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Game designer Zack Hiwiller discusses examples where an examination of a game is meaningless outside the social and/or cultural setting of its players. This discussion emphasizes the danger of ignoring cultural milieu while designing your game.

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This chapter is from the book
  • “All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”

    —Johann Sebastian Bach

Most game analysis tried to examine an experience as a hermetically sealed object. Games are lists of rules, after all. Analyzing those rules and how those rules work in conjunction seems to be a reasonable approach. Leaving random number generation aside, a game should run the same way given the same inputs for a player in 1987 Japan and 2017 United States. In this chapter, we will discuss some examples where an examination of a game is meaningless outside the social and/or cultural setting of its players.

Taste and Distaste

One of my favorite board game designers is Richard Breese. He largely makes worker placement games with very little conflict. In his games, you move workers around in an idyllic representation of medieval countrysides and win by being more efficient than your opponents rather than by denying them or beating them into submission. The art for most of his games is pastoral kitsch, and it would be tough to take offense to the worlds he creates.

In 2017, he launched his newest game, Keyper. In it, players have one of the Keyper (“keeper”) figures shown in Figure 11.1. Like many of his fans, I was excited for the game enough to reach the dedicated message boards for it on BoardGameGeek.com. I was surprised to see a message from a German enthusiast who was concerned about playing the game. Why? Because of the low fidelity of the detail in the wooden figures, a figure that is waving (as the graphic is intended to be) looks a lot like a figure giving a straight-armed salute with its right hand. What is commonly called the “Nazi salute,” the straight-armed right hand in the air is banned in Germany, with some exceptions, and is punishable by up to 3 years in prison.

Figure 11.1

Figure 11.1 A Keyper

Naturally, no one intended for the figure to conjure up that connotation. Certainly, very few people outside of Germany (Breese is British) would ever make that association. The point of bringing it up here is not whether the person who brought that up on the message board is right to be concerned or wrong, but to highlight that a component of how games are consumed must at some point take into consideration the social and cultural environment of its players. Nothing embedded in the construction of the rules or components is inherently designed to bring up negative connotations, but with a playgroup of a particular sensitivity, the play experience is changed.

More than 70 years after World War II, even trifling connections can make for some overt sensitivity. But the subject as a whole has not been taboo. In fact, there are enough games in both analog and digital form about World War II that they can be their own genre. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty franchises often deal in revisionist history around the war to little or no fanfare.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was a 2002 PC release by Electronic Arts. In it, players interact using many of the verbs that are standard for the genre: walk, jump, crouch, switch weapons, run, reload, throw grenade, and of course, shoot. You shoot and kill a lot of people in Allied Assault. It is the only way to progress in the game.

The game had nearly universally positive reviews. It sold nearly a million copies. It received a 91% on Metacritic, a review aggregator. Of the 34 reviews listed on Metacritic, no one mentions the overt violence of the game as anything other than perfunctory. The blurb of the review from All Game Guide says, “Nazis are fun and rewarding to kill.” That is such a normal sentiment among video game players that it goes without saying in most cases. Of course, the Medal of Honor Nazis are largely not shown committing the crimes that made them universal enemies in fiction in the entire modern era. We just take the game’s word for it that the enemies the game puts in front of us are inhuman enough to deserve execution, and other means of progress need not apply.

Let’s compare Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with one of its contemporaries. This game, released in the same year for the same platform, uses very similar verbs: walk, run, reload, shoot, etc. This game received almost universal scorn and was estimated to have only sold a few thousand copies. The game received the reception it did, not because the technical execution of the game was much worse than Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, although this game had poor execution no matter its competitors. The game received the reception it did because of its thematic content.

This game was called Ethnic Cleansing. In it, you complete the same verbs as you would in any other first-person shooter, but your enemies are racially stereotyped African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews. Whereas in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, the hidden subtext is that most of these people you are using lethal force on are partners in atrocity, in Ethnic Cleansing, you kill your enemies only because they are not white. The game is stupid and despicable and probably would have faded away with the tens of thousands of other moderately less stupid and despicable games if not for attention from media and advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League.

A purely rules-based examination of the two games would largely focus on differences in level design topology and secondary dynamics (such as AI behaviors). In these areas, Ethnic Cleansing is also atrocious. But no one hates Ethnic Cleansing because it is bad at being a game. They hate it because they live in a social and cultural environment where its thematic content is not acceptable.

Every game referenced in this book I have played and studied to some degree, except Ethnic Cleansing. I cannot motivate myself to find a mirror of the game hosted somewhere to try it. I’ve watched videos of people playing the game on YouTube. That’s as close as I can get. Even though I would not be influenced by it (and don’t see how anyone could actually change their opinion based on such a poor product) and can certainly separate the thematic content from the mechanical content, I nonetheless find it so distasteful that I cannot touch it. That is the power of the milieu in which the game exists.

Ethnic Cleansing is not the first nor will it be the last racist game. It isn’t even particularly remarkable at being racist. In 1983, Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600 tasked the player with committing a rape on a Native American woman. Another game of questionable-at-best sensitivity is a 2007 “educational” game for the Nintendo DS called Spanish for Everyone, which is full of derogatory innuendos about Hispanics.

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