Applying the Two Concepts of Liberty to U.S. Political Parties


In the previous article, I discussed the two concepts of liberty in a political context: negative liberty, which is when there are no political obstacles in the way of our choices, and positive liberty, which is when the state aids us in achieving our goals. Like any quick definition, I’m oversimplifying both concepts a bit, for the sake of clarity and concision. But the basic concept holds and shows the difference between being allowed to do something versus being able to do something.

As a quick reminder, then, most of the Bill of Rights are negative liberties, which tell us things the government cannot do. It cannot arrest us for speaking our minds; it cannot prevent us from bearing arms; it cannot force us to incriminate ourselves in court. Positive liberties in the U.S. also takes many forms: public education gives us the tools we need for a successful life; public roads give us ways to get places; federal grants and student loans help us go to college.

Unfortunately, some of these liberties may conflict, both with each other, and with other values that we hold dear in society. For example, you might feel that you have a right to keep your children from hearing certain viewpoints, with which you disagree, but those children also have a right to public education, which might include some of those viewpoints. A fairly recent example that is still causing controversy is freedom of religion versus tolerance of alternate lifestyles. On the one hand, people with deeply held religious convictions believe that the First Amendment should allow them to deny services to others on religious grounds (the obvious example is denying services to homosexual couples because of a religious belief that homosexuality is a sin). On the other hand, the people being denied these services see themselves as being discriminated against for something that is a critical part of their identity, something they cannot simply change.

Resolving these conflicts can be very difficult, because any compromise will involve one or both sides feeling that their liberties have been violated. Isaiah Berlin, whom I discussed in the previous post, believed that some of these conflicts cannot be resolved without loss. In other words, he thought that we are constantly making hard choices among our values in cases of conflict. Such decisions result in a tragedy of sorts; we cannot maximize all of our values at the same time. We must make sacrifices.

But those sacrifices become especially problematic, politically speaking, in cases where the conflict is not within a single person or group but between individuals and groups. And this is where political divide emerges. One political party promises support for one group, while the other sides with the other group.

We can see this pretty clearly in the case of religious freedom versus tolerance for homosexuality mentioned above. For the most part, the Republican Party has found itself on the religious freedom side of the debate, which pleases the Evangelical segment of its base. The Democrat Party has tended to side with the LGBTQ community in opposing legislation that allows discrimination based on religious belief.

If we put this debate into liberty terms, we can see that both sides are fighting for liberty, while accusing the other side of trying to deny liberties. And both sides are right about that….to an extent. Whatever decision we, as a society, reach here, some people will have their liberties reduced and others will see their liberties protected (or expanded).

So let’s look at a few key social issues that are happening in the U.S. right now and try to categorize how the parties view these issues in terms of negative and positive liberties. A few of these will be obvious, but others might surprise you (check the abortion one, for example). As always, these are my views/observations. In each case, I have tried to present the position from the perspective of that party. I am not saying the party is right or wrong; I am only putting their view into negative or positive liberty terms. You are free to disagree with my categorizations in the comments. Just explain why, please! (note that I included ‘Libertarians’ in order to get a third party involved; I chose them over the Green Party because they tend to get more of the vote and because they’ve named themselves after liberty!)


Issue Republicans Democrats Libertarians
Abortion Positive- seek to protect right of the unborn to become born (to live) Negative- seek to protect the right of women to choose whether to give birth Negative- could vary, but in general want govt. to stay out of it, and allow choice
Racial Equality Negative- believe the market should take care of this, and equality is up to those who want it. Positive- believe some minorities need extra aid to make up for disadvantage starting points Negative- again, want govt. to stay out of this.
Gun Control Negative- support the right to buy weapons with minimal restrictions Positive- support restrictions in order to protect people from gun violence Negative- seeing a trend here? Govt. go away!!!
Healthcare Negative- favors existing marketplace method, with private insurance Positive- favors public options to ensure that everyone gets access, regardless of wealth Negative- favors full marketplace approach, completely privatized in every way (in theory, no Medicaid/Medicare)
Gender Equality Negative- generally leaves this up to corporations, opposing govt. mandates and quotas Positive- promotes gender equality through various aid programs and restrictions against discrimination Negative- surprise! No govt. involvement at all; total merit based capitalism
Gay Marriage Positive- varies, but more likely to promote legal restrictions on gay marriage in order to protect sanctity of marriage Negative- govt. should allow any consenting adults to marry, regardless of sexual orientation (some include gender identity in this as well) Negative- similar to Democrats, but more likely to include gender identity as well; again, govt. shouldn’t decide this.
Marijuana Positive- favors restrictions in order to protect people from drug use, thus ensuring a better life Negative- varies a lot! More likely to promote loosened restrictions on certain drugs Negative- goes even further; would likely allow any and all drugs to be legal, but would still keep restrictions on DUI (at least Johnson would…his party is all over the place on this one)

Of course, couching all of these issues in terms of liberty, whether negative or positive liberty, is overly reductive. These are complex issues, with many facets. The chart above is meant to illustrate that each major party focuses on a mixture of what could be viewed as enhancing negative or positive liberty, depending on the issue. Libertarianism presents a nice contrast, because it’s a view that is focused almost solely on negative liberty. Basically, libertarians want the government to protect the country from external threats and protect citizens from direct domestic violence. Other than that, they want little or no government involvement.

If you disagree with how I have characterized any of these viewpoints, let me know. I am not asserting that any of these approaches is the correct approach to take. My goal is to help people understand the ways in which our politicians talk past each other and confuse issues by using the term ‘liberty’ in a very sloppy way. As Americans, we all value liberty; we just value it in different ways.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll look at the specific issues that are happening in this year’s (2016) election. I know I can’t wait……..


There are Two Types of Liberty


(image by

As we near the November election and tensions continue to rise between the supporters of the two major U.S. political parties, one thing is increasingly clear. Most people do not fully understand what the term ‘liberty’ means. More importantly, most do not realize that there are different senses of the term. Many of the arguments I see online involve this basic confusion, and it was present in the first Presidential debate as well.

While many writers have discussed the nuances of the term ‘liberty’, the historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has probably done the best job of explaining why we must be very careful with this term. In a speech he gave upon receiving a professorship at Oxford, Berlin presented his “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which was later turned into an essay on the subject.

