Talking About Games: Portrayal vs. Endorsement
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.