Disturbing Themes

I recently purchased the game Guillotine at my local shop. I had heard some good things about it, it's a very light card game where players take the roles of executioners during the French Revolution. The object of this humorously presented game is to collect the most valuable heads. I asked the owner what he thought of it and he said that while he thought the game was all right the subject matter turned him off. The French Revolution was a terrible time in which many people lost their lives and making a "fun, hilarious" game out of it was too distasteful for him. I've since played the game and didn't find this to be a problem although I kept thinking about what he had said. The closest I've felt to this was with the recent spat of Titanic games. Simulating people struggling to save themselves is not exactly the most pleasant experience I can think of. On the other hand, I've played Rette Sich Wer Kann many times and have never had a problem with it. Why then did I find these new games objectionable even though I hadn't played them? This got me thinking of the whole issue of themes in games and how they can attract (or in the above examples, repulse) us.

Why do these games have a theme in the first place? (I'm specifically thinking of German style games here and not Squad Leader or Third Reich style games that try to accurately re-create events.) The most obvious answer (to me any way) is that a good theme is an improvement because it draws you into the game more. It's easier for you to become part of the action and relate to the events that are occurring in it if you can visualize the events themselves. Of course, this isn't going to be the case for everyone, there will always be those that prefer the "purity" of a game without a tacked on theme. However, I think its safe to say that the majority of gamers would agree that Elfenland is more enjoyable than "The Vertex Traversal Game" even if they're functionally identical. Even when talking about very abstract games such as Go or Chess, players often talk about what is represented by the pieces or moves. In Chess, the analogy of war is fairly plain to see. In Go, its the relationships of the pieces that are important. In both, there is an implied "real-life" correspondence to what is happening on the board. I think, for the purposes of this discussion, its best to ignore this more abstract variety of game but my point is that, for whatever reason, we try to "connect" games with real world experience. (If anyone can come up with an idea of what Bridge is trying to represent I'd be glad to hear about it.) If this is indeed the case then what does it say about a player that enjoys a game in which the theme can be described as disturbing?

I suppose its fair to say that role playing games are the ultimate in the "theming" department. The actual mechanics of most RPG's are quite simple but its the rationale of these mechanics that take up the bulk of the instruction. Also, there is much more emphasis placed on the descriptions of a characters actions and the world. I think its also true that RPGers are much more oriented to a specific game than board gamers. You won't often hear someone tell you they're an "El Grande Player" or a "Tigris & Euphrates Player" but you will hear people tell you they're a "Vampire: The Masquerade Player". There is also less "cross-pollination" between systems than in board games and this is due to the fact that in RPG's it's the world and atmosphere that are important not the mechanics. So what's the significance of this in regard to disturbing themes? Well, I think it's easier to appreciate the connection between game and reality when done with the more extreme case of RPG's. On more than one occasion I've had a role player tell me of his latest campaign: "We're all playing chaotic evil characters, it's great! We get to go around killing whoever we please!" Far from being impressed it usually makes me question exactly what type of person would enjoy such an experience. Now I don't want to come across as some sort of fragile, delicate creature here. I've spent hours in Doom blowing things up and I understand its vicarious attraction. I've also been involved in campaigns where I played a less than noble character that had no problem killing innocents. Gaming as a release mechanism can be a perfectly valid experience. Still, I do have a problem with someone who's overly enthusiastic about recounting such an experience.

Wargames are less heavily themed than RPG's but (almost exclusively) more realistic and historically accurate. Those little squares of cardboard represent real people who actually fought and died in the battles you're playing out. In a game of D&D you're simulating fictional people and places so maybe it's easier to disregard any unpleasant aspects of the game. A whole lot of real people died at Waterloo though. I don't think many gamers have a problem leaving a counter or two behind as a rear-guard during a retreat, it's a sound tactic. In "real-life" terms though you're sending those men to their death. I'd like to think that the real Generals that ordered such actions agonized over those decisions but is it fair to suggest a gamer even give it a thought?

A less philosophically challenging theme is Atlas Games' Spammers. In it each player is trying to successfully send out bulk e-mails simulating what real-world "spammers" do every day. If you have an e-mail account you've probably received at least one unsolicited commercial e-mail. This is an annoying but fairly innocuous occurrence but I've heard more than one person on the net state that he's so annoyed at real-life spammers that playing a game about them holds no interest whatsoever. Change the theme of the game to racing cars and they'd probably have no problem with it. The games still the same but somehow it's more acceptable when it's about a less disturbing topic. I imagine that everyone has a pet subject about which they're a little more sensitive than others. Another controversial game from Atlas is Lunch Money. I haven't played the game but from what I understand it's a simple little card game meant to simulate a school yard fight. While the mechanics of the game are very abstract what has most people upset is the artwork. All the cards feature pictures of young girl in gothic type photos each with a strange caption such as "Jesus hates you, and so do I". It disturbed Mike Siggins enough that he wished to avoid mention of it in Sumo to avoid attracting any media attention to the game. So if some or all of us are disturbed by certain themes, what's the reason?

Getting back to the Titanic games I mentioned earlier, I imagine that my discomfort has a lot to do with seeing the James Cameron film. It made the simulation much more real for me. It wasn't quite as easy to dismiss pawns as just pieces of plastic instead of representations of actual people. It isn't as easy to remove a piece from the board when what's "really" happening is that that person is drowning. I don't think this will prevent me from playing such a game but it is true that I haven't played Rette Sich Wer Kann since seeing the movie. Speaking in more general terms I believe that it's your closeness to a subject (and the resulting ease of "visualization") that determines your level of discomfort. The game shop owner I mentioned is quite knowledgeable about the French Revolution and so was able to map real-life occurrences to what was going on in the game. I don't know much about the subject and so it's easier for me to disassociate the game from the reality. Personally, it's often movies that supply a link for me. I've already mentioned Titanic and I have to admit that it's going to be a little harder for me to play D-Day having seen Saving Private Ryan.

So what does all this mean? Should we toss these games out in a great wave of political correctness? Hardly. The easiest response to these concerns is: "So what? They're just games!" This is, to some extent, a valid point. Ultimately I suppose the whole discussion is nothing more than food for thought. I'm sure some readers will find the whole discussion a waste of time and that the link between games and real life to be nebulous and incidental. I'm not even sure if I'd disagree with them. I don't have a problem playing any of the games I've mentioned above. I think a games mechanics are more important than its theme and, for me, the basis of what I choose to play. Still, I can't discount the effect a chosen theme has on a game and what this might say about me. I'm certainly not of the opinion that anyone should be judged on their choice of game. I've seen a couple of games that I thought were in bad enough taste that they probably shouldn't have been made. The tricky part about expressing your opinion on this is that everyone is going to have a different view of what constitutes "bad enough".

This article originally appeared in Counter #3.