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Game on! It’s time to decolonise play

Mary Flanagan examines the sordid history of how colonialism has shaped the games we play – and how we can build play spaces free of it

6 to 8 minute read

Games Gyān Caupar, Reise um die Erde, The Noble Game of Elephant and Castle, Settlers of Catan

The cultural importance of games has long been overlooked. Games can bring joy, help us unwind, or connect us to friends and family. They also carry some baggage. In video gaming, thinkers and makers have begun to unpack this darker side, including critiques of cut-throat competition, violence, inclusion and racial stereotypes – though these are changing, with examples such as Blizzard’s team-based game series Overwatch, which prides itself on its diversity in character representation.

In digital games, representation might be shifting, but is play itself changing? And what about play more broadly, even in an analogue domain? After all, imaginative play is part of what makes us conscious beings. Our playthings are childlike, innocent – right?

Play acts as a form of enculturation—the process by which people learn the traditional dynamics, behaviours, language and values of a given culture and therefore assimilate the norms, worldviews, values and beliefs embedded within. This is particularly true with children’s play, viewed almost universally in the field of early childhood education as essential for development and learning.

According to researchers Sarah Smilansky and Leah Shefatya, nearly all types of learning benefit from play, not the least of which are problem solving skills and social skills. Through the idea of ‘sociodramatic training’ and playful attitudes, imagination, exploration, memory and expression are enhanced. Play can also help with emotional development and social skills, and develop language capabilities. The invention of play-centric kindergarten in 19th-century Germany by Frederick Froebel – coincidentally at the time of Germany’s colonial expansion – spread an institutionalised view of play as not only foundational for learning but essential for cultural cohesion.

Colonial enculturation

A more sinister aspect of such foundational play is linked to concepts of empire and colonialism. Very clear examples exist, such as the children’s game of ‘cowboys and Indians’, where playing becomes a rehearsal of colonial conflict in the Americas. This game was played not only in the US but around the world, especially in regions of major colonial occupation, such as Australia, where frontier violence and genocide was also romanticised. Whether we call it practising being an adult or learning cultural viewpoints, enculturation happens through play.

Board games in particular have long served as sites for reinforcing cultural norms and social values. It’s easy to uncover this trend in libraries and archives, where looking at a number of board games across different centuries and from diverse locations is possible. A game’s values can be negative or positive.

Take the historical example of gyān caupar (the ‘game of knowledge’) from the Indian subcontinent, whose exemplars mostly date from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Leading scholars in the field have demonstrated how the game boards and mechanics closely match the cosmological spiritual quests developed by different religious groups from India, Persia and Nepal. These origins were intended to teach thinking about karma and moral lessons, so the game aims to support these religious and cultural values. Even pro-social games can find their meaning altered over time (ironically, during British colonialism, the game was co-opted by British colonial powers and turned into the more abstract Snakes and Ladders).

Board games in particular have long served as sites for reinforcing cultural norms and social values

Like this ancient game, board games across Europe and North America have served ideological interests and aligned with cultural forces. Board games morphed particularly during the rise of colonialism and nationalist movements, especially those with more literal rather than abstract themes and using more direct representation, incorporating images.

As far back as 1791, the values of the newly formed Republic of France were expressed in Le Jeu de la Révolution Française (Game of the French Revolution), a board game printed as a broadsheet, with versions in mass distribution for nearly 200 years. On the board, game illustrations criticise ‘the old ways’ and celebrate the new values of the republic. The scenes depicted in the game show the dramatic shifts in property ownership (from nobles to the state, for example), the removal of powerful religious organisations, and the new rights of French citizens that still are foundational to intellectual debates today. Though the game is a mere roll-and-move race, the board’s compelling images encourage players to rehearse the values of the revolution.

William Darton’s The Noble Game of Elephant and Castle (1822) is explicitly colonial, depicting exotic colonial images from the Indian subcontinent; the game is contained in a compellingly illustrated elephant’s body. Ravensburger’s Reise um die Erde: Ein humoristisches geographisches Gesellschaftsspiel (1884, reprinted 1983) explores 19th-century German colonies through a tourist gaze, representing players as explorer characters complete with pith helmets.

While focusing on themes and images is a good way to begin to appreciate the social contexts and potential impact of (particularly) mass-produced games, image isn’t everything. Even ‘non-ideological’ games might carry colonial assumptions. Colonial myths are at play in many aspects of any given game, through representation, theme, actions (mechanics) and game goals. It is what players are doing in games that matters most, as well as the way games model economies and complexity in their very mechanics (and what the mechanics symbolise).

Extractive play

Fast forward to the most popular of a new generation of board games. In Klaus Teuber’s hugely influential Catan (originally Settlers of Catan, 1995), for example, players presumably arrive at an island and must start from scratch to build up settlements, roads, towns and institutions. The resources available on Catan – lumber, wool, ore, brick and ore – are earned each turn, when the roll of the dice gives a player access to a particular land token. The presumption is that all of these resources are in infinite supply, require no human capital payment and need not regenerate.

There are many other examples demonstrating how game models and mechanics, both subtly and overtly, have passed on rationales, nationalistic mindsets, and human and white supremacism through the design of games within attributes unnoticed by many players – and even designers.

Our ‘innocent’ playthings reveal a darker side of play, in which empire and colonialism have historically been articulated and legitimised through play. This tendency towards colonial rationales, nationalistic fervour and white supremacism has passed through the very foundations of the design of games themselves. One of the reasons that colonial ideas transfer so easily is that colonial thought is not separate from modern social structures for much of the globe.

As Nancy Fraser writes in her 2022 book Cannibal Capitalism, we should not separate colonial thinking from contemporary economies, even though ‘the colony’ may be no longer officially under outside rule. The power structures that grew in the colonial regimes became fixed into what we now refer to as ‘capitalism’. In her work, Fraser redefines the purely economic definition of capitalism, arguing that it is not an economic model but a social order that has evolved to the point it is at now, and is difficult to escape globally due to its pervasive entrenchment.

Capitalism requires access to underpaid or free labour, such as caregiving and emotional labour, in order to exist. It also requires the exploitation of people and things – earth, animals, water, air – to fund the voracious ouroboros of capitalism itself. It exhausts the elements without replenishing, a model that can never be sustainable.

How to decolonise play

So what can this rather sordid history teach us today about building more liberatory games and play spaces?

First, we can question many basic assumptions in the games we play about things as simple as infinite or non-renewable resources. Where does all the good stuff come from? How does the game model care (or how could it)? How would we make the mechanics instead more sustainable, inclusive and generative? What is more interesting than domination, colonisation and control for game scenarios?

Second, more cooperative models are needed for play and specifically games. We’re at an unprecedented time for life on our beautiful planet, and yet we have very few play models for winning under cooperative circumstances. Cooperative board games are emerging that could serve as new frameworks for problem solving instead of winner-takes-all models.

Third, we can bring play to unusual circumstances where processes and procedures and imaginations are currently broken. Politics, policy making and regulatory bodies could use play to see outside the box. Truly playing requires a willingness to be vulnerable, which is at the heart of any change. Really engaging in play needs to be voluntary and can be liberatory. Out with the ego, in with play!

This article first appeared in Issue #244 30 Years of Red Pepper. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Mary Flanagan is an artist, game designer and researcher

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