Absolute Power: Playing Oppressed as the Oppressor

If you don't know, I recently went on a WWII Poland and East Germany tour. It was unsettling, horrifying, impressive, incredible, and deeply upsetting. I don't have words to describe some of the things I heard, saw, experienced, or felt. I only saw echoes of a past I couldn't comprehend. I was hearing stories and seeing scars I would never have. This wasn't my past. I could listen and bear witness but I could not understand. I could stare at the wall of hair, the piles of shoes and glasses, and walk through the gas chambers into the crematorium and still not understand.

The world is inherently full of horrific things. Our history as a species is bloody. It is full of corrupted power, politics, war, and death. It has mass killings, starvations, genocides, chemical warfare, biological weapons, conspiracies, vast political lies, and bloated bodies. Some of us have benefited directly from this world. We sit in our homes and complain about how slow our internet is or how expensive the newest smart phone is. We are not humbled in the presence of world danger because it doesn't touch us.

We are vocal, perhaps. We go to rallies, some of us. We sign petitions. We hit post on social media. We do our part to make this world feel safer even if it isn't. Some of us use our games to unpack these issues. Or to normalize what is treated as other. We use our platforms to speak our minds and hope that our message is heard somewhere. Even this blog, me just sitting here pouring my thoughts into a little white box is me just hoping that one person sees this and goes "yeah, this is what I meant!" It's a shot in the dark to send a message or maybe feel less alone.

I was deeply moved by my trip and of the witnessing of history, in a way. In my gaming, I often, if not always, play with themes of oppression. Even now I'm prepping a game that takes place in Moscow. To do so, I've done a lot of research on post-soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. I've learned a lot. I've researched their stories, their culture, and the ways they're different from me and from Canada. Culture matters. It's important to impart.

When I was on the tour, my tour director had stories. He grew up in a world where Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union. He had a father who had been sent to Plascow concentration camp as an ethnic Pole, and then sent to Birkenau, an extermination camp, before his mother bribed a German to get him out of there. His father wouldn't talk about it much, but my tour director slowly opened up to us about his experiences living in Warsaw and Krakow as an ethnic Pole under Soviet control, and what it was like traveling to Germany today as an ethnic Pole.

As I listened, I realized I had no idea how that felt, and I wouldn't. I was privileged enough to not know that feeling. I had seen myself oppressed in different ways, as a woman, as someone who grew up in a one income household, as someone who received orphan benefits, as someone who only recently clawed my way above the poverty line in Canada. I've been raped. I've been fed drinks until I was black out drunk. I've been followed home. I've been stalked. I've been doxxed. I've been in a couple abusive relationships. It's hard not to feel oppressed when people tell you that your abuse is your own fault.

But my abuse isn't ethnic. It's systemic sexism, sure, and I don't feel safe anymore, ever. However, that's only one facet of oppression and it's important that I open my eyes and examine other oppression and understand that when I'm writing oppression into my games I'm often writing from the perspective of someone with more power than those I'm writing about. I'm writing from the perspective of someone who's gained from the oppression of others, especially as a white person who's cis and now middle-class.

Yet is oppression a theme I shouldn't be writing and playing with because I also benefit from oppression? Does the intersectional analysis of gaming allow for those spaces to be navigated? If we are playing with oppression, what should we keep in mind and how do we ensure we find our blindspots? The further I dove into a world where ethnicity had meant life or death to swathes of people, to the point where family lines just disappeared in the 1940's, the more I began to feel like my understanding of oppression was very narrow and very much my own experience.

As an ally, I try to be woke. I've written extensively on the reality that as an ally, I will never be perfect nor should I ever stop trying to be better. Nor does trying mean I get a free pass. I know I do not understand nor will I ever understand how it feels to be a person of colour. I know I won't understand how it feels to be trans. These are points of oppression I can only listen to others speak about. I can't possibly know how they feel and it's a weakness in my own ability to play and write about oppression.

The research I do and the amount of information I try to digest about oppression and cultural experiences is a start, but it will never be enough. As I set up my game in Moscow, I know the game will tackle racism, sexism, classism, and queerphobia out the gate. Not because Urban Shadows demands that, but because Moscow does. Russia is a pretty horrible place to many people in the world. Coming from a diverse fairly inclusive city (that is far from perfect) it was a struggle to try to understand why these thoughts and feelings populate the city.

It's important to remember, as we set up and play these games that are explicitly dealing with these themes or the games we use to explore those themes with that we, often, are writing about these experiences or incorporating them into our games from the perspective of the person in power. In other words, we are the oppressors writing about oppression. While this means our attempts at exploring it as an issue are, perhaps, well justified in an attempt to be empathetic (although it shouldn't take experiencing something in a game for you to "get it"), it does mean there are blindspots galore and that we are working from a place of assumption and skewed perspectives.

Research can help. Delving into the topic and getting your hands dirty by reading articles by those who are oppressed and by those who are oppressed in ways you are not can help you understand the microaggressions and trauma that people go through on a daily basis just because of who they are. I know recently I had complaints come from the community about a game where the GM, a straight white guy, said "You can play gay characters but the world hates them and you will be persecuted" in his vampire game. Several queer people approached me about this, mostly because he wasn't trying to explore this in a way to comment on queerphobia, but just because it was "edgy."

A little bit of research, a tone conversation, and talking with players about their expectations could go a long way. When you're playing with oppression, you need to think about the fact that oppression isn't always overt. It's often very subtle and we, as people belonging to the oppressive group, probably don't even notice the little ways oppression exists in others lives. From having a harder time feeling safe, to unwanted touching, to charging people more money, to being told there aren't appointments available, people who are oppressed often face daily life at disadvantage.

