1 , 2 Next »
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
College students in my course "Historical Simulations" are required to write essays analyzing the games we play. To help each other out, we are formulating prompts for possible essays. Here's a sample of the perceptive questions these students are asking. I can't wait to read the essays that result.
The diplomacy track in Colonials is a moral compass that attempts to limit player action in the game. Harming other players economically, repressing native peoples, and, eventually, shipping slaves are actions that the game deems immoral. The game uses war as an enforcement mechanism for its moral order where “good” nations can attack “bad” nations at their discretion. What statement is Colonials making about morality and the relationship between nations during this time period? Did morality factor into the political balance of powers of the era, or is it a construct of the game? What is the meaning of the ambassador character who politically undoes the moral transgressions of a nation without reversing its immoral action?
In Colonial, victory is not determined by a nation’s economy (treasury and merchant fleets), military might (navy), or overseas empire (‘discoveries,’ resources, and colonies), but by its prestige. One could achieve victory by ‘discovering’ a new territory with one ship in their entire fleet, empty coffers, and without establishing a colony or even harvesting resources. This mechanic allows for a result that history would not: a structurally weak nation becoming preeminent. Why allow for a contradictory victory and what does this suggest about prestige?
Colonial includes the disruptive "rebellion" mechanic, in which a player can play a Rebel card and spark the removal of counters from an opponent's territory, so long as that territory already includes an unrest marker. The competing opponents of the territory's colonizers are the ones who spark and see forth the rebellion, which strips the agency of rebellion from the territory's third-party native people. Especially when considering the historical sovereignty and independent rebellious efforts of native people in colonized territories, the "rebellion" mechanic thus may appear problematic. How does this mechanic attempt to represent the anti-colonial actions of native people in colonized territories, and how well does it do that task? Does this mechanic give appropriate agency to these native people? Can and/or should this mechanic be modified?
Colonials is, at its core, a game about controlling and utilizing a variety of resources to one's advantage. One of these resources, slaves, is more complicated than the others for a variety of reasons; not only is there an eventual in-game consequence once a certain point of the game is reached (Economy 10) where not the nation controlling the resource but rather the nation shipping the slaves is penalized, but there is also an external player-based discomfort due to the brutal nature of slavery. How does this game mechanic work relative to its historical context? Does the game accurately portray the slave trade in during the Age of Expansion, or is the game instead forced to oversimplify it to a mere abstraction? Either way, how does or doesn't slavery's portrayal in Colonial add a deeper layer of relevance to the game and the era it focuses on?
Throughout the age of discovery, most major European wars were fought and won, not on the high-seas or in colonies or trading posts around the world, but in Europe itself. However, in the game colonial, while all of the players represent European nations, they only appear on the world stage as colonial powers, and it is impossible to directly attack another player in their home territory. Because of this, not only are major European powers of the time that were not colonial powers, such as the Holy Roman Empire or Poland, excluded from the game, but players are free from the worry of defending the home front, which was a very pressing concern for all European powers during this era. Is the lack of conflict in Europe a justified simplification of the game? Could the absence of Europe as a playable space reflect the trend of Eurogames to avoid direct inter-player conflict? More generally, what does it say about the game that it is euro-centric without making Europe an area which players can directly affect? Do the nation-specific mechanics of the game, such as France's additional sovereign, or Britain's ability to re-roll naval rolls, allow for a different expression of each real-life nation's strengths and weaknesses in conflicts within Europe?
In Colonial, the main function of religion is to subdue native unrest. In the eyes of the game the two themes are binary opposites, each visually represented on the opposite side of the same token. How do the mechanics of religion in Colonial reflect Christianity in the age of European exploration? Is this an accurate historical representation?
In the United States, the history of our independence from Britain has become a cultural touchstone, a morality tale, and a cause of celebration. The story ends with the democratic election of President Washington, thereby establishing the new status quo; an independent republic.
Former colonies across the world have similar independence narratives. The Nations Variant of Colonial, however, ends not with some country’s independence, but when any player earns 10 prestige points. Unlike our revolutionary war myth, in the story of Colonial one colonial power is declared the winner.
While many American countries gained independence from colonial powers in the late 18th to mid 19th century, and the mid-20th century marked the decolonization of most African and Asian countries, some historians would argue that colonization never ended. How does the gameplay of Colonial—particularly the ending—converse with the impact of Colonialism on independent countries? What would the game maker argue is the historical analog for when a colonial power “wins?”
In the board game Colonial, multiple countries compete over resources and land. Players must plan out their moves in order to acquire prestige points. An observation that one can make about Colonial is that just because one player (country) has a large amount of money in their treasury, it does not always guarantee success. While having a vast amount of currency at a player's disposal is helpful, it does not always mean that the player is ensured victory. Many a times, players can be considered a wealthy country, and still be in last place. When this part of the game is thought about in historical context, a question that arises is does a powerful country have to be a rich one? Further more, how important is having a large treasury versus being able to colonize more countries?
In the game of Colonial, one of the actions available to players is to establish a mission in their explored territories and colonies. The function of such missions is to quell pre-existing unrest or to preemptively make native rebellions less likely to occur, with these effects applying regardless of global location and remaining in place for the duration of the presence of the mission. Do these functions accurately depict the reactions of indigenous peoples to European prosthelytizing? Did historical missions have consistent efficacy over time, as those in Colonial do?
