Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Playing Games with History: Philosophers on the Ethics of Historical Board Games

| 1 Comment

In a recent New York Times article, journalist Kevin Draper brings us up to date on some recent controversies in the world of historical board games. The article centers on the cancellation of Scramble for Africa, a historical board game which was to let players take the role of European powers exploring and exploiting Africa, trying to get the most resources.

Joe Chacon, the designer of Scramble for Africa, was accused of not treating this situation with appropriate seriousness. In his game, the savagery that was part and parcel of that exploration seems to be dealt with in minor and trivializing ways. The players must put down rebellions, and can slow their opponents by inciting native revolts. Random events include “penalties for atrocities” and rewards for ending slavery. Butchery is gameified.

The article raises a number of fascinating questions. What are the ethics of gaming history? Can we ever gameify our troubled past, and if so, how should we do it sensitively and thoughtfully? And is there something distinctive about games that make them a thornier venue for exploring history than, say, novels?

puerto rico

Puerto Rico, a board game about colonizing Puerto Rico. Image credit: Jesse Michael Nix

To take on these questions, we asked some philosophers who specialize in thinking about games, ethics, and art.

Our contributors are:

  • Stephanie Patridge, Professor and Department Chair, Religion & Philosophy, Otterbein University
  • Chris Bartel, Professor of Philosophy, Appalachian State University
  • C. Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Utah Valley University


Stephanie Patridge

Board games are expressive cultural products that can be meaningfully subjected to moral and political scrutiny. Consider the Nazi-era German board game Juden Raus! in which players roll dice to move pieces that are “wearing pointed medieval Jewish hats” across the map to so-called “collection points” outside the city walls in preparation for deportation: “Off to Palestine!” Were we to find our friends playing this game, most of us would at the very least ask for an explanation. Contrast Brenda Romero’s 2009 game Train in which players load as many abstract yellow pegs onto a train for transport across the board. Eventually, players will turn over a card discovering that the train’s destination is Auschwitz. According to Romero, the game raises two questions. “Will people blindly follow the rules?” and “Will people stand by and watch?”

The first time I read about Train, I was deeply moved (okay, I cried). It is still hard to think carefully about this game without an emotional reaction, and those who have played it (without knowing the game’s real aim) claim to be deeply affected by the experience. At some structural level Juden Raus! and Train have quite a bit in common, and they might in fact prompt modern day players to ask a similar set of morally critical questions. But they do so in ways that open them to radically different moral-political critiques, as they each combine — in these cases intentionally — game mechanics and culturally meaningful representational content in different ways.

Over the past several years, game theorists and critics have criticized a tendency amongst eurogame designers to choose colonial themes. (Eurogames tend to emphasize strategy in a fairly abstract way, while Amerigames tend to emphasize thematic elements, and often dumb luck and combat). One such game is the now-cancelled The Scramble for Africa. Players of Scramble play as one of six European powers from 1850 to 1900 in Africa. I have not played this game, but one main worry with it is that players are to enact a fantasy version of the actual colonialist “Scramble for Africa.” I use the term “enact” specifically for gameplay activity in order to mark it off as a special kind of interactive activity. Not just any actions are enactings. In this case, winning the game requires being successful at exploiting Africa’s resources and people. It’s not hard to feel the pull of criticisms of a game like Scramble. Colonialism in Africa was cruel and devastating to people and to peoples, and the legacies of African colonialism continue to have a substantive deleterious impact on the people and peoples of Africa (both in the diaspora and on the continent).

Some might want to know if there are any actual negative consequences to engaging with Scramble. But for many others the representational content of the game and the ways that it is informed by our contingent social history and contemporary reality will itself lead them to conclude that it is a deeply troubling cultural object.

I’ve elsewhere analyzed this way of thinking about normativity and cultural objects in terms of what I’ve called their incorrigible social meaning. Such meanings are incorrigible in that they cannot be escaped by a mere act of intention. So, it won’t do for a game designer to claim they intended the game to have a colonial theme, but not to be colonialist. In this case, it is colonialist independent of their intentions. Further, it won’t do for the player to say that they have a different imaginative interaction with the game, one which, say, is wholly fantastical. The game itself has this meaning independent of individual players’ interpretative activities that must be accounted for in playing (whatever this turns out to mean).

Such meanings are social in that their incorrigibility is explained in part by contingent facts about a particular social reality — here, European colonialism in Africa and its contemporary legacy. To the extent that a particular incorrigible social meaning has substantive normative import — e.g., the game is colonialist rather than simply borrowing a historical colonial theme — it is a result of how current the social reality at issue is, and how the game treats that reality. For example, is the content at issue a mere historical reality or does it have a significant, negative contemporary legacy? Or, does the game prompt players to uncritically enact colonial fantasies?

