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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

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Nazhuret
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and what are some of your favorites?

i bring up this topic because i am very close to finishing the first playtest prototype components of my latest game. the working title is Turf War : Portland.

the concept is fairly simple... i have a map of portland showing neighborhoods, neighborhood coalitions and police precinct zones.
each player controls a "gang" and attempts to take over the city. take into account the gangs are going to be very over-the-top stereotypical caricatures of gangs and other groups (including a church group "gang" and young hipster raver/fashion/tagger type kids) who battle for control by bidding influence cards in contested territory. each "gang" gets more of a given influence card than the others (ie: cosa nostra draws more gambling, hackers draw more tech/business, pimps draw more prostitution/porn etc..).
players may trade in their influence cards for either violence or police corruption cards which, used in a bid for territory, is the only way to permenantly remove a gang token from the board. in addition each precinct has a randomly roving police cruiser... if it lands on your gang members you must pay it off in corruption cards or your tokens are gone.

i was explaining this to some people on a break at work and most thought it sounded pretty fun.
a couple of people, however, did not dig on the concept. they thought it was in somewhat bad taste that with all the real violence and crime i could make the topic into a game.
this set some others on the scent....
they thought of games like: everyone plays a person trying to escape a burning building whether you help or hinder the other players... the underground railroad game... etc....

now, most of the "ideas" were meant to be deliberately overly offensive as a way of ribbing the other people. and for the most part they succeeded.

but i've got to tell you my designing ear was always listening and i couldn't help but think that a number of them would actually make for some good games with very original mechanics as the themes had never been explored before.
not to mention that my own game that started the whole disscusion was one that i didn't have any problem with.. it was supposed to be humorous (as i still think it is) and not in any way offensive. in using this theme it allows me to develope some mechanics i might not otherwise have used. (not like they're probably horribly original but i personally wouldn't have thought of them unless it was in this context)

how many games have one side playing the forces of hitler in WWII? does everyone who plays as nazis and wins fail to celebrate the victory because it's a horrible thing to have the nazis win anything and how dare you make a game of such a horrible thing? NO. of course not.

is it ok to make some sort of game based on the attacks on sept 11 2001? NO. that is... not right now. but mark my words within ten years there probably will be and within twenty years there absolutely will be.

games deal with "horrible" subjects all the time. grisly deaths either through murders, war, monsters, natural disasters.... mature themes such as terrorism, war (again), sex, crime, shady politics, religion, demons... decidedlly non-disneyfied artwork abounds in games of all genres, from the grusome old days of games workshop and contemporaries on down to games you can find on the shelves of toys R us....

what makes a game controversial?
how controversial does it have to be to make you want to either not play it or not design it?
should these themes be explored in games if only to discover what mechanics they might produce?
perhaps we could even learn some things about ourselves and our society if we are allowed to play out these taboo themes in a safe eviroment?

i believe there IS a place for these controversial game themes in today's environment. perhaps they're even needed more now than ever before.

just some thoughts....

let me know what you think.

Scurra
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

When the original "Grand Theft Auto" computer game appeared, there was a certain amount of controversy, but not that much because, let's face it, it was a top-down rather pixellated affair - the idea of driving over people and stealing cars was hardly going to incite people to copy-cat incidents. (Plus I was really lousy at it :))
But... when the third-generation version appeared, with full-on 3d graphics and features like sniper-rifles and so on, then the "game" stopped being a "game" and started being something else. And it was very unclear as to what it was trying to be.

Now we haven't really had to face those issues in a board-game yet (with the possible exception of "Ghetto-opoly" late last year - see below) although the arguments have certainly bubbled away beneath the surface - there was a long thread on rec.games.board about whether the choice of brown counters in Puerto Rico was somehow racist, for instance.

FWIW I subscribe to the view that (as with pretty much everything else!) there are only two sorts of games: good ones and bad ones. If the designer has done their job properly, then the subject matter of the game should be irrelevant: drug gangs, theological arguments, bounty hunting, whatever.

Having said that, I also think that a game dealing with certain sorts of subjects has a much higher bar to pass before it will be considered "good". Functionally, "Ghetto-opoly" may have some amusing ideas but when the underlying game isn't great then it doesn't deserve consideration. If you're going to make a game about a controversial subject, then my feeling is that the game experience needs to be considered too: will the players come out of the game feeling that they have learned something different about it?

An interesting example here might be Jeff Warrender's game about Jesus and the Disciples, discussed in the GDW. Here the subject is very unusual, and Jeff has adopted an interesting balance between a purely simulationist point of view and an more impressionistic one - the events that occur in the game are certainly reflections of the Biblical narrative, but structured for the game, not for strict accuracy. The result is that a player ought to come away from the game with a better understanding of the Gospels (most especially about how they came to be written) without feeling preached at in any way, and without compromising the intent of a "game".

My problem with a game such as the one you described about gangs is that it risks falling into Grand Theft Auto territory - controversial just for the sake of it, rather than controversial because you want to illustrate something about the situation.

IngredientX
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Re: Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

This is a very interesting subject! Probably one that will generate a fair amount of discussion, too.

I used to play a lot of computer games, but I started losing interest in the hobby when most of the games released were first-person shooters whose box cover art featured half-naked women holding big guns. It's incredible that even after the wild successes of games like Myst, the Sims, and Roller Coaster Tycoon, the video game industry still feels that the only sure-fire way to sell a game is through the constant, numbing inclusion of sex and violence.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for sex and violence, if it works. The problem with the video game industry is that every company seems to insist on marketing their games using it. And after several years of hearing them hum the same note, I found their games stale and vacuous. I don't really play computer games anymore, and I rarely miss it.

I don't believe that board game are as bad about pandering to the lowest common denominator. Some complain that the competitive but violence-free colonization depicted in many European games is a whitewashing of history, but I don't find this nearly as egregious as another Tomb Raider clone with bigger guns and boobs. Perhaps this will change someday; but the point that I'm trying to reach here is that board games haven't courted nearly as much controversy, "Ghetto-opoly" notwithstanding.

