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RPG Evolution: When Gaming Bleeds

Monte Cook Games recently released Consent in Gaming, a sensitive topic that addresses subjects that make some players uncomfortable. Central to the understanding of why there's a debate at all involves the concept of "bleed" in role-play.

Monte Cook Games recently released Consent in Gaming, a sensitive topic that addresses subjects that make some players uncomfortable. Central to the understanding of why there's a debate at all involves the concept of "bleed" in role-play.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

Bleed Basics

Courtney Kraft explains bleed:
It’s a phenomenon where the emotions from a character affect the player out of the game and vice versa. Part of the joy of roleplay comes from diving into the fantasy of being something we’re not. When we play a character for a long time, it’s easy to get swept up in the highs of victorious battle and the lows of character death. When these feelings persist after the game is over, that’s when bleed occurs.
Bleed isn't inherently bad. Like actors in a movie, players sometimes draw on experiences to fuel their role-playing, consciously or subconsciously, and this bleed can happen organically. What's of concern in gaming is when bleed has detrimental consequences to the player.

Consent in Gaming explains the risks of negative bleed:
There’s nothing wrong with bleed—in fact, it’s part of the reason we play games. We want to be excited when our character is excited, to feel the loss when our characters do. However, bleed can cause negative experiences if not handled carefully. For example, maybe a character acted in a way that your character didn’t like, and it made you angry at the player too. Or maybe your character is flirting with another character, and you’re worried that it’s also making you have feelings for the player. It’s important to talk about these distinctions between characters and players early and often, before things take an unexpected turn.
There are several aspects that create bleed, and it's central to understanding why someone would need consent in a game at all. Bleed is a result of immersion, and the level of immersion dictates the social contract of how the game is played. This isn't limited to rules alone, but rests as much on the other players as it is on the subject matter.

One of the experiences that create bleed is a player's association with the game's subject matter. For some players, less realistic games (like Dungeons & Dragons) have a lower chance of the game's experiences bleeding into real life, because it's fantasy and not analogous to real life. Modern games might have the opposite effect, mirroring real life situations a player has experience with. There are plenty of players who feel otherwise of course, particularly those deeply involved in role-playing their characters for some time -- I've experienced bleed role-playing a character on a spaceship just as easily as a modern game.

The other element that can affect bleed is how the game is played. Storytelling games often encourage deeper emotional involvement from a player, while more gamist tabletop games create a situational remove from the character by their nature -- miniatures, tactical combat, and other logistics that are less about role-playing and more about tactics. Live Action Role-Playing games (LARPs) have the player physically inhabit their role and are thus provide more opportunities for bleed. Conversely, Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) might seem like they make bleed unlikely because the player is at a computer, experiencing the game through a virtual avatar -- and yet it can still happen. Players who play a game for a long time can experience more bleed than someone who just joined a game.

Dungeons & Dragons is a particular flashpoint for discussions of bleed, because while it is a fantasy game that can easily be played with disposable characters navigating a dungeon, it can also have surprisingly emotional depth and complexity -- as many live streams of tabletop play have demonstrated.

These two factors determine the "magic circle," where the reality of the world is replaced by the structure of another reality. The magic circle is not a magic wall -- it's porous, and players can easily have discussions about what's happening in the real world, make jokes derived from popular culture their characters would never know, or even just be influenced by their real life surroundings.

The deeper a player engages in the magic circle, the more immersed that player becomes. Governing the player's social contract within the magic circle is something Nordic LARP calls this "the alibi," in which the player accepts the premise that their actions don't reflect on them but rather their character:
Rather than playing a character who is very much like you (“close to home”), deliberately make character choices that separates the character from you and provides some differentiation. If your character has a very similar job to your ideal or actual job, find a reason for your character to change jobs. If your character has a very similar personality to you, find aspects of their personality that are different from yours to play up and focus on. Or play an alternate character that is deliberately “further from home”.

Bleeding Out

Where things get sticky is when real life circumstances apply to imaginary concepts. Bleed exists within the mind of each player but is influenced by the other players. It is fungible and can be highly personal. Additionally, what constitutes bleed can be an unconscious process. This isn't necessarily a problem -- after all, the rush of playing an awesome superhero can be a positive influence for someone who doesn't feel empowered in real life -- unless the bleed touches on negative subjects that makes the player uncomfortable. These psychological triggers are a form of "bleed-in," in which the player's psychology affects the character experience. Not all bleed moments are triggers, but they can be significantly distressing for players who have suffered some form of abuse or trauma.

