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Counterpoint: I don't want to be THOSE guys
The Goombas surely view Mario as a mass murderer.
I deeply regret calling the enemies in STF anything more than "bad guys." We never intended to make any sort of statement; we were only looking for an excuse to kick down doors.
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I imagine that there are mountains of emails that go to companies that produce military games like ARMA.
It's certainly easier to feel a step removed from situations that occurred 80 or 800 years ago than it is those that are still extant in the news and modern culture
This is the crux of it, for me. As we grow up, we learn to take a view of history totally coloured by our own cultural bias. That makes it much easier to compartmentalise being "bad" in play.
Events in flux, on the other hand, are not only often too close to the bone but it's much harder to see them as being "right" or "wrong". For all the problems with Labyrinth's model, one thing it got right is that it didn't seem to hand down a moral judgement. And the first time I committed a terrorist atrocity, I felt physically sick.
Sure, I still play things like Neuroshima Hex or T&E or other games where combat is clearly happening, but something about taking that into the real world, not abstracted, and then poring over the results like it's just an interesting apersonal study is just not something I'm going to take an interest in.
Sure, it's a vague line, and I enjoy some things that probably cross it but for some reason I'm okay with. I just don't think it's possible to abstract actual historical battles in any way that doesn't nod approval at warfare altogether. It's the alleged Truffaut quote about it being impossible to make an anti-war movie.
But once you started writing about Labyrinth, I found myself nodding in agreement. The designers of that game did have a warped perception of recent events in the Mideast, and their game only served to spread that flawed viewpoint.
I'm not an eco-terrorist, but the moment I learned that the bad guys in STF were eco-terrorists, I completely lost interest in the game. Eco-terrorism is wrong, but so is wrecking the environment, even if done in a legal manner. We only have this one planet that we can live on, and I honestly don't think we will ever successfully colonize another world, so we should be a lot more careful about how we use this planet. I understand that our FATtie designers aren't anti-environment and weren't trying to make a political point, but I'm just not interested in playing unless there is a 2nd edition with less controversial opponents. I would feel the same way if we were in the '70s and talking about an STF game where the Black Panthers are the bad guys.
So maybe that's the distinction for me: a game based on history is fine, but a game based on a current conflict might be too touchy. I'm not saying that there should be any kind of censorship, except maybe self-censorship by designers and publishers who want to promote inclusiveness over divisiveness in the hobby.
My two all-time favorite PC games both allow players to choose their own morality. Temple of Elemental Evil allows you to choose the alignment of your party, and all of your player characters must be within one step of that alignment on the D&D nine-space alignment chart. I've played the game a few times, including with neutral or evil parties, because that opens up different ways to interact with the game, but I really hated it when I found myself forced to fight against good npcs or normal townspeople. Vampire: Bloodlines has a Humanity trait, which goes up when you do good things and goes down when you do really bad things. And I actually felt a little better or a little worse about myself whenever the game notified me that I had either gained or lost a point of Humanity. Not for the mechanical stat adjustment, but because my own sense of self was impacted by how I played the game.
But each an every time an orange foam gun is pointed at me, I flashback to when my mom's 5th husband put me in a headlock and placed the tip of a pistol against my left temple as I hear the hammer cock.
There is nothing about moral equivalency here because I found the genre humorous in a very decadent "end of western civilization" sort of way, that only privileged suburban white boys who enjoy death metal can.
I don't think I visibly cringe anymore at orange foam guns. I hope they don't notice it, if I do. Although inwardly, I ball up in a corner with my hands before my face, palms towards the violence. Tightly clenched eyes and gaze averted, a sign of anguish rarely seen outside of victims who endure such sublime abuse. Every time.
But when pointing an orange foam gun, I feel no satisfaction either. Only pity for those at the end of my barrel. They answer my aggression with laughter, without knowing how fragile their life truly is.
I laugh too. Faking my enjoyment. I gotta be fun at parties, or I shall die a lonely man, cowering in a corner, waiting for the *pop*. The loyal slave learns to love the lash.
My empathy for victims of such trauma prevents my enjoyment. I can no longer afford the decadence required of me, to remove myself from the reality such violence represents.
To me, the foam guns no longer represent an impersonal yet quick death or injury. They are now symbols of someone dancing around me, with my detached ear in their rapacious grasp. Reveling in my pain, and the breaking of my psyche.
Shellhead wrote: I have done a lot of role-playing over the years, usually as the game master. That means I tend to run the bad guys. And the npc good guys and normal people and everybody else, for what it's worth. When I have been a player, I have often played morally ambiguous characters. But I never took joy in the evil acts that my characters committed.
In roleplaying things can break two different ways with "evil". One way is that you're playing a nasty person that takes what they want and steps on people's heads to get it. I've played those characters, in fact had a long "career" with an evil mage that teamed up with an evil samurai to really carry out awful acts. We were wildly successful, and it certainly was a taste of the other side of life for me.
But -- that's not the same as playing a character that deems all people from a particular religion or sect or nationality as grounds for special evil treatment. One is a micro-evil, the other a macro-evil. The thought of playing a character looking to enslave or exterminate a particular group is a line I'm never going to cross. I've never played that sort of character nor even heard of anyone who has. To me that's reserved for the DM to play, the target of destruction for the players.
And I think that playing Rommel or Jackson falls in the micro-evil category. Though allied with evil entities they weren't personally carrying out the atrocities, (at least not to my knowledge.) Playing Eichmann . . . that's a whole bigger ball of wax. I'm not walking down that lane either.
