On safety: you can’t have emotional safety until you remove predators from your community

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Cheyenne Grimes about the topic of safety in roleplaying games as part of a more extensive project she’s looking to put together about the topic. I was pleasantly surprised at how thorough and extensive the questions she sent were, so I asked for permission to publish her questions and my answers.

(Given that I was preparing to publish some pretty big stuff about abuse and abusers, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of my answers revolve around a common theme – namely that we can’t make meaningful improvements to cultures of safety at the table without taking action to remove predators and abusers from our community.)

The interview is as follows, with Cheyenne’s questions in bold and my answers in plain text.

What is your name, and what is your experience with safety in larp and RPGs? (Please feel welcome to mention any other relevant credentials here, this is how I will credit you.)

My name is Anna Kreider, and I am a blogger who focuses on issues of games, social justice, and rehabilitating broken communities. I also design games, both tabletop and LARP that focus on emotionally challenging content. Whether it’s The Watch – a game about women and non-binary people dismantling an allegory for patriarchy, Autonomy – game that teaches men to perform female socialization and then punishes them for it, or The Straights Are Not Okay – a game about marinating in heterosexist emotional repression, the games I write tend to invoke intense and uncomfortable feelings. But obviously, I always want to find ways to do that responsibly and without harming my players, so safety is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

What is your ideal safety system structure, and why? (Is it a single manager? A team? A list of rotating third party consultants? An automated help-desk software?)

So, to use the analogy of things that promote safety as a tool, I think we need to stop thinking about safety in terms of which safety tool is BEST and more think about what safety tools do you need to have in your toolbox? Because not having the correct safety tools is bad, but using the wrong safety tools can actually cause further harm to someone in a difficult situation. And no one safety tool is going to work for everyone at your table or in your game. To use an example that everyone in tabletop is familiar with, the X-Card has become pretty standard at most organized events. However, I also know people who find the X-Card triggering and who prefer other safety tools. So it’s important to think of things to improve player safety not in terms of one-size-fits-all solutions, but rather than a constellation of related approaches.

In the games that I run, I do have defaults I stick to. The X-Card is at the table in all of the tabletop games that I run, partly for safety and partly because it’s an easy way to shut down sexist or racist comments during con games without getting into an argument. The LARPs I run always have The Door Is Always Open, Cut, Brake/Largo, and sometimes (depending on the game) the OK Check-In.

More crucial than even having the right tools, however, is having a genuine culture of safety that goes beyond paying lip service to the concept of safety, because without a genuine safety culture, safety tools are not useful or effective. This means taking emotional safety seriously and not denigrating players who need safety tools to engage with challenging content, or lionizing people who play “intensely” (both things I’ve seen happen in LARP especially). However, it also means getting your damn house in order when accusations of harassment and abuse come forward. There has been a lot of furor in LARP circles over dudes who talk big game about safety being outed as harassers/predators, and this shit is so predictable that you could practically set your watch by it.

No one is seriously going to believe that you care about emotional safety in your games if you turn a blind eye to predators in your games. If you don’t care about the emotional safety of survivors outside of your game, then why would you care about emotional safety inside the game? That kind of organizational double-think is a huge barrier to people actually using safety tools when they need to instead of just suffering silently.

Lastly, all of this stuff has to be talked about, planned, and agreed upon before the event. I don’t participate in blockbuster LARPs, but I’ve heard stories where the approach to safety is very ad hoc or not addressed at all, and that kind of laissez faire attitude toward safety is pretty much guaranteeing that someone is going to be harmed at your event.

How do you communicate your safeguards to your players? (A policy packet, a workshop or lecture, a website, etc)

First, I make sure that the pitch for the game is up front about challenging themes or material, because you never want to surprise someone with challenging content after they’ve signed up for your game. Once players arrive, I review the game pitch again and specifically call out the themes that might cause difficulty. For example, “The Watch is a game about women and non-binary people destroying patriarchy. During this game, we’re going to center themes of toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression, although we will never showcase sexual or gendered violence. Is that something everyone is okay with? Great.” And then I review the safety tools being used before I go any further with explaining the rules of the game – because I want to be clear that the safety rules are the MOST important rules, and not make them seem like an afterthought or addendum.