The progress tracks are an especially interesting part of Colonial, and especially the Economics track. The four tracks are essentially what the designer lays out as potential paths to gaining PP and eventually victory: exploration (Seafaring), war (Navy), and colonization (Logistics). But Economics doesn’t seem to fit any of the victory conditions in any direct way. Some aspects make sense - the more economic security and greater systems you have in place, the greater loans the financiers will allow you to take and greater amounts of foreign, luxury goods your people might be able to afford from the Trader. But these only deal with Treasury, not any means of gaining PP. And the other mechanics not only don’t provide PP, but also don’t seem to have much to do with economics. Why does it require a certain level of economy to colonize India and China? Why does slavery suddenly become globally unacceptable when pique economy is attained? What is the designer trying to get at with this kind of Progress Track? Could Economy really just be an abstract representation of the designer’s view of societal progress?
In the board game Colonial, resources are grouped together within assigned color groups. Some resources take up their own 'color', and others are combined with others—sugar, tobacco, and cotton for example. Each resource produces the same number of goods for market: 1. And each monopoly provides the same added value to a player in terms of who gets to start the next turn and how many merchant fleets a player can build. Considering the historical significance of resource exploitation to colonization and the interrelations between different lucrative trades (e.g. sugar and slavery), monopolies in the real world would give countries economic power and leverage, Colonial defangs the power of a single monopoly. Since a three hour board game can’t accurately depict sixteenth century economics, does Colonial’s monopoly mechanic allow the game to give mercantilist system due justice? How could the monopoly system and the game's economic model better capture the realities of colonialism? Or is this the best possible simulation?
Colonial makes use of a diplomacy track to determine which nations can wage war on each other. Nations that are more advanced to the rightmost side of the track cannot be attacked by nations that fall to the left of them on the track. An ambassador card serves as the only tool that nations can use to advance on the diplomatic track, unless they discover China or India. Nations move down the track when they disrupt monopolies, trade slaves after slavery has been abolished, or if a player decides to repress the native people after colonizing. Why is it that nations that act immorally, in the case of the slave trade and repressing of native people, or against other nations' best interests, as seen by breaking up monopolies, are hindered in their ability to wage war. Nations that didn't respect the international system seem more likely to stumble into wars or desire to wage them. It seems unusual that the game then sets these countries on a more pacifist path, or at the very least reactionary. Why do nations get punished in their first strike abilities based purely on whether or not they allow other nations to dominate economically?
While all players of "Colonial" act as European powers, the game's board, a map of the world, excludes Europe entirely from gameplay. Instead, "Colonial" players must gain victory points In Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the New World. When Europeans first arrived in these lands, each was already occupied by indigenous civilizations. However, the game's creators seem uninterested in depicting these people's experiences as European's began arriving in these other lands en masse and reaping them for their natural and human resources. Local populations are not a playable faction in "Colonial" and are instead represented by a "native power" ranking on each territory, which serves as a barrier to establishing a colony and increases the power of that territory should it revolt or become a free state.
What does this way of modeling non-European civilizations suggest about the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized and in what ways, if any, does this game mechanic fail to represent the history of these interactions? Should all non-European civilizations in the game be treated equally under this system, or how can it be altered in order to better convey history?
In the game Colonial, players act as sovereign European powers and claim territory across the globe. Players win when 10 prestige tokens are acquired, even if this occurs mid-turn. Interestingly, the level of prestige of each nation is common knowledge amongst players allowing strategy to be adjusted to prevent a winner from being determined. Thus, late game play is often based on sabotage and a ganging up on the leader mentality. In the colonial era, wars and squabbles were often fought amongst the European powers for a variety of reasons. It would be facile and historically inaccurate to label the key or only inciting factor as a leveling of some sort of power ranking. Often socio-religious factors were crucial but even the addition of nation cards (which include historic goals) neglect European rivalries. Does the failure to delineate causes for war beyond strategic planning create a historic weakness for the game? Does the strategy game players implement perhaps allude to a mindset that at times rose above regional differences (alluding to pure competition)? Should the game include details about national character which reward or compel certain nations to go to war for the sake of accuracy?
As its name suggests, Colonial is fundamentally about Europe’s colonization of the world. While the process of exploring and colonizing follows a consistent pattern, one exception is India and China. The rules explicitly prevent the colonization of India and China until a player reaches an Economy level of 6. Furthermore, the player who explores these two areas receives a Diplomacy bonus.
By deliberating creating an exception out of India and China, the game highlights the historical differences between their colonization and that of the rest of the world. However, Colonial argues that this difference lies in the required economy. The Diplomacy bonus is an equally fascinating exception, as it functionally suggests that the exploration of India and China would not trigger war with other European nations.
Are the preexisting game mechanics able to properly incorporate these exceptions and the subsequent historical arguments that the exceptions evoke? By partially attributing the successful colonization to economy, does Colonial unintentionally erase the violent histories surrounding the subjugation of China and India because of the constraints in Progress tracks? Is the Diplomacy track an effective mechanic to convey the historical context of their exploration?
Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
Lab session instruction sheet for my Fall course.
Lab sessions are a core component of this course. When you enter the lab, all game sets will be ready for play. You will be given a little time to refresh your knowledge of rules, but we will try to get playing as quickly as possible. For the first session, we will play in teams of two, and revisit team play as we progress. If you have friends are can serve as last-minute players, let them know that they might receive a last-minute text to participate. Likewise, I may invite in members of the local boardgaming community to help me run games, observe, or participate.
