Safe Space

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In one of my earliest posts, I talked about how working with players to create a safe space in which people can express themselves is an important goal for a GM, and really for any group organizer. But it raises a lot of questions about what it means to have a safe space, and why it’s important. Today I thought I’d talk about that, and give some examples of safe spaces which could be used as models.

So what is safe space? Advocates for Youth defines a safe space as

“A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.”

I think they’ve said it better than I ever could. It’s an idea that comes up a lot in reference to LGBT, but has a relevance which stretches beyond it. The part of it which really affects the gaming table (apart from the inclusivity inherent in the statement, which seems to go without saying) is the notion of being able to engage in self-expression without any reservations. Often, the decisions we make for characters do not reflect our own values, and as such should be extended a certain amount of leeway.

This is important because not everyone wants to play shining high fantasy heroes, and being required to do so by convention seems like it makes things less fun. If someone wants to play a character of another gender, sexual orientation, or moral persuasion, it seems important to have a space where that can be discussed openly and carries no stigma. A popular theme in some D&D games is the Evil Campaign, which I discussed a bit in a post on goals. But to be evil, the party has to do evil. Its players have to commit their characters to actions which we might find morally unconscionable, and that’s fine. We already account for the same thing in video games. If you enjoy games like Saints Row or Overlord, that doesn’t seem to bother people. Having a safe space allows for a greater range of play, and for players and GMs to be comfortable expressing a greater range of ideas, which makes the game more fun.

But, you might argue, there are some things which we should never bring up, not even in the context of fiction. Things like rape, torture, or pedophilia might seem to fall into this category, but its important to note that we can talk about these things and even have fictional characters engage in them without endorsing them. This becomes clearer when one considers works like Lolita or Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women, shown here. These depict the acts and states involved without sanctioning them. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be treated carefully, or that they must be included in every game, but that in a safe space, it needs to be okay to talk about them, and people ought to be open to the idea. Consider the implications in a fantasy game of having institutionalized pederasty like the Spartans did, or of having feudal lords exercising the jus primae noctis, the first night. It can create interesting stories, and interesting stories shouldn’t be curtailed. It raises moral challenges and permits characters to struggle and rise above them in a way which is meaningful. Certain themes can make people uncomfortable, but all kinds of themes make people uncomfortable, and that’s a relevant consideration. Having a safe space means being able to talk about why it does that, and making a decision as a group which respects their interests. Having the ability to express these views though, carries with it the responsibility of respecting the views of others. That doesn’t mean not challenging them or disagreeing with them, but it means focusing on the view rather than the person, and doing so in a manner which leads to meaningful discussion.

Here are some examples of small groups which already try and maintain a safe space, and what that means for them.

  • Improv Group: For an improv group or any other theatre group, safe space helps them be comfortable interacting closely. A lot of theatre involves contact and other situations where a person is vulnerable, and a safe space allows them to do that with the knowledge that the people they work with aren’t going to make them unwelcome based on the way they express themselves.
  • Discussion Group: Safe space is important for discussion groups because people need to be able to exchange ideas freely, and establishing that they won’t be excluded on the basis of the kinds of ideas they offer or propositions they put forth is an important part of enabling that.
  • Writing Circle: When reviewing other people’s writing, safe space helps separate the writing from the writer, freeing them to talk about what they want without being worried about ostracism.

With all of these examples, there are elements which are removed from reality. For theatre groups, it’s what happens on stage. Discussion groups, it’s about the ideas and topics, and writing circles it’s about distinguishing what’s written about with who’s writing it. Similarly, in a role-playing game, there’s a distinction between the attitudes of a player and that of their character. Having a safe space allows the character to express attitudes which might be wildly different from the norm, and permit the player to engage in a sort of theatrical exploration of them. What happens in the game, stays in the game.

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