The Daily Worker Placement

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Colonialism In and Of Boardgames, Part Two

by | published Monday, February 22, 2021

Welcome back! Or if you’re just joining us in this exploration of a considerably meta topic, you can read the first part of it here. What I primarily wanted to dive into there was the interaction of the player and games with colonial themes, and the impacts that can have on our understanding of the world. Games can be just play, but more often than not they will influence us more than we can know. Stepping back from the interaction between players and the game, I think it’s important to consider here the origin of these games and what that means for the way they represent colonial forces and those being colonized.

Generally speaking, “Eurogames often contain the problematic presentation of European expansionism without including the indigenous other.”1 Take a look at most games that include enslavement — most, if not all, include it as an boon, as a way to nudge players toward victory. The enslaved are merely a means to an end, which is in stark contrast to (most of) modern society post-abolition. Games such as Puerto Rico go so far as to use a euphemistic term (ironically, “colonists”) for the enslaved that were used to work the land under Spanish rule. The only game that comes to mind that includes enslavement with any sort of consequences is the recent re-release of Endeavor: Age of Sail

In a more broad colonial sense, there have been games like Santa Maria, where your colony’s success is measured via ‘happiness tokens’ — completely disregarding the upheaval of Indigenous peoples (barely represented in the game) and focusing on the triumph of the Spanish forces. One of the more egregious examples of the erasure of Indigenous peoples in a game set in a real-life place is in Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes. With nary a mention of the Sylix/Okanagan people, the game offers players (as colonisers) or those “willing to exploit it [the Okanagan Valley]” the chance to take the land and shape and use it as they see fit. Considering the expression terra nullius was used as justification by colonizing forces, the way a board game can pick a spot and consider it nobody’s land is unsurprising – it’s seen in a number of other games as well (for example Sierra West). Related is the “doctrine of discovery” which focused on the acknowledgement of existing peoples in these lands purely for the aim of converting them to Christianity – something that has come up in games such as Archipelago2. Once again, the superiority of one group of people being imposed onto another is slipped into a game. 

Game design of the particular genre of Eurogames is primarily undertaken by white designers who are European, or of European descent (see this amazing study of demographics by Tanya Pobuda). By the very nature of the people creating them — like any other piece of art or culture — they will be skewed to their perspective and life experience. Games become “media where cultural values themselves can be represented — for critique, satire, education or commentary”3. Whether overt education, commentary or otherwise, the colonizer’s perspective is inherent in games with colonial themes and overtones. We see, as Borit et al2 put it, “form of power imposed through discourse that excludes the colonial subject from negotiating his or her own identity” and the very nature of Eurogames containing “the problematic presentation of European expansionism without including the indigenous other”1. Without the presentation/representation of oppressed peoples from any perspective other than their oppressors, we’ll never reach out of the colonial bounds of board games.

The misstep of creating a game about an incredibly problematic period of colonial history in Scramble for Africa is a prime example of the absolute presentation of the conqueror without regard to the conquered. Interestingly, I’ve seen an example of a designer adding a game variant to include “natives” after the date of publishing — unfortunately, the existence of these people simply results in their conquering or assimilation. Where there could be thoughtful changes, there are just more colonial actions. A game like Colonialism takes a hard swing into the moral stance of colonialism as abhorrent, but again there is no positive representation of an “other” culture. Stepping outside of games themselves, there are even instances of the appropriation of non-white identities such as a board game designer who uses the pseudonym ‘Harry Wu’ (which could itself be a whole other discussion in addition to this piece). The closest I’ve come to seeing a game from a European designer about Indigenous culture that is remotely respectful is Wendake, which I wrote up here. Most of what we see in games with colonial themes is the othering, dilution, stereotyping and outright erasure of the identity of those Indigenous to the lands in which these games are set. (One interesting intervention into this is the ‘Unsettling Settlers of Catan’ project, which seeks to embody Indigenous peoples in the game of Catan.)