Here's a quick rundown of the "controversy" our hobby has invoked...

- Some people feel that Puerto Rico is a racist game, because the "colonists" referred to in the game were historically African slaves. The fact that they're represented in the game by dark brown chips of wood hardly helps. Personally, I find this more of an example of the historical whitewashing I mentioned above, as the "colonists" take advantage of buildings like "hospices" and "universities." Perhaps if the Craftsman tile had been named Slavedriver, I think the offense would have been warranted. But all it proves is that Puerto Rico is a lousy game if you're trying to use it to teach history. Seeing as its intent is as a strategic game (and a phenomenal one at that), I personally don't have a problem with it. For a few people, though, it's a game-killer.

- There have been occasional game releases that have humorously looked at off-color subjects. A good example of this is Pimps and Hos, which is a silly card game about prostitution. I don't know much about any controversy it actually generated. The game is a light card game; as Scurra so accurately pointed out, no matter how much humor you put in your game, the more attention to detail there is, the more likely you will offend. Since P&H has very quick and easy rules, I don't think it stirred up very many hard feelings. Most people see it as the silly, funny card game it is.

- Looney Labs released Stoner Fluxx this year, which is a re-themed version of their hit card game Fluxx. It features a pothead theme, and some of the money made from the game will be donated to various non-profit organizations that support marijuana legalization in the United States. This is a very interesting issue, but not too related to your game. Few people will passionately argue in defense of the existence of gangs, but the idea of marijuana legalization has strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

- For the record, WWII wargames have absolutely no controversy around them, despite the fact that at least one player is taking the side of the Axis powers. Perhaps it's because the people who play the games seem to be more interested in the history of the events and the military strategies employed by either side than they are in supporting the Third Reich's causes.

- And of course, we have Ghetto-opoly. It differs from the above games and your game because from what I understand, it was really designed more as a comic/political statement than a serious revision to Monopoly. Even Stoner Fluxx was designed to hit the table more than five times; Ghetto-opoly seems more of a conversation piece/collector's item than a game.

What aggravates all of the above is that games are seem by many people around the world as being a children's hobby. Even Germany, which seems to be more open to board games than most countries, views gaming as a family activity. Releasing games with challenging or controversial themes wouldn't be as much of a problem, except that many people will perceive these games to be played by children, not adults. Even worse, many of these games' primary sales outlets are stores that primarily sell childrens' toys and games. This was especially the case with GTA3; many parents did not know that games had ratings, just like movies, and were surprised that their local Kay-Bee sold them a game that they didn't want their nine-year-old to play.

So all in all, by working on a board game that courts controversy, you're entering a ground that not many have trodden before, but that will probably be more familiar as our hobby grows.

As for your game directly...

Personally, I don't find your game offensive. But some people inevitably will. If you're looking to market the game to me and not them, then perhaps you don't need to change anything.

But if you are curious about how the game would work if it were toned down a bit, here are some ideas...

- Right off the bat, you may want to consider setting the game in a completely fictionalized city. The fact that you specifically set it in Portland is an editorialization that will probably distract from the game.

- Going back to Scurra's point, no matter how much humor you put in your game, the more attention to detail there is, the more likely you will offend people sensitive to this issue. But if you put some silly absurdities in your game (like the church gang you mentioned, especially if they look clean and whitebread), then you'll take some of the edge off the humor. This might not be a bad thing.

- I think another thing that might bug some people about this is that there's no sense of authority. There is a police presence in the game, but the game mechanics hinge around how easy it is to bribe officers. If players get away with gang activity in the game with no direct repercussions, then you will be offending some people.

You're the designer, so if you're okay with that, then it's your decision. But you may want to consider toughening up the policemen a bit, perhaps even allowing one of the players to directly control the cops. This would take much of the controversial edge off the theme. Of course, it would also radically change the game's intent, so it may not be the direction you want to go.

Personally, I like that board games haven't fallen to the base level to which computer games seem to have dropped. I don't know if this will always be the case, although the fact that board games really aren't as profitable as computer games probably helps insulate our hobby from becoming an LCD-friendly industry.

That's all for now. I'm late for work. :)

jwarrend
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Indeed, an interesting subject.

First, to restate the obvious -- there is most certainly a line for each of us that we will not cross in our gaming, and as proof, let me go all the way to the extreme -- none of us, no matter how good the game was, would play a game called "Serial Rapist", for example.

That said, where the line is drawn is probably individual and subjective. As Scurra mentioned, I'm working on a religiously themed game, and this is no doubt going to be a controversial subject. I've tried to handle the game in such a way that non-believers won't feel like they're being preached at, but ironically, the game will nevertheless receive complaints from Christians (of which I am one), and in fact, already has.

Because of this, I've been trying to analyze this very issue, and what I think I've come up with, at least for myself, is to identify first what it is that I'm looking for in a game. First and foremost, I see a game as a bundled set of decisions, and so my first question is, are the decisions presented to me by the game system interesting? In most "shock value" games, I expect the answer is, no, for the simple reason that game elements are presented more for "yuk yuk" value than for creating interesting and tense decisions. (Although, someone who's played "Pimps and Hos" could of course prove me wrong...) Second, I look at thematic consonance. When I play a game, I find it especially satisfying when the game's mechanics do a good job of evoking the game's theme at some level. When I'm playing, do I feel like I'm being confronted with the kinds of decisions that someone in that situation may have faced?

Commonly, with an "offensive" game, the answer to the latter is, "I don't care". If the game puts me in a thematic setting that I couldn't care less about (being a "pimp", eg), then I really couldn't care less whether the game system itself makes me feel like I'm making the kinds of decisions a pimp would make.

