Talking About Games: Portrayal vs. Endorsement

Wee Aquinas is no puritan. He wants you to know that.

Morality has become a strange notion. Part of the problem is the mental imaging it tends to conjure: at odds with science and ethics, possibly relative, very likely handed down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, definitely something to do with a scarlet letter. The term seems anachronistic, a throwback to a simpler age. And by “simpler,” I mean either “more enlightened” or “more backward,” depending on one’s assumptions about history.

Let’s set those images aside. Instead, I want to talk about morality as a function of art, and the role of both artists and critics in crafting and evaluating moral statements. In this regard, morality deserves a hopelessly hand-wavy definition of its own — that it’s preoccupied with the well-being of individuals and societies. Vague! Don’t worry, we’ll return to this.

At a more specific level, today we’re talking about one of the crucial delineations in evaluating board games on moral terms; namely, the difference between portraying and endorsing. And it all begins with a brief pamphlet entitled Histriomastix.

Ladies, this manscaping goes *all* the way down. To the ankles.

Check out this dude’s sweet hair.

Meet William Prynne. He’s a Puritan. Not in the pejorative sense. In fact, Prynne would take great pride in being called a Puritan. As an English Protestant, purity was one of his central motivations. Not only at an individual level, with its emphases on proper family life, fervently preparing for the millennium, and exorcising demons, but also politically.

How politically? Well, Prynne hated the theater enough that he published Histriomastix in 1632, a take-down of actors, actresses, the theater, and more broadly the entire concept of people pretending to be other people. Because it’s a lie, you see. A sham. Actors are not, in fact, the people they purport to be on stage. Furthermore, these liars portrayed licentious and blasphemous acts, such as Christmas pageants. Prynne felt so strongly about the mummer’s scourge that his book stretched to literally one thousand pages, required forty-two lines in its full title, and, thanks to certain lines seeming too referential to Queen Henrietta Maria, resulted in him being tried and pilloried, fined a hefty sum, and ostensibly imprisoned for life. He was later released during the Long Parliament and did a fist-pump during the forced closure of English theaters in 1642.

This play was actually pretty provocative even for Restoration theater. So it goes.

Scene from John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife.

But although Prynne weathered the Interregnum and eventually witnessed (and supported) the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the great repudiation of his tantrum against the theater arrived when playhouses reopened in 1660. Right away, audiences were once again being merrily deceived by actors, pageants and spectacles were back in fashion, and, worst of all from Prynne’s perspective, Restoration Theater was bawdier, raunchier, and more profane than ever. King Charles II even encouraged this supposed moral decay, reveling in dirty language, bantering with poets and playwrights, and only granting theater licenses on the condition that women should now play women’s parts rather than featuring men in women’s dresses.

The irony of this turnaround was pronounced. By repressing the theater, the Puritans transformed it into something far more deserving of their conniptions. And to be clear, we’re talking about real repression, with state-sponsored censorship and closures, not mere criticism. People were hungry for some naughtiness. By bottling it up, Prynne and the Puritans didn’t cure mankind. They basically capped their thumb over the hose. The stream may have been momentarily stoppered, but when it was released, man, you’d better stand clear.

So I’m not talking about censorship. Nor am I talking about how decrying immoral or supposedly immoral art violates the freedom of speech. Rather, this is a call for more speech — specifically, the need for additional critique of how board games portray moral arguments. From a modern perspective, the problem with Prynne’s Histriomastix isn’t that it criticized actors and the theater. It’s that Prynne wanted them purified altogether, which ultimately required their abolishment. Prynne was a prolific writer, but his error lay in failing to recognize the difference between art that portrayed objectionable material and art that endorsed it. Rather than critiquing the plays that caused him such outrage, he targeted everything.

To illustrate the difference, let’s look at two games that would have made William Prynne soil his breeches.

Offensive, I guess? Mostly, though, it's boring.

Cards Against Humanity.

Cards Against Humanity is subtitled “a party game for horrible people.” Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call it a party game made by a horrible person. In recent board game news, Max Temkin, one of the designers of Cards Against Humanity, has stepped down from the company he co-founded after a number of former employees came forward to reveal a hostile workplace environment.

