You’ve heard it before, I’m sure. Someone says, “I just want to play games to have fun” when they hear about a game with overt political messages (such as this). Or even (heaven forfend) when games go out of their way to broaden representation through characters or themes.
But there is no such thing as an apolitical game. All games support certain political and social views and reject others. If you don’t notice that they’re doing it, it’s not because it’s not happening, it’s because the views they’re supporting are ones you share. It’s perfectly valid to want to play games that are more comfortable for you in this way, but it’s also good to acknowledge that a) this doesn’t mean those games are apolitical and b) other people with different views might find different games to be comfortable.
How Are All Games Political?
In examining the political views of a game – particularly a roleplaying game – we can look at those elements that always exist in the medium: the premise, the action, and the presentation.
Premise – Whether a game provides a setting for you or expects you develop one at the table, it usually provides a premise. Unless consciously guided away from them, the premise is always built around the biases of the creators.
If there is a setting, we can quickly see the biases built in: Who are the leaders and citizens in this setting? Are there different races that are assumed to have inherent, perhaps monolithic personalities? Are there analogs to the real world, and how well do those analogs represent their real-world equivalents? Of course, if the setting is closer to the real world, then creators can’t help but reveal their social and political biases. Do they glorify or romanticize certain nations, policies, or historical eras? Do they gloss over the impact of certain events or individuals? These choices, whether conscious or unconscious, help foster the game’s particular world view.
If a game expects you to create your own setting, then it may offer guidance. Does it ask you to look at big picture effects of your choices or assume you will create an isolated framework of tropes? Setting creation guidelines almost always offer some constraints – what kinds of worlds and stories will this game NOT let you create?
Action – In nearly all roleplaying games, you generally want to do…something. The action might be physical, emotional, or conceptual, but you can expect to act, change, or grow in some way. Whether characters do the same thing repeatedly or a variety of things, those actions and their methods are another area where the game’s politics show through.
The actions themselves make assumptions about the world. Is violence common or uncommon? Is there violence against objects, institutions, creatures, or sentient beings? Are there consequences or rewards for conflict? Is conflict inevitable, or can it (always) be avoided?
In terms of methods, things like skills, moves, and attributes can say a lot about what is important to the politics of the game. Is strength favored over intellect, or vice versa? What abilities or practices does the game mechanize and what does it “leave to roleplaying?” Do the mechanics favor cooperation or individual action?
Presentation – The writing, art, and even layout might be limited by what is available to the creators, but ultimately there are still choices being made that say something about the politics of the game and its creators.
The language of a game book reveals creator assumptions about the game’s target audience. What terms and pronouns are used for the players and organizer? Is the tone formal or conversational? Does the game mention or assume player support practices or safety tools? Are there examples of play, explanations of design philosophy, or hacking tools? Does the text specifically suggest or proscribe certain play styles or activities?
Art can welcome and guide players, but it can also drive people away. Who is being represented in the game’s art, and how? Is there textual explanation for the art selections? What activities does the art depict, and does this correspond to the main activities presented in the text? Are there images that might be uncomfortable or even upsetting – is there textual explanation for those images?
Even the organization and layout of a game can say something about who it’s for. Is the text cramped and multi-column, or spread out and single column? Which chapters or sections come first, and which are given the most space? Is there indexing and/or digital bookmarking?
And the rest – There are so many other things that can tell you about the politics of the game. From broad concepts like the theme and genre down to something as focused as the maps – all of these contribute to the views that the game and creators are putting forward.
Good designers are aware of this and make these choices intentionally. But everyone makes choices whether they know it or not. When you’re reading or playing a game, try asking yourself these questions and see what message the game is giving you.
What About Our Politics?
The games that we release do not necessarily answer these questions in the same way every time. From Steamscapes to Rockalypse to Soldiers & Serpents, we look at these questions carefully for what we are trying to say with that game, and who we want to reach as an audience.
In this blog, I’ll be addressing these and other questions about each one to give you a sense of what our games are trying to do, but if you own any of them, you should definitely take a look for yourself and see if you agree that we’ve done what we meant to do.
For now, I hope this has helped you broaden your perspective and look at all the games you play with a little more of an open eye and open mind.
-Eric, aka Fairman Rogers