The way we depict moral controversies (of any kind) in art (of any kind) brings up some interesting and challenging issues which philosophers of art have been thinking about since at least Plato. Board games may not be pure art — that’s a question for another time — but certainly aspects of them, such as how they’re themed, belong firmly in this category.

But what is a discussion of the ethics of games actually about?

Suppose you point at something – a painting depicting dead and dying soldiers on a battlefield, for instance – and you say “That’s immoral!”. What could you mean? There are two possibilities:

  • You could mean that what’s being depicted is immoral.
  • Or you could mean that the painting itself is immoral — perhaps because of what it depicts.

These are two different claims, and you’d need to give different reasons for each one. To support the first claim, you’d need to say things like, “War is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering and death to innocent people”. And to support the second claim, you’d need to say things like, “Paintings of war are wrong because they glorify war”, or misrepresent it, or desensitize us to it, or offend people”.

Now, you may or may not agree with these two claims, but at least you have to admit that they’re two separate claims. It’s perfectly possible to agree with the first claim (war is wrong) and disagree with the second (paintings of war are wrong). And when it comes to board games, the same distinction applies.

You might think war is wrong, or you might think depicting war in a board game is wrong, or both, or neither. But they’re definitely separate claims. Just because war is wrong — or torture, or sexism, or anything else — it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s wrong to depict war. That’s what’s at issue.

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