Theme non grata

In the late 90s Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker starred in an action-comedy called Rush Hour. It was the story of Detective Inspector Lee (Chan) and Detective James Carter (Tucker) having to bridge their personal, cultural and at times lingustic differences in order to solve a kidnapping case. In one scene Lee enters a bar and greets the bartender by copying the words he has seen Carter use earlier: „What‘s up my n—-a?“. Naturally a brawl ensues afterwards. It‘s a case of dramatic irony, since the audience is aware of the offensiveness of the phrase, whereas Lee is utterly oblivious to it. The scene hinges on the bartender neither realising nor accepting that Lee has no idea what he‘s saying. (There are some problematic metalayers to this scene, too, that I don‘t have the time to get into here.) Regardless of what Lee, the bartender or we may or may not know, the phrase remains offensive.

Colonialism is a theme that continues to be used in board games. To a large extent, this is because most players are utterly oblivious about it. Within the context of a game it becomes a way to play out some approximation of history in an exotic location (or time). If you have even a rudimentary understanding of colonialism, these games feel decidedly different to play. Colonialism is a violence driven by racism and greed, which exploits and destroys other cultures while reliably commiting all kinds of crimes against humanity. In a colonialism-themed board game you win, if you get the most victory points.

The punch-up that Lee is drawn into in Rush Hour after his ignorant remark is as good as can be expected from a Jackie Chan movie. It‘s a very dynamic and inventive fight sequence. It‘s well-crafted and entertaining. In other words: it‘s fun. There‘s even a gag at the end, as Lee leaves the bar and slaps a cigarette out of a bystanders hand, with the admonition that it‘s „bad“. You might say it ends with a valuable moral lesson.

Sometimes similar moral lessons are incorporated to make the use of colonialism in a board game more palatable. In Endeavor – Ages of Sail, you lose victory points, if you have engaged in slavery and slavery has been abolished by the end of the game. The game gives you reasons why slavery should be unappealing to players. The benefit of this approach is that at least it doesn‘t justify such practices as an economic necessity. On the other hand, it also repackages them into a question of cost-benefit, downplaying its awful nature. Slavery becomes a bad thing, because it costs victory points and might threaten your victory. Ultimately, any attempt to express disgust or contempt for an action by employing rules is bound to reduce it to question of simple mathematics. Doing so subjects any board game theme to banality.

Action-comedies of the 90s didn‘t hold back when it came to killing off characters. About 30 people die in Rush Hour. Other movies of the time, like The Fifth Element or True Lies, have twice the body count. Still, 20 years ago I found Rush Hour quite entertaining. But that‘s not because me or the millions of people who watched it, were deeply ignorant. It also wasn‘t because we were indifferent to other people‘s suffering, or even that social values have decayed and turned us all into brutes.

Every medium, whether it‘s film or games, is made to fulfill a function. That is how it is used and understood. With books we distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. We perceive films differently when they‘re called dramas or documentaries. The same could be said for any of the countless sub-categories and genres. We use some for our entertainment, and others to educate ourselves; to learn, understand and engage with lived experiences that is different to our own. Games don‘t quite seem to fit into this broad pattern. They seem to do a little of both. We learn and are entertained. We are amused by them as we absorb facts.

This is often the last argument that is brought up to legitimize the use of problematic themes in a game. A game isn‘t just mere entertainment, it also uses its mechanisms to explore its theme. History is supposed to be communicated. The largers forces that shape society are supposed to become tangible and visible this way.

But any game that places as into the role of virtual historiographers needs to present a picture of history that matches our thus raised expectations. It also puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of its creators to do conscientious work. More than that, the toxic beliefs that any era of history carries with it mustn‘t be blindly reproduced. Colonialism is deeply racist, but that doesn‘t mean its ideology has to be valid within the game. The competitive character of colonialist games invariably leads to a tacit justification of slavery, since its benefits might help you win the game.

History is trivialized when we only understand it as the backdrop to having fun playing a game. It becomes a danger, once we start to take this step for granted and do it uncritically. But I do believe that there are ways to oppose such a development. First we need to divest ourselves of the notion that games are an inherently trivial and superficial pastime. We have to normalize the idea that the content and the context of a game is part of our critical engagement with it. There is a wide spectrum that ranges from games that aim to educate and those that aim to amuse. It should go without saying that we have to evaluate a game like Freedom The Underground Railroad completely differently than something like Munchkin.

But it is also necessary for us as players to no longer accept certain themes, unless they are used responsibly and conscientiously. Just because a game is fun, doesn‘t mean that its chosen theme can be redrawn as an exotic, care-free backdrop for us to play around in. Games do not require us to slavishly reproduce historical events, but at the same time they mustn‘t be used to temporarily rewrite history to make it more comfortable to consume for us.

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