I might be kicking a hornet’s nest with this one, but I think it’s an important topic to talk about. America, and much of the world, has seen a new rise of fascism, in a variety of authoritarian guises. This is definitely a global issue, but all global issues are also local ones, so I think we all have a responsibility to address fascism in our communities.
There’s no denying that tabletop RPGs and LARPs have a fascism problem. The introductory work, Dungeons and Dragons, is rife with material that appeals to fascists of all stripes, from its treatment of race to its codification of alignment to its fetishization of violence. To make matters worse, many works do not examine their relationship with authoritarianism and fascism and wind up creating worlds and systems that allow fascists to take root and find comfort.
This is simply not acceptable.
Fortunately, there are tools available to game designers and runners that can be implemented to help create games that are not friendly to fascists and their ideology. Consider this a primer – an introductory text of its own.
As a note, not all of these strategies need to be used in a given work. However, the more that are used, the less room that fascists will find to engage with the material.
Emotional Safety Rules
Emotional safety rules are the single most powerful tool in a game’s arsenal to make it unpalatable to fascists. Too many games have a top power structure where the GM or DM or ST or staff have final say in how the rules are implemented and how the structure of the game flows. A GM-centric model is not necessarily a bad one, though, as this allows for the other players to focus on their characters in isolation, and the GM to present the world around them, allowing for reactive and intense play.
The key to making a GM-centric game work, though, is an understanding of the power relationship. All players, GM included, are there to have fun, to explore the world and plots as desired by all participants. However, the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of the participants has to take priority over the details of the game.
By placing emotional safety rules into a game, it provides a defensive measure for all participants and breaks the unidirectional power dynamic. All participants become empowered to make their voices known and to control the flow of play where it matters most. Emotional safety mechanics are seldom enough on their own, but a game without them is a cause for concern.
Avoid Biological Determinism
The idea of “race” as presented in Dungeon and Dragons has become pervasive throughout many works that draw inspiration, directly and indirectly, from it. The idea that a person’s biological origin determines their nature and character is as pernicious as it is dangerous. Racists of all kinds, including fascist ones, speak in similar terms, describing themselves as “race realists” while they deal in biological determinism. There have been many articles discussing the very troubling implications of orcs and drow, but the truth is that any game that engages in this sort of activity is dealing in the language of racism.
Biological determinism extends beyond race, and into gender. While few modern games apply direct statistical modifications based on a character’s race, many do have underlying beliefs about gender roles built into the setting of the game, into the way that the fiction treats male and female characters. Few games even consider that characters can exist outside of the gender binary, though thankfully, they are becoming more common.
No game should have any degree of biological determinism in its mechanics. The idea of a genetic destiny is dangerous and causes real-world harm. As much as genetics do have a role in a person, their role is unique to the individual, as is the result of their upbringing. A game designed to discuss bigotry can have characters putting forth ideas of biological determinism, but they should be signposted as the dangerous ideas that they are, rather than presenting neutrally in the text.
The Role of Violence
The role of violence in fascist ideology is complex. Fascist governments are quick to use violence in a top-down way to enforce their government and crush dissent; however, fascists often see themselves as underdogs, thus they can see themselves in the scrappy and weak fighting back against the evils of big government. The common denominator, though, is that fascists view violence as good, necessary, and effective.
It is may not be easy to create a game that does not use violence of any sort, but this is probably the simplest way to go in creating a game that engages in the fascist narratives around violence. Not all violence is bad, though. Sometimes violence is necessary and effective. Sometimes it is necessary to punch a Nazi. Sometimes it is necessary to tear down a fascist government with direct action.
The key to making violence in a game unpalatable to fascists is to make it unheroic. In fascist ideology, the dealer of violence is a great man, a hero to be looked up to, someone who cuts through the polite niceties of society to achieve their goals. Violence is seldom this way in real life. Real violence is uncomfortable and difficult and is seldom applauded, and is never applauded by all.
Games that wish to frame violence in this way must make sure that violence is a thing that can only be done to protect and as a measure of last resort. Making violence too easy and too glamorous leads to very dangerous results, and encourages players to see violence as the ideal solution to their problems.
I already know I’m going to receive some pushback about this point, talking about how I’m opposed to fun. I would argue that making violence fun one of the more dangerous trends in our pop culture. Violence is not fun. Violence is scary, violence is harmful, and violence is traumatic. That doesn’t mean it’s not necessary sometimes, but it’s not fun. Other kinds of conflicts and disagreements are entertaining in their own right.
Applying the techniques of decolonization to a game will help to make that game less appealing to fascists. Presenting all individuals within a game as possessing of independent wills and identities is in direct opposition to fascist ideology, a point brought to particular light by the current “NPC” meme going through fascist twitter. You can find more information on decolonizing games at my post here.
Make Fascists Enemies
Finally, and probably most obviously, games that have fascists as an enemy, or the only enemy faction, seldom appeal to fascists. There is a catharsis in taking on and taking out Nazis within a fictional space. In doing so, though, take care to have an understanding of the varied political groups that are aligned into the current fascists. Fascists have their own internal divisions and differences of viewpoints, however united they may be in attacking the marginalized. Making sure that all of these groups are represented in a negative light will assure that none of them will find comfort in the game.
It is also important to signpost that a game will contain antagonistic portrayals of fascists. Frequent content warnings can help maintain the emotional safety of players, and engaging with fascists can put an emotional strain, especially on those not expecting it. Finally, make sure that the fascists remain purely antagonistic. If a player can play as a fascist, then a fascist player will play the game to pursue that option, which is not the desired result.
Fascism is on the rise again. The last time fascists came to power, it took a war to remove them from it. Active resistance against fascists is necessary right now in order to stop them from becoming entrenched deeper again. The media we create and consume speaks to our ideals and our hopes for the future.
Let us work together to make our hopes set on a future without fascism.
I will expand further on these topics in future blog posts. Please let me if there are any sections that you think need particular focus or if there are any other strategies you’d like to see me talk about!