How historical games integrate or ignore slavery

Video games always come with an expectation that the player will suspend disbelief to some extent. Genetically engineered super-soldier clones don’t exist, radiation has never and will never work like that, and overweight Italian plumbers could never make that jump. In most cases, if we are unwilling or unable to suspend our disbelief, we may well struggle to enjoy the game and our questioning of the basics of its ‘reality’ would probably make us insufferable to be around.

There are some games however, where the realities of our world are key to enjoying the game. These are the builders like City Skylines, simulators and sports games like Prison Architect and FIFA, and even crime games like Grand Theft Auto. One genre has a particular problem when it comes to maintaining a foot in the real world yet still creating a setting where one can have fun without becoming mired in morally questionable events and choices: historically based games. And among historical games, few subjects are as complex to represent as slavery. Many have tried, from Europa Universalis IV and Victoria II to Civilization and Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, and in this article I’ll investigate the portrayal and use of slavery in these games and more to explore what they get right, what they get wrong, and how games could do better in future.

If you’ve enjoyed a World War II strategy game, you may well have also enjoyed the thrill of storming the gates of the Kremlin with your Panzer tanks. Everyone who has climbed into the cockpit or cupola of a tank or fighter simulator has enjoyed blasting apart Allied or NATO equipment. It’s simply fun to play the bad guys sometimes and to change the course of history. Of course these games give us a way to escape the consequences of the new history we’re writing, we don’t have to see Europe under the Third Reich, and even in the time period the games cover, the German forces don’t fully resemble the Nazis. No swastikas, no talk of the final solution or concentration camps, just vaguely authoritarian overtones, cool tanks, and, for the victor, a sense of accomplishment.

Game designers long ago realized the best way to deal with the political and cultural consequences of a fascist victory, and the human cost, is to concentrate their efforts on the war itself. No ideology, no symbols, no politics. Just the fighting and the challenge; and it’s worked. No one really complains. It’s when we get beyond explosions and win screens and start dealing with building a civilization, exploring how societies work, and introducing the human factor that dealing with history becomes more complicated, and slavery is a perfect example of that.

Many games have approached the problem of slavery in one way or the other with varying degrees of success or failure. For some, the issue is approached with sensitivity, in others with jaw dropping cluelessness. By looking at what’s worked and what hasn’t, we can attempt to see how game designers can approach the subject effectively and appropriately.

Playing History 2: Slave Trade

Educational games don’t have a glowing reputation at the best of times, Frog Fractions aside, but few have missed the mark as badly as this one. Playing History 2: Slave Trade is supposed to educate pre-teens about the horrors and tragedies of the Triangle Trade, where slaves from Africa were shipped to the Americas to produce goods that were sold in Europe, but it fails on almost every front. Cartoonish characters and bright colors render the tone of buying and selling human beings a farce, and not in an intentionally comic or satirical Monty Python or Mel Brooks kind of way. Rewards come when players succeeds at being good slave traders by, for example, getting to America safely.

The most notorious part of this game, the “Slave Tetris”, shows a mind boggling level of tone deafness. One has to try to stack as many slaves into the hold of the ship in a Tetris like mini-game. While slaves were in reality stacked into the holds of ships like a grim Tetris, making it into a ‘fun’ mini-game obscures the actual horrors of it. It’s the combination of mechanic and aesthetic rather than one thing or the other that is so disastrous. Brenda Romero’s The New World, a physical game made as a sort of educational supplement for her daughter, also gamified the slave trade, but did so in a way that highlighted both the coldness of economic considerations where human lives are currency, and faceless figures that emphasised the inhumanity of the process.

Slave Trade operates by making the process of being a good slave trader the rewarding part of the game, and that’s only made worse by the fact that the protagonist in the story you play is a young slave boy. The only lesson for game makers to learn here is how to do everything wrong.

Europa Universalis IV and Victoria II

Paradox Interactive, one of the premier grand strategy game studios, has an interesting and intelligent way to approach this difficult subject in this pair of games. EU IV, which begins in 1444 starts off in a period of human history where the morality of slavery was not heavily questioned by philosophers or religious authorities. In fact, many of the great thinkers of the period actually allowed and condoned slavery as long as those enslaved weren’t of the same religion. This is reflected in the game; slavery and slaves are reduced to simply another economic resource to be exploited.

As one explores the world and opens new markets, slaves become just another commodity to be exploited and traded, like coffee, tobacco, and gold. While certain events can be triggered in the game where slavery can be outlawed by a nation or condemned by the Pope, it really only affects the economics of the game. One has to remember that the scope of this game is more on building economic prosperity and an empire, and so other human factors such as economic class and education hardly come into play. However, Paradox makes up for this in the ‘sequel’ to the game, Victoria II.

Victoria, set in the 19th Century, a game where the human condition plays a much more prominent role, tackles the issue of slavery in a way that few if any grand strategy games have before. The social pressures of class, oppression, and representation are a key component to building a prospering and competitive society. Slaves, in a way, actually hold you back in the game; they cannot purchase luxury goods, have no right to vote, and have very small life needs. This translates out into a high level of militancy and therefore greater chances of rebellion. These rebellions can derail your plans for your country and actually threaten your choice of governments forcing you into ever more repressive regimes.

Even if by freeing the slaves by choice or by violence in the American Civil War, you’re still left with an agitated lower class ripe for anarchists and communist agitators to make your plans for a plutocratic or autocratic society a nightmare. In a roundabout way, Victoria teaches you that slavery in the end causes social issues that modern societies cannot prosper in, and can actually hold back the ideas of social prosperity. While never handled in a deep and profound morality lesson way, it works for a grand strategy game.

Civilization IV and Civilization VI

While Paradox Interactive games are often seen as the domain of hardcore strategy gamers who are willing to devote hours and hours of their lives to spreadsheets and micromanagement, Sid Meier’s Civilization series is the everyman of strategy gaming. The games allow one to play through the whole of written human history, from scratching the earth with sticks to launching ships to other stars, with all of the variations of invention, social values, and governments able to be played with, including slavery. This is where Civ runs afoul of a problem with whitewashing in its latest incarnation.

Back in the fourth incarnation of the game, slavery was one of the ‘civics’ or social mechanics one could choose from to build their nation with. In 1999’s Civilization: Call to Power there were actual Slaver units, and Abolitionists with which to counter them. Neither of those iterations really delves into the morality of slavery, but they do deal with the reality of it with a few mechanics. In Civ IV, under the slavery mechanic, one could chose to sacrifice two units of city population in order to rush production on a building. Appropriately players took to calling this ‘whipping’. While yes, you were able to rush a building at the sacrifice of population, it came with the additional punishment of increasing ‘unhappiness’ on a civilization which can cause all sorts of negative game effects including civic unrest. Of course hard core gamers figured out ways to mitigate the effects of this.

However, in Civ VI, slavery, along with many other ‘darker’ aspects of human civilization just doesn’t exist. Despotism, oppressive religions and others all seem to be simply removed from the game. In fact, only one playable civ in the entire game is able to utilize anything resembling slavery and that is the Aztecs who are able to capture enemy units and use them to build improvements. This comes with not only no penalty, but is seen as a bonus to the civilization. The disparity was noticed to the degree that players have already starting building mods that allow other civilizations to feature this useful mechanic since workers now expire after only a few projects.

The Civ series has gone backwards in addressing this aspect of human history, not in just removing it as a mechanic, but making it a useful thing to have with no negative impact on the player in any way. Arguably, this makes the series worse in that it is no longer engaging in the complexity of an important aspect of historical development. Making slavery advantageous with no drawbacks, or removing it from history entirely, can actually be damaging when considering reconciling the past with making gaming fun, and the Paradox series are superior in this regard. Civ used to get it right, or at least approach the issue more effectively.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry allows puts players in the role of Adewale, an escaped slave fighting against slave traders and freeing enslaved Africans. While Adewale has all the powers of an Assassin, he still can’t quite exist in the game like a white protagonist. Bearing the mark of an escaped slave, he cannot move about freely in town and must constantly be on guard, which is a way to reflect the second class nature of being a black man in the era of slavery.

Yet much of this lesson is overshadowed by the way that Adewale is rewarded by freeing slaves. It’s not that he progresses the story by freeing them, but that the game treats them as a resource. He receives power ups, enhances his game play, and generally benefits from the existence of the slaves in ways not dissimilar to the slave owners themselevs. Yet, when one looks beyond this at the background action that the player doesn’t directly interact with or chooses not to, one can still see the brutality of slavery in place.

