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Subject: Troubling themes in board games, socialization, power, and "entertainment" rss

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Drew Chappell
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I'm starting this thread in response to recent controversy over White Goblin Games' Expedition: Congo River 1884. The controversy over applying themes that might be considered in poor taste or "offensive" to games is by no means limited to this particular release- there is a long standing debate over Puerto Rico for example.

I have been watching this debate over what we might call "troubling" themes (I dislike the word "offensive," which seems reductive to me); I've even written about this in my doctoral dissertation and a collection of essays on play and socialization I published in 2010. I'm particularly interested in gaming that involves young people, and is part of the way they begin to think about history and culture.

I'd like to share some thoughts here and invite others to continue the conversation.

By no means am I claiming that board games teach everything about a specific historical period or society, but nor do I believe they can be written off as "just entertainment." After all, they ask players to embody various roles, some with troubling historical parallels. No, you are not becoming a slave trader (for example) by playing a game, but you are, I would argue, "trying on" this role in a safe way. You are not resisting the game, you are not refusing to play that role.

It's what players DO with that embodiment that I think can make a difference. Do they laugh it off? Do they secretly enjoy it? DO they feel uncomfortable, but keep it to themselves? Or do they initiate a conversation about what's going on in the game- what the theme/storyline is asking them to do?

Especially when playing with kids, I think this is of vital importance. Using a game to begin a conversation about a historical period or difficult subject can be a powerful learning tool. It's analogous to the American Girl books I read with my daughter, which allow us to begin conversations about slavery, and poverty, and child labor.

So that's my two cents. I'm interested to see what others have to say.
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Good topic, and probably deserving a better venue than RSP.

General Gaming, perhaps?
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This game has flown under my radar so my comments may not be entirely on track but it looks and sounds like a euro. When I play a euro there usually isn't any sort of "role" adopted, it's all just a pretty pretense for a (hopefully) tight and stimulating system. You put your disc on that space because you need those smaller discs this round and if you don't do it first that other guy is going to take them, not because you're considering how you might feel about chopping lumber in this fictional reality. Don't get me wrong, theme can be implemented really well, but for many games it's a nothing but a lampshade.

Which is a long winded way of saying that this game probably doesn't need to lead us to discuss the morality of imperialism at the game table, so long as it can make "get control of X before Y does" feel like an interesting way to kill an hour or so.
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Drew Chappell
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Posted in parallel in general gaming. Thanks.
 
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Your OP is vague, because there is no moral argument made here.

My general take is that it depends on how the game presents itself.

If someone makes a game about a historical event, and gets it utterly, completely, WRONG, I usually don't care that much, so long as the game's intention is just to be entertainment.

It's when a game or other cultural construct makes the claim that what they are presenting is educational- and then gets their history wrong- thats when I care.

The reason is that I think it is wrong to pawn off bad research and pop history as 'educational'. For me, there is a moral premise implicit when someone says something is educational- they are saying that they have done the work to research some particular aspect of the world, and this 'game'/book/movie is their best attempt to teach other people about it. If they haven't done that, they've lied to me.

But for games in and of themselves, as games? I mean, really- no one takes Puerto Rico seriously at all, except as a game. As a cultural historian, about the only thing that it demonstrates is that people don't like to think that deeply about their entertainments, and in fact get somewhat annoyed when people try to look deeper at what they do.

Darilian
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MyTwoCents wrote:
drewchap wrote:
I'm starting this thread in response to recent controversy over White Goblin Games' Expedition: Congo River 1884. The controversy over applying themes that might be considered in poor taste or "offensive" to games is by no means limited to this particular release- there is a long standing debate over Puerto Rico for example.

I have been watching this debate over what we might call "troubling" themes (I dislike the word "offensive," which seems reductive to me); I've even written about this in my doctoral dissertation and a collection of essays on play and socialization I published in 2010. I'm particularly interested in gaming that involves young people, and is part of the way they begin to think about history and culture.

I'd like to share some thoughts here and invite others to continue the conversation.

By no means am I claiming that board games teach everything about a specific historical period or society, but nor do I believe they can be written off as "just entertainment." After all, they ask players to embody various roles, some with troubling historical parallels. No, you are not becoming a slave trader (for example) by playing a game, but you are, I would argue, "trying on" this role in a safe way. You are not resisting the game, you are not refusing to play that role.

