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What is the general opinion about "Controversial" game themes?

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phonyamerican
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Im an amateur game designer, and I was wondering what the general consensus was on games that have a controversial theme; for example, where the point of the game is to carry out a terrorist attack, or the player controls an extremist group.

Just wondering...

schtoom
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In the US, you might find

In the US, you might find some people who are turned off by that, especially if you use real life places/settings. Maybe if the setting was fictional the reaction would be less so. Just my $.02, though.

scifiantihero
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"War on Terror"

seems to have some fans.

Any time you get something controversial in a bad way, you'll just be limiting your audience, but if it's clever enough, you might get free advertising out of it which will attract the minority you're trying to sell to.

However, it seems like a poor choice if your goal is to expose a lot of people to a good game. A good game is probably good because it has good mechanics. Good mechanics can probably be re-themed at least a little bit (I can't imagine a terrorist strike game that couldn't just be an anti-terrorist commando unit, or something, for example.) So turning people off the game on purpose will only diminish your exposure in the end. Bad idea if you're looking to convince people what an awesome game designer you are.

If the intent in confronting controversy is artistic, you might not be worried too much about all that, though. I'm a punk rocker and love bratty artists shoving controversial things in society's face. Walmart doesn't agree with me, however.

As mentioned above, the fictional route might be a very good bet. Orcish slaves and Elven rebels infiltrating and destroying a Human castle, or a revolt on the Moon (I'd play ' The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: the Board Game!') would probably sell pretty well . . .

:)

truekid games
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as mentioned above, in most

as mentioned above, in most cases, it will only serve to lower sales. if that's not a concern, by all means, go forth and stir things up. but if it is a concern, keep in mind this is still a niche marketplace.

for example, while not even particularly controversial, there's a game at thegamecrafter.com called "Poopsock". huge quantities of people won't even give it a second glance because of the name, and of the small minority who do and decide the mechanics look interesting enough (or the game looks funny enough, which i believe is his primary marketing slant) to purchase, there will inevitably be difficulties in actually getting others to play it with you. ("hey honey, want to play poopsock with me?" "hey guys, head on over to my house, i got a new game... called poopsock").

now make it actually controversial, and you'll just be making that problem worse.

metzgerism
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-

It's not worth it to make it a particularly controversial game/theme. It probably IS worth it to abstractify and re-theme, maybe putting the political concepts into a psuedo-civil war theme?

jbushnell
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Satire and Audience

This is my first post on this forum, so hello everyone.

I generally like to include some humor in my games, which extends to doing things with some satirical intent. And any time you begin to bring in satire you court some degree of controversy. But I'm a supporter of games as a mode of human expression, which has to include expression of ideas that will disquiet or offend. This doesn't negate any of the above caveats about commercial restrictions, of course, but there will always be a sector of players who crave things that are out of the ordinary.

Think of it this way: if I were designing a horror-themed board game, targeted to horror fans, I would feel comfortable including some gruesome elements to the visuals, or some mechanics that involved being subjected to (or doing) "horrible" things. Certainly among some types of players this would be a turn-off, and I'd expect big retailers, and possibly some small ones, to not be interested in carrying such a game (although big retailers seem quite comfortable with selling horror films). But I feel confident that there are players out there who would love it, and I think a certain amount of "disturbing" imagery is a good fit with the genre.

As for the precise example in your initial post, phonyamerican, I personally don't see a game in which one plays a terrorist or extremist group as being inherently more offensive than any of the many, many wargames in which one plays the role of Nazi Germany. But I'm likely an outlier in this regard.

scifiantihero
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Hello!

jbushnell wrote:
This is my first post on this forum, so hello everyone.

As for the precise example in your initial post, phonyamerican, I personally don't see a game in which one plays a terrorist or extremist group as being inherently more offensive than any of the many, many wargames in which one plays the role of Nazi Germany. But I'm likely an outlier in this regard.

