Since this new blog is about the philosophy of board games, and since my recent academic background is in ethics, I figured the ethics of board games would be a good place to start.

This isn’t a completely new topic. A couple of years ago, a blogger who styles himself The Political Gamer wrote a fascinating extended discussion of the ethics of war games in particular, and more generally what he thinks of the depiction of unethical practices and situations as part of board game themes.

Here’s a sample:

Wars are such an awful, horrifying and depressing human practice, quite probably among the worst and most terrible forms of organized human interaction. Games are such lovely, harmless pastimes that we pursue in order to avoid the harsh realities of human interaction. Why on earth would we blend the two? And isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with playing around, for fun, with some of these darkest chapters of human history? Isn’t it troubling to teach kids (and adults) to enjoy killing and destroying human-like figures, defeating their friends and family by literally eliminating their stuff?

Later, the post challenges the view that games are always morally neutral, no matter what they depict, and takes issue with one common defence, namely saying “It’s only a game!”:

I never quite understood why people so devoted to games would so quickly belittle their own hobby.

But not so fast. When a gamer says “It’s only a game!” about his favourite tabletop wargame, is he really belittling the hobby?

I don’t think so. Saying something is “only a game” is not saying it’s worthless — at least not if you think that games can be of value, culturally, artistically and in other ways.

We might equally point to a painting depicting dead and dying soldiers on a Napoleonic battlefield and say, “It’s only a painting!”. This doesn’t stop it being a great painting, with immense cultural or artistic value. It simply says that it is not the kind of thing that can be morally objectionable, at least not because of what it depicts.

So I think “It’s only a game!” is just a way of saying that there are limits to the moral significance of the hobby. If Sam is playing a wargame and Joe says, “War is terrible! It’s wrong to depict it in that way!”, Sam might well reply, “This is a simulation, not an actual act of war. I agree that war is a huge moral issue, but this activity of pushing around counters and rolling dice is not”. Or, to save words, he might say, “It’s only a game!”.

Whether this is correct is a different matter. I think there are all kinds of reasons why we might decide that games can be morally objectionable because of what they depict – that is, reasons why the “It’s just a game!” defence isn’t good enough.

But one thing’s for sure: offering that defence isn’t belittling the hobby. It’s just clarifying what it can and can’t do.

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