I take my play very seriously. That may sound like a nonsense statement, an oxymoron or perhaps a self-justification but hear me out. For me, games are more than an opportunity to socialise with friends. I admit though I do enjoy games, and the opportunity to game with friends either at a table, through a console or computer brings me enjoyment, I want to make a case that there can be more to “playing” a game than the surface social engagement.
I have been thinking about this for some years now but was provoked by an article shared with me by a friend this morning about a game that I have played. Set in 1930’s Germany, Secret Hitler simulates the political environment that gave rise to fascism leading to the Second World War. On this side of history, it is easy for us to assume that the Nazis were obviously evil. For us the symbols of the Third Reich take on a sinister dark tone that alarms us and stands as a warning against fascism. Secret Hitler is produced by Breaking Games and distributed by Black Box Games. It is a social deduction game for up to 10 players in which each player seeks to find and stop the hidden fascists seeking to subtly raise their ideology. The experience of playing this game allows the players to explore this world of political ideology and engage with this era.
We live in an age of film and fiction that repeatedly paint a picture for us that “goodies” wear white hats and “baddies” wear black. If only the world were so simple and the theme music that surrounds us in our daily lives would change to indicate that evil was nearby, and we should be on our guard.
Where film allows us to stand outside and view scenarios as a disembodied spectator a well-crafted game allows us to enter into the scenario with personal agency and make choices. As a game runs it course, we can see the consequences of our choices play out providing opportunities to reflect on those choices and the outcomes they create.
The questions raised in the article include whether a game about the secret rise of fascism in the 1930’s should be allowed to be sold in 2019: Is it disrespectful to play such a game? Is it problematic to take such a traumatic period of history and “play” with it?
The philosopher George Santayana is quoted and paraphrased as saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If there are portions of history that cannot be explored or discussed, the experience of them can be forgotten or worse still romanticised. It is important to create opportunities for people in this day to explore the consequences of historical decisions as close to first hand as possible.
As a time traveller the easiest solution to this would be to climb aboard my time machine and check it out but alas that option is not available to me just yet!
I would suggest then that playing games then are the best asset in entering the experience of many historical and possible future events, allowing opportunities for exploring the decisions that lead to outcomes. This has the added benefit of not having any real-world consequences beyond learning. I am certainly aware that there is a time and a place for everything and would never want to cause distress by playing such a game in the company of people for whom this is a sensitive issue. I will endeavour to provide future blogs on methods of appropriate briefing and debriefing for such intentional play.
As children our play is a formative experience that enables us to explore issues too complex for us to digest. Surely as adults we must continue this kind of play and reflect on its benefits to as growing people who are lifelong learners.
This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here.
Rev. Will Nicholas is Minister of the Word at St David’s Uniting Church in Newtown, Victoria