As a woman, this looks like being told rape is my fault, that I'm a bad person for not wanting children, to men touching me without my consent, to having to work harder to make as much as a man, to watching laws get passed that impact my reproductive health by a bunch of men, to seeing my dude partner have access to opportunities I don't, or the way people automatically believe him when they don't believe me. This is nothing compared to the inherent violence my trans friends face, the racism my friends who are people of colour face, and the inaccessibility of the world my disabled friends face.

And why do I know this? Because I'm a person with woke friends who's tried (and not always succeeded) to be an ally through educating myself and listening when others talk about their struggles instead of not believing them or disagreeing with them. Sometimes this means my own behaviour needs analysis and that I learn from my fuck ups. When it comes to writing oppression though, I try to remember those microaggressions, the little ways life is just consistently harder for those who aren't straight white men, and make sure to integrate them into my games.

The oppression -isms don't always have to be overt. Often they're not overt. Often they're small and daily and normalized by culture overall. Oppression obviously has a scale. We have the level oppression we live in now, where there is a preferred person who has all the power and money and opportunity and everyone else who is sometimes benefiting from the system, like white women who play into it, and many who are struggling in the system, like black women who are routinely at the bottom of lists like "who makes the most money" and "who has access to more resources."

Or we have oppression on a massive scale as we've seen historically by ethnic cleansing like the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, or the Cambodian Genocide. The way, today, we have gay people being put into concentration camps in Chechnya and how there are work camps in North Korea where people are starving. We can examine Residential Schools in Canada for the Indigenous population or take a hard look at Japanese internment camps. Open, unflinching, mass extermination seems to be the highest end of oppression. This isn't to say oppressed groups don't face death today, because they very much do. But it's hidden, tucked away. We don't notice that Indigenous women in Canada are more likely to be raped, murdered, or just 'go missing' more so than any other ethnic population. We are only now beginning to talk about the systemic violence towards people of colour in the United States' judicial system and the consistent and constant murdering of black people by police.

Oppression is everywhere. It's in our systems and in our lives and if we're not trying to dismantle it, we're certainly part of the problem. Gaming can help dismantle it. I'm confident that gaming, like all art forms, can put issues front and centre and address them. We can use this art form to teach empathy, explore issues, and point out the flaws in our systems and if even on more person just "gets it" then it's a win. At least, to me it is. I'm not about to say I'm right, or that my opinion is the best or final say. I'm a white cis-woman. That's a shit tonne of privilege right there. This is my experience and understanding.

When writing your oppression into your games, to really drive the issue, to really put it in there in a way that's familiar and real, you need to do research. Odds are, many of us don't know what it feels like to live under oppression. That research, that effort of understanding, will help you also begin to see the problems in the world more clearly. You'll begin to understand why anger is a normal response to oppression, why protesting often is met with silence, and why many people who are oppressed are given no choice but to accept it or face abuse for their outspoken demands for equality. And hopefully, as you research, you'll begin to see how you can also help dismantle this privilege and challenge it.

Weave that into your games. Weave real issues that are still happening. If you want to explore the threat of genocide, where people are being openly hunted down because of who they are and exterminated, fine. You do you. But I also urge you to loo at how that will impact the generations to come, to see what world problems that will cause, and how that will influence the feelings, emotions, and politics of one or two generations later. Show how oppression has long term ramifications that are still impacting people today. That generations later people still haven't recovered.

Teach people empathy through your explorations of oppression. Naturally, we'll jazz it up, add some layers so that it's a metaphor and not necessarily the exact issue we're exploring, and we'll ensure it's not as fully oppressive as the reality is. Most people don't want to play the Matrix if the Matrix is truly inescapable. They want to be heroes. They want to fight back. They want to say they beat the system and all was well in the world. We know that's not how things work in real life. Generational abuse is a real issue that stems from extreme oppression, like Residential Schools, Slavery, and Genocide.

Most importantly, these are real issues. These issues are impacting people today. They are still happening. Treat it with integrity and respect when you play with these topics and themes. They're very, very real, and if you're going to run in, guns blazing, not doing one bit of research, then all you're doing is showing just how much this has never impacted you. That's your privilege showing. Treat it with care, with apt attention, with vulnerability and love. Allow yourself to be hurt, to be disgusted by the people you belong to, to bear witness to the horrors of the day. Don't deny it's happening, don't question the validity of the claims. Believe them. And move forward with intention.

Respect is mandatory when it comes to playing with heavy topics that have impacted people in the real world. Whether we're talking about racism, sexism, rape culture, ableism, queerphobia, or transphobia, treat it with the same respect you would any heavy topic where people have been killed for who they are. Because they have been and are still being killed. Read the information and then decide how that will impact your gaming. We don't make fun of it. We don't make jokes about it. We don't laugh at oppression. We respect that it's a real experience people are having.

Gaming with heavy themes like oppression is really common. It's a normal part of gaming to embrace the darkness in the world and try to make sense of it, to explore it, and to see where it leads us and how it helps us develop a deeper understanding of the world around us. We must, as those with power, be careful in how we engage in this material. We must do our best to be mindful, act with integrity, and use the theme of oppression with respect and care. It isn't a theme or subject we should remove. We should use it to explore and drive home how important and how real oppression is to most of the world.

Always be mindful of our privilege. Remember that it's there, that we can use it for good, and that we should be finding ways to dismantle it. Be incredibly vulnerable and have integrity when you explore the dark and awful waters of oppression. Don't shy away from it in your games. Be ready to learn and be better for it. There's no reason we can't explore oppression and the horrible history of humanity, just as we can still watch movies and read books and visit those places. Yet those movies, those books, and those places hold a space of respect to the content. It's incredibly important we do the same.

Stay fierce, friends. Stay vulnerable. Stay aware.