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What Are Your Game's Politics?

A topic by Four-in-Hand Games created Mar 23, 2019 Views: 558 Replies: 36
Viewing posts 1 to 16
(2 edits) (+3)

This is a thing that I am seeing referenced obliquely through several of the threads in this forum, and I thought it was time to get explicit about it. Games are inherently political, and I'd like to get both player and designer thoughts about the politics of your games and the games that you play.

I see that many of you like frameworks, so here's my framework:

(You can see the original blog post with additional comments here.)

***

In examining the political views of a game – particularly a roleplaying game – we can look at those elements that always exist in the medium: the premise, the action, and the presentation.

Premise

Whether a game provides a setting for you or expects you develop one at the table, it usually provides a premise. Unless consciously guided away from them, the premise is always built around the biases of the creators.

If there is a setting, we can quickly see the biases built in: Who are the leaders and citizens in this setting? Are there different races that are assumed to have inherent, perhaps monolithic personalities? Are there analogs to the real world, and how well do those analogs represent their real-world equivalents? Of course, if the setting is closer to the real world, then creators can’t help but reveal their social and political biases. Do they glorify or romanticize certain nations, policies, or historical eras? Do they gloss over the impact of certain events or individuals? These choices, whether conscious or unconscious, help foster the game’s particular world view.

If a game expects you to create your own setting, then it may offer guidance. Does it ask you to look at big picture effects of your choices or assume you will create an isolated framework of tropes? Setting creation guidelines almost always offer some constraints – what kinds of worlds and stories will this game NOT let you create?

Action

In nearly all roleplaying games, you generally want to do…something. The action might be physical, emotional, or conceptual, but you can expect to act, change, or grow in some way. Whether characters do the same thing repeatedly or a variety of things, those actions and their methods are another area where the game’s politics show through.

The actions themselves make assumptions about the world. Is violence common or uncommon? Is there violence against objects, institutions, creatures, or sentient beings? Are there consequences or rewards for conflict? Is conflict inevitable, or can it (always) be avoided?

In terms of methods, things like skills, moves, and attributes can say a lot about what is important to the politics of the game. Is strength favored over intellect, or vice versa? What abilities or practices does the game mechanize and what does it “leave to roleplaying?” Do the mechanics favor cooperation or individual action?

Presentation

The writing, art, and even layout might be limited by what is available to the creators, but ultimately there are still choices being made that say something about the politics of the game and its creators.

The language of a game book reveals creator assumptions about the game’s target audience. What terms and pronouns are used for the players and organizer? Is the tone formal or conversational? Does the game mention or assume player support practices or safety tools? Are there examples of play, explanations of design philosophy, or hacking tools? Does the text specifically suggest or proscribe certain play styles or activities?

Art can welcome and guide players, but it can also drive people away. Who is being represented in the game’s art, and how? Is there textual explanation for the art selections? What activities does the art depict, and does this correspond to the main activities presented in the text? Are there images that might be uncomfortable or even upsetting – is there textual explanation for those images?

Even the organization and layout of a game can say something about who it’s for. Is the text cramped and multi-column, or spread out and single column? Which chapters or sections come first, and which are given the most space? Is there indexing and/or digital bookmarking?

And the rest

There are so many other things that can tell you about the politics of the game. From broad concepts like the theme and genre down to something as focused as the maps – all of these contribute to the views that the game and creators are putting forward.

Good designers are aware of this and make these choices intentionally. But everyone makes choices whether they know it or not. When you’re reading or playing a game, try asking yourself these questions and see what message the game is giving you.

***

So what are your politics, or the politics of the games you play? If you want an example, you can see my answers for Rockalypse, the first game I've brought here to Itch, on my website as well.

(+17)

all cops are bastards; be gay, do crimes, kiss your friends

(+1)

Excellent. What game is this?

(+6)

exodus! fadingroots.itch.io/exodus
but also like, my design philosophy in general. and, like, in life?

hearts of magic is more about kissing your friends but since it's explicitly about a city where the local petty nobility and the distant imperial bureaucracy are in conflict against the people of the city rising up, like, it's also that.

