Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

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Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  psychomansam on Wed 18 May 2016, 22:15

Preface: If you're the type of person who just doesn't want to consider the above titular issues in connection with board games, feel free to move on. I will express some strong personal opinions below. I will express them at length. And this is, at best, a rough draft.

Humanity! Let's face it, humanity seems to be a bit of a mixed bag. There's some things in there I like, and then there's the rest. One small thing I like is the creation of board games, particularly now due to the diversity and complexity of what's on offer. One part of the diversity is in the themes used. Those of you who've looked at designing games in particular might notice that there really is plenty of choice here. Very few games are of necessity connected to a single theme. A game generally consists of sets of mechanisms, rules and victory conditions which can then be integrated into almost any theme imaginable. A good design tends to then meld as closely to the theme as possible. But with a little re-imagining, one can still generally see how a theme could be replaced with an alternative. There really is lots of choice. So what do people choose? Let's take a look at some of the more popular games, listed by Boardgamegeek rank:

1 – Pandemic Legacy) Well I shan't include any spoilers here, so let's just summarise by saying that this is a game based around the fear of apocalyptic plagues decimating humanity.

2 – Twilight Struggle) Choose sides in a quasi-historical re-enactment of one of humanity's greatest idiocies. An episode of growing terror in which global bullies threaten to annihilate the human race.

3 – Terra Mystica) 'Imagine' a world where lots of very different tribes compete to gain the most land, control and power, hopefully to their neighbour's detriment. Imagine.

4&7 – Through the Ages) Waltz through a wonderful white western history and use your armies to protect the growth of quasi-democratic capitalism.

5 – Caverna) Practical deforestation with added use of weapons.

6 – Puerto Rico) Words fail me.

8 – Agricola) Compete to enclose the most land possible, creating your own personal food-factory, i.e. historical agricultural re-enactment as seen through the eyes of capitalist egocentrism.

9 – Castles of Burgundy) Rule from your castle and create the very best kingdom you can.

10 – Mage Knight) Build an army and kill the enemy.

There's lots that could be said about this, and I'm sure I can't do it true justice. But wow! What a reflection of the depths of human failures past present and future. Little here to celebrate. Much to learn. Much to mourn. Much to repent for. Much to change. Is there anything necessarily wrong with using these themes for board games? Probably not. But that does leave a question. Why choose these themes, when so many more are available? And why are these themes so successful? I'm sure there are multi-faceted answers to this question. Humanity, like board games, is complex. I tend to try to assume the best of people, and presume the best possible motives. But reality is doubtless more complex. What I find particularly concerning with the above themes is that it often does feel like a celebration is taking place – a celebratory embrace of human failures. So, again, why? Perhaps these games have a cathartic role, allowing us to vent our desires for power, conquest, glory and victory. Perhaps imagined violence creates the space for wish fulfilment which our subconcscious craves. If so, maybe we live better lives for it. Who knows. Maybe these themes are reflective of the historical ignorance of the designers, or of a lack of understanding. Perhaps they represent a lack of imagination, or at least a misdirected one. Perhaps designers do hope to remind us of our follies and to subtly prompt us, in our wider lives, to move beyond these failures. Perhaps they hope that by remembering, by learning, we can change.

But I've played Puerto Rico. And what about Madeira? And the myriad games which seems to celebrate the advancement of empires past, present, future? Why? Why do game designers seem to celebrate brutality, slavery and oppression? Why do we play and enjoy these themes? Why do we choose to repeatedly celebrate abuses of power for the benefit of a few, enforced politically, economically and militarily? Why?

The answer, I'm sure, is that we're human.

That may be an explanation.

But it may not be an excuse.
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Wed 18 May 2016, 22:40

I have a problem with this. "This" being how you format your numbering.

psychomansam wrote:4&7 – Through the Ages)

Dude. What is wrong with you.

It's not about celebrating abuses of power, it's about simulating them. Which is why we enjoy it. Word.
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  Jamie on Wed 18 May 2016, 23:24

You could totally add Archipelago to this list by the way; exploitation of natives in the Caribbean...

psychomansam wrote:Why do we play and enjoy these themes? Why do we choose to repeatedly celebrate abuses of power for the benefit of a few, enforced politically, economically and militarily? Why?

Because it's fun?

How is it any different to playing the role of an unsavoury character in a video game, or identifying with one in a film? It's just make believe. As long as we can differentiate between fiction and reality, I think we're good.

