Unintentional Harm: Oops, I Did It Again

Have you ever had a game go sideways and you're not really sure how or when it happened but man, oh, man, did it every go sideways? It didn't just go sideways, it crashed and burned and everyone at the table sat there in actual shock for a few minutes? Or worse, someone got hurt and didn't say anything until they couldn't bear it anymore and you feel awful but the damage is so far gone at this point there's nothing you can do but flail at them and hope they hear you past their hurt?

This happened to me recently. I wasn't the wronged party. I was the one who had stepped in shit and didn't notice I was causing the whole place to stink. Honestly, I should've seen it coming. I should have picked up what was happening but instead, I was too busy engrossed in the fiction and playing a character and feeling a lot of feels that made me incredibly (beautifully) uncomfortable.

After this game exploded and the GM wisely called it, I felt powerless to fix the mistake I had made. I tried giving an apology and it wasn't wanted or welcomed, and I stopped, because I wanted to respect that the wounded party wasn't interested or willing to hear me out. And that's fine. We can't really ask people to listen to us after we've done something that's hurt them. I sat there, stunned, and hurt. I wasn't hurt because people had hurt me. I was ashamed and saddened that I had participated in and done something that made someone else have a shitty table experience.

Sometimes, we don't see this coming. Other times, we can head it off at the pass. There isn't a much more shitty feeling than knowing you've burned a bridge before you even knew it was a bridge. As I retreated from the game and ran back to the hotel room to try to figure out how I had fucked up so badly, I began to tumble down the rabbit hole of anxiety around gaming. I strive hard not to hurt people and not to silence them, but clearly I had made a mistake.

It's easy to do. Many of us, even conscious of our privilege, end up doing or saying something unintentional. We use a slur we didn't know was a slur, we make an ableist character, we minimize someone's experience, we talk over people with less power than us, we dominate at a table instead of creating space, we misgender or use the wrong pronouns, we sexualize when we shouldn't... we fuck up. There's no way around it. We. Fuck. Up.

There's no graceful way to recover from a fuck up. You done bad, boy. And as shitty as you may be feeling, it is not the job of the wronged party to make you feel better. So even if you want to explain it wasn't your intention or that you didn't mean to hurt them, they don't have to listen to you. As much as I wanted to sit there and explain the fuck out of myself, I knew it was a bad idea. We were past the point of no return and there was nothing I could say that would make them like me again. I had burned a bridge. I didn't mean to. But that doesn't matter.

The internet is host to a lot of articles on how intention doesn't matter. This concept is incredibly hard for people because we are largely raised in a world where intention does matter. We grade how bad of a murderer you are on intention. Our movies and television shows are riddled with people who didn't mean it but did something awful but understandable. How many super heroes didn't mean to kill someone when they did? Do you think that someone's family cares if the hero meant to do it? No. They don't fucking care.

And neither does the wounded party. While this isn't necessarily true, your intention doesn't matter. Not because you don't matter, but because the trigger has already been pulled. You've already shot the gun. All you can do now is try to deal with the consequences. In the moments after a gun is shot, we worry about who got shot, not if the shooter is bleeding. After someone has been hurt, we worry about the hurt party, not the person who hurt them. And they're hurt. Even if you didn't mean it, they're hurt and it's time to deal with that, not try to make yourself feel better by saying "I didn't mean it."

Once it's clear you've hurt someone, I do tend to believe offering an apology matters. If they dismiss it, then don't try again. It's okay to be dismissed by someone you've hurt. Try to remember, always, that it's no longer about you. Right now, it's about them and what you did to hurt them. Don't minimize their experience by saying it was no big deal. Don't tell them it was just a joke and invalidate their response. Don't tell them they're crazy and reading in to it which is gaslighting. Listen. Honestly listen, and hear what they're saying.

When I've hurt someone, I don't tend to ask how until after the fact. At the time, I tend to apologize and then ask if there's anything I can do to help them or support them. Asking someone who's hurt to explain to you what you did wrong is asking them to focus on you instead of themselves. It's asking them to do the emotional labour of helping you understand what you did wrong. It is actually work for them to focus on you and tell you what you did wrong when they're trying to deal with all their own feels.

So instead of asking what you did wrong, give them space. Ask if you can help, and if they say no, fuck off and do something else. Go decompress yourself. This weekend, I chose to leave and let the GM handle the situation as I felt it was clear that I wasn't wanted to talk about what happened. I wanted the hurt player to do whatever they had to in order to feel good and safe at the convention again, and I knew I was not part of that picture. In fact, I actively avoided spaces with that guest for the rest of the convention, wanting them to be able to be comfortable.

There's probably no way I can actually make amends for what happened at that game. I've left them alone and I've sat down and gone through the game with a fine toothed comb to see where I fucked up. I have an idea of what I did wrong, but I won't actually know until I reach out to the person I hurt. The trouble is, I don't know them beyond that one experience. So do I reach out? Could I have stopped this whole fiasco from happening?

Yes. I could have. All this means is paying more attention at the table and checking in with quiet players to make sure they feel okay. As soon as that player started to shut down I should have reached out or made space for them at that table. There was no way I could read their mind on what was bothering them, but I could have pulled back and asked them what they wanted in the game more than what I wanted. I could have invited conversations or asked for a break when they seemed disinterested. I could have done all these things, and had I been GMing, I probably would have.

Not being the GM isn't an excuse to go to default behaviour though. If you notice a player going dark, check in, see what they want to have happen at the table, and make it happen. Get them engaged again, or, if they're not feeling it, ask if they want to take a break and talk about it. There's no harm in inviting conversation. When you make space for them, don't talk over them or tell them that they're wrong. I tend to ask questions like "How would you like to see this resolved?" or "How can I help make this happen for you?" I want actionable answers because those are clear things I and other players can act on.

Don't force anyone to talk about stuff they don't want to. If they're too far gone or the game isn't working, call the game, create some space to unpack, and try to make sure everyone's feeling heard, if not okay. Check in with the wounded party, see if they want to talk about it, and if they don't, then back off. It's key that you're listening and not trying to make something better just because you don't feel good about it.

I try to give a few days. If this happens at a con, keep con crash in mind when you think about approaching them. Generally I reach out with a "hey, I wanted to apologize for my crappy behaviour during this game. I wanted to check in, see how you're doing, and see if you'd be up for unpacking it at some point. No worries if not, and I get it if you don't want to talk to me. Thanks so much." It's gentle, allows for space, and gives them a safe out in case they want to hit the eject button immediately.

The most important thing to remember is to not make you hurting someone about you. Sure, you can and will feel like crap, but the important part is you don't make the person you hurt do the labour of making you feel better. Go talk to friends, unpack it yourself, or do what you want to cope. Make sure you own the fact that you hurt someone, but also don't take on any responsibility for things that aren't your fault. Analyze what happened, actively listen to what they tell you, and do what you can from there.

No one usually sees it coming. We don't know we're about to open our mouths and smack someone verbally. By creating safe spaces, reaching out, calling in, and owning our shit, we'll make each time this happens a little bit better for all parties involved. We can make the effort to have conversations about our fuckups, to learn from them, and to go forward with the intention to not do it again. Learning from a fail is how we get xp, right?

From what happened at Dreamation, I've learned a lot. I've processed a lot. I've been sad a lot. I can't take it back and I can't fix it. It will forever be a thing. But I can use it to make myself better, and hope that it won't happen the next time I sit down with people at the game table. Growth is important, and sometimes we forget the lessons we've already learned along the way. I'm not thrilled I had to be reminded. But I will strive to be better.