Last year, Bruno Cathala released the hugely popular Five Tribes and received accolades and positive reviews from all corners of the gaming world. Not everyone was enamoured with the game though. For many, the inclusion of slaves in the game was a big turn off which made the game too unpalatable to play, no matter how fantastic the actual gameplay might be. The issue sparked some interesting and fierce discussion across the internet, but this is not the first time the subject of slavery in board games has come up for debate.
At the time of writing this post, the board game Puerto Rico is ranked as the fifth best board game in the world (according to users on boardgamegeek.com). The game is so popular because it hits the sweet spot of combining elegant design with deep strategy. For many people, it marks the pinnacle of Euro-style board gaming. However, it’s in the theme and narrative of the game that we find controversy. For those who are unfamiliar, the object of Puerto Rico is for players build colonies on the island of Puerto Rico, to grow and export crops, to make money, and to earn victory points to win the game. A key part of the game involves bringing “colonists” to the island to work on the plantations and buildings. Notice the use of the word “colonists” here and not “slaves”. That’s because slaves don’t appear in the game at all. So why the controversy?
The problem for many comes from the fact that renaming slaves to colonists doesn’t remove them from the game, or from the historical setting in which the theme of the game is firmly placed. Slave ownership was a reality in the colonial era in which Puerto Rico is set and so by trying to avoid the subject, the game simply draws attention to itself. There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate, but what the issue highlights is that many gamers feel uncomfortable with the honest portrayal of slavery in games.
In a recent blog post entitled Postcolonial Catan, Bruno Faidutti discusses how almost all board games with any kind of historical narrative offer a romanticised, caricatured presentation of their theme. But is this a bad thing? Bruno Faidutti says not, but Luke Turpeinen in his blog post Representation & Theme presents a compelling argument that board games are often culturally insensitive or outright racist because of the western / European viewpoint through which they tell their story.
There are of course games with historically accurate representations of theme, perhaps most notably Freedom: The Underground Railroad. In Freedom, players take the role of abolitionists and play cooperatively to try to further their cause whilst freeing slaves from the south and help them find their way north to safety. It’s a unique game, and a great example of historical honesty in a board game theme, but it differs from a game like Puerto Rico in that it’s narrative is firmly presented from the point of view of the slaves and abolitionists. You never get to play as the slave owners.
Bruno Faidutti discussed his ideas in more depth on a recent episode of the Ludology podcast. Here, he suggested that board games have a duty to be fun for players, and that it was acceptable to present a sanitised vision of the theme if it means keeping the game more fun for people to play. This raises some important questions though. Do board games always have to be “fun”? Other forms of creative expression such as art and music have long played around with ways to challenge people, and are often unafraid to make people feel uncomfortable in order to communicate a certain idea or concept, so why not board games?
The social, interactive nature of gaming means that we can really identify with the roles we adopt in the game. Playing a game as a slave owner could be a really powerful, if uncomfortable experience. It seems that we often want to shield ourselves from the fact that the people in history who committed appalling acts against their fellow human beings were people much like us. There’s a tendency to demonise them and to fail to see that any one of us is capable of barbaric acts given the right set of circumstances. This is an important fact to remember, it’s part of what makes us human, and an important part of how we can learn from history’s mistakes. If we dare to be more challenging and push players out of their comfort zones, games can play an important role in helping us connect with this understanding and give us a new perspective on both ourselves and each other.