Players can witness slave auctions occur, seeing free-thinking -feeling people being treated as simple commodities to be bought and sold. Escaping slaves can be helped or ignored, only to see slave masters beat and kill the slaves for having the audacity to try to be free. Masters cruelly mock and work their slaves to death, and disregard their pleas and protests. Some of the horrors of slavery are there to witness and experience, but the mechanical flaws of the game overshadow the portrayal at times, and it often glosses over some of the worst aspects of ownership, such as sexual assault and the separation and destruction of families.

Many articles have been written about the complexities of the game’s treatment of the topic of slavery and where it falls short. However, it made an effort where many other games set in a similar era would have simply ignored this fundamental aspect of the society that is its setting. It’s not a perfect game, but it goes places where others would not, and for that it does deserve recognition.

Fallout III and Fallout: New Vegas

You might be wondering why two games set in the future of a world with an alternate past are doing here, and there’s a good explanation for that. In the study of the past there is this aspect historians look at called ‘historical memory’, which is the way that people and groups choose to remember the past and build narratives and identity around it. When it comes to slavery, it can be both a negative, as when some American southerners yearn for the days of the Confederacy, but a positive in how we reflect on how we grew to recognize that owning another human being is so morally repugnant. No matter the studio behind the games or their main plot, one running theme throughout the Fallout series is how the people in the Wasteland see the past in their present. In modern RPGs, players enjoy the freedom to make moral choices, and open-ended games like those in the Fallout series are no exception.

In Fallout III slavery is a minor aspect of gameplay, comprising only a few side quests that aren’t ultimately necessary to the game, but do lend to the atmosphere in playing in the ruins of America’s capital and its past. Of course players know well that somewhere in the setting’s past America went off the rails and became a brutal oppressive state in its hunger for natural resources, yet as society became more brutal, some things were still revered, including basic human freedom. As one goes through the wasteland, one can choose to side with the slavers in Paradise Falls, and sell and trade slaves for a few caps, or side with the escaped slaves at the Temple of the Union, who revere the memory of Abraham Lincoln and his freeing of the slaves to the point of wanting to set up a virtual temple in the Lincoln Memorial.

Through either choice of action, one thing remains clear for the Lone Wanderer: slavery is the amoral choice. Whether it’s through earning negative karma which restricts the player’s interactions with other characters, or having to actually destroy a slave revolt and help suppress the memory of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the ending of slavery, you never get to escape the fact that aiding and abetting slavery is fundamentally an immoral act.

In New Vegas, Caesar and his Legion are tied to slavery. Caesar treats the weak with nothing but contempt and sees them only worthy as slaves. Of course these slaves are only good for menial tasks around the camp, supplying food, clothing, and violent entertainment in the arena where they are made to fight to the death. There is the implication that slaves can be sexually assaulted with impunity. Even in this post-apocalyptic hellhole where what’s right and wrong is not always clear, it’s obvious that the Legion and Caesar are purely evil and driven by humanity’s cruelest impulses. While again, Fallout allows the player to make open ended moral choices on whether or not to side with the Legion or destroy them in the game’s climax, there is no escaping the fact that they are the villains and siding with them makes you one yourself.

Through both games, it remains clear that despite the devastation of a nuclear war, the collapse of all the old values and rules of the old world, it’s not only war that never changes, but the core values of what is right and wrong. Are there shades of grey in the world of today and the world of the post-apocalypse? Of course there are, but some things remain good and evil no matter the circumstances.

When developers try to create games that deal with the moral complexities of humanity and society, they are always treading on dangerous ground, especially with a subject as dark as slavery. How can you approach the more awful aspects of history and society in a game without becoming heavy handed? How light can you go without ignoring the realities or making a mockery of them?

With games like Playing History it’s clear that trying too hard to make the game fun and accessible can result in not only an unsatisfying game, but accidental racism and tone deafness, no matter what the original intentions. Europa Universalis and Victoria manage to find an appropriate balance within the time frames and settings they work within, and apply vastly more complex moral issues to their games while maintaining engaging mechanics, which is at odds with Civ, which erases those complexities in the name of accessibility. In the more tricky waters of the action genre, Assassin’s Creed should be praised for creating strong, engaging, and entertaining minority characters and having the courage to place them in settings that are morally uncomfortable and complex, but it doesn’t manage to get the tone and mechanics just right. Fallout is an improvement, partly thanks to a setting that explores historical aspects of culture from afar, and partly due to its more open RPG structure.

There is no correct way to portray something as dark and cruel as slavery, particularly for developers attempting to work within the traditions and rules of a genre (no matter how many rules they’re willing to bend or break). Yet, topics like this will continue to play a part in games and gaming culture because they are part of our history and culture. People will continue to be offended by some or all aspects of implementation, and people will criticize or praise partly in relation to how well a game represents their own views or understanding. Game companies should never shy away from topics such as this, but they should bring knowledge and cultural awareness to any representation of slavery.

Avoiding the ‘fun’ minigame approach of Slave Trade’s human Tetris, and maintaining a level of cultural awareness and sensitivity, is important, but Assassin’s Creed shows how even a relatively historically sound inclusion in the setting can be undermined by the systems that drive play. One solution, as in Brenda Romero’s physical games Train and The New World, is to make the ethical element a subversion and extension of the intrinsic goals. As soon as the setting is made explicit, to win the game by its own rules is a failure.

104 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Stellaris has been my only experience with Paradox’s “Grand Strategy” genre; even in that the treatment of slavery is wholly different from other strategy games. It’s interesting that Paradox doesn’t marginalize slavery down to “just a resource” in EU and Stellaris, quite unlike all of the other games mentioned.

    I hadn’t really spent time thinking about what Civ6 didn’t include, because of being impressed by how much is part of the game. Thought-provoking, that.

    I do like the hopeful and optimistic look on history in the long run though, as Civ (5 & 6) cheerfully glosses over other terrible parts of human history like plague and disease, pollution, gradual depletion of natural resources, extinction, natural disasters, and more contemporary, climate change and energy production/shortages. In that light, ignoring slavery seems less bad.

    • TheDandyGiraffe says:

      Actually, I find the whole idea of “slavery as just a resource” in the earlier Paradox games (EU III, vanilla EU IV, first Victoria, etc.) quite subversive. What they sometimes manage to show is that from a certain standpoint slaves are precisely that – just a resource – and it might simply be “useful” to “use” them. There might be no negative consequences after all – that is, from this particular point of view potential negative consequences do not count, they’re simply not visible or not serious enough.

      Of course, this is the standpoint of a totally dehumanised, fundamentally imperialist, short-sighted and utilitarian “efficiency” – and that’s the point. What those game show is that from the point of view of the Empire and its economists there was no real reason not to use slaves; that there are people and institutions for whom all the above mentioned moral dilemmas do not matter and whom you cannot simply “persuade”. So there are actual changes to be made, institutional changes which cannot be bypassed by simply increasing the general social “consciousness”.

      I’d love a game about a genuine mid-level Nazi bureaucrat. Not a clone of Papers, Please – not a game which presents you with moral dilemmas and choices and so on. No, just a game about managing some small part of a totalitarian, inhuman regime, in which the gameplay gives you no incentive whatsoever, in which there is no reward for “being good”; all the ethical motivations need to come from outside. Not a game which makes some effort to ignore the issues of slavery, just a game that doesn’t really seem to care; not a game avoiding controversy, but one that is manifestly indifferent to it. Sort of a gamified Nazi Excel sheet. (There’s only one game that I know of that managed to achieve this – Breathwaite’s “Train”, mentioned by Amanda – here you literally need to play against the game if you want to remain “ethical”.)

      • Premium User Badge

        Captain Narol says:

        You should try “Tyranny”, it’s quite like what you describe but in a fantasy world with evil guys instead of nazis…

    • SaintAn says:

      Stellaris also has AI robot slaves that can rebel if you don’t allow them the same rights as your people. They start doing strange things like going on killing sprees or robots and stuff they were building will go missing. I think they become a big threat and will wreak you similar to what Mass Effect’s Geth did to their overlords to free themselves.