And that, I think, is where the rubber meets the road. I don't play "Munchkin" or "A Dog's Life", not because I find them offensive, but because I just don't give a flying fig about either subject. So in that sense, I doubt I'd play your game, not because I'm offended by the idea of being a gangsta, but because I simply don't find the subject interesting, regardless of whether it's a great game or not.

In that sense, I fully acknowledge that I shoot myself in the foot by refusing to be interested in some games (eg, "Spank the Monkey"), which might be great but just don't appeal to me. Yet, in my defense, my gaming time is limited, and I have access to enough games that I really enjoy that if I *never* played another new game, I'd probably still have quite a few years' worth of fun gaming ahead of me.

A game about gangsters, being realistic, is probably going to be a bit of a niche market, and yes, you're going to offend a lot of people just for having made a game about the subject, and regardless of whether you handle it in a tasteful way or not. That said, perhaps that's not a bad thing -- perhaps your game will be well received by "gangstas" and will expose some new people to gaming. I'm sure many of us would approve of that, whether or not we'd play your game.

And while I think it's an interesting subject, I think it's an incorrect posture to treat people who find your game offensive in an accusatory manner. Because, we all have a fine line, and you need to accept and respect that. If you want to argue that your game is in such good taste that it doesn't/shouldn't cross someone's fine line, well and good, but don't attack someone for having that line. You have one too, whether you've found it yet or not...

-Jeff

Anonymous
Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

I think the negative reaction to your gangster game may be due to its immediacy with what's going on in the world today. I doubt there are few of us who are completely comfortable with the notion of inner city gangs and wars over turf, drugs, prostitution, et al.

However there are several family games that have gangsters as a main theme. But these are "old-school", James Cagney-esque, Al Capone-ish type gangsters. We feel safe from these types of gangsters because they're so far removed from our perception of reality.

To name a few:

Tony & Tino (Eurogames)
Don Pepe (Germany Hasbro -- HASBRO!!!)
Razzia (Ravensburger - later became Pick Picknic)

In fact, old-school gangsters is one of my favorite themes. I have three prototypes (Lupo the Wolf, The Five Families, Mobsteroni) that I one day hope to sell.

The theme in Turf Wars: Portland is not, in my opinion, inherently immoral. But the discomfort that some folks may feel towards the game is *real*, and probably should be given serious consideration if you're looking to get this published.

sedjtroll
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

jwarrend wrote:
First, to restate the obvious -- there is most certainly a line for each of us that we will not cross in our gaming, and as proof, let me go all the way to the extreme -- none of us, no matter how good the game was, would play a game called "Serial Rapist", for example.

I don't know about that. Naming a game Serial Rapist, or even theming a game that way (players compete for notoriety as the most infamous Serial Rapist... gain Noteriety by accumulating Victims, etc) could be kind of entertaining. Probably for the same reason people like GTA3 and laugh about picking up a prostitute (to gain health back), then running her down and taking your money back. I have never played the game, but the fact that you can do that I find pretty funny.

I have a copy of The Sinking of the titanic Game ("It's the game you play while the ship goes down!"), and some of my friends won't play it with me. "That's morbid!" they say. Admittedly it's a pretty poor game as far as design and stratedgy is concerned, but it's kind of fun to try and gather food, water, and passengers and get to the rescue boat without losing too many of them (eaten by cannibals, lost at sea, etc). Is that a controversial subject?

I think the line you're talking about exists, and obviously it's different for every person. It's the person's line though that brings up arguements, not the game or subject of the arguements. The game doesn't change from one person to the next. The guy who hates GTA because he thinks it's responsible for misbehaved children, the guy who hates GTA because it's morally wrong, and the guy who LOVES GTA because it's a fun escape are all standing on different points on the continuum, but GTA itself is stationary.

If you have a game and you're afraid it'll be controvercial... just make it for the people who are likely to play it and forget the people that aren't. They aren't going to play it anyway, so what's the big deal to them?

- Seth

hpox
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Snoop wrote:
I think the negative reaction to your gangster game may be due to its immediacy with what's going on in the world today. I doubt there are few of us who are completely comfortable with the notion of inner city gangs and wars over turf, drugs, prostitution, et al.

However there are several family games that have gangsters as a main theme. But these are "old-school", James Cagney-esque, Al Capone-ish type gangsters. We feel safe from these types of gangsters because they're so far removed from our perception of reality.

Yep, same for Pirates.

jwarrend
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

sedjtroll wrote:

I don't know about that. Naming a game Serial Rapist, or even theming a game that way (players compete for notoriety as the most infamous Serial Rapist... gain Noteriety by accumulating Victims, etc) could be kind of entertaining. Probably for the same reason people like GTA3 and laugh about picking up a prostitute (to gain health back), then running her down and taking your money back. I have never played the game, but the fact that you can do that I find pretty funny.

Yikes! I stand corrected, and to be honest, I'm a bit disturbed that I do! I won't, not even for the sake of argument, try to come up with an even more unpalatable theme than the appalling one I already came up with. Thanks for proving that for every rule, there's an exception.

Quote:
It's the person's line though that brings up arguements, not the game or subject of the arguements. The game doesn't change from one person to the next. The guy who hates GTA because he thinks it's responsible for misbehaved children, the guy who hates GTA because it's morally wrong, and the guy who LOVES GTA because it's a fun escape are all standing on different points on the continuum, but GTA itself is stationary.

Yes and no. I would agree that people do all seem to have different opinions about what is and is not ok, but I definitely do not agree that the games themselves are in all cases "neutral." As nicely as I can say this, if you think that "Serial Rapist" would be a fun game, then YOU, my friend, are the one with the problem. I don't buy the notion that morality is so subjective that it's completely up to the individual to decide for himself what is and is not ok. A game about raping women, or harming kids, or being a "pimp", is not made "ok" just because someone says it is. There are most certainly game themes that really are in "poor taste."

