A few days ago, the American magazine The Atlantic published an article about board games and their strange fascination with colonialism. Three games mentioned all manage to fail in their own way in dealing with the subject: Puerto Rico, Mombasa and Archipelago.
It is interesting to note how these games fail to meet the expectation of a critical audience. For example, Mombasa is criticized for its portrayal of the African continent as a resource-producing landscape without a population, history, or culture of its own. It is an uncomfortably euphemistic enactment of European colonial history. In other words, Mombasa is accused of making use of the exotic imagery and foreign ambience of an African country, but purposefully omitting all the grim tales of history that surround it. A closer examination of the theme is impossible, because – as the rulebook explains – it would hamper our enjoyment playing the game.
Since its release, Puerto Rico has been criticized for how it handles colonialism. Today, it is considered the go-to example far the tactless and tasteless way with which sophisticated game interaction is packaged into a rather indifferent approach to depicting slavery. The article mentions that the game was ranked #1 on the Boardgame Geek leaderboard for a while. Apparently because few boardgamers were that bothered by the fact that plantation workers were brought to Puerto Rico by ship. As if that were a perfectly normal, unproblematic economic transaction that exists beyond any ethical or moral dimension. Puerto Rico trivializes its theme because it merely serves as an atmospheric and exotic disguise for apparently interesting game mechanisms.
The last game I consider worth mentioning in this context – and which is also mentioned in the article – is Archipelago. The topic of colonialism is not ignored here, but – unlike in Mombasa – is a core element of the game’s concept. Nor is the expulsion and exploitation of the indigenous population embedded in the game as a value-neutral act – as in Puerto Rico – but has tangible consequences that players can’t ignore. The game’s illustrations, however, can’t escape the cultural background of the game’s creators. Thus, not only is the view of the indigenous population influenced by European imperialism; the selection of cultural references also seems arbitrary and without the care and sensitivity devoted to references to European cultures. For example, while the currency in the game is accurately referred to as “Florin”, the indigenous peoples encountered in the game are a crude mixture of different sources. Of course, games must always work with broad outlines, stereotypes and clichés, but when one group is carefully differentiated and researched and the other is not, this argument no longer holds water.
What all these examples have in common is that their existence and playability is tied to the ignorance of those who create and play them. Those who know nothing about European colonial history in Africa find it easy to overlook the omissions in Mombasa. Those who consider slavery – and its consequences – to be a long-closed chapter of history that exists roughly in the same haze of the past as “Pirates of the Carribean” can also easily focus on the game mechanics of Puerto Rico. Those who know the depicted cultures and customs in Archipelago only as ahistorical aesthetic devices detached from a culture of their own are not concerned with what they see when they play, but will look only at what they do.
Intentionally or not, ignorance is made a necessary requirement to have fun playing these games. This has worked well in some circles (and perhaps still does), but the more inclusive the gaming community becomes, the more critical it grows, the less game creators can afford or assume such low standards or lack of ambition.
As soon as you know anything about the history of colonialism, such a topic for a strategy game becomes deeply unnerving and unsettling. Precisely because it invokes a perspective and in some cases mental images that are at best racist and at worst brutal, violent, and cruel. As the article in the Atlantic mentions, as players you are asked to recreate an inhumane chapter of history, at least in your mind.
In some cases, this may be justified by the fact that play also includes a deeper examination of the game’s theme. In a way, this can be said about Archipelago. Here, one purposefully manipulates an indigenous population and workforce in order to increase one’s own profit. Similarities to real economic structures and patterns of behaviour are probably not coincidental. You’re invited to become aware of the exploitation and violence you enact over the archipelago’s inhabitants.
Unfortunately, this noble goal is undermined as soon as you notice what kind of game experience or knowledge accumulation the game’s mechanisms are designed for. They aren’t aimed at giving us a representative experience of what colonialism entails, nor are we supposed to gain a deeper understanding of the historical processes surrounding colonialism. In most cases, whatever the designer’s intent may have been, the goals of the people playing the game don’t follow.