Board games, of course, are not comprehensive history lessons. And in most instances, they shouldn’t be. (Although I do want to start a “Stuff You Missed In History Class”-esque series about the missing history in games.) Game design distills concepts and ideas down into presentable and understandable forms. Trammel4 brings up the point that, “reductionism in the work of game design is often regarded as a necessary evil. Without reducing and abstracting social concepts into controllable and quantifiable game mechanics, it would be quite difficult to design games.” So, what exactly are we abstracting for it to be implied in board games? As we’ve seen, “the historical recounting of European expansionism is glorified in economic terms, rather than problematized in militaristic ones.”1 In their study, Borit et al2 found the Eurogames they analyzed to “encourage the Eurocentric depiction of colonial subjects”. Games are, by their nature, abstracted and often metaphorical. But it doesn’t mean they can’t be representative. As they are right now, Eurogames can not and do not effectively relate the complexities of history and continue to misrepresent the actions and results during times of overt colonialism.

There is a “comfort that stereotypes of race and social superiority” provide to colonizers5. We see this when colonists are presented as the higher culture, as more successful and more powerful in games — while we see an essentialist and Eurocentric view of the ‘other’ alongside it. A generalized Indigneous population for instance, or the euphemistic idea of using the enslaved as mentioned above, is often what we see in Eurogames — “one simplified figure that stands for or represents the essence of the people”2. The fact that players generally aren’t offered opportunities to change the powerful/powerless dynamic in games emphasizes that they won’t ever fully represent history fully. Robinson1 notes, “game design should change to reflect histories worth telling. Rather than shoehorning narrative content onto mechanics, these jarring and unexpected rule changes might just make the forgotten and unexpected parts of history all the more salient.” We can do better than the trite stereotypes on our shelves and taking on the role of the colonizer and those who took power in history. 

I’d like to take a quick moment to consider Spirit Island at this point. A “cooperative, settler—destruction strategy game for 1 to 4 players designed by R. Eric Reuss and set in an alternate—history world around A.D. 1700”, players act as spirits of the land, fending off colonizing forces. It’s terrific to see a game that posits colonizers as unwelcome, and for players to take on the role of non-invaders in this scenario – even if they are non-human. I have certainly enjoyed playing it, as it’s a solid design on top of that concept. But while it’s great to see a fresh take that flips the colonial invasion on its head like that, games that are about Indigenous people by Indigenous people are hard to come by in the hobby game market. The only two that are fairly available are Potlatch: A Game About Economics and Nunami, both of which were crowdfunded rather than picked up by a publisher. There have been a couple of smaller designs — a Life—esque educational game from Neeched Up games, and one community game called the Gift of Food — but nothing that has hit hobby shelves in a large way to balance out the numerous colonial titles. 

I’ve seen moves to diversify the board game design community, but there are still many barriers to overcome until we see the world reflected on our tables. We could all do with learning about the impacts on our world that colonialism has had. We could see game designers “familiar with post-colonialist theory might abstract other aspects of history to make salient those forms of Western oppression.”1 However, making respectful games is not as simple as a general consideration of other cultures or even cultural consultation. Although he was speaking about D&D, Trammel’s4 conclusion is that “multiculturalist design in role-playing games still reads as Orientalist and appropriative … It allows for a singular idea of the Orient, which is always already the object of violence, appropriation, domination, and conquest.” Where there are deliberate inclusions of particular cultures or parts of history for theme, there are others where it tends to be an afterthought. A good deal of traditional European-style games are often mechanism-first designs, and themes are often an afterthought. This can lead to problematic choices with a standard sort of colonial theme, much of the time. As our managing editor David notes, “designers who are more intentional about theme also tend to be more nuanced and critical in their choice and implementation.” We do see positive moves to include difficult themes, like Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Brenda Romero’s work such as Train, so I’m hopeful there can be a move to this in Euro-style games with colonial themes.

With all of the above considered, I want to pivot to a point of consideration at the end of this piece. Most of the games with colonial themes are historically-based, or set in a fictional past but with similar ideals and power structure represented. We live technically in a time after this, in a post-colonial period. But as I noted in my introduction, colonialism impacts many in the world today. Perhaps games being made during the modern era are post-colonial in nature (similar to post-colonial literature), but we are playing them and living in a neo-colonial context. That is, colonialism continues in a new form and “inherits the historical legacy of colonialism and presents itself in various subtle forms”7, versus the physical and economic control of the past. In the end, the distinction between these phases is academic. We continue to colonize the quote-unquote powerless by the way they are portrayed in board games. We (and I speak as a white settler-colonial person here) have and continue to colonize board gaming as a hobby and industry by not striving to break down barriers that enable a more diverse audience of players and designers to take part. I believe we can still enjoy ourselves at play, while learning and improving ourselves and genuinely welcoming everyone to our tables.