Unfortunately, I'm already starting into a morality debate, and I'd better stop there. My point is simply to say that if you (hypothetically) want to make a game called "Serial Rapist", or play such a game, go ahead, but pretending that there's nothing wrong with it, or pointing the finger accusingly at "us" and saying "well, if you don't like it, YOU'RE the one with the problem" is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I will restrain myself...or at least try my best to do so!

-J

sedjtroll
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

jwarrend wrote:

sedjtroll wrote:
The guy who hates GTA because he thinks it's responsible for misbehaved children, the guy who hates GTA because it's morally wrong, and the guy who LOVES GTA because it's a fun escape are all standing on different points on the continuum, but GTA itself is stationary.

Yes and no. I would agree that people do all seem to have different opinions about what is and is not ok, but I definitely do not agree that the games themselves are in all cases "neutral."
Not neutral. Stationary. Imagine a sidewalk that runs east-west. Now for a minute pretend that instead of "right" and "wrong" we're talking about "east" and "west".

Now, for any given topic- say gangsters in Portland, the game box gets placed an a particular location. Also, independantly of that, each person goes and stands at some location on the sidewalk.

Now... some people are West of the box, some are East of it. Some are further east than others. But no matter where the person you're looking at is standing on the sidewalk, the box is in the same place.

Quote:
As nicely as I can say this, if you think that "Serial Rapist" would be a fun game, then YOU, my friend, are the one with the problem.

I have no problem. I'm not complaining that anything is right or wrong.

Quote:
I don't buy the notion that morality is so subjective that it's completely up to the individual to decide for himself what is and is not ok.

Whoa. Who gets to decide then?

The FCC? They try and try, and people complain about it... then Janet Jackson exposes herself at the Superbowl and it makes national news.

How about Hitler? He tried, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who agrees with what he had to say about what's right and wrong.

How about Mom and Dad? That's where I would look, unfortunately nowadays Mom and Dad have given up that chore to things like TV and Playstation... then they complain when they don't like what they're kids learn on TV or from Playstation.

Quote:
A game about raping women, or harming kids, or being a "pimp", is not made "ok" just because someone says it is.

Correct. Sort of. It's not ok 'for you' just because someone else says it's ok 'for them.' This isn't an arguement, it's the definition of opinion.

Quote:
There are most certainly game themes that really are in "poor taste."

Exactly so. And the number of those games may vary from one person's perspective to the next. In player A's opinion, a particular idea is in poor taste. Player B might agree or disagree, but that's up to player B, not player A. Or perhaps as you postulate above, that's up to some third party... (that last bit is sarcastic by the way)

Quote:
Unfortunately, I'm already starting into a morality debate, and I'd better stop there.

Yes, you'd better. Because you're doing what a lot of (probably all) people do when they argue about morals... you're not being objective.

Quote:
My point is simply to say that if you (hypothetically) want to make a game called "Serial Rapist", or play such a game, go ahead, but pretending that there's nothing wrong with it, or pointing the finger accusingly at "us" and saying "well, if you don't like it, YOU'RE the one with the problem" is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Who's pointing fingers? If I (hypothetically) wanted to make a game called "Serial Rapist", or play such a game, then I would. Period. I could "pretend" there's something wrong with it, or nothing wrong with it, for any reason I wanted.

As far as other people not liking it, I'm saying it's their problem they don't like it- as opposed to my problem they don't like it. Furthermore, why would I care if they don't like it when they aren't part of my target audiencs (by definition).

In other words, my idea would not be targetted at people who aren't going to like my idea. Wheather there'd be something wrong with me for wanting to deal with that theme in the first place or not is a matter of opinion all it's own.

- Seth

Anonymous
Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

> Yep, same for Pirates

Perfect example. Pirates were horrid, despicable creatures who certainly caused *real* terror and dread in their time.

Yet today the subject matter is regarded as amusing and entertaining.

jwarrend
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

sedjtroll wrote:

Quote:
Unfortunately, I'm already starting into a morality debate, and I'd better stop there.

Yes, you'd better. Because you're doing what a lot of (probably all) people do when they argue about morals... you're not being objective.

Wow, you seriously know how to push buttons, don't you?

At tremendous personal difficulty, I am not going to respond to your post, as doing so would go far afield from the subject of the bgdf. Feel free to PM me if you want to discuss this further. To darkehorse et al my apologies for fomenting a non-game-related debate. You have my permission to delete this post, and any of my others in this thread, if you feel they have no redeeming gaming content.

I think, suffice it to say, I don't believe you can enforce a strict divorce between "morality" and "controversial themes". I recognize that there are some themes that I find personally distasteful or "unappealing" yet don't feel that they rise to the level of being morally "wrong" -- they just aren't something I would play. But I think there are other themes, other viewpoints, that ought to be rejected by all decent, thinking people -- such as the hypothetical game I mentioned. Could someone make such a game? Yeah, sure. But "should" they? This, I feel, is a moral question, and I think we're perhaps a little too predisposed to avoiding it by saying "well, if I want to play a game that is fun to me, who are you to say I shouldn't" rather than actually wrestling with the question of "ought I do this?".

I'd better put this hot potato down...

-J

sedjtroll
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Snoop wrote:
Pirates were horrid, despicable creatures who certainly caused *real* terror and dread in their time.

Yet today the subject matter is regarded as amusing and entertaining.
It's a matter of dissociation. People are ok with things if they feel it doesn't apply to them, or isn't a threat. Pirates aren't a threat. Gang violence is.

Furthermore, some people have an easier time dissociating with these things than others.

Anonymous
Re: Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Nazhuret wrote:
i bring up this topic because i am very close to finishing the first playtest prototype components of my latest game. the working title is Turf War : Portland.

An intersting topic - and one that has already sparked some interesting discussion.

