Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Playing Nazis, Confederates, and Terrorists: The Morality of Board Games

Terrible Swift Sword

It's kind of strange to see the Confederate flag becoming a flashpoint now, triggered by the mass murders in Charleston. I have always been very skeptical of the "Heritage not hate" crowd — I'm sure there are Southerners for whom the battle flag of a failed insurrection just represents their childhood and their upbringing, but you really cannot get away from what it symbolizes. In the 70s it could be painted on a Dodge Charger for an inane TV show, but if you wave it around today and affect wide-eyed indignation that anyone might think you are sending a message, I'm going to call bullshit.

My father, who was born in Mississippi, raised in backwoods Alabama, and spent his childhood in the deep, deep pre-Civil Rights era South, has never in his life indulged in veneration of the Confederate flag or other antebellum nostalgia.

But, the purpose of this post is not to weigh in on Confederate flags per se. People have posted thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) things about that all over the Internet. Instead, I'm just going to use it as a springboard to write about my current obsession: board games.

I say "obsession," which is a little strong, but my interests do tend to run in intense cycles. I will be deeply interested in something for a while, read a lot of books and spend a lot of money on it, and then somehow it winds up on shelves while I keep meaning to get back to it. For a while I was deeply into go. Then shooting. And now, board games. (In fairness, I never completely give up my previous interests — I am still doing jujutsu, after all. And writing! But they do peak in cycles.)

Advanced CivilizationDuneStarship Troopers

Do you know how much I could get for these on eBay?

I have actually always liked board games, including wargames — I still have my original copies of Avalon Hill's Advanced Civilization, Dune, and Starship Troopers to prove it.

But lately I have gone on a serious board gaming binge. Backing Kickstarters, pre-ordering grand epic strategy games I'll be lucky to get a chance to play once (*cough* Gathering Storm *cough*), and going to conventions.

Which brings me to Confederate flags.

In the board gaming community, particularly among wargamers, there are occasional discussions about the morality of playing "the bad guys." Most people playing historical simulations are taking a very high-level, abstract view of what was, of course, a very nasty and brutal affair on the ground. This is true no matter what the war being simulated. You can refight the Battle of Gettysburg or the invasion of Normandy purely as a strategic exercise, without worrying about the context of those real-life events.

Yet in the wake of the Confederate flag brouhaha, Apple responded by banning apps that featured the Confederate flag... including American Civil War games.

Board gaming shelf

Just one of my shelves.

This, of course, was stupid, and Apple later backtracked and restored apps (like games) that were using the flag for "historical" purposes.

There were also some early reports that Amazon was following suit and removing listings for not just Confederate flags, but board games that had Confederate flags on the box cover. I haven't been able to confirm this, and it is certainly not true now.

But it raises interesting points, and of course many comparisons were drawn with Nazi flags, and the inevitable mention of Germany's laws against Nazi symbols which have prevented retailers from selling games and books with Swastikas on the cover, for example.

Apparently, there are people who believe it's genuinely creepy to play wargames, especially games that depict a war that was fought in living memory.

I don't personally own any American Civil War games, because that particular period of history is not particularly interesting to me. I'm more of a World War II and Cold War buff. (Also medieval Japan and the ancients, but no one cares if you're simulating Assyrians slaughtering Cretans.) So my collection looks more like this:

PanzerBlitzPanzer LeaderEmpire of the Sun
Gathering StormSecond FleetTwilight Struggle

Is playing the side of the Axis powers in a World War II game glorifying fascism? Well, obviously I don't think so. When I play the Germans in PanzerBlitz, I just want to push Panzers around. But of course PanzerBlitz, like most WWII games, has abstracted the conflict into various pieces of equipment pitting their attack and defense values against each other.

I don't know of any World War II game in which the German player gets points for running trains to Auschwitz, or where the Japanese player can give his troops a morale bonus by requisitioning "comfort women" from conquered territories. Most gamers know that these were also factors in that war, but who would want to simulate them in a game?

It's not just wargames that raise questions of morality, though. I remember as a child, my mother actually prohibited me from playing this:

Nuclear War

Why? Because my mother was a big ol' pacifist, and she thought the idea of pretending to kill millions of people with cards and a spinner was appalling.

(She also wasn't too happy when me and my friends tried to start a game of Killer at school, because that was also "in poor taste." This was pre-Columbine; nowadays, I think she'd be worried that we'd end up in a psych unit.)

