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Title: Nephew draws fire over card game

Source: Maplewood Ramsey County Review

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nephew draws fire over card game

Alex Davy
Staff writer

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A strategy card game published by Maplewood city council candidate John Nephew has drawn criticism for its violent subject matter.

"Let's Kill" casts players in the role of deranged serial killers competing with each other for media coverage. Players draw victims, weapons and locations from two 55-card decks, using implements like weed whackers, bread trucks and even sporks to off their quarry in the most sensational way possible. It's published by Atlas Games, the company Nephew runs with his wife, games editor Michelle Nephew.

"I'm absolutely appalled by this game," says Maplewood resident Judith Franey, an early childhood educator who has worked in the Saint Paul public school system for 23 years. "Fantasy and imagination are powerful tools that fuel reality, and I worry about the effect this game will have on people's minds." Franey is also the author of "The Kindness Curriculum," an activity book for parents and teachers aimed at child development.

Nephew says that critics of his game are missing the point. "The fundamental issue is that people have different ideas about what they find humorous," Nephew says. "What appealed to me about "Let's Kill' was its tongue-in-cheek attitude. It's a satire, and with any satire, there are going to be people who can't find the humor in it."

Franey heard complaints from friends and neighbors in the weeks leading up to the primary election, and a campaign flyer from David Bartol, a one-time candidate in the council race, prompted her to look at the Atlas Games website. "I don't consider myself a political person, but this issue really hit home for me," Franey says. "It's pure violence - it's horrific." Bartol has since dropped out of the race, endorsing incumbent council member Rebecca Cave and candidate DelRay Rokke.

The rules booklet that accompanies the game describes it as "A work of satire that comments on the media's exploitation of the most horrific elements of our society... for no other purpose than to increase ratings and garner advertising revenue." This explanation is scribbled out in red ink, ostensibly by a killer's hand, followed by the comment "yeah, right, this is social commentary. totally. no! we play it because it's funny!"

The card art is not the realistic kind seen in "first-person shooter" video games like Grand Theft Auto and Doom 3; instead, the crude stick figures of "Let's Kill" resemble idle, notebook-margin doodles. One of the victim cards is even a reference to Nephew's wife: Michelle, the Sadistic Game Editor. But for Franey, the childlike simplicity of the game is part of the problem. "It's absolutely creepy," says Judith Franey. "This is the kind of art used by children. This is offensive. This is not satire. The modeling and the message are everything, and I worry about the impact it's going to have."

Nephew answers
The argument is absurd, Nephew says. "It amounts to saying that Monopoly teaches people to become heartless, predatory capitalists, driving people into bankruptcy through brutal mortgages."

Nephew's company is also an award-winning publisher of children's games, including "Once Upon a Time," featured in GAMES Magazine's Best Family Card Game section in 1997. Players create a story together, using their cards to steer the narrative toward their own happily-ever-after ending. "It's a fantastic game because it varies tremendously depending on who you play it with," Nephew says. "If you play it with a group of ten-year-old kids, the stories are light and imaginative and wonderful. If you play it with a group of college kids, they tend to be bawdy and funny." "Once Upon a Time" is even used in classrooms as an education tool, exercising students' reading and language skills and fostering creativity, he said.

With Atlas Games' catalogue of more than 200 titles, Nephew says, it's easy to take a select few out of context. Most of his games are sold in stores that cater to serious hobbyist gamers, the kind who spend hours recreating the battle of Waterloo with meticulously hand-painted miniatures. In other words, Nephew says, not exactly the kind of places children are likely to frequent.

But one of the criticisms leveled against "Let's Kill" concerns its packaging, which appears to state that the game is "suitable for ages 8 and up." It should read 18 and up, Nephew says, but an error caused the numbers to be printed on top of each other. A closer look at the game's box shows that the number one appears to be superimposed over the eight.

"This is not a game you'd accidentally buy for your kids. Even if the blood spatter on the box and the game's description didn't give it away, we don't sell this kind of game in children's stores," Nephew says. The product description on the Atlas Games website reads "For mature audiences only" in bold capital letters.

Other reactions
Reactions from city council members have been mixed. "It's a pretty sick premise for a game," says Council Member Erik Hjelle, a Cave/Rokke supporter. "I think it sends a pretty poor message to young people and people in general that this is an acceptable fantasy." Council Member Will Rossbach, who with Nephew led primary voting, disagrees. "These are stick figures doing imaginary things," he says. "The controversy is being drummed up by people opposing John Nephew. He's being picked on. If this is the only thing they can find to diminish John's reputation, he must be a pretty good guy."

"This is a manufactured issue designed to deflect attention away from the real problems facing Maplewood," Nephew says. "It's a naked political distraction. There's been a serious effort to confuse people and turn them away from the polls, because if voters show up, they're going to vote for change."

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