Problematic Games

And how to have better conversations about them


We’re going to discuss problematic games today. That is, games with morally questionable elements in them. It’s going to meander a bit, but if I have a central thesis, it’s this:

Context is everything.

We’ll come back to that thought frequently in the article to build upon it.

Before I start, I also want to include a content warning: we’re going to touch on slavery, Nazis/Holocaust, and racial or gender prejudices in this article. If these topics may unsettle you, I’d caution against reading further.

The Morality of Immoral Subjects, or a Discussion of “The Aristocrats”

I once had a protracted discussion with a friend about the movie “The Aristocrats.” No, not the cats, but the infamous dirty joke, where the punchline is always “…the aristocrats!” but the point is the open-ended middle of the joke, which prompts the joke teller to come up with the absolute worst things imaginable.

I’d call it the Cards Against Humanity of movies, though I think there’s at least one important difference that invalidates that comparison (more on that later). But a large point of the movie (and joke) is to find your personal line of decency and taboo, then gleefully race across it. If you can stomach it, it’s one of the funniest movies in existence (but if you can’t, it can be actively offensive). It was also produced by one of my personal heroes, Penn Jillette, a man whose views on personal freedom and freedom of speech are stronger than nearly anyone else I can name.

Anyway, the discussion was on whether or not watching such a movie was immoral, and/or if it risked making a person more immoral by lowering their moral barriers. Importantly, we framed the discussion for adults only. Kids who lack the ability to delineate moral positions properly are a different matter entirely.

My answer was “no” to both. I don’t see watching a movie with explicitly objectionable material as the beginning of some slippery slope to acceptance of immoral ideas. I’m going to add considerable caveats to this opinion in a bit, but it’s a useful starting point.

This is a similar argument used by some stand-up comics. I don’t think they’re always using this argument in good faith, but many definitely are. They can joke about the Holocaust, for example, without fear of believing it was anything other than an unconscionable tragedy. Many Jewish comedians (famously, Mel Brooks) did exactly that, to rob the event of its power over them. Comedy was a weapon against Hitler for Mel Brooks, and it was wielded viciously and effectively. Comedy is catharsis in these cases and, largely, for their audience. It’s how they process an often cruel and uncaring universe.

But we can’t always give that same benefit of the doubt to works of art and entertainment. So where to draw the line?

Games and PC Culture

Some people bristle at making games or other forms of media “politically correct.” They’re able to distance themselves from the subject material to the extent that it’s viewed as art, not propaganda, so the presence of potentially objectionable material isn’t a concern.

Others fear that we too-often gloss over horrible historical incidents or practices for the sake of being inoffensive. For example, I was recently reading the One Thousand and One Nights book for some research into an Arabian-style desert campaign in Dungeons & Dragons. And guess what? The tales in it were written in a time with rampant misogyny, class-based discrimination, slavery and more, and this comes out frequently in the text.

So should I include those things in my campaign, for historical accuracy? Or should I scrub them for the sake of modern moral sensibilities? And what factors should I take into account in determining the answer?

I think some of these questions have definitive answers, and others depend on context. But my larger point is to mention that these are questions creators grapple with on a much larger scale than my simple D&D campaign.

The Importance of Context

Context isn’t universal; it’s particular to a set of circumstances. Context is how I determine the answer to questions like those above, but there isn’t a single answer that will suffice for all instances.

This, to me, is as it should be. We’re not dealing with shallow ideas here. Broad answers don’t suit our purposes. I’ll explain in more detail through the examples below.

Example #1: Presentation vs. Endorsement

Cards Against Humanity (CAH) is low-hanging fruit here, but it’s also a useful benchmark that many people are familiar with, so it will be my first example.

There are games that present awful things, but how they present them is important. Is it presented as an explicitly evil force to be overcome? Or presented in a neutral way, as part of an historical setting? Or does it glorify the evil element in some way, either narratively or by asking players to actively take part in it?

