A short essay written for my interactive storytelling class.
Secret Hitler is a hidden role multiplayer card/board game which attempts to simulate the complex political dynamics that can facilitate the rise of fascism. Players are randomly and secretly assigned one of three roles: a liberal, a fascist or Hitler. Only one player is Hitler for each game. The fascist’s aim is to either enact a certain number of fascist laws, or to elect Hitler to power. Liberals must either enact a certain number of liberal laws, or to successfully execute Hitler. Liberals do not know who the other liberals are. Fascists know who the other Fascists are and know who Hitler is. Depending on the number of players, Hitler may also know who the fascists are.
Each round an election occurs where one player runs for president with another player chosen as chancellor. If successfully elected, laws are enacted through decisions made by the president and chancellor. If six liberal laws are enacted, the liberals win. If six fascist laws are enacted, the fascists win. If Hitler is executed through a presidential power, the liberals win. If Hitler is elected after three fascist laws are enacted, the fascists win.
Secret Hitler, like most games, is composed of a variety of rules and systems. However, the rules and systems of Secret Hitler introduce only a limited number of constraints. Its defining feature is information asymmetry. Who has what information is decided by the assigned roles, but how information is communicated and transmitted between players is not limited or constrained by the rules. Players are free to speak truthfully, to lie, or to say nothing at all. The win and lose states act as incentives that guide their play but do not impose any strategy or play style.
Consequently, Secret Hitler is a highly emergent game. The events that occur in the game and the progress made towards specific goals are highly contingent on the actions of players. Informal alliances and rivalries can occur spontaneously. This balance, between the guiding hand of the game’s rules and the dynamic emergent phenomena, makes Secret Hitler particularly effective at exploring how the systems of democracy can be vulnerable to subversion by fascists. Democratic systems of governance ostensibly consist of a framework of rules that are designed to be anti-fragile and self-preserving, but they are systems that humans work with, and humans are capable of a great deal of unpredictability. The unpredictability encoded in Secret Hitler’s rules are minimal. The unpredictability comes from human beings. So too does the chaos that can emerge in politics.
In 1972, German writer Heinrich Böll coined the term ‘crypto-fascism’. A crypto-fascist is an individual who supports fascism, but does so secretly, often because overt support of it is an easy way to attract unwanted scrutiny. This principle remains relevant today. In Contrapoints’ video essay, ‘Decrypting the Alt-Right’*, she outlined four strategies contemporary extremists use to conceal the extent of their right-wing leanings. One such strategy used is the use of euphemism. For instance, contemporary white supremacists like Richard Spencer often use terms like ‘ethno-nationalist’ or ‘identitarian’ to avoid ‘dirty’ terms like ‘fascist’ or ‘Nazi’.
This necessity for secrecy and concealment of identity is embedded in Secret Hitler’s rules. The roles assigned to players are left unknown. Only fascists know who other fascists are. In contemporary reality, this secret revealing of fascist identity comes in the form of oblique references to Pepe the Frog or the ‘Okay’ hand gesture**. The oblique gesture du jour changes frequently, ensuring that liberals, like the liberals in Secret Hitler, are not privy to the true identities of fascists. The paranoia endemic to the rise of fascism is mirrored in the game. You cannot be certain of who is a fascist, in both the game and reality.
Secret Hitler explores the dynamics of how fascism rises, but it can be argued that the game does not extend into condemning fascism. Players are assigned the roles of fascists or Hitler and are incentivized to win. The game makes no quantifiable or qualitative difference between liberals winning and fascists winning. The game simply ends with victory for either faction.
In contrast, consider Brenda Romero’s board game Train. In Train, players work together to populate a train with as many people as possible. Little context is given during play. At the end of the game, it is revealed that the train they were filling with people stops at Auschwitz. Players are made complicit in the Holocaust. A win state is subverted and becomes a lose state.
However, the emergent nature of Secret Hitler makes it difficult for the game to condemn fascism with win/lose states alone. Consider a hypothetical addition to the game: should the fascists win, a card is flipped that reveals that their victory leads to the events of World War II, resulting in the defeat of Germany, the deaths of millions, and the suicide of Hitler. Would this subvert the win state? I would argue that it would fail to do that. Due to the emergent nature of Secret Hitler, the victory earned by players feels like a consequence of the play styles and creative stratagems used by them. Gameplay in Train is fairly constrained with little room for improvisation or creativity. ‘Victory’ in Train thus feels like a result of close interaction with the rules of the game. On the other hand, victory in Secret Hitler feels causally related to a player’s creativity and decision making. Victory feels earned. Attempts to subvert it feel arbitrary and unconnected with the playing of the game. The fascists will be happy that they won, no matter what.
If thematic messaging in a game results from the interactions between player and system, then the thematic messaging in emergent games are fundamentally more unpredictable or uncontrollable. Care should be taken as a designer, lest the game says something that might be unwanted or problematic.
*: Decrypting the Alt-Right – Contrapoints
**: Pepe the Frog and the Okay hand gesture – Anti-Defamation League