clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Dr. Terrence Kyne muses in his laboratory aboard the USG Ishimura, wearing a sci-fi lab suit with a RIG display over his spine, in the Dead Space remake.

Filed under:

How content warnings became invaluable in modern games

An accessibility tool, explained

Image: Motive Studio/Electronic Arts
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

There’s nothing more frustrating than working your way through a game only to bump up against some barrier — an unbeatable boss, a terrible platforming section, or the sudden appearance of a phobia. As time goes on, games are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they break these barriers. One tool at a developer’s disposal looks simple, but can work well in concert with other options: the content warning.

A content warning is simple in purpose but difficult in practice. It’s a brief warning that allows someone to gird themselves before heading into a difficult scene or potentially triggering moment. A basic implementation is a simple string of text that appears before the game begins, describing the types of potentially upsetting themes or moments in the game. But content warning systems have also become more sophisticated and creative over time, with a range of more complex implementations. The recent Dead Space remake, for example, shows content warnings before relevant scenes, and informs the player of the specific concern: self-inflicted death, medical malpractice, or graphic death by gunshot.

Dead Space is one of the largest games to have such a system, but it’s not the first. Joanna Blackhart, an accessibility and sensitivity specialist currently working on indie titles Frogsong and Way to the Woods, has experience with the challenge. Blackhart worked on Ikenfell as a sensitivity reader. At the time, the team realized that going through the full script was surprisingly fraught, as the player encounters sensitive topics while exploring the inner lives of magical teens attending the wizard school Ikenfell.

Ikenfell - Students at Ikenfell line up in the courtyard. One student says “I can’t WAIT to learn some cool magic!!” Image: Happy Ray Games/Humble Games

Blackwell created the content warning system and presented it to the team. “[Chevy Ray Johnston, creator of Ikenfell] coded the first iteration in minutes,” says Blackhart in a call with Polygon. “I went through the entire game again, writing up all the places and determining where content warnings were needed.”

After iteration from other team members and the community, the feature was solidified. These warnings, much like the ones in Dead Space, do not interrupt gameplay or censor any game material on their own. A small text box appears beneath the gameplay that simply explains that the next scene might be triggering, and gives a preview of its content — for example, “Content warning: mention (but no depiction) of blood.”

“Parents were using it to determine scenes they could share with their kids,” says Blackhart. “Other people were using them to open up about the content with viewers on Twitch, or starting conversations. It happened so fast, and so naturally — it was beautiful.”

This type of system has shown up in other games, like Doki Doki Literature Club — on which Blackhart consulted with developer Team Salvato. Doki Doki Literature Club starts with a content warning for disturbing imagery and themes of suicide, but the player can toggle content warnings that appear before the scenes in question.

The player character leaves Chicory’s home in Chicory: A Colorful Tale Image: Greg Lobanov/Finji

In Chicory: A Colorful Tale, players can toggle on content warnings; these warnings pop up before a potentially upsetting scene, like one about depression, and give players the option to skip over it. And Psychonauts 2 opens with a content warning indicating that the game includes vomit, tight spaces, depictions of PTSD, and more. The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe includes context-sensitive content warnings and also allows players to skip past distressing scenes.

But Dead Space stands apart as a large game that contains such comprehensive content warnings, as well as a filter to hide the game’s most graphic and gory moments. Christian Cimon, lead senior experience designer on Dead Space, explained in an email to Polygon that it is “a terrifying game filled with blood and gore, but it also has an incredible story in a unique setting. This is why we decided to introduce a mechanic whereby these players could choose to turn down the most graphic stuff, allowing them to better enjoy the awesome story.”

“The ‘content warning’ and ‘hide disturbing content’ features are two options that have been designed to complement each other, thereby allowing players to control how they view the more graphic moments and, ultimately, have a more positive player experience,” added Morgan Baker, EA’s program lead for game accessibility.

“While it’s true that Dead Space is a horror game where its fundamental gameplay involves dismembering enemies that jump from vents or chase down corridors, some elements within the narrative go beyond what is typical within the horror genre,” Baker writes. “We know that not all players are interested in being exposed to moments like self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. So the team implemented optional settings to add warnings and hide potentially graphic scenes to allow more players to enjoy even the most gruesome of games.”

Isaac is pinned to the ground under a necromorph in the laboratory of the USG Ishimura in the Dead Space remake. Image: Motive Studio/Electronic Arts

Some games have potentially triggering moments or specifically concerning scenes, but Dead Space is so terrifying top to bottom that it proved a challenge to filter. “First, we established that we would focus on tagging violence against humans, and then we made a list of all the scenes where this was the case,” writes Cimon. “Finally, we rated those scenes according to a somewhat subjective ‘disturbing’ factor. The scenes judged to be the most graphic, for instance, where there was extreme human brutality, self-harm and psychological violence, were then signposted by the Content Warning and incorporated into the filter functionality.”

Content warnings have been normalized in other mediums, like film, where a movie starts with an age rating and highlights relevant factors. While video games have an ESRB icon, which functions similarly, there are also community-made resources. Crowdsourced sites like Does the Dog Die? allow users to warn each other about dead animals, nuclear explosions, or sexual assaults with details and time stamps. And sites like Can I Play That? offer comprehensive breakdowns of content warning systems in games, along with other accessibility settings. It allows people to take a moment and prepare themselves before heading into a game, and removes the unpleasant gut punch of a surprise trigger.

It’s still rare to find a content warning in a game, and there’s still room for iteration and improvement. But this facet of accessibility is one thing that developers can include to remove a small barrier that might impede players from enjoying an otherwise fantastic experience.