We are more than just tokens

The Escapist ran a great story about a game designer who made people cry.

It wasn’t in the same way that Alganon  makes you cry. (Or even the way that Flowers for Algernon makes me cry.) No, what she did was to set up a board game that was all about trying to get a trainful of passengers from point A to point B. The first person to get their train to the end wins. The destination was then revealed to be Auschwitz.

Rohan@Blessing of Kings isn’t entirely happy with this as a setup. He finds that too much of the impact relies on the setting — a similar game in which you had to deliver refugees to a safe camp could have had precisely the same mechanics. It would be the same game, after all?

And my first thought was also that it sounded like a switch and bait. You let people play the game the whole way through and keep that context secret?

But I was talking to my husband about this on the train (I know, ironic) and when I told him that the train (in the game) was going to Auschwitz, he froze. He was honestly, utterly shocked. And then he said weakly, “But that means … you were collaborators!” And then, “Do you think the guys who were operating the trains to Auschwitz knew what was going to happen there?”

Now tell me that game didn’t have anything special to teach people, even purely from its setting. Brenda Braithwaite set out to make games that had an impact, and you cannot argue with an impact like that!

Tobold was writing this week about avatars in games, and lamenting that people get too attached to their in-game personas.  His view is that they aren’t people, just playing pieces.

But if a game can have a genuine emotional impact on you as the player, how can the avatar not be meaningful? The counters in the train game take on a much greater meaning if you associate them with people on their way to Nazi concentration camps. If they’re really just counters, if you play the ‘pure’ game and throw away everything apart from the mechanics, you are denying yourself any kind of emotional impact at all. The game loses its meaning.

Not only that, but this viewpoint basically denies that roleplaying even counts as a game. As soon as you identify with your character, you are sullying the purity of the  game and possibly committing the cardinal sin of taking it too seriously.

As someone with a fairly extensive experience of running different types of RPG both online and offline, I know that some people will get too involved with their characters. But I also know that unless you are playing with professional actors (ie. who are very practiced at donning and doffing roles), every character that a (RP)  player creates has a little piece of themself in it, even if it’s just the way you wish you could be.

Some people do truly detest roleplaying and roleplayers. To them, a character is nothing more than a collection of stats, gear, and achievements through which to play the actual game.

That’s fine, but every time we discuss immersion, every time we feel the gameworld unfold around us, every time we relate to the NPCs (admit it, Varian is a tosser), every time we experience any kind of vicarious emotion through our character, we are in fact playing the role.

To treat a character as a token is to deny the emotional impact of the game. And if you want to do that, why do you play an MMO at all?


6 thoughts on “We are more than just tokens

  1. Even though I’m a roleplayer (I might even say that I’m a habitual roleplayer), I have a real hard time roleplaying in most video games because of the limitations placed on interactions.

    That said, I still create a persona for a character, even if the only person that knows is me.

    As for Auschwitz… does it matter if the train operators knew what was going on? The replications of the Milgram Experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment) show that even participants who know what is going on still obey authority figures. The most important finding is that the number of people who said they wouldn’t (1.2%) was so much different than the number of people who did (~60%)

    • I know what you mean about roleplaying in video games. I’m the same, really. I just wonder if for people whose first experience is something like WoW, whether they’re not so used to switching between IC and OOC.

      I know I’ve been in RP guilds where the officers acted as if they were superior to us in real life and not just in game. Could be I was just unlucky 🙂

      That’s interesting with the Milgram Experiment. I think you’re right, it doesn’t matter what the train operators knew. But I think it would matter to players. Just I think the experience of being an unwitting accomplice to something really bad is better for people to have via games than via RL.

      • I think there’s an moral point to be made for there being a distinction between being an unwitting accomplice and the accomplice of an authority figure.

        Though it’s kinda twisted to think it, perhaps the more accurate persona for the player of the game isn’t the train operator, it’s the SS Officer who is commanding the train operator.

  2. I gotta say this board game has me pretty conflicted right now. Part of me wants to hate it for making a game of the atrocities of World War 2. I can’t help, but think that board games should be fun and about replay value. I feel like this concept is better suited for a novel.

    Which is where I become conflicted…

    Someone could say right back to me that board games like novels are just a medium and just because board games haven’t development the same wide variety of emotional genres doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

    And I’m reminded of the movie, Schindler’s List, too. It’s probably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it a 2nd time. It was an important movie to see, a powerful movie, but not a happy movie. Shouldn’t movies be about replay value too?

    To which obviously, some aren’t.

    Why can’t a board game be only played once?

    • He’s only looking at a narrow subset of games is the thing. And that’s fairly competitive ones.

      If you accept that in an MMO (for example) a lot of the game is actually cooperative, then it makes no real sense to call someone a scrub just because they focus on a different part of the game to the one that he does.

      It’s an interesting article, but no one likes to be called a scrub. I find that side a bit juvenile.I think he’s also terribly keen to apply what he finds in games to real life, which is fine and they can certainly show people how to apply themselves … but it’s very silly to assume that just because someone is a scrub in game they must be some kind of loser. A lot of people have very successful professional lives and just game to relax.

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