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Subject: Ludology Episode 105 - Teach the Controversy rss

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Geoffrey Engelstein
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Inspired by an article by Matt Thrower, Mike and Geoff talk about games that try to tackle controversial topics, and why there aren't more of them.

Available on iTunes and on the Ludology site.
Duration: 1:05:35
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Ryan Sturm
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Oooh, this is a good topic. I look forward to hearing what you guys have to say.
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Great episode.

One thing I thought when you were talking about Pandemic was that the spread of the diseases very abstracted away from what would really be happening in one of the cities. How much more controversial and maybe even more powerful would the game have been if each city started out with a certain number of population cubes and every time a disease came to town you took away those cubes? I just imagine that actually "killing" the people would be a more visceral feeling than just adding a cube that says "the disease is here."
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Gil Hova
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Agreed, this was a great episode.

I feel that there's a strong distinction between recreational and transformative games that will help us here. I think the two kinds of games work at cross purposes.

A transformative game is all about enlightening us on a certain topic and changing us in some way by playing it. A recreational game is all about flow and fiero. In other words, the purpose of a transformative game is to reflect the world; the purpose of a recreational game is to obliterate it.

It might be possible to combine the two, and I'd be curious to know what people here think of that. Are there games out there that are simultaneously recreational and transformative?

I'll put out some personal opinions here; I'm sure these will clash with a bunch of people. Let's start with Freedom: The Underground Railroad. This is a gorgeous game that's done with great sensitivity and class, but I feel it's much more recreational than transformative. The first time I ever lost a slave, it felt really bad and shocking, but after a few rounds, they felt more like cubes than slaves, and the slave catchers felt more like algorithms than flesh-and-blood villains. It's an outstanding game, but I didn't feel like it bridged the gap between transformative and recreational.

Next, Brenda Romero's Train. I have to be honest here, I'm not much of a fan. Frankly, I think Romero is a performance artist whose pieces happen to resemble tabletop games. But I think Train is 100% transformative. I also think it's rather cheap and sleazy. The idea of a game that appears to be a recreational game but suddenly invokes Godwin's Law halfway through feels like a suckerpunch to me. It feels cheap, lazy, sophomoric, and sensationalist.

One game that might come close to bridging the gap is a game that Jane McGonigal's Tombstone Hold 'Em, which she describes in Reality is Broken. This is a fascinating mix; it's a version of Texas Hold 'Em to be played in cemeteries, where players get the community cards first, but then must scamper around to find tombstones. Each tombstone shape corresponds to a suit, and the last digit of the date of passing on each tombstone is the rank. The two tombstones in a "pocket" must be close enough that two people can touch them while touching each other.

It sounds grim and possibly ghoulish, but McGonigal justifies it in her book by describing how regular visits to a cemetery seem to actually help people's moods and health. And because players need to look at the dates on each tombstone to play, they must clear away things like dirt and leaves on neglected monuments (although I'd hope they'd be careful about things like recently-left flowers and stones). It's actually a beautifully-made game that straddles the line between recreational and transformative much better than I ever thought any game could.

How about you folks? Agree? Disagree? Any other games you think bridge the divide, or try admirably?
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justplainchips wrote:
Great episode.

One thing I thought when you were talking about Pandemic was that the spread of the diseases very abstracted away from what would really be happening in one of the cities. How much more controversial and maybe even more powerful would the game have been if each city started out with a certain number of population cubes and every time a disease came to town you took away those cubes? I just imagine that actually "killing" the people would be a more visceral feeling than just adding a cube that says "the disease is here."

I think this is an interesting point, and I wonder if Mr. Leacock considered that. It's perhaps instructive to contrast Pandemic and Tomorrow.
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IngredientX wrote:
Agreed, this was a great episode.

I feel that there's a strong distinction between recreational and transformative games that will help us here. I think the two kinds of games work at cross purposes.

A transformative game is all about enlightening us on a certain topic and changing us in some way by playing it. A recreational game is all about flow and fiero. In other words, the purpose of a transformative game is to reflect the world; the purpose of a recreational game is to obliterate it.

It might be possible to combine the two, and I'd be curious to know what people here think of that. Are there games out there that are simultaneously recreational and transformative?

I'll put out some personal opinions here; I'm sure these will clash with a bunch of people. Let's start with Freedom: The Underground Railroad. This is a gorgeous game that's done with great sensitivity and class, but I feel it's much more recreational than transformative. The first time I ever lost a slave, it felt really bad and shocking, but after a few rounds, they felt more like cubes than slaves, and the slave catchers felt more like algorithms than flesh-and-blood villains. It's an outstanding game, but I didn't feel like it bridged the gap between transformative and recreational.

