Friday, September 08, 2006

A Real Gaming Controversy

There isn’t much controversy in the gaming world. Much of what we think of as controversy is actually so mild-mannered that outsiders to the game world might not even dignify our squabbles with the C word. My friend Ted Cheatham recalls how he once called War of the Rings “Risk with cards” on Boardgamegeek. He soon felt like a victim of a fatwa as War of the Ring fans repeatedly denounced his ignorance and delusional thinking. But no one has sued Ted, or ordered him banished from Boardgamegeek. Ted remains an important member of the gaming community.

But over the last month or so a real gaming-world controversy has come to a boil, and it has shown us just how ugly such a thing can be. I am referring to the cancellation of the publication of the new Firefight Games wargame titled Resistance is not Futile.

Let me trace my growing awareness of the controversy so that you will understand exactly how much and how little I know about the matter.

Last week I saw on the Comsimworld website that Resistance is not Futile was available to be ordered from Firefight Games, a company that makes desktop-published wargames. Checking the website, I learned that the game was a simulation of the World War II battle that resulted when the Nazis tried to raze the Warsaw Ghetto. For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the Warsaw Ghetto was inhabited only by Jews, and their heroic resistance against the Nazi extermination plans has been the subject of both novels (Mila 18 by Leon Uris, The Wall by John Hersey) and movies (The Wall, 1981; Uprising, 2001).

I also checked the Firefight Games forum on Consimworld. To my surprise, I saw that there seemed to have been a hundred or more postings just on August 31. A quick glance at the postings showed that there was a heated debate going on about the appropriateness of publishing a game about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I then started at the beginning of the Firefight Games forum with the intention of reading every posting on the subject. A genuine controversy in the gaming world seemed too good a topic for an essay for me to ignore. I read about one hundred or so of the postings before stopping for the day.

When I tried to resume reading the Consimworld Firefight Games forum on Tuesday, September 5, I saw that the forum had been shut down, and that Paul Rohrbaugh of Firefight Games had announced that he was no longer going to publish Resistance is not Futile. He also stated that he was considering legal action against people who may have made libelous statements about him.

I was stunned. What had been said that would cause the cancellation of the game? Well, we may never know, but I already knew the broad outline of the controversy from the postings I had already read.

The gist of those objecting to Resistance is not Futile is that no one should make a game about the extermination of the Jews. Although one player in the game will take the role of the heroic Jewish resistance, the other player steps into the shoes of the Nazis and will attempt to destroy every Jewish unit in the game. And some people very much object to a game in which any player’s goal is to further the cause of genocide.

The Firefight Games position is that the game was created specifically to honor the Jewish resistance. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has been the subject of novels and movies designed to honor the Jewish martyrs--so what’s wrong with a game that is trying to do the exact same thing? And anyone who is truly offended can simply refuse to buy the game.

One factor that probably separates Mr. Rohrbaugh and his critics is whether they think of the Warsaw Ghetto conflict as a battle or as an act of genocide. Mr. Rohrbaugh undoubtedly sees the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a military battle. And certainly it can be characterized as one. And what is so objectionable about making a game about a military battle? There are thousands of such games.

But those who object to the game consider the attack on the Warsaw Ghetto to be an act of genocide. And it certainly was that. And so it can be argued that making a game about the extermination of the ghetto is about as appropriate as making a game called Auschwitz.

I assume that the comments on Consimworld grew a great deal more heated than my brief summations can imply. But I am less interested in wild insults and broad accusations than the logic of the arguments that each side presents. No one is likely to dispute the legal right of Firefight Games or anyone else to make a game on any subject they please. But is a genocidal battle an appropriate subject for a game? Is Resistance is not Futile a tribute to the heroic resistance of an oppressed people, or an exercise in bad taste?

Randy Cohen, who writes a column on ethics for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is fond of saying that “In ethics intentions count.” And I have little doubt that the intentions of Mr. Rohrbaugh are honorable. He has stated that the game was intended to honor the Jewish fighters, and I have no reason to doubt him. Even the title of the game refers to the Jewish point of view. If the game had been published, it could have been an educational tool that expanded knowledge of the Ghetto Uprising, and may have helped correct the idea that all Jews were passive victims of the Nazis rather than active resistance fighters. In short, I have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Rohrbaugh and his point of view.