How exactly can we shake off the legacy of colonial-themed board games, and moreover, how can we encourage designers to approach the topic respectfully or to perhaps even look elsewhere for their inspiration? While I don’t think there should be an erasure of historical themes in games, we have the opportunity to discuss this more broadly. I’d love to see a panel at any number of the design conventions about this topic and what it means for the design, play and marketing of games. Those of us who write / make videos / podcast about board games can make the effort to turn a critical lens on a game’s theme where appropriate. A favourite reviewer of mine broaches the topic in his review of the Civilization-lite game Hadara, in what I think is a great inclusion in an overall look at the game itself. Make fellow players, game designers and publishers aware when you appreciate a theme that’s not reliant on trotting out historical atrocities. Instead of feeling guilt about these games, we can work to change our approach.

When I sat down to write about this subject, I didn’t want to simply state “Colonialism bad, ban colonialism from games.” I think it’s fruitful to examine the extent to which this theme has worked its way into a variety of entertainment media, and especially games. Understanding the complexity of how colonialism is represented in these things — from the basic erasure of Indigneous peoples in a game to the horrific enslavement of a people to further a powerful white culture — can help us understand their impact. The harder we try to appropriately represent these things in our games, the more meaningful and unbiased they’ll become. Let’s not forget – we’re all looking for a bit of an escape and some fun. That can be serious, of course — but we can get so much more creative with the inspiration for games. And that will lead us to diversifying games and the people who play them in more ways than we can imagine. 

——— 

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. 

———

References

Header image: “Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 Robinson, Will. “Orientalism and Abstraction in Eurogames.” Analog Game Studies, Vol 1 Issue 5, December 2014 DOI: http://analoggamestudies.org/2014/12/orientalism—and—abstraction—in—eurogames/

2 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 

3 Bogost, I 2008 

The Rhetoric of Videogames. In: Selen, K (Ed.), The Ecology of Games, pp. 117–40. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

4 Trammel, Aaron. “How Dungeons and Dragons Appropriated the Orient.” Analog Game Studies, Vol 3 Issue 1, January 2016. DOI: http://analoggamestudies.org/2016/01/how—dungeons—dragons—appropriated—the—orient/

5 Bhabha, H. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

6 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

7 Qiao, Guoqiang. “Introduction to A Critical Response to Neocolonialism.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 20.7, 2018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7771/1481—4374.3328

Further reading

Ancestry and Culture — an alternative to race in 5e. Eugene Marshall

Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice 

Analog Game Studies

What are we playing at? (A look more at the 4X genre of games and colonialism)

And viewing! Efka from No Pun Included released a great video about colonialism in board gaming last week and I encourage you all to check that out. 


12 thoughts on “Colonialism In and Of Boardgames, Part Two

  1. Avatar Thomas Romanelli says:

    Nicole,

    A fine finish to your commentary from part one, I hope you mind that I referred a number of friends from our gaming group to your article. A couple of suggestions along the lines you had proposed:

    1] This is an evolving conversation that needs to include all the stakeholders so meaningful changes can be enacted and embraced- a cultural shift that signifies “buy in” from designers, publishers, retailers and consumers. Agree that panels should be organized for GenCon, GAMA and similar broad venues.

    2] The Zenobia Award was recently formed to encourage designers from under-represented groups to contribute to the industry with their own, unique perspectives. I think more mentorship programs like this are needed.
    https://zenobiaaward.org

    3] You noted a couple of independent designers who launched projects on KS- I think it would be great if KS (which is a PBC) would support minority creators by waiving the typical 10% fee (as an example).