For today’s purposes, I’m principally interested in the game itself; after all, I have no particular insight into the dysfunctions of said workplace. For all two of you who aren’t aware, Cards Against Humanity functions much like a nastier edition of Apples to Apples. One player reveals a prompt, to which everyone else offers a response. After a shuffle, the most humorous response is selected by the player who offered the prompt. Sometimes the response are genuinely amusing. When I broke out my (gifted and unplayed) copy and randomly dealt out a few cards in order to take a picture, I chuckled at the first two answers. The third wouldn’t have earned my pick. The fourth, meanwhile, made me wrinkle my nose like I’d walked into the bathroom from Trainspotting.

That’s very much the point of Cards Against Humanity. If expressed as a single argument, it would likely be that boundaries were made to be pushed and broken. On one occasion, I watched a clickbait video of the cast of Downton Abbey playing a few hands. Invariably, the crassest answers were the ones chosen. Because of course they were — therein lies the game’s sole gimmick. It’s a game that provides responses like “incest,” “police brutality,” and “homeless people” as pinnacles of humor. It’s a game in which the n-word was considered for inclusion. It’s a game that prompts laughter as much out of shock or discomfort as out of amusement.

To clarify my own position, I’m not much bothered by Cards Against Humanity, probably because I regard it as bland more than offensive. Given my lived experience, I’m very much the wrong person to critique it. Even the cards that might rankle my sensibilities largely do so because they strike me as impolite, not because they take jabs at my core values or identity. Except for maybe the “Tom Cruise” card. That’s taking it too far.

The same isn’t true for everyone else. Game critic Tiffany Leigh observes more predatory tendencies in how the game desensitizes its players to the spoken ugliness of its “frantic subliminal slideshow of iffy ‘punchlines.’” Leigh argues that this can function as a sexual predator’s tool for grooming victims by accentuating power imbalances and normalizing uncomfortable statements and behaviors. While I’m not entirely convinced by this argument in all contexts, I’m grateful for it as a thought-provoking counterweight to the stance that the speech actualized by the game is entirely harmless.

But before we get into that, let’s press pause and look at another controversial title.

I have a copy now! Which means I can actually take real pictures instead of these grainy Tablestop Simulator shots! Why didn't I do that for this article? ... Please stop asking those questions.

The Cost.

The Cost, designed by Armando Canales and co-authored by Lyndon Martin and Brian Willcutt, hasn’t even been released, and already it’s generating controversy on BoardGameGeek. This isn’t surprising. Like other recent games with a message, including Tom Russell’s This Guilty Land, its topic is inherently confrontational. In this case, players take charge of companies tasked with mining, transporting, refining, and selling toxic asbestos. Much of the uproar begins with the realities of the asbestos industry, which despite being banned in over sixty countries (although not entirely in the United States) still claims approximately 90,000 annual casualties.

The Cost gamifies these realities: companies, and therefore players, are tasked with maximizing profits. Indeed, victory is about finishing the game with as much money as possible, whether or not the asbestos industry has persisted or received proper regulation. Although players can invest in the safety of their workers, it’s often cheaper to forego such expenses, permitting miners or mill workers to perish so as to not cut into the company’s profit margins. On its face, this sounds horrible, although such practices aren’t presented without consequences. In future safety tabulations, companies must pay for deceased workers alongside those still living, representing beefed-up safety measures stemming from preventable deaths. Similarly, ongoing casualties spur trickles of legislation and can result in the outright banning of asbestos from one of the game’s multiple countries, which also deprives players of their investments in that country’s railways, ports, mines, and mills.

Although they don’t represent the prevalent opinion, those upset with The Cost’s perceived callousness have been pointed in their criticisms. “You’re glorifying an industry that kills its customers and its workers. You should be ashamed,” wrote one commenter. Another threatened to boycott the BGG Store: “You should immediately stop and reconsider why you have to explain that you’re ok with your board game being offensive to people. Many have lost family and friends to what you’re celebrating/glorifying, i.e. the most possible profits on a real, deadly product before it kills ‘too many’ people. I’m not shopping on the BGG Store again while this is on there.” Similarly, “This is a private company setting up their sales cart on fresh graves.” Another: “It’s going to quietly and immediately ruin somebody’s game night. It’s going to ruin someone’s happy trip to the game store to buy a present. It’s going to ruin somebody’s week when they open an advertising e-mail from BGG. Not you? Doesn’t matter.”

