Guy McCulloch: I thought that I would write as I have had some thoughts on the same topic [GGA - Disturbing Themes], and I thought that I would be able to give you a different perspective. I come from a role-playing background and have recently gotten very much into board gaming (to the extent of forming a society) with the "renaissance" of German games. So, this is why I am responding to the comments about roleplaying on your boardgaming website.
The first time that this particular issue occurred to me was many years ago. I have some distaste for Dungeons and Dragons because as I see it as a game for serial killers.
Say I have a Fighter and I want to learn how to cook. By the game's mechanics I cannot go out and be trained in cooking, regardless of how good the teacher is. I will never be a better cook until I go out and slay some goblins. Likewise I will inevitably become a better fighter as I gain experience, even if I have done no fighting. There is little to no room (until 3rd ed) for me to be a cook, and to get better at cooking. The fundamental mechanic of the game is the gaining of experience through adventuring, and this rewards and improves combat abilities. The character will receive little reward for saving Timmy from the well, however he will receive great reward for saving a village from a family of goblins living peacefully in the nearby hills.
However this is not to condemn all role-playing, or Dungeons and Dragons in particular. You just have to realize what effect the game system has upon the psychology of the game. I know a large number of people who prefer to game systemless, and this is more like interactive storytelling, or like Once Upon A Time without the cards. However, if you are using a gaming system then people will respond as if it is a game. Even if they don't want to "win" they will want to do well, and they will look at what the game is rewarding and what the game is punishing.
Look at D&D for example. A player decides to play a pacifist. Fair enough, there are more than enough real world examples to encourage you. As the campaign goes on they fall behind in experience, become comparatively less and less skilled and useful as their team mates, and consequently the game becomes less fun for them. Even if they are enjoying the game they become a liability to their team mates and will be punished by them for this. "You'd better stay behind, it looks dangerous in there..."
I greatly prefer the White Wolf series of games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling) simply because they dispense with character classes to a great extent and enable the character to grow in whatever direction they wish. More importantly, however, the experience system rewards completing the story and roleplaying while doing so. You may still have a D&D-esque story, but there is room for a great variety of other stories. Using the "Storyteller" system it is entirely possible to have a system which regulates a game based upon being socializing and politicking teenagers at high school (a-la Beverly Hills, 90210). The supernatural element and super-powers are only there to make it more fantastic and interesting.
A D&D version of Beverly Hills, 90210 would look a lot more like Columbine High School.
The upshot of this is that a person who enjoys D&D and plays Chaotic Evil parties and kills and kills and kills, is doing nothing more than really getting into the game, and not letting conventional morality get in their way. This is not unlike a Diplomacy player who always breaks the treaties they set up and attacks weaker players simply because they know they it will win them more supply points. The game rewards this strategy, they become "better" players, and they enjoy the game more.
It is also very common for games of this sort to pop up. Chess rarely leads to moral dilemmas, however in role-playing there is stress between a character's morality and a player's. The player is forced to consider time and time again what sort of actions the character would take and whether the character (and consequently the player) would feel guilty for them. A game is made a great deal more relaxing by having a character who feels no moral compunctions and does whatever they feel like doing. No guilt, no stress.
Some of the most enjoyable role-playing games I have played have been with a Vampire: The Masquerade variant called Sabbat. In Sabbat the characters play the nastiest, most evil vampires around. Your character sets a goal, and doesn't let puny mortals stand in your way of the goal. Occasionally people will step over the line of morality in the group, but the prudish character is usually in the wrong when playing Sabbat. It's not a game for everyone, but I don't feel that it reflects badly on us by playing it. It is, after all, just a game. However it also has the chance to teach us something about ourselves, something that board games rarely offer. But most of all the game itself does not reward our behaviour. The roleplaying of the players leads to better characters. Whether we kill innocents or not is a decision which is entirely up to us.
