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Not All of Us, July 19, 2015
Rainbows and Dance Parties clothes a straightforward efficiency simulation with the political and cultural environment of the recent federal legalization of homosexual marriage in the United States. Its successful unity of theme and mechanics conveys the ideas of inevitable progress and of grace. Relying on relativism to avoid exploring the darkness of injustice and abuse, it inadvertently makes a strong case for its socially progressive ideology.
The player must spread the “great news” to all the states and unincorporated territories of the U.S. Each state or territory is represented by a room. The traditional room descriptions are redacted into a terse formula (perhaps vaguely Scott Adams-like), displaying the population of the state, its motto and nickname, as well as the year that same-sex marriage was legalized in the state. After informing the locals about the court ruling, the only thing left to do is to sing, to dance, and to cheer – some of the responses throwing out brief trivia. Any state or territory can be accessed from any location; if the two states are non-contiguous, you “hop on a plane,” and the number of flights are tracked.
At intervals, unreached states adjacent to ones that are already celebrating the court ruling will automatically be told the news by their neighbors. This removes the need to go to those states directly. There is also a chance for “travelers” from a reached state to share the news with a more distant one. Regardless as to who told whom, the game ends when all states and territories are celebrating.
Two metrics allow players to rate their own playing performance, the total number of turns taken in order to finish the game and the total number of flights. The implied goal is to minimize the number of turns -- and especially flights -- by planting the news at strategic junctures, allowing maximum coverage from the automated events.
However, the game takes no notice of how well the player actually plays. “YOU DID IT!” the game says, no matter how many turns you needed to take in order to do it. No matter how many fights I took, every time I played the game the win message read, “...and it only took you [number] flights!” This works together with the non-judgmental presentation of the dates in which each state legalized same-sex marriage to produce the game's strongest message: It doesn't matter how long it takes you to get there, as long as you arrive. The room description for Massachusetts gives no special congratulations when reporting that state's groundbreaking adoption of same-sex marriage in 2004. For states that never internally legalized same-sex marriage, there is a neutral note that it became legal “in 2015 due to Obergefell v. Hodges,” followed by the same congratulatory messages given for other states. The representation of the people from each state is very minimal, but the people from traditionally conservative areas are not depicted as ignorant rednecks.
The game presents an idealized progressive America where all the conservatives and rednecks cheer and dance for a genderless definition of marriage. The Rainbow Flag is raised in the Bible Belt and in the backwoods and in the cities, and now even the most stubborn holdouts are celebrating the “great news.” This is clearly not ignoring the political and ideological polarization, since a note following the final tally admits that there is “still a lot of work to be done.” It also doesn't feel like an attempt to be politically correct, despite a genuine sense of acceptance and an overt message of tolerance. Instead, it feels like a deep expression of the earnest hope that this is the way things should be, as well as the faith that progress will inevitably take us there.
Its basis in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and its fixation with the archetypal representation of American localities makes it a thoroughly patriotic work at heart, and it can be criticized from the perspective of American culture and history.
We have always been a partisan culture. Despite not being prescribed by our Constitution, our government immediately split into two powerful political parties deadlocked in the eternal political farce, and even though the original parties' identities are muddled, the Democrat-versus-Republican dichotomy has persisted for such an absurdly long time that I doubt even people who really care about politics have any sense about what the parties truly mean besides kitschy tribal catchphrases. The country itself split apart, and we slaughtered each other in a vicious war that left lingering resentment still felt 150 years later, as recent headlines demonstrate.
The “culture war” did not begin in the 1980's with the Moral Majority or in the 1960's with the hippies. Instead, we Americans have always been fragmented and tribal, eager to label other subcultures with caricatures. I think we all chronically ignore ambiguity and complexity.
Rainbows and Dance Parties refuses to be mired in the complexity of the personal divisions caused by same-sex marriage. The ending text's focus on people and on the benefits the court ruling secures them makes it very difficult for ideological opponents to find any ground to argue on. But the game's mistake is its bluntly optimistic win condition announcement: “Love wins! We all win!!! [...]”
In 2009 I was in Boston once, and a man on the street intercepted me to ask me to sign something to support gay rights. The man did not seem at all impolite or over-reaching; I had approached people on city streets about ideological matters, too. But in that moment politics crashed into my experience, and I stared at him in shock. I probably grimaced, stammering “No... I don't...” as I stumbled away. Later in the van, the others in my group teased me about the encounter.
In that moment I was keenly aware of the sharp ideological walls that divide people. There's too much shame associated with divisive issues for me to believe that everyone can win, and I lost. My people lost.
The phrase “love wins” -- and the corresponding question of whether we can all “win” -- evokes a debate surrounding a book much maligned in most of my circles expounding some version or another of Christian universalism -- the concept that maybe no one really goes to hell at all, that hell is not literal in any sense, that everyone will ultimately be redeemed. Rainbows and Dance Parties exemplifies a sort of progressivist universalism. Its portrayal of the enthusiastic spread of the “great news” throughout the land, until everyone has become part of the celebrating community, strongly evokes an evangelical approach to the gospel -- a word that means “good news.” Just as Saint Augustine instructed the early Christians to learn from whatever was good and true in pagan thought -- just as Tolkien honored the old pagan stories as sacred myth validated by the Incarnation -- just as Lewis rationalized the dying gods and corn kings from antiquity to be manifestations of the theme embodied and fulfilled by Christ -- so American progressives now triumphantly appropriate the subcultures shaped and formed by the old American religious moralism.
Obviously not written for people like me, Rainbows and Dance Parties has no explicit agenda other than to encourage social progressives to continue working toward universal rights and protections for sexual minorities. It depicts Obergefell v. Hodges as an event of joyous euchatastrophe. For me it is not, though my major response was apathy. Intolerant in its inclusiveness, Rainbows and Dance Parties denies naysayers by avoidance, and perhaps also by appropriation. Still, I think the game's insistence on seeing the best in all people – its depiction of the potential for unity amid diversity – ultimately promotes more good than harm.