None of this tells us whether or not we should, all-things-considered, design or play such a game. All-in judgments are sensitive to all manner of considerations. My point is that one such consideration at play in these sorts of cases will be its incorrigible social meaning. Such meanings gain reason-giving force in contexts where those who are negatively impacted by the social practice in question have been so in ways that are widespread and systematic. Given the legacy of social practice of chattel-slavery in the United States, for example, it seems that there is a strong case to be made that playing Scramble for fun in the United States would be insensitive to, and show a lack of solidarity with, those who unjustly bear the burden of this legacy.

What reasons are salient will shift in different social contexts; the incorrigible social meaning will be slightly different in Europe as the social history and its legacy will be somewhat different. And it will be different still in, for instance, Japan as Japan was not similarly implicated in European colonialism or American-chattel slavery. Incorrigible social meanings tend to be socially local in this way. Of course, none of this is to deny that there are incorrigible social meanings that will be more global. To the extent that we share a social history, there will be.

Still, it is worth noting that analog board games are limited in ways that make it more challenging to design to have colonial themes without raising these sorts of issues. First, they are physical objects that are manufactured and shipped — the more pieces there are the more cost prohibitive they are to manufacture and ship. Second, the worlds are limited by the fact that, in order to make the game functional, they often need to fit on a table top. Third, because players have to enforce the game rules, they spend a significant amount of cognitive effort attending to, trying to understand, and trying to remember the game rules and mechanics. As a result, board game designers often rely on narrative themes that are either very abstract or simplistic. Or they borrow themes that they can expect their players will be capable of importing — information drawn from their own cultural or historical knowledge to enrich the narrative experience. Fourth, board games tend to be designed by individuals or small teams, which means that there is less opportunity for those involved in the design process to identify such representational issues, especially given the fact that board games are increasingly a global phenomenon and incorrigible social meanings are socially/culturally variable. (Contrast big-budget digital games that tend to rely on very large teams of individuals to design a digital game world, which makes it more likely that, in the post- #gamer-gate era, representational issues are more likely to be noted and challenged in the process of video game design than in board game design.) Finally, board games are narratively limited by the experiences, biases, imaginations, and empathetic/sympathetic tendencies of their designers who tend to be white, middle-aged western, and often European males (though Scramble’s designer, Joe Chacon, is American).

Hence, eurogames tend to present narrative worlds that are the expression of the interest and worldview of demographically limited designers or design teams. When we combine the physical nature of analog board games with the nature of the design process and the demographics of their makers, it is no surprise that board game designers tend to create games with morally and politically challenging subject matter, like European colonialism, without the attention to representational detail that would be required to create games that treat the subject matter with due care. Of course, they can and do treat morally fraught subjects with care. For example, GMT Games, the publisher of Scramble, recently shipped Ghandi: the Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947which is currently being reviewed as a compelling and sensitive game about the British Raj in India.


Still, even those of us who are fairly good at seeing the connection between some games and our collective, colonialist past and present tend to find ourselves bracketing such concerns for the sake of gameplay. (Honestly, we probably pull in and out of the gameplay as the incorrigible social meanings impress themselves on us more or less, depending on what game activity we are carrying out). How many of us have carried on playing Puerto Rico or (Settlers of) Catan as if there are no indigenous peoples present in our fictionalized colonial world to “mess it up” — a terra nullius fantasy — or bracketing the (abstracted) exploitation or even enslavement of indigenous peoples. Our tendency to bracket, of course, doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate objections to such colonialist-themed games. It suggests that we have subjectively made an internal calculation about how egregious we think that the representational offense is and whether it is “worth it” to criticize the collective ludic activity of our friends. We’ll get this wrong often because we don’t want to be killjoys. But sometimes playing on in a particular case will be appropriate. And sometimes it won’t.

In closing, I’d like to offer two fictional eurogames for further reflection by those familiar with the social reality and history of the United States in light of the sorts of incorrigible social meaning they might have. The first is Georgia!, a game that requires players to enact the role of the owner of a slave-era, Georgia plantation. The second is Settlers of the US: 1607-1765, a colonial-themed game set in an unoccupied United States, a terra nullius. It is worth pausing a moment to consider what sort of normative force we think such meanings might have, and how this might bear on whether such games should be published or played.


