It’s All About Ethics In Gaming*

So I think Urban Shadows wiggles riiiight up to the line of one of my most hated things in gaming: letting the reality of human evil off the hook with supernatural explanations. I’m still deciding whether it crosses that line!

Let me explain how I got here. It’s a rambling thread that gelled in my skull on this morning’s bike ride.

I was thinking about whether or not I was disappointed that Urban Shadows doesn’t really systematically/procedurally address the dynamics of urban life. I’m thinking, If I wrote this game, I’d have stats or abilities or something related to the various settings of urban life: the halls of corporate and political power, street violence, migrant communities…

And then I’m like, oh shit, duh! That’s what the Factions are. Power is a stand-in for corporate and political power, Night is a stand-in for violent criminals, and so on. And at first I think that’s a pretty genius move. Take the game someplace a little less on-the-nose so you can build those stories without actually saying something like “the reason the barrios fail to improve is because it’s in the interest of certain political factions that there always be a scary other/outsider place they can point at to scare voters” or whatever.

Which brings me to the problem of providing supernatural explanations for real-world human evil. I call it the “Cthulhu Did It” problem; maybe someone’s come up with a better moniker.

It’s a dicey problem in Urban Shadows because the game also emphasizes that it happens in the real world, and that real-world urban pressures are important to address. Wellll…maybe? I feel a little weird thinking through that calculus though. It’s a very fine line between “there’s a werewolf living among the Salvadoran gang that runs the south side” and “werewolf gangs run the south side.”

Further complicating this is the fact that the game’s cosmology is (I assume) deliberately undefined, except where it’s very well defined. Is there cosmic good and evil? Well, there’s the Tainted, who serves a dark patron who lives in Hell and so on. There’s no equivalent for Team God, although it’d be trivial to skin nearly any of the playbooks that way. But you don’t have to when it comes to the devil. I think, honestly, this whole topic might be easier for me to wrestle with in a purely amoral cosmology: no good or evil, just humans doing good and evil things (with supernatural help if they have it available) for purely human reasons. 

Something that’s on my mind. It was on my mind in my waning World of Darkness years as well, when White Wolf was struggling with similar issues throughout their various lines. As a grizzled old gamer I’m sympathetic to it, and perhaps oversensitive to the topic.

0 thoughts on “It’s All About Ethics In Gaming*”

  1. Yea, just the example of the Salvadoran gang with a werewolf triggers so many real world memories of El Salvador that it’s a kind of thing I don’t want to supernaturalize. That being said, I remember running a 1:1 Central America based White Wolf game for Boris Stremlin once where his character executed a Guatemalan coronel. I think it was satisfying for both of us,

  2. Yup. I’m right there with you. One of the things I enjoyed about the novel Crooked, yes there were Mythos creatures, and yes humanity sold themselves to them for power, but humanity choose to do that, they were not manipulated into doing so. It’s a fine line, but it’s there.

  3. For me, I’m fine with the supernatural as a stand in or analogy for a real world human evil, as I’m often happier approaching such issues by analogy. Hey, I love that sort of thing.

    But I don’t want to ascribe tragic recent events that really happened or are continuing to happen to the supernatural. That’s my line.

  4. I think part of it comes down to paradigm of what it means and how you read it.

    Like, if we’re excusing humanity by saying Cthulhu did it, then I agree. And sometimes we do that. (We being Geeks.)

    If, otoh, it’s metaphor and not literal, then it’s different. Not always cleanly so, but potentially so.

    That is to say if vampires murder inner city homeless, so people are innocent because monsters, that’s crappy. If vampires are just a metaphor for humans killing other humans, and we are actually still saying “this is us, doing it to each other” then that’s a different thing.

    For example, “Cthulhu was behind the Holocaust, humans could never be that evil” will drive me to rage. OTOH, “In the Black Mill’s” take of “this is a way of putting a literal face on subtle systemic ways that industrialization actually murdered a generation of workers” is a very different thing.

    So really, when you play US, or WoD, are you playing people or are you playing things that excuse people? Is a Vamp a litteral inhuman monster, or is it a literary monster, which is to say a human making manifest something that is already monstrous about us?

  5. Oh, and on the Tainted issue, a devil and the devil aren’t 100% the same thing. Though I do agree the Tainted reads that way and heavily so. (As the Fae reads like a certain pseudo Irish fairy type of fae that drives me nuts for complicated reasons.)

    It’s actually one of the things I’m working on for US. Taking out the stealth Christian and stealth Irish references. At first I was just going to generic it up, but I now think that’s an error. I think I may replace it with stealth Vedic.

  6. Oh, and because I’m just machine gun posting now, both of the above issues combine with US’s explicit insistence on facing race to give me more than a few concerns about othering.

