With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

One of my main concerns in thinking about an ARG for the incoming freshman is how to approach the same sort of sensitive topics that would be addressed in traditional orientation. In traditional orientation, the material is very easily controlled, and a student is informed by way of schedule what topics are going to be discussed so if they would be triggering to interact with, they can get permission to be excused from these events. Despite the oh-so controversial letter on the topic of safe spaces and academic freedom, trigger warnings play a crucial role for students for whom certain issues might trigger panic attacks. They can prepare themselves. However, when the shift is made from traditional orientation to an ARG, this safety net disappears.

While simulated experiences in real life probably are more effective in teaching students about complicated matters than dry lectures or presentations, they present a multitude of complications. First off, trigger warnings directly conflict with the TING aspect of most ARGs—the TING aspect could be sacrificed, but that only resolves part of the problem. The other problems are that ARGs, as a medium, are a bit chaotic, as a result of the improvisational nature, and so the way that the students interact with the material would not be easily controlled, the way it would be with, for example, the performances about sexual violence performed in the traditional orientation. Furthermore, while a simulated experience relating to a sensitive topic might be a bit more effective of a way to teach it, it could be a million times more triggering to someone because of the way that ARGs blur the lines between reality and game.

It was with this lens in mind that I looked at the Kaufman and Flanagan’s article on obscuring and embedding. Their concern in mind is more on the effectiveness level. However, it provides an interesting solution, or at least an idea of one, for the issues of dealing with sensitive topics. While something that was out in the open about dealing with sexual violence or domestic violence or eating disorders or depression might be too overwhelming for someone for whom those might be triggering, if it was presented in a more embedded manner, that could prove to be a more sensitive way to deal with things. Of course, the article presented this method with card games, not ARGs, but the idea of embedding the prosocial agenda is translatable. For example, as part of the narrative, it could be presented in an allegorical format, which would be easier to digest.

However, while this idea provides a potential solution, it raises two further problems. First off, if these ideas are to be obscured or embedded, whether through allegory or not, they must still be clear enough to get the message across. Adding this layer of padding, so to speak, might create too much padding, so much that the message gets lost. Secondly, the embedding of the message must be done carefully. If one does not think carefully about the way that it’s embedded, it might cause more damage than it solves. For example, the article talks about how creating a game about the zombie plague was meant to promote positive attitudes towards vaccination and empathy towards those living with disease. The article doesn’t go into specifics about how they went about it—and it says that there were positive outcomes, that it caused higher levels of empathy for those with diseases. However, if they hadn’t been careful with their use of the zombie plague as an allegory for real life diseases, it could have very easily increased the stigma felt towards people with infectious diseases. Thus embedding must be done with delicacy and with mindfulness towards the narrative one is creating. ARGs can be a powerful tool for change, but they must be treated as such and, if they are to send a message or for an instrument of social change, that should not be taken lightly.

 

Bibliography

Kaufman, Geoff, Flanagan, Mary, A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes, Retrieved from http://cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2015091601

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5 comments

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I think you bring up some great points here. But, while I agree that ARGs, as a medium, can be “chaotic,” this is not necessarily due wholly to their improvisational nature. As we’ve seen in the past, the creators of ARGs can decide on the degree to which player input is allowed. Important, the performances about sexual violence during O-Week are largely improvisational, with the audience giving suggestions that are similar to the “voodoo” of Sean Stewart’s theory of interactivity in ARGs. Therefore, if the creators of an ARG choose to deal with themes of sexual violence, they might consider having a more rigid structure than “jazz.” Of course, there are still differences between the structure of O-Week’s sexual education performance and the pervasiveness of ARGs, but a structured performance can certainly be nested within an ARG. I also believe that Kaufman and Flanagan’s “obfuscation” technique can be used to provide a less “triggering” environment, in which themes of sexual violence can be explored allegorically or implicitly through the use of framing devices and genres.

    India Weston

  2. Sarah,

    I actually read your comment before reading the text — analyzing in an established lens looking for signs of how to teach sensitive subjects to others in a way that is emotionally non-threatening. It is interesting how the essay itself recognizes safe spaces and triggers. This shows Kaufman and Flanagan’s awareness of how sensitive topics can be detrimental to certain victims and individuals.

    Thus, it would seem that the authors have recognized the ‘stigma’ around these same issues, as you mention. I, too, was taken aback at the zombie example. Personally, I don’t believe a game with themes centered on the dangerous of infectious diseases should be equated with the make-believe of zombie play. Save it for Halloween.

    These potentially triggering topics obviously need to be taught in a respectful and thoughtful manner. However, if we do as Flanagan and Kaufman and desensitize the issue, the player may see it as an example of game levity.

  3. (forgot to sign in)…

    Sarah,

    I actually read your comment before reading the text — analyzing in an established lens looking for signs of how to teach sensitive subjects to others in a way that is emotionally non-threatening. It is interesting how the essay itself recognizes safe spaces and triggers. This shows Kaufman and Flanagan’s awareness of how sensitive topics can be detrimental to certain victims and individuals.

    Thus, it would seem that the authors have recognized the ‘stigma’ around these same issues, as you mention. I, too, was taken aback at the zombie example. Personally, I don’t believe a game with themes centered on the dangerous of infectious diseases should be equated with the make-believe of zombie play. Save it for Halloween.

    These potentially triggering topics obviously need to be taught in a respectful and thoughtful manner. However, if we do as Flanagan and Kaufman and desensitize the issue, the player may see it as an example of game levity.

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