Incidentally, Flying Buffalo Games is running a Kickstarter right now for the Nuclear War Card Game 50th Anniversary Edition. Go back it!

If a light-hearted game of nuclear war or assassinating your friends makes you queasy, how about a fun game of running away from slave catchers?

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Now, this is a coop game, so there's no player taking on the role of the slavers. But I admit I did a double-take the first time I saw this game.

But all of the above games are more or less historical; there are still people around with living memories of World War II and the Holocaust, but for most people, the subject matter is no longer so raw.

Not true of games that cover much more recent, or contemporary conflicts:

Fire in the Lake Andean Abyss Next War: India-Pakistan A Distant Plain

I am rather surprised that none of the Social Justice crowd has yet seized upon any of these games as a cause of grievance: the culpable demographic is largely geeky, affluent, older white guys (*cough*), and here they are playing games to simulate POC blowing each other up or getting shot by US soldiers. It is probably only the relative obscurity of the hobby that has spared it from significant attention.

Recently, some game companies have taken note of such controversies by replacing "Slave" tokens (there are a number of games that have slaves as abstract resources) with some other fudge like "Colonists" or "Gladiators."

But I'm going to end my musings on morality in board gaming with what is currently my second favorite game:

Labyrinth: The Global War on Terror

Labyrinth: The War on Terror is a card-driven two-player game. The default scenario starts immediately after 9/11, and the game pits the US against the jihadists. It's a deep and involving game that simulates, in the abstract, the asymmetrical nature of the conflict in a way that is challenging for both sides. It is not by any means a perfectly realistic simulation: it views the world through the eyes of the Bush Doctrine, and the jihadist side is represented as a single global movement acting in a perfectly coordinated fashion, rather than the multitude of different regional, often hostile factions that it really is. But that's sort of beside the point, PanzerBlitz isn't a very realistic simulation of how tank combat works either.

As a game, Labyrinth is fantastic, and I love it.

I have won as both the US and as the jihadists. One of the primary jihadist tactics is to place "Plots" — i.e., terrorist attacks — in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Labyrinth is full of euphemisms like this: the jihadists stage "Plots" and the US performs "Regime Changes." Cards have titles like "Martyrdom Operation" and "Enhanced Measures."

So, this is a game where you try to make the world a better place by dropping troops into countries to replace governments you don't like. Or, where you raise money and demoralize your opponent by launching terrorist attacks against American troops and innocent civilians, and destabilize countries to bring about Islamist rule. I have even won a game with the very difficult-to-achieve jihadist instant victory condition of setting off a WMD in the US.

Conversely, here's a snapshot of a current game I am playing using VASSAL. In this game, I am the US, and my opponent, a very good Japanese player, has been keeping me hopping as the jihadists. We're a little over halfway through, and it's one of the tensest games I've ever played, as each of us has been a hair's breadth from victory multiple times.

Labyrinth game in progress

(Click for full-size map.)

As you can see, I have been "Regime Changing" all over the place to try to keep the jihadists from scoring an Islamist Rule victory.

I have seen reviews of this game where some commenters expressed outrage that anyone would "game" this conflict. And I can understand why someone who escaped from Vietnam, or is a survivor of the Holocaust, might not appreciate representing those conflicts as board games.

The defenses are numerous: "It's just a game" is, I think, the weakest one. That works for Cards Against Humanity, but it's not as convincing when we're simulating invading countries and bombing civilians. Many wargamers are simulationists who like studying history, including alternate directions it "could have gone." Others just like the game play and the tactical challenges. (This is one reason why I like Labyrinth so much — I would still like it even if the theme were different.)

Offensiveness is subjective; it's also contextual. I'd be sympathetic to someone who doesn't have the stomach to play a game where you are taking the side of terrorists. I certainly wouldn't pull out my copy of Labyrinth around someone who lost a son in Afghanistan.

I'm less sympathetic to the idea that these subjects are not fit for gaming, or that Confederate flags should be purged from box covers.

Of course, PanzerBlitz and Labyrinth are hardly the most politically incorrect games out there:

Suburban Slasher

Serial Killer

Suicide Bomber

Bosom Memo

(Don't tell me about the even worse ones. Yes, I have heard of Juden Raus.)

Tags: games, soapbox

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