Play requires consent

For any game to be a game, to work as play, it requires consent. Everyone has to agree to play, as individuals, and then collectively (or individually) agree the rules by which you’ll play, and the boundaries on the experience – the things that aren’t in the game, as well as the things that are.

You learn this, running live games or even tabletop ones. Playing with other people requires consent from all the participants, in the same way that sex does, and if it’s withdrawn then play with that person has to end. At live events we even set up safe words, ways to stop the fantasy and reassert the real world – we’ve always used “STOP THE GAME” shouted as loud as you can, for the avoidance of doubt – and that’s not just a safety call for injuries. It’s also a “get me out of here”, an “I’m not OK with this”, a withdrawal of consent.

In tabletop games, or at least ones with a good group that might touch on dark themes, it’s pretty common to have a quick discussion of hard limits up front. Some people are fine with body horror in their tabletop play, other people just don’t want to go there during pretendy fun time. Some people are terrified of spiders. Some people don’t want in-character relationships. It’s all fine, as long as you negotiate your boundaries up front and don’t make assumptions. (Sometimes you only find out where your boundaries are in the middle of a game, and that’s OK too. That’s when you step out.)

A fair few videogames forget that consent can be withdrawn, or assume that the act of picking up a controller is consent to anything that happens while playing. They forget to set out their boundaries in advance; they don’t signal strongly enough that this or that theme will come up in play and if that’s a problem you might not want to play on. I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame that acknowledges scenes players might not want to participate in, warns them ahead of time and lets them skip those scenes specifically without having to just stop playing altogether.

There’s interesting variations on the rule-setting elements of consent in things like permadeath playthroughs, speed runs, cheats and exploits. Some are players adding extra levels of rules for themselves, defining the experience more tightly than the game does; others are players implicitly trying to break the game’s own defined experience – effectively trying to do things the game itself doesn’t consent to. (Except that by virtue of not being sentient, games can’t consent.)

And there are interesting game spaces springing up in which consent is a serious issue. DayZ and Rust are games in which you can not just die but be taken prisoner, have your avatar’s actions dictated by players, and be put in situations to which you have not consented. The tale of a player imprisoned in Rust is funny, sure, but it’s also something they haven’t consented to. It’s only fun as long as you’re happy to go along with it, within the experience you want to have. It stops being fun, it stops being play, the minute you as a human being want out.

A few videogames that are played in group settings or party spaces sometimes run into problems; I’ve been witness to sessions of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, in which people not playing were used as obstacles, or otherwise drawn into the game. That leads to issues, sometimes. The boundaries between player and not-player aren’t always as clear as who’s holding the controller, and one player assuming consent to play from a not-player who doesn’t want to can get tricky. It’s irritating at best.

But the worst culprits for failing to understand that play requires consent are not really game creators at all. Gamification in the workplace, which is still around and still annoying me, takes the idea of playful activity and participation and makes it compulsory. By removing the ability to refuse your consent you remove a player’s ability to play. Meta-game mechanics (note: none of these are actual game mechanics) like points, scoreboards, achievements and so on rely on a playable game to function in the game world. Without play, an achievement is not anything like a game, in the same way that an exam certificate is not anything like a game. It’s all just work, which you must now do while you’re smiling.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

11 thoughts on “Play requires consent”

  1. Interesting post. Just in reply to “I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame…”: didn’t the infamous “No Russian” level give a warning and level-skip option?

  2. Very good points, and as a game designer, good to have in mind throughout the creative process. But I have to point to one very large, shiny example of seeking consent for a particular scene in a high profile game – ‘No Russian’ in Call of Duty. It was a hugely traumatic scene for many people, and as such came with the option to skip it entirely with no consequence to the player.

  3. The issue of consent in games like day z is surely serious but it’s hardly inappropriate nor should it be as a theme to explore as a survivor combat simulator. Day z made its name by being a tough frustrating and atmospheric experience, not by being “fun” or seeking consent, it’s assumed if you want to input effort to play it then this is already known

    1. One of the first principles about consent is that you cannot assume it – as a partner, as a player, as a designer, whatever. Live games and tabletop make this issue very explicit, but it also applies to digital game forms.

      And a player can consent to some activities but not others; she might consent to being shot at and dying because that’s what the game’s about but not to being, say, held captive against her will by other players because that’s what they want to do.

      It’s not an easy problem – it may not be solvable at all – but it’s certainly not a nonexistent one.

      1. Who is to say taking prisoner is not what games like day z is about? Ultimately it’s an unpredictable experience built on a malleable simulator, games with high learning curves like this might be working against their audience when it explicitly suppresses their actions to disproportionately favour. I don’t see combat playing any more important role in day z than taking prisoners, among more experienced bandits the preference is to take prisoners rather than shoot on sight and it benefits all characters around. For some, both aspects play minimal roles in the act of simulating survival in the game. I think the issue here is making the audience aware before play that these are the mechanics, that’s the only consent I think you can ask for.

        1. I agree it’s important to make players aware of what the game’s community is likely to do to their avatars. But it’s not the only form of consent you could have – Minecraft servers or MMO RP servers are interesting examples of alternative approaches where the spaces you enter define the activities you’re happy to participate in.

          1. I think in confined games it’s also important to let players know what others CAN do to their avatars – Day Z and imprisonment is one example.

            In EVE Online it’s a player adage that “you consent to PVP when you log in” (it’s possible anywhere), but for many this isn’t made clear enough by the game designers.

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