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        Nauallis says:

        This is actually what I was specifically thinking of – Robots slaves, and also the fact that your slave-citizens can actually rebel and form their own polity, which can then attack you and ally with your enemies, particularly bad because oftentimes they take a large chunk of your empire with them. So yes, slaves are very clearly a resource, but quite unlike the other resources in Stellaris, the usage and propagation of that resource can lead to very, very unintended consequences. As mentioned in the original article, continued usage of slavery requires often taking an increasingly hardline stance as a government and belligerent empire ethics (as a game mechanic). Since Stellaris is all about empire-wide roleplay, this leads to entertainment and sometimes frustration for the player.

        I have not played EU specifically, though everything that I’ve read about it suggests that it’s much like Stellaris (in significantly more detail, just not in space).

    • Slayer123 says:

      Well slavery was never the main points of these games so why would it need to be realistic not to mention these games are not simulations but what we wanna do in them they do not in any way have to show how it was also that far to much crap to add into a game when it is never in main point plus they are not ignored just not the main point and it useless to put that much effort also it will cause multiple issues for developer in both economic and programing so stop been all social justice and play the games they were meant to be played video games are not documentaries if i wanted one i would not play a video game but watch a documentaries and from what it sounds like to me you complaining about the games and it is not the industry’s job to look into these things they are meant to give us entertaining products

  2. slerbal says:

    Good article. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about in game development, having designed some games that deal with some very serious issues. It always felt like walking a game designing tightrope, which while tough can be a very satisfying experience too. Just ignoring these kinds of issues removes so many interesting elements of games that could really make them compelling.

  3. GenialityOfEvil says:

    The Oddworld series focuses a large portion of its narrative on slavery. Unlike Freedom Cry you don’t get benefits for rescuing Mudokuns, in fact you can ignore half of them and still get the “good” ending. The reward for rescuing them is just that you rescued them.
    The only part that’s a bit contradictory is with the Scrabs and Paramites, the first game in particular harps on about how they’re abused and slaughtered, but doesn’t particularly care about saving them. They’re just there as an obstacle or for an occasional puzzle.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I feel like half-ignoring the topic is probably good for sales, at least in America.

    Slavery is inexorably bound up with racial conflict in America, and even depicting it in a game at all will probably end up with at least some people getting all kinds of upset.

    • GenialityOfEvil says:

      It is interesting that Freedom Cry is DLC for Assassin’s Creed 4, where it’s mentioned exactly twice, both times in conversations with Adewale. So they clearly wanted to address it, but not in the main game.

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        N'Al says:

        Slavery is also addressed in AC: Liberation, which whilst only a ‘spin-off’ not even released on the main platforms originally IS a separate game, at least.

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          You can buy Freedom Cry standalone now, so technically that’s a separate game too. :D

  5. DEspresso says:

    Have to respectfully disagree with the assessment of Caesars Legion (Fallout-NV). There is few Black/white, good-evil in the Fallout Universe, it is always a matter of perspective.

    They symbolize order (if enforced cruelly), safety (safe caravans in Legion territory, swift punishments) and even equality in a perverse kind of way (everyone is disposable except Caesar).

    But then it IS a post-apocalyptic world full of danger, betrayal and greed.

    Legion territory I pacified, the question is how much freedom are characters willing to give up for that?

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      Sure, the Legion is “not all bad” in a “Mussolini had the trains running on time” kind of way.

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      Grizzly says:

      I fully disagree with this statement, actually. Fallout New Vegas itself does show the flaws in Caesar’s philosophy in several occassions.

      Perhaps importantly: Legion territory has not been pacified. This should be self-evident: The legion’s goal is to conquer hoover dam. It’s goal stated by Caesar is to defeat the NCR in battle to prove it’s the superior ideology. When you enter the Legion’s camps, you can see them training constantly for battle. Caesar did not pacify the tribes, he united them to fight a bigger enemy by pretending to be a god of war. Just like the Roman Empire it is build on, the Legion’s society is build around it’s military and it’s military is what builds it’s society. It must fight: Without fighting, without the strong leadership necessary to keep fighting the society crumbles, the spoils of war that fuelled it’s economies dry out, and the empire will crash and burn as did the Roman Empire as it slowly started to eat itself and when the many tribes that it had previously pacified rose up to build new kingdoms upon Rome’s ashes.

      And Caesar knows this: Conquering the NCR is his final gambit. It’s why he spends so much time into his philosophies of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis: His hope is that by absorbing the NCR the Legion will become a stable dictatorship, but he’s dying. He has no exit strategy: The only thing the Legion can do is fight, as that is the only option that Caesar has given it. And Caesar can only hope that his theories are correct as he won’t live to see them trough, even if he wins.

      When you look past the show you can see that he’s just another bully who steps on others to get his’ way, and his way leads nowhere.

      • RabbitIslandHermit says:

        Yeah. New Vegas takes pains to put the NCR (and most other factions) in a morally grey light, but the Legion is never depicted as anything except brutal. I mean, they go around crucifying and destroying entire towns. Living under them doesn’t seem stable at all. Re: equality they’re incredibly sexist even by Fallout’s universe’s standards so I don’t see that either, perversely or no.

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          Grizzly says:

          The thing with Caesar is more that he obviously is a very smart person, and he obviously is a very charismatic person – it’s trough those qualities that he has convinced himself that he’s morally grey and that his particular morally grayness ultimately leads to the best society in the post-war world. There’s definitely nuances in the character.

    • Zenicetus says:

      “Legion territory is pacified, the question is how much freedom are characters willing to give up for that?”

      Their victims didn’t willingly give it up, and that’s the point. One of the first companions you meet in FNV is Boone, and you can eventually find out his wife and unborn child were kidnapped and sold off into slavery. Your first direct contact with the Legion is seeing them crucify the leading citizens of a town. The Legion is established as pure black, not white, very early in the game.

      You might find them more nuanced later, but those first impressions pretty much define how they treat the outside world.

  6. Gelor says:

    They are video games not history books. Their job is to entertain us, not teach us history or complex social issues. If I want to learn about slavery I go to the library. If I want to just have fun I play Civ 6 and EU IV. I mean the whole Civ games are completely unrealistic if we just want to nitpick. The writer of this article is trying to make the games something they are not meant to be.

    • Jekadu says:

      Okay.

    • RabbitIslandHermit says:

      Thank god we have Gelor around to tell us what video games can and can’t be.

      • batraz says:

        Ok so I’d like my games to mention the issue of cannibalism. Strange thing they never mention that isnt it ? They must feel guilty or something. Yet if they did, that would never be good enough since I have such a huge libido. Come on guys no one stands for slavery, except maybe around the persian gulf. Wrong target here.

        • Stellar Duck says:

          How is this related to what the above poster had to say about gatekeeping and desperately trying to prevent people from discussing aspects of games?

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          X_kot says:

          Cannibalism, eh? May I point you to Tharsis?

      • Jediben says:

        Ironic: this entire article is about doing slavery ‘wrong’.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      I realize that I keep bringing this up whenever this complaint roles around, but:

      • Premium User Badge

        Aerothorn says:

        I, for one, appreciate you constantly posting that video, Grizzly.

      • bbl says:

        I did not know it and I am grateful that you posted it.

      • Thankmar says:

        What bbl said. Ta!

      • Derpkovsky says:

        I was just planning on posting that video here, so thanks for having done it already :)

      • Premium User Badge

        Ericusson says:

        Condemnation of slavery is definitely not politics.
        Either you endorse it and are a complete amoral being, or you realize it’s a horrible thing to various degrees.

        The funny thing is if you ask the question like this : “do you think condemned prisoners should be made to work for the good of society” ?
        You will be surprised by how many people actually endorse slavery.

        • Premium User Badge

          Ericusson says:

          Forced labour and slavery being largely made distinct as an excuse to get cheap labour either way.

          • nearly says:

            You actually see this with FTL. I seem to remember an article or two pointing out how that game’s treatment of slavery speaks to cultural attitudes toward it. You don’t have to accept a slave as a crew member, but that the slaves continue to be slaves even once they’re on your ship says something even if it’s just that the mechanical limitations of how you interact with the crew are limited.