Next, Brenda Romero's Train. I have to be honest here, I'm not much of a fan. Frankly, I think Romero is a performance artist whose pieces happen to resemble tabletop games. But I think Train is 100% transformative. I also think it's rather cheap and sleazy. The idea of a game that appears to be a recreational game but suddenly invokes Godwin's Law halfway through feels like a suckerpunch to me. It feels cheap, lazy, sophomoric, and sensationalist.

One game that might come close to bridging the gap is a game that Jane McGonigal's Tombstone Hold 'Em, which she describes in Reality is Broken. This is a fascinating mix; it's a version of Texas Hold 'Em to be played in cemeteries, where players get the community cards first, but then must scamper around to find tombstones. Each tombstone shape corresponds to a suit, and the last digit of the date of passing on each tombstone is the rank. The two tombstones in a "pocket" must be close enough that two people can touch them while touching each other.

It sounds grim and possibly ghoulish, but McGonigal justifies it in her book by describing how regular visits to a cemetery seem to actually help people's moods and health. And because players need to look at the dates on each tombstone to play, they must clear away things like dirt and leaves on neglected monuments (although I'd hope they'd be careful about things like recently-left flowers and stones). It's actually a beautifully-made game that straddles the line between recreational and transformative much better than I ever thought any game could.

How about you folks? Agree? Disagree? Any other games you think bridge the divide, or try admirably?

All good points Gil. One thing we probably should have stressed more is the baggage that the term 'game' has. I think if you call something a 'simulation' people approach it differently. And your terminology of 'recreational' and 'transformative' perhaps map nicely with 'game' and 'simulation'.

Geoff
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Gil Hova
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engelstein wrote:
All good points Gil. One thing we probably should have stressed more is the baggage that the term 'game' has. I think if you call something a 'simulation' people approach it differently. And your terminology of 'recreational' and 'transformative' perhaps map nicely with 'game' and 'simulation'.

Geoff

This brings up a point I find fascinating: transformative is really hard to do in the board game space. The digital space is brimming with transformative games, from Papers, Please to Passage to Rooftop Cop. There are even games that do an amazing job of straddling the line, like Journey and Gone Home.

The indie RPG scene is also flush with examples of transformatives. The entire subgenre of Nordic Jeepform embraces transformatives, as do tabletop games like Under My Skin and Dog Eat Dog.

But board games? It's so hard to find examples of genuine transformative games. I think that's for two reasons.

First, there's the barrier to entry. Board games have traditionally been ridiculously expensive to produce. For a game with a mounted board and pawns, you've generally had to spend about $10K USD just for a tiny print run, which printers have been reluctant to do until a few years ago.

This barrier to entry gets softer each year as POD services like Game Crafter and Print & Play Productions get better. I think we'll get a big buzz about a transformative board game available on one of those sites in the next year or two.

(Aside: anyone here try ...and then, we held hands.? Is it genuinely transformative, or is it a recreational game with a weird theme?)

Second, I like to divide commercial recreational games into three categories: contests, puzzles, and worlds. It's very difficult to assign some significant external meaning to a contest and still have the contest be relevant. Contests can be only about themselves, so they have a very hard time reflecting the real world.

Since board games tend to be contests instead of puzzles or worlds, they have a very hard time carrying artistic meaning. Transformative designers therefore tend to work in genres with a lower barrier to entry, and in a game style that can more easily carry real-world meaning.
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IngredientX wrote:
It's very difficult to assign some significant external meaning to a contest and still have the contest be relevant.
Well said.

And a well done episode. I find it especially interesting that you start without a "definition of a controversial theme" (or was I distracted?). You would most likely end up with something vague and useless anyway.
And this brings me to my point, maybe extending the discussion a bit:

Whether and how much a game is considered controversial or not, among other qualities of games of course, very much depends on the time and the place, from which we look at it. Games that at their time of publication might have been controversial (like this), aren't any more, and vice versa (like this - don't know the games, just a quick thematic research, so please don't bash me for these examples...), as society changes. You'll find plenty of examples, I think.

And then, of course there are themes that attract no attention in one country, and may be forbidden in another society at the same time. I can't think of any specific examples right now, but I'm sure you get my point.

Can you think of any significant game, where one or both of these statements are true? And what do you think, how much are boardgame themes under the influence of their time and place, and how do authors, publishers or gamers react? (How) have games been used for political purposes? Could board game themes even have "revolutionary potential"?
I know, the last one is very far off, but I would be very much interested, what games were like in the eastern bloc countries - or especially in the G.D.R.
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Gil Hova
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Danny Whipp wrote:
Whether and how much a game is considered controversial or not, among other qualities of games of course, very much depends on the time and the place, from which we look at it. Games that at their time of publication might have been controversial (like this), aren't any more, and vice versa (like this - don't know the games, just a quick thematic research, so please don't bash me for these examples...), as society changes. You'll find plenty of examples, I think.

