Game Design and the Primacy of Personal Experience – Part 3

So…with all that said, what is it we’re missing? What design opportunities is the gaming community currently lacking because of its more subtle and pervasive biases?

In this part, I would like to offer for consideration some themes, concepts, and open-ended questions that I hope may spark discussion and even inspiration in the game design community.

I do have a couple important notes before I begin:

  • This is not intended to be a comprehensive list. They are things that I have noticed are lacking, but I absolutely expect that my own biases have caused me to miss other ideas. If you think of something that you would like to see addressed, add it to the comments! (Note – I specifically left out issues of gender and sexual identity and expression, not because I don’t think those are important, but because I think it’s wrong to say there aren’t people advocating for them.)
  • Many of these things are not ENTIRELY lacking. They’re just not well-represented. Where possible, I will try to mention individual games that I think are doing it right, but my own knowledge is of course incomplete. If you think of a game that’s doing something well and I don’t mention it, please add it to the comments!
  • These ideas do not necessarily have to be combined. In fact, a game that tried to do all the things listed below would come across as a horrible mish-mash. Instead, I am simply asking for games that explore one or more of them when it makes sense to do so.

So let’s get to my list. Settle in – there’s a lot here.

Power Fantasy for Those Who Actually Need It

This is a tricky one, but I want to start with it because it’s an interesting case study. You see, there’s this tension in the gaming community that certain game mechanics are commonly associated with certain themes and topics, and (more importantly) certain populations of gamers and designers. We have built up this image of the white, middle-class, cis-het gamer dude playing the crunchiest games that have strong GM control, while people who think of themselves as progressive and inclusive are all about the narrative, collaborative, GM-light or GM-less story games.

But there’s a problem with this assumption. (There are many, but let’s talk about one in particular). The problem is the socio-economic disparity I hinted at in part 2.

Narrative games with strong collaborative mechanics and weak GM guidance typically assume and/or require a certain amount of social comfort and academic knowledge that is VERY middle-class. But many people – especially young people – with different socio-economic experiences are less likely to open up and risk in an unfamiliar setting. (If you’ve spent any time in these circles, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) They don’t necessarily want game mechanics that could potentially expose them to ridicule, and they may not be interested in stories that are focused on emotions and relationships.

For such players, they might want both the structure and the power fantasy that is associated with those crunchier game mechanics. But what’s missing are the games that offer those players characters that look like them. So many epic fantasy, superhero, and even sci-fi games that favor that style of play are written with a white middle-class audience in mind, and their sample characters reflect this. So what we really need is to keep the mechanics and the theming, but shift the representation.

This is one of the reasons I’m excited about Orun, and many potential future projects from New Agenda Publishing!

Anti-Ableism

We’re starting to see conventions paying attention to accessibility issues, and a few designers here and there are working on making their games accessible, but what we’re not seeing is strong anti-ableist gaming content. Disability – both physical and mental – is still a “Disadvantage” or even (shudder) a “Flaw” in terms of game mechanics.

The best that most games seem to do is to avoid these mechanics entirely. Very few games explore the lived experience of disability except to say that it is a negative thing. There are almost no games that include mechanics for accommodation without erasure (like cyberpunk limb replacements) or disability-as-superpower (such as “blind fighting”).

Because the problem is not only the fact that people with disabilities do not see themselves accurately represented in roleplaying games. The problem is also that RPGs should be a tool to encourage empathy, and instead players are given a terribly skewed idea of what it means to live with a disability. This ends up reducing empathy and understanding.

As an example of what I mean by empathy building, I will recommend 14 Days by Hannah Shaffer. It’s a look at just one very specific disability experience (chronic pain), but it works very well.

Post-Colonialism

I’ve already done my rant about post-colonial steampunk specifically (though it bears repeating), but that’s not the only place where Eurocentrism and colonial biases pervade our settings and even our game design. This includes everything from “realistic” settings to high fantasy and hard sci-fi. On top of the frequently-discussed problems with fantasy “races” like orcs and drow (and even a lot of the less-than-subtle coding of alien races in sci-fi), there’s something deeper in our settings that we don’t often examine – the colonial/imperialist prerogative.

Whenever we tell stories of exploration and conquest, whenever we divide cultures in our settings by species or ethnic differences, whenever we patronizingly define a group within our games as evil (or good, or anything) by nature, we are reinforcing the cultural biases of the colonizer.

We often don’t even notice that this is happening, because it is so deeply embedded in our psyche. For many of us who grew up in the US, Canada, Australia, or Europe, it is the water we have swum in for our entire lives.

So what do post-colonialist games look like?

Not only should they offer dramatic shifts in representation, they should offer dramatic shifts in what representation means. Identity should be defined internally, not imposed externally. They should interrogate and/or reject essentialism in every form. (Class-based mechanics are problematic in this regard.) They should favor aboriginal societies and traditional voices over conquerors and erasure.

Most importantly, they may offer different stories and solutions than we are used to. I don’t have all the answers because of my own biases, but some of what I think we might see are in the following sections…

Heroic Pacifism

This is a huge one for me, and it seems very hard to pull off in games. The key is that I’m not talking about stories that focus on relationships instead of combat – I’m talking about heroic non-violence. Players sometimes talk about clever combat-avoidance in their regular games, but we don’t normally get to see true pacifism as a central theme supported by the mechanics.

