Monday, April 1, 2019

All Games Are Inherently Political

Of all the phrases I've grown to hate over my years of gaming, there is one in particular that makes me sigh. It is a phrase that lets me know I'm in for a long, and often frustrating discussion. And, many times, it's a phrase that lets me know that this person is not someone I'd enjoy having at my table.

What's that phrase, you ask?

"Get your politics out of my game!"

Pictured: The kind of character this protester often plays, perhaps missing the irony.
The problem here, for those who are wondering, is that there is no such thing as a non-political RPG. Roleplaying games, by their very nature, have messages in them. Those messages convey meaning, establish themes, and generally speaking are what provide the context for the story we're all telling, here.

Because of that, all games are inherently political in some way, shape, or form. And I'd take that one step further to say that most forms of art (especially things we geeks love like movies, comics, sci-fi and fantasy novels, etc.) are also inherently political.

Do You Remember Stan's Soapbox?

Though it will likely cause all of us pain, I'd like to talk about Stan Lee for a minute. Because while we can argue about the man versus the persona, and the nature of an artist and their legacies, one thing that Stan made very clear was that he and many of the artists he worked with at Marvel were sending very clear, direct messages with the stories they told. From Spider-Man's lessons on power and responsibility, to the X-Men's civil rights metaphor, to Black Panther beating the holy hell out of a white-clad hate group, Marvel's stories were not shy about their politics.

And for people who missed it, or who thought they might have been accidental, there was the handy little feature of Stan's Soapbox.

No gray areas, no miscommunication.
Stan Lee, and other creators, felt that these messages were important enough that they needed to be spelled out in plain English once the story about super-powered men and women in Lycra costumes was over. Because, at the end of the day, they had things they wanted you to take away when you closed the rear cover of that comic book.

That tradition hasn't stopped with the modern iterations of Marvel's comics and films, by the by. Captain Marvel is one of the biggest successes they've had in a while, and the story it tells is about a woman who breaks free from a controlling relationship filled with lies and gaslighting to embrace who she really is. Something with a lot of parallels to Jessica Jones, I'd add. Guardians of The Galaxy tells a story of the importance of personal connection to others like yourself, showing that being adopted (even under odd or unusual circumstances) doesn't make you any less of a family. And, of course, Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out pretty heavily against a surveillance/police state.

Just for a few examples.

But What Does This Have To Do With Gaming?

You can pick up practically any play, any novel, and any game, and find messages like this lurking just under the skin. All you need to do is look at who the heroes are, who the villains are, and what the conflict is over. Are ugly creatures viewed as inherently monstrous and deserving of death, or do we find that orcs, goblins, ogres, and others have a vibrant culture and drive to survive past all the war paint and skulls? Is racism seen as tolerable as long as it's against elves or gnomes, or is that prejudice used to clearly mark someone who is backwards at best, and a villain at worst? Is enchantment seen as an appropriate, non-lethal way to end a conflict, or is its ability to violate someone's mind and consent seen as an art practiced only by the wicked?

Do traditional paladins define what is unquestionably good just by existing?
All of those messages, and many more, are coded into our games. Even if we're not thinking about them. And, generally speaking, players will accept those political points without question. Even defending them virtuously in-game, if they're heroes. Yet for some reason they'll suddenly roll their eyes if, say, a game includes the message of, "Being gay is all right," or, "Humans come in multiple ethnicities, and confining them to imaginary borders on a map makes no sense in a world where immigration is a reality."

Sure, those are political messages in a game. However, it's no more political than the belief that those with magic should be the ruling faction of a nation, or that chattel slavery is wrong and should be smashed at every opportunity. All of these things are inherently political (and dare we say it, moral and philosophical) points that show up in our games, and that's been true since the first dice were ever rolled in an RPG.

Don't Duck The Subject

If you disagree with a particular message in a game, that's fine. I'd even go so far as to say that's great. However, simply demanding that people keep politics out of a game doesn't help, because it would mean staring at a blank piece of paper. Instead, explain why you feel this particular political statement should be kept out of a game, or why you feel it should be altered in some way for the game to better fit your desires as a player.

We do this all the damn time. Sometimes a DM will do it by making certain creatures inherently evil and corrupt, so that slaying them is always a righteous act rather than a callous case of murder. Or players will make it clear that they feel violence is not the answer to problems by always trying to use Diplomacy or Intimidate before actually drawing their weapons. So if you feel that a certain issue doesn't belong in an RPG, you should feel free to say which issue, and why you feel that way.

But just saying, "Ugh, why is everything so political now?" does nothing but make other people think you haven't been wearing your critical thinking hat this whole time.

Speaking of Messages...

As a brief aside, I wanted to let all you fine folks out there know that I recently put together my first gaming supplement with High Level Games! It's a supplement for Werewolf the Apocalypse titled 100 Get of Fenris Kinfolk. And since we're talking about messages in our games and art, I thought I'd provide everyone a sneak preview of the message I wanted to send with this piece by giving you the description of the first NPC in this list.

Sigurd “Ziggy” Bowers: A towering black man whose roots are just starting to go gray, Zig runs one of the most successful outlaw tattoo parlors in upstate New York. His whole life, Zig was pushed to use his size and strength to its best possible end, making him a fiercely competitive boxer, and a champion weightlifter on the amateur circuit. Mostly retired from competition, he’s been known to throw down when provoked. While he sports a great deal of ink, those who see him in his working vest can’t miss the prominent runes across his chest that read, “Fuck Off Nazi Scum.”

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! Hopefully it gave folks plenty of things to talk about.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or, if you're more interested in books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page instead.

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  1. Yeah, but the meaning of the phrase "keep your politics out of my game" has morphed over time.

    Today when I hear it, it is referring to identity politics, which people are finding loathsome and tiring due to the lack of a critical argument.

    Which isn't to say I disagree with this article because I too remember Stan Lee as not afraid of political discourse and also someone willing to take a stand. And personally, I would love the interjection of contemporary politics with a medieval RPG spin.

    But the elephant in the room is the discourse we have now is "if you don't believe as I do, you're a Nazi." And gamers want to escape that, and any DM who has a whiff of politics gets lumped in with the idenitarians.

    This is a tough one. I see no easy path out.

    1. The easy way out, in my opinion, is to deepen the discourse. Because so-called "identity politics" are just another form of messaging. They're important to someone. If someone feels it's important, for example, that a fantasy world have gay rights in it, or that it be acknowledged there are multiple ethnicities to make characters from, then those points aren't invalid just because the player sitting next to them is indifferent on it.

      You've got to talk all of these things out if you want to make sure you're all in agreement over the messages your game is sending. If nothing else, it prevents you from being at a table with people you just can't mesh with.

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