I agree with IngredientX that you should set the game in a totally fictional city. That helps to remove some (not all) of the controversy. What this game boils down to is intent. (Check out some of the posts in the Design Intent topic in the Game Design forum.) If you intend the game to be light-hearted, then there are ways you can do that that will help mitigate some of the controversy. (I can tell you're leaning this way, and I, personally, think this is a great idea for a light-hearted game.) I don't think you'll please all the people, and you shouldn't try. As long as the mechanics are good and the game plays well then I think you should go forth with the game.

A little controversy is a good thing, it sparks debate (as seen here), opens up ideas, and makes people think. Getting a controversial message or subject across, without being preachy, and done in a fun way, can be, IMO, a good thing.

Just my two pence.
- Geoff

IngredientX
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

jwarrend wrote:
I think, suffice it to say, I don't believe you can enforce a strict divorce between "morality" and "controversial themes". I recognize that there are some themes that I find personally distasteful or "unappealing" yet don't feel that they rise to the level of being morally "wrong" -- they just aren't something I would play. But I think there are other themes, other viewpoints, that ought to be rejected by all decent, thinking people -- such as the hypothetical game I mentioned. Could someone make such a game? Yeah, sure. But "should" they? This, I feel, is a moral question, and I think we're perhaps a little too predisposed to avoiding it by saying "well, if I want to play a game that is fun to me, who are you to say I shouldn't" rather than actually wrestling with the question of "ought I do this?".

I'd better put this hot potato down...

-J

I'll take that hot potato for a second... because I have some personal experience with this subject.

I studied creative writing in college. My personal goal was to have my stories stick out by slanting the subject matter as strangely as possible, while still having a strong dramatic narrative. I wrote about janitors talking to corpses, lonely men deep-kissing popcorn poppers, long-lost Disney movies that hid deep disillusionment beneath their Technicolor sheen...

The quality of the writing, if I may say so, actually wasn't bad, though I don't think any of them were capable of being published. What I craved in a story was a very structured, dramatic conflict. The more extreme the subject matter, the crazier the juxtaposition, the more eager I was to write the story.

Eventually I started to get ideas by inverting ideas that I thought were trite and relatively unchallenging. It wasn't a bad idea in theory, but it led to a story that was simultaneously my best and worst.

I saw a play in college by the great French playwright Moliere. It was called School for Wives. It was about a wealthy, arrogant noble who was so obnoxious, he repulsed women. So he had an idea: he would find a young girl, and raise her to believe that the sole purpose of her life was to love him.

The plan backfired for the noble; she wised up, broke her education, and ditched him. The play is about equality, and independence of thought. It is actually quite funny.

However, I felt that its goals were a little "easy" in this day and age. I wanted to write a story that was difficult. I wanted to come up with the play's polar opposite.

So I flipped the storyline on its head. I wrote about an intelligent, caring dad, who decided to raise a child prodigy. He immersed her in knowledge from an early age, and attempted to influence every stage of her life. He wanted to saturate her with intellect. He buys her a Bosendorfer piano, and she turns out to play beautiful music.

But, just as the "wife" in Moliere's play, she "breaks" her education, and turns out to be a super-intelligent, but unmotivated, obnoxious, and rebellious teenager. She repulses him, and he sees her as a failure.

Still, he tries to influence her. He pleads with her to stop smoking. He is spurned by her refusal to read. He spies on her, and watches her lose her virginity to another teenager.

When he realizes that she has destroyed the piano by hiding cases of beer inside it, he snaps, and performs an act of retribution so graphic, misogynistic, and revolting, when I finished the 5th or 6th draft of the story, I was shocked by what I'd come up with.

It's an interesting subject for a story, but I felt that I'd gone too far. No one would want to read what he did to her. Perhaps I had seen too many Peter Greenaway movies.

This also happened with a second story of mine, and then the ideas I had for all my stories started to get too extreme. I tried to tone them down, but I couldn't. I wasn't interested in them; my muse, if you will, had no patience for "ordinary" stories.

There were several other things that happened in my life around that time. I got married, and became happy. I also lost the free time and personal space I used to have to write. And oh yeah, I discovered games.

So I stopped writing. I boycotted my muse. And I started designing games instead.

You might remember my "Games are not art" post. That was a big one for me; after I wrote it, I realized that what I loved about writing stories was structuring extreme conflicts.

But when I wrote, I wanted to "push the boundaries." I wanted to go where no writer had gone before. I had tried metafictional devices, extreme violence, bizarre narratives. I wanted to change the way stories were written.

Now that I design games, I don't feel that need anymore. Designing a game is all about structuring conflict. I don't feel the need to come up with a shocking theme or device to get a person's attention. I just need to come up with a beautiful conflict.

I haven't done it yet, but I'm working on it. :)

I still occasionally come up with a shocking and horrible theme for a game. (For the sake of humanity, I will not list a "for instance!") When I was writing stories, I'd feel the need to get it out. But now, I know that it wouldn't work as a game. I toss the idea in the garbage can, and keep playtesting my realistic ideas.

Now, I don't want to say that the reason Nazhuret came up with this theme was because he needs to find a better form for his ideas; my experience was completely personal, and I don't think it will literally translate for everyone.

But I do think we, as creative people, have an obligation to make things that people will want to play. We are not in the business of challenging our audience, as a maverick director may be. We don't have to push buttons. We can make great games without having to resort to shock value.

Hey, maybe the next great board game will be shocking, revelatory, and cathartic. But I doubt it - the medium just doesn't carry it as well as others. More likely, after the first play, the shocking veneer will fade, and we'll be left with... Ghetto-opoly.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't be whitebread and boring in our games. As I said above, I don't have a problem with sex and violence; but they need to be warranted, and they can't overstay their welcome. Know your audience, and know what they want. As game designers, we're asking our audience to do much more than sit in a dark room and watch a moving image. It is much easier for a board game player to see through a shocking image, than in any other form.