CAH promotes active participation in the creation of vile connections. It would fall into the last of those categories for me. But in, say, a D&D campaign, you need villains. You need evil to overcome. Which necessitates the presence of evil acts or institutions. My Arabian campaign is likely to include slavery, but it will be as an evil to overcome. It isn’t glorified, and is in fact explicitly demonized. In many similar instances of evil acts in popular media, which are framed as evil, I have no issues.

Stated in quotable form, it would look something like this: “If a game glorifies a vile act or actively encourages participation in it, I’m far less likely to be forgiving of it. If it presents the evil to vilify it or to contextualize its place in the course of history, I’m much more open to its inclusion.”

Like the stand-up comics mentioned above, for some, playing CAH is merely catharsis or a simple social activity. For others, though, it’s something at least slightly darker. So if you play and enjoy CAH, I’m not casting stones when there are clearly better targets for societal ire. But I’ll also never suggest to my friends we play it.

This argument is muddied a bit if we look at video games. There are games where, if you aren’t exactly evil, you’re definitely not good either. Is a game that asks you to play an assassin good or bad? Or does it matter if you’re assassinating the “good guys” or “bad guys?” Or are any of those questions too reductionist in what is ultimately a more complex problem?

We know quite definitively at this point that video games aren’t reliable drivers of violence. It’s been a historical scapegoat of conservative media, but studies consistently fail to produce a link between video games and violent tendencies. So are we wringing our hands over nothing?

I don’t have great answers. If forced to state an opinion, I’d use the eyeball test. Running over hookers with a car in Grand Theft Auto before bombing an innocent business? Seems pretty bad to me, and unnecessary in a game. But what about playing as an assassin for hire? Probably depends on the specifics, but in principle the concept doesn’t turn me off.

I’m not attempting neat and tidy answers, by the way. This isn’t a manifesto on the conclusions you should be drawing in every example. If anything, it’s a manifesto on how I think we should be considering these issues, but not the exact conclusions we should draw.

Example #2: Audience Size

I make products for D&D, and I make materials to use in my home games. There’s some overlap there, but not always. Importantly, there are topics I’d use in a home game that will never make it to one of my commercial products.

This isn’t out of fear, but an understanding that my audience is more diverse than I can easily account for. When I play in my home games, I can look each player in the eye and have a conversation with them about the subject matter in the game we’ll be playing. I have no such luxury when my work is on a digital marketplace.

It’s here that I think some creators get into trouble, because they don’t grasp how something that doesn’t raise eyebrows for their circle could be triggering to another group for legitimate reasons.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s any subject that should always be off limits…provided everyone involved is on board with its inclusion. If you’re all adults, know each other’s preferences and limits, and have had that conversation, the darkest subjects you could imagine are, to me, still fair game. But that doesn’t extend to wider audiences that don’t have those same opportunities for communication.

For clarity, I’m never including such elements for their own sake, but to broaden or deepen the narrative. However, if I codify the same material and publish it online, I might be writing for a church group’s game master, who is running the game for 10-year-old children. The audience is vastly different from my home group, so the approach should be altered.

Which isn’t to say darker materials can’t be published. At the very least, content warnings act as safeguards against the wrong people reading something. But it’s a consideration.

This is the aim of things like safety tools in roleplaying games: to create a space where boundaries are established and respected, sometimes in real-time.

If your online audience is rather niche, you can sometimes loosen these boundaries because you know the audience and the audience has certain expectations that won’t cause them to blanch at the inclusion of certain ideas. One example of this is “OSR,” or old school renaissance, products for roleplaying games. In these, there’s a community-wide expectation of adventures being classic hack-n-slash fare, with a liberal amount of violence, gory descriptions and other macabre elements. The context is different here than for, say, 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, where the audience is more broad and less focused on a particular type of experience.

Returning to an earlier example, I know the people I play Dungeons & Dragons with. We’ve been friends for years, and gaming for years. There are topics we can handle with maturity that may not work as well for a general audience.

