What Games Should You Be Playing for Halloween? (PC version)


Halloween is my favorite holiday. I’ve had a Baba Yaga wallpaper up for over a month, and my house is fully decorated! Last year, we threw a party for the occasion, but unfortunately, this year our jobs got in the way for various reasons. But that won’t stop me from watching scary shows/movies and playing creepy video games. So, I thought I would share some recommendations about games you could play this Halloween, if you prefer an interactive spooky experience! As an aside, if you prefer a haunted house, and live anywhere near Sandusky or Cleveland Ohio, I highly recommend visiting Elyria’s Hauntville. It’s one of the best haunted house experiences I’ve had because they let you go in with just the people you came in with (even if that means just two of you!). Personalized spooks! Now, on to the games….

(note: these are PC games, though some might be on console as well. Most links are to Steam, but Anchorhead is free to play online. Also, Steam puts games like this on sale for Halloween, most years.)

Grim Dawn– This is what I’m playing the most right now. Made by Crate Entertainment, which is made up of a bunch of the people who made the Titan Quest game, this is a fantastic action RPG in the Diablo mode. The setting is gri…..uhhh, dark. It’s otherworldly demons and zombies and mutated beasts, and it’s always nighttime, and gothic. It feels a lot like the first Diablo game, which in my opinion had the best atmosphere. The setting reminds me a bit of the Duskwood zone in World of Warcraft, if that gives you a reference. Gameplay is solid. These guys know how to make you feel like you are really hitting things. If you played Titan Quest, the gameplay and skill trees will feel familiar. The setting is very different, however, and it has some neat updates to the model. Highly recommended.

Anchorhead– This is an interactive text game, which means that it’s all reading and trying to solve a mystery by typing things like ‘get lantern’, ‘light lantern’, and ‘start crying’. These games can be difficult if you haven’t played one before. But if you gamed back in the 80s, you remember Zork, Hitchiker’s Guide, and a bunch of other great text-based games like this. Anchorhead is set in the Lovecraftian town of Anchorhead Maine, where your husband has inherited a new, creepy house from a distant relative….be careful! This is really well written; a great example of the genre, and a nice atmosphere for Halloween.

Vampire: Bloodlines– For a brief number of years, Troika was my favorite developer. Made up of former Black Isle members (Black Isle made the Icewind Dale games), Troika made Arcanum, Temple of Elemental Evil, and Vampire: Bloodlines. These were all very buggy at release, but also fantastic once fixed. All three hold up well, but Vampire takes the White Wolf tabletop RPG and turns it into one of the most atmospheric first person action RPGs you’ll ever play. Worth the price of admission for one scene in particular, which is famous among gamers and perfect for Halloween. Either way though, you’ll be playing as a vampire, tasked with walking the fine line between human and beast in a gothic modern day setting. GREAT music in this one (for example: Cain, by Tiamat).

Amnesia: Dark Descent– First person, atmospheric, survival horror game. This one is the most straight up scary game on this list, most likely. It’s meant to frighten you, though. That’s it’s whole job, and it does it well. Journey into the underground to solve a mystery. Turn off the lights for this one.

Dead Space– How about a similar game in space? Actually, Dead Space is more of a shooter than Amnesia is. You’ll be killing most of the monsters you find here. Plenty of jump scares and atmosphere though, as you find yourself on an abandoned space ship trying to figure out what happened. Not quite as good as System Shock 2, which has a similar premise, but it’s a newer game. SS2 is still well worth playing, especially if you use texture updates. But Dead Space does a pretty great job too! This one is available on consoles too, if you prefer. In fact, that’s how I played it, and it’s great on consoles.

System Shock 2– Since I mentioned it, I might as well list it. This is one of the best games of all time, regardless of theme or genre. It’s a fantastic experience that uses sound better than any game out there, in my opinion (the Thief games, which were made by the same company, come close though!). Definitely play this one….then play it again in a few years. Never gets old. The linked version has the updated textures.

Darkest Dungeon– Here’s an indy gem of a game. Part RPG and part management/survival game, DD is set in a Gothic, Victorian, Steampunk type world. Oooooozing with atmosphere and cynicism. Your characters go insane at the horrors they witness. The developers must love the Cthulhu game. This game has a ton of content for the price, too. High replayability, since it’s a bit of a rogue-like as well.