The one perk of the TTS module is that I never run out of workers. Yes, that means we have killed a LOT of workers.

Also The Cost.

Cards Against Humanity and The Cost are very different games. Yet despite their differences, both are offensive to some and not to others. Both could prove triggering in the wrong context. And still, I would argue that The Cost is valuable as an artistic statement while Cards Against Humanity isn’t. What’s the difference? Specifically, I mean. Morally.

This is one of the underserved realms of criticism within the board gaming hobby. It isn’t enough to note that some people might find a particular setting objectionable. A cursory perusal through the ratings of those upset about The Cost uncovers blind spots of their own, including plenty of games that could be considered offensive to others. Lest you think I’m attempting to saddle a tall horse, the same undoubtedly goes for me. That uncertainty is the crux of my point: whether we’re talking about colonization, war games that cast one side as Confederates or the Wehrmacht, or anything else that seems benign to one person but unbearable to another, mere offense isn’t sufficient criteria for critiquing something. Rather, it’s necessary to dive into the particularities behind any given title’s offenses — to examine the why behind the what. This is where we necessarily return to some definition of morality. Although it’s difficult to define anything so squishy, there are plenty of useful moral questions to consider when evaluating a board game that sparks discomfort. Questions such as:

  • Does the game consider the human element of its topic or the human toll of the systems it simulates?
  • Does it model history or propaganda?
  • Does it prompt reflection or revel in stereotypes?
  • Does it seek to redress harm or inflict it?

These questions aren’t exhaustive; I’ve selected them to delineate between our two examples. When studied through this lens, The Cost positions itself as a deeply moral game despite the actions it asks of its players. It centers the human cost of the asbestos industry by examining how short-sighted decisions can be advantageous to a corporation even as it afflicts employees and customers and gradually smothers its own long-term survival. By contrast, Cards Against Humanity positions itself as an immoral game by vocalizing and normalizing harmful language.

In other words, both games are preoccupied with immorality. The difference is that The Cost portrays immorality for the sake of drawing attention to the harm it inflicts while Cards Against Humanity endorses immorality by asking players to speak harmful phrases. The first functions as education as well as entertainment. And while I’m not interested in overselling the problems with the second, it’s hard for me to come up with a net positive for its inclusion at a game night.

I sort of want to critique this game entirely on the basis of its historicity. Not sure anybody would be interested in reading such a thing.

Secret Hitler.

A few notes of caution before we conclude.

First, there’s a natural tendency to go overboard once we start talking about this sort of thing. It’s useful to remember that not every game is going to bear the scrutiny of a moral interpretation. Even with those that do, there’s a risk of marking the immoral as verboten, and therefore desirable, rather than noting that they pretty much just suck as games. One of the useful lessons from Prynne’s Histriomastix is that even the King was in a mood for some vulgarity once the drought had ended. This is a call for more speech, not the suppression of speech.

Second, moral delineations are often their most interesting when they’re hard to discern. I considered pairing Cards Against Humanity with Max Temkin’s other well-known game, Secret Hitler, since its release sparked both moral outrage and moral clarity, as in Dr. Michael Heron’s article on how it captures the rise of crypto-fascism in even liberally-minded nations. While some regard critique as dour and joyless, many of this hobby’s best designers are exciting precisely because they’re creating games with statements, messages, moral arguments, and examinations of real-world systems.

Finally, this is the good stuff. Summing up a title as “fun” or “not for everyone” does a disservice to board games as cultural artifacts. Rather, it’s our task to dig into what a game accomplishes with its setting, mechanisms, and underlying thematic statements. It’s only when we ask the tough questions that the really interesting answers become possible.

