You know about Train, right? The game by Brenda Romero where players compete to load the most people onto little trains and get them to a destination and slowly it becomes clear you are acting out the Holocaust. It (and the associated series) more performance art with a game, but the point is well made. To put it simply: theme matters. But more specifically, theme matters, and story matters, when it intersects with our values.
I can give you an example of this from my own experience. On my first run through on Civilization: Beyond Earth I encountered a story path where you were faced – as is so often the way in modern game design – with an branching choice. One was to send escaping refugees back to their captors (who claimed they were criminals), the other was not. Both options had mechanical value, and the returning option was by far the best one for my game at that point. But with Australian refugee politics as it was, there was no way on earth I felt able to send those people back. Those fictional people, without faces or even symbols in my game; people who were just a sentence.
There are lots of other branching quandaries in the game, all of them about what should be valued over other things – and not just should we build a farm first or a hospital first, but should health care be based on civil sacrifice or given out equally, should religious freedom interfere with scientific progress, and so on. Games prized on their stories, like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have become so famous for their storytelling that branching moral choices are now seen as the default go-to for story-telling. But I stopped playing Mass Effect when the game forced me to destroy the cure for the genophage, a genocidal disease which had killed billions of the krogan, a race whose representative character had become my favourite. I refused. The game could not progress. The game ended, as in I stopped playing and never played again. (Which is a warning to game deisgners: if your story is too good, people might stop playing.)
Again, the whole game was built on value choices. But what mattered was when those hit home. When they encountered MY values.
Not everyone plays games the way I do. Not everyone feels things as acutely as I do. I couldn’t play black when I used to play Magic, for example (too evil). But one of the things we desperately need to learn about game design is how much values are a key part of how human beings interact with the world, and not just because more and more people game like me.
Humans make decisions based less on logic or reason and much more on what we need at any given moment, and those needs depend on where we are on Maslow’s heirarchy. And certainly a lot of stories and games like to talk about that. It is the central appeal of the zombie genre, really: to see how our values at the top of the pyramid, our philosophical and moral values, stand up when the values at the bottom – safety, survival, basic belonging – are threatened. Dead of Winter is a board game about that very thing, although it doesn’t really succeed therein: you can only win by achieving your personal goals so it’s mostly about being a selfish jerk keeping yourself alive at all costs. A far more interesting game in this area is the legendary Pandemic and the unbelievably good Freedom: The Underground Railroad. In both of them success can only be achieved by sacrificing individual lives, which alone takes its toll as the symbolic dead rise (I’ve been told not to describe the deaths of the slaves for each cube I take off the board in Freedom, as it makes the game too painful) but also the game rules mean you can lose if that death toll gets too high. It is literally about balancing achieving the good of the many at the expense of the few – but not too many of the few.
The thing is, this clash of values is actually much more potent to an every day human. For most of us playing board games, our daily struggles are not far down the Maslow scale. If we can afford board games, we typically have food and shelter and safety, and either can’t imagine not having them, or don’t want to remember the times when we didn’t. Yet games are, for historical and technical reasons, typically focused at the bottom of the pyramid. Chess is tactical, but it’s kill or be killed. It makes sense as I said for technical reasons: games tend to be about expending resources to capture positions and we naturally think of that in terms of warfare. Or the other habits of humans: status racing, as we try to build the nicest kingdom, the richest trade empire, the tallest tower. Status is all very well and good, but again, for most of us, not one of our values.
Especially if you’re the kind of person who isn’t a typical gamer and shies away from typical boardgames because they’re full of status competition and being mean to other people. Those people’s values are removed from that, so even in abstract form they don’t want to do it. Let alone in a thematic sense. This is why it was a misstep, I feel, for Bloc by Bloc, a game aimed at people interested in social change, to have hidden goals and betrayal mechanism, because social change people usually don’t like those mechanics because those mechanics go against their values. A much better idea is the full co-op of Rise Up (on kickstarter now).
And that’s the point: engagement peaks and great storytelling comes not when there’s a clash of values but when the values in the story connect with OUR values. Pandemic hits home with me a great deal because I work in public health and social change; ditto Freedom. Much more so than Robinson Crusoe, with its similar mechanics. But mechanics have values attached to them as well, which is why I – being a squishy sentimental wolly-headed bleeding heart – play collaborative games almost exclusively.
Understanding the values your game expresses, in its mechanics and its theme, will tell you what kind of people will want to play your game. And more importantly, who will NOT want to play your game. Or how to expand it or tweak it or reposition it to get in touch with different values in different players. Abstract games are good like that, you can make cubes mean anything you want. So are game variants to suit different mechanical values, or different victory conditions (your business might be richer but my building is taller). And trying to tap into people’s values, to what they personally care about, is a great way to sell games. People like kittens, which is why Exploding Kittens did so well. I used to pitch Guillotine to people by saying “it lets you kill annoying French people”. Because “being annoyed by the French” is a value. Other times I’ve pitched it as “it lets you lead the glorious revolution against the aristo scum” – to socialist types who have that value. Because people think in values, not in logic or reason.
If you’re making your own games, think about what you value. If you’re making RPG characters and want them involved in the adventure, find ways to tag in your own personal values into them – and be careful not to ever tag your values in ways that would compromise going on adventures. A pacifist character who gets dragged into a dungeon crawl is NOT going to be fun if you’re an actual pacifist. On the other hand, a game of something about clashing agendas like Hillfolk, Smallville or Prime Time Adventures might be a great place to tag that agenda into a character, to make those struggles hit home as they reflect your own.
I personally struggle with value clashes all the time, and am constantly curious about how they intersect with social change, politics and psychology. So much so I wrote an RPG about it. Two of them, actually. One very recently called It Is Forbidden, which is about the cultural clash aspect, which was available through the crowdfunding only. And another long long ago called Walk the Line, a Firefly/Serenity emulator where the whole basis of the game was swinging between your own conflicting values. Very very old Steve fans might remember it and expected it to never see the light of day, but it’s here now. What can I say: fulfilling promises and pleasing fans, those are BIG values to me.