About "Political" Games
So I was made aware of this RPG List going around… if you’re not familiar, I’d advise staying so. But the story is basically someone wanted to categorize RPG companies across a specific political axis, placing them into three categories: Green (“Not Woke or Indifferent”), Yellow (“Sort of Woke or Panders”), or Red (“Woke”).
I only looked a little bit at the discourse around this (congratulations dear reader for wanting to read RPG discourse in any depth; “a little bit” is all I can stand anymore), but of course it’s a trash fire.
Some people were interpreting the list as companies in the Red being “political” and thus doing game publishing wrong, and Green being “non-political” and thus normal. Then there was another crew that seemed to think that at the same time the list was a completely disgusting exercise, that of course games are political and so anyone in the Green is at best delusional but probably bad actors to be ostracized, and they themselves to be put firmly in the Red category.
(yeah, I’ll stand by those approximations of The Two Sides.)
First, I have a difficult time understanding why trying to categorize people by politics is at all a useful exercise. Second and more strongly, I have a difficult time understanding why anyone would want to be categorized that way.
That’s my opinion on “The List” and the conversation around it.
But it made me think about what is a “political” game. One side of this seems to think absolutely everything is political, the other side seems to very much not believe this.
I think that “political” term is obviously being used differently by different people.
Every premise, every structure, every assumption baked into a game, does indeed create a system of values and interaction necessary to play the game. Some call this “politics.”
Of course everything is going to have underlying assumptions and a point of view. But I don’t view creative work as “political” unless it is making an effort to affect the beliefs of its audience.
Let me give an example. In fact, let me come up with the most offensive example I can think of off the top of my head.
Let’s say there’s a board game called ATLANTIC TRIANGLE. In this game, each player has their own joint-stock company based in a different European country. Gameplay involves sailing from the home country to Africa, buying slaves there, sailing across the Atlantic to the New World, selling their slaves to the local colony, collecting goods and resources from the colony, and sailing back to the home country. The player who amasses the greatest fortune over whatever period of time wins the game.
Is this game “political?”
My answer, and I don’t think this thinking is unique to me, is “it depends.”
Is the game trying to impress upon you the horrors of slavery and the indifference of those who practiced it? Is it trying to demonstrate how the drive for profit leads corporate entities to cruel and destructive behavior? Is it trying to make you consider anything in real life through the medium of this game? Then yes, is political.
Is it just using this premise as a background flavor for whatever game mechanic it uses, and the game isn’t about the setting? Does it ask you to consider the humanity of those who were involved in the real-life slave trade and colonial empires? Would gameplay be any different if the board didn’t look like a map and the resources were just generic chips with no suggestion that any of it represented anything in the real world? Is it trying to convince you of anything, are there any issues it wants you to walk away considering even after the game ends? If not, then the game isn’t political.
And we all know people who would say “OF COURSE this game is political, how is this even a question?”
I think people who are going to argue about whether something is “political” or not needs to understand at the very least these two ways of looking at the issue.
But… buuutttt… I make this argument with a lot of contentious stuff, and here I make it again: This distinction is a matter of personal taste. Neither is morally right or wrong, good or bad. Simply what one wants out of games.
A person who thinks games are inherently political and that their games should demonstrate/promote only real-world good and correct values (from their point of view of course) should be allowed to create games, and enjoy games by others, that validate and support their taste without catching shit from anyone. (“I’ll pass, I don’t like political games,” is not throwing shit, by the way.)
Same thing for someone who doesn’t consider anything happening in the fictional space to matter one tiny bit in the real world, they should be allowed to enjoy their escapism without constantly being nagged about what their games “really mean.” (“I’ll pass, I don’t really like that game’s subject matter,” is not nagging, by the way.)
And, wonder of wonders, a person is allowed to alternate between the two approaches, creating or playing, depending on their mood at any particular time.
None of this is any problem until someone decides that other people should be pressured into viewing things through only one of these lenses or another, or in believing that people who approach their games differently need to be removed from the gaming scene, or at the very least marginalized.
People who do those things are wrong.