Class preparation: As much as possible, we will prepare for labs beforehand, to increase our play time. We will review the rules and establish player positions outside of lab time. Do your best to master the rules of the game before playing. Bring a copy of the rules, either in hard copy or on a tablet. Watch video overviews of the game. Be prepared to help others learn the rules. Think about your initial strategy, but remain flexible, for it may change as soon as the game begins! You will want to take notes on what is happening on lab. Bring your phone, and be ready to voice record your thoughts. Or bring a notebook for taking notes. Take pictures of the game as you play, to help illustrate your written analyses.
Confessional: We will establish a video “confessional” for use during labs. For each game, each student is expected to record at least one segment, several minutes in length. You may record more, but be respectful of others’ needs. In your segments, you should record your thoughts on your strategic situation. Be sure to identify your player position and the state of the game. Perhaps this is your second play of the game, and you’re trying a new strategy. Or perhaps something you read for class is now resonating with the current game state. The confessionals will be used to record our thoughts during play, and to inform each other (and possibly outsiders) of our game experiences. Here’s a possible set of prompts:
1. What table are you playing on, and what is your player position. (“I’m playing Table A, representing the Spanish.”)
2. Where are you in the game? (“We just finished the first turn.”)
3. What is the situation? (“We got off to a quick start, but the Flamboyance rule is really killing us, and we can see the French and Dutch building up.”)
4. What is your plan? (“We started with just trying to establish as many missions as we could, but we need to make them colonies before other countries claim our resources.”)
5. How’s it going, or what are the prospects for your success? (“We couldn’t even explore two areas because of terrible die rolls!”)
6. Any connections with class readings or discussions? (“It’s neat how the game represents things like the Treaty of Tordesillas, but competition for established colonies seems to be weak.”)
Atmosphere: Game labs should be considered a safe space. Competing is central to gaming, but we will strive to keep the focus on the games themselves. (Renier Knizia: “When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.”) Obviously, there’s no place for bullying or ad hominem attacks. And since we may be gaming around controversial material (i.e., depictions of slavery, or “orientalist” depictions of “the East”), let’s stay mindful of replicating problematic representations.
Game leaders: Each student will be responsible for leading one game (5 points). This entails being especially well-prepared to clarify rules, ready to direct game play to keep the game on track, advancing turn markers and other book-keeping features, etc. The game leader at your table is responsible for keeping the game flowing. I will be available to observe and help, but it will not be my responsibility to make sure games play efficiently; that is the job of the game leader, and your collective responsibility as players.
Class de-briefing: We will spend some time in the following class session discussing our play experiences. Be ready for this conversation. Even if you do not have a paper due on the game, consult the question prompts for ways you can think about your experience.
Be generous (with yourself, me, and others): Everyone has different styles of play and different tolerances for others’ play styles. Some understand rules quickly while others need time; some think through moves quickly while others fall victim to “analysis paralysis” (or “AP”). Playing a new game for the first time can be frustrating, because you haven’t assimilated all the rules. Let’s all try to develop our tolerance for frustration and ambiguity, since they will be frequent companions.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
What follows is a draft of the Game Analysis Assignment I plan to present in my Fall 2017 course on tabletop games. I welcome any thoughts, comments, or suggestions.
GAME ANALYSIS ASSIGNMENT
For each of three of the six games we will play, you will prepare an analysis of 1,000-1,500 words (4-6pp). Your objective is to develop an argument about the game’s implicit historical message (it’s thesis). Your paper should fulfill these two tasks:
Identify something about the game’s central historical argument. This is not an easy process. You must make an argument about what the game’s argument is. This of course requires plenty of concrete evidence from the game.
Evaluate something about the game’s central historical message. That is, you must explore the implications or consequences of the argument you made above. Make an argument about the meaning or significance of the game’s central historical message. It is fine if for space needs you focus particularly on one or more central elements (e.g., the way the game incorporates diplomacy, or it’s presentation of slavery).
Your priority should be developing an argument about how a game conveys its central historical message, and how you evaluate its effort. In other words, you are making an argument about the game’s argument. What is it, and how do we know? What about it merits our attention or concern? Why?
In doing this, you’ll need to avoid the simplest possible formula, which simply connects things in the game with actual historical phenomena. It will be far from enough to simply point out that the game represents historical reality in some fashion. Such observations may begin your own thinking, but your final analysis will need to be an argument.
I’m asking you to practice a strange mix of criticism and generosity. Tearing down a game for its historical failings is as easy as complimenting it for doing anything historical at all. You’re looking for the sweet spot in between, the realm of analysis that leaves you free to develop your own insights. This is to say that I’m most interested not in your “answers,” but in observing your own critical thought processes.
For each game, I have offered several possible question prompts; collectively, we will develop others. Here are some categories of analysis that may help you frame your argument. Note that you need not address any or all of these; they are simply prompts for your own thinking.
Physical components: How do they help or hinder the game’s central historical message?
Metaphor: How literal is the game’s metaphor (what it claims to represent)? Where does it fall on the range from detailed historical simulation to abstract?
Depth: Historical games often balance historicity (complexities such as unit specialization or rules exceptions) with playability (ease of learning, simple and consistent mechanics).
Incentives: How does the game reward some behaviors and punish others? How does scoring work? How does the incentive structure suggest its central historical message?
Historicity: How likely is the game to yield actual historical outcomes? What important aspects of its topics does it neglect?
Comparisons: Your analysis will be improved by useful comparison with other games and game mechanics. Do not be afraid to reference other games, including those we’ve played.
