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No Good

Middle-Class Fantasies

by Juhana Pettersson
May 06,2003

 

Middle-Class Fantasies

- Juhana Pettersson

Every media product has a political content. Sometimes it's obvious. Werewolf: the Apocalypse is about direct action in pursuit of enviromental goals. Usually the political content is not advertised on the book cover, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

D&D and it's derivatives tend to go for strong middle class values. The solid, good folk have tended to be prosperous burghers, craftsmen or farmers. The evil people are wizards (intelligentsia), orcs (the poor), dragons (the rich) or undead (I have no idea; the poor again?).

In D&D, you often get the feeling that Lawful Good is more good than Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil less evil than Chaotic Evil. Paladins, who are supposed th be the epitome of good are always lawful, and Heaven is the LG Mount Celestia. In the Dragonlance book Dragons of Summer Flame, our heroes band together with LE knights in order to fight chaos.

This kind of thinking is perfect for middle class people who value things like stability and comfort. Lawful Evil is better than Chaotic Evil because LE is the dictator who is oppressing the peoples of other countries while CE is the serial killer the media is trying to scare you with.

The idea that orcs are meant to be metaphors for black people and elves are Aryan superhumans is an old one. By the same token, the evil kingdoms full of orcs and other humanoids are metaphors for Third World Countries. The subject is put very eloquently in the Lord of the Rings movies where the exploited orcs attempt industrialization under the leadership of Saruman, but are thwarted by the prosperous humans, ents and elves.

Tolkien puts the idealized middle class man squarely in the center stage with his vision of Hobbits. Little people, indeed.

Titillating but ultimately rejected social mores are externalized on the drow and similar constructs. The drow have a matriarchy, sexually aggressive women, effeminate men and a society ruled by eternally conspiring elites. The drow female has to be the greatest single sex object produced by modern fantasy.

Cyberpunk is a product of the eighties and it shows. It's political, but the politics are so out of date that the dystopia of yesterday looks like a utopia of tomorrow. Think about it. The world of Cyberpunk is populated by huge companies based in immense arcologies, with armies of workers forming something like a small nation.

Today we have huge brands which have externalized all production to third world sweatshops, who have no regard for their employees and who believe that everybody can be replaced. The idea of a company arcology is ridiculous to these giants who may have as little as a couple of hundred real employees, like Nike.

I've found that horror games tend to be the least political. I can't say there is any obvious political significance to the character of Cthulhu or the Metropolis of Kult. That doesn't mean that these games are free of politics, but it means that you may have to look real hard and there may not be a lot to find.

American media giants tend to shy away from critical political content in entertainment products. You don't see real analyses of racial issues or international politics in Friends, Star Wars or Fox News. This doesn't mean these products are free of politics. I don't know how you Americans feel about them, but movies like Pearl Harbor, the Patriot, Air Force One or Independence Day play like propaganda for a non-American audience.

If you doubt me, check out the scene in Armageddon where the American president informs the people of the world that they'll be saved from destruction. My favorites were the Arabs, worshiping the Great White God.

A thing like that is a political message. It says: "We Americans will look after you. You don't have to worry about nothing."

Every game you play is a political game. Your every act is a political act. For example, you buy Pulp Fiction on DVD. By doing this, you're supporting a certain kind of a movie. You're also supporting Miramax, and therefore Disney. From Disney the money goes to MPAA, which supports copyright laws that favor big money over the artists or the people.

To the best of my knowledge, gaming companies are not big enough to have sinister agendas. Perhaps Hasbro is planning to secretly introduce the cancer-like growth of the D20 system to the conquered Iraqi population as a part of a dastardly plan of customer cultivation. I don't know.

I had a moral crisis when I found out that Tracy Hickman is a practising Mormon. I had just passed my Finnish-language Dragonlance books to my ten year old sister. It was a long time since I read them. Perhaps they were steeped in a suspect Mormon morality I'd been too young to notice, and were even now brainwashing my sister into a religious person.

The idea was almost too horrible to contemplate.

Then I remembered that I read this stuff as a kid, and played with G. I. Joe toys to boot, and despite all that propaganda I have managed to form a healthy scepticism of religion and U.S. anti-terrorism activities.

When you buy D&D3, you're making a political choice and when you're buying some freaky little indie game, you're making another choice about what you want to support.

This column is a political column. I have a number of things I'd like to see happen in the field of roleplaying games, and the way I write is geared towards those goals even when I'm not trying to be political. This is the same for everybody who writes. Sometimes those goals are just better camouflaged because they're in sync with the general media culture.

Here are some of the goals that have to do with roleplaying:
- Roleplaying has to be accepted as an art form both by the roleplaying community and the society at large.
- Roleplaying as art has to develop. Preferably as far from its D&D roots as possible.
- People should play their own games and not the safe, unimaginative mainstream crap currently on the market. I have nothing againts the industry per se, mind you. It would just be nice to see some good games on the shelves of the game store.
- The distinction between tabletopping and larping should be recognized for the illusion it is.
- Roleplayers have to have more ambition.