Consent in Gaming attempts to address these issues by using a variety of tools to define the social contract. For players who are friends, those social contracts have likely been established over years through both in- and out-of-game experiences. But for players who are new to each other, social contracts can be difficult to determine up front, and tools like x-cards can go a long way in preventing misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of tabletop role-playing games, players are coming from more diverse backgrounds with a wide range of experiences. An influx of new players means those experiences will not always be compatible with established social contracts. The recent incident at the UK Gaming Expo, as reported by Darryl is an egregious example of what happens when a game master's expectations of what's appropriate for a "mature" game doesn't match the assumed social contract of players at the table.

This sort of social contract reinforcement can seem intrusive to gamers who have long-suffered from suspicion that they are out of touch with reality, or that if they play an evil character, they are evil (an allegation propagated during the Satanic Panic). This need to perform under a "cover" in their "real" life has made the entire concept of bleed and its associated risks a particularly sensitive topic of discussion.

X-cards and consent discussions may not be for everyone, but as we welcome new players with new experiences into the hobby, those tools will help us all negotiate the social contract that makes every game's magic circle a magical experience.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

SMHWorlds

Adventurer
Great stuff to think about. Consent is a complicated issue, no matter how easy it may seem to just talk about something. And there is a big difference between people who have played together for a while or at least have been aware of one another's style for a while and those who are new to the hobby or just new to the table. That will definitely change how the conversation is framed.
 

dytrrnikl

Explorer
Feel free to disagree, but unless it's a therapeutic RPG session, I can't support the idea of the X-Card at the regular gaming table. After over 30 years of gaming, I've lost track of the number of times various GMs have run scenarios in which I got uncomfortable due to my own real life experiences. Never once when it happened, did I ever think it was their responsibility for my baggage. The idea that someone else has to worry about my issues when I game is just bonkers to me. If I get uncomfortable when I play, that's my issue, not the GM or anyone else sitting at the table. From my perspective, the x-card idea goes beyond courtesy and understanding to being responsible for another's baggage/issues. I'm all for being mindful, but that doesn't mean we should be responsible for how others respond or react to something in game.
 


SMHWorlds

Adventurer
I am of the opinion that is a stage where the hobby and how we play changes. Eventually the X-Card and other examples may fade or change. At the moment, as a means of communicating between those who play instinctively and implicitly and those who need more explicit communication, these tools and discussions are good for the hobby and the people involved. But evolution is ongoing; before we know it this discussion may not even be needed.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Weirdly, I've played for more than "over 30 years," and I would say that my opinions have changed over time, as has the way I've run my game.

Some would say that comes with maturity.

More importantly, I do feel a great deal of responsibility to how people respond and react- in most situations, including but not limited to games. I think that social occasions, such as a group of people, often friends, getting together for hours to enjoy a TTRPG, is perhaps the GREATEST example of when you should be particularly aware of how other people are thinking and how they are feeling, because you want everyone to have a good time.

But that's just basic courtesy. The two basic rules of life - 1. Be excellent to each other.* 2. No paladins.



*All true wisdom is imparted from Keanu Reeves movies.
I have appreciated your thoughtful opinions on this matter for a while now.

I'm really really sorry, but you seem to have the heart of a...... paladin.
 

Celebrim

Legend
If you have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, perhaps you should consider not playing RPGs.

That said, if you are the one deliberately blurring fantasy and reality, accusing someone else of getting confused about the two is a jerk move. For example, I think it is safe to say that there is at some level of involvement no difference between a pretend romantic relationship or a pretend erotic relationship and a romantic or erotic relationship. If you are LARPing out a romantic or erotic relationship with a person, you are in a romantic or erotic relationship with that person. The other person isn't having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, you have already blurred that line. There is no sense trying to pretend that there is some sort of 'bleed' going on if you are both players are receiving some sort of sexual feelings or gratification from erotic word play or in character flirtation. Pretending that there is some sort of distance created by saying that the characters are involved in that but the players aren't is pretty ridiculous.

Beyond that, there is a huge disconnect between the problem here labeled under the jargon language of 'bleed' and the proposed solutions. For example, if you go and read the Geek and Sundry article 'Coping With Emotional Bleed During Roleplay', none of the diverse problems lumped together and labelled as 'bleed' in that article could possibly have been dealt with social contracts involving consent. Nothing in those stories suggests that the play involved had been anything but consensual and had stayed within bounds agreed upon by the participants. Yet "bleed" occurred not only anyway, but actually because the play had been consensual, desirable, and emotionally engaging.