            Honestly, I think you can learn a lot from the decisions people make in games even without black/white morality point systems: I’m always amused when people “accidentally” earn points they’re not trying to because they and the game had different opinions on the morality of an action, especially when I think about having given up on quests in STALKER because, even without a proper morality system, I knew that the objective was morally wrong. I’d be interested in game with morality points where, instead of just being questionable design, the game makes it a point to challenge your ideas of morality. The Witcher series was pretty good at showing you unintended consequences, but I’m thinking something more Far Cry 2/3 subversive (and hopefully better executed). Dishonored was pretty good with the high chaos / low chaos system, but again, it ends up being a down the road consequence / twist rather than something that has you constantly questioning not only your actions but your sense of morality.

        • Captain Yesterday says:

          What you’re describing is a type of slacktivism, a belief that some video games are morally superior to others, and that by playing one of these morally superior games one proves oneself a morally superior person.

          There is injustice in the world, both past and present. However, one’s choice of video game is not going to have any impact on those injustices, not even in the slightest.

        • Premium User Badge

          Grizzly says:

          It actually is very political! That condemnation of slavery is something we take for granted here, now, shouldn’t make us forget that it has only been very recently, and thanks to a lot of political debates and outright wars, that we do. EU4 and Victoria 2 (As mentioned by the article) point that out. That we do not consider bringing back slavery as something that is up to debate in our particular society doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been up for political debate before, and it certainly does not mean that it won’t be up for political debate again.

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            kfix says:

            For an interesting comparison, how about the discussion about torture since 2001 – that’s a subject a lot of people thought was settled in modern society, turns out not so much.

          • Premium User Badge

            Ericusson says:

            When I wrote it’s not a political thing, I knew wit was wrong as nothing escapes the matters of the city.

            But Slavery is post politics.
            It still exists in the world. Heck pretty much all of us consumed products where slavery was involved.
            But slavery as the objectification of a person is not subject anymore in modern societies and its condemnation is not in question.

            There are other questions around the definition of the concept itself. Forced work in the souther US states or France lasted long after slavery abolition.

          • Premium User Badge

            Ericusson says:

            Anyway, it is an interesting debate to have and I always embrace the wrong side of the arguments on those just out of passion on the subject.

            As for the morality of torture, the amorality AND illegality of state sponsored torture will last in the history books for the longest time, history is sadly full of hickups of assholes in the midst of greed and individual failures.

            As one gets older, one wonders if time is too slow for society itself or a human life too short for history.

  7. Budikah says:

    This is an interesting look at the subject that I myself have thought about, but ultimately games exist for fun. The historical settings are just that, settings to embellish the actual game mechanics.

    Some games go for a more moral approach and do their best to teach and open peoples eyes, others just want WW2 vehicles blowing each other out of the sky or to lightly touch on the subject by having you save slaves, ala Assassins Creed.

    Racism is a touchy issue in these modern times. People are even more touchy about it as I’m sure will be shown by the responses to this article.

    I think you’ll find an interesting divide between people who just want games for fun, and those who want a social narrative in it. I personally don’t care either way – I’ll think about slavery while I play the game without having the game hand feed me queues about it.

    Here in the US I can imagine this being a touchy article because of the continued march of social justice/progressivism which has gone up some peoples arses sideways due to the nature of which it’s been pushed.

    • Jekadu says:

      You’re forgetting one thing: slavery is a topic in any given game only when the developers want it to be.

      Similarly, it takes a great deal of effort to make a WW2 game that glosses over the less “fun” parts of the era. Society existed back then as well, you know.

      The idea that video games are escapist by default only exists because the industry expended an enormous amount of effort to create that illusion in the first place.

      • wengart says:

        You have it the other way around here “Similarly, it takes a great deal of effort to make a WW2 game that glosses over the less “fun” parts of the era. Society existed back then as well, you know.”.

        It takes a great deal of effort to make a WW2 game, really many games, that hit the less “fun” part of an era. You need a very specific scale and very specific target to make it work.

        At a tactical level you won’t be dealing with it. At a strategic level any sort of war crime will essentially be abstracted out.

        • Jekadu says:

          My point is that you have to *deliberately ignore* some really ugly stuff and design around it. That takes effort.

          Ask any game developer. They’ll respond that they either wanted to do right by the subject matter or had to design around it because it was too difficult. Ever wonder why there are so many zombie games?

          • Thankmar says:

            Yes! Zombies, the “human but not human so you don’t have to think about ethics enemies” to go for when you just want to gore people. Annoying as hell.

          • wengart says:

            ignore* some really ugly stuff and design around it. That takes effort.”

            No you don’t. If you want ugly stuff in your game you have to deliberately choose to focus on it. A games scope will naturally weed out any “ugly stuff”.

            You have to make your game about something and atrocities aren’t going to be in scope unless you consciously decide to use time and resources on them. A platoon level infantry game cares more about fleshing out the mechanics that support its scope over “ugly stuff”. Properly simulating an HMG team or tree bursts are all more pertinent in that games scope.

            “Ever wonder why there are so many zombie games?”

            Because the its relatively easy to write AI that seems legitimate on a low budget.

          • Coming Second says:

            Zombies, aliens and nazis. The trifecta we’re all grateful we can gratuitously slaughter without feeling bad about it.

          • Silarn says:

            Don’t forget demons!

  8. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Civ the 6th, and the 5th for that matter, don’t touch upon pollution either. In general, the evolution of the series appears to be more of a … celebration of humanity rather then a more neutral look, or even the more pessimistic view that Alpha Centauri offered.

    • alh_p says:

      That’s another good reference to SMAC (what a game). SMAC lets you be as essentially and artfully evil as you like, encourages you even, through other leaders’ entreaties, but then through the special project’s videos introduces subtle and not so subtle commentary on it. Some of it is wry, disturbing (e.g. the ascetic virtues, self aware colony) or even funny (planetary datalinks’ spoof of south park: “ay, keep off my land you peacekeeping son of a-“). Only a few of the videos are blandly positive, and even these are arguably ironic/tragic in their utopia.

  9. Sin Vega says:

    Colonisation had a particularly strange implementation of it. There were two forms of slavery; one is the presence of prisoners and indentured servants on the docks of Europe, who functioned the same as regular colonists but were less productive (very much in the case of criminals, who often produced less than they consumed if put to work in colonies and who the natives refused to train), but could be ‘promoted’ to regular colonists (who were explicitly called “free colonists” throughout) through military experience or education.

    The other was the “converts”. Any native settlement could be occupied by a missionary unit. If relations were good, the natives would occasionally visit one of your colonies with a message something like “the wisdom of your missionaries has brought several of our people to you as converts”. Converts were very poor workers when it came to producing manufactured goods like cloth or tools (or even cigars, rather anomalously given who invented them), but were much more productive than free colonists when put to work outdoors as farmers or lumberjacks.

    All that was fairly reasonable, but where it got odd was if you attacked a native village or city you’d installed a missionary in. Then you’d get “frightened Indians flock to the missionary as converts”, and a corresponding convert unit would appear with the army.

    This is where Col was one of those “sort of acknowledge it but not really” games. The converts who voluntarily came to join you (also worth nothing that acquiring converts wasn’t the only reason for using missionaries – their primary use was improving relations with the natives and/or inciting them to fight against your enemies) were functionally identical to those you gain by bombing their homes. All converts would also vanish if they were left outside your colonies for (I think) 8 or more turns, with the explanation that they’d lost interest in European ways and wandered back to their native settlement instead. In the case of voluntary converts, the suggestion is perhaps slightly patronising, but rather benign. In the case of forced ‘converts’, the obvious interpretation is that they escaped.

    There’s also a member of congress you can recruit (functionally analogous to researching technolgies in civ-alikes) who assimilates all converts as free colonists, similar to later civ games that did the same with slaves.

    Overall it’s a mixed bag, and the obvious big improvement would be to create a new unit to make a distinction between converts and slaves. And more glaring is the total omission of enslaved Africans. But Colonisation’s tone was never super realistic, it was always a sort of playful, borderline cartoony game, and tended to lean towards simplifying things over ‘accuracy’ (see: Portugal’s absence, largely interchangeable, static natives, simple combat). Bringing slavery overtly into it would rather change its mood, especially as the immediate economic benefits alone would surely make it practically required in order to compete with rival Europeans.

    But anyway.

    • Risingson says:

      Colonization had that thing: I always felt I was playing a very dark game but the celebratory music and the cartoony graphics kind of disguised it.

    • Yglorba says:

      Colonization’s manual heavily implies that the native converts represent slaves:

      Under the Spanish encomienda system, tens of thousands of natives were “converted” to Christianity and forced to serve as laborers on coastal plantations and in silver mines. Natives that join your settlements are unwilling to work inside your manufacturing concerns, but are able field laborer

      (The scare quotes around “converted” are in the original.)

