Sunday, May 04, 2008

Another Promoted Comment

Step 1: some people start an online Harry Potter RPG about a repressive government in 1985 and call it Hexennacht. [Edit: originally named "Kristallnacht," changed to Hexennacht quietly on that page without making reference to the change.]

Step 2: James Nicoll links to it, not explicitly saying anything but implying that we should all disapprove.

And then I got grumpy, as I am wont to do, and commented thus at James's LJ. I'm rerunning it here because, as always, I agree with myself:
I'm not Johan, but my reaction was very similar to his -- that's why they named it what they did, because it's supposed to immediately invoke those feelings. (Their timing may have been unfortunate, but that's a side issue.)

Are we now saying that no forms of art can use names in any way derived from nasty historical events? Or that only those events that are within recent memory are forbidden? Or maybe only those events with large, organized groups who will complain loudly?

Or is it that an RPG isn't "art" enough to be worthy? There have been novels, plays, paintings and plenty of other artistic interpretations of kristallnacht, and I've never seen an attack like this on them. I suspect this is mostly a high art/low art snobbery -- that games aren't "important" enough to address issues like this, or that they're too tainted by commerce, or something similar.

Just a few days ago, I read a manga story called "Hell," by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, from 1971, about a photographer sent to Hiroshima right after the blast. It's a damn powerful story, but it's also low art about a major, horrible, recent historical event. Is that impermissible? Is it worse because that was much closer to the event, or acceptable because it was by a Japanese man?

Would "Hexennacht" be OK if the organizers were Jewish and explicitly linked it to the Holocaust? Would it be better or worse if it were a reference to the Armenian genocide?

Personally, if there was a similar game involving evil wizards flying dragons into buildings in NYC to kill massive numbers of Muggles, I'd still have no problem with it.

Art is how humanity turns life into memory, and memory into history. The response "you can't say that" is never appropriate for a work of art. This kind of whiny nudnik-ism does no one any good.

Also, James, if you're going to do these "oh, look at these horrible people; let's all cluck behind our hands and show how morally superior we all are" posts, at least get the facts right -- the game is called Hexennacht (or was), not kristallnacht. It's a small but telling error.

And, as a final point, there are at least 32,000 Google hits for "hexennacht;" it appears to already exist as a word. So, all you offended ones, go forth and complain everywhere you can find it.
I am surprised to note how much I have internalized the Scott McCloud theory of art, but there it is.

Edit, early in the morning: Well, it was called "Kristallnacht" at first, which is slightly more tone-deaf than I'd thought, but doesn't change my essential point. (Except for the point at the end, where I was just wrong.) So I commented again:
From the comments here and elsewhere, it looks like this was originally called "Kristallnacht," thought the linked page doesn't make any reference to that now. (I wonder why?)

I apologize for missing that the first time through...but, James, I do think you're doing a lot of throwing raw meat out these days, and I wonder why.

I also think the dinks running the game have a bad case of tone-deafness, and are rude to boot, but that doesn't particularly matter. The bleating against them is mostly "but you're hurting and offending people," as if that were some sort of Stop-Everything card. People get offended; people get their feelings hurt. If that's the worst thing that happens to you today, stand up and cheer.
Again, I think the Internet is far too prone to dogpile onto things because some group -- and those groups are many and varied -- doesn't like them. And the reply of "you've offended me, so now you have to change" is appalling. If you're that easily offended, you probably shouldn't be on the Internet in the first place, where far worse things are lurking.


Steve said...

Have you been back to James' post since promoting the comment? The name was changed after his post...

Jess Nevins said...


I think there is a difference between "that's offensive" and "that's offensive YOU MUST CHANGE OMG YOU'RE A BAD PERSON." I -am- offended at the casual use of the term "kristallnacht," because I think there are some historical events--like the Holocaust, like the Armenian Genocide, like 9/11, like [insert your own event of choice here], that shouldn't be casually bandied about. It's not that we don't use art to turn life into memory--it's that some events are so horrible that they shouldn't be used cheaply or in a crass way to affect seriousness, which I think is the case here.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jess: I think we just disagree on this issue; for me, there's no zone of exclusion for art, or an area in which only good art is allowed to go.

I'm really uncomfortable with the sort of hierarchy of art-forms that says that painting can do Guernica immediately, novels can do The Naked and the Dead within five years, and games need to wait at least seventy-five years.

I'm not saying that people won't be annoyed, offended, and outraged -- they will be. Art does that. But I don't see the fact of outrage as a reason to limit the scope of art. This particular case is something reasonable people could be outraged about, but there are also a thousand cases of unreasonable outrage, such as the Dutch Muhammad cartoons. So the fact of outrage can't be the crucial factor.

Criticizing something as a work of art, of course, is always fair game. I'm not sure the parallel in this particular game is drawn as sharply as it should be to justify that name, and the existence of Muggles (as a majority) also damages the metaphor. A better parallel, I'm thinking, would be the Soviet October Revolution, with the "purebloods" and Grindelwald in the place of the Communists and Lenin. But very few people would get the point of that, I'm afraid -- Nazis are always cooler.

So I think I understand what you mean, but I can't quite agree -- "used cheaply or in a crass way" implies that only "good art" is allowed to deal with these issues, and I'm very wary of good art/bad art distinctions.

Jess Nevins said...

On reflection, I think what I should have said is this: none of us who haven't read the game can really criticize it for its execution. But slapping "kristallnacht" on to a Harry Potter rpg makes it sound like you, the game designer/writer, aren't taking the historical reality of Kristallnacht seriously, and are simply using the word as a cheap means to lend your game gravitas.

Whether that's the reality, I don't know. I actually think I do agree with you generally. In this case, though, I think I'd change your formulation. It's not that only Good Art should be allowed to deal with such things; it's that, if you're going to deal with such things, you'd better make it Good Art, or you won't have done the subject the justice it deserves. Guernica as an immediate response, yes; something in black velvet, drawn by Rowena, no.

(All this being said, I'll be writing a rpg later this year or early next year which will be treading some of the same aesthetic territory as this game; I'll be curious to see what the general reaction will be).

Anonymous said...

Ha! You did put your answer to my comment in your blog!

And as I answered you there -- I don't think RPG is an art.

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