Oo, yeah! I haven't been designing in the Belonging Outside Belonging space, but I definitely enjoy playing there. Dig it!

So based on your work with Exodus, what do you think are the political assumptions inherent in games that are focused on travel as their primary action? Your game looks like it's very much about facing external challenges. Are there internal as well? What's the balance?

(+13)

1. ask yourself what it takes to create a more just world

1a. this means material justice

1b. shoot fascists

2. try and do those things

2a. be as kind as you can, esp. towards the marginalized and facing injustice

3. femininity is good

(+1)

Your game seems very hopeful, so I'm curious what led you to Forged in the Dark. How do you deal with factions, if at all? Are you breaking away from the downward spiral, or is that still a part of life for your characters?

(+2)

factions are pretty much the same! i am trying to break away from the downward spiral by being really generous with teamwork maneuvers so that you don't have to burn through quite as much stress; basically trying to make sure that teamwork can bear a lot of the load that used to just crumble under the weight of doskvol.

(+4)

Kill your gods.  All geese are bastards. War is terrible.

I mean, all geese ARE bastards, but how are you bringing that to the table? ;)

(+2)

It's a Fall of Magic hack where the players are playing as geese. The story prompts and several of the character building choices in the beginning reinforce that the players are petty and vindictive.

(+1)

That's hilarious. Love it. Also, I want to see a really beautiful scroll map ruined by some jerky geese.

(+2)

I am definitely very deliberate when it comes to thinking about the political nature of the themes in my games. The most prominent and recurring one is "marginalized people exist and should be allowed to exist" which is sadly a contentious issue sometimes. I also tend to lean very pacifist in my works, seldom presenting violence as the primary mean of conflict resolution, and in many cases not even having it as an option at all. The engine I'm working with primarily, the Objectives Engine, also stresses scarcity and economics and making wise decisions about resource allocations, from the somewhat fantastical point of view that the characters actually have control over their resources.

(+1)

Nice. I'm very interested in resource-management as a core mechanic in roleplaying and what it does to the story.

It's a really cool mechanic, in how much agency it gives to the players. Letting the players choose when and where to spend and gain their resources gives them a lot of control in how they interact with the system on a mechanical level.

Moderator(+1)

While Tales of Space and Magic doesn't reflect that very well, the stories it's based on have some common political themes:

  • Violence is the last resort, it's a big deal when things come to that, and usually it's the innocents who get hurt or killed.
  • Imperialism is bad.
  • There is no freedom without belonging and purpose.

Power is also a recurring theme throughout, and of course transhumanism too, insofar as it's political. Does this count?

Certainly! And also I'm curious how you feel about your presentation. For instance, you suggest adapting to other systems - in what ways does your setting help or hinder adaptations to specific rules sets? How does this affect audience and accessibility?
Transhumanism does indeed come with a whole slew of assumptions about the world. How are you addressing those? Do you play with identity issues a lot, or not so much?
There's quite a bit you can still dig into.

Moderator

You're asking deep questions I haven't really considered. The text suggests adapting it to other systems because frankly most people don't seem to play freeform except in PBP, and even then not always. How well that would work in practice is another story. I tried to provide hooks for that, but they're yet to be tested.

As for transhumanism, my game doesn't make any statements about it. Those that try all too often fall into insulting cliches, like cybernetic implants somehow causing dehumanization. As for identity, mine is already scattered all over the Internet so thoroughly, I don't see how becoming transhuman could possibly make things worse. My setting provides the tools to explore the issue, that's the whole point. And I've done it aplenty in my stories.

(+4)

1. Build community and personal connection. None of us are going to get through this alone. 

2. Be kind. It's a cold hard world out there; make it less so.

3. Find your space, and make some for others - especially those living on the margins.

4. Fight back against injustice and oppression. In any way that you can.

(2 edits) (+5)

For ten long years, one sword I whetted, 
Its frosty edge, as yet, untried.
Today, I hold it unsheathed before you;
Of you, to whom was justice denied?
~Jia Dao: (The) Swordsman

i keep using this poem because it's so good for my purposes. EDIT: let's break it down line-by-line;

  1. Cultivate your conduct. Take all the time in the world. But do it. Whet that sword.
  2. Steel in your heart, fire in your belly, ice in your veins. You contain multitudes. You contain a world.
  3. Consent. Make sure you know what the people need.
  4. Justice. The first word and the last curse.
Moderator(+1)

Wow I LOVE this analysis of this poem! Really wonderful application in Under Heaven, Underworld too. 