In addition to these goals, I have a number of other political beliefs that don't have much to do with roleplaying, but which may nevertheless show through sometimes.
- Democracy and accountability. I think it's the responsibility of every man and woman to take part in politics. Delegating that to representatives and political elites and voting for them because they sound gung-ho without bothering to find out what they stand for is reprehensible. Not voting is just stupid.
- National sovereignty. You shall not invade another man's country and steal their oil.
- Non-violence. I don't believe in violence as a means for achieving anything positive in international politics, in direct action and in personal relationships.
- Justice, personal freedom and equality. Equally in international politics and everyday life. Freedom belongs to the people, not to money.

Whether you know it or not, you have similar sets of political beliefs, radical or not, that shine through everything you do.

The goal of all this has been to clarify a simple point: Personal is political. Your game is political. Everything is political.

What is to be done?

Recognizing the political content in your games means that you can do something with it. You can make sure you're not making any points you don't want to make. You can customize it for your players.

You have to be aware of your audience when you're creating art or entertainment. Things that might go over well with one audience will be despised by another. This is especially important with political content. The flag-waving of Fox News might feel patriotic to a Republican American, but to a Frenchman (or me) it might be positively offensive.

With a lot of mass media, there is only so much you can do about your audience. Fox News seems to fulfill an internal American propaganda function, but it's also accessible to virtually everybody else on the planet. For the rest of us, the effect is something completely different.

Writing this column, I know that when I talk about Fox News this way, a lot of people will nod in agreement, and a lot of people will be confused, and possibly even angry. But the thing is, I have no idea how many people will react and in what ways.

Roleplaying games are almost unique in the sense that they don't have this problem. When you're starting a game, you know your audience. If you don't, it's not hard to find out. If you want to make a political game, you can control your message with great exactness.

When I'm making a political game for the people I usually play with, I can take a lot of things for granted. I know I don't have to worry about anyone getting offended by things like disrespectful attitudes toward religion, our national symbols or authorities. I can play around with sex without anyone flipping. This means that I have the room to explore these issues a lot more thoroughly than I otherwould would, because I don't have to explain or cover all the bases.

With a traditional roleplaying game, you can tailor the political content for a single player, if need be. For example, I might be worried that Mike's view of prostitutes is too simplistic. Therefore, I would include prostitute characters, pimps, johns, social workers and so on, and try to potray all of it as true to reality as I can. I might even make him play a prostitute himself. Or a pimp.

A good example of a game that did all this was the larp inside:outside by Mike Pohjola and Eirik Fatland. In that game a number of people woke up in a cell dressed in prison uniforms. They had diverse backgrounds and no one had any idea how they got there. If you've seen the movie Cube, you know what I'm talking about.

It turns out that they have wardens in their small prison. Some of them are called to Kafkaesque interrogations. The wardens don't hesitate to resort to violence. During the game it becomes obvious that playing along with the authorities and doing what they ask is not going to work. A lot of characters advocate this because of the way they're written. Only concentrated, systematic disobedience has any hope of achieving results against fascistic state power.

Failure of authority has been a theme that's popped up in many of my games, first unintentionally and then intentionally. Once I realized that this was a running theme, I could use it more efficiently. Authority tends to have a political dimension, and in my games it tended to be represented by powerful white males. Since I was interested in playing with authority in my games, I could now explore it deeper than the obvious manifestations demanded.

Heroes of the Revolution

Understanding the politics of your game is especially important if you're into heroes. If your PCs are heroes, if the game has heroic characters, you have to know what you're considering as heroic behavior. If you want your heroes to be shinging examples of humanity, you have to know what they can and can't do. If you're going to go all Dark Knight Returns, at least you have to know what you're deconstructing.

If you say someone, real or fictional, is a hero, you're making a political statement. If you intend your character to be a hero, you have to make these decisions constantly. The simplest choice you have to make is whether you want the character to be a hero according to your worldview or in some in-game context. But even if it's heroism in an in-game context, you're still making a statement about the real world.

In D&D, the classic hero is the Paladin. For me personally, the Paladins don't cut it as heroes, because they're generally supporters of established authority. On the other hand, were I to use the X-Men in a game, I could potray them in a heroic light because their politics are in accordance with my own. Except maybe with Israel, but that's a small issue.

A normal fantasy game consists of a band of heroes traveling around, killing bad guys and taking their stuff. I haven't seen many fantasy games where the heroes do any actual heroing. Many people have told me that they like playing these fantasy heroes, with the emphasis on the hero. So that's got to be important. But what usually happens in these games is that a bunch of guys slowly get more and more powerful and vanquish foes roughly their own level. And steal their stuff.

I don't really know, since I'm not especially interested in heroes. From my perspective, the obsession with heroes seems to pop up mostly with Americans. You only have to look at superhero comics, most roleplaying games and the five o'clock news. Everybody seems to be a hero these days over there.

- juhana

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