Being a Force for Bad

Content warning: mentions of racism, violence, abuse, oppression, slavery.
When is it a good idea for a board game to make a villain a playable position?
In competitive board games, all players are each others’ antagonists. But this is a different thing than having roles which are coded as “villains”, “bad”, “malefic”, or “in the wrong” – roles that would probably be antagonists in books, film, or most other forms of media.
There are many games which let you do this – you can play Disney villains, deep agents, evil empires, deadly diseases, the forces of Sauron, eldritch gods, and many more.
Yet, one of the strengths of board games relative to books or film is that they let a player step into the shoes of a particular role rather than witnessing it passively in the third person. Regardless of whether someone engages in ‘role-playing’ in the tabletop-RPG sense, a boardgame creates a temporary space where the player’s point of view, incentives, and expected actions all align with the role they take on. And we do this with roles which would generally be considered ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.
I think most of us who play lots of games would be quick to say that this is often completely fine, a total nonissue. But I also think – or at least hope! – that most gamers wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with, e.g., a game where one player played a police force that earned VPs for killing Black people.
So what makes that different from playing Sauron?
The purpose of this post isn’t to be prescriptive (“always do X, never do Y”), but to discuss some tools for thinking about that question. I don’t believe for a moment that I have all the answers, but I think I see two patterns that can cause problems, and two things that can potentially help mitigate them:
– Pattern 1: The more closely the game mirrors a contemporary, real life conflict, the more fraught it is to cast a player as a villain.
This is a spectrum. Eg:
  • A game where one player is an alien trying to devour the other players isn’t something that happens much in real life. (Thankfully!) No problem.
  • A player taking the role of Sauron or the Empire (from Star Wars) might feel relevant for people fighting a military war against an overwhelming malefic empire in real life, but that’s not the case for *most* players of hobby boardgames.
  • In Plague Inc, a player taking on the role of a world-shattering pandemic seemed whimsically fanciful… but when Covid hit, that changed how some players felt about it.
  • A boardgame about healthcare where one player can choose to deny critically needed services in order to make a quick buck might cut a bit close to home for many players in the US. (Unless it’s a really well-done satire, in which case we might laugh as we cried.)
  • A boardgame where one player plays the part of an abusive parent trying, in detail, to manipulate, coerce, and abuse their children is something that certainly could be made, but I don’t really think should be made. (I am a proponent both of the right to free speech, and of social pressure to encourage individuals to use that free speech responsibly.)
OK, so why does it get more fraught? Specifically, having a human play this sort of ‘bad’ role, not just “this game contains bad things reminiscent of real life”.
Again, I have some answers, but I’m sure there are others:
  • When someone is playing a position, it gives that position agency. This can feel very different than simply having something bad exist within a game (represented only by mechanisms). Fighting against evil may feel liberating, giving evil a seat at the table may feel distressing.
  • When someone is playing a position, they may – depending on the player – end up expressing enthusiasm for that position. Not that someone playing the Black Death would state “the Black Death was great!” as a sincerely held belief, but they might get visibly excited about killing lots of people. Hopefully it’s obvious that someone expressing triumph over a clever play could be really upsetting if that clever play represented emotional abuse of a child.
  • The question of “can playing a game inform the player’s real-life opinions?” is a rabbithole I don’t want to dive too deeply into – players are, in general, quite able to distinguish games from reality (see the research on “does playing violent video games make you violent?”), but at the same time players can absolutely learn things (both consciously and subconsciously) from games they play. I suspect those two truths interact in subtle, messy ways.
  • What we choose to represent as “valid positions” in games absolutely informs the cultural conversation about those things. It asserts, “it is socially acceptable to play-pretend to do this thing”.
  • It can be more viscerally uncomfortable to take on a role too much like a real, day-to-day force of threat or harm.
  • It can be more viscerally uncomfortable to take on a role which one knows may make other players at the table uncomfortable or distressed.
– Pattern 2: The more a game’s conflict models real-world harmful social power imbalances (“punching down”), the less OK it is to cast a player as villain.
Dan Thurot wrote an excellent essay on A Study in Emerald vs. AuZtralia (each by Martin Wallace). He points out that both games have been set in an alternate-history mythos-horror world in order to make violent activities (bombing royalty, conquering Australia) more palatable, and that Emerald manages it much more comfortably than AuZtralia.
This is in large part because the violence of Emerald models a conflict that is punching up (revolutionaries attacking tyrannical royalty in Europe), while the violence of AuZtralia mirrors a conflict that is punching down (conquering Australia, only with zombies standing in for its Aboriginal inhabitants). I’d also add that the former conflict is less immediately relevant to modern audiences, while the harm of the latter definitely continues on into the present day.

– Mitigation 1: The game is divorced from reality.
A game which is highly fantastical, or an obvious parody, or very abstract, or strongly grounded in a specific, fictional world which does not parallel our own can get away with a lot more because the game’s framing makes it clearer that it’s inapplicable to our reality.
This is far from a panacea: per the discussion of Pattern 2 above, efforts to use this mitigation can succeed or fail. Context matters, and a fictional setting which contains strong parallels or allegories with our actual reality is much less fanciful than it might appear on the surface.
Execution also matters: it’s not enough to simply declare “this is a fantasy”, that has to come across to the player – take Mombasa, which replicates some really terrible and bloody European exploitation of Africa. The rulebook states that it’s set in an alternate reality with no atrocities, but this is conveyed nowhere in the actual game: the names are African names, the shape of the continent is just what one would expect, the diamonds being struggled over are what have fueled so much horror in real life. The game doesn’t do anything to convey the notion that it’s a different world from our own.
One form of this which has the potential to do more harm than good is merely eliding the portrayal of bad things being done by a player’s role. This may well make the game more comfortable and palatable and fun to play, but erasure of harmful things can be a problem in and of itself.
– Mitigation 2: Everyone’s a villain.
The game is in no way a contest of evil vs good or oppressor vs oppressed, because everyone’s an evil oppressor (or plague, or eldritch abomination from beyond space and time). Or perhaps everyone’s morally grey, or the setting is such that it’s ambiguous who – if anyone – is a villain.
This also isn’t a panacea: it works best when everyone’s a villain and there are no innocent victims. Some games manage to have innocent victims while maintaining a low squick factor; I suspect these are games which don’t run into the above problems particularly strongly in the first place, or have other mitigating factors? A game set in the antebellum South certainly wouldn’t be made less problematic by changing from “some players are slaveholders” to “all players are slaveholders”.
(And again, eliding or sanitizing the existence of innocent victims that are otherwise strongly implied by the narrative framing can be its own problem.)

I’ve left some slightly more involved/contentious cases (eg, historic wargaming) and some thoughts about how applicable the above is/isn’t to RPGs and LARPing for a follow-up post, because I didn’t want my main thoughts above to get derailed by them. If/when I write the follow-up post, I’ll link to it from here.