“What can I say? We are coming to a big fork in the road for this country, another ominous polarization between right and wrong, another political mandate to decide, ‘Which side are you on?’”
—Hunter S. Thompson, “Kingdom of Fear”
I studied games a bit in college. I’m by no means an expert, but I have above average exposure to how games can be used to expose, teach, and influence our understanding of humanity and society.
It’s with this experience that I was fascinated, terribly uncomfortable, and even a little upset after some friends brought out their Secret Hitler game at a recent cocktail party.
I’d never heard of this game. When my wife and I arrived for game night, I figured I was in for some Yahtzee, or Apples to Apples — something benign like that. High on wine and cheese, I wasn’t expecting my evening to center on a game with grand political messages.
The game’s creators explain it best:
What is Secret Hitler?
Secret Hitler is a social deduction game for 5–10 people about finding and stopping the Secret Hitler.
Players are secretly divided into two teams: the liberals, who have a majority, and the fascists, who are hidden to everyone but each other. If the liberals can learn to trust each other, they have enough votes to control the elections and save the day. But the fascists will say whatever it takes to get elected, advance their agenda, and win the game.
The standard edition is identical to the edition of Secret Hitler that shipped to Kickstarter backers in 2016, including foil inlays on the boards and wooden placards for the Chancellor and President.
As the rules were explained to me, my wine-and-cheese high came crashing down to zero. I felt like I was about to play a game that preached a lesson: If I’m not supporting a liberal agenda then, by default, I’m allowing fascism to rise.
Gee, I wonder what current political administration and associated culture war this could be modeled after?
As someone who is neither a liberal nor a fascist, and who knows better than to reduce society into A/B logic, I started to feel uncomfortable. Which is likely the point of the game.
Secret Hitler is set up from the beginning to have a majority of liberals who try to work together to impose their will on a minority of their political rivals. Further asymmetry and satire are built in: The path of the fascist agenda is paved with crimes, each step along the way an escalation of evil. Things like:
- The president examines the top three cards (Cheating)
- The president investigates a player’s identity card (Show me your papers!)
- The president picks the next presidential candidate (Rigging elections)
- The president must kill a player (Assassination)
- Veto power is unlocked (Consolidation of power and subversion of the democratic process)
- And finally, the rise of fascism and Trump, I mean Hitler, is complete.
The liberal agenda, on the other hand, is blank. This is fitting given the current state of American liberalism, an ideology that essentially opposes everything while struggling to explain what it stands for.
To get to the liberal utopia and win the game, all you have to do is unite in opposition to fascism by blindly swearing allegiance to an agenda of nothing. How very spot-on.
All of the applause to the creators for this rock-and-a-hard-place conundrum they’ve designed. It’s a nice little moral dilemma, and one I’m familiar with since the 2016 election.
The game made me feel very uncomfortable with the decisions it was forcing me into. (Again, I am certain that’s the point.) For example, when it was my turn to be president, luck of the draw forced my chancellor to play a fascist card. This required me to kill a player. I, however, did the only logical thing a person who understands the games behind the games could do.
I killed myself.
Some games you only win when you stop playing. (That was my most valuable lesson in all the game theory I studied back in college.)
Secret Hitler is especially disturbing because this satirical game isn’t satire at all.
Games can be all about fun, but some are designed to show us to us. Secret Hitler is especially disturbing because this satirical game isn’t satire at all. It’s a sad and accurate representation of the current state of American politics.
The goal is for players to swallow their pride and submit to blind liberalism, or else it’s their fault the next Hitler doesn’t get stopped. The game is an artifact of the us vs. them mentality, the idea that you’re either with us or against us. Don’t worry about what being “with us” means. The important part is that you support us, or else. It made me feel uncomfortable about my own political decisions, or lack thereof (I vote for candidates I believe in, not against candidates out of fear that something evil won’t be stopped).
Honestly, I would have preferred Yahtzee, or to be sold on Amway, or some other timeshare-style bait and switch. I didn’t like Secret Hitler’s judgy tone.
The tragic irony is that this fear-based culture of demanding blind adherence is exactly what is giving rise to fascist culture. Again, applause to the creators for designing such an expertly uncomfortable conundrum. Pure genius.
We didn’t play a second round. Once was enough for me to get the point.
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