Learning, Sensitive Topics, and Games

A decade or so ago, I was owner of a different game company.  As owner, I went to a trade show out in Columbus, Ohio, along with my newly-teenaged son and my friend, Dave.  Dave’s a teacher and a gamer and he was always willing to help a one-man business (because manning a booth is exhausting and if you are alone, you can’t ever get out of that booth to go to the bathroom, for food, or anything).

When the day’s done, you get dinner and then wind up in the open gaming areas (which are no longer free, unfortunately) playing new purchases, prototypes, and being social.  Sometimes you play with friends, sometimes you get to play with new people.  It’s a chance to play new games.

Well, I was playing one with my son when Dave came back and mentioned a pre-production game he’d seen and thought I’d like.  It was about 10pm or so and I told my son we’d hit his curfew in a couple hours.  No biggie.  (Hahaha–you’ll see).  We went over to look and the two designers were sitting, talking with each other.  I said hi, they said hi, and invited us to sit down and play.  The game was ‘1960’, pitting Nixon vs. Kennedy.  The two gentlemen were Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews.  They’ve also designed ‘Campaign Manager’ and Jason was co-designer of ‘Twilight Struggle’, a hobby-game which has become quite famous over the past decade (even appearing in a South Park episode).

We played, we enjoyed…and got done around 1am.  Needless to note, I extended my son’s bedtime.  We talked for another hour about the election, and they very wonderfully included my son, answering his questions, accepting his comments.  This is important–this is how you teach, not just the history, but also modeling for a young person how to be part of a serious discussion.  During all this, it was noted I owned a game company.  They wondered if I wanted any designs and we decided to meet/talk the next evening.

We met and had a conversation on undiscovered topics.  We debated the moon race, Watergate, 9/11, and eventually decided on the U.S. Constitution.  The deciding factor?  Was it the seriousness of the subject–nope.  It’s that the number of attending delegates is the same as the number of cards on a factory’s print-sheet.  We felt that was destiny.

Two years later, I published their game “Founding Fathers”.  The game’s intent is to be the writer remembered for the document (in real life, Madison).  In terms of game play, it isn’t meant to be hyper-realistic.  Instead, it was about learning what the delegates did, the process of give-and-take, and I included quite a bit of history in the rulebook since very few people have ANY knowledge of the Constitution’s creation.

So?  Well…that’s why we have this blog-post.  The Constitution and its intent is a sensitive subject.  Everyone makes claims regarding what the intent of those delegates was, but who actually knows what those delegates said?  Does anyone realize one State refused to attend at all?  Is the Constitution a conservative document? Radical?  Why does the George Washington card have the power to immediately end an entire turn (there are only three turns in the entire game).

Because it is a political game, we were accused of bias.  The funny thing is, Jason’s an old-school Democrat, Christian is unaffiliated, and I’m old-school Republican.  There isn’t really bias.  Those guys did a great job with the research and I made sure with the rules and information to go with non-political sources.  The art–>Josh Cappel made the board look like the hall where it was held and we included a photo of the hall to boot to show that!

Are we biased?  It doesn’t matter.  You discussing our bias? THAT MATTERS.  It’s a good thing.  It leads discussion in multiple directions:

  1. What did the convention delegates actually do?
  2. What did they not do?
  3. Why do the rules act in certain ways?–debates are separate from votes, but delegates have their own special ‘powers’, on top of their individual views mattering for whether they can vote  (big/small state advocate, federalist/anti-federalist)
  4. Is the game biased in a certain modern political direction?
  5. Is the game ‘realistic’?
  6. What do you wish you knew more of on the topic?

You can see how this goes.  Jason and Christian did a couple other games on discussable topics–‘Campaign Manager’ which is about the McCain/Obama election and then, for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation ‘Sola Fide’ [Faithful Sun] about Martin Luther and the struggle in Germany regarding the direction of Christianity.  Big topics, worthy of discussion, and through games, they can be discussed without attacking your friend/fellow gamer’s personal beliefs.  You can discuss the designer or publisher intent, whether the rules present history accurately or not, the works.  Does the game miss the details, but get the big picture right?

Some other random things to consider:

  • Why do WW2 games avoid the issue of the Holocaust or Japanese atrocities? (Instead, you find bonuses for things like banzai charges)
  • In multiple games (Puerto Rico comes to mind first), why are the plantation worker pieces brown?  Why are they referred to as workers rather than slaves?  If they are brown because that’s realistic in some fashion, then why not admit those workers were slaves?
  • Is there a way to treat cardboard counters in a way that makes the game-player understand what the real consequences would be for its elimination in real life?  Or is it “Oh well, the XXX Corps is gone, I’ll rebuild it ASAP.”
  • Is it the designer’s responsibility with a historical game to make it clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, or should the designer be apolitical and let the players bring their knowledge to the table?

So think about how you can foster discussion on sensitive topics.  Games provide us with ways where we can address these topics, enhance critical thinking, but also in a way where we eliminate the need for personal attacks –as well as the feeling of being personally attacked.