Tuesday, 12 June 2007

The Beast Within

The recent article by Ken Bradford, A View of Villany touched a personal nerve with me and really got me thinking. Not about the great villains that have been presented in AT games over the years but more about why the role of a villain in a game is such an appealing one. Because let's face it - by a certain standard virtually every game role available in a good AT title is a villain to some extent. With occasional, notable exceptions such as Arkham Horror the genre virtually demands that players betray, maim, pillage and slaughter their opponents whatever dubious moral justification is offered for one side being the "good guys".

I can't remember exactly when I became interested in genuine military history as opposed to make-believe battles in RPGs and miniatures games, but it must have been before the first Gulf War when I would've been around 17. I can recall sitting with some friends watching the news and discussing in some detail the weapons deployed against each other and the likely (and predictable) outcome of pitting T-72s against Challenger tanks and Apache Helicopters. Before that I can also remember creating and playing historical Vietname War scenarios in Overrun! with a friend on his C64. This interest continues to this day - I have vague Grognard tendencies in my choice of games and I'd probably play a few more wargames if I didn't have a bent toward multiplayer games, or could find anyone to play them against, or didn't find most of them of a level of complexity better suited to computer simulation.

On the other hand I can remember when I first took against the horror of war and violence. It was while studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen at school, aged about 15. I took against the apparently pointless and unnecessary violence embodied by the First World War, and indeed most other wars, to the point where I became a sworn pacifist and really quite an annoyingly self-righteous hippy wanker.

I've since recovered from that extreme position and recognised that violence is sometimes necessary and on very rare occasions, legitimate. However much of my adult life I've struggled with the apparent contradiction of being against war but fascinated by militarism and military history. I found some sort of reconciliation after reading the excellent book Dispatches, a journalistic memoir of Vietnam from which I took the message that warfare is at once terrible and yet glamorous. And it seems to me that until we can recognise this, and perhaps find something to replace combat in the collective psyche, war will continue to dominate the world, like it or not.

But as usual, I have digressed to some extent. You see, I love being really nasty to other people in games - it's one of the prime reasons I pick AT games out as being favourites. I absolutely delight in games where you can pretend to co-operate with someone and then pull out and stab them in the back. I get an immense thrill out of games where you can make plays which suddenly and unexpectedly put your opponents position back by several turns. I have a fantastic time rolling the dice and grandiosely sweeping enemy figures off the board. Destruction is fun. Betrayal is good. Wholesale slaughter is awesome.

But only in games.

This is stuff I'd never, ever do to people in real life. I'm a nice guy, basically, who likes to please people and shies away from genuine conflict. I'm absolutely convinced that the reason I enjoy being such a bastard to people when I play games is because it allows me to express the less pleasant side of my personality - and let's face it, we've all got one (with the possible exception of Mr Skeletor who might not have a pleasant side to contrast it with) - in a way that doesn't really hurt anyone else. For me, this is the catharsis that's replaced the glamour of conflict in my system and allowed me to behave like a sensible, civilised human being most of the time.

I can't help but wonder whether deep down, this isn't part of the appeal for other AT gamers and Grognards too. It would undoubtedly help explain why playing the villain is such an attractive role - the more dastardly you get to be in the game, the greater exorcism of your own darker feelings you get in return. Which brings us on to Eurogamers and the oft-commented tendency amongst that crowd for passive-aggressive behaviour. Could it be that this is because pushing little coloured wooden cubes around a table doesn't help much in letting off steam? So some of them, who perhaps haven't found other constructive or harmless ways of dealing with those sorts of feelings, decide to get it off their chests by adopting the passive-aggressive stance when challenged?

I just realised this article has gone way beyond a focus on games. Ah well, I've started so I'll finish.

