The Game Political

‘Don’t get Politics in my game’ goes out the cry. It rings out during debates over diversity, games set in less than savoury periods of history, and ideologies overt and subtle in the world of tabletop games. This voice is getting louder and louder as boardgames shake off the cloak of being a niche hobby and make their tentative way to a more mainstream audience. As the number of people playing boardgames grows, more and more questions are being asked of the creators intent: the message the game is trying to convey. On top of this we are waking up to the idea that maybe diverse genders, sexualties and people of colour should be seen more on front of boxes and behind the scenes at companies. More questions, more probing of the status quo.

Should these concerns be shoved aside for the sake of ‘just playing the game’? Isn’t such criticism fundamental to the growth of any art form? Let’s take a deep breath together, and dive into some murky depths.

Defining the issue

This is a thorny subject, so let’s establish some ground rules. First of all we need to look at what is being said by those who declare ‘Don’t bring politics into my games’ (or words to that effect). Turning for a moment to the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition:

Politics: relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group

Fundamentally we are talking about ideas, and of course people are going to argue about them. Unfortunately a lot of the time what they are arguing for is the status quo, as if politics has never existed in boardgames until this moment.

Since we first started making art the act of creation is one that expresses ideas. Ideas of place, of people, of lived experiences. We cannot separate politics from the act of creation, as one influences the other. From hanging portraits in a gallery to the latest blockbuster, our creative acts are imbued with the ideas, and politics, of their creators.

A foundation for discussion

I think we can agree that Boardgames are a creative endeavour, and I have argued that the creative act by its very nature is political. It therefore follows that boardgames are political.

Why then do we have voices telling us to get politics out of boardgames? My experience of seeing this said generally comes in one of two cases: when a company seeks to include more diverse voices, art, or to represent a particular political point of view more overtly, or when the game is coming in for criticism. It is the latter that really interests me (though we will come back to the former).

Picture of my boardgame collection.
Are they art?

We’ve established that boardgames are political due to being a creative act. Are they art? That is a much trickier question to answer with any certainty, so let me answer it from my own perspective so we can move on.

I think we all recognise that individual components of a boardgame can be recognised as art: the illustrations, miniature design, graphic design, writing (both technical and creative). Therefore the whole that is created out of these elements, can also be seen as an art form. Simplistic maybe, but as I said this is my point of view. I think boardgames are art.

Art that is never seen, experienced or consumed, is art without purpose. Art needs interpreted, it should have emotional impact. To me the greatest sin a piece of art can commit is to not move me at all. If I watch a film and my reaction is a shrug of the shoulders and ‘meh’, then it has not done its job. Even films I dislike have provoked a strong reaction at least. Art should provoke a reaction, even if it is just in one person. If it provokes a reaction, it is likely to receive criticism as well.

On the defensive

When something we love comes in for negative feedback, it can feel like an attack. We take it personally. I get that, I’ve been there myself. We rage against the idea that the thing we love is not perfect, and one of the ways that happens is to call foul on the idea of ‘bringing politics into games’. This seems to be especially the case when that criticism is to do with the treatment of different cultures, people of colour, and diverse genders in games.

Curiously you don’t see this happening when Twilight Struggle stood colossus like atop the BGG top 100. Twilight Struggle is a game about a literal political fight (the Cold War). Did anyone shout ‘Keep politics out of my games’ when this happened? No. No they didn’t. How many wargames are there? Think war isn’t political? Where are these angry voices everytime a new wargame hits the market? Silent as the grave. Watergate, a current favourite of mine, has had a rapturous reception across the critical spectrum. I don’t recall seeing a single person saying ‘get politics out of my games’ despite it being about a political scandal. The moment someone says ‘could we please have a non-sexualised female miniature’ or ‘what about representing people of colour in your art’ then it’s all loud hailers and signs.

I think I’ve amply demonstrated that these comments do not come from a place of wanting to get ‘politics’ out of games. It’s about prejudice. White prejudice to be exact. All white people have it, myself included. We are conditioned in a certain way of thinking about other cultures and societies in such a way that we must always ask questions of ourselves and the games we play. I’ve been doing my best to educate myself about the struggles black people have endured, and I recommend the documentaries ‘I am not your Negro’ and ‘13th’ as good places to start. I have also been reading ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo and that has given me a lot to think about.

If we want the hobby to grow it must represent all people. I can find myself everywhere in the hobby because I am a white, CIS, straight male. If you are not that, then your representation in the hobby is poor, bordering on non-existent. This is changing, albeit slowly. If you are represented in the hobby, you can use your voice to lift up great examples of inclusive practices, to shout about the designers, artists, developers who do not fall into the norm of the hobbies demographic. You don’t need to be an influencer or reviewer, every voice helps.

Asking questions of ourselves, being critical of our own choices and actions is paramount. Such a course keeps us honest and stops us slipping into the outright discrimination that is ever prevalent in our culture and the hobby. I hope to do better myself in the future, and where I can will endeavour to highlight voices from a different cultural background to my own, whatever form that culture takes.

A critical moment

As critics start to ask hard questions of the endless colonial themes, the lack of racial & gender diversity both on the front of the box and behind the scenes, we must be accepting of these questions. If we want the hobby to grow and expand, we must listen to diverse voices, for we will only be enriched and strengthened if we do. Now is not the time to be afraid of these questions.

It will be painful, there are choices to be made that may make us feel uncomfortable, but we can make those choices together, as a community. We can choose to lift up a diverse range of voices. We can choose to ignore those who would foster hate and division. We can choose to welcome the whole world to sit round a table with us and chuck some dice. But we must make the choice. We must actively choose these actions. If we do not then boardgames don’t deserve to grow at all.

There are some Amazon links in this article to the documentaries mentioned. None of them are affiliate links. We do not feel profiting from this discussion would be right.

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2 comments

  1. I think what “keep politics out of gaming” means is more akin to “keep /the culture wars/ out of gaming”. Gaming is a leisure time activity, and the rule of decorum that used to govern such activities in polite society is that politics and religion are unfit subjects for discussion. It’s understood that everyone is in possession of opinions on these subjects, and it used to be equally well understood that demand for one’s opinions from one’s friends and associates was not exactly hot.

    Progressive thought has taken the view that these old rules of decorum do not apply because the ideas that its adherents champion are too important not to be expressed at every possible opportunity. Worse than this is the insistence that the hearer must vocalize immediate and unequivocal support for those ideas whenever they are expressed, lest by their silence they reveal their complicity with “the wrong side”.

    This is exhausting. Quite a few people, of all political stripes, want to play games to relax and have fun, and just don’t want to have to debate assertions like “all white people are racist” as a prelude to whether we can just have a fun time together playing El Grande or Terraforming Mars.

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    • The problem is, and as I point out in the article, that these calls are coming out only when people ask perfectly reasonable questions about representation, or the particular political gaze a certain game has. You can of course just play whatever game you want, and what you and your friends discuss round the table is totally up to you.

      From a critical standpoint though, we are going through a period of massive cultural change and for questions not to be asked about boardgames would seem weird. Culture changes all the time and entertainment changes with it, it must adapt or it will become irrelevant. It may be uncomfortable, but it is inevitable, and if we as a hobby resist having difficult conversations I think that would be a lost opportunity.

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