I doubt you're much of an outlier. There are enough people who bring up points like that when any game comes out :)

I do think the comparison is a little bit off in this case, though, as modern day terrorists have not yet developed the romanticism or mystique that many previous acts of violence have since been shrouded in. Nobody wants to slaughter Jews, but lots of people would love to drive a Tiger Tank. At some point those two things became separate.

I don't think the majority of people are there yet when it comes to--for example-- Muslim Extremists, but of course that's coming from someone who spends their time in America.

I'm not so sure all cultures are so accepting of playing as Nazi's, also. I don't think it's an accident that games with piles of plastic Germans holding guns are now labeled "Ameritrash," while "German" has becomes synonymous with building cities and farms.

:)

Redcap
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I generally avoid a

I generally avoid a controversal themed game myself, but more importantly, I would imagine so do publishers in general.

3dragonfly
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Defining Controversial

The mafia theme is seeming popular in social web games, TV shows and the like. What are your opinions on which mafia sub-topics would be out of bounds for a board game? I am quite certain slave and child trafficking is inappropriate but, what is the view on arms dealings, drug trafficking and assassinations? How does the view differ in parts of the world? Money laundering and gambling, I assume are ok?

the_Ben
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controversial mechanics?

While working on a game themed on 17th-18th century European naval trade and exploration, I considered using "slaves" as a game resource, (along with ore, silk, etc.) as it certainly would have been historically accurate, but decided to use the potentially less offensive term "labor" as the resource. Even in the historical context, I think using the former term would scare publishers away, or at least refuse to touch it unless it were changed, and even trading "labor" could be misconstrued.

chomoon
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mafia is ok

I actually created and published a game about mafia, called Kingpin (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/57037/kingpin). The theme is not really suggestive. For example there is no real violence. The girls appearance may be a little provocative, but that is all... We also have this idea for a prison break game, where you play the bad guys (a murderer, a thief, a drug dealer), and none of the people we asked considered this controversial.

I guess boardgames follow the same rules that apply to TV shows. You can use any theme you like, as long as it is tasteful, and as long as it sells ;)

Pastor_Mora
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Terrorism is a big no no

If you are planning on selling your game in the states, terrorism is a big no no, like abortion, death penalty and alike.

The only way around I see is to develop an "educational", or at least "informative" angle. That means a lot of background research for you. You may want to attach a booklet with the history or at least some anecdotes of the game elements. Lets say you have an IRA character, use the real logos, slogan (mess with the best...) and hitmen's names in the cards and expand it in the booklet. Same with your TNT explosives cards, clip the terrorist handbook on how to produce it home made (don't be too specific!) and add it to the booklet. If you have routes in the game board (suppose a real map of europe) let those be real smuggling routes (like Albania to Italy) and tell the real story of a great smugglers bust. You may want to read some Frederick Forsythe novels for insight.

Work! that's all that people will respect. If you take it seriously, they will take it seriously. If you're just messing around with a morbid subject, they will rip your guts. And you'll deserve it.

I'm publishing a Falklands War game for the 30th aniversary, hopefully both in Argentina and UK. I live in Argentina and belive me, there are no pleasant memories of it (kindda like Vietnam for yankees). But I've run the game through war veterans and reception was respectfull, as I was with their histories and their sufferings.

Keep thinking !

terrorbullgames
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Board games are just another form of creative expression ...

... so why are they consistently not regarded as such? OP's question is very valid, but it would appear absurd in a "songwriter's forum" or a "budding author's forum". Why are people so hung up about board games that intrude on reality? Every other creative medium draws inspiration from the world around us - the good and the bad. I believe it's high time that board games do the same.

As you can probably tell, I have no problem with controversial themes; the execution is all. And I disagree (to a certain extent) about the 'limiting your market' responses above. It's true that publishers are mostly commercial entities and that a controversial subject will have more hurdles in getting to market and thus you narrow your potential choice of publishers. That said, in an industry that is flooded with games, where few ever make a mark, that same controversial subject might just set you apart - and you might find the publisher who recognises this. Or that may be the push you need to go it alone. We self-published 'War on Terror' because we had no other option - and I've never for a moment wished we could have done otherwise.

