Mary Russell

In This Guilty Land, each player represents an abstract idea: Justice (which seeks the abolition of slavery) and Oppression (which seeks its retention and spread). One thing I've heard from many folks online is that they would be very uncomfortable playing Oppression, or asking another player to take on that role - they can't imagine themselves playing the game at all. 

The first thing I want to say is, that's a perfectly valid response. The game's not for everyone, nor is it intended to be, and if you don't want to play the game, that's okay. Not every cultural product is right for everybody, and we all have very different and at times very personal limits. Like, I've only heard great things about Sátántangó, Bela Tarr's seven hour masterpiece about a doctor who runs out of fruit brandy, but there's a scene where a small child tortures her pet cat and then commits suicide, so, no, I'm not ever going to watch that. It might be great, but it's very much not for me. And, again, that's okay.

Just like it's okay that there are folks who are never going to be interested in playing This Guilty Land. And in no way do I want to be dismissive of that, because again, I get it, and I knew going into this project that given its subject matter it was going to have a limited audience.

All that being said, I think people are far more uncomfortable with the idea of playing Oppression than they would be with the actual experience of doing so. They hear about the game, and hear that one side plays the "pro-slavery" side, and they imagine that the game is about carrying out those atrocities, or profiting from it. And I myself would be very uncomfortable playing such a game; in fact, I would find such a game to be ghoulish and morally reprehensible. 

Reynold's Political Map 1856, free and slave states.

The game is not about the lived experience of slavery, or the reenactment of its horrors. My subject is very much the politics of slavery. The game is about the legislative, discursive, and moral factors that not only failed to abolish slavery, but in fact allowed that evil to continue and even to thrive. The argument is that slavery could only have been abolished through force of arms - that the American Civil War was not some avoidable tragedy, but in fact was inevitable and necessary. The game seeks to make this argument through the interaction of its mechanisms, and the interaction between its three factions - the two player factions of Justice and Oppression, and the non-player faction Compromise. 

Each of these factions is, again, an abstract idea. The idea is to put a great deal of distance between the player and their role, and thus between the player and their actions. Many asymmetrical historical games seek to do the opposite. They try to put the player in the shoes of the historical actors - a specific person or organization - and ask the player to look at the world, however briefly, from their point of view. When the game is done, they come away from it with a better understanding of where that side was coming from. The principle source of "meaning" in such a game is created through identification.

That's not my approach for This Guilty Land. To be blunt, I have zero interest in the point of view of people who owned other human beings. They enslaved, bought, sold, tortured, raped, and murdered; they do not deserve even an ounce of understanding or empathy. Even setting aside the moral considerations, I also don't think that kind of identification would be useful or interesting. What is there to take away from it other than that the abolitionists were good, and the slave-owners were bad? In the latter case, it would also carry with it a false sense of complicity - you're playing a bad person, you're doing bad things, why are you doing these things, now feel bad about what you did. That's cheaply provocative and again not very interesting or useful - that kind of thing doesn't tell the players anything about themselves, but does tell them an awful lot about the designer. 

If my game raises a question of complicity at all, it does it through the non-player faction, Compromise. Compromise's goal, if it has one, is to seek consensus, to find a non-existent common ground between abolitionists and slave-holders. It abhors the radicalism "on both sides". Some within the Compromise camp lean toward Oppression, and some lean toward Justice - the latter agrees that slavery is evil, but would rather let it continue than risk violence and upheaval. 

But, because Justice and Oppression are diametrically opposed - because there is no such thing as a middle ground on the question of whether or not someone is a human being - the abolition of that moral evil could only come about through violence and upheaval. Decades of kicking the can down the road, of moral cowardice and apathy, allowed slavery to continue for generation after generation. And the question the game seeks to ask is, how much responsibility do they bear for those atrocities? And perhaps the players may ask themselves, what am I doing about the oppression that exists today? How responsible am I? 

And, like the question of how comfortable one is playing the game and playing Oppression, it's a question with a very personal answer that's going to be different for every player. If the game succeeds in asking these question at all, it does so by keeping the two players at a remove. Instead of asking the players to be someone else, it asks them to be themselves, and to look at this little paper time machine, to see how the pieces interact, and to draw their own conclusions. 

A field hospital scene [at Savage Station, Virginia]. Taylor & Huntington - Publisher.

Part of that distance has to do with the game's thesis. Because the game argues that the American Civil War was necessary, and that neither side could have achieved any kind of definitive victory except through force of arms, neither side can really "win" the game in the sense that their victory in game terms will translate into historical victory. 

Or, to put it another way, when the game ends, the Civil War begins, and that war will always be won by the Union, and will always result in the abolition of slavery. No matter how well you play, no matter how high your score or how hard-fought your game victory, you cannot avoid the war, you cannot alter its outcome, you cannot change history. 

For many gamers, "changing history" is part of the appeal, and there's an expectation that a victory in game terms will be reinforced thematically. Here, my intention is to subvert and deflate that - to in some ways actually discourage emotional investment in the game's outcome, putting additional distance between the player and the game.

In the gulf between the two, I hope to create some room for reflection. Whether or not I've actually pulled it off is a question that, like so many others, is going to have different answers for different people.

1 comment

  • I’ll be interested in seeing this game when it’s published. You’ve said in your FAQ that "above all . . . we want a game with a point of view. Well, you clearly have a point of view for This Guilty Land.

    That said, “distance” is a tricky concept. Playing the Germans in classical wargames about World War II has never seemed to bother most gamers. However I know it became an issue in the early 1960s, when Avalon-Hill promoted “play by mail” to help customers find opponents. Clubs sprang up to challenge each other for “control” of different states and regions of the U.S., and they adopted colorful names such as “Aggressor Homeland,” “Circle Trigon,” etc. I recall reading somewhere that Tom Shaw, a senior manager in the early Avalon-Hill company, was privately distressed by the proliferation of Nazi oriented club names as “6th SS Panzer Army.”

    Of course, by the late 1960s, most of us playing wargames were careful who we shared our hobby with anyway. An anti-war, anti-military attitude was widespread among young people during the Vietnam War. In many of their eyes a “game” about “war” was obscene. and wargamers were equated with warmongers.

    I guess the bottom line is you can take a position on distance, but don’t be surprised if some unexpected twist comes out of it.

    Greg Wilmoth

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