When I was a kid, I never really thought about the larger context of the games I played — and I’m sure few of us did! Life and Monopoly were standards on my table, and even as I got older I didn’t consider the world they represented — bringing society’s history and standards to cardboard and game pieces. There’s really very few games that aren’t inspired by the world around us in some way. Humans take what we know and see and infuse that into our art, be it structured like games and TV shows, or more esoteric forms like performance or even painting. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I started to see these biases and flawed representations pop up in games — having studied anthropology definitely pushed me in that direction and having the chance to discuss games at conventions and on social media really allowed me to start thinking more critically about themes like colonialism.
Digging into this a little more, it’s fascinating to consider the way we engage with games and their representation of our world and our history. We can learn as we play — about values, about history, about ourselves. The intersection of these things is particularly relevant when considering games with thematic overtones of colonialism. What are the values we’re experiencing with games that represent this? Whose history are we encountering? And more than any of that, are we learning things about ourselves as a visibly white group of hobby gamers? I feel that we can truly start to change the narratives of games if we understand these things better.
Most of us are unable to grasp the enormity of colonialism’s past. It had — and still has — devastating repercussions for Indigenous groups worldwide and led directly to the trade of enslaved peoples. Land, people, and culture were taken, erased — or worse. Colonialism has been driven by empire and power from many places — primarily from Europe, and mainly out of Britain. Having lived long-term in two Commonwealth countries, I’ve seen the impacts of colonialism and how it continues to this day. I’ve thought about its impacts in the board gaming hobby, not just as far as games themselves go, but more broadly, and wanted to sit down and examine that.
I’ll begin by dipping into what really drove colonialism historically, but my primary focus here will be examining the depth to which imperialism via colonial forces dug itself into the world and — yes — even board games. I want to examine the ways that colonialism is portrayed in games, how they represent the participants (willing or otherwise) and how we as players are influenced by all of this (likely as descendants of settler-colonial families). My aim here is to interrogate these points to gain a better understanding of the pervasiveness of the genre in tabletop gaming and what we can do to critique that as game enthusiasts (be you a maker or a player), and hopefully see a positive change in the gaming world when it comes to these ideas.
At historic times of expansion and invasion throughout the world, the contemporary narratives of biological essentialism and social Darwinism allowed the powerful to see other races as “meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value”1. These narratives were acted upon by means of colonial expansion and violence. When taking a look at basic definitions of colonialism, much is couched in terms of “the conquest and control”2 of other people and their resources, widespread throughout our history. But more than that, it primarily affects people and their cultures, imposing “the colonial power’s culture and customs onto the colonized” as a result of a believed superiority3. Borit et al4 cite McLeod, looking specifically at the form of control that colonialism takes when it comes to the settlement of people somewhere new. Although related to a mobile video game, Euteneuer’s5 note that “settler colonialism is not relegated to single, definable events, but … [a] continual process in which settlers seek to expand their territory at the expense of indigenous lives and their ancestral connections to specific places” is a key consideration. Colonialism as a process and a structure, even if not in its historic form, is still alive and kicking here in 2021.
When we look at how games are imbued with the idea and act of colonization — either tacitly or otherwise — in gameplay and theme, it seems quite clear that they represent either historic or modern concepts of society and Western values, and their default ‘superiority’. Not only this, but the very nature of “winning” in a game with a colonial theme is very in keeping with the idea of dominance over others. In examining three games with colonial themes (Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago) to determine if they were representative of “real” life, Borit et al4 found “all the actions and options in all these games seem to match a real-life situation or action, relevant in a colonial setting.” There is certainly a discourse in these games that represents history, either literally or figuratively, and we are not that far removed from the historic reality being represented. We see games normalizing what is, in modern times, a deeply hidden ideology5 that allows colonialism to go unquestioned.
So, why do we celebrate it and re-enact this sort of historic dominance via board games? What allows us, as a relatively white group of hobbyists, distance ourselves from the history and real-life impacts of colonialism, in which many of our ancestors took part while “convinced of their own superiority”6? How successfully do we even distance ourselves? I’ve heard the refrain, “it’s just a game” more times than I can imagine when I critique a game’s theme or narrative, and the impacts it may have on players (especially their view of others in the world). These impacts may often not be realized, given the disconnect between what’s seen as play and real, history and the present. The action of play is not inherently violent or oppressive, but there are connections there that we can’t ignore. It can also signal to others what our values are, and our willingness (or not) to consider the consequences these games and values have.
Humans are built to play. It’s integral to our development as children to learn social interaction, appropriate behaviour, and morals. When you look at folks (of any age) and think “they’re just playing, having fun, not being serious”, they are likely learning and changing as you observe. And yes, we play often for entertainment — but there’s usually more going on under the surface. Play is recreation, which “is also re-creation, the dramatization of the inherent values of society.”7 Games produce meaning and influence us, whether we realize it or not. Bogost8 calls this ‘procedural rhetoric’, or “the art of persuasion through rule”. When we consider the idea of “history written by the victors”, we’re persuaded by games to perpetuate this skewed view of many shared years of human history. Not to say that this is inherently bad — but we must acknowledge that we have a great deal of incomplete perspectives in many of the games we play. We are in many ways not offered the opportunity to acknowledge that, in the context of the games themselves.