So in the home group, we’re all comfortable enough around each other to voice those preferences proactively. Conversely, in a Convention game with strangers, this may not be the case. That’s where different methods of determining acceptable content need to be considered.

This is also a dividing line I see with things like safety tools. In a home game where I’m playing with the same people for years on end, we should be able to have open communication and not need specific tools outside of this. But with strangers, or with a new group, or in one-off games? It’s much harder to establish shared limits in that limited timeframe, so other tools are often necessary.

So any time you’re speaking to a general or broad audience with your work, I believe there should be considerations for the diversity of experiences in that audience. Content warnings at minimum, and consideration of what types of content make it to print at all.

Example #3: Demographics and Societal Context (see also: Nazis)

A while back—say, 2015—I would have been perfectly accepting of Nazis and Nazism in games. Not because I agreed with anything in their ethos, but because they were an historical abstraction. Our collective distance from the events of WWII, combined with the numerous parodies of the Nazi movement in years since, had created enough of a buffer around the concepts that there was little worry of their use for entertainment purposes.

But now we apparently have American Nazis in large enough numbers that it’s a topic that even the US President has to weigh in on. Their presence has directly affected the lives of people today in negative ways.

So the calculation changed due to shifting societal context (there’s that word again: context).

So take a game like Secret Hitler. It’s a game that has inspired a lot of think-pieces of this variety. And I saw it as harmless…until I didn’t. And it was all because of the shifting context mentioned above.

For clarity, I don’t feel as though I’m actively engaging in something objectionable in Secret Hitler, as I might in some games. But the theme is now mirthless to me, because it’s too real. I no longer want to play it, because it’s no longer an abstraction, but a very real danger in the modern day.

That the game doesn’t aspire to any larger statement about politics doesn’t help its cause. It’s a game that could have any number of themes (I have some friends who actually made a “Secret Pupper” reskin with cats and dogs, and it works just as well). If the game is made lesser by stripping it of the historical theme, maybe the theme is necessary. But if you can reskin it to be cats and dogs, it’s safe to say you’re not making much of a political statement and your game does not need to evoke political subjects.

Example #4: Propaganda & Historical Abstraction

Games as political statements seem somewhat inefficient to me. They just aren’t a great marketing tool compared to other methods. Most games have no overarching moral, historical or political statement to make. They’re just for fun.

But we’d be lying if we said there aren’t games with political or historical statements to make. Even if it’s not the majority of games, there are many with such a purpose.

Wargames are the most obvious since they aim to reenact famous struggles. Here, the context is the opposite of something like Secret Hitler. Not only would the removal of Nazi Germany be unnecessary in, say, a WWII wargame, doing so would be actively insulting to the game’s audience. More holistically, many such games have been lauded for their nuanced portrayals of the implications of various historical movements. It’s not always rosy, but the darker elements have a purpose in the narrative told by the game.

Other examples move us into more of a grey area. There are games whose inclusion of slaves has been historically accurate to the period in which the game was set, but they’ve still been the subject of criticism.

One such example was Five Tribes, a game I enjoy. I own the later edition with slaves removed, but this is a case where they weren’t included in bad faith, but they also detracted from the game. Five Tribes isn’t a game with a strong historical or moral stance. The gameplay has depth, but the ways it explores its theme and setting lacks depth and purpose. So is it a moral obligation to include slavery due to the historical context in this instance? No. It’s not making a moral or historical statement in its gameplay, so the presence of such a jarring historical practice is unnecessary. The company recognized its error and removed it from subsequent printings, but it’s a good case study that juxtaposes it against games that do have strong and nuanced historical and moral stances to make in their games.

