Sunday 24 April 2016

On inescapable things

Five of Cups: Messed up by ideology.
In a few weeks I'm going to be delivering a panel to a small local convention about politics in role-playing games (edit: transcript is here) and I'm going to make the – uncontroversial, grass-is-also-green – point that the moment you start making a model for stories, it will inevitably present a view of a world, as you feel it is, or as you feel it should be, or as you feel it shouldn't be.

And the lens through which you view that world, that's what we call politics. Or, if you like, ideology. In a discussion with some friends a few days ago the point was made by someone better read than me that in the end, there's no escape from ideology.

Žižek was quoted:
I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating.
Slavoj Žižek, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012)

(I haven't read Žižek, won't even pretend to have, but I have read Barthes, so it's fine on its own, because context is irrelevant here. Because Barthes. So there.)

OK, so. You write a fiction, and that includes a collaborative fiction like a role-playing game, and it is going to present a model of the world that is coloured by the ideology you grew up with, and you can't remove the ideology. Objectivity is at best an illusion, at worst a lie. Your best bet is to try to be aware of it. Even then, you might, for all your best intentions, end up saying things about the world you never meant to, because that's the other thing: once you write a text like this, it doesn't always say what you meant it to, it says what it says.

For example. I've mentioned before, I once wrote a short novel called Memory Sticks, which was about a woman doing a shitty office job in a dystopian future, who has an implant in her brain, and whose agency is robbed from her no matter what she does, and I wanted to make a point about the treatment of women in work, and how consumerism and social media eat at us, and about the way we use each other, and the way that companies are basically amoral hungry things that eat souls and what I actually wrote was... well, it was sort of icky. Rapey, even. Fetishistic.

I didn't mean it to be. God, no. And it's not badly written, and it hangs together and has the horrible, painful end it should, but oh dear me, it's also horrible in all the wrong ways. It's a well-intentioned attempt at feminism that accidentally says the opposite (see also: Moffat, Steven; Whedon, Joss).

Games do this stuff all the time.

Which is where I have to come up with some examples. OK, examples. Two games I really like, and one that I think is quite bad.

Savage Worlds, the copy that was given to me by a very nice man.

Savage Worlds, first. I always feel bad talking about Savage Worlds because my own copy was given to me by a very nice man who worked for Pinnacle, at a con I guested at about eight years ago, and as a good will gift, which was lovely of him.

I ended up running it for a few months because I had a principle that I always play the games I own, and one of the people in Hat Club, when it's his turn to run the game, has used it quite a lot. It's had more than a fair shake. I... am not fond of Savage Worlds.

There's a lot that winds me up about that game, much of it in the systems, but let's just stick to one example of how ideology pops up in it. Or more honestly, how my ideology butts heads with it.

So in Savage Worlds, you can get more points when you make a character by taking disadvantages (in the game, "Hindrances"). One of the game disadvantages is Pacifism. When this comes up as a disadvantage in play, that is, when your pacifism makes you suffer, the GM rewards you for it by giving you a Bennie, which is an undefined mechanical benefit you can use whenever you want.

This works on two levels. One, it's listed as a disadvantage. Pacifism is, regardless of what the writers may or may not have meant, expressed as a literal character flaw. It's a hindrance. It gets in your way.

Now I've heard that explained away, in an unconvincing, facile sort of a way ("just because it's a mechanical flaw doesn't mean the authors think it's morally wrong," for instance, or "it's emulating a genre which is about violence" which doesn't fix it, just shifts the problem elsewhere), but that misses the point. It says what it says and what the authors originally meant no longer matters.

More than that. The game rewards you for behaviours which allow you to be harmed by your unwillingness to use violence. It incentivises acting like pacifism is a bad thing. It models a world where pacifism isn't a higher moral path, but the preserve of the naïve.

Which is of course where the game annoys the fuck out of me, for the simple reason that twenty years, on and off, of working with peace movements with some badass pacifist heroes, makes me the sort of person who would be annoyed by that.
"One of these men is free."

But see, what you have there is a base assumption – which may not necessarily even be the author's – that reflects itself in the systems of the game. I honestly believe that it's not even something the writer thought about. It just got put there.
Dogs in the Vineyard. Acquired on the same day as Savage Worlds.

OK, here's another example, a very different sort of game. Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard is a game I adore. In fact, it's comfortably in my Top Five Games. Certainly my favourite of Baker's games by a country mile. Some of its mechanical innovations were direct influences on Chariot (particularly the whole thing where you have all the numbers you're going to use in a conflict right in front of you, and it's up to you how you use them).

