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The Contract

Those Crazy Chicanos: and other adventures in political correctness

by J.S. Majer
Aug 06,2002


Those Crazy Chicanos: and other adventures in political correctness

The problem with writing about political correctness in games is that it is hard to do - not the writing itself, but the divorce of targeting games and only games as the object of discussion. That may be the point. The central question behind political correctness is whether things matter.

The danger with a phrase like "political correctness" is how it is used. As a term, it can be an invective with a point to the Right or the Left. For the former, it represents the Orwellian brainwashing that the Left has for ideas and concepts, for the latter it represents the Orwellian whitewashing that the Right has for ideas and concepts. Leftists use it to represent times when the topic or terminology has gone too far, when the word or idea lacks a certain propriety. Rightists use it to mock this propensity, to any restriction of expression based on supposed offense.

Over time the term has become quite the boogey. No one wants to be accused of being politically correct, and I would hazard that it has become more a tool of the Right, a simple way of dismissing someone's ideas as invalid. I do not see this as a good thing, but I understand how such things have come about. A few bad apples do spoil the lot, and it only requires a few fanatics armed with a bit of entomology to wreck some serious damage to a good idea.

I consider myself a politically correct gamer, and if you fanatics and counter-fanatics out there would only listen to what that means, I do believe that you will find it a reasonable position. Cut down to its basic component, political correctness is about sensitivity. Things matter, people care and you ask questions. Offending material is not excised per its offense - the sensitivity is not blanket - but the material is considered and deemed stand-worthy. Now, it is time for a series of examples.

There is a lobby out there who want me to write a LARP called "Plantation." (I've the perfect site you see). I may or may not get around to it, but there would be a number of ways that it could be done (Of course, it's been done already, but that's another story). Surely it would be a historical LARP, and one that would deal with a part of American history that is both ugly and beautiful. On one hand, we have the grandeur of the landed nobility of the Old South, not to mention their perfect ideology. On the other, we have the cruel brutality of racist slavery that was the foundation of that glory. Tara-Tara-Tara is what people want to see, what they want to play. But there is an ugly truth behind it.

This idea could be extended to nearly any period of note in human history: Feudal Europe, Victorian England, the American Frontier. To make omelets you have to break eggs, and frequently those broken eggs are other people. Arguably, the real problem is that both the Whigs and Marxists are right, that all human progress is neither as good or as bad as anyone cares to discuss, because that means saying that the Founding Fathers were a bunch of thieves and elitists with serious personal problems who, in some cases because of their bad ideas, did good things, which is too much duality for a human mind to process regularly. That, however, is another essay entirely.

So, in Plantation the question would be whether to portray the fun bits and ignore the historical reality or force the game into a far grimmer theme. Would not a combination be the best? Possibly, but that is the point. If Plantation did become a compromise game, where both upstairs and downstairs action was portrayed, political correctness would be getting its teeth in. My artistic integrity has been breached and restricted by a desire for a more appropriate take on things.

At work here is the question of sensitivity. At what point do I start offending people? At what point am I being callous by not considering the truth of the matter? Think about the Nazi Party game. Most of us reading this (I hope) can generally agree that the campaign of genocide against the Jews was a bad thing. Can it be a topic of relevance without becoming character or token? That is to say, there are a lot of Nazi games were the "Jewish problem" would not have any relevance, but would players tolerate a game without it? It is so core to our concept of Nazism, the most strident reminder about what is wrong with it. So should it not come up at some point?

No, it should come up, but in a relevant way. That's the proper thing. People do not want to play the game of the good Nazis (good as loyal to the party), which is a lie that reveals one of the weird meta-levels of gaming. I imagine that the game would work because gamers enjoy getting way outside of themselves in characters. Such a game could be profoundly dark, and take on all the vicissitudes of the most powerful horror game ever imaginable.

Of course, someone, upon hearing about it, would get offended. SS, the game? It risks being terribly, terribly wrong. It risks being a vindication because on some level you are endorsing the actions of the portrayed; you are saying that these people are worth considering like your third level Barbarian. It is going to piss someone off.

Is their anger justified? Well, that's the inevitable problem of political correctness. Political correctness, because it sniffs out potential anger, censors creation. Someone does not make the game, or immediately dismisses anyone who does make that game, because they assume that there is no way such a topic could be dealt with appropriately. Because Plantation is asking for someone to misplay it in a way that completely vindicates the Old Southern hierarchies, people do not write it. Likewise, because there are those people, other people are inspired to create it for those very reasons. They offend to offend, or brutally dismiss any complaints. There is nothing wrong with promoting a stereotypical view of the third world in my game, thank you very much. In fact, there's no real promotion of that view, and you're just reading something into it that isn't there. There's nothing at all, and it's just a game.

Such a view is the greatest flaw of the anti-politically correct side, and complete bollocks. Because the concept has been demonized, people intentionally stop caring. This singular self-imposed blindness puts me more strongly on the side of the politically correct than years of hitting on womyn's studies majors.

Frankly, I don't believe in the existence of "justagame," as in "it's just a game, you're just being politically correct," which translates to "I'm not going to think about it, I'm no 'thought criminal,' you fascist pig, you." I don't believe in justagame because I adhere to that unruly branch of Semiotics that thinks anything resonates with meaning and message. Where I differ from my fellows is that I see The Lion King as both a parable against welfare and an uplifting saga of the Hero's Journey. I am politically correct because I, like any good scholar, look for the meanings in everything. And sometimes I find some pretty dark things.

Is a game of D&D where there are routine My Lais a bad thing? Slaughtering a town does happen, especially in a situation where an implacable war has come about. In a justagame mindset, this incident means nothing and is not wrong. A goblin is just an XP reservoir anyway. It may be justified or reasonable, but it is clearly wrong. It should not have happened. Non-combatants should not be killed wantonly in a combat situation, (and that "wantonly" is super-important to avoid traipsing into all the wrong arguments).

Something can be equally wrong when the situation becomes kitschy, enters after-school special mentality. You know, they find the puppy and everyone gets all sad and looks off into the distance mournfully, then goes back to their routine. There has to be another ground. The really cool activity takes place on a meta-gaming level with the players intentionally acting out despicable acts for the sake of an internally cathartic experience that would blow Aristotle's mind.

The stereotypically politically correct view is that any game that traffics in offensive motif is bad because it offends someone. (Anna over there is offended by the destruction of the town, trapping all the whores in the burning building was completely over the top, you guys need to stop). The stereotypically anti-politically correct view is that such potential offense is irrelevant because the fun of the game is tantamount, toe stepping be damned. (Yeah, and next time we're going to trap them all in a burning building, and roast S'mores. I like killing off the dog-heads more than I like Anna). Fuck both of those stereotypes. If you think that you are superior because you a) offend no one or b) offend every one, you are an idiot. It's not the offense; it's the sense behind it.

So what if you name the Gnomes in your D20 world the Semites? So what if one of the characters for the LARP was raped by one of the other characters? So what if one of the worlds in your sci-fi game is a Communist paradise? It is going to happen. You cannot divorce your own political views and social considerations from what goes on in the game and game world. It is how you understand the world.

But what makes for a politically correct game is stopping to consider what is going on. Does that rape matter enough to justify its existence, or are you throwing it in for cheap characterization? Have you considered who might not like the way you present the Indians in your Victorian Steampunk world? If you can say, "Yes, I see what offends you, but I consider it integral to the piece," not to soothe your wounded pride but because it does actually matter, then you are completely justified in your choice, and it is the opposition that has not given you enough credit.

Armed with sufficient forethought, there can be nothing offensive. But done apathetically, damn near anything can wind up wrong.

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