The Libertarian Gamer: Politics and Gaming

Reactions to the Libertarian Gamers Project have been largely positive — in the month since I started promoting it, we’ve had 21 members join up, and a few good conversations over at the forums, where people wanted to know what the heck a “libertarian” was. But there have been a few who’ve been uncomfortable with this mixing of politics and gaming.

For most gamers, I think gaming — be it on the computer or with pen-and-paper — is an escape from the real world. I don’t mean that in any negative way; I simply mean that it is a chance for them to forget, at least for a time, the complexities of politics, religion, and current events, and just lose themselves in a reality where bullets can fly without consequence, and good always triumphs over evil, even if the nature of what constitutes good and evil is never closely examined. To bring politics into gaming is to sully this fantasy sanctuary with real-world concerns.

What Lies Beneath

And yet politics manifests itself in every game we play, be it Half-Life’s corporate-government conspiracy that seeks to hunt down a lone scientist, or Greyhawk’s fight against the despotic, infernal tyrant Iuz. Every virtual challenge we face is a reflection of a given designer or game master’s personal philosophy … and ultimately, their political leanings. Even if a GM isn’t actively incorporating of his philosophy into the game (as I believe is the case with most GMs), aspects of his sense of right and wrong will find their way into the game.

In all but the most basic RPGs, GMs must make decisions that reflect their political leanings. Take the simple village that the adventuring party works out of — what is its organization? Is there a village council, or is is it ruled by a lord? What role do the churches of the land play in governing the town … and what religions are there? How is trade and commercial work represented in the game and who is allowed to engage in it? And with all these factors determined, how does the GM present them to the players — is the status quo a good thing, or are the people chaffing under it?

Of course, in more complex campaigns, the answers to these questions will very from town to town, or region to region, but that having been said, it’s inevitable that certain themes will begin to become apparent in the GMs work. And is my supposition that those themes will be a reflection of the individual’s personal philosophy and — as a result — a reflection of their politics as well. It’s just that we don’t talk about politics, and indeed sometimes go to great lengths to avoid talking about them.

I figure that if you’re going to have politics in a game, you might as well make them your politics. But question arises, how the hell do you do that without pissing off everyone you game with?

Revealing The Thing That Lurks

The Overt Method

I see two techniques for introducing political themes into a game: overt and covert. The overt method is what I’m doing right now with my upcoming Spycraft campaign. I’m letting everyone know exactly what my intentions are with the game, and bluntly announcing my intentions to the world (and ruffling the occasional feather in the process). This has the advantage of attracting gamers who explicitly agree with your precepts, and perhaps those who are curious about your politics or philosophy, but possibly turns off those who a) don’t like mixing politics and gaming or b) vehemently disagree with your precepts. With this kind of campaign though, I can’t see those as draw backs — having either type of gamer around would probably doom the campaign, and make everyone in it miserable.

In the real world I expect this overt method might make it significantly harder to launch a campaign, but online, the only side effect I can see is a couple of sidelong virtual glances, the occasional muttering about breaking taboos, and perhaps the occasional smackdown from people who don’t like seeing that line crossed as you promote the game.

There is also the possibility of a decrease in intellectual diversity among the players. If you’re preaching to the choir, it’s possible that the players will be less likely to surprise you. In addition you, and your players, may find yourself less exposed to ideas outside what you’re familiar with.

It is a possibility, but in my experience, people aren’t as monolithic in their beliefs. Even amongst professed libertarians (or liberals, or conservatives) there is going to be a tremendous amount of divergence, and you can’t help but be exposed to new ideas.

Plus, I think it’s very possible that this sort of political echo chamber may lead to new insights and experiences that simply couldn’t have happened in a ideologically heterogeneous group.

The Covert Method

The other approach is the covert method, where you consciously work political themes into your campaign, but don’t go out of your way to promote your campaign as libertarian. This is the far more dangerous of the two approaches. With an overtly political campaign, everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into. With a covert campaign, players could react badly to finding themselves manipulated into a libertarian agenda.

I think the important thing here is not to take a heavy-handed approach. No one reacts well to having ideas shoved down their throats and putting together a blatantly political campaign is going to lose you friends and players quickly.

With a more subtle approach though, you can integrate libertarian storylines in a way that complements your campaign without turning off your players. Hell, I’d be willing to bet that you could do it in such a way as to run nothing but libertarian-themed storylines while your players never even realized they were in a libertarian campaign!

This is due to the fact that many role-playing games — particularly fantasy ones — already integrate libertarian themes. For example, the quest to overthrow the evil tyrant is a staple of modern fantasy. So is fighting the good fight against oppressive laws, driving back the tax collector, ending slavery, and standing up for individual rights. These are themes that most people, except for perhaps diehard communists, wouldn’t have a problem with.

While you could run a covertly-libertarian campaign and never let your players in on your views, I personally think that it’s a good idea to let people know where you stand. I wouldn’t come out and say “hey, I’m a libertarian, and [evil dm laugh]] you’re all caught up in my nefarious free-market schemes!” but if the opportunity presents itself, I’d let folks have a clue where you stand.

In my experience, the key is to do this in such a way as to not turn off everyone. Present your freedom-loving colors in ways they can appreciate, explaining how you believe in personal responsibility, limited government intervention, and your desire to live and let live. Wrapping yourself in the colonial flag, ranting about the illegality of the 16th amendment, or mumbling about abuses of government power isn’t going to win you any friends, and folks might start wondering where you hid your tin-foil hat.

I’m sure there are some out there who’ll disagree with me on this, and argue that the only good campaign is an overt one, but personally, I don’t think that attitude acknowledges the reality of the gaming world. For most campaigns, I think the best way to go is to choose the libertarian themes most likely to go over well with most people in your group. It allows you to run the kind of game you’d like to run, while still keeping your group from becoming overtly political.