Berlin believes that the term is easily misused because people often use it to represent two different notions of liberty, neither one of which is more right than the other, but each of which would lead you to very different conclusions about the role of government. He labels these two approaches ‘negative liberty’ and ‘positive liberty’. Before I explain each approach, I should note that ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ in this context do not mean good or bad. As you will see, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ more closely resemble something like passive versus active approaches to helping people enjoy freedom in their lives. Also, for this discussion, ‘liberty’ will refer to the ways in which government affects the freedom of citizens. In other words, ‘liberty’ is a political issue, while ‘freedom’ is what a person or group of persons experience.

Negative liberty is “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities” (Berlin Four Essays on Liberty pg. xxxix). In other words, we enjoy negative liberty in a civil society when nobody and nothing are standing in the way of our potential choices. The state (government) can enhance negative liberty by creating rights that prevent the government from interfering in certain aspects of our lives.

Many of the Constitutional amendments found in the Bill of Rights would fall under negative liberty. For example, the right to free speech means that the government will not impede (i.e. put obstacles in the way of) our ability to say what we wish to say. The right to bear arms means that the government will not prevent you from purchasing weapons. The Third Amendment means that the state cannot force you to let military personnel stay in your home (I guess this was a big problem once!). Each of these rights creates a space within which you are free from government interference.

Of course, there could be other issues that prevent you from fully enjoying these liberties. The government may not prevent you from speaking, but that doesn’t mean anyone will listen to what you say. It doesn’t guarantee that you will have an audience, or that you will speak well, or even that you, personally, will be able to speak at all. If you are rendered mute by birth or accident, the First Amendment does not mean that the government must pay for medical procedures to correct that issue. Similarly, the right to bear arms does not guarantee that you will have the money to purchase or gun, or the ability to shoot straight!

Negative liberties are labelled ‘negative’ because they are about the absence of interference. They tell us what the government may not do. In most cases, this requires no action on the part of the government. In fact, many of these liberties are guaranteeing you that the government will not act; think of it as a negation of action.

Positive liberty, on the other hand, is our ability actually to achieve our goals. Berlin associates it with the notion of self-mastery (very similar to Kant’s idea of ‘autonomy’, which is about self-control through following the rational will).

A civil state can increase positive liberty by providing citizens with various aids to help them achieve their goals in life. A great example of this in the U.S. is the public education system, which is meant to provide all citizens with the basic learning that is needed to function in our society and pursue a meaningful and productive life. Another example is roads, which allow us to get where we want to be more easily. More controversial examples would include things like welfare, social security, food stamps, etc. These safety nets and savings aids are meant to ensure that no American falls below a certain minimal state of living, since a complete lack of money, housing, or food makes achieving a decent life nearly impossible in our society.

If negative liberty can be thought of as non-interference by the state, then positive liberty can be thought of as those times when the state helps you achieve certain goals. In other words, providing positive liberty requires activity on the part of government. In most cases, this means it also requires tax dollars.

At this point, you are probably associating each approach to liberty with a particular political party. You might be thinking that Republicans tend to focus on negative liberty, while Democrats focus on positive liberty, especially since I presented welfare as an example of positive liberty. In many cases, that perception is not far off, but like any oversimplification, it is misleading.

Both negative and positive liberties are valued by pretty much all humans. We all want some degree of freedom to make our own decisions, but that freedom is pretty useless if we lack the means for carrying out those choices. The government isn’t stopping you from buying a home, but that doesn’t mean you have the money (or credit) to do so.

In practice, both Republicans and Democrats value both negative and positive liberty, just like their constituents do. However, they tend to focus on one or the other, depending on the particular issue. For example, Republicans tend to lean toward increasing negative liberties for businesses. They advocate for lower restrictions on businesses. Donald Trump, in the first Presidential debate, said that businesses are being stifled by government regulations, and he would remove many of those restrictions in order to facilitate a freer market.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of economic equality, discussing ways in which government might help the less fortunate, such as inner city minorities, achieve their goals through education credits or other government aid. This is consistent with the view that Democrats lean toward positive liberty solutions to problems.

On the other hand, things get murky when we look at social issues. The issue of gay marriage is a great example for illustrating this. In general, Democrats have supported gay rights in recent years by arguing that members of the LGBTQ community should not be restricted in their rights to marry whomever they wish. That seems to be an increase in negative liberty. However, many conservative Republicans have argued that this violates freedom of religion, which is also a negative liberty. The question of marriage itself could be seen as a negative or positive liberty issue, depending on focus. Since the government gives certain tax breaks, and there are other social advantages to marriage, the ability to marry could be seen as a positive liberty, one that enables people to achieve certain goals, or as a negative liberty, where the government cannot tell citizens whom they may marry.

Whichever perspective you take on these matters, what remains true is that different people use the word ‘liberty’ to mean different things at different times. Both Republicans and Democrats believe in the value of liberty. It’s a concept that lies at the core of modern democratic thinking. But we need to understand how easily the term ‘liberty’ can fall into equivocation. Taxing one group of people to provide benefits for another group of people decreases the (negative) liberty of one group for the sake of the (positive) liberty of the other group. When the two senses of liberty come into conflict with each other, each side will accuse the other of devaluing liberty. However, in most such cases, each side is simply valuing a different type of liberty.

In the next installment of this three-part series on the two types of liberty and how it can help us understand this election, I’ll talk more about these conflicts, including how liberty can conflict with other values that we hold dear. I’ll also give more nuance to the different factions within the two major U.S. political parties and the ways that they view liberty. In the third installment, I plan to directly relate all of that to the policies being proposed by the major candidates, so that we can see which of elements of their platforms correspond to which approach to liberty and why. My goal is to help people understand the candidates in the election and what their approaches would mean for America, if implemented.

Some Video Game Companies that Try to Include Ethics


(image is from Enderal; image owned by

Everybody loves lists, right? In planning out the future for this blog, I’ve been thinking about the various companies that try to incorporate ethics into their games, in a very willful way. I’ll admit from the start that I tend to think about RPGs when I think about morality in gaming, but that’s a bit unfair. Lots of games try to incorporate ethical decision-making.

So here’s a list of companies that I think are making a genuine effort to include some examination of ethics/morality in their games. The order is a bit arbitrary, but those at the start of the list are the names I thought of first, which means I more strongly associate them with intentionally dealing with ethical issues.

  1. Bioware- Bioware has been at the forefront of trying to bring into video games more of what makes tabletop games great. Back in 1998, when Baldur’s Gate was released, you could really tell that Bioware was trying to transport D&D to the computer. Yes, games like the Ultima series had included virtues, and several of the Might and Magic games asked you to choose between light and dark. But Baldur’s Gate felt like you were playing a classic module. It gave you dialog options that ranged from heroically noble to selfishly petty, and there were consequences for your choices.