So here's another idea to chew over. As anyone who's played a particularly intense and vicious game of Diplomacy will know, deciding to be really nasty to other people in board games isn't always a safe option. Handled badly it can really, really upset your fellow gamers and lead to the sorts of situations which make board flipping incidents look trivial. To be comfortable playing games which absolutely require you to be really horrible to each other you need to be playing with a certain set of people - people with whom you have a good enough understanding that everyone knows it's just a game, but people that you're not so close to that real-life issues can be dragged into the equation. In other words you don't want to play these games with strangers, vague acquaintances or family - you want to be playing them with good friends. That's my preferred gaming environment. I can't speak for my fellow AT fanboys but I do pick up the idea that Eurogamers have a greater tendency to game at clubs or with family members. Maybe if they tried playing games with a crowd where everyone knew each other well enough not to be bad loosers, whatever happened, they wouldn't have such an issue with player elimination and other elements of ultra-competitive games.

35 comments:

Malloc said...

Matt,

Another great post. I think you have hit on something here with the letting a little of the evil twin in us all out where it is safe.

I have a much more involved theory that runs along similar lines as to why organized groups (religious or secular) are good for human society for basically allowing those of us who need to belong or need to lead other have an outlet for these things before they become evil dictators or mindless terrorists.

however, thats a topic for a different blog.

-M

Pat H said...

And thus the nail has been squarely hit on the head.

Fellonmyhead said...

I've since recovered from that extreme position and recognised that violence is sometimes necessary and on very rare occasions, legitimate.

Well I think there is such a thing as necessary force, but there is an important difference between that and violence. One is calculated, controlled and ever-present in a game of conflict. The other is animal, emotive and generally meets with disapproval at the games table.

Nasty can still be nice.

Mike Dowd said...

As far as killing and violence, I find much more satisfaction in kicking someone in the money bag than in the nut sack, which is why I really like the waro genre, you get to choose.

I think dark helmet summed up why it's nice to play evil.

"So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb."

Ken B. said...

First, Skeletor calls me a Thai Hooker with a Southern Drawl, and now I'm Matt's muse.



All I know is, somebody probably owes me $20.

Michael Barnes said...

Not if I kick you in the money sack and take it...

I feel a lot of empathy with Thrower on this one...in games I've slaughtered billions, raped and pillaged lands of various nations, planets, and dimensons, shot animals for food, subjugated Native Americans, murdered prostitutes, eaten feces, blew my friends' brains out execution-style, killed a dog for food, endorsed and profited from slavery, and fought for the Wehrmacht in the polish Blitzkrieg of 1939. And none of this is anything I would do or promote in real life. I'm really a pretty nice guy, I think. I'm a vegetarian and I love puppies. Politically I'm pretty libertarian although I'm still an anarchist at heart. I'm antiracist, antihomophobe, antisexist, and totally pro-choice. Thanks to Robert Martin, my pink cellphone has become more famed than his pink cellphone that plays Andrew Lloyd Weber showtunes.

Yet there is certainly an acceptable and even admirable thrill to getting to be the fascist dictator ordering the deaths of millions or the cruel dungeonmaster ordering Blood Apes to their almost certain demise. Games, like any other entertainment media, are the most successful when they transport us to situations and circumstances that we normally won't, can't, or don't want to experience in real life and I believe that includes "playacting" morals and attitudes that aren't necessarily our own sentiments in the real world.

It is about having an outlet...having a safe somewhere to put darkness, hatred, and violence in a safe and healthy way. Man is an animal, and if we watch animals play what do we see? Violence, fighting, and mock hunting behavior. Therefore, it stands to follow that it's only natural for us to enjoy violent pastimes and violent themes. AT games, of course, have this in spades.

It was interesting when the AT thing got rolling that there was this underlying thought that came from some folks that the reason Eurogames tend to be nonviolent is because of the first and second World Wars and a general faux-progressive stance that violence and depictions of violence are bad...which is an odd contradiction to me, considering that some of the most violent and hateful music I've ever heard in my life has come from Europe (Black Metal, anyone) and some of the most violent and hateful films I've ever seen are European (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST- 'nuff said). I also find it funny that cultures that are more permissive in terms of violent content generally have much lower rates of violent crime- it's very, very rare that a situation like the West Virginia shootings occurs in countries where violence is more "acceptable" in entertainment. The fall-back excuse for most non-Americans is to say that we're a violent culture- but I firmly believe that has more to do with our current administration's insistence on promoting geopolitical violence moreso than anything occuring on a cultural level.

