Tuesday 7 June 2016

Dice Problems: Politics in RPGs

This is a version of the talk I gave at the Swansea Comics and Gaming Convention on May 28th (which was a massive success, where something like 1500 people got in and a whole lot of others had to be turned away), where I was plugging Chariot hard (buy it here!) complete with screenies from my (ill-fated) powerpoint. It was well-attended and well-received, and the people there engaged, and seemed to leave happy.

And it had the rather lovely effect of sending people right across the hall to my table to buy things straight afterwards. If you remember my post about ideology from a couple of months back, some of this will be familiar, admittedly, but this is a more coherent take on it. 

This is about tabletop RPGs, right, but let's start with Mizhena. Mizhena is a very minor supporting character to whom you can talk in the recent expansion to Baldur's Gate, Siege at Dragonspear. It's based on D&D. It counts.

Now you meet Mizhena, and you get some information from her. You don't have to meet Mizhena to complete the game at all. But if you do meet her, and if you go down the dialogue tree one particular way, one of the several things you can say is "Mizhena? That's a funny name." And Mizhena replies, "Well, it wasn't the name I was born with," and if you pick the option to pursue that further, she tells you she's trans.

It's not great dialogue to be honest, but man, people on the internet went crazy over it.

Some people were like, "How dare you thrust your politics in my face in these games!"

And some people were like, "Don't be ridiculous! This isn't political, it's just representation!"

The thing is... they're both sorta wrong. Now I happen to really like the idea of there being a trans NPC just being there doing her own thing, but the fact is, it is political. Of course it is. Having a trans person appear in your game is a political statement. But so is leaving people in minorities out. It's much more subtle and harder to see, because it's an absence rather than an addition, but it is. Which is why the first group of people are also so very wrong. Because you cannot avoid politics in anything, but especially in role-playing games. 

Before we go on, some basic start points. 

It's OK to like stuff that got problems. Just because something might be a bit racist, or sexist, or whatever, doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it. One of my favourite comics is The Metabarons but oh my God I'd be mad if I didn't accept that its gender politics aren't the best. I love Doctor Who but in fifty years there's been some absolutely horrible things in it. I still love these things and I'm not ashamed to.

What you like is not you! This is important. If I critique stuff you like, it's not you I'm criticising. You are not the stuff you like.

(At this point I addressed the guy in the Deathstroke the Terminator costume in the front row and said, "Mate, if I think Suicide Squad is a terrible movie, that's not any reflection on you," and then the woman with the Avengers icon painted on her cheek and said, "I really, really didn't like Avengers Assemble and that's nothing to do with what I think of you because I'm really grateful you came to listen to me," or something to that effect.) 

You matter more! You are not your stuff because you have lives, whole lives that go way beyond some pre-made commodity. You are more important than this, and this is why criticising this stuff is not an attack on you!

The stuff I’m saying in this panel cuts both ways. It’s not biased against any particular part of the political spectrum and it’s not an attack on you. Seriously, yeah, of course I'm going to have a personal bias, but we all do, and I hope what I'm going to demonstrate is not that one side or the other is right or wrong, whatever I might think, but that it's impossible to pretend neutrality. I hear both progressives and conservatives trying to say that they're taking the objective path... but you can't.

When you make a role-playing game, you are simulating a world. You are simulating what you think about how the world works, how societies relate, and how people relate. That's politics. You can't avoid that. In playing an RPG you are navigating a version of the world based on what people think about worlds. Game systems simulate worlds. And that means that they'll codify things in their systems based upon how they think you should interact with worlds. And that's political. And that's also complicated because you can't pretend neutrality.

And a big reason that it's impossible to pretend neutrality is... the dustbin. It is all about the dustbin.

OK, so here's an artist's representation of me. Hi. I write things. I draw things.

Here's a thing I wrote that is quite good (and you can buy it here). It came from me. So here's the arrow.

And here you are, reading it. I mean, you're not a grey blobby thing really, but hey, I had no idea what you'd look like.


Reading it is actually a conversation. You engage with the text, you communicate with it, especially when it's a role-playing game because you have to play it and navigate through it. House rules are a big obvious part of that.

(At this point I took a straw poll of the audience, asking who present had never used a house rule in their RPGs. Not a single person there had never houseruled a TTRPG.)