A lot of the work in this particular area is happening around modern LARP developments. There are occasional tabletop RPGs that get close (I will call specific attention to several of Avery Alder’s games as good examples), but the social nature of LARP lends itself much more to experiences that actively promote heroic non-violence.

But I think we can go further – classic fantasy questing, but focused on non-violent discovery and meeting new people (Ryuutama gets pretty close); political space opera that is post-scarcity, post-human, and post-singularity so that fighting is meaningless. I want all this and more. And yes, I also want stories where pacifism wins out over oppression. We have plenty of the opposite story, so let’s tell this one a few more times.

Collectivism

Related to pacifism – though not necessarily coinciding – is the idea of promoting and mechanizing collective action. Traditional gaming tropes usually focus on the triumph of the individual or at least the triumph of the small band of heroes. Rarely do we see themes and mechanisms that focus our play experiences around the triumph of the community over the desires of the individual.

Even in story-focused games, we often see society breaking down, and it’s the hero or the heroic party that must save it (or fail to save it, or even cause its downfall, depending on the game). It’s very hard to find games that subvert the very concept of individual heroism in favor of communal good. We see it a little bit in the magical girl genre (exemplified by Senda Linaugh’s Love & Justice, as well as Tails of Equestria) where the lessons and themes focus on the idea of friendship and collaboration. But even this isn’t full collectivism. A fully collectivist game would include mechanics that enable the community to act as its own entity, separate from the player characters. It would offer frequent opportunities for the characters to sacrifice and subsume their own goals for the betterment of society.

And, of course, if your first reaction is that such a story doesn’t seem interesting or “fun,” that’s an indication of how pervasive is our bias towards individual heroism. It can be difficult for us to even conceive of what such a story might look like (though the Black Panther movie is a good place to start), let alone begin to design a game for it. But I would love to see it.

Religion

Gaming has generally done a poor job of exploring or even representing real expressions of faith. When we look at the traditional D&D model of game religion, we see a pantheon of gods that are two-dimensional expressions of simplistic concepts or emotions. They don’t even have the depth we see in historical polytheistic traditions. And even when we try to render those historical polytheistic traditions into gaming, we often simplify them to the point of ridiculousness. (Although I would point to Jerry Grayson’s Hellas as a rare exception to this rule.)

In the 90s, gaming hit a sort of peak in faux-paganism that ended up cheapening modern paganism, demonizing Christianity, and in many cases appropriating from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Kabbalah. Deciding whether this pop-religiosity was better or worse than D&D’s god-as-mechanic approach is an exercise I leave to the reader.

Given this history, perhaps it’s for the best that few designers have tackled more common modern world religions. There are the occasional historical games that include religious institutions, but very few games put real faith at the center of their themes and mechanics. The most notable game that does is Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, and it is a shining example of how this kind of content can and should drive design.

But I’d like to see more. I’d like to see games that really tackle theology with neither simplification nor demagoguery. I want to see games that, like Dogs in the Vineyard, convey a real experience with faith instead of presenting a flat outsider’s view. And I want to see it for a variety of religions: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and yes, Christianity. I would love to see an actual follower of Asatru write a game that deeply explores the Norse pantheon. I want to know what it’s like to play a Taoist hero. I want to experience real faith, not fake.

This is an area where gaming offers a perfect opportunity for empathy building, but instead we’ve been afraid to touch the content. I think it’s time for us to be bold and true to ourselves.

True Cultural Transgression

Gamers, like many categories of geeks, see themselves as outsiders and even rebels. Yet so much much of our gameplay reinforces our cultural norms. All of the categories above are examples of this – violence, conquest, ableism, essentialism, and so on are all things that are enabled and even celebrated in many of our games. Even when we write games to focus on society’s ills, we often revel in them rather than transgressing them.

But because we want to see ourselves as rebels, we create fictions where we can believe that we are transgressing. We create straw authorities so that we can engage in what I would then call straw transgression. I define this as transgression against fictional norms that subtly reinforce the norms of our real-world cultures.

The 90s saw a huge surge in straw transgression in gaming. White Wolf games frequently included “hierarchies of sins,” and players frequently faced choices that both reflected and shaped their characters’ moralities. But even transgressions of those hierarchies reinforced the all-too-familiar Western concepts of violence as solution and power, wealth, and social status as the ultimate markers of success.

This is not true cultural transgression.

It’s also not just about inserting “shock topics” such as sex or drugs. While transgressive works may include comments on these areas, themes of sex and sexuality (for example) are not inherently transgressive. In our puritanical society, they are often “under the table,” but that doesn’t make including them transgressive – unless you actually question how society deals with them. If you’re just using sex to entice people but not to change how we talk or think about ourselves, then it is straw transgression.

True cultural transgression offers themes and gameplay in which we escape the core assumptions on which our real-world society is built. To do that, we have to push our own boundaries of comfort and question our own relationship with the world. And here’s the thing – it’s a moving target. Mores and social boundaries are constantly changing, so true cultural transgression must always be looking for the next thing we have failed to consider.

What does that look like? I’m not sure I can answer this one. But you could certainly start by pushing boundaries in some of the other categories I mention above.

 

Again, these things do not all have to happen at once, but if this list inspires even one designer to take a look beyond existing conventions (or to do something else entirely), I will be thrilled. Frankly, I’m thrilled if you just made it through this entire post.

In my next and final entry, I will conclude this series with a (hopefully shorter) list of actions and attitudes we can adopt to improve the gaming community no matter what our role may be. Thank you for bearing with my relentless pontificating so far!

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