(+4)

Building up a community benefits you more than tearing it down

Everything worth doing carries risk

Oppression gives you no choice but to resist

Privileging violence as an option creates immoral narratives

(+1)

Awesome! Are these pretty universal across your games, or is there a particular game you're pointing to?

(+1)

This is specific to my most recent work, which is the Soft Horizon series. It comes out of the house system and the reasons why the system is the way it is.

(+2)

(I feel like in many ways I might be too close to it to see it clearly, but this is what I feel those four might be). 

I'm answering this thinking of Beta Maxx X.
Premise
Systems, Structures, and Leaders can be fought. The people who will likely do the fighting are "ordinary Joes" who get screwed or attacked by those things further up the ladder. Species are not culturally monolith in the "D&D Sense" but Species have their dominant cultural elements (you can be brought up 'out of your culture).

Action
If you can figure it out, you can try do it. It might not succeed. Violence is just another tool in the box which also includes magic, cybernetics, social methods, and thinking methods.

The Art
It depicts a lot of surrealism and futurism (and a fairly high number of women, but has predominantly white people because of the ways my budget has constrained my art options and I really wish it could be more diverse. There are pieces I would probably replace and more that I would want to add).

*nod* It's good to be aware of your limitations. There are always things to improve, and that's easier when you know what they are.

(+2)

That while we silo them off socially, and that although there is excellent utility for some in doing so, platonic sensuality and sexuality are less a venn diagram with some overlap and more a fuzzy territory that is one space that we individually and socially draw lines on that suit us. 

That intimate contact is most inclusive and accessible when it doesn't follow a social script (overt or covert), and instead has a core value of curiosity about the body you have and the body or bodies you're touching.

That trans, queer, and disabled people are valid and are sensual and sexual just the same as cis, straight, and abled bodies are, and that viewing contact with a new person as an endeavor in creativity reinforces that validity and undermines power structures.

That caring for your fictional characters and caring for yourself are, like sensuality and sexuality, actually the same territory that we draw lines of hard separation upon, and that those lines are worth challenging.

Turns out that I have a lot to say when writing a little game about fucking creatures from beyond the stars.

(+1)

1) Subverting systems can happen in small, but powerful ways.

1a) Subverting systems is punished.

2) When we overthrow what currently exists,  we do it as communities, not alone.

2a) There will be bad actors in those communities. They will hurt people, and we will hurt each other.

2b) We have to struggle as communities anyway, and figure out how to best do that.


I think these actually work for both games I've published so far, and for the one I am currently working on. Thank you for this, it was helpful to outline it explicitly in these terms!

My pleasure! I think about this stuff a lot, as you can probably tell.

(+2)

My politics are all over my games and, hopefully, pretty bluntly. Still I do want to make games that anyone is welcome to play as it's not like I will be sitting at their table playing with them very often. That said, I have no problem putting things like "if you believe *this terrible thing* maybe don't play my game or join any community that comes up around it."

Radical inclusion is also political, and a perfectly valid goal. I like to see people thinking about how to develop that as a play experience.

(1 edit) (+1)

My recurring themes, which I suppose could be taken as political as well, is based on the following: Love is an action that attempts to do the least amount of harm and the most amount of good; justice is what love looks like in public (Cornel West said that I believe). Conflict resolution is the first action to attempt, and physical violence is last resort.

Most of my games are focused on:
1. Exploration and discovery (this can take the form of identity exploration/discovery, environmental exploration/discovery, or scientific exploration/discovery)

2. Radical Inclusion. (We live in a highly diverse world. Why would our fantasy or science fiction settings be any different? I want to mirror the glorious diversity within our world.) 