Once again, we have a very broad jargon term being adopted to cover a wide range of situations in a way that reduces rather than enhances understanding.
 


dytrrnikl

Explorer
Weirdly, I've played for more than "over 30 years," and I would say that my opinions have changed over time, as has the way I've run my game.

Some would say that comes with maturity.

More importantly, I do feel a great deal of responsibility to how people respond and react- in most situations, including but not limited to games. I think that social occasions, such as a group of people, often friends, getting together for hours to enjoy a TTRPG, is perhaps the GREATEST example of when you should be particularly aware of how other people are thinking and how they are feeling, because you want everyone to have a good time.

But that's just basic courtesy. The two basic rules of life - 1. Be excellent to each other.* 2. No paladins.



*All true wisdom is imparted from Keanu Reeves movies.

You missed the first portion of the highlighted blurb "I'm all for being mindful,..." I follow the golden rule of treat others how I want to be treated. When I am aware of something, I don't go out of my way to trigger anyone. If I do say or do something, whether in game or in real life, which triggers someone, and it was something for which I was genuinely unaware, of it being a trigger until it gets pointed out, I apologize and move on, keeping in mind what I just learned so I don't repeat the it with that person.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Feel free to disagree, but unless it's a therapeutic RPG session, I can't support the idea of the X-Card at the regular gaming table.

Define "regular".

For some, "regular" means a group of people that they've known for 10+ years, in their own home. For others, it is a convention or FLGS gaming space, with people they've never met, and whose ideas of what makes for good gaming, and how fellow gamers should be treated, are not well-understood. For some it is G-rated D&D, and others it it R-rated Vampire.

Some "regular" tables don't need it. Mine doesn't, for example. But some people might. And that's fine. Let them use it. Don't spend energy dumping on the thing in general, just because you don't need it.

After over 30 years of gaming, I've lost track of the number of times various GMs have run scenarios in which I got uncomfortable due to my own real life experiences. Never once when it happened, did I ever think it was their responsibility for my baggage.

We'll get to the idea of "baggage" in a moment...

The idea that someone else has to worry about my issues when I game is just bonkers to me.

Oh?

If someone came to game using crutches, or a wheelchair, would it be "bonkers" to shift some of the chairs around to make way for them? If they had a deathly allergy, would it be "bonkers" to make sure the pizza you ordered that night didn't have mushrooms on it? If you are on meds that mean you need frequent bathroom breaks, would it be "bonkers" to pause when you needed them?

Our would it just be common courtesy?

Health is health. Mental or physical. We slap a whole lot of connotations on mental health, because most of us have not managed to learn enough about it - we place a kind of blame on the person who has the problem. Referring to it as "baggage" suggests that really, if you wanted to, you could drop it. You could, as the song suggests, just let it go.

But, you can't. That's not how it works. It is less like "baggage" and more like "that old football injury" - there to stay, or only fading after a very, very long time, and it can, at times, be very painful.

Making some accommodations for a person's mental health is not any more "bonkers" than making accommodation for their physical health. Are you required to do so? No, not really*. Is it really polite and considerate? Yes. Your choice.

From my perspective, the x-card idea goes beyond courtesy and understanding to being responsible for another's baggage/issues.

With respect, when we sit down at the table, we should all be taking some responsibility for each other - we are there for a shared purpose of having a good time. If one of the players is horribly inconsiderate or a jerk, we think poorly of them for failing in this responsibility.

The X-card is not "making another responsible" for your problems. It is merely a communication tool that allows folks with a problem to communicate that with a minimum of fuss. We have socially accepted ways to say, "Hey, I need you to move that chair" or "Please don't put mushrooms on my pizza". We don't have ways to say, "That is about to freak me out, please don't do that," such that folks don't argue with you over it.

I mean, if you don't want to know when something you've done is making another person uncomfortable... or miserable or freaking them the heck out.... that's fine. You don't want to know. You keep on playing having done that to someone.

Me, I want to know, and I want to be able to make a reasonable accommodation for them if I can. There is nothing in the content of the game that is so danged important that it can't be shifted a bit for the real-world person sitting at the table. After all, the content is for those real world people.






* Though, honestly, turning away a player with an injury, because you don't want to be bothered moving a few chairs... is kinda selfish, and folks would be within their rights to consider why you would do that.
 

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