[Marxism] Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Racists, Slavers and Nazis?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 4 13:07:36 MDT 2019


NY Times, Aug. 4, 2019
Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Racists, Slavers and Nazis?
By Kevin Draper

In the continuing explosion of tabletop board gaming, there are numerous 
World War II games in which players get to be Nazis. There are American 
Civil War games in which players take the role of the Confederacy. Some 
of these games confront the victims of the Holocaust and enslaved people 
head on; most don’t, though of course they’re right there if players 
choose to look.

But even poorly designed games with war themes often get the benefit of 
the doubt. They are generally created and played by people deeply 
interested in history. They prize accuracy over fun. Most games in this 
genre are accompanied by extensive reading lists and explanations; 
players often treat them as a way to learn that is more engaging than 
just reading a book.

Scramble for Africa was a new strategy game — what is called a 
“eurogame,” to contrast the genre with war games and more 
confrontational luck-based American board games. In it, the player would 
“take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward 
exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural 
resources,” as the game’s description put it.

And with that, Scramble for Africa became board gaming’s entree into the 
very particular, sometimes confusing and very of-the-moment culture wars 
of 2019.

The great message board flame war

As a creative medium, board games are fundamentally different than film, 
theater or literature. While all great art is deeply engaging, the 
audience for those media are mostly bystanders. Watching “Schindler’s 
List” or reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” are different experiences 
than plotting like a Nazi in a board game.

The real life scramble for Africa was the pillaging of much of the 
African continent for its resources and its people.

Under Belgium’s King Leopold II, between 1885 and 1908 in what is now 
the Democratic Republic of Congo, historians estimate that anywhere 
between a few million and 10 million people died because of starvation, 
disease, murder and a falling birthrate.

It is largely recognized as one of history’s most bloodthirsty 
occupations. (“The list of specific massacres on record goes on and on,” 
Adam Hochschild writes in “King Leopold’s Ghost.” “The territory was 
awash in corpses, sometimes literally.”)

The Belgian colonizers were unusually barbaric, but the rule of the 
other European countries that carved up Africa differed only in scale, 
not in kind, across a wide swath of the continent.

Joe Chacon, the designer of Scramble for Africa, was accused of not 
treating this situation with appropriate seriousness. In his game, the 
savagery that was part and parcel of that exploration seems to be dealt 
with in minor and trivializing ways. The players must put down 
rebellions, and can slow their opponents by inciting native revolts. 
Random events include “penalties for atrocities” and rewards for ending 
slavery. Butchery is gameified.

Soon after the game’s announcement in February, debate played out across 
thousands of posts on BoardGameGeek, the hub of board gaming on the 
internet.

“The Holocaust could be a topic for a resource management game, but most 
people would rightly see that as reprehensible,” one BoardGameGeek user 
wrote. “The Scramble for Africa, as a historic episode, was marked by 
exploitation, chattel slavery, and brutalization of a racial group that 
their oppressors often considered lesser humans.”

“People deciding for you what historical topics you can and cannot 
play,” another countered. “That is called censorship.”

Some arguments were on topic and persuasive. Most were not. There were 
rhetorical appeals and quotes — many cited thinkers like George Bernard 
Shaw, Robert Heinlein and Heinrich Heine, accurately or not. There were 
frequent invocations of censorship and the First Amendment, and 
rejoinders that the First Amendment applies only to government actors 
and this was simply the free market in action.

There were slippery slopes, faulty analogies, straw men galore and the 
gleeful identifying of said fallacies that is endemic to any message 
board flame war. There were trolling posts, insulting references to 
“social justice warriors” and analogies to supposed censorship taking 
place on YouTube and Facebook.

Eventually, after a thousand posts — hundreds of them deleted — the 
largest thread on the game was locked. “At this point, the only thing 
happening is old embers being reignited, and now we’re definitely 
veering political,” a moderator wrote.

Sprinkled among this debate, however, were novel and provocative 
questions about who designs games, who plays games, whether games are 
art, which viewpoints are represented and what responsibility games have 
to historical verisimilitude.

These ideas have been at the heart of critical examination of 
literature, music, theater, film and even video games for decades, even 
centuries, but have only begun to be discussed in board gaming.

Can you cancel a board game?

Gene Billingsley, the owner of GMT Games, the game’s publisher, 
responded to the criticism by pulling the game, two months after its 
announcement. “It’s clear to me that the game is out of step with what 
most eurogame players want from us, in terms of both topic and 
treatment,” he wrote in an email to GMT customers. (Neither he nor the 
game’s designer were willing to discuss the game and their experience 
with The New York Times.)

Most eurogames are designed to maximize the gameplay, or mechanics, with 
the theme an afterthought. A common criticism of many games is that the 
theme feels pasted on. With such little attention often paid to the 
story, the ranks of historically inaccurate or outright racist modern 
games are lengthy.

In the game Puerto Rico — for a long time ranked the best board game 
ever by BoardGameGeek users — brown pieces called “colonists” perform 
the roles that enslaved Taíno people did in Puerto Rico in real life.

In a game called Manitoba, players are Cree clan leaders, yet the game 
prominently features totem poles, made by Native American and First 
Nations peoples who lived thousands of miles away. (The Italian game 
designers of Manitoba have defended the inaccuracies, but also said it 
was their German publisher who chose the theme.)

And then there is King Phillip’s War, a game about a particularly bloody 
17th-century conflict between European colonists and indigenous tribes 
in what is today New England. After the game was released in 2010, 
Julianne Jennings, an anthropology professor and member of the 
Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe, organized a protest over it.

