Can you game serious subjects today?
Comment by Terry Martin
I am talking about recreational gaming, not professional or academic gaming. Nor am I talking about the iniquities of the Netanyahu regime, the horror of the attacks on October 7, or the tragedy that has resulted in Gaza. That’s not a reason to feel depressed, it’s a reason to feel much more – devastated, disheartened, angry and the most profoundly sad and pessimistic that I have felt in the 50+ years that I have been studying, visiting and working in the Middle East.
What I am writing about is that it’s a depressing time to be thinking of game design when your two primary interests are the Middle East and post-Soviet Russia’s development and involvement in geopolitics. Recently I was attacked on Swedish social media as an Islamophobe for putting on Deus Vult 2 at Mamo Games Week. Last week a friend advised me not to go on with my current project of updating Divided Land as I would be seen as anti-Muslim. Another friend contradicted him, saying the game would be seen as anti-Semitic, as the major terrorists in Divided Land are Jewish! I found both comments immensely sad as my original intention in writing it was to use a game as an enjoyable day as well as a way to counter the myths and disinformation spread by both ‘sides’ about Palestine in the late 1940’s.
I enjoy playing all types of game subjects, from ancient history to sci-fi and fantasy. But I came to game design as a historian rather than from a gaming background, and my intent has always been to present historical crises or changepoints in an entertaining way that hopefully leads to a deeper understanding of the time we are gaming. Now it seems that approach is too controversial to be accepted in today’s world of extreme reactions and ingrained certainties about the Middle East despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, the most difficult and nuanced geopolitical dispute since the end of WW2. I don’t know if it is the change in the megagaming public, or the spread of social media with its associated propaganda, but I never had this reaction to the Unfinished Business series of games back in the 1990’s. What I do know is that I won’t be designing any more megagames on the Middle East, which is one reason I am depressed.
So my design thoughts immediately turn to my other major area of current interest, post-Soviet Russia and its attempts to recreate if not an empire, then at least a sphere of influence as a major player on the international stage. I got into this area partly because of living and working in Central and Eastern Europe for over a decade, including Moscow, and partly because I married someone brought up in the Soviet Union, and now an anti-Putin activist here in Sweden. Living and working in the Baltic region , the common fear of a resurgent Russia fascinated me and I decided to design The Bear Growls, again a game I thought would stimulate thought as well as entertain. After the invasion of Ukraine and talking particularly to friends in Chestnut (CLWG) and Megagame Makers, I decided not to put the game on as a recreational megagame. As most readers know, it was actually played at DSTL in the end, thanks entirely to Jim Wallman, and it seemed to go well.
Now friends in the Swedish Defence University want to run it early next year, and that sounds great, but again I worry why a game about trying to avoid war is apparently toxic in the hobby field. I am sure we used to be able to play more black games and accept them in the way the designer intended. But nowadays it does seem to me that players come with more and more inbuilt prejudice and refusal to see that there may be two sides in any dispute, that the real world is never black and white, but actually consists of many shades of grey. Or is it simply that the very word ‘game’ is offensive in itself when it comes to sensitive subjects?
I have no answers of course, and I guess my next megagame project may be to find an area of history that I can game in my own way without offending anyone. I’m depressed enough to wonder if that’s even possible in these increasingly opinionated and extremist times. Perhaps racism in the Union during the ACW? (JOKE). Maybe I have to head out to Outer Space in the end.