Also, I’m always careful about how I frame the need for safety tools. So rather than saying ‘this lets us remove problematic content’ – a framing I’m not particularly fond of, I’ll say “obviously we love and care about each other and want everyone to have a good experience, but we don’t know each other’s backgrounds and play preferences, so this is a tool to help us play bravely and engage with challenging content while still having compassion for each other. I promise that I’ll use this tool if I need to, and I hope that you’ll do the same, so we can all have a satisfying play experience”.

Do you provide outside safety resources to players? If so, what resources and how?

Because most of the games I run are one-shots at conventions, usually not? Although for the last several years, all of the games that I’ve written have included links to additional reading about safety tools and safety resources.

How often, if ever, would you consult professionals during the process of handling reports?

Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you mean here?

What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when writing safeguards?

While I design games, I haven’t done anything with designing safety tools themselves. I find it’s easier for me to use and adapt already existing tools than to develop my own, although I’ll often refine the script as to how those tools are introduced and framed.

What is your experience with whisper networks? Under what circumstances do you trust them, and why?

Whisper networks are simultaneously extremely flawed and extremely vital, and they’re not going away any time soon because they are a direct reaction to our inability to remove predators from our communities. As long as we continue to enable predators and punish victims, we are going to keep having whisper networks.

Obviously whisper networks aren’t perfect, because inevitably the warnings about missing stairs don’t reach everyone who needs to hear them – especially people new to the community, which is why predators often target people who haven’t been around long enough to know about their history of abuse. However, I myself am part of several active whisper networks, and on more than one occasion have reached out to share private warnings with someone I thought needed to know them. Sometimes this has happened because I have not felt safe to talk openly about bad experiences with an abuser/predator/bad actor with a lot of social currency or power. However, sometimes this has happened because I know things about an abuser/predator/bad actor that are not my story to share, and the person who told me those things in confidence is not willing to be public about their story.

As someone who has tanked on issues of social justice and has taken a stand in directly naming several abusers, I can tell you from painful personal experience that there is a very real cost to openly naming abusers, and it is not a cost that everyone can afford to pay. And the more marginalized someone in a community is, the higher the cost for speaking out becomes.

That said, whisper networks are not perfect and anonymous accusations can be weaponized for the sake of personal vendettas. That’s why I place more weight on something I hear through a whisper network when it comes with a name attached, and I’m able to speak to the person to verify that they stand by that allegation. An individual anonymous accusation is something I treat more as a data point – potentially useful, potentially not, but requiring more information before any meaningful conclusions can be reached.

How do you protect your safeguards and safety systems from misuse cases?

I mean, there’s the $64,000 question, right? Because one of the primary tools in the abuser’s toolkit is DARVO – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s something I’ve personally experienced, when my harasser claimed that because I was open about the abuse he perpetuated against me, I was actually harassing him and was thus an evil abuser who needed to be ousted from the community. And put that way, the logic seems laughably transparent, doesn’t it?

And yet, despite that I was one of dozens of people he harassed this way, it took the better part of a decade (as well as four women coming forward to accuse him of rape and gendered violence at the same time) in order for people to finally remove him from their circles. Prior to that, when his bad behavior became an issue and the allegations of harassment were raised, people would point to his DARVO rhetoric as an argument that my accounts couldn’t be trusted. That because there was controversy, it was better to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So it’s great to theorize about how you protect your system from misuse by abusers, but given how bad we are at actually believing survivors and removing predators when they throw out these DARVO tactics, I think it’s a problem that we don’t have enough collective knowledge in how to solve yet.

How do you keep your safety systems from being infiltrated by abusive people? Do you have a plan for that?

Honestly, the culture of fear and silence around abusers is so widespread that I think it’s impossible to prevent abusers from infiltrating safety systems entirely. Until we have normalized people speaking openly about abuse and making abusers actually experience consequences for their abusive actions, it’s unrealistic to think that we can design systems that will exclude abusers from infiltrating them. Especially since establishing credibility as a safety expert makes a great cover against accusations of abuse. “Well so-and-so can’t possibly have done those things because they’ve done so much work to improve safety in our community!” Etc etc.

