Stop Playing Board Games With Insanity Mechanics- no, not even on Halloween
I clearly don’t- I’ve tried to get through some of the rulebooks. I’m looking for a card game I can play solo. I’m asking you not to. Or more realistically eviscerating you on the assumption you play them. Don’t play Mansion of Madness, don’t play Cthulhu Wars, don’t play Arkham- well, anything.
It makes me sad. Even though it’s fun for you. Especially since it’s fun for you. I was gaming at a charity fundraiser one Saturday when a woman started screaming about how many guns she had, so much ammo. I’d never played the game, so I forgot, and made my own comments, surely hilarious, about this woman’s love of guns. Then we broke for a raffle, I saw the board and I realized that she had been screaming because she was role playing going insane, a process the game encourages you to act out ‘entertainingly.’
The concept ‘lets not portray groups of people as monsters or outdated stereotypes generally’ seems like the baseline in board gaming. Insofar as it’s at least called out. Brown cubes which function mechanically as slaves are only called as such in the first printing of the manual; it’s been changed to ‘colonist.’ The theme of colonialism itself, while still very popular, sits less comfortably; the new edition of an old colonial simulator has a modified slave mechanic! Now it’s double edged in that there is a point in the game in which having slaves starts being bad and they lose you points. Putting a ‘bare minimum’ sticker on a game box during a review because half the playable characters are women is something. The fundamental inclusiveness of ‘play this game with me’ seems to make people in the board game community, as a bell curve, treat strangers they don’t know as human beings as a default way more than normal. The board game industry has been talking about issues of diversity and inclusion for a while out of a touchingly sincere belief that everyone could come together and love one another right now through the power of board gaming.
Hobby board games are in a weird place. Having conversations about imperialism and orientalism and racial stereotyping and misogyny, (and many other things I’d be ripped for leaving off the list if anyone read this), in board games is necessary and happening. Publishers are putting playable female characters in their games! Awesome that we’re fighting for women to be protagonists in 2020. But there’s movement. There’s a conversation- and talking is better than the alternative, right? Sunshine is the best disinfectant, metaphorically.
At which point I’ll mention that I’ve had this post rotting on my drive for a year and dragged it out because, for literally the first time, I heard someone talk about this. Crystal Pisano of Board Game Blitz mentioned that maybe there should be a discussion about the use of ‘insanity’ mechanics before she analyzed how they add to games ability to evoke a sense of horror. I think she framed it as a potentially sensitive issue, and maybe even mentioned the possibility of circling back at some point and actually discussing it. Which would just be squee on squee. I cannot remember having heard someone publicly consider that the treatment of mental illness in board games might be fucked. So this one’s for you, Crystal- thanks for helping me get it off my chest.
The mechanic so clearly and egregiously dehumanizes and degrades mentally ill people like me I can’t even think about it without pulling a Madiline Kahn from Clue. All I have to do is say ‘insanity mechanic’ and you know basically what I mean. Even if you’ve never played a game that used one you know, because it’s an established mechanic used by multiple publishers across multiple genres of games. You know that sanity is a resource, and that if you lose too much of it, you will become insane, and if you become insane something terrible will happen. Yes, sometimes you also have to balance a mechanical benefit loosing ‘sanity’ gets you, like a superpower, with the inevitable threat of going insane when you bottom out the track. If you think that solves rather than exacerbates this problem you’re just going to have to email me for an explanation.
I’m not asking ‘could you please have a game with a playable mentally ill character.’ I’m not asking ‘could you try to offer a more balanced portrayal of mental illness in board game theme and narrative elements.’ I’m asking you to stop making the horror of descending into insanity a central mechanic in your games. Could you not make me watch people role play a disgusting eighteenth century caricature of mental illness because I want to go to game night. Again, we’re not talking about creepy pictures or the implication that mental illness is associated with violence or the total lack of mental illness in any game without a horror theme- I would let that slide if you would cut out the mechanic that makes people act out encroaching mental illness through the lens of a prejudiced, ignorant hack writing genre fiction a hundred years ago.
I’m not asking for acceptance. I’m not asking you to recognize my right to exist. I’m asking you to stop making, playing, and elevating games that portray me as a monster because of a disease I was born with. This is not a big ask, in terms of the cognitive effort or amount of behavioral change involved. I’m not suggesting that you change your language and stop using words like ‘crazy’ to mean ‘exciting’ or ‘insane’ to mean ‘ridiculous,’ although I am a little surprised about how many people in this hobby will still bust out with a r—-d. I’m that too, by the way- I’m developmentally disabled, I have a learning disability, and I have a traumatic brain injury. Which statement itself could be problematic because that word originally referred to people under a certain IQ. By the time I was a child it was more broadly used, as by the kids who used to chase me down and beat- but does that mean I have the right to use it? I’m just mentioning this debate to illustrate that there is a disability rights community, the mentally ill are a part of it, and so I imagine this fecal matter will hit the air recirculation unit eventually. Maybe we should try to get out ahead of it.
We often call mental illness invisible because the sane spend so much time trying not to see it. It is hard, but try to step back and ask yourself: is asking you to reject games that make mental illness a horror trope that nuts? You tell me. Oh wait, behavior speaks louder than