I wrote a post last month about appropriation and amalgamation of indigenous cultures to use as board game themes. A short while after, I saw a new game, being brought to the United States by Cool Mini or Not, designed by Bruno Faidutti, Waka Tanka. This is a small bluffing card game with some sort of appropriated indigenous culture as a theme on top of it. Without knowing the context of the development process and the decisions made by the company or by the designer, at first glance it seemed like a hugely problematic board game theme. I was sent an article via Twitter (http://faidutti.com/blog/?p=4694) where Faidutti addresses these concerns and talks about why the theme was chosen. As a disclaimer, the post was translated from French and some of the words may have lost some of the original meaning of the post.
I think Bruno Faidutti is a great board game designer. He’s designed such games as the trick-taking The Dwarf King, the classic role selection Citadels, the simultaneous action selection Mission Red Planet, and much much more. I like many of his games and I think he is one of the best small card game designers. I looked forward to read his blog post about Waka Tanka, hoping to gain more insight into his decisions or the company’s decisions. Spoilers: I found nothing of the sort. All I found was frustration and anger. As I sat here and try to write a response to the article, I was little lost at where to begin.
“When I was thinking of fun themes for a bluffing game, I came upon the idea of animal sacrifice, and of priests slaughtering the wrong animal hoping that men and may be even gods, would not notice. I hesitated between ancient Greek temples and American Indian shamans. I choose the latter because cougars, eagles and bison are sexier than cows, hens and pigs, and would make for much nicer graphics.”
Uhhh… This is how to blog post starts out. The words hit me hard and left me speechless for a time. I do not know what I was expecting going into this post and the designer started off in my opinion on a slippery slope, talking about animal sacrifice without knowing the full extent of different beliefs and values of cultures he elected to use. He used those assumptions to formulate the basis of his theme and further, chose the one he thought would look better and sell more to his audience. Bruno Faidutti repeatedly uses the words exotic and exoticism in his English writing and I am not sure if this is lost in translation. Exotic has a very negative connotation when talking about non-European cultures and the fact that he picked this theme because the exotic nature of Indigenous culture would make for better art and a more compelling experience irks me.
I understand that a theme outside of the western-European realm makes for interesting and compelling games. Who wants to play another game about trading goods in Europe or Europe’s industrial revolution or about farming in France. There is a market for diversity and representation in games and the potential for many other to join the hobby because of better representation in games. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to diversify the hobby. In the book and publishing world, the controversy surrounding When We Was Fierce criticized an author, publishing company, and critics, for putting out a book, misrepresenting the black community by featuring a stereotypical and poorly written black main characters. Ultimately, the publisher delayed publishing the novel with the call from the book community for more books written from #ownvoices. There is no such thing in the board game world (#owndesigns maybe?). One person can call out problematic content and the game will still be published. We do not have a strong community of people who are vocal about the need for social justice, equity, and inclusion in board gaming, that we need more than diversity. In my opinion, the publisher should pull this game before it is released in the United States.
“My publisher made a very fast enquiry and found out that Plains indians didn’t sacrifice animals, but only summoned their spirits – this makes the game’s theme a bit less fun…”
It looks like here the publisher actually did a little research, but the extent looks like a Google search and reading a Wikipedia article on the Indigenous Peoples of the Plains. There is no further mention of research in the article OR talking to anyone who identifies with a tribe. In addition, the lack of research tells me that neither the designer nor the publisher thought about the myriad of different Indigenous tribes in the Americas and how their cultural customs differ. And the kicker about the theme being less fun without animal sacrifice. This cheapens actual, real cultural rituals and beliefs, making them something for us (non-indigenous peoples) to consume and enjoy. Their culture is not something for us to use for our entertainment.
“Some might be surprised to see, a few months later, a game of mine making an apparently careless use of stereotypes about Native Americans, even choosing an exotic sounding name…”
Bruno Faidutti wrote a blog post called Postcolonial Catan which talks a lot about different themes in games when it comes to themes about colonialism, orientalism (I cringe), and other similar topics. While Faidutti makes some very positive points about the use of such themes, he says many things that are also problematic. In this quote, he is referring back to his article because this release is seemingly contradictory to many of his points. Upon reading the original article (http://faidutti.com/blog/?p=3780), I am actually not surprised at his decisions in Waka Tanka. I get the sense Faidutti is trying to straddle the line between cultural sensitivity and cultural celebration, and unknowingly and unfortunately ending up in the ‘this is not about a specific culture’ place. When stuck in that place, it is impossible to fully celebrate cultures in terms of theme and lands on the appropriation/misrepresentation side of the line.