Chris Bartel

What is wrong with a game like Scramble for Africa? I am broadly in agreement with Stephanie Patridge that games are morally offensive when they exhibit an insensitivity toward the suffering of others. Of course, Scramble for Africa is “just a game” in the sense that the game developer’s invitation to players to carve up Africa does not cause the sort of suffering that is being represented. Nonetheless, taking the suffering of others as the main premise of a game, something typically played for entertainment or for a challenge, without commenting further on or condemning that suffering strikes me as deeply insensitive.

That being said, I want to examine a further question: Are some historical events off-limits for inclusion in a game? Is possible to make a game set during the colonization of Africa that avoids insensitivity? Is the medium of games an inappropriate place to engage with history? While there is much that could be said about each of these questions, I want to (very briefly) suggest that it is possible for games to engage history well, though good historical game design must balance two seemingly inconsistent values.

Fans of historical games often want to engage with the history and learn something. As Draper points out in his NYT essay, such games “are generally created and played by people deeply interested in history. They prize accuracy over fun.” Even if accuracy is prized over fun, this captures well two ways in which historical games are valued: they must be engaging to play and must also do justice to history. However, one might worry that these two values conflict with each other — that it is impossible to design a game that is both accurate and fun. Indeed, failing to do history well raises the risk of trivializing historical events and figures, while failing to do game design well risks boredom.

Consider how games are valued as games. Generally, good board games are ones that have high replay value. Board games are (typically) not meant to be played once. The relatively short amount of time it takes to play a board game means that players feel like they are getting their money’s worth when the game is worthy of replay. Most can be played fairly quickly. It usually takes less than one hour to complete a game of Ticket to Ride, or Takenoko, or Qwirkle. Other games are longer — one round of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective can take two to three hours — while other games are very short — one round of Zombie Dice may be over in minutes. (By contrast, many video games demand over 40 hours to complete the main campaign, while completing all of the quests and challenges in a game can take over 100 hours. A 20-hour video game is considered “quick”.)

Can the need for historical accuracy be squared with the need for replay value? One problem here is that, if games offer players the opportunity to play some historical event repeatedly, then surely that would only work as a game if alternate outcomes were allowed. But if “historical accuracy” entails getting the details of historical events right, then any game that allows players to achieve alternate outcomes would be historically inaccurate. As a matter of historical fact, the colonization of Africa happened a certain way. If I win a game of Scramble for Africa by having the French eliminate all other players from the board, then this is obviously wrong. How can one take an interest in history if the need to replay games necessitates alternate outcomes?

To resolve this, I suggest that players are not in fact interested in “historical accuracy”. Games are not historically accurate in the strict sense that they offer players a factual account of an event in history; and in fact, this is not what players are after in historical games. Certainly, some games aim to convey historical information. In fact, the board game Gandhi: The Decolonialization of British India 1917-1947 includes a selected bibliography for interested players. However, the problem is again raised for this game too: replay value demands the need to allow for alternate outcomes, but alternate outcomes deviate from history.

Instead, we might think of players’ interest in history not as an interest in “historical accuracy”, but rather as an interest in “historical contingency”. Historical contingency occurs when a game accurately captures the particular circumstances, socio-political forces, and relations between historical figures, even if the details of how events turned out are fictionalized. Historical events are never inevitable, but rather are the culmination of numerous forces, agents, and circumstances pushing and pulling in various, often conflicting, directions. Games that achieve historical contingency as I am describing it are those that bring to light the complexity of the forces that have come to shape history. In fact, games (whether tabletop or video games) may turn out to be excellent vehicles for the appreciation of historical contingency, when they are well designed, as the cause-and-effect nature of game mechanics enables players to experience the consequences of minor differences of circumstance.

So, I think one way that a historical game can succeed both as a game and as an authentic account of history is by focusing on the precariousness of historical events. Military students often study tactics by examining historical battles and playing out different scenarios as a game. How might the Battle of Waterloo have turned out if the troops were arranged slightly differently? Or if the weather had been different? In fact, Dungeons and Dragons emerged out of an earlier gaming practice where players would play out historical battles in miniature using models and figurines. These were not reenactments of historical battles that aimed for accuracy, but rather were (informal) studies in the contingency of historical events. Games that focus on this precariousness have a ready answer to the issue of replay-value: players should want to replay the game multiple times to appreciate the subtlety of the contingent factors that lead to some historical event. And they can offer genuine engagement with the history. One can come to a deeper appreciation of the details of historical events by experiencing what happens when those events are slightly altered.