Nazhuret, maybe the above sounds critical of your game. I actually don't mean it to be; in your case, it all depends on the execution. If it comes up as light and silly, i.e. detatched enough from the problems it refers to that it doesn't strike any nerves, then I think it will be fine. Cheapass has a few "gang warfare" games, but they're not terribly serious, so no one's raised a stink.

But the more detailed you make your game, and the more of a "statement" you try to make with it, the more buttons you'll push. You may think it's not a big deal, but the reaction you'll get may surprise you.

Be careful.

Anonymous
nice topic... (back on topic)

On the opposing side of making it a fictional city is the opposite. Portland is the setting then make it as realistic as possible. If you know there is a crack house on the corner of oak & elm (no idea what the street names are actually there) then put that in the game. If the police are pathetic in Portland, then make them realistically pathetic in the game.

A game can be a means of social commentary as well as entertaining and or educational.

Heck, make a few prototypes, call your local news station and tell them you are sending copies of it to the chief of police, the mayor etc.

As long as its a "good" game (subjective), those who are interested in Portland, or Gangs or in a game mechanic that simulates real turf wars will at least take a look at the game, read the back of the box and make a decision to buy it or not.

If people aren't given a choice on whether to be offended or not then gaming could get bland. (maybe there is someone offended that in Settlers there is a total lack of native population?)

A choice between game 1 (chocolate and bunnies) and game 2 (murder/rape/drugs etc.) is better than not having either choice.

sedjtroll
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Drat, I forgot to include something in one of my previous posts which was pretty much the whole reason I posted- here it is real quick:

jwarrend wrote:
A game about raping women, or harming kids, or being a "pimp", is not made "ok" just because someone says it is.

I totally agree with the above quoted statement. What I meant to say to that is the following. Note this has NOTHING to do with my views on raping women, harming kids, or being a pimp. In case you're curious, I'm not a big fan of any of those, nor do I advocate them. That disclaimer is for those who might not see the difference between my arguement and an arguement for any of those kinds of things.

"A game about raping women, or harming kids, or being a "pimp", is not NOT "ok" just because someone says it isn't."

I feel like I need another disclaimer, lest I get showered with flames or something. The aforementioned games may well be bad for other reasons, I'm not saying they are "ok." The point is, and has always been, that there isn't/shouldn't be some entity handing down edicts of what's right and what's wrong.

- Seth

FastLearner
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Please stop discussing what is or is not moral, "should" or "should not" be done in the world, etc. We all have plenty of thoughts on that and many of them are contrary.

Many of the posts in this thread are about things a designer should consider, which is a perfect topic for this board. Let's keep it on that, ok?

-- Matthew

sedjtroll
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FastLearner wrote:
Please stop discussing what is or is not moral, "should" or "should not" be done in the world, etc. We all have plenty of thoughts on that and many of them are contrary.

Agreed. That's all I was trying to say.

Quote:
Many of the posts in this thread are about things a designer should consider, which is a perfect topic for this board. Let's keep it on that, ok?

So my suggestion is to make whatever game you want, whatever you are ok with. If you think it would be interesting to have a game that depicts gang warfare in Portland, then by all means- depict it. If someone else has a moral problem with that, then they don't have to play the game.

That's what I would do. Now, if you're looking to publish a game, rather than simply think about an idea, then it might be the case that you have to start looking at other peoples' opinions and how many of them are contradictory to yours...

- Seth

Nazhuret
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

wow

great responses... it sounds like maybe this hasn't come up here before... (i only just signed on) which seems odd to me...

i would like to say about my particular game a couple of things
i am very much going in the direction of the lighthearthed with this. the idea of a serious and/or hyper-detailed game about gangs and turf wars in any given city sounds, quite frankly, boring as hell. like it was said above... if it's not a subject that interests you you won't play it and "gangstas" and their culture are something i find only slightly less annoying than poison oak on my eyeballs and barely more interesting as a game concept than a race to see whose paint will dry first.

the "gangs" are called such simply because i couldn't reall think of what else to call them. sure one or two will be actual "gangs" but, as i said before, totally caricaturized, cartoon-like abstractions. the mafia with the big woodies (cars!) and tommy guns and fedoras.... the "gangstas" with GIANT platinum and gold necklaces (and teeth... snicker...)
not to mention that a number of these "gangs" aren't gangs at all... they are things like ultra churchy types and breakdancers and other loosely defined, stereotyped social subsets who are also trying to take over the city.... though when they use a "crime" influence against a gang they are shutting them down as opposed to actually committing that crime
(as for the violence...hmm.... maybe i should give those cards some more thought... anyway....)

i would agree with the idea that the controversy or moral and ethical response is extremely subjective.
if someone made the rape game i would probably think that person was a little .. ahem... "messed" up in the head but only from my own personal standpoint. not as an absolute. it wouldn't offend me because i wouldn't go out and buy it nor play it if it was being played around me. rape is simply not on my radar of things i would like to do nor simulate in a boardgame.

jjacy1 wrote that "A game can be a means of social commentary as well as entertaining and or educational."

this is a very good point and directly confronts my own reticence to play a game like the hypothetical "uber-realistic gang war in your home town!" game.... as it would be "boring" from a thematic standpoint in my opinion it would help educate both myself and perhaps police and community leaders as to some of the unpleasant realities around me.

another example could be an extremely detailed game about homelessness and hunger.... if focussed on a specific city, playing a homeless person who has to try to survive a certain amount of time.. perhaps until you got a steady income and a home and got off drugs (yes i know not all homeless people are on drugs.. maybe it's in the advanced rules or something...) with actual numbers of jobs, shelters, EVERYTHING in the real city....

anyway, these types of games... the ones that are very detailed and about subjects we don't usually want to talk about or even acknowledge... the ones that, even if the mechanics were top notch, would be too boring thematically or uncomfortable to make us want to play...

don't they become something else at that point?
aren't they suddenly removed from the realm of a "game" and take up the moniker "simulation" then?
and if so, how offensive could they be? they are meant to simulate something controversial to make the point that things need to to change somehow.
could a "rape game" have a place in this scenario somehow?

hmmm....

by the way i'm thinking "out loud" here so sorry if this post is somewhat less structured than it seems like it could be.

anyway i'm going to leave it at that for now...

carry on.

