Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Throne of Skulls Provokes Little Controversy

I sit atop a throne of skulls. Not all the time, mind you, only every few weeks, after I open my Descent Second Edition box to start a new campaign or continue with an old one. I open the box, set up the dungeon, climb upon my comfy chair perched on a bony mound and have fun, doing my best to be as horrible a person as possible.

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Contrary to what you might think, this post will not be about how much I prefer the new Descent over the old one (fans of Descent 1.0 are welcome to send their hate my way – but only after checking if I have no obvious spawn points close by, and cross-referencing their findings with the thirty-page FAQ and errata document), about how much I rock at being an Overlord (or the Overseer from Level 7: [Omega Protocol] for that matter) or how perplexing it is to have multiple skulls belonging to the same hero (albeit at different stages of their life) in my skull mound. It’s going to be about me happily becoming a power hungry and ruthless fantasy villain, while refusing to vie for the dubious honour of being the one kid that manages to inflict enough physical punishment upon other kids, to victoriously walk away with their Lunch Money.

Looking back at some of the recent debates and controversies in the boardgaming world (casually sacrificing slaves in Five Tribes, the idea of running a strip club in Lap Dance or our own little teacup tempest involving Progress and the Atheism card), I can only conclude that a lot, if not almost all, depends on sensibilities. And these can vary immensely, as some people will happily spread a supernatural plague in Chaos in the Old World, while others will shy away from literally shooting some crap or, to be more accurate, flinging some Poo. What’s more, you can also sometimes find that it’s not people, but one and the same person that will be able to commit acts much more heinous in one game, while refusing to do something seemingly more innocent in another.

With all that in mind, how can a publisher avoid creating a product with a theme that will be more a deterrent than an encouragement to play? 

First of all, a publisher should stay reasonable and, from time to time at least, perform a reality check. All people probably are ashamed of something they once said, but not all managed to manufacture their blunder in five thousand copies and put it on shelves of hobby stores around the world. That is exactly why, when theming the game, you should talk to people and see what they think not only of the mechanisms, but also about the thematic ideas of your game, before it’s all on paper.
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Secondly, while we’re on the topic of talking to people: talk to as many as you possibly can, preferably making your advisors culturally diverse, to save you a lot of grief. To give you an example, let me just say that I don’t know if creators of Carnival Zombie were aiming at making their game controversial, or if they placed a gun-wielding character named Columbine in their product simply because (much like me), they associated the name primarily with a Commedia dell’arte character, and not with a tragic shooting that took place in an American high school. I can only say that I was quite surprised when I stumbled upon Rahdo’s Runthrough of the game and discovered that to an American, what was my (a Pole’s) first association regarding Columbine, was merely an obscure reference, made completely superfluous by the relatively recent and tragic events.

Thirdly, while examining the theme of the game, take a look at the final message it sends – if it sends one, that is. And yes, I know that the jury’s still out on whether board games are actually capable of sending a message, as some say they are art (which implicitly grants them the aforementioned ability), while others find the whole idea preposterous. I’m not the one to judge, but – art or no art – I know that games can be built to be thought-provoking and meaningful, which allows them to at least give us some food for thought. And if you have any doubts about that, just take a look at the excellent Freedom cooperative game which (through some hair tearing and teeth grinding moments when sacrifices had to be made) did more to teach my group the history of slavery and the Abolitionists by putting us in their shoes than history books and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx.
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Finally, if we agree that some games (not all by far) do have a message, there is one more thing you could consider – and I was made to consider it for the first time, while talking about CO2. As it happened, I was having a conversation about the game shortly after it came out and I (like a few others) expressed my doubts about its theme, considering not buying CO2 because of how one-sided it was in delivering its environmental message. The game finally ended up in my collection, but during that one conversation, I was asked a simple question: “But you had no problem playing Doom, right?”.

I will admit, it shut me up for a moment – I could feel that there was a difference, but at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Until it hit me.

Doom is mindless fun with no aspirations, and it’s certainly not trying to seriously convince me that decorating walls with blood and internal organs of a couple of futuristic jarheads (which is the essence of the game if you are the Invader) is something good, noble or outright necessary for the survival of human race. Simply put, it wasn’t trying to teach me a lesson. CO2 on the other hand was – by making a case in a real world issue, and by trying to force me to take something very specific away from the game table. And that made me (and some other people) question the theme and the ideas it was selling.
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All the above boils down to a relatively simple formula, which by no means has the ambition to become the ultimate guide on how to avoid controversies when publishing a game, but which may ultimately help you out a little bit. If you want to say something through your game – be sure you know the consequences, and if you don’t – be sure you are really not saying anything (for a simple solution just make a game about trading in the Mediterranean). And as for the nature of mindless violence not being controversial while environmental issues making some people uncomfortable – I recognize the peculiarity of this situation, but it’s a topic for a completely different discussion. And one that I do not feel equipped well enough to tackle.

Not yet, at least.

I would like to thank our Twitter followers, our Facebook fans and our Kickstarter backers for inspiring me to write this post. It’s nothing short of awesome having people like you around to sometimes be reminded of how diverse we can all be – and how our great hobby allows us to share thoughts and ideas… or just sit down at the same table and have fun together.

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