Read, Write, Play: Catan

In this week’s pairing, Eric Thurm brings up a complication with Catan’s narrative—namely, that if you step back and look hard at it, it’s a game that asks players to enact settler colonialism. But I think most reasonable people would say that when they are playing Catan, they’re not really thinking about being a colonial settler, much in the same way that the average Monopoly player isn’t really focused on the fact that they’re committing gentrification (even though that’s exactly what buying up neighborhoods and raising property value entails). Most players would probably agree that the existence of these games is not some crime against our cultural zeitgeist, and that we should be able to continue bringing out Monopoly at Christmas without feeling guilty about it.

This got me thinking, though, about what games we should feel uncomfortable playing, if there are any.  If Catan and Monopoly fall on one side of the “line,” what falls on the other? Grand Theft Auto comes to mind, a game that lets the player commit a range of violent crimes and get rewarded points for it. The story of CS:GO more-or-less boils down to “U.S. good, terrorists bad—fight!” (by which I mean that it’s glossing over the complexities of the U.S. war on terror in a grossly oversimplified way). What is it about these games that feel morally objectionable to me, while Catan and Monopoly seem more innocent?

One answer might come from Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s eight types of fun. To start, I’m going to claim that virtually no one plays Catan or Monopoly for their “fantasy” fun. No one reasonably thinks that these games are meant to suck us into a fictional world that lets us imagine living a life different from our own—we’re usually more interested in bonding with the people we’re playing with (“fellowship”), or the competitive aspect of the game (“challenge”), or just passing a boring afternoon (“submission”). From what I can tell, GTA and CS:GO are less innocent. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that one of the main things that draw players to GTA is the “fantasy” fun of imagining yourself as a rampaging criminal in a fictional world where you’re allowed to do whatever the eff you want.

Maybe this is just me trying to justify some deeper conviction I have that Catan should continue to exist, but GTA is reckless and our society would be better off without it. But if not, I’m convinced that it’s imperative we consider the type of fun a game promises when judging how responsible it is for giving players a responsible experience. Catan and Monopoly can get by with a somewhat irresponsible premise, since they’re not really fantasy games (though they might be even better if they were reskinned with more morally innocent themes). GTA is more of a story game, frankly, and it should get some criticism for the kind of fantasy it sells. I think it’s a fun thought exercise to consider an almost purely “fantasy” fun version of Catan—a visual novel where you play as the leader of a settler colony in a brave new world, tasked with displacing a native population to spread your influence. It would obviously be an objectionable experience if all you did throughout the story was commit atrocities against indigenous people, because in this visual novel version of Catan, fantasy is the whole point. I hope this illustrates the important link between values at play and the types of fun a game promotes.

This makes me wonder how to best design a board game that wanted to get people to enact certain kinds of behavior, like Overgrowth, which I worked on with a team last quarter in 377G. The objective of the project was to get people to care more about responsible urban planning and consider their effects on the environment. But systems games don’t lend themselves to “fantasy” fun—they’re too cognitively demanding for people to focus on the story, even if there is one. I think if I were to revisit Overgrowth, I’d explore how to create more of a “fantasy” fun experience with it, and possibly better achieve the objective of getting people to act in socially-positive ways.

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  1. Hi Kyle,
    I appreciate your post about the narratives and themes that games like Catan protray. I think your explanation as to why Catan is deemed more morally acceptable than games like GTA is insightful and I wonder if there are any expansions/extensions to Catan that changes this view point. Additionally, I think that Catan teaches skills such as communication, and strategy that adds to its value.

  2. Hey Kyle! You bring up a really good point with the different types of play; I had realized this to some extent subconsciously, but found that your application of the types of fun helped to clarify this. I wonder: did you find that playing the Game of Thrones expansion/spinoff carried over similar themes to the original Catan? Did their attempt at setting it in a different fictional world change anything?

    As for Overgrowth, you bring up a great point. I wonder at times how we could modify the game to be less system focused, and lean more towards fantasy in order to have a better thematic impression on players.

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