Nazhuret
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

doh!

sorry about that...

that last post was in the works as fastlearner posted ....

sorry for going off a bit...

IngredientX
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

Nazhuret wrote:

jjacy1 wrote that "A game can be a means of social commentary as well as entertaining and or educational."

this is a very good point and directly confronts my own reticence to play a game like the hypothetical "uber-realistic gang war in your home town!" game.... as it would be "boring" from a thematic standpoint in my opinion it would help educate both myself and perhaps police and community leaders as to some of the unpleasant realities around me.

I posted some thoughts on this in another thread, where I discussed a game's ability to carry a subject, or an emotional message. In the thread, I wrote that I felt games can't carry a subject, and still be an effective game.

Well, I was going to post it over there first, but I'll put it here instead... one of my favorite designers has provided an elegant counter-argument. Bruno Faudutti's new game Terra is apparently a very playable game, but with a strong socio-political comment.

In the game, players assume powers over different nations. Cards are flipped that describe "problems." The players have a hand of cards that can solve the problems. Most problems need more than one "solution" card played, so players will need to work together to solve a problem.

However, when a problem is solved, only one player receives credit for it. So you can play the game completely altruistically, but you probably won't win.

Now, if all the players decide that they don't want to solve the problem, the problem becomes a "mega-problem." These will now take extra solution cards to solve. If a certain number of mega-problems appear, the game ends and everyone loses!

On one level, this seems be a strong game of diplomacy and bluffing. But on another level, it carries a message: even though it is not always in a country's best interest to solve a problem elsewhere in the world, complete self-interest or isolationism leads to global problems, and global problems lead to annihilation.

So now I have a Fauduitti-shaped hole in my argument. I must backpedal now, and rephrase.

I know that jjacy feels that a game can carry a political or social message. A month ago, I would have disagreed; I would have said that any game with a message wouldn't have had a strong replay ability.

Now I'll say that it is possible to insert a consistent political, emotional, or perhaps even an emotional (very tricky, almost impossible) message into your game. But it is rare when it works on both levels - as a game, and as a vessel for the message. Either you wind up with a message that changes on each play... or you get Ghetto-opoly.

There will always be subjects that won't make for effective board games. In my "games are not art" post, I supplied a rather tasteless example: Schindler's List, The Board Game. I guess you can add Serial Rapist to that list. The subject matter is simply too extreme for people to want to play or replay the game.

So there you go, Nazhuret. Your game can carry a social or political message... but the challenge is making sure that the message doesn't turn the game into a one-play collector's item.

Nazhuret
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well it's been quite a while...

just as an update the game went nowhere.

in the "original" few incarnations it was both horribly tedious and unweildy.

i DO still like the theme (kept in a humorous mode) though. agreed that if too "realistic" it's going to be a downer for a number of reasons.

ANYway.....

just sort of checking in as i've been fairly non-active here for a while ..

i am still gaming though and of course my notebooks are still getting filled with die charts and themes and such...

to all... hello again!

more later :P

Anonymous
Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

IngredientX wrote:
Nazhuret wrote:

There will always be subjects that won't make for effective board games. In my "games are not art" post, I supplied a rather tasteless example: Schindler's List, The Board Game. I guess you can add Serial Rapist to that list. The subject matter is simply too extreme for people to want to play or replay the game.

Don't get me wrong, but couldn't even "tasteless" themes be done well? I admit I've never seen Schindler's List, but what limited knowledge I do have is that there were efforts made to save Jews in the movie? So even if your game was set during WWII, couldn't there be a good game in saving as many people as possible, even if in the end game people do die?

Or if the subject matter of Serial Rapist is in the game as a series of crimes, couldn't catching the rapist in the game be a goal?

Or does just the fact that those themes are present make them a no-no? I know war games have nazis in them, and you are allowed to win when playing Germany...

I thought that the movie Titanic before it came out was going to be a tasteless affair. "Such a tragedy, how could hollywood do such a thing?" but it wasn't until the execution that I saw that even tragedies can have redeemable things when done the right way.

IngredientX
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jjacy1 wrote:

Don't get me wrong, but couldn't even "tasteless" themes be done well? I admit I've never seen Schindler's List, but what limited knowledge I do have is that there were efforts made to save Jews in the movie? So even if your game was set during WWII, couldn't there be a good game in saving as many people as possible, even if in the end game people do die?

Or if the subject matter of Serial Rapist is in the game as a series of crimes, couldn't catching the rapist in the game be a goal?

It's a good question. Theoretically, it can be done. But it's VERY difficult.

For example... you're sitting on a streetcorner cafe, watching people bustle across a city sidewalk. You're watching one particular happy couple amble by, when a brick falls from the sky onto his head.

His companion shakes his still body and wails. Passerby crowd around to see if they can help, and pretty soon there's an ambulance wailing around the corner.

If we stop now, this could be pretty traumatic stuff. However...

A brick falls from the sky, and lands on the companion's head. Passerby now crowd around her. Another ambulance wails around the corner, and rear-ends the first ambulance.

An EMT is working on one of them, when a brick falls on his head. Passerby crowd around him. Another ambulance wails around the corner, and rear-ends the second ambulance, which rear-ends the first one.

One of the passerby shouts, "This is ridiculous!" A brick falls on his head. Passerby crowd around him. Yet another ambulance wails around the corner, and rear-ends the third ambulance, which rear-ends the second ambulance, which rear-ends the first one.