In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’ll be examining some of the tangible advantages of subjective criticism. For those who simply cannot wait, supporters can already find it on Patreon over here.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on September 17, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Interesting read. Thank you.

  2. The game is called ‘the Cost’? What more does the designer have to do to signal intent? Change the title to ‘Selling asbestos is bad, mmmkay?” sheesh!

    • Heh, yeah, I agree. The expectation that games shouldn’t tackle difficult subject matter is rather infantile. Especially when the game tells you up-front what it’s hoping to draw attention to.

    • This is a concern I have actually, that everyone covering a topic even potentially objectionable is going to feel the need to beat you over the head with moralizing.

      Take the oft mentioned This Guilty Land. At least for me the fact that the two sides are literally named “Justice” and “Oppression” takes it into the realm of the laughably emotionally manipulative. Like, you could name the sides Pro-Slavery and Anti-Slavery and it would be no less clear who the good guys are. Are we really such sheep we need to be told that killing people for money or enslaving people is bad?

      • Right, that would be unfortunate. I picked This Guilty Land mostly because it stirred controversy for Tom Russell. There are plenty of games that handle difficult subject matter without talking down to their audiences.

      • From what I gathered from Dan’s interview with Tom, Tom picked Justice and Oppression to try to avoid, or at least lessen, the problem of people presuming the game was taking a neutral position on a terrible thing, and attacking him over that. By very clearly labelling the two sides it makes it very clear of his view on the matter.
        And unfortunately yes, some people need to be told that killing people for money or enslaving people is bad. And some people who think it’s bad now need to be told that it was bad then too. But the labels weren’t for those people, it was for the people who need to be told in a very clear way that a person who creates a game that features both sides of that argument is neither endorsing that view nor saying “we have to consider both sides.”

  3. This is an excellent piece as usual, with lots of clear and cogent thinking.

    One thing that we know from past experience is that every so often, the Pitchfork Brigade shows up for a game. It’s not always easy to predict with certainty what will bring them around (except colonialism, they always show up for that one); apparently this time, it’s asbestos profiteering. And it’s not necessarily always the same people showing up for every game they come for. Maybe it’s entirely different people. No one knows, it’s dark and the torches don’t show facial features all that well anyway. What is certain is that whoever is in for any given incarnation of the pitchfork brigade, they want one thing and one thing only: they want the game that they are upset about /to not exist/. They want it /silenced/.

    As a designer, here’s the part that worries me about your post, and I’m interested in your reaction. In that analogy, you’re basically the kindly priest shouting down from the rampart of the castle, “People! Please disperse! There is no cause for alarm. THIS game is ok! It handles the history respectfully. It shows careful thought into the problematic nature of its subject. It provokes deeper reflection. It is not the monster you claim it to be. Please, I beseech you, go back to your homes, torment this game no more!”

    In an indirect way, this /validates/ the angry mob. It tries to /placate/ them, when what’s actually needed is for someone to say to them “whatever a game’s offenses may be, coming after it with pitchforks is far worse than anything this offensive game could do on its own. THE TRUE MONSTER IS THE EVIL IN THINE OWN HEARTS!”

    The issue is control. I think CAH is abominable, I will never play it, I think the very idea of it is crass and stupid and vulgar. I generally say “people should have fun playing whatever they enjoy in the company of friends”, but I’m genuinely ashamed for anyone who can’t think of a single better way to have fun together than playing such a pathetic game (not to mention that the ‘design’ is an A2A clone!). But that’s a long way from saying “CAH /should not exist/.”

    And this distinction is important. The critic’s role is to help us to think about how to separate that which deserves our /esteem/ from that which deserves our /approbation/, NOT how to separate that which should exist from that which should not. By all means, let a critic say “This Guilty Land handles its subject well, it is worthy of your attention. [Colonialism Game X] does not handle its subject well, it’s gravely flawed and not a good example for others to follow.” This, I note, is exactly what you do, and others as well.

