We're on twitter now (@hollandspiele, naturally), and recently participated in a rather lengthy discussion with a handful of folks about games and their thematic material. It began with An Infamous Traffic, but touched on my upcoming Charlemagne, Master of Europe, and also the venerable eurogame Puerto Rico, the holocaust "game" Train, and the video game Counter-Strike (a "masterpiece of dark and terrible brilliance", per Cole Wehrle) - you know, just how things roll on twitter. I mused out loud that I could probably get a blog post out of this, and some folks said, "yes, well, you should, please do", and so here I am and here it is. (Well, part one, anyway.)
An Infamous Traffic is, as I'm sure you all know by now, a game that takes as its subject the opium trade in China. It treats the subject seriously, and also rather cynically, with the prime motivator of this multiplication of human misery being the procurement of posh status symbols back home in London. The one everyone mentions - the one that's perhaps emblematic of the game - is a Fancy Hat. Addiction, death, war, economic and social collapse, all for a fancy hat. That's an appropriately damning, and I think rather brilliant, indictment of British imperialism. It's a game that actively engages with its subject in ways I find meaningful and (intentionally) discomforting.
Individual player board for Puerto Rico with "colonists"
Compare this with Puerto Rico, itself a finely crafted and innovative game, but one that doesn't bother to engage with its troubling subject. Puerto Rico is about slavery. You can say that it's not; you can point to how all the little brown discs are called "Colonists", and you can point out that it's rare in any worker placement game that you actually see the workers get any kind of recompense, that it's all abstracted away - but in the end, it is a game where you amass prestige and wealth on the backs of slave labor. I'm not sure if the game Puerto Rico would be much improved if it acknowledged this - it certainly wouldn't be very popular - but the fact that it doesn't engage with the subject and the history can cause some discomfort of the unintentional sort.
Now, the amount that the last two paragraphs resonates with you probably has something to do with how you see and experience games. If it's just a purely mechanical and unemotional exercise, chances are the thematic implications don't bother you. Perhaps you can just mentally re-theme the game as you play it, or you never really see the opium as opium or the slaves as slaves.
I used to have that sort of attitude, years ago, and was roughly dismissive of folks who talked about the thematic implications of Braid or whatever. You're not going to make me care about pixels, or about pieces of cardboard; this is ridiculous! At least, that was my stance until I harvested one of the Little Sisters in Bio Shock, and became so upset by what I had done that I started the game over again. For me, this was an important realization: I don't care over-much about what happened to a character or a piece in a game, but I stay up at night thinking about what I've done.
With board games, more-so than video games, everything that happens is usually driven by player actions, and so they're uniquely able to make the player complicit. I think in order for this to happen in a meaningful way, the game needs to engage intelligently with its subject, and the game needs to be more than just its subject. If Traffic was strictly pedagogical, if it didn't have that crunchy decision space, if it wasn't brain-burning, it would of course cease to be a playable game. If the game wasn't so compelling mechanically, you wouldn't really be enjoying it, and thus you wouldn't really be complicit - there'd be no pangs of conscience.
Again, there are folks for who all this is a load of hooey, for whom the game, or any game, is simply a mechanical and intellectual exercise, and that's perfectly fine. But one of the things I most admire about Cole's game, and about his work generally, is his willingness to engage with the subject matter, and to create a space in which one could feel discomfort, if one was open to it. It's especially admirable in that so few games ever make the attempt, or that they even consider the attempt worth making.
A Gros Michel banana plant succumbing to banana wilt in 1919. FYI: The Gros Michel was replaced with the Cavendish in the 1960s. The artificial banana flavoring that some people believe does not taste like banana actually more closely resembles the flavor of the Gros Michel variety.
