Guild Chat: Should MMO guilds use trigger warnings?
Welcome along to another edition of Guild Chat, the column through which Massively Overpowered readers can air their guild issues and get help solving them from the article and its comments. This time, guild leader Ry has asked for advice on using trigger warnings and dealing with sensitive topics within the guild environment after one of her members left the guild over a difficult topic was discussed in the guild and took members with him due to the public nature of the conversation. Ry wants to know whether or not guilds have any sort of responsibility for the conversations held within them and the content that players might see there, and she also wants to know how to deal with similar scenarios should they ever come up again.
Ry’s full submission better outlines the issue at hand, though anything specific about the trigger incident has been removed so as to protect the dignity and privacy of the person who left the guild. Even though Ry ensured that he is not identifiable by her submission content, I’d hate for that person to perhaps stumble across this article and see that context spelt out here. Read below for my advice on the issue and don’t forget to add your thoughts on the matter in the comments below. Remember that I am in no way qualified to give advice on dealing with mental health issues or supporting friends through trauma and that all advice given here is purely supportive.
We joke around and we’re comfortable with discussing our real lives in the guild I run. A member I recently recruited was offended by a topic we brought up and told me that things of that nature really need to have trigger warnings. I said we didn’t do that in our guild and he left and some of his friends did too because I didn’t punish the person who was discussing the topic. This was all in the open in guild chat and I’m sorry someone was offended by us because the person didn’t mean to upset anyone by what was said and I should have dealt with it better. I am mortified that so many people left over this but don’t know if it is up to a guild to check what people say and warn people about what is said in the guild.
I’m thinking we should look at adding trigger warnings but I don’t know how and don’t want to kill the guild by making it too strict to have fun and be ourselves with each other. I am scared if I don’t that this will just happen again and I don’t want that to happen. If a trigger warning is useful, I want to do it, so all advice is needed.
This is a complicated, highly debated issue that affects all micro-communities and is particularly relevant to online discussions such as those that take place in guilds. I don’t have any background information about your guild to make this decision for you, Ry, but I do feel as though you’d benefit from both learning more about trigger warnings and looking at the sort of guild you run before applying a trigger warning rule. I also suspect that you perhaps don’t have a well-defined guild charter or ruleset because of how you dealt with the complaint when it arose, so I’ll point you to my recipe for a great guild just in case. I feel the need to add a TL;DR here: There is not one blanket, universal answer to the question of whether a guild needs to use trigger warnings because guilds are private spaces with a mutually agreed ruleset and microculture that varies from group to group.
The majority of open-community guilds don’t usually need to bring up the sort of content that requires a trigger warning: Most leaders will find that placing some boundaries on the content allowed to be aired in its chat platforms sufficiently reduces the risk of exposing vulnerable people to triggers. Many guilds do not have a trigger warning policy and instead opt to keep all guild communication strictly PG or watershed-appropriate. This is a valid policy in itself and could well be sufficient to prevent further issues in your case if you’ve not taken the time to state your guild rules clearly yet. Increasingly, however, some gaming groups and guilds have adapted to the modern use of trigger warnings to open up sensitive topics to scrutiny or debate without exposing those who would be affected by such discussions, so you wouldn’t be the first guild to put such a system in place.
If you run a family-friendly, open-to-everyone sort of guild with no age restriction that uses words such as diverse, inclusive, friendly, or supportive, your members will perhaps have a reasonable expectation that triggering topics will largely be avoided or will at the very least be handled sensitively within your guild, which might include using trigger warnings if something sensitive does need to be brought up. If, however, your guild adverts contain the phrases ‘tongue-in-cheek’, ’18+’, ‘smack-talking’, ‘adult content’, ‘rowdy bunch’, ‘dark humour’, or ‘must have a thick skin’, for instance, perhaps your anything-goes guild ethos could be problematic for players with certain triggers from the off and you’d find it beyond the scope of your guild to adequately contain your content in with warnings due to the volume of potentially triggering conversations that regularly occur.