    • You’ve already summed up my position admirably, Jeff. In writing this piece, one of my grave concerns was that it would tip to either side: either that it would come across as too wishy-washy or that it would lend weight to censorship. The reality lies in between those extremes. I believe games can be evaluated morally, and should be, but I’m not interested in erasing anything. My purpose as a critic is evaluative, not precognitive — and certainly not as a final authority.

      In this case, my thoughts were very much prompted by the reaction to The Cost. Portrayal and endorsement seem like obvious distinctions to me, but it was apparent that some folks couldn’t parse the difference between “depicting evil” and “advocating evil.” This piece is an attempt to begin unpicking that.

  4. I think that the Cost serves as a valuable addition to boardgaming, much in the same way that is game handling a similar topic but as a more prescient take on humanity’s precarious climate situation. Neither are games I think I would personally buy, but I appreciate the effort being made respectively.

    Ludology as a whole has transformed from being just a way to while away hours with some fun distraction and turned into far more over the centuries, so it’s only fair that board gaming specifically has similar modelling. When you consume other forms of entertainment, be it books or movies, there is a range of popcorn mindlessness as well as thought provoking pieces. (My opinions on triple-A video game companies saying ‘our games aren’t political’ another matter entirely, though).

    When I saw HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ last year – I was awestruck at just the insanity of this very real event. For some viewers, it might have been too real. My only interaction with this event was my primary school hosting some Ukrainian children for a few months, being told that a few months away from their home could add years to their lifespan due to the radioactivity. Much in the same way that I have not personally had anyone I know die from asbestos related complications, but I am aware of the problems it causes, I have a disconnection from the issue and something thought-provoking can make me really question it. While it might not leave me with the same ‘fun’ emotions at the end of viewing or playing, the thought provoking questions it asks and cynicism it leaves with you are worthwhile, in their own way.

    I’m rambling, but I really enjoyed this piece, and I look forward to more.

    • Thank you for your perspective! One of the things that’s so impressive about The Cost is that it’s a fantastic game in its own right. It’s playable, it’s interesting, it’s enjoyable — and while it does have a sobering effect, it isn’t one that’s going to leave its players an angsty wreck. It’s quite an accomplishment. That’s why I wrote what I did about dour criticism. Designing, playing, and talking about serious games doesn’t mean there won’t also be fun games, or even that they can’t be both at the same time.

      And I’m in total agreement with you: HBO’s Chernobyl was incredible. In a way, it’s the closest to true Lovecraftian that I’ve ever seen, the disaster’s almost-cosmic carelessness with bodies and environments. I’ve watched it twice and will undoubtedly view it again sometime in the future.

  5. I’m curious what you think about Spirit Island on this scale.

    Games where the players play as a serial killer or asbestos companies do put the players in the shoes of evil people and evil organizations, with real-life parallels. Spirit Island, in comparison, doesn’t really have the same kind of parallel (because floods and storms are nobody’s fault) but unlike the above (and like CAH), not only are the players tasked with playing out an immoral role, they’re cast as the heroes rather than the villains for doing so.

    There’s some real justification there in that the players are protecting the indigenous people from destruction and exploitation, but that’s not made the core of the game. Rather, the deaths of people are primarily justified in-game by the supposed harm of nature itself being settled.

    I think it’s an interesting game with great artistic merit regardless, but I’m not sure its theme (in the English class sense) should be as lauded as it is.

    • Spirit Island definitely makes for interesting moral critique. I think the most important detail is that its actions don’t exist in a vacuum — you aren’t dropping floods and thunderstorms and volcanoes on people at random. It’s a deliberate inversion of the usual colonialism format found in plenty of games, even to the point that its structures might as well be Catan pieces, except you’re knocking them over as quickly as possible rather than racing to get them set up. In that regard, it functions much like revenge fantasy. I’d need to think about it a lot more, but can revenge fantasy be useful, or even moral? I suspect so, especially if the fantasy speaks to the desire to birth a new, defiant identity. Many cultures tell violent stories about themselves as a means to become brave. A game about divine punishment befalling colonizers frames the environment as both victim and vengeful protagonist.

