The Exclusion of Slavery in Our Games

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.

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  • wrathofzomibe

    Thanks for the shout out! Really good answer and I do agree with you. Everything is reflected and is either inspiration or a formation of an idea, philosophy, or belief that shows itself in our creative outlets.

  • wrathofzomibe

    Thanks for the shout out! Really good answer and I do agree with you. Everything is reflected and is either inspiration or a formation of an idea, philosophy, or belief that shows itself in our creative outlets.

    • Tyson J. Hayes

      Not a problem! I love highlighting posts that not only make me think but make me want to respond. Keep up the great work! :)

  • River

    I’m not entirely sure that I agree with your conclusion. Your points are well founded and discussed; I agree with the concept of a geek ethos as second class citizens as well as the American pathos, our need to correct our historical shortcomings. I don’t believe that having slavery as part of a setting will ipso facto change the focus of the game.

    Slavery is, obviously, a Very Bad Thing. It is also something that was a fact of life in many cultures all over the world. It is a complex issue that manifests differently in different cultural contexts. While human ownership makes me uncomfortable, it makes me evan more uncomfortable to try and rewrite history by deliberately omitting American slavery to make ourselves feel better. I don’t think acknowledging slavery as part of an in-game world would necessarily change the focus of the game unless the GM made slavery into an issue.

    This opinion is formed by my personal experiences, of course, and each group is different. Each culture and sub culture present and reflected in your game is unique and deserves to be respected. If that means a few anachronisms are necessary for your group, so be it. Just make sure you don’t limit yourselves to slavery as the One Big Bad. We have other skelletons in our collective closets. What about rape? We already know that murder is usually ok in-game, as is torture. Why is that? And genocide? Is that okay in games? Did the Holocaust happen in that setting without slavery? What about Darfur? The Sudan?

    Don’t get me wrong; gaming is all about escapism and having fun. It shouldn’t be about the terrible things that have happened or are happening in our world. I appreciate Tyson and wrathofzombie taking the time to discuss something like the presence or absence of slavery in gaming. Thanks guys!

    • Jeff Carlsen

      I agree with you that the white-washing of history is a Very Bad Thing. But I take it further. It’s not guilt about slavery that drives this. As a country, we ended the institution of slavery, and it only took us 75 years.

      No, the real reason is that nobody wants to be called a racist. We don’t even want to even look like something that someone could call a racist. So, we omit slavery and make everyone equal, even if it wasn’t true to history, and even if it doesn’t make for a better campaign setting. Same goes for sexism, or any other type of bigotry. D&D used to have rules to signify the physical and mental differences between men and women. Games don’t do that anymore, because it could appear to be sexist. 3rd Edition D&D couldn’t even settle on a personal pronoun to use.

      It’s a phase our culture is going through.