But focusing on the precariousness of history does not resolve the issue that we began with. The question was whether some historical events are simply off-limits. Is it wrong to play Scramble for Africa? A focus on the precariousness of history can go some way toward addressing this issue. For instance, such a focus would avoid treatments of historical events that trivialize those events by presenting history as nothing more than superficial imagery. For instance, Draper briefly mentions the game Manitoba, which was criticized for its historically inaccurate portrayal of First Nations people. In response to the criticism, the game designers claimed that it was their publishing company who chose the theme. Clearly, the game designers were not really interested in telling a story about First Nations people but were still happy to use vaguely First Nations imagery. This is an example of poor historical game design partly because it invokes references to the First Nations people without focusing on their actual historical realities and circumstances. The player of Manitoba gains nothing of historical contingency.

However, this approach does not get us the full way to our goal. Indeed, if Scramble for Africa were designed well enough to bring out the precariousness of the colonization of the continent, one might still object that there is something off about playing this particular part of history. A well-designed version of Scramble for Africa may allow us to glimpse the historical contingencies that colonial powers faced, and thereby avoid being offensively trivial and shallow, yet we might still balk at taking the role of the colonizer.

To address this second worry, I want to suggest that well-designed historical games might focus less on battles and more on the historical peoples, economic circumstances, and their politics. For instance, take the two-player game King Philip’s War, which focuses on the war of the same name that took place in southeastern New England (1675-1678), which saw English colonial militias fighting the native Wampanoag. The Wampanoag player achieves victory by capturing the cities of Plymouth and Boston, while the Colonial player achieves victory by capturing the Wampanoag leader Metacomet and the Narraganset leader Canonchet. The game was designed by John Poniske, a middle school teacher who wanted to draw attention to this important, but often overlooked, conflict. That is a decent enough goal, but why does King Philip’s War focus only on the battles? If the game designer’s goal was to educate, then perhaps there is a different aspect of the war that could be the focus of the game. Instead, King Philip’s War could be a cooperative diplomacy game, one that explores the reasons why the war began in the first place, where the object of the game would be to exercise diplomacy to prevent a war.

This is certainly just one (brief) suggestion. The spirit of my suggestion is that no historical events are off-limits, but good historical games are those designed to explore the contingency of history, which may be achieved by focusing on aspects of history that are no less interesting than the battles. I would like to think that it is possible to design good games that focus on the parts of history that we would rather forget, and by playing such games, come to a deeper appreciation of that history.


C. Thi Nguyen

To my mind, games are special as an art form because they let us take on alternate forms of agency. In each game, you adopt a distinct practical perspective. And that practical perspective is created by the designer, set through the rules and goals of the game. Chess forces you to concentrate on pure look-ahead and geometric relationships. Spyfall forces you to think in terms of social deduction and bullshit-detection. There is an indie RPG I love passionately, called Sign, where you each take on the role of one of the (real-life) Nicaraguan schoolchildren who invented Nicaraguan sign language. The game is played in total silence; the players are a handful of starting seeds, and then have to invent a new sign language from scratch. The whole point of the game is that you become immersed and absorbed in one practical perspective. You have a particular goal (communicate!) and a particular set of tools (hand movements and facial expressions!). Game designers sculpt forms of practical agency; and games are vessels for communicating those agencies.

There are lots of uses for games — including learning skills as well as experiencing the beauty of your own practicality. And there is a satisfaction to narrow practical absorption in itself — to put away the confusing plurality of the world, and act, for a while, as if there is only one clear and measurable goal.

But I want to focus here on the moral impact of these narrowed perspectives. Thinking in these ways might help us to understand exactly what’s so worrying about Scramble for Africa. The game portrays colonialism from exactly one practical perspective: that of the colonizers. Notice that every game offers a value system, encoded in a goal, and a narrowed set of means to achieve it. Some games tell you to destroy, others to manipulate, and others to cooperate to save the world. Scramble for Africa, importantly, doesn’t offer any practical perspectives about resisting exploitation, or anything like that. The only perspective on offer is the colonizer’s.

Of course, there are plenty of games that offer only a single narrow and fixed perspective for everybody. In Monopoly, everybody’s a real estate baron. In all those online shooters, everybody’s a killer with a gun. What’s so terrible about Scramble for Africa? Part of the answer is, as Stephanie Patridge points out above, that Scramble has so much historical specificity. And the historical specifics in this case concern a period that is extremely fraught, and one which has often been viewed through a narrowed perspective. The problem is exactly that, historically, so much of the world has viewed Africa only through the practical lens of exploitation — as a means to wealth. The game only reinforces that.

What else could you do? Could we use the perspective-manipulation of games for the good? One obvious tack is to flip perspectives. Games like Spirit Island do that by casting the players into the role defending their home from the colonists.

