Slavery and Violence in Gaming

Today, on the recommendation of a friend of mine, I purchased Struggles of Empires. As often happens when a game comes highly recommended, I bought it with only a vague idea of what it was about. I knew that it was a strategy board game that broadly dealt with the European powers during the age of imperialism.

I opened the box up when I got home and read the rules. It turns out that the game simulates the wars and power struggles that occurred between seven European powers during the Eighteenth Century. One of the major components of the game is the fight for colonies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Enslavement is an integral part of the game.

I don't mean this in an abstract way, like how in Puerto Rico you're importing "colonists" to work on your plantations, who happen to be represented by little brown discs. I mean that enslaving is something that you can (and, to be successful, should) choose to do. The game is played over a series of rounds, and on a player's turn he or she may choose among the following actions: Pass, Buy a Tile, Build an Army Unit, Move Units, Launch an Attack, Colonize, or Enslave.

This raises a lot of interesting points to thinkg about. To start: by being as open about slavery as Struggles of Empires is, is it, in a way, better and more honest about slavery than other, similar games? I've played plenty of Age of Imperialism simulation games, but all of them heretofore have politely skirted around the slavery issue. I mentioned Puerto Rico. Is it better to play a game where you import "colonists," or to play the same game, with the same theme, where you are being honest and importing slaves?

But there's another issue I'm somewhat more interested in. Every time the manual for the game mentioned enslavement I got skeezed out. I'll have a tough time playing this with people because the idea of playing someone who consciously chooses to enslave others is really discomfiting to me.

Why should this be? I think it helps to draw a comparison to video games. I can pick up a first person shooter and kill others without a moment's hesitation. Why do I not have a problem playing violent video games, while I do have a problem playing a board game where I enslave others?

One possible explanation is that violence and killing can be justified, under some circumstances, while I can't really conceive of a justification for slavery. I suppose, but it's not enough that violence can be justified, it also matters whether specific violence is justified. In most video games it is; you're a soldier in war time, you're killing in self defence, etc. But it isn't always. I will confess to having played Grand Theft Auto games without much in the way of moral pangs, and there's essentially no attempt to justify the violence in those games. I don't think justifiability is enough.

Is it desensitization? I think that's another big element. I've seen a lot of violence depicted in various media, and have myself controlled the violence in video games. But there aren't a huge number of depictions of slavery to begin with, and what depictions there are all tend to be couched in a narrative that indicates the indisputable evil of the institution. Moreover, there simply aren't a lot of opportunities to simulate slavery. As mentioned above, the subject is generally skirted in board games, and there aren't a lot of slave master simulation video games, thankfully.

I also wonder if, in a more general sense, I think of enslavement as a worse crime than murder. Part of this ties into the justifiability issue; there's never a good reason to enslave another. Maybe it's also a personal love of liberty. I'm not sure, if asked to make a choice, whether I would rather be dead or a slave, but I think I might rather choose death.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on January 11, 2008 3:25 AM.

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