Now that's generally how reading works, right, except there's a complication I haven't tackled yet.

Because in writing this text, when I wrote it, there's this flipping great bin in the way. And that bin is all my unexamined opinions, all the assumptions I have, all my life baggage, and that bin full of stuff is in the way of my opinions. I write through it. I write with it.

But there's more!

You have one too! You interpret my game in the light of all your baggage, all the things you infer from it based on how you see the world, all the things you don't necesarily think about all the time but which are there.

And we all have this bin. We carry it around with us. And...

It's called ideology. See, this bearded Eastern European theorist says so, so it must be true.

We get brought up with this stuff. Note that a lack of religious beliefs is still an ideological stance. Ideology, values and beliefs aren't the same thing. Not believing something is still ideology.

OK, so all that stuff I said up to now, that's largely pretty boilerplate theory, and it's not up for argument. It summarises a pretty standard take on how the way things are is taught, and academically speaking, trying to argue with it is sorta like arguing with Darwin. It's not up for argument.

Now this next part. This is up for argument. What follows are my opinions, and you can disagree with them. The examples I'm going to give are entirely subjective, but they're all games I own, have read, and have played.

Savage Worlds

(I asked if anyone had heard of Savage Worlds. There was this one brilliant guy who engaged throughout the talk, and he stuck his hand up and said yes, he had; I asked if he liked it, he said he loved it, because you could "do anything with it.")   

Savage Worlds is a game I have played and run quite a lot. In its character generation, Savage Worlds allows you to take Hindrances, which are character flaws.  

(Again, I asked the chap from before to explain Hindrances, which he happily did: when you take a Hindrance, you can take an advantage; if a Hindrance comes up in play you get a Bennie, a mechanical reward.)

One of the Hindrances in Savage Worlds is "Pacifist".
Pacifist (Major or Minor Hindrance)
Your hero absolutely despises violence, Minor Pacifism means he only fights when given no choice, and won’t allow the killing of prisoners and other defenceless victims.

Major Pacifists won’t fight living characters under any circumstances. They may defend themselves, but won’t do anything to permanently harm sentient, living creatures. Undead, demons and the like are fair game, however. A Major Pacifist may also fight with non-lethal methods, such as his fists. Such characters only do so when obviously threatened, however.
Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, p. 18
Now aside from the writer probably never having met an actual pacifist*, what this does is create a simulation where you are rewarded for playing up to pacifism being harmful. The game has the assumption that pacifism is bad.

Now, I know several people who do actually think pacifism is harmful. For my part, I spent about a decade working with people in peace movements, so I've got a pretty specific take on this.

(This is Daniel Berrigan. He's badass.)

Now you could say, "but that's just emulating a genre where you solve problems by shooting people," but all that does is move the goalposts, because then you have to ask about the assumptions of the genre, and why you're following it slavishly, and even if the genre necessarily does assume that, the issue is still there, it's just shifted around.

You can also say "But that's just in the game, and the writer may not think that pacifism is bad," and OK, aside from the fact the writer evidently doesn't really understand pacifism as a viewpoint, it's actually irrelevant what the writer might have thought at this point, because the rules as written present it as bad and reward you for treating it that way.

But see, I don't think that this is even deliberate. I think that the writer of this Hindrance just included it because he felt it fitted the game (I assume it's a he because all the writing credits are guys). I am more or less certain that there was no explicit intention to make a political point.

But it's there.

(*Having said all that, since I gave this talk I was reminded of one very famous example of a pacifist who wasn't afraid to use his fists.)

"I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality."

 Dogs in the Vineyard

I love Dogs in the Vineyard. One of my Top Five, in fact.

You've all met Mormon missionaries, right?

(Nods of assent from the audience.)

And you know how they're all really fresh and young and look like they're about twelve and they've got "Elder" on their badges? Well this game has you playing people just like that in a sort of mythical pre-statehood Utah travelling from town to town sorting out moral and ethical issues with only your sixguns* and your faith to guide you. And yes! I really like it, because you have all these difficult ethical decisions to navigate.

(*Someone will probably be pedantic about how they're not strictly "sixguns" to which I say, pffft.)

Vincent Baker, who wrote it, in the back of the book, writes about how you can apply the game system with its difficult ethical choices to other settings. He says you could play it in:

— Seventeenth Century Massachusetts, with the PCs as witch finders.

