After several years of having it vaguely on my wish list (ever since Cory Doctorow’s post about it on Boing Boing), I finally picked up a copy of Lotus Dimension, a tabletop roleplaying game with an intentional emphasis on resolving problems through non-violence. I’ve been reading a lot on non-violence lately, and even though I still have a lot to learn, I’ve been asking recently whether a commitment to non-violence in real life would be incompatible with enjoying games where violence is one of the key ways to achieve victory.
Look, I get that games aren’t real life, and I don’t think that there’s necessarily an inherent incompatibility between slaying an evil monster in Dungeons and Dragons and a real life commitment to non-violence (but also, “evil” in D&D is wrapped up with some problematic ideas about racial essentialism). A few years ago, for a friend’s birthday, we gathered at his home to play Axis and Allies. Joe is one of the most committed anti-fascists I know, but that didn’t stop him from leading Nazi Germany to victory in our little tabletop session. I’m still bothered (in a productive way) by that tension, though. I’m also bothered by the way that I have become increasingly critical of the wealthy and of a constant drive for efficient profit in the real world… but how I turn around and try to turn my Stardew Valley farm into an efficient, wealth-generating machine.
I’ve been interested in these questions for over a decade at this point. I applied to grad school expecting to study educational uses of games, and in the personal statement that I submitted, I wrote about a game of Tactics II (one of the original modern wargames) I had played with my brother-in-law a year or two before. The game ground to a halt after he used a tactical nuclear weapon against his capital to dislodge an armor unit that I had invaded the city with. The move was perfectly valid, but it seemed so wrong. The incentive structure of the game didn’t measure civilian losses, it only kept track of the cities you controlled and the armies that you still had alive. The game didn’t care about nuking your own population, so it was a valid move—even a good one by the logic of the game.
We live in a world where, like Tactics II, incentive structures don’t align well with the values that we believe in. In grad school, I wound up pivoting to a focus on social media instead of games, but for the past decade, I’ve been wondering if we ought to play games in ways that correspond with our values rather than with the incentive structures that define victory in those games. Not because I think that immoral action in a game is necessarily equivalent to immoral action in real life (though, conversely, Custer’s Revenge is an awful game, and no one should ever play that), but because maybe we need the practice. I’m complicit in all kinds of unjust systems in the real world because I’m afraid of “losing.” Is there value in refusing to carry out total war in Axis and Allies? Or in running a simple farm in Stardew Valley even if I don’t unlock new parts of the game?
I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but they’ve been bugging me enough that it was time to pick up Lotus Dimension. I don’t know when I’ll have time to read through the rules, much less play them, but at the very least, I want to spend more time with games that allow and encourage other paths to victory.
You can use click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.