Instead, you need to plan for what happens when someone on your safety team is accused of abuse. How do you evaluate that claim while making sure that the person bringing forward that claim isn’t unfairly punished for doing so? How do you make sure that the person accused of abuse has no ability to marginalize or intimidate their accuser, while also leaving yourself open to the possibility that the accusation might be personally motivated? Also, how do you deal with a situation in which a relationship has spun out of control and both parties have abused each other? Because that situation is WAY more common than we like to think, especially when mental illness and trauma are involved.

Now, all of that said, I’m going to add that just because the accuser is of a marginalized identity doesn’t always mean they’re acting in good faith. Just as queer white people can still be racist, not everyone who brings forward accusations is acting in good faith. I’ve personally seen things like a marginalized person who accused a cisdude ex-partner of abuse as revenge for a relationship dissolving because they know they’ll be believed and their partner won’t. Or a marginalized person accusing an ex-partner of abuse as a cover for the fact that they were abusing their ex-partner. So there are definite edge cases to be aware of and be cautious of.

That said, the statistics of who speaks up about abuse, the veracity of their claims, and how many additional people stay silent are very clear. Most of the time, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there is at least some merit to the claim. And very very often, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there are other additional people who have had similarly abusive experiences but who don’t feel they can be public in naming that person until other people step forward first.

What are some red flags you look for that may indicate someone is abusive or manipulating a situation?

I mean, many, many, many words have been spilled about how to recognize abusers, so what I’ll say is this. Believe actions, not words. And pay attention to patterns over individual incidents. Abusers are very, very good at using the right words to make you believe in their good intentions. So you always have to consider the full context and history of someone’s actions.

As far as specific red flags? I mean. Most people know what inappropriate behavior looks like when they see it, and most people are able to discern when someone is uncomfortable. (This is not true for all people on the autism spectrum, but it’s true enough to be a useful generalization) Very often when someone is outed as an abuser, it comes out that there were lots of red flags about that person’s behavior, but they were either excused, rationalized, or dismissed by the community, because it would be inconvenient to deal with that person’s inappropriate behavior. (Very often, abusers invest heavily in building social capital exactly as a defense against people seriously examining their actions or behavior. While not all abusers are prominent and powerful, many are and this needs to be remembered.)

So believe actions, not words. Believe patterns over individual incidents. And if someone in your organization brings up the same red flags over a long period of time, then commit to having a genuine conversation with the people you have seen made uncomfortable by that person, and commit to having a conversation with the person tripping those red flags.

What resources do you use to inform your own decisions in these matters?

Because of my history of being abused by popular narcissists who get the community to sanction their abuse of me, frankly I don’t have anything to do with any kind of official decision-making when it comes to these sorts of community interactions. It’s too exhausting and triggering for me. I know it’s important work, but I’m frankly too jaded to engage with the process with the good faith that is required for meaningful and helpful outcomes.

What is your process for getting to the bottom of reports of bad behavior?

See above.

What is your ideal process for a participant reporting bad behavior? What information do you require, and how should they submit it?

In a past life, I actually developed a concise 2 page document that sets out how conversations about allegations of abuse should be handled to ensure that everyone remains safe. It’s a bit hard to summarize, but that document is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Guy32eOGJvreHoqRgnvOzCmzxyjHnE19L3rvxx2G9Xo/edit?usp=sharing

What would you change about the current safety culture if you could?

I will shout this from the rooftops until I die, apparently, but honestly I think the two biggest problems are:

  1. People who believe that the push for safety in games are whiny entitled snowflakes who are ruining everyone’s fun. Safety tools actually increase people’s ability to engage intensely with challenging content and promote everyone’s fun, not the reverse.
  2. The rank hypocrisy of people who want to address emotional safety in games while also turning a blind eye to powerful people who abuse people, or actively dismissing reports of abuse as personally motivated or unreliable. Until we address the issue of our communities actively sanctioning abuse and punishing people who speak out, we’re not going to make serious headway in addressing the problem of protecting players from harm during emotionally intense games.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make their community more safe?

Educate yourself about abuser tactics and psychology and become familiar with the abuser playbook. You can’t make communities materially more safe unless you learn how abusers think and act.