Words about worlds

Rethinking “touch” in games

by | Oct 26, 2022 | Cypher, Games | 0 comments


It’s a familiar word, yet I found myself a few days ago confronted by it as by a stranger. I was looking for special abilities for a character design. “You must touch additional targets to protect them,” I read. For whatever reason, I reacted as if I had never seen or heard of such a thing before.

I let go of work. I let the phrase wander about my mind. I watched how I felt as it wandered. I noticed discomfort, puzzlement, surprise at these responses, and a little impatience. I let the emotions be and started following a line of cogent thought. What purpose should ‘touch’ serve in a narratively-driven game?

I suspect that everyone who reads this can recall a powerful moment in a book, a film, a photograph, a painting, or a sculpture that revolved around touch. Two characters circle each other at arm’s length for a hundred and fifty pages, and finally, exchange a single touch.

Once, around two years ago, we were walking our dog in a park. Tom and our dog had stopped to romp for a bit. While I watched, I noticed two children who appeared to be meeting for the first time. One held out a hand. The other drew back. “I don’t like to be touched,” I heard. Then I heard, “But my dog does. You can pet her if you like.” What a wise and well-taught child. What a perfect moment.

The games I prefer to play, the games I want to play, are about telling good stories in a group of people who feel safe in the story-telling space. Some people share physical contact easily, comfortably. Others avoid touch for a host of reasons. Thankfully, our culture is becoming more accepting of the idea that each person has the right to control their person and their personal space. No explanations necessary, no offense taken, a simple expression of preference and a nod of acknowledgment are all that is required. Of course, that is the ideal world. None of us can spend all our time there but we can keep working toward it.

Examining some of the content for these games that I like to play, I see something different from this ideal. I see ‘touch’ set up as a requisite. My character has to touch your character or you won’t receive this benefit. Further, your character has a job in the group. You may need that benefit to do your job well. So, even though in your heart you believe that your character would not enthusiastically consent to that touch under other circumstances, you agree to it to get the benefit, do your job, and help the group.

In this scenario, touch is doing nothing for the narrative. It doesn’t grace an intimate moment. It isn’t the highlight of a carefully-orchestrated scene between rival characters. It is a game mechanic, not a story beat, and it has the added complication of a type of peer pressure—the pressure to perform well for your group, to help your group do their best.

That’s the type of compromise I have heard narrated, over and over again, from the real lives of friends in various careers. I can’t do anything about the challenges of their real lives. But I can do something about the games they play with me.

Let’s make touch in games as intentional and consensual as we would like to see it in real life. Any time a rule-as-written includes a touch, change it. Try “immediate distance” or “for targets within a few feet”. Save touch for the story beats, for that breathless moment when people mutually reach for each other.

A challenge: let’s make touch in every game intentional, consensual, and meaningful.


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