Got the idea? The more iterations we do, the less tragic the event gets. In fact, the repetition de-humanizes the sequence of events, and can potentially make them comic!

Now look at a game. It's nothing more than a sequence of mathematical iterations. A carefully-applied theme can make the game intellectually engaging, but its repetitious nature will usually prevent people from becoming emotionally attached (though there can be exceptions).

If your theme is shipping goods out of a tropical American colony, or building an ancient city, then the repetition doesn't work against the game. But if your theme involves rape or genocide, then you're working with some very combustible chemicals.

Can a game be made that involves such touchy themes, and still work as a game? Maybe, but I doubt it. The repetition inherent in playing the game would most likely trivialze the subject matter. To do any justice to its subject matter, the designer would need a very careful attention to detail and an emotional grace that I've never seen any board game pull off.

Quote:
I thought that the movie Titanic before it came out was going to be a tasteless affair. "Such a tragedy, how could hollywood do such a thing?" but it wasn't until the execution that I saw that even tragedies can have redeemable things when done the right way.

You know the '70s wave of disaster movies, right? The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Airport '77, and so on. For a few years, people loved seeing movies about horrible disasters. To some, it probably seemed tasteless at first (I was too busy being toilet-trained to notice), but the spectacle of seeing ordinary people stuck into extrodinary situations and becoming heroes, corpses, or both appealed to many. Titanic wasn't original in that regard, but it had a lot of lines it had to be careful to not step over. The last thing a director wants to hear from an audience watching his tragic movie is mad laughter from a scene he expected to be heartrending.

For me, the movie I never expected to pull this off was "Life is Beautiful." A comedy about the Holocaust? How could it work? And yet it does... it's simultaneously funny and horrifying. It's smart enough to not trivialize the historical events, yet its humor isn't ever watered down.

One last note... another way to trivialize tragedy is to make it go much faster than it should... say, from a two hour feature to a 30-second Flash animation.

sedjtroll
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IngredientX wrote:
The movie I never expected to pull this off was "Life is Beautiful." A comedy about the Holocaust? How could it work? And yet it does... it's simultaneously funny and horrifying. It's smart enough to not trivialize the historical events, yet its humor isn't ever watered down.

This movie was amazingly good, and a good example. If you haven't seen it I recommend you rent it. Even if you have to read it (it's subtitled).

- Seth

Anonymous
Portland setting

Hi
Are you sure that you won't get yourself sued by someone who may take offence if you use a real setting?
Sue

Anonymous
Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

IngredientX wrote:
Theoretically, it can be done. But it's VERY difficult.

I doubt many of the games I've considered good were completed without a level of difficulty.

As far as the controversial aspect goes, the theme to me has very little impact of the game. It's more of a game tie in, and migth gety me interested. So I guess if i was offended by a game, I would be less likely to pick it up and play it, and more likely to use it as firewood.

There was a game I played a long time ago, it was based in Buffalo, and all about hoes, pimps, adicts and dealers. The board looked like monopoly but with Buffalo street names and other things that were a little tactless (though quite funny). While the games language I found vulgar, the game play was astonishingly fun. (it didn't quite feel like monopoly either).

I would say only these two things:
-CYOB (Cover your own behind). I doubt many designers can afford a lawsuit, even if they are in "the legal right".
-The more contraversial, the more you'll fragment your audience. Someone mentioned a game about 9/11 being tactless, but think about who would buy it (not many if you asked me). Just look at those toy cellphones that were sold from a distributer in Florida with Asama's picture on it. The controversy stirred up publicity sure, but do you want that? I know I wouldn't.

Anonymous
Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

I think controversy is a bad thing if you ask me. Stay away!!!
May help advertising but not sales.

I say when in doubt stay away,

Aaron l

Trickydicky
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

For me personally the theme of the game is quite important. I'm a history buff so I love any game that ties into history (History of the World is one of my favorites). But no matter how good the theme if the gameplay stinks I'll regret having bought it.

That to me is the bottom line. I usually buy a game based on its theme and the very brief gameplay understanding gleaned from the back of the box. Maybe I'm wierd, but I think there are a lot of wierdos like me. If a game had I theme I thought was controversial, immoral or simply to tactless I probably wouldn't even pick it up to read the back of the box. Why would I when there are still 100's of games with themes I not only approve of, but am enticed by, that I haven't played yet. You will basically be competing with all the noncontreversial games, because most buyers will only buy a couple of games a year, why would they want one that might make them feel uncomfortable. Thus, they will never even get to play the game and see if the gameplay is so wonderful that it is worth drudging through the theme.

On the other hand I know a couple of people who would buy it simply because they love to cause controversy. They would probably keep it out on their coffee table simply to offend anyone who might take offense.

RookieDesign
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Controversial Themes : How much is too much?

I'm in a very early design state for a controversial type game. I must say that I think about people being not happy about my game, but that didn't stop me from thinking about it.

The game is a two player game inspired by Scotland Yard. Satan and his minions are in town, the other player have Archangels and try to stop him. Only this topic is enough to get me burned up. (Specially in the southern-west states of the USA). (Good thing I live in Canada:)

I don't think I will push Satan's evil doing that much, but I think that no matter what, somebody will complain about my theme.

sedjtroll
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RookieDesign wrote:
I don't think I will push Satan's evil doing that much, but I think that no matter what, somebody will complain about my theme.

Some 'controvercial themes' are more controvercial than others. I can't imagine a game depicting Satan and Archangels causeing any amount of consternation. The idea is much more abstracted than that of, say, a serial rapist, and also there's plenty of precident set in other games, comics, movies, etc.

There was some kind of backlash to Magic: The Gathering, something about it being too satanic at first, so they toned down some of that (removed a pentagram from one card's artwork, stopped calling cards "Demonic ~this", etc) but it still has Demons and pseudo-satanic stuff depicted on the cards.

- Seth

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