Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence… It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children's play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit.
There were other interesting pieces, such as this piece which offers some serious criticisms of the popular game Cards Against Humanity or this one trying to give advice to prospective designers who are considering controversial themes for their games. But the most interesting one was an interview with famed designer Bruno Faidutti on the most excellent podcast Ludology. They decided to interview him following his article “Post-colonial Catan” which I cited in my post. I enjoyed the article and I’m a big fan of Faidutti’s designs in general. Which is why I was disappointed to disagree with most of what he said in the interview. I started writing a comment about it in the forums but it became so long that I decided to make it into a blog post.
I'll start with what I agree with - near the end of the episode Faidutti says he wants to see greater diversity of designers - more women, more black people, more young people and in general more variety. I couldn't agree more. This is a general issue that has special importance when it comes to artistic and cultural creation. I also agree that it's a good idea for designers to have a more conscious vision of their themes and reflect about the social message of their games. Given this agreement, I don't quite understand why Faidutti says that he doesn’t wants designers to do anything differently, but he is spot on in saying that there is a paucity of analysis and reflection on board games and that board games don't get the attention they deserve compared to other art/cultural forms. When I started my blog, that was exactly the kind of thing I had in mind - to do political analysis of games that takes them a bit more seriously than they are taken in mainstream media. I wanted to do it from the perspective of a gamer who loves games so that they would be treated with the love and seriousness that we usually treat them when we talk about the endlessly on BGG forums, but also thinks about what they mean as meaningful cultural creations. I haven't done much on this front thus far and I'm not sure I'm the right person to do that, but hey – at least I’m trying.
Which is why I was disappointed that Faidutti decided to start the interview by repeatedly saying people shouldn't take his piece so seriously, that it started as a joke and even though he thinks it raises interesting issues, we shouldn't take them very seriously. I always find that kind of response surprising, as he obviously spent a lot of time and effort writing the piece, but it seems to me that he was mostly trying to calm things down, having received angry responses of people who thought his post aims to censor their board games, or that the such posts would lead us to a boring world of politically correct gaming where all the fun has been squeezed out of everything.
For example, in his comment about this podcast Isaach Shalev mentions the way the characters in Coup and The Resistance are racially diverse, and there is equal representation of women in a way that is not demeaning. That is, sadly, not the standard in our hobby. I say sadly because I am saddened by it. I'm perfectly aware that there are people who don't care, and I think it's totally their prerogative. I hope to convince them to care because right now the state of affairs is that there are many great games that I really love, like Mage Wars, that has art on them that I find problematic. Mage Wars is a game I really really love – it’s one of my favorites. And it's not half as bad as a bunch of other games but still, that's a turn off for me - I hate seeing female characters sexualized for no apparent reason, going into battle with unwearable armor which emphasizes their body. Not because I mind nudity - I am very liberal in the art that I consume - but because it bothers me that the same game has the men wearing combat gear while the women wearing shiny metal bras or almost nothing. It's also troubling because of the way it relates to the history and context of troubling depictions of women. And I guess I could say, that on some level, it offends me a little (and I’m not the only one). To me, it's just bad taste - I feel like we could, and should, do better than enhance these stereotypes and when I see game that's so innovative, so smart, so full of love - a gigantic amount of time and attention was invested in it - and it couldn't be saved from these dated tropes - I cringe. In the same vein, I'm disappointed, like Niki from Board With Life, when a fabulous game like Sheriff of Nottingham has only playable female character (out of five) - even if I still would consider this game one of the best games of the year.
As it happens, I often have to choose between a game that I love and art/presentation that I dislike. And I accept that that's my problem. It's not half as bad as it in other parts of our culture (as in video games), and it usually won't stop me from getting the game. Yet I think it’s a problem, mainly because of the way it makes gaming less hospitable for women and girls who would otherwise want to be a part of our hobby. It’s an issue we should not just be aware of, as Faidutti says, but also do something about. And we can - if enough people were bothered by it, the market dimensions would change. Naked sexualized warrior-women (or very few, if at all, playable women) would no longer be the default in gaming (I think we can see this change taking place, though very slowly). Of course, they would still be out there for those who really want them - so no censorship involved - but the default would be to challenge ourselves and break new grounds on this front. The same goes to all those issue that Faidutti mentions - from racial diversity to perspectives about colonialism and other forms of exoticism. True, it would be great if there was more variety in the realm of designers. But bald white men, such as Faidutti and myself, can still challenge ourselves to think out of the box and do better on this (on our own standards - so no imposed standards of censorship).
The second point of disagreement is about board games as vehicles for meaningful content. Faidutti insists in a variety of points that board games can really only have very simplistic content because they are more like pictures than novels and you only have very few elements. With so few elements, he says, you can’t delve very deeply into anything. This is what Faidutti calls the 'technical' reason why there are simplistic themes in board games (as opposed to the ideological reason that is related to the aforementioned fact that most game designers are old white men). The technical reason seems completely false to me so I wanted to say something about it. Faidutti says that "board games are simple, short rules, always a bit abstract" (16:56). Because we are abstracting from specifics and only have a few rules, we can’t say much and what's more important - we can't say anything serious.