    • Ah! If I may enter this fray, Spirit Island is such an interesting case, but you need to go beyond the “good or bad” question. For me it’s a game I enjoy and admire, but I feel a little awkward about its politics – because why am I, as a citizen of capitalism, and of a (former) aggressive and destructive colonial superpower no less, suddenly allowed to wield supernatural powers to get it right after all? Am I playing this game for the gratification of some kind of self-absolution?

      The problem with the game, in my view, lies in its half-explicit claim to ‘tell the other side’s story’. But the truth is that this is simply not the story of colonialism from the other side. Telling that story right could never involve the kind of gratification that Spirit Island allows. So it remains stuck in the matrix that it attempts to criticize.

      It seems to me that part of it comes out in not quite getting the powers of the spirits right. The idea that these spirits can basically outgrow capitalism, so just do that whole capitalist growth and production thing better than the colonizers, fails to hit the mark. If I would think of what a more apt game might look like, which I’m not sure I can at all, but I’d expect something more focused on surviving and healing and less on the hope of driving out those Europeans at all.

      What I find interesting here in the context of this wonderful post above (thank you for writing it, Dan! a necessary and thoughtful piece), is that the portrayal vs endorsement is only the first level of questions. Clearly SI doesn’t endorse and even criticizes what it “portrays” (though through a fantasy version). But you can see that there are more questions to ask, about what kind of story can emerge, whose story it could (and could not) be, what kind of feelings the game affords, how the mechanics paint a picture of the forces that rule or should rule the world, and what the nature of those forces should be, etc. That’s where an entire treasure trove of “politics of ludic form” lies hidden. Spirit Island is one excellent occasion for teasing that out.

  6. Thomas Romanelli

    A very nuanced article, Sir, as I’ve come to expect from your analytical demeanor.

    Quinton Smith (spouse of Leigh) and the wonderful SUSD crew ultimately shamed me into avoiding future plays of this title. While I was aware of the objectionable material within it, I never saw it as a representation of my true self or my value system. I would ascribe similar feelings towards the friends I played it with- we do not believe we are bad people who embrace misogyny, pedophilia, racism, etc.

    So why would I play an offensive version of apples to apples?

    In my daily professional life, I deal with people who suffer from acute and chronic illnesses and all the social, financial and emotional turmoil that comes with those burdens. My professional face remains glued on for the majority of the day, while I observe a wide spectrum of coarse behaviors that accompany these circumstances, sometimes directed at myself or my colleagues (even though I have no proximate responsibility to the inciting cause).

    CAH paradoxically afforded my friends and I a brief respite from such pressures, bound by our highly restricted play space where we could temporarily disengage our filters and explore some of the cynical and dark humor that reflected our common experiences. Truly offensive cards never found their way back into the box (a process that became a very curated exercise that everyone contributed to in their own way without judgment).

    Quinns labelled CAH very clearly. “It’s shit”. I’ll concede the point that an exclusive reliance on shock value to create some weird mystique around any game is not the foundation of layered design. However, I was taken aback by what Quinn’s was implying- I’m a shitty person if I enjoy CAH, and our need to modify its content and “play secretly” was his purported evidence of this fact. Leigh was both more direct and eloquent regarding that accusation, in so far as I was prompted to consider myself a de facto enabler of the darkest parts of CAH- my very act of playing the game was a presumed endorsement of its content.

    Ultimately, I abandoned CAH because it was a one-trick pony, and all the different-colored big boxes and supplements that followed did not really offer anything new. I also left it behind because we occupy a perpetually invasive medium in which a stray photo on Instagram or Twitter can have profound consequences, and the opinions of reviewers like Quinns and Leigh influence a community from which I’d prefer not to be excluded.

    I have no regrets about this decision. Well, I do miss David Bowie flying in on a tiger made of lighting…

    • So, I’ll say upfront that I don’t think anybody is “shit” for playing Cards Against Humanity. There are instances that strike me as crummy, like playing it loudly in public or using it to browbeat somebody, but in that case the problem is conflagratory: an offensive game played in an offensive manner is doubly offensive.