A lot of games though, do seem to be about domination and control; and it's interesting question, what kind of psychological impact do the games we play, have on us...
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  JohnH on Thu 19 May 2016, 01:00

And where do we stand on method playing the Nekro Virus?


On a more (tenuously) productive line, I think this all stems from our general apathy towards modern society. We don't really feel the need to strive for anything, as we're all quite comfortable. Sure, we may disgaree with things either of the two candidates we get to choose from say, and we may get upset about things that are happening in far off lands, and of course we wish they didn't happen (hopefully we're all on this page). But, at the end of the day, as long as we have the option of going home to our family, or going out to the pub (with or without aforementioned family), going to work or phoning in sick, with the luxury of working 5 days and then having 2 days off to do whatever we like (even play boardgames) we don't really, truly care. We don't have angst. And because we're all fundamentally masochists, we want to feel angst, so we play boardgames.

Either that or we're all white, middle class people, who've reached the top of their social ladder/comfort zone and so are trying to find some sort of escape in which they can feel some control and/or power and pit ourselves against other people also yearning for validation.




(Or, people miss playing games with their friends like they did wen they were kids and want to experience fantastical [and sometimes heavily influenced by history] enviornments, just like those games)


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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  PaulC on Thu 19 May 2016, 08:40

Wow... you guys clearly do a lot more thinking than me.

I just want to play games! :-)
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  JohnH on Thu 19 May 2016, 10:03

PaulC wrote:Wow... you guys clearly do a lot more thinking than me.

I just want to play games! :-)

But why Paul? Why?
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  Kes on Thu 19 May 2016, 10:15

Most games you are competing with your fellow players which is going to naturally lead to themes of competing with other humans for the most part, no?
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  Jamie on Thu 19 May 2016, 11:14

Kes wrote:Most games you are competing with your fellow players which is going to naturally lead to themes of competing with other humans for the most part, no?

This is one of the things I love about Avalon, it's a team game. You win as a team. You lose as a team. Chances are, you'll win 50% of the games you play! I like that, I don't play football, but I like being on a team sometimes, you feel like you have natural true allies, and you can relax a bit.

As you say though, a lot of games are conflict based, where you compete for limited resources and space on a game board. Putting aside any historical considerations, the conflict nature of games is a (imho) good thing.

In conflict games, you can't relax so much, or trust your 'allies' like you would in a true team game. Rather, it all depends on you; your tactics and strategies, how and where you apply the resources you have at your disposal. By playing conflict games, I suspect, we may improve how we respond to and handle conflict, in general life; and also learn more to stay relaxed under pressure (if we allow ourselves to become discombobulated, and are not calm, we make poor decisions - this is as true in life, as it is in games).

Hmm.

I feel like make I'm going off-topic here. I just don't consider the ethical implications of a games' theme. I'm more interested in what impact, games have on the player. Is that off-topic?
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  Aneurin on Thu 19 May 2016, 14:07

Have you guys tried drinking? It might help.
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Thu 19 May 2016, 15:08

I think drinking might have been a factor in the creation of this thread.
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  BeardyTom on Fri 20 May 2016, 16:23

There's plenty of interesting stuff to consider there, if you're that way inclined. I think we do have some sociology or psychology type people around who may be better equipped than most of us to get in depth on this. But in the meantime, here's my non-expert thoughts:

Thought 1: It's a big leap from seeing that a boardgame (or video game, book, film, painting, etc.) has some negative thing as its subject matter to concluding that it either promotes or celebrates that negative thing. In fact, the argument could be made that any discussion of these problems, even in the indirect abstracted form of a boardgame, is generally positive, as it could help to immunise people against falling into the psychological traps that allow people to behave in such 'evil' ways. It's ignorance and thoughtlessness that feed all these problems, so therefore understanding must surely combat them.

Thought 1.5: Boardgamers seem to be a nice lot, generally.

Thought 2: For a wordy, 1930s academic look at some things around the anthropology and sociology of play, you could check out Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Some of it is continental hand-wavy nonsense, but it's got some interesting stuff too.

Thought 3: In my dabbling with game design, I have consciously aborted a couple of design directions because I felt it was saying something that I didn't want to say. Not that I'd necessarily mind if I was playing a game where the designer had gone that way, it's just that I didn't want to do that myself. It's not exactly rational; it's kind of like how I never choose the evil path in RPGs.
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Fri 20 May 2016, 18:45

When you have a moral issue with a board game about farming, where do you go from there? Do you have issues with Steampunk Rally for "promoting" the pollution of the planet?