But I am not convinced that those who disagree with Mr. Rohrbaugh are entirely in the wrong. I also believe that there are subjects that should not be the subject of a game. For example, it would be in bad taste for an American game company to make a game about any war in which our soldiers are currently fighting and dying. If I was the parent of a soldier fighting in Iraq, I wouldn’t like to see anyone playing a game called Insurgency in which one player gains points by blowing up American units with suicide meeples.

If the intentions of the designer are one factor that helps us decide if a game is in good taste or not, the other factor is time. Imagine a game called Disaster. In the game, players represent factions in a location that has been struck by a catastrophe. Each player must try to shepherd his own meeples to safety while hindering other players with nasty event cards.

Would this be an appropriate subject for a game?

Well, if the game is called Pompeii, the answer is yes.

If the game is called World Trade Center, the answer is no.

There already exist two or three games about the Pompeii disaster. I read one Boardgamegeek review in which the writer explained how much fun it was to send cardboard lava flows over other players’ meeples.

But imagine playing the hypothetical World Trade Center game. Would any American player be likely to chortle about playing a “Stairway Blocked” card on another player and dooming their meeples to die in the collapsing tower?

Obviously, time makes a big difference about how we feel about an historical event. Maybe some day there will be games about the 9/11 attacks, but I wouldn’t want to see them in my lifetime.

Some might argue that enough time has passed since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that it can be made into a game with little chance of offending anyone except hyper-sensitive crackpots.

But for some subjects, time makes little difference. There are some people who still refuse to play Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires because players can profit from slavery in the game.

My own thinking on that subject is somewhat confused. While I would hate to see a game called Slave Trader published, it seems to me that eliminating all references to the slave trade from a game about colonial empires would be whitewashing history. Mr. Wallace may have included slavery in his game to remind us of the brutality of European colonial policy.

And would gamers have objected to an event in Struggle of Empires called “Opium War” in which a player can enjoy huge profits after defeating China in a war? Somehow I don’t think that event would have caused as much controversy as the slavery issue. And yet Britain’s opium policy was nearly as evil as the slave trade, and surely created many millions of slaves of a different sort. Why are certain reprehensible acts taboo while others can be portrayed in games without generating controversy?

On page 5 of the Totaler Krieg Player’s Guide there is an essay by Alan Emrich on the evolution of this World War II game. Mr. Emrich tells us that the designers of Totaler Kreig once considered adding a Wansee Conference card to the German hand. The card would have required the Nazi player to initiate extermination plans against the Jews before being allowed to play his valuable Total War card. The designers thought that it might be a good idea to remind gamers exactly what the Nazis were all about. Of course, playtesters objected to this card, and no Holocaust card ever appeared in the finished version of the game. But imagine the protests that would have erupted if such a card had been included. And yet the designers’ intent was only to educate and remind gamers of brutal historical realities.

I admit that I would feel queasy playing a Wansee Conference card in any World War II wargame. And it would be very easy to mock the educational impulse that reduces the Holocaust to the play of a card. Such a simple mechanism would trivialize a monstrous event rather than add to our understanding of it. And yet I still admire the game designer’s impulse to attempt to deal with history as honestly as the format of the game allows.

Many will argue that the very purpose of games makes them an inappropriate format for dealing with sensitive material. On some level, games are always about fun. Unlike books or movies, we “play” games. Even people who can’t articulate why the idea of touching on the Holocaust in a game bothers them probably sense that there is a lightness of purpose about gaming that adheres to even the most serious and detailed historical simulation.

But even if gaming is essentially a hobby pursued for fun, I don’t see why game design has to be divorced from the impulse to educate—including the impulse to deal with serious material. Certainly, the designers of the most detailed historical simulations might argue that they have earned the right to deal with sensitive material because of their very seriousness. The men who designed the various editions of Totaler Krieg or Decision Games enormous War in the Pacific are very studious fellows who approach their games with as much or more seriousness as a doctoral candidate working on his thesis paper. I’m not sure what the best way would be for a World War II simulation to touch on the Holocaust, but there is probably a way that would be both sensitive and educational.

Why is it perfectly fine for anyone to play Axis and Allies--a game that simulates a conflict in which tens of millions of people were killed--and yet it is in bad taste to include in a wargame details that remind us just how some of these people died, and who did the killing? Are gamers somehow tainted when they play games which touch on genocide or slavery, and yet can emerge from playing a thousand ordinary wargames dealing with slaughter without any stain on their souls? I sometimes think that the line between what is acceptable in a game and what is unacceptable has more to do with habit and less to do with ethics than many of us would like to admit.

Or have wargames already corrupted my soul?

