content triggers

Database Crew Interviews – Part 1

I wouldn’t feel like myself if I ran a site focused on video games that didn’t also include writing of some sort and I believe stories have so much to teach us, especially stories about why content and trigger warnings are vital. So I wanted to kick off the writing section of the Database with a series of interviews with some of the people behind the creation of the Game Content Triggers Database.

We’re starting off with my favorite person, my partner, Deb. Deb is a therapist who deals mostly in trauma and PTSD and when I asked her if she was interested in helping out with building this database despite not really being much of a gamer, her answer was an immediate YES. Read on to find out why.

You were eager to help with the creation of the DB despite not really playing many games. Why was it important to you?

As a therapist, I can’t tell you how many times clients have told me about video games being part of their self-care routines. They unwind and relax with them, they enrich their social lives, they even let them bond with their kids. And as you know too well, running into shocking and triggering content and subjects in games can be detrimental not just to a good self-care practice, but to mental health in general. So I love the idea of anything that will give folks more information about what they’re about to get into, whether it’s a video game, book, or movie. And as a Black woman and someone who works primarily with Black clients, I know that with video games being a predominately white industry, there stands to be a lot of triggering or troublesome content out there that can be easily missed by people who don’t have the lived experiences we do. So I wanted to make sure that my experience as a Black woman in her 60s could be put to good use for this project.

As a therapist, how do you see this DB being helpful to people?

I’ve always believed that one key to being in good mental health is a healthy balance of consent. You can’t control everything that comes into your life or when it does, so being able to give consent to the things and people you invite in can help bolster you when life catches you off guard. So looking at games as a means of self-care and relaxation again, giving consent to what we’re about to consume, instead of being caught off guard and hurt by something we’re not ready or willing to face, will help us be better able to face the stressors in life that we can’t control. 

I also believe it could be a great tool for therapists and other mental health professionals who choose to use games in their practice. I’ve relied on them for exposure therapy before, starting off in a very controlled and unrealistic environment. But if you’re using a game for that purpose, let’s say for fire exposure therapy, the last thing you want is to be working with a client who has a debilitating fear of being burned and here comes the game burning their avatar alive. 

There was a point when this Database became a really personally important project to you. Can you talk about that a bit?

Whew, it sure did! There were two times I realized just how essential a database like this is. The first reason was my mother. She’s 97 now, discovered Breath of the Wild when she came up here for a visit to meet you. After that, she went all in on becoming a gamer. Never too late, I guess? So, after she finished BotW and TotK, she wanted to try more and she chose Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that has some pretty heavy themes in it, and it’s got the klan. She spent her life surrounded by all that, growing up and living in the South when the klan was very much alive and well and active. My father was lynched when I was a young girl and so it goes without saying that a game with the klan and lynchings could spell trouble for her. Luckily she had you, who knew exactly what she was about to get herself into, to warn her about it. She was able to consent to participating in that content because of that. But what if you hadn’t known to warn her? It’s not like she’d have known enough to be like, “Hey, let me Google this game real quick to make sure it’s not gonna hurt me.”

The second realization messed me up for a while. I was playing Mafia III, after we’d started working on the database, to include it in the launch games collection. You’d warned me that there was some racist content in it, Confederate flags and white supremacist gangs, but there were also some things you couldn’t have known to warn me about because they’re not things that stand out to you because of your life experience. So there I was, playing, making my notes for the game’s listing, and I come upon this young Black girl, locked away in a shed in one of the bases of the Dixie Mafia. She’s on the ground, writhing in pain, and that took me out. Biggest PTSD trigger I’ve had in decades. I called off work for a few days, I booked some extra sessions with my own therapist, I took leave from everyday life because of a game. I was assaulted when I was 15 by a group of young white men and it’s a trauma that I’m still processing and dealing with 50+ years later. And the fact that something so traumatic that happened to me, that changed who I am and changed the course of my life could be put into a game as entertainment for people, plus the fact that there was nothing in the game that I could do to help her, it really upset me. “Upset” isn’t a strong enough word, really, because I’ve only just recently gotten to a place where I can talk about what happened publicly and use my experience to help other people. I was far from ready to face something that would remind me of my own trauma in a video game.

When you and I talked about it later, after I’d had my emergency therapy sessions, and you explained that this Black girl was like a piece of set design, not even part of the story, just put there to drive home the racist point of the game, I think I realized that games were much bigger and far more nuanced than I was expecting. I mean obviously the developers didn’t set out to recreate my personal trauma in the game. I have no idea if that girl was assaulted or just drugged out of her head because she wasn’t part of the story, but content doesn’t have to be given explicit meaning or be an active part of the story to harm people. So anyway, that’s when this database became important and personal for me.

Why are content and trigger warnings important for games?

It’s impossible to say what could trigger someone because we don’t know everyone’s experience. We can’t know everyone’s experience because they’re not all for us to know. You know, I have a spider phobia. I will beat the hell out of a wall with my Swiffer if one is in my house, I sure don’t need to be seeing one in a game, spending the rest of the day itching, worried I got one crawling on me. You have fire issues you’re working through with your therapist and it’s really not beneficial to the work either of you are doing for you to be caught off guard by fires in your leisure time. 

Was there anything you found particularly surprising when working on this project?

I’m not much of a gamer, as you mentioned, so I really don’t know what’s out there in terms of content in all the genres of games. But I think the most shocking (but not really shocking) thing for me has been seeing how many times marginalized characters are made into caricatures, especially BIPOC. You know, you’ve got your obvious caricatures like Carl and everyone else in GTA San Andreas and Franklin in GTA V, and it’s just like, “Wow, is that what y’all think Black folks are really like?” But even less obvious things that can be harmful, like Miles’s uncle in the Spider-Man games. He’s been to prison because of course he has. Black men go to prison when white folks are leading the narrative (and the world). Peter Parker couldn’t have had an uncle that got locked up? How come? It’s small, seemingly innocent things like that working to really drill down on the narrative that Black folks are criminal, scary, dangerous, and planting those seeds, even in video games, is why it’s dangerous to just exist as a Black person in the real world. Because the lie has been reiterated again and again and again until people don’t question it and just accept it as fact. 

Now, I’m not saying this content should’t be IN games. That’s not the solution at all. Games tell important stories. I’ll never play Mafia III again but I believe it had a very important story to tell. And if developers were to try to avoid putting triggering content in games, there’d be no game at all, because you can’t account for everyone playing your games. You can’t even really guess as to what is and isn’t safe to include based on demographics. Am I, a 68 year old woman, the common demographic for a third person shooter? No. Is my 97 year old mother who Rockstar thought of when they made RDR2? Obviously not. So that’s where databases like this come in. With experts compiling all this info. It would be great to do it with some studio and developer support but who knows, maybe the database will get there.

Scroll to top (Opens in new tab) starting with