Football’s Final Solution to American Colonial History
A Native American Team, A Team of Colonists. What Could Go Wrong?
To be fair, the players knew there would be violence. Everything leading up to the game had warned them of loud noises, flashing lights, and of course, brutal conflict with the enemy. Bill Belichick, the leader or “Head Coach” of the New English Patriots – a football faction devoted to defending the Boston area against its rivals – had warned players repeatedly that “the other team will be out for blood. They will seek to dominate you.” In a pre-game ritual with notable similarities to a prayer circle, Belichick gathered his armored players and reminded them that their whole lives had been leading up to that moment, and that nothing else mattered to the Patriots now – not family, not friends, nothing but destroying their opponents.
Even if their opponents were the Redskin Clan of Washington, D.C., champions of Native America.
Tom Brady, 37, originally from San Mateo, California, was one of the Patriots players who had traveled to New Orleans to participate in this year’s Super Bowl, a grand tournament of football that features the two best factions, or “teams”, in the Nationwide Football League. The game is a carefully designed mixture of absurdities: two teams take the field at a time and try to control a ball (which is actually more of an oval), and attempt to aggressively push back the enemy team until they reach the End Zone, an area that signals the defeat of the other team. With each trip to the End Zone, a team “scores” – adds numbers to a complicated electronic board overlooking the field – a variable amount of points, depending on how they reached the scoring area. The game is intensely violent, with frequent strong physical contact between players, but a referee is on hand to keep more extreme violence from breaking out, and players wear helmets and protective armor, or “pads”, in order to minimize damage. At the end of the game, the team that inflicted more End Zone damage to their opponent is declared the winner, regardless of penalties or overall performance, making football a game where the end – or End Zone – certainly justifies the means.
In this league, 32 team factions compete in weekly battles, or “games”, around the country, as they attempt to accumulate the highest number of victories. Aside from the Patriots and the Redskin teams, some others include the Iggles of Philadelphia, represented by a giant bald eagle, and the Cowboys, a Texas faction the boasts almost religious devotion among its followers, who identity themselves by wearing prominent blue stars on their clothing. Players themselves divide into units, or “lines”, such as the Offense Line, which handles more aggressive play; the Defensive Line, which attempts to block access to the team’s End Zone; and the Specialty Team, which handles situations such as returning enemy kicks and “punting”, an act that sends the game ball high into the air to render an opposing player helpless to an oncoming charge.
“I knew it would be rough,” said Brady, a smiling brunette with movie star good looks who works in advertising during the off-season and who was raised Catholic but has since left the religion due to its conflict with football’s holy day of Sunday. “But I had no idea what was really about to happen. We’re playing as Patriots, and we had to go out there – in front of the whole world, for the biggest game of the year – and ‘destroy’ the Redskins? I didn’t think it would go that far. I really didn’t.” As a Quarter Back, Brady acts as his team’s offensive general, using a complex language of codes and maneuvers that he must memorize before every week’s battle to tell is teammates which offensive maneuvers they have to use in order to reach the enemy’s End Zone. “Then [Coach Belichick] kept stressing that we had to demolish their Red Zone defense, and I caught myself thinking – is he really saying ‘Red Zone’ about the Redskins? I didn’t expect it to go to a racial level like that.” The young man shook his head, adding that it still gave him nightmares to think about re-creating genocide as sport.
Nationwide Football League hierarch Roger Gooddell disagreed with the characterization of the Super Bowl as a racial metaphor. “You have to understand these things in context,” he stressed, wiping his brow guiltily as he made his denials. “Football is just a game. If players and fans want to take other messages away from it, that’s their business. We’re here to have fun and promote the sport.” When asked about the inescapable connection between the teams battling on the field and the parallels to American history and Native American genocide, Gooddell refused to comment.
OK, that’s about as much of that as I can stand.
Let me just say that this was posted in response to this article, which was written about the infamous “Coney Island” Dystopia Rising module that ran back at Dexcon 14. In the interest of full disclosure, while I was a player in the game at the time, I did not participate in the module myself. However, as someone who can claim close friendship with both the staff of Dystopia Rising as well as a number of its players, not to mention someone who helped write the live-action rulebook and some setting materials, I can tell you that my blood pressure went up steadily as I read it.
Simply put, the article is written with so many easily-corrected errors that I find it hard to take it seriously, and the sad part is, that’s the sort of standard I’ve seen time and again with reporting about LARP. Nobody seems to care if you get your facts right, when getting your facts straight is, oh, I don’t know, the entire point of journalism. It would be one thing if this article ran right after the event – that still doesn’t really excuse it, because journalism, but I could see if you got a game term slightly wrong, or if you presented a core concept of the game a little off because it hadn’t been explained to you properly at the time you participated. It’s still not right, but at least I could see it. I’m no stranger to deadlines.
