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Cultural Self-Aggrandizement Has Us ‘Playing Oppression’

In Playing Oppression, scholars Mary Flanagan and Mikael Jakobsson lay bare the colonialist origins of board games.

Playing Oppression The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games
Mary Flanagan and Mikael Jakobsson
MIT Press
February 2023

Games are more than just fun distractions. They reinforce cultural values and make us privy to specific modes of thinking. Those who have play board games might be familiar with traditional games (e.g., chess) or family games (e.g., Monopoly (1933) or Risk (1957)) and the feelings they create. Some of the earliest board games were used as educational tools and for enculturation in the service of empire. Modern board games are full of these imperial effigies and, unfortunately, are guilty of glorifying Western colonialist history and themes by placing players in roles of would-be world dominators and colonists.

Playing Oppression: The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games(MIT Press, 2023), written by Mary Flanagan, game designer and author of Critical Play (2009), and Mikael Jakobsson, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lays bare the history and perpetuation of these disturbing themes. The authors hope that Playing Oppression will be a step towards “…a reckoning of [our] colonial pasts, as well as a revitalization” of a growing hobby whose market is expected to be worth approximately $40 billion by 2028.

Some scholars, like French sociologist Roger Caillois author of Man, Play and Games(1958), see games as not having any concrete effect on our daily lives. Flanagan and Jakobsson argue against this view. “…Games cannot be set aside as they have been by past scholars… a game normalizes worldviews and values through representation, game actions, and logics”. The pervasiveness of colonialist and imperialist values in board games leads to situations where even players that do not subscribe to these views must accept these assumptions to play.

What Is Playing Oppression?

The creation of a middle class due to industrialization led to increased leisure time. As a result, more people play games. Modern board games originated in central Europe, with Germany being its mecca. After the Second World War, German board game companies prioritize creating Gesellschaftspeiles, games designed to be played and enjoyed by the entire family and focused on non-violent themes. This wasn’t the case only in Germany; globally, mass-market games tended to eschew any topic or theme deemed political. However, colonialist themes in these games persisted.

European board games are steeped in social Darwinist ideology. Many of these games present European civilizations as superior to those they encounter. Playing Oppression explores a history dating back centuries. Readers will be shocked at the findings presented in this book. Flanagan and Jakobsson studied over 900 games and performed research across the globe in international archives (including the Getty Museum and Bodleian at Oxford University). The games discussed within Playing Oppression were created between the 18th and 21st centuries, and all deal in certain ways with colonialism.

The authors express concern that the “most insidious colonialist games were released in the last two decades. In fact, the number of colonial-themed board games released each year is increasing”. Playing Oppression is an anti-colonial critique informed by the work of post-colonial thinkers Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Homi K. Bhabha.

Oppressive Play

Within its pages Playing Oppression mainly focuses on Eurogames, modern-day Gesellschaftspeiles that share certain gameplay characteristics: novel game mechanics, no player elimination, competition over resources instead of direct interaction between players, multiple strategies to win a game, and “somewhat arbitrary” themes. Through the themes and mechanics, many Eurogames are essentially contemporary colonialist games. They are more mechanically sophisticated and aesthetically rich than their predecessors. Their racism is also subtler, and according to Flanagan and Jakobsson, “patterns of othering, dehumanizing, whitewashing, exoticizing, Orientalism, and erasure persist”.

Eurogames present the opportunity—both through social interactions that they engender and through their design—for players to experience contact zones. This term, coined by scholar Mary Louis Pratt, illustrates “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they lived out in many parts of the world today”. Eurogames mythologize the explorer as an usher of progress, rationality, efficiency, and wealth. They also exoticize, tokenize and gamify history and serve the purpose of “cultural self-aggrandizement”.

As Flanagan and Jakobsson write, “the construction of the global Other still permeates both the narrative framing and the procedure logic of contemporary games.” The Othering of indigenous people is evident in how trade as a gameplay mechanic is utilized in games—trade is a prominent mechanic whose history during the height of Europe’s global empires is a popular topic in board games. One early example is Jeu des Échanges: France—Colonies (Trading Game: France—Colonies, 1941), which encouraged players to equate colonized places to essential goods.

