I am pretty sure I can log on the any game convention preview list and pull out a handful of games that appropriate, stereotype, and misrepresent groups of people, particularly based on culture. This phenomenon is not new the board gaming as European and American companies who dominate the market have historically picked themes they consider ‘exotic’ and ‘enticing’ for their consumers. I want to make a point that it is not just Europe and the United States with this problem. With more East Asian board game companies entering the market, they too are falling into this cycle of appropriation and misrepresentation.
AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) publishes a fantastic card game called Smash Up. This game continues to be one of my favorite card games and I love the expandability of the factions (check out my review here). A year ago, AEG decided to get input on what factions they should create and used these ideas in a bracketed polling format to determine the new expansion titled, It’s Your Fault. Out of the expansion came Greek Gods, Sharks, Superheroes, and Dragons. A pretty solid set in my opinion. Building on this success, AEG decided to do it again and recently announced their four new factions.
Egypt, Cowboys, Samurai, and Vikings
I was disappointed. Not because the factions I voted for did not make the final cut, but because of the continued stereotypes and misrepresentation portrayed in board games. Three of the factions worry me on various levels for various reasons and I want to share my thoughts with you. The Viking faction really does not do anything for me – I am not a huge fan of the Viking theme and I know the Vikings have some problematic history. Ultimately, since I do not know the specifics of their history and there are many Viking games out there, it does not impact my thoughts on representation.
I understand what AEG and voters mean by the ‘Egypt’ faction. I am sure it will be filled with mummies, Pharos, snakes, Egyptian Gods, and scarab beetles. That in itself is a stereotype based on what we know or think we know the ancient civilization of Egypt but the presentation of this faction is worse than that. Simply by naming the faction Egypt takes an entire country and civilization and pinholes it into whatever they choose to put in the deck. Can we take a step back and realize that Egypt is a real and current nation in our world? People alive today are Egyptian, live in Egypt, and have a unique culture and experiences. Their history has bled into Western popular mythological culture but that should not give us the right to take the stereotypes and call it by the country name. The faction from the last fan voted expansion, Greek Gods, was not presented as Greece. Even Ninjas and Samurai were not packaged as Japan (although the Big in Japan expansion does a similar thing…). So why is this faction packaged as Egypt? For all the same reasons why games exist that take entire country names – gamers in the US and Europe will buy it because of the ‘exotic flair.’ Would folks buy a Smash Up expansion with a faction called Italy? Maybe yes and there is less viability in the consumer market in my opinion. This faction would have been better (although not 100% in my opinion) if it was labeled Mummies, or Ancient Egypt, or Egyptian Mythology or Egyptian Gods. I recognize those are still problematic in instances, but from my perspective, it is a huge step forward from Egypt.
I wrote a post a while ago about cowboys and the wild west theme and how it promotes an idealistic perspective of colonization of the west and the destruction of indigenous peoples. I think it is important to recognize the context of the wild west and even though many board games make light of the theme, acknowledge how the expansion west impacted others. This brings me to my greatest fear in this expansion… the portrayal of indigenous peoples. ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was a game that was around when I was growing up and culturally in the US the two are intertwined. My question is how will AEG approach this from a thematic standpoint? Will they include indigenous peoples in the artwork, actions, or minions? I am very critical of companies using indigenous culture and stereotypes as a theme as seen by my post about Waka Tanka. Cowboys and the Wild West are a slippery slope. On one hand, you could not include them and contribute to the erasure of indigenous peoples at that time. On the other hand you can include them and either misrepresent or stereotype OR acknowledge the terrible things that the expansion west brought. Some may argue that cowboys are almost mythological in US culture; however, there is a very real impact that is still felt heavily today in indigenous communities by the actions of colonizers moving west. It can seem like a myth but let me reinforce that this myth was real and caused destruction in indigenous communities.
As a disclaimer, I voted for Samurai. Not as a caricature of Japanese cultural, but as a way to see my Japanese heritage in a game. Similar to my post on Ninjas, Samurai are another thing that the West LOVES about Japan. At this point, I could take about how this pick and choose mentality of Western pop culture stereotypes Japan in Ninjas, Samurai, Kaiju, and ‘weirdness’ but this one doesn’t bother me as much. Samurai are historical warriors of Japan and do not exist anymore. Their history and impact is not known as much here in the US. Similar to Cowboys, but to a lesser extent, I think we need to recognize the horrible events that samurai were involved with. What worries me about this faction is getting a deck of Asian looking people with swords or Tom Cruise for the Last Samurai as the big minion card.
These are my personal perspectives and I would encourage dialogue around representation in board gaming. In particular, I am curious to talk about how have stereotypical or bad representation of groups of people are pushing those people out from joining or enjoying the hobby. In my own experience, it matters a great deal and I have seen friends choose not to attend groups or not feel included in a group based on the games played and the words and actions by members, both consciously and unconsciously. For myself, I have felt marginalized in a game group, especially around ‘historical’ games involving Japan. I get the side-eye and unsaid “maybe you should play Japan” like I have some allegiance to a country I have never been to. Anyways, I would love to hear your pesepctive. Please leave a comment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org , or find me on Twitter @_gaming4justice .