Wrathofzombie noted a while back that America’s history seems to leak into gaming, noting that everything is included except slavery. His post went on to point out three different settings where slavery was illegal but everything else was perfectly normal and just “A-OK.” Murder, theft, and mayhem were the norm, but slavery? That was out of the question, sir. Now, of course I disagree with slavery, I’m American and carry that guilt (more on that in a bit), but I have to wonder why we have such a blind spot when it comes to slavery? Why is everything including taking a human life part of our games but slavery is a hot button issue?
Culturally, Geeks have been second-class citizens
One could argue that this has changed in the past decade. With the raise of the internet, geeks have not only enjoyed a safe haven to share their interests but have formed the shape of culture at large. Much like the founding fathers before us, a small minority has shaped the majority. So in a way it makes sense that our games reflect a certain “anti-discrimination” attitude in them. Most of us old enough to remember a time before the internet remember being bullied for being different and not having many people to connect with. While I am by no means trying to say that being a geek is like being a slave, I am suggesting that a geek would look toward creating a world where almost everyone is on the same footing or, at the very least, could rise up in the world to save the day or become an affluent member of society.
The American Astigmatism
America loves a good fight, and loves rights movements even more. Our country is founded in blood shed; a small but vocal minority rose up to fight off what they felt was an oppressive government. We fought for basic freedom only to deny it to another group of people, and not only deny it once but continued on well past amendments granting that freedom. When we began to tear down segregation a certain horror of understanding unfolded upon us. Culturally we realized we did a Very Bad Thing™, and have begun carrying a certain amount of guilt for those actions. So we carry a bit of a blind spot about the issue. While we do acknowledge it occurred, our modern culture chooses to say that “we’re mostly past that now” and doesn’t like to be reminded of it.
Change the focus of the game
So American guilt and the geek’s sub culture’s avoidance aside, the simple reason that slavery is avoided is simple, it would change the focus of the game. In our culture, owning a slave means you’re evil, or generally a bad person, or that you value life so lowly that you must own it. The truths or fictions of this argument are well beyond the scope of this post so let us focus on this one simple truth. Most players, if they see suffering will take great lengths to correct the problem. We’re a culture founded upon being a hero, and the hero doesn’t let people suffer when they can take steps to fix it. To make slavery OK in a setting is to change the focus of the setting. Instead of exploring a setting and enjoying the time there the focus becomes a civil rights movement to correct the problem. Our culture doesn’t allow slavery in its midst, be it Geek or American, so why would our games—which are extension of who we are—allow it?
So in a short response to wrathofzombie’s question, “Have you noticed anything in game design that is a reflection of culture?” I say: everything is reflected. Games are an artistic reflection of our culture as a whole. To change one requires a change in the other.