— Thirteenth century Europe with the PCs as Dominican inquisitors, the black and white Hounds of God.

— A modern-day mob game, replacing the Faith with the Mafia’s codes of silence and loyalty, with the PCs as enforcers.

— Or a game about Untouchables, with the Law instead of the Faith, and the PCs as Eliot Ness and his people!

Any of these sounds interesting and fun to me.
Dogs in the Vineyard, 2nd ed. p. 150
And well OK, that's all very well. You can attach to it any ideological stand you want! Which is fine until someone posted on the game's official forum about how you could play it in:
— 1930s Germany, with the PCs as SS men hunting down Jews.
(I allowed a pause for effect at this point, and for the various gasps of horror, expletives and nervous laughs that came from the audience. Seriously, BOOM.)

This is a problem. See the risk when you are trying to be ideologically neutral is that someone will come along and attach something awful to it. Because this game isn't ideologically or politically neutral, and can't be.

Because Dogs in the Vineyard works beautifully in pre-statehood Utah with kids tackling problems, and you can't move that elsewhere without a lot more thought, and without eloquently demonstrating that you cannot pretend neutrality.

(Edit: perhaps a better point would be to put it like this: that rather than trying to be neutral as such, that page at the back of Dogs in the Vineyard is trying to frame the game as having a political/moral/ethical force that can be divorced from its context; but that ain't the case, because that context grounds it.)

Mage: the Ascension

This is another game I love. I have friends who worked on it and its supplements. It is one of my favourite games. In Mage, you play magicians.

The good guys are the Traditions (magicians) and the Crafts (more magicians).

The bad guys are the Technocracy (uptight sci-fi fascists) and the Nephandi (basically devil worshippers).

Now let's look at some of the pictorial representations of the good guys.

OK, so you have a lot of women, you have a lot of non-white people. Aaaand guys in capes with froofy hair. OK, fine. In the Revised Edition from 2000, the pictures are about a third non-white and half of them are women.

Now I don't have the Nephandi book, but let's look at the uptight sci-fi fascists. So we have:

Men in black...

...space marines...

...and guys who look like actual scientists. I mean I think I know an engineering professor myself who looks just like this guy.

In the Technocracy book, they're 80% white males. The one picture in the splats who is a woman might be intended to be East Asian, but it's hard to tell.

And here's a thing. While the writers of Mage clearly intended the Traditions – multicultural hippies – to be the obvious goodies, there is, even to this day, a large section of Mage fans, aided by the fact that the Technocracy are furnished with rules that allow you to play them just as easily as you can play Traditions characters, who play the game with the Technocracy as the heroes.

I can't help thinking that part of that is because a lot of the sort of people who like games are a) always going to think that Men in Black and Space Marines are cool and b) admire research scientists and engineers and assume they're heroes by default. And they're also the sort of people who might not actually sympathise with religious practitioners, magicians and, let's face it, people who aren't white Westerners.

Which is not to say that these people are any more consciously racist than anyone else (and largely are the opposite, since extremely right-wing people tend not to play White Wolf games anyway), it's more that the uptight sci-fi fascists are signified in ways that more reflect the actual audience and their identity, and no matter how uptight and fascist you might make them, that chunk of the audience is almost inclined to give that a pass or even write it out altogether, since they're more naturally inclined to treat people like that as the goodies.

Which is to say that you might even have an explicit and deliberate bias in your game, but don't expect that anyone will lean into it.

In summary:

Here's a game that has political bias just because it does. It's not trying to, it's just worked out that way.

Here's one that claims it has no bias but quickly gets into trouble if you treat it that way.

And here is a game that has an explicit bias which has largely been rejected by the player base.

Which brings us to the end.

Politics are everywhere. You can't avoid them, but recognising that means that you can understand that they don't really affect whether you enjoy these games or not (and for example, isn't the reaction to Mage largely a function of recognising and rejecting an explicit political stand in a game and enjoying the game anyway?)

It is OK to like problematic things. Criticising these things isn't a criticism of you because you matter more than that and besides, it's in everything, one way or the other. And at the same time, it's useful to be aware of it.

It's even fun sometimes.

(Edit: Wrote a short follow-up post.)