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No Good

NexSec Word of God

by Juhana Pettersson
Aug 12,2003


NexSec Word of God

- Juhana Pettersson

I've written two columns about politics and RPGs, and now it's time for the third and last one. This time I'll talk about the practical side of making a political game, using two examples of actual political games.

If you're creating a political game, you have to understand your own politics and you have to understand your audience. Before you can say anything, you have to have something to say. It usually pays to iron out a pretty clear mission statement right at the start. My own political preferences will probably be quite apparent from this column, but don't let that distract you from the actual content even if you disagree. You can use roleplaying games to transmit any message you want.

These are examples of good political agendas, good in the sense that they provide a solid foundation on which to build a game:

"The corporate plunder of Iraq is wrong."

"The best way to reduce crime is to reduce poverty and strive for equal distribution of wealth."

"Only free health-care can provide equal, good-quality treatment to everybody."

These are bad agendas, in the sense that they are too vague or removed from reality:

"Freedom is good."

"War is bad."

"Capitalism sucks."

A good political agenda gives you some clues about how to go about realizing the game itself. It gives you some ideas toward the setting, who the characters are and what the game content might be. It's also more rewarding for the players. The game has to be a bit more complex to deal with a more complex political agenda. I tend to feel slightly stupid when I realize that the message that somebody's trying to tell me is an empty slogan instead of a concrete argument.

If your players are card-carrying Republicans, you might want to go about spreading your message differently than if they all voted for the Green party. You have to understand your players, their political convictions, how educated they are and how resistant they are to change and new ideas. Most of the games I run have players who have are much like me. This means that I can take a lot for granted, and it also means that I can explore morally questionable territories without fear of being misunderstood.

Roleplaying is great for the human interest angle. If you want to promote social security, make a game where the characters are unemployed single mothers with cancer. If you want to promote the freedom to own firearms, make them family men who have to rely on their guns to keep their families safe. If you want to promote trickle down economics, make them play the Latino pool cleaners in Hollywood. This means that it won't be such a problem if your players have no idea where Iraq is, because if they play uneducated, working class Iraqis, their grasp of geography might not be that great either. You can smuggle informational content into the game later.

You have no obligation to tell your players that they're playing a political game, and if you want to be a good propagandist, you might want to make sure they never know. If you want to run an Iraq game, the game will politicize itself no matter what, but if your game is set in New Jersey and is about gun control, you can work so subtly no one notices. This way, the players can draw their own conclusions. I hope you have enoygh trust in your political agenda that you believe the facts will back it up. If you do, you shouldn't be fearful that the players make the wrong conclusions. If they do, you might want to examine your own beliefs or make sure your game is really saying what you think its saying.

Word of God 15' radius

If a roleplaying game has a self-professed purpose, it usually is to "have fun". By contrast, the purpose of Spiritual Warfare the RPG, by Brent D. Wisdom, is to "introduce people in the roleplaying communities to Jesus Christ." Of course, Wisdom does "pray that we can recognize that God wants us, as His children, to have fun." Still, the main thrust of the game is evangelical. The quotes are from the free pdf sampler of the game available at its website.

This makes the games unique. As far as I know there are no other games created to explicitly market a specific religion, worldview or set of politics. I've seen religious RPGs before, but even they have refrained from a mission statement such as the one above. Besides, if you feel the title Game Master is too butch for you, you'll be happy to hear that in Spiritual Warfare, you'll be a Game Shepherd (GS). "The day of evil is here; will you be able to stand?"

I'll quote some more from the introduction: "This RPG is designed to help people understand two things: First of all, that God is greater than our adversary, Satan. ... Secondly, to understand how Satan attacks us so that we can recognize his schemes 'in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes,' 2 Corinthians 2:11.

"Spiritual Warfare the RPG, however, is not a game of Satan versus God. It is a game of Satan vs. God's children (His People). This is not a game designed to show the frailties of God, God is not frail in any way shape or form. ...

"This game will help the player realize that even though we go through tribulations and trials, God is with us."

While I don't agree with the message, I find the medium very interesting. In the name of diversity and less escapist games I'd like to see this trend prosper. If you're a young roleplaying enthusiast who's racking his brain about how to make his particular homebrew fantasy campaign world interesting to publishers, I have a solution for you! Surf on the wave of the future by writing and self-publishing one of these games instead:

American Dream: the RPG The United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth. The players will realize the truth of Manifest Destiny, learn to understand the responsibility of being the world's premier Democracy and confront the fact that the rest of the world fears and envies the freedom and priviledge afforded its citizens. Set in contemporary times, this is a post-apocalyptic game, since it's set in post 9/11 times. It is a time of innocence lost as America has had come to terms with its role in an often hostile world.

The Safety is Off: The Official NRA roleplaying game This is a game about security. Our heroes are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary events. They'll have to depend on their wits, courage and shotguns to survive. A good scenario might feature a group of friends boarding a plane as they're going to an NRA event. They smuggle guns on board because you never know, and sure enough, Islamist Muslim Raghead Psycho Fundamentalists try to abduct the plane. Will they save the day and live to tell the tale, or will they make a noble sacrifice in the hallowed tradition of "Let's roll"?