It's what players DO with that embodiment that I think can make a difference. Do they laugh it off? Do they secretly enjoy it? DO they feel uncomfortable, but keep it to themselves? Or do they initiate a conversation about what's going on in the game- what the theme/storyline is asking them to do?

Especially when playing with kids, I think this is of vital importance. Using a game to begin a conversation about a historical period or difficult subject can be a powerful learning tool. It's analogous to the American Girl books I read with my daughter, which allow us to begin conversations about slavery, and poverty, and child labor.

So that's my two cents. I'm interested to see what others have to say.


Its not immoral to enslave small wooden discs.

i.e. pretending to do a thing is not the same as doing the thing - if it were then anyone playing Hitler would be a war criminal.


For an interesting counter to that argument, I would suggest looking up Dickwolves on the Internet.

Not sure what I think of that yet.

Darilian
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I love that Dickwolves t-shirt.
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Darilian wrote:

Quote:

Its not immoral to enslave small wooden discs.

i.e. pretending to do a thing is not the same as doing the thing - if it were then anyone playing Hitler would be a war criminal.


For an interesting counter to that argument, I would suggest looking up Dickwolves on the Internet.

Not sure what I think of that yet.

Darilian


I'm not seeing how that's a counter. If anything, it's a great example- writing a comic about dickwolves is not the same as being a dickwolf, or supporting dickwolfery.
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Except for the fact that people got really into it- being 'proud' of being a dickwolf- to the point that the creators of Penny Arcade had to back off, take the dickwolf tshirts off of the webstore, and generally apologize for being assholes, or face serious repercussions in attendence at their convention.

I think that their original point is valid- some gamers like to be 'dickwolves' in games. While this isn't the same thing as the act in and of itself, it is somewhat troubling that they self-identify with acting like an asshole that they make life difficult in the real world by, well, being assholes.

While I certainly don't think that playing of game of WWII makes the German player likely to become a Nazi- not in the least- one would be an idiot to argue that games have NO impact on people's behavior; especially when a game celebrates patently immoral actions. Not just reward- celebrate, as demonstrating that one is truly a 'cut above' in being a total dickwolf.

This I find somewhat troubling- the extent to which that gamers will take their ingame fantasy and celebrate dickish behavior in ways that, to me, don't seem that terribly healthy.

That said, you see this FAR more in video games than in board games. I think its the immersive nature of video games that tends to excerbate those trends.

Darilian
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Darilian wrote:
Except for the fact that people got really into it- being 'proud' of being a dickwolf- to the point that the creators of Penny Arcade had to back off, take the dickwolf tshirts off of the webstore, and generally apologize for being assholes, or face serious repercussions in attendence at their convention.


I'll admit I don't have encyclopedic knowledge of the dickwolf controversy, but I wasn't aware of any such thing happening. In fact, my understanding of the whole controversy is that it got so big precisely because the creators are vehemently unapologetic for it.

And I don't think anyone was "proud of being a dickwolf" but plenty of people, myself included, would be proud of supporting free speech against humorless douchebags who seek to censor it.
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Darilian wrote:
While I certainly don't think that playing of game of WWII makes the German player likely to become a Nazi- not in the least- one would be an idiot to argue that games have NO impact on people's behavior; especially when a game celebrates patently immoral actions. Not just reward- celebrate, as demonstrating that one is truly a 'cut above' in being a total dickwolf.

This is veering a little too close to Jack Thompson territory.
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BagelManB wrote:
Darilian wrote:
Except for the fact that people got really into it- being 'proud' of being a dickwolf- to the point that the creators of Penny Arcade had to back off, take the dickwolf tshirts off of the webstore, and generally apologize for being assholes, or face serious repercussions in attendence at their convention.


I'll admit I don't have encyclopedic knowledge of the dickwolf controversy, but I wasn't aware of any such thing happening. In fact, my understanding of the whole controversy is that it got so big precisely because the creators are vehemently unapologetic for it.

And I don't think anyone was "proud of being a dickwolf" but plenty of people, myself included, would be proud of supporting free speech against humorless douchebags who seek to censor it.


There were a couple of hundred people who were calling themselves 'rapists' on twitter and twittering about it. Not to mention going to every blog on the internet by people (mostly women) who were oppossed to what Penny Arcade was saying and generally being jerks.

