As we continue the exploration of theme, eventually we come to subjects and stories which could make good themes because of the conflict they present, but because of their sensitivity, these subjects are rarely, if ever, utilized for themes in gaming. These subjects may offend due to the nature of their stories and the painful or serious topics. These are themes that a publisher will almost always take a second look at.
Dangerous themes could come from sensitive areas of history. There’s a reason you don’t see games about genocide or slavery. These themes represent pursuits on which people would rather not dwell. Recent incidents of theme missteps with slavery include Days of Wonder including slaves in the earliest version of Five Tribes. There are some who criticize the naming of workers as “colonists” in the game Puerto Rico. They could claim that by not acknowledging history, it lessens the dignity of those who died in slavery working on plantations in the New World. Indeed in one of the newest games regarding the colonial period of Africa, the designers of Mombasa decided it would be best to recognize the theme up front in the rulebook instead of letting the subtext color the enjoyment of the game. All in all, these are subjects that most companies will not want to associate with.
Another set of themes that are usually avoided except in abstract terms are political in nature. No gamer wants to be told that their political beliefs are wrong. There are some games which inherently involve political conflict, but they usually avoid saying outright that a point of view is inferior or incorrect. Games involving the Confederate South in the United States or Nazi Germany do not espouse the political choices of those groups, they merely represent them as political and governmental entities. And if you do evaluate the politics, it’s necessary to stay on the right side of history. If Communism in Eastern Europe had succeeded, a game like Kolejka would not exist. If the American Civil War had a different outcome, Freedom: The Underground Railroad may have been a subversive game.
Many games take on religious subjects. Games such as The Settlers of Canaan or Christian Fluxx provide educational tasks or more palatable subject matter for more religious minded individuals. However, like political subjects, criticizing or evaluating religion is generally off limits for most games.
It’s certainly one thing to express value judgements on beliefs or present a point of view on religion, but there are some games which by their description you would think publishers would not want to be associated with, but in reality it’s their choice to put players in an amoral role that makes them popular. Cards Against Humanity bears mentioning here because it “allows” the players to be crass or rude. Other games in this vein are Nothing Personal and Bloody Inn. Players get to commit murder and other dastardly deeds because the game winning conditions might require it.
As you sit down to your next game, consider for a moment how the theme was chosen. What factors may have come into play when considering the “safeness” of the theme for the age group recommended. You might also think about who might be offended by the game, if at all. Taking this critical look at the games we play gives us a much more mature point-of-view when gaming and can always help us make more informed choices when making that next gaming purchase.