This is a great point; the context is so important when seeing if and why something struck a nerve.

Quote:
And then, of course there are themes that attract no attention in one country, and may be forbidden in another society at the same time. I can't think of any specific examples right now, but I'm sure you get my point.

I think the recent patch to Five Tribes is a good illustration of this. I read that Bruno Cathala used 1001 Arabian Nights as his source, so to him, he was being faithful to the source material and nothing more. And in Europe, I think that's all fine and good.

I play a lot of games at a Whole Foods in a posh part of the NYC area (TriBeCa), mainly because it has a ridiculous amount of table space and has been friendly to gamers in the past. The clientele of the supermarket is over 80% white. The work force of the supermarket (a job that pays very little, certainly less than the average Whole Foods customer) is over 80% black.

I'm bringing this up because I find this an actual, living artifact of America's racial history. Slavery as we knew it up to the 19th century has been abolished, but its legacy is very much alive, and has an enormous effect on Americans, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

And while plenty of us can look past the "Slave" card in Five Tribes and see the source material, there are plenty of other people for whom it would be weird. Not offensive, just weird.

To me, it's an example of an "invisible rope" (the technical term is "microaggression", but I don't like that term), a tiny part of the gaming scene that tells people who don't match the majority that they don't belong here. This sort of stuff rubs people the wrong way, but not always at a level that they can talk about or even perceive. It's just an uncomfortable feeling.

So I think it's a good example of an element of a game that plays fine in Europe, but brings along a whole bunch of uncomfortable baggage in the US.
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IngredientX wrote:
I think the recent patch to Five Tribes is a good illustration of this. I read that Bruno Cathala used 1001 Arabian Nights as his source, so to him, he was being faithful to the source material and nothing more. And in Europe, I think that's all fine and good.

The weird bit of that bit of controversy for me, is that I don't recall any controversy on the use of slaves in Tales of the Arabian Nights... And I do recall controversy on the fact that the brown disks in Puerto Rico are referred to as 'colonists'.
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Just finished listening to the episode: I'm going to have to disagree with Mike's least controversial game of all time here - Surely the history of Carcassonne, specifically that the citystate was invaded during the Albigensian Crusades, makes a game themed around that city (...Such as the theming is) somewhat controversial?
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Gizensha wrote:
Just finished listening to the episode: I'm going to have to disagree with Mike's least controversial game of all time here - Surely the history of Carcassonne, specifically that the citystate was invaded during the Albigensian Crusades, makes a game themed around that city (...Such as the theming is) somewhat controversial?

It says a lot about this topic that I have no idea if this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or a real comment...
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This was an interesting topic, one thing I was thinking of (and I listened in the car so I might have missed it) was the fine line between making a game that is interesting and enjoyable and making light of a serious issue.

Also, I thought the volume issues seemed completely fixed during this episode.
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engelstein wrote:
Gizensha wrote:
Just finished listening to the episode: I'm going to have to disagree with Mike's least controversial game of all time here - Surely the history of Carcassonne, specifically that the citystate was invaded during the Albigensian Crusades, makes a game themed around that city (...Such as the theming is) somewhat controversial?

It says a lot about this topic that I have no idea if this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or a real comment...
Along those lines...as Mike was describing Carcassonne as his least offensive game I was waiting for you to drop the hammer with some historical event that would dash his theory to bits.
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engelstein wrote:
Gizensha wrote:
Just finished listening to the episode: I'm going to have to disagree with Mike's least controversial game of all time here - Surely the history of Carcassonne, specifically that the citystate was invaded during the Albigensian Crusades, makes a game themed around that city (...Such as the theming is) somewhat controversial?

It says a lot about this topic that I have no idea if this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or a real comment...

To be honest, I'm not sure either - I don't find it controversial personally, I'm just aware enough of the history of the city to recognise that it could be controversial.
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To expand on the idea of cinema being more able to tackle these issues than games, there is also a large budget factor, that ties in with the size of the industry that was mentioned. In cinema, the more controversial and serious topics, by their non-mainstream-entertainment nature, (usually) get addressed in independently made, lower-budget films. An intense, serious film like 12 Years A Slave has about 10% of the budget of a huge blockbuster like Avengers, so it can support a fraction of the viewership and still be a huge success. And even 12 Years was a big-budget independent film.