Other times, we need to see what argument a game is making through its mechanics and theme. Some of Cole Wehrle’s games are a prime example. Pax Pamir and John Company deal with contentious periods of history. But the gameplay is steeped fully in that history, and the games offer a critical look at their subject matter. They’re not quite wargames, but they bear resemblance to some wargames because they’re simulating historical events in thoughtful ways. And if you know anything of Wehrle’s views on his games, you’ll know that he’s trying to make a positive statement against certain abhorrent practices through the games and their mechanics. So to me, it’s here that we need to embrace the uncomfortable.

In the case of Five Tribes, the publisher issued an apology, which was echoed by the designer. They cited the historical context as their initial reasoning, but rather than use that as an excuse to dig in, they realized the game didn’t need slaves and that the game’s appeal could be more universal without them. Subsequent printings removed slaves. This was the correct decision, just as it would be the wrong decision in other cases. Stated differently: Context is everything.

It’s easy to say that any one creative work won’t make much difference, and that we can separate games from reality. But harder to see that, collectively, we do accept or reject narratives as a society, and tacitly accepting ones that glorify propaganda, ignorance, or other problematic elements can be damaging. Which is why scrubbing problematic elements can sometimes be the right decision, and other times the wrong decision.

Combining Problems

Let’s bring back Cards Against Humanity to drive home the point. I’m not a fan of the game for reasons stated earlier, but there’s still context. Racist or incestuous cards in CAH won’t make some groups squirm, for example, not because they don’t find the concepts repulsive, but because they’re distanced from the reality of them. With other groups, engaging with those same concepts could be actively traumatic.

And the audience size for CAH is massive, and many others who don’t own the game will have it foisted upon them at some party. How many victims of immoral racial, gender-driven or sexual acts have had to sit in silence through cards depicting their trauma? Whatever the number, it’s too many.

I can have a candid conversation with my Dungeons & Dragons group about topics before we bring them into a game. But how many CAH games do you think have been prefaced with an appropriate trigger warning? Probably none.

Lastly, I mentioned that tacitly accepting certain narratives can be collectively damaging. Stereotypical insults against racial or ethnic groups, for example, might not hold any sway with an individual. But tacitly accepting their presence in our entertainment can collectively form a base of societal acceptance, which empowers those who would perpetuate actual real-world evils based on those assumptions. We need to fight against this where we can, and games are one small way we can do this.

Context Is Everything

My Aristocrats movie example from earlier is imperfect because I think comedy shouldn’t have as many limits, and we’re also not actively engaging in it ourselves like we are with CAH. Comedy exposes darkness and finds laughter there. It’s at once cathartic and instructive, even when it’s in the more twisted parts of our collective psyche.

I’d watch The Aristocrats with any well-adjusted adult, but it would be prefaced with a discussion of what subject matter is included in it (whether they’d enjoy it or not is another matter, but I’d feel comfortable watching it at that point). But I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing CAH with anybody, because I sense that we’re personally engaged in behavior that is neither fun nor funny unless we accept some deeply flawed views. Therein, I think, lies the difference for me.

The difference between any two other works of art—gaming or otherwise—will be equally specific.

I see debate in the RPG space sometimes about being politically correct vs. just being an adult about mature subject matter. It gets heated. Or a board game will be dragged across the coals for the mere presence of some onerous concept.

While some of the problem is the limitations of the medium they’re using to discuss these issues (usually Twitter), I also think they’re often having the wrong discussion. How does audience size change considerations for content? That’s a question that will get us closer to an understanding on mature subject matter. How is the onerous element being utilized in the totality of a game’s narrative? That’s a question that will avoid surface-level discussions of whether or not {concept X} should ever be in a game or not. If we devolve into absolutism, we’ve reached an impasse through which more mature discussion cannot take place.

It’s in these cases that I disagree with the very premise of the debate. I can’t enter into a debate over some games without taking a position that doesn’t truly represent me. So my preference is for debate that considers these contextual factors.

That doesn’t mean there won’t still be disagreement. There will be, of course, and that’s fine. But it means we’ll be having better conversations about the games in question and the subjects they present.

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