I'm not advocating the use of controversy as a marketing tactic - setting out deliberately on this path is almost certainly a recipe for failure. However, if you have a good theme idea and a game that explores that theme well - and it just so happens that this theme is controversial... well don't let that put you off for a *second*. And certainly don't - if you have any creative integrity whatsoever - 'dumb it down' as "moonrats vs. space dolphins" or whatever.

Face it, chances of success are incredibly slim. Why compromise the only thing that you have total control over (the creative input) just to potentially raise those chances from "incredibly" to "very" slim?

Clever Mojo Games
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Pandemic: On The Brink

I have not played it, but my understanding is that the Pandemic expansion, "Pandemic: On The Brink", includes a method of playing a Bio Terrorist. It is available in the USA so, to at least some degree, we're relaxing a little over here.

DogBoy
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My Take

How controversial is controversial? "Controversial" literally means that there is active, heated disagreement over something (usually because some group finds it offensive). Under this definition, all violent computer games are controversial and possibly all violent boardgames too. Certainly all boardgames with any depiction of the Swastika anywhere on their pieces or in their manuals would class as controversial, since present-day Germans have such a horror of the symbol that they have made it illegal to sell products which contain the Nazi symbol. All fantasy games which involve performing sorcery are offensive to certain religious fundamentalists, and so on...

There are probably even a few people who find "Monopoly" offensive because of its profiteering ideology, or "Scrabble" offensive because it allows 17th Century Scots dialectal words but not the newest hip hop slang.

Personally, I think it's flat-out wrong to make a game with a potentially offensive theme if:
* You don't have a personal conviction that the theme is actually OK, or
* You are deliberately doing it to offend people, or
* You aren't willing to take responsibility for any offence caused

Beyond that, my opinion is going to depend very much on whether *I* find the theme offensive or not (i.e. which side of the controversy I am on).

Specifically in regard to terrorism, I personally think people are by and large pretty inconsistent in what they choose to call terrorism and what they don't. We currently have anti-terrorism laws in the UK which would have made it illegal to support the ANC's struggle against apartheid in South Africa - but I would be OK with playing a game set in apartheid-era South Africa whose point was to plan a bombing operation on a Bureau of Special Security headquarters (example of BOSS methods: torturing a 15-year-old girl to make her give up information on her activist parents).

I'd be less keen on playing the same game if the point was to plan a bombing operation on a major hospital in Pakistan (example of hospital methods: giving sick people antibiotics to stop them dying).

And as another poster observed, hardly anyone would object to a game about planning a bombing operation on a gravity superconcentrator on Titan (example of Titan Megacorp methods: operating graviton reactors, causing wormhole pollution throughout the rest of the Solar System).

truekid games
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i agree with most of dogboy's

i agree with most of dogboy's post, but disagree with the paragraph including the 3 starred points. "flat out wrong" implies a morally incorrect choice, whereas the only time it would be morally incorrect, in my eyes, is if it potentially included measurable and probable real-world ramifications. for instance, if your game on terrorism essentially walked players through the steps to make a pipe bomb.

as he mentioned, you can always find SOMEONE who will be offended regardless of what you do. heck, there are "idle hands are the devil's plaything" and "gambling is bad, even when no money is involved, so don't touch playing cards" advocates out there that would decry ALL forms of games. you've got the knowledge that you WILL offend, so if you proceed with the action, there is no difference whether that was your specific goal or not.

moreover, you could intend-to-offend and do so in a constructive way. the example cited in multiple design books is Brathwaite's "Train": http://playthisthing.com/train.

so yeah, in general i stand by my prior post- if you're not actually generating real-world problems (showing people how to build a bomb counts, hurt feelings do not, for the reasons stated above), then your primary concern is marketability.

