I’m breaking the only-every-three-days rule because this post, this conversation, is probably more important than my arbitrary meta-rules about when I do and don’t blog. I’m posting it here because 1300 words is far too long for a comment thread in my opinion.
“Should GW have changed Heinrich Kemmler’s name?”
I don’t think it could have hurt. I’ll be honest, the Himmler connection didn’t occur to me until someone on the blogs pointed it out in the last year or two, and while I acknowledge it as a problem, I’m not sure the reference is as big, embedded as deeply in the historical Himmler and representing him as directly as people make it out to be (is it just a phonetically similar name picked to enhance Kemmler’s villain-cred? it’s definitely why I didn’t catch it…), and… well, I don’t want to say ‘storm in a teacup’ because I think there IS a legitimate problem here, but how big a problem is it? It’s a shock, but is it a fairly superficial reference, is it even as deep as the historical cheap shot of having an inquisitor named Torquemada?
These are largely rhetorical questions. Answering them would be the work of a potentially full and fascinating research piece, which I may in all honesty write, but answering them isn’t the issue here. The issue is whether what I think of Kemmler is important, and why it’s not – though it is important that someone think, and that I think about what they think (savvy?).
It’d have been the work of a few minutes to simply have the character have forgotten his name, which tallies with and reinforces the effect of his years of deranged wandering – whoever he was before he struck his pact with Nagash, now he is simply the Lichemaster. Much less problematic, arguably more sinister, and not a gapingly huge retcon. You’d get complaints, from the sort of people who feel that respect for the established canon (*nerdy snort*) is more important than issues of taste, privilege and historical respect, but fuck ’em, that’s a position born of the same unexamined privilege that causes problems like these in the first place (“it doesn’t affect me so it’s not a problem for anyone” being the unconscious, unacknowledged response) and catering to or defending that sort of attitude isn’t on. It doesn’t affect me – but I lose nothing by changing it and nobody loses anything of real importance by changing it.
“Is it ok to want to play the villain?”
I… think so? I’ve done it a lot and I’d honestly hope I’m not that un-okay a person?
I think there’s a way of doing it tactfully and in keeping with the fantasy genre (playing a villain with roots and sources in fiction rather than history) and I think there’s a scale on which it’s acceptable to do it (which falls short of the unqualified, uncritical glee with which I’ve often seen it done).
The issue is more whether you play a villain in a way which validates their choices by uncritically representing them, or which highlights their choices as part of a time and place where monstrous people could do the things they do and find an easy excuse to hand. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks “moo hoo ha ha, what evil shall I do today?”, that’s a shit villain or a comedy one. A ‘real’ villain, a rounded villain, thinks and believes that what they’re doing is right.
The challenge lies in representing that without condoning it and that needs a more extensive ‘text’ than I think many gamers produce with their characters’ and armies’ actions. Most of the time it’s just “he does this” or worse “I do this”, and we don’t stop to engage in the kind of qualification that might happen in a novel, for instance, where those actions can be contextualised and commented on and critiqued by the authorial voice, or the thoughts of the character explored in the kind of detail that – doesn’t vindicate them, but explains them, highlights the differences in morality and ethics that make that character think they’re in the right. Perhaps the games we play don’t have room for responsible storytelling, or perhaps we don’t feel the need for it (cf. unexamined privilege, previous)…
“Is the entire act of playing wargames an endorsement of violence?”
Tacitly, yes. If we really wanted to live in a world without grand-scale violence we would not enjoy representations of it so much. We are part of the problem. We are not the biggest part of the problem, we are (as H. G. Wells argued) a more reasonable approach to the problem that at least allows people to deflect their tendencies to violent conquest into a medium where real people don’t get hurt and killed, but in terms of ideology and representation and perpetuating a culture in which wars can happen… yeah, we’re part of that.
We exercise our privilege, our ‘right’ to be problematic and not to face problems that don’t affect us, every time we line up our pieces and play a game (not to mention every time we buy a hobby product, every time we spend time playing a game instead of directly resisting the ills of the real world and pressing to engage them). Being aware of that doesn’t make it not a problem, either. Neither does feeling guilty about it, but doing nothing.
I really value the trend towards charity tournaments that’s appearing in some gaming communities (I’m not going to talk about which because I don’t want this to turn into a less-privileged-than-thou argument ‘twixt company fanboys), because at least it’s an effort to offset the whole issue that playing wargames is an act of privileged indolence by having it do some good for a right cause. Throwing our money at charities to quiet our consciences and tell ourselves we’re doing the Right Thing isn’t enough by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t address the root causes, the problems with the world that mean those charities need to exist. It does, however, at least mean we’re doing something better with our hobby time than just playing games in perfect isolation.
China Mieville, in the interview ‘Fantasy and Revolution‘, argues that politically nuanced genre fiction has depth, has resonance, and is worth writing as an investigation of ideas, what he calls ‘sleight of mind’, thinking about worlds in which societies and policies have different contexts and different constraints – thought experiments from which something about the real world can be read back. He also argues that that’s no substitute for direct, real political action. I sort of feel the same way about gaming.
You can game thoughtfully and for a just cause. That doesn’t mean you’re excused from voting, and THAT doesn’t excuse you from actually breathing down your elected representatives’ necks and actually making them do the job they were allegedly selected to do, merely as a start, and THAT doesn’t excuse you from going out and doing something yourself… but doing any of those things at all is better than not doing them. I’d rather people thought about the things they play and the worlds they play them in and how those worlds tell us things about people in this one… than not thought.
We can do that and still have fun, says N. K. Jemisin, and I quite agree. I’m not saying we need to live in a joyless world where endless, ceaseless political activity is the only thing we permit ourselves to do until all wrongs are righted and all institutions of exploitation and power-concentration done away with. I’m saying that anything’s better than nothing. I’m saying that it starts with thinking about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I’m saying that we need to give a shit about Heinrich Kemmler, even if it doesn’t affect us in the slightest (and it doesn’t me).
And for the record, I still like the model, and the character – but I think I’ll be calling him the Lichemaster. Doesn’t hurt anyone to be tactful, after all.