  10. PhilBowles says:

    While the Civ series seems to have regressed in a number of areas regarding negative aspects of social development (mainly pollution and its consequences, but also such things as civil war), slavery isn’t really one of them.

    Civilization IV never tackled anything resembling Renaissance and Industrial-era slavery, even in a trivial way, and its interpretation of ancient-era slavery in its Hollywood form of pharaohs whipping slaves to death to complete major construction projects isn’t really a slavery mechanic in anything but name.

    • gwathdring says:

      My impression as well. :)

    • Captain Yesterday says:

      There’s no “like” button, consider this a “like”.

      In CivIV slavery was just another civic, with benefits and trade-offs. It was in no way a commentary on its consequences.

  11. Tyrannohotep says:

    For what it’s worth, it’s been my experience that people of African descent are actually very tired of being represented primarily as slaves or otherwise marginalized in media with historical settings to begin with. Their feeling is that even if such media tries to be sympathetic to the slaves, in the end it only reinforces the narrative of Africans as naturally subservient, impoverished, and playing at best a peripheral role in world history. The author may be critical of how Civilization VI handles the theme of slavery, but you have to give the game credit for having Kongo as a playable civilization (even if they could add more African civilizations after that, and maybe have Egypt led by someone other than Cleopatra VII). And you have to admit a playable African civilization in a game like Civilization is far more uplifting for African people than any media that limits them to the role of slave.

    • Person of Interest says:

      This comment over-generalizes, I think. Black media engages with, or distances itself from, slavery and historical oppression along a broad spectrum. Regardless of whether one thinks there’s still a direct connection between slavery and modern culture, I think one must still agree that it’s a huge part of human history and is worthy of attention in games.

      • Tyrannohotep says:

        I was speaking from anecdotal experience, admittedly. Of course Afro-Diasporans understand slavery to be an important part of their history that should never be forgotten. And yes, I agree that the topic of slavery deserves as much attention from games as any other, less pleasant theme. Still, it has been my experience that while black people might recognize slavery’s historical importance, they don’t necessarily want to be represented as slaves all the time in media with historical settings. Slavery is only part of their historical experience after all.

  12. Someoldguy says:

    I find it interesting that you praise Paradox for its approach. While it has grown a little in depth over the iterations of their titles, as those titles have grown in their scope as computing power and graphics improve, it’s hardly done more than the bare minimum. Slaves are treated purely in their economic terms except where specific historical events trigger and those are far fewer than those for religion as you would probably expect for the EU span but perhaps not the Victoria period. Slave revolts are no better or worse than nationalism, low stability or religious revolts and generally treated in the same dismissive ‘whack-a-mole’ way. Meanwhile in HoI all references to human beings being treated as chattel are hidden.

    That’s not saying that I fault them for this. They’re trying to produce economic, diplomatic and military grand strategy games. The treatment of women, ethnic minorities, forced labour or LGBT really isn’t something that can be decently conveyed in moral terms on that scale. I suppose you could have some historical event popups informing you of the gradual evolution of anti-slavery laws across the timespan of EU but with the countries diverging rapidly from their historical positions after any chosen start date I don’t think that would help or feel well integrated.

    The smaller scale games like RPGs have a much better opportunity to tell stories on a meaningful level by making you empathise with the situation that NPCs are in. I don’t recall Fallout having many particularly strong stories to tell about slaves – although some abused women could be considered slaves to the gang lords and there are some with strong storylines – but I have been impressed at how consistently they’ve portrayed almost all drug users as being in a terrible state with no future.

  13. desophos says:

    Kudos for tackling this tough issue. One semi-pedantic nitpick: you write “Civ runs afoul of a problem with whitewashing in its latest incarnation” but what you go on to describe is not whitewashing but more like Bowdlerization. The term “whitewashing” generally refers to privileging the white experience in media, such as by casting white actors to play character of color or by erasing the non-whiteness of historical figures. I’m not saying that Civ is not guilty of whitewashing, but that isn’t what you describe in the article. Civ VI’s removal of slavery could be construed as whitewashing history, but that doesn’t seem to be your focus. All this is to say that whitewashing is the wrong word and misrepresents your (very valid) argument, which seems to be more about how refusing to engage with slavery and other “dark” aspects of history is dangerous.

    • CarthAnne says:

      Neither you nor the author of this post are wrong in your respective uses of “whitewashing”, but rather, there are more than one definitions of the term. The definition you use is the more contemporary one, however the use of the term “whitewashing” to mean the covering up of past crimes is still very common.

    • Sin Vega says:

      You are mistaken. Whitewashing isn’t necessarily about race at all – the fact that it has “white” in is mere coincidence. Its a metaphor based on the quick and cheap painting of walls. In reference to works of history or news reports, it basically means to portray events in such a way that covers up or omits uncomfortable truths, typically by an established authority.

      What you’re describing is every bit as pernicious and common (pick almost any hollywood film about a heroic white man effortlessly becoming the ultimate champion of a foreign, typically less white culture, for one) and often goes hand in hand with whitewashing, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.

  14. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Gulag paradise was a surprisingly interesting way of gamifying slavery, I believe it was linked here back when Porpentine was writing the weekly free indies column. It only has one mechanic, typing, and while it’s pretty tongue in cheek it gets its message across pretty well when you find yourself desperately trying to type out a 10 syllable Russian word. The other thing is that gulag-style slavery, especially making prisoners break rocks, is alive and well in many justice systems.

  15. darkmorgado says:

    Very interesting article, and great food for thought.

    One thing I was expecting was a mention of how Slaves were a commodity in the original Elite – but being found trading them would instantly put you on the wrong side of the law. Sure, the game is ancient – but it’s the earliest in-game acknowledgement of the topic that I can think of in the medium.

    I’m hoping that this is the start of a series of articles. It would be interesting to see similar commentary on how games have portrayed LGBTQ, feminism and disability issues.

  16. Muppetizer says:

    This was a fantastic article, thanks Amanda!

    I was a tad disappointed that Fallout 1 and 2 didn’t get a tiny mention in the 3/NV section, as I think both of those games have a pretty consistent colonial/postcolonial reading, even if they stretch a bit off topic.

    Fallout 1 is all about the exploration of the New World in order to bring back its natural resources (water) to benefit your technologically superior homeland. Deathclaws and the like are basically treated like the ‘here be dragons’ of old sea charts, with the wasteland constantly represented as this massive, hostile, and above all unknown entity. The antagonist doesn’t come from the wasteland but is rather someone from the same Old World culture as you, and their goal is to remake the american wastes in their own image (paint it their colour). It feels like a struggle between two distant colonial nations with massive repercussions to the people that live there.

    Fallout 2 meanwhile has you start off as a wasteland tribal, your culture at the brink of destruction thanks to the historical violence committed upon you. There are homesteaders encroaching on your lands, and while they often don’t exactly condone the rampant slavery of tribal people, more often than not they directly benefit from it. The primary villains are full-on Manifest Destiny Americana, from their overseas capital they view the mainland as their god-given right and anyone who lives there as genetically inferior. Meanwhile the unfair and violent treatment of mutants and slaves is something brought up again and again from multiple angles.

    I just find it fascinating how this theme was tackled across the two games, and it’s not something I’ve seen mentioned that much.

  17. RosyGlow says:

    So glad that RPS is hosting this kind of writing and investigation.
    Keep it up. This forwards the gaming culture I want to see and keeps us all accountable.

  18. Ghostwise says:

    Fallout 2 also features slavery, in a way not dissimilar to the later games in the series.

    One notable feature that the Player Character, as a tribal person, comes from the cultures that are the main ones targeted by slavers.

    But on the other hand the tribal cultures are a-historical. They mostly seem to be heroic fantasy barbarians.

    • Captain Yesterday says:

      Your character could also be a slaver. I never saw the appeal myself. Yeah, caps are scarce early in the game, but there’s tricks around that that don’t include becoming a slaver.

  19. The Lambton Worm says:

    Having one of my friends look over my shoulder as I played Europa Universalis and say, ‘hey, you could end the slave trade’, and then explaining to them how totally dependent the economy of my empire was on the slave trade is one of my most memorable moments with the game. It brought home the extent to which slavery wasn’t just a ‘trait’ which the society I was playing the game about happened to have, but I strategy which I had deliberately pursued and which had yeilded results: and so how it could similarly have been a strategy for real colonial grandees, politicians, and businesness families, rather than just a background fact of life.

