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Controversy in Wargaming: A Necessary Evil

Today more so than ever, society is becoming more and more sensitive to how controversial materials affect everyone. Especially those that tie directly to a real life source material. It’s a common thread in the wargaming industry, where we go back and forth, questioning whether it’s too controversial to game a certain period or conflict. The Vietnam War, for example, may be regarded as too controversial to game, partially because of how relatively fresh it is and because of how it nearly divided the United States. But is it better to ignore that it happened and not let wargamers, who often use their medium as a means of exploring important historical concepts, gamify it? Or should the industry as a whole start to accept that controversy is an unavoidable concept built into the hobby?

To answer this question, we should look at a few different things. First, the prevalence of World War II games, which likely take up a considerable part of the market. Then we need to look at a game that’s deemed controversial, but merely pulls from recent history to create an alternate history scenario. 

Black Powder Red Earth often receives flack for its handling of the conflict in Iraq. More specifically, though, its interpretation of an alternate future had the conflict gone in a different direction. In the game, Islamic terrorism is on the rise and Private Military Companies have been implemented as a radical means of initiating foreign policy. The two sides confront one another on the battlefield as the PMCs act in the best interest of Western governments. 

Right off the bat, “Islamic terrorists” is a red flag sure to spark many heated debates. As Jon Change, the president of Black Powder’s developer, Echelon Software, noted, despite having brought in Iraqi special ops to oversee the handling of the Middle Eastern conflict, there was still backlash from players and third parties. But Echelon is simply using a real moment in history to build a narrative that, it is safe to assume, was likely considered by United States intelligence officials. How is it different than the numerous alternate history World War II games on the market? 

The reality is that it’s not different. Much like how Black Powder’s terrorists are vilified for actions they’ve been known for in life, Nazis are often depicted as a blanket villains with no real nuance. If anything, Black Powder’s handling of its source material is more indicative of reality than most World War II games and movies that depict all Nazis as monstrous. In reality, some couldn’t overcome their conscious or were desperately fighting not to kill the other side, but to simply emerge from the firefight alive. 

So, we circle back to this idea of controversial wargaming and whether we need to just accept that’s unavoidable. Though it does depend on what makes it controversial (is it the source material or blatantly racist overtones?), we should, as a community, start welcoming these often side-eyed games. They bring to light the histories behind them, creating a broader and more knowledgeable audience. When we start to get too heavy into censorship, we can start to forget.

And we all know the adage about forgetting history and the events of it repeating themselves.

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