    4] I believe a diversified boardgame industry will benefit everyone, in part by bringing novel experiences and ideas to the table (literally, in this case!). Gamers usually like to try new things (settings, mechanics, etc.), and bringing a new genre of “post-colonial” games is likely to be embraced if the predominantly caucasian demographic that plays these games isn’t “shamed” for the games that exist now. I sincerely believe that most of comments that have criticized articles like this for being “overly woke” or “it’s just a game” have been made from an instinctively defensive position- one in which a typical gamer is perplexed as to why their hobby activity is being viewed as “wrong”. There’s a fundamental difference between playing a game as an experience, and endorsing the historically distasteful actions within it.

    Thanks so much for this article! 🖖

    • Avatar admin@dailyworkerplacement.com says:

      Thomas – thanks so much for reading and commenting. I saw the info about the Zenobia award last week, it’s awesome to see. Let’s hope we can start to get buy-in from the industry on all these things.

      -Nicole

  2. Avatar Jeremy Robinson says:

    Very interesting conclusion to a very interesting article. I found your observation that we are playing colonial games in a post-colonial world – or from a neo-colonial perspective – particularly intriguing. I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that we take the modern nation-state as our default position. It makes sense if we think of history as primarily a story of nations in competition with other nations, but it inevitably places those cultures which lacked the ability (or the desire?) to achieve recognition as nation-states on the Western model in an inferior position. This worldview is so firmly ingrained that in the video game Civilization series, they are only able to include entities like the Iroquois nation as “players” by transforming them into Western-style empires. Otherwise, other entities are given permanent second-class citizen status as “city-states.” I wonder if the key to solving the “colonialism problem” in board games isn’t de-centralizing the nation as the default entity, but it’s certainly far easier said then done.
    I too hope the community continues to explore these ideas in convention panels, etc. For now, I’m just happy the topic is being explored rather than tactfully swept behind the curtains.

    • Avatar Jeremy Robinson says:

      To explore this further, one of the central problems with the portrayal of colonized peoples in most games is that there is no way for THEM to win the game. The player is competing with others “like themselves” and the colonized peoples are merely one means to that end. Whether you conquer them or trade with them, exterminate them or support them, they are the side characters in YOUR story. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a game in which mishandling relations with the locals could result not just in you losing out to your competitors, but all of you losing to the game instead. I suppose this will invite accusations of lack of historicity and cries of “but that’s not how it happened,” but the narrative of Western dominance is only true on the macro level. There were plenty of instances of arrogant and overconfident Westerners being shown the door due to their ignorance of conditions on the ground… we just don’t focus on those moments because we haven’t emphasized them in our own study of history.

      • Avatar admin@dailyworkerplacement.com says:

        Thanks for all of your thoughts on this, Jeremy! Much appreciated. It is interesting to see that most instances of colonized peoples are generally in games as “reactionary” – like, in a local uprising as a result of colonial invasion, etc. Narratives in so many games just focus on the colonial activities and there isn’t any room for the story of how it impacted local peoples. I’d love to see something meaningful from the perspective of colonized peoples, but would absolutely want their input to the development of the narrative and game.

        thanks,
        Nicole.

  3. Avatar Jeroen says:

    Hi Nicole,

    Great set of articles! Thanks for your observations!

    Two (solitaire) GMT games came to mind: Navajo Wars and Comancheria. Have you looked at either of them?

    Thanks!

    • Avatar admin@dailyworkerplacement.com says:

      Thanks for bringing those to my attention, Jeroen. It’s interesting to see the games from an Indigneous perspective. I have to wonder, having not played or looked at the games in detail, if they are properly representative of the experience of the affected peoples. Perhaps having those people involved in the development of these games could shape them meaningfully. Or perhaps they’d rather focus on games about their cultures and not just the interaction of them and colonizing forces. It’s quite a topic to consider, with a lot of moving pieces. Thanks for your comments.

      -Nicole.

  4. Avatar Doctor Casino says:

    Great pair of articles, thank you! These issues have been on my mind for several years; it’s great to see them being interrogated and unpacked in a serious way.

  5. Avatar Wanderson Souza says:

    That summarizes in an extremally elegant way a thousand of thoughts I have been recently working for a possible academic article about diversity in Board Games. As a Brazilian gamer I live in a country that has an extensive colonial history and was one of the last places to abolish slavery. However, we consume colonial themed games with almost no criticism. That is such an important topic to bring to light. Thank you so much for your writing.

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