STRUCTURE: Papers such as this can be structured into two main portions:
What is the phenomenon? What aspect of the game or its play is worthy of note? Why is it important? How does it present a problem, or defy common understanding? Does it offer radically ahistorical outcomes? Does it incorporate troublesome cultural representations? Does it engage the historical scholarship in important ways? This portion of the paper establishes your problem through evidence and argumentation.
What explains, or how should we understand, the phenomenon you’ve identified? Now that you’ve established a topic of analysis, and a central question to guide your analysis, it’s time to make your case. Remember that you’ll need evidence and argument here, taken from the game itself, and what you can learn from historical and other scholarship.
You should incorporate relevant course materials in your analysis, as well as outside sources you find in your own research.
Consult the course guide for proper citation forms for games and internet material.
Incorporate illustrations and examples of play as warranted.
Your paper is due on the Friday (5pm) on your assigned day. You’ll need to submit a paper copy to my box (pages numbered and stapled, of course), as well as email me a copy as an attachment.
See my online course guides for more assistance.
HOW TO CITE GAMES AND BLOG POSTS:
How to cite a game:
Note form: Alex Bagosy, Divided Republic (Numbskull Games, 2012).
Bibliography form: Bagosy, Alex. Divided Republic. Numbskull Games, 2012.
Note that since the subject of your paper is the game, you need only cite the game once, at the start of your paper.
How to cite a rulebook (necessary only for note citations):
Rulebook for Alex Bagosy, Divided Republic (Numbskull Games, 2012), 3.
How to cite a forum post (necessary only for note citations):
“Very few regional pollings,” Boardgamegeek (July 14, 2017) <web>.
Note that the link above is hot: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1812372/very-few-regional-p...
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
I’ve been writing about difficult issues in game themes, and focused last on my reticence to assume the role of one of history’s greatest monsters in the game Secret Hitler. It seems a shame to me to meld the great mechanics in this game with a historically misapplied theme that is sure to drive some players away. I suggested that the game’s provocative skin is matched by the marketing around it, as when the designers sent copies to Congress as warnings about creeping authoritarianism. Secret Hitler thus demonstrates that the discursive space around a game — what for now I’m clumsily calling its ludumarea — can be just as important in making a point as a game’s actual mechanics.
There is another game about Nazi Germany that works that fertile ground even more effectively. Secret Hitler seems more interested in playing with its own provocativeness rather than making a coherent point. Brenda Romero’s Train (2009) is different.
In Train, Romero, an award-winning designer who made a name for herself in video games, created something that is as much a work of art or performance as it is a tabletop game. Play begins with players seeking to move people as many people as possible from one place to another in railroad cars while overcoming obstacles. Only toward the end of the game are players permitted to realize that the destination of their train is Auschwitz, the concentration camp notorious for executing some 1.1 million people, ninety percent of whom were Jews.
The game garnered considerable attention when it was released, largely because of how Romero (then Braithwaite) presented it. Only one copy of the game exists, and it is only played as a special event. It is a piece of art designed to make people think, not a consumer product designed to entertain. To craft the single copy of the game, Romero took exquisite care with the components, going so far as to obtain an old SS typewriter to prepare the instructions. In an allusion to Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogroms in which SA paramilitaries led mobs in the destruction of thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses, the game is played on a window frame of broken glass. Train thus operates differently from other games. Most startlingly, the game’s metaphor — the scenario it invites players to enter and the roles it asks players to assume — is not revealed until players have already assumed them and started playing.
Why re-visit a game that made waves nearly a decade ago? Because as we develop the analytical tools to think as critically about historically-themed games as we do about historically-themed films, Train can teach us much. Romero’s title for her series of difficult games — “the mechanic is the message” — invites us to think more critically about how games actually make arguments. Surely, a game’s mechanics promote messages. Some of these are intended and some are not; some are received by players as intended and some are crafted by players themselves.
But Train shows that a game’s message lies not only in its mechanic, but also in the way it is presented. For example, Romero explicitly sought to promote Train’s message through its components, like the broken glass denoting Kristallnacht. That alone is no surprise, for in good game designs components almost always promote the message delivered in their mechanics. (Indeed, in older games the mechanics were usually so simple and conventional that the only thing that distinguished games’ themes was their components.) Train thus reminds us that games can not simply be about works of art, but — like Abtei der wandernden Bücher — can become them as well.
To explore how this works, let’s consider a potent criticism leveled against the game — that it inaccurately simulates the process by which Jews were sent to camps in the Holocaust. Reacting to its early press, one BGG user (“Darillian”) criticized the game as ahistorical, writing that “it is very rare, in all of the literature of the Final Solution and the Third Reich, to find an example where a particular individual was 'forced', or otherwise 'conned' into participating in acts of Genocide.”
Darillian has a point. Those who made the trains run on time to Auschwitz were not unaware of their complicity in atrocity, to say the least. The “oh no!” moment Train creates does not replicate their experience. But this is to read the game’s metaphor as unjustifiably direct. It would be like saying that Picasso blew it because he got the perspectives wrong in Guernica, or that the musical 1776 gets history wrong because the Founding Fathers did not actually sing their way to the Declaration of Independence. Art is not that literal. Picasso didn’t pretend to perfect perspective, any more than 1776 offered itself as a textbook.
