Problematic themes in Boardgames

Moderator Level 1

This post is inspired by a very brief interchange about colonialism in games. u/ithayla very rightly called colonialism gross. I certainly don't want to come across as defending colonialism, or nazism, or war, or..... But, he did touch a bit of a hobby horse of mine in regards to theme in boardgames. And, u/ithayla, I am not calling you out. I don't think what you said is wrong. I am merely using it as a springboard.

I furthermore recognize that this is a sensitive topic. I don't really want to offend anyone, and if you think I am wrong I am happy to engage in civil discourse with you. Also, in terms of themes, I will mostly discuss it in light of colonialism. There are many many other themes that are potentially objectionable that we could discuss. For instance.... Pirates, Slavery, Viking pillaging, Playing the wrong side in a war simulation...... 

The first thing that I think we need to realize is that there is bound to be a fair amount of subjectivity in regards to theme. I find certain themes gross, zombies for instance, so I never seek out games that have that theme. I have even avoided games because of that theme. I don't think that zombies are wrong per se, I just don't personally enjoy imagining or playing with/against them. This is a subjective opinion, much much different than the atrocities which were commited in the name of colonialism, much evil was done in the name of progress. People sometimes want to say themes they don't like are bad. That is not my what I am writing about here. My question is, "Is it bad to have themes based on regrettable parts of history?"

The thing about many of these things is that they happened. Colonialism did happen, and I have no desire to deny or justify it. Real people did really bad stuff to real people. But here is the thing with colonialism in particular. Real people did it. It wasn't some sort of ga'ould inhabiting the minds of men that took control and made them do what they did do. It wasn't like there was a Darth Vader directing the forces of colinialism against the poor rebels. No, these were real people who did awful things. I think that even the most abstracted Euro with colonialism as it's theme, even if it "glorifies" it is a profound reminder of the human condition. You might say that these themes are problematic because they justify atrocities. Here is the deal, the atrocities were justified, just the way they are in the games. When I play Puerto Rico I can see that the driving force of colonialism can be expressed in a formula.

Selfishness+Belief system that justified Selfishnes+Power to do what you wanted to= Colonialism

And, at the risk of sounding political, the reminder of the atrocities that followed this, is profoundly relevant for those of us who are citizens in a first world country.

Furthermore, while I don't want to justify colonialism, I don't think that the colonialists arrived to native peacefulness in most cases. I live in El Salvador, a country profoundly, and mostly negatively, impacted by old colonialism, and new ways colonialism is working today. One thing I enjoy doing if I have some time off is visiting Mayan ruins in Central America. I see the beautiful pyramids, they are a wonder. I see the alters for human sacrifice, I reflect on how these wondrous pyramids were built without the assistence of domesticated animals. In fact, they were built with slave labor, for human sacrifice. Is that better than the conquistidors? I don't know that it is, nor do I think it is worse than what the conquistidors did. 

Maybe most people are different. When I play a game, or read a book that is even loosely based in a historical time I must look into that time period more. So, I appreciate when a designer or offer engages with a historical period, even in the loosest possible sense. If he "approves" of slavery, or genocide, or other horrible things in his design, it is a reminder of how depraved ordinary humans can be, if he judges it harshly, it is still a teaching opportunity. 

So, I want mister Pfister to continue pumping out games about colonialism, It is great that we have games about Robbery, or Piracy, or...... It is a continual teaching opportunity for me and for those that I play with. Furthermore, I appreciate these things taking place in the "real world" the world that we recognize when we look at a globe. Far, far, to often designers are justly afraid of putting objectionable themes in their games, so they hide their genocide, not in colonialism but in space etc..... This, frequently, neuters the teaching opportunities inherent with building the theme in a world where we can see the results of the mistakes that the people in the game made.

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Partner21 months ago

I think you are entirely missing what the actual objections to colonialism in games are. its not that games are made about the theme, its that they sweep over the theme, they ignore the darkness, they present the colonizers as heroes and the colonized as either invisible, or totally lacking in agency. 

Its not that colonialism is something that games shouldn't do. it's that they present such a distorted lens on a complex issue that it causes upset and annoyance. They are like wargames, if only one side got to act and the winner was which one of the different general on the victorious side completed the most maneuvers and collected the most postcards from visiting different towns. Utterly warped. 

