It’s been a year since Boyfriend Dungeon came under fire online at launch for a content warning that developer Kitfox Games admits was insufficient. The original warning, shown at the beginning of the game, said the dating sim/dungeon crawler “may include references to unwanted advances, stalking, and other forms of emotional manipulation.” The “may” was doing a lot of heavy lifting, as the stalking storyline was actually the game’s main plot.
Following the criticism, the content warning was updated, but the floodgates were opened up for Boyfriend Dungeon to become a case study in the effectiveness of content warnings, and weaponizing the issue to tear down games that were inclusive, sometimes by people these games are for.
“I’m sad that people think [Boyfriend Dungeon] was controversial,” Kitfox co-founder Tanya Short tells Fanbyte. “Because, honestly, it was mostly just, we had a slightly inaccurate content warning for a few days. I think it was literally like a week. Then a bunch of people decided to take advantage and get angry for unrelated reasons that there was feminine or queer-friendly content taking up space.”
For a window of time, Boyfriend Dungeon became a lightning rod for criticism of its inclusion of the stalker plotline, to the point where voice actor Alexander Gross received online harassment for just playing Eric, the character the content warning was referring to. For Short, she says this was an indication that some of the criticism was coming from people “not operating in good faith.”
For other indie devs, the controversy that followed Boyfriend Dungeon was both a disheartening example of online harassment, and a learning experience for how to handle content warnings in their own games. ValiDate Lead Producer Dani Lalonders tells Fanbyte she thought the backlash the game received was “very stupid,” and stopped feeling like meaningful criticism after the content warning was updated.
“I understand wanting to have that trigger warning for stalking because that is very scary for a lot of people, but I feel like it got blown [out of] proportion,” Lalonders says. “It was just like, ‘alright, this is no longer constructive criticism. This is just y’all being kind of dickheads because, to a point, ‘okay they added the content warnings, why are we still having this conversation?’ It just felt like a hate mob for no reason.”
Sarah Northway, Lead Developer for I Was a Teenage Exocolonist echoed that sentiment, and says she felt the inclusion of the content warning was, in and of itself, opening it up to a criticism not often levied at AAA games with much more explicit content. Northway pointed to Cyberpunk 2077, which has plotlines about sexual assault, suicide, and other possibly triggering subject matter, but only features a warning about a since-altered sequence that could trigger an epileptic seizure.
“My husband’s playing Cyberpunk  right now. I kind of bounced off it myself, but there is a lot of crazy crap in there and they don’t tell you upfront,” Northway tells Fanbyte. “So nobody is expecting anything from it, right? They’re expecting it to just be violence and whatever, but because Boyfriend Dungeon was trying to help people and they did warn people that there is a character who was a stalker, he’s a scary bad dude, then people were like, ‘they should have done more.’ They didn’t do it perfectly, therefore they get torn down because they tried at all.”
Short says she feels the separate standards between AAA and indie games when it comes to content warning feels wrapped in franchise recognizability. A big game marketed by huge companies is more established when a player buys in, so there’s less unknown to deal with than an indie game people may just happen upon.
“No offense to God of War, but you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy God of War 15, right? Where most [indies] often tend to not only be new IP, but they tend to be offering something fresh and innovative,” she says. “So that exact reason why they’re so appealing also means there’s this potential for misunderstanding, for people to not know that the game they’re buying might have something that’s uncomfortable for them.”
While that franchise recognizability helps players know what they’re getting into, games being made by hundreds of people are hamstrung by protocols smaller teams aren’t. So adding a content warning can be a quick conversation between a few people, whereas AAA games would have more hoops to jump through to add any such warning.
“I want to say [indie developers are] more thoughtful, but I don’t want to say this in a way that is trashing AAA, because I do love AAA dearly, and I have a lot of friends who work for AAA and I understand the culture over there is a lot different from indie. But we do have a lot more control of the things that we do and the things we put in our games,” Lalonders says. “It doesn’t have to go through several channels to get approved. If we want to put something in our game we can just do it. We don’t have to ask anyone.”
So what have indie devs learned from watching the conversation around video game content warnings unfold? A lot, as it happens, and before they’ve put their games out into the world. I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is a life sim that takes place over the course of its main character’s teenage years, which are spent helping to maintain a community marooned on an alien planet. Those teenage years can play out in myriad ways depending on the player’s relationships and decisions, including some ways Northway thought merited a content warning after people’s impressions of I Was A Teenage Exocolonist’s early hours didn’t quite match the tonal shift that would follow. Some early players even mentioned playing it with their children.
“I was concerned that people were just not really getting it,” Northway says. “But also just concerned that no matter what we do with the beautiful art style, the pastel colors — a lot of people are going to read it as a very easy game, like a game that’s not going to make you cry or get upset or whatever. It’s like, ‘no, no, we are actively trying to make our players feel a large range of emotions, and some of them are quite negative.’”
I Was A Teenage Exocolonist’s content warnings are pretty thorough, as the game touches on several heavy topics over the course of its story. The main menu has a drop down list of topics from body horror, animal cruelty, and domestic abuse, which include descriptions of these storylines out of context, but some content warnings include the option to read spoilers, as well as choices to make to avoid these plotlines entirely. The form the content warnings took changed over the course of development, with Northway citing Narrative Designer Lindsay Ishihiro’s input and experience with the queer community and fanfic community, where content warnings are prevalent, helping to bring it to the “more sensitive” version that exists in the game today.