The other day I was proudly carrying my TIDE OF IRON into my office and pal Abel from the Dominican Republic wanted to see it...he said "Don't you have any games without all this violence?" And it kind of struck me, because I never really regarded ToI or any other wargame as "violent". From a very early age, I was always taught the distinction between fantasy and reality and the place each occupies in our lives. I never understood folks who mix them up like that.

At any rate, I do think that it's good to be evil, nasty, vile, and to promote death, destruction, and mayhem on every level possible in the context of gaming- I get a lot more out of sticking my CA$H N' GUN$ piece down your god damned throat with a "Bang Bang Bang" card at the ready than saying "I'll go three" and smirking knowing that you only have two ducats.

Michael Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Barnes said...

BTW Matt- I'm a bit concerned. Smartly written, well considered highbrow fare like this makes me miss our glory days when we posted pictures of bikini'ed meth addicts on motorcycles and featured more lowbrow material to appeal to sex-starved nerds. Can we get something a little more "blue" on here for next week?

Anonymous said...

in games I've slaughtered billions, ... eaten feces, ...

Wait, what?

I think you'll find M&Ms are a much better board game snack.

J de said...

I still wonder why people mention vegetarianism as something that somehow shields you from evil. Da Fuhrah himself was a veggie. And he loved kids, for that matter.

I never had problems with playing Germans in WWII games, but I always wondered why people would volunteer to be SS. And then become all apologetic of the organisation (the Waffen SS was just a military organisation, and separate from the political branch... MY ASS!!).

Of course, since Christopher Browning we know that the army and even police battallions were heavily involved in the Holocaust, so that means a good many Germans had dirty hands

Matt Thrower said...

...which is an odd contradiction to me, considering that some of the most violent and hateful music I've ever heard in my life has come from Europe (Black Metal, anyone) and some of the most violent and hateful films I've ever seen are European (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST- 'nuff said).

It's not about the games being European - this is a specifically German thing. The guilt-hangover from the days of the Reich is still very strong in Gemany, to the point where video games that depict humans killing other humans are banned. I wouldn't be surprised if that legislation extended to boardgames. Anyway, since the majority of Eurogames come from Germany, it's entirely unsurprising that they feature a rejection of violence as a hallmark design aspect.

I've often pondered whether this aversion to bloodshed isn't partly what inspired German game design in the first place. When everyone else was having a blast playing AT games back in the eighties, the German game fans were probably appalled by some of the themes that got used and maybe it inspired some designers to try and make games based around some nonviolent themes.

Michael Barnes said...

I think you'll find M&Ms are a much better board game snack.

Not according to URSUPPE, the seminal shit-eating game.

Jay Dee- Ha! You're right...it's like there's a vegetarian escape clause...like any time someone mentions the classic grindcore band Carcass, vegetarianism invariably creeps into the conversation. Good thing to know, I can commit atrocities and release albums like "Heartwork" and always have a redeeming quality.

Matt- Hmm. That's interesting to think of it in a more specific frame but it does seem to be a "German" thing. Of course, in the US, it's sometimes hard not to think of the UK as somehow separate than the continent. But god knows the UK has brought us some of the most delirously violent board games ever. For that, we salute you.

There's really nothing wrong with nonviolent themes at all though, and I definitely appreciate their place and appeal to a lot of different people...but you know, growing up a nerd in the 1980s and nerd culture was pretty much all about violence in one form or another except for those weird kids that went to Space Camp. I was never interested in the Space Shuttle and all that because it didn't have railguns or torpedo launchers. I grew up with death merchants like He Man, Transformers, and GI Joe...along with D&D, AXIS & ALLIES, etc. so violence was always a part of it for me...when I was 15, if you asked me to play a game about bean farming I probably would have beat you over the head with my black Powell Peralta Tony Hawk (fishtail, as god intended).

