Yesterday, the New York Times featured a thoughtful article by Kevin Draper on the growing debate within gaming communities regarding representation. The point of the departure was the controversy over Scramble for Africa, a colonialism-themed Eurogame that GMT Games was to publish, but later withdrew (see here for previous coverage of PAXsims).
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.
My favourite part of the piece is a comment by game designer Cole Wehrle:
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.
While the New York Times article is simply reporting on very real debates within the gaming community itself (and certainly did not urge censorship or indeed any particular position), the reaction in several online wargaming fora was predictably and depressingly hostile. Some were quick to decry this as yet another attempt by “Social Justice Warriors,” “Marxists,” or “globalists” to take away their beloved military-themed cardboard.
For another take on this issue, see our June report on wargaming and representation, wherein a piece in Vice by Rob Zacny provoked a similar barrage of angry online discussion.