    Though you can call it a limitation of EUIV that it treats slavery in almost solely economic terms, slavery was an economic phenomenon, practiced for mostly moneymaking reasons and importantly continuous with other forms of econimic opression. And I’d say that playing and reflecting on EUIV has added to my understanding of it in ways I value.

    • alh_p says:

      Indeed. You can carry out horrific crimes in historical games and they can be entirely beneficial to your nation/civilizations’ agenda. With a little education and maturity, one should be able to draw the parallels oneself.

      I had been going to say that this article is both a bit unnecessarily hard on Civ and going a bit far in expecting a moral lesson or consequence for everything. But then I remembered that this post was on the internet, and to do with Games, and that it has intrinsic merit in just raising this issue among its audience. I want to see this kind of discussion being raised on my corners of the internet, regardless of whether it is right for me or influences anyone at all.

      Playing CIV6 as Spain, I recently conquered the whole world and razed cities of millions to the ground in the process, simply because they were too much of a burden to maintain. I used religion as a tool, persecuted other faiths in my cities and used differences of faith to galvanise my soldiers. I was only too aware of how ghastly the world i was playing actually was, at least to my contemporary morals.

      That said, I’m an adult. I find morality in games almost always too simple – which the article recognises, but perhaps scathingly reflecting on how difficult it is for developers to address it.

      I do bridle a little at the notion that historical games should be reinforcing our contemporary morals – noting that I understand them to be in continual contention, so discussion is essential for their evolution and continual affirmation. I don’t think there is ever much space in games that are primarily about economic and military power to reflect the “actual” human cost of player actions – it’s implicit. Almost the entirety of this genre is about the subjugation of fellow people. Questions of the cost of it seem almost superfluous. I don’t deny the past, continued or future breadth and depth of misery inflicted on people by others for personal or other gain, far from it, but all these actions happen and are tolerated to one degree or other in their context.

      On the other hand, I do like to see the cost of these abuses and inequalities reflected, as in Victoria 2. I adore vicky2 for its modeling and its the only game I feel genuinely proud of playing. It’s also one of paradox’s more impenetrable niche games in an already niche and impenetrable genre.

      I also agree that civ6 is a bit simple and could do more to model costs of policies and actions, but then anyone who plays civ 6 will tell you the same – it’s not a complex game.

      So, good article, but I think it might better have been written as an exploration of where games can and should set their ambition. Imposing a simplistic binary evaluation of how well a developer or series approached the subject falls foul of the same charge the article makes – that these are complex issues which are hard to do justice to. Not everything should or can be Papers, please and not all games should be written with a requirement to reflect contemporary morals.

  20. Risingson says:

    Anyway, there is a kind of movement that thinks that talking about anything remotely social is having a leftist agenda. Lately in gog I have been surprised seeing how all the postapocalyptic games that mention global warming are called agenda-driven and I am still confused with the agressivity aimed at Read Only Memories because it was less normative than usual.

    Now talking about slavery is an agenda by some people? Not that surprising when I read that teaching children not to harm animals is seen as liberal agenda by some people. Really worries me, to be honest. End of rant.

    • Ghostwise says:

      The GOG discussion spaces have… y’know. A certain reputation.

    • Jekadu says:

      I stopped going there (and ceased shopping there) when the GOG forums became one of the handful of places that tolerated GrabbleGrind despite the extreme toxicity of the discussion. People can post pretty much anything there as long as it’s done under a veneer of false civility.

      • pepperfez says:

        It would be nice if anti-authoritarian software weren’t being distributed by a pro-authoritarian website.

  21. Rinox says:

    While I enjoyed reading this article, it did leave me wondering a but what its intended message was. It’s tricky to portray something such as slavery in a historical game without making light of it or turning it into a sort of amoral game mechanic, yes. But if it’s done we should do it with care? I guess that’s the idea? I’m not trying to be a dick, it’s entire possible I’m a terrible reader. :-D

    I think this probably calls for a broader debate about “historically accurate” portrayals that venture into sompe of the darker reaches of our past (and present). Because it is interesting how some of these are touched upon quite often in games and/or highlighted or by the players and press, while others go by either completely unmentioned or unchallenged.

    Our history is rife with things that used to be very common and accepted that we look down upon today. Serious cruelty to animals and children are for the most part completely absent from games for example, and other ‘shades’ of slavery such as serfdom seem to be much more acceptable to most people, even though they would be just as morally repugnant now.

    The recent article on RPS about the absence of children (and the fact that they are often unkillable) and the outraged reactions to some comments offered an interesting window into how we deal with some of these matters. People may not believe so, but not too long ago in our history children were not treated the way we (mostly) treat them now. They were seen as almost an expendable commidity and were killed or abandoned in great numbers by their parents. And violence and abuse were rife. So it’s a little startling that people would be selectively outraged about this subject but are probably ok with protrayals such as that of slavery provided the proper context. They were both very normal and acceptable in our societies not too long ago, and I would argue that slavery in an abstract moral sense is just as ‘evil’.

    I think anyone would agree that they are immoral now of course though. So the real question is, do we ‘avoid’ them altogether or do we try to talk about them, warts and all? I personally would prefer the latter, but it seems like this presents its own problems. If it is ok to show how jews were treated in WW2 (for example), does that mean it’s ok to show how women were treated in say medieval times? Or children? Or animals? Some of these would make people lose their lunches, and others are often well-meaningly questioned or sometimes condemned as being sexist, cruel or ‘unnecessary’ in themselves.

    It’s difficult, I won’t lie. There’s always someone who will feel it is not done properly, or in some cases even that is done maliciously. But I don’t think we can understand the present without understanding our past, and for that we’re unfortunately have to dig through a lot of terrible and horrendous shit. And perhaps also through a lot of terrible games. The only thing we can do is to try and demand more of game developers, vote with our wallets and keyboards, or take up the challenge ourselves. But always: talk!

    Thanks for the article.

    P.S. If someone would be interested in some of the subjects I mention in this comment, I’d like to recommend the excellent ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

  22. ThePuzzler says:

    There’s also the Fallout 4 way, where slavery is dealt with through a clumsy robots-as-slaves metaphor. Tip: if your robots have any desires beyond working for you, you’re coding them wrong.

    • Wulfram says:

      I don’t think it was the coding so much as the decision to base them on human DNA. Gen 3 Synths are pretty much humans that the Institute can pretend are robots.

    • Captain Yesterday says:

      Thing is, the way The Institute justified it’s treatment of synths isn’t that different than how 19th century Americans justified both slavery and the Indian Wars.

      “They’re sort of like people, but they’re not. What’s the logic underlying that conclusion? Shut up, that’s the logic.”

  23. Cramdown says:

    Just popping in to say thansk for tackling this and similar subjects at RPS. Keep it up.

  24. sapien82 says:

    I wonder is any game studio bold enough to tell the story of history as it actually is and get away with it.

    Banking families ruling the world in super corporations treating the entire human race as a commodity to be exploited to benefit the few.
    How many games will we see mass genocide by white imperialists ?
    has anyone tackled that aside WW1 WW2 , im talking about ethnic cleansing ? slavery , human trafficking , prostitution etc , why arent there games that tell it like it is more often , because it takes away the fun ? id be more inclined to learn and game at the same time whats the point in a game if there isn’t some moral or ethical lesson to be learned? Otherwise we are simply feeding a negative global ego with more negative unconscious ideas .
    Im all for having reality in games as long as there is a lesson the gamer can learn from it all

  25. Thankmar says:

    I haven’t played any of the games mentioned nor have I read all comments so my point may be mentioned already, or I misunderstood the games.

    My feelings about tackling serious issues in games, or about teaching difficult subjects through gamification as was shown in the Tedtalk video are very mixed, and I have to admit that for this reason I do avoid the recent games that try to deal with these things like Papers, Please or This War of Mine. I should play them, because I am interested in finding out about how broad games have become in their scope, but still.
    I do not take the stance here that games shouldn’t do politics or touch serious topics, as they do that all the time, which was shown in the Errant Signal video mentioned in the comments above. But the this video was about politics which are expressed through games, not about how serious issues are handled in games. I would argue that the nature of games (in general) are at odds with tackling sensitive issues successfully and teaching something meaningful about them.