“I initially was just like, ‘I would rather go in blind and take my chances,’ and the fact that there is a content warning for the game is enough to tell me that I shouldn’t be playing this with little kids and there are things in it that might shock me, and I would just be fine with that,” Northway says. “But I know there are a lot of people who really, really want the specifics. So I was just like ‘let’s just lay out every single detailed thing, I didn’t really care. I was like, ‘if you’re worried about it, then you’re just making the choice to give yourself spoilers.’”
For ValiDate, extensive content warnings came to the dating sim after feedback from its 2020 demo, but the game’s grounded subject matter and focus on issues specific to queer people of color made it important to the team to give players fair warning about content ahead of time.
“I actually really wanted to focus on talking about things that people of color, especially queer people of color deal with,” Lalonders says. “We have a lot of talk about homophobia, body image, sexual assault, suicide, harassment. Our characters really deal with a number of problems. So we wanted to make sure that we were warning people before getting into that.”
We have learned and heard from your feedback! At the beginning of every ValiDate route, there will be a series of content warnings for the contents of the route! pic.twitter.com/Xo1nQntkG6
— ValiDate Game (@ValiDateGame) May 18, 2022
Similar to I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, Veritable Joy Studios was concerned ValiDate’s colorful art style may lead players to assume they’re dealing with a game that only deals in wholesome, happy themes. So Lalonders says it was important to be upfront about themes at the beginning of each of the dating sim’s routes. Each has a title page with author credits and content warnings, and they range from use of substances like alcohol, exercises in prejudice such as misgendering and misogynoir, and even some less common content warning subjects like conspiracy theories. Lalonders says it’s important to be upfront about these things, because it can help create a more inclusive and empathetic culture within games, both between players, but also between developers and the people playing their games.
“Content warnings are not a required thing, but it is a nice thing to do,” she says. “It means you care about the people that are playing your game.”
As for Boyfriend Dungeon, Kitfox is at work on the game’s Secret Weapons DLC, which includes new dating options and stories to go with them. Short says she hopes the team won’t have to update the game’s content warning for it, but says “maybe [she] should get fresh eyes on it to make sure.”
“We’ve been reflecting on the original game, and I think my main takeaway was that it would’ve been ideal to have an editor,” Short says. “I sort of functioned as my own editor throughout the game’s development, and by sort of just removing myself from a piece of writing for three months and then coming back and editing it and doing more drafts, but having completely fresh eyes might have helped us catch this or be more prepared for it.”
Despite the valid criticism regarding the content warning, Short says Kitfox stands by keeping Eric and his storyline in Boyfriend Dungeon in the face of online demands to remove him, and said that the point of his character was to make people uncomfortable. He was the antagonist of the game, after all.
“I wanted an antagonist that was relatable, because part of what I wanted for the writing of Boyfriend Dungeon was for it to feel approachable, human, and like realistic people to some degree. At least an essence of realism in there,” Short says. “For that to work with the antagonist, they had to feel like an actual person. I thought, to some degree, it was a success that the antagonist does make you uncomfortable. He does manipulate you, and that’s part of why he’s bad.”
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As content warnings become more prominent in both video games and media broadly, detractors have claimed rating systems, such as the ESRB for video games or the MPA for film already have this covered. Short says content warnings feel more tailored to the game itself, rather than being a quick shorthand as to whether or not a game is appropriate for a certain aged audience.
“From what I understand, the age ratings were devised to generalize about safety exposure,” Short says. “But you could be 99-years-old and still not want to encounter, I don’t know, emotional manipulation. I don’t think there should be an age rating on emotional manipulation because maybe five-year-olds do need to learn about that in a safe way.”
Lalonders agreed, pointing out that an M ESRB rating doesn’t tell you much about the context of what’s going on in a game, and that two vastly different experiences can both receive the same rating within these systems.
“A lot of games are just rated M nowadays. That doesn’t mean anything,” Lalonders says. “ValiDate is rated M and Elden Ring is rated M. Two different games. ValiDate talks about drugs and sexuality. Elden Ring talks about whatever the fuck be happening in Elden Ring. The ESRB is just a rating that we all have to do to put our games on any platform. That’s fine. But it doesn’t mean anything beyond the fact that you should probably be 17 to play this game.”
Even within rating systems like ESRB, the content it describes in its rating is limited to a select number of descriptions, most geared towards whether or not content is appropriate for children. Northway described a scene in I Was a Teenage Exocolonist that she compared to the plot of Groundhog Day, in which the player character is experiencing the same events in a loop, which they can attempt to explain to friends and family. However, when characters don’t believe them, this can result in them being forcibly institutionalized, which a player may have an experience with. But the ESRB doesn’t have rating descriptions that specific, whereas a content warning can.
“Our rating system is just concerned with things that mothers in America are scared of, right? ‘Are there pictures of nudity?’ That’s one of the things, and largely, that is not what upsets a player, right,” Northway says. “This is a narrative game, it’s all gonna be in text, there are no pictures of tiddies or whatever, but there are going to be descriptions of things that are way more upsetting and very specific, in particular. So I think ESRB, it covers ‘is this a game for children,’ like a general age thing.”
While indie developers are approaching them in different ways, Short, Lalonders, and Northway all say they think normalizing them, especially in indie games where word of mouth may not be as prevalent, is an easy way to extend a hand to your audience and show a concern for their well-being as you delve into weighty, emotional subject material, and that detractors need only consider that one screen of content warnings can help others best engage with games that may still be meaningful to them in the long run.
“I guess I would just say if someone feels like, ‘This is overblown. I would never be triggered by anything,’ that’s great. Lucky you,” Short says. “Just think about how maybe just one screen popping up can help some other people enjoy more games, books, and movies. It’s not a huge hassle for you to endure a content warning that might help somebody else.”