And I don't see how the people telling Gabe that he was being an asshole is somehow comparable to 'censorship'. He was a dick, people said that if he continued to act like a dick they wouldn't go to his con.

Sounds like the Free Market in action, dude.

Darilian
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On topic again: The human brain / mind is always learning (at least, when awake). The "information" perceived is building up to a personal view of the world, so everything matters.

For instance, each "Cowboy / Indians" movie, boardgame and adventure book strengthens a certain point of view about how "the west was won". Most of these books, games, movies, whatever "do not matter" and are not thought to be "taken seriously", but all in all, we grow up with a dead wrong picture in mind. Learning about the genocide, brutal massacres and how the Americans were and are imprisoned into "reservations" has a very hard time to become part of this picture and will probably never replace the wrong "entertaining" image of our childhood.

So, in the end, responsibility is the question regarding what to do about themes in games having a far more serious background than the game itself implies being an entertaining game at first.

I really appreciate (as I pointed out in the "Congo" thread) rulebooks with a short appendix. Don`t change the game, but give customers the chance (if they want) to get a little knowledge (and two internet links) about the historical facts. That`s all.
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The PA guys didn't really apologize did they. They just acted like 12 year olds without considering the larger repercussions.
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MyTwoCents wrote:
Darilian wrote:
BagelManB wrote:
Darilian wrote:
Except for the fact that people got really into it- being 'proud' of being a dickwolf- to the point that the creators of Penny Arcade had to back off, take the dickwolf tshirts off of the webstore, and generally apologize for being assholes, or face serious repercussions in attendence at their convention.


I'll admit I don't have encyclopedic knowledge of the dickwolf controversy, but I wasn't aware of any such thing happening. In fact, my understanding of the whole controversy is that it got so big precisely because the creators are vehemently unapologetic for it.

And I don't think anyone was "proud of being a dickwolf" but plenty of people, myself included, would be proud of supporting free speech against humorless douchebags who seek to censor it.


There were a couple of hundred people who were calling themselves 'rapists' on twitter and twittering about it. Not to mention going to every blog on the internet by people (mostly women) who were oppossed to what Penny Arcade was saying and generally being jerks.

And I don't see how the people telling Gabe that he was being an asshole is somehow comparable to 'censorship'. He was a dick, people said that if he continued to act like a dick they wouldn't go to his con.

Sounds like the Free Market in action, dude.

Darilian


And as long as they are not actually raping people, or threatening specific people with rape, they have every right to do that and the correct way to deal with it is to ignore it.
Bleh. If we are talking about 'rights' then everyone else involved was well within their rights to call them out for their dickish behaviours and to threaten not to attend a commercial event hosted by them. So what is your problem?
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Everything is offensive to somebody. I've just learned to accept that they are offended, but that I am not going to adjust my character to fit their needs. If they don't like it, they can be offended elsewhere. My offensive threshold is fairly high. I don't think learning or reenacting anything based on history is offensive in any way. It's history, and any topic should be explored and simulated into every facet of it's cause. Learn it or relive it.

On the the other hand I certainly wouldn't act out illegal activity not pertaining to learning about it's effects. I wouldn't play out rape scenes for pleasure, but I might watch a movie or read a book that had a rape scene as a part of it, as long as it followed the story. But I wouldn't watch a porn where rape was the only objective. One puts an act in context, and one gains pleasure from the act.

SO I would have no issue playing a war game that covered the holocaust of WWII, but I probably wouldn't play a game called "How to cook a Jew for dinner". Again one puts an act in context of history, while the other gains pleasure from the act.
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sbszine wrote:
I love that Dickwolves t-shirt.


The only thing good about those shirts is that if you see someone wearing one you know that you never want to talk to them.
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To the OP. Froma quick perusal of the game it sseems that it is so much a theme pasted on to fairly abstracted mechanics that it really does not extend to 'trying on a role in a safe way', as others have already indicated.

Gamse, and boardgames in particular, are more of a reflection of the cultural notions on a given topic than a deliberate attempt to impose or form opinion on the topic.

Even those games that do aim to inform are usually bening -not to mention on the fringe of the hobby- barring notable exceptions (Darkies in the Melon Patch Juden Raus).