Unfortunately, Bioware tends to present ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ choices as being a selfish jerk. One of the problems that video games have, when compared to tabletop games, which are much more open-ended, is that the programming limitations mean that your choices will be limited. You can’t allow complete open freedom in choice making and still have consequences for each available choice. So if you want to play a monk that has been broken by the world and decides that it would be a better place if he took over everything, you probably can’t, unless that’s the actual plot of the game. This will be true even in open world games, which leads to the next company!

  1. Bethesda- Way back in 1994, a game called Elder Scrolls: Arena was released, which allowed your character to walk for miles across a seemingly endless world. Daggerfall took this a step further, and Bethesda continued to tighten each game in the series while adding more and more depth. Bethesda builds worlds for you to explore, and those worlds allow you to create characters that can be as ethical or unethical as you want. Once they took over the Fallout series, they took these choices even further, allowing you to either a savior of the wasteland, or just another mercenary taking advantage of everyone around you. There aren’t many games that allow you to nuke an entire town; but Bethesda created one of them! As an aside, doing so isn’t really ethical.

In the latest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, you can start a family, build a house, have cities like or dislike you, etc. The same is true in Fallout 4, which includes all sorts of choices in the quests, factions to join or annoy, etc. Bethesda is one of my favorite gaming companies right now, because their approach to world building draws me in like no other RPGs out there. I love what they are trying to do, and I love the fact that they get closer to achieving their goal of placing players in a living world with every iteration of their products.

If you want a nice bonus, check out the Enderal total conversion, which takes Skyrim and creates an entire new world, with new gods, a cost for doing certain magics, and a lot more philosophical thought than you tend to find in Skyrim. It’s still heavily about exploration, but they reward that pretty heavily by basing skills on finding books that enable you to raise your abilities. This one has some interesting world building and decision making and is well worth checking out. Plus, it’s free! It is NOT made by Bethesda, however. It’s made by a company called SureAI, and is thus an indie project, essentially. Probably has some bugs, though it’s been solid for me so far.

  1. Obsidian- Since I’m only looking at current studios, including Obsidian allows me to capture a bit of what made Black Isle and Troika so great as well. Obsidian is at their best when building on existing games and taking them a step further. Two games really exemplify this: Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. The former took the Fallout engine that Bethesda created and added a real sense of a thriving world. There were factions that cared about whom you helped and whom you hindered.

The latter (PoE) built a brand new Infinity Engine style game and crafted a new world to go with it. The writing is superb, with characters who ask deep questions about religion and philosophy, and others who twist those questions in horrid ways (looking at you, Durance!). Obsidian deserves a ton of credit for understanding how to make worlds more immersive by having your actions affect the game itself. Unfortunately, they have a reputation of releasing buggy products, a problem that likely led to the downfall of Troika games, which made classics like Vampire: Bloodlines and Arcanum, both of which allowed you to try different playstyles and make different choices that would affect the game.

There are other companies out there that are trying to incorporate ethical decisions into their games. These are my top three, but a lot of independent studios are stretching the boundaries here as well. If you have other publishers/developers that you think are doing a good job of this sort of thing, let me know in the comments!

Colin Kaepernick Continues the Conversation


(above image belongs to the NY Daily News)

San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has received a lot of heat since he decided not to stand during the singing of the Anthem in honor of the U.S. flag. The move was symbolic, meant to show Kaepernick’s frustration with the continued racial injustices that face African Americans and other minorities in the United States. Here are his words on the subject:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” ( link)

Despite the criticism that he received, Kaepernick continued his protest in the very next preseason game, this time kneeling instead of sitting, but still refusing to stand in honor of the flag and the country it represents. Fans at the game booed him, but he stood (knelt?) his ground.

In the days since these protests, the internet has been torn over what Kaepernick is trying to do. On one side, critics slammed the young quarterback, accusing him of being ungrateful to the country that allows him to be paid millions of dollars to play football. On the other side, many people (including many veterans) cited freedom of speech/protest as a core American value, which means that Kaepernick should have the right to protest the Anthem and the Flag. Many of his colleagues in the NFL chose sides, often arguing over Twitter.

I have written a few articles on this site that look at problems of race in video games, tabletop games, and our society. Obviously, then, I agree with Mr. Kaepernick that there are plenty of problems with the ways in which minorities are treated in the U.S. Is this the way to address those problems? I don’t think I can answer that question.

When we tell people that they aren’t protesting the right way, or that their approach to solving injustices is not the right approach, we are often guilty of tone-policing. Tone-policing happens when instead of listening to the message that someone is trying to convey, you focus on the tone with which they convey it. This can happen during an argument, when you might say to your spouse, “Maybe if you stopped yelling at me, I would listen to you!” In reality, that person has probably resorted to yelling because you were not properly listening when they tried to communicate their issues in another way. Most people do not enjoy yelling at another person.

Similarly, I strongly doubt that Kaepernick enjoys having fans boo him, or even enjoys that he’s feeling so much disappointment in his country that he cannot bring himself to honor its flag. Those who do not follow the NFL are probably unaware of just how tenuous the life of an NFL Quarterback can be. Unless you are truly elite, like a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Cam Newton type QB, you are constantly playing for your job. Kaepernick is no exception. The 49ers have paid him a lot of money, but he is not a guaranteed starter, and calling this kind of attention to himself is not doing himself any career favors.

So here we have a man who feels so strongly that his country needs to be changed, in fundamental ways, that he is unwilling to engage in the ritualized saluting of the Flag. We should consider what would lead someone to do this before we move to condemn his actions. For most of us, the flag represents a combination of many things. It’s a symbol of liberty, yes, but it’s also a representation of our society. We are taught to love the Flag, as we are taught to love our country, because it helps protect us and has allowed us the opportunities that we enjoy. But what if you looked at the Flag and it reminded you that millions of people, just like you in some fundamental sense, were not being granted the same opportunities? Would you still salute it? Should we automatically salute the Flag, just for being the Flag?

I am a white, cisgender, hetero-normative, male. I am reasonably attractive, by most standards, well educated, from a middle class family. This has opened doors for me, and even in those times when it has not, it has never closed doors to me, much less locked them. I have not experienced people in authority looking at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin. I have not had to defend my attraction to other people, or my way of life, or anything else that is fundamental to who I am as a person.

