The Game Political

A very good piece on aspects of the current (and not so current) “keep politics out of my games” breast-beating, by Iain McAllister at the blog There Will Be Games.

https://therewillbe.games/articles-essays/7944-the-game-political

+1 for the House of Cards image!

So much of my design work has been and will continue to be overtly political, or at least about politics. And certainly designing a game, any game, is a creative and therefore a personally-political act.

And yes, I think the games themselves are works of art, and as such deep and very telling artifacts of popular culture to boot. And that popular culture that we all swim about in is changing – it’s always changing, but nowadays it is changing in ways that make many of the inhabitants of this niche of a niche of a niche uncomfortable. We must all ask ourselves where we draw our sense of identity from, and what parts of life we overtly tie it to.

The Game Political

The Game Political

Tthegiantbrain Updated July 23, 2020 

‘Don’t get Politics in my game’ goes out the cry. It rings out during debates over diversity, games set in less than savoury periods of history, and ideologies overt and subtle in the world of tabletop games. This voice is getting louder and louder as boardgames shake off the cloak of being a niche hobby and make their tentative way to a more mainstream audience. As the number of people playing boardgames grows, more and more questions are being asked of the creators intent: the message the game is trying to convey. On top of this we are waking up to the idea that maybe diverse genders, sexualties and people of colour should be seen more on front of boxes and behind the scenes at companies. More questions, more probing of the status quo.

Should these concerns be shoved aside for the sake of ‘just playing the game’? Isn’t such criticism fundamental to the growth of any art form? Let’s take a deep breath together, and dive into some murky depths.

Defining the issue

This is a thorny subject, so let’s establish some ground rules. First of all we need to look at what is being said by those who declare ‘Don’t bring politics into my games’ (or words to that effect). Turning for a moment to the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition:

Politics: relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group

Fundamentally we are talking about ideas, and of course people are going to argue about them. Unfortunately a lot of the time what they are arguing for is the status quo, as if politics has never existed in boardgames until this moment.

Since we first started making art the act of creation is one that expresses ideas. Ideas of place, of people, of lived experiences. We cannot separate politics from the act of creation, as one influences the other. From hanging portraits in a gallery to the latest blockbuster, our creative acts are imbued with the ideas, and politics, of their creators.

A foundation for discussion

I think we can agree that Boardgames are a creative endeavour, and I have argued that the creative act by its very nature is political. It therefore follows that boardgames are political.

Why then do we have voices telling us to get politics out of boardgames? My experience of seeing this said generally comes in one of two cases: when a company seeks to include more diverse voices, art, or to represent a particular political point of view more overtly, or when the game is coming in for criticism. It is the latter that really interests me (though we will come back to the former).

Are they art?

We’ve established that boardgames are political due to being a creative act. Are they art? That is a much trickier question to answer with any certainty, so let me answer it from my own perspective so we can move on.

I think we all recognise that individual components of a boardgame can be recognised as art: the illustrations, miniature design, graphic design, writing (both technical and creative). Therefore the whole that is created out of these elements, can also be seen as an art form. Simplistic maybe, but as I said this is my point of view. I think boardgames are art.

Art that is never seen, experienced or consumed, is art without purpose. Art needs interpreted, it should have emotional impact. To me the greatest sin a piece of art can commit is to not move me at all. If I watch a film and my reaction is a shrug of the shoulders and ‘meh’, then it has not done its job. Even films I dislike have provoked a strong reaction at least. Art should provoke a reaction, even if it is just in one person. If it provokes a reaction, it is likely to receive criticism as well.

On the defensive

When something we love comes in for negative feedback, it can feel like an attack. We take it personally. I get that, I’ve been there myself. We rage against the idea that the thing we love is not perfect, and one of the ways that happens is to call foul on the idea of ‘bringing politics into games’. This seems to be especially the case when that criticism is to do with the treatment of different cultures, people of colour, and diverse genders in games.

