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Now, the Twist: The Price of Freedom

Now, the Twist: The Price of Freedom

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey that will force him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.



Banned Book Week recently passed, and it got me thinking. I picked up gaming way, way back when I was a wee sprat (or some other cheerfully inoffensive phrase for a precocious and preciously adorable child, which, objectively speaking, I was). It was 1980. We had no internet; we had CB radios, shortwave radios, newspapers, and encyclopedias. We had the Iranian hostage crisis. Jimmy Carter was still President. John Lennon was still alive. Dungeons & Dragons was about to hit it big…

Of course, whenever something comes along that fundamentally alters the course of a culture (and no, I don’t think I’m overstating the impact of gaming on our society), you will find those who raise a cry about the horrific results they see or hear about second- or third-hand. In many cases, these people are ill informed or ignorant, as eager to see the hand of Satan in the burning of a toaster waffle as in the games their children play. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re able to start a crusade.

That happened to TSR. If you’ve never heard of Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, or BADD, take a look.

Schools banned the game. Some towns burned copies. In Utah, where I grew up, we were rebels for playing the game in school (and nerds… can’t forget that part). Most of these reactions were ridiculous and overblown, and in fact, most of the protestors had no personal direct experience with the games they were protesting, but their efforts had the desired effect: TSR caved. Devils and demons were out. Public confrontation with the forces of scared and angry minds was bad for business. This ushered in TSR’s Code of Ethics, which you can read here.

Maybe censoring the products was effective. After all, this period of self-censorship coincided with TSR’s dominance of the industry although, as we all know, correlation does not equal causation. But one undeniable effect it had was that TSR was forced into making relatively bland work—the nature of being the industry leader means that you can’t take serious risks because you want to hold onto your existing market share, and you don’t want to alienate the people who are already buying your goods. We can talk about how successful that was at a later date. Is there a boundary to good taste? Of course there is. Should we cross it? That depends on whether the expedition exists to raise consciousness or to cash in.

As designers under the Code, we had to work within and around these strictures. Failure to abide by the Code had some serious consequences. We could imply and suggest. When management was looking elsewhere, we could be more direct in our suggestions. We could sneak in some bolder stuff. Still, we never had “whorehouses” in the Forgotten Realms, even though brothels were (and are) a common staple of the medieval world. Instead, we had “festhalls,” which is evocative more of drinking and eating, but which the masterful Mr. Greenwood managed to fill with more than a wink and a nod.

In the meantime, other companies that didn’t receive the same level of angry scrutiny were far more free to engage in more serious and adult-themed work. For instance, Wizards of the Coast was able to produce The Primal Order, a book discussing what it meant to be a god. Kult showed us a bloody, graphic war between the forces of Light and Dark, and White Wolf’s World of Darkness helped bring the darker recesses of the counterculture to popularity in the gaming world at a time when the world seemed to be looking for dark and gritty. By allowing TSR to take the brunt of the criticism from the moralists, these companies were freed up to do more daring work. In turn, they helped normalize certain ideas.

I would be remiss in suggesting that all this happened in a void. Musically, artistically, and historically, our culture was a dark place, and many of us sought a way to tap that darkness. For instance, Hellraiser was huge. Bands like Skinny Puppy and Ministry (yes, I’m ignoring your favorite bands of the era in favor of mine) opened the door for acts like Nine Inch Nails, who brought the face of industrial angst to the mainstream and helped turn the dial of acceptable behavior enough that that Marilyn Manson could become a star.

I’m explicitly not drawing parallels here, except to note that we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and we rise with our peers. Some of us go on to bigger and brighter things: some aim for art, and others aim for money. Both sides scoff at the other.

Still, whether for money or for art, the culture was moving on. At TSR, we were twisting convention and expanding consciousness in a real and literary way with Planescape (no, seriously: take a look at Zeb Cook’s suggested reading list sometime—we can talk about the impact of Planescape sometime later, too). We were dealing with the foundations of belief and thought. We had primal evils, and we even managed to sneak in the words “devil” and “demon,” and because Planescape was selling, we could get away with it. But by the time we could call them “devils” openly again, it wasn’t shocking at all.

The culture had moved on. Just as it moves on now.

As game designers, is it our duty to try to expand minds and open imaginations? Or should we keep our heads down to work for a steady paycheck? I’ve been lucky enough in my career that I get to do both and to work with people who think the same way. We don’t want entertainment to be mindless… but then, who wants us to preach to them?

Where you draw the line depends on many things: your comfort level, your audience, your audience’s audience (the family and friends of your customers), and the culture you’re trying to reach. How far you want to go past depends entirely on you.

8 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: The Price of Freedom”

  1. Excellent read and a sad part of our history. Would really like to see what would’ve happened to the industry if people like Patricia Pulling hadn’t come along fearmongering. Do you have a link for Zeb Cook’s reading list — have been a Planescape fan for a long time. And thanks for all your work on our hobby, Colin!

  2. Thank you, Dave! I’ve just gone looking for the list of inspirations, and hey, it looks like the primary inspirations page went the way of all flesh… or at least the way of all Geocities pages. I’m waiting for archive.org to pull it up, but just in case it decides to crap out: http://geocities.com/athens/7117/zinspiration/index.html

    In the meantime, the books I recall specifically were:
    Dictionary of the Khazars
    Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
    Milorad Pavic

    well, I’m sure Wolfgang can help fill in the blanks here.

  3. Colin,

    Thank you for this column! TSR’s Code of Ethics is an incredible attempt at maintaining creative freedom while also trying to soothe the fears of worried parents and non-gamers. It’s a mind bending read, and I loved it! I really appreciate the fact that you also show how *other* companies benefited from TSR’s attempt to walk the ethics line. This is a great article, I’m going to share this with Cultural Diversity students.
    Thank you!

  4. Oh I remember the witchhunt of these days very well. Even in France and other european countries a big discussion was set loose about how dangerous RPGs can be for your children…

    Fortunately the judges kept their calm!

    As you mention, Colin, it all depends on your own comfy level as how far you go… or the little devil in your own twisted mind who simply loves to provoque others, who loves heated discussions about morals and about what human really means…

    *devilish grin* oh yes – I so love to be the devils advocate! and to push my players out of their comfy zones for unique experiences they still remember 20 years later.

  5. Todd the Bladesmith

    I remember those days well also. Frustrating times on many fronts.

    We all need to remember with great risk comes great reward…

    Another great article in a great series.

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