Necessary Illusions: the RPG The players learn to understand one of the fundamental flaws of democratic systems and how they can be resolved: The general voting public has a nasty habit of interfering with the actions of elected individuals. The players learn to appreaciate and use the natural systems of propaganda and misinformation that keep up the necessary illusions of the general public. The message of this game is a popular one: "The people don't need to know," or perhaps more dramatically "The world must be protected from the eldritch knowledge I have acquired."

"GS: Cool! O.K Aleazar you loose your arrow, roll your attack ... Hit! Go ahead and calculate the damage. Now you Cale.

"PC Cale: I'm going to use the Rhema Fire. So here goes, (clearing his throat), Hebrews 12:29 'For our God is a consuming fire.'"

Spiritual Warfare is essentially a fantasy RPG with some Christian trappings, including a Bible-based magic system and rules for converting people to the faith. However, it also has the familiar elves and dwarves and in terms of roleplaying philosophy it's very game-oriented. Were I to make a game for converting people to the Christian faith, I doubt I would choose this road. Fantasy games tend to have the widest audience, but a game like this is bound to be marginal by default. Therefore, I would be inclined to go for an immersionistic game, beause that way the players are more profoundly affected by the game content. I think the fantasy elements just confuse the issue, although they bring a touch of familiarity to the game from the perspective of the average gamer.

Still, how about some hardcore Bible roleplaying? Make a campaign in which the players play familiar Biblical figures like Moses and his compatriots and let the players experience firsthand the lives of all these great men. If you're a good GM, you should be able to get the proper religious spin going so that the players will understand the glory of God.

Alternatively, you could do a modern day game about the war for the human soul. As long as there's immersion, you can put the religious spin to anything, and I would think the most interesting and effective stories would be those where the PCs themselves ultimately find salvation in the Christian faith. Supernatural elements might work well in a Biblical Mage-style game for which a magic system extrapolated from Spiritual Warfare would fit perfectly.

Fuck Burson Marstellar

There's some tradition of political larps in Scandinavia and Finland, games like Europa, Ground Zero, inside:outside and Amerika. PanoptiCorp, the latest game in this tradition, was held in Norway from the 17th to the 20th of July 2003. The 30 players were the employees of an advertising/PR-agency, and the game had them working through a couple of normal working days in the corp.

PanoptiCorp is a clearly political game. It doesn't have a purpose that would supersede the importance of the medium itself as Spiritual Warfare does, but as the webpage states, it is "meant to be a satirical reflection of the early 21st century, seen through the eyes of a trendier-than-thou transnational advertising/PR corporation." According to testimonies from people who played in the game, the central political message was the idea of the moral vacuum in which a company like this does it's business. They promote whatever they're paid to promote, any way new or efficient without regard to whether it would be moral to do so.

From the website: "As a participant in PanoptiCorp, you need to leave your morals at home. It's a tough world, and you need to be tougher and more ambitious than your colleagues. We want and expect uncompromising roleplay, and by that we mean acting out your character without regard for the Larp as a whole, without being "nice" to other players. The Larp will take care of itself. Focus on your character. This is not the LARP for philanthropic idealism. Remember, cash is king!"

From Jaakko's 1st post in the laiv.org discussion: "Projects varied from coming up with slogans for milk companies to changing public perception of land-mines and selling Eurovision song contest to the youth of Western Europe. Most projects had some ethically questionable aim (selling skin whitening cream to black women, using child pornography to collect funds for Save the Children association)."

The PanoptiCorp employees sleep at the workplace in a large hall, which meant that one of the eternal plagues of multi-day laprs everywhere was resolved in a nice diegetic fashion. It also meant that the game was on 24/7. The work the characters were doing was not simulated. The players actually had to work. The game also employed a corporate slang specifically created for its purposes, includign such gems of Newspeak as Now (acceptable but not good), NexSec (next second), Husband/Wife ("Someone who takes shagging way too seriously, and might even consider children of their own [the most common sexually transmitted disease] a good idea") and TestShag ("A first-time or one-time Shag").

Looking at these games, I sometimes wonder whether it wouldn't be more resonant to call things by their real names and instead of playing in a satirized PanoptiCorp (list of customers includes NADO, Spill Oil, Texo-HydraCo, Petroleum Jeans, SvadaT Soap Co., The Demopublican Party and Amfeta Cola Corporation) the players would clog through a couple of working days at Burson Marstellar (clients like the Indonesian government at the time of the East Timor crisis, LAPD at the time of the Rodney King PR debacle, Exxon after Valdez) or Hill & Knowlton, which brought us the "spontaneous public campaign" for military intervention as Iraq invaded Kuwait at the start of the nineties.

The strength of a larp is in the experience. I can tell you that huge PR firms do all kinds of bad things, but experiencing the logic of how it works is something quite different. In terms of conveying a political message, larp is a quite powerful tool. Many PanoptiCorp players talked about how liberating it felt not to have to care. It is quite seductive to be able to do whatever it takes with no regard for the feelings of other people, morals or any such nonsense.

Spiritual Warfare: www.spiritualwarfarerpg.com. Check out Sergio Mascarenhas's review of the game here at rpg.net.

Panopticorp: www.panopticorp.com. Panopticorp is discussed at the laiv.org forum. Don't be scared at the Norwegian language first post, it'll change to English soon enough. The good stuff starts at Ole Peder's first post; you'll have to scroll down a bit to get to it. It degenerates into a discussion about how gender assumptions worked in the game, but page two of the thread has more worthwhile reading in the form of two long posts by Jaakko.

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What do you think?

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