Curiously you don’t see this happening when Twilight Struggle stood colossus like atop the BGG top 100. Twilight Struggle is a game about a literal political fight (the Cold War). Did anyone shout ‘Keep politics out of my games’ when this happened? No. No they didn’t. How many wargames are there? Think war isn’t political? Where are these angry voices everytime a new wargame hits the market? Silent as the grave. Watergate, a current favourite of mine, has had a rapturous reception across the critical spectrum. I don’t recall seeing a single person saying ‘get politics out of my games’ despite it being about a political scandal. The moment someone says ‘could we please have a non-sexualised female miniature’ or ‘what about representing people of colour in your art’ then it’s all loud hailers and signs.

I think I’ve amply demonstrated that these comments do not come from a place of wanting to get ‘politics’ out of games. It’s about prejudice. White prejudice to be exact. All white people have it, myself included. We are conditioned in a certain way of thinking about other cultures and societies in such a way that we must always ask questions of ourselves and the games we play. I’ve been doing my best to educate myself about the struggles black people have endured, and I recommend the documentaries ‘I am not your Negro’ and ‘13th’ as good places to start. I have also been reading ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo and that has given me a lot to think about.

If we want the hobby to grow it must represent all people. I can find myself everywhere in the hobby because I am a white, CIS, straight male. If you are not that, then your representation in the hobby is poor, bordering on non-existent. This is changing, albeit slowly. If you are represented in the hobby, you can use your voice to lift up great examples of inclusive practices, to shout about the designers, artists, developers who do not fall into the norm of the hobby’s demographic. You don’t need to be an influencer or reviewer, every voice helps.

Asking questions of ourselves, being critical of our own choices and actions is paramount. Such a course keeps us honest and stops us slipping into the outright discrimination that is ever prevalent in our culture and the hobby. I hope to do better myself in the future, and where I can will endeavour to highlight voices from a different cultural background to my own, whatever form that culture takes.

A critical moment

As critics start to ask hard questions of the endless colonial themes, the lack of racial & gender diversity both on the front of the box and behind the scenes, we must be accepting of these questions. If we want the hobby to grow and expand, we must listen to diverse voices, for we will only be enriched and strengthened if we do. Now is not the time to be afraid of these questions.

It will be painful, there are choices to be made that may make us feel uncomfortable, but we can make those choices together, as a community. We can choose to lift up a diverse range of voices. We can choose to ignore those who would foster hate and division. We can choose to welcome the whole world to sit round a table with us and chuck some dice. But we must make the choice. We must actively choose these actions. If we do not then boardgames don’t deserve to grow at all.

(By the way, sorry if this piece looks weird – I am trying to use the new editor WordPress is foisting on us all, and it’s not going well!)

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

9 Responses to The Game Political

  1. Christian van Someren says:

    Insightful article, thanks for sharing.

  2. Pete S/ SP says:

    Interesting post. What I think will be telling is coming back in 5 years to see if things have really changed or it is temporary virtuye signally… I know this makes me rather cynical but how ever well reasoned the blog post is, and this one is, we will have to wait a year or two to see if new products come out taking on board some of his suggestions.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    • brtrain says:

      Please don’t use that term, it gets my back up. There are other terms we used to use that are just as descriptive.
      It’s an obvious point to make, but I think things will only change if players (that is, consumers) take the situation as something that needs attention and action, and start to demand products that include and respect who they are, and what they want to play.
      Publishers (maybe not all of them, but so what) will respond to those demands, and the culture will shift.
      Certainly this is happening with demographics and markets much larger and more significant than board wargaming; for example, the concerted efforts by companies to market to and accommodate LGBTQ customers – something that was not done 25 or 30 years ago but is now accepted, not least because it generates profits from a demographic that got its act together and demanded changes.
      Probably won’t happen in a year or two; James Dunnigan, back in the 1970s was quite upfront about his marketing research revealing that board wargaming was the province of the overeducated white male, and that’s mostly how it has been during my career (careen) through the hobby.
      But nothing ever stands completely still.

      • Pete S/ SP says:

        Apologies.