When making a logical argument, it’s not unusual for my mind to insist on pointing out the valid points of the opposing point of view. But on this issue, I find that my sympathies jump back and forth between the opposing camps. I hope that is a sign that the topic of political correctness in games is a complex one, and not merely a symptom of my wishy-washy thinking.

I wish I could come to some intelligent conclusion about this subject that would show gamers the way back to common sense and common ground. But I can do no better than to make lame and banal suggestions for patience and tolerance when dealing with combustible subjects, and with those who hold differing viewpoints. I hope that most of us will consider every individual free from bigotry until there is much evidence to the contrary.

I fear that we will be experiencing more of these sorts of controversies in the years to come.

By the way, those interested in learning more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising can find inexpensive used copies of the books and movies I mentioned on


Pawnstar said...

This is a fascinating post about an intriguing subject.

Often I will shake my head in disbelief at the sort of things people take issue with regarding a game's subject-matter; yet at the same time I believe it is up to those offended to decide where the line must be drawn.

And often they do; but if I am not offended - or am even interested in a particular subject or background is it right for a minority to tell me what I can or cannot take an interest in (or more specifically play in this case)?

[on soapbox] I think not; I don't need protecting from the evils of our world and if I did the best way to protect is to educate. Prohibit the material and we will all go blindly about our business playing games through rose-tinted spectacles. [off soapbox]

Anonymous said...

Very nice post on a difficult subject, sir.

Anonymous said...

As good an article as anything I've read in the gaming world in the last year or so. Thank you. I guess my sympathies lie with the view Fellonmyhead expresses. I don't tend to differentiate gaming from anything else in this life. Pretty much anything in the entertainment arena will offend someone somewhere if you look hard enough. I guess it boils down to where you draw the line. For me it's down to the individual - both as a consumer and a publisher. If you're not comfortable with buying it then don't and if you're not comfortable with offending a certain number of people (and taking whatever flak that may ensue) then don't publish it.

Coldfoot said...

We live in a strange world. I think it is often a waste of time to analyze what society deem objectionable. (That is not to say that this post was a waste of time, it is quite good, actually.)

We live in a world where Mel Gibson draws more moral outrage for speaking poorly of Jews during a drunken tirade, than Hezbolah draws for indiscriminately targeting and killing Jews for weeks on end.

DW- I am not a video gamer myself, but I do believe that serial murder, and possibly rape are game themes not found to be objectionalble by most video gamers.

Anonymous said...

It all comes back to the theme. If it was a situation where the Jews had a chance or won, I would be all over kicking some Nazi tail. As it was, the resistance didn't have a hope.... So, playing this game to its historical conclusion would be very depressing, knowning that concentration camps are the next step.

I think enough people made that leap on Consim, which makes the theme problematic.

Benninghof of Avalanche press understands this, his SS guys are usually featured in scenarios where they get their asses kicked.


Aik Yong said...

Great job on a fine post! I wouldn't have known such a controversy exists until your post.
It's true that gamers live in a rose-tinted world all the time. We game just to escape from the real world into a land of fantasy, etc, etc.
The ironic thing is that gamers can become vicious, repulsive, uncompromising and completely small minded just to protect their little perfect gaming world.

huzonfirst said...

Wonderful article, Kris, and very well written. Your words clearly show how torn this subject makes you. It's a difficult area, to be sure.

I'm a strong proponent of freedom of speech and thus empathize with the comments made so far. But are you all willing to back these words up for ANY subject? Almost everyone has a line that they will not cross. Kris' example of a Pompeii-type game based on 9/11 is an excellent one. Would you really not object to a game on such a topic, particularly since the terrorist player would have such a strong chance of winning? How about playing the terrorist side on one of the hijacked planes?

DW, you say rape is one of the few subjects you might find objectionable. Well, that happens quite a lot in warfare. What about a game based around the genocides in Bosnia or the Sudan in which one player got VPs for raping innocents? Could you deny this is historically correct? Would you still think such a game should exist? I'm not saying whether you should or not (there IS no correct answer), merely pointing out that this can be a matter of degree.

The problem, of course, is that someone has to play these historical monsters and profit from their horrific behavior. One could argue that this is no different from an actor protraying Hitler or a terrorist in a movie and I'd agree. My only point is that this is an extremely slippery subject and respect needs to be extended not only to those who wish to educate through gaming, but also to those whose sensibilities are honestly offended by such subjects.

Anonymous said...

Possibly this type of subject would work better as a solo game.

The game taking the unpalatable role.

Anonymous said...