John Poniske, the middle-school social studies teacher who designed that 
game, said he doesn’t believe any of the people who objected to the game 
ever saw a copy of the rules, let alone played it. “I would wake up 
every morning to more comments from around the world,” he said. “It was 
fascinating, and it was also kind of scary.”

Mr. Poniske, who has created a number of games about lesser studied 
battles and wars, said he designed King Phillip’s War because the 
conflict was so influential, yet so little known. “It led to the 
foundation of today’s special forces,” he said. “It caused more 
casualties than any American war per capita at the time. It led directly 
to colonial protests.”

Despite firmly disagreeing that there is anything offensive about King 
Phillip’s War, Mr. Poniske said the episode made him think more deeply 
about the effect of his subsequent game designs. There are themes, he 
said, that he wouldn’t design a game about, like the Holocaust.

Making sense of the colonizer

One of the best-selling strategy games of the last few years is Eric 
Reuss’s Spirit Island, in which players take the role of different 
spirits who cooperate to defend their fictional island against colonizers.

Mr. Reuss said he designed the game in reaction to Puerto Rico and 
others that celebrate colonialism; in Spirit Island the pieces 
representing colonizers are white, a choice that inverts the assumption 
that light colors are good and dark colors are evil.

Mr. Reuss believes Scramble for Africa would have passed without 
widespread criticism if it had been published years ago, and he is glad 
people are talking about its shortcomings. “Having a contentious 
conversation about it is still much better than however many decades ago 
when there wasn’t even a conversation,” he said.

Most board game reviewers recite a game’s mechanics and how it is 
played, seeking only to answer the questions of whether it is fun and 
worth buying. Few critically analyze games or ask what they are 
attempting to say. The hobby is still small enough that negative reviews 
are often regarded as personal attacks on designers.

“One of the odd things about the board game world is you don’t have 
anything like a mature media,” said Cole Wehrle, the designer of a 
number of well-regarded games about British colonialism. “There isn’t 
really an infrastructure for this conversation.”

Brenda Romero, the designer of Train, an educational Holocaust board 
game — called “the board game no one wants to play more than once” — 
pointed to an evolution in video games. There is still a dearth of 
mass-market games with art house bona fides, but there is a thriving 
indie scene with award-nominated games about cancer and the Syrian 
refugee crisis. Developers now expect their games to be dissected and 
criticized.

That doesn’t mean change, diversity and criticism were always welcomed 
with open arms. Female video game designers and critics in particular 
have been harassed and subjected to death threats, and much of the 
online discussion surrounding video games is toxic. Many video games and 
the associated YouTube culture surrounding them remain entry points for 
disaffected young men who become far-right radicals.

The board game hobby — especially in the United States — is 
overwhelmingly white and male, though, anecdotally, that seems to be 
changing. Mr. Wehrle and Mr. Reuss said they see more women and people 
of color playing games and attending board game conventions.

The ranks of board game designers, however, is changing more slowly. 
According to one study, 94 percent of the designers for the top 100 
ranked games on BoardGameGeek were white men. This perhaps explains the 
viewpoint many games take. Their designers can more readily identify 
with the European colonizers, and not the colonized.

As long as Americans and Europeans dominate board gaming, themes of 
colonialism will likely abound. “You can make a game about anything, but 
you have to be responsible for the things you make,” said Mr. Wehrle, 
the designer.

Mr. Wehrle described board games as “little sympathy engines” because 
players directly embody a role. Designers should question whom they have 
players sympathize with, and why, but he believes they should still make 
games with difficult themes. “There is value to letting players 
sympathize with a position that is morally objectionable, as long as it 
has some larger payoff,” he said.

In his game An Infamous Traffic, about the opium wars in China, Mr. 
Wehrle believes he achieves the payoff by juxtaposing sobriety with 
absurdity.

Players act as British merchants colonizing and becoming wealthy from a 
repugnant business, but they only score points by dominating the London 
Season, a sort of prestige competition among aristocrats to host balls, 
win regattas and dress the fanciest. (Mr. Wehrle has a doctorate in the 
literature of British colonialism, giving him a leg up in navigating 
this tricky balance. )

He believes Scramble for Africa was a failure because it lacked a 
similar, or any, payoff. “The story of globalization in the 17th to 19th 
century, that is the story everyone is already taught in high school, 
especially the West,” he said. “So when playing a game about that period 
you are not learning anything about it — you are re-enacting it.”

Meanwhile, in Africa

In most of Africa, strategy board games are not a regular pastime. 
Kenechukwu Ogbuagu is trying to change that. Mr. Ogbuagu is a board game 
designer, publisher and organizer of the first board game convention in 
West Africa. He also runs a board game cafe in Abuja, the capital of 
Nigeria.

That one person can do all of those things, that one person needs to do 
all of those things, speaks to how far board games are from being 
popularized in Nigeria.

Mr. Ogbuagu wasn’t aware of any board game scene in the Democratic 
Republic of Congo and none of the tens of thousands of active users on 
BoardGameGeek say they are from the country. But he did know of board 
gamers in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Egypt and Kenya.

While Mr. Ogbuagu imports some games from Europe, his designs 
incorporate Nigerian themes because Nigerian players find those easier 
to relate to, he said. His game Irin Ajo features the geography and 
politics of Nigeria; Safe Journi is about uniquely Nigerian obstacles 
encountered while traveling.

“We want people to know that we make games too,” Mr. Ogbuagu said. “Even 
Nigerians and Africans can be in games.”



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