12 April 2015

Mature themes

Don't be fooled by the title of this post. I'm not referring specifically to sexual topics. I'm going to be talking about anything that might be considered 'adult-oriented,' including violence, advanced social issues, and the like.

Before I go on, I want to mention something very quickly: I have noticed a continuation in the trend. My Board Game Review entries are still getting, by far, the most traffic. This week, the majority of my traffic seems to be coming from Russia. Fascinating...

Anyway, I'm going to talk about that more next week, but this week, I wanted to talk about something that I noticed whilst watching the latest episode of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. The latest episode is about the game Five Tribes. The game is set in the world of 1,001 Arabian Nights, and so contains viziers, camels, palaces, assassins, djinns, and slaves.

Mr Wheaton started out the episode with a little speech, in which he points out that some people have an ethical objection to the concept of slavery being included in the game, and that the publishers chose to include it because, moral or not, it was part of the culture being depicted in the game, and they felt it was important to portray the setting accurately. But as Wil Wheaton personally objects to the concept of owning another human being, he was going to refer to the slave cards as 'assistants' throughout the game.

What I find interesting about this is that they did not have a problem with the assassin in the game, and cheerfully joked about murdering repeatedly in the episode. In fact, Jenna Busch acquired a card early on in the game that allowed her to earn money any time a meeple was assassinated. It became a recurring joke that she was constantly hoping for assassinations so that she could get 'murder money.'

I am just as opposed to the concept of slavery as Mr Wheaton, but I find that the idea of taking a human life is equally repugnant to me. In both cases, you are robbing a human being of the ability to live a fulfilled and self-directed life.  As such, I thought it was interesting that they were unwilling to refer to the slavery cards by their actual name, but cheerily engaged in pretending to slaughter people. If you dislike the idea of pretending to own slaves in the course of a game, shouldn't you also be bothered by the idea of pretending to kill people?

This reminded me of a common critique of roleplaying games: that it glorifies immoral behaviour. I remember in particular a segment in the excellent documentary Über Goober in which a pair of Christian activists discuss how they had once been avid gamers, but eventually felt called to campaign (no pun intended) against the hobby because of its immoral excesses. They speak of their experiences in fantasy adventure gaming, casually killing and raping scores of NPCs.

I will avoid commenting on the nature of the individuals interviewed in this portion of the documentary. But I will say that it is true that otherwise normal, well-adjusted people (yes, yes, I know, stereotypes about gamers and the nature of the atrocious 'Gamergate' fiasco notwithstanding, most people who game are, for the most part, well-adjusted, even if they don't always fit in with so-called 'normal' society) can be seen to indulge in such anti-social tendencies like casual killing.

But isn't that part of the appeal of gaming? To indulge the darker recesses of the human psyche in a controlled, safe, and non-real environment?

Whatever you may think of the human condition, it's true that we all have these impulses. How they get there is irrelevant. Whether it's conditioned by cultural surroundings, or is inherent in our genetic makeup, is not important. What's important is that we all have a latent desire, at least to a small degree on occasion, to inflict harm on other people. Some of us may repress those urges, and others may have found a means to control them without suppression, but they're definitely there.

One of the greatest essays concerning gaming that I've ever read was in regards to the original Vampire: the Masquerade. It's been years since I read it, and I no longer have any of my Vampire books, so I can't tell you who wrote it or in which book it appeared, but the gist of the article was that it can be cathartic, if not therapeutic, to indulge those darker impulses from time to time. By playing out the darker side of our humanity, by playing a blood-sucking monster (or a bloodthirsty sword-wielding warrior, or a heartless soldier deep in enemy territory, or a calloused starfighter pilot, etc etc), we can 'let the beast out on a leash,' to coin a phrase, and then go back to our normal 9 to 5 lives ready to face the crushing mundanity of running the rat race with our fellow drones until the next time we need that release.

I've mentioned The Crimson Menagerie here before. The group would often use that campaign to blow off steam after a hard day. One of us would come home and say, 'It's been a tough day dealing with my idiot co-workers. I need to kill something.' Then we'd slip into our alternate personas, engage in a little vicarious fantasy mayhem (of both the violent and sexual varieties), and feel refreshed for the next day of dealing with idiot co-workers.

And at the end of the day, we'd understand that none of the things we did in that game were real. So it didn't matter how horrible or reprehensible were our in-character actions. It was a release. A safety valve.

Sure, there are people who have trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality, and tend to let their escapist hobby bleed over into the real world. But those people are the minority. And besides, isn't it better to have that release, that occasional escape from the 'real world,' to make it easier to deal with that real world?

Anyway, that was what I was thinking about after watching that episode. Thoughts? Opinions? Share them with me in the comment section! And until next week,

Game On!

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