A starting note:
This post was originally going to be about Cards Against Humanity and GTA:V. In short: These games set up the possibility of gameplay that is racist, sexist, etc but ultimately the decision to engage in that is entirely with the player – indeed, it is the players political ethics that determine whether these games are problematic or not rather than the games themselves. In writing, I re-thought this and found myself working back into the problem I worked out through my MA thesis.
I’ve played Cards Against Humanity twice, and the second time was far less enjoyable and far more uncomfortable than the first. Sometime between the two games I realised that while there has been a lot of focus on the fact that the game encourages players to be offensive (by offering easy combinations that are racist, sexist, trans and homophobic etc) there actually isn’t any need for the game to be offensive at all. The card combinations and rules for combining them are sufficiently broad to allow other types of humour to be winning strategies. Indeed, in both games I played going for the most wildly offensive combination was not a winning strategy. Among my friends absurdity rather than obscenity gets you the appreciation from the card czar.
While the game gives a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, towards a certain kind of play the cards also act as a kind of means of projecting our comfort zones, and give a (imaginary) legitimacy to the indulgence in the politically obscene. The cards, not the devil, made me do it. So, while you can be racist, there is no gameplay requirement for racism. The racism is projected into the game primarily by the players themselves. One way to see this projection is in how particular cultural references play out. Certain combinations which would be immediately recognisable as racist in the US do not carry the same weight elsewhere where the shared understanding is simply not possible. A transgression only emerges when players are able to bring shared cultural understandings of transgression to the game and use the cards as the medium for that exchange. For example; an answer might combine two cards – one about watermelon and another about African Americans. This combination has direct contemporary and historical references to the use of the watermelon as a racial stereotypes (and associated histories of racism, slavery and white supremacy) in the USA which are only intelligible by those (likely to be USian, but also elsewhere) who understand the racism they are signalling (and indeed performing).
In this sense the responsibility for politically ethical play is not in the cards (and as a metaphor – our languages and their particular racist/sexist vulgarities) but in the deployment of those cards. You have the right to free speech – you can choose the hand you play – but that does not mean all hands are reasonable, acceptable, ethical. Sometimes, when the cards you have give you no option but to play a hand that feels (or is) hateful towards non-privileged or oppressed groups then the only way to win is to not play at all.
Yet this seems itself irresponsible (in the sense of not taking responsibility), the cards are there to play, and they are there to play for a reason. Watermelon isn’t inserted as a random but representative member of the family of melons. Grounding responsibility of the politics of the game with the player and not the game itself ignores an implied subject position that is privileged both in the cards and the players. The naughtiness of the obscene and politically incorrect answers are for the most part pushed apart from whiteness. That is, the answers are problematic because they can be used to ridicule and target identities that are “othered” by whiteness. Mexicans, Jews, Gay people etc are the inappropriate answers. White people do feature, but often as the question (eg White people like _____ ) rather than answers. (The winning answer is Nickelback). The subject position is not managed by the designers (and audiences can and do subvert the ways in which media positions them) yet by working back the intended audience can be discerned (and here audience is the market – yes, even for a “free” game). Intention here is not only the conscious decision making of the marketing department (e.g we’ll target white 18-25 yr old men) but the ideological baggage that designers, producers, writers etc bring to the table without necessarily knowing what they are carrying. For example; a group of middle-class hip white USians might understand how to make offensive stereotypes about Hispanic Americans but be obvious how Hispanic Americans might not only experience that, but also resist and indeed return those stereotypes.
Design itself is only part of a network of political economies that cross through a whole range of issues from intellectual property rights, access to education and capital (social, cultural and economic) through to the conditions of material and intellectual labour, workplace (and workspace) cultures, resource mining, unionism, and so on.
At this point there seems to be two conflicting propositions about the game: first that the ethical burden is on the player and second the designers have the ethical responsibility for creating the game knowing players could play it in a racist/sexist etc way. While the temptation here is to try to determine which is right, I think the lesson I learnt from my MA thesis was that the point isn’t necessarily (or only) to make a judgement on the ethics (we in a sense have done that already by positioning the critique from an anti-racist/anti-sexist perspective) but rather to realise and illuminate the multiple ways these problems manifest and are resisted, performed or encouraged, and that means an understanding not of just the content of the cultural product (game, film, book) but also the means and conditions of its production.