A More Civilized Time?

A review of SPACE:1889 by Dr. Greg Wilson

Newspaper features about Dungeons & Dragons usually start with a
description of the inadequate spotty-faced teenagers wearing camouflage
trousers and heavy metal T-shirts who play the game, or with the news
that another Parent-Teacher Association in the United States has decided
that the game contains subliminal Satanistic messages, and has banned it
from schools.  This is a shame, because if a role-playing game like
Dungeons & Dragons were properly designed, it could encourage children
to be creative and imaginative.  Unfortunately, most of the games on the
market today are violent and sexist, and even those games whose authors
have taken the time to avoid these pitfalls still contain other, subtler
flaws which are just as troubling. 

Role-playing games (RPGs) are a mix of improvisational theatre and the
table-top re-creations in miniature of battles such as Waterloo and El
Alamein.  One player is the game master, or GM.  He (gamers are almost
invariably male) creates a fantasy world by drawing castle floorplans or
blueprints of alien spaceships, then stocks the world with monsters,
treasure, and the occasional helpful old sage.  The other players then
create the characters whose parts they play during the game.  In the
original Dungeons & Dragons, these characters were either swordsmen,
wizards, or thieves; in modern games they are given ratings in different
skills such as Fencing or Electronics to make them more varied

All of this is just preparation.  During the game itself, the GM tells
the players what their characters see, what the monsters say and do, and
what the results of their actions are.  The players work together to
explore the world the GM has created and overcome its villains.  A
single play session is usually improvised around a simple plot, such as
rescuing a kidnapped child or foiling some evil magician's plans. 
Individual sessions can be strung together into campaigns, in which
characters improve their skills and take on tougher challenges. 

So in practice, RPGs are like interactive adventure films in which the
GM creates his own Temple of Doom, and the players make the decisions of
an Indiana Jones.  There is no inherent Satanism in any of this.  Norse
myths and Christian demonology appear so often simply because they have
already been worked, and so save the GM the bother of working up a
mythology for Pon Thon, God of Little Crawly Things. 

A more serious criticism of RPG is that they are violent, like the films
and fantasy novels that inspire them, and often sexist as well.  A third
or more of the rules for a modern RPG like GURPS (Generic Universal
Role-Playing System --- my bet is that the acronym came first) are
devoted to combat, and for many young players the rest of the rules are
just used to tie together a succession of slaughterous battles.

A good GM tries to prevent this by creating situations in which brute
force won't work, such as stealing maps from the middle of a trollish
army camp.  Watching a group of 12-year-olds trying to outsmart the
goblins who've just trapped them, rather than charging into them, swords
flashing, is a surprisingly satisfying experience for a GM.

A good set of rules encourages this approach by making combat as
dangerous as it is in real life, so that players soon discover how short
a trigger-happy adventurer's life is, and adopt less violent approaches. 
Unfortunately, even those games with enough of a conscience to do this
still steer players' attentions away from some of life's real
adventures.  In doing so, they reveal a great deal about how such games'
authors see their past and present. 

Take, for example, a new role-playing game from the American company
Game Designer's Workshop called Space:1889.  It bills itself as "science
fiction role playing in a more civilized time", by which it means the
Victorian world of Verne, Wells, and Doyle.  In 1870, according to the
rules, Thomas Edison crashed on Mars in his newly-invented "ether
flyer", and discovered a ruined, decaying civilization.  Two decades
later, British redcoats are fighting for Her Majesty in Syrtis Major as
well as the Sudan.  (If any film producers are reading, you could create
a great part for Sean Connery in the film of the game.)

It is a good game, well though out, well presented, and fun to play, and
is supported by a variety of spin-offs and pre-scripted adventures.  The
rules' potted summary of Victorian times dutifully covers the racism,
the destruction of non-European ways of life, the stifling of women, and
the aggressive jingoism of the times --- all in about a dozen pages. 
The remaining hundred and ninety pages are devoted to the mechanics of
the game, including a description of Martian flora and fauna, and a wide
variety of suggested adventures, ranging from exploring old Martian
ruins to foiling Bismarck's agents and big-game hunting. 

In a way, the science fiction element has been introduced to circumvent
two of the problems of role-playing Victorian times as they really were,
namely that the era isn't as well known to a generation which has grown
up with Harrison Ford rather than Errol Flynn, and most grown-ups today
would (or should) feel a slight discomfort play-acting the slaughter of
non-Caucasians in order to steal their national treasures (or rescuing
priceless antiquities from unappreciative coloured hordes, as it would
probably have been put at the time). 

The problem whit all of this is not so much what is in the rules, but
what has been left out.  High adventure necessarily contains an element
of violence, and the times actually were sexist and racist, but why are
the rules so small-c conservative? The greatest adventures of the late
nineteenth century were the formation of nationalist movements in and
out of Europe, and the emergence of trade unions and socialist political
parties into the political mainstream.  Both activities have all the
elements of high adventure, from duplicitous enemy agents to battles
with the establishment, be they the foreign armies that controlled
Africa and India or the union-busting Pinkertons of America. 

Unfortunately, neither type of "adventure" has traditionally been seen
as such by the sort of people who own movie studios, and so make no
appearance in the rules.  When films about heroic socialist organizers
are made, they are either serious and boring, like Reds, or the
laughable products of socialist realism.  (Just as an example, among the
many professions players can choose for their characters in Space:1889,
the civil service and military are well represented, but trade union
organizer is absent, and the only overtly political career available is
that of anarchist, which is listed in the criminal section.)

This is not intended to be another salvo in the tired old debate about
whether we can forgive our grandfathers their opinions.  What strikes me
as strange is that the author of Space:1889 is conscientious enough to
describe the Victorians' flaws, and to make provisions in the rules for
playing around some of them (such as allowing female characters to
become adventuresses far more easily than their real-life counterparts),
but then goes on to leave other equally grave ills unaddressed.  With
the exception of a few brief mentions of the Japanese, non-Europeans are
mentioned only as "natives", either good (i.e.  loyal servants of Her
Majesty) or bad (just about everyone else).  The only nationalist
movement mentioned by name is the American-based Irish Fenians.  There
are no educated blacks in the world of Space:1889, and no suffragettes

These omissions are probably just a reflection of the fact that the
author is American, white, probably middle class, and thinks of the
Victorian era in terms acquired from the adventure writers of the time
and Hollywood's later elaboration of their tales.  Hollywood has always
liked the British Empire, with its stalwart men in pretty uniforms whose
speeches did not require sub-titling.  Space:1889 has inherited the view
of many of Hollywood's finest adventure films that all coloured people
and Continentals are either disreputable adversaries or slightly foolish
sidekicks.  In this respect, the rules' repeated assertion that the
Americans of the time were not interested in building empires, they just
wanted free trade, and lots of it, seems a continuation of the smug
self-righteousness of a nation which stole the Philippines from Spain
"for their own good" and still sends its troops into the Caribbean basin
with depressing regularity. 

I enjoyed Space:1889.  I think it is a better game that most of its
competitors, both in its playability and in its care to present a view
of the world that isn't too violent or reactionary.  A careful GM could
add to it to create a better game without necessarily dulling its fun
and taste of adventure.  Unfortunately, with so many "classic" adventure
scenarios presented, I doubt whether any young players would do this. 
If the game had not advertised Victorian England as "a more civilized
time", I probably wouldn't have singled it out for criticism.  But
believing as I do that the real adventurers of the times were those who
risked their lives to move us beyond empires, rather than build them, I
can only hope that future games will portray a less wistful view of the

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Created as an HTML document: January 1, 1998

This article is © Dr. Greg Wilson, and is used here with his permission.