Sunday, 9 December 2012

Gaming the Atrocity

When we play games that imagine conflict, violence and history, a reasonable question to ask is how  sensitive we need to be. I'm thinking about this because of Joe Bloch's recent outraged post about a Kickstarter game of the Salem witch trials, which he considers an offensive treatment of historical genocide against pagans.

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 individual and collective sensibilities that draw this map of offense; the dead in the Spanish Civil War, combatant and civilian, are just as dead as the Natives in King Philip's War, but no Spaniards are protesting the numerous games on that topic. The sad fact is that many intellectual puzzles - military strategies, detective work - come from life-and-death situations, and gain added interest value when tied in to those situations.

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.


  1. I think the first link is wrong - it leads to the post by Mark Stout on the King Phillip's War game.

    Regardless, my understanding was that the Salem Witch trials are only in a very limited way about pagans as the people killed almost certainly weren't anything of the sort.

    I don't think there are any topics beyond serious consideration - I can imagine a game about Concentration Camps where one player controlled guards etc and the other prisoners being ok, as long as it was done as serious play, not for laughs.

  2. I find it easy to deal with more abstract conflict. Even in games where we are dealing with actual generals and military units we aren't keeping track of the soldiers who had all their futures stolen from them by someone else"s political ambitions. Start using the actual folks names and places it gets a bit difficult to stomach, more so when games stary off the battlefield.
    Woild "Hate" the game of racial/cultural purity and conflicts with the legal system and undesireables be accetable?

  3. This is an interesting subject and a thoughtful post. There's a quote by George Santayana that says, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". This is often misquoted, "Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it". There is value in both statements.

    I am not personally offended by what others produce. But I am often surprised that these products are supported. I think it's a reflection of our values. As a parent, I have to evaluate all sorts of content and whether it's appropriate or not. But I will not force my own criteria or values on others outside my family (nor would I want someone forcing their values on me). I simply won't purchase, use, support, or view the item in question. If someone would ask me why, then I would feel free to elaborate. That being said, just because a subject may be polarizing does not mean it should be taboo. There are things to learn from these subjects as well and game play is a great teaching tool.

  4. I had to comment on this because I am always annoyed by the people that have to attempt to strangle anything that is remotely fun and interesting because potentially someone might be offended. I am an Indian and I have not a problem in the least wargaming settler/Indian conflicts. I remember playing cowboys and Indians as a little kid. I am more offended by professional grievance Indians. They have always pissed me off because they get in the way of serious science, and maybe having more people understand our shared history. History as a rpg or wargame is one way to have someone learn, especially younger kids that do not get it in the educational system. I never have commented on these blogs but this just made me say something. I only returned to the hobby last year, and never realized how much I missed it, after a 12 year absence. Heck, now my wife wants to play warhammer. People are just too sensitive about all this. I think alot of times it is an outgrowth of an oppressive mindset, be it from the excessive religous side or the ultratolerant people that cannot tolerate anyone outside their worldview.

  5. Just to say, I fixed that link.

  6. "Regardless, my understanding was that the Salem Witch trials are only in a very limited way about pagans as the people killed almost certainly weren't anything of the sort."

    Yeah this is a pretty important point, and I say this as someone who spent way too much of his adolescence unironically reading black-backgrounded Geocities websites with spinning pentagram gifs and NEVYR AGAINE THE BURNYNGE TYMES webring links.

    The witch trials (Salem is massively important in the American-centric view, but really pales in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of witch-burnings in Europe the several hundred years previous) were an atrocity, to be sure, but genocide? That presumes the existence of a people targeted by them when in fact witches were a largely imaginary enemy. A major reason why Salem is such a cultural touchstone for Americans is partly because it was a product of paranoia and a fear of a mostly imaginary Other. There's something darkly ludicrous about the whole enterprise, which is why I'm less upset about a witch hunting game than I would be about a pogrom game.

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  8. I'm not a regular here, but stumbled on this post searching for a few topics. It struck me that someone would consider an isolated and singular event in American history, unique in its scope, and almost immediately squelched by the surrounding leadership, to be a genocide. That seems to be the ironic characteristic of today: where everything is a genocide, everything a Holocaust, it's not surprising that everyone is offended by everything. Professionally self aggrieved grievance counselors we've been called. True, certain things have always struck a nerve with some people. In Germany, it was not cool to play certain war games featuring the SS or Nazi maneuvering for the longest time (and in some cases, still isn't). But we live in an age where it's almost the vogue thing to claim descent from some group that was oppressed by someone. There was a time when, ironically, things were more laid back and tolerant toward such things, and it's doubtful that few outside of a couple fundamentalist camps would have objected to a game featuring Roman persecution of Christians. Today, the very fundamentalist rage and anger that was once so roundly condemned is now so frequently employed by everyone. So either we dismiss it, or we try to appease everyone by ultimately doing nothing since anyone can be offended by something. Just my two cents.

  9. I removed my earlier comment because I was just repeating stuff that other people have already said.

    Mr. David Griffey said it better, anyway.

  10. Good, thoughtful post. Thanks.

    Although I'll quibble: it's perhaps considered good manners (these days) to side with the oppressed but,
    (a) I don't much like the idea of mouthing pieties for fear of being condemned by the offended,
    (b) I sometimes like to take contrarian positions (as a historian, regarding history), which might well offend someone with the intention of thinking around an issue from something other than the most expected direction, and
    (c) the oppressed - history's victims if you like - are legion and crop up in the most surprising places. It was notoriously difficult to recruit slave ship crews in the 18th century from Britain, for instance, partly because lots of mariners didn't want to be involved in slavery but also because the mortality rate among slave ship crews was extremely high, and the conditions for ordinary working slavers were often appalling.
    ...surprise statistic: the death rates were about equal between slaves and slavers.
    What would force men into such a profession? Well, crimps, debts and indenture (often trumped up/falsified), negligent courts and abusive labour systems, which were all common across coastal Europe (less so in North America).'s a case where "siding with the oppressed" isn't as obvious as it might at first appear. Like Kremlin, in its way: the villain is an abusive system more than an easily-identifiable person (even though there we do have Uncle Joe to fall back on).