What’s there to say about Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico will be released in an revised edition this year. The fifth one in total. The reasons for this revision are the same ones that were voiced when Puerto Rico released its first edition. Despite, or maybe because of, its very entertaining rules design, its theme is unacceptable.

Puerto Rico has become the poster child for board games that refer to real history in a thoughtless and sometimes tasteless manner. It shares this dubious distinction with many other games (Secret Hitler, Santa Maria, Mombasa, etc.). But outsiders point to Puerto Rico because it is widely known and still well-respected within the gaming community. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people might suspect the game to be a symptom of a larger underlying issue.

The game puts players in the shoes of plantation owners in Puerto Rico, at a time when slavery was one of the ways to be economically successful. Handling this elephant in the room (or cowpat on the Sunday table, for our rural readers) is the game’s greatest flaw.

You simply can’t ignore Puerto Rico’s theme. The editors at Ravensburger and Alea are also aware of this and are again trying to address the issue. In its latest incarnation Puerto Rico adds the subtitle 1897 and includes further changes. The intent behind these revisions is valid and commendable. It’s fair to want Puerto Rico to be a game you can put on the table without convincing others that it’s really, really fun despite its theme. It’s also fair to make it a game you can enjoy, even if you have the faintest idea about Europe’s history of colonialism. Ignorance is a bad prerequisite for having fun.

To that end, the publisher brought in cultural consultants as well as artists of Puerto-Rican descent. While this is a step in the right direction, it does suggest a superficial understanding of the issue in my opinion. The discussions surrounding appropriate use of themes seem to be driven by a sincere, passionate but not very incisive understanding of themes. I’d argue that this is based on the flawed belief of what a theme actually does, how it affects the experience and what a theme quite explicitly doesn’t do, when the game is on the table.

A theme is not a narrative. A theme is also not a statement. It is not a worldview that a game promotes. A theme is first and foremost a canvas for players. When it comes to games, however, a “canvas” has an additional quality I want to lay out here.

In order to create a theme, games use images. Not in a figurative or metaphorical sense, but literally. Artists, illustrators and graphic designers are paid to create images that form the visual identity and, to a large extent, the theme of the game. Beyond simple questions of aesthetics (“Is this beautiful or is this ugly?”), these images also have a technical function. They serve as a mnemonic aid to the rules of the game. When experienced gamers note that the theme vanishes after a few plays, it only proves that the images helped them memorize the rules and that this memory aid is no longer needed. Moreover, these images enrich the experience and invite the players to use their own imagination to give the actions they take more substance.

More importantly, though, is what those images are not: a narrative. If you are somewhat familiar with the humanities, you might now be pulling a face akin to having your parents over as you are loudly interrupted by the “physical exercise” of your newly-wed neighbours. But a game’s imagery is not a narrative. The can be part of a narrative (or more than one even), but they do not constitute narratives in and of themselves. *

An image is first of all just an image. The image of a ship is only an image of a ship. Just as the image of a plantation is first just an image of a plantation. It is only when we begin to perceive these two images within the context they are in, that they are given meaning. The image of a ship with which one brings wooden tokens (“workers”) to an image of a plantation has a completely different meaning than the two images taken on their own. What or how much we see surrounding the image itself makes the difference here. When it comes to a game’s theme, what’s found around the images that make up the theme is fairly obvious: it’s the rest of the game. Above all, its set of rules.

We understand the game’s images in their relation to the rules. They provide the frameing and imbue these images with meaning. The rules make us have a positive or negative attitude towards terms, images or even people in the game.

This interplay can best be described as fiction. They are relations that were invented for the medium and are also only valid within this medium. The man with the grey beard and the glowing staff in the Lord of the Rings film is “Gandalf” and not Sir Ian McKellen in make-up and costume. Even though we all know it’s really Sir Ian McKellen in make-up and costume. Within the film, it’s Gandalf. Once the film is over; it’s Sir Ian McKellen. As long as we know that Lord of the Rings is not a documentary, we can distinguish reality from fiction.

A game’s theme describes the elements that make up the game’s fiction. It is the images, concepts and occasionally people to which the rulebook assigns functions and properties. In the context of our play experience, we link these with positive, negative or even neutral impressions.

Out of this a narrative only emerges when theme meets activity. This should also be apparent. A medium provides its narrative only when it is used as intended. The narrative of a game therefore unfolds from play, i.e. the interaction between theme, rules and players.

The theme of a game is not a canvas because it is “empty” or “blank”. It is a canvas because the players, through actions and observing context, add meaning to the game’s theme and thereby create a narrative. Theme is a prepared canvas that is predisposed towards some narratives more than others.

So to deal with the problems that arise from a game’s theme, you have to examine the narratives that the game allows for. That is why changing the colour of the wooden discs in Puerto Rico did not change its predominant narrative. That is why, in my opinion, a more precise depiction of historical circumstances will hardly contribute to a rehabilitation of the game. It is the players themselves who set the context in which they perceive the game and create a narrative from the theme that the game offers them.

I consider this to be the central misunderstanding when we talk about about acceptable themes in games: a game’s narrative isn’t interpreted by its players, but actively formed by them by making use of the various elements of the game.

A game like Puerto Rico isn’t rehabilitated by simply being more accurate with its historical references, running illustrations by cultural advisors or adding texts and essays to the game that explain the historical background. Instead the potential narrative players can glean from the game must be examined and considered. Visuals and historical references to the real Puerto Rico are only part of it. We must also consider the rules, the perspective and context that players perceive the game in.

A publisher can influence theme and rules directly, but the perspective from which game groups view Puerto Rico is much more difficult to change. For some, Puerto Rico will always be a game in which you get rich by owning slaves. It remains to be seen whether Puerto Rico 1897 can offer a narrative that is more immediate and obvious than this one.

* When we speak of narratives in the humanities, we we don’t simply mean stories, but also ideas and concepts on which we base our understanding of society, our norms and values. Referring to individual images as expressions of such narratives is difficult to verify or falsify. It is mostly just possible.

A game’s narrative on the other hand, can be analyzed and evaluated on its own. We can even approach it from different perspectives. Naturally, games are always a product of larger paradigms, narratives and cultural discourses. But a game’s narrative is worth analyzing and evaluating, even if we aren’t looking at it from a wider, more encompassing cultural lens.

As a comparison to more established media: every film can be looked at in relation to issues of gender identity. But not every film must be situated in a larger cultural tapestry in order to warrant careful, critical analysis. Films have enough substance on their own to justify analysis and evaluation.

The same is true for games. We don’t have to address larger questions before we can look at games seriously as cultural objects and critique them accordingly. These questions are valuable because they enhance our understanding and deepen our engagement with the game. But they are not at the heart of critiquing games.

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