So the first game that popped into my mind as I started reading your article was An Infamous Traffic, a game about the English gentry's well-planned effort to correct the trade imbalance with China by selling opium to the Chinese populace via non-sanctioned ports and ships. Though you don't play as a particular named person, you represent one of the family companies that the English government gave permission to become wildly rich by sowing despair and death into the landscape of a foreign country. This was a truly despicable act, orchestrated with intention for economic reasons.
My first play of An Infamous Traffic was overwhelmed by learning the ins and outs of the rules, but my second was more sanguine. I found myself considering the history of the moment which is a valuable morality check for anyone, but was able to push past the ugliness of the scenario and thrive in the gameplay. It was an intellectual challenge, based on the rules that were laid out in front of me.
Here's the question -- did the people that actually carried out these awful acts 200 years ago, removed by thousands of miles of ocean (or even just dozens) use the same part of their brains to justify their actions as I did sitting at my kitchen table? I had hindsight and a broader understanding of the world to press the point harder on me, but it was just a simulation. They had much more out-of-sight-out-of-mind available to them, and a patriotic legitimization handed to them by their country's government. We may have been playing the same game from a level-of-morality perspective.
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A few other things:
Matt: My problem with Labyrinth is that it did seem to be implicitly rendering a judgment on the scenario that was slanted to one side (the US one.) Here, again, we run into that difficulty of perception: If my side is committing atrocities for what they consider the greater good (how much torture was conducted in the 'black sites'?), is that better?
Lego: I totally take your point. I don't understand it myself. As noted, me, the lifelong peace/enviro/progressive activist is a regular wargamer and an enthusiast of military history in many ways (although that's starting to wane; you can only read so much.) I don't get it, but I just really enjoy games that require that kind of strategic mindset, from Hammer of the Scots to Siege of Jerusalem to Battlelore, 2nd Ed. I played Warhammer and 40K for 15 years and spent thousands of dollars on a hobby that was mostly about shooting your opponent with (ahem) progressively larger guns/fireballs while I was running the Green Party...
Shellhead: You hit the nail on the head with the modern day thought. I know that's part of my response to Labyrinth and STF because they lack that historical distance. As for RPGs, I was usually the DM in my games, too, so I ran the gamut of the type of characters to play. I don't know that I intrinsically objected to those roles because I knew that I was telling a story and it's similar to an actor playing an otherwise despicable character. Similarly, my all-time favorite army in 40K was the Dark Eldar. There's a lot of pretty heinous lore behind them that you kind of have to engage with the modeling and painting and even some of the game play with the Haemonculus Cults. I didn't embrace that but, as noted, I love playing the Uthuk in Runewars and Battlelore and there is something entertaining in being able to play that role with your plastic toys while being utterly separate from it in the rest of your life. A release valve of sorts (albeit a macabre one)?
CC: I totally sympathize with your perspective. I can completely understand that embedded reaction and I'm sorry that you had to go through those events that shaped it. Thanks for talking about it.
Sag: An Infamous Traffic is a perfect example of this. The historical remove is there, but I'd end up having the same kind of inner disbelief that I was engaging in this. It's a similar reaction that a lot of people had to Puerto Rico once the fascination with the mechanics faded out: "Hey, this is a great game. But it's based on a scenario that exploited humans as property and often worked them to death. Wanna play again?" The opium trade may even be a step up in malice, since wars were fought to stop the trade and the British fought back with the explicit and oft-cited intent of keeping their profit elevated. It's one of those historical scenarios that, like slavery, makes one shake their head at the idea that any decent person could countenance this. Admittedly, just the audacity of the circumstances makes the game sound interesting...
In your Rommel example, you speak of the ingenious tactics and strategies employed. As you note, each person has their own threshold for divorcing themselves from what is behind the curtain, unspoken of except in passing during the game.
I still play and prefer games of high conflict. Games like Nexus Ops, Wiz-War, Cosmic Encounter, Gorechosen, etc. where it is easier to divorce yourself from the damage, since these themes take place in extraordinary fantasy circumstances and settings, making them less relatable.
But games such as Cash & Guns, war simulations based on reality, etc... these just hit too close to home and no matter how much I find the puzzle surrounding ingenious strategies to be compelling thought exercises, they are detestable to me. Time doesn't lessen their impact. "Too soon?" doesn't apply.
It doesnt matter which side is being played. I don't want to be any of THOSE guys. But I still want to shoot you in the mouth with a fireball as you fall into a pit of poisonous spikes.
One the not-quite-the-flip side, I have absolute zero desire to play a game based on modern age politics, it bugs me that Divinity Derby only features Gods and not Goddesses, I don't want to play a stock market game about amassing riches by bilking others, having only one female character to select from in a certain post apocalyptic pick up and delivery stuck out to me in a bad way.
Also, it raises an interesting question regarding the influence of social society and norms on game design. Are the days gone where designers would simply create games driven by their own interests, and now must temper their creativity to ensure public acceptance? (Perhaps those days never really existed, and I'm merely looking back through foggy lenses.)
I would love to see a high school or college level course that uses some of the games mentioned (e.g., Labyrinth, Seal Team Flix) to motivate conversations about uncomfortable issues (e.g., racism, geopolitics, gender identity, social disenfranchisement) and enable students to think about the world from new perspectives.