The BBC is creating a “Crossing Divides” season, which is all about having difficult conversations. For the record, I do believe that we need to have difficult conversations with others. Most of the conversations we need to have are difficult.
I just don’t believe this particular game is modelling good or sensible behaviour.
The game first came to my attention, as most things do these days, via Twitter, where it sparked controversy. So I decided to play through it myself. What could possibly go wrong?
Before the game starts, you choose to play as one of two characters – British entrepreneur Karen or Estonian nurse Erika. I picked Erika because I’m not originally from the UK.
So here I am, role-playing as Erika. I’ve just come back from visiting my mum in Estonia and I’m on a flight back to the UK. I’ve not flown to or from Estonia, but based on my experiences of other flights I’m probably listening quietly to a podcast and minding my own business.
All of a sudden, Karen turns to me. She says “…do you ever wish you could work in Estonia? I mean there are so many eastern Europeans in Britain now. I know a lot of you do valuable jobs, but we need a chance to get skilled up ourselves.”
I’ve gotten that question with my country of origin before. Generally I don’t mind answering the first part – people are curious – but it seems like Karen is implying Erika should leave the UK.
Erika tells Karen what I would tell Karen, which is that the UK feels like home now. (Erika is also raising her children in the UK, just as my parents raised me here.) In the real world, many people accept that answer.
This is my second playthrough and Karen isn’t quite as hostile as she was last time. She says that we need to do more trade around the world and that we can be “more flexible”. This is a game about perception, and this is Karen’s perception – but as an entrepreneur wouldn’t Karen be facing real problems due to Brexit uncertainty?
I pick the conciliatory option, where Erika says that she understands Karen wants to focus on her own country and priorities. Karen replies that after Brexit we won’t have to pay the EU money – again, this is a game about perception, but in reality there’s a costly Brexit divorce bill.
Again, I pick the conciliatory option – it’s true that nobody likes regulations! Erika gives some positive examples and to my surprise, she manages to get Karen to agree…sort of. She still thinks Brexit is worth the risk.
I, personally, can’t be that conciliatory, but my options are to say “I see it differently”, insult Karen (which will achieve absolutely nothing), or talk about European elections. I’m picking option 1, because this game rewards you for conciliatory behaviour.
Now Karen is talking about borders, and I’m feeling my hackles rise – the real me, not Erika. I’m a British citizen, but the way we talk about borders in the UK has always made me feel like an outsider.
My choices are between pointing out that the UK already controls its own borders (which is true – we’re not part of the Schengen area), pointing out that the UK controls its own borders in a slightly nicer way, and talking about the “problems” that globalisation causes. Well, as one of the “problems” caused by globalisation, I’m sure as hell not picking option 3, but having played through this once before I know that picking option 1 ends badly. Option 2 it is.
Apparently our conversation goes well and “we’ve both got something new to think about”. According to the feedback I got, I need to express ideas as opinions more often to defuse heated situations – and when I didn’t do this, I got worse feedback.
This is true in most cases. It breaks down when someone viscerally hates you. A lot of xenophobes just absolutely hate anyone they perceive as foreign. They can’t be reasoned out of it, and they might not take kindly to speaking to an immigrant (who might well be putting themselves in danger). There are times when it’s just not sensible to engage with someone, and I wish the people who made this game would have recognised that.
I don’t believe that the people who made this game are bad people – they are trying their best. But they would have done well to solicit feedback from more people, especially people threatened by Brexit, xenophobia and racism. Some divides are harder to bridge than others.