The rest of this article will deal with how to proceed if the first case applies to you, Ry, but I will point out that if the latter is the case in your particular guild and any topic is allowed in your communications, there’s nothing saying that you need to modify your collective behaviour and cater for those who do have triggers. Having said that, however, you should still treat those who join your guild and then later find it to be unsuitable for them with respect, and you should also adapt your guild charter to reflect the sort of content members should expect to be exposed to. Unreasonable expectations could have led to the problem you faced with your old guild member and I don’t want that to be repeated, so making your guild’s nature clear is critical.
The simplest way for you to ensure you do this is to cover the sort of banter your guild engages in with new recruits during induction when explaining your guild rules and to mention that you don’t typically use trigger warnings or censor the content discussed in your guild. Your new members can then air any reservations they may have and you can work together to decide if they’ll be a good fit in your guild without dumping them into the rank and file with no warning. If they then find your discussions too much, ensure that no one inflames the situation by deliberately preying on that person’s sensitivities and also hold no grudges if they choose to leave. Just as you choose the content that is permitted in your guild, that person has the right to choose whether or not to be exposed to it without backlash.
Many guild leaders want to recruit as widely as possible and loathe to turn down members, but ensuring that your roster is made up of like-minded people who are all comfortable with the daily operations of your guild, including the content of its communications, is crucial to your guild’s health and longevity. Exposure to triggers goes far beyond mere upset so if you feel that the content aired in your guild could trigger a particular applicant and you can’t adopt a reasonable adjustment to prevent this, it is much kinder to be clear about that fact than add the member and hope it never crops up. Don’t shy away from being truthful about your guild’s normal content and be honest in all recruitment efforts. Remember that no side is at fault and, while you don’t have to make any apologies for the content contained in your guild chat, you shouldn’t make the potential member feel as though they’re wrong for being uncomfortable with certain topics either.
What is a trigger warning?
With the amount of online debate surrounding the topic, most of us will be familiar with the phrase and will have an idea of the purpose a trigger warning will serve, but it’s important to ensure that you understand the scope of the warning and how to use it if you’re to consider adding a request for members to use trigger warnings for some topics to your charter. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, think of a trigger warning as similar to the advisory notices on some television programs or a spoiler tag on an article: It marks content that a demographic of consumers might wish to avoid so they can make an informed decision about how to proceed. A trigger warning, in the context of informal online communication such as that found within guilds, doesn’t need to be much more than a quick heads-up in front of content that is likely to trigger people who have suffered from a particular type of trauma.
When constructing a trigger warning, you should avoid making a show and dance out of the act: Abusing your caps lock and special characters, for example, or tagging people you think will be affected is absolutely not needed at best and could, in the worst case, serve to alienate anyone who would be triggered by the content and exacerbate their issue by highlighting it. Instead, opt for a sentence that explains the nature of the questionable content so that readers of all backgrounds are informed before continuing, such as “Quick note, the video I’m about to share is about *whatever the topic is here*.” You don’t want to elaborate any further than needed at this point and brevity is key to making the warning as natural as possible.
If you don’t find yourself in a position where certain topics can be triggering for you, you may not know how someone would actually use such warnings as an effective safeguarding tool. The warning serves to give the reader choice, and where there is choice there is a degree of control and empowerment that is most beneficial to those who are faced with their personal trigger topics. A reader can both choose to ignore the triggering material entirely, as you might expect, but it can actually also help those who are recovering from trauma prepare themselves to tackle triggering topics. Being forewarned means that the reader can perhaps use effective management techniques that their health professionals have recommended for them.
People deal with trauma in a whole host of ways and the brain is a complex thing, so you can imagine that there is a whole host of reasons why some of us might require sufficient prior warning before difficult topics are discussed. Trigger warnings are not tools that should be used to stamp out discussion about these topics, but rather act as an alert that’s placed on a discussion that allows individuals to safeguard themselves if they need it. Such warnings can be potentially lifesaving in severe cases and those who have such triggers are not merely uncomfortable with the topic at hand and have life-impacting symptoms related to the topics that are commonly associated with trigger warnings.
