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Game Novels 2: The Gladiator

The Gladiator posits that games can be a subversive tool to undermine authoritarian societies.

Harry Turtledove is widely known as a master of alternate history. He does not write anything you could call high literature; but his knowledge of history is comprehensive, his research is always excellent, and if his work will win no Nobel, he provides a strong narrative drive, he has a knack for quick delineation of character, and for those of us interested in history, and military history in particular, a new Turtledove novel is popcorn to consume.

This series of posts is, however, about novels that deal with games or game development. Only one of Turtledove's novels meets that criterion: The Gladiator.

The cover of the US edition, at least, looks reminiscent of Stalinist propaganda, but with a strong appeal to tabletop gamers; an arm thrusting up, holding a 20-sided die, against a red-tinged background. As if the workers and peasants will defiantly defeat the Nazi invaders by.... playing D&D.

The Gladiator is part of a YA series from Turtledove, termed the Crosstime Traffic series. As is typical with YA novels, they all have young protagonists, and are written in fairly simply language, but are certainly accessible to adults. The backstory behind the Crosstime Traffic series is that a late 21st century world, very likely ours, is running out of resources, but has invented technology that allows it to access parallel universes where history has gone somewhat differently. They trade "across time" for resources that are scare in their own time stream.

Each of the Crosstime Traffic novels, therefore, deals with a different alternate history; in The Gladiator, it's a world in which the Soviet Union won the Cold War. Continental Europe has gone Communist. The novel's protagonist is a student in Communist Italy, who becomes interested in a game called Rails Across Europe, which he plays at a local game shop. (One imagines it's similar to Moon's Ticket to Ride: Europe.)

But the game teaches lessons very different from those taught in the state schools of the Marxist society: You earn revenue to reinvest in your burgeoning rail empire. It's just a game, but it's also a model of capitalism, and a direct challenge to the socialist ideology taught in the protagonist's school.

The transtime traffickers of the ur-world are trying to covertly subvert the Stalinist reality of this universe by.... selling them boardgames with 'builder' themes.

Well, it's completely true that 'builder' games are essentially capitalist in nature; but the idea that someting so simple and trivial as a boardgame would possibly serve to subvert a totalitarian society is, from a game designer's perspective, extroardinarily flattering.

Yes, there's more to the novel that this, and it's a fun read. But it's a rare nod, from an unexpected source, to the utility and potential cultural impact of games as a form.

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