LESSONS LEARNED: Design is Political

By | December 2, 2017

When we set out to make first Infinite Earths and later Forthright Open Roleplay, we didn’t have political intentions – we just wanted to make a damn good game. What we learned very quickly, though, is that you cannot design a game that somebodysomewhere, isn’t going to read as having a political agenda of some kind or another. And here’s the thing:

It’s never the people who agree with you who are going to read politics into your game design and call you on how horrible it is.

Let’s look at how we learned this lesson. When we first started hiring artists, we wanted to make it clear that we wanted dynamic pieces of art (instead of the stereotypical standing-still angry character) that did not depict women differently than we would expect men to be depicted. So we created our art guidelines, where we stated we would not accept (from our artists, for our products) villains in bondage gear or women in states of undress.

Naively, we didn’t consider this a political act. But we learned, very quickly, that there is a contingent of people who believe that spending our money on our products the way we wanted was somehow censoring art and artists that we had nothing to do with. It was an asymmetrical argument: our desire to respect women was leading to the death of free speech. We briefly became another front in the online culture wars, and our lesson was learned: no matter what we did there would be someone, somewhere, with absolutely no stake in what we were doing, who would feel put upon by what we wanted to do.

Indeed, on some online forums where we sought insights from other gamers, the very idea that we would build our own universal roleplaying game was seen as borderline offensive. There’s already Dungeons and DragonsFate Core, Savage Worlds and GURPS: what more could anyone need? By saying we wanted something different, we were somehow saying that those systems were bad. And for the folks whose personal identities were wrapped up (entirely too much) in their system of choice, by creating something new we were somehow saying they were bad people. Even to this day, stating our experiences when playing other games is seen by some as “shit-talking” those games.

And honestly, I think that’s pretty sad. Because respect is not a zero-sum game – you can always have more of it. There’s plenty of room for different games to scratch different itches, and there’s plenty of room to like multiple games, and liking and wanting to promote one thing does not automatically mean that you must hate and want to destroy something else.

But not, it would seem, on the Internet.

So, as a designer, you’ve got a choice. You can listen to these negative voices, and crawl back under the rock where they want you to go, or you can embrace the fact that your design ideas – from rules, to art, to the size of the book I kid you not – communicate far, far more than you expect. And by embracing that fact, you’re acknowledging that you’re going to have to be careful in what and how you communicate. You will make missteps, you will not make everyone happy, and it is work to make sure you’re communicating what you’re trying to communicate.

Because ultimately, design is a political act because everything is a political act. Everything you create expresses your values in some way. When you make sure that all your art doesn’t depict only white people, you’re expressing the value that representation is important. When your rules state that the Guide doesn’t get to summarily kill a Protagonist without their player having some say in the matter, you’re saying that the player’s time is valuable and the GM is not god. When your book isn’t the traditional 8.5 x 11, you’re saying to some readers this game isn’t intended to be D&D.

Having these values in a game does not automatically make the design good. But expressing these values is not, and should not be considered, a bad thing.

Because that’s how your work, your designs, your game finds its audience. Your audience is the people who see what you do, don’t hate on it, and want more of it. In the end, don’t sweat being called political – it means there’s something in your work that resonates, that says something, that has meaning.

And who doesn’t want that?