Those Space Camp kids are likely the American Eurogamers of today.

Don't get me started on violence in German media though...two words, JORG BUTTGEREIT.

Jack Hill said...

Matt: The whole nonviolence is definitely a German thing.

French and Italians make games that are just as violent as us US folks. Look at Tannhauser. (Even if they INSIST that it is an alternate world where the Wehrmacht never existed. Part of this is likely so that they can sell the game in Germany, where anything with Nazi imagery is illegal.)

I don't think the rise in German game design is a nonviolence thing.

When you go back to the 80's there are mostly family games, as well as a few hobby game companies making stuff a lot like American companies.

Hans im Gluck's first few games included a Dungeon Crawl (Samaris), and a sort of odd western shootout / gambling game (Dodge City.)

Moskito's first game is a 3 player wargame.

What you got is a weird kind of merging where the toy companies began to make more complex games (starting mostly with Settlers), and the hobby companies started trying to make lighter games to get part of the family crowd business.

The entire trend has been towards lighter games---enough that we are seeing a bit of a backlash with new companies that are making games that are definitely gamery. Still not quite violent...but you are now getting the occsional End of the Triumvirate.

Personally, I think we need to watch all of the old Eastern block countries. The stuff coming out of there is so much more interesting.

Barnes: Jorg is not really about violence. Just death, and sex...in every combination possible.

Shellhead said...

I never pondered this issue until maybe two years ago, the first time my current girlfriend went looking through my board game collection. She asked some questions and looked at the box art, and after about five games, she shook her head and murmured, "so much death."

Still, I didn't feel guilty about it, because I know that I'm a nice guy who likes helping people. I enjoy playing games of death and deceit, but in real life, I am kind and honest. Sometimes I like to listen to punk or heavy metal, and roll some dice while engaging in simulated warfare, but that's just fun, nothing serious.

And when I look around, I see that I live in a place with a lot of uptight scandinavian and german types who tend to be calm and excessively polite. But they also love to drink heavily, gamble at the indian casinos and, when still young, play that excessively violent sport known as ice hockey. Even lutheran pillars of the community need to go wild once in a while.

alan polak said...

"growing up a nerd in the 1980s and nerd culture was pretty much all about violence in one form or another"

Yeah I agree I think part of this depends on when you grew up. I saw Star Wars in the cinema and all my heroes back then were violent, except for the A-Team where no-one died _ever_. I played with toy guns when they looked like guns dammit. Again I think we are back to people who place far too much importance on a game compared to people who know it's only a game. It doesn't define you or me but it seems like for so many people it is exactly that. It reminds me of way back when anyone playing D+D was worshipping the devil.

Michael Barnes said...

Yes, former Eastern Bloc countries are making a pretty impressive showing lately with some very high quality (Slavitrash?) titles like PROPHECY and THROUGH THE AGES. Rich with stabbing and shooting, too.

Jack points out something that isn't so much connected to any kind of national characteristic...that what we call "Euro" or "German" style games with nonviolent/pacifist themes are pretty deeply connected with the hobby game industry's attention to the supposed "family game" market- which I'm not entirely convinced has ever really existed on the level it was purported to based solely on the sales of three or four titles. I think in the US in particular, where hobby retailers and wholesalers are always looking for the next D&D/Magic/Pokemon phenomenon, this idea that the "family game" was the next big thing never really took off...and now we see games like the FFG titles selling gangbusters and Rio Grande doing well enough in its niche but still not selling 3000 or so copies of its top releases.

