Rahdo talks ethics

In “Rahdo Talks Through” Episode 4, Rahdo discusses a question from a listener regarding ethics as a choice or feature in board games.

Here’s the clip: “Rahdo Talks Through, episode 4. Question about Ethics.”

In case you don’t want to or can’t listen, here’s a brief summary of that section.

Q: One element I notice seems to be missing from board gaming in general is an ethical element, like many video games have. Do you find this to be true?

Essentially, Rahdo’s answer hits the following points:

  • There are board games that tackle interesting ethical dilemmas.  For example, Endeavor puts you in the role of a civilization deciding whether to engage in slavery. But the game has a built-in mechanism that makes all slave-holding societies take a bit hit when abolition occurs.
  • But there aren’t many games that pose difficult issues like this.  This is because video games have had a longer development cycle. Hobby games have not had the same development cycle that video games have.  It’s really only in the last decade that board games are starting to have a cultural impact like videogames had.

I like Rahdo’s commentary a lot.  He has a relentlessly upbeat attitude, and knows exactly what he likes. But I think there are a couple nuances to this discussion that could be added.

A couple other ideas

First, I think it’s very astute to recognize that the artistic development of board games has been a much slower element than has video games, particularly because the audience for the high-end games has been so minimal.  That said, board games have been around far longer than videogames, and to equate recent hobby games to Spacewar is a mis-alignment, I’d say.  Spacewar is Snakes and Ladders. Or Monopoly.  The early video games equate to the vast majority of board games that have been made.  One interesting parallel is that both have been maligned as childish.

I’d suggest another two reasons ethics have not been such a big part of board games thus far, the way they have in videogames:

  1. Board games hinge on player interaction and competition. If most games don’t include mechanisms to punish “bad ethics,” players will use them because the game-world is different from the real world. Example: The Resistance gives me an opportunity to lie to my friends without them getting (too) mad at me afterward.
  2. Board games depend on making choices. If a game isn’t balanced exactly right, the “ethics” of making one choice over another are far outweighed by the victory advantage of the choice. If it’s poorly balanced (in favor of good ethical choices, for example), then it isn’t really a choice.

Last, I think perhaps this question assumes its premise without proving it.

I can think of several board games I know of that aim squarely at ethics: Endeavor, Archipelago, New Amsterdam, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, to name four off the top of my head.  Then there are games that build ethical questions into gameplay without being about them–Dead of Winter, for example, uses a morale mechanic to punish the community for doing difficult things in the name of survival.

There are lots of videogames that aim at ethics or incorporate ethics into their system (Fable, famously, lets you earn good or bad karma) as well.  But I wonder if the overall ratio of video games including a strong ethical component is really any higher than the overall ratio of board games including a strong ethical component.  I kinda doubt it.

It’s about Ethics in games…

But the biggest difference I see between video games (at least in the predominant networked state of multiplayer games) and board games is that board games foster growth and harmony in community.  As much as the occasional game might get heated, it’s common for board gamers to enjoy one another’s company, to be able to make strangers feel welcome, to build bridges when they play.

While video games certainly do this too, they also foster a terrible viciousness in the community, enabled by anonymity, that makes people feel unwelcome or sometimes unsafe. As a society, we haven’t really figured out how to help our more ethically-challenged members learn that people on the other end of a computer are really people who can be hurt by our actions.

In short, while videogames sometimes foster virtual ethics but often don’t support interpersonal ethics, board games foster empathy and comeraderie IRL.*

– Brendan

*I haven’t space here to dive into the problems of gender-diversity in board gaming.  One topic at a time.

Ethics in board games