A Left Critique of SIGMATA

Sigmata: This Signal Kills Fascists is a tabletop RPG by Chad Walker that is up for backing on Kickstarter. At the time of writing, it’s almost hit its funding goal of $9,000, and I’m pretty certain it will hit that goal soon. I have some critiques about the game, as it’s currently presented.

First off, a couple caveats. This critique isn’t coming from a place of trying to tear down what someone else is building. It’s always a bit weird critiquing a Kickstarter, because you’re not critiquing a finished product. Essentially, I’m critiquing the idea of a product as presented by its creator. But, again, this is a thing that you are asking people to pay money for so I consider it to be fair game. Also, as a sometimes-creator myself, I can imagine times when I’d wished someone had critiqued my work a little earlier in the process before things were set in stone, so I at least had a chance to address the criticisms before the work was finalized.

Second, I think my politics probably line up with Chad Walker’s. This isn’t gonna be some right-wing screed denouncing Sigmata as “ANTIFA THE GAME HOW DARE YOU, SIR.” I can appreciate what he’s trying to do (or at least what I think he’s trying to do), even if I do think there are some flaws in the approach.

Okay. Let’s buckle in then.

The first and probably most obvious criticism that’s already been making the rounds on social media has to do with these pull-quotes from the Kickstarter itself:

The communities targeted by state violence have begun to fight back. The Resistance is bolstered by an unlikely alliance of radical leftists, libertarian militias, religious activists, and wealthy entrepreneurs, whose grievances with the Regime overpower the seething contempt they have for each other. As linchpins of the Resistance, the Receivers must take great pains to prevent the alliance from fracturing. If they allow ideology to trump strategy, the factions will fall back on their worst tendencies, handing the Regime the political victories it needs to maintain a stranglehold on the people.

The game world seems to posit that this weird, ahistorical alliance between radically different groups is possible, strategically viable, and advantageous.

People have rightly pointed out that right-wing militias and wealthy entrepreneurs would have a lot more to gain by collaborating with a fascist government (as has been historically the case) than by resisting it. The author is going to have a lot of legwork ahead of him to convince people that some of these groups have grievances that trump their fundamental ideology.

The somewhat cynical answer to “why” the author chose to do this I’ve seen bandied about is that it’s a misguided attempt to get right-wingers to buy the game. This game isn’t for leftists! it’s for EVERYONE that hates fascism!

I don’t agree with that analysis. In his response to this criticism in the FAQ, the author makes clear that he was guided by a sense of radical empathy for opposing groups, the belief that this sort of “coalition of opposites” would be strategically advisable, as well as the (possibly ahistorical) belief that strategy should, could, and would trump ideology in this scenario.

What’s most disappointing to me about this decision is that there is clearly a better way. Everyone knows the left, by itself, is already a contentious place. We have hardline Marxist-Leninists and third-world Maoists, Trotskyists, democratic socialists, social democrats, left-leaning liberals, and everything in between. I can imagine a very interesting game where simply trying to coalesce those groups or getting them to work together strategically would in itself be a challenge. A game where groups that are ideologically aligned against fascism in the general but disagree in the particulars could be a great game. No libertarian militias or wealthy entrepreneur allies required.

I should note that I do believe radical empathy has a place in leftist politics and thought. Under socialism, you don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to not want them to die starving to death in a gutter. “A chicken in every bastard’s pot” and all that. But by positioning these groups as being on equal ethical footing as equal partners in the “Resistance,” the game seems to trip into the quagmire of radical centrism that the author is trying to avoid.

Now, it could be that these groups are regulated in the actual book to a mostly offscreen, semi-antagonistic role. But by positioning the Receivers, the player characters, as “above politics,” the game undercuts one of it’s most interesting ideas.

Next up, let’s talk about the idea of ethical insurgency. The Kickstarter FAQ lays out the “rules” such an insurgency must follow, and I can honestly say that I don’t think there has ever been a historical insurgency that managed to follow them. Setting aside the weird politics of telling a group of people how they should resist fascism, the game positions this ethical framework as central to the player’s success.

It posits a world wherein if the players play by the “rules” of an ethical insurgency, the world community will hail them as heroes, the people will love them, and their enemies will shatter and break. If contemporary politics teaches us anything, is that truth and perception are distinct realities. Where is the role of propaganda in this world? Say the players restrict themselves to military targets, in uniform, as these rules dictate. What is to stop the fascist state from simply lying to the people? How does the resistance fight back with their “truth,” or expose the evils of their enemies?

This isn’t to say I don’t think the propaganda war isn’t important in a game like this. Another RPG, Jihad: Burning Sands, itself a supplement of Burning Wheel (and a riff on classic themes of Frank Herbert’s Dune) put propaganda front-and-center. It acknowledged that while the ethics of the player’s actions are important, equally important is the presentation of that message, the counter-narrative, and the push-and-pull of propaganda for the “hearts and minds” this game seems to seek to model.

Finally, we have to talk a bit about COIN. The Kickstarter plays up that its systems are based on “real world” COIN tactics. COIN, by the way, stands for counter-insurgency. Counter. As in “against.” I find it a bit odd that the mechanics of insurgency are based around ideas of resistance written by people actively trying to stamp out insurgency. COIN describes how, in theory, to end an insurgency by winning over the hearts and minds of the people insurgents rely on for resources. It doesn’t, to my knowledge, present any sort of blueprint for how an insurgency would succeed.

Also, COIN itself is… suspect. In the real-world circumstances where it’s been used by an invading power to try and suppress a dissenting foreign populace (Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to name a few) it has been a dismal failure. I’m left to ask, did the author consult books written by the opposing side, the insurgent side, the side he is, in actuality, trying to represent? Were French resistance fighters concerned about whether or not Nazis were wearing uniforms when they were assassinated? What did Che Guevera regard as the corner-stone of guerilla warfare? Somehow, I think “ethical insurgency” wasn’t ranked at the top of his list.

I should note that this game has been described as “Saturday morning cartoon”-esque. So applying real-world analysis to its politics and its stance on COIN may be a bit of missing-the-point. However, the game seems to trumpet this “realism” (in the form of ACTUAL COIN TACTICS) as a selling point.

All in all, I still want this game to succeed. Call this a struggle session, call it comradely critique. There are clearly some good ideas in this game. Fighting against a fascist police-state and souped-up superheroes in an 80’s-future-that-never-was sounds like a cool game that I would want to play. Dealing with inter-factional strife in the middle of a civil war sounds interesting as hell. Playing a propaganda game against the state, slowly taking back control of the narrative from those who oppress you is a damn good idea. And referencing those who have actually successfully fought insurgent wars (instead of those who failed at trying to suppress them) would be the cherry on top.

Solidarity, comrade.

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