The historical reality was that complicity was indeed a factor in the success of the Nazi Party, the start of World War II, and the “final solution” to the “problem” of the Jews. One need not endorse Daniel Goldhagen’s discredited claim in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) for a widespread exterminatory anti-Semitism in German society to appreciate that the rise of populist authoritarian regimes frequently extracts the complicity of those in existing institutions, not to mention those who vote for such regimes. This was certainly true generally in Germany itself, where churches and universities collaborated with the Nazi regime, as well as in areas the Nazis conquered. If it does not apply to the SS officers who directed the trains themselves, it applies more broadly to Germany and many in the countries it overtook.
Romero seems more interested in this larger point. She uses the trope of cattle cars in the Holocaust as a loose referent for a more general experience. Rather than simulating the mechanisms of transport, she merely uses that process as a way for players to feel the sudden shock of realizing that one has become complicit in the commission of moral horrors. That’s not an absurd thing to ask a work of art to do, nor is it absurd to let it do it in non-literal ways. The History chops on display in Train might not be that impressive, but the artistic ones seem to be right on.
That is another way of saying that there is more to a game than mechanics and components. The real-world setting for and discussions around games (their ludumareae) can become critical in delivering a game’s message as well. This is in fact required for Train. The game only conveys its message when its central secret is revealed (spoiled) to non-players. After all, I know what the game is about not because I played it (a virtual impossibility for most of us) but because I read about it. The game’s historicity can only be debated once its central surprise has been spoiled. Normally this would be a liability (movie studios went to extraordinary lengths to prevent audiences from spoiling the surprise for others. With Train, though, revealing the twist is not a liability but a necessity.
Train works on most of us not through its mechanics at all, which we never experience; it works through the discussion created by its performance and promotion. The designers of Secret Hitler, particularly the Barnum-like Max Tomkin, have shown how the discourse around a game can help promote it, even when theme and mechanics don’t neatly mesh. With Train, Romero shows how the discourse around a game can become its very point. The way a game is presented and discussed can make more of a statement than the game itself. Making only one copy of the game reinforces its status as an individual work of art, but also means that the overwhelming number of people who learn about it will not have played it. The game impacts most of us not through its mechanics, but through others’ words about those mechanics.
That message does in fact depend on mechanics, if only a description of them. Train’s point is built around a huge revelation that changes players’ relationship to the game toward its end. It's not unusual for players to find a game holding out on them, but it is unusual for a game to withhold what Train withholds. Of course gradually disclosed information is central to a great many games. Gradually disclosed objectives are not a ubiquitous feature of games, but they are not rare. In Mansions of Madness and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, players often don’t even know the central puzzle they’ve been asked to solve until they’re well into a game. And Mao and Zendo both withhold their basic rulesets.
Train withholds something more powerful still: its metaphor. In nearly every game we play, our relationship to the game’s play world is clear and consistent throughout. If you’re playing Arkham Horror, things will be weird, but you’re going to remain an investigator trying to get stuff done. At least in Secret Hitler we walk into the game knowing what might be in store for us. But Train withholds its full thematic rationale until it’s too late, and you’ve already unwittingly stumbled into the Stanford Prison Experiment.
That’s a plane-breaking move because it disrupts our trust in all the games we play. “Oh no, I just wound up getting people to Auschwitz in this game! What exactly is the next game going to ask me to do?” Much as innovative artists ask us to reflect on what we’re actually doing when we see, Romero challenges us to reflect on what it is we’re doing when we play. If some games ask us to do troublesome things in a game world, then why exactly are we playing at all?
A reactive, guilt-driven response is actually a cop-out here. If we say, “I guess we shouldn’t be playing these games,” then we are simply not being honest with ourselves, or thinking hard enough about the meaning of play. We know that at some point we will play again — if not that game, than another that edges up to our threshold of acceptability. Whatever it is, then, that draws us to game worlds where we can do things impossible in the real one — that is the ultimate destination of Romero’s train.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
In 1975, Susan Sontag wrote an essay called “Fascinating Fascism” for The New York Review of Books, in which she reviewed a book of photography by Nazi-era film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and a book on SS memorabilia. The gist of her argument is that there was an aesthetics to German fascism that continued to appeal in popular culture. “Never before in history was the relation of masters and slaves realized with so consciously artistic a design,” she writes, going on to describe the pornographic appeal of Nazi accoutrement.
The essay comes to my mind frequently around tabletop games that reference the Nazi era. That does not mean that all games thus themed must do the ideological or cultural work that Sontag wrote about. After all, the theme of a game does not determine its interpretation of its subject. A game about slavery could just as easily punish players as reward them for engaging in it within the game world. The designer's intent, as expressed through a game’s mechanics (and specifically the incentive structure laid out through its victory conditions), plays a large role in determining a game’s stance on a particular subject. As Brenda Romero reminds us, “the mechanic is the message.” Beyond that, players themselves may interpret the meaning of a game in a host of different ways. They may even change the game by modding or re-theming it. The ultimate meaning of a particular game is thus not fixed, but is instead, and within limits, a moving and multiple target.
The social deduction game Secret Hitler offers a good case in point. I referenced the game in my last post as an example of a game that for me approached the limits of the playable, purely because of its metaphor. It’s a great game, but I don’t want to have to play Hitler. I’m far from the only one to have this concern. Others won’t even consider the game because of its irreverent take on history. One BGG forum contributor says the game “makes light of one of the most deplorable times in human history,” while for another the game “crosses a line of irreverence that I'm not willing to participate in.”
