A while back, TPG told me the following story:
During my first gaming conference, I stumbled on an odd war game. It seemed the usual sort at first, some map with two opposing colors and different tokens and lots of dice. The players were not into chatting about it, but the name of the game fixed me to the spot:
A war was going on in my hometown. Not exactly out of the ordinary, but which one? Romans vs. Zealots, or maybe some Crusading Knights thing? The players were reclusive, but the presence of Stars of David and armored cars narrowed down the range. The guy who kept mumbling “The Arabs are on the move” clued me in to the other antagonist in the story.
I had it mostly figured out but still insisted on an explanation, and one of the guys finally relented and explained that this was 1948, and they were playing a scenario called 'War of Israeli Independence' wouldn't you know. The Arab forces were sieging the Jews in the city, and the Jews were building a new road to break the siege.
I then noticed little tokens with armored cars on them scattered along a road on the board. I can easily bring their real life images before my eye, their shells still decorate the main road that leads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As a kid, in the backseat of a car driving up the winding road, I looked out the window and counted the armored cars on display. At night they were lit with special projectors.
I wasn’t exactly sure why back then, and maybe I still don’t have an exact reason now, but the whole seemed, at the time, grossly offensive.
Here’s what I don’t want to talk about: Should TPG have been offended by the game? Was the game offensive? Should we censor games?
These sort of issues have been discussed ad nauseam, and I don’t want to talk about that. I also don’t think we should censor games, so let’s get that out of the way.
Here’s what I do want to talk about: If games are an aesthetic thing, why and when do some topics cause us moral anxiety and offense?
To put it differently: Nobody would think it’s wrong to write a book or make a movie about the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. By contrast, something about making the 1948 Arab-Israeli War into a game is offensive to some people no matter what you end up with.
Sure, a director could do a bad job of it and create something offensive, but that’s not the point. In art and literature and movies, the specific thing might be offensive, but the general idea isn’t offensive. In games, the general idea itself can be offensive.
If games are something like books or movies or art (as Frank Lantz and others put it), why does it seem wrong to make some things into games, in a way that doesn’t apply to books or movies or art?
To test your own intuition on this, try answering the following:
* Is it OK to write a book about the holocaust?
* Is it OK to make a game about the holocaust?
* How about I make a movie about slavery?
* How about I make a game about slavery?
If you felt a different gut reaction to these questions, this post is for you. If you say that you’re equally as fine with any of these things, this post is also for you, but you should know you’re in a minority.
To get a sense of the general population, I asked 100 random people, using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. People rated how much they agreed that certain topics (the holocaust, slavery, the Armenian genocide) can be addressed using movies, books or games.
The basic result is that people approved much less of producing a game about a difficult topic (e.g. the holocaust) than a book or movie about the same topic.
We can dig a little deeper into the data, showing individual results:
So what’s going on?
I can think of several explanations for why this intuition exists for the majority of the population (partly aided by the comments I got from participants in the survey).
Let’s imagine advocates for the different explanations sitting together in a room:
The Patrician: The plebs just don’t get it yet
First to speak is The Patrician: She’s a hard-core gamer, likes talking about the systems behind games as much as she likes playing the games themselves. She's caught up on the literature and conventions, possibly dabbles in academia.
The Patrician says:
“Your survey just shows the masses have a bias against games compared to other forms of art. This bias is because people have in their heads stuff like ‘Monopoly’ and ‘Risk’, and when you ask them to imagine a game about the holocaust they imagine Monopoly with concentration camps.
Us enlightened folk at the cutting edge understand that games are an art form like any other, but it’ll take the others time to catch up, and in a century or two nobody will think it’s any odder to have a game about the holocaust. I don’t have a problem with games about the holocaust as long as they’re tasteful, but that’s true of movies as well.
Think about art - people used to think art had to be beautiful, or that the best art was the most lifelike art. Nowadays artists understand the medium as a way of exploring concepts. Sure, there are still the plebs who are a century behind and look at modern art and say ‘My kid could do that!’. That’s because they have antiquated standards, but they’ll get there eventually."
The Ambassador: Games are Fun, Some Topics Should not be Fun
Fidgeting uncomfortably through the previous speech, The Ambassador now has his say. He plays games on occasion, though he’s not as committed as The Patrician. He thinks he understands both the hard-core people and the general population.
The Ambassador says:
“It’s a basic property of games that they’re fun, or supposed to be fun. We can’t run away from that fact. It’s not like art or books. Fun is as essential a property of games as “moving pictures” are of movies. People in the general public understand that instinctively. Take out the essential property and you’re just dabbling in some weird philosophical or artsy experiment.
And since fun is an essential property, it clashes with some things that we instinctively feel we shouldn’t enjoy. The Patrician is wrong - we’re never going to get over it, even centuries from now. We’re not supposed to get over something essential."
The Psychologist: Games have Agency, Some Topics Should not be Emulated
Shaking his head vigorously, The Psychologist stands up. He’s more into running experiments and reading books about games than playing them, but he enjoys games too, especially quick party games that are easy to pick up.
The Psychologist says:
“Games are like art and music and books and movies. They’re a way of exploring a system of rules and concepts. I’m on board with the Patrician on that. But I also think there’s something special about them. Books aren’t movies, movies aren’t sculptures. Each has their own unique aspect. The Ambassador is right that they have an essential property that clashes with these things.
Fun isn’t it though. I think it's agency, the fact that you are the one being allowed to make these decisions rather than passively consuming them. Acting in a bad situation makes you feel tainted by association. Not only that, agency also let’s you pretend you know what it’s like to be in that situation, and some situations are too awful to pretend that. Centuries from now we won’t be over it, but not for the reason the Ambassador said."
The Philosopher: You’re all Kind of Right, and Wrong
Finally it’s The Philosopher’s turn to speak. She has a habit of dissecting games as they’re being played, over-analyzing and can’t really get into the theme.
The Philosopher says:
"You’re all right.
(the others groan)
It’s true that art forms evolve their meaning over time. And it’s true that the more you study an art form, the more you become obsessed with the hidden rules. But that doesn’t mean the Patrician has a better handle on the experience of games. Like a movie critic who over-thinks the lighting of a scene, or the music aficionado who has moved on to atonal music because it’s so different. You can be an expert without being the avant-garde.
And yes, games form this sort of nebulous concept cloud of agency and fun and all that. But we can imagine games with agency and fun in horrible situations like war and galactic genocide, and people seem to accept that.
It’s history and realism, on top of fun and agency, that drive the unease and offense. Emulating war is an acceptable game. Some kid emulating a specific war where people you know fought and killed and died is bothersome.
Perhaps in a few centuries we’ll feel the same towards books and games about some abysmal situations in our recent history. But it won’t be because people will evolve a different understanding of games. It’ll be because those people will lose that personal historical connection to the topic. It’ll be a bit sad, when the game Jerusalem 1948 AD will elicit the same response as Jerusalem 67 AD. But that’s just how it goes.”
I can see the point of each one of these people, which is why I made them up. I don't think there's one necessarily right answer for this question, and obviously some people don't even think it's a question.
I can tell you that the boring answer for me would be if the Patrician or Ambassador were right. If the Patrician is right, it means there's nothing that different about games compared to other art forms. If the Ambassador is right, it means that what makes games different is that they're fun, which is not that interesting.
It would be more interesting if games were different, and special, and this whole topic was a window into that.