Well, that’s my list of games you should be playing for Halloween this year. It’s far from complete. You ought to look into the F.E.A.R series as well, especially if you like movies like The Ring, with creepy ghost girls turning your world upside down when you are just trying to engage in some paramilitary combat. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are great for a feeling of desolation and exploration around Chernobyl. I hear Outlast is good, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t say. If you have some other recommendations, let me know! I love scary games.

Oh, if you like console games, give the Fatal Frame series a shot. All of them are great games in the survival horror genre and will help you reconnect to the feelings you had when playing the first Silent Hill game….hopeless terror. Enjoy!

Approaches to Liberty in the 2016 Presidential Election


(image from scholastic.com, used from Fair Use, and to give you a pleasant side of both candidates!)

In the first part of this three part series on the types of liberty, I discussed the two broad categories of negative and positive liberty. In the second part, I showed how the two major U.S. political parties tend to fall with respect to these two versions of liberty. In this final installment, I will apply all of this to the current 2016 Presidential Election, as a way of helping people understand the options.

Before I break down Clinton and Trump, I want to address the two main alternative candidates this year: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of either candidate for reasons that go beyond their parties’ platforms. In my opinion, neither is remotely qualified for the job of President. They have no political experience at all, and running companies or being a medical doctor is in no way related to what happens in politics. I understand why some people might want an outsider to come in and shake up the system, but doing this from the top down, by electing an unqualified POTUS, is a big mistake. Neither party has any foothold in Congress, or even state level political entities. That means none of their proposals can actually happen. If either party is serious about changing U.S. politics, they should get involved in local elections first, then state, and then show that they are elements for real, substantive changes. I personally think that both candidates are benefiting from a general cynicism about the two major political parties, and I understand that cynicism. But I don’t think people should let it get in the way of the practical realities that neither Johnson nor Stein can do any of the things they have promised. Nor are their plans well considered.

But this article isn’t about Third Party candidates. If you want to know my thoughts about them, ask, and I will write such an article, or tell you directly.

So, let’s turn to Clinton and Trump. In a very general sense, these candidates will line up with the approaches to liberty that I showed in the previous article. As a Democrat, Clinton will tend to support negative liberty approaches to social/moral issues, allowing people to pursue their own beliefs, while pushing for positive liberty by increasing social safety nets for Americans. As a Republican (loosely), Trump will tend to support negative liberty on economic issues, while trying to increase the feeling of safety in America through stronger immigration laws and policing powers, which is loosely positive liberty. As usual, however, the devil is in the details.

Let’s start with Clinton and look at a few proposals she has made. Clinton’s plan to help solve the growing deficit is to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to increase government revenue. According to the Tax Foundation (which is not at all a liberal organization), Clinton’s plan would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, including estate taxes (for estates worth over $1billion). All things being equal, this would lead to $1.4 trillion in government revenue over a ten-year period. Of course, things are not always equal, so the Tax Foundation accounted for the fact that increasing taxes on the wealthy could lower the GDP a bit. Once that is accounted for, the revenues are closer to $663 billion, which is still a sizable amount. There are many, unpredictable things that could increase or decrease that number in reality, but this is the closet prediction we are likely to get.

This increased revenue would presumably be used to increase social safety nets, or perhaps pay for the college plan I shall discuss next. Both would be increases in positive liberty for some Americans. However, even Clinton should admit that increasing these taxes will result in lower negative liberty for the people being taxed more. They are now forced to give up more of their money to the government, which means they are not free to spend that money. Any time government gets involved in trying to increase positive liberties, there are most likely going to be some costs in negative liberties. In this particular case, though, that cost only affects a very small number of Americans. Most Americans will see their taxes stay about the same, or lower slightly.