    Games inherently are about a conflict, they have winning, losing or failure states and they have a ruleset, a game mechanic. They also have a setting. The players have to extract strategies from that ruleset to achieve a win, which is a very abstract, mechanical procedure, since it omits all themes given by the setting.

    As far as I can see it, the article and the video basically say a game can deal “successfully” with serious, sensitive issues in three ways: stating clearly the right thing, but let the player choose his actions regardless; to tie the right thing to do to the win state or to a preferable, i.e. more successful strategy or lead the player to an epiphany that using the ruleset is an unethical thing to do.

    The problematic thing with the second way is (as is mentioned in the article), that it reduces being ethical to a resource, therefore stripping it of any meaning, because the thing with ethics is that they have no value in terms of in, lacking of a better word here, productivity, or “riches” (sorry, language barrier). If you monetarieses ethics in this way, you just say that you have to be able to “afford” ethics when they should be valued for their own. The first one reduces the subject to the game just saying “thats my opinion, yours may differ, do as you please”, when ethics should not be subject of opinion (this argument omits that its legitimate to act evil in a fictional world, as long as you can reflect on that).
    The third way, and this is where my main argument is, penalizes the player to play the game, to use the game mechanics to achieve a win state. The aim of this type games (like the one in the Tedvideo) is that the player has the epiphany that acting like this, in a mechanical way, is a horrendous thing to do. My point is that the only ethical thing to do would be to not play the game at all, as you have no ethical choices to win, but as the player you can not know this before. I find this kind of insincere: a game invites you to play it (you know, find strategies and all), but then says its a bad thing to do that.
    I can not think of a way for games to avoid this issues and still be an actual game, but of course videogames paved the way for new, more involved kinds of storytelling, which may be more suited for these issues.

    Because of this I avoid the games I mentioned. I know beforehand that I have to do unethical things to progress in a kind of way, or be punished in one way or the other. I know that these games want me the experience of the horror of those dilemmas. Point is, I already know ethics. I won‘t learn anything new from a game which has, regardless how complex it may be, limited options to choose from and thus forces to decide artificial and therefore meaningless dilemmas. The experience won‘t give me nothing besides the feeling to have acted wrongly for some goal, regardless if its my own survival or welfare, the survival of a protege of mine or something else. So I don‘t want to play them. I said my feelings are mixed because I think its great that there are designers who try to deal with these things, and I think at some point I will have a look, but I think the general problem remains, as it is rooted in the nature of games itself.

    • Person of Interest says:

      You should play Papers, Please since it doesn’t have the the mechanics vs. ethics conflict that you discuss, and which I agree a lot of games can suffer from.

      It’s first and foremost a timed spot-the-difference game, and the dystopian border crossing setting is used to support the gameplay. And from what I remember in my playthroughs, the game does not consistently reward nor punish you in accordance with your choices: you get different, often unexpected, endings for the decisions you make, wherever they fall on the ethical spectrum. (And the game’s clever save system makes it easy to try different decisions!)

      My advice: forget what you’ve read about the game and just play it, while roleplaying whatever style of border agent you prefer.

  26. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    The best implementation of slavery in a game I’ve encountered was from Grand Ages: Rome, mostly for how it modeled it as an economic force. Slaves are treated as a resource, but they function like plebes, the lowest class of citizens. They aren’t as good as plebes, but they don’t require all the upkeep, so generally speaking picking up a few slaves is OK for limited purposes, but they’re better for trading than anything else.

    Unless your character is from the slave-focused family, in which case suddenly the whole economy of the game warps around slaves. With that skill tree, slaves become just as productive as plebes, which means you can bypass enormous amounts of low-level infrastructure and rush straight to the lucrative middle and upper class citizens. You start to cluster as many slave pens together as you can to create high-efficiency districts that leave more room for the upper classes, and you aggressively destroy unaffiliated settlements to get more slaves. You produce goods for the primary purpose of importing more slaves, and you seek out slave-producing properties to acquire that will maximize your advantage. Slave fights become a more attractive entertainment option as you have enough slaves to justify building them.

    It’s an incredibly dark way to play a city builder, frankly, and though the game doesn’t judge you or penalize you for doing this, the squalid slums you build and lines of chained people being marched across the map make for a grim backdrop to the proceedings. I do think the game could have modeled a few more negative things, like disease, increased risk of fire, uprisings, etc. It does provide you with the incredibly powerful ability to replace your basic home guard with Praetorians, the most powerful unit in the game, which suggests an increase in military presence to manage the slaves, but it glosses over the practical downsides of the practice a little too much.

    Still, it’s an interesting depiction, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

  27. GeoX says:

    Good on whatever mod deleted that white supremacist’s thread. I really wish we lived in a world where slavery (SLAVERY, fercrissake!) was sufficiently uncontroversial that such things wouldn’t happen, but well, say hello to President Trump!

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      Well said.

    • aliquis says:

      GeoX:
      > “Good on whatever mod deleted that white supremacist’s thread. I really wish we lived in a world where slavery (SLAVERY, fercrissake!) was sufficiently uncontroversial that such things wouldn’t happen, but well, say hello to President Trump!”

      How is it white supremacy to point out that the hated white man is the worker and provider for that which you speak of? It’s a fact. Is the white man superior because of it? Maybe. But I wasn’t the one claiming he was. But sure. I consider white and eastern Asian people superior (they are liberal and hard-working) to some other people, solely out of what they actually accomplish. The only people who care about race and sex is the left and people of color, vaginas or the Quran who think they can get an advantage for free by pointing that out. If racism and sexism was against them and gave them a disadvantage they wouldn’t scream about it. What they think is that it will give them an advantage and what they are are the real racists and sexists. I don’t care. If a black person (or east-Asian but I take that for granted .. as the racist prick I am) simply competed on equal terms and reach the same amount of success I for sure have no problem whatsoever with it and would even applaud him for doing that with himself and having reached where he is now! Why shouldn’t I? I’m not the racist. I’m the howitisist. Let us all compete by ourselves. I like success and freedom and individualism. There’s less of that in the less developed part of the world and there’s less of that among socialists and libertards, there’s less of that among the needy and the thieves.

      Anyway, as for your stupid talk about the benefits of society I just want it to be optional. I don’t want to live under your socialist fascist dictatorship. Why can’t I get to choose if I want to participate? Do I want to be part of the school for our children? Have access to treated water from the water plant? Use the roads? Have a health-care insurance? Do I want to pay for others hobbies, food, clothes, living expenses?

      Sweden isn’t a functional democracy but even if it was you can’t have a society where people like me, people like you and Islamists all would be happy with the society and how everyone live their lives. Because we don’t want the same thing. The only thing which could grant that is if we accepted that we were all free people and wanted different things and then got to decide what kind of life we wanted to live, with whom, what we wanted to do together and so on. The leftards has been against the national state for so long but it’s the very foundation where their capability to tax and spend come from. Of course they want that to be global but we aren’t there and I for sure don’t want to have some self-chosen political elite rule not only me but do so in the whole world!! Sure. Give up this stupid idea of national citizenship with positive rights and responsibilities. Let me choose whom I enter a contract with under the terms we choose. You want Islamic heritage distribution rather than equal among sexes? Sure. Your money. Do whatever you want. You want to pay for free-loaders from far abroad? Sure. Do so. Someone restrict your freedom? Vengeance is yours!

      Stupid that my post was removed. The right to choose to work for money and the right to not have your things stolen from you are much more obvious rights than the right to be free to take what you want or have others provide for you.

      What we have is a world of billions of people who don’t have much money or material property at all who want that and a few rich nations which promise that those people can get that too by robbing their own population and voters if these poor people only choose to come there.
      That’s not fair.

      • puzzlepiece87 says:

        Thank you very much for illustrating how to ignorantly and falsely equate material success with virtue, while completely ignoring starting condition and actual causal events!

      • Majoraz says:

        I think you’ll find your viewpoint that only Europeans and Asians accomplished anything worth respecting is quite incorrect.

        The mesoamericans’s, for example, despite mainly using stone tools with limited copper and bronze, built amazing cities. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, had a population on par with Constnatople or Paris at the time, and was built on a lake with some of the most advanced Ignore feets on the planet, with a complicated series of canals, causeways, aqueduct’s, and dykes forming a network of connections over the lake to other cities. Virtually every Spanish account, even from Cortes himself, notes the city was exceedingly clean and marvelous, with buildings, palaces, temples, and gardens matching or exceeding what they had seen in Spain.

