How to Make Your Game Anti-Fascist

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.

Decolonization

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

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24 thoughts on “How to Make Your Game Anti-Fascist

  1. I think you missed the point of what fantasy and space opera are. You didn’t kick a hornet’s nest, you kicked a black hole. It’s like yelling at actors on screen that do something devious or get two in the hat. They are actors. It isn’t real. They go home and eat cereal.

    A politically correct all equal, everyone is a gold medalist, each according to ability each according to equally assigned experience points?

    While adventuring players should always be treated with respect around the real or virtual table, remember it is a game and outcome motivations may guide a player’s world view, I don’t think “don’t pick on the poor segregated balrog” works as an adventure.

    Now there are games that do well on kickstarter, like “Stigmata, This Signal Kills Fascists” that I look forward to, uses resistance vs non-violent representation of the oppressed.
    Cool, but sometimes I want my lawful evil dwarf to take a skewer at a goody two gauntlet paladin. Each according to a fantasy representation which may be a fun way to release those anti-social thoughts when returning to a better real world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, thank you for taking the time to think out your response. Most of the negative comments I’ve received on here have been far less well articulated and quite a bit more vulgar.

      Second, I’m not quite sure you understand the purpose of this article. The purpose of the article is not to tell people what they should and should not play. I do have some personal thoughts about that, but that’s outside of the scope of this work. This work is aimed at game designers and staff for larger games.

      D&D is not going away. D&D is not under attack. D&D is the largest product in the tabletop rpg market, with the closest second being the D&D clone Pathfinder. Do I think that some assumptions in D&D rely on unexamined biases? Yes. Do I think that new designers should examine those biases in the games they make? Yes. Do I think that people who want to play D&D should not be able to do so? No.

      Third, I think that all works of media reflect on the real world to some degree. You may not agree with this, but I think that looking at genre works without understanding the underlying metaphors leads to a poorer understanding of the work as a whole. I know that fascists definitely do see the underlying metaphor and rejoice in the opportunity to inflict whole-hearted violence on monsters coded after the people they hate in the real world.

      Fourth, I am familiar with Stigmata and I’m writing these articles as much for the writers of that game as for anyone else. Understanding the way that the metaphors and coding of a game reflect on the real world political situation is something that everyone should be willing to examine.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Orcs are not a product of biological determinism. They are created by their god to be evil. They are not simply raiders. They want to cause harm because they are created to cause harm.

    It’s not like Vikings raiding. They are compelled to harm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Orcs aren’t real. Any traits associated with them were assigned to them by the person writing their background. These writers are influenced by biases both conscious and otherwise. Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. they where written as an enemy race, something evil to add into campaigns, not all orcs are evil, but they as said where written to be evil, its not bias its just writing.

        Its cannot be bias as orcs are not real, so there is no real life correlation they are using as a reference.

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  3. Lets be honest racial division in games and the real world are nothing but stereotypes. I think adults can realize that just because orc or drow are supposed to have particular characteristics, that doesn’t always hold true for every individual character. I mean look at one of R.A. Salvatore’s most famous characters, a drow by the name of Drizzt. He is disgusted by drow society, and eventually abandons his life among the drow because he detested the ways of his own race.

    The great thing about games like D&D is the imagination. You are not bound by the information or the rules as stated by the designers. For table top rpgs you have the ability to home brew and rule whatever you can imagine or justify. If you’re waiting for them to remove fascist tones within a game, maybe you should just take the initiative and create your own world with its own rules. Waiting for the designers to listen to you and change their game to accommodate you is useless because they are already giving the vast majority of people exactly what they want: neatly packaged content within a fantasy universe. They do a lot of work coming up with story lines and conflict so all we have to do is play and enjoy the game. If you have a problem with the system, the answer is simple: create your own content.