      I hope you’ll forgive some philosophizing, but this is the best way I know to explain my perspective on the matter. Objects don’t have inherent morality — only proposed purposes that are themselves conditionally moral or immoral. A sword, for example, is not sentient. Its proposed purposes, however, do have moral weight, whether moral (defense) or immoral (murder). Across the spectrum of its many uses, let’s agree that our hypothetical sword is more likely to be used immorally than morally. After all, it was designed with a particular curve and weight that makes it easy to conceal, a blade angled for cutting throats, metal strengthened for piercing leather without turning aside. This is an assassin’s tool! So when we discuss this sword, we evaluate it as an immoral object, even though the object itself is as thoughtless as the metals it was forged from. We discuss how to protect from swords, who should be allowed to own a sword, whether someone should train with a sword for a few hours every summer in order to obtain a sword-owner’s writ. We discuss how our culture fetishizes swords, how closely we regulate how much ore can be delivered to the swordsmith, and maybe we determine that infants should not be given such a gift for their christening. We take it very seriously when we read in Homer, “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.” Maybe we go overboard and begin to think that swords are possessed by malevolent spirits that beg us to heft them in villainous ways. You get the gist.

      But then one day, a child falls into a grated sewer. As the sewage rises — yes, this is very contrived, stick with me — somebody finds our sword in the muck and uses it pry open the rusted lock on the grate. The entire town is awestruck. The child is saved!

      Now we have to ask a question: was the sword moral or immoral? Well, neither, first because the object itself isn’t a thinking being, and second because the proposed purposes assigned to it, more commonly called “intent,” is only part of how something can be gauged. Just as we can use “good” things in bad ways, we can also use “bad” things in good ways — it just might be less common. Cards Against Humanity troubles me because it’s designed with the intention of being offensive, and not in a particularly enlightening or interesting way. As an object, I can evaluate it critically. I can observe how its jokes tend to be thoughtless, how it picks on the abused, how it desensitizes many who play it. I can approach its intent as outlined in its rules, its promotional material, even right there on the box. But can I account for every possible usage of the thing? Absolutely not.

      In other words, I’m interested in assessing the value of objects, not people.

  7. Last year at one of the PAXes, I talked about this with Cole Wehrle. How was he able to make a game like An Infamous Traffic, about English aristocracy profiteering off the Opium Wars, without coming off as an endorsement?

    He told me that it’s from the game having a level of self-awareness. The game has to tell the players that it knows what it’s doing. In Traffic’s case, you don’t immediately score points from your dealings across the Pacific. Instead, you take the money you’ve “earned” and you buy a fancy hat, and the fancy hat is worth points. (The scoring has more complexity to it, like an alternate win condition that kicks in if a certain scenario is met, but this is the salient point right now.)

    Traffic models the chaos of the Opium Wars, and it solidifies your avatar’s morality in a scoring system that prioritizes social standing and fashionable clothing above the lives of foreigners. That’s how it’s able to land its punch – you know that it knows. That awareness is what The Cost has, that CaH lacks.

  8. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    I dont remember the details now, but I remember about a “game” years ago that somebody did, that if I’m not wrong was something like you were playing to optimize the logistics of a train network, and were encouraged to find out how to best do it, what kind of stuff meant you moved more units per turn or something.

    And then the “reveal” of the designer/runner was to tell you in the middle of it “BTW, this is Germany WWII, you are optimizing the transport of Jews to concentration camps”.

    At the time… and to be honest, still now, I thought the main lesson from that was that I would insult the damn pretentious designer, and that any lesson about anything would be shadowed by that emotional reaction to the manipulation in the “game”. Because that is the thing, it is a cheap trick. Aha, lesson time! Arent you bad? Shame on you for playing! What an horrendous person you are.

    That works once. And again, probably works more in making me sure never to play with that person, ever. You have an argument to make, make it to me, not make it WITH me.

    The Cost, in my opinion (without playing it yet…), is much better than that. It doesnt hide his moral message as a surprise, it is obvious from the name, but as (for all I know and read) it works at a game, it makes a more sincere, pertinent, and constant message about it. Because it makes a coherent argument – look, even knowing all that, you can derive enjoyment from the game as a game, as an optimization of engines, as a chance to beat rivals. Well, things like what it shows will keep happening because all that is even more true (and more desperate) in the real world, where to the “fun” of winning there is the “terror” of losing (money, jobs, perks, position)… when to succeed you only have to abstract the people away. To consider real life a “game” you are “winning” and well, somebody else pays the price… not my problem.