That said, some games give you the options to explicitly engage in imoral actions as a normal game action. Struggle of Empires does not try to cover up hard facts of colonial expansion and gives you the ioption to engage in slave trade. And the benefit of the option is such that it will always be chosen. Such games give pause about the actions taken and generally I take this to be a good thing, so we can have a litle introspection, no matter how brief or shallow, about slavery and its consequences.

I vastly prefer that over games as Puerto Rico or, as it looks like, Congo because while they are mechanically divorced from their theme. the application of that theme only involves the positve aspects and conveniently ignores all the associated negative aspects for lo, it is 'just a game'. That smacks of whitewashing*.

* Mind you I'll still play those games if they are any good, but I do regret that aspect of them.
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sisteray wrote:
sbszine wrote:
I love that Dickwolves t-shirt.


The only thing good about those shirts is that if you see someone wearing one you know that you never want to talk to them.


I guess it's another thing for us to disagree about. That whole kerfuffle was nonsensical. I can certainly appreciate that PA needed to apologize to soothe some noisy subset of their audience, but I don't think that in and of itself vindicates any claim that the original joke was over some line. I personally found the original comic very funny, and the ensuing controversy totally befuddling. One of the few times I've wondered if the conservative right was actually on to something when they rail about "Political Correctness" taking over the world.
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djgutierrez77 wrote:
I guess it's another thing for us to disagree about. That whole kerfuffle was nonsensical. I can certainly appreciate that PA needed to apologize to soothe some noisy subset of their audience, but I don't think that in and of itself vindicates any claim that the original joke was over some line. I personally found the original comic very funny, and the ensuing controversy totally befuddling. One of the few times I've wondered if the conservative right was actually on to something when they rail about "Political Correctness" taking over the world.


The criticism of the original joke was kind of nonsense, and didn't make any sense.

However, much of the criticism of PA's handling of that criticism is spot on.
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Dolphinandrew wrote:
djgutierrez77 wrote:
I guess it's another thing for us to disagree about. That whole kerfuffle was nonsensical. I can certainly appreciate that PA needed to apologize to soothe some noisy subset of their audience, but I don't think that in and of itself vindicates any claim that the original joke was over some line. I personally found the original comic very funny, and the ensuing controversy totally befuddling. One of the few times I've wondered if the conservative right was actually on to something when they rail about "Political Correctness" taking over the world.


The criticism of the original joke was kind of nonsense, and didn't make any sense.

However, much of the criticism of PA's handling of that criticism is spot on.


Yeah, the PA guys should have just issued a standard "sorry if we offended anyone, you know we work pretty blue here, etc." and then ignored it rather than engaging and egging on their juvenile audience. That I absolutely agree with.
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djgutierrez77 wrote:
sisteray wrote:
sbszine wrote:
I love that Dickwolves t-shirt.


The only thing good about those shirts is that if you see someone wearing one you know that you never want to talk to them.


I guess it's another thing for us to disagree about. That whole kerfuffle was nonsensical. I can certainly appreciate that PA needed to apologize to soothe some noisy subset of their audience, but I don't think that in and of itself vindicates any claim that the original joke was over some line. I personally found the original comic very funny, and the ensuing controversy totally befuddling. One of the few times I've wondered if the conservative right was actually on to something when they rail about "Political Correctness" taking over the world.


The original comic was just another PA comic. If they would have just ignored the response, then we all would have rolled our eyes and shrugged it off as their usual adolescent shenanigans. The "apology" on the other hand was not only tone deaf, but showed that they didn't understand the situation and/or were assholes. Because of that, the whole thing exploded, and most reasonable humans would have tried to figure out why people were actually upset at them, said that they fucked up and moved on. But no, instead they put out merchandise that profits off of and encourages rape culture. They could have taken the side of the sixth victim, and that might have been passable, but instead they took the side of the rapists, and then over the course of a couple months did nothing to disassociate themselves with groups like "Team Rape". They even went so far as to make fun of people with PTSD caused by rape and put up a page making fun of triggering effects.

This isn't about being PC, this is about them being supreme fuckheads and supporting people that run around conventions with "Rape Clocks" that say "Anytime is a good time to rape."

Wearing a Dickwolf shirt is basically saying that not only do you encourage and embrace rape culture, but you paid money to endorse it.
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sisteray wrote:
djgutierrez77 wrote:
sisteray wrote:
sbszine wrote:
I love that Dickwolves t-shirt.