Are you looking down on agriculture, timbre industries, state defence, capitalism — processes that enable your comfortable, board-game playing existence?

I guess I'm just missing your point because your first example of games reflecting "the depths of human failures" and something to be mourned, repented for, and changed is people working together to fight a deadly contagion.

If human decisions to better their lives, which sometimes involve chopping down trees and killing people that don't agree with them, hasn't exactly worked out great for every individual on the planet, that's not to say those decisions aren't sometimes a necessity and don't have positive results also. It's a horrible oversimplification to colour all the events surrounding the Cold War as "idiocies". Including pouring money into research that led to technological advancements we enjoy today. PS: Say thanks to the Yanks and Russies for not actually annihilating the human race — apparently they made the right decisions at some points.

Even if you have a crazy view of ethics you're still my namebro so I won't hold it against you.


Last edited by Sam on Fri 20 May 2016, 22:13; edited 12 times in total
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Fri 20 May 2016, 18:48

And I might talk about board games in a bit Laughing
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Sat 21 May 2016, 12:28

So, themes.

It's more pronounced in videogames and movies where a massive fraction of popular games and movies depict hyper-realistic violence and tragedy, and "unnice" themes are the rule (in board games they almost the exception). It's even better to get your answers from movies and videogames because the theme is so much "bigger" there (more realistic, more impactful etc.) — it's like seeing the issue through a magnifying glass.

These themes really are everywhere. Homer, Gilgamedsh and Beowulf are all about war and fighting. And of the other end of time: Star Wars. It's very human to make and enjoy this type of art.

If the question is "why?", I think Kes's succinct answer has a lot of truth in it when looking from the mechanical side of things (we want games that let us compete, these themes fit those mechanics).

From the aesthetic side (which is the only side to consider when looking at movies and novels, because you don't have the mechanical excuse), here's another way to look at it: the "worst" of humanity is also some of the most interesting and desirable! Even with the most sympathetic view of what a soldier has to go through in a war, the technology, politics, psycology etc. is fascinating. Plus, we can all easily enjoy the fantasy of being a hero who saves lives.

Even the most detestable and harmful aspects of big business have the draw of a soap opera when you see them as the rises and falls of leaders and innovators and the actions they have to take to compete or survive. And we all want to be rich.

If you take these powerful themes and strip them of all the awful human costs and consequences, of course you're going to end up with something appealing. So if you can make a game that incorporates themes that are both exciting for the player and fascinating (or just fascinatingly tragic) why wouldn't you? Anything else would pale in comparison.

Why is Monopoly so popular? Because it gives players a little power trip as they can play the big man, buying and selling and hording money and making people around them pay. They can pretend to be their bosses.

Even though you could mechanically retheme Call of Duty as a game of paintball you'd lose almost everything that makes it cool.

Jamie's answer "Because it's fun?" pretty much hits the nail on the head. Using "unnice" themes shows a poor use of imagination? How about a keen instinct for what we people want. Maybe even what they need.  

If they question is... "but should we?", the first answer is "tough": you're not going to stop it. You could also ask "should people be having sex when we have an overpopulation problem". As you say: it's human. It doesn't have to be an excuse. It just is.

The second answer is: simulating challenging situations (whether challenging mentally, thematically, emotionally etc.) is surely a great way for people to learn new things about the situations and about themselves, to consider ways to handle the situations, and basically grow into a smarter and more conscientious person. So in some sense you could say that experiencing these themes is vital to our development as people and maybe as a society. I mean, if you really want to come up with an excuse for enjoying yourself.

What's the alternative to embracing these themes? Ignoring them? Forgetting them? Not an option.


Last edited by Sam on Sat 21 May 2016, 13:36; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  SamVS on Sat 21 May 2016, 12:42

Anyway, who wants to play Go Sushi next week?

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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  BeardyTom on Sat 21 May 2016, 13:35

Sam wrote:Anyway, who wants to play Go Sushi next week?

Look at their little happy faces! All these happy little sushi enjoying their lives. Then you come along and just want to use them for points and then eat them. You monster!
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Re: Board Games: Politics, Ethics, History etc.

Post  psychomansam on Sat 21 May 2016, 15:25

BeardyTom wrote:
Sam wrote:Anyway, who wants to play Go Sushi next week?

Look at their little happy faces! All these happy little sushi enjoying their lives. Then you come along and just want to use them for points and then eat them. You monster!

Laughing
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