DogBoy
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Thanks for the response

Thanks for the response truekid :-)

The original poster seemed to be inviting moral opinions as well as practical ones. I'd say that there is no area of human life which is immune to considerations about how to behave decently, and this includes making board games...

I stick by my opinion, which can be expressed as generic moral principles applicable to any domain:
* If you're going to do something which you know someone else is convinced is morally wrong, you ought to have thought about it and decided that it isn't morally wrong
* Causing offence for the sake of it is not a morally acceptable aim
* Take full responsibility for your choices
* (Otherwise, whether action X is morally wrong depends on what X is)

truekid games wrote:

moreover, you could intend-to-offend and do so in a constructive way. the example cited in multiple design books is Brathwaite's "Train": http://playthisthing.com/train.

Wow, what a brilliant, brilliant piece of work on so many levels!

But I wouldn't say the intention was to offend. In a sense "Train" is there to make the player feel that their own thoughtless actions are morally wrong. By contrast, in causing offence, the offended feels that the offender's actions are morally wrong. It looks like "Train" fails in its mission when it offends a player.

(If "Train" was understood as a boardgame for playing and having fun, with the twist revealed at the start, I would consider it morally wrong to sell, buy or play it.)

truekid games wrote:

as he mentioned, you can always find SOMEONE who will be offended regardless of what you do. ...
you've got the knowledge that you WILL offend, so if you proceed with the action, there is no difference whether that was your specific goal or not.

I don't agree with this view! :-)
If I eat the last biscuit, someone else WILL not get it. But if I don't even really want the biscuit, and eat it deliberately to spite someone else, that's a whole different moral ballgame. My intention matters.

Does that make sense?

ArchiTecT
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Like the real world?

Isn't it such that people play games, so it is people who might feel attracted by a certain theme? If you feel the history of slaves is controversial, don't use it. But I doubt if serious gamers would mind.

The question should be: for what sort of gamer population are you designing your game? If it's a family-game, try to avoid shady issues (such as slavery, I guess). Although, as some others pointed out, Mafia always seems to be popular as a theme. If you're designing a hardcore game for a selected few, make sure it's a solid game. The graphics and theme are less important when the gameplay itself gets more important.

That's just my point of view though.

scifiantihero
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Well . . .

. . . that's a good stance. :)

There's enough people who get worked up over things like that, though, that it's an important consideration, especially for a new designer. Do you want a BGG thread titled "This game gruesomely and abhorrently portrays and encourages the exploitation of minorities!" on the front page?

Some might say that any press is good press. Some might not. I probably wouldn't mind!

:D

michael s
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Controversial game themes?

It would be interesting if the games is closer to reality especialy they imitate real life places. For example besides carryng an extrmist group the game must have more strategical elements. The base of a controversial game is strategy. Anyway any game well done creates dependence.

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dobnarr
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Controversial themes

I have a couple of blog posts about this here on Train, and here and here on King Phillip's war, a game set in colonial America around clashes between Native Americans and European colonists, which some in the Native American community have found offensive.

My basic take is that unless you're deliberately trying to make a statement or provoke a response (e.g. Train), then it's better to avoid offensive topics, just as you'd avoid them in other areas of creative work, particularly if you're trying to attract an audience, which most of us want to do as game designers. However, so many topics, especially those based in history, are unexpectedly offensive, or terribly offensive to a small group, so it's tricky to walk through the minefield.

At some level, of course, controversy helps sales even if it causes consternation. But making use of that depends on how cynical you are.

smilyh (not verified)
Specifically in regard to

Specifically in regard to terrorism, I personally think people are by and large pretty inconsistent in what they choose to call terrorism and what they don't. We currently have anti-terrorism laws in the UK which would have made it illegal to support the ANC's struggle against apartheid in South Africa - but I would be OK with playing a game set in apartheid-era South Africa whose point was to plan a bombing operation on a Bureau of Special Security headquarters (example of BOSS methods: torturing a 15-year-old girl to make her give up information on her activist parents).

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