The only thing good about those shirts is that if you see someone wearing one you know that you never want to talk to them.


I guess it's another thing for us to disagree about. That whole kerfuffle was nonsensical. I can certainly appreciate that PA needed to apologize to soothe some noisy subset of their audience, but I don't think that in and of itself vindicates any claim that the original joke was over some line. I personally found the original comic very funny, and the ensuing controversy totally befuddling. One of the few times I've wondered if the conservative right was actually on to something when they rail about "Political Correctness" taking over the world.


The original comic was just another PA comic. If they would have just ignored the response, then we all would have rolled our eyes and shrugged it off as their usual adolescent shenanigans. The "apology" on the other hand was not only tone deaf, but showed that they didn't understand the situation and/or were assholes. Because of that, the whole thing exploded, and most reasonable humans would have tried to figure out why people were actually upset at them, said that they fucked up and moved on. But no, instead they put out merchandise that profits off of and encourages rape culture. They could have taken the side of the sixth victim, and that might have been passable, but instead they took the side of the rapists, and then over the course of a couple months did nothing to disassociate themselves with groups like "Team Rape". They even went so far as to make fun of people with PTSD caused by rape and put up a page making fun of triggering effects.

This isn't about being PC, this is about them being supreme fuckheads and supporting people that run around conventions with "Rape Clocks" that say "Anytime is a good time to rape."

Wearing a Dickwolf shirt is basically saying that not only do you encourage and embrace rape culture, but you paid money to endorse it.


I'll recuse myself from this conversation, having nothing to add that I won't regret later.
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duchamp wrote:
On topic again: The human brain / mind is always learning (at least, when awake). The "information" perceived is building up to a personal view of the world, so everything matters.

For instance, each "Cowboy / Indians" movie, boardgame and adventure book strengthens a certain point of view about how "the west was won". Most of these books, games, movies, whatever "do not matter" and are not thought to be "taken seriously", but all in all, we grow up with a dead wrong picture in mind. Learning about the genocide, brutal massacres and how the Americans were and are imprisoned into "reservations" has a very hard time to become part of this picture and will probably never replace the wrong "entertaining" image of our childhood.

So, in the end, responsibility is the question regarding what to do about themes in games having a far more serious background than the game itself implies being an entertaining game at first.

I really appreciate (as I pointed out in the "Congo" thread) rulebooks with a short appendix. Don`t change the game, but give customers the chance (if they want) to get a little knowledge (and two internet links) about the historical facts. That`s all.


I disagree. I think as we grow older we realize that the movies, books, comics, etc...of our youth are not the real histories. We learn the truth.

I had a friend who was appalled when I wanted to take my then 5 year old son to see Disney's Pocahontas. She told me it was not the real story and it was not appropriate to teach a child the wrong history. I took him anyways. He loved the movie and is now 21 years old. He knows that version of Pocahontas is not the real story. He has learned the true history. So the entertaining image of his childhood has been replaced by the actual history.

As far as Congo is concerned...well it may not depict the real history...but I do agree it will make some people want to find out the history surrounding the game. Including historic facts in the rule book or a reading list would be excellent.


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MWChapel wrote:
Everything is offensive to somebody. I've just learned to accept that they are offended, but that I am not going to adjust my character to fit their needs. If they don't like it, they can be offended elsewhere. My offensive threshold is fairly high. I don't think learning or reenacting anything based on history is offensive in any way. It's history, and any topic should be explored and simulated into every facet of it's cause. Learn it or relive it.

On the the other hand I certainly wouldn't act out illegal activity not pertaining to learning about it's effects. I wouldn't play out rape scenes for pleasure, but I might watch a movie or read a book that had a rape scene as a part of it, as long as it followed the story. But I wouldn't watch a porn where rape was the only objective. One puts an act in context, and one gains pleasure from the act.

SO I would have no issue playing a war game that covered the holocaust of WWII, but I probably wouldn't play a game called "How to cook a Jew for dinner". Again one puts an act in context of history, while the other gains pleasure from the act.


This came up in a tellustrations game where one person used the concept to illustrate "furnace". Another person was brought to tears while several thought it was dark humor. Apologies ensued but I'm not sure those two folks will play tellustrations together again.
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