What compounds this problem for me is that the game’s mechanics do not meld well with its theme. In the game, the player assigned the Hitler role benefits from pretending to be as liberal as possible. This is of course nothing like the actual Nazis, who launched an ill-fated putsch in 1923, published racist manifestos calling for extermination of state enemies, engaged in constant street fighting with Communists, rose to power through the violence of the Reichstag fire in 1933, and sponsored pogroms against Jews such as Kristallnacht. Hitler simply didn’t come to power by pretending to be liberal. (Proposed variants, such as a Secret Voldemort or Secret Trump would fail the “reality” test for the same reason. A Star Wars re-theme seems a better match of mechanics and theme, and one that wouldn’t so unnecessarily provoke concern about its message.) As is, theming a party game around the rise of Hitler seems like a provocative enterprise with no point other than to attract attention through sensationalism. I don’t agree with the Anti-Defamation League’s entire rationale for suggesting why educators should not use simulations to depict the Holocaust, but I understand its concern about leveraging the emotional power of human misery to sell a party game.
I’m not the only one to criticize the game’s ahistoricity. One player argues that little about Hitler’s rise was secret, while another notes the absence of Communists from the game, despite their critical role in Weimar politics. True to the modding spirit, players may address this by creating homebrewed expansions that include Socialists and a Stalin character. And not everyone's a critic, of course. Defenders argue that the game succeeds as a “historical homage,” and that “it has a surprising amount of historicity” (though the case is never made).
The game’s designers seem to delight in this ambiguity. Its official website offers a concrete historical rationale (which I will not spend any more time challenging):
Hitler and his allies spent years manipulating the levers of democracy, accumulating power in a snowball effect. He divided and intimidated his rivals. He used national crises to strengthen his own position. His followers were organized and brutal, and his rise was equally engineered and opportunistic. There were good men who didn't understand how dangerous he was until it was too late, and there were bad men who wanted power for themselves but were outmaneuvered.
And yet at the same time, the game itself softens its representation of history. Its designers explained (in an interview at 2016's GenCon) that they began seeking to improve Avalon, an Arthurian-themed hidden roles game, and only added the World War II theme later in the design process. The first objective was to develop excellent mechanics, not simulate Hitler’s rise to power. The game’s lightness may also work to offset its heavy theme. It’s just a party game, after all, and not to be taken too seriously. But this only causes one to wonder why anyone would theme a party game around a topic that (rightfully) remains so sensitive.
Here’s another example of how ambiguity reigns in Secret Hitler. On the game’s character cards, liberals are represented as generic humans (white males and females), while the Fascists are represented as animals rather than specific figures from history. This seems calculated to lighten the game and minimize the provocative potential of Nazi symbols and images, which remain sensitive topics in the US, Germany, and elsewhere. Yet more than one person has noted that the reptilian Fascist characters bear a resemblance to Pepe the Frog, a comic character successfully appropriated by the alt-right to promote its message of white supremacy. I’ve seen no evidence that the designers intended this, and I believe there is none. But it is yet another illustration of how games, like any other form of popular culture, can resonate in multiple ways.
Temkin, if anything, appears to embrace progressive politics, if his work on the 2008 Obama campaign means anything. That’s an image reinforced by a recent bit of irreverent showmanship, when Temkin and his associates sent a copy of the game to every US Senator, along with this note:
We thought you and your staff might find our game relevant as you negotiate the balance of power with the Trump White House.
In the end, we’re left with very mixed messages. On the one hand, the game is posed simply as a light party game with a provocative theme but little pretense to actual history. Its questionable metaphor is excused on these grounds, for "lightness" in a game design often signals a loose connection between theme and mechanics. On the other hand, it’s offered as a dark and satirical commentary on the current political situation. The game’s defenders point out that “it’s just a game,” while its designers promote it by suggesting its relevance to the most serious issues confronting the country. Is that a gimmick to sell games or an expression of sincere political commitments? We might expect either or both from a guy like Max Tempkin, who helped bring us Cards Against Humanity, a game that lives and dies on its irreverence.
These are questions worth considering beyond whether we personally like the game or not. Of course the common admonitions are true: “if you find the game offensive, you don’t have to play it.” That response may be fairly applied to individuals, but it evades the larger question: of what consequence is a game that asks players to take on the role of one of history’s greatest monsters? It won’t do to suggest that “it’s only a game,” for we know that games have been created with the clear intent of doing harm. (My arch-example here is the Nazi-era game Juden Raus, in which players work to “cleanse” Germany by expelling Jews, leaps most readily to mind as an extreme example.) So what does it all mean?
We need a word to describe the conversations, or discourse, we have around a game — about what the game means, and how it intersects with our outlooks and values. Perhaps we could term that discursive space a ludumarea, or the culture, social, or ideological place in which a game resides and takes on its multiple meanings. (On second thought, that sounds stuffy and terrible; please help me devise a better term.)
Secret Hitler is good as a game, but it is even better at manipulating its ludumarea. It is a game that plays with the edges of play. You can’t even talk about this game without participating in Tomkin’s larger game around it. Thematically provocative games like this remind us that play is always a little dangerous, and that is part of what makes it play. As a commercial product, Secret Hitler succeeds not simply because it is a mechanically strong hidden-roles social deduction game, but because it treats a difficult subject with enough edginess to drive some players off while it draws others in, in the process garnering attention for itself. The game itself, and the way it has been promoted, are ambiguous precisely because that is the nature of the play involved here. It takes place not simply in the game, but even in the way the game is marketed and discussed.