A lot of its charm, for me, lies in its premise. You have this sort of slightly fantastical version of pre-statehood Utah, right, and your characters are essentially travelling lawgivers for a religion that is Quite Like the Latter Day Saints, and just like those fresh-faced Mormon Elders who still travel around today and occasionally knock on your door, they are precipitously young and thrust into difficult ethical and moral situations. Your characters travel around from small town to small town, sorting out arguments and rooting out sin.

The system is designed to have your characters respond to these situations and to escalate them; the paraphernalia of their lives, their friends and families, possessions and histories are both the grounds for conflict and the means by which they're resolved. The lightly fictionalised version of early Mormonism is sketched gently; its rules amount to what the players say they are.

It works, and in fact I found it an absolute joy to play. But it depends upon there being a silent contract around the table to treat the setting with respect. You're supposed to be sincere with it, not abuse the premise, be people who, even if their characters exploit their authority, are willing to explore the consequences of it and think about it.

I really, really like it. I know I've said that, but you have to understand how much I love it as the context that frames what comes next. Because the one thing I'm not sure about is where Baker says in the back, hey, why don't you reskin the game so you're mobsters or witch hunters or something? Basically, this system about Difficult Ethical Choices can be, by design, adapted to different ideologies.

The final result of that, the final solution to be perfectly tasteless about it, was when someone reskinned the game so that instead of playing wet-behind-the-ears Almost Mormons in Almost Utah hunting down sinners, they'd run it with SS men in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe hunting down Jews.

And systemwise, it didn't break the game. Morally, well... I wouldn't play it that way. See, here's the problem: by saying, hey, you can play this game of moral dilemmas any way you want because the milieu doesn't matter, it leaves it open to abuses. Because the ideological underpinnings DO matter. It doesn't ruin Dogs in the Vineyard for me because I'd only ever play it with the original setup and only with people who were on roughly the same page as me.

But there, that's example two: a system that works fine but which, unmoored from a basic moral centre, can go very wrong.
Vampire: the Masquerade, my copy of 2nd Edition, which was
once lent out for about 15 years before I got it back.

The third example is Vampire: the Masquerade, or, as I've always called it, Green Vampire (to differentiate from Red Vampire, the one I wrote all those words for). Green Vampire is another inhabitant of my Top Five.

(Note: Not like you care but my others are Everway, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – a discrete game in its own right – and Call of Cthulhu.)

Anyway, I waxed lyrical about what's great about Green Vampire in a guest post for Malcolm Sheppard's blog a few weeks back, so I'll just summarise and say that the original game's greatest strength is the thing that people who care about game design lambast it for, its apparent incoherence. Namely that the Humanity system, which measures how close your character is to falling to absolute depravity, holds itself in tension with the cool vampire powers and badass factions. And most of the things that make your character better are the consequences of actions that cause you to slide into evil.

You're supposed to be thinking, all the time you're playing, "Oh God, what am I doing?"

And that's why a really good Vampire game is scary.

However. I don't think it's terribly unfair to say that many Vampire players, particularly the ones you find online, have in the past done every freaking thing they could to avoid the consequences of the Humanity rules. There is a reason why Vampire players have such a terrible reputation.

But you see, in order to play for power, death and sex without moral – and yeah, I used the word moral again, I'm unrepentantly moralising – consequences, they're actually breaking the game. The oft-derided essays in later editions of Vampire that tell you the intended way to play the game are there because this is what the game is for. It's for a wide variety of games, but it's for this variety, not that one.

So what this means for the sort of game I've written, drawing from the lessons I've learned from some great games, better, more accomplished games than my own, is that I'm really keen not to be misunderstood. 

Rather than try to avoid ideology, as one friend put it, my intention is to move straight in with "The empire in this game has these problematic inspirations, and leads to these problems about inequality and consent," as a direct address to players. I've tried to give, in what is actually a pretty simple system, a set of incentives to care for people, made a way for violent confrontation to leave the table, if you want it, and attempted to move the stakes away from the survival of the characters. And this is only going to work if you play like you care that slavery is a sin, that oppression is something to be stood up to, that the inevitable war is something that you have to at least try to stop. It's about thwarting the will to power.

And I am sure that there are people who will see the game and despise it because it is so political; I reckon that some people will attempt to "fix" it by replacing its ideological baggage with their own. But I have tried to ensure that my game is clear where it's going, what it's saying. And I hope its systems and commentary support that.