I’ve been thinking how there’s politics in games and there’s political games.
An aside: a commenter pointed out that my term “political games” would better be served with “moralizing games”. In further conversation, I think another way to think about it is that some games “describe” politics, while leaving gameplay open, whereas others “prescribe” politics, that is demand a certain kind of gameplay. Both of these comments articulate my misgivings with what I call “political games” somewhat better than I did myself. Thank you.
I love games. I especially love good games. Over the last few years I’ve noticed a disappointing trend of game designers making political games—embracing political didacticism, preaching—a surefire way to reduce the quality of their games.
Let’s backpedal a bit.
In an earlier life, I studied political science. I remember political science 101 blowing my mind with the revelation that “everything is political.” Entrancing! Deep! A revelation! The food I eat is political! How I tie my shoelaces! My name! The name of a game! Words! Discourse!
Political science 201 should probably leaven that with “and in 99.99% cases this does not matter at all.” In my case the leavening was more life experience than excellent education, but I suppose that’s what happens to the worst of us.
I first found a semblance of roleplaying community* in the blogger blog scene of 2010-or-so. Then google pushed us all onto g+, which caused quite a fruitful ferment (and some weirdness). Then google killed g+ and much of the osr designer scene pushed into Twitter—right around 2016-2017, when the very loud and humorless politics ate the anglophone internet.
*I disagree that there is such a thing as an online rpg community, but that’s another post.
Around that time I noticed politics seeping into the roleplaying game scene I followed. Don’t play that game, the designer said the wrong thing. Play this game, it has good politics.
That second is interesting, and not in a good way, but we’ll do another detour first.
Politics in Games
Like I said above, in 99.99% of cases, whether a thing is political or not is utterly irrelevant. This applies to the politics of games. I do not, however, mean that there should not be politics in tabletop roleplaying games.
Some tabletop roleplaying games benefit from having politics, since they are doing with human* characters and factions and societies, and having believable politics gives levers to the players’ characters that they can use to interact with the imaginary world and change it.
*or demihuman. Same difference.
This is basic writing (and, by extension, roleplaying game character design) – politics are part of human life, adding political motivations to characters can be interesting, ergo.
The orc chief maintains dominance by providing treasure to his followers, if he is neglectful of this duty an upstart will more easily mobilize a coalition to overthrow him, therefore the orc chief is incentivized to acquire this treasure somewhere. The orcs’ target harvest the fruits of the earth and sea, accumulating them in storehouses to weather droughts and other bad years. Control of those storehouses brings prestige, but is also necessary to ensure supplies are available when crops fail or the sea turns sour. This sets up a political conflict between the orcs and their target, as well as within both the orc and target communities.
This is a great situation to throw players into because, by their nature, they are agents of chaos (or change, if you are feeling kind), and they will upset this kind of delicate political equilibrium, writing unexpected stories with their decisions.
Like I said, basic.
The orc-target dynamic is interesting because it’s presented without judgement and with open outcomes. The orcs need treasure or their society collapses into factional strife. The target needs to accumulate or starvation and collapse ravages it in bad years. The players are free to interact with this conflict or leave at as a backdrop to their own more personal adventures.
But this is not a “good” political game. This is a game with politics in it, but it doesn’t say what is good and what is bad, it doesn’t tell the players what to do in order to be the “goodies”.
In a way, AD&D started the shift from a game with politics to a political game, when it took D&D’s factions of law and chaos and added the morality axis of good and evil. I think that reduced the quality and openness of the gameplay, but that’s not what I have in mind.
The popular recent trend I’m talking about is the designers, who seem to have taken a page from the socialist realist literature of 20th century, and decided to create political games that actively and explicitly teach “good” politics and encourage player characters to embrace “good” archetypes and perform “good” deeds and be “good” people.
Frankly, these games would be better if they weren’t trying so hard to be “good” in their politics. Why?
A designer has limited resources. The more resources they spend making their game political, the less they have for everything else. If they make their game political without investing any resources, they have just slapped politics on their game without thought, which makes for a thoughtless game.
If they are making the game political, because politics are important to them, they are being disingenious. Adding politics to escapism is not effective politics, it is play politics. Do they want to do real politics? That’s fine. There’s a place for that—politics. But making a game as a political act adulterates both their politics and their game. It presumes that it is a game designer’s job to be a politician. A laughable notion.
Are they trying to convince the players of a certain political viewpoint? Let’s leave aside whether a simple game should be trying to sell a political position (and whether that’s actually possible). To achieve that, slapping politics front and center is the guaranteed most basic and ineffective form of propaganda. Changing minds requires tact, nuance, empathy, and understanding.
But crucially, I think making games explicitly tied into real-world is just plain bad form. It’s tasteless, crude, and rather unpleasant. It shows a designer who presumes their political predilections are so important, so vital, that rather than creating a joyous toy they would create a ponderous lesson.
Frankly, I think we do a better job as people by saving our politics for the ballot box and local community, and we do a better job as game designers by creating toys that bring people together rather than divide them.
Good gaming, good human.
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P.S. — if this blog post tempts you to write about why it is important to design political games, bless your heart and I wish you well.
P.P.S. – if this blog post tempts you to meet with friends, roll some math rocks, and wear an ettin costume as you sneak into a troll camp to steal Foesmasher and Biledrinker from the cave of the Wildwitch Wyvern, destroying the legitimacy of Big Chief Pedipalp and precipitating the collapse and dissolution of the militaristic orc federation … well done!