Thursday, January 19, 2012

Endeavor and the Economics of Slavery

My latest article is up on PopMatters: Endeavor and the Economics of Slavery.

I am a big fan of board games but rarely get an opportunity to discuss their design or significance in this venue. On several occasions Scott and I have discussed on the podcast whether certain game genres lend themselves better to certain experiences or messages. Board games are a fuzzy genre-like case because, theoretically, you could duplicate all the systems of a board game in a digital space. Many companies do in fact. Apples to Apples is now a video game, with significant rule changes from the card version. Carcassone is quite popular on XBLA and on the iOS as well. However, these digital versions still fail to capture the social and tactile elements of board games that fundamentally shape their play experience. 

In the case of Endeavor, we can imagine a strategy game that chooses to model something like slavery in a similar fashion. But even if the rule system remained essentially the same, players may respond differently to the moral issues a model of slavery elicits. The shackles printed on the cards, for example, brought up disturbing visions of the human wrists and ankles they were meant to confine. The infamous drawing of a slave galley filled to the brim like a can of sardines came to mind, a high-school history lesson I will never shake forget. I brought my own morality to the table and I grew uncomfortable with finishing the game without first abolishing slavery. 

Of course not everyone thinks twice about the moral or ethical implications of game design. I argue in the article that game designers should be less concerned about giving offense because creating offensive content might be required before we can mine historical systems for all their worth. Given the same system, perhaps digital game designers need to be more sensitive. Maybe the act of playing alone makes one less critical of a game's moral quandaries than playing with others and discussing the content as it arises. Everyone generally knows how atrocious the slave trade was, so it may not be the best example to explore how group play affects rhetorical outcomes. I would be even more interested in a game tackling the modern day slave trade. That would be truly brave game design. In the mean time, Endeavor might teach us how to approach such sensitive material, both the risks and rewards.

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