Sales figures for last week- I sold 10 copies of TIDE OF IRON (and could have sold 10 more if they weren't short-shipped) and 2 copies of NOTRE DAME, and I have one gathering dust in the back of my car. Likewise, COLOSSEUM failed to spark any interest whatsoever and is an almost complete dud (not to mention a really shitty game). Big box, violent-themed games have not only a built in hobby nerd appeal, but they also have a LOT more crossover appeal into other markets. Kids brought up on HALO will likely enjoy TIDE OF IRON, but what the hell are they going to think of IF WISHES WERE FISHES? It's good that there is a backlash and the return of violent and conflict oriented themes because frankly, all these games designed to appeal to Mormon families and 50 year old men don't provide much hope for the future of the hobby.

On Jorg Buttgereit- You're right, but I dunno man, SCHRAMM is pretty violent...and the cock-trimming scene in DER TODESKING definitely qualifies as violent...I guess the Nazis didn't ruin sex and death for future generations like they did violence.

Mike Dowd said...

There is definitely a dark side to human nature. But then again the notion of "dark" being bad, evil or wrong is only one interpretation. There is no good without evil for comparison. No joy without suffering to measure it by. There always will be evil and dark. Terrorists and killers. What impedes human development is when these things get out of their natural balance. I think mortal kombat, doom, cnn, horror films and AT serve a VERY important part in maintaining the balance for those of us born into a relatively benevolent western society.

gary sax said...

I still would be interested in real comparative numbers of sales from, say, GMT, FFG and Mayfair or Rio Grande's top releases.

Video games suffer from this too; all they have are NPD numbers for sales which are a little fishy. I'd be interested from an informational angle what is really selling.

ubarose said...

It's not about violence or evil. It's about dominance (there's a word that makes people twitch). Humans are pack animals. We are like dogs. We want to stare each other down, or nip each other's ears to establish ourselves as the Big Dog, but we don't actually want to seriously injure a member of our pack, because that will weaken us as a whole. Men are always trying to establish dominance - whether at work, or on the golf course, or the bowling ally, or over a game board, or driving their big ass car, are banging heads at local dive. Some guys actually have to win at something to feel like they are big dogs, other guys just nip at each other by talking trash. Channeling those instincts by knocking off plastic soldiers, and laughing about it, is far more civilized than doing something that requires bail money.

Mr Skeletor said...

I'm really a pretty nice guy, I think. I'm a vegetarian and I love puppies. Politically I'm pretty libertarian although I'm still an anarchist at heart. I'm antiracist, antihomophobe, antisexist, and totally pro-choice. Thanks to Robert Martin, my pink cellphone has become more famed than his pink cellphone that plays Andrew Lloyd Weber showtunes.

What a pack of wankers.

I never really brought the whole "Violence in entertainment is a release" argument - just sounds like a shitty excuse to me. After playing Double Dragon I never felt any more or less violent than before I put my 40 cents in. After watching a Slayer concert I don't feel like helping old ladies across the street because all my violent tendencies are now gone. I don't feel like punching my opponent in the face after playing a 'peaceful' game like Purto Rico then I do getting fucked over n Game of Thrones.

I will agree that non-violent themes are a german only thing. In fact if you took FFG out of the equation most AT and violent stuff seems to be coming from France these days.

Anonymous said...

After playing Double Dragon I never felt any more or less violent than before I put my 40 cents in.

You pay 40 cents to play Double Dragon? Ripoff!

Mr Skeletor said...

That was 40 Aussie cents, back when Double Dragon first came out.
"Have you heard about the end boss? He has a machine gun!"

Now days you are lucky if you can find an arcade machine that you could play for $2.

Anonymous said...

We got this great thing in the US called Nickelcade where you can play all the classics for 5 cents.

Anonymous said...

I'm a vegetarian and I love puppies. Politically I'm pretty libertarian although I'm still an anarchist at heart. I'm antiracist, antihomophobe, antisexist, and totally pro-choice.

I'm an animal lover. In fact they're delicious. Male and female are coded to behave differently in almost every species, except of course humans, where to even to suggest such an idea is offensive. Gay people are wonderful and would be even better if there were a cure. By choice do you mean fries or chips? If you're talking abortion I think the baby should have the choice, once it reaches 18, to terminate itself.

