Colonization in Games

As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday in the US, I thought this was a good time to reflect a little on my own cultural background. I grew up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. I am an enrolled Cherokee citizen. I inherited that right from my mother’s ᏥᎨᏒ side, through her mother, and her parents. While my dad doesn’t share this heritage by blood, his step-father and most of his extended family in Oklahoma are Cherokee as well.

As a kid, I once asked my mom why we celebrate Thanksgiving if the “pilgrims” did such bad things to our ancestors. She said that we celebrate still being here, being together, and we are thankful for what we still have. For a holiday with strong roots in colonization and tragedy, I think this is the best way to think of it.

So, now, let me explain how this relates to games. I’ll start with a story.

A Game Called “Cherokee”

When I was a kid, my Cherokee Grandmother ᏥᎨᏒ kept a set of glasses depicting stereotypical caricatures of Native peoples (you probably know the ones). As a kid, I didn’t think much of it. Just another weird knickknack in my grandparents’ home. As I got older and after they were gone, I wondered why my Mamaw kept such blatantly racist images in her home. They were, after all, depicting our people. Maybe it was subversive in a way. Maybe she found humor in the ridiculousness of it all. Maybe it was internalized colonization. Unfortunately, I can only guess.

Now, I’m a game designer. I design board games and educational video games as a profession. The modern hobby board game industry is vibrant, growing, and diverse… but it also has a huge problem with cultural stereotypes and appropriation.

A while back, I came across a card game called “Cherokee” by a Dutch publisher. I’ve seen a lot of terrible imagery in this industry and elsewhere, but this just took the cake. I’m not going to post pictures or a link, but you can look it up on BGG if you want.

It was so over-the-top that I couldn’t even take it seriously. The characters on the cards are exceedingly racist with exaggerated stereotypical features. Despite being about Cherokees, they include dreamcatchers, teepees, and totem poles – none of which are Cherokee. They simply included everything they could think of that screamed “Indian.”

Inexplicably, I felt like I had to have a copy. Unfortunately (fortunately), it was out of print.

Then I got a copy as a gift

Christmas 2020, Harley managed to find a copy and had it shipped from Denmark. It was every bit as terrible as I had expected it to be. I laughed my face off when I opened the gift.

In addition to the terrible imagery, I found that they included a “historical note” about the 7 clans and attributed it to the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokees, a fake tribe not recognized by the US Federal Government or other Cherokee Tribes.

Having grown up around Cherokee culture, I can laugh at this. I can look at this awful, out-of-print game and recognize the absurdity in it. That sense of humor, as anyone who has spent time around Native people will tell you, is a survival mechanism. In a world replete with harmful stereotypes and poorly understood history, sometimes all you can do is look at the ridiculousness of it all and laugh. 

However, my ability to recognize that absurdity doesn’t make it ok. Stereotypes like this are pervasive in the board game industry (not to mention film, TV, sports, and basically everything else).

And since it probably has to be said, stereotypes are harmful.

If you need an explanation of why that is, this article does a good job.

To be clear, this also isn’t an issue of “what offends me.” Rather, I recognize that this kind of thing slowly chips away at a culture. It turns ways of life and real history into a joke. It undermines people’s ability to live as they want, govern themselves, and teach their kids where they came from. If this game were in print, I would never support the company that made it. I’d speak out against them. Since it isn’t, I keep it on my shelf as a reminder.

“It’s just a game,” some might reply. And yeah, it’s a small thing in the grand scheme, but every flood is made of individual drops of water.

Colonization in Board Games

Obviously, there are a lot of games with settings of colonialism. Making a game that touches on the topic isn’t inherently wrong. Colonization happened and it is a theme and setting that can provide some rich concepts for gameplay. The problem comes when the vast majority of games using the setting cast the colonizers as the protagonists. 

I think this video does a better job explaining what colonialism is than I can.

As that video points out, this is not simply an issue of how colonizers impacted indigenous peoples around the world. Colonialism has always been a way in which world powers expand and extend that power on the world, including taking control of other smaller and weaker nations.

The vast majority of games that touch on colonialism or discovery do revolve around the interaction between European powers and indigenous peoples. They often depict those people as either enemies that must be dealt with, or worse, as commodities to be bought, traded, and manipulated for points.

One problematic way some publishers have tried to deal with this issue is through a technique called erasure.

Erasure is the concept of just leaving problematic things out of the discussion because they are problematic. Indigenous cultures suffer from erasure all the time. The doctrine of manifest destiny presented North America as a vast, uninhabited wilderness given by God to the American people, ripe for the taking. Of course, this is patently false. The continent was inhabited from sea to shining sea for thousands of years before anyone ever thought of manifest destiny.

Now, I don’t think most publishers are intentionally practicing erasure, but in an effort to distance themselves from the negatives of colonialism while still being able to publish some games they simply reskin them. 

Often by sending them to Mars.

Colonization in Space

If we simply move our colonization game to another planet that makes it ok, right? Or even better a planet with no indigenous inhabitants?

Well, no.

Retelling the same story of colonization in a new setting just reinforces the myth of manifest destiny. It doesn’t matter if you reskin it to space, or even another dimension, the core concepts are still there. This just perpetuates those ideas even further, reflecting it back into our own understanding of history and how cultures should deal with each other.

That doesn’t mean we need to throw out all games focused on colonization or discovery. Instead, as we design new games, we need to keep these issues in mind. It means we need to put our designs into a new narrative framework and think outside those old boxes.

There are so many concepts to explore with games.

  • What if people aren’t claiming land?
  • What if we experiment with non-capitalist forms of economics?
  • What if we experiment with collaboration as well as competition?
  • What if we built a new word based on new myths that don’t just perpetuate colonial ideas?
  • What if we look to the origin stories of indigenous peoples to inspire our move to other worlds?

There are so many stories to tell. Don’t just tell the same old tired story of colonization again. Our future deserves better than that.

ᎠᎵᎮᎵᏍᏗ ᎢᎦ, Happy Thanksgiving

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