    As it works as a game, it works better as a presentation of the problem – we can ignore a lot of stuff for our own profit and benefit, because it feels good to win. And if you are an executive or shareholder, well, your employee is just a line in a spreadsheet, is not like you know them as people. Oh, you want to minimize the cost in lives? Well, and if your competition isnt, and is winning, what do you do? What do you tell shareholders? Will they listen?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jesús! The game you’re talking about is Brenda Romero’s Train. It’s one I’ve chatted with a few designers about in the past, and, interestingly enough, a few people brought it up on Twitter in response to this article. Opinions are sharply divided; some regard it as an impressive piece of design, others more as a cheap shot. I tend to fall on the latter side of that line. I like my games to express moral arguments without moralizing — an observation I intend to make later this week about The Cost!

  9. Samuel Vijay Pierce

    Very much enjoyed, and have enjoyed the great discussion in these comments.

  10. This is a wonderful post. It overlaps with things I’ve been trying to think through, unsuccessfully, for years. Something I still struggle with though on this topic is what it means to “enjoy a game,” or to have “fun” playing a game. Are those things implied or assumed when playing a game? Does the act of trying to win, even in the low-stakes world of board gaming, imply something about how we’re supposed to experience, or think about, board games? These questions seem to have implications for how we think about the moral implications.

    I completely agree with your premise that there is a large difference between portrayal and endorsement. Endorsement is clearly morally problematic. I guess my question is whether portrayal can still be morally icky (very technical term) because of the nature of the medium–a game.

    Or perhaps to make any delineation clearer, is watching a movie that portrays morally reprehensible acts different than playing a game that portrays morally reprehensible acts? I guess my answer is, it might, but i’m not sure. I think a game asking you to 1) be an agent within the narrative, 2) being asked to think strategically in that setting, and then 3) perhaps most worryingly, to derive a sense of pleasure or fun from that experience, is what gives me pause.

    That all being said, I also have the thought to myself, “You’re just way overthinking this.” It’s all make-believe. Make-believe doesn’t have a lot of moral implications for the real world. People play make-believe with morally questionable things all the time.

    I didn’t know about The Cost before your post, but I think I would probably defend that game, as it might hint at some of the things actual businesses need to think about with regards to their products, and perhaps selling a product that does have a dangerous attribute isn’t ex ante morally reprehensible.

    In the end, by nature I’m a very open and anti-censorious person (both politically and culturally), and so I would probably never argue that others stop playing certain games, but I do avoid games that put me in a role that makes me feel as though i’m representing evil in some sort of way. That’s often a tough call.

    • Good thoughts, K.R. Personally, I like to think of games in the context of sandboxes — safe playspaces for acting out behaviors that might be otherwise troublesome. As you’ve pointed out, when we emerge from the game, very few real-world ramifications follow us out of that magic circle. This isn’t to say there are no ramifications; we bring the memories of our actions and interactions, and those memories may influence our behaviors or assumptions going forward. Which is why I value games that think about the experiences they provide and the arguments they make!

  11. It is perhaps more interesting that we celebrate consequence free games about Coal mining, oil, railroads, and other industries which had severe negative aspects for real people than one which includes these elements.

    One could also talk about war games where casualties are miraculously removed from the battlefield.

    …what we choose to “abstract out” of games says something about us as designers and players.

  12. While I agree with everything said about The Cost, I don’t agree with what has been written in defense of Secret Hitler. Fascists don’t get to power secretly, they get to power openly, and usually it happens when the liberal democracy already has turned into a bad system. So Secret Hitler doesn’t help understanding the rise of fascism at all.

    That said, Secret Hitler is neither portrayal nor endorsement, just a bad game which derives its appeal from the H-word.

  1. Pingback: Talking About Games: Subjecting Subjectivity | SPACE-BIFF!

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