Games have the potential to require players to confront ugly truths by performing classic moral dilemmas: Pushed by circumstance, would you kill? Would you choose the one you love, or the many you don't? Would you rough someone up for information that might save lives?
Some games don’t offer a moral option but instead force players to perform moral abhorrence, requiring complicity in a system that most people would agree is flawed. In Paolo Mori’s board game Unusual Suspects, for instance, players are a group of police detectives required to profile suspects based on illustrated characters’ identity performances. Collaboratively, players must decide whether a square-jawed white man with glasses or a black woman in bright costume jewelry is more likely to own a record player, more likely to read the newspaper, or more likely to celebrate Christmas.
There is, of course, ample research to suggest that police are affected by a suspect’s race in deciding whether or not to shoot a suspect, and in identifying whether an item in hand is a dangerous object or a tool (see Correll, et al.). And other analyses have considered the way that race gets encoded in algorithmic assessments of recidivism risk. But it is a lot harder to assess and quantify the ways that race, gender, clothing, hair, and accessories shape individuals’ qualitative evaluations of people around them. By demanding that players attach qualitative assessments like “lines up for Black Friday” and “owns an SUV” to subtle identity markers, Unusual Suspects offers a revealing and sometimes uncomfortable exposition of how complex and deeply shared these kinds of stereotypes can be.
Unusual Suspects in this sense is reminiscent of other games that invite reflection on abhorrent performance of complicity: Lucas Pope’s video game Papers, Please requires players to deny immigration to needy border crossers, for the sake of personal financial gain. Brenda Romero’s (unpublished) board game Train asks players to deliver a maximum number of passengers via train, only to reveal that the train is heading to concentration camps. The Games for Change festival in 2018 presented an innovation award to the virtual reality game Tree, which puts players into the perspective of a tree affected by climate change and logging—not demanding performative complicity with the logging, but inviting reflection on human complicity in deforestation. That meatspace reflection on complicity is one of the greatest potentials of games as theoretical tools: They can make us act in ways we have rejected in real life, force us to be people we would never want to become.
Yet in framing these performances, games straddle a tense line between didacticism and complicity themselves. Romero controls playtests of Train and has not sold it in part to prevent people from playing it disrespectfully, and it is easy to imagine a playing of Unusual Suspects that does not question the dangers of stereotyping. In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of Unusual Suspects is that the game booklet and advertising for the game does not explicitly discuss the dangers of police profiling. The trailer above speaks of a “diverse team of detectives” who will “use unusual different methods” to “bring the culprit to justice.” As teachers, academics have the opportunity to frame games like Unusual Suspects in tandem with academic research on police profiling for a powerful classroom experience; as researchers, we can collect and consider and critique how such games are presented and performed.