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    1. I actually am a game designer, working on bringing the themes I’m interested into the things I create. I’m also in conversation with a number of other designers, maybe not the ones who work on D&D, but those in the indie scene. This article is aimed specifically at them, so that they can think about the unexamined biases they might be bringing in from the traditions of design that they are inspired by.

      It’s actually not that hard to make your own system, which is the main thing I’m trying to address in this blog as a whole.

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  4. I honestly don’t think you understand the definition of fascism.
    All of your ideas literally take all of the deep world building involved in RPGs.
    Why not give particular races different attributes?! It would make sense Orcs are stronger and prone to savage rages compared to elves, while drow would possess dark vision and more apt to follow their darker natures. This isn’t racism, it is simply cultural diversity. The real life sherpas in Nepal are a fine example. They’ve actually adapted to living at high altitude, and their cardiovascular systems are actually able to metabolize oxygen much better than even Olympic athletes.

    Simply calling something you don’t agree with “fascism” does not give you the high ground, it makes you look like a child.

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    1. First of all, please read Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, the seminal work on defining fascism. I’d especially point to this section:

      “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.”

      Next, I’d ask you to consider why it is that larger and more athletic race would be more prone to violence? Is this backed by data available? Or are you simply buying into a racist narrative? Also, why are drow dark skinned? In the lightless reaches of the Underdark, dark skin is not a camouflage. Instead, drow should be pale and pasty white. They are dark-skinned because of the unexamined biases of the creators of the drow, who conflate dark skin with evil nature.

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      1. ” I’d ask you to consider why it is that larger and more athletic race would be more prone to violence?”
        They are ORC’s its how they are in fantasy literature, they are a waring tribal race, they fight for survival and resources, fighting war and violence is their way of life. the evidence is there in their lore.

        And drow? they did not always live underground, they used to live on the surface, but where forced underground, they had dark skin when on they where on the surface, they where cursed to when they where driven underground to keep their black skin and cursed to be weak to the light.

        Its written into their lore, they evolved to have dark skin on the surface, so they have dark skin, their curse was so they could not adapt for under the earth, and to be weak to coming back up.

        Its not unexamined bias, its all there in the lore.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So what you’re suggesting is that D&D isn’t racist, it’s just lazy? I guess that’s one approach to take. I’d still rather look at the values it proposes within the context of the people playing the game in the real world.

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      3. “Lazy” may be the reason why, but the impact is the same. “I didn’t mean it” doesn’t help when someone accidentally hits you with a care, frex.

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      4. Britt’s definition seems good to me, but a bit dry, and perhaps a bit limited in its applicability. Eco’s definition is slightly broader, but talks at more length about the ideological roots of these characteristics. Plus, it has great lines like “Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

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  5. I disagree with this article on a vast number of points, but as I do not want to post a 12 paragraph essay here, I will take on only the gender issue.

    The historical Middle Ages, were a highly patriarchal time, women did not have many rights, and had to submit to men. D&D does not need to follow that structure, it is not suggested in the game material, and has not been a part of any game I have played in. In contrast, women live in equality with men in D&D. The author of the article comes off as someone who has not played D&D, in this regard.

    On the issue of binary gender in D&D, again, I’m not seeing this. While there are no rules for gender, I don’t feel there needs to be, and players may choose to play any gender. I sometimes see male players running a female character, or vice versa. The DM is required to run NPCs of either gender, since the DM represents the world. In that way the game is pan-gender. I would have no problem with a gay or transgeneder player in my game, or with a gamer choosing to play that.

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    1. So, funny story, when I started playing D&D, there were, in fact, different ability score caps for male and female characters. While it’s true that the game has de-emphasized the role of gender as editions has moved along, I think it’s still something that designers should keep in mind as they work on their designs, to make sure that they don’t fall into bad patterns.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Patrick, you *really* need to look into Tolkien and the analogues between the races of the Third Age and racial views of the 1930s.

    “”The dwarves of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.””
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien

    It’s certainly not to claim racism on his part, but rather that such views, even if not malicious, did exist in the culture and all the people who have not examined them carried them into their own work.