Locations and people in games like Jeu des Échanges are devoid of context and culture. In the words of Flanagan and Jakobsson, these games “exist only as a playground for White adventurers to seek personal fortunes without any negative consequences”. Some games attempt to ‘remedy’ this by retheming or remaking the game’s art and including non-white player avatars engaged in the same colonialist ventures as a historical European colonizer. Flanagan and Jakobsson add that these games function as “…cultural simulacra of the European colonial era” with a politically correct facade.

Contemporary Games Play with Oppression

One of the most famous Eurogames is Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan (1995). A classic of the hobby that has sold tens of millions of copies and has become an entry point for many. The game is strategic, complex, and accessible. The themes and mechanics in colonialist Eurogames, like Settlers of Catan, unironically are presented as career opportunities for Europeans, specifically young White men.

There is a strong sentimental attachment and nostalgia toward games with colonialist themes. This attachment helps proliferate the colonists’ themes and Othering found in Eurogames due to designers and players wanting to play the games they enjoyed in their youth. Flanagan and Jakobsson elucidate, “Eurogames have borrowed heavily from the imagery, language, situations, and power dynamics of European colonialist thinking.” This is exemplified in Catan’s robber or thief, a piece in the game represented by either the color brown or black.

A widely used form of colonialist erasure in Eurogames is Indigenous peoples and cultures presented as obstacles or resources. Flanagan and Jakobsson state, “ambivalence and erasure of indigenous peoples is one strategy used by designers to gloss over the deep violence embedded in the colonialist endeavor while reveling in the productivity of the very same machinations”. These design decisions have led players to use indigenous peoples as tokens in games and unironically referring to this act as “burning 3 Indians”. Surely this is something designers did not intend on when creating their games.

Though some games offer different perspectives of roles and tackle difficult topics with levity, their play might be incompatible with certain subjects, especially when one considers individual experiences and how these games and their play “can add to the disparity of experiences between different players”. This is not to say game designers should avoid tackling serious topics—games, after all, are a serious means of interacting and learning about our world—but just like in other media, designers should think seriously about the topics they are trying to model with their games. Furthermore, players can, and sometimes should, decide not to play certain games they feel are not engaging with a topic sincerely.

That said, Playing Oppression does not aim to stop players from playing their favorite games but instead opts for the more constructive approach of giving readers a more critical and complete view of what they play. This is done to offer “a stepping stone for a greater movement toward a better board gaming future”.

Shifting Away from Nightmares of Mastery

Léopold Sédar Senghor, a founder of the Négritude movement and the first president of Senegal, envisioned a world beyond colonization towards “cultural independence” (Senhor, On African Socialism, 1964). Playing Oppression looks towards a future where games “…reinvent new models for play that eschew colonialist tropes, that reject narratives that whitewash history and romanticize trauma, without throwing out a beloved genre altogether”. New ways of thinking about players’ roles and themes in games have emerged and have gained increased popularity.

A new wave of games is fighting against “the hierarchies of domination and oppression embedded in many game systems and dynamics”. There are even a few that go beyond, like the tabletop role-playing game Coyote & Crow (2022), which takes place in a world where Europeans never colonized the Americas. This Guilty Land (2018) by Amabel Holland, Bloc by Bloc: Uprising (2022) by Greg Loring-Albright and T.L. Simons, Votes For Women (2022) by Tory Brown, and Pax Pamir (2019) by Cole Wehrle are games that “model power dynamics and hierarchies in ways that challenge the players from a number of angles”. These games are embedded with mechanics that allow players to experience varying perspectives, which are postcolonial and anti-colonial. Hopefully, this trend continues as more work remains to be done. According to research done by Tanya Pobuda in 2020, 93.5 percent of the highest-ranked games on Board Game Geek, the Internet’s hub for the hobby, were created by white men.

In a famous lecture, academic Achille Mbembe pronounced, “we… have to shift away from the dreams of mastery” regarding our fascination with power and empire. In Playing Oppression, Flanagan and Jakobsson argue that “board game audiences… will never be truly diverse until games’ rules, stories, and ideal players allow for diverse roles at the table”. Dreams of mastery are, for most of the world’s population, nightmares. Playing Oppression is an indispensable book that can aid game designers and the board game industry in shifting course away from the nightmare of colonialist themes in games.

Recommended video: Playing Colonialism – Board Game Ethics (YouTube)