Oh yeah, and actually going out to cover events and gather material firsthand helps too. Especially if you’re going to report on something as potentially explosive as what some might call making a game out of the Holocaust. Just a thought.
But I digress.
The thing is, Dexcon typically happens over the Fourth of July weekend. But the Dexcon referred to in this piece was held in 2011 – so we’re already at three years and counting, not exactly a good start for factual accuracy (especially when the correspondent didn’t personally attend the event in the first place.) It’s plain that some research was done after the fact, including seeking out players and experts for quotes and opinions. Which means there has been more than enough time to get the game information right too. And yet judging from the number of errors in the article regarding the game world, player characters involved, and the mechanics of the game itself, that wasn’t considered a priority. Which is baffling, because if you wrote a sports article the same way – just tossing around incorrect game terms, team names, player positions and so on – you’d be laughed out of sports journalism. But apparently it’s OK to do it with geeks and their silly games, because who cares but the geeks, right?
Now, you might say – and with some fairness – that the purpose of the article was to talk about the game as a representation of disturbing material in general and the Holocaust in particular, and therefore the game terms aren’t important because the real focus is the social issue at hand. Trust me, I get you on that. I understand there’s a bigger picture at work here. But that doesn’t mean you get to slack on the basic task of getting the facts straight, because journalism for one, and because you never know if getting a fact wrong might also change the story. Even if you think “who can possibly care if one ‘strain’ in an imaginary world sees itself as better than others” you still have a responsibility to report it correctly, because it might actually matter in terms of creating the game experience you’re reporting on. Plenty of topics are complicated to cover and tough for outsiders to decipher – but communicating them clearly and correctly is part of your responsibility as a journalist when you take on that story. You can’t just pick the parts of the story you like or more easily understand and get them correct, then hand-wave the other stuff. As the great Lester Freamon once wisely noted, “All the pieces matter.”
To go back to the football analogy I kicked off with – see what I did there? – if you are writing an article about the very real controversy concerning the Redskins team name, you still have to get the football details right. Even if the main thrust of your piece is about the deeper issues of racism and cultural appropriation involved in the dialogue, and you hardly spend any time discussing the game at all, you still can’t make up player positions, misspell team titles, or screw up your identification of people involved and their roles in the situation. Why not? Because journalism is supposed to care about all of the facts, not just the ones you think are most relevant to your position. When you don’t care to get those things right, it shows you care less about the facts than you do about how you’re trying to fit them together, and that’s a bad sign in a journalist.
If you don’t want to discuss game play or mechanics, fine I guess, just leave them out.
Don’t skim them and get the details wrong.
I do give the author some credit for going out and talking to some players as well as larp authorities before going to press. That’s more than we’ve gotten in some articles in the past. And I do think there was an honest question raised at the heart of this article – what does it mean to represent a real life horror such as the Holocaust in a roleplaying game? A lot of games include some pretty dark material, and maybe it’s a good thing to stop and check every once in a while, to see that players are OK and make sure what is presented is handled responsibly. And yet the lack of attention to details in this article makes it hard to see it as a piece that really tried to understand Dystopia Rising or its players, but rather went for a slightly more sensationalist route, and in so doing missed a chance to really try to understand all the aspects of the story.
Which is a genuine shame.
Back in 1997, the legendary horror gaming company White Wolf published a supplement for their Wraith game line entitled Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, which was specifically centered on how the infamous concentration camps appeared in the dark and twisted afterlife world of the game. When it was announced, an anti-defamation organization threatened possible legal action for what they saw as a trivializing of the Holocaust. The author, my longtime friend and mentor Rich Dansky, responded by inviting their representatives to come see how the material in the book was presented as well as how it was handled in play. They showed the representatives an early copy of the book, then let them watch him run a game session using the material. They came away convinced that it did not trivialize the Holocaust or exploit it for cheap entertainment, but rather helped hammer home the grim loss and terrifying horror of the situation in a way that readers and players would not easily forget. It’s an example I wish more people followed when it comes to looking at games and wondering if they’re handling difficult material responsibly.
That is how to responsibly handle a situation like this, on all sides.
In the end, you can debate the elements included in the module, and you can decide for yourself whether you think it’s appropriate for games to tackle subjects like the Holocaust. That’s fine, and as LARP changes and grows as an art form, I’d argue it might even be necessary. I just wouldn’t use this particular article as your starting point, because if it can’t be bothered to report the game accurately, what are the odds you’re getting the real picture?
OK. I’m done. If anyone needs me, I’ll be at home, rooting for the Iggles.