As a result, I cannot fully imagine what it is like to be in Kaepernick’s shoes, where he sees a bit of himself every time he sees a minority incarcerated, beaten, shot, or simply treated with less than the normal respect that most of us take for granted. But I’m willing to try. So let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. Yes, he has a lot of money, and he personally has benefited from the extraordinary athletic gifts that he possesses both naturally and as a result of his hard work. Despite all of that, he knows some people will always see him as inferior, because of the color of his skin. He also knows that minorities that have not hit the NFL lottery in the way that he has must face prejudice every single day.

But he has a platform. The eyes of the nation are upon him. They want him to shut up and play football. They don’t want to hear about his political views, unless they are safe views (e.g. “Everyone should vote!” or “I just think we should all be nice to each other!”). He’s asked to pretend that nothing is wrong, to be thankful that he was given what he has been given, even as others continue to be oppressed.

Is it really a surprise that he might balk at this role? Kaepernick is not calling on people to riot. He’s not inciting violence. This is about as peaceful of a protest as one can make. Another, more famous quarterback, Tom Brady, has apparently been silently protesting the power of the NFL over his life for the whole preseason. I doubt that he will get anything but support, as others agree that the NFL might be abusing its power. From Kaepernick’s perspective, the issue of racial inequality is not being fixed quickly enough, and he does not want to celebrate a country that has this fundamental flaw.

Kaepernick is exercising a fundamental right that is protected by the First Amendment. When politicians suggest that he should leave the country, they are missing the point that this protest is about making the country accountable. Whether I agree or disagree with how he goes about this isn’t really relevant. It’s not for me to agree. What I know is that he has gotten a conversation started, or perhaps he is continuing an ongoing, but much needed conversation. Either way, I definitely support that.

Do Fantasy Worlds (Indirectly) Reinforce Racism?


(photo credit to chief-orc on deviantart)

I’ve written two other entries about how video games and fantasy games deal with race issues. I’ve also written a well received entry on racism in America (in the real world). But in today’s entry, I want to discuss the ways in which our media can reinforce our tendency to stereotype. Specifically, how might fantasy tropes be guilty of this. What do you think of when someone says she is playing a dwarf, or another friend says he wants to play an elf?

If you grew up like me, reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons, you probably have some specific traits in mind for these characters. The dwarf is stubborn, fond of drinking ale or strong drinks. She is greedy, tough, single minded, and gruff in action and words. Few people play sickly, weak dwarfs. They are the embodiment of a kind of grit in fantasy worlds, and they are fond of caves and beards and are basically short Vikings who live underground and think only about precious metals and battling goblins or something.

The elf is taciturn, or at least somehow noble and aloof. Elves have a timelessness to them in fantasy worlds, which makes them graceful and elegant; they take the long view on life, because they live VERY long lives (perhaps forever, depending on the setting). They are bound to nature. Elves are naturally good with a bow, capable of sliding down stairs on shields due to their agility. However, they are also a bit arrogant, as they think other races are beneath them.

There are other common fantasy races, like the inventive gnomes, the bloodthirsty orcs, the mischievous halflings (ie hobbits). More disturbingly, there are evil versions of many of these races, such as the drow elves, who are separated from the other elves by having darker skin. Subtle. Of course, they couldn’t be a reference to Africans, because they have white hair. So it’s totally not racist.

Possibly a Drow?
Possibly a Drow?

But seriously, even if we set aside the fact that elves that supposedly live underground have evolved or somehow been given dark skin (underground…where there is no sunlight!), their evil is a character trait of the entire race. If you look them up in the D&D monsters manual, they are evil. Most are lawful evil, so at least they have rules!

Later editions of games like D&D often got rid of these limitations, including the idea that only humans can be paladins, or holy warriors. However, for those of us who grew up with the idea that all drow are evil, or all orcs are monsters, or even that halflings like to eat and are lazy, these easy categories almost certainly affected our worldviews. Certain groups (races) have character traits that are common to all of the members of the group. Or at least, the exceptions to this are so rare that when they happen they are quite remarkable (Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow ranger, rejects the evil of his race and becomes a hero of the Forgotten Realms, for example).

Sometimes, after you had played a game like this, or read too many books that copied Tolkien, you started to look for these alternatives. You might decide to play a dwarf who hates alcohol and loves goblins, or an elf with an inferiority complex. But this too reinforced the tropes. What made these characters interesting is their contrast from the normal.

Interestingly, when I first read Tolkien as a teenager, I thought the humans were the worst. I liked the dwarfs and the elves, and even the hobbits. When the Return of the King ends, and the elves leave Middle Earth forever, I was upset. The Fourth Age would be the Age of Humans, Tolkien explained, but it would be a world of industry and not magic. Everything that I loved about Middle Earth would be ruined by humans, who bred like rabbits and had few redeeming qualities.

There’s something satisfying about knowing exactly what you are dealing with, and humans are unpredictable. Some are good; some are bad. Some are charitable; some are greedy. Some are intellectual and rational; some are emotional and irrational (this contrast of rational and emotional is something I now reject; but as a teenager it felt right).

Psychologists call this cognitive ease, and it happens in cases where we’ve heard the same thing repeated so often that we simply take it as a given. Having it challenged is difficult for us to process. It strains our minds, so to speak, and thus we tend to avoid such challenges. Yes, this applies to political and religious views too, but that’s a separate discussion.

This cognitive ease that we use when dealing with fantasy tropes regarding race can easily transfer to our real lives, especially since we (rather colloquially, and erroneously) use the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities, and even different physical traits.  How could a teenager, who learns that different races have different character traits, not transfer that to the ‘races’ in real life?

I’m certainly not arguing that people who read fantasy books or play fantasy games are somehow more racist. In fact, I’ve said elsewhere that exploring different characters can heighten our empathy for people different from ourselves. A good group (including a good GM!) can use fantasy tropes in order to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In fact, I often think of this as a sign of a mature group–when the players look for empathy rather than reinforcement of stereotypes. Still, there is often good and bad in most of our habits, and the bad in this case is one we should avoid, assuming it isn’t too late.

What do you think?

Millennials Are Alright (But Not Really!)


It’s easy to look at the generations that come after you and judge them in negative ways. In fact, it’s so easy that every single generation does it. In the 5th century BCE, the playwright Aristophanes complained that the youth of his day learned all the wrong lessons in life: “You will be persuaded also to regard as splendid everything that is shameful and as shameful everything that is honourable; in a word, you will wallow in degeneracy.” His own generation had proper manners: “they would not have dared, before those older than themselves, to have taken a radish, an aniseed or a leaf of parsley, and much less eat fish or thrushes or cross their legs.”