One difference between games and other entertainment like movies is that, in a game, you often take on a role. The game makes you believe that you are doing these actions yourself. So if you institute a concentration camp in a game, it feels more like YOU are actually doing it, rather than passively watching someone else do it in a movie. To some, that difference makes games more objectionable to include controversial subject matter.

Mister Nizz said...

Put very bluntly, the notion that a game ought not to be published due to the potentially offensive nature of the events is total BS.

To put it bluntly, your statement is BS as well. If dozens of people (and it might have been more than that) feel motivated to comment on a game's subject matter, than it's important enough to be an issue. If this game was on, say, tank battles at Kursk or a Commando Raid at Dieppe or the Battle of Britain, it might have sold forty copies or so, then been quickly forgotten, like most DTP games are. Why? Because those other wargame topics are simulation of events where professional soldiers fight professional soldiers, and the outcome isn't automatic genocide. I absolutely support Mr. Rohrbaugh's RIGHT to publish this game, and I consider him to be an honorable man, no kook, nor a liar. He really meant this to be what he said it was. With that said, I also have the right to not buy a game like this, and say why I consider it to be bad taste. I mentioned to Firefight (in non-hyperbolic terms) that I considered the game to be in poor taste and wouldn't be buying it. Unfortunately, there were far more people pushing the subject into the extreme zone than acting reasonable, which is why they had to shut down the forum for a while. Regretable, but true.

As for people capitalizing on 9/11, they can feel free to, but it will be a cold day in hell before I go to see a movie on the subject.

Anonymous said...

First of all, a well written and carefully thought out article, whether I agree or disagree. Mostly I find myself agreeing with your perspective on insufficient time, the subject of genocide as an acceptable topic and perhaps the motivations of Paul R. though only he knows for certain. Kudos for taking care to address more than just an offensive nature some topics may tackle.

After that, this is a tough row to hoe and the simple high road is not to tackle controversy at all.

Since some designers see the controversy as part of their mission by educating from their understanding of events, this is not going to be the last time the subject comes up. Gamers have a small realm of issues we have to deal with. Slavery, genocide, theft, murder, greed, rape, war and pick-your-flavor-of-immorality can always turn up as a theme, since there are few conflict themes that do not involve some form of morally and/or ethically unacceptable practice. (before you say sports, just look at how much money goes into professional sports these days, drugs, sex, other marginal tools are used to manipulate the results for gambling and other purposes)

So there are the fringe nuts in all pursuits who think it's cool to to any of a number of highly questionable activities. What a game wants to promote and what the public may choose to think it promote can turn out to be entire different things. Witness how D&D is considered by some of the fringe religious groups to be demon worship. How about Credo? Going to tell me that game doesn't offend hard core Christians to some degree? Or a Civil War game, is that about Slavery if you play the South?

It is simply true that this game fell in the category of bad taste, but nowhere near to the degree of damnation people have written about it. I sure as blazes will never play it, though if I were to do so, I'd not want to play the SS side.

Somehow the distance of time isn't far enough. I'm also not convinced you could do a game about the Ottoman Empire's treatment of Armenians in 1915 that I'd touch. And that's even longer past, with fewer people aware of it. Nor the Hussein run Iraqi attacks against the Kurds. But so it goes.

Our tolerance relies on communicating fairly the intentions, not by simply condemning a designer outright. In this case, I remain unconvinced Paul paid as much attention to the perceived market for the product and the likely backlash as he should have.

One last reaction that came from my pacifist oriented spouse whose reaction was (which normally is not negative about wargames, just about real wars), "How is this different from any other battle or war? One side was killing the other."

I think you drew the proper distinction and I will use it to explain it to her. There's a difference between an act of genocide, and a battle.

Anonymous said...

To put things into perspective:

There's a DTP game called The Jewish War. It's about the Jewish Revolt in 66AD. In the game, the Roman player wins by eliminating every single Jewish unit in the game. Otherwise, the Jewish rebels win. It was nominated for the CSR in 2000.

Compared to the Resistance is not Futile 'controversy', and harkening back to the earlier article on the War on Terror boardgame, it appears that SOME people are just uncomfortable when a horrific event that is too recent/or too embedded in popular psyche is made into a game. Compounding the Resistance is not Futile game is that it's about Nazis kiling Jews. Games about Romans killing Jews, ok. Games about Nazis killing Jews, Woah!

There's no right or wrong answer to whether games like Resistance is not Futile should be published or not. This is just a reflection of society and psychology.