You guys are lame. Do you really think rolling a handful of dice releases your inner beast?

Ted T.

ubarose said...

You guys are lame. Do you really think rolling a handful of dice releases your inner beast?

Ted T.


Here comes Ted. Nipping at your ears. Showing us his inner beast. He feels like the Big Dog now. This is what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Not according to URSUPPE, the seminal shit-eating game.

Aha, I figured at first you must be referring to Ursuppe, but I've never played it so I wasn't sure. Plus, it seemed a little, you know ... euro. I thought maybe you were playing Prison Bitch, or had come up with some truly innovative custom cards for Munchkin.

Matt Thrower said...

You guys are lame. Do you really think rolling a handful of dice releases your inner beast?

No. I think screaming "take that, fucker" across the gaming table, or gloating as you tear chunks out of a former ally are what actually does it.

BTW Ted, way to go leaving your name on an "anonymous" post.

Jack Hill said...

Further east of Germany is doing odd things. I've got a copy of a Polish gaming magazine last week with a mix of Euro and wargame reviews. Here I stand got a 9.

Zvezda in Russian has also been doing very FFG-style games for awhile alongside their odd miniature offerings. The only thing we got was Robogear, which includes giant mech plastic models that actually shoot.

Mr Skeletor said...

BTW Ted, way to go leaving your name on an "anonymous" post.

Not sure if that's meant to be sarcastic or not? If it is he's not the first to do it - People do it either because they can't be bothered creating an account or forget to log in.

Shellhead said...

Mike Dowd: As far as killing and violence, I find much more satisfaction in kicking someone in the money bag than in the nut sack, which is why I really like the waro genre, you get to choose.

The money bag? Isn't that where the money shot comes from?

Fellonmyhead said...

ubaroseHere comes Ted. Nipping at your ears. Showing us his inner beast. He feels like the Big Dog now. This is what I'm talking about.

It's comments like this that make me wish Blogger had thumbs-up like BGG.

hughthehand said...

I'm just gonna jump in here and throw my 2 cents in. Which is probably worth about $0.0003254 since I am mainly a euro gamer.

I think the non-aggressive, non-violent thing in euors is really talking about the game itself, not the group. Cause let me tell you, in my group, Puerto Rico gets violent. Maybe not in the game play but in the table talk. "I just fucked you hard by taking that role, you coffee rich bastard! Try taking that to the bank and cashing it, you two bit whore!" Stuff like that is very common and expected in my group.

Caylus can get worse....trust me.

I personally don't think the games are violent themselves at all.

Barnes said:
because I never really regarded ToI or any other wargame as "violent".

I 100% agree with this. I never actually think I am killing anything, because games like that seem so abstract to me. I'm only moving plastic bits. What I do find violent is me saying, that move I just made? Ya...that is me kicking in you nuts, then taking your mom, having my foul way with her, while you watch....and she is loving it!

The violence to me is really what I am doing on the board to hurt YOU. Not that I am actually a Nazi killing your hapless American troops.

Why do I like to play the so called "bad" side, like Germany in a wargame? I like trying to change history, and prove that there were some very lucky decisions involved in the real war. Or that I could have done a better job at it.

Being an underdog in an AT game and winning....$70...telling your opponent that he sucks all forms of ass and his playing is inferior to your awesomeness? Priceless.

Either way, euro or AT...the game itself isn't the violent part. Its the table talk and heated discussions during the game that is.

Mr Skeletor said...

Hugh also claims to read playboy for the articles.

Joe Mamma said...

What Frank said. I totally Fing agree. I love the Beast Within. I've heard a rumor that the new video game is coming out. Any truth to that? Gabriel Knight 4?

Great posts. I love this column. Especially Frank.

hughthehand said...

Playboy has articles? I thought I was totally making that up....huh.