I think that's obviously false. Some of the most evocative and expressive art forms involve very few elements. Poetry is one of the most obvious examples but there is a variety of other examples, including Hemingway's short short story. But it's also obviously false about games. We just mentioned Coup, a game whose original graphic design seems completely in line with boring traditional gender roles (only one female character with a passive ability) got reskinned as superbly interesting and diverse game which Shalev now rightly notes to be social commentary. In the new version of the game they realized that maybe the Duke has to stay male (though I think that's a frontier we can also smash one day), the assassin and captain don't have to, and neither does the Inquisitor - and I think that's fabulous. Likewise, Love Letter is a tiny game that has only 15 cards but as its gazillion implantations show, it offers a great variety of options. And they feel different, because getting a love letter to the princess feels differently than getting the Munchkin loot. And you won't be surprised to find out that the Batman version is not about courting Batman, though, of course, it should be.
Last point on this is that even when the theme is historical or founded in an existing fiction (such as Lord of the Rings) and the game theme is very abstract and minimalist (like many Euros), the designer still makes choices about what of the content to include. Who are the playable sides in this war? What kind of feel do we want to give to this historic setting? The argument that abstract games with thin themes don't have much say is really weak, in my opinion.
The third disagreement is related to the previous one and it's about the kinds of themes we want for board games. Faidutti says that games need to be fun and therefore they have to be light-hearted. In board games, we look for light settings that would make people smile. You can't have a setting that's too involved - as you would in a movie or a book - or that would spoil gaming night. Board games are not meant to make political points and when they try to do that - they are not fun.
I agree that the main point of board games is not to make political statements. In fact, if you want to make a political statement, I don't think designing a board game is a great way to go about it. But that it's not the main point doesn't mean board games don't carry with them any political content. They inevitably do, as any work of art. If board games were only bare and abstract mechanics, they wouldn't be very much fun for most of us. True, the theme helps us understand and internalize the mechanics - but that can’t not the only reason we have themes for board games.
And it's not the case that we want light themes for game night if we are to have fun. I actually think the opposite is true for most games - we want things that matter and raise the stakes, or we would feel like we're playing kids games. That's one of the reasons, I think, we play war games - we want to feel like the stakes are really high. In other cases we want to lower the stakes and not take what we're doing too seriously, which is why the second edition of Cash and Guns make the art more cartoonish. I think they made the right choice - when we're pointing foam guns at each other, some may feel like realistic art might be too much. Different people will have different threshold, but it's just not true that most of our games are in light-hearted settings that make us smile. Does the Cathulu world make you smile? Does the Star World universe?
It's also not true that we can't have fun when the theme is serious or one that invites thinking deeply. At some point Faidutti compares board games to light novels, which is true for some games. But many many more of them really aren't. They are much more like a sprawling fantasy novel, a historic drama or an economic report about the development of the car industry. We have lots of fun doing serious things - we read long and dense novels for fun. Why else would we read them? We read non-fiction for fun, and argue about politics on the internet for fun. There is a great variety of things we do for fun and these are such different ‘funs’ that perhaps we shouldn’t use the same word. But we do. If you think about it, fun and serious are really not mutually exclusive.
So I don't think it's enough that we are aware of the exoticism, and are making fun of them. I think Faidutti is right to be concerned about the colonists in Puerto Rico, where we white-wash these of our history (and we do so not only, and not primarily, in games). I think being aware and making fun of it, as he suggests, is definitely one way to deal with these simplifications, but it's not the only one and perhaps not even the best one (and, contra Faidutti, it certainly doesn't seem to be the case in Five Tribes where there is no trace of self-humor or even self-awareness). We can do better, as designers and gamers, if push ourselves to think a little more broadly about the themes in the games we make and play. And we can do better, as consumers, if we voice our displeasure with hackneyed stereotypes and opt for games that have unusual themes or depictions. There's only so much courage we can expect from commercial companies if we, as board gamers, don't send the message that we want gaming themes to be broader, more appealing to a wide audience, more diverse and more deeply interesting.
That's my take on the matter. I don't support censorship of board games, but I think we are, for the most part, stuck in a limited world of hackneyed clichés. We can do better than that. Every year amazing games come out with innovative and brilliant mechanics that break new ground. And we see a greater variety of themes and stories. Yet we can do a lot better than Settlers of Catan on that front. Not every game needs to be a breakthrough on all fronts and I'm not saying that I won't play another game that pits orcs against humans or has me kill zombies. But in my book one of the parameters of a good games that it says something interesting. And other games? It's not that they have no message, it's just that the message they have is not very original. And that's a shame.
Post script: Almost immediately after I posted this, I found this remarkably thoughtful series of articles on Across the Board Games by Luke Turpeinen that covers the importance of themes, racial representation in games and the importance of consumer cry for diversity ( #WeNeedDiverseGames). A great read for those interested in the topic. Also this discussion of Faidutti's article and interview.