Perspective is Our Problem: What Themes are Beyond your Pale?

We don’t talk about much in this hobby. We often socialize without talking much at all, and we intentionally avoid any subject we care about. The only unwritten rule of board gaming I’ve seen broken less than ‘don’t say anything someone else might disagree with,’ it’s ‘don’t get up and walk away in the middle of a game.’ I mean, it’s almost impossible to get The Gallerist to the table anyway. Why worry how your opponents feels about our shared responsibility for the ongoing torture of refugee children? Isn’t escaping reality the whole point? How dare I try to spread fake news while you are trying to draft?

I kinda know someone who works in the industry. Recognize each other but would still feel privileged to play a game with him. I have learned from him, and I respect him ideologically. I know he’s refused work because the publisher would not address the misogyny in their game. His take on the unacceptable/harmful theme question was something like ‘I can enjoy the mechanics of a game even if I find the theme offensive, unless it’s clearly beyond the pale.’ Which, for that Englishman, did not include themes of colonialism and slavery in the game he was then playing.

For most English, the horrors of colonialism and slavery are easy, even automatic, to overlook. This seems true of europeans generally. Some of them even argue that they had nothing to do with colonialism so they can make whatever games about it they like. Bruno Faidutti, (a giant among designers if such things exist), wrote an insanely long and cringey rant filled with arguments like: “for us, American Indians are historical figures, not contemporary ones,”  meaning that he can therefore depict first peoples however he wants. I know this history is alive in my life because I am filled with rage and shame at these themes in my family’s past. I still hate the english for driving my ancestors from our island with a casual genocide they now insist on calling a famine to camouflage the horror of their actions. I hate myself for my translucent skin, for the fact that there is a town in the rural south of Louisiana bearing my grandmother’s maiden name. I wake up every morning with the blood of generations on my hands. And this motherfucker says that the horrors of his ancestry are not beyond some pale. 

SUSD are an interesting contrast of Englishmen: they have explicitly addressed the horrors of colonialism and war and how problematic the way these issues are presented from in board games is. But, being English, they are also in their own way hypocrites. At best, they’re applying the same ‘beyond my pale’ test from a more progressive mindset. If you can call it progressive: there’s a weird hodgepodge of accepted common morality in board gaming I see most strongly in the embrace of pronoun ribbons contrasted with how outside the possibilities of reality having a black lives matter ribbon printed is. 

Here’s the best example, to me, because it involves me. And it’s meta! SUSD did a review of Conan, where they noted that the game has horrific gender presentation. They then explained that the publisher’s explanation for this, that they were being true to the source material, does not hold water. The Conan novels are incredibly racist as well as incredibly misogynistic. The publishers, however, had no problem stripping these racist elements out and replacing them with fantasy tropes. Which are arguably based in racism, but. 

Regardless, this showed that the publishers were happy to revise offensive source material. They did not keep the chainmail bikinis in because they felt they had to for veracity They left sexism in because they knew they could get away with it. They knew that an overtly racist game would be rejected by the board game community, but an overtly sexist game will only elicit that ‘not beyond the pale’ shrug from many? most? male board gamers. Excellent point, which they immediately undermined by being among those men, shrugging off the sexism and recommending the game explicitly in spite of it.

This is the heart of the conflict SUSD elicits in my breast. They offer some excellent social critique when reviewing games, but then totally that critique in their conclusions. I don’t know that they’ve ever reviewed a problematic game and denied it a recommendation because it was problematic. 

I’m grateful to them for letting me know what games will make me feel like shit for being mentally ill. At the same time, I wish they wouldn’t then shrug the terrible things these games say about me off with a SUSD stamp of approval. If the game has an insanity mechanic and all of the insanity cards are punishments with art that makes us look like criminals, and you recommend it, you’re throwing a middle finger at me. Or a reversed peace sign, for SUSD. Regardless, you can fuck right off too.

Why do I think that I’m in any position to critique this anyway? I’ve played Freedom, literally pushing cubes representing human beings around a board trying to save ‘enough’ of them from my ancestors to win. And playing to win in that game requires sacrificing some of those ‘cubes.’ A better human being than I podcasted her experience unboxing a game in which First Peoples were represented by red cubes and putting it away unplayed. I bought Puerto Rico, and when someone laughingly explained that the dark brown cubes had been called slaves in the first edition rules I still played it. Repeatedly. It’s a good game. A buddy started playing Endeavor Age of Sail without, somehow, realizing the theme, and started passing every turn after someone bought a slave. I admire someone so simultaneously polite and dedicated to principal, but am apparently not one of them myself. I love Spirit Island, an ‘anti-colonialist’ game in which the island’s inhabitants are literal pawns whose only hope for survival in the face of explicitly european imperialists are imaginary gods. 

Fuck Me. 

There is something about the interplay of theme and mechanics that helps us, as a community, ignore what the actions we take in games represent and what taking them means. We talk about the importance of theme in drawing us into a game without considering how it might drive others away. We assign slaves to plantations to grow indigo and steer slave catchers to ‘win’ abolition. We’ve got to try harder.  

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