    “They are ORC’s its how they are in fantasy literature,”

    The writer controls what is written. “it’s how they are” is lazy. And dancing around this with ‘the lore’ to avoid examining the origins is also lazy. As well, there is TSR artwork depicting drow with sub-Saharan African features and brown, not black, skin. It was a huge issue even at the time.

    In other words, an unexamined bias which got into the lore.

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  7. I think the line

    “No game should have any degree of biological determinism in its mechanics.”

    is easily interpreted as saying that you don’t want D&D or Traveller or virtually every game with fantasy or sf races/species to exist.

    I guess you’re just saying that No Game That is Designed to Have No Appeal to anyone who is Fascist should have any biological determinism. Which makes a certain amount of sense, but also seems questionable to me at least in the questions of

    1) whether its really necessary to make sure nothing can ever appeal to a fascist (fascists love their families, therefore the theme of loving families should never appear in a game)

    2) why biological determinism is necessary fascist-appealing. Socialist SF literature has used biological determinism. The Selenites have a working socialist utopia because they’re modeled on insects. The Eloi and the Morlocks are biologically determined to make a point about what class divisions do to a society over time.

    I think its fun to have encounters with intelligent “others” whether aliens or dwarves or cat-people who are more lithe and speedy than the sloth people.

    I think avoiding fascism in gaming (while a worthy goal) is a matter more of the players and the GMs ethos than the ethos of a game designer that wants to encourage all kinds of imaginative play in a broad framework, and I’d worry about a game sliding over into mere propaganda rather than having the nature of a lively art.

    Side comment: While clearly Tolkien took inspiration for the dwarven culture from Judaic culture (and stereotypes) I don’t think he’s saying that Jews are intelligent beings with a different creaturely origin from humans even though the men and elves all are different creatures of Illuivtar and dwarves are made by Aulë

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    1. The biological determinism in the Time Machine is also garbage.

      Games designed to be as broad as possible are often poorly designed. Games with a tighter focus do better.

      Why is it more “fun” to engage with lithe and dextrous species? Why are physical traits fun or interesting?

      Any digging at the metaphor of the Tolkein dwarf will show an implication that Jewish people are a sort of proto-Christian, whose faith is broken and degenerate for being made early. This, combined with the greed of the dwarves, creates a worringly anti-semitic representation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some people like cats because of their cat-like biological nature. They prefer them in behavior and characteristics to other kinds of animals. or they enjoy them more.

        People like to imagine what it would be like to talk to an animal, or if an animal could talk back. Because they would presumably be different than talking to a human.

        Its fun to have verisimilitude in fantasy. Star Trek wears thin when all the alien “others” are just humans with wrinkly foreheads. The Kzin evolving from cat-like people are well-designed because someone put some thought into what heavily predatory niche sophont would be like vs the Puppeteers coming from herbivores. So cat-people having a cat-nature ads versimilitude. Someone can try to RP the cat-likeness (people pretend to be animals all teh time) or interact with the cat-people because the cat-people will have different ways-of-being-in-the-world since they have a catness about them.

        I’m not sure what your criteria for “poorly designed” is unless you’re assuming popular games that might appeal to fascists are inherently poorly designed because fascists could have fun enjoying playing them.

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  8. Hello again.

    I wanna translate a couple of your article, this one and the “Game Theory Chat: Decolonizing RPGs” which you link in this post.
    I really like your POV on the matter and wish to share it with players in my country. Specially at the current political situation. I reckon it could have a lot of backlash from people that actually partake with fascism, but I believe it’s important for all the anti-fascism players and GMs to know the importance that RPG has in this particular matter.

    I’ll completely understand if you don’t feel comfortable with the idea.

    Thank you, for writing these articles, it made me feel a lot better about my own POV about RPG sessions/campaigns.

    Regards.

    Like

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