Of course, playing games with colonial themes does not indoctrinate players in a way that drives them to pursue that activity outside of the game itself. We don’t use these games as a guide to our behaviour (generally speaking). But we can’t ignore there is an implicit acceptance of the act and results of colonialism by our playing of a game without a critical eye. In the broad field of postcolonial game studies, “there have been a number of … well-argued discussions of games as play-training in the value systems of empire.”9 Players aren’t taking land, or committing genocide of Indigenous peoples — they’re pushing cubes and playing cards. But make no mistake — if we don’t acknowledge the context of the setting of games like these, we are allowing ourselves to ride our privilege past problematic representations of all of the people of history.
So, we rarely see the actual horror and violence of colonialism portrayed in games (Colonialism likely an exception to this rule). Rather, “the emphasis is typically upon individual achievement, with thematic goals such as building, development and the accumulation of wealth”.10 With few exceptions, most games about settling and colonising (from the very surface level of titles like Catan and Small World to the deeper cuts of more “serious” games such as Mombasa and Goa) do a number of things to disconnect from how visceral and long-lasting colonialism can be. There is what is known as a ludonarrative dissonance at play, “moments in which a game’s story is seen to be at odds with the underlying mechanics of the game itself”10. While listening to a recent episode of the podcast Ludology it became more apparent to me that this is what I’m seeing so much of in board games with heavily colonial themes (and the idea certainly inspired me to write about this generally). Indeed, Borit et al4 muse that having this dissonant experience, or “inviting players to engage in an incomplete re-enactment of a morally questionable past through the eyes of the stereotyped colonist,” influences our experience of the world and its history in the very one-sided, “written by the victors” way.
Before I wrap up this first part of my discussion, I want to consider the way that myself and other “board game media” writers/critics approach these sorts of topics. For a variety of reasons, there are usually few criticisms of colonial themes in games broadly speaking in reviewing and other formats of media. While the “it’s just a game” refrain is the one I hear at the table, it’s more likely that I hear “keep politics out of gaming” when I take an opportunity to look at a game through a critical lens – not just about its gameplay, but also its theme. Interestingly, “unlike critics of other forms of popular culture such as movies, books, television shows, and music, game reviewers tend to depoliticize computer games”6. I see this mirrored in content on board games, more and more. We can’t be complicit and silent if we want to see a shift in the genre of Eurogames. We have to bring light to games that are trying to make a change, and that do something different. When we critique the things we love, it’s because we want to see them improve and flourish. And I really want to see that happen in tabletop gaming.
Having considered the interplay of games and players, I believe it’s worthwhile to move on — to take a step back to view specific themes and games, and their designers, in this overall discussion. I have by and large explored colonialism in games, but would like to not only tease that out further but also look at how board games themselves / the gaming hobby have been colonized. Thank you for your interest so far, and I hope you will return to read the follow-up to this meditation on colonialism in, and of, board games next week.
[Part 2 can be found here.]
Header image: Imperial Federation map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886, from Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.
1 Kendi, Ibrahm X. How to Be Anti-Racist. Penguin Random House, 2019.
2 Loomba, A. Colonialism/postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.
3 Butt, Daniel. “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 892-898.
4 Borit, C, et al. “Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago.” Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 17, 2018, pp. 1–40, DOI: https:// doi.org/10.16995/olh.211
5 Euteneuer, J “Settler Colonialism in the Digital Age: Clash of Clans, Territoriality, and the Erasure of the Native.” Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 14, 2018, pp. 1–24, DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.212
6 Osterhammel, Jürgen & Frisch, Shelley L Colonialism : a theoretical overview. M. Wiener ; Kingston : Ian Randle Publishers, 1997.
7 Scott, JKL. “Dissuasion, Disinformation, Dissonance: Complexity and Autocritique as Tools of Information Warfare.” Journal of Information Warfare, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2015, pp. 25-42.
8 Bogost, I. Persuasive Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.
9 Murray, S. The Work of Postcolonial Game Studies in the Play of Culture. Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 13, 2018 pp. 1–25, DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.28
10 Woods, Stewart. Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
I would like to acknowledge now that I live in Tkaronto, on the ancestral lands of the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Anishinabek Nation, including the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and it has been their land since time immemorial to today. I am aware as a white settler colonial here in Canada, and in my home country of Australia, I am the result of a problematic part of history. I will do all I can to push for reconciliation and reparations.
If you want to find out whose land it is you occupy, I encourage you to look at the website Native Land to learn more. If you’re interested in reaching out to Indigenous groups in your area, there are a number of resources linked to from that website. You may also find womens and youth groups in your area — family and youth organizations are a great first step of reaching out, especially if you’d like to make donations of board games.