People can develop such triggers in a whole host of ways and the types of trauma that can cause this response is varied, but it’s not an uncommon response and many people who have trauma-based mental health issues can benefit from these warnings. If you suffer from a phobia, imagine your reaction to suddenly facing your fear with no prior warning versus being forewarned that the fear is present and being given the choice on how to proceed: It’s not a stretch to then see how helpful a trigger warning could be to someone who has faced a trauma and needs to avoid it for their mental well-being.
How do I know when to use one?
This is perhaps the most hotly debated question surrounding the use of trigger warnings, and I can only give you my thoughts on the matter. For me, since the overuse of the sort of casual trigger warning I mentioned above has only a minimal impact on readers who do not need the warning, I’d say that if you have any doubt it wouldn’t hurt to add one. Having said that, you can help to avoid the perception of overuse by not adding a warning to immediate replies to a trigger topic where the initial warning is still visible, and you also shouldn’t feel the need to put trigger warnings on raw in-game content since that is a separate content relationship that involves the developer and player rather than the guild dynamic. As an example, if someone manipulates characters into a suggestive position and shares a screenshot, that would warrant a trigger warning, whereas I wouldn’t expect a player to use a trigger warning for a character death in the game if that is an expected occurrence in a game with the certificate your MMO of choice has.
When drafting your guild’s policy on trigger warnings, it would be impossible to draw up a list of trigger topics anyway since they are varied by nature, but giving some general guidelines about what sort of topics would be included is possible. Three main umbrellas you can cover without going into specific triggers are graphic violence, accounts of marginalisation or abuse, and graphic depictions sexual activities. Communication will be the key to refining your policy: Add a sentence in your guild charter after your new trigger warning section to explain that trigger topics are nebulous and unpredictable so general sensitivity is key.
In terms of deployment from a leader’s perspective, you’ll want to put a general trigger warning on 18+, drunk, or any other potentially unfiltered communication channels on your guild communication platforms. Place a simple TW prefix in front of the channel name and your members will know that potentially triggering topics might be discussed in those places. You’ll also want to ensure that you follow through with members who don’t use a warning when they should: At first, I would avoid imposing any punishments on members who forget while your guild adapts to the new rule and would instead remind the individual privately. Finally, don’t forget that guild leaders are not immune from following their own rules: You’ll need to ensure that you use warnings appropriately and consistently.
If you receive a further complaint, you’ll be in the position to act on it this time because you’ll have either clarified your content can verge into trigger topics or you’ll have put in place a clean-chat policy that makes use of topic restriction or trigger warnings. Follow the rules that apply to your guild, whatever you decide, and apply them evenly in each case. Don’t weigh in emotionally or defend either side to save on drama overspill: Simply state the rules to the involved parties and ensure that any resultant action, such as a recorded warning or removal from voice chat, occurs. Keep any negative outcomes private where possible: No gamers deserve to be raked over the coals in front of peers, especially in their leisure time!
Remember that the triggered party could be suffering from a rather extreme reaction to the trigger and the person who shared it: While this is understandable and some outbursts can be expected, you’ll want to support them in managing their emotional response to the situation to ensure it is contained as far as possible. Try to cut communication between the two parties as much as possible and direct the hurt party to reroute communication through you while they regather themselves to curtail any further exacerbation of the situation by both parties turning the incident into a row. When emotionally overloaded, processing communication becomes challenging, so make your writing clear and concise and don’t overload the triggered party with messages. End all discussions with an open door policy so that frayed parties can return to the discussion and air further grievances when they are calmer and more in control later.
Whatever policies you carry forward, the main thing I can stress is that online communication is a difficult thing to balance and toxicity is a problem in many game communities before you even consider accidental triggers, so use your experience to improve upon your efforts so far and learn from the experience, Ry. You won’t be the last guild leader to mishandle such a situation or drop members, and I think that seeking advice about the event is admirable. Whether you do decide to use trigger warnings or simply decide to warn members that your chat is unfiltered, I wish you happier, upset-free gaming times ahead!
Many thanks to Ry for this interesting submission. If you have a topic you’d like to see tackled on Guild Chat, email me your guild quandary for consideration.