These corrupt young whippersnappers and their excessive radish eating!

The context for these comments helps paint a picture. When Aristophanes was young, the city-state of Athens had helped drive off the Persians and developed an empire. They were the dominant force of their world. But all that went away after the rival city-state of Sparta defeated Athens. Why had this happened, people like Aristophanes wondered? The answer was simple—the youth of today were not as good as his own generation had been.

One thing worth noting is that among the youth that Aristophanes was calling out as useless was a young man that people called Plato (which could be a nickname, since it refers to a misshapen nose). Plato is widely considered to be the most important figure in all of European philosophy. One of Plato’s students, Aristotle, had not yet been born when Aristophanes wrote the words above, but he would be another critically important figure in intellectual history. In other words, Aristophanes was wrong. The kids were alright. They just really liked radishes.

Today we see the same kind of complaints, about Millennials who feel entitled to a living wage (how dare they!?) and complain about the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt they accrue while going to college (they borrowed it! No one forced them!). And so on. There are dozens of articles complaining about Millennials out there. I’m not going to link to any of them; you know how to find them, if you want.

I remember the same sort of complaints about my generation, known as Gen X. We were lazy, cynical, apathetic, spoiled, and so on. We didn’t care about politics. We didn’t care about anything. We listened to shoe-gazing music and our cultural icons dared the world to “entertain us”.

Of course there were articles about how we would do nothing, and civilization was in decline, and where had all the country’s values gone…and so on. So we created the internet, as you know it, and social media, and helped push for a more pluralistic society. We played a huge role in electing the first Black President, an idea that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. That’s not to say we are perfect. We could be held at least partly responsible for rising college prices, lack of employer loyalty (we famously switch jobs a lot! So perhaps we aren’t worthy of such loyalty) and whatever other modern day problems you want to lay at our feet (but at least for now, please include the Baby Boomers as co-conspirators!).

Lumping a group of people who happen to be a certain age into a group labeled ‘Generation’ is a bit of a silly idea, but it isn’t a new one. What happens is that each generation looks at the youth and decides “They aren’t doing what I did!” For various psychological and sociological reasons, we tend to look for the positives in ourselves and the negatives in others. As a result, you’ll see plenty of people posting macros on FB that basically state “If kids today were spanked, like I was, they’d be much better people!” Almost every person I’ve ever seen post those words should be careful about the stones they throw. I know them, and they are not great examples of the benefits of corporal punishment.

But let’s set aside the fact that hating on the next generation is a historical given, and look at why it is so problematic in this particular case. Many older Americans seem completely unaware of just how privileged they have been. Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, who complain about younger people wanting to raise the minimum wage or have free access to college, really should think back to all of the advantages that they had. When you say that a minimum wage job isn’t meant to be a living wage job, you miss a few important facts.

First, the President responsible for implementing the minimum wage (FDR) specifically said that all full time workers were entitled to a living wage. Opponents of raising the minimum wage like to point out that the first minimum wage was only 25 cents an hour, which is nowhere near $15 an hour in real dollars (meaning adjusted for inflation). However, that misses the point. There were many political reasons why the first amount was what it was, but the spirit of the push for a minimum wage, by the person who pushed for it, was that would allow a living wage. When people today say that you aren’t supposed to live on minimum wage, that’s their view, but not the view of Roosevelt when he created it as part of the New Deal.

Second, minimum wage jobs are no longer for teenagers, or at least are no longer filled by teenagers alone. In fact, most of the people who would be affected by raising the minimum wage are over 20. This links to a third issue, which is that the minimum wage when Baby Boomers were making it at 20 years old went a lot further than it does today. In the 70s, there was less expectation that both men and women would be working, and many people were able to go to college while working minimum wage jobs without having to take out loans. Today’s students can’t do that; college prices are way too high. Also, in the 70s, getting that degree almost guaranteed you a decent job, while today’s students almost have to have one in order to get anywhere in their careers. However, having a college degree does not guarantee you a job at all, much less a good one. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for most people (which means you have to have it to have a chance, but it doesn’t necessarily give you what you want).

The result is a generation that is looking at crippling debt before they even get a chance to start their career, which is likely going to take years to get going properly and will constantly be undermined by student loan payments. Meanwhile, they are being told that they must save up over a million dollars before they retire and that social security won’t be there for them (I think it will, but that’s what they are told). Job security? Nope. Pensions? Seriously? Oh, and many of their elders want to lower or get rid of the security nets that might help those young people who fall through the cracks. Scary world.

So when you tell Millennials that if they don’t like what they are paid, they should change jobs, you are living in a world that is long gone. Job fluidity is down 15% in many places, compared to 1980. Moving to another state is impossibly expensive for low income people. For the average American, the idea of simply switching jobs when you are unhappy just isn’t realistic. They had a hard enough time finding the job they currently have. They can’t risk losing it. Many of the people living around me in rural Ohio are dwelling in locations where the median household income is less than $30k a year. You’ll note that this is the exact figure that a new minimum wage of $15/hour would give someone if he or she worked 40 hours a week. A family, with children, making less than $30k a year has very little chance to save up enough money to move to another state, even if there were real opportunities for improved employment (which there often aren’t).

So today’s youth are caught in a strange trap. They are told that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be real jobs. To avoid them, they have to go to college. But going to college puts them in debt and does not necessarily give them a job of any sort, much less a good one. Instead, it is a necessary step in having someone look at your application, alongside tens or hundreds of other similarly qualified people desperate to get their feet in the door. Oh, and they have to make these decisions before they even turn 20, which science has shown is before our brains are fully developed for good decision making. And when they do make a choice, no matter which one is made, they are blamed if that choice does not work out for them. Lose-Lose for them. As a bonus, they get to read articles about how terrible they are and see those lucky friends of theirs on Facebook who somehow did find a good job. It’s enough to raise depression and drug use rates!

I was a college student in the 1990s. I’m a college professor in 2016. Today’s students aren’t worse; nor are they better. What they are is frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. They really have inherited a world that is worse than the one that those of us 35 or over faced. Recognize that, and stop cheering every time you see another article condemning a whole generation of people that have problems you never had. And before you yell at them to get off your lawn, let them have a few seconds to capture the Pokemon that’s sitting next to your water feature, which might be the only good thing that happens to them that day.