Board games don't really have a low-budget analog. The independently made games cost just as much (sometimes more) to make, so there's no offset to the financial risk of putting something out that only appeals to a fraction of the overall audience. There is print and play, but production quality is tough to maintain, while in cinema, technology has advanced so far that it's possible to make an extremely high-production piece with consumer-grade gear.

That, and the fact that even at 1% of the Avengers budget, you're still pumping 2 million dollars into a project. Whereas at 1% of the Eclipse budget (presumably) nobody involved would be able to buy a sandwich.
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Thank you Mike and Geoff for this excellent episode. When you where talking about Train and the reactions of people to the reveal, what it was really about, I had to think back to my most intense gaming experience.

A few years ago a good friend gathered eight people (all seasoned role-players) for Last Train Out of Warsaw. It is 1939 and you are for some reason or another on board this train, which also holds the Polish gold reserves. My role was the Polish officer responsible for the gold. At one point in the game I had the only logical option to kill another players character (she was about to discover the gold). It took me some seconds which felt like minutes to actually make the decision. But this wasn't the hardest decision. I had been seen getting rid of the body by a boy. Well, it was an even harder decision, which took me at least a minute to make. But I bound him in a nearby shed. Well knowing that he might not survive this being left alone there. But I (as the player) just couldn't kill him. The officer might have done this.

After the long game session we where all mentally exhausted. It was "just a game". But I had never before encountered an experience like this. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

But coming back to something you mentioned on the pod-cast: I never want to play it again. Games like this are a one-time experience. And I concur with your conclusion that this is a very likely reason that we don't see commercial board games like this.
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Good points, Joe. I think RPGs have more freedom in this area, to make an inexpensive PDF that lets designers explore this space with less financial risk.

izenmania wrote:
To expand on the idea of cinema being more able to tackle these issues than games, there is also a large budget factor, that ties in with the size of the industry that was mentioned. In cinema, the more controversial and serious topics, by their non-mainstream-entertainment nature, (usually) get addressed in independently made, lower-budget films. An intense, serious film like 12 Years A Slave has about 10% of the budget of a huge blockbuster like Avengers, so it can support a fraction of the viewership and still be a huge success. And even 12 Years was a big-budget independent film.

Board games don't really have a low-budget analog. The independently made games cost just as much (sometimes more) to make, so there's no offset to the financial risk of putting something out that only appeals to a fraction of the overall audience. There is print and play, but production quality is tough to maintain, while in cinema, technology has advanced so far that it's possible to make an extremely high-production piece with consumer-grade gear.

That, and the fact that even at 1% of the Avengers budget, you're still pumping 2 million dollars into a project. Whereas at 1% of the Eclipse budget (presumably) nobody involved would be able to buy a sandwich.
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BurtHoovis wrote:
Also, I thought the volume issues seemed completely fixed during this episode.

Someone who knew what they were doing offered to do final mastering on this episode to deal with the volume issue. Glad that it helped!
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Thoughtful episode. Thanks guys.

As far as wargamers having an easier time with controversy, I think this is largely due to the abstraction and narrow focus on tactics and battles i.e. "boots on the ground" rather than on the larger, less abstract socio-politico-economic aspects driving the conflicts. In this regard, I'm kinda surprised the GMT COIN Series didn't come up. Seems to me like there is plenty of controversy that has been and will be mined in future iterations. Where it is easy for me to get someone to play a tactical wargame as say the Nazis in WW2, it is much harder for me to get someone to play a COIN faction who actively kidnaps, assassinates, or has "terror" as a valid and often optimal action option.
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Great episode. I don't have anything to add that wasn't mentioned or posted here, but this was released today, and I thought it relevant.

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izenmania wrote:
Board games don't really have a low-budget analog. The independently made games cost just as much (sometimes more) to make, so there's no offset to the financial risk of putting something out that only appeals to a fraction of the overall audience.

GMT seem to have worked out how to do it... (Via the P500 system, small print runs, and mainly cardboard chits as far as their components go)
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I think Geoff nailed it when he explained the difference between the active, personal role taken on when playing a side in a game, versus the passive observation that takes place when experiencing other art forms. This difference between PLAYER and AUDIENCE is huge.

However, game designers are nothing if not clever, and there must be ways of creatively dealing with that. Co-ops against the morally offensive side are one solution (e.g. Freedom: The Underground Railroad). There must be others.
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And I have to believe that this engagement and identification with your side can ultimately be a very powerful tool for the designer of this type of game/simulation/whatever.
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engelstein wrote:
And I have to believe that this engagement and identification with your side can ultimately be a very powerful tool for the designer of this type of game/simulation/whatever.

Is this the reason why controversial themes seem likely to occur in cooperative games? Because you can identify with the "good side" and the game takes the role of the bad side, like the diseases in pandemic?
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