They buy into a 19th century viewpoint of the world, of "Fatal impact" and lack of agency among colonized people. Of racial and societal superiority and cultural darwinism. 

It's not colonialism that offends. Its the erasure of actual colonialism and the romanticism of the colonizers POV that does. 

Moderator Level 121 months ago

I hear you, and I agree that the romanticizing of "great colonizers" is as objectionable as colonialism was. But, I still maintain that those do offer valuable teaching opportunities. 

If you push the theme to space, it will probably make it more palatable. BUT it will continue championing, and maybe to a certain extent fostering the cause of colonialism. Fictionalizing it does not justify the attitudes behind it. 

I do think that the idea mentioned earlier about haveing sensitivity reader to help guage the suitability of the theme could be a good idea. Because we do need more games that engage Wynn these issues in a more thoughtful manner. 

Partner21 months ago

But the teaching opportunities just reinforce the misconceptions. I'm sorry, but games like Marciabo have all the teaching value of "intelligent design vs evolution". The board game which asks you questions about evolution, and then gives you biblical quotes as to why evolution is wrong. All they teach is ignorance. 

All you are learning in most colonialism games is that white people are real people who make decisions and do things, and brown people are resources, inert and passive and have stuff done to them. As i said above, they present such a skewed, European primacy POV that they actively work against education.

Most colonialism board games are as educationally useful as a US civil war documentary that never mentions slavery and just says "for reasons of domination the north invaded the south, and the south were the good guys defending their homeland from invasion". 

Moderator Level 121 months ago

The games themselves I don't coartar se being educational. Rather, they offer opportunities for you or for new to teach about the evils that occurred and how to this day the peleles are whitewashed. 

Supporter21 months ago

This is an interesting topic. While I’m not personally offended by Colonialism or other historical situations as themes I do think it all needs to be done with sensitivity as has been stated. I appreciate the game publishers that have  taken the time to write a bit i the rule book explaining their approach to the theme of the game and acknowledging the situation and not condoning the actions of the times.

Stoll I don’t see many publishers going this route because, they want to sell their games to a wide audience. The same game themed as a space exploration  game will probably end up selling more. 

Premium User21 months ago

This is a thought provoking topic.  I started reading a history book recently (I can't remember the's but a Jill somebody) but it's on US history and takes a more...mmm...honest look at some of the "colonistic" behaviors that contributed to the founding of the US.  

I would imagine there are games out there that touch some sensitive areas and I try to be sensitive to bringing games to the table that might be difficult for anyone at the table.  That being said, I'd avoid a game on slavery, or trafficking, and while not a board game, games like Grand Theft Auto and those of a similar ilk I have shied away from because I find the theme unsavory.  I realize it's a fantasy realm but I also try to be sensitive to what I want my kids to play or see me playing.  Even for the notion of broaching a topic with family members I might struggle to go that around a game as playing a game could communicate a lack of importance around a topic that I would consider heavy.  So for instance, if there was a game about building a wall to keep aliens in Texas I would immediately draw a political parallel and might avoid such a game both because it would make me uncomfortable as also because it's a little to close to home for many or our friends and neighbors.  

I have to believe though that I am probably blind to many offenses I might inadvertently cause due to my own ignorance and so would extend grace by default to game designers and their chosen themes.  I would not assume they intended to cause offense by a game theme purposely nor would I condemn the game itself.  I have not played Secret Hitler but would not feel offended to play it nor think the designer meant ill will toward any peoples in choosing such a theme for his/her game.  

I like Marshwiggle92's perspective on the teaching opportunities that might be present with certain games.  I can't say I recognize those opportunities very often but I like the idea of using a game to draw those out.

Moderator Level 121 months ago

I do like the point about how we probably do have blind spots that are offensive to others, and how we should recognize that others also probably have blind points. 

21 months ago

Authors use sensitivity readers if they are writing about something that they're not familiar with, such as different races and cultures. The same thing could (should?) be used with board games. I've got a lot of thoughts on this topic, but for lack of time, I'll refrain. In a nutshell, I do think there could be two games nearly exactly the same in terms of culture, colonialism, etc., and one could be totally fine to play and the other the very definition of racist, hurtful, etc. 