        Here’s a short exceprt (though not all one contiguous set) from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of the New Spain: chapters LXXXVII and XCII:

        “The next morning we reached the broad high road of Iztapalapan, whence we for the first time beheld the numbers of towns and villages built in the lake, and the still greater number of large townships on the mainland, with the level causeway which ran in a straight line into Mexico. Our astonishment was indeed raised to the highest pitch, and we could not help remarking to each other, that all these buildings resembled the fairy castles we read of in Amadis de Gaul; so high, majestic, and splendid did the temples, towers, and houses of the town, all built of massive stone and lime, rise up out of the midst of the lake. Indeed, many of our men asked if what they saw was a mere dream. And the reader must not feel surprised at the manner in which I have expressed myself, for it is impossible to speak coolly of things which we had never seen nor heard of, nor even could have dreamt of, beforehand.. After we had sufficiently gazed upon this magnificent picture, we again turned our eyes toward the great market, and beheld the vast numbers of buyers and sellers who thronged there. The bustle and noise occasioned by this multitude of human beings was so great that it could be heard at a distance of more than four miles. Some of our men, who had been at Constantinople and Rome, and travelled through the whole of Italy, said that they never had seen a market-place of such large dimensions, or which was so well regulated, or so crowded with people as this one at Mexico.”

        All of this and other first hand accounts reporting the same details coronate exactly with archeological records (Modern day Mexico city is outright built right on top of the remains so the ruins of the city outright just stick up out of the ground in many places and any time construction occurs, more is found). In case you were wondering, the lakes were drained in the 1700’s to provide more settlement room. Cortes also remarked that the Aztec’s had superior doctors.

        Perhaps you should do more research into actual history before making assumptions?

  28. Premium User Badge

    Der Zeitgeist says:

    Great article!

    I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot, lately, after playing the WW2 strategy game Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa. It tries to include some of the darker aspects of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. It’s an interesting concept, which unfortunately, doesn’t go far enough in the game.

    I’d really love to see some game developers have the courage to include things like war crimes, collateral damage, and in the case of World War 2 games, even the Holocaust, in their titles, even if it will be difficult to pull off. As a German, I’m really troubled when I play a WW2 war games that portray the eastern campaign against the USSR as purely an interesting problem of operational warfare, and not as the ideological crusade of extermination it ultimately was.

    I really love playing war games, but I’m sick of the clean and sterile representation of warfare most titles convey.

    • Captain Yesterday says:

      I read an article recently, might have been here, might have been elsewhere, that explained how the German government can censor the hell out of video games because games are not considered “art”, so video games published in Germany must contend with that country’s strict “no Nazi propaganda” laws. But you would know that better than I do.

      The key might be to reclassify video games as “serious media”, rather than change the anti-Nazi laws.

      • Premium User Badge

        Der Zeitgeist says:

        Yes, there’s a law that forbids showing the symbols of anti-constitutional organisations (i.e. the Swastika Flag of Nazi Germany) outside of serious art (like movies, books etc.). Games are legally considered more like toys, that’s why you get strange flags in games like HoI, IL2 or Silent Hunter.

  29. Premium User Badge

    Tartrazine says:

    Games are games, not documentaries. If you’re concerned that the player is taking away a warped view of history then your argument is with their education system.

    • Premium User Badge

      Der Zeitgeist says:

      I disagree. I think games can be some of the best teachers of history culture has to offer, because there’s hardly another medium with the same impact, especially on younger people.

      That’s why I was really looking forward to Battlefield One, until I saw that they turned it into an ahistorical run and gun FPS where the player is mostly carrying machine guns, because it wouldn’t be “fun” otherwise.

      Some of you may remember the Battle Isle line of games from the beginning of the 90s. In 1992, there was actually a spin-off called History Line 1914-1918. Here’s a look at the intro:

      I wish Dice had done the same with Battlefield One.

  30. Stellar Duck says:

    I think it’s worth mentioning that in Rome Total War (the first, no clue about the second) you could take slaves when taking a city and for a number of turns that would be an economic boost.

    However! In Empire, slavery was basically not part of the design at all and it did seem a bit… too deliberate at the time. It strikes me as vapid to design a game about that period and totally ignore that aspect.

  31. Gordon Shock says:

    It felt really good to slaughter everybody in Paradise Falls. And then in New Vegas, I somehow tolerated the legion until a breaking point came in which I felt like the legion and it’s members didn’t deserve to live.

    The sentiment was only made stronger as I approached and entered their main camp. I went on to meet Caesar, listen to his bullshit and once he was done I shot him the face point blank, and then I proceeded to kill every last legion member present in the camp.

    Good f*cking riddance

    • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

      See, here’s part of the issue. The article is about the moral ambiguity of slavery as portrayed in computer games. I found it a little jarring because the author appeared to want games to reinforce a message of ‘slavery’s bad, m’kay’ at every opportunity, instead of exploring why every civilisation (certainly that I’m aware of) throughout history has used slavery at some point, with an internal logic to justify it. Just because those things are distasteful to most modern Western sensibilities doesn’t mean that we should apply these to historical events, when the protagonists had very different motivations.

      The more interesting point to my mind is the one about violence being the default game action that was explored a little while ago. Gordon Shock believes that his character’s individual agency and moral outrage at the actions of the Legion justifies his own hero narrative of slaughtering them all. There’s a tautologous internal logic to conjure with!

      While games increasingly deal with what are tentatively called ‘moral grey areas’ (often to appeal as ‘mature’ titles), I feel the worst thing they can do is to moralise and proselytise. To be thought of as an art form, they must be confident to imply, not impose; to live long in the memory rather than forgotten once the Steam achievements are…achieved.

      • Stellar Duck says:

        “Just because those things are distasteful to most modern Western sensibilities doesn’t mean that we should apply these to historical events, when the protagonists had very different motivations.”

        Unless you’re a historian you can apply whatever sensibilities you desire to your work (and even in some contexts in history. It’s not like anyone is gonna call out McPherson for calling his book Battlecry of Freedom and leading with the Emmerson quote on Mexico).

        And distaste of slavery is hardly new nor exclusively western and we’ve gotta remember that we still have people who think that the Confederacy was not really awful and maybe slavery wasn’t so bad as all that.

        Hell, you’ll have people defending Kindly Ole Lee for not being bad at all despite ordering whippings of slaves.

        There are few areas where, to anyone with a moral sense, there are fewer shades of grey than when it comes to human slavery.

        People can portray slavery as they feel like in games, movies or fiction of other sorts, but to say that “the worst thing to do” is to argue against human bondage and forced servitude is… I don’t even know what that is.

      • Wulfram says:

        I think good art shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand. Though admittedly “slavery is bad” is rather too obvious and uncontroversial to really be worth making central.

  32. DavishBliff says:

    At the risk of sounding nitpicky, your line that the 15th century was “a period of human history where the morality of slavery was not heavily questioned by philosophers or religious authorities” is flatly wrong when it comes to Europe. The morality of slavery was debated more heavily in the 15th and 16th centuries than it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s precisely during this period that slavery becomes a moral and theological debate in Europe because it simply hadn’t been practiced there for hundreds of years, nor did Europe have colonies prior to that point.

  33. vladimir86 says:

    I remember playing Caesar 2 and finding it weird that they used “Plebs” for the city maintenance (what where normal workers then?) Then, not long ago I tried the Amiga 1.0 version of Caesar 1, and aha! There was it: It used slaves! At one po into of Caesar 1 they changed the noun slaves to plebs, and keep it there for C2. Sadly Caesar 3 and IV where puzzle games, not strategy. So I suppose they didn’t had to worry about it anymore

  34. Majoraz says:

    Actually, Civilization 6 DOES feature slavery beyond just the Aztec’s ability: You can steal other civ’s workers by moving a military unit over them, with the implication that they are now essentially your slaves.

  35. Ryha2000 says:

    This article was written some time ago, but I wonder what people think about FunCom’s new game Conan:Exiles. The game features slavery as a core mechanic, you must capture ‘thralls’ to build up your settlement, and you do that literally and in first person. It also requires that you use dancing slaves to restore your mental health. I write about it at length here.