We do not play a board game to learn about colonialism. The mechanisms clearly articulate their goal (e.g., collect majority of victory points). In most cases, players come to the table with the expectation of an entertaining and occasionally challenging form of competition. The fact that this competition is embedded in something close to actual history, is at most an aesthetic enhancement of the experience. However, it is not understood to be the goal or purpose of the game.
We don’t apply the game’s rules to learn about history, but to win the game. We are free to invent narratives after the fact, and then reflect on them earnestly and come to some clever-sounding conclusion about the game’s theme. This approach seems very en vogue with modern game criticism right now. But gameplay is rarely shaped by what meaning our (re)told stories say. We make our decisions according to real parameters, not according to some supposed statement our actions express about the theme.
This is not to say that a critical examination of a topic isn’t possible through the medium of games. A “serious” game genre could certainly be established that explicitly aims to convey a layered understanding of a given topic. But commercially available games are rarely promoted with how much we can learn from them, but how much fun they are to play. The kind of fun that players rarely examine critically, which is why we games can’t assume such an approach in their design.
This makes it necessary to avoid such themes for our „fun“ board games.
In turn, the question arises whether games should not also avoid other themes? If it is immoral to make a game about colonialism, isn’t a game about war or economic exploitation just as immoral?
But this question is based on the fundamental misconception that games, like movies, books, or TV, are cultural objects that affect and influence us as an audience. But games are not a passive form of entertainment. As players, we are directly involved in what they do. We perform an important part of the game’s content through our actions. We are the ones to connec a game’s setting to its mechanisms in the first place.
The actually issue with these games is that we usually accept their themes uncritically as part of the game world. We willingly and often intentionally abstract unpleasant and repulsive aspects out of our gaming experience so that we can concentrate on having fun. So you bring workers from a foreign country by ship to work on your plantation. It’s fine. There’s simply nobody on the African continent whose livelihood is taken away by our extraction of their resources. It’s not an issue. The past is that terrible after all. We Europeans have only made ordinary and reasonable decisions to achieve our economic goals. What’s wrong with that?
It is precisely this normalization of the idea that the past was an idyllic, romantic era, free of ethical and moral issues, that is so dangerous. It is a glorification of history into a simpler time, a place of refuge where everything was still okay. A world in which wise economic decisions, merely annoyed our competitors, and caused no one else any harm. A time when everyone knew their place, society was still sorted into winners and losers, and these roles could be determined through proven merit. In short, it make the counterfactual and unrealistic idea acceptable that things were somehow better in the past. For men and women. For white and black. For everyone and anyone.
To be clear, the problem with board games that deal with colonialism is not that colonialism is “misrepresented.” The problem lies in the fact that a critical view of this content and a rejection of glorifying depictions of it is still a fringe opinion and not an indisputable truism.
If anyone were to tell the story of the German autobahn in film and portray all Nazi involvement as respectable, hard workers, that person would rightly take a beating. No matter how entertaining, funny or exciting the story about the autobahn’s construction may have been told; anyone who would portray Nazis positively would not get far. Because we are accustomed to critically question the medium of film.
The critical perspective on board games has not yet reached this level. As long as we are not willing to evaluate and even reject board games because of their insufficient handling of their chosen topics, we cannot implement such themes in a game. In criticism, separating game mechanisms from their theme is no longer acceptable. A game’s setting and background must be examined just as critically and carefully as we do with mechanisms, gameplay and overall experience.
As long as colonialism in a game is not understood, seen and judged as such by players, such games are doomed to fail. No game with such content should be designed to be family-friendly fun, or considered such. It does not do justice to the real-world history these games refer to. But the gaming community should also have more self-respect than to settle for this type of thematic representation in games. We fail this medium if we accept these themes with a shrug, or worse edit, ignore or reinterpret unpleasant implications of a game’s theme because we don’t want our „fun“ spoiled like this.
Perhaps the only wrong approach to using such a theme is to believe that gamers do not want to be disturbed in their uncritical, good-humored enjoyment of the game. Consequently, the only wrong way to play such games is to willfully and knowingly ignore the dark and disturbing aspects of their themes so that one can enjoy the “actual” game.
But perhaps that is precisely what is so deeply European about playing those games.