I think it depends on how it's approached. Perhaps I'll write a longer post when I have a free minute because I do enjoy discussing this, and it's good for us all to see where other people stand on the issue.

Moderator Level 121 months ago

I think I do like the sensitivity readers. And, please write a post. 

21 months ago

I think this can be a touchy subject for a lot of people. Being a white male who lives in SoCal, I personally don’t see or feel the effects of a lot of issues(regardless of time in history) that my close friends of color feel, such as: slavery, colonialism, gentrification, racism, etc. I’ve had some very deep and helpful conversations with my friends who are minorities about some of the things they face on a daily basis. Not just in movies, commercials, interactions with people, but even in board games certain themes or concepts may evoke hard thoughts or feelings in certain groups of people. With that said, I do think there should be certain concepts to be avoided, though not all themes because really ANY THEME could do that. For instance, I wouldn’t exactly want to play a game centered on trading/selling people, however I would have no problem playing a zombie game (sorry @marshwiggle92 haha). A gray area would be games that deal with guns in general. I am completely fine playing these games, but in light of the many shootings here in the States, this may make some uncomfortable. Do I not play this game because of another’s conviction? No, but I will probably avoid playing with that individual.

Whether we see it or not, and regardless of how far removed we are from particular moment in history, these things shape the lives of people around us. So on a personal level, I can’t control what designers are putting in games, so I have to be mindful about what I am buying. Second, I have to realize some designers from other countries have a completely different perspective on life and history than myself so I need to take that into consideration. Third, I need to know my audience/who I’m playing with. Because I have deep friendships with people of color there is no way I would even own a game that would buy and sell people. This may again evoke issues that started from not moments, but systems constructed overtime by people, that were used to dehumanize others throughout history. These moments and systems still have their ripple effects today, therefore games dealing with human value in a realistic/historical setting should tread lightly, because if not they might very well continue to perpetuate the problems previously mentioned.

hopefully that made sense haha

Moderator Level 121 months ago

There are lines that I draw. I also will not buy a game that is just about buying and selling people. Though, I will buy games that have slavery as in colonialism. Maybe that is a double standard. 

I guess my view can be summed up as saying that history is profoundly important. The USA is the country I am most familiar with. I have lived most of my life in the rural US, I still own a house there and expect to move back at some point. BUT I do believe that we I in the the USA are in grave danger of forgetting the consequences of history. 

I am saddened when I see confederate statues being torn down in the southeastern states for the same reason I would be saddened to see the last remnants of the Berlin Wall torn down. Not because I admire the wall or the confederate generals, but because I believe that forgetting them and the wrongs that they committed dooms us to repeat them in some way. 

We need to be sensitive in subject matter with those we play with. I agree with that. And I try to take that in consideration the  same way I take game weight, or language issues into the consideration. But I do wonder if it wouldn't be more sensitive to play the game and wrestle with the issues the game or memorial raises. For instance, in the case of a memorial, could one not put a sign on the memorial that says something like, "Lest we forget the depths to which our fathers stooped." In the case of the game can the game master not say something similar? 

21 months ago

It’s hard because board games and statues/flags are very different media. For instance, one is in the confines of my home and has (hopefully) no ties to honoring bad moments of history. Whereas the other is a public monument placed for the sole purpose of honoring people and ideals of those bad moments of history. Though I think we could in some way “deface” the statue, I don’t think a sign would be enough. The sheer fact that a flag is flown and a statue remains is because those ideals are still embodied by so many people even if they may not own slaves or commit hate crimes.

But in regards to board games, even as one is not a liar because they claim to “be the villager”, I do not think one is supporting the ideals of the Nazis while moving a pawn from one place on the map to another. However, I would say the more microscopic action of trading slaves and maybe even colonialism is where it gets a little tricky even within a “closed system of ethics” because of its many implications regardless of a designers warning. This may sound a little harsh, but the designer at think it’s okay because they aren’t real people, however that is what they thought in real life with real people all those years ago.

I think teaching opportunities are necessary, however I think it would be much better not brought up because of a board game or statue, but rather by real life scenarios, simply because a game or object will at some level not connect to real life. It’s also hard to bank on these teachable moments while allowing a game or statue to perpetuate harmful ideals since there is no guarantee a conversation will happen, however the statue/flag/game will continue to do what it does in spite of that.