Tuesday, September 8, 2015

“Daddy, Who Are the Bad Guys?”

My five year-old son, the Little Guy, has asked this question occasionally around the game table, usually when I pull out some historically themed game appropriate to his level (in its original form or, more likely, in a streamlined “quick-start” format). It’s a valid question. Kids his age like to have everything categorized in black and white. They don’t have the experience or wisdom to discern varying levels of gray in everyday issues. Their views can change with time – the Little Guy went through a phase where he didn’t like Star Wars much, but now he’s “back into it” – but they like having their world defined by yes or no, black and white, not long-winded discussions of the gray areas like Daddy’s prone to offer.

My great-great Uncle Martin (left)
playing chess during the Great War.
Part of our dilemma comes from our personal connections to various historical conflicts. We’ve played the WWI version of Wings of War (now Wings of Glory) and the Little Guy has expressed interest in trying the WWII version. Both historical games present problematic aspects of the bad guy issue. His great-great grandfather served in the Kaiser’s medical corps in the Great War and witnessed first-hand the terrible price war exacted on soldiers’ bodies and minds. When a friend sent me the B-17 Flying Fortress plane for the WWII Wings of Glory, the Little Guy naturally asked if it was a bad guy or good guy plane. The question inspired a short discussion about serving one’s country; we have various relatives who served America in WWII...including one with the 8th Army Air Corps in England working as ground crew for bombers heading into Germany, where other distant relations lived and survived air raids before fleeing west in the face of the ruthless Soviet military juggernaut. Two of his great-grandparents quite literally (and fortunately for us) missed the boat on returning to Nazi Germany.

These problematic connections extend beyond family and into the history of where we live. Culpeper County was one of the central focal points of the war in the East, though few people hear about it. Armies clashed in two major battles here and innumerable skirmishes. It stands between the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the battlefields of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness in the east, with “Mosby’s Confederacy” to the north. It suffered occupation by Union armies. At a recent convention the Little Guy participated in a kid-friendly Civil War game recreating the Battle of Cedar Mountain, an engagement fought not far from where we live. By sheer chance he controlled half the Confederate forces, so he could identify with the Southern side on a very simple level. Given the recent tragedy in Charleston, SC, and the controversy it caused over flying the “Stars and Bars” (in lieu of more earnest discussion of gun control issues), the concept of identifying too much with the Confederate cause (particularly its association with slavery) has led to some serious family discussions.

With historical conflicts, particularly those relating to us or our family history, I generally wander off into a discussion highlighting the subjective nature of “good guys” and “bad guys.” The pieces on the game board represent ordinary people on both sides who dutifully served their countries – right or wrong in the eyes of history and humanity – often because they had no choice. Maybe they believed their nations’ political rhetoric regarding the war, maybe they simply felt obliged to serve in the military. Regardless of their motives or feelings, they fought, suffered, and died on the battlefield on both sides of the conflict. Even then it’s not such a clear-cut issue, but generally speaking – and at the level of a five year-old – it provides some simple perspective on a difficult subject.

I’m rather embarrassed to admit I have adopted a cop out solution to this gaming dilemma. For our family game nights every Thursday I’ve recently veered away from historical games that might raise the dreaded “Who are the bad guys?” question. Many people play games as an entertaining means of escaping the mundane and often tumultuous issues of everyday life. Fantasy and science fiction games enable this escapism without worrying too much about moral implications or focusing on a historical political perspective some might find repugnant in today’s society. The “bad guys” question becomes a bit easier to answer when dealing with more fantastical fare. Games like the Star Wars: X-wing Miniatures Game offer clear definitions of the bad guys; Imperial forces are bad, Rebel forces are good. In most cases the Little Guy chooses to fly good-guy ships, though he occasionally veers toward the Boba Fett side of the Force and pilots Slave I. Star Trek: Attack Wing offers similar simplicity: the Federation (and particularly Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise) are good, Klingons and Romulans are bad. Human forces in All Quiet on the Martian Front are the good guys, while the Martians are the bad guys (despite having cool-looking tripods). We’ve yet to delve into traditional fantasy roleplaying games, often populated by monsters who can easily serve as undisputed bad guys; in children’s eyes, monsters are default bad guys. Cooperative games often provide some clear-cut common adversaries: the rising tide in Forbidden Island, spreading diseases in Pandemic, advancing monsters in Castle Panic. Buying into science fiction and fantasy premises helps us – adults as well as kids – gloss over those pesky moral issues and accept that certain elements are inherently bad and some are good.

Many games based in reality, particularly historical reality, can raise issues about the “bad guys,” even for adults. In our increasingly sensitive society, we as gamers must sometimes confront subjective viewpoints as they relate to fellow players. I once met a wonderful gamer friend at a convention who declined to play in some of my Heroes of Rura-Tonga games because he was half Japanese; some scenarios I created for that setting sourcebook and adventure collection deal with Japanese use of chemical and biological weapons, experimentation on prisoners, and super-weapons of potential mass destruction. Even cast through the filter of the pulp genre these issues remained understandably touchy for someone of Japanese descent. Regrettably people in our modern society are still conditioned to view the world in a tribal fashion, distinguishing casually or even belligerently between members of “our” nation, religion, political party, heritage, hobby, fandom and others who don’t share our perspectives or beliefs, the timeless distinction of “us versus them.” Occasionally conflict and viewpoints within a game can stir these feelings beyond the bounds of enjoyable entertainment. Even as adults we sometimes prefer to view the world in stark, simplistic terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.”

These remain difficult issues for adults to confront and discuss; doing so for kids in a way they can understand poses an extremely mature challenge to both parents and children. I’d like to think I’ve done an adequate job so far. It’s an aspect of being a gamer parent I’ll need to work on as we continue to explore games, both the fantastical and historical.

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