So to conclude my thoughts on the role-playing side of things. You have to take the game system into consideration when you are examining a role-playing game and it's character. Theoretically any role-playing game allows players to do whatever they like with their characters, but it rarely encourages all fields equally. Most games only allow for advancement in some particular fields, and the game becomes famous for that.
Finally the question that I get asked most is: Who wants to cook in D&D?
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With recent board games the mechanics of the game dictate what the gameplay is like. Bluffing is a skill which is relatively useless in Settlers of Catan, bluster and intimidation useful in Tigris & Euphrates.
The theme of the game interacts with the mechanics to a variable level, some games are strongly themed, others almost not themed at all. It doesn't really matter in Lost Cities whether you complete the middle of an expedition or just the beginning and the end, the value of the cards is all that matters. However in a game such as Chez Geek the theme is very strongly felt, and for our group we feel that the game maps out our lives perfectly.
The particular point that I wish to make however is that if a game strongly attempts to be themed then it will influence the game-play of the players.
The particular example that I have is with The Lord of the Rings. It is strange that a Knizia game should come up as having a theme which connects to the gameplay, but we have found this game very thematic. Whenever Sauron advances on the little hobbits everyone panics and there are cries of woe whenever a hobbit is "eaten". I have suggested various strategies whereby hobbits are sacrificed for the good of all, but they are rejected as everyone wants the whole party to make it through the game. I have had situations where I have been about to sacrifice myself, but have been expressly forbidden by the other players who are more interested in a large disadvantage to all of our chances of winning than accepting the death of one player. In Capital Punishment criminals roam the streets killing innocents. The aim of the game is to get "your" criminal sent to the chair while getting other player's criminals back on the streets where they kill more innocents.
Many would find the game distasteful, but why? Is it because you are aiming to fry killers? Is it because you are letting killers back on the street and not frying them? While being satirical and humourous it is interesting in that typical "conservative" behaviour will help you to win. "Liberal" behavior will stop your opposition from winning. This game pushes both sides of the argument (in a twisted fashion).
I feel that board games such as Guillotine become more distasteful when they push (and reward) one particular side of the argument, and there is no avenue for another. You cannot be sympathetic to the poor aristocrats, you just lop their heads off. How does this reflect on themed games? Perhaps it is the abstract, unthemed games which pass the test of time. Perhaps it is simply because chess, go and cards are unthemed that they are still around today, whereas Take That You Commie Bastard is a game which died out in the fifties. Many of today's new games are taking old game mechanics and reworking them with a new theme. This could be in recognition of the limited lifespan of a theme. One example for me is that I cannot stand to play Monopoly. The game has no room for not charging your friends rent or loaning them money, however I have no problems with the mechanics of set collecting to increase their value and players winning through chance and negotiation.
So, I don't like Monopoly, but I don't mind Family Business. However consider the position of a Mafia Wise Guy sitting down to a game of Family Business. I have no problem with the game, it is even funny on occasion. However I can see the poor Wise Guy feeling each hit to his gang with a keen edge being so much closer to the topic. A theme which is fine for me is offensive for him.
Perhaps, in the end, the answer is one that some designers and producers are hitting upon. If the game is abstract then it tends to have less appeal. But if the game is too deeply involved with it's theme then it will also have little appeal. A thin veneer, enough to give the game an attractive design with no real depth (Samurai, Torres) may be the way to attract players across cultures, across time. In this scenario the only way to make a good game is to develop an interesting mechanic, and even a game as attractive and well produced as Lunch Money becomes left by the wayside.
Eddie Campisano: I read your article on Disturbing Game Themes and I thought it was a very timely. Although I have thoroughly enjoyed the invasion of Euro games, I am often disappointed at how many contain occult themes. Now I'm quite positive this won't bother very many people. I am troubled enough by them that I won't purchase certain games because of these themes. However it doesn't necessarily mean I won't, on occasion, play them if invited. After all, their just games! The key is that although I may play them I won't buy them; and that's too bad for the game publisher, designer and for me. If the themes were less offensive I'm sure that I would enjoy the games. That's my 2 cents worth! :)