3. Truly living by love requires actions and follow-through. This can be done through conflict resolution, restorative justice, assisting others, positive support, dismantling of oppressive systems through nonviolent (or if no other option available through revolution) and violence is seen as last option when dealing with intense conflicts.  A lot of my games tend to be non-combat oriented and more conflict resolution oriented.

4. We all have a limited amount of energy in the day. To assume we are limitless in games troubles me as it excludes those who have little spoons from being present in our stories (a lot of systems don't have a good mechanic for this outside of the stress factor I saw in Blades). Thus, I prefer to set my games with a mechanic where there is only a certain amount of energy in a day, and that energy can be replenished by eating, resting, doing a self-care action. This then allows the characters to do a bit more strategy and discussing amongst themselves the best way to proceed, in order to avoid overextending themselves, which can lead to injury or exhaustion (that can set them back from achieving a goal). This way if someone wishes to play a neurodiverse or disabled character, they have a mechanic that feels more true to how that character would exist within the setting.

Characters can be evil and try to subvert or obstruct the above, which is possible in my games. But it makes it a bit harder for the party to have cohesion if so. Morally gray characters have very interesting reactions to the above, which makes for interesting gameplay I think.

I'm into all of this so much.

(+4)

Indulgence. Wish fulfillment. Healing.

I want to be the Lisa Frank of game design.

Not aesthetically. I don't want to make the game where you rainbow unicorn until you do something risky then roll a d20 to see if you succeed or fail. I want to make the game where you unicorn until you rainbow then you roll rainbow dice to decide how many unicorns you are.

BUT ALSO I wonder if I can make queer games. Is it enough to make games that stuck up cishets will look at and find too cringeworthy. Or is a game only a queer game when its design actively rejects gaze of patriarchal values and gender norms. But the insidious nature of patriarchy is such that its gaze is forced over all regardless of rejection. The Wachowski Sisters made an entire film about coming out as a trans woman, and violently misogynstic cis men appropriated its mythology into an extremist right wing political movement. Estrogen pills somehow became a symbol of men rekindling their masculinity.

Maybe the problem with the Matrix was that it was never explicit. Well how about our own darling, Monsterhearts? A game that explicitly tells you, your sexuality is not your own. That anyone can roll to turn you on. But even here, patriarchy is reinforced. Time and again I hear people praise Monsterhearts as "it's like Twilight but good". "I heard it was a game based on Twilight and to my surprise I actually enjoyed it". Monsterhearts does nothing to deter people from weaponising the game itself to draw a clear line in the sand of 'this femininity is good and that femininity is bad'.

(Twilight is deeply racist and misogynistic and spawned that dreadful 50 Shades. But more often than not, that's not what people mean when they say it's crap and certainly nothing of value can come out of 'cringing' criticism.)

Is it possible to make games that challenge people's bigotry? Is that a worthwhile goal to strive for, is it not enough to simply make games with queer content for queer players and simply not fight against audiences coming despite queer content? That we don't make games that challenge people's bigotry, is that evidence that the bar is too low? Should we have been doing that already? The Big Publishers have set the trend of putting a gay NPC in an adventure module or rulebook illustration and then creating a play experience that completely contradicts that anyway. Should we choke the life out of the Big Publishers before they choke the life out of us? Have we gone too soft subsisting on the breadcrumbs off the table of mainstream media?

What does it mean for a game to be queer and how can I make my games about cute baby monsters into queer games? How can any of us make queer games?

I can't remember who originally said this. But "queerness has not happened yet". How do we make it happen?

Jose Esteban Munoz in his book Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) originally asked readers to consider that "queerness hasn't happened yet".

I've not read the book. No idea if my use of this quote is very appropriate or very inappropriate.

(+3)

"I want to make the game where you unicorn until you rainbow then you roll rainbow dice to decide how many unicorns you are."

This sentence made my morning.

What is queer? What is politics? What is gender? What is society? What is gender? 

Explore to find answers. 

Also embrace hard truths. 

The first one is hard to get going but I like to think the games are designed to raise questions. Like one game is like "what were we fighting this huge war for? we won, what now?"
The hard truths one is like with how generally the police handle race in America, making a game set in America clearly articulates what the police are going to do if you aren't considered part of the "majority" race.