll get a better sense of how to do them and what to include. If you can, hire someone who knows these topics better as a consultant.

Be creative! There are many ways to make it happen and tons of ideas to have. I’d love to hear what you and your team came up with! Keep in mind they should be visible, close to the actual content, and ideally seen before visitors are confronted with the content — particularly if it’s graphic and/or loud.


Further reading

The Body Keeps The Score · Bessel van der Kolk — a must read on PTSD, its effects on the body and mind, its study over the years, and healing

Exhibiting difficult games · Holly Gramazio for Matheson Marcault— about creating proper environments to display indie & art games

Trigger warnings don’t hinder freedom of expression: they expand it · Lindy West for the Guardian — ‘Some content may be distressing. A considerate heads-up surely isn’t too much to ask?’

Marginalized People Face A Unique Mental Health Struggle · Jeewan Chanicka for the Huffington Post

List of triggers · trigger-warnings.tumblr.com — A list of trigger warnings for traumas, mental illnesses and some common phobias