Racism Never Went Away

BLM picture

This week, the U.S. experienced a series of tragedies that once again remind us of the horrible racism that still exists in America. Well, most of us are reminded of it. Unfortunately, a few people seem to think that these racial tensions are new. Some blame President Obama for fanning the flames, which is a bit like blaming women for catcalling because they have the audacity to walk down the street. President Obama has been subject to racism since before he even entered office. He’s been caricatured as a monkey, accused of being a secret traitor to our country, and even charged with being behind all of our mass shootings, as some nefarious plot to get rid of guns. Meanwhile, more guns are being sold during his Presidency than ever before, and if he were a Muslim spy, he would be pretty terrible at it, considering the relative lack of success that such terrorists have had during his Presidency. But this post isn’t about our President. It’s about racism, and the fact that it never went away and thus was never brought back.

Look, as a white male, I’ve never been the target of racism or sexism. I don’t know what that feels like; I can’t even imagine it, because that would require living every day with the knowledge that you are judged for something completely out of your control. But I was born in the 1970s, in Alabama, a state with a strong reputation of historical racism. Only a few years before my birth, there were still separate water fountains labeled ‘colored’, and the notion of separate but equal facilities was in full swing. A little over ten years before I was born, George Wallace, the Alabama governor, literally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to block segregation. Many people think of the 1960s as the height of racial tensions, and to some degree that is right. But it didn’t end after that. Things didn’t suddenly become equal in this country.

Here’s a few highlight reminders of the tense moments that have occurred in my lifetime (I was born in 1974). Boston had flares of violent protests in its attempts to desegregate the schools and the busing in the city in the mid to late 70s. In 1978, in Houston, a riot occurred during a protest of the police killing a Hispanic man, the tipping point in existing conflicts between the city police and the Hispanic community. In 1980, Miami, riots started after an African American man was beaten to death while being arrested. 1992 saw serious riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict, where officers were acquitted after beating an African American man (on film). The 2001 Cincinnati Riots took place over racial profiling and discrimination. In 2009, riots took place in Oakland, CA, after African American, Oscar Grant, was fatally shot by a transit police officer.

I’ll stop there, because you are likely familiar with the Baltimore Riots, the Ferguson Riots, and the latest incidents of violence that have arisen over racial tensions. Also, these are the ones that people want to blame on renewed racism, whatever that means. But as you can see above, it never went away. And here’s the part that you might not like: it’s our fault, and by ‘our’ I mean White Americans who just aren’t paying attention.

We are the ones who laugh uncomfortably when black comedians tell us about “driving while being black”. We are the ones who listen to Dave Chappelle talk about his white friend, Chip, and how he can smoke pot in front of cops with no consequences, and then think “that’s clever!” But worst of all, we are the ones who talk about being ‘colorblind’ or how we ‘don’t see color’.

I’ve been there, myself. As a teenager, I remember saying that I didn’t think of people in racial terms at all. I thought this was the enlightened viewpoint-our society was post-racial! Yay! Oh, sure, older people were still racists. I could hear it in the things they said. But not my generation. We were going to be the first non-racist Americans. I was well-intentioned, I suppose, in my own way, but incredibly naïve. This didn’t help anything. Sure, I was better than the outright racists in some ways, but I was still ignoring the persistent inequalities that were happening all around me. I went to a private school through sixth grade. In my time there, I saw two African American students, one of whom was the son of Pittsburgh Steeler legend John Stallworth. He stayed in my class for about a year, until his dad decided that this might be giving him a skewed view of the world. The other stayed about 3 years before switching schools. In my hometown of Huntsville, AL, the high school that I attended, in the SE quadrant, had almost no black students, while the one in the NW quadrant had a majority. The city was basically segregated, not by law, but in practice. I hear it still is.

So, it was pretty easy to be colorblind when I hardly ever had to interact with POCs. When I moved north, to Ohio, I heard people accuse my home state of being racist. As I just noted, this is a fair criticism, in many ways. However, it seemed problematic when I looked around and realized that 95% of the people in my community were white, and only 1% (seriously) were black. In cities like Cleveland, you can literally draw lines down streets that separate white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods, in part due to the failures of the Fair Housing Act.

If you look at the actual stats, you’ll find a huge disparity in how POCs are treated by the police, both in terms of ticketing and, as we’ve recently seen, violent confrontations. Whether Black Americans are 9 times more likely to be shot by police or 21 times more likely, the numbers are shocking.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t new. It isn’t getting better, or if it is, it’s not getting better fast enough. We have a systemic racism problem in this country, and our black President isn’t the source of the problem. Racism never went away. If it seems different today compared to ten or twenty years ago, that’s because the news is covering it more (in part, thanks to protesters, but also thanks to video capture devices). Also, depending on your age, you might have been less aware of the news and general social realities a decade or two ago. These injustices were happening when you were a child, and every year of your life, whether you noticed them or not.

None of this means that you, in particular, caused these problems. However, it does mean that we all need to do a better job of changing the system. More importantly, if these issues seem new to you, then you need to do a better job of listening to what minorities are telling you. When Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock tell us a joke about how black Americans are treated differently than white Americans, it’s OK that you laugh at that joke. But when your nervous laughter is over, it’s time to think about what they’ve said and realize that these jokes shouldn’t exist at all. Comedians often channel their most painful moments into something that teaches us about the world. Let’s learn the lessons, and let’s change the system. How do we do that? We can start by listening to the people who are experiencing the injustices. Don’t get defensive; don’t point out that you aren’t the problem. Listen and learn. We have to understand the problem before we can fix it, and that will require hearing some painful truths, about our society, and about ourselves. It’s time to stop being blind and start seeing again.

Stop Excluding Persons of Color from Fantasy Games in the Name of “Realism”


In a previous post, I discussed how Valkyria Chronicles does an exceptional job of dealing with race issues via alt-history. In that post, I also mentioned the infamous controversy around Resident Evil 5, which depicted African zombies. Many people find the former example to be a sensitive way to deal with a very difficult racial issue, while the REV approach is often seen as problematic at best.

This led me to wonder about how race is depicted in video games in general. This is a huge topic, and it’s something I’d like to explore for several posts, but I want to start with a basic observation about the ‘realism’ argument for race in games. There are some people (and I won’t link to them because I don’t want to give them any traffic) who have a problem with depicting persons of color (POCs) in fantasy video games. The argument is often similar to the ones made against having women be warriors or have the same strength caps as men—realism.

