To tap the potential that historical systems have to offer, we must be willing to step on fragile ground.
The strategy game genre has long featured elements that mirror or model colonization, including many of its inhuman components. The Civilization franchise, for example, explores the process of colonization as players settle foreign lands, occupying territory forcibly from “barbarous” natives. Up until Civilization V, the series also included slavery. Perhaps Firaxis removed human bondage from the series to avoid discussing such a sensitive issue distastefully. Sid Meier’s Colonization does the same, which Trevor Owens of Play The Past rightly criticizes: “If someone wants to play a game where they replay the colonization of the Americas shouldn’t they have to think about the history of slavery as well?” ("Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is It Offensive Enough?", Play The Past, 23 November 2010). Should we shy away from potentially intriguing and evocative historical systems?
Owens makes a compelling argument that Colonization should actually be more offensive. While I agree, this article is not about Colonization. Yet it is about slavery and what a particular game, a board game in fact, can teach us about the risks and rewards of modeling historical events in games.
Endeavor is a strategy board game sprinkled with various genre elements like worker-placement, resource management, and territorial warfare, making the game stand out amongst its kind. Designed by Carl De Visser and Jarratt Gray, Endeavor is well loved amongst the board game community -- and for good reason. The game is easy to learn but offers a good deal of contextual and legitimate strategies, though these are strategies that make mastering no easy feat. The board is also somewhat randomized, allowing for great variability over many play sessions. As the rulebook describes, players “must strike a balance between cultural, political, industrial, and financial gains,” engaging in colonization and warfare along the way.
Endeavor’s game board is broken into seven world regions connected by trade routes and featuring various cities that players can occupy during the course of the game. Each region in the world contains at least one stack of cards that players may optionally draw from on their turns based on the amount of cities or ports that they occupy in that region. As players expand their empire, take cities, and progress along four tracks representing industrial, cultural, financial, and political power, they gain glory. The player with the most glory at the game’s end wins.
Like many strategy and resource games of this type, Endeavor is a race. To build ever stronger buildings, players must progress up the industry track by taking industry tokens off the board and having cards with industry values in their tableau. With a limited number of industry tokens on the board, progress along this track is painfully hard. This is where slavery comes in. Slavery has its own stack of cards sitting prominently in the game’s starting region. Since every player begins the game in this region, any player can draw from the slavery deck to give them an advantage as they move into Endeavor’s colonization phase. As each slavery card is drawn, the preceding card becomes even more powerful, making slavery even more lucrative.
So Endeavor incentivizes players to engage in slavery. Indeed, the game constructs an absolutely pragmatic view of slavery and its economics -- and a sanitary one at that. Because the slavery deck is located in Europe, the slaves have no connection to the colonized world, they essentially come from nowhere. Accordingly, race plays no part in the system of slavery that Endeavor models. The faceless cards have no personality, bear no marks of abuse or malnutrition, and cannot die on any leg of their journey. Aside from the shackles marked on each slavery card, their presence reveals no sign of the atrocities etched in the flesh and minds of millions of slaves. They are property and no more.
Deplorable, right? Well, yes and no. Interestingly, Endeavor also models the abolition of slavery. At the bottom of the slavery deck lies the “Abolition of Slavery” card that eradicates the use of slaves for all players. If this card is ever drawn, all players lose their slavery cards and the rewards that came with it and must adjust their score along each track accordingly. This card can cripple those players who rely to heavily on the use of slaves. Each slavery card removed from a player’s tableau in this way also counts as negative glory at the end of the game. When history looks back on the deeds of slavers, the game suggests, the glory of empire becomes diminished.
Of course the abolition of slavery is no easy task. In order to draw the abolition card at all, a player must occupy five cities in the starting region, many of which likely seat opposing players. Thus, the abolition of slavery requires force. The empire relying heavily on slavery can also fight back. Slavery as an economic system becomes entrenched in the game's world and demands a great deal of effort to remove.
Nevertheless, Endeavor still sets morality aside. The abolition of slavery provides the abolitionist a powerful card while simultaneously undermining the strength of opposing players. Again, slavery and its deconstruction are economic, not moral, concerns. In fact, there is no reason that a slaver can also become an abolitionist purely for selfish gains. Is this ethical game design?
On one hand, Endeavor simplifies and sanitizes slavery, asking players to understand a historical process removed from its moral implications and personal cost. On the other hand, Endeavor captures some aspects of the economic system underlying slavery during the 18th century quite well, including the economic incentives some abolitionists had for eradicating slavery -- a significant but often overlooking component of the abolitionist movement. One could argue that Endeavor may act as a supplemental and engaging learning experience for those interested in the mindset of empire builders at the time.
Not matter how you look at it, this is brave design. Rather than couch Endeavor in a fictional world set thousands of years into the future in which spacefarers enlist robot sentinels to colonize uninhabited worlds, the designers chose to model historical processes with a surprising amount of complexity. The game may be offensive, but I prefer a work that we can criticize and learn from than a game that pointedly avoids touchy subjects out of fear. I want to bring my own morality to a table or a screen and engage in material that piques my interest and even makes me uncomfortable.
In his piece on Colonization, Owens states “If a game is to enable us to see the world as a European colonial power, particularly one focused on commodities, it needs to incorporate triangular trade. Can you imagine how powerful this would be?” I can. But to tap the potential that historical systems have to offer, we must be willing to step on fragile ground.
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