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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

See What They Tell You

by Justin Unrau
Dec 01,2005


See What They Tell You

My friend and I are at a mosque in Kashgar in the far western part of China. A place where the government is calling the people terrorists and clamping down on any religious activities the way they used to do more publicly with Tibetans.

There's a sign in the mosque, extolling the modern toilets and numbers of stores that have been added to the mosque in the last 50 years. And then it says:

"All of it shows fully that Chinese government always pays special attentions to the another and historical cultures of the ethnic groups and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Party's religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of equality, unity and helps to each other, and freedom of beliefs is protected. All ethnic groups live friendly together here. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic, separatism and illegal religious activities."

And we were both very glad to be in such a harmonious place.

By now if you've been reading this column regularly you know I live in China, the land of opportunity. Or at least that's what they tell us. I'm not saying that the propaganda here is as bad as people might think, but there are certain topics that don't get mentioned in the papers. But this isn't the big thing that most characters in games have to deal with.

Adventurers tend not to sit around consuming newspapers and other media (unless it's Call of Cthulhu and you need to find your next clue/indescribably mutilated corpse); they go places. And places that are at all historical get used for their own propagandistic purposes.

In Chongqing, the huge city nearest me in China, there are a couple of prisons where the Kuomintang government imprisoned Communists in the 1930s and 40s. People can go into the cells and watch videos about how they escaped from their horrible murdering captors. Every one of the prisoners is described on the walls of their former cells, along with pictures and the date of death. Since most of the death dates were the same (the night before the KMT government fell) it does a nice subtle reinforcement of the Communists' victimization.

I'm not trying to say that these are all lies or anything, but it is a manipulation when those people down below are being linked with the museums further up the hill venerating the leaders who weren't such innocent victims. A way of generating sympathy if you will. This whole visit to these prisons gave me great ideas for games of manipulating characters into supporting a group or ideology they might have problems with in the first place.

Players get too smart for the basic switcheroo, and need to be fed things with just a certain spin on them. The old lure them in with facts and then just attach something damning on the end. Americans should be familiar with this, as Congress does it all the time.

The other weird propagandistic thing that adventurers might notice about a place is how it isn't mentioned/talked about. Tiananmen Square is my big example here. We all know about the 1989 massacre that killed X number of students who were protesting for democracy. It was one of the big things that I had to see when I was first in Beijing. And there's nothing really to mark that major occurrence. The square is huge. The ancient gates are around in various states of restoration. There's the gigantic picture of Mao on the wall where he proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China. There's the Forbidden City itself and the countdown to the 2008 Olympics clock, but nothing to mention where the guy stood in front of the tank. I mean, really, that's what you'd expect, but it was still kind of disorienting. You start to think that maybe all the stories you've heard are just made up. Interestingly, every year in May around the anniversary of the massacre the square is closed off for "renovations."

This disorientation is something I'd try to make real for my players, since they probably aren't going to the big tourist spots in their settings (assuming there is even a tourism industry). One place looks pretty much like another, and it's really easy to completely miss the significance of a location if there aren't any monuments. Dungeon delvers tend to have an easier time of this, but if you're looking for a specific battlefield or something else, in real life it's probably really hard to find (barring accurate info for your GPS).

This one's another one that Call of Cthulhu characters have down, but you really need to do research if you're planning on stumbling across the sites of things that whatever government might not be proud of. My buddy and I spent a few days in Hama (in Syria) just relaxing and drinking freshly squeezed juice. Eight months later I found out that Hama was the site of this huge massacre by Assad's government troops, and that hundreds of bodies are buried under new buildings' foundations. I felt like the worst adventurer/journalist in the world. Moral of the story: don't trust guidebooks to tell you the whole situation.

Back in Tiananmen Square is another one of those agitprop marvels: the body of Mao. Just like Lenin, the Great Helmsman was preserved in formaldehyde and a glass coffin. Seeing him (or his wax effigy, because really, who knows?) was a strange experience. You know that you're in the presence of a body that held a brain that changed the world, and all you can do is look up his nostrils as you file through. At the mausoleum people could buy flowers to offer and some people seemed fully into the experience, but I know I felt more like the stereotypical dungeon delver making light of the death. It just didn't matter that much to me. So if your players aren't suitably reverent when they stumble into the tombs of the ancient king of the land, well, it's probably natural, and you can be happy that they'll probably fall into the fiendish traps you have set.

I'll save my experiences in American propagandizing for a followup article sometime in the future. I hope this has sparked a couple of ideas.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda

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