Clinton’s tax plan also increases various deductions (or adds credits) for people with children, including child care expenses. This should result in more negative liberties for those people to spend that money as they wish, rather than having it tied up in childcare. The estate tax exemption will be lowered a bit for individuals and couples, which will affect estates worth $3.5 million for individuals or $7 million for couples, resulting in a loss of negative liberty for such estates to distribute their wealth as they see fit. However, small businesses will see increased deductions and an expansion of ACA benefits, which will increase their negative liberty to spend funds and perhaps their positive liberty to provide healthcare for employees.

One thing that Clinton plans to do with the increased revenues is provide various support programs for people who need help going to college. Her plan does not go as far as Bernie Sanders’s plan to simply make college free, but that plan would have radically changed higher education in the U.S. in unforeseen ways. It also faced an almost impossible uphill battle in Congress. Clinton’s plan may face similar hurdles, but is more layered and nuance. You can view her plan on her website, but in general it is an attempt to use the tax plan above to provide positive liberty for more people to go to college.

Ok, let’s turn to Trump’s tax plan, again using the Tax Foundation website. Trump’s plan aims to stimulate the economy by reducing taxes, especially on the wealthy and corporations. The theory here, which is often called trickle-down economics, is that when wealthier individuals and the corporations they run pay less in taxes, they reinvest the money saved back into the economy. This, in turn grows the economy, which helps everyone, and can (in some cases) increase tax revenues through the greater GDP. Unfortunately, Trump’s plan will lead to a loss of revenue to the government of around $5 trillion, give or take a trillion. That’s if everything stayed equal, but as I noted above, things are not equal. His plan could increase GDP. Once that’s taken into account, the loss of revenues is between $2.6 and $3.9 trillion dollars. A reminder that the Tax Foundation is not favoring Clinton here. It’s just analyzing the plans as they are presented. The top 1% of Americans will see a 10% or more growth in their income.

As noted above, more income in pocket means more negative liberty spend your money as you wish. Arguably, it also means more positive freedoms, as those with more income can accomplish more. However, this is not the same as positive liberty, which is about government aiding people in achieving goals. In fact, Trump’s plan will lower tax revenues, which means government spending must be cut in order to avoid raising the deficit even more. Those cuts are likely to go to safety net spending, though he could reduce military spending to achieve the needed cuts. In any case, cutting government spending lowers positive liberty by definition, since the government can no longer provide the services that rely on that income. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your views on government.

Trump has argued that his plan will increase American jobs, which would be a big benefit, if true. You can read about this claim, and its skeptics in this PBS article. Trump has also said that he plans to eliminate some of the international trade deals that have been created in the last couple of decades, again in order to boost American businesses. Whether this will work depends on your view of the current global economy. Can the easy flow of international goods be constrained at this point in history? I’m personally skeptical that it could, or even that it should. However, I absolutely sympathize with Trump’s view that American companies are finding it hard to compete with the lower labor costs found in other countries. Whether a President can solve that problem through tariffs, embargoes, taxes, or whatever other methods Trump might intend to use (he’s often secretive about the specifics of his plans) is dubious, in my opinion. However, if he did pull this off, it would be an increase in job opportunities for Americans, which is an increase in positive liberties. Government policies would then be aiding Americans in finding meaningful work. I just don’t think it will work.

At this point, my own biases are probably pretty clear, but I want to note that I do not inherently disagree with the Republican view of economics through deregulation. Historically, we have good evidence that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but I am sympathetic to the view, first posited by Adam Smith, that government interference in the economy often has unforeseen negative results. I’m skeptical because I don’t think Trump has ever read Smith, or any other economist, for that matter. I’m skeptical because I don’t think he is even listening to the GOP anymore, or his advisers, or anyone else. I’m skeptical because as far as I can tell, Trump has made a career off of false promises and cheating other people out of their money.

As a result, this particular entry in my three-part series is probably off the rails. I’ve tried to be balanced between the two candidates on these liberty issues, but I would find it a lot easier to be balanced if I were writing about Romney or McCain as the GOP candidate, because those candidates had viable plans that were grounded in reality. I might not have agreed with all of their plans (I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s, either), but I understood them. I don’t understand Trump’s plan (go to his website, and figure it out for yourself), and neither does the Tax Foundation, as far as I can tell. It’s baffling.

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 historicphiladelphia.org)

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 GameStar.de)

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.” (NFL.com 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.