        I do hope that happens. The more variety and new perspectives brought to gaming the better. It will keep it going. Not that there is anything wrong with the chit and hex and crt approach to wargaming but the Waruos (clumsy term) have breathed new life into the hobby.

        I fully agree with the sterotypes about over educated white males (checks himself in mirror too) but there is room for everyone. I just wonder if anyone is tracking the demographics in the way Dunnigan/ S&T did 40+ years ago. I wonder if it would be possible even given the disparate nature of the hobby now, rather than it being focused around a single magazine….

        Cheers,

        Pete.

        • brtrain says:

          No offense taken; I understand the term but it is used for its pejorative value and not its semantic one.
          Times change, people change, habits and markets change, and a good thing too otherwise we’d still be debating perfect plans for Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad (have a look at old numbers of The General on the Internet Archive!).
          It’s human to be uncomfortable with change, but the hostile attitudes and the metaphorical “No GIRL5 ALOUD” sign some like to hang on the door of the HexnChit Clubhouse betray something larger… as shown by its quick conflation into political and social assumed identities.
          I tick all those boxes too, not much I can do about any of them, but I can be and am interested in what different people have to say without feeling threatened.
          From time to time the wargaming magazines like Command and S&T would ask some demographic questions of their readership. The answers were about what you would expect, but it was a self-selecting group among a small fraction of the board gaming world overall. The world outside our little grognard klatsch is remarkably varied!

  3. ks0710 says:

    Hmm. No issues here. WhatI have issue with is cancel culture emanating from the groups that desire all of this broadening and wokeness and inclusion. If you don’t comply you are excluded…oh..wait.. what?

    A game stands on its merits its designers intent and fun/interest/ treatment of topic. Not on the fact the a non binary designed it or that it had an ahistorical person [for a wargame] on its cover, or that the publisher decreed racial sexual orientation quotas for all designers on staff or topics released.

    Fuck that.

    I’ll vote with my wallet on those that advocate cancel culture and mandate compliance with any form of quota. As a blogger I will not cover any designer who is advocating hate, hate speech, cancel culture, and quotas. So while your share of the article maybe some Attempt to start a conversation, i see no discussion in the article of the issues raised. Just bend aknee and do as you are being told by the “new” players.

    • brtrain says:

      No Kev, I don’t think we have issues here, but please leave the straw men at the door. This article does not argue for mandated quotas, publisher’s decrees, economic punishment for arbitrary offenses, and bended knees at the game table. Neither do I. I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing for any of these things.

      I am a cisgender, white, straight male wargame designer. If I were not one or more of those things I think I would still insist that my creations be judged on their merits: my intent, my research, my effectiveness at communicating the two, and what fun or interest is sparked by people experiencing what I have made. No serious creator would expect less.

      I’ve written elsewhere (though I was hardly the first to point it out) that wargames are one of the deepest and most complex artifacts of popular culture out there. They are products of that popular culture, and that popular culture is always changing, along with its small-p politics. I don’t think it is too much to point out that habits of thought in what is played and produced in this hobby are not representative of either the world as it is, or how much of that world experienced it. Maybe they never were.

      I’ve written and spoken a lot about the abstraction, romanticization, revisionism and useful amnesia about war and conflict that goes on in this hobby, and about my attempts to tackle uncomfortable topics in this medium. It doesn’t make me an authority on the subject, just an observer and an examiner, and it’s not that big a leap for me to try and observe and examine the culture and politics that this hobby is situated in. I think you’re doing that too.

      (Aside, not really about games: I dislike the shorthand term “cancel culture” as much as I do “virtue signalling” (see exchange with Pete SP above). If it is anything it is not cancellation so much as being vocal about repudiation of certain ideas, as someone remarked to this interesting John Scalzi piece that ran the other day: https://whatever.scalzi.com/2020/07/24/help-help-i-cant-be-published/)

  4. Aaron Bell says:

    The intention is good but a straw man argument and definition of politics that does not align with how the term is used in the body of the text deflates the piece somewhat.

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