Thu May 11, 2017 12:37 pm
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
The last post ended with the claim that the play in gaming is partly about taking social risks with the identities games ask us to temporarily assume. This post continues by suggesting that our arguments over socially challenging themes in games reflects our different individual thresholds for undertaking the social risks required of such games.
Since everyone experiences things differently, why do we argue about whether particular representations in games are appropriate or not? If you don’t like a game, it is often said, don’t buy or play it.
The problem with this response is that it only addresses half of the issue. A detractor’s whole concern might indeed be: “I don’t want to play a game that has X in it or asks me to do Y.” But it might also be: “I worry that the representations in this game have negative consequences in the real world, because they reinforce ideas and systems of oppression.” This concern cannot be countered by saying “then don’t play the game,” because the problem will persist whether the detractor buys the game or not. It will still be out there, doing its nefarious work.
The “live and let live” position neglects everything we know about how stereotypes work. How games represent people and the past matters, as I've written about before. Every realm of entertainment has been subjected to withering historical criticism on these grounds. Here in the United States, mass entertainment began as the blackface minstrel show in the 1830s. Popular song, music, dance, theater, film, television, and toys all evolved by deploying stereotypes of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. Racially denigrating images worked their way into household items and consumer products. These stereotypes have justified a wide array of measures — sometimes informal but often buttressed by legal regimes — designed to maintain hierarchies of power. To say this courts no arguments; I merely condense several generations’ worth of work in history, sociology, psychology, and related disciplines. (If you’re not with me on this, then we need to go back to the very beginning — a job for another time.)
Tabletop games have always been a part of popular culture, and so they’ve always reflected these trends. Parlor games of the Victorian era unsurprisingly reprised the Orientalism of their day, a critique that continues to be made of tabletop games into our day]into our day. Until recently, when the industry’s remarkable expansion has vastly enlarged the pool of potential gamers, communities of tabletop gamers may not have felt much connection to that culture. But the industry’s success from the 1990s has been fueled by the expansion of game communities, and with them a broader range of tastes. It’s not surprising that tabletop gamers might not all agree about the ways games represent issues of identity. From the Gamergate controversy to concerns over the depiction of race in Grand Theft Auto, such conflicts have emerged more prominently in the culture of videogames, which have garnered more profits and thus more attention. As tabletop games become increasingly important, we need to attend to them as well.
Games have never been “only games”; they’ve always done important cultural work. Long histories have been written on what various societies’ games have meant about them. We buy games still precisely because they continue to perform powerful psychic and social functions for us. So of course representation in games matters; if we didn’t connect to it in our games, we wouldn’t consume them as we do. Were there no psychic, symbolic, or cultural purpose in getting to be the leader of the Third Reich for a little bit, there wouldn’t be so many games that permit this. The “it’s just a game” argument just won’t cut it, I’m afraid. In fact, it may be precisely the parts of our culture we put beyond analysis that teach the most potent lessons about how we operate.
We might call this neglected aspect of games their “cultural politics.” By this I mean the social values inherent in a piece of popular culture, whether intentional or not. I’ve written elsewhere about how the cultural politics of historically-themed tabletop games is similar to but different from the cultural politics of historically-themed Hollywood films. Just as films can be understood to valorize or critique various social positions, so too can tabletop games. Action films argue for the use of force to reclaim order from unjust rule, while gangster films express lament the sad but necessary replacement of masculine freedom by the boundaries of law. Games, too, encourage various narrative models that embed social values. Civilization-building games tell stories (often distinctly Eurocentric) of historical “progress,” while cooperative games such as Pandemic celebrate working together in the service of the greater good. You get the picture.
Each of us has our own individual cultural politics, even if we can’t always articulate its content. We thus also have our own thresholds for deciding when the distinction between the play world and the real world break down, and a game is no longer “fun.” (In a similar way, some people decide that certain kinds of movies are simply not entertaining for them to watch.) We have several measures for this threshold. Koster offers a cognitive one; for him, games are fun as long as they keep challenging our skills at pattern recognition.
I am suggesting that there is a social threshold as well. It is possible to drive players away from games because they find socially objectionable in the “real” world something the game includes or compels them to do in the “play” world. Part of what makes games fun is the risk we take in playing with different identities in games, but it is possible for games to ask a player to undertake actions or assume identities that some players simply find too objectionable. For each individual, the threshold that makes a game unplayable is the point at which engaging troublesome representations in the game world compromise one’s values or sense of self in the real world. We may develop concerns that playing a game reinforces oppressive stereotypes, or desensitizes us to violence and oppression; we may worry that assuming a particular identity in a game trivializes atrocity, or that a game mangles history in ways that contribute to ongoing social problems. Because of their individual matrix of values around games and the issues they can raise, some people in some situations calculate the social cost in the real world of entering the game’s play world to be too high.
The “it’s only a game defense” won’t work to counter this concern because games are not simply games. They are not a unique aspect of culture that bears no relation to the rest of culture, and do no cultural work. If they trivialize everything they touch (a questionable assertion in itself), that trivialization is itself a kind of cultural work. German detractors of the Nazi-era game Juden Raus, in which players compete to cleanse the state by ridding it of Jews, used this familiar reasoning. They, too, claimed that games trivialize all they touch. For the editors of a Nazi newspaper, though, the worry was not that this game trivialized the problem of racism, it was that it trivialized the problem of Jews:
Jews out! yes of course, but also rapidly out of the toy-boxes of our children, before they are led into the dreadful error that political problems are solved with the dice cup.