    After all, the genre does not have a good history of it. And even when it’s about metaphorical people that can still go bad wrong really fast.

    I’ll use an example from a game I played in, where after character gen I was moved to say, “did we just seriously make the only black PC a Wolf banger, and the East Asian PC a wizard who is good at math?”

    There was facepalm all around.

  7. I think in my own head, the thing that makes it work okay in Urban Shadows is being clear, really clear, about the Factions. Politicians and wizards are allies, rather than wizards secretly running the world using their politicians and billionaires as pawns. Shared interests and methods rather than a master/slave relationship.

    If it were me — and it will be me at my own table! — I think I’ll back way off the “use the real world” directives, other than where real world = real human issues. Nar not sim etc barf. 

    Also entirely possible that I’ve radically misread the text about this! But I don’t think so. Like any game with conflicts of interest, I think the trick is just knowing they’re there.

  8. That (the Factions as allies) is what I did for Toronto. Revolutionary Paris was like that, save that the Crown was explicitly inhuman and formed a fifth faction that was an enemy of all others. And Transnistria was like that save that Power was only Oracles and explicitly the entire group of oligarchs that ran the nation.

    But Transnistria is weird. Going off book there felt right.

  9. I mostly thought about how communism and stealth Slavic change entire parts about how the games assumptions work.

    Which did mean many kittens ended up being murdered in the second episode.

    … I wish I was making this up.

  10. I’m kind of curious to see how US holds up under dramatically different city environments. I guess Dark Streets will hit some of this. Andy’s doing Tokyo (high on my interest list), the rest of the cities look safely American. Oh no…London and Bangalore. Interesting. 

    I shouldn’t have looked back at the KS campaign page. The stretch goals are bumming me out. What happened to the Hallowed showing up in the main book, Andrew Medeiros or Mark Diaz Truman? :-/

  11. We changed our minds! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Good discussion. I think my hope here is to have these discussions rather than provide answers to people. I think Travis Scott has some smart things to say about why he isn’t crazy about Cartel (too real) but will play the shit out of Urban Shadows with similar stakes.

    Also, remember that the default at most tables is “whiiiiite people always,” so at some level I’m fine with the big black werewolf and asian wizard because they are a start down the path of involving people of color in these types of stories. 😀

  12. We will still be providing the promised Archetypes to all backers, including play advice. Pbta games port in new additions so seamlessly too, so even though it isn’t is the core book, including them shouldn’t be difficult at all. Mark and I have been working on those lately too, btw, we’ve met twice this month already to do just that.

  13. I think you can tell from this post which one of us is Canadian. 😉

    We just had some breakthroughs on the Hallowed and Revenant in particular. I’d expect to see both those playbooks in a rough form by the end of the month. 😀

  14. OK, here’s a thing. I now work directly with this stuff every day. The violent criminals that feed on others, the clueless white administrators who mean well (or don’t), the stunned or jaded regular folk who cannot understand why the world keeps turning out this way. So, I’m going with Eliot’s little birdy on this one: I can’t bear very much reality.

    But you know what I can bear the shit out of? Magic realism. Especially dark magic realist takes on the facts of human existence. And I’ll even go a step further and say I like these to be brutal. Like, in the game we just started, there are shapeshifters who come from Elsewhere, so Wild faction, the immigrants. They’re posing as Latinos who have shown up to do day-labor on a massive Urban renewal project. They live in bad, cramped conditions, waiting for their chance to safely reveal themselves as competitive members of the city’s supernatural community. And they are absolutely primed to be painted as fearsome, invasive Others by the Wizards and Vampires and shit.

    We can have the discussion about how the places this vision of Latino migration doesn’t accord with reality. But I’m not here to paint a faithful image of what Latino experience in a north-Midwestern American city looks like. If I wanted to do that, I’d do a fuckload of resesrch and write a novel. What I want to do is to create an opportunity for us to play with the ideas of having to conceal one’s identity and presence except during certain activities, places, and times (out front of the Home Depot at 4:00am, for example). I want to say a few worthwhile things and move on without doing too much violence to the authentic experience of Latinos.

    Because my reality is that on Monday, I’m going to have to help racists without losing my shit on them and then go help actual Latinos deal with actual problems.

  15. We’re all agreeing too much. I need to start a fight up in here.

    … Vampires are the dominant trope in urban fantasy for good reason. They are us. Blame and hate and fling aspersions about angst-goth-emo-sparkle, but in the end they’re the most honest to North America reality.

  16. You could Masquerade it up pretty easy by just reskinning all the playbooks to be vampires. Like, wizard is Tremere, wolf is Gangrell, etc. All vampires all the time.

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