There certainly have been games that tried to inject a bit of realism in gender differences by giving men higher strength caps. Some of the old SSI Goldbox games come to mind. These games were based on the D&D editions of their time, which had separate caps on stats for men and women. The result is that most of your fighter types in those games have to be men, if you want the best bonuses. Some of those games compensated by giving women higher charisma caps, I guess on the grounds that women are more attractive than men, even though charisma is not the same as attractiveness. I seem to recall a few giving women higher wisdom caps as the compensation, but I could be misremembering. In any case, the goal was to reflect some sort of biological reality. Whether that’s needed in fantasy games could be the subject of another post (in my view, these caps are silly), but I want to stick to the race issue for now.

If you go to almost any article that shows a particular fantasy character being reimagined as a POC, you’ll see comments complaining about political correctness and/or lack of realism. In many cases, the people making these comments see fantasy worlds as analogs to medieval Europe, which in turn they see as exclusively white.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is historical. Turns out there definitely were POCs in Europe, even in the Middle Ages, and many were prominent members of society. Yes, for historical reasons, most people were white, but people of all sorts of ethnicity and background lived in Europe, even back in Roman times.

But I think the second problem is more important, which is that the realism argument is silly from the start. The idea of race is a social construct. At one point, Irish people were considered a separate race in the U.S., and the idea of race being akin to culture is fairly new. The article linked in the previous sentence shows how difficult it is to say what ‘white culture’ would even mean. For racists, it likely means whatever views they currently hold as acceptable, but again this shows how artificial the whole thing is.

I do not mean to suggest that we should therefore be colorblind or that race does not matter. Even if it is a social construct, it still matters, and it has real effects on people. Ignoring that does no one any favors. But it does mean that racial distinctions are largely created, and we can examine history to see how and why. In fantasy worlds, with completely different histories than our own, who knows what would or would not be constructed. What we can say with confidence is that racial divisions, as we know them today, are not historical necessities. So fantasy worlds don’t have to make them. There’s nothing necessarily realistic about including them in a made up world.

Perhaps the realist will now counter by admitting that race is a construct but still insisting that there are evolutionary reasons for skin color. Darker skin is found in Africa because of the climate, where people needed a way to resist the effects of the sun. Lighter skin in Northern Europe comes from the longer winters and colder days, which led to less sun exposure (and the blue eye mutation, I guess!). Let’s assume this is not a way to re-introduce race, but is a sincere attempt at maintaining willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy setting.

I still don’t buy it. If your fantasy world has magic, with flight, teleportation, or even just dragon riding or other means of conveyance that would far surpass our own medieval methods, then people in your world can migrate with ease. Unless all of these things are very new, no one is stuck in a particular climate or subject to the same rules of our own world.

None of this means that you can’t have critical ethnic differences, culture clashes, etc. in your fantasy world. These kinds of things will happen. But the separation of people based solely on physical features of the sort that we today identify with the term ‘race’ are historically isolated in our own world. They aren’t necessary for realism in a fantasy world. So the creators of those worlds can and should be able to present their denizens in whatever way they wish. If the creators want to have a world where physical differences have led to unfair prejudices, that’s fine. But they don’t have to have that, especially not in the name of realism.

Games are a form of entertainment. More people being able to enjoy that entertainment is a good thing, and part of the beauty of roleplaying games is that you get to explore different aspects of our world in a sandbox where the consequences do not affect you outside the game. Many people like to use this opportunity to play a different version of themselves. They still want to relate to their character though, which means they should have a choice of what gender they want to play, and what physical characteristics they want to have. There is no reason to limit these options.

Furthermore, people like to see themselves represented in games. If you are African American, and even fantasy games suggest that you don’t exist, or that only white people matter, that’s more than just frustrating. It undermines your status as a person. There’s simply no good reason for fantasy worlds to do this. More inclusiveness in fantasy-based games means more people enjoying the amazing worlds that fantasy writers can create.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the more obvious analog to racism in fantasy worlds, which is really about species (elves, goblins, humans, etc.) and sub-species (High Elves, Sylvan Elves, etc.). Race is not really a formal biological term anymore.

Do Video Games Cause Violence? I have no idea


(Image from GTA V appears courtesy of Rockstar Games and is used for commentary purposes through Fair Use)

A FB comment on my previous blog, about choice making in video games, led me to wonder more about how games create habits in those that play them, which led to the inevitable question of whether video games influence our morality. This has been a sore subject among gamers for many years, with critics like Jack Thompson accusing gaming of creating violent youth. Countries like Australia have actively censored violent games, such as the GTA series, as a way of protecting citizens from their influence.

In my opinion, there is not yet enough evidence about the effects that video games can have on those who play them. However, I do want to explore some of the common mistakes that people make when they think about this issue. The first one I’d like to tackle involves the nature of causality, which is misunderstood by most people.

Causality is very complicated. The philosopher David Hume famously proposed that causality is not something that exists per se, empirically speaking, but is rather a kind of connection that we perceive between events. In other words, we see one event tends to follow from another, and we assign causality between the two. In some cases, that has good, predictive value. If we carefully test these connections, using proper controls and experiments, duplicating results to ensure accuracy, while remaining aware of the possibility that we could still be wrong, then we can learn about connections among the phenomena in our world. We call such explorations ‘science’. It’s a methodology of study, and it is especially well suited to looking at “hard” connections in the world. For example, it doesn’t take many trials of throwing pure sodium into water before you realize that this is a volatile combination! (that’s a fancy way of saying things blow up!)

Soft connections, however, are trickier to affirm and test. When social scientists do experiments, they rarely find perfect connections that would allow them to say that X definitely causes Y under Z conditions. They might say it usually does, or even that it almost always does, but there are almost always exceptions. So, we know that being abused as a child can lead to a host of problems as an adult, and yet there are some people who overcome their upbringing and do not exhibit those behaviors. Citing such exceptions does not disprove the connection; it simply reminds us that it isn’t a perfect connection. There are exceptions.

I’m oversimplifying a bit for the sake of being concise; but my main point is that causality does not work in the kind of precise ways that many people seem to think that it does. Consider the connection between smoking and cancer, which is basically a physical/chemical causality. Almost everyone now realizes that smoking causes lung cancer, among other potentially life threatening problems. However, less than 10% of lifetime smokers will get lung cancer. So there are many, many examples of people who smoke all their lives and do not get lung cancer. Does this mean that the causal connection is a myth? Of course not. That same link I used to cite the 10% claim will also tell you that you are over 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you are a smoker. In other words, it greatly increases your chances of getting lung cancer. There is a strong causal connection there.

