Does America’s History Leak Into Game Design?

Today I’m going to look at American Heritage and how a major event in its history has played into the way of game design. I’ll be looking at slavery and how it is taboo…

This article is not meant to trivialize the horrors of slavery or to make light of what has been suffered due to its practice, nor am I advocating slavery in anyway shape or form- this is just something I’ve noticed while reading through several gaming books.

In several RPG’s it’s pretty much ANYTHING goes.. except slavery..
The three Campaign Settings I’m going to look at are: Dark Sun, Freeport, Dragon Age

Dark Sun– The world of Athas is a harsh place that has been ravaged by magic and is now an inhospitable wasteland where people must fight daily to survive. Slavery is common in the City States under the sorcerer kings, and slavers roam the wastes nabbing people to sell at the local markets EXCEPT in the city where people start play, Tyr.

The Sorcerer-King Kalak has recently been killed and his regime has been overthrown. Now Tyr is the only Free-City in the world and slavery is outlawed.

Freeport– A Pirate town- liquor is cheap and life is cheaper. You can buy anything in the City of Adventure; sex, weapons, and drugs. There is HARDLY anything illegal in this hedonistic city EXCEPT slavery.

Slavery in Freeport carries the punishment of flogging for the first offense and death on the second. Freeport does have a black market trade of slaves going on in Scurvytown, but it is constantly under attack and is always on the move in the city.

Dragon Age– The nation of Ferelden. Life is hard in this low-fantasy gritty world. People make it by sharp wit and sharp sword. The law is loose and you should be prepared to handle your own disputes. There isn’t even a black market since pretty much everything is legal… EXCEPT slavery. However in the world of Thedas other nations engage in acts of slavery.

That’s what’s interesting to me, these games HAVE slavery except in the areas that focus on player starting and adventuring. I honestly don’t see anything wrong with this, but as a History buff I just find it fascinating how culture leaks into game design.

It isn’t even JUST American culture- the abolishment of slavery was a global endeavor that has shaped our collective histories.

I just find it interesting.

Have you noticed anything in game design that is a reflection of culture?


About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

10 responses to “Does America’s History Leak Into Game Design?

  • Morten Greis

    Often the way religion in fantasy-settings is depicted reflects that most games are developed in countries, where the major denomination is Christianity. This results in many D&D-temples matching the layout of churches, and many fantasy-religions being structured in the same manner as Christian churches and orders

  • Astronut

    I think you’re onto a fundamental point of modern western mythology in general there. Modifying a setting to match our modern sensibilities is endemic: take a look at any Disney cartoon for an example (not many real young Chinese women from the period would have had the freedom of Par Mulan for example).

    I can’t speak for Dragon Age, but Tyr in Dark Sun did start off as a slave city (just like all the others) in the original incarnation of the setting: the overthrow of the Sorcerer-King was a major element of the default campaign plot (and the accompanying novels) and its success forms the basis of this version. I don’t know Freeport as a setting, but I’d assume it was loosely based on historic/mythic settings like Libertatia in Madagascar, whose founders apparently believed slavery “cou’d never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice”.

    Regarding other ‘cultural leaks’, they’re numerous: I’d put the lack of serfs tied to the land and the presence of women adventurers at the top of the list for ‘medieval’ worlds. A lot of classic settings also seem to have a lack of actual hereditary monarchs (Ed Greenwood’s settings in particular seem to be run by mysterious oligarchies), which I’d suggest is definitely an American cultural artefact!

    Good call!

  • kiltedyaksman

    D&D is all about the accumulation of wealth and expresses late American capitalism as well as European imperialism and colonization. Have I mentioned the expression of maleness and masculinity yet? You get the idea…

  • callin

    I think this is less about making slavery a definite evil (which you perceptively pointed out), but more about free-will being paramount. The notion that all beings should be allowed free will with no constraints other than those put into place by self and society is the core concept here. Slavery takes away that free will so is considered evil. By extension, other acts that prevent free-will are also considered evil. Killing without proper reasons, mind control, using people as experiments, etc.

  • seaofstarsrpg

    The American experience of slavery has colored the way slavery is perceived here. Not that slavery was ever good but there have been less evil versions of slavery practiced by other cultures.

    The simple fact is that until up about 200 years ago, slavery was a lot more common than any of us in the modern world would like to admit. The worst thing is that it still exists in the modern world.

    I discussed slavery on my journal here:

  • Chuck

    Good post, man. I think in this case it’s more of modern sensibilty.
    Despite some folks screaming for realisim in their games, most settings are idealized worlds. Like mature content for a game, how far you take it and what you do all depend the sensitivities of your gaming group.

  • Astronut

    I remember playing in a military D&D3 game a few years ago where captured prisoners of war had been put to work farming and building fortifications. The captors were Lawful Good, the captives mostly Evil, but we did wind up in a heated debate over whether slavery was a more justifiable option than simply killing them all, which would have been much more in period. (Imprisoning them was not an option for logistical reasons – and it’s not like they would have stopped being evil when the war ended.)

    It was almost as involved as the ‘should the Paladin kill the baby orcs’ debate!

  • wrathofzombie

    Quite a bit of great discussion! Thanks everyone who has commented 🙂

    I think part of the reason we shy away from slavery, racism, sexism, etc is it is uncomfortable. We don’t like to look at it because it makes us feel guilty, hurt, sad, or whatever and people don’t like to feel that way.

    Look at movies that take these issues head on. These films are lauded as being original, unflinching, etc at the view of humanity and all it’s history. While that is true and it’s great that a few film makers don’t sugarcoat history, that’s just it… It is history.. These events happened.

    While I don’t suggest putting your players into the dark ages, because honestly treating a woman like a weaker person or inferior or someone of a different color as a thing, object, or whatever is any fun in a campaign or to that person(s). I just find it interesting that people gloss over them as if that will make it more pleasant or go away.

  • Chuck

    A couple more points. I remember when we were playing thru Paizo’s Legacy of Fire. I had a cleric of Asmodeus and there was a paladin in the group. We spent a lot of time debating what was more important law or good. My favorite quote from that game “If it were evil, it wouldn’t be legal.”
    On a similar note, they’ve finally decided to edit Huck Finn and and Tom Sawyer.

  • Gaming’s Culture Reflection | Apathy Games

    […] noted a while back that America’s history seems to leak into gaming, noting that everything is included except slavery. His post went on to point out three different […]

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