Assuming for a moment that everyone agrees (as Joe does) that people have the right to publish whatever games they want, and also that they have the right to express their moral sentiments over said games, where can we draw the line? Are some topics just completely unacceptable in gaming - or can the right approach make a sensitive game about North American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or genocidal campaigning against Native Americans?
In this question, perspective definitely matters. I remember that my father, who had lived through the Spanish Civil War, been imprisoned by the Fascists and lost many friends in the conflict, had a lot of misgivings about getting me a wargame on the topic when I was a teen, and absolutely refused to play it with me. Having a pagan perspective on a game about witch trials, or a Christian perspective on a game that takes a cynical approach to the politics surrounding the Council of Nicaea, certainly makes one appreciate more the serious issues in play with that historical topic.
Simulation gamers are caught in a catch-22 when the general public regards our doings. On the one hand, we are accused of taking our games too seriously; dressing up in costume to play D&D, learning real magic spells, becoming Walter Mitty-style armchair generals, disappearing into character like Tom Hanks in Mazes & Monsters. On the other hand, people associate a game with fun, lightheartedness and a certain Machiavellian approach to moving pawns around. So when war, murder and other awful topics crop up in a simulation game, the suspicion arises that at best we are callous and insensitive, and at worst we are taking a perverse glee in simulating slaughter and suffering.
These latter misgivings mean that topics that are seen as perfectly acceptable to treat in a novel or a film suddenly become more offensive when proposed in a game. Some examples of controversy:
- Video games that involve killing members of identifiable groups - Africans, Americans, Arabs, etc.
- A board wargame that deals with the vicious early warfare between settlers and natives in New England, King Philip's War.
- The "host a murder" genre of games, which have come under attack from an advocacy group for families of murder victims. (Mysteriously, "Clue" remains untouched in their long list of boycotts.)
It's in this light that I take a larger view of the Salem game. Actually, I feel toward it much the same as I do toward the classic Avalon Hill game of paranoia and betrayal, Kremlin. Both deal with a horrific period of history in which "games" of suspicion and accusation had life-and-death costs. Kremlin in fact takes a lighter tone with its made-up, Boris Badenov-style names; Salem at least goes this far toward a respectful approach:
While the story surrounding the Salem witch trials has become something of a legend, every character in this game is based on a real person whose life was directly touched and in some cases torn apart or taken away by the events surrounding the Salem witch trials.A solemnity somewhat undercut by the gleeful offering of add-ons and goodies that Kickstarter encourages: colorful Pilgrim tokens, a gallows card, etc. But the overall tone, as with Kremlin, Guillotine, Credo and similar games, is to satirize the morbid absurdity of a system that lets bribery, showmanship and venal accusation influence life-or-death decisions.
I see it as perhaps more advisable to take a serious approach to painful historical topics in a game, in a way that sides unambiguously with the oppressed. Some posters in Joe's thread mentioned the Holocaust game Trains, which I don't like. But this is largely because it recycles received notions about the "banality of evil" that Holocaust scholarship has by now discredited. We now know that the architects and bricklayers of the Holocaust, far from mindless, saw their work as a difficult but morally mandated task, aided by seeing their victims as not really human. The way to simulate the Holocaust from within the minds of its supporters is to set up a scenario, familiar from much Cold-War era science fiction, where the enemy are aliens living among us, superficially sympathetic but actually parasitic. But that's not to discredit the tone or ambition of Trains, or of other efforts, dealing with enslaved Africans in the New World (the comments on that article are also diverse and interesting).
As always, your thoughtful comments and reactions are welcome.