Safe Space, A How To
Last week I talked about why safe space is important at the gaming table because it helps encourage creativity and comfort, both of which are things that make a game more fun. It can also be used to add depth to a game and present more poignant moral challenges and choices. What I didn’t talk about was how we can go about creating that kind of space at the gaming table. It can be challenging, especially with a new group or a group which isn’t used to thinking about things in that way. It’s important to recognize that there’s going to be an adjustment period, but overall I think you’ll agree that a game in a safe space is better than a game not in one. Most of the information here is pulled from the GLSEN “Guide to Being an Ally”, a kit meant for educators looking to establish safe space for LGBT youth, and tuned for the gaming audience. If you’re looking for more information than I provide here, I recommend downloading the .pdf, and if you’re interested in establishing safe space at your local schools, I recommend it as a guide. What’s more important than safe space at the gaming table is safe space for our youth.
First, there are some general principles that I think we can endorse when it comes to establishing a safe space and motivating others to participate in it. And that is what you’re doing. You’re adopting a set of principles, and encouraging the other people at the gaming table to adopt them as well. With that in mind
- Be Inclusive: Demonstrate your willingness to be inclusive. This can be of ideas that you might not normally entertain, but there’s all kinds of other ways to make the gaming table an inclusive environment. I think it’s safe to say that since the beginning of tabletop gaming, the table has been chilly toward women and newbies, and I still find this every once in a while now. Being inclusive means trying to recognize and put aside biases and inviting people to play.
- Lead by Example: In all things, try and lead by example. It’s the same with anything else. No one is going to act on an idea you want them to unless you’re showing that you’re doing it too. If you want to have a safe space, then you need to treat it like a safe space, even if at the start no one else is, or only a few people.
One of the definite do’s of creating safe space is listening. Listen to what people are saying, rather than inferring what they mean by it, and listen actively. Wikipedia lists a number of great resources for active listening, and I personally like thinking about listening as translating. Taking the time to parse and evaluate a person’s words means that I’m paying attention in a way that’s constructive. We all know that listening is important, but I want to emphasize it here, because having a safe space is very much about being willing to listen instead of waiting for your turn to speak.
Also, try to be conscious of your biases. People are going to talk about things you like, and about things that don’t, but one of the things to recognize is that anything they talk about matters to them. The question to ask is “How can we use this to make the game more interesting and fun?” I’ll give you an example from life as to how this can work. I don’t drink, not for any moral reason, I just don’t like the taste. And I used to work in a bar, where I developed a low tolerance for drunk people. So I used to run a dry game. Now, back then I was in my late teens and early twenties (drinking age in Canada is 19), but I thought it was a good policy. Drinking wouldn’t make the game any more fun, after all. Fast forward a few years, and I played Warhammer Quest w/Dave G and some friends, and they had a few drinks. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that, while it was true that drinking didn’t make the game any more fun, it also didn’t make it any less fun. So the rule became “Feel free to drink, but don’t get drunk.” It’s a good policy most of the time. But then I ran a one-shot Bachelorette D&D session for a friend of mine, and half their purpose was to get blitzed and kill monsters. Every critical hit, they did a shot. And you know what? It was a hell of a good time. Once in a while, it’s fun to stay up late, get drunk, and play Paranoia. For serious. I learned that my bias was keeping me from asking the right question, and eventually found a way to make room for a practice that I don’t engage in because there are ways that it can make the game more fun.
Along with do’s, there are some definite don’ts which are worth discussing. Don’t try to have all the answers as to why something should or shouldn’t be included. Work with the other players to decide how you want to integrate things, rather than deciding that there’s only one way to do it. A game isn’t real life. You can pick out the pieces that you want from an idea, without needing to include all of the logical entailment there. Games do this all the time, because they’re simplified versions of real life situations. Also, don’t make assumptions. Not everyone who roleplays cross gender is gender confused, in the same way that not everyone who enjoys Grand Theft Auto is a moral monster. This goes along with listening. Listen to what people are saying, rather than inferring their meaning. If it seems unclear, ask for clarification rather than making an assumption about what they want or why they want it. A good example of this is introducing antiheroes. Sometimes players don’t want to save the village, they want to take their awesome powers and run rampant for a bit. This could mean playing a villain, but the antihero archetype let’s them do that without necessarily being villains.
The question that remains though, is what to do when somebody raises that really controversial idea. There are lots, and what they are is going to vary from table to table. Here’s a few things you can do which are constructive, however.
- Appreciate their Courage; Putting forward an idea that you know nobody else is going to necessarily look favourably on involves taking a risk, and if you want to encourage people to take those kinds of creative risks, then make sure to give them recognition for it. Whether or not it proves useful in the long run, they mustered the brass to put it out there, and that means something.
- Be willing to challenge traditional norms: Don’t just recognize bias, but try and eradicate it. Push the envelope, and take some dramatic risks. It’s a game, which gives you that kind of leeway. You already want to do this when you want your game to stand out. Rather than saving princesses from dragons all the time, maybe you want to save the dragon from the princess.
Well, this has been a text heavy series on safe space, but I hope it’s been useful. Creating safe and inclusive environments for gamers doesn’t just seem like a constructive way to have fun, it’s good for the hobby as a whole, I think. It’s also important to note that this isn’t just for GMs. Anyone can adopt these and start doing it. Would you try and implement some of these in your game? Why or why not? What other things do you think are important to establishing safe space?