“Lakota have animal spirits but no totem poles – but anyway, this is not a game about Lakotas, about animal spirits or about totem poles – it’s a light bluffing game using the very European image of the Indian village elaborated in comics from the sixties and seventies…”
As I continued reading I felt as if Bruno Faidutti was acknowledging problematic decisions he was making but somehow he used that acknowledgment and twisted them to justify his decisions such as the quote above. Again, he goes back to the ‘this is not about a specific culture’ place when something does not align with his original theme and in this instance, despite the differences between tribal cultures, Faidutti decided to mash in whatever he wanted in order to replicate the images from comics of the sixties and seventies. Microaggressions and stereotypes do not have to be blatantly negative in order to be hurtful. For example, telling a person of color when they speak, they sound very articulate, insinuates that people of color in general are not articulate. On it’s face, it sounds like a compliment, but underneath there is an assumption and stereotype backed by power and privilege. The same works here for the European ‘positive’ stereotypes of ‘American Indians.’
“If I were to design this game today, I would probably think a bit more on the theme, but I’m not sure I would change it.”
I hoped he would have a different perspective looking back on his design process and the selection of the theme. After reading that he would not change the the of Waka Tanka, I cannot say with any confidence Faidutti learned from this experience. He got his fair share of criticism in the comment section on his blog and responded to almost every one. He engaged in intellectual conversations with his fans and people in the board gaming community. I wonder what more he would think about to simply come to the same decision as before.
This is not just on Bruno Faidutti. The publishing company – in the United States, Cool Mini or Not – needs to take responsibility for rejecting theme ideas or accepting games to be published on the contingency of a theme reworking / better work to keep a diverse theme. This is really similar to the publishing company that put out When We Was Fierce. If this game remained in Europe, the raical context is different as Faidutti points out. But now the game is set to be released in the United States and the racial climate and context is completely different! If Europe can separate themselves from European colonialism, which I still cannot understand how, the United States certainly cannot. Just look at current events and read up on #NoDAPL and see modern day colonialism.
“The context of Waka Tanka is not native Americans culture, of which I know almost nothing…”
“There’s definitely much racism in Europe, but there’s certainly no racial prejudice against American Indians. On the contrary, the image we have of them is a caricature, but unequivocally a very positive one. Of course, we can explain this with the usual joke, saying it’s because there are no native Americans in Europe, but I think there’s more to it. Most Europeans don’t really know there are still Native American people and living native American cultures – for us, American Indians are historical figures, not contemporary ones, and therefore cannot be really seen as “foreigners”.”
Bruno Faidutti admits to not know anything about Indigenous cultures in the Americas and states again and again this game is not about their cultures, it’s just a depiction using stereotypes and caricatures that are popular in Europe. To him, this is a justification for using Indigenous culture like someone would use ancient Rome. The idea that ‘American Indians’ are historical figures for Europe does not discount the fact that Indigenous People are real and alive today and suffering from the everlasting impact of European colonialism! I literally had to get up and walk away from my computer after reading that sentence. Faidutti does so much damage in one sentence – discounting an entire peoples made up of many different tribes and cultures, justifying his use of the ‘American Indian’ stereotypes, erasing the impact of European colonialism in the present day, and trying to spin his uses of theme as positive for Indigenous Peoples. This is particularly hard to swallow for me, coming from a White person from a country who helped colonize the Americas.
I will give Bruno Faidutti a little credit – he is willing to have discussions about the use of culture as theme in board games and I believe he finds those dialogues to be very important. Albeit, in my opinion, his justifications are problematic and flawed, I have not seen any other designers respond to criticisms of appropriation and misrepresentation. However, I will not give him credit for trying to diversify the hobby. Yes, White designers cannot hide behind the excuse of ‘fear of being called out’ to justify always designing games representing White straight cisgender able men. They must do better when designing games to diversify the hobby. Particularly when it comes to using non-Western cultures as a theme. They must do better when responding to criticism about diversity and inclusion and try to avoid defensiveness. I know it is hard to receive criticism. But we must listen to and value other people’s experiences. There is a right way to do inclusion and diversity in board games and I hope to see a good example of that in the near future.