But I think there is an even deeper things games can do, which takes advantage of the unique powers of games. Consider Cole Werhle’s fascinating recent masterpiece, Root. Root is an asymmetrical board game, where each player takes on a radically different role. One of the roles is the Marquise de Cats, a literal fat cat bourgeois industrialist, who starts the game at an extreme economic advantage, filling the board with his factories and troops. Another of the role is the Woodland Alliance, a bunch of (literally) underground woodland creatures trying to gain a foothold, gain the sympathy of the people, and incite rebellion. Another role is the Eyrie, a bunch of aristocratic warlords who are incredibly aggressive and exceedingly dogmatic. They are militaristically superior, but they have an enormous weakness: they have to make more and more campaign promises every single turn, and if they fail to meet every single promise they’ve made, then their society deposes its leaders and falls into chaos.


My toehold of Woodland Alliance critters (green) digs in while the Marquise (orange) masses his troops.

Each side has a different goal and different methods to reach that goal. The designed form of agency on offer force you into a very different practical mindset. The Marquise needs to hold onto his resources, keep his transportation networks intact, and stomp out any dissidents. The Woodland Alliance sneaks around looking for opportunities, tries to disrupt the Marquise’s networks, and hopes to slip away, gathering sympathy, until it can stage an all-out rebellion. The Eyrie aims to take over the board while desperately trying to fulfill its old, out-of-date, nonsensical campaign promises.

And something particularly magical happens when you play the game over and over again, if you keep switching sides. (And notice that this is particularly likely with a short, snappy board game like Root, which takes about an hour to play.) You start to understand how the different practical perspectives change your view of things, and how they interlock. Once you’ve played the Marquise, you understand how dependent the Marquise is on his transportation network. Now, when you’re opposed to the Marquise, you understand the importance of disrupting that network. Once you’ve played as the Eyrie, you understand the tenuousness of their grip on their campaign promises. It’s often more useful to attack them politically, rather than to take on their military might straight-on. You can never beat their armies wholesale, but you can try to prevent them from meeting one of their campaign promises — and that will throw their whole system into chaos.

Of course, you might think this is good training. If, in real life, you’re on the side of the rebels, a game like this might help you understand how the other side thinks, all the better to resist them with. But I think there is an even deeper insight. A game like Root asks you to step into, and then out of, particular perspectives. It asks you to practice a kind of fluidity with your practical mindset. So we might think: if you’re locked into one kind of mindset, a game like this might actually help jimmy it loose.

So: Scramble for Africa asks us to all take on the practical perspective of colonizers. Spirit Island asks us to take on the practical perspective of the resisters. But you could imagine a game, like Root, which asked you to take on both: that asked some players to play colonizers, other players to play the role of merchants, others to play the role of the colonized. (There’s actually an indie role-playing game like this, called Dog Eat Dog, which, I hear, is both incredibly compelling and deeply disturbing. And some historical situations may be too fraught. It may be too offensive to game them in realistic scenarios. But you can do what Root does, which is to transpose the mindsets to a fictional setting.)

Such a game would offer something really interesting, if you played all the positions. It would ask you to step into, and then step back from, the role of the colonizer. It would make you move between seeing it from the inside, and then seeing it from the outside. Such a thing would be an assault on practical rigidity and dogmatism. But it would also offer you a really weird kind of insight. You would get to experience directly and immediately the practical blind spots that arise from extreme practical focus. That’s because such a game lets you settle into the role of colonizer and exploiter and see the world just in that way: as a place of things to use for your ends. And then it would ask you to see the world from another way and bring into sharp relief all the practical perspectives you were missing. These perspective shifts — performed inside such a narrowly confined, infinitely revisitable space — could let you have a direct experience of the blindness of a particular narrowed perspective.

One Comment

  1. I find it interesting that ordinary war games, even with very morally fraught wars, often don’t trigger this sort of reaction. Diplomacy doesn’t get criticized for the ways it encourages us to play out the First World War, and Axis and Allies doesn’t get criticized for having someone play for the Axis to win, and Twilight Struggle doesn’t get criticized for the way it leads to Cold War exploitation of the world. The game Imperial makes an interesting twist on Diplomacy – instead of playing as one of the national great powers of Europe in World War I, the players each represent financiers, who can give loans to each of these powers, and profit off their development, and even control their troops if they’ve given more loans to the nation than any other player. Eventually, one learns that the way to win isn’t to aim for a conventional military victory, but to role-play a financier who profits off all sides in the war. It’s a fun game, that also seems to be trying to teach some sort of moral lesson, by having the players inhabit a deeply problematic role.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.