I’ve already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience – there’s no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.
What I didn’t do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us – or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.
They can do this in two ways, which we might label the “active” and “passive” modes.
The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games’ disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.
For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyed” sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.
(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot’s necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules “games” is a fair description – and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are – I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.
Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end – and that you probably have control of when it will end – utterly transforms the experience. It’s similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don’t know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot’s approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point – that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don’t get to do that with real-world oppression – and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)
Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and many more. While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I’d actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.
This is what I mean by the “passive” mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing – because a game doesn’t care who’s playing it – we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.
Again, I’m not asserting that just having a good time together is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he’s not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.
But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we’re all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can’t quite get comfortable with Those People – or help them feel comfortable around her.
It’s possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it’s extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are in some way unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.
It’s possible that these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), and that’s certainly not to be discouraged, but only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate – and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players – to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to open up to others as they really are, not as we think of them. That’s pretty amazing stuff.