The point is emphatically not that those who argue that “it’s only a game” are like Nazis. It is that games undoubtedly do cultural work, and that while they may be low-stakes enterprises, they are not no-stakes enterprises. However one feels about them, our social and ideological struggles — over matters such as race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, or class and caste — remain potent sources of contention, which can impact the way we approach certain games.
Here’s an example, taken from my own ambivalence. In terms of mechanics, my favorite social deduction games is undoubtedly Secret Hitler. But it’s hard to get it to the table, because I (and others in my gaming community) have a problem with having to assume Hitler’s identity so completely, even in the play world of a game. I have no problem commanding German forces in Axis and Allies, but I’d rather not have a moment at the game table where I have to shout “Ha! I fooled you; I was Hitler and I win!” That’s in sight of my personal threshold. Mark me, I impute absolutely no malign motives to this fabulous game’s designers. But they had to anticipate the risk they were taking in theming it this way. For some of us, the difference between pretending to be Hitler in the game and pretending to be Hitler in real life is just too small.
(And now, in true geek fashion, my own third cent: What makes it worse is that Secret Hitler deserves a theme that makes more historical sense. In the game, the Hitler player must always strive to look as liberal as possible until success is at hand. This bears very little relation to Hitler’s actual rise to power, which involved street-fighting, vicious propaganda, cutthroat politics, and divisive appeals to racism and antisemitism. As such, the theme feels mismatched, and thus gratuitously provocative. After all, it could be themed around anything; look how the futuristic Resistance is interchangeable with the Arthurian Avalon.)
Others have no problem with Secret Hitler’s theme. They defend its implementation of history, saying that it improves the game for them. For others to have social thresholds different from me does not necessarily make them any more or less sensitive than me; it merely means that our complicated matrix of values around games differs. Some might be far more sensitive to antisemitism than me and yet maintain a robust mental barrier between play and real worlds — in the same way that terrifying movies do not stay with some people who are otherwise quite sensitive. One is not better than the other.
So what does this all tell us about our conversations over socially difficult themes in games?
First, it suggests that we need to be thoughtful in leveling responsibility. The decision to play a game with sensitive themes cannot be reduced to a simple political commitment. We must be cautious in ascribing motives to each other, and especially careful in suggesting that the games one plays directly reflects who they are as people. To suggest otherwise negates the very role of play, which is about the temporary suspension of reality. It is possible to play Juden Raus because one is a white supremacist who identifies with the game’s antisemitism, but it is also possible to play Juden Raus for other reasons — perhaps because one wishes to understand more about interwar German society. Perhaps for some of us temporarily assuming the role of a historical monster enhances our historical empathy, letting us grapple with things otherwise unimaginable. Perhaps for some of us practicing slavery in the game world may help us understand why anyone did so in the historical world. Motives and honest intent mean much here.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that social problems emerging from troublesome representations are often perpetuated unwittingly. Play is never completely innocent, after all; that is part of what makes it fun. Tabletop gamers can no longer imagine their enterprise as entirely divorced from reality. We simply know too much about how social values have historically informed popular culture. Play and real worlds often do collide in games, sometimes with frightening real-world results (e.g., Muslim Massacre). It will not do to suggest that trivial forms of entertainment must have trivial consequences. Games exist on our own individual scales of real-world significance, each informed by our own identities, experiences, and values. At some point, though, there is a threshold beyond which a game so deeply challenges our collective sensibilities that (even if we approve of and play it) it bursts the barrier between play and reality. No one today could play Juden Raus, for whatever reason, without acknowledging that they are doing more than simply playing. There are even ways of purposely leveraging the volatility of a historical topic to erode the barrier between play and real worlds, and in the process make a serious social point. That is what Brenda Romero tried to do with Train — the subject of a future post.
As we develop the analytical tools to think more critically about the emerging place of tabletop games in our popular culture, we would do well to remember that every piece of our culture, regardless of its medium, derives from and reinforces elements of that culture. This is a complicated process. Sometimes representations are intentional and well thought-out while in other instances they are not. (Where fits, for example, the atrocious depiction of the Trade Federation and the Gungans in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?) Sometimes a particular representation may be posed as a progressive response to older stereotypes. (I’m betting that Talking Barbie no longer complains that “math class is tough.”) While a rich array of concepts and tools can help us think about these issues in popular culture, we will also need to develop some for tabletop games. Every medium differs, after all, in some regards. There are features unique to tabletop games that will demand special consideration.
Those will be fun to play with.
5. Andrew Morris-Feidman and Ulrich Schädler, “Juden Raus! (Jews Out!),” Board Game Studies 6 (2003), 55.
6. My evidence for this is found in BGG forum discussions on the game. For this blog, I am refraining from linking directly to such posts, out of courtesy to their authors’ privacy.
7. Until we develop more thoughtful ways of parsing the components of our character profiles as gamers, it makes little sense to judge individuals on an imagined scale of sensitivity by their preferences. Even then, few have ever become more sensitive by being labeled insensitive. Here’s a thought: we might say that a particular representation is insensitive, or even that the game it’s in is insensitive, and maybe even that playing a particularly troublesome game lacks sensitivity. But we need not label a person insensitive simply for playing a game.
8. Here’s a quick example: two games may both incorporate the historical practice of slavery in their designs. In one, players are offered the chance to practice slavery and enjoy its benefits; in another, slavery is something fought against by players working together. Endeavor, meet Freedom. More on this issue in a future post.
1 , 2 Next »