OK, so how does this apply to violence and video games? At the very least, it means that if someone is worried about a causal connection here, citing the fact that you’ve played Grand Theft Auto and never murdered anyone is a pretty terrible counter argument. It’s just as terrible, in its own way, as the news stories that like to point out that a particular mass shooter enjoyed playing video games. Anecdotes are not data. We can’t use a single instance to prove causality, especially when dealing with human behavior.

So how can we figure out this issue? We need good experiments. I have not read all of the research on this subject. In one sense, there’s a lot to read, but in another, there really aren’t many research projects on this that are very good. I have to examine research as part of my job (though, as a philosopher, I don’t have to do this nearly as much as my colleagues in the sciences). It’s almost comically easy to spot experimental flaws in much of the research done on this issue.

What won’t help is knee jerk reaction to such studies. If the studies suggest that certain video games might contribute to violent tendencies, then shouting back with #notallgamers doesn’t really help. Obviously, most video gamers don’t go and murder people. Most people aren’t murderers, period. But causality is a tricky thing, and we need to be careful in assessing causal claims. We also need to be aware that most social causality is the result of multiple causes, not a single one. If a correlation is found (again, correlation isn’t causation!), instead of being overly defensive, perhaps gamers should try to help find out why this correlation exists, and what, if anything can be done about it.

In the meantime, I’ll answer such questions the way I always have. Do video games create habits in the people who play them? Probably. Do video games in and of themselves make people commit violent crimes? Probably not. Could some video games produce habits that make us more susceptible to problematic activities? That strikes me as very possible. But let’s do some science first, and find out!

How Valkyria Chronicles exposes the Holocaust


A friend on FB recently linked to this blog post, written by Nadia Oxford, which looks at how the game Valkyria Chronicles examines racism in the context of WW2. Technically, the game takes place in an alternate world, but the similarities with WW2 are unmistakable, right down to the Anti-Semitism. The game does not shy away from this issue. Instead, it provides an alternate people, the Darcsen, which essentially represent the Jewish people. However, in VC, the Darcsen are dark-haired, blue-eyed people that are an amalgam of different real world ethnicities. By changing the culture a bit, the game is able to look at a very dark time in human history without becoming so realistic that it becomes problematic…maybe.

One of the issues Oxford raises is the question of whether it’s acceptable for a Japanese game to explore this theme. While Japan took part in WW2, they were in a different theatre of war, and the history of Jewish persecution does not really affect them (directly or indirectly). This could have been disastrous. Remember that not too long ago, one of the Resident Evil games (also from Japan) got in trouble due to its portrayal of Africans. While people disagreed on whether the game was outright racist, people on both sides of the debate realized that Japanese developers were unlikely to fully understand the history of racism towards Africans in European and American culture. Does the same thing happen in Valkyria Chronicles?

I’m not really in a position to answer that as well as Oxford is, since she comes from a Jewish heritage and I do not. As a white male in a country that privileges both things, I have never had to live as a member of an oppressed group. So I would not presume to know what that’s like and whether the game handles this in a sensitive way. So I will defer to her on this. Oxford finds the examination refreshing. Here’s why:

“First, the Darcsens aren’t martyrs. They’re people. While we do see a glimpse of some confined in concentration camps, and while those camps are subsequently liquefied to hide evidence of the atrocities going on within, the Darcsens are more than sallow faces peering over spartan wooden bunkers. They’re miners, soldiers, scientists, and engineers. You meet them. You interact with them. One of the game’s main characters, the soft-spoken Isara, is a Darcsen. She makes your tank go. She is, therefore, amazing.

Second — and this is important — Darcsens aren’t a tool that’s tossed around to make it clear that the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. The Darcsens are universally reviled, even by your own god damn soldiers. There is actually a status detriment, “Darcsen hater,” that causes afflicted soldiers to fuck up on the battlefield if any comrades in their vicinity are Darcsens. They’re so put-off, so disgusted, they can’t aim straight. These are the good guys.

Third, the Darcsens are a very close-knit group. The opposite of the “Darcsen hater” detriment is the “Darcsen bond” buff, which causes Darcsens in close proximity to each other to fight harder. If you’re a Jew, this is relatable on a holy-shit level. Though Jews still have big internal issues with racism (again, not all Jews are white), there’s a bond between Tribe members that’s indescribable.” –Nadia Oxford

Let’s look at these points. The first one is really important. The key to dealing with race issues in a thoughtful way is to constantly humanize everyone involved, really on both sides. This is how points one and two relate to each other. The Darcsens are right there in your army, serving alongside the bigots in your own unit. One of them is a childhood friend…effectively, your little sister! As the commander of the unit, you have to balance out the fact that your little sister is part of a persecuted ethnicity, while also recognizing that the people who exhibit the racist behavior toward them have learned this behavior through their own upbringing.

And it doesn’t feel heavy handed; it feels complex, which is what racism is. When someone says “I can’t be racist; I have black friends,” we are tempted to laugh at how naïve that statement is. It ignores the fact that stereotypes can persist even when we interact with members of a group. After all, sexists get married too, but they can still be sexist! The people in Valkyria Chronicles have been raised in the midst of propaganda that demonizes an entire people. It makes it easier to ignore the terrible atrocities that happen to them right under their noses. This is very similar to what happened in Nazi Germany. After the war, many Germans claimed that they did not know the Holocaust was happening, even though they lived near it. In many cases, they did not want to know.

The game shows how easy it is to turn on a group of outsiders when you are looking for a scapegoat. The Darcsen are accused of being ‘bad luck’, as if their very presence is an abomination. The first scene where this is presented was shocking to me. Again, the target was my little sister (in the game). I imagined what this would mean if someone attacked my own sister in this way, and I was really upset. I didn’t like these people, and they were under my command. But this moment only sets up important lessons that play out later in the conflict. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a great game (and available on Steam, if you don’t want to play the console version).

The third point that Oxford notes is one that is harder for me to grasp, again because I am not a member of a persecuted minority. We all have groups that make us feel like part of a community, but the game captures the fact that persecuted groups have a different sense of pride—a bond that is immeasurably important to its members. They are an instant family of sorts, even when they first meet each other, because they know a deep truth about each other.

Again, I will defer to Oxford on how well the game captures all of these things, but I’m amazed that this game, with it’s gorgeous color-pencil cel-shaded graphics, and its often cutesy tone and music, is nevertheless able to capture the essence of the Holocaust so well. It also teaches important lessons about our common humanity. That’s what good art should do, and Valkyria Chronicles is good art.