Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Gaming Pet Peeve: The Hegemonic Fallacy

Some time back, I wrote about the Atlantean Fallacy, the idea that the progenitors of a setting are always the most advanced, powerful, and wise examples of their type, and that all civilizations since their fall have been a downward trajectory.

Today, I want to write about another fallacy in gaming, which I call the Hegemonic Fallacy.

I was reading through the old Star*Drive campaign setting for Alternity, which I still have a real fondness for even after all these years. I've always had trouble running sci-fi instead of fantasy, for reasons I'm not entirely able to pin down (but which might be the focus of a future article!), but the recent release of the Firefly RPG by Margaret Weis Productions got me thinking about trying it out again. Star*Drive is an old favorite, so I went back to re-read it.

Maybe it's because I'm older and have more experience with politics and economic realities now, but almost every space nation has serious problems in terms of its socio-economic builds. After being told that people distrust heavily-cybered individuals, we have an entire space nation where everyone has to get cybernetic implants. There's a space empire that used to be aristocratic but is now democratic by virtue of elevating all citizens to at least knighthood. There's a society that rejects high technology and seeks to live at Amish-like levels of simplicity but still maintains a space navy and somehow has a multi-planet government. There's a society whose whole thing is how diverse they are!

I like Star*Drive, but it has serious flaws.

Perhaps the most glaring thing to me is this idea that every space society has a "racial bonus" for being from that society (even the socially diverse one). In fantasy games, this makes slightly more--but still not a lot of--sense. You want clearly defined "splats" so that people have something to hold onto during character creation. But when you have galactic societies of billions of sentients, I would think that it becomes a little harder to pigeonhole them.

This is especially bad in sections like the Orlamu Theocracy, a space-nation with around 750 billion citizens, where it suggests that the majority of them are involved in stardrive research and development. Someone here clearly didn't understand that billions of people being involved in R&D is a frankly ludicrous number, especially once you discount human-populated factories--since robotics has advanced way beyond the modern level.

By comparison to the modern day, about two million people work in engineering in the United States, across all engineering fields including aerospace and nuclear engineering, but more than a third of them are in manufacturing and labor positions while another third are in maintenance, administration, or other non-technical roles. Even if you take that two million as a flat number, there are about 320 million people in the United States; that means only about six-tenths of one percent of the population is involved in engineering in any way, shape or form.

This sort of culturally hegemonic thinking--the idea that the most visible and influential portions of a society represent all people in that society--is dangerous for any role-playing setting, but science-fiction settings seem especially fond of it. The Planet of Hats phenomenon is a subset of this problem, but it goes beyond the idea that every world is a monoculture, up to the idea that galactic-scale civilizations can be easily defined by two pages of cultural discussion and a racial trait.

As with any of these setting problems, the solution is vigilance. When building an RPG setting, one should be conscious to not make sweeping generalizations about large-scale cultures unless those generalizations can be explained as institutional issues and/or social pressure issues.

Warhammer 40K presents a xenophobic human society, where human xenophobia is a socially imposed institution from the top down. The society even offers fairly severe social and legal penalties for not being xenophobic enough. This is an example where the generalization makes sense: "Most humans in Warhammer 40K are (or pretend to be) xenophobic because their society puts them in a pressure situation to be so."

A galactic civilization noted for being very religious can make sense, especially if the society is a theocracy where other belief systems are outlawed and you can only advance socially by being pious. A galactic civilization where most people are engaged in low-level agriculture is basically nonsensical, since non-industrialized farming can't support populations that large.

Before making broad statements, think about the realities of your setting. There's nothing wrong with having the occasional Planet of Hats or the occasional monoculture, but making all of your societies into single-hat populations is just boring.

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