A brief foray into my unsuccessful attempts to design Eurogames may be instructive. One of my early games, Big Mike: Lean Times in the Banana Industry, was about the banana industry in the first half of the twentieth century, and about how Panama Disease wiped out the Gros Michel banana and necessitated the move to the sturdier Cavendish. (The Cavendish itself is in danger of eradication, as the disease has continued to evolve, as diseases do, while the banana does not - since edible banana plants do not reproduce sexually, and so are all genetically identical.) It was a press-your-luck game with some strategic subtleties that, in retrospect, were neither all that subtle nor all that strategic. I demoed it to publishers; they passed on it. So it goes. But I'm glad it wasn't published, partially because it was, again, in retrospect, rather rubbish, but more germane to our purposes is that it did not really engage with the theme. It was "about" the banana industry, but it wasn't really about the banana industry and its various and heinous crimes against humanity. Like many games, it just ignored the bad parts completely, much to my discredit. Though even if the game had been absolutely aces mechanically, if it had also been about exploitation, massacres, and CIA operations to overthrow foreign governments, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have exactly flown off the shelves. The market for that sort of Eurogame is rather limited, rather niche.
Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming focuses on games with military themes which, more often than not, are neglected in much of the academic and trade literature on games and game history.
One would imagine that a wargame would be a better and more natural fit for that sort of thing, as they are, on the whole, serious, sober, and scholarly treatments of historical subjects. But a wargame is just as likely to elide and ignore the "bad" parts as a Eurogame, and given the subject matter, the elision is perhaps much less forgivable. In almost all wargames, everything is reduced to maneuver and command-control, to armaments and doctrine. As Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke point out in their excellent essay on gaming insurgencies in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, "wargames will rarely if ever feature game mechanics representing terrorism or genocide, though these are common features of actual warfare."
"It is somewhat ironic," they continue, "that wargames attempt to portray the species at its most illogical and atavistic through a rational framework of consistent logical regulation and mathematics and a prim concern for only what is thought to be 'militarily significant.'" (War is both romanticized and anesthetized. As I noted on twitter, five thousand men are killed, and to mark their passing, we flip a counter to its reverse side.) "Thus, designers of World War II wargames participate naturally in the process by assembling detailed and complete orders of battle for the Axis forces, including units of the Einsatzgruppen and lawless SS brigades and divisions, whose main historical achievements were murder and ethnic cleansing - yet there is nothing for these units to do in these games except to be thrown into the front line as cannon fodder. Yet what would be thought of a designer who did write rules that gave realistic roles to such units?"
I'm not saying necessarily that every wargame needs to engage with the horribleness of war. If that was the case, for one thing, we wouldn't have a hobby and Mary and I wouldn't have a livelihood. It would be depressing and overwhelming and I wouldn't want to play or design the games. Just like if every film was Snowpiercer, I'm pretty sure I would never leave the house, let alone go to the cinema. It's natural that we, to use an uncomfortable word, romanticize war. It was Truffaut, the big softie, who once said that there could never be such a thing as an anti-war film, because any depiction would make it seem exciting.
To be clear, then, I'm not saying that all wargames can or should fully engage with the subject of War with a capital "W". Most wargames, to use Dunnigan's useful phrase, are or aspire to be "paper time machines", and they allow us to experience and to understand history, how and why it went the way it did, as well as how and why it may have went another way, in a unique and compelling way. In that respect, and by that litmus, a game on, say, McClellan's peninsular campaign, can be successful without, for example, having rules for amputations.
Stanley Kubrick, in the mirror with his daughter, considered Jack Nicholson as his Napoleon
An argument can be made that humans are, by nature, equally capable of violence and of empathy, and that wargames provide a useful outlet for our violent tendencies, but there's seldom any real violence in such games; it's more of a dance, and I think that dance is what attracts us to play the games. Kubrick once said of Napoleon's battles that "there's a weird disparity between the sheer visual and organizational beauty of the historical battles sufficiently far in the past, and their human consequences. It's rather like watching two golden eagles soaring through the sky from a distance; they may be tearing a dove to pieces, but if you are far enough away the scene is still beautiful." (Oh, to live in a world where Kubrick made his Napoleon, starring a thirty-four year old Jack Nicholson!)
Wargames can be rather good at capturing the twin eagles, and are often less concerned with the dove. There are reasons for this, aesthetic and commercial and perhaps even primal. I'm not going to pretend that they're in need of seismic reform or reevaluation, or that I have any definitive or final thoughts or say on the matter, one way or the other - only that I think it's important that we grapple with the question and recognize it, even if it remains unanswerable.