TWO EAGLES AND A DOVE, PART 2 (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

two golden eagles

In our last installment, we looked at the knotty problem of how wargames deal with, or more accurately, don't deal with, their subject. Bloodshed and suffering is elided. No World War II game deals in any meaningful way with the horrors of the holocaust, and few games on the American Civil War bother with that war's underlying cause, slavery. Everything is viewed through the prism of maneuver; to come back to that Kubrick quote, it's all about those two majestic eagles viewed from afar, and not about the dove they're tearing to bloody shreds. But if we're playing that game, who are we? Are we the eagles? And if we are, what are we doing to that dove?

The proper POV for players and their victory conditions should be in alignment and free from the judgment of the present. - Cole Wehrle on Twitter, 06/03/2017

For a lot of designers, this question is paramount and tied up in questions of scale. If you're representing a head of state, you're going to be making different decisions than in a game where you represent a theater commander, who is going to be making different decisions in a game where you represent the leader of a squad (advanced or otherwise). Because a game's decision space is the game, full-stop, mixing scales is problematic. You don't want a game where Abe Lincoln is making morale checks for brigades, any more than you want Joe Hooker issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

I have what increasingly appears to be an unusual and idiosyncratic approach to this question of "who do the players represent", and one that, conveniently, has been (and will continue to be) inconsistently applied. Because my approach has never been that the player is Lee, or Lincoln, or McClellan, or whoever; my approach is that the player is themself, operating one or more sides of a paper time machine, with perfect knowledge of the historical event, and of some of the historical possibilities.

It's like a book. A book can convey information, can look at something from a specific author's point of view, and can provide an engrossing experience for the reader both intellectually and emotionally. A game can do the same. The difference is that while a reader must of necessity be passive - you're not going to stop Heathcliff from being a weird jerk - a gamer is not. A gamer is a reader and an author all at once, and when playing opposed, you have several reader-authors in conflict.

But, like I said, this standard is inconsistently applied. I still strive to ensure that the decision space is appropriate for the scale of the game, as well as the game's own point of view, which might in turn be conflated with a bias that was held by one or more sides. For example, Agricola, Master of Britain is very much from a "Roman" POV, and accepts Roman cultural norms as being superior to those of other peoples. Not because I as the game's designer felt that this was or was not the case, or that Rome's conquest was justified, but because in a game about spreading Roman hegemony and culture, that conflation made logical sense.

So there I am waving around "the player doesn't represent any particular historical actor, so the decision space doesn't need to represent the decisions made by specific historical commanders," on one hand, but also waving around "of course the game tacitly endorses Roman imperialism, because it's a game about Roman imperialism from a Roman POV". I'm having my cake, and eating it too, which is generally what you want to do with cake anyway.

And I wonder if that kind of ambiguity on my part has to do with my uneasiness regarding the problems of simulating something as awful and elemental as warfare through a game. "Oh, don't worry, you're not one of the eagles ripping apart that dove, you're a spectator whose actions control that eagle, and is just seeing what happens if the eagle does something different." That is, I wonder if this is just another dodge, and perhaps a more insidious one.

Touching on point of view from another angle: one of my most popular designs is Supply Lines of the American Revolution, so much so that, yes, I am definitely going to be doing a sequel covering the second half of the war. When it became clear that we had a hit on our hands, I also wondered about the possibility of doing similar treatments of other conflicts, and my mind drifted immediately to the American Civil War. The problem with making a logistics-heavy game about the ACW, about reducing it to supplies and stacks of men, is that it puts an undue emphasis on the Union advantages in those areas. Why is this a bad idea?

The odious mythology of the Lost Cause has it that the South lost the war because of the Union's economic advantage, and only because of that - that the deck was stacked against them, and that the South could have, and should have, won the war if only it had been a fair fight because, after all, they had the better generals (as countless hagiographies of Lee are quick to argue). While Union advantages in manpower and supply were important, they weren't the only factor to contribute to the South's complete and utter defeat - militarily, economically, politically, and morally. Making a game that tells the story of that conflict through the lens of supply exclusively would be making a game that propped up the core tenant of the Lost Cause. And that's something that would frankly be irresponsible and despicable.

No work of art is ever truly neutral, and no depiction, focal point, or omission is ever truly innocent. There is always a point of view being expressed, and I think there is a core moral responsibility to be mindful of the implications of that expression.

See Part 1 of Two Eagles and a Dove

1 comment

  • Excellent points about who the player represents in a game. Some people have real problems with this, unable to process the concept of a game if they can’t assign a real-life role to themselves. I’ve always looked at it from your point of view – that you’re no one person, but both actor and observer.

    Re: the Civil War supply game, wouldn’t the real challenge be managing supplies for the Confederacy? Then the object of the game would be the challenge of managing the supply chain of a collapsing economy and society, rather than an increasingly strengthening economic engine that ends up uninentionally reinforcing Lost Cause sentiments of “we never could have won anyway.” Plus as the South there would be added challenges of dealing with the blockade, burning your cotton crops, rebuilding destroyed railroads, improving southern industrial production, etc.

    Kyle Seely

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